A friend e-mailed asking to meet me on a Friday evening downtown somewhere. In the e-mail she wrote, “Name a place where the beer is cheap and the nibbles are tasty.” The friend is a first-year student in the Master of Fine Arts creative writing program and has lived in Ann Arbor less than sixty days. I am a second-year, have lived here longer and have this weird title of “MFA mentor,” which means that I, along with other second-year poets and writers, orient and advise other poets and writers new to tree town. We mentors let them know that The Ride is free as long as you flash your Mcard, that TCF offers free checking to students, that Jerusalem Garden is probably the best falafel deal. A place where the beer is cheap and the nibbles are tasty is something I should know and know well.
But for this Friday evening I don’t know what place to name. I scroll through a website and flip through the Best of Ann Arbor list from our own Daily. Can’t find a Happy Hour to suit the occasion. If it were Tuesday night, we could get 35 cent wings at Buffalo Wild Wings; if it were Wednesday, we could get a beer and burger deal at Scorekeepers; if it were Sunday after nine, we could drink $2.50 pints at Arbor Brewing Company. But it’s Friday, and the Earle seems a bit pricey – despite the lush value of their Happy Hour discounts – for our graduate student wallets.
The MFA friend and I decided on Conor O’Neills and drank discounted pints of Newcastle, but I’m reminded that if we were in Long Island, where I have lived most of my adult life, we’d have as many options as Ashley’s has taps. Ann Arbor Happy Hour – and all its derivatives – is different than it is in New York, but it is still a social phenomenon that crosses states. These similarities and differences get me musing on The Nature of Happy Hour. I’m thinking it’s more than just cheap beer and tasty nibbles. Then I’m thinking I’m thinking too much about drinking, that this musing is what gives poets and writers a bad name.
During a Sunday Happy Hour at Arbor Brewing Company, a conversation with the manager of another local restaurant granted perspective. We were in a booth. A group of students slid pucks across the sawdusted shuffleboard – when a puck knocks another off the board with a metallic click and then a clonk, they shriek like children. We were among blazing jack-o-lanterns and dangling bats. Earlier that night, a man had been thrown out of ABC for showing a woman he did not arrive with a tattoo on his penis.
“I’ve seen people at different stages,” the manager said. She has waitressed in other bars, and she occasionally bounces around Ann Arbor from drinking place to drinking place. During the weekday Happy Hour at ABC, from 5 to 7 p.m., she often sees an acquaintance commence a sort of drinking decathlon. At ABC, she said, he is “reserved and quiet,” but when she encounters him at Bab’s Underground Lounge he usually gives her a tight body hug and insists on paying for her vodka martinis, and, without romantic intent, he often puts his arm around the back of her chair, as if illustrating ownership.
“He is such a douche bag at Bab’s,” she said. “I hate him.”
But then later at, say, the Eight Ball, his personality will again shift, just as the personality of these shuffleboarding students won’t be so shriekful and happy in the morning (as one of the female students dreamily watched over the shuffleboard, she drank a blonde colored beer from a pitcher, as she had been doing so since I arrived).
“At the Eight Ball,” she said, “he’s totally just kicking it, eating popcorn, drinking a pint of Old Style.”
I tell my creative writing students that character equals plot equals setting, but in not so many other settings such as Happy Hour are we encouraged to be, if we want, someone else or encouraged to unsheathe our “true self,” whatever that means. Either way we are often not who are in class when the teacher is speaking. It grants us Jager-bomb confidence and vodka-cranberry joy; it grants us the power to approach the unapproachable, to pretend we are a pimp, to just kick it, to lend a disproportionate amount of joy to a shuffleboard win. Sometimes they give us the confidence to show strangers our tattooed privates.
Walking down Liberty that night, as the bars let out, I heard the ghoulish, rubbery laughs of folks drifting from Old Town and the Alley Bar over to the Fleetwood. The guy who acts a douche at Bab’s could be with them, I thought. There was a drunk guy smoking outside the Fleetwood with a cape. There were jack-o-lanterns and the pinch of October in the air. Later I put it all together: Happy Hour is like that other social phenomenon of abandon just around the corner, Halloween, but without all the plastic masks and costumes in which we hide ourselves.
If he had the money, Joe would like to invite all of you out for a beer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.