When I decided to move to New York, I ended up in Westchester. More than a decade later, this is something I tell people with a self-deprecating laugh—Canadian teen doesn’t know how New York works—but at the time, the commuter enclave of Bronxville, just north of New York City, offered the kind of baby-proofed version of city living that I needed. I wanted to move 3,000 miles away to go to college in New York, but I couldn’t bear the idea of being dumped in the Village with the rest of the NYU hordes.
My small, safe college town, like most, came with a handful of small, safe bars that didn’t concern themselves with the legal drinking age. And Sarah Lawrence students chose their identity by pledging allegiance to one. Were you Mazzy’s, the too-dark, neon-tinged sports bar where hookups flared and fizzled nightly? Or the Spinning Wheel, the happy-hour pub near the train station where you could play Big Buck Hunter with the commuter crowd? Or were you the Malt House, an Irish pub on a quiet residential corner in working-class Yonkers where rowdy college kids and reliable roster of regulars mixed like oil and water?
The choice, when I made it, was entirely intellectual: I didn’t drink, nor had I ever been in a bar of any kind before. In high school, I was the sober one; my friends had all developed early, passing around a Clearly Canadian bottle filled with a murky mix siphoned off of their parents’ liquor collections and dropping acid in our elementary school’s bathrooms. I didn’t like the idea of losing control, and I pinned a large part of my identity on being the girl who held people’s hair when they puked and talked rationally to cops when our outdoor parties inevitably got busted. There’s a photo of me at a grad after-party in someone’s basement, surrounded by people drinking cans of Molson Canadian. The timestamp says it’s 3:08 a.m. I’m the one shushing a friend as she hollers joyously. At the time, I loved that photo.
Six months later, I hated it. I was in my second semester of college and had spent the last few months trying to jettison as much as I could from that life to make my conversion to New York (via Westchester) sophisticate. That stifling need for control had to go, and the easiest way to lose it, as far as I could tell, was to free-fall into Thirsty Thursday at the Malt House.
There’s a photo of my first drink. It was a Guinness. I’m surrounded by friends woo-hooing wildly; the guy I had a crush on at the time looks on approvingly. If that night ended as nearly every Malt House night did, it was with a crowd of us jumping up and down, shouting the words to “500 Miles.”
I went back the next week. This time, I ordered Midori Sours; the unlikely call had spread through our underage crowd because someone had heard from someone else that they were easy to drink. I’d never heard of Midori and had no clue that the sour was a fine and noble category of cocktail, and that one day I’d admire a well-made Whiskey Sour. All I knew was that Midori Sours were bright green and tasted like candy, and that they came in a faceted goblet that was way more elegant than a pint glass. And I knew they got you very drunk. We did this for two years, nearly every week: drank Midori Sours, danced, screamed and then stumbled home down a steep hill that felt, late at night, like a dreamily slow roller coaster drop.
A dozen years after we stopped coming here, I still know the interior by heart: the parchment-yellow walls dotted with hokey Irish sentiment and photos of Little League teams, the whiskey-barrel tables, the awkward angles of the bar. There’s an digital jukebox now—that’s new. Maybe there weren’t TVs above the bar before. But the Guinness is just the same, skillfully pulled and surprisingly refreshing.
This past March, I convinced two of my closest friends from those years to come back to Westchester with me. We went on a Thursday night during Spring Break. The campus was dark, and the walk up the hill seemed longer and more deserted than before. There were no can-canning hordes in the bar, and, instead of Bon Jovi, just the muffled sound of college basketball coming from the TVs. It’s just another corner pub, on a corner that seemed even more isolated than it did before. We dared each other to order Midori Sours, but we had our dignity, after all.
Two men in their forties sat at the end of the bar chatting with the bartender, who sipped from a large cup of deli coffee. Two women came in together, then another man, and each was greeted by name, met by friends in a ritual that clearly happens regularly. Stripped of the buffering crowds of drunk kids, I could finally see the bar for what it was: a neighborhood place, a community to which we never actually belonged, but, horrible imperialists that most college kids are, we built our own temporary society on top of.
We used to warn each other about the Malt House’s townies, who sat at the bar and glowered through our late-night sing-alongs and emotional crises. We thought they were mean and sad and below us. Now—my god, imagine your favorite bar being overrun by high-strung teenagers, can-canning to the Proclaimers and throwing up in the bathrooms? I wanted to apologize to each one of them. And thank them for being martyrs to the cause of alcoholic education.
They allowed their bar to be the place where countless co-eds learned to drink. There I learned that shots are never a good way to end the night, and to appreciate the tang of a sour—if not one made with Midori. It’s there that I discovered Gin & Tonics, my eternal summer staple. And there’s still no beer I like much better the first one I ever had.