When I was a kid the town I grew up in, Westmount, which was nestled in the heart of greater Montreal, was dry. Dry, white and English. The perfect cocktail to breed future drinkers. (Me).
To get liquor, a near daily excursion in my household, you had to cross over into the next town, which luckily for my parents, was three blocks over. There sat, if I remember correctly, an unmarked building, whose storefront led onto an empty room save for a long counter behind which worked an army of dour-faced men with bulbous noses wearing filthy red jackets. Queuing, in messy lines, those needing a bottle of vin ordinaire or a 5th of scotch, would wait their turn to order. There was no discussion of what wine might match one’s planned meal of lobster bisque or a lousy meatloaf. Red, white, or spirits, all of it was wrapped in brown paper and roughly slid across the counter, the conclusion to a joyless exchange. I will say this for the women of Westmount, they often rose above this province-controlled bleakness by standing about the grim anti-camber, their wrapped prize in hand, chatting away as they caught up on all the gossip.
As for the drinking of the ill-gotten gains, I remember the parties of this period having a strange, near hysterical feel. It was the seventies, after all, when everything from the clothes, to the hair-do’s, to the politics, had turned from peace, love and understanding, to the bizarre realm of polyester and business card swapping. The highs seemed too high and the lows just damn depressing. I can still hear the sound of one of my parent’s guest tumbling down our outside staircase. She was fine, the booze may have revealed how lonely she was, but it also turned her into a rag doll.
I left home before my true drinking life began. Thank god. For me, imbibing meant saddling up to a great old New York bar, or just popping down to a conveniently located liquor store where, if they weren’t busy, someone was only too glad to assure you that a good Pinot would work rather well with chicken.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about those strange days in my dry town with its blue laws. Since moving to the Middle East, my drinking is no longer the free and easy pleasure it has been for the last thirty years of my life. Which isn’t to say, one doesn’t drink here. Oh boy. Nothing like something readily denied to create a terrific thirst.
Once again, though no longer the little kid hanging on to my mother’s coattails, I am entering stores with blacked-out windows, and while the liquor isn’t hidden behind the counter, there is a furtive feel about the place. Perhaps that’s because, after you show proof that you are Western enough to ruin your liver, they put your stash in the thickest plastic bag I’ve ever seen. Body bags have nothing on these puppies. You could set off a nuclear bomb inside of one and there would only be a momentary stretch before it resumed its duty of keeping your booze out of sight. Having made it safely home, I have been known to whisper to my cowering bottle of vodka, “You can come out now. It’s safe.”
Buying booze for your home may be an undercover affair. Drinking out is another matter. It’s all show and an upscale one at that. And it’s killing my high. Big Western hotels and their notion of bars have skewed the whole experience. Rather than hitching up to a bar, city streets bustling outside, good cheer inside, now my watering holes look like the plush confines of JP Morgan’s boardroom, replete with powerful looking men smoking cigars, or they have some cheesy theme. I don’t want my drinks to look like mini volcanoes.
But something else haunts the eyes of my fellow drinkers and the buzz we are aspiring too. Self-consciousness. One bred out the strange combination of arrogance that we should be accommodated in our particular thirst and embarrassment that we need to be. Hard to drink to that.