(This is the Scintilla Project. I like that word, I like their prompts, and I want to keep blogging but stop WHINING so much, so I’m trying this. This type of commitment is not my strong suit, but let;s give it a whirl.)
PROMPT #1: Tell a story about a time you got drunk before you were legally old enough to do so.
We used to go to Mr. Henry’s on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was just a few blocks from my dorm, and in 1993 your student ID was the only ID you needed to get in. Student IDs did not have our birth dates on them, just our social security numbers. Student IDs from other universities were, it was rumored, not accepted. We figured somebody had to be in bed with the cops somewhere for this to work, but as long as it kept working, it was all good.
Mr. Henry’s stunk like a bar should. Hard-drinking undergrads and certain types of degenerates had spent years smoking cigarettes and spilling beer on the floor to achieve that stale, sour funk that set my shoulders at ease every time I walked through the door (I was a bar kid, remember.)
Mr. Henry’s had 2-for-1 pitchers, hummus served with plenty of pickled things (which is how it should be done) and a jukebox. Each time we went to the bar, we weighed our beer options very seriously. Should we get the Miller Lite or the Michelob? What about the Busch? I think I like that one better. Finally, the waiter — what a tortured soul he must have been, though I bet he got laid a lot — leaned in and said, You know all this beer is really shitty, and we just give you whatever is most convenient, right? We were humbled, our fledgling grown-up alcohol opinions made small. But fortunately, it turned out that “whatever was convenient” was also delicious, or at least did the trick.
I smoked Camel Lights back in those days. If you wore flannel shirts, ripped cords, and Doc Martens –and straight girls did back then, I swear to god — you couldn’t also carry around a girly silver and white pack of Marlboro Lights, like some Wet’n’Wild acolyte with mall bangs. (I had recently been that girl and was eager to get away from her. I bought my first flannel shirt –brown and yellow, at my first Banana Republic — before I even went to sleep that first night in my dorm. It cost me my whole first week’s “extras” budget. My roommate let me “borrow” her Docs and I wore them every day for years. As long as I’m confessing my sartorial sins, I also had a pair of oversized, ripped up farmer’s overalls that I wore with Docs and pigtails. If you’re still willing to be my friend, I’ll tell you the worst of it: I wore patchouli. The 90s were a difficult time for many of us.)
Back at Mr. Henry’s, patchouli was one of the more pleasant smells. I don’t ever remember sitting at the bar, or making friends with anyone at nearby tables. My friends and I were in our own little world. We played the same songs on the jukebox every night — No Rain, Brown-Eyed Girl, Only the Good Die Young.
My first winter in DC was wet and windy and freezing. In Ohio, we had bad weather too, but you only had to walk in it long enough to get to your car. My freshman year was an endless slog through slush, made even more miserable by inadequate footwear and scarves and coats that reeked of stale tobacco (what was I supposed to do, wash them?)
And then came the MLK weekend snow storm/ice storm/snow storm combo that crippled the city for nearly ten days. We’d only been back in class for a week, so had no real work to do — and no email, remember, so professors couldn’t really get to us to change that. We were packed three and four and six to a dorm room without cable or internet. There were brownouts. And nowhere to go –the news reported that all non-essential businesses were closed by decree.
But we knew one place that seemed to be above the law. Fortified by the thought of the steamy warmth and possible hummus at Mr. Henry’s, we bundled up and slip-slided across campus in the waning light of a below-zero January day. Cars were stopped and abandoned at odd angles all over Foggy Bottom. Tree branches, encased in ice, cracked and boomed and fell every few minutes. The inside of my nose froze before I’d made it a block. None of us could stay on our feet for long, and there was no foothold or purchase to steady ourselves against because everything was frozen solid.
As I always do in times of physical and meteorological peril, I thought to myself, What would Pa Ingalls do? If I’d had a horse, I would have killed it and crawled inside for warmth — but I didn’t have a horse, and by now the dorm was as far behind us as the bar was ahead. (Three blocks,)
We trudged on, and when we rounded the corner onto Pennsylvania Avenue, winded and chapped and snotnosed, past the shuttered TGI Fridays (cowards), there was Mr.H’s, lit up like the gates of heaven, bumping some Billy Joel on the jukebox. Those pitchers of Miller Lite/Michelob/Busch had never tasted so good, and we got extra pickles with the hummus. I could have spent the rest of my life in that warm cocoon.
But even establishments that are open illegally have last call, unfortunately, and so we were thrust back into the rude world just before 3 a.m. It was so brutally cold the air entering my lungs felt like sharp needles of ice. The beer made us more graceful in our attempts to remain upright. Another snowstorm was just starting, even though it seemed too cold for that; tiny soft flakes glimmering past the streetlights to land in a world of white.
In the empty, snowy quad, our voices echoed. We were cold and giddy and completely hammered. One plate of hummus and pickles shared among six people isn’t really a solid platform for the 18 pitchers of Whatever’s Convenient we’d subsequently put away. When I saw that open field of snow in the middle of the quad, untouched in the moonlight, I went for it. I clambered over the frozen snow piled at the edge of the path and onto the once-and-future grassy area, turned around to face my friends who were slide-stumbling down the path behind me, and shrieked, I’m going to make a snow angel!
Nooooo! They replied in unison. But the die was cast: I had thrown my arms up and back already and lost my footing. My spread feet slid right out from under me and I leaned back into it, cracking my stupid drunk head onto six inches of ice barely concealed by a scant layer of snow.
Turns out snow is not that fluffy.
The echo my head made was still reverberating around the quad when I came to, stunned. There seemed to be a lot more stars in the sky than there had been.
“C, what the fuck, are you OK?” my roommate asked, kneeling by my side. In retrospect, it was a little bit her fault because I was wearing her Doc Martens. She shook her head. “I’m from Miami and even I knew that was a stupid thing to do,” she said.
We were still frozen in the next morning when I woke up in my top bunk. I was always happy to make it through a night without my Sid Vicious poster* falling on me in my sleep. Everyone was hungover, but my headache felt more noble and worthy somehow. For a moment at least, I’d tried to forge a commonality with the angels. Why, I was practically a performance artist! I wore the goose egg on my head with pride that week. And the next. Hurt like a bitch when I had to put a snow hat on though.
*Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make Anarchy and disorder your trademarks, cause as much chaos and disruption as possible, but don’t let them take you ALIVE.” We all had this poster, yes?