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The joy of the perfect college bar
On a time when all you needed in life was a beer and a plate of mozzarella sticks.
As I was writing this newsletter Friday night, word arrived that Grant Wahl, one of America’s finest sportswriters and a soccer writer without equal, died suddenly in Qatar. He apparently began suffering acute distress in the press box in the closing minutes of the Argentina-Netherlands match, and died either en route to a hospital or shortly thereafter. He had been suffering from respiratory issues earlier in the week. He was 48.
I didn’t know Grant personally — our beats rarely overlapped, as I have covered a grand total of one (1) soccer match in my entire career — but he was always my go-to to understand the intricacies and the glories of a game that has inspired some hellaciously good writing. Recently, he’d been writing on his own for Substack, and was producing some astounding work, like this story of a mysterious soccer team that was also an Eastern European money-laundering scheme:
He was also the guy who, in the pages of Sports Illustrated, introduced the world to an Akron, Ohio basketball prodigy back in 2002, a kid by the name of LeBron James.
Grant’s friends, colleagues and readers came together Friday night on Twitter, and for a brief moment Twitter did what it does best: gave actual, empathetic human beings the space to tell stories and share grief. The portrait of Grant that emerged was one of someone who lived his life the right way, both in his work and in his connection to others. Spencer Hall summed it up:
Thanks for the work and the inspiration, Grant. All the love in the world to your friends and family. What a tragic loss.
Earlier this week, I was in Williamsburg, Virginia visiting family, and I did what I always do when I’m back in my old college town: I visited my favorite college bar, and then I got all sentimental and literary and such about visiting my old college bar.
Paul’s Deli has occupied the same space on Scotland Street in Williamsburg, just across the street from the campus of the College of William & Mary, for as long as I can remember. You walk up the stairs and in the door, and the scene is the same as it’s been forever — a long, narrow space, lacquered booths lining both sides, a grill and a bar — I still call it the “new” bar, even though it’s been there for decades — running down the center. The neon glow of the STEAKS SEAFOOD FRESH PASTA sign in the window bathes the front half of the joint in warm pink-and-green light.
Even if you’ve never been to Paul’s Deli — and it’s not a deli, that’s just a name, I have no idea why — you know what it’s like inside. The timeless decor of dark paneling and recessed lighting. Framed photographs of W&M athletes past decorate the walls. (I commissioned a few of those photos when I was sports editor of the student newspaper. The fact that they’re now old and yellowed, like Civil War daguerrotypes, is disturbing as hell.) Signed jerseys hang around the place. Look closely at the photographs, and every once in awhile you’ll see a familiar face. (Wait, is that Tom Brady? Standing right here by this same booth where his picture now hangs?)
This place is one of my touchstones, where I come to push pause, reconnect with my past and gear up for the future. Back when I was a student, I would order the same thing every time — a Hot Gringo (roast beef, Swiss cheese, bacon, served hot, and you bet your ass the table made the same joke every time I ordered) and a plate of mozzarella sticks (hell no I’m not sharing, get your own). My metabolism back then allowed me to burn off seven cheese sticks and a sandwich the size of a cinder block before I even got back to the dorm. These days, I skip the mozz sticks, and I need a big ol’ to-go box for the rest of the sandwich.
There is — or was, but that’s another story — a whole protocol to ordering your food; you waited at the high serving counter till the cook deigned to pay attention to you, you gave him your order, and then you waited until they bellowed your order over the din of the Black Crowes or Cheap Trick. “HOT HOLLYHOT HOLLY PICK UP YOUR HOT HOLLY NOW” came the call, and if you didn’t, it might sit there for two hours, or it might vanish back down behind the counter, never to be seen again. Who knows?
I remember sitting in one of those booths talking about the art of creation, and the creation of art, with a friend who has since gone on to great success in his chosen profession. “Sometimes, when the words aren’t coming, you just gotta sit there and keep pushing that ‘A’ key until they do,” he said, and then kept saying “A-A-A-A-A…” and jabbing at the table with his fingertip. It’s a simple and pure truth about the hard work that goes into creation, and one I’ve thought of at least once a week since then.
Tell me about your college bar, or your personal favorite hangout, if you please.
The memories run together at this point, but here’s what I recall when I think of Paul’s, and when I’m back inside its walls: Falling in love and getting over heartbreak, sometimes both in the same night, and not necessarily in that order. Pitchers the size of 55-gallon drums and glasses the size of paint buckets. White porcelain plates laden with artery-clogging joys like fries covered in waist-deep melted cheese. The sound of “American Pie” played as the lights come on at 2 a.m., the sign to drain your glass and refill it from whatever pitcher is close by. Bringing my kids there, watching with pride as they tottered around the same tables and chairs I once did, and realizing with horror that they were headed for the bathroom … where terrors always await.
We’re not the same people we were in college. For the most part, that’s a very good thing. Time dulls the recollections, but even now I remember being absolutely terrified at the world beyond W&M’s low brick walls, knowing how little I knew and not knowing what I didn’t know. Most of the reason we get drunk and make bad decisions in college is because we can, but part of it is because we’re trying to stave off the creeping dread of knowing that there will soon come a time when starting your evening at 10:45 and eating greasy fried everything well after midnight doesn’t sound quite so … well, normal.
But one thing I do miss about college is what the college bar, whether it’s in Athens or Tuscaloosa or Madison or Williamsburg, gives you: a chance to shut out the outside world for a few hours, to place your obligations on hold and live within the moment, to gather with people in the exact same point in life as you and make your grand plans and dream your big dreams. You have to leave the bar at some point; “American Pie” eventually comes for us all. But in those brief hours, lit by dim orange globes and the neon in the window, you’re among your people. You’re safe.
So that’s why I head back to Paul’s every chance I get, not to act like a college student again but to remember the feeling when I was. I’m most definitely the Old Guy In The Club now when I go back. Monday night, as a band was working its way through a surprisingly smooth mashup of “Seven Nation Army” and “Sweet Dreams,” a couple groups of students sat a few tables away from me, engaged in the same kind of deep/shallow conversations I did all those years ago. I loved seeing it.
I hope you have a place you can go to like this, a place to reconnect with who you were and appreciate who you’ve become. Yeah, you’re probably much older now, but look at it this way … at least you know your ID is going to work.
Stay safe and hug your loved ones, friends, and we’ll see you back here next Saturday. Peace —
I love hearing about people’s beloved bars, even if I’ll never make it to them. What’s your favorite, and why?
This is issue #84 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, jump right to our most-read stories, or check out some of our recent hits:
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What does “Flashlight & A Biscuit” mean, anyway?
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A Hot Holly is a sandwich — turkey, roast beef, bacon, American cheese, L&T — not a descriptor. I don’t believe I knew anyone named Holly in college, which, given my sense of humor back then, was probably a very good thing for all the Hollys’ sake.