It started as a game I’d play with my father, a hard-nosed drinker and long-time alcoholic, although it took years before I came to understand that. Dad would give me tastes, laughing at the faces I made, and quiz me on their names. Manhattan, Rob Roy, Daiquiri, Whiskey Sour, Gimlet, Old Fashioned, Black and White Russian. I learned them all. Early. Perhaps Dad believed in the Forbidden Fruit Theory: Become an educated drinker while young and avoid the abuse of alcohol as a teenager. But it’s more likely he wanted to share his shame with someone who wouldn’t judge him. And judge him I didn’t until years later when I realized abuse was the operative word when it came to my father's drinking habits, an observation he chose to ignore. His relationship to liquor is an ambiguous legacy left on my soul, like an unattractive callus I can't scrape off but occasionally keeps gravel from stinging.
Dad's three-shelved liquor cabinet was above and to the right of the sink where clean dishes should have gone, alcohol being far more essential than any immediate needs of the kitchen. That cupboard was my father's savings and loan of satisfaction. He stocked-piled all kinds of liquor - scotch, rye, vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon. Mixers and supplements - bitters, tonic, club soda, maraschino cherries. Stainless steel accessories - ice bucket etched with a penguin, cocktail shaker with a spout and handle, like an elongated coffee pot, strainers, slicers, stirrers, tongs. Everything necessary for the art of mixology.
When it came to alcohol, Dad took care of his own needs, even though he expected to be waited upon for pretty much everything else. With his a glass of ice, he'd stand in front of his booze bank, earlier and earlier each day as year melded into year, and pour - without measuring - the liquid desensitizer over the cubes; then swirl and clink and swirl some more before taking his first sip, right there facing the cabinet. Because he'd invariably have to add another splash of liquor-du-jour before settling into the recliner in the den or the other one on the kitchen porch and find something to gripe about.
Dad's winter drink was a Rob Roy. Dark, amber, tart, yet sickeningly sweet. Once at a restaurant, he ordered a perfect Rob Roy. "The bartender will do his best," I said. "What if it's not perfect? What are you going to do? Send it back?"
He lifted his head from the menu. "A perfect Rob Roy," he instructed, "is the name of a drink - it's a Rob Roy made with half-sweet and half-dry vermouth instead of all sweet. You'll learn," he said and receded into the menu to decide between surf and turf.
In the summer, Dad drank gin and tonics. Lots of gin, little tonic. He'd sit on the porch, gulp his drink, and watch humming birds flit around the bird feeders. "Damn," he'd say. "Those birds drink that sugar water too damned fast. I have to fill the damn feeders again." He never saw the irony.
At Thanksgiving and Christmas, Dad mixed Brandy Alexanders in the blender with vanilla ice cream and Hershey's chocolate syrup. Everybody - my dad, my two older brothers, my mother, who wasn't much of a drinker, and I drank them until the ice cream was gone. There was little concern for age or legality or liquor consumption or stomach contents. I guess our over-sized, carbohydrated turkey dinners sopped up the alcohol before it hit our brains. We'd sleep until early evening when it was time for turkey sandwiches - and more pie - and Crème de Menthe on ice, "as a digestive," Dad said.
On New Year's Eve, we drank rum-laden farm-fresh eggnog served in a crystal punch bowl with matching cups. No one I knew ever became sick from eggnog until Christmas, 1982, when my husband's eighty-something grandmother died of salmonella poisoning after drinking a tainted batch whipped up in the kitchen of her New Jersey county nursing home. I never drank eggnog after that.
As Dad approached his late seventies, he didn't bother with mixed cocktails anymore. He drank his scotch straight, not wanting liquid-filler to hinder the impact of his mood mollifier. By that time I had my own favorite - gin martini - which, whenever I visited, I drank just as quickly - to mollify myself as I suffered this aging man who had by then collected a myriad of new complaints.
In high school, my friends and I went to Frank Kapok's Airport Inn, a bar-restaurant on the edge of town, across the road from a hanger turned Beanie's gas station and an airstrip turned hay field. We'd play the jukebox and drink Seven and Sevens, and Rum and Cokes, and Genesee Beer. We were all under 18, New York's drinking age at the time, but we were served anyway. Nobody cared. Nobody got caught - not the kids, not the waitresses, not the bartenders, and not Frank Kapok, who, I would learn years later, grabbed a high-powered rifle at 2:00 am when he heard what he thought was a prowler on his threshold and blasted through the back door, leaving a massive hole in the door and another one in his friend - who just wanted to sober up in Frank's kitchen before going home to his tea totaling wife - killing him instantly, giving the undertaker some work after a three-week hiatus. The courts, I think, did very little: a man's home being his castle - private property to protect - friend on doorstep notwithstanding.
If my dad had been using the Forbidden Fruit Theory to monitor my teenage drinking, it worked, because even though I went along with the crowd on our drinking escapades, I hated the getting drunk part. Once a bunch of us broke into a mountain vacation cabin in the middle of winter. We brought beer, cigarettes, flashlights, and battery-operated radios. After an hour or so, the beer bash got too wild for my comfort level, so I insisted one of the guys drive me home. They all made fun of me and called me a sissy.
The next day I stopped in Carl's diner, the local hangout for town gossips, and Carl, the biggest gossip of all, said, "I understand you got a lot of kids in trouble last night." I was stunned. How did he know anything about it? And who was the blabbermouth? Because I hadn't told anyone. I said as much to Carl. He didn't believe me, and no one else of the break-in bunch did either. I was persona non grata with that crowd for the rest of my senior year. It still sticks in my craw.
Although I've developed a taste for a good drink, I make it a point to keep alcohol a lower priority than food or clean dishes. A skinny cupboard below the junk drawer holds some liqueur and a bottle of top-shelf gin. And even though I vowed never to be like my dad when it comes to drinking, or anything else for that matter, every now and then, his personality manages to merge with mine.
A couple of months ago at a swanky restaurant, while waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner, I meandered to the bar and ordered a very, very, dry dirty martini – my current cocktail of choice - straight up – with blue cheese stuffed olives and a sprinkle of olive juice. No vermouth. Not a whisper. Vermouth makes gin taste, well, like vermouth – metallic, sour, acidic. Olive juice adds zip, spice, zing. Juniper and olive trees must grow side-by-side on breezy Mediterranean hillsides, flavors destined to be merged in an alcoholic mélange, the plants lovingly cultivated by Greek farmers who inherited plantations from their great-grandfathers on the promise to grow such fine fruit that Americans would pay a hefty price for a good martini. And then the blue cheese . . . the icing on the proverbial cake. Blue cheese adds heartiness. Must be the mold. Whatever it is, it’s just the right extra that makes the martini almost a meal.
The patrons at the bar probably liked how I sounded. Knowledgeable. Competent. Confident. I knew my stuff. Pure class.
At first I was going to put my drink on a running tab, but I decided to pay for it right away. The bartender placed the over-full martini on a napkin in front of me. He didn’t lose any of it – the slight rise off the rim didn’t break. What dexterity, what finesse. He was good.
“How much?” I asked the bartender, pawing through my purse for a ten.
Parsimony derailed the sophistication I rode in on. “$12.50?” I blurted, scrunching my forehead. I expected $7.00 . . . maybe $7.50 . . . but $12.50?
My face screwed into a scowl and my brain switched into that lurking unused-but-never-lost Dad mode. And with it, suspicion - the kind he got when questioning the veracity of his sneaky children. You expect me to believe you didn’t forge my signature? A red, bulbous nose, bolo tie, and beige shoes with Velcro straps would have completed the image.
“$12.50?” I repeated - even louder. Bar patrons lowered their stemmed glasses and watched my penny-pinching, unrefined outburst. Men with pinky rings and women in spaghetti-strap dresses ceased their intimate chatting to catch the remnants of this exchange with the bartender. “Isn’t that a bit pricy?”
The bartender didn’t look at me. “It’s straight up.” He swirled a glass in hot water, dried it, and placed it on a shelf. “You get more liquor when it’s straight up.” He stuck out his chin and squinted at me, as though the dim lighting made him half-blind. He made sure I understood this new language. “So. It. Costs. More.”
I caught a glimpse of myself in an imaginary mirror. Pitiful. “Shut up,” I told myself. “You’re causing a scene. Stop before your knee highs bunch at your ankles.”
How much is it on the rocks?” This was important.
He sauntered off to make a drink for a guy wearing a silk suit and tasseled loafers. “$8.50,” he said over his shoulder.
A 20% tip added another $2.45, bringing my little diversion at the bar while I waited for my friend to a total of $14.95. Hell - might as well make it $15. I dug out another five and slapped it next to the ten on the bar. Practically half my dinner allowance.
Maybe I should have had him switch it to on the rocks. But it was too late to rectify the situation. Too late to regain my stature as a competent, confident, knowledgeable, classy, dirty-martini-chic woman-of-the-world.
My drink was filled so far to the brim I had to sip a dent in the surface before carrying the liquid platinum to a table. One tiny spill would have been equivalent to losing three buck’s worth of booze, and I’d be obliged to lick it off the floor, destroying any lingering refinement that hadn’t been trashed at the bar.
Did my alcoholic dad give me enough lessons as a kid to avoid misuse of liquor? I think so. I like alcohol. It tastes good. But I don't like getting drunk, and I don't like paying through the nose for it.
Have I abused alcohol? Occasionally.
Have I learned any lessons? Probably.
Will I repeat my mistakes? Can't say.
It's still all a game to me. But not like the one Dad played, who eventually lost the will to strategize.
Because, for the most part, I still win.