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The College Bar as Fleeting Fantasy

What does the bar by which we judge all other bars look like today? In “Deep Dive,” we send writers back to their college haunts to find out what treasures they still hold. Up now: Brett Williams on the Cove in Gambier, Ohio.

There are places where the rules that typically govern our lives are suspended. Take, for instance, college campuses. When the dominant demographic of an area is a relatively homogenous group of 18- to 22-year-olds, the community becomes a narrow microcosm of the real world, with insular systems of power and standards of decorum that range from quad to quad.

At my alma mater, Kenyon College, and the Cove, my dear, dirty, now destroyed college dive, that suspension of reality made it seem as though the students who depended on the bar as the main stage for their social scene were the real owners and arbiters of its operation. Most of the time, the guy who ran the joint may as well have just been holding the keys for us—after all, the sign outside read “Gambier Grill,” but to the student body it was always the Cove, an old moniker from management past that stuck through the years.

The isolated nature of the campus and subsequent social dynamic played a major part in that sense of student ownership. Kenyon is an elite liberal arts institution of about 1,600 undergraduates in Gambier, Ohio, a tiny, picturesque village on a hilltop largely inhabited by school administration, faculty and staff. The College owns most of the land in its vicinity and all of the buildings along the short main street.

Life at Kenyon exists within a shimmering bubble rarely pierced by external forces or outsiders. Students either embrace the experience and community with a manic level of devotion or transfer out after a few semesters, overwhelmed by the closeness and smallness of the place. I loved it more than anything I had before or have since.

Within that hyper-localized environment, the Cove was the only true bar we had. There was one other restaurant with a bar on campus, but it had extravagances like waiters and a strict carding policy that kept it from becoming a real alternative. At the waning of every dorm room pregame, beer pong tournament or apartment theme party, the eternal question would inevitably be posed: Is it Cove o’clock yet? Eventually, it always was.

The Cove was unmistakably a dive bar, in stark contrast to the polished academia surrounding it, but it couldn’t quite break from the school’s grasp. While the dirty carpet and misspelled ads for weekly specials wouldn’t have been out of place in any other beat-up watering hole outside campus, its walls were filled with old classroom signs and framed Kenyon nostalgia. There was a kitchen, but this wasn’t a place for dining in—irresponsible college-style fun was the main order, followed closely by the beloved deep-fried mac and cheese wedges devoured on the bar. And, more often than not, the pop-up tables in the dining room area would be shoved aside and the open space transformed into a free-for-all dance party.

Even though I can close my eyes and conjure up the bar’s image at any given moment, I can’t superimpose its shade on the ground where it actually stood.

There was no anonymity at the Cove. Our dance-floor makeouts, arguments and bar bantering were all performed within the same small sphere. I remember seeing relationships begin, end and start all over again within the confines of that cramped floor. It was like the line from Cheers—but there was literally nowhere else to go except where everybody knows your name.

On the rare occasion that a townie showed up, they were treated as if they carried the plague, given a wide berth until they caught the hint and left. Having grown up in semi-rural Northeast Ohio myself, I was ashamed that I might be lumped in with the rest of the crowd. More than one night ended with me drunkenly cleaning up the bar after last call, explaining to anyone who might listen that I wasn’t like my classmates—even after I’d happily accepted their offers to buy my drinks not long beforehand. I loved the scene for how it welcomed me in, but I struggled to reconcile that acceptance with the elitism that came with it.

That elitism was personified in the new wave of freshmen each year who strode in with fake IDs and quickly established themselves upon realizing that the Cove was a place that had no consequences, as long as their limitless tab was open. They pushed boundaries over four years, reaching behind the bar and snapping their fingers for attention. The worst of them typically set up shop at the open end of the bar, creating the illusion that they could place one foot behind it in a stance of possession and one in front to duck back out once the time came to serve anyone but themselves.

When I returned as an alumnus, it wasn’t so much that I was revisiting an old haunt. I was reverting back to my college-aged self, caught up in small school politics and that feeling of invincibility and ownership. But there was one crucial change: I was caught up in the scene as it had been, not as it was—or I was—in the moment I returned. The place itself might stay much the same year after year, but as soon as I could walk in unrecognized, my insider status was denied. After telling a kid off for the bad behavior I had witnessed passively for years as a student, I was heckled by a blacked-out undergrad as a has-been who couldn’t turn the page.

I laughed off the insult, but he slurred the truth: The Cove wasn’t mine anymore. I had other places I could go, free of his fickle privilege: Germany, then Cleveland, then New York City. I realized that I had loved the place because it was ours and ours only—because when I was there, I was always with the people who had chosen to stay in a town with no stoplights and one bar. But I was no longer bound to that hill.

Despite protest from students and alumni alike, Kenyon closed the Cove (the school owned the building, so the business was only leased out to a proprietor) last year. True to form, the student body claimed the physical property as its own, as they’d always possessed the existential concept of the place. And by the last week of February, the Cove was forced to an early grave after a group of students wrecked the space so badly that the administration tore down the building soon after. All that remains now is an empty lot—a patch of land so tiny that even though I can close my eyes and conjure up the bar’s image at any given moment, I can’t superimpose its shade on the ground where it actually stood.

The Cove allowed us to playact in a vacuum, going through each day without many rules or real stakes in the moment. I’m sad it’s gone, but it was lost to me even before the building was torn down. And that’s okay—better, even. In the end, it was nothing more than a fantasy on a hilltop.

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Brett Williams is a writer whose work has appeared online at Thrillist, Fusion and AskMen and in print in Inked and Urban Ink magazines. He lives in Brooklyn by way of Ohio, but he learned how to really love beer as an American footballer abroad in Germany.