The College Bar
I’m an alien. Oh, on the outside I look like I belong, but on the inside, I’m very different. My look is a studied copy of what is worn around me; a costume. I am trying so very hard to fit in, but it only makes me realise that I don’t. I probably never will.
The music is too loud for conversation, but still people are talking. They lean in towards each other with no regard for personal space, sliding into easy embraces. They laugh loudly, share themselves effortlessly. The more they expand, the more I withdraw into my own, tight circle. I envy them. I want to be like them, to be part of the crowd, but I don’t know how. I’m waiting for an invitation, but I don’t see one. I’m not sure that I would recognise one, even if it came.
I’m a few years older than they are, 21 to their 18 or 19. They’re ‘Freshers’ and I’m a visitor, but they are warm and welcoming. My friend is popular, as is her boyfriend, and I sense the willingness of the group to include me too. Then somehow, some look, some gesture, some phrase, and I can see that willingness disappear. I have been categorised as ‘other’.
They’re not wrong. We are all the product of our experiences, and mine have been very different to most.
As a child I felt like a reflection on glass, something easily looked through unless you thought the transparent worthy of focus. Raised in an emotionally uncertain environment, I learnt to be watchful and to echo back what I thought others wanted from me. I responded, reacted, but never instigated. New experiences were fraught with anxiety until I learnt the rules of engagement, what was expected.
There is a certain type of person who is attracted to people like me. You have to be broken to want nothing more than a pale reflection of yourself to love. When I imitated what he hated in himself, his anger would spill over into harsh words, cruel behaviour and physical violence. I remember being held under the bath water, looking up at his face, distorted by fury and the bubbles of my breath and wondering if this would be the end of me. It wasn’t, only a piece of me died that day.
I was so lost, so empty, that I couldn’t even tell myself to walk away. It was a friend who made a signpost to the exit, making me phone my family. He couldn’t see me disappear, he said. I could do for him what I couldn’t do for myself. Returning to the passive, negligent abuse of my family was such a relief.
I wanted to be different, to reinvent myself. I made new friends and formed myself in their image. I recreated their style, just bits of each person so I am a composite of the whole group. The facade is right, but it is veneer over rotting wood. People engage with me long enough to be unnerved by the absence of originality, to sense the falseness, and then they back away.
It’s happening now, as the music thumps and relationships are formed all around me. I am an island of isolation; awkward, unsettling to those who make the attempt at connection only to find me vacant. I realise that there is no miracle, that I cannot suddenly become the person I aspire to be. I feel like a child, playing dress up.
I make my excuses and leave.
The area near the campus of my university was well populated by bars, but there was no particular joint that I and my friends frequented. It depended in large part on our mood and on the purpose of the drinking gathering. And it was mostly about drinking, to be honest. Occasionally it was about music, as was the case at one bar called "The Hungry Horse Saloon," which featured quality local singers, some of whom (Willie Nelsen, i.e. and Jerry Jeff Walker) later became quite famous. Beer there was .25 a pitcher, and we consumed it by the gallon. Occasionally it was about socializing; there was the Beerhaus, a kind of ersatz German beer garden for that. A particular favorite in that vein was Schultz's Beer Garden, as well, although it was harder to use the fake military ID there, as the bar tenders tended to be more savvy. But Schultz's had great food, too. From time to time it was about just being loud and young, and The Orange Bull, the End Zone, and a few others featured dancers--"Go-Go Girls," complete with boots and wearing g-strings and pasties--although in those the beer was more expensive, and there was a nervous crowd. These weren't "strip joints," by the way, or "gentlemen's clubs," or any such thing, but to kids our age, they seemed deliciously sinful. They were just bars. Finally, there were more sophisticated bars, such as Prufrock's, which tried to draw in a literary or intellectual crowd, and The Rabbit Habbit, which worked on an Alice in Wonderland theme. And there was Hipps' Bubble Room, a kind of worn-down old hangover from the fifties, when the crowd dressed up and from time to time Frank Sinatra used to drop by when he was in town. My particular favorite, though was the bar in the Alamo Hotel, which dated back to the turn of the century; it was a long, shotgun style affair, with a long continuous bar running down one wall and a row of booths running down the other, a narrow aisle in between. The booths were wooden, high-backed, and offered some seclusion, if patrons wanted some privacy or, in some cases, anonymity. This was a favorite bar of state politicians, and one of our favorite things to do was to go in and see if somebody in the next booth was plotting something nefarious of a political nature.
Occasionally, one might hear something scandalous. I did. I was among the first to know that the state attorney general was about to be arrested for statutory rape of his baby-sitter. She was seventeen and he was about forty. He seduced her while taking her home, but while they were in the middle of a passionate and apparently naked embrace in the backseat of his car, a policeman rolled up on them and caught them. He was talking to his attorney, crying bitterly, and we sat there in stone silence listening to him make his confession and worrying about what his wife and family were going to say. They probably said plenty. He was indicted and did ten years in jail.
Bars in those days were dark, smoky places. Cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer was the ambiance that I chiefly remember. It's also something I chiefly miss. When they stopped allowing smoking in bars, they ruined something that worked. Righteousness has a downside.
Some years later in graduate school, though, we had a different kind of bar, although it was just as smoky and skuzzy. We were older, and it was in another state, although one where the liquor laws were even more draconian. This was called "The Library," and it was characterized by walls lined with bookshelves. There were no tables, only booths, and they were large enough to get six or eight people around. I and my fellows from the graduate school logged many, many hours there. The great thing about that bar was that the beer was cheap and cold, and they left us alone.
I have to say that I learned more about literature, philosophy, and life in that bar than I ever did in a real library. After our evening seminars, roughly the same group of us would adjourn there. There were about six of us, men and women, who went, and there we talked about the seminar, or about matters literary until closing time, around two a.m., usually, drinking, sharing, arguing. Most of us were married, but we were without spouses. This wasn't about that kind of relationship-forming. We were bonding in a different way. We debated the relative merits of James Joyce's Ulysses, and the question of value surrounding D. H. Lawrence's work. We argued about existentialism and critical extremism, the emergence of post-modernism and got into heated exchanges as to whether or not Thomas Pyncheon was a flash in the pan, or if John Lennon had more influence on culture than did Jesus Christ. We got in to deep debates over questions of contemporary poetry vs formalism, debated the value of psychological criticism and of feminist approaches. We demanded answers to questions that hadn't really been asked. Had Germane Greer really been a Playboy Bunny? Was Erica Jong truly revolutionary or merely sensational? Could anyone really believe how outrageous Norman Mailer was, or did he have literary quality that his arch-rival Truman Capote could never attain? You didn't come to one of those sessions unprepared. You had to be well-read and up on who said what about what. You had to have read up on the New York Times, the London Times, Harper's, The Atlantic, the Saturday Review, TransAtlantic Review. All of it. You had to be able to quote critics and cite experts, to demonstrate that you knew your shit. Otherwise, you weren't welcome; otherwise you became a victim.
We spent a lot of time dissecting and eviscerating our chosen "victims," particularly the weaker ones. Vicious and unkind nicknames were born there, and many stuck. The later the night and the deeper the beer, the meaner (and funnier, it seemed) they became. Our graduate program was cut-throat competitive, and we knew that some of us would be washed out if we failed to meet a certain standard, so we formed our own group in that bar and plotted the demise of others. It was a pack mentality, and the university fostered it.
One woman we named, for example, "Dondi," after a popular comic strip about a Korean orphan who was adopted by an American GI, then brought back to the states, where he had all kinds of adventures in the daily comic pages. It was a saccharin-sweet strip, and Dondi, the character, was too good to believe. He was also forever nine years old. The woman in question was short, wore her hair cropped in a short, black cut. She wasn't Korean or even Asian, but she was one of those people who was always flouting her moral superiority over others. So "Dondi" she became. Another woman was called "Lady Kay," as she was married to a wealthy physician and enjoyed showing off her superior social and income status. We plotted their demise with glee, mostly by preparing in advance questions and arguments to raise when they gave their seminar papers, methods deliberately designed to embarrass and humiliate them.
Not all our victims were women, by any means. There were twin brothers, who we called "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," because they really did tend to resemble the characters from Carroll's tale, who were fundamentalist Christian ministers and were obsessed with Irish poetry. There was "Sam the Stooge," who managed to put his foot in his mouth so often. (Great story there: He was introducing his seminar paper with the moderately amusing pun on the name of the famous American critic, Joseph Wood Krutch, by punning on Krutch's last name--comments such as "knocking the props out of Krutch's argument," and "Krutch hobbles through his points," and "Kruth's argument is propped up by..." etc. As was the policy, we had all read the paper in advance so we could prepare our questions, and at The Library we laid our plans. One of our number was elected to be the one to stop Sam as he opened his paper and say, "Uh, excuse me. That's not pronounced 'crutch,' but is pronounced 'Krooch.'" It took the wind right out of his sales and embarrassed him no end.
To some extent, these were pranks, but there was a purpose behind them. We knew that only eight people out of each year's class of eighteen would be allowed to finish our exams and proceed to dissertation. Only two or three of those would actually finish. We had to thin the herd. Humbling or embarrassing our peers in a classroom was encouraged by the faculty. It was a kind of blood sport. And our group plotted many a student's demise while at The Library.
It was there that a young woman we had dubbed "The Toad," because of an unfortunate resemblance she had to an reptile, found herself unexpectedly in our company following a seminar on Samuel Johnson. It was early going in the semester, and she commented on how voluminous the reading list was. One of our regulars turned to her and said with an absolute straight face, "Yes, there's a lot to read. I thought I'd never get through The Dictionary." She looked shocked. "You read the whole Dictionary?" she asked. We all nodded sagely. "It took most of the summer," another solemnly assessed. "And we'll be expected to present a paper on it in about two weeks." She dropped the class, soon dropped out of school.
I can't say that I'm proud of these pranks and plots. Good people got hurt by them, I'm sure; but in our defense, most of the time, almost every time, the targeted victim asked for it. There's no room for sanctimony in gradate school; self-awareness is a vital necessity. At the time, though, I found myself glad that I was on the inside of the plotting, not a victim of it. I could easily have been. There was a certain luck of the draw involved, but it also had to do with being able to hold one's beer, and to be up on one's studies, and to be able to argue and debate intelligently and without egocentric bravada.
But it wasn't all hijinks. Sometimes, we met there in the afternoons to prepare for a particularly difficult seminar upcoming or for exams. We spent weeks reading Tennyson and Browning to each other. Huge amounts of time discussing Milton and Cervantes, Moliere and Sartre, questioning ourselves about Proust and Flaubert. We had a particularly favorite game called, "The Bard." The notion was to ante a quarter into the middle of the table, then one of us would start by quoting a line of Shakespeare. You were obligated to name the play from which the line came, as well as the Act. If someone got it right, then everyone anted again, and the game went on around the circle. It had to be a whole line, not merely a fragment. And we had a Shakespeare Concordance on the wall by our usual booth to check it. If you could stump the group, you got the pot. As I-D questions were part of our comprehensive exams, this was a particularly useful game for all major poetry, but Shakespeare was our favorite subject. I remember one night I won the largest pot we had with the line, "Lurk, Lurk." (That's King Lear, by the way. Act I.)
It was by no means all fun and games, plots and plans. There were long and deep discussions about major works, about critical movements, and about individual writers and philosophers. I know that in those four years of life into the late night hours at The Library I learned more than I ever did in a classroom or lecture hall. I almost invariably left with a list of books and writers to find and read, and I didn't dare turn up less than well-prepared or dare reveal my ignorance of a topic or work. In a way, it was kind of a support group, sort of literary gestalt, wherein the moment carried the day.
Of the group that met there regularly over those four years, though, only three of us made it through to the end. There were, over the years, about a dozen, but most fell out, were washed out, or came to bad ends one way or another. Of the three that made it, I am the only one still alive, oddly. I was the only one who became a professor--our pronounced ambition--and a writer--our secret ambition. We loved each other, but we also were intensely competitive with each other. We egged each other on, inspired each other, and terrified each other throughout. I'd never have made it without them.
My students today don't go to bars. Most of them don't even drink. Certainly, none of them smokes. They do drink coffee, but coffee is too ecumenical to be the beverage of intellectual pursuit. Tea...well, sorry Brits, but tea just isn't the same thing. I mean, say the words together, "Coffee," "Tea." Coffee sounds like something you might want to be named or a place you might want to visit. Tea sounds like something you do in private and are slightly embarrassed to talk about. Beer, though. Beer always sounds good. As Tom T. Hall intoned: "I like beer!" Bars today are clean and well-lighted, to use Hemingway's famous phrase. They have TVs blaring and the variety of liquors and wines is too great to remember. Waitresses are named "Buffy" and "Brad," and have name tags. Bartenders are friendly, and the booze is expensive. Students don't hang out in bars, especially if they have to drive home, and they don't form the kinds of bonds that used to be formed in bars. I think, maybe, that's why they don't know as much as we did. They just take all of this too seriously, and they don't take bars seriously enough. This may be why intellectualism is dying. What we need, perhaps, are more bars.
Only once did I visit the college bar.
Nobody went there,
Because the floor was tacky,
And there were no chairs.
The vodka was nasty and cheap,
As were the obnoxious green cocktails.
It was a room with a counter:
Half a pool cue;
An incomplete set of balls;
Three tables with sticky water rings;
And nowhere to put your elbows.
I think the Union unofficially moved,
Over the courtyard,
Where the furnishings were funded,
By Costa Coffee.