Sunday, March 26, 2006

Paying My Dues

You might find it hard to believe, but there are places in downtown Manhattan where I can drink beer for prices that may be less than 50 cents higher per pint that anyplace else in America. The catch? The drinking must be done between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00 pm on a weekday. By 8:01, cheap bastards like me turn into pumpkins or go the hell home.

My latest favorite, thanks to Erik B., is Drop Off Service -- a fine bar to sit down for an hour or two with a friend, and get caught up/mildly hammered. The place has over a dozen taps of great import stuff, all for $3.00 per imperial pint (20 oz. as opposed to 16). Over the past few years, dozens of bars in the Village have resorted to happy-hour drink specials to drum up business in those dead hours. I can drink cheaper there than I could in any midtown bar geared towards suburban office workers catching a quick one before hitting the train (these places never have drink specials). Besides which, there is nothing worse than drinking with men in ties – bars like this should have Xerox machines for these guys to photocopy their faces when they get too drunk.

In terms of bars, I’ve always been like a retired postal worker, with a blind chihuahua and rheumatoid arthritis, who prefers a nice quiet bar. No gimmicks, or scenes, or pick-up joints, or blaring, shitty music. Just a place to sit, throw a few down and relax. I’ll go out and get a mild buzz once every week or two, and that’s good enough. Maybe once a year, like a wild stag rutting in the woods, I’ll get puking drunk and spend a night facing the bowl, but I’ve found that to be a pretty worthless experience, especially the next day.

The Brits have it right – pile into pubs after work, do your business and go home for dinner. The concept of being dead drunk on a subway train at 2:30 in the morning just isn’t making it for me anymore. It didn’t back then either. Subway trains to the 718s are normally a gritty experience – at that time in the morning, they’re a dice roll. You could run into packs of kids acting like total assholes, fellow drunks carrying on like crack babies, homeless people sacked out all over the place – and all this after waiting upwards of 20 minutes on a subway platform with a bursting bladder. Granted, plenty of nights went without a hitch – save I’d spend a few subway stops trying to read a book I was holding upside down.

What was I looking for at 2:30 in the morning? What do all of us look for at that time? I’ve often asked myself that. Sooner or later, we all learn that nothing is there. There is no great revelation that gallons of alcohol and passing time make apparent. It was like riding a wave. On any wave, there’s a crest, where we feel the power pushing us forward. And we’ve all experienced that on nights out – either having a great time with friends or flirting with new and attractive people. This will last an hour or two. The wave goes down, which is still not a bad feeling – the night wears on, we’re all feeling a little raw, a little talked out, and most likely very drunk. And then the wave expires on the beach. At which point, we realize we’ve been had, victims of hope. Alcohol kills hope – makes you feel nice for a little while, great for an even shorter while, and then it’s all blurred vision, slurred words and bad, bad decisions. We stagger. We fall down. We puke. If god is with us, we don't shit our pants. Amen.

I’m not even willing to lay some pedestrian line on you, like “moderation is the key.” There’s something to be said for burning down the house every now and then. But do it for years, and it just wears off after awhile. I’m in favor of a good buzz, which three or four pints will always provide. Any more and I’m drunk. I’m leery of anyone who has good barroom stories to tell, the same way people who “really lived the 60s” can’t remember them.

I do have one story that perfectly underlines the haze. I was out with some friends back in Pennsylvania, at the now-defunct Lil’s Valley Tavern, and it was getting late, all of us fairly ploughed. I was with my old high-school friends Tony and George, having a fun time, as the bar was packed. (Lil’s was hard to predict – one Saturday it would be crowded, the next it would be empty, with some lonely 80s person playing air guitar on a pool cue to Night Ranger’s Greatest Hits on the jukebox.) I was with Tony as he was wasting money on one of those bar gambling machines, when I heard some screaming and immediately noticed two guys rolling around the floor in a classic bar fight. Which is to say, both guys were wasted and not doing much real damage to each other, despite the drama. Eventually, they rolled over to my feet, with the entire bar forming a circle. At this point, Glenn, another guy from our old school who was there, looked at me, nodded, and we both reached down to pull the guys apart, both of whom immediately drifted off into the crowd, cursing each other. It all blew over in the span of about 30 seconds.

A few minutes later, George came around – his hair was messed up and he looked weird. “George,” I said, “you just missed it. Two guys were fighting on the floor.” He fixed me with an incredulous look and said, “You dumb fuck! That was me!”

It was around that time I seriously curtailed my alcohol consumption. Which was good timing, as Pennsylvania adopted an extremely strict DUI program, complete with nazi-like roadside checkpoints with cops flashing lights in drivers’ faces and asking way too personal questions (simply to hear if the driver is slurring his speech). It worked out nicely with my internal gears shifting.

So, I’m now a lot like Dad was. He never drank in the house – a practice I find myself keeping, although I’ll sometimes buy a four-pack of Guinness in cans and let it sit in the fridge for months (next to my mason jar of strawberry moonshine, again, courtesy of Erik B.). Dad was a member of the American Legion, and every other month he had to “pay his dues.” I never knew what this meant. What I saw was Dad putting on a clean, collared shirt and dress pants, which blew my mind, as he rarely put on the dog like this. The American Legion post he belonged to was in Mount Carmel, about a five-mile ride away. I later learned that “paying his dues” must have meant going there to pay some semi-annual membership fee … and having a few beers with the guys, maybe sharing old war stories and such. (Dad never talked about World War II -- I've since found that many people with fathers in that war maintained the same silence.)

I’m at that age now he was at then, and I don’t have any war stories. But the vibe is the same. I’m paying my dues! Dad always came back from his dues-paying a little soused. Not noticeably so – just enough to be tipsy, a little more animated, his eyes looked funny. I can’t even say if he was drunk. I later learned that, like me, or most any other guy, he burned a few bridges sobriety-wise in his 20s, and came to this place where a few drinks were more than enough. So, if you want to update your membership fee sometime, drop me a line, and I’ll break out the clean shirt and Haband slacks for the occasion.

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