Summer Drinking: The Food Center Liquor Store, Brookline, MA

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“Time is a jet plane it moves so fast” – Bob Dylan, “You’re A Big Girl Now”

I was texting with my drummer friend yesterday. He’d read my review of the RHCP’s new song, “Dark Necessities” and had reached out. Like me, he’s a huge fan of bands with strong rhythm sections like the Who, Rush, Rock Garden and of course, the RHCPs. Give me that bottom. He was complaining about the overly-produced sound of the drums. I have to admit that Danger Mouse put so much polish on the record I can almost see my reflection in it, but I still love the song. It’s in high rotation here at the house. He then mentioned his band had a gig that night, and said, “It’s almost like summer, man!”

Ah, summer. It always makes me think of Boston and the Food Center Liquor Store, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

There’s nothing better than summer drinking. And while I have to consume some bourbon today (I’m working on a “deconstructed” mint julep, straight bourbon from the bottle with a peppermint in my mouth) for the Kentucky Derby, the world’s greatest sporting event, when summer comes it’ll be time to put away the dark liquors and heavy beers. Time to dust off the vodka lemonades and the Blue Moon. I would suggest buying stock in Ketel One immediately, they’re about to have a sales surge. When summer comes to the Midwest the entire region opens like a flower.

This time of year always takes me back. It’s not only summer’s arrival, but the fact that it’s graduation season takes me back to my own college graduation.  At the time, I took all the money I’d been gifted for graduating and bought a ticket to fly to Boston to join my buddies Matthew and GP who were both living out there. Matthew was in Law School and GP was peddling soft drinks. I had somehow convinced GP to move out there with me…I’m not sure he’s forgiven me yet. My corporate overlords didn’t need me until September, so I thought, “What the Hell, why not?” Once I arrived in Boston and got myself ensconced at the apartment the three of us shared on Commonwealth Avenue, I immediately spent the rest of my Graduation Money at the used record store two blocks up from us, “In Your Ear.” I found all the Faces records on vinyl I’d been searching for in that used record store and I can close my eyes and still see myself standing there, mouth agape at my “huge” discovery. Unfortunately spending all my money on used albums wasn’t going to sustain me for the summer in super-expensive Boston.

Matthew and I went to the local grocery store on the outskirts of Brookline, the birthplace of JFK, and after watching Matthew fail while hitting on the beautiful, Hispanic store clerk, I noticed a “Help Wanted” sign on the window of the liquor store adjacent. My reduced circumstances made me bold and I strolled in and inquired after the opening. I was told the job was in the “other store,” two miles away, in the main village square of Brookline.

The next day, I set off on my adventure to find the Brookline Food Center Liquor Store. I walked for what seemed like forever until I finally spotted it, situated on a main street, next to a police station which I regarded with suspicion at the time. I strolled in and a man with sunglasses on (while inside) and a 70’s porno-star mustache was behind the register. I introduced myself and asked about the job. Being from Kansas, I had always thought I had no accent at all. Apparently to this hardened, Boston liquor store owner I sounded like I’d just wandered in off the plantation in Mississippi. He probably couldn’t delineate between Mississippi or Missouri as I was to find out later… He smiled at me and immediately started on my accent… “You ain’t from around here are you (it sounded like “ah yoo”)? You from down South somewhere?” I told him I was from Kansas and that was suddenly my name, “Kansas.” I asked again for the job and he replied “Uh, Ok Kansas, you uh, wanted for anything criminal? I got cop friends, I’ll know so don’t fucking lie to me.”His Boston accent was so thick I struggled to understand him. It took a while to adjust (he kept saying Food Center as Food Centah). It was an odd interview question. I replied that I had no record and I wasn’t wanted for anything criminal… well, nothing that would stick. “Ok Kansas, welcome to the Food Centah, you start (staht) tomorrow, be here at 3pm.” I had a job!

The next day, and really for the rest of the summer, it was my job to show up at the liquor store and a) stock the beer fridge and b) take the Massachusettes 5 cent beer can returns. The man with the mustache who was named Doug but referred to himself as “Uncle Chico” explained it to me my first day. He took me out of the cooler to the front of the beer display. We stood a few feet back and he said, “Kansas, look at that, do you see any gaps in the beer coolah?” There were none. “Thats how I wanna see my coolah from now on, no gaps.” I was literally responsible for walking into the cooler and pushing six packs forward so people could easily reach them. Every now and again, I’d get busy with beer can returns and I’d hear, in that thick Boston accent, “Kansas, Kansas?” and I’d run out to the store floor from the back cubby hole where we took returns and he would always say, when he was upset about the beer cooler, “Do you love Uncle Chico? Do you love Uncle Chico?” There was only one reply, I’d mumble “Yes, I love Uncle Chico…” “Then, uh, Kansas, will you do the fucking beer coolah, I see gaps.”

There were a group of guys that I worked with, salt of the earth guys, Kenny, Wardy, and Matt. The guy who was the night manager was named Murph. One was an artist, one was going to be a cop and one of the others was always looking for a construction job. People always speak of folks from the East being cold or stand-offish but those guys embraced me almost immediately. I have to admit they asked me if I grew up on a farm, I was from Kansas after all. I had to explain I didn’t grow up with a cow in my yard. I used to tell them the only thing different between Kansas and Boston was that in Kansas everything was in black and white and here in Boston everything was in color. They liked the Wizard of Oz comedy…

These guys went out drinking every night. The liquor store closed at 11pm and everyone on the shift was allowed to drink one beer of their choice. It was where I really developed a taste for good beer – not this American piss that passes for beer here – but good, exotic beers from far away places. That one beer after shift usually led us to the bar across the street. After the first couple of nights drinking with these guys, on a Tuesday night, I demurred when Matt asked me where we were gonna get beers later. He looked stunned when I said I was just gonna walk home. “Kansas, what the fuck are (ah) you talking about? It’s summah (summer)… you drink… you know, with your friends.” It was wisdom I carry with me to today. It’s what I always think of when I think of summer drinking. I was embarrassed I’d been so stupid and said “no” and at the same time I was honored that these guys had already accepted me as a friend. Although, I must confess they continued to ask me if Kansas was in the South… apparently I had an accent I was unaware of and they don’t teach geography in the Boston schools.

Now, here I am, all these years later and I’m on the cusp of summer. Another summer has snuck up on me. I’m not sure where all the time went… It slips away, people. Dylan was right, “time is a jet plane.” I’m happy, with a great family and my job now doesn’t entail pushing six-packs forward to the sound of “do you love Uncle Chico?” Although I have to admit, pushing six-packs forward was a lot more fun and it didn’t keep me up at night…

I always try to remember the wisdom of the Food Centah…. And, I hope you all will remember this wisdom folks – “It’s summah (summer), you drink beer, you know, with your friends.”

Cheers!

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day from B&V

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There are holidays sprinkled throughout the year on the calendar. Some were created by Hallmark Cards, i.e. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and the grandmother of them all, Valentine’s Day. There are government mandated holidays like Labor Day, Memorial Day and Arbor Day. Yes, Arbor Day, trees need some love, people. There’s even one holiday I actually like – Thanksgiving –  all I have to do is show up, drink and eat and watch football while napping after dinner, it’s almost perfect. Of course, there are religious holiday’s like Easter, Christmas, and Hanukkah just to name a few. For me, there is only one religious holiday I still observe and that is St. Patrick’s Day. Is there any other holiday that could better represent the ethos of BourbonAndVinyl than St. Patrick’s Day? I think not. St. Patrick’s Day is the BourbonAndVinyl “High Holy Day”.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me. Italian, Austrian, Belgian, English, and who knows what else. I could be part collie, although I’m much taller than the average collie and not nearly as hairy. I’m the classic American mutt. But I love St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone is in green, everyone is drinking and everyone is just a little bit more friendly.

Perhaps it’s the timing of St. Patrick’s Day, in the spring, just after the Ides of March that I love so much. The weather is often sketchy but for the most part spring has begun to sprung and that rebel spirit of my youth is reawakened. My home town has purportedly the third biggest parade or the third biggest “celebration” (depending how you define that) in the U.S. There’s something cool about being the “third” best or biggest. Neil Young and Crazy Horse toured in the late 80’s billing themselves as the “Third Best Garage Band In the World”. They claimed that being first brings a lot of pressure: to remain on top, to remain #1. To be Second Best brings a lot of pressure to overtake the First Place guy. If you’re Third, you’re just cool and you know it. I can live with that title for my hometown.

In the old days, we’d go downtown to Westport and have breakfast at Kelly’s, the city’s oldest bar. From there we’d hit the parade, full of floats, some from old, historic Irish clans, others from local charitable groups and quite a few marching bands. As soon as that was over it was back to Westport. All the streets are blocked off, the cops form a perimeter, and drinking in the streets, where God intended it to be done, is legal for a day. We’d rage until the sun went down and beyond, eating from food trucks and staggering about women with “Fuck Me I’m Irish” buttons on. Ah, the wearing of the green. It’s a spring tradition in my town. Alas, now I work all day and if I’m lucky slip out to a local Irish pub for  one or two and then back home before dinner. But I always try to make it out however briefly to commemorate The Day.

In my early professional days, I’d always meet my buddy, the General, no matter what was happening and we’d head to Westport for St Patrick’s Day. We would occasionally slip down there early, but as the years wore on, we’d get down to the celebration later and later. We made a tradition of saying, “To hell with work and responsibilities, on this one day, we ride!!” The years seemed to strip away and we were college kids on spring break for eight or nine hours. Alas, my pal the General has disappeared into the fog of work and parenthood. I don’t get to see the General much these days. I keep telling him he’s in a tunnel and he will come out, but I digress. And my own situation has changed considerably. The Rock Chick loves St Patrick’s Day too, but I always feel overly protective of her while were out on St Patty’s. Work responsibilities have often shackled me to the desk just the same as it does the General.

Early in my career, I was interviewing internally for a job. The guy I was interviewing with decided to fly in on St Patrick’s Day. We were to meet at 10 am. Because the parade ran past our office he wasn’t able to even get through the parade traffic to the office until noon, my scheduled departure time. I can still remember sitting in a corner office, in what was an intense interview, while constantly glancing over the executive’s shoulder to the parade and my drunken friends who were waving at me below. “Why yes, I can be very responsible in a management position sir, uh, how long is this gonna take, I have a drunken, green train to catch?” He was a religious man so I had to tread lightly.

A few years ago, I drunkenly got on stage at an Irish pub up North and told my favorite St Patrick’s Day joke…which goes something like this… A proud Irishman in a kilt was walking home to his farmhouse after a wedding in town. He was terribly drunk and laid down by a tree and passed out. Around dawn a pair of milkmaids were walking by and spied our intrepid Irishman asleep. Shyly they approached the Irishman, and curious, peeked to see what was under his kilt. One of the milkmaids pulled the blue ribbon from her hair and tied it around his…manhood. They giggled together as they walked away. About an hour later the Irishman woke and feeling something was amiss “below”, pulled up the kilt. Spying the blue ribbon, he said, “I don’t know where you been lad, but I see you won first prize.” I think that sums it up.

While I’m not crazy about all Irish music I shall spend tonight listening to Van Morrison and U2, loudly! My day tomorrow won’t be complete if I can’t open my windows and hear a bagpipe or two off in the distance. Who doesn’t love bagpipe music?

I want to wish everybody out there in Ireland, the Irish diaspora and those of us who are merely Irish in spirit for a day – Happy St Patrick’s Day from BourbonAndVinyl!! Enjoy it people. Get out there and enjoy the spring weather (if it cooperates). Raise a Jameson or two! Put on something bright and obnoxiously green. Skip work and do something naughty! Head down to the tavern and “talk a little treason” as they say in my favorite John Wayne movie, ‘A Quiet Man’. Me, I’ve got work and responsibilities, so you all have to carry the torch for me… although I must admit I received a text from my old pal the General, my first in a while, asking what I was doing for the holiday… Hmmm, that rebel spirit just may be calling me. St Patrick’s Day, like Hope “springs eternal”…

Cheers! Slainte and Erin Go Bragh!

The Vegas Odyssey for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon with Arkansas Joel

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I am occasionally, like all professional types, required to go to Las Vegas a few times a year for various conventions in my industry. I’ve always hated Las Vegas. I once said to my old friend from Arkansas, Joel (*named changed to protect the guilty), that when I die, if I wake up in a casino and hear the bells and whistles of slot machines going off I will know I’m in Hell. Conversely, I remember mentioning that when I die, if I awake in a beer commercial, on a beach somewhere surrounded by bikini clad young women, that I’ll know I was in Heaven. As my only devout Christian friend, Joel was a little underwhelmed by my world view.

This last winter I was once again forced to go to Vegas for some training and then a customer convention. I was in Vegas so long I was beginning to worry I’d have to register in Nevada to vote. I was absolutely miserable. I was about to lose my mind when suddenly I got a text from my old friend from Arkansas, Joel, alerting me that he and his wife were heading to Vegas the next day. I met Joel over twenty five years ago when I lived for a brief time in Arkansas. I consider those my years in “exile”, like Dante when he was kicked out of Florence. While I was unhappy in Arkansas, the people were nice, and I made a friend for life in Joel. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll and bourbon guy just like me. Joel had a young family at the time, a wife and two young boys, but he always managed to find time to step out for a drink or two with his shiftless exile friend, namely me. He was the only person I knew who could quote scripture and Radiohead in the same conversation. I imagine it was a lot like drinking with Johnny Cash or maybe Dylan post-Christian period.

After I moved back home, Joel and I stayed in touch. At one particularly dark period in my life, Joel came to KC and we were out drinking. I was lamenting something and he asked me if I knew the story of Esau and Jacob. I remember saying, “Joel, the only biblical story I seem to recall goes something like this: “God said to Abraham, “kill me a son”/Abe says “Man you must be puttin’ me on/God say “No”, Abe say “What?”/God say “You can do what you want Abe, but next time you see me comin’ you better run/Abe says “Where you want this killin’ done?”/God says “Out on Highway 61.” My photographic memory of Dylan songs aside, Joel was not impressed. He went on to tell me about Esau selling his birth right and compared it to me. He said I was taking my eye off what was important. It was a good story and it’s stuck with me for years.

While I was excited to see Joel and his wife, Tiffany (*named changed to protect the innocent), they were getting in at a really early hour in the morning, but I was still required to attend the conference I was enrolled in. I had meetings scheduled. Joel and his wife were meeting with U.S. Customs at McCarren Airport and would be free by lunch. My advice to Joel was that he should nap, while I did my conference and we’d meet later in the early evening. My phone started ringing around noon, it was Joel. He was apparently ignoring my advice about the nap. I let the call, (then the calls as he kept calling every thirty minutes) go to voicemail.

Finally, around mid afternoon, I relented and answered the phone. “Kenneth, it’s time to roll… Tiffany is taking a nap, but I’ve stayed up, drinking beer.” This was a bad sign. I wasn’t going to be able to put him off much longer. I begged off for another hour but we made arrangements to meet at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan. I ordered a Stella, which apparently irritated him even more. Once a decade Joel turned into what we both describe as “Hostile Joel”. This was heading that direction. “Bubba, when you’re in a bar like this, you don’t order a beer, you just tell the guy to mix you up something special with bourbon.” I was impressed that he actually ordered in that vague way and the guy brought him what looked like an Old Fashion. I killed my beer quickly and ordered “what the gentleman from Arkansas was drinking” but had to almost chug the Old Fashion as Joel had an odyssey of sorts in mind.

“Kenneth, I want you to take a journey with me. It’s going to be long and arduous, we’ll have to walk quite a ways, but in the end, we will find some treasure.” Who was I to argue, Joel was hammered and this sounded like fun. We left the Chandelier Bar and headed toward Caesar’s Palace. Joel seemed to know the way by heart. He had several gift shops and lobby bars he knew about on the route we were taking, so we were able to refresh our beers about every 100 steps. Outside the Caesar’s theater, we ended up hanging around in the gift shop. Elton John and Rod Stewart both do residencies there and they were selling CDs, t-shirts and other memorabilia. I held up a pair of leopard spotted lycra tights and asked if I should buy a pair and wear them the rest of the day. I have a vague memory of singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to the amusement of the shop clerk.

We ended up having to circle back to the Cosmopolitan when Tiffany woke up and called. She was hungry. At the rate we were drinking, I figured a little food couldn’t hurt. When we got to the Cosmopolitan, Joel announced that he was going to share one of Vegas’ greatest kept secrets, known only to the initiated. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I saw a flash of Hostile Joel when he said, “I don’t think you’re prepared for this. You’re not worthy of this kind of insider information…you’re not showing the proper reverence.” I thought of Esau, I needed to keep my eye on the prize. I tried to act contrite. We ended up walking down an unmarked hallway and discovered a hidden pizza joint and it was awesome. We took the pizza up to the hotel room and met Tiffany. Joel quickly bolted for the lobby to grab a six pack of beer, since he considered the mini bar prices to be outrageous. I’ve never really known Tiffany that well and was worried about what to say, when she plopped down on the couch across from me in the living room, and blurted out, “You know I always hated you back in Arkansas.” Jeez, first Hostile Joel and now Hostile Tiffany. Where was this evening going?

“Joel would disappear on weekends to go drinking with you. I couldn’t stand you. Of course, I didn’t know you back then, and knowing what I know now, I think you’re kind of a funny guy. I wish I’d known back then, what I know now. I was just a young mother and you were a threat. But, I’ve learned a lot since then…” she said wistfully. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d learned that had changed her opinion of me. I always got this from the wives and girlfriends of my pals. I was the single guy. It’s so much easier to get pissed at the drunken friend than the boyfriend/husband, and I was always the target. I was hanging on every word, hoping for some real wisdom, when drunken Joel burst back into the room with a six pack. Saved by the drunken bell it appears.

Finally, after hours of drinking and eating pizza, we managed to make it over to the Venetian. One of the bars off the lobby was apparently the location of Joel’s promised “treasure.” Unfortunately they were doing a private dinner for Home Depot or some other retail outlet. Joel bribed the hostess and we slipped into the bar. I quickly hit the bathroom and when I got up to the bar, I realized why we’d taken this long odyssey in the first place. Sitting on the bar, in front of Joel, were two glasses and a bottle of the infamous, rare and hard to find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon – Do I think you’re sexy, God damn right I do. The bar actually had the 15 year, the 20 year and the 23 year bottles. The 23 year was $250 a shot, so that was out of the question. We did a shot of the 15 year followed up by a shot of the 20 year. Bourbon, served neat. I was in Bourbon Heaven. I’d never had Pappy Van Winkle but now I am a big fan. It may be the best bourbon I’ve ever had. The difference between the 15 year and the 20 year was amazing. I can only wonder in awe what the 23 year was like. It had been a long, drunken, crazy day with Hostile Joel, but it was worth every moment to taste the nectar of the Gods… Pappy Van Winkle. There were many moments during the day I thought of bailing, but unlike Esau, I hung in there… Although I must admit, I wish I’d bought the Rod Stewart leopard-skin tights. It would have been a great picture for Instagram…