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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Do Portlanders Line Up at Bars? John Hodgman Speculates

Okay, hive mind, I have an interesting case for you. I was listening to the latest episode of one of my three or four favorite podcasts, Judge John Hodgman, wherein he adjudicates minor disputes (with support from bailiff Jesse Thorn).  John Hodgman is known to most as the "I'm a PC" guy, though possibly also for his deranged millionaire spots on the Daily Show.  In this recent podcast he ruminated on a topic that flatly mystified--but also intrigued--me.  It touches on one of my very favorite topics, the culture of pub-going.  (I have a whole section on it in The Beer Bible.)  Here he turns to Portland, but espies something I don't really recognize:
"There's one city that I've been to in the United States, Jesse Thorn, where people line up at bars.  They form an orderly line without being asked, and the line is sacrosanct.  Can you guess what city in the United States that I've been to where this is part of the culture of the bar."

[Jesse guesses Walla Walla.]

"You are not far off; it is a Pacific Northwestern city known as Portland, Oregon... In Portland, you'd think, 'oh, it's because people are very polite.'  But in fact, it's because people in Portland who go to bars, especially cool bars, don't actually feel comfortable dealing with one another--in my opinion.  So, they line up in order to adhere to a social code that will make outsiders feel unwelcome and will make them feel sanctimonious and self-righteous.  And, with the added benefit of, they never have to deal with the messy human interactions like, 'oh sorry, I was here first.'  Or, 'hey, do you mind if I just get this before you because I gotta go out, or do whatever.'  Do you know what I mean?  Those minor, tiny, little negotiations that humans make with each other all the time in order to get their alcohol and do other things in life.  It feels like when people line up at a bar in Portland, that's to my mind what they're avoiding.  If there are people from Portland, Oregon who disagree with me, who feel that I am unfair, write me a letter and I'll engage with you.  Maybe I broke your rule and you're rolling your eyes.  But that's how I feel."
Hodgman is principally a liquor man (he jokes that rather than a sweet tooth, he has an "alcohol molar"), so he may be talking about upscale bars in the Pearl for all I know.  But I throw it out to you, Portland bar-goers: does this make a lick of sense to you?  I don't recall ever encountering a line in a bar.  I think it's even more unlikely that his interpretation about the meaning of these (possibly apocryphal) lines is accurate.  In my experience, Portland bars are communal and unfussy.  I'd say interaction is one of the key elements of Portland bar culture.

But it's also the case that locals are sometimes blind to manifestations of their own culture--culture that smacks visitors across the face with its weirdness.  So I'm reluctant to dismiss it out of hand; maybe I'm just missing it. I'd love your feedback in comments.  We can pass along our collective opinion to him.

Finally, a couple of notes in terms of tone.  Hodgman's comic style is sardonic, which doesn't come across so well in print.  He's also not only very familiar with Portland, but seems to consider it a dwelling of his immediate tribe (he currently lives in Brooklyn).  He therefore kids Portlanders like you do a sibling.  There's been tons of Portland content on the podcast over the years, including probably the best episode ever, Rashomom, which gave birth to the quantum "Gray House Universe" theory.  There are others like this transportation dispute (of course), and inevitably, one involving a food cart.  I guess what I'm saying is, don't spend a lot of time analyzing him. (But do listen to a podcast if you're intrigued.) I'm much more interested in getting to the bottom of this lining-up question.  Do Portlanders form lines in bars?  Where have you seen it?  And, if we do line up, any theories as to what's going on?


  1. Lots of lining up going on in Austin bars: Draught House, Pint House Pizza, Black Star Coop. Now, most of these are due to the set up with a single cash register or a maintained gap in the chairs at the bar. But one time I was at The Grackle (East 6th hipster bar) and everyone was forming a single line. The bartender was freaking out and starting yelling that he wouldn't serve another person if we didn't quit forming a line! Hilarious.

  2. In my experience lining up in bars that are busy, with no table service, is pretty much ubiquitous in Portland. The places I frequent where this occurs: Vendetta, Baileys, Tiga (RIP), Beech St. Parlor. It's so common that the Bye and Bye has a sign that says "please do not form a line," and still people do it.

  3. Multnomah Whiskey Library has huge lines

  4. Hearing the reports back (also on social media), I am reminded that one of my main criteria for a bar is a small crowd. That means I go to more disreputable or unfashionable places or go to others in off hours. Which I suppose supports Hodgman's thesis that I don't want to deal with people. I'm a hermit!

  5. My biggest Portland pet peeves! I see this everywhere. One of the problems with a line is that it limits the bartender to helping only one Customer/party at a time. The is inefficient and slows down the process for everyone. When bars are busy bartenders are more than capable of handling multiple orders at once. I personally love searching for an open spot at a bar, squeezing in, and exchanging a few friendly words with the patron next to me. It's a great way to meet people. Lines minimize socializing as Hodgman points out. Totally agree with him. Signs like "Do not form a line" at the Bye and Bye, and especially "Please share your table with strangers" at Stammtisch are great. More of that :)

  6. This is a man who committed to paper a list of 700 hobo names. You should probably take anything he says with a grain of salt.

    Also, my favorite hobo name is "Guesstimate Jones"

  7. Seriously? I always see lines at bars in Oregon. In fact, any time I go up to a bar and just nose in at a random spot, bartenders give me a strange look. Like, "Why are you over THERE? Can't you see the line is over HERE!"

  8. So I just spent an intensive week in Portland exploring a move there, I went to a lot of places, breweries, pubs, and bars, bottle shops and growler fill places, and while everyone was generally considerate and nice, there were no lines. In fact I'd say at several places up Hawthorne there was a definite lack of a line. Most of the time the bartender could keep track of who came up first, and if they didn't it was because bartender. Eh.

  9. I always assumed the lining up thing had to do with the fact that many of them have registers right on the bar and if you're ordering food/paying with a card it makes sense, since you gotta sign the slip & take a number. I never even thought twice about it!