This year Friday the 13th passed effortlessly into Valentine’s Day in a seedy pub on the Lower East Side.
A quiet smoke-easy that puts a half cup of water in everything behind the bar except for the dirty taps that shoot out rust-flavored Coors Light labeled as a rare microbrew. The kind of bar that attracts everyone from 18 year olds standing by the big bay windows in front with fake IDs that they’re too eager to show to bartenders who never ask, to old men huddled in the back under flickering old televisions playing news, sports, and weather. They scream indiscriminately at the screens, offended by politics, offended by blind refs, offended by rain.
The kids stand tall, their fresh faces glowing with the youth and vigor of minds that know nothing about how the world works. They drink like they invented it, and they experiment heavily with different combinations of drinks, comparing notes and laughing at each other’s mistakes. Getting drunk enough to make an honest go at climbing over the bar and mixing their own drinks is still a faux pas to them and not the accomplishment that it should be. They’ve never honestly been called “Sir,” without it being immediately followed by, “we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”
The boys don’t turn a shaky six into a solid eight, they turn an empty stool into a full-blown ten, with a twin sister and acute nymphomania.
Somewhere in the middle are the rest of us, skin beginning to crack from the smoke that circles our heads and settles around our eyes and lips, only to be flushed out by those 8am sweats that strain out pure Jack through our pores. Hints of those carefree teen smiles dance across our faces as we realize that the haunted night is over, only to settle into weathered grimaces on realizing where it left us. We drink sitting down, sometimes swapping a story about a road trip through every state that forgot to vote for an open container law, or outwitting a cop with nothing more than innate ability to spit out the alphabet backward easier than forward when we’re drunk. The stories are peppered conservatively with half truths and exaggerations that sometimes turn a shaky six into a solid eight.
In the back they sit hunched over their beers like vultures, watching the swirl of what’s left of the rust-colored head fizzle off like spit on a griddle. It’s easy to mistake their stances as the result of a life of pain sitting on their shoulders like every keg they’ve ever tapped was heaped on their backs, but in truth they’re men struggling under the weight of their own awesomeness. Their faces are hardened by years of dimly-lit smoky rooms and musky bottles of brown liquor. They’re quietly regal when they’re not talking, until they scream with the authority and force of a charismatic dictator. They rehash stories of epic benders, with a splash of truth. They don’t turn a shaky six into a solid eight, they turn an empty stool into a full-blown ten, with a twin sister and acute nymphomania. You can’t fault them for the lies or the exaggerations though, shortly into any bender, any proper bender, memories start to fade before they’re made and the truth is they’ve earned the right to make up whatever they want because they’re still here.
A shot rings in the New Year. For the kids it’s some overly complicated sugar drink that involves dropping a glass in another glass, drinking it down and then shaking uncontrollably and screaming at the top of their lungs with their arms raised in a V. For the old men it’s a clear liquid in a mason jar. It has no name on it, just a piece of white tape on the lid that says “Strawberry Preserves.” The old men slug it hard, taking the shot like the recoil of a rifle, only to recompose and stare each other down for signs of weakness: a twitch, a frown, or the saddest expression of not being able to take a drink — a swig of the rusty Coors Light. In the middle with us, it’s usually one of the three wise men: Jim, Johnny or Jack. We grit our teeth and slide it back like medicine, cough once it’s down, and go back to something lighter.
There are less and less of us as you make your way from the front to the back. The fresh-faced kids standing shoulder to shoulder, packed tight and singing along with some terrible jukebox pick that comes as a direct result of living in a country that never had the time or common decency to come up with a national drinking song. From there the numbers dwindle to the small cluster of old men, maybe three or so of them.
In a few years the teenagers will have made their way through college, and their numbers will dwindle to half as they lose good decent men to full-time jobs and hopes of buying a home. They’ll be hemorrhaging drinking buddies as they lose more to wives, more to children, until finally they’re down to a core group. Ten or so men smart enough to realize that being there sober will only make them hate their job more. They know having a wife will leave them only slightly buzzed on Saturday nights sipping wine over a milquetoast meal, surrounded by milquetoast friends. People who haven’t been in a fight since high school, and don’t even remember what it feels like to grasp the toilet so hard that ceramic splinters under your fingernails as you dry heave a capillary into your eyes.
Even then these determined young adults will start to fall, picked off by court-ordered A.A. meetings and family interventions. One day they’re out there doing the right thing, swinging around the business end of a broken bottle at a bartender, not to pick a fight, but to make it abundantly clear that the bottle is empty and how dire that situation is. The next day they’re just gone, leaving only the rubber-sole skid marks their heels painted on the barroom floor as a reminder that even with three cops grasping their neck and arms, they believed if they could slow down the drag enough they might be able to order one more drink before they were sent sailing headfirst into the pavement outside.
That will be the last you hear from them until months later when you see some plastic decoy bible thumper walking around in their skin pretending to love every moment in life. They tell you that each second sober is a blessing, even the ones in the morning where they prod through their own bowel movements to make sure they don’t have to up the fiber in their diet. They say they even love those late nights when they lie in bed and try to ignore the siren call of the buzzing neon sign on the all-night liquor store, reminding them of who they were, and what they could have been.
In the end, all that’s left are the strongest roots. Men who couldn’t be tempted or swayed by the pleasant but boring dream of one day waking up at sunrise in their own bed with no one to run from and no one to apologize to.