“As leaving some grand waterfall, We, lingering, list its roar—”

It occurs to me that I didn’t write about my latest trip to Clemson. I graduated from the university, lived there three-and-a-half more years, and visited as much as possible over the the next few years. It’s always been neat to see the town and university change—stores changing hands, or locations, at least one new building on campus each year, and so on—but this visit was different.

The night I got to South Carolina, my buddy Chip and I went to the best hole-in-the-wall tavern in Clemson, which is Nick’s. The routine is simple: we go in, order pints of Woodchuck, drink, and laugh at the signs that forbid clove cigarettes—not because either of us smokes, but because we had a mutual acquaintence who chain-smoked cloves and was probably responsible for getting them banned from Nick’s.

We usually see at least one familiar face at Nick’s. Not this time. We asked around, and they’d all moved away: this one to Charleston, that one to New Mexico, and so on. In fact, the only person I recognized the whole night was one particular bartendress who, two or three years ago, drunkenly cussed me out after completely misunderstanding a story I was telling (which was about dealing with high school students). The lack of poison and spittle in my drink indicated that she didn’t remember any of it.

The next day, most of my best buddies from college converged on that quaint little corner of South Cackalacky. We had dinner at Keith Street Café in Clemson. We spent the next couple of hours wandering around downtown Clemson—which is basically two streets. A lot has changed on those two streets.

The best bookstore in Clemson, or for thirty miles around, was the Newsstand. The owner was a guy named Stephen, who resembled an aging hippie: he spoke softly, he was skinny, wore a beard, and had long, graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. He seemed to know everything about everything ever published—nothing was too obscure. If it wasn’t in the store, he’d have it to you in less than a week. He was better than Amazon.

The last time I saw Stephen, he didn’t recognize me, and he seemed to have trouble recognizing Chip (who had worked at the Newsstand and had been one of its best customers). He was diagnosed with Pick’s disease, which is similar to Alzheimer’s, and he died in early 2005. The lady who inherited the store kept the place running for about a year and then shut it down. It’s now a wine bar.

The only private bookstore left in Clemson is McClure’s, which is relatively new. We stopped by in hopes that some old Newsstand people worked there. Nope. I asked the owner if she had bought the Newsstand’s inventory. She said no, and also that she didn’t sell newspapers, magazines, journals, or comics. That place sucks.

Eight or nine years ago, there was an internet coffee shop on College Avenue called the Wired Café. I visited often because I was friends with the owners and most of the employees. At first, it was pretty successful because their computers were faster than most computers on campus, and the menu was pretty good—they made my favorite sammich of all time, the “Eat Me.” Turkey, honey-cured ham, cheese, lettuce, marinated tomatoes, and God-knows-what-else on a warm, flaky croissant. It was heavenly. They also made a coffee drink so strong that it hospitalized one girl with caffeine poisoning. It was a great hangout while it lasted.

Anyhow, about a year after they opened, the university spent bazillions of dollars on new computer labs and faster connections, and the Wired’s computers weren’t all that impressive anymore–especially since they were usually monopolized by gaming geeks. The owners decided to remodel, free up some floorspace by getting rid of the computers, and planned to reopen as a regular coffee shop. Since the old name would be obsolete, they’d call the new place “356” because it was located at 356 College Avenue. Clever, right? (I had suggested “Damn Fine Coffee,” but I’m not sure the city would have approved the name.)

It never reopened. The owners lived out of town and couldn’t stay on top of the people who were supposed to remodel the place. They let the lease run out, got rid of the equipment and furniture, and never got back into the coffee business. In 2001, someone else rented the space and opened a successful sushi bar.

Walking past that place, some good memories started to flood back—friends, music, dates, arguments, arguments on dates, chess games, kicking out perverts who were looking at adult websites while children were in the café. Unfortunately, those memories were dammed by a storefront window a few doors down.

A bar/restaurant had three silver stickers in its storefront window: a stylized “3,” a stylized “5,” and a stylized “6.” I convinced myself that I had misread at least one of the numbers, but after further review it turned out that this place—located at 366 College Avenue—really was called “356.” Bad enough the café-‘twould-have-been-called-“356” never reopened, but the mind-boggling stupidity of deliberately putting that name on the wrong building stung.

Not every change was depressing. For instance, University Ridge, a downtown apartment complex I used to live in, had burned to the ground in 2004 when some genius left a candle burning a little too close to a shower curtain. The next year, they rebuilt it, plank-for-plank. It looks exactly the same, except for a darker stain on the wood.

Also, there’s a parking garage downtown now. Yippee, parking garage, right? Yes, it’s ugly. But it’s also a heckuva lot easier to park downtown now. It would have been a useful thing to have available back in the day.

My favorite change was on the west side of College Avenue at Edgewood Avenue, where you’ll find a new plaza named for Catherine J. Smith, a former mayor of Clemson. It reminds me of the university’s Amphitheater and Reflection Pool, except of course that it’s much smaller. It’s a nice place to just sit and talk, or have a picnic, or listen to someone strumming a guitar, or simply go blank and watch the water.

We drove down Route 93, past the dike where we’d gone sledding my freshman year. That year it had snowed heavily enough to close the university for a day or two. The first night after classes were cancelled, a bunch of us took turns sledding down that snow-covered dike on an inflatable life raft, a cafeteria tray, and a big piece of cardboard wrapped in two plastic bags. The only difficulty was dodging several capped pipes that stuck out of the ground.

The highlight of that night occurred when a buddy and I were carrying the raft back up the hill just as my then-roommate came flying down on the cafeteria tray. I didn’t like this particular roommate too much, so I swung my end of the raft around, lifted—and we clotheslined him with the raft! It was awesome.

I realize that simply writing “it was awesome” does nothing to convey precisely how awesome it was to see the cafeteria tray slide the rest of the way down the hill without him, and him silently rolling down after it, and him thinking it was all an accident. But it was awesome.

In retrospect, the only complaint I had against that roommate was that he was obnoxious. He was tame compared to my later roommates. He wasn’t a slob, he wasn’t a cutter, he had neither a strumpet nor a trollop for a girlfriend, and he didn’t own a gun while abusing antipsychotic medication. Karma’s vindictive.

None of my friends live in Clemson anymore, or even within half an hour of it. The people I would visit there aren’t there anymore. If the old gang wants to get together, it’d be easier just to rent rooms in Greenville or Anderson; both are right on I-85 and are closer to where any of us lives.

Of course, this didn’t occur to me until I left the Clemson Days Inn to return to Jacksonville. Aside from the night before freshman orientation in 1993, I’d never stayed in a hotel in that town. I’d always stayed in dorm rooms or apartments or rental homes. But this time, I had to stay in a hotel. Granted, hotel rooms are usually nicer than college town apartments tended by twentysomethings, but the point remains: throughout my visit I felt like a tourist in a town that had been home for so long.

3 Responses to ““As leaving some grand waterfall, We, lingering, list its roar—””

  1. aabrock Says:
    July 20th, 2007 at 7:51 AM. Ah, memories. Thanks for an update what’s changed; I haven’t been there in a long time (2001 was the last visit through I think). But I am almost glad in a way not to see what it has become, because I would rather remember it the way that it was. I could close my eyes and mentally navigate the entire West side of campus (i.e. the “cool” side)….Cope to Sirrine to Riggs to the library, back up the path past Calhoun Mansion to Harcombe and finally back to Cope room 200. Good times. Though I never clotheslined someone with an inflatable raft; I vented all of my rage through Robert’s Super Nintendo.

    Shame about the Newsstand closing, I can’t imagine a Friday after class without stopping by to get comics, cards and whatever interesting book happened to be on the clearance table by the front door.

    Time to go to Google Earth and pull up some campus pictures, just for nostalgia’s sake.

  2. Doctor Hmnahmna Says:
    July 21st, 2007 at 7:30 AM. I’m sure “Jockey J.” thinks he can get from Easley to Clemson in less than 30 minutes, but hey.

    And Robert’s SNES did make a special guest appearance during the get-together. I still suck at Mario Kart.

    By the way, Clemson has continued the tradition of inscribing the names of all the graduates into sidewalks around campus. Several alumni of “Carroll’s School” found them after you guys left. I found yours and mine, but didn’t think to look for too many others. Our bricks, including the classes of 1996 and 1997, are just outside the new Hendrix Student Center, near the high-rises.

  3. VDV Says:
    July 22nd, 2007 at 11:23 PM. I forgot to write that I won a MarioKart tournament, edging Robert on the Rainbow Road!

    Now I have to go back and find my brick.