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The Bar Where Nobody Knows Your Name

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: Courtney Balestier hits McClafferty's in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Hell is other people, especially when those people are in dance clubs. I prefer my fellow bar patrons to be relatively quiet (out of an unspecified bitterness, say); otherwise occupied by a pool table, board game or televised sporting event; and, ideally, seated. I learned this pretty much the first time I set foot inside Bent Willey’s, one of the numerous black-lights-and-house-beats establishments in the place that is both my hometown and my college town: Morgantown, West Virginia, home of the West Virginia University Mountaineers. This is how I found my way to McClafferty’s, the dim, smoky, apathetic standard to which I would come to hold all other bars.

The name may suggest that McClafferty’s is Irish. I’m not sure if this is true. All I know is that McClafferty’s is an Irish pub in the true American model: sticky and dark, with stale air and no expectations. It sits in a concrete block building beside an auto shop at the bottom of a steep hill on the bank of the Monongahela River, giving the impression that you’ve either fallen far down the metaphorical mountain of drinking establishments or that you’ve rolled to the front door of a very good secret. Although, actually, you’d roll yourself to the side door, which is the main entrance despite the fact that McClafferty’s also has, for reasons unknown, two front doors.

Inside, there are tables up front, by the tiny stage where my friend’s band did a bluegrass version of “Gin ’n’ Juice”; a pool table; some booths in the back room, painted deep green and outfitted with lamps; the requisite beer-branded mirrors on the wall; and, I’d wager, no more than twenty light bulbs in the whole place, bathrooms included.

Now, there are a couple reasons that a college student like me gravitates to a bar like McClafferty’s. One reason is a matter of relativity. WVU has collected “best party school” rankings for years, and, as such, the student body tends to approach drinking with a level of commitment that can make Mardi Gras feel like a Tupperware party. I don’t mean this as a boast, though there are plenty of Mountaineers who would.

During my tenure (2001-2005), there was an off-campus house with a beer bong that trailed out an upper window like a tail, ending outside at ground level. I watched obliterated undergraduates burn couches in the street; hell, I saw them turn parked cars over if the football team lost bad enough. (Or was it won big enough? The fallout was usually the same.) Just this year, during bowl season, a photo making the Twitter rounds featured a sign in a local liquor store asking those buying more than 30 cases of beer to see the manager first. Thirty cases.

As you can imagine, those of us who didn’t practice competitive levels of consumption just wanted somewhere to have a drink in peace. McClafferty’s had survived as that refuge for years, as permanent as nicotine stains on old walls. And then, a couple months ago, I learned that the bar and its entire block were going to be razed and replaced with apartments.

“It feels like a gutted place,” said a guy drinking Bud Light and shooting pool with his friends. He meant it as a compliment.

A death of any kind leaves the rest of us questioning our mortality, our places in the worlds we’ve come from and the ones we’ve built for ourselves. And even though I’m not one for glory-days soliloquies or misty-eyed backward glances, I found myself wanting to walk through those doors as many times as I could before they disappeared. This was a place I had loved, in that boring, profound way that isn’t articulated until something changes for the worse. I needed to pledge my allegiance.

I claimed McClafferty’s the summer after my junior year, after the requisite college heartbreak, before which my bar days were spent in orbit of the pre-breakup guy and his friends, exaggerating my interest in sporting events and eating mediocre wings at BW3. But then, I found my tribe: fellow writers from the university newspaper who shared my earnest enthusiasm (is there another kind at 21?) for everything from the Freedom of Information Act to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, who agreed that the best thing to do after spending all night putting a daily newspaper to bed was to go to a bar and keep talking about said newspaper.

McClafferty’s fit us: It was a quiet, unremarkable bar that we treated as an extension of our own territory, where we could smoke Camel Lights and drink Rolling Rock and talk politics and shoot pool when we got tired of doing those exact things at someone’s house. Irish Car Bombs (sorry) were ordered and chugged, shots of Jack suggested and dispatched. There were games of Golden Tee and Mega Touch, though I was never very good at either. On our last outing before I moved to New York, my friends sent me off with an antique police whistle, a rowdy game of truth-or-dare Jenga hand-inscribed with long-forgotten prompts and a dealer’s choice assortment of drinks that defied all the folk wisdom of those “liquor before beer” rhymes.

This sounds a bit banal, I know, but that was the beauty of it. Yes, college students drink because they’re suddenly free to, but it’s just as intoxicating to find the people who never ask you to apologize for whatever kind of weirdo you are, and then spend as much time with those people as you can. That’s really what we’re talking about here, isn’t it?

I’d been back to McClafferty’s numerous times over the years, most recently last May on my wedding night, when our afterparty was turned away at the door because I—still wearing my wedding dress—didn’t have ID. With this bridge laid out from my collegiate life, returning this March (ID in hand) was not, contrary to the Onion article my friend sent me entitled “Attempt to Recreate Incredible Night Out from Youth Works Perfectly,” a desperate disaster.

A couple superficial updates for those keeping score: McClafferty’s serves good beer now, local microbrews among them (though I will always have a soft spot for Rolling Rock). It has food, which it didn’t, and no cigarette vending machine in the back, which it did. The jukebox, which I mostly associate with Rolling Stones songs, is now a touchscreen that at one point on my visit was playing a piece of ear pollution called “I Took a Pill in Ibiza.”

But, mostly, it remains the cavernous dive I remember, minus the mental fog of too many beers and the actual fog of too many cigarettes. Some kind of ska-jazz band was playing—at one point they covered Sublime’s “Santeria,” which seemed about right—and there was a thickening crowd, though it was mostly made up of boring adults like me. In fact, I counted just six students in the whole place. I was puzzled by this until a friend I’d enlisted to come along pointed out that it’d always been us and a bunch of townies who didn’t want to talk to us. That was kind of the point.

“It feels like a gutted place,” said a guy drinking Bud Light and shooting pool with his friends. He meant it as a compliment. If it wouldn’t have been a ready-made kicker for that Onion article, I would’ve had a beer with them.

Or with the girls at the bar drinking gin and tonics and shots of Jack, one of whom told me she was so upset about the pending demolition that she was going to start a petition. (If that doesn’t take you back to your college days, nothing will.) At McClafferty’s they could be their socially awkward selves, playing board games and avoiding the frat-party crowd. Yeah, I said, acknowledging that there weren’t many college students here. “That’s because it’s a good bar,” one of the young women said. ’Til they tear the last brick down.

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Courtney Balestier is a food and culture writer whose work has appeared in the likes of Lucky Peach, Oxford American and the New York Times and has been anthologized in Cornbread Nation 7: The Best of Southern Food Writing. You can find more of her work at courtneybalestier.com.