I drink a bit too much for someone with my family history. Suffice it to say here that there have been some things in the family past involving Swedish genes, three-day alcoholic benders in cheap Worcester hotels, sub-zero winter nights and a missing grandpa. Still and all, so to speak, I do my best and manage to avoid binge drinking. Mostly.
Once every year or two (or has it been more often?–it’s damned hard to recall) more alcohol is consumed than can be considered reasonably prudent. When this happens, I tend to avoid blogging at UR the next day since, pretty as it is, our alcohol-based graphics header
holds little appeal during a hangover. One such event occurred just a new nights back and now that a decent interval has passed I am comfortable facing down the manacing UR graphical gauntlet and posting about the night in question.
I had arranged to meet co-blogger Eddie Pensier and Spouse for the first time. They’d picked the place, ominously and auspiciously the kind of gin mill you wouldn’t think you’d find any longer on the Upper West Side.
I arrived a bit late, and Happy Hour had dwindled to its last sad half-hour. A dangerous time, and yet we bravely barged ahead buying a couple of rounds to save a few bucks by ordering before the deadline. Of course this left us stranded at 7 PM with a couple of drinks each under our belts and a couple of sheets each to the wind, and the appies had not yet made it to the table. So we continued. In my case this involved switching out the $5 gin and tonics from “the well” for gin martinis, not available as a Happy Hour special. And no, waitress, I don’t care to specify the gin and don’t look at me like I am my frozen grandpa because I don’t specify Bombay Sapphire or Hendrick’s.
Eddie and Spouse are great fun and the conversation went on. Now Eddie talks as good as writes, and Spouse is no slouch either. So I did my best to keep the gabfest going at the high intellectual level that we all asssociate with this blog in general, and with Eddie in particular (I mean, really, grand opera fer chrissakes!) I put forth a semblance of articulateness and even managed to avoid slurring. At least that is what I recall. Eddie and Spouse may be a better judge of that. Or maybe not.
Anyway, this fake glibness in turn helped convince me that I was actually staying fairly sober, an idea that mere empiricism should have demolished, considering the obvious comings and goings of my martini glasses. The words were coming out; they didn’t sound too bad; Eddie and Spouse were getting smarter and funnier by the minute. So far so good. Also, for some reason I didn’t have to take a piss, the getting-up-and-walking part of which would doubtless have served as a cautionary reminder about my deteriorating state. In fact, I went longer without relieving myself than I do during the middle of any particular night when I am trying to just sleep. Go figure.
By-‘n-by we got to feeling more or less done with the liquor but the conversation wanted to go on. Eddie and Spouse innocently suggested one more round at another local gin mill, just to continue the conversation. I initially said yes and then suddenly realized: holy shit! I am plastered! I can’t have another drink or I’ll fall down.
And we can’t have, can’t have, can’t have that. It would not be . . . what is the word? Strong?
I got up to leave and realized I was both extremely lightheaded and more flat-footed than usual. Stepping outside, my synapses began to misfire and, Queen of Diamonds floating through my mind, I am no longer on Amsterdam Ave. but in China, where I’d gone to teach a course last year. My mind rushes back to banquets.
Banquets. Being the guest of honor, my hosts would take me to a banquet each noon and evening, with endless, obligatory toasts, usually of that . . . ummm . . . unique clear Chinese liquor known as baijiu. Now, in the business-inflected south of China, the Western way of drinking–each to his own at his own pace–is acceptable. But China’s north, where I was, remains governmental at its core and and its habits remain authoritarian and top-down, courtesy of Mongol invaders and Mao. Which means: when the host to the left tells the honored guest to the right to upend his glass and down it all at once–ganbei!–it is done. And then done again. As long as your host still breathes and talks, he can command. Ganbei!
My academic hosts were pretty good at cutting me a little–just a little–slack over mandated toasting. Not so the Party people. And I mean that with a capital “P”, the Communist Party people, the original hard-Partiers.
The Party plays a leading role in all things in China, and higher education is no exception. Each senior official has his Party doppelganger, the Party Human Resources person just down the hall from the titular Human Resouces person. It is not really fair to say the Party person shadows the real officials. They may not do a lot of the work work, but if there are shots to be called, including of baijiu, they will call them as they please.
My Party hosts were a grizzled bunch too, right out of a Chinese version of On the Waterfront. The academics were skittish around them and gave them wide berth. Once, after I had successfully negotiated with the academics for a withdrawal from baijiu in favor of beer and wine, a Party guy decided to show up at the last minute. My academic host–the most senior non-Party person in attendance–hastily vacated his seat of honor at the round conference table in favor of the incoming Party guy, and out came the super-expensive baijiu.
Ganbei, capitalist roader! I’ll put you down! A deer in headlights, I looked over at my translator and academic pals, beseechingly. Must I? The looks back at me confirmed it: I was on my own.
Let me tell you, it is tough enough being the guest of honor even if the Party-hearty guys are not present. For one, your host, to your left, doesn’t command that all people at the table drink each round. He has discretion to pick and choose. So he will often opt in a given round to make a special deal of the guest, relieving the rest of the table of the need to tipple on that one round. So you and he are on and the rest are off.
But in the next moment, he may, as presiding emperor, graciously allow one-on-one toasting, permitting those at the table to pick and choose their own target, à la carte. While this seems as though it could work to relieve the honored guest, and some intra-table toasts are made among the Chinese, for the most part such open toasts mean that a stream of visitors makes its way to the head of the table, all with a full glass in hand, looking for the chance to propose a toast to the honored guest. Note that the main host gets a pass on this set of rounds–the honored guest has no such luck. So it’s a kind of double-whammy–make that triple if it’s a determined Communist Party guy at the helm.
An American working at the college was at this dinner, and he had tried his best to warn me off the baijiu path. Alas, he was neither the host nor the honored guest and as such, he was stripped of any serious stature and was obliged to down the fragrant clear stuff with the rest of us. He ended up vomiting on the floor of the hotel dining room on the way out.
My translator told me the next day, very concerned, that this was seriously bad for the poor guy, career-damaging bad. He had lost face. By contrast, he told me, my stature had grown immensely. After holding my own the entire night, including keeping up with banter in translation, I had graciously thanked my host for the dinner and had walked out. I was, as he put it, strong.
I was momentrarily quite flattered in a way that is highly inappropriate for one whose grandpa went missing in a snowbank near Lake Quinsigamond. Worse, I now had a reputation, like a gunslinger from the Old West in the New East. The Party guys would find out, and might decide to do me in once and for all.
It all came down my last night there. The academic gang and I retreated to a restaurant in the hills near sacred Mount Tai.
Alas, another Party guy, new to me, showed up to host. I graciously took my place at his right hand, equal parts honored guest, punching bag and capitalist roader. After various ceremonial formalities . . .
(cue Ennio Morricone)
(the sound of shots continues)
In the end I was still standing. Walking even. My academic hosts, secretly proud I suspect, hovered over me as I descended the stairs to the parking lot, lest I tumble and fall to the ground. But I waved them away like James Brown singing Please Please Please at the TAMI Show. I can do this! I can do this!
And I did. And the legend lives on.
The legend lived on long enough, in fact, to suddenly find itself mindlessly walking herky-jerk down Amsterdam Ave. after drinks with oh yeah Eddie and Spouse.
One step–not one day–at a time. Zig and zag. List port list starboard. And eventually down and down to the blessed subway, and home.
But . . . strong.