“We Have to Find a Beer”

Twenty-five years ago, a record cold front was glazing the Upper Midwest. I was in year two of a graduate program that wasn’t working out, but by that time had learned to love the cold. My first year in Madison, Wisconsin, I made the mistake of trying to avoid the winter, sprinting from forced-air pocket of warmth to forced-air pocket. By year two I was embracing the tundra and rode my bike through the winter, sun or snow. But the arctic air sitting on the region that week was like nothing I’d ever encountered. High temps were topping out south of zero. It was so cold any liquid exposed to the air froze immediately, including the tears that crusted in the corner of my eyes. I remember stepping outside the day that weather system arrived like I had landed on another planet. 

On January 14, a friend and I had planned a visit three hours south to tour the University of Chicago, a trip planned before the freeze. We were scheduled to meet with Wendy Doniger, a titan in our field and at the time chair of “HR”—History of Religions, the most august program of its kind in the country. (My application to attend would later be rejected.) The friend was a woman from Maine who had become one of two or three stars in our department, and she was hard to miss. We had become friendly during a summer language course, and closer that fall semester. As our interests aligned, we started spending more and more time together. Because we were both broke, it made sense to bus down together and stay in cheap, university-affiliated housing for the visit. 

The visit was enlightening. Coming to the University of Chicago from Portland by way of Madison presented a sharp cultural contrast. The college had recently finished dead last in one of those pre-internet listicles of “funnest universities,” and the students were celebrating it. “No fun” was, at least twenty-five years ago, a badge of honor for kids proud of barely taking their eyes off textbooks to sleep. Over lunch in the student cafeteria, we saw one student literally chirping in the corner to let off stress.

It was so cold our guide led us on a shortened circuit, interrupted by frequent stops into random buildings not usually highlighted on tours. When we stopped in to see friends living on campus (students at Wisconsin and Chicago were well-connected), they told us the city was partially shut-down as cars failed to start—surprising even stalwart Chicagoans. Nevertheless, Professor Doniger was in her office to greet us and that was surely the positive highlight of the university. She asked about our research and interests, and encouraged us to apply. Had we ended up there, it would have been a pleasure to study with her. But everything else about the school seemed strange and unnecessary.

After our vaguely unsettling, intense day with these oddly dour students, we were both ready for a beer. Fittingly, there was nowhere on campus to find one. (At Wisconsin, they were already selling craft beer in the student union’s beer hall, Der Rathskeller—one of the reasons it tended to top those “fun” lists U Chicago spurned.)  Our friends directed us to an old pub not far off campus, and it frustrates me to report I can’t remember the name (it may well still be there). I also don’t remember what we ate. I do remember what we drank, though: Guinness. It was the only interesting beer pouring, and given the weather, a stout was just the ticket. 

We had a long, intimate session there, the best I’ve ever had. The Guinnesses flowed, and we slowly warmed up and unwound. We discussed how strange the experience had been, what culture shock the University of Chicago would represent. We talked about our lives and how we’d ended up at a Buddhist Studies program halfway between our coasts. At no point, looking around, did I see anyone who resembled a graduate student (though I may have spotted a professor or three). When we stepped into that pub, we had departed from university so firmly it might as well not have existed.

The beer was not merely an incidental part of the story. We were still young enough that traveling to an unfamiliar city, sitting in a restaurant with a potentially romantic interest, and drinking pints of dark ale all seemed wonderfully adult. In that period of life, I often felt like I was faking adulthood more than embodying it, playing dress-up and somehow conning the barman. Of course, the Guinness helped ease us past discomfort and led us into intimacy. The banishment of alcohol from the university grounds made the beer feel a bit illicit and dangerous—and made us conspirators together. 

We carried that mood out with us into the black night, empty of traffic and movement. Relationships pivot on key moments, and ours did that night, nudged by the otherworldly cold, the strange vibe at the university, and those pints of stout. We floated through the still streets back to campus, quiet as spies, carrying between us a new secret.

In many ways we have continued to carry the conspiratorial mood born that night, as our friendship turned romantic that evening, the rest of our lives. The friend was of course Sally, my regularly-mentioned fellow-traveler, whom I married back in Portland three years later. We conspire still—and routinely over pints of stout.

Us, then(ish) and now.