I’m sipping a bitters and soda in an empty hotel bar — empty but for the mixologist, who’s pouring himself one finger, very deftly, of Pernod, then concealing it down by the sink. Soon my long-lost friend arrives, and the two of us will stay here at the bar for the evening. He looks around to make sure no one is listening — it’s clear as a bare stage. He warms to his story: a brother in trouble, red-pilled and creeping around at sinister rallies. I offer some cautions, some questions. Very naturally, we touch on my bad health. Which, as it happens, is why we’re talking here in a hotel bar. And why we’ll be here for hours to come, no plans to move on later to someplace brighter, or hipper, or darker — nowhere to see or be seen.
My hearing is going. “Going” understates the issue. My hearing is nearly gone. When I was a kid, I’d spend the night in any loud dive, the pulse of bass in my blood cells. I loved the simultaneity of busy bars: the overhead music and the smack of pool balls. You could laugh while you listened while you danced. I knew what everyone in the room was down for, like a spider in the center of its web. I knew who to kiss and who to shun.
All this changed in my early 30s, when my hearing grew unreliable, then alarming. Voids of sound rolled down on me from nowhere. Roaring and hissing filled up my head. Tinnitus from Ménière’s disease; first in one ear, then the other. I’d lose balance on walks, and then I’d lose my balance while I sat still in a chair, or while I was lying down. I couldn’t find a cure.
A decade on, I talk about this when I see old friends at hotel bars. It’s the kind of conversation we wouldn’t be able to have at a dark place full of thrum, or a pop-song bar with ironic cocktails. I like hotel bars because I want to try to hear voices; not the little barks and repetitions shuffled around in loud music and crowd clamor — that simultaneity of sound I no longer tune into. Not color patter about our fellow drinkers. Instead, I want a real connection, a friendly intimacy. In a leather half-booth, in the emptiest bar in the city, there is no impetus to be decorous. The sorrows we pour out won’t get absorbed in cacophony. In all the world there’s only us.
Hotel bars are the mudrooms of the city, a place by the entrance, a liminality, where most people linger but briefly, at the start or the end of the night: business travelers on their laptops, sex workers on their phones, elderly couples growing amorous, thirsty parents on a break from their kids, entertainers with odd hours. They’re places you can tell the truth, over nuts and standard-issue wine. I should clarify that I don’t mean fancy hotel bars — not the Ace, or even the W; not a storied corner like Bemelmans at the Carlyle. Nothing chic and nothing stuffy and nothing raw; not the blaring screens of sports bars, nor the hoary formica of busy dives. For now, a Marriott will do, a run-down Hilton, someplace there’s nothing worth stealing or being looked at. Where the carpet rebuffs your gaze, and where you don’t care if the spider plant on the empty bookshelves is real — it’s beside the point if it’s real. When I touch down in a city where I have friends to catch up with — voices I’m desperate to hear — I start by searching for hotels, double-checking to be sure they won’t be swarming with conventioneers.
But the soft leather booths and patterned carpets of a previous century are disappearing at speed. As Kate Wagner describes in The Atlantic, restaurants, bars and coffee shops are increasingly made of materials like slate and metal, with high ceilings: “The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible.” Because these new places are stylish but uncomfortable, they generate higher turnover, thus higher profits. Once everything is Instagrammable, nothing will be audible.
When that day comes, there will be no place where my old friend Jen can whisper about the romance novels she quietly plans to start writing — but whisper in a way I can hear her. Or where Sommer and I mutually disclose our histories of shyness, and talk about how we beat it back. Or where Kennen can break down his adventures in polyamory, really dig into who did what, and why it’s bewitching. It’s where my agent and I can talk through book trouble, without me straining to read his lips. It’s where I can sit alone, far away from my house and my street, far from work, with its dreads and distractions. It’s where I can read a book and sip a drink and sketch out the early part of a story.
Because I am transported, in this plush lounge, in this scentless air, awaiting you, whoever you are. (I’m so pleased we agreed to this place, that we can be so unfashionable together.) Right now I’m watching the lobby, an eye on the business of bags, cards and brochures. The just-arriving guests are dressed in new vacation clothes they’re unused to wearing, clothes that need to be tugged one way and then another. You smirk at them when you come through the front doors. I wave my hand, and then you see me. Tell me what you’re thinking about these days, and what’s going as planned, and what worries you. Let’s spend an hour reassuring each other. Let’s order another. Give up the idea that the party is someplace else for now. Return, for as long as you like, to the quiet place inside yourself that is always arriving, always traveling. Where the clock is hidden behind the bar, by the empty Pernod, and the hand that refills it, unseen but for us.
John Cotter is the author of the memoir “Losing Music.”