Saturday, February 23, 2013

How To Order A Drink

One of my minions (work study students) at Enema U is turning 21 this month.  If he goes out binge drinking on his birthday, I'll be very disappointed.  I've been very proud of this young man so far--he quit the football team because the training hours conflicted with his class schedule.  This automatically qualifies him as too smart for any of the normal degrees for jocks--sports journalism, social justice for the chronic bedwetter, and so forth.  If I find out that he went out on his birthday and got blotto, I'm going to tell his girlfriend about the red-haired history grad student who has been giving him the eye. 

It occurred to me that we don't teach teenagers how to drink anymore.  By the time my two sons, What's-His-Name and The-Other-One, were old enough to drink, they didn't live at home anymore.  I'm not saying that the first time they drank a beer was on their twenty-first birthday—but It wasn't like I could take them to a bar in their formative years, either.

Perhaps I can offer a little advice on the first step in drinking—How to order a drink.  Very few people do it correctly anymore, and truthfully, if you live in a small town in Southern New Mexico, as I do, you may have a very difficult time finding a bartender who understands what you mean.  I have mentioned this before, but when I asked a local bartender to make me a vodka martini with an onion, he was gone a long time, and when he came back, was holding a plate in each hand.

"I didn't know if you wanted chopped or sliced onions," he said.  "so, I brought both."

Let's start with the basics: when ordering a drink, always ask for the liquor first.  "Would you bring me a scotch and water, please?"

This is probably a good time to talk about the different kinds of liquor the bar keeps.  First is the 'well' liquor.  If you ask for "Jack Daniels", they will bring it to you—and charge you extra for it.  If you ask for "bourbon", they will reach down into well—the shelf just below the bar-- and serve you the house bourbon—which I guarantee will not be Jack Daniels.  You can tell a lot about a bar by seeing what they use for well liquor.  If you have never heard of the well brands, don't bother asking the bartender for anything exotic.  

"Call liquors"—any liquor that you ask for specifically by name--is more expensive.  If you want your martini made with Absolut, ask for it by name.  "I'd like to order an Absolut martini with a twist."  This drink will cost more than if you had said, "A vodka martini with a twist, please." 

Call liquor will not be the most expensive liquor in the bar. For that, you ask for the 'top shelf' liquor.  Behind the bar, the higher a bottle is placed on the shelves, the more expensive the liquor is likely to be.  If you are curious, you can ask the bartender what premium or top shelf liquor he keeps.  "What single malt scotch do you have?"

If you are in the bar with the 'Wal-Mart' well  liquor, and you have decided that you will stick with call or top shelf liquor, the bartender will absolutely give you what you ordered—for the first three drinks, anyway.  After that, he'll probably charge you for the premium liquor and and serve you the crap from the well.  This is even more likely if you want a lot of ice in your drink.  The colder the drink, the less you can taste anything but sugar.

Most bartenders believe (and experience has proven them correct) that few drinkers can tell the difference in liquor after three strong drinks.  One notable exception to this is practically any single malt scotch from Islay (pronounced "eye-lay").  On the island of Islay, they roast the barley over peat fires, which gives the scotch (such as my favorite—Laphroaig) a very distinctive taste that could never be mistaken for a highland blended scotch.

The chances of finding a bartender who knows how to make a good cocktail at most bars is rapidly approaching zero.   If you happen to find such a bar, the bartender is probably good enough to figure out what you want—no matter what you ask for—so I will skip the details of how to order a fancy cocktail: let's just stick to the basics.

If you ask for "bourbon rocks", you will get a shot of well bourbon in an ice-filled old-fashioned glass (a short heavy glass that holds 5-6 ounces).  If you ask for "Jim Beam straight up", you will get a shot of Jim Beam in a shot glass.  Asking for a "double rye neat" with a "water back", will produce two shots of rye whiskey in a old-fashioned glass without ice, with a glass of water on the side (a chaser).  If you ask for a "double Stoli chilled", you will get two shots of Stolichnaya vodka that have been shaken with ice, and then strained into a old-fashioned glass.  

You have to be careful what you order.  If you ask for a "rum and coke back", you will get a shot of rum with a small glass of coke as a chaser, not a rum and coke with a glass of water as a chaser.  Do you see the difference?

There are a lot of special requests that you can add.  A "dry martini" is not a martini prepared with little or no vermouth, it is a martini made with dry vermouth.  The phrase, "very dry martini" is about as meaningless as a "Rum and Very Coke."  A "dirty" martini is a martini with juice from the olive jar added.  You can actually buy bottles of olive juice.

Okay, you have your drink in front of you.  You are sitting at the bar, you gave the bartender a twenty and have left all the change he brought you lying on the bar in front of you while you drink.  (This insures prompt service—you haven’t yet tipped the bartender.)  It is at this time that someone will sit next to you and after a few polite minutes offer a wager.

Nick the Greek once said that if a man walks up to you in a bar and offers to bet you $10 that he can made a Jack of Spades jump up out of a deck of playing cards and spit apple cider—you shouldn’t take the bet, for as sure as a bear shits on my cabin’s welcome mat, you will end up with an ear full of cider.

Bar bets, technically a situational bet, are deadly.  They sound like you can’t lose—especially after that second double rye.  But, if you take the bet you are about to get an expensive education.  Yes, it is more than likely that in a room of twenty people, two of them have the same birthday.  If you email me, I’ll send you the mathematical formula to prove it.  No, you can’t stand with your heels against a wall and pick up a quarter placed between your feet—well a man can’t but his girlfriend can.  All of these are bar bets, and the amount of money lost on them through the years would balance the national debt.

The best bar bet I ever saw was done by a guy in Mexico and involved an ordinary housefly.  He was just sitting there at the bar nursing a double reposado tequila with a water chaser while he casually watched a few flies playing on the bar.  Suddenly, he lashed out and captured one of the flies in his loosely clinched fist.  He shook his fist close to the side of his head, listening to the buzzing of the insect for a few seconds, and then suddenly flung the fly into the open glass of water.

By now, every eye in that bar was watching the man.  Was this guy crazy? 

The man, apparently unaware of the attention he was getting, began calmly poking at the floating fly with his index finger.  It took a few pokes, but eventually the fly slowly sank to the bottom of the glass where it remained motionless.

The man asked the patron next to him, “Do you think that fly drowned?”

After a long stare at the motionless bug, the man answered, “Yeah, I think so.  I’ve studied dead and it looks just like that.”

For a long minute, no one said anything, then the man said, “Nah.  I think he’s just resting after his swim.  I’ll bet you a dollar he’s still alive.”

This seemed like a safe bet, so the second man slid a dollar from the change in front of him towards the water glass.  “You’re on,” he said.  “Fetch him out.”

“No,” said the man.  “Let him finish his swim first.  I’ll get him out in a little while.”

By now, there must have been ten people—including the bartender—watching that insect take his public bath.  By the time the fly had been underwater about three minutes, a few other people had wagered a dollar or two on the fly.  After about five minutes, the man even offered to double all the bets!  Everyone loves a fool—as long as he has money—so most people accepted the offer.

Finally, the man poured most of the water into another glass and laid the poor waterlogged fly on the bar.  It appeared as lifeless as Julius Caesar, but amazingly, the man said he still had confidence in the fly and even offered to double the bets again!

When just about every single loose sawbuck in the bar had been wagered, the man calmly reached over and picked up a salt shaker, unscrewed the lid and poured a tiny pyramid of salt over the fly.  Within two minutes, the salt began to shift as the fly crawled to the surface, shook itself a few times while the man pocketed his winnings, then launched itself into the air and flew away.

I bought that man a drink and asked him about the trick.  According to his experiments, you could leave that fly submerged in the water up to eight minutes and still resurrect it with a handful of salt.  Any longer that that was likely to be an inadvertent burial at sea.

Only one man ever wins a bar bet—and it ain’t you.

A few last words of advice for the neophyte at the bar.  If you take the aspirin the night before, the next morning’s headache won’t be as bad.  Don’t eat the bar peanuts: they are older than you and you really don’t want to hear about the last guy who put his hand into that bowl of nuts.  No one over the age of 10 not accompanied by a small child ever orders a Shirley Temple.  Coffee drinks are for ski chalets.  If you are going to drink too much, stay away from sweet drinks.  And if you intend to drink way too much, drink Banana Daiquiris.  Bananas are the only food I know that taste the same up and out as they did in and down.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Weapons of Improvised Paddling

Do you know what an amalgam is?  Neither did I until I read one of those adventure books designed for fourth grade boys.  As a child, I devoured the Hardy Boys, Mike M.A.R.S., Rick Brant, and Tom Corbett.  In one of them, the hero was held captive by the vaguely Russian bad guys.  I can’t remember which hero it was, or even why he had to be locked up, but I vividly remember that he was being held in a jail that was equipped with aluminum bars.  

I’m fairly sure that you will find such a jail only in fiction, since aluminum will bend with a hard look and succumb to metal fatigue fairly quickly.  Never mind, my hero was going to escape with his brain, not his muscles.  On the wall of the cell hung a cheap thermometer, which the boy-scientist dismantled and used the mercury to eat through the aluminum bars.  I was fascinated—mercury would dissolve aluminum?

Actually, yes, mercury will dissolve softer metals and the resulting mixture is called an amalgam.  During the Spanish colonial period, the fastest and cheapest method of refining silver ore was to mix the crushed silver ore with mercury.  The silver would dissolve out of the ore and the amalgam could be heated until the mercury would boil off leaving the silver behind.  Technically, this is known as the Amalgamation Process, but in the New World, they called it the Patio Process since Indians would mix the mercury and crushed ore together on bricked patios.  It was cheap and effective-as long as you ignored that that contact with toxic mercury caused the natives to die fairly quickly—and horribly—of degenerative nerve damage.  Even the fumes are deadly.

Which brings us back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when mercury was pretty easy to come by.  I remember a field trip during elementary school when my third grade class visited a manufacturing plant and we were encouraged to see how much of the heavy liquid metal we could hold in our hands.  Even the cheapest thermometer or thermostat was filled with the stuff and as children, we played with the fascinating stuff fairly regularly.  In retrospect, this may explain the music of the 1970’s.

Where was I?  Oh yes, my hero had just dissolved the aluminum bars of his prison with mercury and had made good his escape.  As soon as I read that—I just knew I was going to try this experiment.  And it didn’t take me long to break a thermometer and liberate a little mercury.  My home, however, was curiously short of aluminum bars for my experiment.  Was aluminum more expensive back then?  Harder to work with?  I have no idea, but I couldn’t think of anything in the house made of aluminum.  Finally, I remembered that my mother had just bought one of those new frying pans that were being advertised on television.  The Miracle Aluminum Frying Pan covered with DuPont Teflon©.

While I was confident that my mother would not want to stand in the way of scientific research, I damn sure didn’t ask permission.  No, I just spirited the pan to my bedroom, turned it upside down and applied a generous drop of mercury.  It is amazing to think that by today’s standards, my bedroom was a toxic ecological disaster site eligible for EPA superfund status.  This would not have been surprising to my mother, who frequently referred to my room as a disaster.  Fifty years later, it turns out that once again she was correct.

I can reliably report that the experiment was a complete success.  The mercury ate a hole through the center of the pan about the size of a dime.  I was elated—perhaps for a whole day.   Foolishly, I did not publish my results in a major scientific journal.  Nevertheless, the results were soon noticed by the administration of my research center.  Let us just say that my mother was not impressed.

That frying pan instantly became the spanking implement of choice at our house.  Whenever my mother got angry—such as when she remembered her new frying pan—she could get that pan to whistle through the air.  Every time she used that pan the hole in the bottom left a dime-sized blister on my backside.  Eventually, my ass was quite literally saved by the breaking of the cheap plastic handle.

My mother was not permanently unarmed: she soon found a replacement implement.  Someone gave me a toy—one of the bolo paddles with a long rubber band fastened to a red rubber ball.  The idea was that you could endlessly smack the rubber ball away and the elastic string would return it so that you could whack it again.  For some reason, this was supposed to be fun.

Was it fun?  Of course not.  Who in the world wants to spend an afternoon beating a rubber ball with a paddle?  This is almost as stupid as that crazy playground toy where you sit on a spinning metal contraption until either the centrifugal force throws you into the gravel or you throw up.  Or both.  The sadistic bastard who designed such implements of child torture was probably previously employed as a designer of men's underwear.

It took about a day for the rubber band to break—and about half that time for my mother to realize she had a replacement for the frying pan—after all, they did call it a paddle.  That little wooden paddle was terribly effective. 

Eventually, inspired by the broken handle of the frying pan, I figured out a method to dispose of the wooden paddle.  The kitchen stove had a pilot light under the white enamel surface.  While there was no open flame, that point on the stove was too hot to touch.  At night, while my mother was asleep, I left the thin wooden paddle directly over that hot spot.  Within days, I had baked the wood in that paddle until a hard wave through the air would have broken the wood. 

It didn’t take long; within days I did something that probably more than deserved a paddling.  When my mother swung that paddle at my backside, it broke immediately.  I screamed and launched myself straight up in the air like a missile.  When I landed on the floor, I writhed and tried my best to demonstrate that my back was broken.  My mother was horrified, and immediately cancelled the current spanking.  While I can’t say I was never paddled again, I think that was the last of bolo boards.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

100% Recidivism

Flynn was one hell of a nice guy.  He was a little on the short side, had flaming red hair, and a smile that could charm the birds right out of the trees.  If you had called central casting and asked for a teen-aged Irish lad, they would have sent Flynn. There was only one thing wrong with Flynn—he was a thief.

I have never met anyone quite like Flynn—stealing was just in his nature, and you couldn’t have cut it out of him with a blow torch.  If you had worked overtime with a ballpeen hammer and a good masonry chisel, you would have eventually discovered that thievery was an essential element in of his framework—by the time you had removed all the dishonest parts of Flynn there wouldn’t have been enough material left to build even a politician.***

Flynn seemed to have no family, he was desperately poor, and he had only the most rudimentary basics of an education.  When I met him, he was the only white person living in an old public housing development in a part of Galveston Island where even the police didn’t like to venture.  Probably only someone as friendly and charming as Flynn could have pulled off living in that ghetto.  (He did, however, tell me that, on one particularly wild night, he had nailed his apartment door shut from the inside).

While I was the manager of the now long-lost Islander Beach Hotel in Galveston, I hired Flynn as a bellboy/gofer/flunky.  And Flynn was the best bellboy I have ever worked with—and the worst.  The problem was that he simply could not stop stealing.

There is an old joke that if you steal $5 you are a pickpocket and if you steal $500 you are a burglar, but if you progress to $50,000 you are promoted to cat burglar.  If you can run off with $500,000 you are a businessman while $5,000,000 makes you a bank.  The modern addition to the old joke is that the theft of $5 trillion makes you Congress.

Using that scale, Flynn was a pickpocket and it didn't take long for me to discover that Flynn was padding tips on room service receipts and stealing the occasional small item from the kitchen.  Hell, a car driving too slowly by the hotel might lose two lug nuts and the spare tire.  I should have fired Flynn immediately—but damn it, I sincerely liked the boy.  I felt sorry for him and kept giving him another chance.  Eventually, I think Flynn became a project for me—I was going to rehabilitate him and was far too stubborn to admit defeat.

I showed Flynn the rudiments of being a bellboy who worked the graveyard shift.  For a bellboy with an inventive mind and just a touch of larceny, these late night hours could be very profitable.  Within a week, the trunk of Flynn's car looked like a miniature gift shop.  When most of the hotel was closed, Flynn could very quietly sell a guest a bottle of bourbon, a deck of playing cards, a dozen condoms, or a six-pack of beer.  He kept a well-stocked cooler in that car, and long after the restaurant closed, Flynn could put together a pretty good meal of cold cuts and cheeses on a white table-clothed cart using the kitchen's best silverware and serving dishes.  The table would even sport a flower that Flynn had just cut from the hotel gardens.  More than once a guest was disappointed to discover that the real kitchen could not duplicate during the day the attractive meals that Flynn put together at night.

Flynn didn't steal from the guests (well, not their rooms, anyway).  I remember a Houston policeman who stayed at the hotel one summer weekend, who seemed to delight in being a rude and obnoxious asshole.  Somehow Flynn decided that the rules did not apply to rude cops.  When the policeman tried to leave the island to return to Houston, he discovered his car had lost all four wheels and the battery.

That became the pattern with Flynn: no matter how much I stressed to him that he could not, should not steal, sooner or later some circumstance would convince him that it was okay—that whatever situation was currently at hand was an exception to the rule.  If the Coca-Cola truck pulled up to refill the property’s vending machines, unless I physically held onto Flynn’s hands, that truck would leave missing six cases of Cokes and a two-wheeled dolly.  And holding on to Flynn’s hands would put your watch and wedding ring in peril.

Hotel work was addictive: No matter what the circumstance, somehow the next day you just had to be ready to rent all the rooms to the next set of tourist/invaders.  There was never an excuse for not fulfilling the reservations.  I wish all repairs could have been done during the middle of a weekday, but quite often you found yourself doing emergency electrical work in middle of the night.  The constant stress of solving endless problems under tight deadlines was a powerful addictive drug.  No matter what the problem, there was always a solution in time to rent that room.

It was late 
Saturday night when the hotel suddenly had a cascade of plumbing problems in the new wing.  There were no maintenance people on the property, so within ten minutes I found myself in the dark narrow spider-infested service chase between two rooms.  I was wrapped around pipes like a contortionist while Flynn held a flashlight and offered useless advice.

"Go down to maintenance and bring me a ¾” gate valve," I ordered.

Flynn was gone a few minutes and came back without one.  "We don't have any," he said.

"Damn it, Flynn!  I know damn well that I bought several last week!" I shouted as I shook a large pipe wrench in his general direction.  By now, I was drenched with cold water, and becoming increasingly aware of the spectacular number of spiders with whom I was sharing that 18" wide chase.  "Go get me a damn gate valve!"

I stayed busy trying to loosen an ancient rusted pipe union—I could only move that pipe wrench a few inches at a time due to the cramped plumbing-filled space—but it seemed to me that Flynn was gone for a very long time.  After what seemed like ages, he finally showed up and handed me an obviously used valve—it was rusty in places and had flecks old gray paint on it.  No matter--maintenance was full of old parts that could be reused, and while I was certain the hotel had new valves, I could use an old one.

The repairs were completed, the emergency was over, and I decided to drive home and get some dry clothes.  As I drove by the Texaco gas station next door to the hotel, I couldn't help noticing the collection of people standing beside the building staring at the torrent of water pouring out of the public restroom.  I would have given favorable odds and covered all bets that the plumbing in that bathroom was in desperate need of a ¾” gate valve. 

My rehabilitation project never was successful.  If he hasn't been shot yet, I wonder what prison Flynn is in.  Or does Texas have a congressman named Flynn?

***My wife—the Doc—says that paragraph is a little over the top even for a poor dumb ‘ol country boy.  I had to remind her that I’m writing a blog—it was some other feller named Mark who wrote scripture.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Chairway To Heaven

The following story is almost certainly apocryphal.  For the education majors among you, this means that if you believe this silly story, you will catch chicken pox.

It was a small Texas town with a somewhat fundamentalist church---the kind of church whose members were horrified with the certain knowledge that somewhere, somebody was having more fun than they were. The overly somber congregation was celebrating the opening of its new church building and everyone was in the sanctuary, loudly singing a hymn in celebration.  Well, actually, not that celebratory, for every hymn sung by this church sounded like a funeral dirge.  For one young man, this was always somewhat confusing, since the church as a whole professed to believe the Bible literally---except Psalm 98:4: no one, it seemed, ever made a joyful noise to the Lord (or anyone else).

Perhaps that is why the young man's mind was wandering---or, more accurately---it had run away from home.  The teen was sitting on the far left of the church, near the back.  (His seat had been chosen chiefly for its proximity to the bathroom).  Right then, however, he was transfixed by a large vent on the side of the church wall.  The vent was three feet tall and four feet wide and consisted of tiny little louvers that slanted upward, which prevented the boy from seeing what was being concealed behind the grating.  The boy was fairly sure (he had checked) that the vent neither blew air out nor pulled air in.  What was the purpose of the vent?

After church, the teen discussed the mystery with two friends.  Remember---this was a SMALL town, so the boys had to take what entertainment they could find.  Curiosity is the main motivating force for boys---at least until puberty kicks in, so the three boys agreed to ride their bikes back to the church after lunch and investigate. 

Using their pocket knives, it didn't take long for them to remove the screws holding the vent to the wall.  Behind the vent, was a large air duct, about four feet deep---large enough for all three boys to step inside and look straight up. They could see that the shaft rose up forty feet and then turned back towards the center of the hall.

Now, did you ever notice how solving one mystery seems to create two more?  The shaft went up and then turned.  Where did it go?  What did the shaft do?  The boys were determined to find out.

Climbing the shaft was impossible: the walls were simple wood studs and sheetrock---and they didn't have a ladder.  But boys are creative and they quickly came up with a substitute.  Folding metal chairs were brought from the nearby Sunday school rooms and placed in the shaft.

By not-so-carefully stacking one chair on top of another, the boys could climb slowly higher.  Within a few minutes the haphazard mound of chairs grew taller than the boys.  By then, the chairs had to be folded and passed carefully up to where each chair would be unfolded and wedged onto the top of the pile.  The stack of chairs could not fall over, because it was solidly wedged inside the shaft.

This improvised tower used a surprisingly large number of chairs.  Several Sunday school rooms were completely stripped of seating over the next few hours.  A rope to haul  the chairs upward was improvised by tying a couple of extension cords together.  All of this was hard work---something the boys would have assiduously avoided if someone in authority had requested them to do something constructive.  

There was a real concern that the job would not be finished before evening church service.  People would be returning to the church by six in the evening.  More and more chairs kept disappearing up that shaft as the tired, hot, and sweating boys worked their way up that shaft.  Finally, one of the boys could grab the top edge of the shaft and chin himself up to see into where the shaft turned.

"Well," he said.  "It goes three feet and stops!"

All three boys took turns chinning themselves up to see.  After working feverishly all Sunday afternoon, this was not a satisfying conclusion!  What the boys did not know at the time was that the church had planned on future expansion.  The ceiling was high enough to add balcony seating, and so air ducts had been built in for the future project.  The shaft, did indeed, lead "nowhere"---and since the expansion was never completed, the shaft never did lead anywhere.

Since the boys were out of time, and they could not dismantle their siege tower of chairs before evening church, they simply replaced the metal vent over the shaft opening and vowed to return the next week to return the chairs to their classrooms.  This was a nice plan, but it never came to pass.  The boys had a lack of foresight that one generally associates with youth or the US Congress.  When the evening service started, the lack of chairs was...well, noticed.

"How the hell did over a hundred chairs vanish?" roared a deacon.  This is almost as funny as when President Eisenhower interrupted a cabinet meeting with, “Goddammit!  We forgot the silent prayer!"

The church was in the middle of the small town, and it would have taken several men and a large truck to remove well over a hundred chairs---something that would have been noticed in a small community.  From that point on, security around the church increased and the church was kept locked between services.  There was never a chance for the boys to return the chairs.

The boy who had started the entire exercise felt more than a little uncomfortable about the whole affair.  Is it stealing if the purloined items never actually leave the premises?  The chairs weren’t hurt---indeed, you could argue that since, several decades later, the chairs that are still in that shaft are just like new, while all of the chairs not borrowed have long since worn out---placing the chairs in the shaft had preserved them.

The boy told his uncle about the problem.  His uncle was NOT a deacon in that or any other church, having led the kind of life that had prompted the original invention of religion.  The boy was more than hopeful of the confession's being peacefully accepted and, perhaps, even sanctioned by a sinner who had fought his own battles with that particular church.

“Fuck ‘em,” the uncle said.  “Do the lot of them some good to stand.  Those morons will think better if they ain’t sittin’ on their brains.  But if it really bothers you, I’ll tell them for you.”

It was not until years later that the boy learned that this meant that every so often, usually late at night, the uncle would call the pastor at home and roar into the telephone, “Up your shaft!”