Oswego, New York is a sparse city of around 20,000 people, nestled on a craggy stretch of shore along the southeast corner of Lake Ontario. The Oswego River bisects town, running south to north, rapidly rushing into Lake Ontario.
Bridge Street (NY Route 104) is the major thoroughfare in the area. A highway in bygone days, Route 104 connects Oswego to Niagara Falls, paralleling the southern shore of Lake Ontario across Western New York.
The eponymous Bridge Street bridge is the primary connector between the west (college) side of Oswego and the east (townie) side. Standing over fifteen feet above the rocky, rushing Oswego river, the bridge spans nearly one hundred feet across.
History shows her age on this tired little town. Turn of the century buildings in varying states of blemished antiquity stand in sharp contrast to the intensely striking natural setting. Instead of a record player, Oswego is a phonograph. Loved with age and memory, but tinny and scratched.
The sunsets from the Oswego shoreline are breathtaking. Urban legend has claimed for years that National Geographic published an article that Oswego had the second-best sunset in the world behind Hong Kong. I have not been able to find hard evidence to prove this claim. But evidence aside, stand along the lakeshore on a summer evening and watch crowds of people stand and clap like fans at a rock concert as the sun finishes her encore below the purple horizon. Breathtaking.
The lakeshore climate favors only the sturdiest folks. Its location primes the pump for Lake Effect snow each winter. It is not uncommon to see (what feels like) 15,000+ inches of snowfall in a single winter.
And the winds! With no land barriers, Oswego experiences gale force winds on a regular basis. The local college, SUNY Oswego, strings thick ropes between buildings during the winter for support. It issues warnings regularly for small, petite people to not walk unaccompanied at the risk of being blown away like a human tumbleweed. Usually to their death.
The State University of New York (SUNY) is an amalgam of 64 state-run college and university campuses. Average academic rigor combined with affordable pricing makes the SUNY system a tremendous value for the 96,000+ students who graduate each year.
SUNY Oswego is where I finished my last five semesters of college.
Attending the prestigious University of Rochester for my first three semesters, I had an academic scholarship for a Pre-Med track. Bright and inspired, I intended to change the medical world with my brilliance and charisma. In hindsight, I was arrogant and untested. I did not know myself. I was a god among a pantheon of rival gods – all as smart as me, and far more disciplined.
With that pressure, my educational priorities shifted like Donald Trump’s opinion of injecting Lysol® to cure coronavirus when I discovered the hedonism of self-gratification. Not masturbation, you perv. My babysitter taught me that many years earlier.
This was pleasure-based distraction on a scale I could never have fathomed. Pledged Sigma Chi fraternity (rah rah fuck!), played rugby, drank constantly, and smoked more weed than I care to admit. It was a contest to see how many girls I could hook up with in a month, let alone a semester.
In short, I was a douche.
And my bong-hit-crisped brain could not keep up with the intensely competitive and uncompromising classes. Grades reflected it. Intelligence completely focused on the wrong things. I failed my white privilege and dropped nearly every science class until my academic scholarship disappeared. My dad’s phone call still sticks with me today. “Military or SUNY, your choice.”
I considered the military for literally five seconds and knew immediately I was too much of a pussy. With that, I transferred to SUNY Oswego.
I transferred as an English major because my only ‘A’ at University of Rochester was in an English Lit class. I also transferred to SUNY Oswego because one of my best friends from high school (and former Safety Division bandmate) attended there, loved it, and I could land with social connections from day one. Douchery still intact.
SUNY Oswego was a brief oasis in a desert of lifetime pressure to succeed. The English program was exactly what I needed to thrive academically. For the first time in a long time, I could feed my ego with nourishing accolades and honors in my coursework and writing.
My personal life was still an utter shit show of debauchery and substance abuse. Great example: at the beginning of each semester, we played a game I have since named “Forty Days in the Desert.” Unlike Jesus’s ecclesiastical adventures, our exploits involved getting blow-out drunk every night for the first forty nights of each new semester.
Oh, the friends I made! Friends to this day, nearly thirty years later. I love them with all my soul.
Most of us lived on the seventh floor of the same dormitory my first transferred year. What a cast of characters. Names of course changed to protect the guilty. Facts are mine to omit, edit, or fabricate as I see fit, so please no emails after the fact, Oz gang.
Here are a few samples:
- Trip captured a feral dog wandering campus and broke into the tyrannical Resident Assistant’s room while she was at a weekend ROTC camp. The dog trashed the room and then mauled her upon return, giving her rabies. She transferred to another dorm.
- Buddha’s room was famous for its nightly pregaming before heading to the bars. One Oswego claim to “fame” is they have one of the highest per capita rates of bars to people in the United States. The Drooling Green Monster was a horrific shot mixed with varying available alcohols and enough Scope® mint breath freshener to turn it green. Rancid.
- Our core girl friends were the Booze Hags. Never has there been a more gloriously deviant and fun group of ladies. They were always up for an adventure and could outdrink and outlast the biggest, fattest alcoholics you can fathom. Several of them stood watch as my anus overflowed with a bottle of yellow mustard while passed out. Worst yet, my visiting cousin [Yes! The elder cousin and instigator from Jeux Sans Frontières] was the culprit who turned my Hershey Highway into the Yellow Shit Road.
- “Frolicking” became a phrase our psycho crew coined for what happened upon returning from bars on the weekend. The elevator door would open, and there would be a pile of men and women (the “Freaks”) in a heaving pile, beating the living shit out of each other. Punching, biting, hairpulling in some surreal hellscape of reckless abandon. And we loved it.
But the Bridge Street Run was the capstone of sin and depravity.
The Bridge Street Run is essentially a bar crawl along the two-mile length of Bridge Street. Starting on the East side (townie) bars, participants head west and need to drink a beer (or a shot) in every bar along the route back to the terminus at the SUNY Oswego campus. Or until you either barf, blackout, or both.
Depending on the path you take along (or just off) Bridge Street, this could involve 15-24 bars.
Props abound and vary. Depending on your group’s “leader,” which in and of itself is a joke, there may be plastic whistle used to rally your team when it is time to depart each saloon. This level of organization usually lasts for the first five or six bars until it all starts falling apart from rowdy drunkenness.
White t-shirts and Sharpie markers are a must, as you need to get a signature from each tavern on your shirt, documenting every bar you visited along your sojourn. Souvenir shirts lined an entire drawer of my dresser at one point. Devastating to admit, but I think they were turned into dusting cloths at some point.
For most normal Oswego alumni, the Bridge Street Run recalls an annual celebration after Final Exams to mark the end of the academic year. By tradition, it usually occurs the first Friday in May. Sadly, Covid-19 likely killed it this year, but this article honors the tradition anyway. We will not succumb.
For the Freaks? Not so. A typical semester would consist of three – maybe four – Bridge Street Runs. Yeah, I know. We had problems.
One BSR stands out above them all for me.
It started like any other Run, except instead of twenty or more people, there were only eight of us. Our fatal error may have been breaking the rules at each of the first five bars by having a beer AND a shot instead of the prescribed beer or a shot.
Already sloppy from the east side bars, the Bridge Street bridge loomed ahead of us like a talisman on our westward journey home. Father Joe ritualistically mumbled to himself as he walked next to me, eyes on the next three bars across the bridge, early evening lights twinkling along the river.
Father Joe was quite possibly the stealth king of The Freaks. Sober, when he spoke, his soft voice teetered on the edge of inaudible. Quiet and unassuming, Father Joe was like a shadow with mass. You always felt him nearby, but his thoughts were imperceptible.
And Father Joe loved drugs. The more the better. At a Grateful Dead concert, the police hogtied him naked to a plank of wood for hours after the cops rode him down on horseback while tripping on acid…after streaking naked through the parking lot.
The Father Joe nickname stuck after a Halloween where he dressed like a barefoot priest, took three hits of acid, and disappeared. We received a call at 3am from the Oswego police that they had arrested Father Joe for home invasion.
Allegedly, this barefoot priest walked into a local family’s home after kicking in the front door, yelling Trick or Treat. The dad hit him in the head with the butt of his shotgun as Father Joe walked up their staircase toward their bedrooms. He tumbled backward down the stairs, laid on the floor for a few moments, then (in the dad’s own words), Sat up like Michael Myers in “Halloween” and started back up the stairs. The second blow from the shotgun knocked Father Joe out cold until the po-po came.
Thankfully, the family did not press charges. The dad was an Oswego alum and understood the concept of Freakdom.
On this dreary spring twilight of the Bridge Street Run, Father Joe ambled next to me in stewed silence as we approached the bridge. I would now pay anything to know what was going through his illusive mind at that exact moment.
Father Joe placed his pink plastic whistle in his mouth and winked at me. Blowing it loudly, he broke into a full sprint toward the bridge, screaming, “Charge!”
As he separated further from our group, we stopped to watch what happened next.
Just before the bridge, a small abandoned tire store with a large display window and a few tires still on display beckoned. Father Joe lurched low to the ground, scooping a large rock without breaking his stride. He launched the rock at the display window, shattering it into a thousand shards.
But that was not the end of his athleticism. Father Joe grabbed a tire and ran to the middle of the Bridge Street bridge. He tossed the tire over the railing into the bloated, roiling Oswego River fifteen feet below. In a single deft motion, he then launched himself over the edge.
Holy shit! The seven of us, sobering quickly, sprinted toward the center of the bridge. As we looked over the edge, we could see Father Joe sitting in the tire, giving us the finger as the raging current rushed him toward Lake Ontario.
“Hasta la vista, mother fuckers!” The last words we heard from Father Joe that night echoed as he howled like a wolf in the fading distance.
Waterlogged and exhausted, Grifter Grady fished Father Joe from the shoreline the next day. This act of kindness was ironic, given that Grady killed his mother a few years after college and drove around in her stolen car with her dead body in the trunk.
Yeah, I wish that story wasn’t true.
I had some of the best days of my life at SUNY Oswego and maintain dear friendships to this day. Those memories are still so vivid, emblazoned in my memory like a Lake Ontario sunset.
Oswego needed to end for me. That level of excess and insanity combined with that level of frequency was a path trodden with great peril if I had continued down it for much longer. And the Bridge Street Run was the apex of all that unmitigated chaos.
My wife and I started dating in my last semester at Oswego. Our story and adventure began at that time. We have had our fair share of crazy moments that will certainly fuel some future blog posts.
Until then, my dear invisible Internet friends, please hug your friends and family tight (when Covid-appropriate) and thank god every day I survived the Bridge Street Run.
Otherwise, how could you have ever known about it?
Let’s open a digital dialogue. Scroll down to LEAVE A REPLY. Oswego Friends, please feel free to share your favorite SUNY Oswego debauchery story in the Comments. Thanks!