For a new series of essays (and poems), we have invited some of our contributors to share a story, an episode, an experience that took place at a particular bar–a place that they hold in their memory for one reason or another. We hope you will enjoy reading these stories as they appear each Monday.
by Leah Odze Epstein
I’ll never forget the first night I walked into the Royal Palm—or the Palms, as we called it. “New York, New York” played on the tabletop jukeboxes, reminding me of my favorite diner back home.
“Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it, New York, New York,” Frank Sinatra sang in his velvety voice, luring me in. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” This pretty much summed up how I felt about college.
After a high school career of pound-the-books nerd-dom, I’d decided that in college, academics would no longer take precedence (if my parents only knew…). I skipped the first few days of orientation to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert. Then I came in with a bang—greeted by the Leah Ooze sign on the door of my dorm room (my last name’s Odze), complete with a dripping puddle some helpful dorm-mate had drawn.
No matter. As I’ve detailed here at Drinking Diaries, I got drunk for the first time my first night of college. I blacked out, in fact. After that, I got a little smarter, but only a bit. Alcohol loosened my inhibitions, and by the second day, I took up with our helpful OC (orientation counselor). Call him Chaz.
Chaz was a junior, and by about night three, he began ushering me around to all the best campus sights: his apartment, his bedroom, and, when he realized he wasn’t going to get as lucky as he’d thought–his favorite bar.
I was thrilled that some guy wanted me. A junior, at that. And he wasn’t that bad- looking, if you could get past the nervous twitch. He was kind of bohemian and I liked that. I still wore acid-washed jeans, God love me, and pastels. My friend Julie soon put the kibosh on my wardrobe when she raised her eyebrow and said, “Pastels?” When I walked into the Palms, Julie’s words really hit home. From then on, I’d wear black and army green.
Did I mention that none of my fellow freshmen had ventured beyond the campus pub? I felt like a pioneer as I stepped into that smoky air, as if it were coating me with a new aura. Pool balls cracked, pinball machines plinked, but mostly, the place buzzed with constant conversation and beer bottles clinking, as if life at this bar were a constant toast to the fun of it all.
Kids sat four or six to a booth, head to head, at beat-up wooden tables with carvings and graffiti. And the smell. The Palms reeked of the beer that everyone drank—Rolling Rock in bottles, mostly—but also Budweiser and Gennee Cream Ale.
Chaz steered me to the back of the bar. Next to the pinball machines, a bald guy with a thin braid down his back sat cross-legged on top of a picnic table, holding court and smoking clove cigarettes, while people stood around him. One guy wore a beret, which thrilled me to no end, because trust me, no guy in suburban Maryland dared to wear a beret.
Yes, there were other Cornell bars, but as far as I was concerned, those weren’t for me. Let the boarding-school types and the upscale snobs have their chardonnay at Ruloff’s; let the jocks and the grunters line up their penny shots at Dunbars. From the day Chaz took me into the Royal Palm, the Palms–with its “I don’t care if you love me” attitude–was mine.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating (but not much) when I say I ended up there every night, after every party, after every study session or to avoid studying. Any excuse, and I was there, sharing a pitcher with my friends. Afterwards, we’d head to the corner deli to marvel drunkenly at the Potted Meat Food Product.
I met my first real boyfriend at the Palms. It was the one time I walked into the bar alone, over the summer, without the armor of my friends. I can’t remember why, but I walked right up to this guy and asked him if he was Swedish (he was). So was I (half). And that was that.
Years later, I went back to my twentieth reunion. My friend Julie and I made the Palms our first stop, in the middle of the day. I looked at her and said, “Thank God it’s the same.” The jukeboxes, the dartboard, the ceiling tiles, each one hand-painted by a Palms regular. We looked for things we’d scratched into the tables, or that had been scratched into the tables about us. At the Palms, you made your mark, literally, whether by writing on the walls or tables, or painting a ceiling tile. The bar belonged to me and Julie and everyone else who passed through.
The owners hadn’t changed a bit–they’d already aged, long ago, from all the cigarette smoke and beer. They seemed happy to see us, even the guy who’d caught me with my pants down in the men’s room one drunken night, when I had to pee and the ladies room was full. I remembered how he stood there relentlessly, refusing to get out, despite my hollering, holding the door open until I pulled up my pants and exited to the cheers of the growing crowd. Still, I forgave him. The grumpy owners added to the charm, and life in your late teens is so much more fun when you have authority figures to push against.
We visited again at night, and maybe that was our mistake, because once the people filled in, we could see they were all wrong: popular people with their fickle tastes, listening to current favorites instead of classics–“Living on a Prayer” blasted from the CD jukebox.
The crowd spilled out onto a back patio, which I never knew existed. Julie and I opted for the bar, where the crowd seemed older than the table sitters or the people milling around, walking up and down the aisles to see who was there. I almost joined them out of habit, before I realized that all our peers were long gone.
We sat down, and Julie whispered to me, “Don’t look now, but that townie guy’s staring you down.” I glanced over at Grizzly Adams to my left, preparing to tell him I was here to reminisce with my friend, so if he could kindly give us some space, I’d appreciate it, when he said, “Hey, Leah.”
“Um, hi?” I said, not wanting to be rude. I felt like I was back in college, at the dining hall after a drunken night, when a guy I didn’t know would say hi and I’d cringe, wondering what idiotic thing I’d done the previous night.
Well, this guy knew me, all right. He turned out to be the boyfriend. My first love. Sitting next to me at the bar. Unrecognizable, until he opened his mouth. Then, he became the same laid-back guy I remembered, minus the frat-boy attitude, plus a long beard and a tattooed girlfriend.
Different-looking. Southern sounding, even though he was from the North. But underneath, he had the same essential nature. Just like the Palms, which, I reminded myself, still had “New York, New York” on the jukebox, just waiting for someone like me to come along and press play.
Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of Drinking Diaries. She also writes middle grade and young adult fiction. You can follow her on twitter at @Leaheps.