Monday, February 07, 2005

You Can’t Go Home Again.

The following was written in 1998, and it is republished here for the umpteenth time. Consider it the longest business card in the world, and it just might make more sense.

I had my back to the light and my face was upon the things where the light fell. My face, by which I looked upon things that were in the light, was itself in the darkness ... Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

There may be Biblical precedents for the notion of the self-analytical literary confession, although to my knowledge the first writer to explore the idea that "it takes one to know one" was Augustine (born 354 A.D.), later made St. Augustine, but at the time just an ordinary cleric obsessed with his sinful past.

From the vantage point of later life, and during the course of various ruminations that were designed to make the case for conversion to Christianity, Augustine freely referred to his youthful lusts, debaucheries and indiscretions, cataloguing and dissecting them, and offering them for the painful scrutiny of his readers. By doing so, he became perhaps the first public figure to emit a primal scream, predating John Lennon by at least 1,550 years, unburdening himself as a means of seeking catharsis for seemingly irreconcilable inner desires, addressing his internal dissonance, recognizing it, and conquering it in the name of something far better.

For Augustine, the problem was sin.

For the Curmudgeon, it is swill.

It has been a long and arduous path to self-knowledge, trudging upwards from the desperate and degraded depths of Schaefer "Weekender" 30-packs to the sublime pinnacle of vintage Alaskan Smoked Porter, but at least the swill-soaked years of my wayward youth were not passed in vain. From them are derived valuable glimpses into the human psyche, and possible explanations for why the majority of American beer drinkers remain in the same abject, leaden state of bondage that I managed to forego.

How do I know this shtick so well? Because I was there, baby. I could spend the next decade drinking Guinness, and I’m still not sure the overall balance of a lifetime would be tilted to good beer over bad. The truth is, I was really bad for a long, long time … and then I got better, although it took a long, long time. Now I’d like to see to it that you don’t have to go through the same thing. I want to make the world safe for drinkers of good beer, and for the next generation to be spared the hardships we had to endure.

There are questions: Must one necessarily experience bad beer to gain an appreciation for good beer, or can understanding and knowledge of the good somehow be gained in the absence of the bad, and without that point of comparison? What happens to you when you gain knowledge of the good, but see so much bad still entrenched all around you?

How the hell did I get here?

Apart from a handful of wee nips as a child, taken from bottles of my father’s beer, my first solo "cold one" was consumed at a junior high school party. Actually, four of us split a can of (shudder … cough … it wasn’t easy for Augustine, either) Budweiser. The primary objective of this action, which took place out in the woods, a safe distance from the prying eyes of the hostess’s parents, seemed to be the establishment of street credibility by having beer on our breaths and mimicking the outward appearances of drunkenness, with which all were familiar, if not by personal experience.

It was a stormy April a year later when the gang staged the first of many campouts at the Floyds Knobs farm of one of my closest friends at the time. I dutifully helped to drag three cases of Fall City longnecks up a wooded bluff, leading from the chilly waters of a creek where they had been hidden by a sympathetic senior football player. For these efforts, I was amply rewarded with by first genuine and unstaged bout of inebriation, a rite of passage made tolerable by the icy flavorlessness of the beer, which numbed my teeth, bolstered my confidence, and gave me an escape from shyness.

We were oblivious to the elements, paying no heed to the rising wind and rain that heralded the arrival of a storm, but Jeff’s parents were paying attention, and soon we saw the headlights from their pickup truck coming down the dirt path. We were told that tornadoes had been spotted, and we’d best move the party, beer and all, to the barn by the house. Our paranoia subsided once we realized that they didn’t care about our drinking as long as we stayed put, and we piled into the bed of the pickup, lay on our backs, stared up into the swirling eternity and swore through stinging raindrops that we could see tornadoes fornicating – except that wasn’t the exact word we used.

Another year later, when my friends began getting their driver's licenses, the bountiful paradise of Louisville’s west end liquor stores beckoned to us, just beyond the provincial confines of New Albany, down Vincennes Street to the K & I toll bridge, and over the Ohio River into Portland. It was then that the frustrating struggle to find a brand of beer that did not totally disgust me began in earnest.
Owing to my sadistically youthful appearance, I wasn’t often the one chosen to go inside Liken’s or the Corner Store and try to get served, so I was at the mercy of my companions’s tastes in beer. This was problematic, because at this stage the "flavor" of a beer was little more than an unpleasant impediment to ingesting its alcohol and trying to look cool while grimacing. My friends liked Sterling and Pabst; I didn’t, but they were doing the work, and I was in no position to argue, so I had to adapt.

I was never very good at math, but some numbers added up for me: The colder the beer was kept, the less taste it would have, and the more I could drink of it. My mission in life became cooler maintenance, to take the cheapest styrofoam cooler I could find, nurture it, protect it from harm, and most importantly, to keep it filled with ice. If I could keep the bottom from falling out and find a safe place to stash it, we could save a buck or two the following weekend.

This helped. However, summertime meant that I had problems finishing the beers before they began to get warm. This led to embarrassment on more than one occasion. I would be jammed into the back seat of a late model junker, without the female companionship that the backseat imagery of rock ‘n’ roll demands, but with an ice-cold can of beer straight from the cooler, gamely making it through the first frozen gulps, then suffering the dismaying recognition that it still was Sterling, Pabst, and Falls City, and realizing that it tasted too bad to finish.

After a sufficient interval had passed, and I determined that I was supposed to have finished the now warmed and thoroughly vile beer, I would throw the "empty" out the window -- but in the still of a humid summer evening’s drive in the countryside, I sometimes misjudged the distance from the open window of the moving car to the stationary, muffled cushion of a grassy roadside. The ignominy was instant and damning: A loud "thump" as the half-full can hit the unrelenting pavement, and the abuse that followed, not all good-natured, because after all, we drove all the way to Louisville for that beer and spent every last dime we had on it, so how the hell can you waste it like that!

It was in this manner, slumped shamefully in the back seat of my friend’s car trying to choke down a warm Sterling, that I resolved to become a better beer drinker than all of them. I was an athlete then, and contrary to legend, I never drank during basketball season (although beer and baseball went together like, well, beer and baseball), so my beer drinking practice sessions had to be squeezed in during summer and off-seasons. Others began to plan their careers in physics, cosmetology, and insurance sales; meanwhile, I conspired to be the best at beer. Gradually, over time, things began to fall into place.

I found a beer that I really liked: Schlitz in the 16-oz "tall boy" cans. Next, there was a craze for Little Millers and Little Kings; at only 7 oz each, they could be consumed before they got warm, and in multiple doses that gave good story: "Yeah, we each had 12 beers on the way over here." I learned that malt liquor packed a punch, especially when clad in those bright silvery blue cans of the Bull.

Finally, America’s beer barons came through with the ultimate solution for the problem of teenage drinkers who wanted to drink beer, but couldn’t cope with the rough pungency of the full-flavored beers of the post WWII era: Light, low-calorie lagers, of which Miller’s Lite was the first widely distributed example, although there were others, like Anheuser-Busch’s Natural Light.

The advent of light beer was a revolution, albeit a regressive one, and after a quarter century of light beer, it’s almost impossible to remember the time before it became as much a part of the fabric of American life as white sandwich bread baked from the paste that your elementary teacher used to warn you against eating.

What she didn’t tell you is that if you add water and ferment the paste, it becomes light beer, with all the character you would expect from such a concoction, which is none; this was the point then, and it remains the point now, and it’s easy to see why light beer became such a phenomenon.

When I became a bit older and began visiting bars -- not before 1979, when I was 19, and gaining in frequency to the present day – most of the old men were drinking traditional manly beers like Pabst, Sterling and Miller High Life. At some point shortly thereafter, I became aware that almost all of them had switched to Lite, Bud Light and even Old Milwaukee Light. Price seemingly wasn’t the issue; if anything, they’d traded up and were paying more to cover the cost of Miller’s television ads.

After long consideration, I concluded that a lifetime of Sterling and City finally had gotten to them, and when they realized that light beer was socially acceptable to their peers, under the rationalization that it was less filling, thus enabling them to drink even more beer than before, they fled their traditional brands as fast as their terminally damaged taste buds would carry them. Better the nothingness of wet air than something terminally foul, and you could hear the sighs of relief in air-conditioned lounges and softball fields all across the nation.

The advent of light beer, the castrato of the world of beer, had the same effect on me, at least initially. Less flavor in a beer really was desirable when compared with the odiousness of full flavor at the time, and in the absence of any other standard of comparison that might define full flavor in a positive fashion. In an odd sort of way, and one that might have been avoided if other stylistic choices were readily available as they are today, light beer became a step-ladder for me. I was able to drink enough of it, and sufficiently often, to finally develop a taste for the generic entity of "beer flavor," which I would define as those qualities helping to differentiate between beer, cola and orange juice, and which light beers do possess, albeit it in a substantially diluted form.

The olfactory convenience of light beer bought me some time, and in sheer bulk it helped to satisfy some of the frantically hormonal cravings of my college days. It wasn’t drinking, it was swallowing; it was affordable, and this suited me at the time.

It didn’t suit me for long. Light beer may have been a utilitarian means to an end, and a temporary release (not unlike masturbation), but to me it never was an end itself, even when I was drinking it. When I reached the magical, mystical age of 21, the legally mandated pressures of adolescence were suddenly gone (although the self-imposed cultural ones remained), and finally I could examine the wares at Cut Rate Liquors in Jeffersonville at my leisure. There were many imported beers, a few of which were British ales, and many more international lagers. Money was a problem, so sampling these beers meant splurging, but at least they were different, and they hinted at broader horizons.

Fortunately for me, two good friends intervened at this juncture and were able to provide personal testimony for two of the mysterious beers on Cut Rate’s import shelf, and the impact of tasting these two previously unknown beverages would have a profound effect on my way of thinking about beer. Larry went away to college and returned with Guinness Extra Stout, and Dave did the same, introducing me to Pilsner Urquell, then sold in four-pack cartons for a lofty $3.99 plus sales tax.

I was intrigued. I’d had Molson, Labatts and Beck’s, but what was the spicy flavor in the Pilsner Urquell, that piquant bitterness cutting through creamy grain flavor, and something that I didn’t remember experiencing before? Dave wasn’t sure, but he thought it was the hops. Whatever it was, I liked it, and the Guinness, black like coffee, dry and heavy, macho in some way that I was not able to put into words, was unlike any "dark" beer I’d ever had.

You mean there were different sorts of dark beers, too? Dark beers were not new to me, although I hadn’t the first idea why they were dark, or how they were made, or how they differed from the massive blackness of Guinness that cut a swath through my soul. Early on, in ’78 or thereabouts, there had been a dark beer from a long-defunct Chicago brewery called Peter Hand (it also made an extra light beer of some sort), and it was followed onto Cut Rate’s shelves by Augsburger Dark. Occasionally we had purchased Lowenbrau Dark, having accepted without question Miller’s advertising strategy of "tonight, let it be Lowenbrau," and saving the Americanized version of a German dunkel for special times.

There had been other sightings of dark, but none like Guinness. Don Da Leon’s, a deli and imported foods store located in the Quadrangle in Jeff, was far ahead of its time (I had a bottle of Kirin there in 1978) and put Schlitz Dark on draft some time around 1981, but even before that, Mario’s Pizza on Charlestown Road in New Albany had a dark beer, the brand now forgotten, on draft. Just after having Guinness for the first time, I saw Stroh’s Bock and tried it. What was bock? It was what was left over at the bottom of the vats after spring cleaning each year, or so I was told, with serene and authoritative confidence, by an old man at Steinert’s who said he wouldn’t touch the dark stuff for fear of its 20% alcohol content. Later, when I learned that the tales of spring scrubbing and heightened potency were utter nonsense, I was embarrassed for having been so stupid.

At first, we mixed the Guinness with lager beers; on more than one occasion, we took a six-pack into the K & H Café in Lanesville and made black and tans with draft Budweiser. The Gods saw fit not to punish me for this transgression, and soon I graduated to straight Guinness … and I’ve been there ever since. As Mark Francis once noted, the perfect Black and Tan isn’t halves of stout and pale ale mixed in a glass, it’s a pint of each, mixed in your stomach.

Unfortunately, there were many years of practice and refinement yet to come, because merely being introduced to good beers like Guinness and Pilsner Urquell did not automatically transport me to a state of pure bliss and enlightenment. Progress was painstaking and incremental, with old, tested temptations and new, unexplored domains vying for hegemony over my mind, my palate and my wallet.

By 1983, I was working part-time at the old Scoreboard Liquors in New Albany and seeking to stock one door of the walk-in cooler with imports (remember, micros were still several years away), and I continued to do this right up until 1992, when I went into the business at Rich O’s. Beginning around 1984, I would no longer drink light, low-calorie beer. In 1985, I traveled to Europe for the first time, and this was followed by journeys in 1987, 1989 and 1991, and others since. After each trip, it was harder than the one before to go back to my old haunts and to drink cans of Strohs or draft Budweiser, but I must confess that I did go back and do precisely that, at least until 1992. Even the inception of FOSSILS in 1990 did not entirely divert my attention away from the swill that had ruled my youth, although I can truthfully say that Budweiser has not touched my lips for almost
six years.

I don’t know why it took so long for these obvious lessons to take root. For ten years, between my first Guinness and my last can of atrocious Budweiser aboard an Amtrak train bound to Chicago for a job interview and a visit to Goose Island, around four lengthy trips to Europe and submersion in the continent’s still vibrant beer culture, and right up through the first year and a half of FOSSILS, swill remained a part of my life. I can say that swill’s hold over me steadily diminished during this time, but this does little to absolve me. However, I can spot a few trends that help to understand my actions, and by extension, provide some insight into the motivations of the unenlightened majority of the population, for whom the arguments I’m setting forth here are no more relevant than the theological abstractions of the medieval academics who transformed Augustine’s earnestness into dogma to undergird the Inquisition.

You can’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t been exposed to it, and when you have, familiar habits and conveniences don’t change easily. It takes an act of calculated volition to escape the subtle noose of conformity that American consumer culture imperceptibly tightens with every ubiquitous ploy in its considerable arsenal, with every billboard, television advertisement and sponsorship agreement that assaults our senses in a typical day. To begin escaping it, you have to be willing to question beliefs that seem all the more sacrosanct owing to the almost religious conviction with which they are advanced. You must try to cease thinking in terms of packaging and presentation, and begin thinking in terms of essences and ultimates, to abandon the orthodoxy that more for less is always better, and to recognize that enlightenment is far preferable to ignorance even when broader understanding brings with it "unpatriotic" and "antisocial" perceptions and connotations on the part of your peers.

This last part is the hardest part. It comes when you’ve been able to do these things, and by doing so, you find yourself utterly and irrevocably at odds with the culture of your upbringing. The past and the people who populated it retain a pull on you, but you know that you can never go back to it. It, and they, will have to come to you – or be damned.

It is unlikely that Augustine drank beer. If he did, it wasn’t beer as we know it today, but human nature is a constant that pulses throughout the long, intervening centuries. He lived in an age when certainties were being methodically stripped away as the Roman empire disintegrated into chaos, and numerous other forces competed to occupy the resulting vacuum. In the midst of societal disarray, he looked at himself and saw obvious parallels with his past, with his own aimlessness, lewdness, and overall lack of thought and misdirection, and although his memories of earlier times were in many respects remarkably balanced, seemingly to the point of nostalgia in some instances, they symbolized a life and a mode of thinking that were no longer options for him. They comprised a life he could no longer live. His mature Christian beliefs were a framework for self-interpretation, as well as providing the foundation for his advocacy of Christian belief as the balm for troubled days in the present, and as a means of transcending the old ways collapsing all around his world.

For my money, the sociology of human beings making alcoholic beverages and drinking them, both privately and publicly, is the most complex, intimate and fascinating of all such systems that seek to explain our behavior in the context of interaction with others. All the elements are there: Religiosity, education, science, individual and group psychology … on and on, with all aspects of the human experience, the bodies and the blood, capable of being poured into a glass and consumed. The power and intensity of the metaphor is enhanced by knowledge, and this alters your relationship with the people who are taking part, and with the elixir in the glass.

Of course, one tinkers with these fragile relationships at his own peril; once released, the genie might be reluctant to crawl meekly back into the bottle, and so it has been with me. It takes a certain hardness of heart to realize that your beliefs are beyond compromise, even if the result is a schism with the past. I’ve come a long way toward achieving my goal of being a better beer drinker than all the rest of them – not in terms of volume, but in terms of understanding. If celebrating this accomplishment means sharing with them the detestable liquid that started us all down this path, and partaking of the liquid they still venerate, as though nothing has changed in twenty years of incessant, clamorous change, then I’ll have to regrettably pass, and urge them to come to me on my terms … or not at all.

1 comment:

All4Word said...

Thank you. That was a delight to read.

I only wish I could have passed on to you my experiences of living under a code where 18 was the legal drinking age.

Yes, there was a brief interregnum where that was possible to do, particularly in the South. Frankly, I think it a bit nuts to prohibit individuals who have otherwise achieved their majority from drinking. Under that logic, why not raise the drinking age to 45?

I don't share your passion, but I do have a passion for elegant writing, and this was that.