Until I was on crutches, I’d never paid attention to the fact that Oxford’s two best bars are sanctioned off by stairs. Perhaps I would have if I’d had a disability, or if I wore heels like most Oxford women, their pedicured toes peeking out of precarious stilettos. But I live in flip flops February to November, which is how I ended up on crutches to begin with. I’d slipped in a crosswalk after a hasty rainstorm had doused the Oxford Square in July, 2019.
Three days after an orthopedic surgeon reconstructed my kneecap, I painstakingly ascended the stairs to the City Grocery bar. I needed to prove to myself that things would eventually get back to normal, and normal meant meeting the same two friends on that balcony every Thursday afternoon for happy hour.
It’s fitting that one has to hike up a flight of stairs to reach the City Grocery bar. To blend in with the regulars there—lawyers, professors, accomplished writers, successful real estate agents—is an accomplishment in itself. They’ve climbed their way up, and they matter. I’ve penned a couple opinion pieces that some of them have read and respected, but I’m typically the lone patron that also waits tables. The day a local artist introduced me as a “writer” to someone there, I nearly choked on my wine.
I’m not the first to marvel at the magic of this bar and this balcony. A smattering of golden nameplates dot the bar, denoting longtime patrons and their standard drink order. It’s an elite honor, and uniquely Oxonian. No one who dares ask for a nameplate will ever get one. The first rule of the nameplates is: You do not talk about the nameplates.
When I want to feel detached and clever and respected, City Grocery is where I go. I’m smart enough to hang with the lawyers and professors as they talk politics and roll eyes at folks who don’t share their stances. I’m dumb enough to banter with the bar manager over the Saints and the Falcons, knowing my team is the one that will always suck. I’m neurotic enough to philosophize with a fellow regular over the meaning of life and love.
At least, I used to be those things.
During the six-month recovery from my injury, I floundered magnificently. Medication made my brain murky and stunted my sleep. I was broke because I couldn’t wait tables and depressed because I couldn’t do much else either. That symbolic hike up the City Grocery stairs seemed puerile as I watched “normal” slip further off in the distance.
Laundry and dishes piled up in my new place, and late freelance assignments piled up on my laptop. Most nights I fed my children cheap pizza or cheaper ramen noodles.
And I drank. A lot.
I didn’t have the energy to don any of the masks that had kept me comfortable at City, so I increasingly took my drinking across the Square to the Blind Pig. The way down is a lot easier than the way up.
The Blind Pig is the rec room of Oxford’s downtown service workers. The chalkboard marquee on the sidewalk whispers, “Welcome to the Basement of Dreams.” Its staircase tunnels beneath a boutique that sells wispy strips of tissue for young college girls to wear out on the town. When they aren’t on the clock, industry folks retreat to the cavernous space below to play pool, throw darts, and catch up over Jameson shots and PBR tallboys. Political pontificating and philosophical posturing are more entertainment than any kind of shibboleth. No mask is required.
For years, I’d stopped into the Pig for a beer after busy night shifts at Saint Leo. Once I could drive again, I started showing up earlier in the afternoons, antsy to get out of the house in which I’d been stuck for two months. I’d order a shot and a beer and hook my laptop up to the secret outlet on the underside of the bar so I could try to be productive a while longer.
The Pig was the only place I ordered Jameson. It’s the standard industry shot around here, though we older folks generally just sip ours. After a week or so of my new routine, the day bartender would preemptively pour my Jamo while I crept down the steps, clutching the handrail and a single crutch. When I told him I was giving up whiskey for Lent, he started waiting until I sat down to ask, “Whatcha havin’ today, Jen?”
Five days later, I answered, “Eh, gimme a Jameson” and followed my order with some bullshit about Sundays always being Feast Days even during Lent, which is technically orthodox, but in this case was just convenient. The bartender just smiled some good-natured something about going easy on ourselves sometimes.
Spending afternoons at the Pig brought a new cast of characters into my drinking life, friends whose lives more closely aligned with my own. When it was slow, servers and bartenders would cluster down by the POS, drifting in and out of the side door to take smoke breaks in the alley. The night bartender would ask about my kids, reminding me if I ever needed anything, anything, she loved kids and she’d totally be happy to babysit or pick them up from the library or even run by the grocery store for me. Whatever I needed.
She’d started assuring me of this the first time I clambered down on crutches, but she said the same to the other single moms who would stop by during her shift. One bartended opposite shifts at the Pig, and the other served around the corner at Bouré. We dubbed ourselves “Team Badass Mom,” even though we all felt like failures. We’d take turns reminding each other that “bad moms don’t worry they’re a bad mom” and each try our damndest to believe it.
If I lingered much longer, a new crowd of servers and cooks would filter in, fresh off their day shifts. Around 7:30 or 8 pm, each of us would have to decide whether to call it or to double down after checking that we had enough in the bank to Uber ourselves home.
As long as I stuck to crappy beer after the first Jameson or two, happy hour at the Pig would be a brief and welcome escape. If not, I’d likely end up crying on a friend’s shoulder in the alley before the night was over. I might flip off an ex who infiltrated my safe space with a pretty young blonde beside him.
That only happened once, right at the bottom of the staircase. It’s why I gave up whiskey for Lent.
Or tried to, anyway. The way down is a lot easier than the way up.
Jenna Mason is a freelance writer and editor in Oxford, Mississippi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.