When my friend Ezra moved from Harlem to Brooklyn a couple years ago, he set out to be a regular. For the first few months he lived in Crown Heights, he frequented the bars around his block, keeping a handful in the rotation, going with friends or just by himself to read a book and sip a drink. After a couple months feeling out the bar landscape, he settled on one or two he frequented enough that the bartenders would welcome him when they saw him come in.
It seemed to me an unusual mission at the time. But soon after, whenever we went out for a drink, at say, the Bearded Lady, the excellent cocktail spot on Washington Avenue that became one of his go-tos, the bartender would stop for a moment and chat with us between shaking martinis, offer a bit of neighborhood gossip or maybe a taste of a new concoction. But more than that, they knew his name, and soon, they knew mine too. “There’s an old line that goes something like, you go to the bar for the bartender, not the drinks,” Ezra explained to me. “And it’s sort of true.” That is the first real step in becoming a regular: You introduce yourself. You turn what’s usually a perfunctory interaction—money exchanged for drinks delivered—into a relationship of sorts. You breach the line that we all toe in New York, the one that separates you from the millions of strangers swirling around you. “You can go to the same place every day for years, but if no one knows you, are you really a regular?” Ezra asked.
It’s an old stereotype about New Yorkers: We all live stuffed into apartments like so many sardines, but none of us know our neighbors. That’s only true to some degree, of course. You may be plenty acquainted with the people next door. But it’s surely the case that these kind of casual relationships—with your neighbor, your hairdresser, your postman—are more difficult to foster here. It’s hard to be a regular. The constant metamorphosis of the city is what draws people to it, but it also means things are constantly in flux. There’s always a new bar or restaurant or hair salon to go to, always something new to try. Going to the same place, or even the same handful of places, takes concentration and investment. If you believe television depictions of New York City (and you and I need to have a frank discussion about real estate expectations if for some reason you do), everyone has a local hangout where you and all your friends hang out as a default: Your Central Perks, your Tom’s Diners, your Cafe Grumpys, your McClaren’s Pubs. But in real life, it’s hard to hang on to a foothold like that. There’s so many moving pieces that getting a group together once a month, let alone every Wednesday, seems impossible. Routines are hard in New York. Scheduling falls apart, places close, you move and move again.
And that’s why being a regular is such a simple, smart way to impose some order on the constant, wonderful, terrible social chaos all around. There is comfort in being able to go into a diner, address the waiter by name, and order “the usual.” It’s the Cheers principle: These are the kind of low-stakes social bonds that hold you to the neighborhood even as the inevitable waves of gentrification and change crash around you. This is a way that you can live in New York City and not feel like you’re clinging to the side of a slippery cliff with your fingertips. Tip well. Introduce yourself. People know you here. You’re a regular.