“Wow. This is all Georgia fans?”
It was a fair question. Every bar with televisions in New York City has some kind of team affiliation, either professional or collegiate, many catering to the city’s myriad transplants looking to spend an occasional couple hours indulging some of whatever they left behind. American Whiskey in Chelsea dedicates its fall Saturdays to University of Georgia football, but that description, though certainly accurate, feels like underselling it.
In this particular situation, I was leading a late-arriving, out-of-town friend through a crush of 600 people wearing red, just as the Georgia-Notre Dame game kicked off. It was the second week of the schedule, and our destination was a weird alcove that housed a TV, a large decorative barrel, and not much else. Every seat in the house was occupied, every inch of bar-adjacent space filled with standing patrons, faces turned up toward the glow of what we all thought might be the biggest game of the 2017 season, before we knew what was coming.
American Whiskey is a giant bar by NYC standards. It’s got two floors and space for hundreds, in a city that’s more than 700 miles from Athens, Georgia. With countless Saturday night entertainment options, why would so many people show up to watch a preternaturally underperforming football program play in the type of game it’s built a years-long reputation for badly and conspicuously losing? Like I said: fair question.
But it was all Georgia fans, and we had only been able to secure our decorative barrel because another friend arrived hours earlier and claimed it for the cause. Before I answered, though, I hesitated for a second, not because I was unsure if the entire bar was there for the football game, but because I had never considered that it might not be. When Georgia is playing, you show up at the Georgia bar—as much for an opportunity to watch the game as an opportunity to be around other people exactly as far from home as you are.
When you move to a new place, it’s impossible to predict the exact ways in which it will feel different. I moved to New York from Atlanta in 2011 to be a writer, three years after I graduated from the University of Georgia, and although I was prepared to learn how to navigate everyday life without a car and cook in a kitchen with literally no counter space, I hadn’t anticipated the near-universal apathy toward a cultural institution that had been a primary animating principle of my life for as long as I could remember: college football. It’s the most important sport in the Deep South by far, with a level of fan commitment rivaled only by British soccer supporters. The flight from Atlanta to New York is only two hours and change, but if you’re going to tell a native of the tristate that you’re really into college football, you might as well be telling them you’re a cricket fanatic. You’ll get the same look either way.
But I heard there was a bar I could go to, so I went and watched Georgia get its shit kicked out by Boise State in the 2011 season opener. I decided watching a game at a bar was bad luck, in the grand tradition of otherwise rational sports fans believing that they can somehow Butterfly Effect the outcome of a game from a half dozen states away. I didn’t go back for years, instead sitting at home and refreshing Twitter to remind myself that I wasn’t the lone person in the world constantly shedding bits of my sanity over Georgia’s status as a perpetual also-ran.
In 2014, the North forced my hand. I had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, into the territory of a Long Island-based cable company that, to this day, does not see the point in adding the SEC Network to its channel lineup. It was the bar or nothing for several games that season, and “nothing” was never an option I seriously considered. So I tried out the Brooklyn Georgia bar, this time with some people I knew from the internet who were also fans, and I haven’t watched a game at home since.
Rock Shop was small and sedate, and if the game was shitty or at noon, sometimes my friends and I were the only ones who showed up. We always sat at the bar to hang out with our bartender, Katie, except when a hurricane once rescheduled our game to a Sunday, at which point the bar saved our little group a table and a TV amid the much more popular and well-attended NFL broadcasts they hosted. After the Thanksgiving weekend game last year, we ate leftover pecan pie and stayed for an extra couple hours to shoot the shit, because the season was over and southerners love to sit around and drink and talk about nothing. Rock Shop closed, though, like most bars in New York do every few years before becoming new bars, so for the 2017 season, we decamped for the Manhattan Georgia bar.
As it turns out, that’s where everyone else was hiding.
Inside American Whiskey, the linear passage of time bends at the will of kickoff, which itself is at the will of CBS, ESPN, the Southeastern Conference, and the relative quality of any particular Saturday’s football opponent. In general, the game will start at noon, 3:30pm or 7:30pm, but no matter when you step back outside into the relative calm of midtown on a weekend, it will always feel like approximately two in the morning, because you will be two-in-the-morning drunk on $5 plastic beer cups of whiskey soda, seemingly endless pitchers of Bud Light, and these shots of weird, minty liquor that always seem to show up at the table.
Beyond the front of the cavernous space, there aren’t any windows, so the light is always the same inside, and you begin to tell time by the seconds ticking down on the game clock. Those go faster or slower depending on what kind of offense Georgia is playing against and how ticky-tack the officiating crew is. But it’s always on a completely different timeline than any of the millions of people just outside the bar’s door, who are somehow unaware that Something Important is happening. There are only two things you can do after leaving the Georgia bar: go get another ill-advised drink down the block and then maybe some Taco Bell, or go home and watch someone else’s football until you fall asleep on the couch. You’ll always be surprised that there’s another football game on so late. You’ll never remember that it’s not two in the morning.
The people inside the Georgia bar don’t look like the people in my Brooklyn neighborhood or my media industry social circle. They look like southerners, which is something I didn’t really know was possible until I left the South, because in the South, they just look like people. The men are taller and broader, on average, than the people around me in New York, and their jeans are cut a little differently. The women are blonder and curvier, and certainly more proficient with a curling iron. Everyone is well-scrubbed and employed-looking, like they have health insurance good enough that they aren’t afraid to try using it. There aren’t a lot of visible tattoos except for mine, all of which are themed around the state in some way.
There are many golf shirts, which are the unofficial casual uniform of male Georgia fans. If you’ve been a fan for a long time, you can tell how old a guy might be by how many years you’ve seen people in his particular polo—it’s kind of like counting the rings on a very preppy tree. The contingent of fans who moved up here to work in a creative industry and live in Brooklyn opt instead for red-and-black buffalo check shirts. Buffalo check doesn’t give you away as an earnest sports fan, which is helpful should you need to go anywhere after the game. We’ve already covered this, but I cannot emphasize enough how bad of an idea it is to go somewhere after the game. No one else will know what you know, which is that it’s two in the morning.
College football plays a short regular season, stretching only from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, and only four teams make it into the playoff. More than any other Big American Sport, every game is a make-or-break moment for a team and its fans. In an average year, losing even twice dashes any hopes of a meaningful season. When the Dawgs are good, as they have been this season, the bar is wild, and it gets wilder every week, as the stakes rise and the margin for error thins and people drink more and more to quell the anxiety and, afterward, to celebrate surviving another week. When time had run out and we had beaten Notre Dame by a point, they brought the house lights up, shut off the TVs and made everyone close their tabs, cutting off the whole bar en masse because we were too drunk to continue serving. The people gathered around my decorative barrel managed to get one more tray of shots in under the wire.
By the Florida rivalry game a few weeks later, when it was clearer how good we might actually be, the bar was full an hour before kickoff, dozens waiting outside for a chance to get in if anybody left. Regulars were boosted up on the bar to lead cheers, and a trumpet player came out on the second-story balcony to kick off the pre-game “Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation,” just like a trumpet player does from the top of Sanford Stadium for every home game. When I first started going to American Whiskey, I was shocked by how much it felt like the real thing, like watching a game back home. Except relatively few people watch Georgia games in bars back home, because large living rooms with abundant seating and comprehensive cable packages aren’t hard to find. The fact of living in New York pushes us all together at the bar doubly: not only are we all strangers in a strange sports land, but it’s hard to host a watch party at home when you can only seat three people and you don’t have cable.
I’ve seen no more persuasive an argument for bars as a concept than American Whiskey during the SEC Championship Game a few weeks ago, during which Georgia looked to avenge its only loss of the season against Auburn, simultaneously punching its ticket to the College Football Playoff. More importantly, though, Georgia was trying to exorcise the ghost of its own haunting mediocrity during that game, proving to ourselves once and for all that being a Bulldog could feel like something other than pissing into the wind.
Somehow, this time, it worked. Georgia won, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room filled with such intense joy and relief. Someone cued up “Georgia On My Mind” on the sound system, and we all sang while champagne sprayed from behind the bar and bottles were passed to the crowd. We stayed like that, screaming and cheering and crying, for what felt like an hour. When I eventually gathered my things to leave, stepping outside onto the sidewalk felt like slipping through some sort of tear in the space-time continuum. We were almost certainly the only bar in the city spraying champagne that early in the evening. No one else seemed to have noticed what just happened to us.
When I’m just the right amount of drunk at the Georgia bar, I look around and think about how much easier the other southerners in New York make my own existence here. The fact of my southerness didn’t exist to me until it had a foil, and in my seventh year in New York, I’m still constantly noticing the small ways in which my own cultural context differs from that of my northern friends, most of whom have never spent any appreciable time where I’m from. There are things about all of us that we can’t explain to other people if they don’t already understand them, and being inside the Georgia bar feels like sinking my hands into the red dirt of my childhood for a few hours every fall weekend.
When the season’s over, it goes back to being just another place to drink until next year. You’d never know unless someone told you about it. But if you know where to look, there’s always a Georgia football helmet sitting somewhere behind the bar.