Around Town: Cambridge Bars

With campus social culture having reached the all-time low of referenda colonizing Pusey Library, it seems time to venture out of the Harvard bubble, to get out with a few friends, and rearrange the sensible.
By Colton A. Valentine

French philosopher Jacques Rancière coined the term “distribution of the sensible” to refer to how our thoughts and actions are limited to socially pre-selected ideas and sensations that lie in close proximity. Abstraction was unthinkable to the realists. Mired in the alimentary distribution of HUDS food, we forget the very senses of figs or anise.

When it comes to Cambridge bars, my distribution seems sensible: Shay’s to spot TFs drowning their dissertation despairs; Alden and Harlow when oolong tea cocktails justify the rowdy, glass-breaking HBSers. But with campus social culture having reached the all-time low of referenda colonizing Pusey Library, it seems time to shatter that distribution, to get out with a few friends, and rearrange the sensible.

A few questions are on my mind as we walk down Mass. Ave.: Do Cambridge bars facilitate inclusive communities? Do they require endless bureaucratic hurdles to sanction a single soirée? Do they post events on TheHub? Are there green grazing pastures for post-grad excellent sheep? Panegyrics preferred on Marcel Proust or Martin Heidegger?

Brick & Mortar

Our first stop is faux-speakeasy, in that it requires asking around for the precise location: above Central Square’s well-named Central Kitchen. A man at the door imposes power relations and social capital dynamics when he asks not only for my name, but for identification! I feel excluded. But once I take a seat upstairs, all is well: Tall glasses of water arrive in moments, proving the bar’s scrupulous adherence to DAPA training. I turn to the cocktail list, considering the “Alaska” and “El Niño,” but after worrying about regionalist and linguistic implications, I end up requesting the “Stepsister”: strawberry infused mescal, Santa Maria al Monte, lime, and chili bitters. I do this mostly to vex those around me by reviewing German vocab—“Die Erdbeere!”—so I’m disappointed when B & M reports they’ve run out of the principle ingredient. In exchange, they propose a mixture of habanero liqueur and cassis, which makes no sense to me, and I consider torpedoing their Q score for distributing a libelous syllabus.

But, I reason, the unexpected tincture might offer a transformational, rather than transactional, education. And, after reading Proust’s madeleine scene earlier today, I’m craving a gustatory activation of involuntary memory that reveals an essential identity beyond social construction. One sip of the bastardized-“Stepsister” certainly sends me back, but it rips my brain in half: Cassis is a Provençal summer, rising political conservatism and too-loud American tourists; habanero is Cancun spring break, rising BACs and too-loud American tourists. I like the drink, but am saddened by how it reaffirms that humans are collections of in-collapsable paradoxes. Crystal Stilts alternates with D’Angelo and the Vanguard, and we talk about how we’re getting old. Then “Hola’ Hovito” comes on, a well-heeled crowd starts to sway, and it’s time to leave.

Miracle of Science

“Wow, this is very different,” my friend says, as we enter the MIT staple with a distinct lack of menus and no water. Without pre-selected, delineated options, our sheep cardiac systems head into overdrive, and when the bartender asks what we want, we schedule an office hours appointment to complain about the unfair midterm question. Eventually, though, we spot a periodic table on the wall and make a beeline to memorize the information in the hope that simple knowledge will give us a sense of meaning in this arbitrary world. It turns out this is the menu: M stands for Porter and W is IPA.

Well, this is useless, I think. The whole point of science is that it is a self-affirming ideology that presumes an objective framework. I didn’t trek all the way to Kendall for more arbitrary signifiers that re-assert the absurdity of language. But going off the section rule that proposing a dialectic is the best way to approach any uncertain situation, I ask the bartender which is darker: the porter or dark lager. He parleys with pure Hegelian synthesis, shrugging, “The same.” Shit, I think, this place is smart. We’re asked once more for IDs, and I consider summoning the cassis-habanero incident to explain that in this dire cultural-culinary moment, even involuntary memory grants no singular, cohesive sense of self. But I’m distracted by an older woman in glasses eating a sandwich, gazing forlornly out at the street. Her grey hair serves as an impromptu napkin. If she’s learned to privately, tragically accept MoS’s logocentric demands and unmotivated linguistic symbols, maybe I can, too. "I think by January I’ll be ready to date again,” says one friend. “Those girls are the same ones dancing at the other place,” notes the other. It’s time to leave.

The Kirkland Tap & Trotter

Though the restaurant’s name promises a porcine ambiance, the maitre d’ offers us avian imagery instead: A blinding light emanates from a birdcage, behind which his aquiline figure screeches that we’ll have to wait 30 minutes for a dinner table. We show him the reservation, but he insists that evidence means nothing in a fraught, nihilistic world. “I’m worried about your system,” I say, preparing to explain that we’re all trapped in Foucauldian systems of power that co-opt our every action and leave no space for agency. “Yeah I worry about my system, too,” he shrugs, brilliantly executing the ironic self-criticism characteristic of late-capitalist institutions, against which critic and consumer alike remain powerless.

Baffled at these locales’ intimate knowledge of contemporary theory, I head to the bar whose ambiance features candles behind wine bottles, a distinct lack of cigarette smoke, a stone mermaid goddess that reminds us of Pablo Neruda’s house, a pig (aha!), and a deeply perturbing city limits sign. “Cambridge is not a city,” my friend explains, falsely presuming that a-priori definitions exist outside of syllogism and wills to power. “But a real city wouldn’t have that sign anyway because it's home-carved.” I start to worry that her ontological framework posits a reality.

What is real, though, is the impossible task of acquiring a drink. This bar is crowded, and I make a mental note to sign a petition for smaller section sizes. Eventually, we acquire a “Mystic ‘Fukuoka’ Sorachi-Hopped Saison” and a KTT “Crock” Toddy with Aged rum, black tea, spices, and Bertha’s Love. The first does not seem to have a sufficiently ritualized cultural history to claim the signifier mystic, but the second comes in a warm porcelain cup with clove-studded orange. Like the British Empire, I find myself distracted from massive injustice by tea. We sip slowly, ’til it’s time to head back to the sensible.

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