October 23, 2003

The A Spot

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In the course of writing a few of these columns, I’ve begun to wonder whether there’s actually any truth behind the idea of student elitism toward downtown. Sure, the word “townie” is tossed around with a fairly negative connotation, but does any Cornell affiliate actually think that they are in some sense better than their down-the-hill counterparts? Or, is the whole idea really a fabrication used by people who want to pride themselves on being against it? Are the only people who care about this supposed phenomenon the ones who get off on saying they’re not like that? Maybe it’s a little of both.

Regardless, it seems that there are plenty of people who have, filed away in their treasure trove of drunken exploit stories, their we-were-so-trashed-we-went-to-eighties-night tales. Hell, a friend and I once rode back from such a night at the Haunt in the trunk of a 1982 Lincoln sedan. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Tales of going to downtown places like the Haunt or Castaways always seem accompanied by a disclaimer, something to the effect of, “oh, it was sooo skeevy” or “I don’t really remember it.” Stories circulate about women with no teeth and forty year old men in cowboy boots hitting on freshman girls.

This is not to say that any of these stories aren’t true, but it’s also not to say that they’re all entirely true, either. It can seem that students sometimes think that if the clientele of a bar isn’t at least 70% student, the place must be a veritable cesspool of said toothless individuals. That and any place that’s not within a five-minute walk from one’s residence is considered too far away to be practical.

The alleged skeevyness of the bar generally seems to be a factor of how far the place is from campus — the further you get from civilization, well, the further you get. Unfortunately, the Haunt and Castaways seem to fall victim to this characterization most of all and yet, they’re probably the most consistent places to see live music in town. The Haunt can dig its own grave (so to speak) in certain respects with occasionally startling ticket prices and its seeming affinity for bands of the ass-rock variety. Castaways, on the other hand, rarely costs more than $10 on show nights and is a place that can seem like a movie or a photograph, depending on your mood.

There are rope lights strung along the ceiling and old LP covers tacked to the walls. The low stage’s colored lights tend to light the rest of the room, as well, there’s a pool table in the back and a porch over the inlet off to the side. Walking into the Richard Buckner show this past Friday in the middle of Hubcap’s set seemed like entering the film realm: people with beers in hand happily chatting, a few dancing; an unassuming band on stage playing unassuming country tinged rock. The singer in a denim shirt and glasses seemed like a cameo. Everyone seemed to be talking and moving, far from the impersonal stand-and-bob-your-head shows it’s easy to get accustomed to attending, the one’s where you don’t know anyone but who you came with and you have to stake out your spot by the stage twenty minutes in advance. We actually thought Richard Buckner was standing next to us before his set, but it turned out to be just some kid from town.

Buckner, during his set, seemed a perfect conversation between M. Ward and Bill Callahan on a milder day, but he wasn’t the kind of performer you had to watch. He was the kind of performer you could listen to while you stare at the lights on the ceiling or the people standing next to you; the kind you could go out on the porch and have a cigarette with, even if you didn’t smoke — provided you’d had a couple drinks. It was movie soundtrack music, in a good way.

When you go to enough shows around Ithaca, depending on the general genre, you start to recognize people. They go to the same shows, they kind of dress the same, and maybe you even spot one on campus eventually. You start to wonder how all those people know each other and you start to wonder if maybe you’ll ever become friends with them incidentally. All of a sudden Ithaca seems very small — there’s my TA from freshman year, there’s that woman I see at the grocery store all the time. Everyone knows each other, except for you, and it can feel lonely and encouraging at once. Maybe there’s other ways to get to know people besides through class and parties.

Still, despite the varied crowd, no one at the show seemed to be staring at their surroundings, wondering how they ended up in such a “townie” dive, and there were a fair number of Cornell types in attendance. Maybe the student elitism thing really is just a myth. It seems that it’s not so unheard of for us to venture off the hill once in a while, even if perhaps we like to pretend it is to make us feel that much more adventurous.

Archived article by Thea Brown