A Tale of Three Cities

The first time I drank Shiner Bock beer was in Houston.  I was there, ostensibly, for an American Studies conference, I actually bought a tie on Day 2 because I noticed how dressed up everybody was.  I was there, really, in this strange city—it’s made of highways, so it’s hard to see anything, you’re always passing through, passing by—because I was supposed to give a talk at Rice, courtesy of Tom Haskell.

I drank a lot in those days.  Like most addicts, I was always thinking about where the next dose was coming from.  I drank three beers on the plane to take the edge off a severe hangover and a fight with my wife, and as we passengers gathered in the aisle all I could think of was the next drink.  I wanted to kill the small, delicate woman who needed my assistance in retrieving her bag from the overhead bin.  I wanted to start a fight with the very large man who sat next to her, which, I realize in retrospect, is my default setting, and all because I’m always already overdue, because my bloodstream—my body—is begging for something I can’t give it.

I went straight to the hotel bar on arrival from the airport, no, I didn’t even check in.  Shiner was the local beer on tap, so I ordered two.  The bartender was a little confused, she said “Are you expecting someone else?”  No, I said, I just need a beer.  Or two.  Keep them coming, I loved saying that, it was so movie-speak, so noir.  I drank myself into a stupor over the next three hours, but I enjoyed the taste of the beer, thinking that I’d have to order some with breakfast.  I don’t remember checking in.

The next morning, sure enough, I was hung over, and this was my big day at Rice, but I cured myself with a session in the “fitness room” and then room service.  I lifted a lot of weights, did a lot of sit-ups, and more generally punished my body with unnatural exercise—why do we do this, never mind—and then I called the kitchen.  I ordered the most protein-dense item on the menu (lots of eggs), and asked for five Shiner Bocks in a bucket of ice as accompaniment.  This was 10:00 in the morning.

The guy on the phone from room service was terrified by my order.  He wasn’t sure they could serve alcohol at this early hour, he wasn’t sure someone could get to the bar.  He wasn’t sure of anything, but he delivered the goods.

By noon I was back in the bar, where I coincidentally met a few colleagues from Rutgers.  I went to a session at 1:00, went back to the bar for a Shiner Bock, and then got a cab to my big date at Rice.  One of my former graduate students was already there.  The look on her face when she saw me was amplified by her question: “Are you OK?”

Alex Lichtenstein gave the comment.  It was very smart and useful, and all I could think of while he talked was the next drink.  A Shiner Bock, of course, at the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to, courtesy of Tom Haskell.  More followed.  When I got on the plane the next morning, I was hung over, already desperate for a few beers.

All this by way of background, how memory works in the mind of an addict.

Yesterday I drove to Jersey City, where my friend Matt the musical genius, part-time professor, and all-around mensch lives with his wife and two cats in a too-small space that nonetheless contains three guitars, two keyboards, a few harmonicas, an occasional flute, and enough recording technology to make many albums.  As “Moral Hazard,” we’ve recorded a couple of songs I wrote, but we’re a band that’s never played out (but will this summer on the L platform, look for us).  On this day I was looking to record “No More Goodbyes,” a song I wrote in February 1978, for god’s sake, only because I want to intern with a songwriter who demands some proof of rudimentary skills.

I’ve been driving to Jersey City, one way or another, since 2007, when my marriage was imploding and I was trying to get out of the basement, where all my furtive and fugitive desires had been contained.  The basement, that’s where I went to drink and play the guitar and write songs, to get away from myself among others.  Matt’s place in Jersey City was my halfway house, between the basement and the big city—the place where I could sing out loud, actually listen to what I was trying to say, to myself among others.  By 2008, I was out of control.  In May, finally, I moved to New York in a stupid, spastic attempt to save my own life, to leave the basement and become something more than another underground man.  Matt helped me move.  When he saw the apartment and the meager belongings it contained, which he had of course just lugged up the stairs, he said. “Dude, you might as well be a graduate student.”

That was May.  By November I was sober, having finished a book and a past life.  On Thanksgiving, 2008, Matt and I shared a vegetarian feast, a tofu “turkey” and all the fixings, at his place.  He’s a serious vegan.  I was still in abstention from mammals.  I felt like a monk who hadn’t masturbated enough.  I asked myself, where does all this desire go?  What can I do with these appetites?  Bury them again, go back undergound?  We played a lot of music that night, but it felt constrained, almost dignified.

Since then I’ve returned to the drunkard’s life—not to worry, I’m sober by every standard except the stringent measures of AA—and to Jersey City, many times.  Yesterday I drove there again to record that old song, and to see my old friend.  His father died ten days ago in Montreal; he was getting back to what passes for normal in these United States.  I didn’t ask him how he was doing until we’d done a couple of warm-up songs, me singing the blues, him playing that beautiful black Gretsch, bent over the instrument as if he were just staring at it, except that his fingers were moving.

Before I arrived, I stopped, as always, at the liquor store on Montgomery Street, where by now the Lebanese owners know me, having marked my passage from Yuengling to O’Douls and back again, to the real thing.  I lock the car because the most valuable thing I own is my Alvarez cutaway acoustic, the most beautiful guitar I’ve ever seen, which, though narrower than your basic dreadnought, has a huge, bright sound.  I walk in grinning madly because the gaunt old black guy outside asks, “You know how to play that thing?” and for once I say, “Yeah, I do.”  The father and son behind the counter greet me warmly—I used to buy cases of whatever I was drinking—and I start looking for the right libation, something Matt the Canadian beer snob will like, and I’ll be goddamned if Shiner Bock isn’t prominently displayed in the vast cooler.

So I bring two six-packs to the counter, and I say, “Damn, since when is Shiner Bock a national brand, last time I drank this beer was in fucking Houston!”  The very large man next to me says, “Blue matches!” and I start digging around in my jacket pockets for a light even though I haven’t smoked since March 27, 1991, and he steps away from me, thinking I’m looking for a gun, I guess, and the son very studiously ignores him, bagging my six packs in black plastic and explaining that Shiner has followed the Yuengling example, building breweries outside of the home state, until the very large man yells “Gimme a light, motherfucker!’  Then he steps closer, to me and the counter, and by this time I know there’s some danger close by, but, for once, I don’t understand it.  I turn toward him, in wonder, and he looks down at me, he says, “You got a light?”

I look at him as if he’s a statue, a monument of some kind, he’s that big and grounded, and I say, “No.”  Meanwhile the son lights a match, holds it out across the counter, and the very large man accepts it.  He inhales, looks at the ceiling, and says, “I was born in Houston.”




1 Comment

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One response to “A Tale of Three Cities

  1. Matt Friedman

    Well… we need to jam again. And just for the record, I have THREE keyboards. 😉

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