Some things never seem to change. Sure, along the road that leads into London from the east, through the part where the townies live, there might be one more Tim Hortons doughnut shop, one more Speedy Muffler King, another strip mall. But on the other side of the tracks, in the leafy north end where the 30,000 students of Western rule, things are just as they always were: clean-cut kids still wear button-downs and Bass Weejuns, Fair Isle sweaters and rugby jerseys. Here, social studies still means belonging to the right
frat or sorority, being seen in the right bars, working hard, but playing harder. That reputation has earned Western the envy—and at times the loathing—of other campuses across Canada. Welcome to Country Club U.
It may be a stereotype, but for many Western students the party ethos survives as a matter of school pride. Witness the crowd at The Wave, one of two on-campus pubs owned and operated by the University Students’ Council (USC), where members of fraternities Delta Upsilon and Beta Theta Pi, and a sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta, are schmoozing the night away. About 200 students dance and mingle amid The Wave’s eclectic decor—steel girders and tubular furniture mixed with pastels and terra-cotta. Postindustrial meets Santa Fe. By the stand-up bar, a handful of male students indulge in one of Western’s zanier new crazes: emptying a test tube of sambuca into the mouth, holding a lighter to the lips and exhaling a blue flame. Presto, a Flaming Moe. (The name
comes from an episode of TV’s The Simpsons, in which Homer invents a similar incendiary cocktail.) The flames go out, replaced by hearty guffaws and much back-slapping. Frat boys will be frat boys.
But even at Western, the 90s have arrived. “There is a different attitude,” says Wave manager Mark Wellington. “Political correctness has come to Western like everywhere else. It’s not acceptable anymore to do the ‘Mothers and fathers beware—your daughter’s coming to Western’ routine.” Tight finances are also having an effect on students. “I think they’re out of money,” says Wellington. But on a nightly budget of about $15— what pub managers say the average student is spending these days—there are still good times to be had.
What are the drinks of choice? Beer, of course, is king. “We could put a great Bordeaux on the menu for $3 a glass and it would go rotten,” says Mike Smith, 42, owner of Joe Kool’s, a popular downtown restaurant and bar (where beer sells for $2.85 a bottle). And the standard novelty cocktails remain popular—blue lagoons, B-52s, Long Island ice teas. One new trend, meanwhile, has bartenders baffled: the kids, they say, are drinking more rye. “You couldn’t even buy it here four or five years ago,” says Wellington. Brand loyalty, however, is practically non-existent. “We’ll hear the letters ‘C.C.’ from a student three times a year,” says Matt Knight, 26, who works at the USC’s other oncampus pub, The Spoke. “And that’s when he opens his report card.”
A hangout like Joe Kool’s is more than just a place to drink: it is also a perfect location to see and be seen. The mood is friendly, even when the bar—cluttered with camp decor, including a coffin purportedly holding Elvis Presley, and a clock bearing twin pictures of Jesus—teems to its 225-person capacity. Waiters rush by wearing T-shirts promising “the world’s worst food." And the bill of fare includes Swanson TV dinners, “the best thing on the menu, imported from the Hasty Market” next door. Waitresses squeeze through the crowd, offering Jell-O-and-vodka shots for 75 cents, $1 with whipped cream. Oldies play on the CD jukebox—I Heard It Through the Grapevine and I Second that Emotion—songs that seem strangely out of place among the Generation X clientele. They do listen to alternative bands like Soundgarden, Sloan and Doughboys—but blasts
from the past still strike a chord: Jimi Hendrix, Boston, Meat Loaf. “I never even heard of Abba before I came to university,” says Laura, 23, over a platter of Kool’s nachos. “I always thought they were a heavy-metal group, actually.”
A few doors down, Smith has just opened Jim Bob Ray’s, -a “college beer blast place” decorated like a fishing lodge—complete with plywood walls to give it that unfinished look. There, by 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, the bar is surrounded by students six deep, clamoring for beer. Mark, 23, who declined to give his last name, says he doesn't come to the bar to meet women. “I just come to drink, have a good time, and get lost.” At 11:30, girls scream as a fight breaks out—two guys tumble through the room, knocking chairs flying. By last call, the floor is littered with broken glass and
cigarette butts, chicken wings and beer, somebody’s underwear. All in all, an evening of good, clean fun.
There are voices at Western calling for a more responsible approach to alcohol. Cyndy Camp, a registered nurse and the university’s health education co-ordinator, works with about 50 student volunteers to spread the word on such health-related issues as sexually transmitted diseases and alcohol abuse. “A lot of students use alcohol as a stress reliever,”
says Camp. “First-year students in particular are in a stressful situation—they’re often just out of their parents’ homes.” Every fall, Camp and the USC alcohol awareness commissioner, who this year is English major Rich Cooper, co-ordinate the training of “sophs”—upperyear students who lead freshmen through ori_ entation-week festivities.
Those include a balance of “wet” and “dry” events. “We want them to know,” says Cooper, 22, “that it’s OK not to drink.”
That message, Camp acknowledges, often can be a difficult sell. According to the most recent Addiction Research Foundation survey of student alcohol use in Ontario (there have been no comparable national surveys), university students drink about twice as much as other people their age. The heaviest drinkers are first-year males. Consumption tapers off afterwards, to the point where fourth-year students’ alcohol use approximates that of the general population—about six drinks per week. But nearly 30 per cent are heavy drinkers, whose minimum 15-drink-a-week habit im-
plies a need for professional counselling.
Still, Camp and others say that, in public at least, students are displaying increasing moderation. “All round, everything’s calming down a lot,” says Andy Hannaford, bar manager at Tire Wave. And to listen to the buzz on the bar circuit, there may be even more to that trend than increased awareness and a lack of beer money. As Western’s students prepare to graduate into a recession-wearv economy, their pearly white smiles are looking a bit strained.
“Students have high aspirations and education, but nowhere to turn,” says Christina, 26, a waitress at Joe Kool’s. “They all get their degrees and end up working here.”
The moribund job market has even become the source of black humor. Friday Funnies, a two-hour stand-up comedy show, packs the on-campus Spoke every week. Here, when the off-color comedy is on, laughter takes the place of worry. But the jokes can hit close to home. After discovering that an audience member from Lower Sackville, N.S., is studying engineering, comedian Chris Finn quips, 'That’s great. You can push the button when the ferry goes by.”
If anyone should know how much students have changed, it is Rick Tattersall. For close to three decades, he has run the CPR Tavern, dubbed “the Ceeps” (pronounced seeps) by Western students. And for most of this century, the 103-year-old Ceeps, a no-nonsense tavern by the railroad tracks, has been the granddaddy of Western watering holes. Sitting over a glass of ale, Tattersall, 50, recalls some illustrious Ceeps graduates: former Alberta premier and Mustangs football star Don Getty, onetime mayor of Toronto and federal Tory cabinet minister David Crombie, and London’s own David Peterson, former premier of Ontario. Are today’s students different? “They are more alcohol-conscious now,” says Tattersall. “But I don’t think they’ve changed a hell of a lot in the last 30 years.”
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Gone are the days when the Western Mustangs earned out an annual ritual hazing known as “the elephant walk”—in which buck-naked gridiron rookies paraded through the crowded bar. But the appeal of a night at the Ceeps remains as old as the decades-deep initials carved into its round, wooden tables. “It’s not really my scene, but people come here to get drunk, to get picked up,” says Mimi Mitchell, a 21-year-old sociology student from Toronto. “It’s a Western tradition.” Sure, some things do change. But at Country Club U, tradition dies hard. □
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