Finding Valhalla

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Campus bars come in two types: dive bar and… Well, no other type.  Just dive bar.

Many a lad and lass has learned the limits of their cash advances, body tolerance, and friendships in the campus bar.  By design it seems the campus bar is a dirty endeavor pandering to inexperienced drinkers, rude partiers, and those girls who are OmygodIamsototallydrunkrightnow.  It is a place of wrist bracelets and campus security guards turned bouncer, slipping off wrist bracelets in the bathroom and trying to score free drinks or being hit on for said free drinks.  The bar is tended by an eternal and ever replenished set of regulars and is always infiltrated by townies trying to pass themselves off as students and townies who don’t bother and couldn’t care less and came to drink cheep beer and watch wo/men in the “flower of their youth” gyrate and occasionally puke from said gyrations.

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At first it may seem these layer of filth and unusual decor (lamps that don’t work but are always there anyway, light up Christmas yard ornaments, chairs and tables and stools ready to break or held together by tape are due to the operators being inexperienced proprietors, however, there is little way that so many establishments can operate for so long and maintain an exacting standard of of filth and worn fixtures if this constant and suspended state of disrepair were not intentional and carefully crafted. 

Grow’ed up peoples create these spaces too.  Dive bars are those establishments guarded by a devoted set of adherents that ensure that nothing changes, not the dust levels, or the missing toilet seat in the lady’s room or that the lady’s room and men’s room are the same room and there has not been a door on the stall since 1987 and the paint is layer after layer of marker, spray paint, dirt, body dander, nose candy debris, more paint, more dirt, &c. &c. world without end.  In the “adult” dive bars the townies dominate the room and it is the college student, having snuck off campus (always in a group) in order to totallycheckoutthisspot, that is in the minority and must mind their manners if they want to partake of the cheep bear and perhaps some manner of music that may or may not be on when Trevor finally arrives with the PA system.

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It is rare, then, when a campus bar and a dive bar collide, but that is exactly what has occurred on the campus of Rice University in a little bar tucked away deep on campus called Valhalla.

Valhalla is very, very hidden.  The residents of Gothem may brag and beowulf about how they know some Nonamebar on Avenue Schiza or have been to that one, you know where the mobsters used to hang out and some guy stood by a light and you totally went down an alley way and then found a bar where you were willing to pay $13 (1999 dollars) for a cocktail, or always go to that other one with the Ass Juice since way before CBGBs was closed down.  However, this is nothing to having to walk about campus searching in the twilight for a bar marked by little else than the glow of a lamp that appears the same glow as those lights marking campus emergency phones in most campuses.

The bar occupies the former smoking room of the chemistry building.  The building is one of those sandstone and brick edifices from the turn of the last century when all our scientists still spoke German and Latin and Greek and intellectuals and scientists seemed united in their idea to build structures that seemed as permanent as their disciplines.  They wished the stone lions or dragons and devices to remain for all time.  To be a stopped moment in time.  The door to the bar looks locked but behind this hatch is a din unmistakably that of the drinker, idler, joker and smoker, and prodigal and it at once opens and the dim hallway inside leads to the antechamber that holds the bar.

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That night a group of runners had gathered along with several older men who appeared as to work in the trades.  In the corner were to women who appeared to be studying and on the opposite end a group of students who appeared at least at graduate age in that position of youth before society demands maturity where one can still play Jenga on a Wednesday without social or economic marginalization. 

Sitting at one bar it was certainly recognizable as a campus bar.  The stools were to a one broken in some way and the bar clearly worn down from wet and use.  This was not a place the bartenders obsessively placed coasters under the sweating drinks.  I ordered a draft and was informed that it would be free. 

Free beer.

This was the final day of the manager, a very happy younger man who had offered up all on draft free of charge to celebrate.  Managers at Valhalla are sort of elected, at least that is the sense I got.  They serve a term of a year having been placed in the position by some dark and Lovecraftian cabal that vote once a term on the best volunteer to fill that position.  And so, this just happened to be the final day of the term of service and I was welcomed in with all manner of gracious hospitality and despite an empty stomach and having eaten nothing but coffee all day, I took full advantage of my situation.

I spent the remainder of my time there talking to all manner of people from graduated graduate students to campus gardeners and of course, the Road Runner club that had come there every Wednesday for the past ten years (or so).  Transplants and locals, townies and students, faculty and alum seemed at once there and comfortable in the grand mess, the great drinking hall that is indeed lived to its name as Valhalla.

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