Demon Rum

Demon Rum, Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who knew one when he saw one, defined an alcoholic as ‘a man you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.’ And Mrs. Fred Tooze, president of the 250,000-member National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, a still flourishing outfit, tells us that ‘in every crisis Americans have turned to drink.’

“With these two pregnant reflections, I think we may have profitably get through the morning.

“It is generally accepted that Dylan Thomas died as a result of drink. He was a terrible drinker, would follow beer with creme de menthe, and that with rye. He drank with the clear purpose of getting drunk as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. His last terrible days were spent in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, New York, no more than a stone’s throw from some of his favorite bars.

“My own definition of an alcoholic is a man who allows the drink to notably affect the quality of his work. Some of my friends take a sterner view of the situation. They say an alcoholic is a person who lets the booze interfere badly with the conduct of his life, and specifically with the treatment of others.

“But there is a terribly hard question involved in accepting this broader definition. It is easy to enough to see the bad effects of whiskey and beer on the people we love. The insensitiveness, the childishness, the plain damned brutality. It is much easier to be a rotter when you have a bellyful. This is the part about alcohol that everyone, including Mrs. Tooze, knows about and talks about.

“A subject much less explored is how much genuine love for other people is liberated by the Demon Rum. Alkies are bound up people, usually little talented in the delicate matter of showing their feelings, especially the tender ones. They are suspicious of life because they feel, usually rightly, that it has not treated them well. They cannot give with ease.

“Yet somewhere within they usually want to give, and that is where the booze comes in. With all its acknowledged bad effects, a little ethanol tends to let you give and receive love.

“This is true of both the sacred and the profane kind. You may indeed want to have every chick in the place after the third martini; but you are also quite likely to say just the right things to just the right girl, which may result in something quite pleasant indeed for a period.

“So don’t rap anything too hard which provides a release from the prison of self. It has been estimated that the population of Ireland would be damned near the ideal proposed by the Zero Population Growth people, were it not for the emotionally liberating qualities of Guinness and Paddy’s and such. How many of my friends and relations would be around to tell the tale if the old man hyad not been fired up by Dutch courage provided by Irish booze.

“So, in balance, it is really quite hard to make a sound guess on the effects of booze on the feelings. These effects are indisputably good and indisputably bad, and it would require a sapient lad indeed, or some kind of damn4ed psychiatrist, to assign percentages and priorities to the good and the bad. There’s a little bit of each in it, as in everything.

“Whatever the point the good Mrs. Tooze was making in her WCTU statement escapes me now, and that surely is a bad thing, it is, it is.”

A Good Saloon

A Good Saloon Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“A nice elderly lady who has never been inside one in her life asks me, ‘What is a good saloon like?’ She presumed from my writings that I had a certain expertise in the matter, and she is right.

“First, you should have certain warning signes. If there is any trace of neon outside the joint, shun it like a social disease. Especially, beware of those places which have a tipped cocktail glass about 15 feet up, done in glorious white neon.

“Not all of these places are terrible. The ones which have broken neon signs, like Gino and Carlo’s on Green Street, can be very good indeed. Despite the exceptions, though, the rule holds.

“Beware too, of artsy-cutesy names–like the Pink Panther, the Anxious Asp, the Dreamy Lagoon, etc., etc. This kind of name is for pop groups or Los Angeles. If the place has simply the name of the owner, and no neon, you’re on the way.

“Remember that a saloon is to pour drinks, in return for pay. Anytime a drinking place forgets that, it forfeits the right to be a saloon. The late John Lardner put it well:

“‘A drinking place in the purest possible sense of the phrase is one in which the boozing aspects dominates the eating aspect. This eliminates lunchrooms and all joints with floor shows or dance floors. In a true bar or saloon the focus of life is the bar itself, and the people on either side of it.’

“Like all good rules, this too has its exceptions. One of the best bars in San Francisco is at the New Pisa on Grant Avenue. This bar is just an adjunct to a crowded and thriving paisano-type restaurant. The small bar near the entrace is devoted wholly to the drinking business.

“Dante Benedetti, the owner, pours more whiskey for the money than any place I know in San Francisco, or, for that matter, anywhere. I once asked him why he poured so much booze. His answer was characteristic.

“‘Thirty years ago my old man told me to put out a good drink. So I do it.’

“Glenn Dorenbush, who has clocked more bar hours than anyone I know, has an added theory. In a good saloon, he says, everything will come to you if you sit on one bar stool long enough. He gets his friends that way, and his girls. He transacts his public relations business–for saloons, naturally–from the same stool right next to the brass service bar at Perry’s on Union Street.

“The owner of Perry’s, Mr. Perry Butler, is so awed by Dorenbush that he has placed a brass plaque on the bar, over the Dorenbush stool with the simple but impressive legend: Glenn Dorenbush.

“A good saloon is a great place to escape from cocktail parties, a curious form of social intercourse which gives a bad name to booze. Cocktail parties are a cross between a fashion show and a Persian Bazaar. Most cocktail parties are given by people who wish to make money out of them in one way or another. In a good saloon, you don’t talk about money.

“A good saloon should not have a clock. You go into one to get away from the tyranny of time, among other reasons. The most saloon-ish of all ‘Frisco saloons, the House of Shields on New Montgomery, does not have a clock. “Clock-watchers aren’t really people.” says barman Pete Ragen.

“The California attitude towards bars is well shown by the fact that, until the advent of this decade, you could not legally even call a drinking place a saloon. The liquor laws of this state seem to have been written by nuns, and administered by the FBI. Their underlying assumption is that there is a violent drunk inside every insurance salesman, and that all saloon keepers are felons at heart.

“A good saloon is, among many other things, a great place to exchange lies, to plan your future, get away from loved ones, make confession without fear of penance, learn what’s wrong with the ’49ers, work out the details of your estate, and eff off in general. It is also, as Mr. Dorenbush points out, a superb recovery room.”

Alone, But Not…

Alone, But Not… Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“I was getting deep into one of those somber and highly charged novels of Miss Iris Murdoch, the accomplished British writer. I hadn’t gotten past the part where the butler is sort of explaining who the characters are, when I ran into the following bit of chilling self-exegesis by one of the male figures in the story.

“‘I hate solitude but I am afriad of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself and to turn it into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction.’

“‘The company I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have neer wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself…’

“Here, as neatly as a bit fits a peach, is a description of nearly all my friends, and of myself. There’s more to us than the detached and cruel encapsulation, to be sure. Yet the words tell the essence of that band of men, and increasingly of women, who find their greatest comfort in the amenity of a good saloon.

“There is a deal of malarkey set out about the role of the saloon as confessional. It is true you may delineate the nature of your predicament to the barman, but the true saloonaire is not about to tell the truth to anyone, least of all a barman.

“The saloon is where he comes to find the truth–the highly acceptable truth that he conjures up like an alchemist, in that long private conversation with himself which the booze supports.

“How marvelous are these little editions of your life, working themselves out with long practice after three or four jars! You, of course, are the victim; but far too decent a chap to let it show, much less scream out in public for succor.

“In this job of ego rehabilitation, the saloon is the essential ingredient. You just couldn’t do it sitting alone on the banks of a lovely lake, even if you had a jug of red mountain with you. There must be this consciousness of reserve, of suffering in the silence amidst the bustle of life–as represented by the other customers at the bar. You are holding out on them, you are refusing to let them know the stinging of that exquisite pain produced in your abraded soul by an uncaring world. You can’t hold out on a band of fishes in a lake.

“‘Communion of souls’ is precisely the most abhorrent thing of all, to those who fear intimacy and hate solitude. Telling the whole hurt vulgarizes it beyond belief, though there can be a great deal of enjoyment in merchandising it, and peddling it to a credulous world. ‘Communion of souls,’ like a lot of other things, is only acceptable when faked.

“For people who do not drink, the hardest thing to understand about people who do drink, and who drink as a part of their nature, is that drink is an anesthetic, the most pleasant and effective anesthetic in the world. It is very hard to reach a person under anesthesia, partly because of the drug, and even more so because of the evasive need which sends–and sometimes–drives the drinker to his potion. He wants to be alone; but at the same time to be in the midst of life.

“To those who are foreign to the world of drink, there is no sorrier sight than the single man, clutching his schnapps in hand and staring moodily ahead, the picture of isolation. I suggest that, more often than not, the lad is the most content man in the place. His most private needs are being satisfied, which is as close to a definition of happiness as you can come by in a bar.

“And, above all, you are doing the man no favor by giving him a little jolly chatter to let him know he’s wanted. He doesn’t want to be wanted, thank you. If he appears polite, and listens to you, do not believe it–that private conversation with himself is still going on. The drinking man, the solitary who can’t stand solitude, will do anything to preserve the integrity of that private conversation. More marriages, and less sacred relationships, have been ruined by kindly feminine attempts to break into that conversation, than I care to think of right now.”

Eureka!

Stout talk addressed to men of greatness, indeed.

Eureka! Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“How come a doctor gets so smart? I am referring to Dr. Charles Berry, who is chief physician to our noble astronauts. He has uttered one of those staggering simplicities which tend to confirm the view there is still some sanity abroad. He was talking about the general practice of medicine, a subject which has produced some fairly profound nonsense. The doctor’s words, exactly.

“”Take some aspirin and some Scotch. And if that doesn’t work, take more aspirin and more Scotch and go to bed. This is a formula for all ailments.”

“Those are the words of a man who knows what he is talking about. There is absolutely no nonsense here. No therapeutic smiles. No tender loving care. No injunctions to stop doing what you like to do. Just the stuff, on target.

“I remember hearing a distinguished physician say that it was only about 40 years ago that doctors began to be be sure that their administrations were doing more good than harm to the patients. How far into the area of benignity the profession has moved in recent years, ask your favorite sawbones. I’ll stick with Dr. Berry.

“For years it has been my claim that Scotch was a lot better for you than aspirin; but it took the good space doctor to make that further deduction which distinguishes mere information from inspiration. We’ve all seen apples falling, but it took a cat named Newton…Scotch and aspirin! The simplicity is thrilling. Mix one great analgesic with another great analgesic, and add the most marvelous pain killer of all, sleep. Bob’s your uncle.

“Too little is heard these days about the affirmative effects of booze and boozing. Everything you have heard against the sauce is regrettably true. The Bard, who is known to have taken a dram from time to time, hit it on the head in Othello:

“”Oh God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause transform ourselves into beasts!”

“Yes, we are not at our loveliest after the fourth martini, and the lies about women, and the general bigmouthing. Even the career drinkers, those dogged souls who carry on a lifelong combat with their livers, are not necessarily at their best when tanked.

“What applies to the gents goes approximately double for the ladies, especially in the martini league. To the average female temperment, gin and french is like the priming of dynamite. This is a mystery which has been explored by many talented tipplers, both male and female. It remains just that.

“On the credit side, there is the old French proverb that there are more old drunkards than old doctors. The number of guys who have been polishing off a fifth or so for 50 years or so is more than the righteous care to admit. There is some credibility to the view that booze acts as a sort of pickling agent to the human frame, with preserving effect.

“Spirits are especially good for the spirit. When you grow slightly nauseous from the heaving of the passions, there is nothing to equal a double for starting the healing process. Over the years I’ve found the sauce mightily useful for combatting two rather nasty ailments: Falling in love, and falling out of love. Both are made easier by firm applications of the grape.

“In Dr. Berry’s sage utterance I do not find any hint of that dread medical word: Moderation. Like, booze is lovely provided you don’t get drunk. That course is about as satisfactory as making love on a bicycle. If I read the doctor correctly, he advocates getting blind drunk if the pain is great enough, and sleeping it off. And if you hurt when you wake up, more of the same. This is stout talk addressed to men of greatness.”

Mother Ran a Speak

We talk about the glamorous speakeasies of prohibition, but really most were probably like this.

Paying for homemade made booze in someone’s kitchen, with optional entertainment.

Mother Ran a Speak, Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“If only I hadn’t gone to Dublin in the first place, and if only I hadn’t gone to that place where they play the music on Saturday nights, and if only the master of ceremonies had not used the word melodeon. Well…

“A melodeon is what most people call an accordion, or a squeeze box, or many other names, and it is something my mother used to play, sitting there on the best chair in the house, and looking pretty and satisfied, and the melodeon on her knee, and the sounds of things written by Tom Moore and Bobby Burns coming out.

“After my mother threw the old man out of the house she had to find some way to support the children, and she was too proud to peddle herself. Teh times being what they were, New York City in the 1920′s, the best thing she could do was make whiskey and peddle it.

“It wasn’t bad whiskey. I used to help her make it, in the big stone tub where I had my weekly bath on a Saturday night. There were a lot of copper coils involved, and the operation was very honest indeed, for my mother would never be involved in anything that wasn’t honest.

“She sold the stuff for a dollar a shot. The clientele was entirely male, naturally. I grew up in what was very like a cat house in atmosphere, except that booze instead of sex was sold there. My mother never did anything that wasn’t honest.

“There were cops and firemen, the elite of the neighborhood. They would come in and sit around the kitchen stove, and the old girl would take out the melodeon, and with that fixed smile on her face play, “Oh Paddy Dear and Did You Hear,” and that sort of sweet nonsense. The cops would get up, with their blue jackets off, and do a clog dance.

“Every once in a while, dazed and dreaming, I would wake in the middle of the night to got to the gents, which meant crossing the kitche, and I would see all of these fellows getting sloshed and my mother playing the melodeon, and she would say to me, “Sing for the boys.”

“And I would sing something called The Sweet Galtee Mountains, which had, at some point, thirty-two verses, dedicated to the thirty-two counties of Ireland, including the ones owned by the Protestants up there.

“And they would throw dimes and nickels on the floor and I would pick them up, which possibly explains why I am now in the entertainment business.

“With all those dollars she got for all those shots my mother became in time respectable and bought us a house in a neighborhood where the rich Jews lived, and I remember one of her strongest more injunctions.

“We would be having one of those catastrophic confrontations which the Irish call a family difference, and she would conclude it with the stern words, “You’re raising your voice, Charlie.” And then she would add, “The Jews will hear you.”

“What with one thing and another, it wasn’t a bad life. I grew up in the firm conviction that I hated my mother, and I’m sure she thought I was the world’s smallest stink. It has taken a long time for me to know that she loved me, and that I loved her. It was all a part of being Irish, or human.

“None of this would have come to mind, or been expressed, if that guy in Dublin hadn’t said the word melodeon. The sound of the box comes to me now, loud and clear, and I think of the courage of that dear good dead woman, and of our failure to know each other, and I am fit to weep.”