The Aqus Community crawl offers a novel way to get off the sofa and the soma

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

When it comes to the consumption of alcohol, I am scornfully referred to as a lightweight by my friends. This means that what most people consider a refreshing little cocktail will soon have me giddily revealing my intimate secrets before leaving me with a nasty headache.

So when I first heard through a friend about the Petaluma Crawl (which is the only way one gets invited), I was reluctant. The word “crawl” seemed to suggest a debased state of gravity by night’s end.

I would have left it at that if said friend didn’t then invite me to subscribe to Pub Crawl founder John Crowley’s e-mail newsletter. What I could not figure out was how the topics posted in Crowley’s “PC News,” such as updates on local open-space purchases, links to articles about important social issues and details about the businesses of local Petalumans, had anything to do with getting out on a Saturday night for drinks.

I decided I’d better talk to this John Crowley fellow to solve the puzzle. Crowley, a software engineer, hails from a pub-owning family in Dublin, where pub crawling is integral to the social scene, and where the crawling refers not to being on one’s knees, but to moving to where one’s friends are on a given evening.

“Pubs in Ireland are extensions of your living room,” he explains. “Since you can’t invite all your friends back to your home, you meet in a public place for a good time to socialize.”

It was in his Petaluma living room some four years ago that the idea for a pub crawl came to Crowley. One weekend, when his wife and two children were traveling, he found himself watching television.

“I thought: what a horrible existence. So I sent an e-mail to all the people I knew in Petaluma to meet for drinks. They all showed up.”

That first event contained only as many participants as can be counted on fingers and toes. But the idea clicked, evolving into an event every three months (now moving to every two months due to its popularity), that easily numbers over 100.

The Pub Crawl, whose name Crowley originally balked at because he knew it brought to mind “24-year-olds getting trashed,” refers to literary pub crawls back in Ireland. This is where a group of friends gets together and visits the bars where the Irish poets, like Yeats and Kavanagh, wrote their poetry. And those links on the newsletter? In order to prevent the crawl from becoming replete with, well, 24-year-olds getting trashed, Crowley made sure to pepper it with the kind of topics that would make it evident just who these people are. And who are they? As Crowley puts it, they are “forward-thinking” mostly forty-somethings (with a smattering of thirty-somethings) who no longer have infants to raise, both married and single, who want to get out and have a good time. Moving forward Crowley changed the name from Pub Crawl to Community Crawl to better describe the nature of this event.

Though anyone, through invitation, can be added to the newsletter and hence get the scoop on the next crawl, the only way to get to know these crawlers is to join them, which is part of Crowley’s attempt to create what he calls “social capital.” He hopes the crawls encourage folks to get involved in each other’s lives, get active in their community, get to know their neighbors, participate in local government and, yes, congregate on a Saturday night for drinks, socializing and dancing.

Each crawl comes with a set of suggestions, and often begins with art-viewing of some kind. For the latest such gathering earlier this month, we were instructed to wear red (for better visibility en masse) and, harking back to those literary pub crawls, to bring a book that had, at some point, been meaningful to us.

I labored over the choice of book, unable to give up my beloved copy of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, briefly grasping the spine of Jorge Luis Borges’ short fiction collection, thinking how great a conversation starter The Garden of Forking Paths would make, and ultimately selecting Huxley’s Brave New World. This seemed an appropriate choice, easy to chat about, because what had been a horrifying future vision to me at the age of 14, where society is stratified into distinct classes and everyone is whipped into complacency by the drug soma, now hits all too close to home. It was also in theme with my prior discussion with Crowley about the need to engage with each other socially and how most of us live in a TV reality (TV being the new soma).

On a recent Saturday night, armed with Huxley, clad in red, my significant other on one side and a friend on the other, I walked six blocks from home to the first stop on the Aqus Community Crawl: the Sweetwater Distillery and Sonoma Valley Portworks, side by side on Second Street.

The Distillery was handing out free Lemon Drops and cosmopolitans made with their own distilled vodka, and there was plenty of port-sniffing going on next door.

Just as Crowley had assured, there were no pick-up lines in action or wallflowers standing awkwardly off to the side waiting to be approached. It’s the kind of event where if you make eye contact for more than a second, you’re liable to learn the stranger’s history, résumé and hobbies very quickly. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the cocktail-party style of hanging by the hors d’oeuvres in hopes that somebody will ask you to move out of the way of the dip so you can start a conversation.

Shortly, I was coaxed into discussing my lifelong aspirations, trading restaurant reviews and hashing out the finer points of what red does to different complexions.

The next stop was the bar inside Graziano’s Italian Restaurant on Petaluma Boulevard. Despite the fact that we were packed in like tourists at the Statue of Liberty, the conversations really heated up here.

By then, what is so captivating about the crawl, as Crowley had explained, begins to make itself apparent: strangers are no longer just introducing themselves, they’re starting to reveal themselves.

At Graziano’s, I traded Brave New World away to a woman whose honeymoon to Bora Bora was so great that she was still talking about it a year and a half later. Together, she and I convinced a skeptical-looking man with a passion for history that Anita Diamant’s menses novel The Red Tent is not just for chicks.

Here I met George, from the band Boy Meets Girl (“We were popular in the ’80s,” he said), who wrote the song “I Want to Dance with Somebody” for Whitney Houston, and with whom I had a deep conversation about what drives artists to make art (it was far less pretentious than it sounds).

A woman named Leanne told me how she has lived in town for 30 years, raised her children and built a successful career as a stockbroker. Yet, emerging from the semicoma of parenthood after her kids left home, she, like many others I talked to, was devastated to discover that nightlife in Petaluma had fizzled to near nothingness.

“I got tired of going to restaurants. I wanted something to do,” she said.

Leanne had, she confided, “rested up” during the week to save energy for the second-to-last stop of the night at Dempsey’s, where DJ Val spun the tunes for dancing. Even as self-conscious as I am, I had to resist the lure of the dance floor when Prince and James Brown came on.

I must admit to fading out before the final scene at Zebulon’s lounge sometime after midnight (which Crowley later described as “mellow”). By then I’d seen enough to know that Crowley’s experiment in creating social capital is working.