Friday, June 3, 2011

A House on State

(The commencement of summer has found me not having to read boatloads of cases every night and thus with some actual free time. I've largely diverted my attention from this blog to a larger work that has been in progress since last summer and hopefully will one day be finished. I thought I'd post the prologue to it here (it was actually originally a post, but grew into much more). If you're interested in more, I'd be happy to get some feedback on the rest of it.)


"We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found."

- JR Moehringer, The Tender Bar

In the late winter of those collegiate days we lived in a student house nestled in a traditional pine-soaked Midwestern college town that looked across State Street and towards the stadium in the distance. Tucked in amongst a row of other traditional college houses that sidelined that bustling street, about a mile south of the ivy-covered brick towers of academia, our home did not noticably stand out from the others. Like the other two-stories on that street it bore the scars of decades of wear and and looked like it ws slowly withering with age. Its white walls hid beneath sheets of dirt stains. Dead and overgrown weed branches forked through crevices in the porch steps. The crooked fracture in the upper right window never healed. And shards of broken liquor bottle glass speckled the clumps of dead grass and patches of snow that composed the front lawn.

Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning we heard groups of students, returning home after closing time, walking past under the window on the snow-covered sidewalks. While we sat sipping our drinks we heard their voices, accentuated by liquor consumed at the college pubs down the street, through that big living room window. Now and then the passersby would look up at the letters B-O-X that hung, and had hung, however feebly, from above the front porch of our house for decades. We faintly heard them mutter something about the rumors they had heard about those letters that had come to represent our house.

We embraced the outlandish and sometimes degenerate portrait that those rumors painted. To us they provided proof that we existed as more than just tiny fish in a big sea, as more than just faceless students in overcrowded lecture halls. Each time we heard someone wondering aloud about those letters as they passed by we quietly reveled in the prospect that we had stomped out some sort of footprint, no matter how small, to show for our four years spent on that campus. And though we dared not say as much, we each secretly knew that the reputation that preceeded the B-O-X letters provided a convenient excuse to justify our overindulgent lifestyles. The multitude of various rumors theorizing tall-tales about what the B-O-X signified compelled us to try and live up to the rumors. At least that's what we told ourselves.

In truth, though, those letters were no different than neon lights advertising the local watering hole: The Thirsty Elk or Mitch's Place or The Diamondback Saloon. Of course we would never admit as much, but there was nothing spectacular about the letter on our house; they merely represented what lie inside the house. And indeed it was a bar.

The rooms upstairs where the six of us slept were mere attachments of the bar, but an afterthought of the scene. We spent virtually all of our waking hours on the ground level, the heart of it all. The ground floor was not spacious nor was it pretty. It was really just one large room covered in cracked, dirt-stained white tiles, the kitchen countertop serving as the only divider between the kitchen and living room. The patrons of our bar, consisting of about a dozen of us, flocked to and fro from that countertop religiously, retrieving various assortments of alcohol without pause. Because our bar lacked bartenders and barmaids, the empty bottles never seemed to disappear and the whiskey spills never got wiped up. Yet it seemed some ghostly bartender, straight out of a prohibition era speakeasy, was always at work, as the stock of liquor available for all to drink never seemed to diminish.

On those bitter cold Michigan February nights we hibernated in the living room, the seating area of the bar, sitting on beer-stained couches worn to the bone from a couple generations worth of college students' use. The Northern winter permeated the paper thin walls and provided a constant reminder of the freezing temperatures outdoors. We shivered in our sweaters and sipped our rums and whiskeys and bourbons to warm us. Our arms lifted drinks to and from our lips mechanically. We drank and stared at hours upon hours of whatever happened to be that evening's sporting event glowing from the television set. Sitting and sipping and watching, we felt content. But sometimes if a sip of whiskey hit me the wrong way I looked around the room skeptically. Sometimes I would even get up and stand in front of the mirror and wonder if I myself was content. I wondered if it was truly content that we were feeling or rather if the room had been subsumed in a paralysis-inducing fog, in the way the Joycean drinkers of Dublin unconsciously suffered from. Some nights I concluded the former, some the latter. On the nights I came to the Joycean conclusion, I resolved it by walking to the countertop bar, fixing myself a particularly strong whiskey, taking a mean sip, and waiting for the whiskey to kill the images of Joyce's Dubliner's dancing drunkenly in my mind.

Like any American corner bar, once dusk had fell and the February skies turned black as soot -- which was early on those reluctant winter evenings -- our house emanated a lively mood. As the warm spirits loosened our nerves and as our faces grew rosy from libation, joyful voices began to overcome the droning voices of the broadcasters on the television set. Spring in the step emerged as someone got up from a seat to refill a mug. As the hours grew older the room began to resemble that mythical pub in Ireland: a tiny brick tavern surrounded by green clover fields, packed full of wide-eyed men and women brimming with whiskey and good cheer, the songs of Celtic lore echoing from the tavern through the cobblestone streets.

The mood of the corner bar peaks as dusk falls, but no one seeks the mood of a bar just opened in the morning hours. For better or for worse, though, the mood of our house resonated with bar's at all hours of the day. Staggering down the staircase, dry-mouthed and hungover in the morning, entering the living room felt a lot like walking in on the depressing scene of a lone drunk sitting at the bar at sunrise, desperately slurping down his vodka with a shaky hand. Dozens of empty beer bottles, some marinating with tobacco spit and some with cigarette butts, emitted the gag-inducing stench of used tobacco and stale beer. Beer spills and broken glass shards peppered the tiled flooring, creating a sticky and perilous walking path to the kitchen. Yet the scene impeded us not. We sat out the hangover sitting in our own beer-spills from the previous night, watching sportscenter highlights of the games we had forgotten from the previous night. On the occasional days when the scene was simply too much too grapple with soberly, we embraced the image of the lonesome drunk at the bar at sunrise, refilled our mugs with whatever straggling liquors and sodas remained from the previous evening, and resumed our buzz and our position on the beer-stained couches as if nothing had changed, waiting for the sunlight to disappear once again.

On a campus overflowing with more than 30,000 students, everyone has their niche. Everyone has somewhere to turn to to feel closer to God, truth, peace, or whatever it is that helps them feel relevant. The athletes -- the football player's who are worshipped as gods, to the women's softball team, even to the swimming team -- had the multi-million dollar athletic facilities, the gyms, and the escape offered by the playing field. The asians reserved the mathematics floor of the graduate library and maintained a monopoly on the bubble tea shop on the corner of Main Street. The Silverstein's and Greenberg's occupying the spotless sorority mansions flocked to the Jewish section of fraternity row to drink wine and martinis. The stoner's hid in small corners of the university arboretum, puffing smoke amidst the tree branches and wandering aimlessly down the trails. For better of for worse, our place was the countertop bar at the house where the letters B-O-X hung hung crookedly from above the porch.

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