By Patrick Hosken
Our favorite college bar isn’t really a college bar at all. It’s a tavern in both name and appearance—dank, coarse, and undemanding. Jukebox in the corner, pickled eggs in a glass jar, and bathrooms covered in woozy signatures. No tank top-clad undergrads shimmying on the bar and pouring shots in boyishly joyful guys’ mouths. It’s all brick walls and broken Pabst Blue Ribbon taps here.
The owner’s a stout, gruff man with a pencil-drawn mustache and stance like a penguin. He’s there nearly every night, a grungy rag draped over his shoulder, always eager to grab you a Budweiser or mix you a whiskey sour. He leans against the counter between orders, positioned below a fulsome shrine of liquor bottles and upside-down high balls. To his right, a bearded man with a lunatic glare and a bandana; to his left, his tattooed-behind-the-ears daughter.
Of course, these details are easier to distinguish when the place isn’t packed to capacity.
Tonight, it is. In fact, the stoned doorman’s glazed eyes hardly even pass over my driver’s license before he hands it back to me and nods. No cover charge. No greasy blues or rockabilly bands blasting through the P.A. Just a trio of drink-fixers behind the bar and a revolving horde of alumni back for the weekend and ready to get blasted.
I inhale the scene like I’m just a lowly sophomore with a phony ID again, equal parts energized and besieged. Bodies of all shapes surround me, obstructing anything more than a foot in front where I’m standing. A recently graduated friend hugging the wall spots me and shakes his head in disbelief. “It’s fucking packed in here.”
He says the obvious, but it’s an appropriate greeting. I ask about his girlfriend and he points to his left. She’s talking to her gangly, snaggle-toothed ex-boyfriend, both faces lit up brighter than the dim lanterns overhead. We make small talk for a minute before I see some friends through a slight opening in the mess of sweaty heads and push myself toward them.
Wobbling through the thicket of degree-holders, I appraise a quick mental headcount: There’s the affable friend who moved to New York weeks after graduating and found a place in Queens and a job at a late-night talk show…. There’s the quiet friend who would have loved to do the same but wound up doing land research for a gas company and living alone in hotels in different states…. There’s the goofy yet lovable friend who applied to gyms and clothing stores before landing the overnight shift shelving the local supermarket…. There’s the driven guy who simply can’t find any work at all, despite having a master’s in marketing, for Christ’s sake.
Under the muted glow of icicle Christmas lights strewn from wall to wall, I study their faces and mannerisms. Which one will I become? I ponder en route to buy a beer. The counter’s mobbed of course, all the way around. Nothing to do but idly perch on my feet and listen to the chatter of grownups with careers and families.
“When are you gonna stop being a pussy and come visit my fucking son?” a young man yells lovingly into a chubby chum’s face. They’re waiting for shots.
“I dunno, man. I’ve got some bad news,” the round-faced pal says. “I’m getting engaged soon.”
The skinny one perks up before he grabs his soon-to-be-fiancéed friend with a strong-armed hug. They’re inches away from my face. I’ve positioned myself behind the bigger one, attempting to piggyback my way to the bar. They eventually get their tiny square glasses and raise them high before clinking them together and throwing the bronze liquid down their throats, a violent motion.
“Allison! I know this world is killing you!” a nasally voice whines more loudly than anything in the joint. It’s Elvis Costello on the jukebox, spraying his melodrama on the bar patrons like the tavern’s mysteriously absent sprinkler system. It’s hard to hear any other part of this quiet song over the chunky roar of the jovial crowd, even standing back by one of the huge speakers.
When I’m not talking, I’m drinking. When I’m not talking or drinking, I’m thinking. As foam settles in my mouth, I listen to another potential future version of myself talk about his job. I’m drawn to this guy; his thick Buddy Holly glasses and expensive-looking sweater reek of style. The bar itself reeks of spilled breath and mixed drinks. He tells me he ran our campus radio station for two years, diversifying its format and earning it the landmark rank of No. 1 in the Princeton Review. He works for Energizer now. Did he think he’d end up there?
“No, no. I thought I’d end up in radio or something. I wanted to write, too.”
The falling action begins—a plague of “What ifs.”
Here it is, the unwelcome epiphany that your personable charm might land you a spot in Energizer’s sales department, living in New Jersey with a family because, hey man, it’s a job. Great pay and better benefits. Some travel here and there.
Here again, the jarring vision of an office trapping you, castrating your aspirations of trekking America and writing hip, quirky features about its dappled clientele. What the hell are you even doing here tonight? Shouldn’t you be applying for jobs, like right now? And just how the hell are you going to afford your first apartment, anyway?
Momentary displacement resolves into a warm hug as the alcohol cataches up with me. Maybe it’s not so bad, haggling your shell of idealism for a paper degree and a job interview. Here it is, the feeling that these alums deserve their right to return for a booze-slamming vacation. Here’s the strange hope that next year, five years out, twenty years out, I’ll deserve it, too.