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Who was I in college?

Come back to Columbia, grab a booth, and you just might find out.

Photo by Heath Cajandig

Every Mizzou graduate knows the most important two places in their memories of college aren’t the Quad or the Columns or a dorm or even part of the actual campus. When we come back, we must get burgers and pizza because they’re delicious, sure, but mostly because they prompt an emotional response that is as complex to articulate as the food is simple to love. It’s part of a cultural language Mizzou people speak. A shibboleth. When my friend and then Head Ball Coach Barry Odom won the recruiting battle for transferring star quarterback Kelly Bryant, I texted him a note of congratulations. The HBC, as he’s saved in my phone, replied in TigerCode with a joyous answer that only a Mizzou grad would think to write and one only a Mizzou grad could decipher. “I’m gonna eat two Booches burgers with a Shakespeare’s slice between them,” he said, and I leaned back and smiled because I knew how he felt.

I also know why he felt it because with middle age comes a legion of introspective quests, including trying to understand the ways in which a pizza joint and a pool hall run through the story of my life and the lives of my friends and the lives of many who will read this. Here’s the best way I can explain. Not long ago when my wife and I brought our 18-month-old daughter to Columbia, we brought her to Booches and Shakespeare’s, and I took pictures of her first bites of both. I don’t know what I’ll ever do with those pictures, which mostly show a slightly blurry toddler chewing, but I know it felt like a moment to document. I was much more diligent in photographically stalking those bites than her first steps, I’ll tell you that. She had partaken of the sacraments — the body of Brock and the blood of Norm — and was now a member of the tribe.

A side effect of nostalgia is fear, so I spend an irrational amount of time and energy worried that Shakes or Booches or both will be swallowed by whatever new-construction fungus has become endemic to the downtown Columbia cityscape. Most people forget that the news about Shakespeare’s being torn down broke on April Fools’ Day. It set off a storm of a text thread in our group of college friends.

We all lost it, predictably.

Tony wrote, “Downtown Shakes to be demolished?”

That pretty much destroyed whatever else we’d planned on doing the rest of the day. Honestly, if I had to choose between Shakes and Booches versus the Columns … you know what, I shouldn’t finish that sentence because of how things live forever on the internet, but you get the idea, and so I wrote back:

“What??”

Justin sent a link to the Trib story.

“April Fools,” I wrote confidently.

“I hate that,” Tony said.

“Not April Fools,” Justin wrote.

“You sure?” I said.

“Yup,” Steve wrote. “Apparently building a new building on top of it. Shakes will be back in first floor. It’s for real.”

“I don’t buy it,” Seth wrote. “Any other day, I would.”

“Dear Seth!” Tony cracked. “I’ll miss you most of all.”

“It makes sense they’re going to try to recreate it,” Daimon wrote, “but I can’t believe a new space will have the same feel.”

“It won’t,” Tony said. “You can never go home. Once they recreate Booches and the Blue Note, I’ll be completely homeless.”

At this point, I decided to use the training I got at Mizzou and do some reporting. I called Shakespeare’s and got the owner on the phone. Before long, I wrote the group back with the sad news.

“It’s real,” I wrote. “I just called.”

“I still don’t buy it,” Seth said.

“I talked to Kurt,” I replied. “Torn down by end of May. This is real.”

“Seth is in deep denial,” Tony wrote.

“If it’s true, we have to all get there before it goes,” Seth said, finally accepting reality. “We have a month and a half.”

My job for ESPN regularly brings me in contact with people who are forever building and repairing an identity, to allow them to compete, to deal with doubt and insecurity, to market themselves to consumers. Identity and memory have become themes that I return to again and again. Naturally, this fit seamlessly into my ongoing fascination with why exactly my friends and I care so much about a pizza parlor and a burger joint. Plenty of obvious possibilities come to mind: It’s comforting for aging men and women to visit the places where they were once young, to go looking for that vanishing youth; it’s a place where memories are accessed more easily, where the physical space actually summons those buried memories to the surface. Maybe this is where we can laugh about things we’re glad to have left behind or ponder what might have been or who we might have become.

But when I revisit those haunts — and Ernie’s and Sub Shop and so many others — I’m not convinced. Every time I go to Booches or Shakespeare’s, I am joined by the college kid I was when I first fell in love with them. Returning to such places puts us all across a narrow table from our younger selves. Ordering a slice or a burger and sitting knee to knee with me minus 20 years, stripped of my mask and its justification, is a rare gift. We almost never get to get reacquainted with the best version of ourselves, at this place where dreams began, before they got exposed to life and started to decay.

I arrived in Columbia in the fall of 1996 with the dream of being a writer. But emotionally and spiritually, I was wandering and in search of a larger purpose. Before long, I met the men on the text thread — Seth, Steve, Justin, Tony, Daimon — and clarified my goal: I wanted to be a magazine writer who created the kinds of stories we loved — deeply reported and yet literary. By the time I left Mizzou, I was energized and nearly monastic in my desire to do right by this newly found and better self. When I think back to what I learned in college, the truth is I learned who I was and what I wanted and, as important, what I didn’t want. That ideas are preserved for inspection in caloric amber at my old college joints, and no matter how busy work or family gets, whenever I return, I am reborn in a way.

Photo by Notley Hawkins

Four years ago, a group of us flew back to Columbia in the last week before the original Shakespeare’s closed for demolition. We got a suite at the Tiger Hotel to act as home base, should we need a locale for late-night shenanigans. The first night, we emailed the Missourian sports reporters and invited them to meet us at Booches. They asked questions, we told stories, and all of us imagined a different world that seemed far away. I’m putting words in their mouths, but I suspect they wanted to be us and we wanted to be them. Before I went to sleep, one of the Missourian guys had already sent a note of thanks and another wrote in the morning.

The next day, we all met at Shakespeare’s.

We all have so many memories of the place, from the smell of pizza to the crumbs on the floor to the Liquor, Guns & Ammo sign, that now it’s hard for me to remember anything that happened during this return meal. I don’t recall the scenes at all, just the feelings. I remembered feeling joy and regret, but I couldn’t pull out any specific image. It mattered enough to me that I flew to Missouri to eat pizza, yet in the manic circus of life, the details slipped away, like so many things. After running a thousand miles a minute for going on 20 years now, today takes up so much of my energy that it can be a struggle to remember. Maybe that’s why I’m so obsessed with it — and why I love just spending a day at Booches and Shakespeare’s. And yes, I often hit both in the same day. I’m not trying to make new memories as much as I am visiting old friends who grew up and disappeared a long time ago. I want back some of what I’ve forgotten or misplaced.

Maybe that’s why my memories of these two places come as snapshots, separated by years and stripped of time and context, forming a gauzy, warm montage:

I remember my friend Justin wearing a white Cardinals hat, but I can’t tell if he’s young or old. I remember the bar at Shakes on the day of Seth’s graduation, drinking a pitcher of Guinness. I remember balancing knives and forks, a salt shaker, a parm cheese shaker, and a red pepper shaker on a stack of white plates. I remember doing that at 21, at 31, at 41. Four faded pink napkins are slung over my forearm. Longnecks of Stag. Maker’s Mark in sawed-off whiskey glasses. Getting takeout on the Elm Street side with a college girlfriend. Boulevard Wheat and Pale Ale. A party before my wedding. The sound of raw beef hitting the flattop and of clicking pool balls. Pizza Time for Wright. The strange fever dream of the Los Banditos location. A motorcycle or old baseball stars on the wall. Three burgers with a bowl of red. Barbecue chips.

Photo by Notley Hawkins

Sometimes the fragments come in pairs. I’m at Booches with my dad talking over my classes and my future; then he’s been dead 15 years and I can’t remember the sound of his voice. I’m 43 and with my toddler daughter, and, in her eyes, I suddenly see my father and hear his voice again as she tries to find hers. I’m standing in line with friends for Shakespeare’s slices between classes; then it’s nearly two decades later and we are back with our sons and daughters. It’s senior year and we are at the round window table at Booches, wondering if we might ever find success; then we are at that same table as middle-aged adults returning for a speaking engagement, surrounded by students wanting to know how we went from their seats to ours. Time really is a construct, a fragile one at that. One of my Mizzou professors, George Kennedy, is standing at the end of the bar eating a tenderloin sandwich for lunch; then a decade later, he’s still standing there.

He’ll always be standing there.

The bartender at Booches nods at me when I come in, even if it’s been years, and a small, nihilistic part of me knows that the change that’s come to downtown — do you remember coffee at Osama’s or whiskey at Widmans — could one day overtake Shakes and Booches. Columbia is changing. We are all changing. Magazines like this one print class notes in the back, where we get to see who got married, who got promoted and who hit the big time. I’m 43 now, and my friends are all around the same age. Sometimes it feels like we spend 45 percent of our lives trying to be something, 10 percent of our lives being it and 45 percent having been it. We are at the top of the mountain for another decade or so, and then we’ll start the slide down. We rise together, and we fall together. Those class notes will include marriages, children, announcements of retirements, notices of death. But at the two most important restaurants in our old college town, all that is left outside the door. As long as we can go back and wander through the rooms of our past, we can pretend that future will never arrive. It’s pizza time for all of us. There’s time for all of us. There’s always time.

About the author: A decorated writer of literary nonfiction, Wright Thompson, BJ ’01, lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Sonia, BJ ’02, and their daughter, Wallace. Thompson is a senior writer at ESPN, executive producer of TrueSouth and co-executive producer of Backstory.

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