In Kent, the culture is such that everybody – student and townie – aligns with one particular bar. They might visit other ones, maybe even regularly, but there’s always one they originate from. And in the microcosm of Kent and people who know about, live in, or go to it, these affiliations become a kind of a shorthand, a way of compartmentalizing people into archetypes that correspond to the bar’s reputation – the first of probably many subsequent compartmentalizations with which we organize the masses of people we don’t choose to get to know.
The Zephyr might be the biggest bar in Kent: three floors, two upper level patios, and a big outdoor ground level quadrangle that stretches the length of the block, cutting behind the buildings on Main Street and looking out onto Water and Franklin on either end. Situated in one of the remaining older buildings, its facade is made of red brick, and the big front windows have a big multicolored frame: yellow, red, green blue, all in slightly sad-looking, slightly faded pastelerie. The tavern-style sign hanging above the entryway says: ZEPHYR PUB SPIRITS. The front door is red.
The first floor is snug and pub-like, always dark: even the light from the big front windows looking out on to Main, somehow, doesn’t penetrate this permanent interior darkness. And this darkness changes texture too, depending on the time and day: on the weeknights and earlier hours, when the regulars come in after work or whatever else they occupy their days with, there’s something relaxed, almost somnambulant about the darkness: it’s whispering darkness, napping darkness. But if you come late, or any night when the bar is the dominion of the students, the darkness seems nervy, tense, thinning, hung with quivering networks of chance and possibility.
There’s a big bar that dominates, made of a dark wood, thickly lacquered. A molding runs along the edge of the bartop; there are thick gouges and other marks in its lustrous surface, and if you reach accidentally underneath there are occasionally sticky spots, and dried nodules of gum or paste or something. In front of the bar, towards the big windows, are a scattering of tables, and then right against the windows there’s a raised area: a stage for when there’s a live show but otherwise filled with benches around low tables. At the other, far end of the room, there’s a pool table, around which always the few regular pool sharks play – a fluctuating cast of people of wildly disparate ages and looks. Against the back wall, close to the men’s restroom, there’s a jukebox that is infallibly dominated by someone with terrible taste; and also a methuselan cigarette machine that still functions but is prohibitively expensive.
Lately (before the pandemic), I would go for a drink in the early evening with my friend M (different M). In the years that I was away from Kent and not visiting the Zeph, M became a regular: she knows the bartenders, knows the other regulars. She’s an attentive, maybe even a good conversationalist; She remembers the quotidian data of other peoples’ lives: their jobs, the names of their pets, the upcoming barbecue they’re planning.
Our goal was always to have our drinks and get out before it got too late, when the place would pass into the hands of the students. For me, it wasn’t strictly a function of wanting to avoid their particular clamor. I felt, somehow, inherently fraudulent; as if there were some procedure I had failed to do, or choice I had failed to make, that made any sort of membership at the Zephyr, any sense of connection or ownership with it, impossible. If I was with M, during the early evening hours, her authority granted me passage in; but I was only tolerated there under her aegis; and she rarely wanted to stay late, and so we rarely did.
This sense of fraudulence created a block in me, a distance that made the other regulars nebulous. I could never remember anything more about them than their names. This same distance made it hard for me to believe what they said – whatever they said, even when what they were saying was so mundane that it was hard to imagine anybody making it up.
There was one guy who said he was a lawyer, or rather a former lawyer. He said he quit being a lawyer and was trying to get certified as an electrician. He never disclosed, or M never asked, why he stopped being a lawyer and why he was becoming an electrician. He was always in transit, dipping quickly into the Zephyr in between errands. He had a wife who was hardly ever at the bar with him, but always out running simultaneous other errands in town, and he had to reconnoiter with her; so sometimes he didn’t even have a drink that I saw, or sometimes he left it half-finished on the countertop to go meet her.
When we left at 930 or 10, sometimes I would’ve had enough drinks to be lightly buzzed. Just drunk enough to be loose and loud in my talk, and so that I had to remain vigilant, to stop myself from smiling vacantly into space. There’s something inherently absurd about getting drunk and being done drinking and realizing it’s still that early. The night stretches out, flat and draining and desert-like.
We’d walk out onto Main Street and talk about getting something to eat. Despite the college town accommodations, during the week there was always less open than it seemed like there should be.
And then I would go home.