Friday, June 22, 2007
Remember the Rat Cellar
In the ancient times of the 1970's, when I was a student at UMass, the most popular place for students to go drink (besides your dorm) was a place called The Drake. There is a bit of graffiti (above) related to the now defunct establishment which apparently no one has the heart to remove. I remember the place well, it was located in what is now an upscale apartment block.
The building is located by the Historical Society and almost across the street from that popular, if stuffy new hangout located in the old Amherst Cinema building, Amherst Coffee.
Don't put too much stock in me calling it stuffy, remember that my standards were set by the Pine Point Cafe, a place where at times no laws of God nor Man applied. It is on the side of the cinema building facing the parking lot that the Save the Drake graffiti can still be seen.
Yes, boys and girls, it is true - in the 1970's the drinking age in Massachusetts was eighteen! We actually had a soda machine in the front lobby of my dorm except instead of dispensing Coke and Pepsi it sold Bud and Miller. That meant that if you ran out of beer you could keep the party going from the vending machine. Except on Sundays, because the machine was always sold-out after Saturday night and wasn't refilled until Monday.
So on our beerless Sundays we would often go to the Drake, or more precisely, it's downstairs dive, The Rathskeller. The locals with money favored the Drake proper, but the Rathskeller was for boozy hippies like me and my roomies. It was great, Carl Mayfield's Martian Highway used to play there a lot and everyone smoked so much pot in the restrooms that newcomers could find the toilets just by following the smoke plume. This was a clientele that did not "Just Say NO."
In those days the answer was always yes.
It was years before I realized what the real name of the Rathskeller was. Here is the internet definition of what I believe is originally a German word:
A restaurant or tavern, usually below street level, that serves beer.
For a long time I thought the name was "Rat Cellar" as did most of my friends. It wasn't until we saw an article in the Hampshire Gazette about a drug bust in the joint that we realized its real name. It seemed strange to us - "Rat Cellar" may have been technically wrong but it was spiritually more accurate. The old entrance to the Rathskeller/Rat Cellar has been sealed off from the modern building, although you can still see a faint outline of it.
When the Drake/Rathskeller closed sometime in the 1980's there was a great outpouring of that old canard about it being "the end of an era" except in this case it was true. The closing represented the triumph of the new Amherst - Amherst as the academic Longmeadow. People with real serious money were moving into town, people who were fleeing Boston or who were the last remnants of Springfield's upper crust. The Drake/Rathskeller with its dirty hippies and wild times just didn't fit anymore. When it closed everyone knew that it meant that the flower-power era that had dominated Amherst throughout the 60's and 70's, making it the counterculture capital of Western Mass, was over. The local hippies either became yuppies and joined the new establishment or fled to rural sanctuaries in nearby towns like Pelham, Sunderland and Whately.
But in a town that is obsessed with cleanliness and appearances and otherwise acts with alacrity to remove graffiti everywhere else, after all these years no one in Amherst can quite bring themselves to scrub away that "Save the Drake" spray painted on that brick wall. That pleases me, because it means that on some level Amherst still remembers what it used to be.
Speaking of Pine Point, the infamous Mean Mary Jean sends along this classic postcard. (click to enlarge)
Can anyone date the cars well enough to put forth a guess of how old this is?
Finally, here is a video of me walking out in the field to meet some friends for a Celebration of the Solstice ceremony.