Ruminations from a Barstool, Observing my Town in a Coma

In the waning minutes of Greencastle’s final First Friday, I was all but done with them.  Now, I’d drop everything to attend one again.

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Last year, on what would have been every single First Friday, the weather was spectacular.  I know this for a fact, because, on each one of those days, I took very specific note of the skies above me. 

My observation comes with a modicum of irony, too.  In the waning hours of the final First Friday event I attended—probably back in September of 2019—I had decided I was done with them.

I loved those Fridays in the early years.  Back then, when they were confined to the courthouse block of Franklin Street, they carried an “adultness” to them.  Yes, we talked through the music—treating it too often like ambient sound.  And yes, we all drank too much.  But when we celebrated the last call in The Swizzle Stick and cheered for War Radio’s final tune of the night, we left happy.

Somewhere along the way, however, First Friday changed.  By that last edition it had become “The County Fair with Beer.”  Instead of celebrating the end of each long month in the intimacy of The Swizzle sharing laughs with some of our best friends, we sauntered to our vehicles at 11:15 watching the town square fizzle into a ghost town.  Most of it ruined by a handful of loud-mouths who got themselves white-girl-wasted on Michelob Ultra an hour before midnight and then convinced themselves they could slur their way through a fistfight.

Then the virus showed up.

It’s true that we only seem to appreciate what we’ve had after we’ve lost it.  When I grabbed our family’s take-out on what would have been last April’s big event, I was saddened.  But that sadness was still tempered by a now-silly dose of optimism.  The one thing that got all of us through that bleak April was that we all knew—just knew—that we’d be reveling again by July.  But when that July Friday finally arrived…?  Well, that was when we knew—just knew—that there would be no First Friday’s for the rest of the year.

Somewhere along the way, however, First Friday changed.  By that last edition it had become “The County Fair with Beer.”

Nowhere did that hit me more fully than a couple weeks ago, sitting at my favorite corner spot in Greencastle’s Tap House.  Working my way through my pint of Indiana City’s Tribute, I listened as Ben, my bartender, waxed poetic about the death of the town’s once blossoming bar culture.  Ben’s been around for a long time.  For years he worked at Greencastle’s primary college bar, The Fluttering Duck.  And while the good times there were good times indeed, he talked more about the days before then, when he clocked in shifts at The Rock House.

When you’re trying to straddle life in a town populated by two extremes—folks who haven’t stepped out of their houses since last March and people who mockingly stare you down with their unmasked grins—a bar with lots of space becomes a godsend.

Long time locals know the city’s iconic basement hangout by a slew of other names.  It was Hathaway’s when I arrived here in the late ’90’s.  In the years that followed it took on a half-dozen monikers, and my own happiest bar memories happened when a band of former students owned it and dubbed it Hoods and Capers.  Ben’s heyday went down a few years before that, when hundreds of townies flocked there to escape the woes of the emerging Great Recession.  The tips were in cash, and they were generous.

As we chatted, I looked around me.  My group (part of my “COVID Crew” of close friends) had hunkered around that aforementioned corner of the bar.  At the far end, with a dozen empty seats between us, a couple of regulars nursed light beers and watched NBA highlights—dazzling displays of athletic prowess performed in front of empty seats and cardboard depictions of Macaulay Culkin.

Don’t get me wrong on this.  We were actually grateful that the place was sparse.  When you’re trying to straddle life in a town populated by two extremes—folks who haven’t stepped out of their houses since last March and people who mockingly stare you down with their unmasked grins—a bar with lots of space becomes a godsend. Even a week later, when the joint was filled up, we still found a place to distance ourselves, thankfully grabbing the leather seats arranged on the other side of the “legal-age” divider.

I turned my eyes to the spot in the corner, where three years ago Will Scott brought his own set-list of original tunes to a couple of packed houses on a pair of Tuesday nights.  Yes, once upon a time that was a thing.

As we sat there, I closed my eyes for a second and listened for those echoes of the past.  Of course, I could hear all the recent First Fridays. I could hear the cover band just outside the then open windows warbling and wailing “Purple Rain” and “Livin’ on Prayer.”  But when I let my mind sink further into the past, I could hear better rhythms in the echoes.  That’s when I turned my eyes to the spot in the corner, where three years ago Will Scott brought his own set-list of original tunes to a couple of packed houses on a pair of Tuesday nights.  Yes, once upon a time that was a thing.

But even back then, in the midst of that last good heyday of the Greencastle scene, many of us worried that it could easily collapse.  We all knew there were one (or maybe two) too many restaurants for a town Greencastle’s size.  There was a lot of talk about supporting them with out-of-town patrons.  And in fairness to that argument, travelling customers did seem to be the new thing.  Most of us have multiple anecdotal examples—one of mine being the random family from Brownsburg who handed over their bar seats in a crowded Wasser as they prepared to drive home.

“This place is neat,” the elderly Brownsburgian who’d come with his adult kids, announced to me.  “We’re definitely coming back!”

One or two weeks later: “Enter Coronavirus.”

So, when this great global nightmare is over… or different… or evolved… whatever… When we’re on the other side of this thing, I don’t know which doors will still be open and which ones will be shuttered.  It’s both an element of human nature and an unofficial requirement for Greencastle citizenship to sit around and speculate about the town and each other.  So yes, we’ve talked among ourselves.  I won’t tell you what we’ve guessed.  I will tell you that we don’t want anyone to go down.  We don’t want anyone to lose.

When we’re on the other side of this thing, I don’t know which doors will still be open and which ones will be shuttered.

But right now, holding on to the idea that COVID will fade out of the headlines seems a naïve fantasy.  It remains equally naïve to think that the DePauw community will return, that the live bands will come back this way from Indy, and that the beers and good cheer and laughter will return.

But hope does indeed spring eternal.  And if the next First Friday comes back, even in a dialed-back form, a smaller version resembling its roots…?  That won’t be a bad thing.  And if it resumes as it was…?  That’s fine, too.  All I know is that I can’t wait to get back to noisy crowds.  To flowing suds.  To laughs and jokes.  To good times with missing friends.  Hell, at this point I’ll even tap my foot to crappy cover tune, so long as it’s not anything by Bon Jovi.  I’ll need two more pandemics in order to look forward to that.

Photo Credit: “Pint of 90 Shilling Amber Ale” by mfajardo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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