Sunday, March 20, 2011

Days of Screw-Top Wine and Wild Irish Roses

Oh, for the days of screw-top wine and Wild Irish Roses. A short time in my 20s that ended as quickly as it began. I don’t know if kids still drink screw-top wine. Someone is, because I see it every time I’m in a liquor store or supermarket. (My local in Queens favors Boone’s Farm.) The local bodegas don’t have any, but they’re still carrying cans of Four Loko, which was recently outlawed in the state. No one seems to be sweating it. I’m sure those guys are charging kids a fortune to drink that swill. Not sure how that stuff is anymore lethal then Red Bull and Vodka, which people have been pounding down since that energy drink came on the market a few years ago.

College made me a little full of myself, at least in terms of tastes in alcohol. I was a college student, branching out in the world, refining my tastes. No longer could I drink simple beer. I needed wine, because this is what intelligent people drank. Having the occasional drink with a college professor? All these guys drank wine. This was clearly the way to go.

One slight problem with that: college and redneck bars were in no way geared to cater to wine drinkers. I found out fast that ordering wine in these places was an eye-rolling endeavor for the bartender, not a discussion on the merits of red vs. white, or “that was a fine year,” etc. It was a pain in the ass for them to pull out the one gallon-jug bottle of red or white that they had stowed behind the bar, next to the baseball bat, and listlessly pour it out.

I was never quite sure why this was such a negative experience for them. It wasn’t a mixed drink. They’d generally charge a dollar or two more than they would for a pint of beer. But it was always a chore for them. The worst came in a bar back in rural PA, when I pulled my “glass of wine, please” stunt, and the bartender barked, “If SHE wants anything special, all we got is this jug bottle of Gallo.” The assumption was a man would never order a glass of wine. Luckily, I never took a shine to wine coolers, and was never quite sure why these sickly carbonated beverages weren’t placed on the same taste level as screw-top wine.

They wore me down. I’d say there are after-effects to all this. I’m not a big wine drinker. I keep a BOX of red wine in the refrigerator after reading of the heath benefits of drinking a glass of it daily in terms of circulation. That’s really the only reason I have wine around. I would never go to a wine bar, more so because of the crowd who would. But I did branch off into imported beers later in my 20s, having had my first good taste of Guinness, and branching out from there, more recently having the great experience of hitting the Belgian Beer Café in Manhattan and going to town on their heavenly, over-priced ales.

I have become a sort of beer snob and couldn’t tell you if Bud or Miller or Pabst suck because I haven’t had the stuff in years. Put in a situation where the choice is one of these or soda, I’ll go with soda. I don’t drink to get falling-down drunk. I drink to get a nice buzz and leave it at that. So if I’m going to do that, it never hurts to spend a few dollars more and drink quality beer, which you can find just about anywhere these days (not so in the 80s …). Even that will raise a snigger from the blue-collar, Bud/Miller/Coors contingent. If they want to spend the rest of their days drinking shitty beer, that’s their business. (I do make an exception for Yuengling beer, as it’s my home county beer, but I am alarmed these days by how widespread this beer is growing, not to mention the import prices people in NYC pay to drink it, with me full well knowing the same thing is going for $1.50 a pint back in the Coal Region.)

But that screw-top wine phase. I can see it now as my recognition of the somewhat “faggy” aspect of ordering wine in a redneck bar, getting out of college, recognizing I was being guided away from my working-class roots in many ways I found suspect, and trying to pull my tastes down as a half-assed tribute to those roots. And there’s a novelty of otherwise sane, healthy guys in their 20s drinking rot-gut wine generally consumed by winos and bums who couldn’t afford anything else.

It started in that loose time after college was over and my move to NYC about a year and a half later. Brother J got into it, too. We were forever reading novels and short stories by Beat writers that featured characters drinking cheap wine. Rock stars would pontificate on it in interviews – still remember Peter Wolf from The J. Geils Band recalling how much he loved buying Thunderbird Wine because the bottles would come with a bonus Bic multi-colored pen taped to the side. (I guess to write out one’s will later that night?) Thunderbird had that great rhyme: “What’s the word/Thunderbird/What’s the price/A dollar twice.”

The state stores back in Pennsylvania were all well-stocked with Mad Dog 20/20. I think “20/20” is just the company name, although it sounds like something you’d associate with a rifle. The official name is MD 20/20, and I’ve gather MD really stands for Mogen David. But what a great nickname for an alcoholic beverage: an angry, crazy dog. Grape and orange were the main flavors on the shelf. I also get the impression these cheap wines are very high in alcohol content, much higher than beer, so that only added to their allure.

And I hate to say it, but in a Cheez Whiz sort of way … these things tasted good! You knew you were drinking shit, but it was flavorful shit that was strangely easy to put down. That was the goal in any Mad Dog session, put the whole bottle down. Puking would be a vodka/orange juice affair: doing so would turn you off that flavor for a long, long time. But you’d also get over it.

I don’t need to say that aside from Brother J and I, very few people took the same ride on the Night Train with us. It was purely a novelty act that lasted for a year or two. I’m not sure what the state-store clerks thought who sold us the stuff. Probably the truth: “A bunch of college kids drinking shitty wine on a lark.” We surely weren’t the only ones in the history of mankind, but I would have been curious to hang out at the state store to see who else was drinking Mad Dog.

The most memorable Mad Dog binge came at a party in Frackville, PA. It was summer, I recall, and I had just graduated, was truly at loose ends back home, not working. This also coincided with my regrettable bib overall phase. As you can see, this was all a put-on. Everything I did at that point in my life was done with ironic intent. It was just that age: hard to be serious about anything when you’re 23, just spent all your life in school, and now have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. I wouldn’t classify it as free-falling. I’d call it being dumbfounded and directionless at a time in life when everyone expects you to take off like a rocket.

One of my sister’s friends was holding a big Fourth of July party to which everyone was invited. Good and bad news. This particular friend was a fairly flighty/wealthy girl who just ran with a different crowd, the few moneyed people we knew, that paper-thin layer of people in any small town who come from wealth and keep it to themselves. At that point in our lives, the money issue wasn’t big at all. Probably still isn’t, but as you get older, you see that some people have five or six-digit figures routinely shuffled their way through familial connections, while the rest of us work for a lot less. It surely affects how all of us see the world! Having spent my adult life around people in New York making much more money than any of us, it sort of shoots the whole concept out of the water. But I still recall that gulf and can still feel it sometimes back there.

Well, this was at the height of our Mad Dog obsession. So we each brought a bottle of grape to this thing, in bib overalls. We liked to romanticize that our hometown was a little crazy, but honestly, you’ll find drunks with their shaggy-dog stories in any town back there. The good thing about bib overalls is that flap on the front has a pocket in it that’s a perfect fit for a bottle of Mad Dog. So the gist was to take a few swigs, unbutton that pocket, screw the top back on, put the bottle in, then either wipe your face or hold it in your hands depending on how far you’d gotten into the bottle.

We sat there all night, pissed off that nobody knew who The Replacements were, in our bib overalls, pulling a one bottle per Mad Dog session while, I don’t know, Howard Jones and Bruce Hornsby cassettes played in the background. We thought we were impervious. Everyone does at that age. I wouldn’t dream of downing a whole bottle of Mad Dog now in one sitting. The worst I ever got was here in NYC, the time old pal John visited from Delaware, and we went to O’Hanlon’s under the N Train, who had a “buy three get one free” drink special. We worked our way through that cycle for four free pints of Guinness, meaning we drank 16 pints all together, two gallons of stout. We didn’t puke, but the next day, it felt like we had our heads in vices, and there was a constant buzzing sound in our ears. I remember John gazing out the window for minutes on end with a pained look on his face and then barking. We felt a lot less impervious.

That Mad Dog session, all along, people kept sauntering up and treating us like cool rednecks, which was the exact effect we were shooting for. We weren’t cool, and we weren’t rednecks. But we were drunk off our asses and daring enough to dress like hayseeds in the time of La Coste sport shirts with turned-up collars. I think it was more Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party than Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy.

Everybody got profoundly drunk that night, falling down drunk. I had to drive home (about four miles). That was the night where we got just outside of Frackville in the yellow hornet station wagon. I pulled over the side of the road. Held up my finger to denote that I had to do something. Opened up the door, daintily leaned over, and puked for about thirty seconds solid. Wiped my mouth off. Gingerly shut the door again. Then drove home. Fell asleep on the lawn because the grass felt so cool on my face. Neighbors must have had a good laugh seeing me splayed out on the lawn at 6:00 am in bib overalls, at least not piss, shit or puke stained.

You can only get away with that shit so many times. I never pushed it like that again. Probably drove drunk more times than I’d care to admit back then – we all did, before driving with a few beers in you became crime of the century. But I haven’t driven drunk in decades, mostly because I no longer drink when I go back there. Too many friends who wandered down the DUI path and paid a heavy price for it. The county’s had multiple DUI check points set up weekend night for the past decade, and there’s something a little too gestapo-like about all this to routinely chance having a few beers (by which I men three or less) and driving home. And the bars just seem to get more seedy as time goes on back there, or maybe I just have a thing about multiple facial piercings, tribal armband tattoos and NASCAR regalia.

Maybe I’ll pick up a bottle of Mad Dog next time I see one, for old time’s sake, although I’m hardly nostalgic for it. It would sit nicely against the bottle of moonshine in the fridge I never touch.


Mike Jones said...

May seem completely out of the blue, but I am looking for Boone's Farm in NYC, haven't found it yet. I am actually trying to revisit the past, have a nostalgic moment with friends. Anyhow, where did you spot it in Queens?

William S. Repsher said...

Best Yet supermarket in Ditmars section of Astoria, Queens. I don't have the exact address, but they're a small chain, probably only a few stores, so if you go to their website and find the one in Astoria, that's it. I think it's 37th Street in the address.

I could swear I've seen Boone's Farm in other supermarkets, but can't verify that -- I am sure Best Yet had it.