I didn’t drink till I was twenty. Not for any moral reason; I just never felt like it. Liked my Dr. Pepper and my Combos. Still do. But then came the day my friend Domingo and I were hanging around his dorm room playing Mario Kart (more accurately, he played and I commentated), and this kid Neil from up the hall came by and asked if we could hide his bottle of Smirnoff. Seems he’d gotten wind that the RA was doing an inspection, and he somehow had the notion that Domingo was 21. A false notion—me and D. are the same age to within a couple of days—but we didn’t bother correcting him, and fortunately it turned out that he was wrong about the inspection too. There happened to be a bottle of OJ in the fridge, and I had my first screwdriver that night. Also my fourth. Thus was born the age of Mario Kart DUI, and half a lifetime of alcohol appreciation on my part.
There’s a story about my wonderful sister-in-law Sarah at the age of one or two, clumping up to the dinner table in her diapers and quite unselfconsciously stealing and chugging a houseguest’s half-full glass of beer. Now Sarah, having been raised around the stuff, is a young lady who will grow up understanding how to drink. My dad, on the other hand, is a borderline teetotaler; and if no one teaches you proper drinking, then you must sail the foamy suds of autodidacticism with all its appurtenant perils. It was years before I began to figure out that the exact moment when you feel like it’s time to start really drinking, is when you should take a break and have some water. It also took me many long pale moons to realize that good whiskey has other purposes besides gulping it down with Pepsi so you can spend the night jigging to the Pogues and seeking out new ways to replace your clothing with kitchenware and furniture. (And for the concerned, I can assure you that in the fullness of time, I indeed outgrew my tendency to wear lampshades on my head.)
My cousin Jesse and I moved in together when I was thirty, and our buddy Simeon gave us a bottle of The Glenlivet as a housewarming gift. Jes decided he didn’t care for it, so I set myself the task of learning to enjoy a celebrated Scotch, neat, in a sober and adult manner. I had a small glass every night for, I don’t know, two or three weeks until the bottle was gone, sipping ruminatively and rolling the boggy brine across my tongue; and by the end, I had indeed developed a taste for it. It was also around this time that micro-brewing was becoming a macro-business, so I soon learned to appreciate good beer as well. (I remember visiting Domingo in Alabama once, with a trunk full of Vermont craft beers at a time when Alabamians had a choice between Miller, Bud, and screw yourself. That was a good weekend.) The benefits of an educated palate are—well, the same as any liberal art, the “unnecessary” arts of the free man. I’m still capable of enjoying Pabst (in fact, I’m literally drinking a PBR as I type this), just as I’m still capable of enjoying the Incredible Hulk; but I can also enjoy Veuve Cliquot and Hamlet, and so my cosmos is deeper and more multi-faceted than it was.
At the age of forty-four, I’m finally beginning to have a reasonably normal and stable existence. But man, there’s a lot of strange years and miles behind me. I remember drinking Boone’s Farm Wine in Tuscaloosa and running out into the streets along with half the town when ’Bama won a big game; Mad Dog 20/20 at a Burger King in Seattle as I composed a travelogue in heroic couplets; Cristal with Ellie on our first married Christmas. I remember drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade after Jes and I got our black belts at the bonfire; Coors in Iowa before my second real street fight; Guinness on tap at the James Toner Pub in Dublin on our honeymoon. (We explained to the barkeep that, hey, my name is James Toner too! And boy oh boy, he could not mathematically give any less of a rat’s ass.) I remember cooking a hangover-breakfast of chili and Chinese stir fry, marinated in Bushmills Irish whiskey, for me and Domingo in my first crap-hole apartment; some weird vanilla vodka with Ren and the boys in Burlington as we hurled each other into the pool; Eagle Rare bourbon after Ellie accidentally won us a tasting at the church auction. Damn near all my best memories revolve around beloved friends and alcohol.
You can bet we’ll raise our Sonya and Rebecca to respect the power and poetry of that finest spirit, and also to avoid abusing it. Alcoholism is a grave illness—but abusus non tollit usum, “the abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use.” Every evil is a good thing misused. If we remember the purpose of this lovely gift, and use it with restraint and dignity, then it can be one of life’s great joys. Friends, thanks for reading. I raise a glass to you all.