Thursday, March 25, 2010

Autonomy Day

If you live in Newcastle you're kind of expected to be a raging alcoholic. Of course there are a lot of people that aren't, I'm in no way that saying teetotalers and moderate drinkers don't exist. I'm just saying those people are looked down on.

People drink a lot in my hometown. I remember when we all graduated school and started drinking in other parts of the world, we were all shocked to discover that it's not socially acceptable in most places to get absurdly drunk on a Wednesday. Or more accurately, every Wednesday without fail. I'm not joking, we were all honestly surprised. We talked about it. Wednesday night binge drinking was so acceptable in Newcastle that it actually seemed strange that it wasn't a big thing anywhere else. If you drank on Tuesday you had a problem, but Wednesday was fair game.

All of this drinking culminates in one absurdist university holiday. They call it Autonomy Day and it marks the celebration of Newcastle Uni splitting off from Sydney Uni and becoming an educational institute in its own right. Kind of like an Independence Day. And Newcastle uni students celebrate their independence the traditional way. By waking up early, going to school and getting mind-bendingly drunk.

Every year there are students who set their alarms earlier and earlier purely to be the first ones to start drinking. The earliest I ever heard was 4am. Autonomy Day is the only day of the year where it is socially acceptable to be passed out drunk before ten in the morning. The best thing is how well this activity is tolerated by the other townsfolk who all have to go to work as per usual. See, it's not actually a holiday in any official sense. It happens on a weekday and classes are still held. It's just that the few people who actually go to class are drunk and usually wearing togas. It really is amazing how well this event is received by the community. I heard a story a few years ago of a drunk student who got off a bus, threw up, and then got back on the bus. Considering this happened around morning tea time, an old woman on the bus complained to the driver. The driver apparently just shrugged and said 'It's Autonomy Day' before telling the woman to take her seat.

I only went to Autonomy Day once, during my second year of uni. I had been working the previous year and from all the stories I'd heard, I was quite excited about it. I started planning my day. How I could spend as little money as possible, how I was going to get home afterwards and just how drunk I wanted to get. Then the topic was raised while we were eating lunch one day.

"Hey Sarah, I hear you're playing Autonomy Day this year?" one of my friends mentioned, casually.

"Ha, what?" I asked, not really thinking anything of the comment. But then someone handed me one of those 'What's On At UoN?' leaflets and sure enough, the band I was in had been listed as entertainment at Autonomy Day.

"Huh," I said, making a mental note to call one of my bandmates and make sure that at least one of them knew about the gig. 

It turned out we were playing quite late in the day, and this posed a dilemma. Could I still get drunk?  In the end I decided that Autonomy Day comes but once a year and that I had an obligation. It turned out that being in the band was quite advantageous for the whole drinking thing. I didn't have to wait in line to get in, didn't have to pay entry (especially nifty as this was the first year they had charged an entry fee) and I had a whole instrument case to work with for sneaking my own cheap vodka in. I was set.

I have to say, it was pretty cool. There was an area surrounding the bar that was fenced off in an attempt to contain the event. I remember the inside being like no event I'd ever attended before. All I remember about what I was drinking was that it was blue and no-one else would go near it. They would go to taste it but recoil in horror when the smell hit them. I guess it was pretty strong.

This was around the time of those Nicorette commercials with the motivational anti-smoking squad. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a whole group of people dressed up like the cheer squad in that ad. When I first saw them they were running around in single file singing 'No, Gary, No!'. I later saw them approach any person they saw lighting a cigarette and recite the whole ad in perfect unison. 

I also made out with Jesus. It wasn't technically a costume event but it was the one day of the year where you could get anyway with anything that wouldn't normally be tolerated. There was a guy that year dressed as Jesus. I saw him drinking and mingling, then later found myself running into him.

"Hey Jesus! Wanna make out?"

I'm not sure if those were my exact words, but that was pretty much how I approached the situation. Luckily, Jesus was up for it so we had a quick pash before shaking hands and going our separate ways.

There was a part of me that had hoped I would have sobered up before the gig, but there was a larger part of me that I could still feel laughing while I typed that. Let's just say, it was not my finest musical hour. Nothing dramatically bad happened, apart from the fact that I don't think I played many correct notes. The good thing about Autonomy Day is that not only does the crowd expect you to be drunk, they are so drunk themselves that they don't care what sounds you are making. They just hear the noise and know they are being entertained. I'm just glad no-one filmed it.

-Smackie Onassis

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