“I want to go to college for the rest of my life.”– Asher Roth
abridged list of songs played at Tommy Nevin’s on Thursday
“Big Yellow Taxi”
After the second beer ($6.50 plus tip), I find myself shouting at my fellow correspondent an epiphany. “Nevin’s is a time machine, man!” My mouth is 6 inches from her eardrum, competing with “Mr. Brightside” and the shouting-along 21-year-olds who first heard this song in fourth grade. “It’s a time machine. You walk in here and you see people you haven’t seen since freshman year – you never thought you’d see them again! Meanwhile you’re screaming along with music you loved in middle school, which sends you back to that place and time. It’s just all so – nostalgic, you know?”
My fellow correspondent nods, but I suspect she hasn’t heard me fully. It’s too loud in here to think clearly.
“Oh yeah, life goes on;
Long after the thrill of living is gone” is a lyric from a song we sang at Nevin’s on Thursday.
Nevin’s has a touch-screen jukebox. It’s mounted to the wall near a double doorway between rooms, where at present dozens of people are trying to squeeze through in either direction. The bottleneck is a shitshow. It’s so chockablock with people that it takes 30 seconds to move 10 feet. They all look like they’re trudging through quicksand.
We’re pressed up against the jukebox, tapping and swiping away, preparing to spend our second dollar of the night on a tune for all to hear. (The first went to “In The Air Tonight,” as you do. When Phil Collins sang “But Iiiiii know the reason whyyyy you keep the silence up” I told a bystander to hold my beer so I could airdrum the BA-doo BA-doom BA-doom BA-doom ba-doom-doom. I can happily report I got my money’s worth.)
We were deliberating between ‘80s hits when a scrawny white guy with a backwards seersucker hat shouted at us, “Play ‘Africa’ by To-to!” Inexplicably, he pronounces Toto as an iamb, spitting the second syllable louder and a fifth higher than the first. “Hey! Play ‘Africa’ by To-to!” He did it again, louder this time. It’s the sort of mispronunciation that results from having only read the band’s name, maybe on Spotify or Wikipedia. The Boy With The Seersucker Hat* had not yet been conceived when “To-to” recorded the song, when the recording was pressed to vinyl and sent to FM radio stations and the term “classic rock” hadn’t yet been invented. And yet TBWTSH feels, as this reporter does, a certain fondness for Toto. Perhaps it’s refracted through our limited imagining of what our parents’ college years were like, and our best guesses of what songs were cranked from jukeboxes during the Reagan administration (and, relatedly, wondering what tunes we were conceived to) and now we find ourselves standing on tables and shouting along to “Fast Car” and we simultaneously feel so alive & in this existentially terrifying/sublime moment but also part of a lineage, a history, a tradition of participants in this exhilarating care-free romp we call College, but you can’t linger too long on these thoughts, especially not at a place like Tommy Nevin’s, because we know how this is going to end.
incomplete list of sentences shouted at me at Tommy Nevin’s on Thursday
“Life unwasted is largely wasted, I think.”
“I will die, and I will be reborn – just like Tommy Nevin’s.”
“It’s an Irish pub where a Guinness costs $7. That’s not an Irish pub.”
“They nailed the shit to the walls. The dartboards? You try to take a dartboard.”
“We’re one punch away from a riot, bruh! One punch away!”
It ends around 1:30 a.m., when an employee of Nevin’s, a muscular woman with her blond hair in a ponytail, stomps into the bar lugging a promotional beer-branded neon sign, presumably confiscated from a Northwestern student who tried to steal it. “Get your shit and get out,” she says to each cluster of students throughout the ballroom. The bar’s manager, Brian Davenport, later wrote a blistering letter to the editor in The Daily in which he “humbly ask(s) that you not make the nuances of the Evanston-NU relationship into a blinding neon metaphor by trying to steal from us because you don’t know how to decorate your dorm room.” (Your correspondents, it should be noted, resisted the temptation to commit a misdemeanor and further we urge all would-be looters to return Mr. Davenport’s property posthaste.)
We’d all do well to sit with the following image: a college student fast-walking up Sherman with a neon sign ripped from the wall of a bar operating in its final days. Unpack this scene, won’t you? Imagine we’re in a discussion section. Let’s talk symbolic resonance. I sense a few themes. Entitlement, for sure. Youthful solipsism. The incomprehensible terror to realize that, like Nevin’s, everything ends eventually. (i.e., We’re going to graduate, get old, die.)
We share the same fate as the dudes I saw lugging chotchkies that weren’t theirs, plotting petty heists, acting like the world was ending and they alone deserved the souvenirs. I hope they return Nevin’s stuff, and I hope they make peace with the fact that the euphoria of this place and time is not something they can take with them.
*Sounds like a Smiths song.
I went to Nevin’s for the first and last time on Thursday night. The bar was not slated to close for several more days, but ask any Northwestern upperclassman who inherited the tradition of flocking to the bar on Thursdays, and it may well have been the last night of Nevin’s life. After ordering a round of beers, my two fellow correspondents and I fought through the crowd to get a lay of the land. Nevin’s is a typical Irish pub – lots of oak wood, vintage light fixtures, neon beer signs, a pool table and of course, darts. “It’s an Irish pub where a Guinness costs $7. That’s not an Irish pub,” said one person we spoke to. There was also a Big Buck Hunter arcade machine, which was a tempting play for one of my fellow correspondents, but the narrow passage in front of it was choked with crop-top clad women. As a complement to their black get-ups, at least a couple dozen men were wearing suits. “It’s like a funeral,” one of my correspondents said. As it turns out, the Phi Psi brothers and their dates had rolled up to Nevin’s in their bus on the way back from fall formal for some less-than-formal fun.
If the turnout at a funeral is a testament to the belovedness of the deceased, then Nevin’s’ was the death of an icon – the end not only of an era, but of the potential for all the connections that might have been made between its burgundy walls, for Nevin’s was a place where people came together outside the clearly defined groups of campus life. We spoke to one Northwestern senior about what Nevin’s had meant to him. “It was a place where you could go and actually see people you know,” he said. “It was a common grounds for idiocy, and the closest thing to a utopian bar that I found in my four years here.”
On this night in particular, the idiocy began with this: A young man in a plaid blazer whizzed by with remarkable speed considering the abundance of human barriers, holding a wooden plaque. Following his lead, I saw him step into an empty hall where he presumably deposited the plaque, before plunging back into the crowd. It didn’t take long to figure out that a fever of kleptomania was spreading – everyone wanted a little piece of Nevin’s to call their own. And why wouldn’t they? For those students who came to Nevin’s only when it was filled with Northwesterners, it could be easy to feel that Nevin’s belonged to Northwestern nighthawks, and that, therefore, if the shit on the walls wouldn’t go to them then it wouldn’t go to anyone. In the bathroom, as the girl from the next stall passed me a bunch of toilet paper under the stall-divide, a girl by the sink area made an announcement to the bathroom at large: “Ok guys, it’s the last night of Nevin’s so take all the posters you can.” Outside, a guy told me that a neon Coors Light sign would be the crown jewel of the loot.
I was souring to this crowd when I ran into my friend from Wildcat Welcome. She helped me through a wretched existential crisis when we were freshmen, for which I will always be grateful. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. Then, laughing a greeting to the guy who grew up across the street from me in my hometown, I elbowed my way to the source of the alcohol. The bar was like a dock against a sea of thirsty twenty-one year-olds, the two bartenders filling pitcher after pitcher of beer as if barreling water out of a drowning ship. Buds in hand, my fellow correspondent and I made our way to the jukebox, where a vortex was spitting bodies out of a narrow hallway. There, smashed between several people, I nodded to the guy I confessed my crush to freshman year.
My fellow correspondents had their fair share of blasts from the past that night as well. People from high school, people from study abroad, friends of our former selves. Anyone I spoke to was a best friend, just for a night – so open to conversation, so ready to extend an arm touch, so generous with eye contact.
We joined some other standees on a pleather booth to “dance” and sneak a look at the crowd from above. So many young people, in an ancient bar. I thought of my parents’ high school reunions, invariably held in bars, and thought about how we had made it – we had entered bar-dom, and there we would stay for life. In the future, our reunions would be held in bars such as this one – always the same oak and pecked dart boards, though our crop-tops would be slightly longer, our beer pitchers shakier as we held them above our heads, and a longing for college days fresher as we realized something ineffable wasn’t the same.
As I left at the end of the night I ran into my freshman year roommate outside the bar. She was smoking a cigarette, and in a gesture that represented how much had changed in the three years since we lived in Shepard Hall, she gave me one to smoke too. “Camel blue,” she said. I let out a celebratory “woo,” though honestly who can tell Camel blue from Marlboro red.
“I heard you had a girlfriend in France,” she said. It wasn't quite true, but jeez, word really got around. That was the thing about Nevin’s though – it was full of people who somehow knew something of my past, for better or for worse. My friend from Wildcat Welcome; my freshman year crush; an old best friend; a guy who rode the bus with me in middle school – they were all there. Seeing them together in the same room, or even in a room with me at all, was jarring but also somehow comforting. As cliche as it sounds, we were in this college experience together, and on our last night of Nevin’s revelry, we could look back from the point of view of our last year, and, if not exult in our past lives, then accept the crazy, weird, embarrassing things we’d done in our Northwestern years.
I knew of Nevins. Who didn’t? I’m a runner, and by winter of my freshman year, I must have passed that fire-engine red façade a couple dozen times, if not more. And yet the student bar, a status it had only just inherited from the tragically deceased Keg, always seemed to me both elusive and mysterious. This had nothing to do with the fact that I was 19 and not only didn’t possess a fake ID, but had no clue how I’d go about acquiring this utterly ubiquitous item. I felt the same way about the Deuce, where I knew $5 alone would grant me entrance. These places seemed to exist across a threshold to another world altogether, one of sweaty crowds bathed in light and liquor, governed by hidden messages, handshakes, codes, and where people seemed impervious to or somehow able to avoid entirely the terrifying anxiety of the awkward silence. Needless to say, my time at frat parties was similarly limited.
I went for the first time on the first Thursday this fall, a full three years into college. A friend invited me as part of a mini-reunion we were having for the Medill South Africa program. I didn’t last long once they began splitting off to friends and friends of friends, but I came back to my apartment babbling like a man just given a glimpse into Jerusalem. I spoke at length about the sheer number of people and how you ran into all those students you haven’t seen since you shared a hall freshman year and that something in the demimonde lighting made a communion possible that would have been just plain awkward elsewhere.
Over the next few weeks, I returned to Nevins periodically. It was mostly at the behest of a heartbroken friend who needed a drink and whose grandfather was from Ireland. On those nights – except for maybe trivia Tuesday – Nevin’s was just a place where they served overpriced beer to middle-aged Evanstonians. With its fluorescent lights and buck-hunting games, it doesn’t even look like an Irish pub. It felt kind of dead on those nights. We were often the only students there.
Then they announced the closure, and we drank Rolling Rock and Fireball and warm wine no one liked, and walked down to a soon-to-be-ruin awash in an ecstatic enthusiasm already tainted with nostalgia. In a bar nearly bursting, I carved out a stronghold at a table in the middle room, where I sat with my best friend from high school, now my roommate, and that heartbroken guy, the closest friend I had made in college, while Courtney, the girl who invited me to that first Nevin’s, filled my glass over and over again with a pitcher of cider. Above me, the rugby team sang unprintable songs with pitchers in their arms. Around me, an odd collection of people I met, befriended, hated, forgotten, writhed in a sea. I drank and thought of those freshman runs.
People spilled out. It was too crowded. They took with them posters and fluorescent signs and hid pitchers beneath their sweatshirts, until finally one of the hosts wrestled a picture of a baseball player out of the hands of a students, and she announced it was over. “Out!” She said, “We’re closed.”
The funny thing about the fall of Nevin’s, about the looting of signs as stand-ins for memories, is that those memories aren’t deep. They are singular, and if they are at all collective, then it is in the shallowest of senses. This isn’t the Green Mill or the Cotton Club. It’s not even Paddy’s Pub. Tommy Nevin’s may be 27 years old, but it only became the student bar four years past and the extent to which the stolen signs of the wall hold talismanic value is the extent to which college life is transitory, a new breed brought in to repopulate every four years and yet able to make in that time or less a fountain of relationships and memories that seem, for a time, numinous.
Nostalgia undergirds most sorrow, and for those who spent Thursday nights there, something will be lost when Nevin’s closes its doors. But the concern that there will be no more student bar reflects an understanding that, yes, this is not East Lansing or Columbus, but also a lack of imagination, or perhaps a too-shallow belief in capitalism. Before Nevin's, there was the Keg, and after Nevin's, there will be something else too. People will drink, and when they outgrow frats, they will drink in bars. Prohibition couldn’t stop that, why would a single high-rise?
A couple weeks after Nevin’s sells its last pint, a few hundred high school seniors will learn they’ve been accepted early decision to Northwestern University. In the fall, they’ll come here and hear stories of Nevin’s, stories memorialized as a pile of rubble, a few orange-hat workers and a crane. Most will find somewhere else, some won’t, and by the time they graduate, 25 glassy stories will lord over the space and, in the way only great structures can, obliterate most memory of the red façade that hundreds of students once passed under in a single night and that some number, who knows how many, considered impenetrable.