If there’s one thing you should remember about heading to a college bar after you’re a graduate, it’s this: you never come out of it thinking that it was a great idea. This was especially true of O’Grady’s, a bar notorious for its dark interior and its strong drinks. O’Grady’s gave out Dum-Dum suckers to help quell the sting of rail vodka. As far as student bars go, it was a pretty great place to acquire a blackout. Somewhere in the swirl of the night, we expected to find solace.
On any given weekend night, I could spot 6 or 7 coworkers at the bar; O’Grady’s is never the kind of place you want your colleagues to see you, but there we all were, hoping the other wouldn’t remember an awkward encounter the next morning.
The bar was near and it didn’t have a line (a rarity after midnight), so we went in. O’Grady’s was full of a student populace we were no longer a part of: underagers, drunken slobs, stressed-out overachievers and proud Greeks. The bartenders, trained to be flirty for tips, tried their very best to keep the booze flowing and the conversations light. I looked around and saw a few guys whispering sweet lines into the ears of strangers, girls twirling and dancing to the music, wallflowers eyeing up people they would muster up the courage to talk to, and groups of friends sitting around the tables telling inside jokes. A normal night.
Nostalgia hits you in weird places when you’re at an old haunt: the bartender’s smile, that dartboard you lost game after game at, the conversations you had with strangers. Ghosts come in all shapes and sizes, rushing by in waves of hazy memories and forgotten conversations. We’ve seen too many familiar faces fade away into adulthood, off in some bigger city chasing larger dreams. Those of us who stayed still float around the city, searching for specters of the olden days, haunted by the people and places of our past.
It was after about one-and-a-half whiskey sodas that things started to get hazy. It was time to move on.
Whiskey has a way of making you stronger and weaker at the same time. This is never more apparent than when you’re having a one on one conversation with a pretty girl at a dark bar. During the good times, whiskey raises you up, pats you on the back for your accomplishments, and whispers in your ear that there’s nobody better or smarter or funnier or more attractive than you. Nobody is more capable than a man with a whiskey buzz.
During the bad times, whiskey kicks you down, laughs at you, and dares you to swim deeper and deeper into it until you get to the bottom. Whiskey makes you overthink. It makes you regret. It makes your failures float to the top of your consciousness, your anger surface.
Whiskey will inevitably make you say a lot of things. It may get her to smile. You’ll almost always make her laugh, either with you or at you. Whiskey will make you brave enough to share secrets with her, and if you’re lucky maybe she’ll tell you some of her own. You may think you’re having a profound moment, a pivot point in your life; you may see visions of the near future, her hand in yours and a smile on your face. But then you’ll leave. She’ll go one way, you’ll go another. The whiskey will turn back into a mean friend, the one that tells you it can’t believe you’re going home alone again, the one that can’t believe you actually thought you had a chance with her.
But then whiskey tucks you in and swiftly lulls you to sleep. The next morning, whiskey might kick your ass, but whiskey is never boring. At least you and it had a few adventures together, right?
Six Things To Remember About the Morning After
- It’s going to hurt. It’s like a college diploma does something to your brain and body to make the hangover stronger.
- I have yet to encounter a hangover that couldn’t be slayed or subdued by brunch
- If you don’t get a bloody mary or two, it is not brunch. It’s just breakfast.
- After brunch, you will lay down on your couch, snuggled into a warm blanket and completely into whatever crappy movie happens to be on TV. You will believe that you’ve earned this moment.
- Something electric happens at about 8pm on a Saturday night, no matter how difficult the day felt or how attractive your toilet looked. You will want to go back out and do it all over again
- Going to brunch twice in one weekend is not a crime
[November is National Novel Writing Month, and while I'm way too busy at work to actually devote much time to writing, I'm trying to give tiny stories a shot]
I’m a rare case; at the early age of 22 I was diagnosed with a hard-to-cure syndrome known as “a real job.” Others like me have the same symptoms: constant fatigue, irritability, disposable income, shrinking social life, and general maladjustment. We’re hopeful that they’ll find a cure in our lifetime, but none of us are holding our breath. Like everyone else, we spend our weeks waiting for Friday to come.
Luckily for us, we found medicine called Happy Hour. Happy Hour was a placebo that tricked us into thinking we were still in college. Over a few drinks, we could tell jokes about the rest of our coworkers and vent about all of the assholes and idiots we dealt with day to day. We did this without looking around at the rest of the patrons, because none of them looked all that happy anymore. We avoided the glum faces as much as we could and kept moving forward. Friday was only a few days away.
It was 4:59 on the first Friday of fall. The next 60 seconds went by at a snail’s pace, but once it hit 5:00 I remembered that I had about another hour of work to do. That’s alright, I told myself; the time between now and the night always drags by, and I might as well get something done. So I worked for another hour, hit the road and the liquor store and was home by 7:00. I was exhausted, but I still felt allergic to my couch. I had a whiskey soda, took a shower, and had another drink. I was revived and revved up, ready for another night.
My phone buzzed and I pulled it out to see what it wanted. “What are you doing tonight?”
A text from her was always welcome. She was a pretty girl, one that always had to deal with her looks overshadowing the rest of who she was. Girls like her always have an underlying sadness, as if they know they’ll be expected to play the role of the pretty, oblivious girl forever. She liked when people treated her a little differently. Before the party, I asked her and some other friends over to pregame.
Pregaming is the sacred art of imbibing with your friends before heading out into the night. It’s something we forgot to forget from college, a relic of a bygone era. It is a way to spend time with people you really like, not just the people you spent time with because they recognize you from school or work. It is an armor you put on before heading out to the dark bars or crowded parties. Smiles are brighter, laughs are louder, lives less inhibited. In the wintertime, it has the extra benefit of making everything warmer.
So we had a few drinks, turned the music up, and reveled in the crisp autumn night. Fall is the secret hero of the seasons here. Summer gets a lot of adoration in Madison; the Terrace is in full swing, the Farmers’ Market is vibrant and swarming with young families, and the city is oscillating between the sweltering summer heat of the day and the cool Midwestern breeze of the night. It is an excellent place to spend your lazy summers, watching the days float on like the sailboats over Lake Mendota’s waves.
But autumn is when the city reboots. The students reenter the city, the freshmen so eager and excited to start a new chapter of their lives, the seniors feeling the anxiety of their future saturating the air. In autumn the Badgers get back on the field, and the library is again filled with students pretending to get work done but really just casing the place for future bedmates. In autumn, the blood rushes back to the heart of the city and the world begins again.
After the third round of beer, gin or whiskey-whatevers and the second game of “ride the bus” we were ready to head out. The party wasn’t very far away; only a few blocks separated us from what was a comfortable get-together and what would be a wild mix of people I wish I never met, people I was avoiding, and a few people I genuinely liked. I paid the host and we received a red solo cup so we could have a few stale beers from the keg. Those cups were more artifacts from college we wanted so desperately to outgrow. We found an open spot in the corner of a room, and had our friends come to us.
As far as parties go, it was an uneventful, run-of-the-mill hour. We talked about how our jobs were slowly killing us, made fun of the host’s shitty idea of good music, and shared a few stories. We told jokes about the people at the party we didn’t like, relived a few of the glory days in college, and went about our night without looking back. There was nothing special about the party, but all of it hasn’t grown old yet.
The cup over the tap meant it was time to leave the party in search of somewhere a little darker and a lot more anonymous. There’s nothing worse than a dry party full of people you don’t want to know, so we flocked to the streets once more in search of a better buzz and a few more laughs.
Last August, I wrote about leaving the city I had come of age in and how it felt to leave all of my friends behind. As it turned out, I would get a job within the next couple of months, move out of my place in Minnesota, say goodbye to my temporary roommates (Mom and Dad), zip down I-94 and start a new life in my old town.
Now it’s almost one year later. Time flies, and I find myself thinking about how much movement happens in August and how much change occurs before the leaves turn shades of orange and red in this beautiful college town. New blood revitalizes the city and the old guard is packing up, leaving and transitioning to a new stage in their lives.
For the first time, I’m not part of it. My life is comparatively stagnant, though not necessarily in a bad way. I’d be completely immune to the moving and shaking of the August rush (a new apartment with a good friend barely counts as change) but for the fact that some of my best friends are moving on.
It’s a strange feeling watching friends you’ve known for some of the most formative years of your life leave. I’ve gone through it a few times, but this time it seems more potent, more permanent, because the last batch of my college friends without jobs in Madison are taking off. On one hand, I feel happy for them, because I know they’re headed out to chase their future and become the types of people they always dreamed of becoming.
On the other hand, it’s such a huge sadness to see cardboard boxes packed with memories you helped create fade away, down East Washington or Gorham headed towards their next big adventure. Pieces of a “me” that no longer exists are in those boxes, pieces that only remain in memories and pictures and deep pangs of nostalgia. As much as I dread watching my friends leave, I’m also mourning a past version of myself that they take with them.
It’s weird to be on the other side of moving out. I know that I have a life here, and I’m very happy with it, but I can’t help but wonder what life will be like without being in the same zip code as some of the people I’ve formed deep bonds with. I’m worried that after they leave, I’m going to be a less interesting person.
Then again, I know myself well enough to understand that I’ll never be happy with myself if I get complacent. I’ll always be chasing fun and running away from boredom. I’m not friendless in this town by any measurement. I still have a network of people I consider some of my best friends. I’m meeting people I barely knew in college, people who were only ancillary characters in my life’s story, and we’re becoming very close. We cling to each other because we all haven’t quite figured out how to make new friends, and I’ve started to figure out what amazing people they are. I also work with some very cool people, many of which I consider friends.
Everyone will move on eventually, and so will I, and we’ll go through these motions all over again. And that’s ok, because this change is good. It’s movement. There’s really nothing to worry about, because it’s all part of life. I can take solace in the fact that wherever my college friends are, and whatever they do, we’re inextricably linked to a particular time and place together. We’ll carry those memories with us, and they’ll help shape who we become.
So here’s to old friends dispersed across the country, starting new lives and starting over. For now it’s so long and goodbye, but I have a feeling our paths are bound to cross again. My couch is always open.
I generally save this blog for whole pieces and ideas fully realized. Of course, I’m not fortunate enough to pop out fully-grown word babies all of the time. Sometimes, there are kernels of ideas and fragments of stories that are scratching to get out and I can’t focus on anything else until I’ve gotten rid of them.
I put these things on Tumblr, a blog format born for fragments. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s like Twitter but without the character limit and the ability to share multimedia. In an attempt to save these fragments of stories from being buried under quotes, Simpsons references, dog pictures, and Rolling Stones music videos, here a few fragments I’ve written.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of “Game of Thrones” lately, but even in the heat of summer I can’t help but feel that “winter is coming.”
Walking these streets and feeling the wind blowing at a cool 66 degrees, I feel at home. I can’t go out every night and revel in the drunken haze of a college summer night in Madison anymore; I have actual work to do tomorrow. But I can always take a ten-minute walk around the block and breathe in a little of that feeling. The job can’t take that away.
I’ve ambled along the same streets in the worst winter has to offer; I’ve felt the sting of sub-zero wind pelting my face like needles. I’ve experienced the bitter cold, and I know how to use the buildings around me as protection against it on my walk home. But I’ve also felt the same wind cooling me off as I escape the oppressive heat of my AC-free apartment in the dog days of summer.
It’s lurking behind every corner, glaring at me during the warm months. It’s a somber realization that when the world turns and summer becomes fall and autumn turns to winter, the wind is no longer an ally in the ongoing War of Life.
Even in the darkest nights of winter, when the snow rises and the mercury falls, I know that in a few months the summer will come around and places like patios and the Terrace will usher my mood back above freezing.
I’m from the Midwest, born of the North Country. I’m conditioned for all of it. Maybe I’m doomed to be a slave of the seasons. Because honestly, I don’t know anything else.
Thoughts at 30,000 Feet
And it doesn’t even matter who the woman fiddling with multiple pill bottles, going to the airport bathroom, and coming out jittery and happy really is. In my story, she’s already the cracked-out grandmother who can’t survive her 2-hour flight without anything less than a bathroom bump and an ice cold Heineken. I sort of envy that dedication to non-sobriety, even at her age.
An airport is the closest thing to a human zoo I hope our society ever concocts. An airport is Mecca for people-watchers. Air travel is a look into the very best and worst of people.
Departures and arrivals bring out the rawest emotions; you have lovers, families and friends saying goodbye to each other and you have real grief and pain coming from it. You also see the pure elation resulting from the same people getting back to where they came from. Terrorism sort of killed the idea, but we all feel something when we’re watching a movie and someone’s racing to the airport to say all of the things they wish they said earlier.
On the other hand, airports bring out the ugliness in people. You see the TSA doing everything it can to keep everyone safe, but all they get is stink-eyes and accusations of privacy invasion by the very people they’re trying to protect. People think they have a lot more to hide than they really do.
Flight delays and cancelations create monsters out of seemingly-normal people. We’re so afraid of missing our chance to get home or missing an opportunity to be somewhere else, and we’ll lash out at anyone who gets in the way of it. As if an hourly employee working at the gate actually caused the delay or can do anything about it.
You need to have very, very thick skin to work at an airport.
I’m always surprised to see how conversations with strangers evolve on an airplane. You’re essentially invading the personal space of random strangers for a few hours, packed in like sardines.
Maybe you sleep. Maybe you dive into a book or work and turn on the iPod, if you’re like me. But maybe, just maybe, you start talking to this person. You probably start out making banal observations about the weather, the airline, the flight. Something safe, and something you can bond over. Delays and cancelations are good common enemies, so they’re a good conversation starter.
Then maybe you move onto more interesting things. I think the forced proximity and lack of exits causes most people to open up. You start telling this absolute stranger intimate things about yourself, because hey, why not. You’ll probably never see them again and it feels good to let your guard down for a while. You tell them about your wife, your kids, your job. Your boss might be a dick, your kids might be allstars, your marriage might be crumbling.
Before you know it, it’s time to turn off the electronics and hear the sound of the wheels coming out in preparation for landing. It’s time to end the conversation. This is when the weirdest part happens: you introduce yourself for the first time as you’re deplaning. Maybe you don’t tell them your name, because you dig the anonymity and they have all sorts of dirt on you. It’s odd, how people wait until the end of the flight to tell the stranger their name.
And then you never see them again.
The first time I laid eyes upon what would be my college campus was Labor Day 2005. I was on a tour to see which colleges I liked so I could start applying. Before the tour, my dad, brother and I wandered around State Street and eventually ended up on Langdon Street (Langdon is “Frat Row”). You could just feel the hangovers of the people celebrating the end of summer and the start of a new year.
Empty beer cans were all over, furniture was out on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up; the area looked a little decrepit.
And I smiled.
Right there and then, I fell in love with the Babylon of the Midwest: Madison, Wisconsin.
It’s been five years since my first introduction to the city. I graduated and it’s time to move on, and that means leaving my home of four years behind. It’s time to pour a 40 of Keystone Light (naturally) on the curb for my brief but memorable stint as a Badger.