Read Assistant Opinions Editor Sarah Shearer’s counterpoint column here.
Like most Pitt students of age, I only really have a hazy recollection — at best —of going to Peter’s Pub on my 21st birthday last summer.
It was late May, and the usually jammed upper dance floor was a fraction less busy than normal. My group of friends and I commanded a corner of the floor, jumping around to our hearts’ content. I wore a felt Viking hat in honor of my birthday — I had just downed a Panther Bomb and a flaming shot of something strong, and I was ready to dance it off.
Bars, pubs and restaurants hawking alcohol crowd the map of Oakland, and the college kids they’re here to entice can probably tell you story after story about each. Whether it’s the tight-knit clientele and intimate atmosphere of Gene’s Place, the raucous karaoke and pickle shots at Garage Door or the classic college bar vibe and social atmosphere at Hemingway’s Cafe, the watering holes around Pitt’s campus each holds a different place in a 21-year-old local’s imagination.
Saving money can be a powerful prerogative for college students, many of whom would prefer not to pay up for a night out and just stay in with friends instead. My salary as opinions editor of The Pitt News certainly hasn’t made it too hard for me to identify with that struggle. But for all the draws of staying in, frequenting the bars around campus has been an experience that’s about more than simply getting drinks.
Although my legal drinking career hasn’t yet lasted more than several months, since last May, some of the most memorable sights and sounds I’ve taken in since coming to college have been at 21-plus establishments. Before the beginning of my last semester, for example, I hadn’t even heard of P Town, a bar just beyond Oakland’s northern border into Bloomfield. But as graduation nears, the pub’s frequent Italo-disco-themed dance parties have become an important element of my weekends.
Donning brightly patterned button-ups tinged with neon, I found the perfect place to appreciate cheesy early ’80s disco with my friends — we haven’t missed a Saturday night sipping mixed drinks on the dance floor under the red and purple lights since January. Of course, it’s still fun to return to the second floor at Peter’s, but sometimes you just want something else.
Other times, the standard option is exactly what you need. Hemingway’s on Forbes Avenue directly below the Litchfield Towers has always had its allures: as first years walking past it on the weekends on the way to sketchy South Oakland addresses years ago, we might have looked enviously at the warmth of friends meeting each other and a seemingly impossible number of bodies between the bar and the bannister, each bearing a brightly colored pitcher. Its aura only increased for me as time went on and I approached 21 — one of the travails of beginning work as an editor last spring at The Pitt News was being forced to stay behind as older editors headed down to enjoy a drink at Hems.
Since gaining access to its sticky tables and harshly lit backroom, I’d have thought the bar would have lost some of its mystical shine and glow. It is still hard to deal with the obnoxious crowds Thursday nights, but for all its imperfections, Hems has been the place my friends’ lives and mine have played out over the past year. Whether it’s my roommate’s bizarre appreciation for the ceiling fan in the men’s room, “Lady and the Tramp” reenactments with shot pitcher gummy worms or late-night hangouts with co-workers, Hemingway’s is a tangible presence in my memories of college — and one I’m that better for.
Memories at Hems form a strand connecting younger and older classes of Pitt students, but other watering holes around the neighborhood are more ephemeral and feel as if they’re just for one group of graduates. Such was the fate of Pub Underground on Atwood Street, which held the distinction, naturally enough, of being the only bar below ground level in Oakland when it was in operation.
Pub Underground, which for a time went by the name of the “Hidden Pub,” represented a peculiar moment and aspect of my life, as well as those of the people around me. My strongest recollection of the pub was attending a set there last fall performed by a student band made up of acquaintances of mine. The air was thick, the drinks subpar and — in what’s a pretty obvious pattern — the open spaces packed to the walls with boozed-up undergrads.
But for all the physically unpleasant aspects of the grotto-like surroundings, the feeling was less one of annoyance than of pride. The friends I had come with to watch the performance and I were in the midst of something truly important happening — we were witnessing the cultural life of our class taking place right before our eyes.
Other, newer spots, such as the Thirsty Scholar on Fifth Avenue or the Panther House Bar and Grill opposite Bootleggers on Semple Street, have yet to claim their spot in the Oakland firmament and in our memories. But even at the Thirsty Scholar, the promise of spotting a familiar face you haven’t seen in too long complements the friendly, eager-to-please atmosphere that’s still coming into being. Plus, $3 mixed drinks don’t hurt to turn a space into a special hangout.
Staying in can undoubtedly have its benefits. The sheer amount of noise at any one of the bars just listed might be enough to give you a headache if you haven’t downed several shots to establish a baseline buzz. And there’s no reason to go out every Friday night.
But if I’m being honest, I think I was at my happiest during this ball of stress of a year when I walked into Hems on a weekend night only to hear my name called out by other patrons around the bar. Sure, there are jerks everywhere — but how is that any different from any other place where humans interact with each other?
College bars — especially the ones that stand in our midst — hold a certain sentimental value. Much of my social life during the past year has taken place within the walls of a few drinking establishments, and I find it hard to believe I’ll soon forget the names etched above their doors. So don’t think of Hems and Peter’s just as places to get trashed. Think of them as pieces of home.