Wednesday nights are the worst. Five-deep at the bar, legions of fancy-dress clad sports teams jostle for space with purple-tinged, Snakebite drool dripping down chins defouled with Sharpie-d obscenities. To the right, a slurred rendition of 'Burlingdon Bertie' fights for dominance with the throbbing chart hits emanating from the crackly sound system. To the left, a girl in full netball kit and a feather boa slumps on the wall, sobbing slightly and smelling faintly of vomit. Welcome, my friends, to the UCLU bar.
I can't imagine that the union bar at UCL is that dissimilar from any of the others scattered around the country, run simply to funnel cheap lager and sickly spirit shots into the gaping maws of Medic and Maths student alike. A little more cramped, perhaps, due to its Central London location. A little more snobbish, almost certainly - as a harried member of the bar team marked out as a fair target by my sack-like T-shirt, I've encountered more catty remarks or aspersions about my intelligence or social status than you've had discount Jägerbombs. But in its essence, pretty ordinary and bloody cheap; after all, who needs décor or ambience when you can fall over drunk on the night-bus and still have change from a twenty?
Working there certainly is an experience. The vantage point you gain from being completely sober in this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah is an interesting and often hilarious one. The boy who asked me to stroke his velvet dinner jacket, the girls who scream that they love me every time I manage to sneak them some Suede onto the speakers, the group of wine-swilling postgrads who spent a good twenty minutes trying to discern my ethnicity - they've all been entertaining, something to laugh about when sneaking a quick few minutes in the stock cupboard for a breather. Likewise, the social factor of the job is a definite highlight. There's a real sense of comradeship between the staff (which certainly makes scraping the puce-coloured mixture of alcopops, sick and cat litter off the floor tiles seem funny, not just vile) and getting to counsel displaced Geordies who can't seem to adjust to life in the Big Smoke is always an enjoyable way to earn a living.
However, alcohol can turn even the sweetest of Computer Science geeks into a raging, barely discernible lager lout in a matter of hours and its near-total dominance of social proceedings at the Union makes for some pretty surreal situations - Peep Show ain't got nothing on my average shift for awkward conversations, awkward hook-ups and people making complete and utter fools of themselves. Most students, freed from the shackles of home for the very first time, simply hit the sauce far too hard and chain themselves to total booze-fuelled ineptitude and embarrassment.
In the past term, I've taken bottles of smuggled in WKD from disgruntled internationals, and scraped passed out girls from the floor of the slightly dingy toilets (twice in one night, if you must know. One of them had managed to get her head wedged in next to the cistern). I've been shouted at, propositioned and insulted. I've returned lost, dribbling Rugby boys to their mates and explained, gently, that trying to make someone who can't physically stand walk the two miles back to their halls of residence is a very bad idea. I've swept up enough broken glass to embed itself in the bare feet of thousands of girls who've had to take their high heels off and mopped off the stickiest of Snakebite from floors and tables and walls.
The problem of excessive intoxication is a real one, but a tricky one to judge; we're supposed to not serve people who've overindulged, but unless their request for three Tuborgs turns into a literal stream of mumbling then it's a difficult call to make. People don't tend to take kindly to being told that they're 'too drunk, hun', and quite frankly I don't need the diatribe that tends to be the reply to this kind of statement.
But yet, it's all too easy to stand at the other side of the bar and sneer at them, the great inebriated. Even if they're drunk and we're stone-cold sober, if they're having fun and we're trying not to wince at the lime cordial in our hair, we're still all students together and the student experience is one that only seems fun when you're young enough for your mistakes to seem charming, not tragic. Come the weekend, those who staff the Union bar will be just as trollied, wrecked, hammered, smashed; we'll be having the fun which we're denied when we're stuck on shift. Quite frankly, we only mock because we want to join in.
Illustration courtesy of Emma Bowden: http://emmabowdenillustration.tumblr.com/