Madness is never a solo condition

Jean-Paul Sartre spent his life arguing that there is no madness in individuals and that it only occurs within groups. Dealing with both on a regular basis I have to respectfully disagree.

It was with that French philosopher’s thought in mind that I looked at those gathered around my midweek bar. Two guys high-fiving and backslapping, both sipping Scotch with just two ice cubes, a couple canoodling in the corner and a group of fundraisers sitting at a table spending money on drinks out of a white envelope clearly labelled “soccer.”

“Can I get another drink?” asked an elderly loner, who had not actually ordered a drink prior, bringing Sartre’s musings clearly into question. Monsieur Sartre dealt with objective truth, and so do I — every day.

“Hi!” said a newly arrived woman in way-too friendly a manner.

“Hi, yourself.”

“You are so funny,” she said, leaving me to wonder exactly what was so funny.

She ordered a glass of wine and an appetizer, but it was more more complex than that. Let’s just say that by the time she got the appetizer I already knew all her allergies, her feelings on California chardonnay, her marital status, her son’s ages, her hometown, her college, her career and every single person whom she had encountered on her way over. One could call it a conversation, but I think the sum total of my verbiage was limited to a few well-placed “ahs.”

A trip to the back kitchen was compelled by a complicated question on the intricacies of a particular food item’s preparation. Ten questions and two trips into the kitchen about a $7 item might seem extreme, but customer service is an exercise in extremes.

When I returned, a man was seated next to Ms. Talkative, conversing about her sons. Her meticulously ordered appetizer sat untouched on the bar as she turned her attentions, literally and figuratively, toward her date.

All the first date ground was covered. Old boyfriends, old girlfriends, favorite foods, favorite movies — if I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it 1,000 times and everything is so darn funny. But I digress.

This went on for some time, long enough for the elderly loner to get his actual second drink, long enough for the canoodlers to leave seeking more horizontal accommodation and certainly long enough for the guilt surrounding that white envelope to rear its head.

Eventually it was just me and the first date couple. If you think it’s uncomfortable being a third wheel, try being one who cannot leave because of the circumstances of your employment. Attraction and intimacy can be quite unsavory when viewed upclose and personal by someone not in on the equation. Ask any server or bartender and he or she will tell you the same.

Dessert was ordered, followed by a feeding to of said dessert and the splitting of a cognac, if only there had been peeled grapes than the cliché would have been complete. First dates are so predictable.

When time and opportunity allowed I presented the bill of fare.

“We’re not together,” the man said, wagging his finger back and forth between them.

“No,” she echoed. “We’ve actually never met before.”

“I’m sorry, I guess I made a mistake.”

“I think he thought we were on a date,” he said, laughing.

She laughed, too, just not as relentlessly.

After paying their separate checks the two walked out together, him helping her with her light summer wrap and then holding the front door open.

Later, I walked past a rocking car with steamed-up windows, leaving me with these thoughts:

• If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

• “A madman’s ravings are absurd in relation to the situation in which he finds himself, but not in relation to his madness,” wrote Sartre in his 1938 novel “Nausea.”

• In Sartre’s 1944 novel “No Exit,” he depicted hell as three people locked together in a room they cannot leave, memorialized by his famous quote, “Hell is other people.”

• Still wondering if that couple thought the night didn’t qualify as a date the next morning, objective truth and all that.

• Tomorrow is Bastille Day, a happy day for the French people but not so much for the French nobility.

Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender” as well as an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at and contact him at [email protected].