Timehop reminded me of simpler timers this morning; times when a bottomless cup of coffee cost $2.10, when a comfy couch was always available, and times when I was not surrounded by strangers, but friends I hadn’t met yet. College Perk was my happy place; it was the place I went when skipping classes in high school and community college, the place I went on a Friday night looking for fun, and the place I went to seek refuge from my parents’ house. More than an escape, it was a place I felt I belonged.
I discovered College Perk my senior year of high school; I was skipping school with a friend and she suggested we go there. Not knowing what it was and intrigued by the name alone, I obliged her request. It was initially difficult to find at first, but over the years, I mastered it: head north of the University of Maryland on route 1 and get into the left-hand turn lane immediately after passing the exits to MD-193. It was easy to overshoot the entrance, which I did many a time, as it looked like a residence more than it did a coffee shop.
After driving up the gravel driveway for the first time, I knew I had found a special place before even entering the building. As soon as you entered College Perk (affectionately known as “The Perk”), the smell of coffee beans and sandwiches and the brightly-painted walls overstimulated your senses. The college kids who worked there were kind and patient, had brightly colored hair and tattoos and piercings, and could tell you what on the menu was good and what to avoid. The bottomless cup of coffee was $2.10 including tax (back when tax was 5% in Maryland), and it was the best financial decision you would make all day. The regulars, to me, were the most interesting bunch of rag-tag weirdos and artists and freaks I had ever encountered.
I was in heaven.
The Perk was a prime people-watching experience. It was interesting to listen in on conversations between undergraduate philosophy students and guys arguing over what their band name should be, and young folks not knowing what major they should commit to. It made college seem much more appealing to me, as I developed hopes of having similar conversations about Nietzsche, or Sartre, or Kierkegaard. I mean, hell, everyone seemed much more intelligent, passionate, and interesting when I was 18.
After graduation from high school, I went abroad in an attempt to go to college and make a new life and identity for myself, only to come home about eight months later, defeated and feeling low. My close friends from high school were spread out across the country (luckily my best friend stayed in-state, only an hour away), and the friends that were local weren’t the best influences, I suppose. I chose to reunite with the characters I befriended at the perk: Johnny on the Couch, Little Jewish Jimmy, and Big Irish Jimmy being a few of them. We would laugh, smoke cigarettes, ply ourselves with endless amounts of coffee, and talk shit all day, every day. That feeling of belonging and community was restored, and I felt at home.
I attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time on the front porch of The Perk. It was getting chillier, but I didn’t care. I had fingerless gloves for writing, a heavy coat, and coffee to warm my hands. As the temperature took a nosedive just before Thanksgiving, I took my novel-writing inside, only to be distracted by endless people-watching. I got about 10,000 words into my novel, abandoning it months later. As I was told by several mentors in the writing field, sometimes you have to “kill your babies.”
I wrote a lot of bad poetry at The Perk. I still have the journal, and I keep it to remind myself that writing styles change with personal growth. The journal encapsulates where I was in life and where I was headed, my never-ending beat poet phase, and my shitty self-esteem brought on by constant romantic rejection. It’s good to remember that stuff; I think it puts things into perspective.
After about three years strictly attending The Perk, I considered myself a regular at the establishment, often there three times per week or more. Things changed during that period of time. The menu began offering vegetarian and vegan options, the options overall became more highbrow, including tapenade, grilled radicchio, and grilled cheese sandwiches with brie and prosciutto. The Perk obtained a liquor license and began attracting a new crowd that emphasized drinking and partying over coffee and conversation. Walls with traced hand prints, silly quotes, and messages for newcomers were getting painted over. Chris, the owner, was trying to class up the establishment to compete with other local hangouts, and the “improvements” made changed the dynamic of the place.
The Perk had pushed away it’s original target audience. There was no more Johnny on the couch, no more Little Jewish Jimmy. Big Irish Jimmy remained, but he became even more lecherous after several strong drinks. My attendance started to wane after that. Two times a week, once a week, and then finally every so often with weeks and even months passing between visits.
I had ignored The Perk for the bulk of 2008, only to find out that it had closed in June due to an electrical fire after the fact. Chris attempted to reopen, and then attempted to find another location, but permits and foreclosure stood in his way. After 2009, all optimism of The Perk reopening had fizzled out.
My inner displaced misfit felt very similar to The Flying Dutchman, and I felt doomed to wander aimlessly without a port, a place to anchor myself, in sight. The oddball collective had officially disbanded. There was no longer safe haven readily available. After mourning the loss, the quest to find a replacement began, but after several attempts, it became abundantly clear that The Perk was unique and incomparable and could never be replaced. After all, “lighting doesn’t strike twice in the same spot.”
After that, The Perk became a backdrop for most stories told to others about my early 20’s. I looked back on it fondly and still do. My best friend and I easily recall instances from “when we were young,” when we encountered a vegan performance artist with a unicycle, or listened to the worst local band of all time, or when we had that conversation that deepened our bond.
In honor of College Perk and the stories that came from it, I give you some Neutral Milk Hotel for your Sunday. A song about being young, about dysfunction, and about recalling all those moments.