The reading didn’t start till 9:30, so after dinner I went to the girls’ dorm to drink strong vodka tonics we mixed in someone’s camping bottle. I was exhausted, even though today was a rest day at Bread Loaf—workshops didn’t meet and, because we had a picnic lunch, I had to work just one meal waiting tables—so I lay down on the floor and made half-assed attempts to fall asleep for an hour before the reading, but I kept sitting up every time the bottle came back around to me. I’m always tired here because I don’t sleep enough and drink too much and run around in that hot dining room twice a day. Everyone’s always tired, and everyone’s always talking about it.
Everyone’s always drinking, too, and because Bread Loaf—which has a reputation for drunkenness it’s trying, slowly, to change—is consciously tightening its belt on the matter, you sometimes feel like you’re sneaking around. (For more about Bread Loaf and its reputation, read this article from TheNew Yorker. A non-Internet-savvy writer/waiter, who’d heard about this article but hadn’t read it, told me she searched for it online by typing in the words “Bread Loaf” and “orgy.”) There’s a prevailing feeling that they don’t want the conference to be just an excuse for a two-week bender. When I was a kid at summer camp, we used to steal bottles of beer from the staff parties and drink them in the parking lot, and we were so worried we’d get caught we kept craning our necks around, checking over our shoulders. For a second, the early evening vodka drinking made me feel like that.
We got fairly drunk fairly quickly and did a lot of lazy gossiping about the other waiters. (I’d give you the scoop, the details, but, you know, vodka coma.) Every so often someone would come in to show us how she was dressed—a do-you-like-this-shirt sort of game that I didn’t participate in. We weren’t sure how strictly the three-minute time limit would be enforced, so people kept coming in to have us time them reading their three poems or half a short story, too.
The reading itself was great; it was fun in a way that readings usually aren’t; it had a sort of high school pep rally quality to it. When someone got up to approach the podium, people from the audience screamed out his name the way parents do at Little League games—that sort of sense of community that developed, somehow, in less than a week, where you feel like everyone’s on the same team, is the best thing about this place. I read at the next waiter-reading on Wednesday.
Reading highlights: a poem (with lots of yelling) about refusing to mourn the death of Dale Earnhardt (“I will not mourn!”); a chapter from a memoir, Hole in the Head, about a woman with a brain tumor; a subtle short story about burying dead dogs that was so well-written it made me sick.
The bonfire, the party after the reading, turned out to be more like a campfire—this is the tradition after the waiter-readings here. I thought the party’d be open to everyone, and we were told we could invite other people, but they’d have to bring their own beer—which doesn’t sound funny now when I’m writing it, but trust me on this one: It’s hilarious. We put a garbage can packed with ice and cans of Budweiser in the back of a pickup truck and drove to a little clearing half a mile from the campus and drank ourselves drunk, which is what we do most nights. We brought the water bottle filled with vodka, too. (It had to be vodka; you’re not allowed to walk around campus with alcohol; it has to be consumed either in a room or at an event. Michael Collier, the director of Bread Loaf, explained that this is because the state of Vermont is treated like one big motor vehicle. Supposedly there are security people who enforce this rule, but no one’s seen them. My only encounter with security here was a nice older man concerned that I was in the library at 3 a.m.) There’s a lot of talk of pacing yourself here, of making a conscious effort to get enough sleep so you’re not too tired to attend the readings and lectures you want to go to, but I think spending time with the people here’s the best thing Bread Loaf’s got going for itself. It’s hard for me to explain how smart and fun and talented these people are—after hearing them read, I wanted us all to go live on an abandoned island together.