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Coming of Age at Columbia’s 1020 Bar

Eight years later, there’s still no place that feels more essential.

My friends and I had one iron-fast rule about 1020, the bar where we drank nearly every weekend of our four years at Columbia: Never sit at the front table. Bad things happened at the front table.

Of course, we broke that rule frequently. There was the night that my friend Lauren threw her Gin and Tonic in the face of her then-boyfriend and stormed out. There was the night that I confessed my crush on Amanda to our mutual friend Emily, a booze-soaked admission verily dripping with self-pity that, it turned out, had far more to do with my still being closeted than actual romantic interest. Emily nodded indulgently and sipped her drink.

There were the nights when my friend Toby gazed through the big long window that gave onto 110th Street at the self-same Amanda as she stood outside under the scaffolding that never seemed to go anywhere. And there was the night that Toby, drunk on his own heartsickness, vomited into a row of five empty pint glasses, filling each a little less than the one before, like the signal bars on a cell phone. We all watched in horror as he stood up, stumbled to the bathroom to rinse out his mouth and, 30 minutes later, left with a girl that was not Amanda, one who, obviously, had made the wise decision not to sit at the front table.

In the fall of 2006, when I arrived at Columbia, 1020 still had a reputation as a bar for grad students in the early evening and for upperclassmen at night. The doorman sat in an old barber’s chair next to an inexplicable suit of armor, glancing occasionally at IDs. People tossed darts up front and played pool in the back. A sticky film of stale beer shimmered queasily on the long wooden bar and the green Formica-topped tables.

Foam stuffing erupted like puss from the ancient couch in the raised section at the back, which we pretentiously called the mezzanine. The movies projected onto the back wall came straight out of a film major’s textbook and the tall, gaunt bartender, Tim, would humor us by making Gimlets, which he must have known were terrible even if we didn’t. Gimlets, I had decided early in my junior year, were going to be my thing, which was obnoxious, but so are most 20-year-olds.

By the fall of 2007, the most popular underclassmen bars had all mysteriously shut down, making 1020 the only decent option in the neighborhood—at least according to an unspoken understanding that anything south of 110th Street was simply too far to go for an ordinary night out. Lines started to form on weekends, sometimes half a block long. Guys in backward baseball caps and girls in pumps and short skirts appeared out of nowhere—an invasive species choking the long, narrow bar like kudzu. People still tried to play pool. You got used to having beer knocked into your lap.

We complained, of course, about this new crowd and how you couldn’t get a drink to save your life and how the lines seemed like an affront. But those complaints offered their own satisfaction, an initiation into peevish New York nostalgia, compressed to the timeline of a kid.

Eight years after graduating, there’s still no place that feels more essential to those years than 1020. When I came back from my semester abroad, I went there to order a welcome-home Gimlet, sweet as a melted Jolly Rancher and acidic as acetone. I would go on weeknights for $4 Brooklyn Lagers—after play rehearsals, to celebrate finishing a paper and, more often than not, for no reason at all.

In the fall of my junior year, I would go early before meeting my first boyfriend, another habitué of 1020 who had graduated the year before, the boyfriend who had introduced me to Gimlets and who I kept secret. On nights when I didn’t see him, I would go to 1020 to forget our secret, and the person I kept hurting to keep it. I’d drink beers with friends who had figured it out long before I did, and who, with the peculiar generosity of the young, waited patiently for me to catch up.

If I looked at my watch at 10:20, morning or night, I would make a wish, the way other people do at 11:11. Sometimes I still do.

When I graduated in 2010—1020 in reverse, which has always felt significant—most of the friends who graduated with me moved downtown, into shitty old tenements in Chinatown or into nicer places in Crown Heights. Toby got a job at a bar in Nolita and we tried mightily to make it our new neighborhood haunt, though it never quite stuck. Two months later, I moved away to Chile, always planning to come back to New York. Instead, I moved from there to Bombay and, five years after that, from Bombay to Mexico City, where I live now and expect to be for a long time yet. Eventually, my plans to move back to New York atrophied and died—how can you move back to a city you never really lived in?—though I still occasionally slip up and call it, ridiculously, home.

This past September, I went back for the wedding of my friend Emily—the same Emily I confessed to that night at the front table—to another close friend from that circle, himself a 1020 regular, named Colin. The night before the wedding, I asked Toby and Amanda, together now for eight years and living in LA, to meet me for a beer. Green scaffolding still formed a makeshift awning out front. Tim still worked behind the bar. The front table was taken.

We slipped into an empty booth, the table uncharacteristically pristine before the late-night arrival of the barbarian hordes. The place looked the same and felt entirely different, populated by those grad students who, to undergraduate me, always seemed like a rumor. It felt like the grown-up bar we’d always imagined it to be. The taps weren’t working, so we all ordered Pilsner Urquell instead of Brooklyn Lager. I haven’t drunk a Gimlet in years.

We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we talked about Toby and Amanda’s own wedding, which they’d asked me to officiate the following month. The date they’d settled on—by chance, or so they say—was 10/20.

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