We never really bothered with the Blarney Stone until senior year. It was just another generic Irish bar, perfectly acceptable if the bouncer turned you away from the more popular campus hot spots, but otherwise unremarkable. Everything changed when my roommate Emily came home early one Sunday morning in September and told us that she’d just done live karaoke at the third or fourth choice bar at the University of Pennsylvania. From then on, we were there every Saturday night. My song: “You’re So Vain,” which I performed on the regular with a rum and Diet Coke in my hand.
Once we’d mastered Karaoke Saturday, we were onto personal pitcher night every Wednesday. And then we were there most Tuesdays. By winter we were Blarney regulars, and by springtime we were accepting the free Red-Headed Slut shots to which our new VIP status entitled us.
This year, when my four former college roommates and I were set to turn 40, attending individual birthday parties throughout the Northeast seemed untenable—we’re all so busy. We decided that our old Penn stomping grounds in West Philadelphia would be the perfect place for us to meet. So, we all said goodbye to our husbands, and the four of them also said goodbye to their children (I said goodbye to my dog), and we set off to visit our old college bars.
Fittingly, the Blarney was the backup option. We’d intended to go to Smokey Joe’s, the bar that is a self-proclaimed Penn institution, the main place to see and be seen from midnight till closing when we were students. I had gone there often in my underage college years, when my signature move was the duck and run: While the bouncers were scrutinizing Amy and Liz’s more valid IDs, I would whoosh straight behind them and run directly to the dance floor and get lost in the crowd. This time, however, Smokey Joe’s was temporarily closed for a health code violation.
So, just like in the old days, we ended up at the other bar, the spillover spot that turned out to be our favorite, anyway. Back then, the Blarney Stone was a mix of Penn students, Drexel students and West Philly locals—it was a place where not everyone looked like you, and the snobbery factor was null. The bar has changed—the layout has shifted, there are more functional bathrooms and the notable addition of Bud Light Orange ($3.50 per bottle) to the drink menu—but also manages to remain the same. The jukebox, now digital, still contains the same mix of ’90s hits. Rebecca did a spontaneous dance with an undergrad to “No Scrubs,” a song we used to sing to each other with the names of specific Penn students inserted into TLC’s lyrics. Amy put on “Too Close,” the best karaoke duet about getting a boner on the dance floor.
Despite lots of buffering from the bar’s Wi-Fi, we were still able to sing the hits, but it’s different when you’re not standing in front of an enthusiastic crowd of like-minded students. The karaoke stage was no longer the Blarney Stone’s main attraction, and in the age of smartphones no one seems to have the bandwidth to pay close attention anymore, especially in a bar.
In honesty, we, too, were attached to our phones. There were children to check in on, spouses to call, work emails to be sent. Sure, we fell into our same comfortable rhythms even though we now barely get to see each other once a year. But nowadays, our reminiscences of the Drexel frat boys who used to sing “How I wish you were beer” every week at karaoke are interrupted by anecdotes about nursery school and details about so-and-so’s divorce. Life happened to us, along with dry white wines and Netflix and bedtimes that happen in the p.m.
One thing that hadn’t changed at the Blarney: the bartender. A fellow student who used to work at the bar now runs the place. We hadn’t expected to be VIPs once again, but there we (or some of us—mostly me) were, getting red carpet treatment and doing shots like we were still 21. My instinct to drink whatever was put before me for free rushed back with a vengeance. So much so that after our night at the Blarney I ate a cheesesteak at 1 a.m., as all good drunk people in Philadelphia do.