Told Between Puffs, April 2017

In which our hero finds himself at odds with a College Tradition

Spring had indeed sprung in Morningside Heights, but down in Manhattan Valley a winter wind still whipped. Our hero shivered and embraced himself as he emerged from his Uber. Amsterdam Avenue was a blur of colorful awnings; all, it seemed to Verily, signifying nothing. There he stood on the crowded sidewalk, semiotically incapable of interpreting the scene. The panic rising in his chest triggered memories of his high school charity trip to Nicaragua, much of which he spent searching in vain for macaroons.
At least here he knew his prize was nearby. Amid the crush of pedestrians, he observed people closer to his own age, with an unmistakable sheen of cleanliness and health, carrying heavy black plastic bags that clinked with each step. These had to be his fellow collegians. He cast his gaze for another clue. There! A beggar drinking from a paper bag; crouched beneath yellowing posters of what appeared to be food.
Verily stepped inside the “bodega,” as he had recently learned they are called, and nodded to the swarthy cashier. A group of men–construction workers, it would seem–were talking loudly by the deli section. Verily kept his head down as he slipped past them, and immediately regretted his decision. At knee level, behind the glass of the deli counter, he observed a fly land on a purplish meat product. He retched and swooned, his entire body paralyzed with disgust. The construction workers stopped talking and looked at him. He felt like a young woman in a yellow summer dress under their gaze. Before they could say anything he proclaimed, “No, I will not give you a smile,” and lightly jogged to the back of the store.
Yes, here were the libations–just as colorful and confusing as the street outside. Verily had never drunk beer before, let alone malt liquor. Freshman year, he had led the Campus Temperance League, but since then he had been known to indulge in an occasional glass of tokay. He had, however, written a paper on the social and cultural history of the “40” for his American Studies major, so he knew what they looked like. He picked up a heavy glass bottle of St. Ides–for some reason the name struck a chord–and sighed. It made him sad to think of all the lives ruined by the drink: the old beggar outside, his stepfather, those construction workers, probably. But tonight he would not let his beneficent heart get in the way of fulfilling a College Tradition.
After purchasing the bottle, Verily awaited his car beside the construction workers, daring them to speak degradingly towards him. They did not, fortunately, although his activist side partly wished they had. The 40 in his hand had given him a certain street credibility, he surmised.
Moments later he was in a midnight blue Audi that was turning on to College Walk. There were already a great many inebriates milling about. Consequently, the car’s horn remained engaged nearly continuously.
The air was no warmer here, Verily thought, as he completed the fifteen paces to Alma Mater. There, indeed, were his fellows, but little distinguished them as such. No one was singing the fight song, no one was wearing his class tie. They all stood in their petty little tribes, united solely by the 40s in their hands. He took a swig from his bottle out of sheer nihilism. His grip slackened as the poison hit his uvula, causing the bottle of St. Ides to smash on the flagstones. Suddenly, all eyes were upon him, including those of the custodial workers, who would have to clean up this ill-begotten mess. White hot guilt coursed through his veins. As he sprinted back to his car, with tears in his eyes and the lingering taste of bile in his mouth, he began mentally composing a letter to the University President about abolishing this backwards tradition.w

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