A forty-something friend of mine asked me a favor a few weeks ago. She and some visiting friends had a free evening and wanted to spend time in the downtown bars — rekindling a bit of the old crazy days of college, I suppose.
Knowing that I have the pleasure and convenience of dating a taxi driver, she wondered if I could hook her up with rides to and from her home, about 10 miles outside of town. I’ve been asked for this favor a hundred times before, and I never mind — it usually leaves him with a nice tip, and it gives my friends the comfort of feeling like they have a safe way home at the end of their night.
But this was different. I knew she hadn’t “gone out drinking” in a long time. I felt the need to give her some tips on which bars would have good music, which would be smoky, and how to reach my boyfriend or another taxi on a busy Friday night, when returning students were bound to be keeping them busy.
Her plan was to have a few drinks at home, take a taxi to the Autoport for some “adult” drinking time, then grab another cab downtown and catch some Velveeta at The Saloon. (For those of you not familiar with State College bands, Velveeta is one of the veterans, a cliché icon of Happy Valley bar music. If they’d gone to see anyone other than Velveeta, I would have been surprised.)
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When I spoke to my friend the next week, I heard tales of bar-hopping and Monkey Boy-drinking (it’s a pitcher of booze with a straw), of hangovers and slow Saturday recovery, and of a successful, fun night out. It was excessive drinking at its finest.
While my friend wandered around State College that night trying to recapture some of the glory, I met up with a girlfriend of mine at a party, not a bar. The venue was a private space, but it could have easily been a house or apartment. Bands were playing, beer pong was in full swing. This party had been organized by some particularly modern, responsible locals and students — both older and
younger than 21 — who orchestrated a system of cover charges, ID checking, designated security people and wristbands to determine who was legal to drink and who was not.
In all my years of drinking in State College — 13 of them, to be exact — I can’t remember a private party host checking IDs and distributing wristbands until these folks came along and started doing it. I am thrilled to see it. I can’t tell you that no one underage got their hands on alcohol that night (I’m sure their friends were happy to share). The system is as much for the hosts’ security as the partiers’, but it sends a message to everyone that the hosts care about responsibility and safety.
The “bouncer” — at 33, I am probably 10 years older than him, and taller — even asked how we were getting home when it was obvious we were in no condition to drive. I referenced my taxi-driver boyfriend (I’m getting my share of mileage out of that one) and he was satisfied.
These stories play out in similar fashion every night, all across town. They illustrate key points about the drinking culture of State College. There are people who drink a lot, people who drink responsibly and people who do both. There are traditions, relationships, memories, history and pride that serve as a foundation for the gathering of people any given night, in any given bar or apartment, for the purpose of drinking.
This should not be a surprise — the history of alcohol and the history of people gathering together for business or pleasure go hand in hand. Our local problems with excessive drinking come from the young, impressionable consumers of alcohol who, without a responsible drinker to emulate, haven’t learned how to get drunk like an adult.
Drinking alcohol is not a childish behavior, and the young students who do so are far from children. It is up to the mature, responsible drinkers in this town to show by their words and by example how to drink responsibly. It is crucially up to older students, who have learned from their own mistakes, to teach and help the younger ones so they know what behavior is not acceptable. It is up to bar owners and employees to stop serving people they consider to be too drunk.
It is up to the town, the university and CATA to implement the most accessible public transportation system they can afford. It is up to friends to get their friends home safely, to take keys, to call taxis, to know when it’s time to call it a night.
It is up to business owners and residents, both students and nonstudents, to demand that their homes, apartments and streets not become garbage receptacles and to not accept behavior that damages private property.
The culture of drinking in State College is a foundation for the maturation of these students and local youth. It is also a deep-rooted social scene that lives and breathes the “Happy” of Happy Valley. It is local businesses, local events, local brews, local musicians. It is not the Borough Council or LateNight Penn State that will curb excessive drinking with ordinances or alternative events.
It is the responsible consumers of alcohol in State College who have the power to change the drinking culture.
Sandy Miller is a resident of College Township and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.