the ethnography of the liquor people

When I was a kid I wondered whether I’d turn in to one of the guys I read about, guys who ordered hot toddies in cherry-paneled rooms. Guys who smoked meerschaum pipes or large cigars while waiting for the butler to bring them the toddies warmed to the proper degree. It was a possibility, like being a race-car driver or an astronaut was a possibility. It was a possibility the way anything’s a possibility to a boy who reads and imagines.

Just today, years later, I decided, even though I never did turn into that kind of guy (‘Huh.’), that I wanted a hot toddy. Or at least an Irish coffee, which always sounded, well, pretty good. Real things get done and real decisions get made over hot toddies. Or days of yore get affably re-imagined through warm, moist prisms. I just had a hankering.

So I stopped off on the way home at a Slidell convenience store I’ve been to that I know sells the crucial hot toddy and Irish coffee ingredients, and what’s more, sells them in the aisles so you don’t have to stare at the proprietor for any length of time while trying to make what is for me an out-of-the-ordinary decision, one I was put up to by the likes of meerschaum-smoking detectives from books I read long ago. I’m talking about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, of course; they put me up to this, put me up to it very specifically.

So I’m looking at all the whiskeys and whiskys and gins and rums in large bottles sitting in the aisle shelves, thinking, “My, that’s a lot of alcohol. Far too much for a toddy.” I pulled something called Old #7 off the shelf (which I could tell was superior toddy-makings because of the price), then put it back. It was too much of a commitment, especially for a beer drinker such as myself. I started toward the coolers, deflated, when I saw another whole row of toddy-makings behind the counter, over the proprietor’s head. These were much smaller than what I’d been looking at; I guessed about a fifth the size. Yes, pretty close to a fifth.

So I confidently told him I wanted a fifth of Old #7, there behind you my good man. And chop-chop! Hot toddies await the successful conclusion of this transaction!

He looked at me with fairly well-disguised contempt (at war with himself over whether he wanted more to make money from an imminent economic transaction or to delight in belittling the man who obviously fell off a turnip truck, then got hit by another turnip truck passing the other way) and directed my view back whence I’d come; “Those are the fifths over there.”

Needless to say, I was caught. Red-handed! My ignorance flopping around on the floor like some sort of half-hearted flopping thing. And the raft of liquor drinkers milling through the stacks suddenly stopped to look at me more closely. There was Skinny Pete and Smoky Joe, cornering the gin market. Delilah carting her wine out to her Impala, who missed a step but kept going since she didn’t want any trouble. Franklin Forsythe; Ed; Wall-eyed Sam, the baker man; they were all there.

In short, the ruse that I was a spirits drinker from way back, like everyone else in the store, of course I was, it went without saying, was exposed by my lack of knowing the first thing—the first thing—about the ethnography of the liquor people. And I think I truly dumbfounded them. Here was this, what, forties? fifties? …old guy who had somehow gotten old without knowing what a fifth of liquor looked like. How could this be? Where is he from? Why is he here? Who had put him up to this?

I fully understood how freakish I must have looked to them. Like the Elephant Man, if the Elephant Man didn’t know how to buy booze. But did I leave the store, tail between my legs, trunk swinging like all get-out, with no toddy ingredients, never to be seen there again? I certainly could have. That would’ve been pretty easy. It almost happened.

Here’s what really happened: “That’s a fifth over there? I don’t want that. it’s too venti. Venti! I’m looking for grande, the middle one over there, no, not the tall one, I know it’s tall; the tall one to the left. Grande is that one in th-, yes, that one. That’s the one! Whew! Thank you. And a pack of Marlboros in the box. No, not the 25’s, the, the, yes those. How much is it all? Here you are and a good day to you.”

Was I triumphant? No. No I wasn’t. I was the Elephant Man. But in the end, I did have a hot toddy of my own creation this evening. And I’m fully confident I can return to the same store and speak Starbucks to them and they will at least eventually give me what I want, with more a vague sense of unease than bald contempt. So call it a draw.

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One Response to the ethnography of the liquor people

  1. ecto says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t speak Starbucks either; I’d just happened to be fuming from their ridiculous sizing scheme from earlier in the day, when I’d said to the coffee girl “Can I get that bagel toasted? No? Are you kidding? Then I don’t want that. Who gets untoasted bagels? Gimme a croissant and a medium coffee.”

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