Jesse Kornbluth learns to suck it up like the big boys.
In my parents’ house, alcohol was for goyim. On rare occasions, my mother took a nip of Manischewitz Cream Red Concord—“a sweet but balanced wine with a velvety mouth feel and the flavor of fresh Concord grapes with confectionery notes”—but the next day she always spoke against her modest high. My father, well known for his disdain of fun, once ate two bourbon balls at a party and had to take to bed.
My parents married in 1940. Because they did not drink, a closet in our home was dedicated to boxes of their wedding liquor, distilled in the 1930s. When my brother and I came of age in the 1960s, he took it upon himself to drain those bottles, drinking better Scotch than he’d find in the next half century of searching.
My failure to join my brother can be explained in a joke.
“Why don’t Jews drink?”
“Because it dulls the pain.”
My late adolescence was about civil rights, Vietnam, aggressive scholarship—like salmon, I was born to swim upstream—and trying to score with smart girls, who, like me, preferred smoking dope to waking up in a pool of vomit. Pain? Yes. Three of those.
And yet, I did drink. At noon. Before I was legal. With blue-collar guys, even.
In my 17th summer, I got a job as a copy boy at the New York Times. Not in the prestigious newsroom. In classified advertising. My job was to stamp the correct insertion date as ads came in from the agencies and the room of assistants manning the phones. The deadline was 3 PM. Naturally the pace was slow until about 2:30, when messengers dropped bundle after bundle on my desk. Management understood there was a time crunch and adjusted the Muzak accordingly—after 2:30, we were treated to Al Hirt’s “Java.” Pumped up? I was a young ‘un, but at 3:01, I slumped over the desk.
The guys in the composing room—union men, and true—knew the drill. And they schooled me: The afternoon rush passes less painfully if you’re in an altered state.
So lunch meant Gough’s. If you are, as Yeats writes, “old and gray and full of sleep/ and nodding by the fire,” you may remember this joint. It was right across the street from the Times, and it was dark, with a long bar in front and checked-clothed tables in the back room. You ordered a burger—I don’t believe they served anything else– and a draft beer. No need to specify the brand, because in 1964, beer culture wasn’t even a dream. You got Schlitz, and you said thank you.
The beer came in a schooner. This is not a small glass, suitable for children. It’s a blue-collar wine class, thick, stemmed, holding at least 10 ounces. Like ballpark beer, Schlitz started foamy, frigid and bitter; in ten minutes, it was just bitter. It was, therefore, to be downed quickly.
Blue-collar profanity, shrewd gossip, a powerful connection to the proud history of American labor—from day one, these accompanied the beer, they were as bound to it as hops.
Gough’s is long gone. I drink Corona Light now, in smaller quantities and smaller glassware, and never at lunch. But in my head—and more, in my heart—today’s first sip takes me back to that room on 43rd Street, where a callow boy learned how good men suck it up and get it done.
Image credit: nitram242/Flickr