When I arrived in Columbia, Mo., in August 1986, a sophomore transfer to the University of Missouri, I was 19.
A block down South Fifth Street from the Mark Twain Residence Hall was every under-age student’s favorite bar, T. Baker’s. The proximity, the cheap pitchers of cheaper beer, the willful disregard for alcohol laws, combined to make it a frequent destination.
I think of the long bar, the booths, the sign for a drink called a Charlie Brown. But mostly I recall a handwritten line on the restroom door, black ink on green paint — or was it blue paint? It stared at you as you queued, invariably, for the bathroom that accommodated one person at a time.
“Bad crazyness runs ramped,” it read.
Nine years later
That phrase, in all of its grammatically fractured glory, has stuck with me for three decades. So much so that I appropriated it as the ironic motto for a late-April reunion in Columbia with three friends whom I met at Mark Twain.
We hadn’t been together since 2008, when Phil O’Neal, my first Mizzou roommate; Mike Mitchell, my second; and Craig Holman, who lived on my floor both years at Mark Twain, met me in Columbus, Ohio. We talked about another reunion in a couple years.
It took nine.
But in April we made it happen, the four of us together in Columbia again for the first time since I graduated in 1989. We’ve kept in touch via email and text in the intervening years; I had seen Craig in February when we both were in Nashville. My old friends have changed far less than Columbia has.
T. Baker’s is long gone, I think replaced by a residence hall or condos, which seem to be everywhere in Columbia. Mark Twain underwent a complete makeover, including removal of the in-ground pool out front that was at once a selling point and, in hindsight, an incredible liability risk.
I never had a single class with my three friends. We were dorm rats, and Mark Twain was the stage on which our lives connected with one another and with a strange cast of characters that we still talk about.
To wit, in no particular order of appearance: Bobby, the tall tale-telling Okie from Muskogee whose jangling keys announced his arrival; Steve, the gentle giant resident assistant and law student who had survived leukemia (the IV bag hanging from his ceiling a stark reminder) and seemingly could smell the presence of beer in one’s room; Charlie, the suite-mate who shared his room with his runaway under-age girlfriend and whose dentist father woke us one night looking for his son or, more accurately, a sense of where his bag of pot had gotten to.
You can build lifelong friendships on this stuff, and Phil, Mike, Craig and I have.
Beer and Booches
We started the weekend with a Mizzou baseball game at Taylor Stadium. As a student, I attended but one game, when future Major Leaguer Robin Ventura came to town with Oklahoma State. (One other time, when it lacked today’s stadium amenities and security, Phil and I simply walked on the field to try out my metal bat.)
The four of us, sitting on a back-row metal bleacher on the first-base side, picked up where we left off, the game enjoyable enough but mostly the backdrop for our conversations. Throughout the weekend, we talked, easily, about the past and our current lives. It was free-wheeling; no single topic stands out in hindsight.
We’re older — all turning 50 in 2017 — but in a weird way time stands still when I’m with them.
We stayed for post-game fireworks while the stadium staff and Mizzou players buttoned up the field for the deluge to come.
The rain came hard and steady on Saturday, cheating us of the opportunity to take in the campus and downtown at our leisure. When we weren’t dashing madly over flooded sidewalks, under cover of rain jacket hoods and umbrellas, we held extended conversations in a parking garage with a view to Mark Twain or under the marquee of the Blue Note nightclub (really, no show on a Saturday night?).
We had lunch at Harpo’s, which has been a Columbia institution since 1971. I never stepped foot in the place when I was a student, such was my antipathy toward the fraternity crowd it drew (and apparently still does).
We spent the bulk of the afternoon at Logboat Brewing Co., a craft brewer founded in 2014 just up the street from where I lived after my two years at Mark Twain. From the table where I sat, through the rain-soaked plate glass windows, I could see the neon sign atop the Tiger Hotel and, just behind it, the twin smokestacks of the power plant next to our old dorm.
The night concluded with cheeseburgers at the legendary Booches Billiard Hall and a final stop at Shakespeare’s Pizza. We met for breakfast at Broadway Diner on Sunday morning before heading our separate ways, Craig to St. Louis, Mike to Chicago, Phil to Quincy, Ill.
While we shook hands in the diner parking lot, I pulled out the keepsake I had prepared for the boys: Bumper stickers bearing our unofficial theme, Bad crazyness runs ramped. Craig, who got home first, texted me a photo of his sticker adorning the side of his refrigerator.
I’ve always emphasized quality over quantity when it comes to friends. There’s a great line from the famous “Wear Sunscreen” graduation speech written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in June 1997:
“Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on,” Schmich wrote. “Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.”
The older I get, the more I appreciate the friends I have in Phil, Mike and Craig. I’m already looking forward to our next reunion, although when and where we will gather remains to be seen.
The city that’s lucky enough to have us better know one thing: bad crazyness follows us everywhere.