In Praise of Higher Education

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Semester Abroad; Oxford, England; Thursday night, the Bulldog Pub’s karaoke night; slightly more than halfway through our summer, 1994 term.

It was hot, the hottest summer in England in nearly one hundred years. My white Gap 100% cotton t-shirt stuck to my back. My curly blonde hair was pulled up in a jagged-toothed hair clip. I held a warm shandy while my friend Jon slouched nearby in relaxed Levis and a yellow t-shirt, clutching a pint of tepid Guinness, which was rumored to be nearly 10% alcohol in those days (which might explain why we did some of the things we did).

We had been going to the Bulldog for a while, every week as regular as a sunrise, to avoid writing papers and to plan our weekend breaks to London and Paris, while listening to backpack-clutching, disaffected Euro-youth sing “Love is All Around” and the Big Mountain version of “Baby I Love Your Way.” I don’t remember how we chose the Bulldog; we just seemed to have drifted there one night and stayed. I don’t even know why we did. The pub was stiflingly airless; the floor was sticky; the Euro-youth were doing their best to destroy our inner ears with their caterwauling; yet we wandered in every Thursday night.

One night, at Jon’s signal, Stephanie Tinley and I pushed through the side door to the relative cool of the alley to hear Jon announcing to the rest of our classmates that we could no longer observe the howling karaoke; we had to participate.

After registering our disbelieving stares, he explained that we needed to express our Americanness, our very New Yorkness, to the European pub rats. Although no one had yet agreed with him, he outlined his idea. Musically-speaking, nothing says America better than Motown and nothing says New York like the Village People. Motown, okay, but the Village People?  On one level I understood his analogy: Motown does say funky, talented, high-achieving America and the Village People do say New York – specifically Greenwich Village, where we had all met at New York University – however they said it in a language I wasn’t sure I wanted to shout out in a pub.

It took some cajoling, but eventually Stephanie and I agreed to sing – and spell out while dancing – the disco hit “YMCA,” although privately I wondered just how drunk I would have to be to actually climb onto a stage and sing in public. Jon and some other classmates, David and Mikael, decided to be the Pips while Clydette sang Gladys Knight’s part on “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The plan was good as far as it went, however, in those days before Ipods, the Internet, and downloaded music, to do this adequately, one of us needed to have either a phenomenal memory for lyrics and tunes or a Sony Discman and a compact disc of the songs.  Fortunately, I had a Discman back in my room and at the time there was an HMV music store on Cornmarket Street, so the next afternoon after lunch and before tutorials, Jon and I bought the necessary CDs.

We began rehearsing that evening. It was truly idiotic for Stephanie and me. We giggled, we overacted, and we fell onto my bed in hysterical tears. The problem wasn’t just that the song was stupid: we were both spectacularly untalented. Regardless, we kept at it. The days passed and, caught up in our own performance, plus all the academic work Trinity College appeared to believe that we should complete, we didn’t discuss it with the others again until after dinner the Wednesday before our performance.

“Are you guys ready?” Jon asked as we sat on a bench outside the Junior Common Room watching the sun streak across the evening sky.

“Yes,” I answered, glancing at Steph who nodded in agreement.

His eyes went from my face to hers. “Are you sure?” he asked with a trace of disbelief in his tone.

Steph answered this time. “Yeah, we’re sure.”

“We aren’t very good,” I interjected as she frowned at me.

“Hmmmm. ‘Not very good’ in what sense? ‘Not very good’ because you didn’t practice enough?” Jon asked snarkily.

“No, ‘not very good’ because we have no performing talent,” I snapped.

He waved a hand airily. “Oh, that doesn’t matter.”

Easy for him to say, I thought.

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Oxford, England; another Thursday night; the Bulldog Pub’s karaoke night, two weeks before our summer term ends.

All of the regulars were there on the sweltering evening Jon chose for our musical debut. I was nervous and needed a shandy. Hell, I needed two. I am an English major, for crying out loud; I am happiest curled on a sofa reading from books, not standing on rickety pub stages following lyrics along a teleprompter screen. Evidently I was not the only performer in need of lukewarm liquid courage; Jon was on his third pint. One of the regulars, a skinny, shaven-head, gap-toothed guy in Levis, a combat jacket, and Doc Martens, looking like a National Front organizer, decided to honor the American visitors by performing “New York, New York.” Doing his best Sid Vicious imitation, he snarled his way through the poor, tortured song. Finally, mercifully, done, he winked at Stephanie and me, then lifted his pint from a wooden ledge, and, toasting us, drained it.

We were next. The trumpet intro of our disco number blared. Too drunk and way too frightened to find the stage, Stephanie and I climbed onto the nearest table and began shaking our little Wonder-bra’d breasts and shouting “Young man! There’s no need to feel down. I said, young man! When you’re in a new town.”

I could see Jon in the back of the pub nearly spray out his Guinness at the sight. (Later he observed that we resembled nothing so much as two crack-crazed cheerleaders.) We formed the YMCA letters over our heads, thrust our pelvises, and shouted the lyrics. Thankfully for all concerned, it ended pretty quickly.

Jon, Mikael, and David climbed onto the stage followed by Clydette. Their performance was breathtaking. While Steph and I looked exactly like what we were – half-drunk, frightened young women – the four of them make singing in a pub look natural, like it was something they did every day of their lives, as though they just happened into the Bulldog on their tour of Oxfordshire. While Clydette wailed (unlike Steph and me, she really could sing), Jon and the other Pips shuffled their feet and spun in time and in unison, raising their arms into the air and mimicking pulling a train whistle for the “woo woo” part.

When they finished the crowd of Euro-youth cheered. We cheered. The bartender cheered. Even the National Front skinhead cheered. Later, when I learned that the intricate choreography had been Jon’s idea, I wasn’t surprised. The Jon I knew always made an effort, always aimed high, always sought perfection; he never sat in the folding chairs on the sidelines and watched life pass in front of him.

It has been decades since that night – the Bulldog Pub has long since been gentrified and Jon has been dead for nearly twenty years – but I laugh whenever I am in a checkout line and hear “YMCA” playing. If I hear “Midnight Train to Georgia,” I cry.

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