Early last Sunday morning in Athens, Ohio, the Union Bar & Grill burned down to the ground, gutted behind the facade. Students at Ohio University who were there will remember it for the rest of their lives, much like I and my friends still remember the night that Belk’s Department Store was struck by lightning and destroyed in spring 1982. We had nicknamed the site of that fire Little Beirut. For the rest of our college years, it remained a pile of rubble.
The last time I visited the Union was 2001. It was springtime and 30 or so of us alumni gathered for a weekend reunion of our own design, unsanctioned by the college. A few in our group played in bands together during college; that spring night, they played in the Baker Center ballroom in a private show just for us. Then we gathered up their instruments and sound equipment and walked to the Union, like troubadours, where they had been booked to perform that night. We drank, danced, laughed, drank more, stayed up way too late for 40-year-olds. In a year that would end up so tragically ruinous, that May weekend remains framed in my mind as a moment of bliss.
The Union occupied a turn-of-the-century storefront, shotgun-style building common to Ohio’s small towns. In my mind’s eye, I can see the bar on the left and a long row of stools, and then tables and the jukebox toward the back. Bands played upstairs on weekends and it was the place to dance after the Frontier Room closed and Swanky’s was too crowded.
The friends I made in college—my tribe—are still my friends today. Our group of 30 has expanded to 50-100, depending on the waxing and waning of our individual social media interest. In the years since Facebook has exploded, our circle has widened to rings of other friends connected to still more friends, effectively recreating that experience of walking down Court Street and knowing nearly everyone you passed.
Over the years, I’ve tried to pin down why this group sustains me, how we came to be. The best I can come up with is that we accidentally became a community of expatriates. Expats of our hometowns—from Cleveland to Long Island, we landed in the hills of southeastern Ohio. We found in each other our own identities. I can still picture a dozen of us crammed into a friend’s two-bedroom apartment during a frigid winter weekend. We didn’t study. We talked about music, books, politics. We laughed and created new memes—long before we knew the meaning of memes. The only time anyone left the apartment that weekend was to get beer and cigarettes. We belonged together.
In my head, I picture these friends tonight as if I’m watching a movie – the camera pans to each face and captures an expression, the camera lingers to watch how each person responds to the other: this one laughs generously, throwing his head back; she rolls her eyes in feigned exasperation; he talks fast and gesticulates madly, while she listens, eyebrows arched in surprise. I know these faces. Yes, they’ve aged but I know them as well as I knew my father’s hands, hands I held often and studied as a child.
The town is different. The Union is gone. But the town has always changed, just as we have grown. It doesn’t seem to matter. We grow with the same rooting soil and find each other as the sun warms and calls us out into the world, to each other, again.