This story was submitted as an assignment for the MatadorU Travel Writing program.
4:45pm

The sun is just breaking through a sky that’s been overcast all day, dressed in white like the hostess at The Mad Greek. She’s got long, blonde hair cascading over her shoulders halfway down her back. Her skin is pale, blush on her cheeks. She seems angelic somehow, like a female Cupid who matches people with tables rather than with lovers as a bouzouki soundtrack plays on the stereo. “Table for one,” I say.

She smiles and grabs a menu. I glance at a paper tablet filled with names and times. “Are those all reservations for tonight?” I ask.

She raises her eyebrows slightly and says, “Yeah,” with a just audible sigh.

“Figured I’d go out early, just in case.”

“Good idea. Really good idea.” She seats me at a table next to the kitchen, where I can see servers and bussers in Mad Greek shirts and black pants busying themselves, making certain everything is ready for tonight. At present just a few people are seated, and it seems like a slow night. But it’s just the quiet before the love storm.

Boutari Kretikos Red, one of three Greek wines on the Mad Greek’s wine and drinks list. I decide against Ouzo No. 12, because I figure it would lead to nothing but trouble.

Everyone has their own way of celebrating Valentine’s Day, it seems. The people a block over at Louise’s, prepping with booze and beer at 4:30pm, playing pool, laughing at tasteless jokes, listening to rock songs on the jukebox; the girl I overheard the other night at The Replay who’s getting hot wings with her boyfriend at Buffalo Wild Wings then going to see loud, screamy, rockabilly-influenced punk bands at the Jackpot; DJ Baby Grandma, whoever that is, who will be hosting Sad Bastard Night at The Replay later in the evening; the people taking advantage of the Eldridge’s Valentine’s Day special and renting a room together for $115 after enjoying dinner for two at the hotel’s now nondescript dining area that looks like a high-class cafeteria rather than the classy, ’20s-style saloon it used to evoke. The servers have their work cut out for them tonight, bearing the weight of the city’s love.

Love. Whatever it is. Centuries ago, Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, ignited flames in the hearts of men. She probably ate gyros on the shores of the Mediterranean. I think of her as I finish my gyro, and then I discover that tiramisu and wine is a deadly combination. I’m sure Aphrodite used it to seduce her lovers. The combination of the creamy, slightly coffee taste of the dessert and the full-bodied but not over-powering Boutari Kretikos Red makes me feel giddy and decadent.

6:00pm

The Bourgeios Pig is one of Lawrence’s combination coffeeshop/cocktail bars and is filled with people who seem to have no concern for Valentine’s Day nor love nor anything other than what’s happening on their laptop computers or cell phones. Three people at a corner table are engaged in conversation and do not appear to want unwelcomed visitors intruding on their deep thoughts. I order one of the Valentine’s Day specials, a kir royale, probably on special because there’s leftover cheap champagne from New Year’s Eve, and, rather than create a scene by assuming anyone would enjoy my company, I make my way to the cramped back seating area, which always smells of beer and cigarette smoke.

Along the wall are seated a big hillbilly-looking guy with red hair and overalls drinking a Negro Modelo, a girl with a brace on her right wrist who keeps stating that her mouth is disgusting from staying up “for like 80 hours,” and a guy with unwashed hair in a jean jacket who apparently is the strong, silent type but ironically funny when he does say something. I sit next to Jamie on the opposite bench. She’s wearing a skirt, blouse, well-fitted grey wool coat with belt strap, and a green scarf. Everyone sings the chorus to “Purple Rain.” By coincidence, we’re all going to Liberty Hall’s special Valentine’s Day screening of Prince’s Purple Rain at 8:00pm.

Liberty Hall has “purple champagne” this Valentine’s Day. These and other “sexy drink specials” make it easy to enjoy Prince dancing around in flashy clothes. The venue is at the corner of 7th and Mass., across from Starbucks. Of the two cinemas in town, Liberty Hall plays art-house and independent films. The other movie house, the Southwind, plays major motion pictures and is located on Iowa St. at the city limits, in the generic section of town with all the nondescript building abstractions featuring familiar stores such as Target, Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and several car lots, none of which make a city unique or distinct.

7:55pm

The marquee announces Chasing Ice, Late Quartet, Purple Rain. Through the glass doors reading “Exit Only,” people can be seen walking through a brightly lit room either going through the central curtains to sit at tables or up the antique marble stairs to sit in the balcony. The lobby is lit by the same chandeliers that have been hanging since Liberty Hall was built in 1912 and make it seem inviting in comparison to the dark, near-empty street outside, strewn with dead leaves blown by the wind.

It’s quiet on the street. There’s the sound of traffic and distant conversation. Footsteps. A car radio playing some pop song. The rustle of leaves. I open the door to the box office just to the right of the marquee and can almost feel the conversation from the couple hundred people who have shown up tonight. It’s the sound of people having a great time.

The line to the dimly lit concession stand is out to the lobby. Popcorn bursts out from a metal pan in an old-fashioned popcorn maker. A worker fills a bag with it. The buttery smell of goodness fills the air. Ten minutes pass. I order one of the drink specials and make my way out of the room to find Jamie.

Jamie is sitting at a table on the floor level with two of our friends, Jessica and Jennifer. “Did you get the purple champagne?” Jamie asks. I nod and take a sip. Purple champagne is made of champagne and purple. Whatever the purple is, it’s somewhat fruity and tastes nice. Jessica has one as well and says, “I could drink these all night.”

An emcee takes the stage. The auditorium silences. “Welcome to the sexiest Valentine ever!” Everyone applauds. He makes a few announcements, thanks the student radio station KJHK for sponsoring the event, then says, “We’re going to wait a few minutes to start the movie because you guys are drinking a lot more than we expected. I’m proud of you!” Rambunctious applause.

I find myself thinking of what Liberty Hall must have been like in the late ’60s, when it was called Red Dog Inn and functioned as the apex of the local music scene, and KU students would fill the place so they could party and drink beer. Or when it was turned into a disco in the ’70s called Bugsy’s. In a way, I wish they would have kept the light-up dance floor.

8:20pm

The lights go down. Cheers and whistles rise up. Prince himself may as well have been onstage as the first few bars of “Let’s Go Crazy” start. The audience sings along with the songs. A drunk man to my left gives periodic commentary on what’s happening in the film. Everyone cheers when Prince’s abusive onscreen father says, “Never get married.” People all around wave their hands back and forth in the air during the title track. Then, “I Would Die for U.” Suddenly I find myself leaving my friends at the table and rushing toward the stage with a group of people, all of us dancing like maniacs to the music of Prince. An attractive blonde girl in her 20s on my right. A middle-aged woman up towards the stage. A brunette in her 30s to my left. Dancing with around three dozen women on Valentine’s Day — not bad for starting the night off alone.

Back at the table I ask Jamie what she thought of the movie. She hadn’t seen it before tonight. I’ve seen Prince live in concert four times and had been building this up for at least two weeks. She says, “There’s no question Prince has talent. But I think the movie was a boobish attempt at showing off.”

Thinking about this, I decide not to stick around for karaoke.

People after the movie deciding whether to stay for karaoke or to go somewhere else to drink. Notice the lack of couples making out. It seems Valentine’s Day is just another excuse to drink in Lawrence, KS. On the following Sunday, as part of its Film Church series, Liberty Hall is screening Punch Drunk Love.