The drinking age in New York State was eighteen and so was I. This was most excellent, for freshman existence was a trampoline of anxiety – new people, new expectations, new responsibilities. Fraying parental resentments were all that tethered me to the planet. I made some friends on my dorm hall and even made some classes. And I made the remarkable discovery that getting shit-faced drunk was something that could be enjoyed with impunity and regularity.
That time of year, the campus glowed. It got dark earlier and earlier, but afternoons were long and lazy. Light from the late sun came at such an angle as to set the nineteenth century stone buildings afire. The red and yellow trees burned like crucibles against a steel sky. We sat on the grass and watched them shoot and reshoot scenes for a Hollywood movie. A book written by a graduate was being spun into an eccentric undergrad romance. It was a bizarre and dazzling pantomime. Having the college experience dramatized before my eyes compounded the sensation that I now inhabited some amber-colored snowglobe.
Beneath the dining hall down a short flight of concrete steps, the campus pub, The Pub, lay in wait. Its notable features consisted of Utica Club on tap at one end, a jukebox at the other, and a cigarette machine in between. Even when things were hopping, around 10:30 or 11 o’clock, it was pretty sedate. If you were seen at The Pub later than that, it meant you had no money and no car, those being your most obvious deficits. Every once in a while, a pack of upperclassmen would swoop in like predators on the veldt, ensnaring freshmen women and, as an afterthought, trolling for potential fraternity pledges. After a beer or two, they would vanish with their prey, off to some local saloon, leaving the Pub to its utilitarian mopeyness.
Joining a fraternity was a highly desirable outcome. All life revolved around the Houses. My new best friend was a mover-groover, socially adept, and visually distinguished due to his grand nose and prominent height, 6’4”. His full name was G. Edward Halliday, but everyone called him Geddy or Geddo. He could talk to anybody and seemed taken with the idea of having a sidekick. Hanging out with him, I would get swept up in the frat boy dragnet, preferably by guys from Delta Kappa Epsilon. Deke was a self-proclaimed superior fraternity; half hockey players and half acidheads, dedicated to sardonic indolence and united by beer. With Geddo, I was always able to score a ride out to the bar much, much classier than The Roc. It was called The Shoe.
The Horseshoe Bar and Grill stood at the top of a rise, surrounded by half an acre of dirt parking. As we cruised up the highway, its neon horseshoe glimmered through the trees and utility lines. Half-drunk passengers in the backseat would whisper, “Shoe. Shoe. Shoe.” The bar occupied the first floor of a converted farmhouse. Ray and Connie, the proprietors, lived upstairs. They coddled the college crowd with cold frosties and cheeseburgers, greasy gray disks sealed in white American cheese. A mug of UC cost a quarter.
“I’ll have a draft, Ray. And change for the cigarette machine.”
The Shoe’s pool table was better lit and not as cramped as The Roc’s. Blue chalk cubes and quarters lined its perimeter. Cue sticks arced through the haze, threatening to bean you on the head or whack you in the nuts. Pool was not really my game. Occasionally though, a window of implacable competence might open, usually during the second beer, where I could win a game or even run the table. It was important, then, to put down the cue and retire gracefully. Trying to hold the table was a bad idea. Public triumphs were rare and fleeting, but that didn’t really matter because there were other distractions.
In the Shoe’s smoky limbo, conversation came easy. I goofed around with the girls who’d been stranded by the guys watching the ballgame at the bar or with the couples for whom a night out at a divey establishment was considered a date. I teased Connie, too. She acted like the attention was a nuisance, like she’d rather be frying hamburgers. She’d pull in her chin, try not to smile, and glow despite her makeup.
The Shoe was home. Yes. It was a little house with a set of watchful parents; parents whose sole desire was for you to drink as much beer as you possibly could. We had the place to ourselves most of the time: no hassles about being hippies or assholes or from the college. I don’t remember any locals being part of the nightly scene. Why would they want to?
Bars in Oneida County didn’t close until 4am. You could spend six hours drinking and smoking and playing pool and have change left from a ten-dollar bill. Starting sophomore year I drove my own car, a green Plymouth Barracuda. Not the muscle car that came a few years later, but its second incarnation after the original fastback Valiant, snazzy in kind of a pitiful way. I could get myself to the Shoe. I became such a steady customer that Connie and Ray began sending me Christmas cards. They got my address off my checks. To this day, when the subject of my drinking past comes up, my father most remembers this. “… and Bob got a Christmas card from his college saloon!”