Meet the regular: he always sits at the table by the window. He has a jaunty moustache. Wait: is it really him? Doesn’t he usually carry a canvas tote? The regular is fiction. Although the character woos us in literature and entertains us on television, the contemporary cityscape reduces them to myth through diverse options, hectic schedules and social obligations antagonistic to the development of routine.
TV dramas and sitcoms love regulars. Week after week Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer dined at Monks; Sabrina the Teenage Witch went to The Slicery. But such hangouts weren’t portrayed as active, pleasant choices. Elaine loved the big salad, but the show’s memorable food moments happened in operating theatres and soup kiosks. Sabrina lamented The Slicery’s perpetually sticky arcade games. These places collected friends, but they didn’t collect good times.
Creating a habitual spot and attendant group of regulars is a social and spatial concern for producers. Script writers are restricted in their ability to introduce new characters. Thus the regulars must be friends. A complicated background story accompanies one-off appearances. For shows shot in a studio, having a single hub for characters to meet provides an economic solution for set builders. When shows break out of the studio, the regular spot transforms into an endless rotation of social spaces. TV constructed the regular and reflects their demise.
If the regular has left the screen, where have they gone? Blogs and magazines locate them at the bar. They depict an economic relationship; regulars go where they get discounted alcohol. Establishing a friendship with the barman lets the habitual customer stay solvent. After a few weeks of tipping heavily for a Manhattan, the barman will knock off a few cents off the bill and reach for top-shelf Rye. This drink-dispensing therapist is a universal trope: Italy boasts the barista, America the bartender, and Britain the chatty tearoom owner.
Unlike TV, which ignores the benefits regulars enjoy, these articles extol them. The habitual customer enters into a social capital network that ensures a convivial meal is only as far as their spot. This meal will be quality; their friends’ presence implicitly vouches good service, a lively atmosphere and a vibrant history. Through locating the regular in reality, magazines and blogs reinforce the myths surrounding them.
Being a regular is a romantic proposition. It signals an unchanging landscape in cities where nice cafes struggle to survive greedy landlords. The regular believes they’ll always enjoy the best table and feels assured having a reliable spot to suggest for meetings. As social media extends the realm of local to Google map’s scrolling borders, being a regular focuses the world around a specific spot. Goodbye debilitating choice. Goodbye postmodern city life. The regular enjoys this drink in this place at this time. Being a regular is a coping device for modern life. We’re not coping well.