Jessica Van Ruiten sits at a tall table facing the entrance of Garry's Lounge. Wearing a little black dress with her long dark hair falling around her face, she keeps an eye on the heavy door, watching as bouncers outside let twentysomethings in one at a time. Beside her stands her friend, 22-year-old Danielle Lynch. They sip their drinks and whisper — really, yelling over the music into each others' ears — in between hugs from friends and high school buddies.
Like everyone else, Van Ruiten and Lynch are out to celebrate Lodi's "college night," the evening before Thanksgiving when college students come home for the long holiday and reunite over electric-colored shots and beer at Lodi bars.
"Everybody's home. It's like a high school reunion," Van Ruiten said.
There are people you want to see. Those you've been curious about. Those you talk to uncomfortably until you pretend to see someone calling from across the bar.
"The best part is seeing people that live out of town, people you actually want to see," Lynch said.
The bar is busy with girls in shorts skirts, high boots and black eye shadow. Guys in everything from Chuck Taylor sneakers to pea coats and gelled, spiked hair keep their eyes on the girls. Some people are shy and stand against the wall as they might have done at high school dances. Others are outgoing and squeeze between people as they move to the beats.
From New Jersey to San Diego, this homecoming on the eve of Thanksgiving is as popular a party night as New Year's Eve, and Lodi is no exception. It's a night Lodi police use a prisoner transport vehicle, known as a pattywagon. It's a night Lodi police stands outside bars in lime green reflective vests. When there are 10 officers and a supervisor stationed in Downtown alone.
"If you can get out and be highly visible, it just makes people think twice," Lodi Traffic Sergeant Chris Jacobson said. "The big thing is trying to make the public feel safe."
Jacobson doesn't remember how Lodi's college night began, but he remembers the college night problems that usually involved the police station being inundated with calls for service at the bars. Most of the time, it was a problem with someone who couldn't control their alcohol.
Despite the night's few arrests, a couple of fights and a car being hit by a train, Wednesday night was calm, compared to what it could have been.
"It seemed quiet — and that's nice," Jacobson said.
The evening started out mellow for people like Erin Abood and his friends drinking red wine at cellardoor. At around 10, the wine bar is tame, but not quiet — a DJ spins the latest radio hits in a corner. Half the bar seats are open. A couple sits at a table looking out onto School Street. And in the back, groups of friends huddle around large tables and laugh loudly to themselves. In the front of the venue, Abood, along with his friends Joey, Luke and David Seed and Joey's wife, Christin Seed, sit on couches. Abood is a 2004 Tokay grad, who goes to school at UC Hastings College of the Law and comes home every year for Thanksgiving. Joey Seed, who is a student in San Diego, also went to Lodi's college night last year. He remembers it being crowded at Sky's Bar. Tonight, however, the group is planning to get off the streets and go to a house party to enjoy their homecoming from the depths of a steaming hot tub.
Even with the night still young, they aren't so sure it's a good idea to be out with police officers standing at the entrance of nearly every bar.
"It's kind of creepy with all the cops," Luke Seed, 28, said.
On School Street near the entrance to Ollie's Tavern, Lodian and college graduate Teresa Perry and her boyfriend, AJ Hohn, are walking from Rosewood to Last Call. It's around 10 p.m., and they aren't sure how the night will unfold.
"It's going to be crazy," she said.
But then, she sees the clunky pattywagon used to haul drunken people away. She points out the cops in their vests and the bouncers with their flashlights meticulously checking ID cards.
"(Police) are, like, no joke tonight … don't mess around with Lodi PD," she said. Looking toward the street, she cheers, "Here's to no drama, no fighting, no one getting stabbed."
College night is an annual event bar owners plan for, too. At Garry's Lounge, owner Julie Woollett moves through the crowd in her bar with a big smile on her face. Tonight, she says she'll serve thousands of drinks. "I love it," she says, of the entire evening. The bartenders work fast, serving beers on tap and making fruity shots. Bar goers line up, waiting for bouncers to check IDs. The DJs are busy keeping people moving on the dance floor. Woollett seems carefree as returned students dance and stand around, sometimes awkwardly looking for people they recognize.
Every seat at Garry's is taken, and groups of friends huddle around the few tables. Girls in flowy short skirts and guys with long sleeves dance in the back room in groups of three. They hold their drink in the air and watch the few brave dancing in the center of the floor.
For 21-year-old Greggory Stevens, a kinesiology student at Cal State Northridge, this was the first year he was able to attend Lodi's college night. After graduating from Lodi High, he knew the night before Thanksgiving was a great night to go out, drink some beer and have fun with old friends. The youngest of three children, he's also seen his sisters enjoy the party night in past years and he says his parents don't mind him going out either.
"They just want me to be safe," said Stevens, who was just starting the night and had plans to make stops at Stooges, Last Call and California Street Pub.
Jillian Rusa sits on the corner bar spot, where she just downed a shooter named "Superman." She is talking with Amanda Snell. The two girls grew up in the same Lodi neighborhood but didn't meet until they both moved to Fresno to attend Fresno State. For Snell, who is drinking a Blue Moon with an orange slice, there was no question whether she'd go out drinking before Thanksgiving with family.
"Last year we came and I had to come back this year," she yelled through the music as more and more people her age keep Garry's Lounge at its maximum capacity.
Tonight in Downtown Lodi, the crowd is mixed. Some are more casual, calling themselves the "DD" for designated driver, and just enjoying the company of new and old friends. Others are obviously there to keep an eye on boyfriends and girlfriends with flirty tendencies. Others are there for one reason only: To get completely wasted.
At Last Call on Sacramento Street, people form a long line against a dark wall as they wait to get inside. Inside, the bar is hot and filled with more college students who all have drinks in their hands. Standing in middle of the hustle is Seisilee Lozano, 22, and her friend Vanessa Perez, 22. They are both students at San Joaquin Delta College, and while it's approaching 11:30, they're pleasantly surprised that it's been a drama-free night. The year before, they saw bar fights over things over spilled drinked. Still, the night is young, and with college night being ranked high on the party scale, they're anticipating it to be a long, fun night.
"Between this and New Year's Eve, this is the craziest," Lozano said.