Who’s the greatest boozer of all time?
Sixteen supreme drunks dove into a sea of booze eight months ago, bent on determining exactly who should wear the undisputed Crown of Drunkardom. Since then, formerly unassailable reputations have been elevated and devastated, unstoppable swillers have clashed with immovable pounders, and many great men and women have been carried away by the tide. And now, finally, two champions have emerged unbeaten from the sea for one last climactic battle: Charles Bukowski and Jackie Gleason. Pour yourself a strong one and keep the bottle close, because the battle for the title of the Greatest Boozer of All Time begins.
Table Side Announcers: Howard Cosell and Sir Laurence Olivier
Ref: Bill “The Fox” Foster
“The Battlin’ Barfly”
“The Jolly Juicer”
(Odds: 3 to 2 in favor of Gleason)
Tale of the Tab
Buk staggered in as an 8-1 long shot to win the tournament, and the Cinderella story that was his life continues. His reputed weak stomach, a factor that many thought would earn him an early exit from the contest, has been subdued by sheer will. He has used his notorious hot and cold temper, once thought to be a handicap, to psychologically demolish several of his opponents. He has teetered on the edge of defeat, but has always fought his way back into the game with the tenacity of a junkyard dog. The question now is: Can the old dog make one final grand stand for all the chips?
Gleason has breezed through the tournament with the same nonchalance with which he breezed through life. He has employed a brilliantly shifting strategy, overpowering weaker livers with sheer drinking might, and clipping tougher opponents, such as tournament favorite W.C. Fields, with masterful trickery. He possesses the physical ability to take the title, but he is also a risk taker: He would rather gamble on a quick win than grind out a sure thing.
The Build Up
Howard Cosell: Gleason versus Bukowski. Who would have guessed?
Laurence Olivier: Gleason was a safe bet. Bukowski would be a surprise if we hadn’t watched him take down, sometimes with impunity, some of the finest boozers to ever step up to a bar.
HC: Yes, but most of the smart money bettors assumed W.C. Fields, Hemingway, or Faulkner would have been sitting at the table.
LO: And their pocketbooks have paid the price. I don’t think enough attention was paid to the the psychological side of the contest. Everyone was looking at the contestants’ bellies, when they should have been looking in their heads.
HC: As they quickly learned. Their wake-up call was Dorothy Parker ambushing Orson Welles in the first round.
LO: This pair is nearly as contrasted. Compare Gleason, nattily dressed in an expensive Italian suit, and Bukowski, outfitted in an ensemble he probably picked up off the floor.
HC: Beneath the surface there are similarities, however. Both were raised by dysfunctional working-class families. If anything, Gleason grew up poorer than Buk. But where Charlie sought out and drew inspiration from poverty, Jackie got out as soon as he could and never looked back. Do you think, had these two greats ever met, they would have got along?
LO: Not at all. Gleason’s flamboyancy would have cut Buk to the quick. He despised celebrities, even after he became one. And Buk’s, shall we say, unusual fashion sense would not have impressed Jackie.
HC: I expect Gleason to start probing Buk right off the bat, see if he can find a crack in his psyche to pry at.
LO: Gleason is crafty. But Bukowski is wise. I can’t imagine him falling for Jackie’s shenanigans.
HC: Well, let’s find out.
(Gleason wins the coin toss.)
Gleason orders double J&B Scotches on the rocks
HC: “Excuse me, fella,” Jackie tells Buk, “but you can’t sit there. We’re about to have a contest.” Bukowski stares at Gleason, puzzled.
LO: “Hey, will someone tell the janitor he can’t sit there?” Gleason continues. “And where the hell is this Bukowski guy?”
HC: Gleason isn’t wasting any time.
LO: “I’m Bukowski,” Buk answers.
HC: “Sure you are, pal,” Gleason says, reaching into his pocket. “Here, here’s twenty bucks. Go get yourself a bowl of soup and a shave.”
LO: Bukowski strikes a match, lights the twenty on fire, then uses the lit bill to light what smells like a cheap cigar.
HC: “Okay, Hobo Joe, we’ll have a drink, then you gotta go.” With that, Jackie knocks down his scotch.
LO: Bukowski picks up his glass and lays it back. He’s not even attempting to defend himself against Gleason’s jabs.
HC: He’s like an old V-8 engine. He always starts slow. But when he gets going, you better strap yourself in.
Bukowski orders double shots of Juarez tequila
HC: There’s some starter fluid.
LO: “The nerve of the hobos in this joint,” Jackie says, watching Buk put down half his shot. “He’s drinking up Bukowski’s tab!” Gleason stands up and yells, “Bukowski! BUKOWSKI! Where is that bum? No offense, pal.”
LO: How long is he going to play this game?
HC: Until he gets a rise out of Buk, I think. Gleason has bullied every opponent he’s been up against, with great success.
LO: Gleason absent-mindedly picks up his double and knocks it back, still looking around for what he pretends to be his missing opponent.
HC: Buk blinks at Jackie, then downs his shot. I think he was probing Gleason with that double tequila.
LO: The cactus juice has served him well. He used it to great effect against Faulkner. But if I remember right, Gleason ordered triple tequilas against Fields, so Buk might have to reconsider that choice of weapon.
Gleason orders double J&B Scotches on the rocks
HC: “I think I see that Bukowski asshole over at the bar,” Buk says. “Where?” replies Gleason, looking over his shoulder.
LO: As Buk promptly drinks down his entire glass of scotch!
HC: Gleason turns back around, glances at Buk’s smile and empty glass. “Take your time,” Buk says. “I’m sure he’ll be by in a minute.”
LO: Gleason casually picks up his glass on the seven count and knocks it back on the nine.
HC: “All right, you son of a bitch,” Gleason says, smiling. “Now we got a show.”
Bukowski orders bottles of Miller Genuine Draft
LO: I don’t get it. They both know each other’s weakness, their earlier matches revealed as much. So why isn’t Buk ordering absinthe?
HC: We know why Gleason isn’t ordering vermouth. Between the Burton and Faulkner match ups Charlie went out and immuned himself to the stuff.
LO: Which leaves Jackie completely in the dark. He could try sweet drinks designed to upset Buk’s suspect stomach—
HC: All of his opponents tried that tactic and they all failed.
LO: “Taking a little breather?” Jackie says, holding up the bottle of beer.
HC: “Relax, fat man,” Buk replies. “We’re going to be here all night.”
LO: “Don’t count on it,” Gleason replies. “I have to meet someone for cocktails in an hour.”
HC: Jackie chugs his beer and sets it down. Buk follows, finishing on the seven count.
LO: That was quite a boast Jackie made. If he wants to make that appointment, he’d better crank it up.
Rounds Five Through Ten
Gleason orders three rounds of triple Stoli screwdrivers. Bukowski orders three rounds of Miller Genuine Draft.
HC: Gleason charges ahead and Bukowski seems content to hang back and draft off him, so to speak.
LO: He may be onto something. Gleason was a big beer drinker. He just used it to cure hangovers.
HC: He always said it was too slow a ride.
LO: He’s certainly setting a fast pace now. He’s knocking back the beer and triples like he really plans on making that appointment.
HC: “Are you meeting a lady?” Bukowski asks.
LO: “Well, I wouldn’t call her a lady,” Gleason replies. “But that doesn’t mean she should be kept waiting.”
HC: “Don’t sweat it,” Buk says. “She’ll find someone else. They always do.”
LO: “She’ll wait,” Jackie assures. “All right, pally. Looks like I’m going to have to get this party started by myself.”
Gleason orders triples of Wild Turkey 101
LO: Looks like Jackie’s been doing a little experimenting off duty. 101 wasn’t around when he was alive.
HC: “Here’s to your new home,” Gleason says, lifting his glass.
LO: “Where’s that?” Bukowski asks.
HC: “Look under your feet,” Jackie says and knocks back a very hard triple. Buk smiles faintly and follows.
Bukowski orders Wild Irish Rose fortified wine.
HC: Buk cranks up his tried and true Wino-Style Attack.
LO: Wild Turkey 101, then Wild Irish Rose. I don’t envy either of them.
HC: Gleason has a taste and says, “Now we’re on the Kool-Aid. Where’d you learn to drink? Grade school?”
LO: “As a matter of fact, I did,” Bukowski replies.
HC: “Let me take you back then,” Gleason says.
Gleason orders Merry-Go-Round Cocktails
LO: Jackie knows his odd drinks. I believe that’s a rum and vodka combo.
HC: About two ounces each. With a lot of sweetener.
LO: “This will get you spinning,” Jackie says, tilting his glass. He takes down about half of it.
HC: Buk has a taste. Was that a flinch?
LO: It’s a sweet drink. On the heels of the two Wild rounds, it must be playing hell with his stomach.
HC: “Come on, pally,” Gleason rails. “Get on the Merry-Go-Round! Weeeeee!” Jack takes down the rest of his drink.
LO: Buk starts drinking — slowly — and finishes on the eight count.
HC: “What’s wrong, chum, getting dizzy?” Gleason asks.
Rounds Fourteen Through Twenty
Bukowski orders four rounds of Self-Solving Solutions, Gleason orders three rounds of Merry-Go-Rounds.
LO: A brilliant counter on Bukowski’s part.
HC: I agree. The Self-Solving Solution is half Jager and half Pepto-Bismol, and is probably doing wonders for his gastronomy. But it is a defensive selection, and Jackie knows that.
LO: “Are you spinning yet?” Gleason laughs. “Want me to slow the ride down?”
HC: Bukowski picks up his Solution and knocks it back. “You keep pitching ‘em and I’ll keep knocking ‘em out of the park,” he says.
LO: “Yeah?” Jackie says. “Well, here comes my spit ball.”
Gleason orders Cherry Spitfire Cocktails
LO: Now, that’s a nasty pitch.
HC: I’ll say. Rum, tequila, peach schnapps, triple sec, grenadine topped with Bacardi 151.
LO: “Batter up!” Gleason says, and — incredible! — sinks the tall drink in three great swallows.
HC: Buk dives in. He takes down about a third of the cocktail and comes up for air.
LO: “Strike one!” Jackie says.
HC: Buk takes another swing. He gets down another third on the six count.
LO: “Strike two!” Jackie bellows, rising to his feet. “Hey batter-batter! Hey batter-batter!
HC: On the eight count, Buk tips it up!
LO: Gleason yells, “Swiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!”
HC: Buk gets it down on the nine! Barely!
LO: He’s safe at first!
HC: But it’s a hell of a long way to home plate. And Gleason will definitely try to pick him off.
Bukowski orders forties of Colt .45 Malt Liquor
LO: Buk isn’t straying too far from base.
HC: He’s trying to buy time with that forty. Gleason is in charge now and he knows it.
LO: Both men are starting to show their cups, to be sure, but Jackie seems positively elated. Buk, on the other hand, seems to be sinking into a dark funk. And it’s spreading to the crowd: You can tell who has their money on Buk.
HC: While Jackie’s gang cracks up at his jokes. They’re already counting their winnings, while Jackie makes arrangements to meet his date.
LO: Gleason’s taking his time with that forty. And so is Buk.
Gleason orders So Long Sucker Cocktails
HC: I think it was Bogart who said, “I let my drinking do the talking.”
LO: And Jackie’s selections are speaking volumes, if a bit presumptuously. It’s not exactly a knock-out drink.
LO: Strong, no. Sweet, yes. It’s mostly Pucker liqueur.
HC: “Call it off,” Bukowski says.
LO: “The match?” Gleason asks, reaching for his top coat.
LO: “Your date,” Buk says. “You’re not going to make it.”
HC: And with that, he knocks back the Sucker. Gleason, deflated a bit, follows.
Bukowski orders absinthe
LO: Buk is back on the attack!
HC: He’s trying to mount an offensive, that’s plain. And finally he goes after Jackie’s weak spot. Hemingway did considerable damage with the Green Faerie in his bout with Gleason. But is it too little, too late?
LO: Bukowski seems to have steeled himself. Notice how he’s gritting his teeth. His stomach must be giving him the devil.
HC: He isn’t the only one gritting his teeth. Gleason is looking at his absinthe like he’s been served alimony papers.
LO: “Let’s see if I can remember how to do this,” Gleason says, putting the perforated spoon up one nostril and the sugar cube up the other. “Is this how you do it, Bukky?”
HC: “It’s like this,” Bukowski, says, drinking down the glass of absinthe straight.
LO: Gleason pulls out the cube and spoon, sighs, then, holding his nose — as he does — downs the glass, chews the sugar cube and chases it with a long pull from the pitcher of chilled water.
HC: Well, it’s not how they do it in Prague, but it seems to work for the Great One.
Gleason orders double J&B Scotch and sodas
LO: I expected him to order Guinness, which was effective in countering Hemingway’s absinthe attack.
HC: I don’t think he’s ready to surrender the reins just yet. He was so close to victory, only to squander it by taking his time with the forty and ordering that smart-alec So Long Sucker.
LO: I’d say the Scotch and soda can be qualified as neither offensive nor defensive at this point. He seems to be waiting to see which way Bukowski’s going to go.
Bukowski orders glasses of absinthe, neat
LO: He’s going to Prague.
HC: And he’s ditched the sugar and water. Hem did the same thing.
LO: “This looks awfully familiar,” Jackie says. He looks to his corner. “Hey, Toots, how’d I get out of this jam last time?”
HC: His corner man, Toots Shor, deadpans, “I think you put the puke bucket on your head.”
LO: “That’s right,” Jackie says, snapping his fingers. He reaches for the bucket and the ref pulls it out of reach.
HC: “Got any other bright ideas?” Jackie asks Toots.
LO: “Yeah,” Toots says, “Why don’t you try drinking up.”
HC: Which is a good call, because Buk snuck his drink down while Jackie and Toots were reparteeing!
LO: The ref is already on the five count. Jackie holds his nose and downs half his glass. Seven! Eight! Jackie tries again! And — gets it down. He shakes his head violently, signals for the bucket!
HC: The ref hands it over and —
LO: Jackie puts it on his head.
HC: “Toots, it ain’t workin’,” Jackie says.
Gleason orders pints of Guinness
HC: Okay, now Jackie is on the defensive.
LO: What’s this? A messenger has approached the table.
HC: “Telegram!” the messenger says.
LO: “It must be from my date,” Gleason slurs. He suddenly seems very, very drunk.
HC: “Telegram for Mr. Bukowski,” the messenger corrects.
LO: “That dirty gold-digging tramp!” Gleason snarls. “She must think the hobo is going to win!”
LO: Bukowski smiles drunkenly and signs for the telegram. He fumbles his reading glasses onto his nose.
HC: “Go ahead and read it aloud,” Jackie mutters. “Let’s see what the tramp has to say.”
LO: Buk holds up the telegram, clears his throat and reads, “Confucius say, ‘A fool reads telegrams when he should be watching the guy on the other side of the table.’”
HC: Buk lowers the telegram to see Gleason smiling over a drained pint glass. Classic Gleason trickery!
LO: Buk drops the telegram and starts in, dropping his glasses in the pint! He fishes them out on the seven count.
HC: Eight! Bukowski tips it up and —
LO: Ten! The ref wavers, then signals that Buk beat the count. Gleason’s corner is in an uproar! They’re saying he didn’t make it!
HC: The ref has the final say, however, and he says he did. This is when the arguments for instant replay make sense.
Bukowski orders Flaming Asshole shots
LO: Now it’s Bukowski who’s letting his drinks do the talking.
HC: Both men light cigarettes from the flaming shots, then blow them out.
LO: They’re both in pretty rough shape.
HC: Buk picks up his glass and says, “A toast. To the biggest asshole in the world.”
LO: “To you,” Jackie says, and they knock them back. The men lean back in their chairs and gaze at each other.
HC: “The Great One,” Bukowski slurs cynically.
LO: “The Great Bum,” Gleason replies. For all their words, I think these men have learned to respect each other.
HC: “All right, pally,” Jackie says. “Let’s bet the whole wad on one nag.”
Gleason orders triple 151 Ways to Die Cocktails
HC: Mother of God.
LO: Bacardi 151, Wild Turkey 101 and brandy times three. Quite possibly the wickedest mix on the planet.
HC: It’s a last-ditch tactic. He’s essentially calling in an air strike on his own position in hopes of killing the enemy.
LO: “You ready, pal?” Gleason sighs.
HC: “Why not?” Buk says.
LO: “Better put out your smoke,” Jackie says, “or we’ll burn this whole joint down.” Both snuff their cigarettes, wrap their hands around the tall triples and stand up, both unsteady.
LO: “See you on the other side,” Buk says. This has got to be it. The shape they’re in, both can’t make it through.
LO: They lift their drinks and, eyes locked, they tip them up.
HC: Both men wince as the harsh liquor bites.
LO: Yet they continue! This is magnificent!
HC: They’re halfway through and still —
LO: They drink! Gleason’s face twists with pain, his eyes are tearing! Can he take much more?
HC: They reach the three quarters point! Amazing! Bukowski’s face is frozen, pale, his eyes —
LO: Roll back into his head! And still he — they both —
HC: Gleason’s body is shaking like a broken machine! Bukowski’s knees are buckling, he —
LO: Finishes his drink! Buk has finished his drink! The crowd is roaring! Gleason keeps at it, he—
HC: He goes down! Bukowski goes down! He falls face first onto the table, smashing it flat! He finished his drink but —
LO: Gleason loses his balance and crashes into his corner! He appears to have finished his drink on the way to the floor! Toots tries to help, but the ref waves him away.
HC: Jackie is stirring, but I think he’s done! Buk went down first, but if he can get up, he wins.
LO: Buk rolls onto his stomach, takes a deep breath, shakes his shaggy head, then reaches for his chair.
HC: He’s trying to pull himself up! He must feel like a thousand cold pounds, yet he —
LO: Yes! He’s going to do it! He’s going to make —
HC: He loses his grip! Buk crumples to the floor!
LO: “Don’t touch my drink,” he mumbles and goes out.
HC: That’s it! Jackie Gleason has won! The Great One is the Greatest Boozer of All Time!
Gleason wins by PO.
Jackie Gleason is crowned the Greatest Boozer of All Time.