I was black the first time I stepped into a bar. You see, I attended a University with some rather relaxed rules about public alcohol consumption: Pretty much anyone could do it. The rule was that campus bars were allowed to admit people who were at least 19 years old, but they weren’t supposed to serve anyone unless they were 21 or older. This worked about as well as you would expect it to, which is to say not at all. You showed your id at the door, went inside, and proceeded to drink until you were too drunk to lie down on the ground without holding on. Then you had a few more and went home. Still, by limiting their clientele to those who were legally and almost-legally allowed to drink, they were missing out on a key demographic: People absolutely not old enough to drink. So bouncers at these bars tended to be rather casual when it came to checking ID. They’d put a thumb over the photo and wave you right on in.
This is how I found myself nervously standing in line at a bar with the ID of a black 19 year old male. I had been assured over and over again that I would have no problem whatsoever getting into the bar and getting served with this ID, but I was nervous nonetheless. As I walked up to the bouncer, I handed him the ID and made a show of turning around to talk to my friends behind me, as if I could fool anyone that way. I needn’t have bothered. Thumb over the picture, the bouncer handed it right back to me. “Have a good time, Jamal.”
Once inside, however, my fears melted away. While my friends nervously scanned the environment, I boldly strode to the bar. “What do you have on tap?” I asked the bartender.
“I’m assuming that since you’re in college you know how to read,” he responded. I was six inches away from the taps, all of them clearly marked. I walked away from the bar, beer in hand, feeling foolish, but great. Really great.
Now that I’d mastered the terribly tricky buying-a-beer procedure, I took in my surroundings. Having grown up watching Cheers, I noticed a few ways in which reality differed from sitcom TV. First of all, there was a paucity of witty banter, and for that matter, a paucity of people who knew what the word paucity meant. Conversations were held at maximum volume and on occasion involved people throwing up on their own shoes. Second of all, no one, and I mean no one was dressed in a coat and tie. In fact, from what I could see, many of the women in attendance were hardly clothed at all. “Kick-fucking-ass!” I thought to myself. Cheers may be funny, but this promised to be fun, something entirely different.
Just like that, I began my college bar-crawling career. In no time at all, I could run down the best specials every night of the week. It was scary how fast I picked it up. “Sure, quarter beers is a better deal, but those are 8 ounce cups and by the time you get back to your table, you’ve spilled an ounce or two out of each. Little Kings, on the other hand, you get 15 ounces of beer for your dollar, the bottles are capped, and they pour ice over the open case so the beers stay cold.”
“Uhhh, that’s nice honey, but your father and I are wondering more about your grades.”
The first week of my freshman year, I noticed something interesting in the student coupon book they handed out to everyone living in the dorms. “Look at that, buy one pitcher, get the second for a nickel!” I went around the floor and gathered up as many of these coupons as I could.
“What can I do for you?” asked the guy at the copy center counter.
“I need one hundred copies of this on orange paper,” I said, handing him a sheet of paper to which I had taped twenty orange coupons.
“Uhhh… I’m not supposed to do this, but I’ll do it for free if I can keep a few sheets.”
“Knock yourself out,” I said with a smile.
My friends and I would then descend on the bar in force. One of us would buy the pitcher for full price, then we’d take turns bringing it back empty with a bogus coupon. Quarter beers? Ha! Nickel pitchers, that’s how we rolled! This worked wonderfully for a couple of weeks, then it all fell apart. “Hey, can I get another pitcher? Oh, and, uh, I have a coupon here or something,” I said as I handed over a crumpled coupon, hastily fished out of my pocket.
“Where did you get this?” demanded the bartender.
“Uhhh, a friend gave me his as he left. Why?”
“It’s fake. It’s the wrong color orange, see?” he said holding up a real coupon. “We circulated 30,000 coupons, and we’ve redeemed over 40,000 so far. If you’re one of the assholes running off copies of these coupons, knock it off. Next time, we’ll call the cops.”
Needless to say, once we had a taste of cheap beer, we didn’t really want it to end, so we decided that while discretion may be the better part of valor, it sucked-ass as a strategy when trying to get beer. So we started stealing beer by the paint bucket. One of the bars on campus sold paint buckets full of beer. Fuck pitchers, volume-wise this way the way to go. And what we noticed was that since a paint bucket took so long to fill, the bartender tended to start it pouring and then go take a few more orders instead of standing around with his thumb up his ass (something the health board frowned upon). And sometimes he wouldn’t quite make it back on time and he’d ask you to turn off the tap and take the bucket, a fact we exploited.
So we’d sidle up to the bar and when no one was looking, we’d slide a bucket under the tap and start pouring. A few minutes later, I’d yell, “Hey! This thing’s gonna overflow!” and nod at the nearest bartender.
“Take it,” he’d yell as I left a dollar tip on the counter. “Thanks!”
“No, thank you!” I’d reply, ever the courteous thief.
One time, some roommates and I heard about an incredible deal at a bar on a different campus, fifty miles away. The bar opened at noon, and beer was totally, 100% free until someone went to the bathroom or left the bar. Se we piled in the car and made the trip. Sure enough, you could walk right up to the bar and order four beers, which they’d hand to you without even waiting around for a tip. The first hour was filled with smiles, laughter, and overall good cheer as we marveled at our good luck. Sometime after the second hour, however, things started to take a sinister turn.
We noticed that there were very large guys lined up in front of the bathrooms and the front door. It was obvious that if you were going to be the first to take a leak, you were going to have to risk a severe beating first. Soon we noticed knots of people in the corner, trying to hide the fact that people were peeing in empty cups and stashing them behind tables. It started to smell. Several people risked leaving but were convinced that a burst bladder was better than a burst skull, and stayed. Women were severely impacted and danced openly in that familiar I-gotta-go style.
Finally, somewhere around the four hour mark, a lanky, drunk-looking long-haired guy pulled a bold maneuver: As he walked backwards towards the front door, fake shout-talking to some friends, he pivoted quickly and dove head first between the legs of one of the big dudes guarding the door. The last I saw him, he was sprinting down the street as large guys chased him, hurling cups of beer and profanity at him with equal gusto. “That’s it!” yelled the bartender, and rang the bell signifying the end of free beer. A large groan went up from the crowd, which quickly formed massive lines for the bathroom.
The free beer ploy, by the way, was ingenious: By the time the free beer ran out, all the other bars on campus were fairly full. People tended to stay where they were, especially since they hadn’t spent any money yet. What wasn’t so ingenious was the fact that we neglected to think about how we’d get home after drinking free beer for hours on end (and hours after that, as we decided to come up with a solution over a few dozen more drinks). We slept in, and in the case of one of my roommates, on the car.
We knew all the ins-and-outs. I discovered at one bar that quarter beers gave me an angry red rash on my face. “Hey, when was the last time you guys flushed out your tap lines?” I’d demand.
“Oh, uhhh, I’m pretty sure we do it daily.”
“Let me talk to the manager.”
The manager would then allow me to drink premium beer on tap at the same quarter price, since I obviously had a reaction to the swill I had been drinking. The rash promptly went away. I repeated this performance once a week for a couple of months until they finally cleaned the tap lines.
I knew how to sneak in through the back door or bathroom window to avoid lengthly lines, how to maximize my time at the bar (order beers first, then a cocktail, and as the cocktail is being made, slam the beers and order more when the cocktail finally arrives). I could carry sixteen quarter beers back to the table without spilling more than a couple of drops. At my favorite Friday watering hole, a basement bar named O’Malley’s, I started getting phone calls. If anyone at the school took the time to look at my grades, I’m sure they’d have sent my report cards there as well.
Finally, a state law was passed that made it illegal to change the price of alcohol during the day. This was designed to prevent binge drinking (legislators must’ve been at the free-beer-until-someone-pees bar), and this forced the bars to moderate their prices somewhat. Quarter beers, once profitable for a few hours, were suicidally unprofitable if you had to charge that price from noon until closing time in a college town. And so the binge drinking didn’t stop, it just moved to house parties, where no one cared if you smoked flagrant bongs out in the open, or ran around in the nude, or got really drunk on the roof, or prank called 911, or any of the other silly things that we used to do.
By the time I finally turned 21, I was burnt out on the bar scene, just as my friends in my home town were getting into it. “Dude! The bars! Let’s go!”
“Wheee! Overpriced drinks, long lines, overly macho steakheads looking for a fight, and we have to go out in the alley and risk arrest to get stoned. Oh, boy!”
But I still feel ridiculously comfortable in bars, every bartender a friendly face, every bowl of communal peanuts a source of snacks (not bacteria), and every TV large and showing sports. The main difference is that I can’t stand crowded bars. I’d much rather talk with friends in an empty bar than shout mindlessly over the crowd and whatever bullshit music they’re pounding at top volume these days. To this day, the best bar experience I’ve ever had took place in an empty Mexican restaurant bar, out on the sunny, blue-skied patio, three of my friends and I ordering pitchers of Margarita and oysters on the half-shell for what seemed like days on end.
It didn’t dawn on me then, as it did later, that the simple truth about bars is that you bring the fun with you, whether it’s some good friends on the weekend, or a bunch of nervous college students and their black friend, Jamal.