When I was in university, undergrad, my brother and his/my best friends were in law school. The law school within Dalhousie University, Halifax, nurtured an odd institution, Domus Legis, Legal House, a sort of bar crossed with a fraternity, except it wasn’t a fraternity because it was entirely and enthusiastically a co-ed place in which the genders mixed and matched, all of us inebriated.
This was back in the early eighties. Though not a law student, Domus was my haunt, and I had some very weird and crucial formative experiences there – and astonishingly, in 1984, I wrote them all down, as if they might be of any interest in years to follow. This is a distillation of those notes. All the names except mine have been changed to protect the indictable.
Friday Morning, Coming Down
We were sitting at the picnic table, like usual for a Friday, taking stock, mumbling, trying to count the take from Thursday Night. Oh yeah, Thursday Night, the Big Night. They usually ended around six in the morning; we were all usually there to the end. All of us now had the usual crushing hangovers. Of course, it wasn’t really morning – it was morning to us, noon, one maybe, no shadows on the street, and light bouncing off the white clapboard of the house next door and into the basement through the dirt-level windows. The soothing tunes of the Melodic Unit were playing on the tape deck, James Taylor singing the original version of Something in the Way She Moves, it seemed like an old song then – such a sweet and honest thing, that song, flowing past us, over the collected filth of Thursday Night, crud and grunge strewn all about us, waiting for McGillvary to rouse himself. Sean did the cleaning, it was Sean’s job.
Moments like that, you wanted nothing more than to load yourself into the car and get to a McDonalds for shakes and those oh-so-Pabulum-like generic cheeseburgers, they cost about a buck, you could shovel them into your gullet and they just seemed to sop up the alcohol that was otherwise about to ooze out of your pores and tear ducts, best thing for a hangover ever. I couldn’t get my mind off McDonalds. Some guys figured beer, have another beer, take the edge off. Not me. Anyway we probably had no beer. The fridge was probably empty. We’d probably poured it all into the gaping maw of Thursday Night. So much more beer, now, to buy, and beer in large quantities is so very, very heavy.
Kevin had the till on the table. In his Kevin way, he stared at it, studied it, prepared to deal with it, which he would, but not just yet, no big rush. No big rush. Just take it slow. Let the feeling creep back into your extremities. Mike sat beside me. We weren’t saying much. Kevin rubbed his eyes. I played with an empty beer cup. If you take a plastic 12 oz. beer cup and cut it from the lip to the base in four equal segments, you can invert it, push on the base, and make it bounce up and down in a very pleasing manner.
Mike asked of no one in particular “I wonder who the McDonaldland Pen of the Week is?” He was thinking of McDonalds too.
Kevin looked up from the till, a little unfocussed. Mike stared back at him, detached, not withdrawn, exactly, but not at all interested either. Some part of him sought to explain. “You know, every week it’s a different pen – Grimace, the Hamburglar, whatever….” He and Kev looked at each other. Mute. I could hear them breathing.
Dust floated gently in the shafts of light bouncing off the white house next door.
Actually, we already had the Hamburglar pen hanging behind the bar. We were collecting the whole set.
“Oh, right…” Kevin reached into the till, grasping a thick wad of one dollar bills, all wrinkled and frayed, and crumpled and…damp. Goddamn things were wet. He started to count, shuffled the soggy bills like they were wet leaves, frowned, and put a fistful up to his nose to sniff. Sure. Drenched in stale beer. Sticky. Everything was sticky. The floor was sticky, your sneakers stuck to it when you walked over the fading linoleum. The table was sticky, your arms stuck to it when you leaned on them. The bench was sticky, your ass kind of glued itself in when you sat down.
You might as well hose the place out on a Friday. Might as well submerge the whole mess in isopropyl alcohol, but all we had was a tired mop, and a single bucket, and that was Sean’s job, Sean would sort it out, with any luck in advance of our opening again for bloody Weepers, which hey wait a minute, was in just a couple of hours, and didn’t we need beer? And where was Sean? But Sean had had another Big Thursday Night, so of course, if he turned up at all today, it would be early.
Kev had lost count. O.K. Fine. Start again. In a minute. He got up, went behind the bar, and opened the fridge. Hey, there were still just a few beers in there after all, maybe a beer would, you know, even out the strain, so yeah, beer. “Anybody want one,” he asked, without asking. More like the roll call in Ferris Bueller. Mike said sure. Me, actually, I wasn’t much of a beer drinker, high volume, low impact, I preferred rum, I drank buckets of rum on those long drunken nights, big-assed Domus double-dark-and-dirties made from London Dock and not a whole hell of a lot else, a bit of Coke, a bit of ice, five or six ounces of alcohol, chucked into a plastic beer cup.
You can live that way in school. Day after day.
A voice from behind the bar, directed at me: “You don’t want a rum, do you?”
Hell yes, actually, that would be great, no – that would be a nightmare. No response.
Kevin was busy testing the Coke fountain, pulling the levers. It coughed, making disgusting suction noises, spurting foam and gas, like it had a hangover too. Suddenly I craved an ice-cold cup of Coke, a great big cup, several of them, but Kev held up a glass that was all foam, all CO2, nothing left but gas, which meant another trip to the Coke plant for more canisters of syrup, and those crazy guys on propane-powered forklifts would be tearing around, and the walls would be covered with all those totalitarian slogans and posters about plant safety and productivity, how great it was to work at the Coke plant, I mean, shit, we just put in another hundred injury-free Coke Days, nearly a new record, what better thing than working and working and working some more for Coke? Those Coke syrup canisters were so heavy, and always banged your shins when you hauled them around.
Footsteps down the stairs. Sean? Sean at last? But it was Jason, way too full of weird energy seeing as he closed the dump down with the rest of us just a few hours ago, and agitated, and out he comes with “How many pounds in a Kilopascal?”
Slit-eyed, we looked at him.
Kevin paused. Now back at the bench, he’d started counting again, but with this distraction he’d lost count again. He looked up at Jason. Jason was illuminated in a shaft of light through the basement window.
He asked again: “How many pounds in a Kilopascal?”
Kev spoke first. “I’ll tell you, but first, you have to tell us who the McDonaldland Pen of the Week is.”
“That’s easy. Mayor McCheese.”
“Not the Hamburglar?”
“No, he was last week. Got one hanging behind the bar”
“So, how many pounds in a Kilopascal?”
“The fuck should I know? What’s a Kilopsacal?’
Jason looked around at the group of us.
“O.K., here’s the deal”. He grabbed his crotch. “I’m going to play with myself. I’m going to play with myself, and I’m gonna make you watch, until one of you guys tells me the answer”.
I could still hear breathing.
“I mean it.”
Kevin started in again, counting. Jason looked at us sitting there. Gut check time. He actually went through the motions for a few seconds, but nobody said anything, and he sat down, finally, resigned; so we all sat around the picnic table looking blankly at each other. Marine Iguana probably look at each other in much the same way as they bake themselves on the rocks and contemplate another chilling foray into the cold ocean around the Galapagos to forage for yet another meagre seaweed dinner.
“I’m surprised one of you bright boys doesn’t know,” Jason offered, “that a Kilopascal is a metric measure of air pressure, like our more familiar pound-per-square inch. My tires are low out there, and all I have is this metric gauge marked out in Kilopascals, but the tires are rated at PSI….”
Kevin: “Another metric-related fiasco.”
Jason (sizing up the till): “So what’s the take?”
“Dunno, still counting. Six hundred maybe.”
“Not bad”. Jason thought for a minute, as Kevin stared at the two dollar bills. Six hundred was a respectable take. Money was coming in at a fair clip. Jason was the Domus accountant, and was helping Mike run a tighter ship, while the bar ran at enough of a profit to support regular payments in a scheme worked out to retire a huge debt to the Bar Services arm of the student union, who had previously supplied the Dome with about 6000 cubic yards of beer without getting paid. Nobody could really say where the money had gone, not for sure, you understand, I mean, oh sure, the previous generation of Domus house and bar managers had lived awfully well for students, what with trips to the States to see the Rolling Stones and all, but nobody was keeping any books back then, and all we had were blank stubs in a cheque book, and $15,000 in the hole may have been res ipsa loquiter to us, but what were you going to do?
Anyway, that was last year. Mike was bar manager now, and Domus was operating on a paying basis, Bar Services was getting its money back, everybody was being responsible. We were in simultaneous breach of about seventy applicable liquor, public safety, and occupational health and safety statutes; we were in open and notorious breach of our liquor licence; we certainly served under-age drinkers, just on the percentages; it was a safe bet that the Criminal Code and the Narcotics Control Act figured into the mix somewhere; but dammit, we made our payments.
Jason went behind the bar, opened the fridge, pulled out a beer, reconsidered – he wasn’t that chipper yet – and left it on the bar. Turning to the Coke fountain, he tried to pour himself a soft drink, but of course all he got was a big cup of aerated foam. He cursed and picked up the beer again. He really didn’t want the frigging thing. Maybe a bag of chips?
“Any Smoky Bacon left?” There were not. I had eaten them all. O.K., maybe some hard candy, we usually stocked some kind of glucose-fructose confection.
“Where are the Dino-Sour Eggs?”
“Who besides me is eating those things?”
“Graeme. He’s had dozens.” It was true. I loved them. They were about the size of a golf ball, pure chemical sugar, and when you got to their soft insides, they were so full of sucrose/glucose/fructose and artificial fruit flavour with malic acid that you saw white light when you bit into them.
So, fine, no Dino-Sours. Looking around now for anything to eat, Jason’s eyes lingered briefly on a plastic container sitting on the bar, full of gelatinous, multi-coloured rodents. They were called “Gum Mice”. They were chewy like Number Three Industrial Washers. They stopped up your works. Thwarted, now, Jason grabbed the discarded beer and popped the cap.
No chips, no candy bars, no Dino-Sours, it all added up to another trip to the wholesaler for the boxes upon boxes of junk food needed to keep our crazed alcoholic patrons from ripping each other’s arms off for sustenance when they got so hungry in the early morning hours. About the only thing they wouldn’t eat were these pickled eggs that we kept in a jar that had been handed down through generations of Domus bartenders, nobody even knew how old they were. At least fifteen years old. Cordon Bleu Pickled Eggs. They can’t go bad, you see. They can sit there for a century. The label on the jar had faded away to near illegibility. A pair of wiener tongs rested nearby, kind of like the keys that open the safe that holds the launch codes – there just in case they’re needed some day. That day came, once, only once: there was some guy wall-eyed enough to give them a go, and the bartender reached in with the tongs and plucked the puckered egg out of the green brine, and handed the tongs to buddy, who popped it in his mouth, chewed, and then, through a mouthful of embalmed eggy meat, noted, sort of matter-of-fact, “this is not good.”
Mike looked around the bar and released a small sigh. It was a terrible downer in the daylight, this shitty little basement, dirty, small, claustrophobic, its six-foot ceiling seeming even lower than it was when you were hung over, which you always were, because every night the mood would change, and we’d be back for another round with our favourite songs blasting over the huge speakers, everything we needed there for the taking until the sun came up again. All of that awaited us tonight, again, but for now, Mike was looking at the stacks of empty two-fours piled up behind the bar. A big stack, which meant another trip to the bottle exchange, which was good, because the return money was a perq to the bar manager, to Mike, and bad, because there were so many flats of empty bottles, and he was so very tired all of a sudden. He thought of all the classes he was supposed to be attending; he was missing one right now, what was it on a Friday, Wills? Admin.? Admiralty? There were papers to write too, and they could go fuck themselves along with the classes, and all those course summaries he was supposed to be preparing, which were such a waste of time when you could just borrow someone else’s, and law school was such a waste of time…
Soon enough it would be time for exams, and the all-nighters, and fuck the law – and fuck this filthy little basement bar, and God especially fuck all the assholes who made such a mess of it every night, and the lousy tips they left every night, and fuck Sean McGillvary, first on general principles, and second for not getting up to clean this stale and sticky little toilet bowl.
There was a night behind the bar when Mike got angry enough at this crew of third-year A-holes who were bugging him that he just burst out with “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” (pointing to each in turn) “and fuck this place”, upon which he pulled his night’s earnings out of his pocket (Tips Is All We Get!) and tore the bills into shreds, throwing it all into the air like confetti.
Jason called it the Big Rebuttal.
Back when it all started, maybe his boiling point had been a little higher, but now, at the end of his own third year, everything was pretty close to being too fucking much. Law school was probably the worst disappointment of his young life. Mike had wanted to go to law school since he was in junior high school, and all those years waiting to get in he never figured it would be like this. Boring. Arcane. Unprincipled. Some kind of freaking lottery between you and your grades, with 100% finals and a bell curve wrought out of the subjective preferences of teachers who couldn’t grade any better than they could teach. All so you could one day become a lawyer – a lawyer. What a thing to look forward to! So suddenly he was an indifferent student, which was new, he’d always been a great student, Kevin too, they’d both graduated First Class Honours out of the Poli. Sci. Department before crossing the campus to take the next logical step, but then, this had happened.
Not at first. At first it was full commitment, spare no effort; I remember Mike and Kev studying together at our place for first year exams, leaving them in a room full of paper at night and finding them still there in the morning. They were really trying. Doing the summaries. Reading the cases. Mike put case briefs for his torts course on little index cards he stored in a plastic recipe box, and labeled it “Mike’s Tort Box”, while Kevin drew up complex flow charts showing the relationships between given contract problems and the cases and doctrines that solved them. Somebody claiming damages for something the poor slob on the hook could never have anticipated would arise? Follow the dotted line to “Remoteness”, thence to the decision in Hadley v. Baxendale. Somebody suing over an advertisement that claimed amazing, implausible things for a product that couldn’t possibly deliver? An arrow led to “Mere Puffery”, thence to Carbolic Smoke Ball.
They crammed. They fired questions back and forth. Morning comes, and it’s off to a 100% final exam, then do it all again, every second day, six times.
Out of all this came nothing. Grades in the “C” range. What you’d get if you didn’t even try. What they did get when they didn’t even try. The bell curve tolls for thee.
Still, there were other things to do, once you were kicking around the law school. Other diversions. Until, no way around it, three years had gone by.
Footsteps above. The old floor was creaking. Sean was stirring at last. Mike looked towards the entrance, waiting for him to arrive, his face expressionless.