Michael Jackson’s “Man in The Mirror” is blasting through the speakers at the Seagrape. The clock reads 9:45 p.m. as the breakdown commences at Fairfield University students’ favorite bar.
As the chairs are stacked and moved to the side, the couple of stragglers dance with pool sticks while bartender and bouncers begin mouthing “Man in The Mirror.” An older man, perhaps in his fifties, begins to belt the song into the bottom of his beer. He calls the bartender over and asks for another shot and a jack and Coca-Cola.
I glance toward him and he says, “don’t mention my name.” “Don’t mention my name. I don’t want to be in the story. I could write a book about this place.”
A woman saunters over to him and jokes that he will never remember her name, although she has known him for years.
“I remember when you would ride off on your bike after a night out,” she laughed.
The bartender chimes in, “and we would tell him to just walk the bike back.”
She laughs and hugs the man. He turns to me and asks what I want to drink. I tell him vodka cranberry. The DJ begins to play music from the hits 100 chart and the man frantically asks the bartender if it is already 10 p.m. The bartender nods.
“Already?!” the man yells and grabs his jacket. He exchanges words with me for a while, none of which I can really decipher, except for that he keeps yelling, “I am a townie!” and then stumbles out the bar just as the disco lights turn on.
The bar’s afternoon crowd of regulars file out and preparations are underway for an evening crowd of rowdy college students. Anything suspect of makeshift weaponry use is put in the back, including the darts and pool cues. The place is well prepared for a wild group and is just short of being bubble wrapped.
Within 15 minutes, the scene will transform from a couple pals hanging out, reminiscing about old times, and discussing future endeavors, to a sweaty- heated pack of students in their 20s pounding back shots while trying to get laid.
The townies and the students might drink from the same watering hole, but rarely ever at the same time.
Where it all Began…
Prior to being the Seagrape, the bar location has been known under multiple names since the 60’s and 70’s – one notable name being The Nautilus back in the 80’s, old Fairfield students remember the bar under that name. It was not until November of 1985 that The Nautilus closed. The Fairfield University class of 1986 searched for an alternative oasis to spend their nights partying, but nothing adequately filled the space of the beloved bar.
Finally, they came up with solution to temporarily fill the gap. The tradition they came up with is still carried out by Fairfield students today – the “floating nauts.” Most students today know them more as “naut parties.” Back in the ‘80s Fairfield University students did things a little differently. Instead of a couple kegs – there were dozens. And instead of one house hosting the event – there were dozens. The students would “float” from house to house to engage in what was their makeshift Nautilus Bar.
The “floating nauts” did justice until the new bar opened up the following spring. That new bar was the Seagrape Café, and it took the town by storm. Students and locals flocked to enjoy good beer and great company.
One of those students was Andy Litterer — a current townie, who once used to party like a Fairfield University student. In 1995, Andy and his buddies went to the Seagrape to drink beer like it was their job, scoped out girls like their masculinity depended on it and attempted to score free shots. Andy attended the local bar starting when he was eight-years-old, arriving in style on the back of his dad’s motorcycle.
Before he was of age, Andy and his friends would spend time outside the bar weighing their luck on if they would be denied access or not. They were always nervous to take the gamble because of a machine near the window that was adorned with neon flashing lights. Him and his buddies were sure it was there to catch fake IDs. It turned out it didn’t do that at all, and was most likely there for show. Back in the day, the security wasn’t as strict on students as it is today. Eddie said the only time a bouncer would ask for your ID back then was if you were a cute girl and they were trying to get your name. Today there is even a portion of the ceiling, perhaps more menacing than the old neon machine, with dozens of fake ID’s stapled to it in lengthy rows. Fake IDs are constantly confiscated and even cut up on occasion.
One night, a girl caught his eye at the bar. At the time she was a student at Fairfield University, and now she is his wife. The Grape community continued to be such a big part of his life that he said nearly half of his wedding invitations were sent out to friends who he had met at the Grape. It was a community, and he was a big part of it. He was friendly with everyone who walked through the door, knowing them all by name, exchanging a friendly wave and smile. Once a student, and now a townie, the Grape always remained a prevalent part of his life.
Most of the locals are open to saying that the bar needs the college kids to stay afloat. Without the students, many of them realize they might not last. But, unlike the locals, the college kids are transient. The locals will always be the locals, and the students will always be the students. But, sometimes there are rare cases where the students become the locals, like Andy and Eddie.
Andy, Eddie and the majority of the regulars of Grape community agree that kids will be crazy, and are okay with it. The dynamic between the college kids and the locals is hard to pinpoint. But, one thing we know for sure is that the Grape locals are not the type of townies to call the cops on the students, because they were just like them.
In fact, as a Fairfield Alumni, Eddie is unimpressed with a lot of the parties today. Back in his day the students were allegedly a lot less soft. Most of the locals think its due to the watchdog beach residents who are constantly reporting students for simply playing their music at 9 p.m. on a Saturday.
“Let the damn kids party because that is what we did, and it’s what makes this town,” said Eddie.
Andy also said the students are what keep the bar going. When the locals are at home, the college kids are at the Grape, and vice versa.
Somehow the students and townies always seem to remain separated, but they know the importance of one another. And something they both share is how much the Seagrape means to them. Townies and students alike see the bar as a haven where friends can get together, hang out and make memories.
Like passing ships in the Long Island Sound, as one group exits, the other enters.
Their Lips Are Sealed…
A few regulars were enjoying drinks and laughing with buddies. Most of them male and drinking beers. They were all on different sides of the bar, two near the door, four playing pool, three near the bathroom, but they all walked about and chatted with one another. The lights were dim, and it was just starting to get dark outside. The faint smell of Lucifer’s Lettuce combined with the already stale Grape air wafted around the room. Lee Schultz, a Chicago man who was working in Fairfield for a couple months, was with his buddy Patrick Wiebel. Both were accepted into the Grape community and spent their afternoons there daily.
Lee leaned towards Patrick and gestured to him, making a matter-of-fact face while saying, “I can smell it from your pocket.”
Patrick looked concerned, but only for a split second before realizing he didn’t care who knew.
“Me too,” I said.
Lee turned to me and said don’t put that in your story, and Patrick said, “aw just let her put it in,” – so there it is.
Chatter commenced about how he got the pot for $20 from a generous guy. For the next hour or so people came in and out, all locals, each one knew everything there was to know about the other.
Each time one entered and exited, a sing song of hellos and goodbyes echoed, “Bye Andy, later John…” and the list went on, until everyone was accounted for, even the bartender, Termain.
A majority of the guys were reluctant to opening up to an outsider, especially a Fairfield U student.
“I don’t talk to the press. Don’t quote that though.”
And even the instances of fake names were too common amongst the group of guys.
One man, who went by the name of Russel Laufer, refused to have his voice recorded because “then people will know who I am.”
Which of course prompted me to question if the name that he gave me, Russel, was even real. A man across the bar told me “Russel” was really John, but stopped at that after catching on to the fact that John wanted to remain under a pseudonym. Getting information from them was like pulling teeth. It was like everything that happened at the Grape was like a night in Vegas. It was hush, hush, unless you were there you aren’t getting the dirt, and we aren’t speaking of it. It was some inner sanctum for them that outsiders couldn’t penetrate, especially not the students.
It was a community. A community of mechanics, electricians, construction workers, you name it. But, more than anything, it was a community of friends who came together to drink beer and crappy vodka.