By Chelsea Haith
“I love the Great Field Partayyy! I’m so trashed!” Nomsa’s* face grows serious and she leans across the bar counter to shout into my face, “Are you happy? Because that’s the most important thing! I don’t care if I’m not happy; I want you to be happy!”
Am I happy? It’s six in the evening on a Saturday, it’s cold enough that only those who took pre-drinks VERY seriously have arrived and I’d much rather be at home on the couch with my book. I’m tending bar at the Great Field Party because I need to eat for the rest of the month. Never have I stayed later than 10pm at this annual attempt to unite our incredibly diverse campus under the banner of mutual inebriation. Tonight I’ll be one of the last to leave, sober, frozen and with my dignity intact. This time.
“Go home, Nom. It’s six in the evening. You’re drunk. You’re about to have a very good Great Field Party. Or a very bad one. It depends on how you feel about alcohol poisoning.”
“I’m glad that you’re happy! That means I can be happy too!”
I don’t think she and I are having the same conversation.
Not waiting for a response, she sprints off, oblivious to the the soaking drizzle that goes straight to the bone. Five double vodka and cokes can have that effect.
There’s a lot to be gleaned about a person from how they enter the Great Field Party. Always in groups or pairs, overall-clad first years dance in like third-rate rappers taking the stage, arms pumping. Or they slouch in; trying to cross the no-man’s land between the bottom of the stairs and the safety of the bobbing crowd like your first Great Field Party is no big deal. Wrong. Your first Great Field Party is the one by which you will measure all others. Some of the first years gather in the booze tent looking lost, their overalls shining like they’ve been dipped in Uranium. Inside they are jumping with joy because this is only their second week away from home and their first Great Field Party and like OMG I’m already slightly trashed how much fun is this?!?!!!??!! It’s hard to be cool when your overalls are so blindingly white they appear to be radioactive. We were all there once.
Eventually the drizzle lets up, the pre-drinks let out and the bar tent fills with purple painted bodies and dirty overalls. There’s a massive sale of purple paint in Grahamstown twice a year, for Great Field Party and again for Tri-Var, which (if it isn’t cancelled) Rhodes will be hosting this year. Get your purple paint now before it all runs out and you experience the ignominy of having only a permanent marker with which to write on strangers’ arms and faces.
The bar opens at six and from then on we’re running, Michael* and I working together to get the drinks out and the cash in, tapping coins sharply on the bar when some kind soul tips us. Let’s say we served a drink a minute, from six o’clock until midnight. That’s three hundred and sixty drinks. Now add double vodka shots, Tequila and Redbull to the concoction. Don’t drink it, it’ll probably kill you.
The music has become irrelevant to me, a white noise in the din of shouted orders, though my white girl ears perk up at the sound of Al Bairre and later Das Kapital. I admit that my taste in music could do with some diversification. I’d dance along if I wasn’t running back and forth between the till and the bar, hunting ice and the José Cuervo. Looking up every now and then from the rush on Tequila shots, I watch as the crowd grows, shifting and changing like a quickly mutating virus, spreading like a pool of vomit oozing across the field. In a moment of forgetfulness I lick my sticky fingers to clear the Tequila spilt on my hand (“It’s supposed to go in your mouth,” I advise, to no avail) and come away with a metallic tang on my tongue and a remembered taste of why Tequila is considered the bouncer of the stomach. In that moment I am thrilled to be behind the bar instead of leaning on it.
Why is it that people assume waving money at me is going to make me serve you any sooner? I am but a humble bar wench; I am on a set hourly rate plus tips. Only if you promise to tip me excessively from the R100 note you are waving at me might I turn to help you before all of the other good people waiting to be served. Another bizarre assumption is that calling me ‘my girl’ is going to endear me to you. It’s patronizing. And you’re not going to get more vodka out of me by being patronizing. You’re not going to get any more vodka out of me by being anything really, I’m pouring shots and a shot is a measurement, not a measurement based on how good looking you think you are or how much vodka you think you deserve. You look like hell; you’re covered in paint and someone else’s sweat and the beer you accidentally poured on yourself. On a scale of One to More Vodka, I’d say you’ve slumped down on One.
At half past eleven the bar staff are instructed that the bar will close at midnight. Laws are being enforced in this sleepy little Eastern Cape town and the party don’t stop until the police walk in and arrest everyone in contravention of the sale of alcohol bylaws. So we dutifully close at twelve, turning away the last desperate few who think that the sentence “But we want to give you money!” will soften our hearts.
My feet hurt and I smell like the bar in Friars. Money is not going to solve either of our problems, ‘my girl’.
“Sorry we’re closed, the bar is closed, have a good night, the bar is closed, no really, not even water, not even cigarettes, I can give you this cube of ice lying in the grass here I suppose, but nothing more, sorry the bar is closed.” We adopt a mantra and ignore the clamouring horde, resting our weary arses on incredibly uncomfortable upturned coke crates.
As the field empties the smell of the well-stomped grass drifts across to us on a chilly breeze as my watch ticks round to two o’clock. The last stragglers are crawling or being dragged away by friends, off to Friars and the Rat to be similarly disappointed in their quest for one last drink. The music has stopped and I can hear the wind hassling the flaps on the tent, as though it too wants one last drink.
A police woman walks up to the bar and Michael steps forward cheekily, his voice clear in the quiet of the tent, “Sorry ma’am, the bar is closed.”
*Names changed to protect the innocent guilty.
This piece is written in the spirit of gonzo journalism and is an opinion piece of the writer’s personal experience of the 2015 Great Field Party at Rhodes University.