“College” has a bar, and it is named KAM’s – all caps, just like R.E.M. and UNICEF. KAM’s is located in Champaign, Ill., on Daniel Street, across from some University of Illinois Greek residences, the Psychology building and hopefully not far from the local hospital. It smells like the inside of a shot glass filled to the brim with Jaeger, tobacco, vomit and lowered expectations, which I guess smell a little bit like Sears.
When I say “college” I mean the popular, universal term built on a premise of fantasy. Actual, real college is a combination of classes, parties, rites of passage and newfound and newly appreciated independence. I think it’s fair to say that in college we experience change internally based on how we react and adapt to the mix of people and ideas constantly floating around us, whether we acquire this evolved persona in the classroom, the Sorority/Frat house/dorm, or the bar.
“College” is the flawed perception we inherit and envision as reality after watching a bunch of crappy, R-rated Tom Green movies during our adolescence. It’s Road Trip when a girlfriend destroys a boyfriend’s car because she fears he’s cheating on her, or Van Wilder when Ryan Reynolds acts like a douche in every scene, or Old School when Snoop Dogg performs in a front yard and we all go streaking. There are no books at “college,” the keg never runs out or even needs to be pumped, and the girls are all 10s. Jennifer Garner would be considered unattractive in “college.”
College is awesome, but on most nights, probably for the better of America, it’s not “college.” KAM’s, though, is “college.”
I went there on Saturday night. The weather was pleasant, crisp enough for a jacket, yet warm enough to go shirtless (this detail will make sense later). Many students milled about downtown, a majority wearing the blue and orange of the Illini. For a town plagued by terrible sports teams for so long, the school spirit is surprisingly strong. Even the porta-potties are painted blue and orange.
I went out with a colleague who is 32-years-old and married. We were not of the college crowd, least of all the “college” crowd, but he had distant memories of KAM’s from visits to Champaign during his college years. He didn’t actually remember the bar. He just remembered it as a place that existed. We decided to go.
The smell greets you first, holy hell does it greet you first. The stench oozes out of the doorway onto the sidewalk, turning away the conscious and enticing the blacked out, the aroma of puke and High Life not unlike the temptation of gorgonzola for mice.
A doorman checked our I.D.’s, scanning them without saying a word. When we walked in, I wondered if he had checked anyone else’s. The majority of the crowd looked like the type who obtained their Papa Giorgio I.D. by sticking their head through an opening of giant, novelty license and having a friend take their picture. Welcome to KAM’s!
Unbeknownst to my friend or myself upon entry, KAM’s is actually famous, or maybe famous. Multiple Yelp users indicated that KAM’s was named the top college bar in America by Playboy. This is highly possible because Hugh Hefner graduated from Illinois, but Wikipedia attempts to discredit this fact, saying it might or might not be true and lacks certified evidence.*
*I’m all for pointing out half-truths and discussing the need for legitimate evidence before posting something online, but come on, right back at ya Wikipedia!
Top college bar or no, the stick greets you second. Alien plasma covers the floor, or maybe just liquor. I’m convinced it’s alien plasma, though. You better select a great spot to stand/watch sports/hit on a member of the opposite sex because within minutes your feet will lock themselves in place, trapping you without mercy, making it awkwardly impossible to do the Cupid Shuffle.
I ordered each of us a tall Miller High life, and we settled into the spots from which we would not be able to leave. Loud hip-hop and pop music played. Then the sound of a crash split through the bar. It sounded like a piano falling and was actually a structure of the same size. Some drunken idiot knocked over the DJ booth. Repeat: A Ryan Reynolds wannabe knocked over the DJ booth.
I looked around expecting security to swarm. At bars in Lawrence, security throws you out for drinking one minute past 1:30, which is thirty minutes before the bar closes. Here, no one came. The music kept playing, and the DJ booth was set up right a few minutes later.
That’s when I noticed there was no DJ. I’d heard a voice shouting on a microphone, but it did not belong to a partying mercenary. This voice actually belonged to a common man. Patrons were just walking up to the DJ booth and picking a songs off a MacBook and some of them felt like shouting drunken messages over the sound system.
I looked to my left. A college kid was leaving with two lady friends. He finished a beer, walked right by a trash can and continued walking. Instead of disposing of his bottle, he threw it as hard as he could against the floor. Crickets.
The atmosphere made it seem like the bar’s owner was out of town, and the Illinois students decided to throw a destructive party while he was gone. At one point, three girls were dancing on tables, two dudes were chilling on top of the bar rather than on barstools, and another guy entered wearing sunglasses and no shirt. Thank God he had shoes.
We had stumbled into a fantasy world. I expected the ghost of John Belushi to appear at any second. Hell, I wouldn’t have given a weird look if Bacchus walked through the door, carrying a fake I.D. and the ancient Greek equivalent of Franzia, asking someone to slap the bag.
It was amazing. If you live in Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, or Abu Dhabi, make it a vacation and go to this bar. Just don’t wear flip-flops.
At one point, I needed to get another drink and spotted one of those mobile bars in the corner stocked with a few bottled beers buried in ice and one bartender to sell them. I made the journey over, my soles super-glued to the filth. Lifting each foot required the brute force of John Henry and the dainty precision of Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
The bartender laughed at my sticky feet. What are the odds, I joked.
I asked her about the place: Is it always this crazy?
“What are you talking about?” she replied, perplexed.
Her voice had the inflection of a “college” woman. This was KAM’s, where Animal House plays in vivid reality apparently all the time, and, by the way, it was only 11:30.