Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! –Isaiah 05:11
It’s five before noon, so technically it is morning. Taking a seat at the bar, I consider holding out for those five long horrible minutes. What is woe after all? Webster defines it as 1) a condition of deep suffering from misfortune, affliction, or grief, or 2) ruinous trouble.
“What’re you having?”
“Give me a couple minutes.”
The bartender glances at his watch. “Got a rule about drinking before noon?”
“No, but God apparently does.”
He bounces his eyes off the Bible on the bar top then moves away to stare at me from what cops call “loony range.” Contrary to popular belief, I am not usually drunk by noon. Hell, I’m usually asleep until two.
“How about now?” he asks.
Ignoring the calculated lie of the bar clock, I look at my watch as the inexorable second hand crosses the line between the woeful felony of morning drunkenness, and the minor, almost laughable misdemeanor of extremely early-afternoon tippling.
“I can now follow strong drink without fear of woe,” I tell the bartender, ordering a gin and tonic. “But I may become inflamed with wine later.”
“We don’t serve wine or flamers,” he fires back handily, and I notice he pours my cocktail stiff. Trying to sway the righteous from the Lord with strong drink.
“The first is the second best drink of the day,” I say, toasting him.
I tap my fingers on the Bible’s shiny leather hide, waiting for him to crack. It is a Bible of the highest quality, a vintage 1958 King James Version, gold-leafed, thumb-indexed and equipped with an extensive directory useful in looking up such topics as wine, strong drink, drunkenness, brutishness and alcoholism. Of course, they didn’t use the A-word back then, they preferred kinder euphemisms such as those “who tarry long with the wine” and got “merry with strong drink.”
The bartender finally submits, sighing out the question like an melancholy confession to masturbating:
“What’s the best drink, then?”
“The next,” I say with a smile. I point at my empty glass and he obediently whips up another strong drink. I am now the alpha drunk of the bar and can study the Good Book in peace.
I wasn’t raised in a religious family. I was brought up to believe in a god, but not one with a particular name or inclined to demand His followers do particular things to win favor. My father explained the higher power’s motivations as this: “God won’t fuck with you so long as you don’t screw up.” How would I know if I was screwing up? “Oh, you’ll know.”
With that kind of unequivocal instruction, who needed an insanely thick manual of moral proclamations and dire threats? Me and the Big Guy got along great, both possessing a very liberal idea of what was to be considered screwing up.
But lately I’ve been wondering if we truly were eye-to-eye on everything. And since drinking is the questionable activity I do with the most gusto, I figured I’d start there.
“Anything good in there?”
I look up. The bartender has crept closer, his eyes shifting between my nearly empty drink and the open book. “Well, it doesn’t think much of you.”
“‘Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men who are champions at mixing drinks.’”
“It says I’m a champion?”
“Yes, but with woe.”
“Another G and T?”
“You gonna mix it like a champ?”
“Sure. We don’t have any woe, but I could put some bitters in it.”
“Why not?” For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter(s) (Isaiah 5:32).
I continue down Colfax, past the Squire, for past experience has taught me Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps (Isaiah 5:32). And the service ain’t so hot either. Two hobos tag-team me for change in front of Walgreen’s, mumbling for their ticket on the Night Train. But alas, I look deep into my heart and find no pity, for the Good Book has foretold in Isaiah 24:11: There is a crying for (fortified) wine in the streets; all joy is darkened, the mirth of the land is gone. I spent a sizable portion of my life on the joyless streets of no wine and never resorted to sacrificing my honor on the altar of strangers—I much preferred to shoplift. Better a proud thief than an honest beggar, as my daddy liked to say.
The day crowd is entrenched in the Lion’s Lair like the demoralized walking wounded of battles too horrible to even mention. Mostly old men with damaged faces and tattooed hooligans given to brooding over glasses of PBR, not realizing the Lord would prefer them to hit the harder stuff: Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more (Proverbs 31:06-07).
Strange alliances form in the gray light of early afternoon dives and the standout is an elderly woman in the guise of a gypsy queen hunkered down next to a young street hustler sporting a cowboy hat rolled up East Texas Oil Field style. The colorful crone shuffles off to the restroom and her erstwhile companion has a long slow shameless drink of her unguarded bloody mary. Not a let’s-see-what-this-tastes-like sip, but rather an act of outright larceny, a hyena snapping up a zebra leg fallen from an arthritic lioness’ jaw. He apparently is familiar with Proverbs 9:17—Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant—but failed to absorb the lesson of the following verse: But he knoweth not that the dead are there, and that her guests are in the depths of hell.
Good Christ. Not even 2 p.m. and already we’ve plunged into the brimstone. I consider lingering for the dramatic Moses-coming-down-the-mountain return of the crone. Would she smite the Philistine who laid her cocktail so low? Or would she chew her bitter ice and bide her time? The tension builds and the hustler begins bobbing his head between the restroom door and the exit. The fear of a king (or queen, as the case may be) is as the roaring of a lion: whoso provoketh him to anger sinneth against his own soul (Proverbs 20:2). Poor bastard. I finish my scotch on the rocks and beat him to the door.
Early afternoon and Colfax has already sprouted its fangs. Joining the early-to-rise (or perhaps still-not-to-bed) winos are a wild assortment of predators—flint-eyed men and hard-faced women moving with a strange and desperate energy, probing for human frailty. The foot traffic is sparse and they resort to hustling each other with the bored demeanor of old insurance salesmen, not realizing that He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich (Proverbs 21:17). Most likely they prefer Proverbs 23:4 and 5: Do not overwork to be rich, because of your own understanding, cease! For riches certainly make themselves wings, they fly away like an eagle toward heaven.
And no one knows that better than the gentlemen idling in front of the day-labor building, catching a little sun before being summoned to some terrible chore. Their daily paychecks will soon flitter off to the cash registers of the bars willing to cash them and who is to say either are wrong?
Not me. A hundred dollars in my wallet has never felt as good as five bucks of cheap hooch in my bloodstream, and if that ain’t the Lord working in mysterious ways, then you can call me a Philistine. For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup and the wine is red. It is fully mixed, and He pours it out (Psalm 75:8).
Fully mixed? Verily, He must be speaking of the fortified variety. I duck into Scooter’s Liquors and trade my riches for the most kosher of the wino wines, Mogen-David 20/20. Forgoing the blue and yellow flavors, I select the neon-red Strawberry Rose, as the Good Lord commanded. The thinly smiling clerk doesn’t say a word and his silence speaks volumes: Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise (Proverbs 20:1). Yet does not God also praise the wine that maketh glad the heart of man (Psalm 104:15)?
If you read enough of the Bible you start to notice it contradicts itself quite a bit, which probably explains its success. Whether you be vengeful or kind, warlike or pacifist, Jehovah has you covered. I mull this over as I stake out the Streets of London Pub from the alley across the street and maketh glad my heart, for no longer are the streets of no wine. Winos drift past, sliding me jealous looks, but I keep my own counsel.
Perhaps the most enduring of street myths is winos are heavy drinkers, that they can drink a great deal of alcohol in a single sitting. I’ve rarely found this to be true. People assume this because winos appear drunk quite a lot of the time, tend to favor the higher-proof beers and wines, and are willing to drink mouthwash and aftershave. In fact, most winos have a very low tolerance for the stuff, getting noticeably hammered on what wouldn’t blur the eyes of your average Happy Hour enthusiast. It’s their relative intolerance for hooch that escorted them to their low station, if they could handle the stuff they’d be functioning within the boundaries of society, holding down a job and paying rent. Not to say they aren’t consistent drinkers. They surely drink more often than many of us, just not nearly as much. Quite frankly, they can’t afford to be heavy drinkers. And there’s the rub.
Fully glad of heart now, I march righteously into the Streets of London. Gangs of wily foreigners vie for control of the pool tables but there is room at the bar where I take a pint of Guinness and hunker down with the Lord. An Army chaplain once told me that every Bible is a direct line to God. Oh, it’s true He does most of the talking, the chaplain admitted, but that was because he has more to say. We would probably just ask a bunch of dumb questions that would only serve to confuse matters. Ah, yes.
After fielding his third call in five minutes, the business-suited yet goateed gent next to me slaps his cell phone shut and says without speaking to anyone in particular: “God, I hate these fucking things.”
“Here’s my cell phone,” I say. He looks at me and I tap the Bible. “To God.”
He nods with somber agreement and moves out of loony range.
It’s a valuable lesson. Arguing religion in a bar is sin enough, to actually bring in a Bible is to make a pariah of yourself. It was probably why the Israelites where chased into the desert by cruel Pharaoh. It was hard enough finding a little joy while sipping a lukewarm Egyptian draft after a hard day of whipping slaves without some uppity Hebrew coming in and using his contraband scrolls as a conversation starter. Yes, the desert would be a good place for them—not a wine seller for miles and no suitable soil for the vines, a decades-long A.A. meeting. Surely a fate crueler than death.
I think about hiding the book under my coat then think, fuck them. I’m drinking with the Lord, after all, a fine tradition that can be traced all the way back to when Noah crashed his homemade boat on dry ground and immediately planted his vineyard. The Ark’s builder and captain was the Bible’s first drunk: Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent (Genesis 9:21). And who can blame him—being cooped up with all those goddamn screeching animals for weeks on end would make the founder of the Anti-Saloon League turn to strong drink. He got loaded and God made no attempt to stop him. Noah was also quite apparently the victim of the first hangover—when he found out his youngest son Ham had made sport of him for passing out naked, he promptly condemned Ham’s son Canaan to a lifetime of servitude. Must have been a real head-splitter.
The chapter also serves up the first example of the health benefits of enjoying the fruits of the vine—Noah went on to live an additional 350 years and his randy sons went on to populate the entire earth. So the three lessons we can draw from this chapter are: 1) We are all descended from a drunkard, 2) Wine is good for you and, perhaps most importantly of all, 3) Don’t fuck with a naked, passed-out man on his way to a red wine hangover.
Much as Jehoshaphat backed up his pal Ahab in his time of need, I back up my next Guinness with a Elijah Craig Bourbon on the rocks. A former minister, Brother Elijah undoubtedly had a fine understanding of the duality of Jehovah and the juice, and surely God’s hand was involved in creating a liquor so sublime. I can’t believe, as A.A. and others like to say, that Jehovah is adverse to alcohol. The Bible demonstrates He at the very least enjoys the bouquet: And as a drink offering you shall offer one-third of a hin of wine as a sweet aroma to the Lord (Numbers 15:7). He speaks well of it in his parables, even hinting in Judges 9:13 He wasn’t opposed to tipping a few Himself: Should I cease my new wine, which cheers both God and men?
His only son was also no stranger to the fruit of the vine, and didn’t he make wine the symbol of his blood, ensuring hundreds of millions of Catholics would know its taste long before they turned the legal drinking age? All the advertising wonks employed by the wine industry couldn’t have come up with a superior marketing device. Personally, I would have chosen scotch, but it hadn’t been invented then, so Our Savior was at a disadvantage.
There are biblical revisionists, of course, who would have us believe God was talking about unfermented grape juice instead of proper hooch, despite caves full of biblical documents to the contrary. It’s just another example of the overly-righteous trying to mold God into their own narrow image. Ahem!
The Bible teaches that any man can be faithful to the Lord when the fields are abundant and the skies untroubled, so I carry my crusade to the Cricket on the Hill, for Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine, therefore the nations are deranged (Jeremiah 51:7).
But none more deranged than I. Much as God tested Job after making a bet with the Devil, I stake out a barstool and began testing my own faith with a variety of bottom-shelf liquors. Not yet 8 p.m., and, yes, I am inflamed of wine and its crueler cousins, much as the Good Book warned. The after-work crowd, if indeed these men and women are given to work, line the bar and the talk is loud and optimistic, taking Jehovah fully at his word: Drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted your works (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
Well, excellent. He says we did a good job and now we get a drink, even if He tempers his congratulations with a rather unsubtle threat in a following verse: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!
Well, maybe so, but at the moment that fate seems a million drinks away. That fine white-noise euphoria heralding of the first wave of drunkenness rolls over me and an unsolicited shot arrives from a complete stranger, bringing to mind God reparteeing with the Israelites: Every bottle shall be filled with wine, He assured them and they were eager to agree: Do we not certainly know that every bottle will be filled with wine? I ricochet back a shot to my benefactor and, verily, the lost tribes are united, if only in our desire to get inflamed with strong drink.
An unsavory woman, perhaps the Whore of Babylon herself, puts a sly and disconcertingly muscular arm around my neck and, mindful of my fiancee at home, I excuse myself to the snack machine. Whoremongery, wine, and new wine enslave the heart, sayeth Hosea 4:1 and I take Hosea at his word.
I walk my bag of Andy Capp Potato Sticks (surely the drunkard’s manna) to a table and immerse myself in verse. Of all the chapters, surely the most poetic and impassioned is Song of Solomon, a love song that makes the rest of the Good Book read like a life insurance policy. Solomon had no qualms about comparing true love to being loaded, exploring daring drink recipes (wine and milk), and exhorting us to tie one on—Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones! At times he gets a tad bizarre, albeit beautiful: And the roof of your mouth is like the best wine. The wine goes down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of sleepers.
A man reading a book in a bar is irresistible to most drunks, it’s like watching a sloth ever-so-slowly climbing a tree—you want to throw a rock at the fucker, just to make it acknowledge your existence. When the stone-throwers discover the book is the Bible, they get even more excited. Why? they want to know. Was I a nut? Shouldn’t I be at an A.A. meeting? In reply, I first read them the wild-ass pro-drinking poetry of Solomon, much to their delight, then sadistically switch to the dire anti-alcohol proclamations of Jeremiah, causing them to creep back to their barstools, their faces bitter with betrayal. I’d played the oldest trick in the book on them, the Good Jesus/Bad Judas routine, and, yes, I enjoyed it. I possessed the Lord’s power by proxy, I wore the robes of the revival-tent demagogue, wielding the terrible ability to make joyous or smite the befuddled sinners. I could almost hear the Big Guy whispering in my ear: You have shown your people hard things; you have made us drink the wine of confusion (Psalm 60:3).
Then the fight broke out.
For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence (Proverbs 4:17). The Cricket doesn’t serve food, so we’ll assume it was the latter. A bearded elder smites a young shepherd for transgressions only they appear to understand. A bouncer lurking in the shadows pounces, much as The Lord awoke as from sleep, like a mighty man who shouts because of wine (Psalm 78:65).
And there is quite a lot of wine-shouting, and both transgressors are cast out of the tribe, doomed to wander the wastes—or perhaps they’ll just pop into the bar next door.
And as surely as proud Babylon fell, last call rings out. The tribe lays a terrible siege on the bar, begging for the dregs of the wine press, and moments later the spigot is shut tight and we stand in a stupor, wondering, Where is the grain and wine? As they swoon like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out (Lamentations 2:12). Actually, they can skip the grain, we just want a bit more of the wine, thank you very much.
But alas, the wine-sellers offer no succor and The new wine fails, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh (Isaiah 24:8). Some of the formerly merry-hearted forsake the sighing, preferring instead to roundly blaspheme the wine-sellers. Which, quite frankly, has never worked for me, at least as far as getting another drink is concerned.
Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath babbling? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes? At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things (Proverbs 23-29).
Indeed they do. I veer to the door past desperate, hoarsely-shouted, last-ditch attempts at lashing together crude romantic alliances that would make that old lothario Solomon blush like a virgin. As I leave I think of Ecclesiastes 2:3, that extraordinary salute to the bender: I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.
It’s no small walk home but I accept it like Moses taking that first step into the kingdom of scorpions and sand. And though I am still merry from the vine, the first premonition of tomorrow’s sorrows seeps in. For I have mingled my wines and will surely be smited worse than naked Noah.
And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of a world-class hangover, I will fear no pain, for the Good Lord, in all his ancient wisdom, offers a prayer of hope even for that low circumstance: They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not. And when I awake? I will seek it yet again (Proverbs 23-35).
Verily, my brothers and sisters, verily.
—Frank Kelly Rich