I felt a bit trashy for drinking at 9:30AM, but the pancake banger had already started 90 minutes before, so really I was starting late. My group rolled our Js, poured our flasks, and made sure our bags were secure—our prepwork done for the shitshow that is Queen's Homecoming.
Queen's University's homecoming is infamous among Canadian students, especially given our reputation as having a lame campus party scene compared to the US. Back in 2005, (and again, in 2008, and in 2010) Queen's homecoming was banned because things got out of hand, which means a lot of people my age never got to experience HOCO at its finest. News articles tell stories of a flipped cop car set on fire, riots, vandalism, and outnumbered police trying to control it all. Just last year a video went viral of some girl slapping a police horse on the ass, who in return, was karmically bodied by the same damn horse. This year, emergency responders were complaining about how drunk people were purposely pissing on paramedic equipment.
I just graduated from Ryerson, Canada's most urban and boring university, so I've never experienced a real homecoming. It was my mission to get the real deal. A few homecoming parties started already on Friday night, but Saturday is when the craziness begins, and where my adventure started.
The short taxi ride got us to Earl Street, what looked like every other North American suburb street you've seen in your lifetime. Everyone was decked out in blue, red or yellow, some engineers are purple. The city calls this area the University District, but locals call it the Student Ghetto (very original). Judging by the complaints I heard, the name comes from the lack of care that the landlords put into fixing the houses. But on the bright side, shitty homes make for great parties since no one cares as much about what happens.
We walked to the backyard where a pancake party was being hosted—this is specifically the types of party that cops were targeting this year, pancake keggers—but since there weren't any kegs here, we were in the clear. We paid $10 to enter a lot scattered with red cups and white Styrofoam plates, reassured the money was going to charity (of some sort). Tommy's Restaurant, one of the more popular bars downtown, was sponsoring the party and the pancakes were surprisingly good. There was country music blasting from the speakers on the roof, and for one of the songs that played, a group of girls broke out into a coordinated dance. How did they know the moves? How much weight does this roof hold? I asked myself.
I looked around the yard, there were two people throwing up in the bushes, and boys were taking shifts pissing by a fence. There were some grey-haired alumni on a porch and I wondered if they were fazed by anything going on, or reliving some sort of past life. One couple even came with their children. Two boys came up to us, also decked out in their Queen's attire. "I don't even go here," proudly said one, who actually goes to Western. According to him, London's homecoming was even crazier.
At around 117,000 Kingston's population is less than half of London's, but Queen's University students, faculty and staff makes up almost 27 percent of the whole damn city. This explains why Kingston is not only synonymous with The Tragically Hip and Kingston Penitentiary, but also the university that brings it to life. The city was one of the first European settlements in Canada, but funnily enough the penitentiary was created a few years before Kingston actually became a proper town in 1838. Queen's was established only a couple years later in 1841—so the city and university are pretty much built as one.
For all these reasons, Kingston is usually known as quiet, historical (first capital of the province of Canada, y'all!), and classy, but for this one weekend you can expect flocks of students partaking in public drinking, climbing nearly anything mountable, public urination, and lots of arrests (This year did not disappoint on the last count.)
By noon we had made our way to William Street and the crowd was getting denser as we sought out the next party. We briefly joined a balcony with a DJ set up—turned out it's housing for international students who said they've enjoyed partying in Canada. After a bit more walking, we finally reached Aberdeen, the epicentre of everything that embodies Queen's homecoming. People were dancing, chugging, playing the recorder, you name it. This is where parties were crazy in the '70s and where the cop car was flipped nearly 12 years ago. In the past, trying to control us students has been an effort between local, provincial and Toronto police. This year, I saw cop cars on all the surrounding streets.
My friend Ami recognized classmates despite the street being packed with bodies. "Bumping into people you know is what makes it fun," she said.
It's everything I imagined from the Snapchats. People were on the rooftops, climbing poles on the street, although it's a lot less enjoyable that I hoped. By the end of the weekend Kingston police had laid 330 charges. According to The Star, that's almost double the charges than last year and about 200 more than in 2015. Personally, I think this means this is first real homecoming is since its official return in 2013.
We spotted an uncongested balcony, so we went for it. I took my pictures from this safe place and Ami and I got chatting with two of the guys sitting on lawn chairs close by. Over the course of the conversation, one of them drunkenly reached for his tongue to pull out the errant strands of tobacco from his lower lip.
"I don't even know why I do this, it's disgusting," he slurred as he kept the chew in his gum. "I'm just trying to feel what millennials feel, you know?"
I have no idea what he meant. But shyly I asked to use their bathroom—there's no way I could find a place on Aberdeen and I was at least five drinks deep now. The first floor bathroom had a line flowing down the stairs, but annoyingly, the second floor bathroom was full of people doing coke. I'm pretty sure a bedroom is just as reasonable of a place to put things up your nose.
Eventually, some girls in line justed start to piss in front of them with the door completely open. After meeting two nice girls to help, I was able to close the door and finally pee. I ran back down and told Ami it was time to move forward. This house was getting too ratchet.
We ventured off to a bouncy castle party we were told about. There were still people on the rooftops here, but this time the music was more hip-hop. Unfortunately by the time we arrived the castle is half deflated and people are jumping on it rather than in it. One guy was struggling to pull out his friend from the remnants of the castle, but as more people jump, the more taut the structure becomes around his body. He was laughing hysterically so I think he lived. The majority of the girls here are wearing some sort of ripped or cut up clothing but the weather is unseasonably nice, so their short shorts weren't unreasonable. A game of pong continued despite the bouncy castle eating their peers, and there were more men pissing in the yard.
I looked down and read a message on my phone suggesting we check out the football game—you know, the actual reason for homecoming. Walking just 10 minutes from Aberdeen, we were back to the dull nature of the residential neighborhood, no beer pong in sight, only empties. The Gaels were playing York, but we got there an hour late to the 1:00PM game which meant the tickets were now selling for $40. We opted to watch until half-time Scottish dancing from the other side of a fence. There were more old-looking alumni chilling beside us on the grass, still wearing their leather school jackets. They were skipping the alumni parade on the field, and instead started smoking a joint and passing it around. They didn't offer me anything.
After taking a break to eat and getting in a much-needed nap for our midday hangover, Ami's two friends Kyle and Taylor join us for the night. Serena Ryder, a Queen's graduate herself, was playing at the "ReUnion" concert but it got rainy so we resorted to playing pong at home until it passed. By sundown we were in the heart of the ghetto on Johnson Street and ready to venture out into a different storm. We were walking to a big house party but the cops got there first. Holding our open alcohol, we turned on our heels and headed to the next party. For fear of getting a charge for public drinking, people stand on front lawns, where you meet all kinds of people.
"Hi, I'm James," said a boy we bumped into with a large bottle of an orange-brownish mixture. "And this is my James Juice."
"Where's the party at, James?" we asked. He had no idea, his party was also shut down. We found our way to the second house party we had lined up, but it was shut down too. We had managed to get a random joiner who was as lost as we were, his name was Braden, who admittedly wasn't quite legal drinking age.
Speaking to a veteran attendee, things still seemed to have calmed considerably from before the bans. One 30ish guy who was there in 2005 told me it was wild, but that he "got the fuck out of there" before the car was set on fire. People like us, who migrate to Kingston for the weekend of drinking, could easily have helped caused this. Just last year, students from University of Toronto, Western, Windsor, McMaster, Laurier, St. Lawrence College and Algonquin College were all arrested according to the Kingston Whig-Standard. This year, of the 33 arrests only nine of them were Queen's students.
"Stages or The Spot?" I asked. Those were the only two clubs in Kingston I knew.
"Stages." He replied. "Fuck The Spot."
But because my friends had worked at The Spot that's where we eventually ended up. It was the only place we had an in, and by my understanding, most people wait in line and never get in during HOCO.
"Are you ready to see everything? If you can think of it, you'll see it at The Spot," one of my friends said laughing.
In The Spot girls were in full clubbing attire, while some people looked like they just walked out of bed. There were older men who seemed to have money, and younger men in a drunken stupor fitting to a first year. And unlike in Toronto, people danced like they were having fun. By the time the club was at capacity, they played Soulja Boy. White girls slapped each other's butts. White boys fistpumped. By 2:00AM when we were leaving into the parking lot, drunk food was scattered all over. A full, sad slice of pizza was swept across the lot by a cleaner, and we knew it was time to head home.
We made it home at around 2:30AM, and in one piece. As much as people talk shit about homecoming, I can see how this tradition would have added more depth to my own university experience—the stories you'd tell, seeing old alumni still wearing their Queen's swag, the inherent pride of being part of the university (or pretending to be). It's pretty much a big bonding practice to kick off the year. Obviously there's room for disaster, but I can see how the feeling of being surrounded by your student family is special.
I know that some residents will still be pissed—the noise, the mess, the alarming irresponsibility of the whole thing. Even though the streets were more or less cleaned the next day, it doesn't change the disappointment of certain Kingstonians. Judging by the mayor's official statement, there will be more meetings and future efforts to subdue the nonsense of this weekend. Every year the mayor is pretty verbal on how much he disapproves of HOCO, especially with horrifying outsiders like me. I didn't hear of anything that went too wrong so maybe the kids are learning to control themselves a bit. Maybe. Before falling asleep, I can't help but think back to what someone said while walking through the late night crowds of people earlier in the night.
"I know people are jaded… but this city would be nothing without Queen's."
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