Belonging at the pub

“She didn’t say anything; it was more of an attitude really.”

Late last year, some of the blokes I met at a pub were not feeling so welcome there any more.

I did not agonise at the time over whether to call these men informants, collaborators, interlocutors. They were the pub’s happy hour regulars, a group of men, supplemented with the occasional appearance of a broader network of men and women who are family, friends, girlfriends and one social researcher (aka ‘PhD girl’ to one of the bar staff). Thinking of the regulars as ‘blokes’ was a little different to thinking of the Port Melbourne Kiosk volunteers as ‘the ladies’ in that the gender distinction was used in conversation at the VFL ground in a way it was not at the pub. In addition, the group of volunteers involved formal membership (complete with being issued with identifying lanyards during the finals). Many of the pub regulars had their names listed (e.g. on the pub’s footy tipping list), but generally the group did not exist in an administrative sense.

At the pub we would chat about current events, the game show on the TV in the pub, what has been happening at work, what was done on the weekend, and the horse racing. I was always rubbish at ‘the quiz’ (found in both The Age and The Herald Sun newspapers), but attempts to quieten conversation for long enough to complete the quizzes constituted part of the daily routine. The first time I went to happy hour at that pub the fact that I was new but still welcome to participate was communicated when I was invited to read out the quiz questions.

The bar staff sometimes participated in conversations, or they may be busy doing something else, but the expectation placed on them was to serve the beers (and the occasional white wine). This was often done without the conversation being interrupted. During happy hour, some of the men would leave their money in a cluster on the bar next to their drink. Once their beer was finished the glass would be slid forward. The bar staff would either reuse or replace the glass, and beer would be pulled. Either the man would push forward or the bar staff would pick up the relevant coins or note, allowing the conversation to go on. While sometimes bar staff seemed to sense an empty glass from around the corner, other staff had more of a tendency to become engrossed in conversations with other staff as they polished glasses and they often failed to even look. Such an attitude was not taken well by those trying to get a drink.

Just as being invited to read the quiz contributed to me feeling welcome to join the blokes the next time, an ignored empty glass contributed to others feeling they were not welcome at this pub. As my many mentions of ‘conversations’ indicates, things were said. Yet words were only part of the communication. Words were part of expressing an ‘attitude’ towards others.

Reciprocal conversations demonstrated a willingness to engage with, and the fact you have noticed, those people around you. For example, an embarrassing story about one of the blokes was mentioned by another. We all laughed and the person who featured in the story suggested it was not fair that they did not know any of my embarrassing stories. I replied with a brief but melodramatic account of the low point of that particular week. That week an academic had ‘wiped the floor with me’ causing me to realise my research project was without an anchoring position other than a bunch of over generalising I had been so quick to criticise in other work. This rather civil embarrassment over a cordial afternoon coffee may not have been the type of hilarious story my audience was looking for, but the loud response indicated approval of my project. “What do you mean? You’ve got the place that has seen the most fucking change in everything.” Such a vocal response was rather out of place in this group.

Such a loud and firm response was a little unusual, but indicating support was not. One young woman who worked at the pub who never said ‘hello’ back when encountered elsewhere in Port Melbourne was criticised by one of the blokes. The reply from one of the other blokes suggested she was inadequate, rather than it being a case of him deserving to be treated with such an attitude. “Don’t worry about it, she’s on drugs anyway.”

The blokes I got to know a little bit did not always agree on everything, but they created a space where they noticed each other even (and perhaps particularly) when their empty glasses were ignored.

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