When I moved to the Bowery in the 70’s, bums still sprawled on curbs and in vacant doorways, empty fifths of Ripple and Cold Duck nestled in their arms. The bars offered cheap beer and watered-down whiskey. The higher-end popular ones served super sweet, rich and creamy concoctions like Pink Squirrels, Pink Ladies, Tom Collins, Golden Cadillacs and Grasshoppers. Creme de Menthe was considered a choice of the privileged, whereas The Rolling Stones in their 1972 American tour, were fueled primarily by Tequila Sunrises blended with cocaine.
New York City is a fine place to live if you are a drinker or a self-professed connoisseur of alcoholic diversity. There are only 10,000 bars within the city limits. No human could possibly do a night crawl of them all, not even within a year’s time.
In the East Village, crowds proliferated on weekday nights, as well as the regular weekend binges: a steady stream of other-borough visitors: compulsive financiers, bored uptowners, belligerent winos, bands of well-cologned men and women looking for love or a lusty screw.
In those days, before weed became the preferred intoxicant, unabashed social drinking was the only choice for a majority of Americans. Middle class parents who lived in suburbs and were raising families no longer pursued pub crawls but observed and indulged in cocktail hours at home.
My father’s pride and joy in our house was his man-cave in our finished basement, where he’d built a fifteen-foot-long wooden bar with revolving stools we kids used to spin on when he wasn’t around. The mirrored wall behind the bar was lined with glass shelves and liquors with intriguing graphic labels. I would sit and stare at them, trying to figure out why I liked certain ones more than others: an allure of bottle shapes, images, fonts and descriptives; perhaps an early indication of what would become a visual career.
When family visited or friends stopped by, my father loved nothing more than playing bartender to the men. It was a gender selection that no one questioned. The women all stayed upstairs with my mother, although not without pre-mixed drinks in their hands.
As a young teen, I accepted drinking as a ritualistic bonding element that all my adult relatives engaged in. I appreciated its helping make them less demanding and serious, apt to ignore whatever mischief we kids were up to, and often inspired hilarious behavior on their parts that kept us well entertained.
My older sister Lynn, delivering a tray of drinks to the clamoring aunties outside, once ran straight through the patio’s mesh doors, leaving a perfect imprint of her body in the screen. Aunt Rose, a large, heavy-set woman, lowered herself into our backyard hammock and began to swing. At the height of one thrust, the hammock broke and she was launched skyward only to land face down on the lawn. My mother chased us kids away (howling at the classic pratfall we had seen only in cartoons), before breaking down in laughter herself.
Inebriated uncles tried to play pool (on the professional table positioned directly across from the bar). They dropped their cue sticks, scraped the green fabric or skipped balls clear off the table to bounce loudly across the floor. My brother and I had developed fine motor skills and aim from practicing after school most days; we were wildly amused by the crudity and clumsiness of our tottering relatives.
It would be years before I began to drink; I did not discover the pleasures of wine while at Pratt. But I was somehow lured into the world of whiskey, particularly Jack Daniels. My roommate and good friend Mia Wolff and I would frequent local bars in Brooklyn and order one shot apiece. I was still a bit of a grungy, possibly homely girl, but Mia—with her gleaming blonde hair and upbeat, casual manner—always managed to attract men. We would chat and joke and invariably, they would buy us second and third shots of Jack. At some point, I transformed into a witty conversationalist. We would regale them with stories or as ace art students, dash off fierce likenesses on napkins. After downing our fourth and fifth glasses, even the bartender was impressed and treated us. We never left with anyone, just slipped away on our own and went back to our dorms, many sheets-to-the-wind and still babbling.
One night, I left Mia in conversation at a bar on Willoughby and headed back on my own. I didn’t get far—three blocks away—which is where she discovered me an hour later in deep discourse with an abandoned washing machine at the curb.
“Whaddareya doing?” she asked (and I noted she had to lean against its lid as she spoke).
“Lissen”, I whispered, patting it. “We’re both going through cycles. I’m telling it about this painting I started and why I may just dump it.”
Over the years, I’ve dated men who preferred beers or bedtime globes of cognac, but I married a whiskey fanatic. Besides his British/Scottish roots and choices of smokey, single malts, I loved
the calmness with which he nursed a glass of stunning amber every night. The color and odor
enchanted me. When we clinked, he’d hail my clear flute of gin and tonic with a signature wry smile. I like that kind of tolerance in a man.
These days, I rarely indulge in anything except wine, my palate and preferences having been nuanced over time. Since moving upstate, my desire to drink diminished, perhaps due to a geographic removal from the sizzling energy and clamor of city life. I mostly toast myself now through writing: the fluid art of ink to page, a penning of worthy remembrances.
Karen Gersch grew up as a tomboy but also an avid reader, writer and visual artist. She spent 25 years running around circus rings with a woman balanced on her head, and is still prone to juggle a multitude of artistries and contemplative journals. This is an excerpt from her memoirs of traveling with the circus and living for 38 years on the Bowery.
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