Even if I hadn’t known Unofficial St. Pat’s Day was Friday at Illinois, I would have known something was up. As I walked in to campus along my usual route at 10:30 a.m., I could hear muted shouts from distant apartment buildings. A twin turboprop went over twice at a weirdly low altitude, nearly building-top level, and in the distance a black JetRanger helicopter orbited above some point on campus.
It was sunny for a change and above freezing, and students were walking back in droves from early classes to their dorms. One very tall, skinny, young man in a plastic bowler hat and green t-shirt was soaked to the knees. He slid over the watery ice on the sidewalk and shouted into his phone, “I’m close, man! But I don’t know where you live!” Three policemen were stationed at the east entrance to the quad, and a knot of student aides wearing dayglow vests and carrying radios stood at the west entrance. I stopped in my office then headed into Campustown, where a dozen more police officers lined Wright Street to keep city buses moving through safely.
Despite a later opening this year, the two main bars nearest campus, C.O. Daniels and Kam’s, held only a couple of dozen people. Daniels is owned by Scott Cochrane, who invented Unofficial because the real St. Pat’s is usually over spring break. It was Cochrane who’d decided to make Unofficial two days long this year, garnering more ill will from the university and town. Outside Daniels, a goofy-looking kid was being interviewed by a local TV crew. His friend stepped up behind him and made funny faces over his shoulder, and they both cracked up. “Yeah, I’m gonna start out taking precautions,” he said. “But as the night wears on, you know.”
I’d been invited to meet a student at what he described with some pride as “the worst fraternity on campus.” Many of the Greek houses are west of campus, and it was possible to find them by walking against the current of students headed in to campus bars. Noisy balconies laden with students began to spit snowballs at pedestrians. I realized, as I muttered details into my tape recorder and took the occasional picture, that I totally looked like a narc. “They’re throwing the snowballs at me now,” I muttered into my recorder and hastened on. Many apartments and all the Greek houses were loud except the one I’d been invited to. It was still as the tomb, and I didn’t knock because I didn’t want to embarrass the boys.
It’s a sure sign of my age, I suppose, that I find all this the most conventional rebellion, and I decided to check out another first this year, the Unofficial alternatives provided by religious organizations in town. The associate pastor of McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church had said in the Daily Illini, “We’re providing a collective and individual alternative for people who don’t drink that is fun for them or for people who are on the fence where if there was nothing else they would go ahead and bar-hop.”
There’s a lot of construction around and on the grounds of McKinley, and I picked my way through the melting mud. A recently printed sign taped to the double doors read, “Alcohol-Free Zone! Sober People Welcome!” Inside, a Tyvek banner high on a wall countered, “McKinley Presbyterian Church & Foundation. God Loves You Just the Way You Are.”
I walked in ten minutes after a Guitar Hero Tournament was scheduled to start in the long hall under turning fans. A piano sat quietly under a quilted cover next to a massive hearth with no fire in it. Oak tables with seating for several dozen stood empty, though the coffee urns were full and hot, and long folding tables held plastic trays of sandwiches, hot wings, chips, and crudités. A trinity of big projection screens stood around the room. I counted 13 staff members and student helpers in red shirts, including a young boy with braided hair and a ponytail, who was strumming along with an animated band on Guitar Hero II. He made it to Number Five on the Top Rockers list and entered the name Matt. There was no one else there.
When the boy wandered off, two middle-aged staff members picked up game guitars. They scrolled down through a list of songs and settled after much indecision on the “Easy” version of the song “’Surrender,’ as made famous by Cheap Trick.” The woman staffer did a couple of tentative licks, for which she received 2,116 points, then hit “Quit” when the associate pastor walked up to say something. He was an avuncular-looking man who looked like the TV weatherman Al Roker, but he appeared to be giving her marching orders. Three undergraduate Latinas walked in, and everyone turned to look at them in the glare from the door.
At 12:30, a young staffer with a clipboard came over and asked nicely if I wanted to play in the tournament. I was sunk deep in a well-used couch by that time and replied nicely that I was good, but thanks, and he turned and asked the three undergrads, who had just sat down to eat their buffalo wings and celery sticks. They also declined, and he went off to find a place for his clipboard. I saw that one of the women was a former student and went to say hello. Her friend said they were "just there to eat and relax because it was too crazy" in their apartment building.
The associate pastor, Keith, stepped up to tell the young women that in a few minutes he’d hook them up with guitars. They smiled politely and looked at each other. I introduced myself to Keith and asked if he was expecting a crowd, and he said that since it was the first time they’d done this, he didn’t know. I asked if I needed to be back that night by a certain time to observe the Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader game show they had planned. He looked puzzled and said no, it was a DVD game, and I could come any time between six and midnight. “Hello, Channel Three!” he said and stepped away as a young reporter and her cameraman came into the hall.
Outside on the muddy sidewalk two groups of students in green and beads passed each other, high-fiving like sports teams, and yelling, “Happy Unofficial, yeah!” The raw wind had risen to 35 m.p.h., and plastic sheeting on the unfinished buildings tattered and snapped.
Two blocks away, C.O. Daniels had just been raided and shut down for selling all-you-can-drink bracelets in violation of ordinances, and early reports said a dozen students were busted for underage drinking. In response, Kam’s had suddenly decided to raise entry age to 21. When I passed Kam's, the early drinkers had tired out and settled into a dull hubble-bubble. Campustown looked nearly normal for a Friday afternoon, despite sheriff’s cars and two motorcycle policemen who raised whoops from a few students selling green beads, two strands for a buck, on the corner by Espresso Royale.
As I left to go home, a guy in paper shamrock spectacles passed me on the sidewalk and declared, “I’m gonna kiss the next girl I see!” A pack of young women jogged past in spandex and sweats, hair pulled back in ponytails, looking professionally healthy.
“Yeah, right,” one of the guy’s drinking buddies said.