The temperature is 39 degrees, warm for the usually terrible Ohio weather but quite chilly for most other places, and I have managed to get a position on the grill at the Blackburn Spencer Pageant fundraising table. Slices of American cheese, loaves of bread and a few sticks of butter make up the meal for people in various states of drunkenness on Court Street. My assignment is pretty simple: Butter on bread, then the cheese, press together with the final slice of bread. I learn later about the 12 meal plan swipes and two relocations it took to start selling in front of Insomnia Cookies, all while trying to keep up with what is going on in front of me.
Things start slowly, with people still trying to get a feel for how their night might turn out, and a few skeptics replying, “Maybe later!” to our offers of grilled cheese. A few sandwiches are put on to get things started, the griddle temperature is adjusted and someone brings out a Bluetooth music speaker.
We’re open for business.
Many of the restaurants on Court Street shut down before students pour out of the bars around 2 a.m., leaving them with limited options other than Union Street Diner and Big Mamma’s. But for many students, their night is saved with a grilled cheese sandwich, walking tacos, corn dogs or pancakes served by groups ranging from sorority girls to student groups.
So in my initiation into Athens’ favorite fundraiser, I tried my hand at making a few bucks for the Blackburn Spencer Pageant. For the past several years, students have competed in a fundraising pageant that benefits a student scholarship given during the spring semester. The competition is among some of the predominately black student organizations as sponsors for pageant contestants, however both the pageant and scholarship are open to everyone.
Students have a short time to pull funds together in addition to attending pageant-related rehearsals and meetings, not to mention classes. Ohio University senior and pageant contestant Amber Alexander had a difficult time behind the grill. Alexander explained that throughout her experience, others who said they would help didn’t show up.
Walking up Court Street is entertainment on its own. But combine drunken college students and the temptation of the warm, on-demand grilled sandwiches, and things may get a little wild.
“My roommate tried to buy a pancake with a credit card. It didn’t work,” Ohio University student Derek Williams said.
“This guy snatched a grilled cheese off of my griddle once. This guy came up to me another time talking about he knew me. He was drunk but he wasn’t about to let it go, and it just so happened that he did know me from some random class from freshman year,” Alexander said. “Oh and these two football players I never met before came up one time and started talking about how a friend of theirs did the pageant before and they helped her out, so they helped me and were flirting with girls to get them to buy grilled cheese. It was so funny.”
And the profit may be surprising.
“I do grilled cheese for myself sometimes and people give me so much money. One friend of mine gave me a whole 20,” Alexander said. “I was shocked. A teacher gave me 20, too.”
Ohio University sophomore Sana Selemon can’t pass up such a good deal.
“You really don’t want that much half the time. Like, you eat Big Mamma’s, and that’s like $6,” she said. “And you eat five bites and then you pass out. So it’s like, “‘Yeah, a dollar?’”
And by the time 2 a.m. rolls around, anything goes.
It’s later in the night and the music coming out of The Pigskin has grown significantly louder. Not that I have time to notice . Things have started to pick up at our little grilled cheese stand.
We have three people waiting on their grilled cheese sandwiches because we’re in a bind. The very intoxicated man who stopped by 5 minutes earlier decided it was in his best interest to buy 10 grilled cheese sandwiches for $10. To him it was probably a steal. To us it meant many quickly made half-grilled cheese sandwiches.
After we manage to get 10-grilled-cheese guy on his way, I’m tired enough to try one of the sandwiches myself.
2 a.m. Court Street grilled cheese sandwiches are definitely for the drunk at heart.
It’s not easy trying to make Mom’s grilled cheese on a portable griddle in the early hours of the morning, but drunken students give advice anyway.
“[Use] enough cheese to bread ratio. Sometimes I’ll get a grilled cheese and there’s not enough cheese,” one student said. “Like one Kraft Single isn’t going to cut it. You need, like, at least two.”
It seems there are six kinds of people you’ll sell grilled cheese to.
“Okay first of all, the crust and the bread has to be crunchy. Then the cheese has to be melted enough. And it can’t be soggy,” another student said. She ate her grilled cheese happily anyway, sans crust.
The fundraisers on Court have become part of the street’s identity. Go past Washington Street, where many businesses are calling it a night, and Ohio University’s student body is still wide awake.
“It’s the busiest side of town besides Mill, but it’s also a safe side so people aren’t going to be belligerent drunk or stupid walking down Court Street,” Williams said.
“It is one of the highlights of my college experience. I encourage everyone to do it now,” Alexander said. “I like that you get to interact with people and I enjoy seeing people really care about why you’re fundraising.”
Not to mention the purpose of it all. Whether they are donations to OU’s Habitat for Humanity, one of the various sororities and fraternities raising money toward a community charity or for the Blackburn Spencer scholarship, students and the Athens community donate this money, and the funds, along with the memories, are brought back to them.
Taijuan Moorman is a sophomore journalism major at Ohio University, specializing in African American studies and visual communications. She is assistant entertainment editor for Speakeasy Magazine and a reporter for Hip Hop Congress. She is also lactose intolerant, so that grilled cheese sandwich may not have been a good idea. Follow her on twitter @TaijuanNichole