Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Fictional Memoir of Growing Up With Beer

by Jay R. Brooks
Drink to the girls and drink to their mothers,
Drink to the fathers and to their brothers;
Toast their dear healths as long as you’re able,
And dream of their charms while under the table.
— Anonymous Toast

Friday, November 24, 2006

Let There Be Sunshine (Chapter 1)

There are two reasons for drinking:
one is when you are thirsty,
to cure it;
the other, when you are not thirsty,
to prevent it.
     — Thomas Love Peacock
          Melincourt, 1817


Whenever I see a bright golden pilsner standing tall in the glass, it hearkens me back to my very first memory of beer, of being aware of its existence. The golden hue of my mother’s beer — who was the only one in the family to pour it into a glass — reminded me of a blazing sun at noon. It sparkled in the glass, especially outside on the back porch of our new home on State Street. This first recollection of beer bathes me with warmth every time I walk out into the sun, and her beer of choice was a local brand called, fittingly, Sunshine Beer.

I was five when we moved into the new house. It’s when all of my life’s memories begin. Before that time, almost nothing exists. The only reason I know that I really was born five years before are the grainy black and white photographs, a few faint images of memory, and my family’s stories of what I was like as a baby. Were it not for those, I might be tempted to believe I was born a five-year old, walking and talking.

Prior to that we lived with my grandmother in the next town, Mohnton, a speck of a town, even then. My mother had the unseemly temerity to buck the conventional wisdom of the day and get divorced at the tender age of 22. This was in 1960. I was one. I’ve never been sure of what prompted so rash a decision on my mother’s part, but I never saw my father again until the week he died, 42 years later. Even then, I never learned the true reasons for their marriage’s demise.

But according to the stories which are supported by the photographic record, we lived high on the hill of a dead end street. Only three or four houses separated my family from a forest of nothingness. The macadam of the road just stopped past the last house, followed unceremoniously by a dirt path that wound its way up to the top of the hill. I know the area well — now — from subsequent stays at my grandmother’s house when I was able to retain my explorations of the neighborhood.

My grandmother’s house was old, even by Mohnton standards. It was built around 1910 or so, just a few years after the town was established in 1907. It was a simple wooden clapboard house, two stories tall with a long front porch that afforded them a view of the forest across the street, at least until another house sprang up (but that wouldn’t be for decades). My grandparents bought the house at a sheriff’s sale for $1300 when they married in the 1930s. For an extra $100 they could have had an acre of forest behind the house, but they shortsightedly passed. Of course, a spare $100 was undoubtedly a lot harder to come by three-quarters of a century ago than today so I probably shouldn’t be so hard on them. Besides, there’s plenty more they’ll have to answer for later.

The house sat comfortably on Main Street, a mis-named street name if ever there was one. It seems hard now to understand why you’d name a street that dead ends at the top of a forested hill so grandly. Perhaps it was a display of pure optimism on the part of the town leaders. But the main street had been Wyomissing Avenue at least since the mid-1800s and it that cut through the middle of town on its east-west axis. It was met in the dead center of town by Church Street, on which no less than four churches sat cutting the north-south axis of town in two. Main Street intersected Wyomissing Avenue at the old pretzel factory that straddled the creek that had once fed Lake Valmont, a failed attempt to make Mohnton a resort town shortly after the turn of the century.

This was the house my mother grew up in, where she first met my father, just up the block from her best friend’s house, the wonderful woman who is my godmother. After the divorce, my mother retreated to the safety of that house. I suspect it’s familiarity made it the obvious choice but it must still have been a hard one to make. She and my grandmother were close in my grandmother’s mind, but my mother spent her entire life trying to unsuccessfully separate herself from her manipulative tentacles. It was easy to see why my mother drank. She could not escape and like so many before her sought temporary solace in a glass of beer.

She began to date. Again, I have the photographic record to thank for the images of a seemingly endless parade of would-be suitors. In many of the pictures, perfect strangers can be seen pretending to care about a towheaded toddler so they could get closer to my mother. There are photos of me on their knees, throwing a ball, hugging in front of the Christmas tree, and trying to curry my favor in the midst of grand parties. And in some of them, forcing a smile in the background is my mother, a Sunshine beer in her hand.

It’s a little sad to see these now. I don’t know a single person in any of the photographs. The men seem so earnest in their attempts to woo a single mother by appealing to her son. Maybe they were decent men. Maybe they really did care for her. But for several years, they came and went. Until she met Eddie, that is, who would eventually become my stepfather and later legally my father when my biological sperm donor signed away his rights as a parent.

They met a mixer at the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse that curiously were a common fixture of the local medical community in the early 1960s. Eddie had a thing for nurses, apparently, and took an immediate shine to my mother. He was an ex-marine and worked in a tire factory, a big, strong man who must have seemed like he could protect her from anything life could throw their way. That she’d need protection most of all from him was still years away from being revealed and she seemed genuinely happy in those days, a marked detour from the sourness of life under her mother’s roof.

They were an item in short order and a wedding was quickly set for the summer after my fifth birthday. I remember nothing of their courting or indeed the wedding itself. I do recall being upset that I was not to accompany them to the Pocono Mountains for the honeymoon. But no amount of tantrums on my part would change that.

When they did return, we moved into the new house my mother had bought in Shillington, a town away from her own mother but closer to where both she and my stepfather worked. It was on a non-descript tree-lined street in the heart of town. A semi-detached two-story brick house, it was one of a dozen exact copies that lined the street. The inside of the house was unremittingly dark because the previous occupants apparently hated light. They had painted every single room in dark burgundies, dull grays and even black paint. So the first task my parents undertook was to repaint the whole house, with my grandmother’s meddling assistance setting the tone for the rest of our lives there on State Street.

It’s odd how I can remember every detail from that point on as if it just happened, while events from the week before that day are so impermeable that they might as well be from the Jurassic period. I can still all but smell the paint mingling with the stale beer that littered every surface as the week-long project progressed. If I had know what beer was then, I might have started drinking then. Because it was immediately apparent that my grandmother and my stepfather were not getting along, and it was obvious even then that they probably never would. My grandmother was used to getting her own way and my stepfather seemed determined to assert his own and his new family’s independence over what I’m sure he viewed as the wicked witch of the north. So the two of them argued every step of the way while my mother and I could only watch, although she retreated into drunkenness as often as she could. In those days, it was harder to choose sides. And so I think that’s the reason I clung to the familiar, taking my grandmother’s side. In hindsight, my stepfather seems almost innocently sympathetic — something you could never say about him in later years. I did not yet understand the complexity of human relationships and especially her extraordinary ability to manipulate and undermine them for her own purposes.

Eventually, we did get the new house to ourselves and things settled into a kind of normalcy, at least for a time. This was indeed the proverbial calm before the storm that would mark the next fifteen years of my life as I tried my best to make the painful climb to adulthood. Along the way, my family put some formidable roadblocks in my way and I often look back at these years, from about 1964 to somewhere in the late 60s — when life flew apart and expanded like my own personal big bang — as idyllic by comparison. They weren’t, of course, and it’s a wonder I never picked up on the signs along the way that should have warned me to what was coming. But I was young and prone to cluelessness, and in any event didn’t know the signs of alcoholism, psychosis or the theory of group dynamics anyway.

All I saw was the golden brightness of my mother’s Sunshine beer gleaming in the sunlight. And it seemed to say that the future was going to be just as sunny.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks (Chapter 2)

You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline —
it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons,
but at the very least you need a beer.
     — Frank Zappa


Thanksgiving was a big deal in our family. It was one of the few times throughout the year that the entire family — at least the Stamm side, my maternal grandfather’s — was together in one place. On that day, all of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters, five in all, congregated with their families at my Aunt Helen’s home, where she lived with her husband and her mother, my great-grandmother. They had all grown up on the family farm near Bernville, named for Bern, Switzerland, which is where the original Stamm emigrated from in the early 1700s.

I honestly never knew when the farm was sold but none of the immediate family had lived there for quite some time, at least as far as I could tell. My great-grandfather died the day after I was born. My family loved to tell the story that once he was told my mother had given birth to male heir he could die happy, and he proceeded to just that … the very next day! It was oddly comforting to them it seemed, but it filled me with guilt as a child, as if I had somehow caused his death. After all, it was my birth that prompted his to choose to die. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the meaning of the story.

Looking back, them telling me the story seems almost cruel, but no one in the family treated kids the way children are coddled today. Today, as a society, we worry if things adults do are “appropriate for children.” The generation of my parents and before understood that it was an adult world and didn’t try to shield children from it but instead drew lessons about the world as we encountered them. It was very much a “children should be seen and not heard” sort of environment, though my relatives listened quite a bit. They just taught us from a very early age that our place was to be respectful.

There were instances I saw in my own and other families where some children were treated rather badly by this philosophy and it definitely seems like many of the recent changes in the way children are raised have been beneficial for the kids. But I also think sometimes that the pendulum has swung to far in the opposite direction. Too much protection and we create a society who can’t deal with conflict and whose skin is so thin it becomes offended at the slightest insult. This makes it increasingly difficult to talk about differences of opinion and truly learn from one another how to change them.

And the number of agendas that have been pushed using the “it’s for the children” gambit is one that drives me to drink. This plea for children’s welfare is a favorite tool these days of the neo-prohibitionist, whose sole aim is to remove alcohol from American society. It’s one thing, albeit selfishly strident, to want to return to Prohibition, but quite another to claim it’s to protect children. I find it quite dishonest to use children in that way.

My one relative who took this idea of children being in the background to extremes was my Aunt Helen’s husband, my Uncle Ray. Raymond was not a particularly thoughtful or well-read man. He cleaned carpets for a living his entire life and read only racy, pornographic novels. I never understood why he was with my aunt, who read everything voraciously — indeed taught me the joy of books — and was that rare woman with a university degree, in the sciences no less, in 1932. And he never spoke to the children … ever. In my entire life until the day he died when I was in my early twenties, my Uncle Ray had spoken to me maybe a dozen times. My mother told me later that he didn’t speak to her until after I was born, perhaps because that confirmed in his mind her entry into adulthood and therefore her finally being worthy of engaging in conversation. He was odd and mysterious, and more than a little frightening. When he did speak, it was so unusual that it carried enormous weight. I remember quite vividly his booming voice at around age six — when I still occasionally wet my bed — saying what were perhaps the first words he ever spoke to me. “When are you going to stop wetting the bed.” Needless to say, I stopped that very moment and never again needed the sheets changed or new pajamas in the middle of the night.

My Uncle Ray’s beer of choice was Schmidt’s, a Philadelphia beer that had been around since 1859, though Christian Schmidt doesn’t seem to be involved until 1861. The brewery flourished after Prohibition as C. Schmidt & Sons, not that anyone ever called it that. Beginning in the 1950s, Schmidt’s began buying up other area breweries until they merged with rival Ortlieb and lost their name in 1981, before finally closing down five years later.

In the early days, at Thanksgiving gatherings he always had his thick fingers wrapped around a brown bottle. In later Thanksgiving dinners, there would be cans. Cans with logos, cans with game birds, cans with sports teams, and who knows what else. One thing Schmidt’s did better than almost anyone else was make cans for the growing beer can collectors craze that really got going in the 1970s. They had a number of different series and collectors raced to “collect them all,” before that phrase lost all of its meaning by the sophisticated collectibles industry of more recent years.

My aunt and uncle’s house was slightly smaller even then my own, and the family always ate in two shifts. Half the family waited in the living room watching the parades while the other half ate. Then a hour or so later, in an elaborately staged dance, the two groups switched places. Except for the usually humongous turkey, two plates of every side dish were prepared and there were always a multiple array of desserts to choose from, so that both groups could eat their fill.

From an early age I loved turkey — and indeed still do — but especially my great-grandmother’s filling, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty whose recipe was a closely guarded family secret. Essentially, it’s mashed potatoes with bread crumbs, celery, onions, butter and other goodies added and then baked until it gets a crust on it. This was by far the biggest meal I ate all year and, looking back, may be the one with more varied dishes than any other meal I’ve yet eaten. There were green beans, peas, string beans, baked glazed carrots, creamed corn, stuffing, cranberry sauce and on and on. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be a full ham, as well. And that’s not including the desserts, which were plentiful and always home made.

But for many years, Thanksgiving became an awkward time when the meal ended. Gender roles were still pretty rigidly well-defined, and after dinner, every one of my male relatives waddled contentedly into the living room to watch football on the black and white television that sat uncomfortably in a corner of the room. This was still in the days when it had not yet reached its prominence as the center of a typical living room. In the early part of the Sixties — at least in my family — the television was still just a novelty, conversation and reading held sway over it, though perhaps sadly not for very much longer. So the Thanksgiving football as ritual was in its infancy, but it was one my family quickly adopted. The games themselves began in 1934, with a six-year hiatus during World War Two, then started up again in 1945. Since then, at least one football game has been played on Thanksgiving every year since. The first one to be televised was in 1962, when I was a precocious three.

While this was going on in the living room, every one of their female counterparts remained in the kitchen to clean up the massive piles of pots, pans and dishes. As a small child, I never knew quite where my place was supposed to be. After my mother and father split up, I spent almost of all of my time with women, whether my mom, grandmother, aunt or a babysitter. So the men in my family seemed a little alien to me and I don’t think I’d quite pieced together yet the fact that I would one day become one of them.

So it must have been that first televised Thanksgiving-day game that I watched with my male relatives. And all of them, at least as I remember it, were rooting for the Detroit Lions. It’s one of those vague snippets of memory, but I can all but see myself walking into the living room and bravely declaring that I was rooting for the other team, the Green Bay Packers. For years I believed they had won the game, too, although I’ve since disproved that (Detroit beat Green Bay by a convincing 26-14 margin). But I was hooked. To this day, I’ve never rooted for any other team. Whether it was because of this early, barely remembered act of rebellion or something more deeply rooted, I’ve always had a contrary streak in me. I’ve rarely chosen the easiest path or at least the same one as those around me. Some days that’s a good thing, some days it’s not.

And while that’s possibly why I initially gravitated toward craft beer after I moved to California in the mid-1980s, it was not the reason I stayed. For while Schmidt’s was a typical light pilsner-style beer, no different from scores of other regional brands, it suffered from the problem that the style still suffers from today. It doesn’t taste like much. It has almost no flavor, especially when cold. I can still picture the living room of my aunt and uncle’s house after the meal on Thanksgiving. Brown beer bottles littered every end table and coffee table. when a relative sat, transfixed on the football game. During commercials they’d gossip, discuss the game, and swig their beer with a relish I rarely say in them on other days. Having grown up mennonites on a farm, they usually displayed a quiet reserve that still unnerves me. Even the more talkative among them did not display emotions, not even the big ones like surprise, happiness or love. They did not laugh easily. They did not smirk or chuckle to themselves. And they did not cry. Through a multitude of funerals and numerous strokes of bad luck, I never saw one single man in my family cry. They didn’t declare themselves stoics, but I suspect they were in practice, at least. Life for them was calm and controlled. They rarely seemed unhappy, either, but how could you tell?

I suppose it was my mother’s influence and spending those early years surrounded by women that saved me from a similar disposition. Or perhaps it was never in me to be one of them. I have always been emotional, but maybe they were as children, too. I, on the other hand, never outgrew it. I did not put away childish things when I became a man, if indeed they would even now consider me one. The later events of life with my stepfather and what I perceived as a strict adherence to some unknown men’s code not to intervene estranged me from my family, one by one, and I can no longer remember a time when I honestly felt a part of their world.

But Thanksgiving was one of the few days I remember when absolutely nothing bad ever happened, a kind of sanctuary against the other 364 days of the year. After a while, I learned how to relax on that one day, letting go of the otherwise constant fear that gripped my later adolescence. And I even drank a few Schmidt’s myself.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sally’s a Starr (Chapter 3)

A man can hide all things, excepting twain —
That he is drunk, and that he is in love.
     — Antiphanes, 408-344 BCE


Eventually, of course, television did overtake all of us and I began a lifelong affair with cartoons that continues to this day. Saturday morning was nirvana for the cartoon buff. In those days cartoons had not yet become full blown advertisements for merchandising tie-ins, toys, games and cereal. The best were still laced with political and other sophisticated references that zoomed over our heads but which delighted the adults forced into watching along with us. Each fall I poured over the latest comic books, whose colorful full-page spreads announced the season’s crop of new cartoons for the three networks. I had not yet succumbed to slothful coach potato status, and still found time to play outside. But I was like a firefly, flitting to the television’s warm glow before heading outside, only to cool down again and require another flickering dose. In and out I’d go, keeping careful eye on the clock lest I miss one of my favorites.

I spent every Saturday at my father’s boyhood home. Years after my parents separated and my absent biological father officially abandoned me to my stepfather at the stroke of a pen, my other grandmother stepped forward to fight for me. She presented herself to the court and told the judge though her son may be giving up his rights to me, that she had no intention of doing likewise. As a result, she was waiting for me every Friday when I got home from school and didn’t return me until Sunday right after supper. If not for her kindness, I don’t know where I’d be today. She was probably the single most important person in my life in terms of just sticking up for me. My weekends at her home were like trips to Disneyland. It was like a sanctuary, especially as I grew older. It seemed like a magical place. I suspect it was just as beneficial for my mother and her new husband to have every weekend alone, too, which may be why they never complained about the arrangement.

Occasionally there were cousins, too, and after a time we had a whole new set of neighborhood friends. Saturdays were filled with hikes in the sprawling woods that were my grandmother’s backyard. Bushie — that was my name for her — was spry well into her seventies. She loved to garden and hike with us up steep hills surrounding the area. We’d pack a lunch and head to one of the quarries up in the hills behind her house. She’d play games with us for hours, something my other grandmother never did.

She was a fantastic cook, made elaborate breakfasts and lunches and seemed intuitively to know what we’d eat. Her potato soup was easily my favorite, and I’ve never found its equal. Sadly, she never used a recipe so that when she died, so did that wonderful soup. It was creamy, never lumpy, almost like smooth, thick oatmeal might be, and with some unknown subtle spices that gave it that extra something. I can still almost taste the delicate flavors, smell its aroma and feel if burn the roof of my mouth as I did so often im my impatience to eat it.

Her husband Stosh, my other grandfather, died when I was still very young. I have only one vague memory of being bounced on his knee. He lives only in the stories that Bushie told me. In many cultures there is a third state of being that’s not alive or dead. It generally translates as being in living memory and I find it a beautiful concept. So long as I have the stories she told me about my grandfather, then he’s in living memory.
But it was the cartoons that really held me in thrall. My cousin — the weekends he was there — and I would wake early Saturday morning, usually around six and steal siilently into the living room to watch cartoons. Every season we’d work out our own schedule of which shows we had to watch, and which we could miss. That way we could plan our excursions outside to play during breaks in our cartoon watching. Bushie would lend me my grandfather’s pocket watch to use so we’d know when to come back inside for the next show. This went on for years, probably until our early teens. My cousin eventually outgrew cartoons, but I never did.

We lived an hour or so west of Philadelphia, and most of our local televisions stations were located there. They also created low budget programming for kids that ran before and after the networks shows, and on weekday afternoons, as well. There is a shared nostalgia for people of a certain age who grew up in the area where these shows reached. There was Gene London, Chief Halftown, Lorenzo the Clown, Pixanne, Wee Willie Webber and, of course, Sally Starr.

Sally Starr was a rootin’, tootin’ cowgirl whose cartoon show aired every afternoon, seven days a week, on channel 6 from Philadelphia. She showed Popeye cartoons and the Three Stooges, among many other cartoons in the public domain. She introduced cartoons on a low budget set that featured an old west-style fence and a fake tree. She wore a buckskin cowgirl outfit with fringe dripping off of every seam. Although she was in her forties by the time I was a fan of her show, she seemed youthful and a little sexy, at least in that pre-sexual way that boys pick up the social cues as to what is and isn’t sexy all around them. She had big, blonde hair — dyed, no doubt — and full lips covered in gobs of red lipstick. She swished and swayed when she walked in that exaggerated way characters in Tex Avery’s cartoons did. If our libidos were working, we undoubtedly would have become wolves, too, just like the men in those same Loony Tunes. But a true understanding of sex and sexuality was years away. Our adolescent crushes were more innocent it seems, in a way I suspect is more difficult today where sex is used to sell everything, including to our children.

Kids now seem like they sprint into adulthood, with less time to develop and enjoy the innocence that should properly be a part of childhood. Of course, that could easily be the onset of the “these kids today …” phenomenon that so afllicts the adult world, it’s hard to say. It certainly seems like every generation ages they complain about the one that follows them. I noticed it when I was a kid. Adults invariably delighted in telling me how better off I was compared to when they were children. Or that things were tougher on them, that was another favorite. It must be human nature that whatever generation you’re born into is the best that ever was and those that follow and came before you suffer by comparison. Previous generations are always hopelessly backward thinking and antiquated while the younger one isn’t as serious as yours or has been corrupted by some force that you’re above. It all seem like hogwash, of course, and it probably is since each person’s experience is relative. Each generation does face different conditions, but they’re rarely better or worse. Some aspects may improve childhood experiences but I suspect for every one of those there’s an opposite negative.
She was pleasant enough as a hostess but would, from time to time, stagger around the set fueling rumors that she was on camera drunk. My parents helped spread the rumor that she had visited Chit Chat Farms, a famous local rehab center in Wernersville where many celebrities reportedly went to detox. Whether it’s true I don’t know and it’s not really important one way or the other.

Once we figured out what “drunk” meant, my friends and I would watch her show, hoping to discover for ourselves when she was on camera drunk. And there were may times we thought we’d “caught” Sally Starr. It was a game to us, though to play it today would be mean-spirited even though at the time it ever felt that way. We weren’t judging her, we were just trying to catch her in what seemed like an inside joke that we were in on. We certainly didn’t understand what it meant in the larger sense for her to be drunk. We had all seen our parents drunk at cocktail parties and neighborhood backyard barbecues from time to time. Occasionally, an adult would slur their words and we wouldn’t be able to understand what they were saying. It was still innocent and almost funny.

I always imagined her drink of choice was Ortlieb beer, a Philadelphia brewery that had been around a long time. There was no good reason to suppose this was Sally’s beer, or drink for that matter, or even that she drank at all, but such is the power of our imaginations. Whenever I saw Ortlieb beer in bottle or can, I thought of Sally Starr.

This was around the same time that my stepfather, Eddie, was starting to come home drunk himself, more and more often. It seemed to worry my mother seemed, though I had no idea why. She’d put on a brave face but I could tell something was going on, I just didn’t know what. He’d come home late at night, usually after she’d put me to bed. I’d hear them arguing in hushed tones, and sometimes it would grow louder and I’d creep out of bed to the stairs, where I could peer through the slats in the railing and not be seen. From that vantage point I could see most of the living room and dining room. If I slipped down a couple of stairs and looked over my shoulder, I could see part way into the kitchen, too.

Eddie would be staggering around like he couldn’t keep himself from knocking into the furniture or walls. Sometimes I’d hear him demanding his supper, flying into a rage when it didn’t appear within seconds. He seemed even more like a child throwing a tantrum than usual. For the first few years they were married, my relationship with Eddie was remarkably good. We got along quite well, I think in part because Eddie was just as immature in his late twenties as I was in elementary school. When sober, he had a playful sense of humor and loved movies, especially old comedies on late night television. We spent many pleasant late nights watching old movies and it provided one of the few ways in which we bonded.

After marrying again, my mother switched to the night shift at the hospital where she was the head nurse of the OB/GYN section. Not only did it pay slightly better, but it allowed her to be there when I got home from school each day. So she left for work every night at 11, and got home just in time to wake me for school a little after seven in the morning. On those nights when Eddie was home — and sober — within minutes of hearing my mother’s car pull out of the garage I’d hear him call my name from the sofa downstairs. I’d hear “Jay, there’s good movie on tonight” followed by a reading of the TV Guide description of the evening’s scheduled films. More often than not, I’d roll out of bed and join him in the living room. We’d usually watch at least one movie and it wasn’t uncommon for me to stay through a second feature.

So from age five or six on, several times a week, I wouldn’t go to sleep until one or one-thirty and sometimes not until three or so. Then my mother would wake me up the next morning around seven and wonder why I always seemed so tired. I quickly got used to this schedule

She didn’t know about this for many, many years and as such it was one of the few benign secrets I shared with my stepfather. And I got a great education in old movies. It’s probably the reason I’m such a film buff today. Despite the monster that Eddie later turned into, I can’t help but credit him for my love of movies. Perhaps it’s a quirk in my own personality that I try to find the good in everyone, no matter how hidden it may seem. Because if my stepfather could turn into such a demon and still have any goodness in him — and I’m quite certain he did — then the same must apply to everyone.

It may be that the remove of time has allowed more compassion for him than might otherwise have been possible. Because I’m now much more able to remember the good days, the moments when I wasn’t wracked by constant fear. The times I spent with Eddie where the admirable qualities of his former self resurfaced, however briefly, were in a strange sense precious to me precisely because they were so rare and also since my real father was not a part of my life. With so many women in control of my life as a child I fairly craved father figures wherever I could find them and would accept cheap substitutes is that was all that was available. And so despite it all, I gave Eddie the benefit of the doubt longer than I really should have and far longer than he deserved.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tonight, Let It Be (Chapter 4)

The difference between a drunk and a alcoholic is that
a drunk doesn’t have to attend all those meetings.
     — Arthur Lewis


Eddie’s mother, my step-grandmother Helen was a real piece of work in every sense of that term. She probably had as much to do with her son’s drinking as everyone else put together. She was drunk the entire time I knew her. I imagine there must have been moments after she woke in the morning that she was sober but I don’t ever remember having witnessed one of those times. Helen was married to Harlan, and they had a son and two daughters together, plus Eddie.

Harlan was not Eddie’s son, he was his step-father. Eddie did not know who his father was. If his mother knew, she wasn’t talking. Though I have no way of knowing, what I pieced together from what I was told by her other relatives was the picture of a woman with very loose morals, especially for the time. The rumor was that Eddie’s father was a catholic priest who had an affair with his mother. Harlan had supposedly married Helen to save whatever reputation she had, though I have a hard time believing her social status was ever anywhere near reproach, much less above it.

Eddie seemed very sensitive about this and no one ever mentioned it in his presence. Of course, that was the family credo. They never mentioned anything about anybody except in hushed whispers and behind closed doors. Eddie’s family was held together by countless little secrets that no one ever talked about but which everyone knew. That was the glue that seemed to hold them together.

The other rumor about Eddie’s mother was less believable but the fact that you couldn’t totally dismiss it, either, said something about their family. It was said that Helen had put booze in Eddie’s bottle when he was just an infant. That might sound fantastic but I think my mother actually believed it. She never once left me alone in her care and constantly warned me about her, though she was nice enough to me. As I aged, it became more and more apparent to me that she was quite literally in some state of inebriation every waking moment, or at least every time I saw her.

Eddie claimed to be very close to his mother, but in that comic way gangsters were in old movies. I don’t think he did actually even like her, because he spent as little time as he could with her. We’d visit them from time to time, and they’d visit us during the holidays, but that was about it. It seemed that he’d do almost anything to get out of visiting his mother, not that I could blame him.

Helen was quite difficult to be around. She had no internal logic for anything. She was filled with odd, quirky prejudices. She seemed to dislike just about every person or group at some point. It was exhausting because she demanded attention and expected those around her to agree with her unsupportable prejudices and opinions. Even from an early age I realized there was no point to disagreeing with her. She was as dogmatic about her opinions, even as they changed frequently. One day she would insist it was the blacks who were ruining her neighborhood — a favorite topic — the next day the sole culprit was the Puerto Ricans. And like Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, her internal history had been re-written such that blacks were now her dearest friends and allies in the struggle against the neighborhood interlopers, and always had been. And woe be to the person who wasn’t aware of this 180-degree change of heart, they would be lectured long and caustically. It was a trap from which few could escape. The only real way to win was not to play. And so almost nobody ever disagreed with her, furthering her own self-importance and her cherished belief that she was always right.

And all of these opinions were delivered drunk. She appeared to float through life in a constant state of drunkenness. How she accomplished such endurance seems remarkable today, now that I understand how difficult it is too avoid sobering up. The careful monitoring of her state and carefully timed periodic injections of alcohol would seem to require a sober intelligence that you would not think her — or anyone — capable of, yet she carried it out effortlessly. It was second nature to her and I suspect the pain of her own life was best kept dulled in this way, or at least that what she believed. Since no one in her family would ever talk about this, I have no way of knowing how long she had been this way or when she began but I knew her like this for almost twenty years. And she was exactly the same from the time I was five until the last time I saw her on the day I buried my mother when I was 22. She was as drunk at her son’s wedding as her daughter-in-law’s funeral.

She drank anything that contained alcohol in it, as far as I could tell. I imagine she would have tried paint thinner, if there was nothing else around. She didn’t appear too picky, except when it came to her beer. She preferred Lowenbrau for some reason. I think it was because she desperately wanted to appear more sophisticated than she was. She always carried that air about her. I think deep down she knew what and who she was and tried whatever her feeble mind could think of to create the image of the person she wanted to be. And Lowenbrau’s advertising itself as a premium German import at that time obviously worked on her and played into her desire to be the sophisticate she flamboyantly pretended to be. Lowenbrau’s pale blue label and it’s rampant lion must have seemed like a fancy dress ball to Helen’s white trash world. Its packaging certainly looked different than almost everything else out there, which must have seemed provincial and inferior by comparison.

I think that was also the reason she seemed to like my mother so much. She was from the the suburbs, the classy part of the world Helen longed to belong in, though whenever she did visit us she seemed hopelessly out of place. She often wore clothes, especially during the holidays, that were much more fancy than was called for by the occasion. It was if she thought we spent all our time at the country club. It reminds me of today how whenever you seen porn stars at awards shows, they try to dress like the big stars who attend the Oscars. Invariably, they look ridiculous, with two-story stiletto heels and ill-fitting or too-tight revealing dresses. Too often, they look like just what most are, cheap imitations. It’s a little sad, really. In the insulated and, I imagine, somewhat surreal world of adult film they all silently agree not to notice, while the rest of the world can’t help but see. And that was Helen’s approach. She pretended to be high-class and adopted a bent personality that her family — or anyone for that matter — could not penetrate to dissuade her of these notions while the rest of the outside world laughed at how glaringly obvious the deception was.

If she had been that way through much of Eddie’s own childhood, it was not hard to understand why he turned out as he did. She would have driven anyone to drink, and Harlan, Eddie’s step-father, was a victim, too. Though he was a sweet, almost gentle man, he too, drank to excess, though only from time to time. I imagine he did this only when he’d had enough and needed to numb himself to her, if only for a time. His long-suffering life with Helen could not have been a happy one, yet he was easily the sanest among them. The other kids all drank, too, of course, though none to the level of either Eddie or their mother.

From what I could glean of his childhood, Eddie ran with a rough Marlon-Brando-in-The-Wild-One sort of crowd. He grew up on the streets of Reading, worked on hot rods, got into fights and basically adopted the persona of a tough guy, a role which although he learned to play quite well I don’t think was his true personality. There was a suppressed warmer, poetic, more thoughtful soul lurking inside Eddie, though you caught glimpses of it — flashes, really — only on very rare occasions. It was as if he had a split personality and his tough guy was the winner of his internal struggles with his gentler self. As alcoholism and psychosis overtook him, the victory of his vicious self was complete.

Right after high school Eddie enlisted in the Marines and was among the first battalion to be sent to Vietnam. He was a helicopter mechanic and spent something a year there. He seemed very proud of his service but rarely talked about the specifics of his experiences there. He had a friend from his unit who lived near Pittsburgh — a seven-hour drive — that we visited every year or two. Several times on Christmas Eve, drunk as usual, I overheard him making phone calls to buddies that he’d served with. It was apparently a ritual thing that he did once a year, though he never talked about it, either.

Up in our attic there was an ammo box that Eddie brought back from Vietnam. As a kid, I used to like looking through it and imagining what it must have been like to be a soldier. Inside he kept mementos from his time in the Marines. There were papers and his medals and a stack of black and white photos. Most of these were people I didn’t know, really the only one I knew was his friend from Pittsburgh, and Eddie was only in a couple of them. The bulk of the photos were group shots of men in uniform, some in front of helicopters and others around tables at exotic bars with glamorous Asian women wearing silk dresses. The women invariably wore forced smiles while the men, with indistinct beer cans or bottles in their hands, had broader, more genuine grins. There were a couple of mysterious landscapes and photos of a bustling city, presumably Saigon. These would have been taken at the start of our involvement in the affairs of Southeast Asia and was well before the protests of the war changed our society forever.

As a result, Eddie was a relic of just before that time and supported the war throughout. Though a lifelong Democrat he invariably saw violence as a reasonable course of action, perhaps from personal experience. And his time in the Marines had, despite any unspoken trauma, been a positive adventure and a temporary escape from his home life. That he was not able to find a permanent escape from the influences of his childhood may be what ultimately led to his degeneration into madness and alcoholism. Who can say? Perhaps the damage had been done long before and it was all but inevitable and my mother and I just happened to be in the way.
In one of the Vietnam bar photographs, behind the Marines and behind the bar was a sign for, of all things, Lowenbrau beer. Only a portion of the sign could be seen so that it read simply. “Tonight, let it be …”

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hey Mabel! (Chapter 5)

An alcoholic is someone you don’t like
who drinks just as much as you do.
     — Dylan Thomas


My grandmother, like my own mother, had divorced early and remarried. But her second marriage had likewise fizzled and was over long before I was born. Wilbur was in a sense my step-grandfather, I suppose, though he was not technically a part of the family any longer after he divorced my grandmother. But he and my Mom had been close, and probably bonded over avoiding my grandmother’s manipulations. So we’d have him over for dinner from time to time, though expressly without my grandmothr’s knowledge. My mother took particular care that she not find out. Until, that is, he moved in with us and began sleeping on a cot in our basement. Then she could no longer keep secret the fact that she had maintained a relationship with her mother’s ex-husband for many years. I never heard how my grandmother took the news, but we didn’t see her nearly as much for a while, and the house was much quieter for a time.

Wilbur was a recovering alcoholic and in the process had managed to alienate himself from virtually everyone he knew. But one of mother’s few real virtues was that she had a strong instinct to help and care for people. It’s the reason she became a nurse, and its the reason she loved her job so much. For her it was more like a calling, something she was born to do. So Wilbur came around, sheepishly asking for her help, she did not turn him down. I think he was genuinely surprised that she not only agreed to help him but allowed him to live with us until he was back on his feet, even though everyone knew how my grandmother would react.

It may be that my mother’s drive to help others was even stronger than her inability to make peace with her mother. I saw her go out of hr way many times to help friends and relatives who nowhere else to turn, and it always filled me with admiration for her. She was so genuine in her desire to help that so many other decisions she later made to not help herself seemed all the more bewildering.

During the years before Wilbur came to stay with us, when he’d come to dinner, he and Eddie got along famously. They were two drunks with similar backgrounds swapping stories. They were thick as thieves. And I imagine the notion that his mother-in-law hated Wilbur wasn’t lost on Eddie, and that fact alone probably helped endear him to my stepfather, at least a little bit. Wilbur’s drink of choice, beyond straight whiskey, was Carling Black Label. My mother usually kept a few of the red cans with the … well, black label on them in the downstairs refrigerator in case he dropped by for a visit.

Wilbur in some ways was a bit of a sad sack. He was not a lucky man. I don’t know what drove him to drink or why he was unable to control it but it certainly didn’t do him any favors. He apparently had and lost a series of menial jobs. He almost always wore a plain white t-shirt and dark work pants, the kind made of thick canvas material before denim jeans became ubiquitous, with simple steel-tipped leather work shoes. The t-shirt always had a soft pack of Pall Mall cigarettes tucked into the sleeve that created a boxy bulge against his upper arm. Perhaps because I was too young to be judgmental, who knows, but whatever the reason he spent a lot of time with me from around the time I was seven until he left us to begin his new life three years later.

To me, Wilbur was a gentle soul who was almost always very kind to me. I say almost because he mercilously criticized the paint jobs I did on the model cars and airplanes that I liked to build. He was right, of course, my paint jobs were horrible. I could work the glue and build the models with little trouble. They usually came out looking like they were supposed to, at least. But when it came to painting them, I was completely inept, and it showed. He tried to teach me how to do the painting better and although I never succeeded like he wanted me to, I did improve. Most importantly, though, it created an affectionate bond between us that I always cherished.

I think his criticism of my painting was the only way he knew how to relate to children. He didn’t have any kids of his own and seemed generally uncomfortable around them. I noticed this a lot when friends and neighbors would come to my house after school or on weekends to play. He didn’t dislike kids like some adults I knew, but it seemed like he just didn’t know how to act around them or what to say. It was a shy awkwardness, and I think it embarrased him. But we were thrown together and so he got better at spending time with me, at least, though we never stopped laughing about my painting abilities, of lack of them. It used to bother me at first, until I realized he almost never laughed otherwise. He’d sometimes watch sitcoms with us after dinner and I started noticing he would watch them almost silently while the rest of us laughed freely at the humor. So I stopped caring about the little hurt I felt. It was a small price to pay to see Wilbur laugh once in a while. I may even have continued to paint badly, just to keep that little bond between us, at least that what I’d tell myself everytime I botched another paint job.

I never knew what he’d done or what had happened to make him so sad all the time. He never confided in me and adults, in our family at least, never shared details of the adult world they thought we shouldn’t know. Why they kept information from us, even when we asked, I never understood. I guess they thought they were protecting us, I don’t know. But I always knew that however much they did tell us, it was either hopelessly simplified or an outright lie. How that did me any good, I couldn’t fathom.

So during that three years, he seemed to just stay in the basement, lost in thought. He was like a troll who inhabited the space under the stairs, and indeed that’s where his cot was set up. He had few personal effects; some clothes, shoes, a few books and a few boxes stacked in a corner. But I think that was all he had left in the world. My mother put our small, portable television on a folding table downstairs for him, but it only got a couple of channels. More often, I’d hear him listening to the Phillies game on the radio. Wilbur loved baseball, it was really the only thing he talked about that he did seem genuinely fond of.

It was obvious to me that he adored my mother. I think he would have done anything for her. The one thing he could not do, and I believe it ate him up inside, was stand up to Eddie during those times when he would come home drunk and looking for an excuse to fight with my mother and, as a consequence, break up our house. Wilbur was not a very big man and phyisically no match for Eddie. And there was no amount of reason or logic that might keep him from exploding into a rage. Eddie came home looking for a fight and would seize on the tiniest slight to uncork his rage. It took me years to figure out that there was not a way to stop him, that it was preordained. If a reason — if that’s even the right word — did not present itself then Eddie would just make one up, no matter how ridiculous. And if we made the mistake of questioning his excuse, our punishment would effectively double. At those times, Wilbur shrank into the basement and hid. Sometimes, when I was lucky enough to be out of the way when he got home, I stayed down there with him and other times I cowered in my room, as fearful as ever.

This was the time when Eddie’s drinking started becoming a real problem for our family, or at least for my mother and me. The rest of the family either did not see it or turned a blind eye, believing it was up to my mother and her seven-year old to deal with it on our own. This was also the time period when I lost — or frankly, had stolen from me — the innocence of my childhood. I didn’t become prematurely mature, though. In fact, I think I more often retreated into childishness whenever I could precisely because it was not really permitted or possible at home. It made weekends at Bushie’s all the sweeter because they represented a temporary escape. School was also a welcome relief and I made a point of being very active in extracurricular activities, because they, too, kept me away from home hours after the regular school day ended. Perhaps that was a side benefit of a miserable home life and I should be thankful. Because otherwise I might not have been so involved. I may have been a poorer student. I may not have taken up a musical instrument or been in band, chorus, chess club, pinochle club, the tennis team, the spring musical and on and on. I might not have been active in my church’s youth groups or visited my relatives at old folk’s homes or been a Boy Scout. So it’s hard to say that everything I went through was bad for me in the end. I’m not thrilled about how my life growing up was and how it made feel but at the time but I didn’t know any different. For all I knew, everyone else felt the same way, however unlikely that seems to me today. So I just did what I felt I had to do to get by — to survive — knowing that some day, unimaginably far in the future, I would be an adult and be able to walk away and never come back. And that fact alone kept me going because, as they say, “hope springs eternal.”

After Wilbur left our home, sober and apparently cured, we didn’t see him very often. Once in a while I’d run into him and, less often, he’d come by for a quick visit when he knew Eddie wasn’t home. Once he’d stopped drinking, it was harder for him to be around Eddie, and I think he was a bit afraid of him, just like the rest of were. I heard he got a job that he liked and even remarried. I like to think he was happy in the remaining years of his life. I attended his funeral years later, which was the only time I got to meet his knew wife. She seemed pleasant enough but I think she was confused as to why I was even there, because I suspect he never told her much about his former life or the people in it. I always imagine that was what he needed to do to move on, and I didn’t begrudge him his second chance.

The last time I saw Wilbur alive was at my own mother’s funeral in 1981. It’s a haunting image that I’ll never shake, nor do I want to. Surrounded my friends and family, we all watched as my mother’s coffin was being lowered into the ground. The crank they used to lower it squeaked and later my friends and I all agreed it sounded eerily like taps. It was unusual that they’d lower it at all with people still at the cemetary, but my grandmother had insisted. She claimed she wanted to be sure she was buried and that they didn’t steal the coffin after we’d gone. Needless to say, she didn’t take her only daughter’s death very well and at the viewing she even tried to climb into the coffin, wailing the whole time. Her need to be dramatic and the center of attention never missed a beat as she manipulated the event to her own purposes, just as she’d done her whole life.

But while the coffin was being lowered, I looked up and over the people surrounding the family plot at Gouglersville Cemetery. It was a blustery day, with the wind whipping through the trees that surrounded the graveyard. There, almost hidden by a group of tall, thick oaks, was a lone figure. It was Wilbur and I was close enough that I could see his shoulders convulsing as he fought to contain his tears. It was the closest I came to crying throughout the days surrounding her death. I had so much to do and had so suddenly become the one to make all the decisions after Eddie disappeared that there hadn’t been time for grief. That would have to wait, I told myself. I can only assume he knew that he would not be welcome with his ex-wife, my grandmother, calling the shots as she always did. He knew she would make a scene, but he also couldn’t help but pay his respects to the woman who had helped him turn his life around when he had no one else to turn to. When they were done lowering the coffin the ceremony was over and I was surrounded by friends and family offering me their condolences. By the time I was free of the pack and I made my way to the trees, Wilbur was gone. I never saw him again.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Please, No Elephants (Chapter 6)

I am not only witty in myself,
but the cause that wit is in other men.
     — William Shakespeare
          Falstaff, in Henry IV, I, i, 1598


As the frequency of Eddie’s drinking began to increase, so did the pattern of our lives. One consequence is that we began to eat out several times each week, but not at normal restaurants. A very common feature of the Pennsylvania landscape leftover from Colonial days was the all-in-one tavern, restaurant and hotel. Usually known as an inn, tavern or a hotel, there was at least one in most small rural towns that dotted the landscape around the greater Reading area. Eddie seemed to know them all and coupled with the bars in and around Reading that also served food, there were literally hundreds of them. Over several years, Eddie seemed to determined to visit them all, or so it seemed. Because the number of bars that I spend my evenings in as a child is truly staggering.

I think it began innocently enough, with Eddie trying to make up for his drunkenness of the night before. “Let’s go out to eat.” He’d tell my mother. “My treat.” As if it was a positive gesture and not one to placate his own earlier indiscretions. But Eddie was a charmer and my mother easily forgave everything, especially in the first few years. But in this, at least, she could not be faulted. Eddie charmed everyone. It was his gift. He could sell anybody anything. He had the gift of the gab. He loved to talk.

When he and my mother first married, Eddie worked at a nearby Firestone Tire factory. I don’t know what he did there, but whatever it was, it was not fulfilling. Whatever else Eddie was, he was not stupid though he had certainly neglected his education. I think the crowd he ran with and the environment he grew up in did not value being smart. Being tough was what mattered. It was Grease but without the singing. So I think Eddie suppressed a poet’s soul, a soul that wanted to be better than it was. And so in order to fit in, he gave up his chance to get out of that environment, at least through education. He barely finished high school. And though he read a lot — history and books on film primarily — I never once heard him talk about them with any of his friends from the old days. As a result, I think the work available to him when he returned from Vietnam was limited and beneath his innate intelligence. So his job undoubtedly bored him. I know it frustrated him. I know he was jealous of my mother because she had gone to Nurse’s school and so was more educated than he was.

So he left the job at the tire factory and wandered unhappily through one bad job after the next. They always started with great promise and optimism but never lasted long. There was always some excuse, but I think Eddie simply grew bored. There was a string of jobs that rarely lasted longer than a year. He sold tools to professional mechanics, driving around in a van from garage to garage. He was airline mechanic at the Reading Airport. He worked for the county welfare office checking up on people’s claims to insure they were legitimate. This job led to a side job in which he and an old buddy were paid to clean out the homes of people who died with no will and no heirs. Naturally, the silent understanding was that if something happened to not make it onto the inventory list but instead found it’s way, inadvertently of course, into our attic that the county would look the other way. This led to all manner of odd items being stored in our attic until a buyer could be found, from true antiques to a trunk filled with 16mm Swedish Erotica films.

He was a used car salesman off and on over the years. It was a job he kept returning to at different places, presumably because he was so good at it. It was definitely the type of job he was born to do, but I don’t think he liked using his gift for the benefit of others. Throughout this series of jobs, there was almost always a clunker in the garage that he was fixing up to sell. It would take him only a couple of sober weekends and it was in shape to sell. Then he’d take the money to by the next fixer-upper. He continued to do that even after he opened his own garage in downtown Reading to fix cars.

Eddie’s Auto Garage was not a spectacular name but apparently he really did have something of a reputation for being able to fix cars. That, or he just knew a lot of people in Reading, because people seemed to always be stopping by that he knew whenever I was stuck there. He seemed much more happy about being in business for himself and for a while after it first opened we thought perhaps he’d stopped drinking to excess. I think my mother believed that his drinking was linked to his being so frustrated in dead end jobs and that if had his own business that magically it would all go away and we’d all be one big happy family again. Of course, alcoholism doesn’t work that way, nor does co-dependency. So when my mother cleaned out my college fund without telling me to lend Eddie the money to open his garage, she was utterly convinced that it was the right thing to do to save her marriage. I didn’t find out about it until after she’d died when I had to go through her records for the probate. I’m convinced that he’d turned on his considerable charm to get at my money.

And it was that very same charm that allowed him to terrorize us for so long with nobody suspecting a thing, even though there was evidence all around. Not to mention us later coming right out and telling people, even then we were not to be believed. So my mother resigned herself — and me — to her fate. She was a classic enabler, blaming herself, and doing nothing whatsoever preferring to be with a monster than alone. I wish that I could say that was simply hyperbole, but she told me almost that exact sentiment many times, apparently she hated the idea of being alone more than almost anything else she could imagine. That I had no say in the matter and suffered as a result of her cowardice seemed lost on her and our own relationship — which had once been very close — began to deteriorate. By the time she died of cancer in 1981, we were hardly speaking.

So my mother felt she had no choice and our lives in a sense went on the road for a time. It some ways, it was exciting as a child to visits all of these strange places. That they were adult places only added to their mystery and wonder. I was generally free to explore them before and after our meals, and in some ways it was a great education and even fun. Many of the bars had pinball machines, shuffleboard, all manner of electronic games. Eddie when newly drunk was free with his money and often had a fistful of quarters for me to play to my heart’s content. Eddie was a crack pool player, too, and taught me much about how to play pool. I think if there had been a decathlon of bar events, Eddie would have been quite the athlete. Because if it was a common fixture of a bar, he could do it, and do it well. I can only imagine the hours he’d logged in bars over the years.

Another odd benefit of all this, especially at bars, was that many drunks found a kid being there a novelty of sorts and would talk to me, teach me to play cards or otherwise take the time to keep me amused while we were there. So I never really minded this development and in fact enjoyed it. It was far better than being at home, where Eddie was much more prone to reach that point where he would turn into a monster. It was such a transformation that it reminded me of the Incredible Hulk. Eddie would get this look in his eyes and then — wham — all hell would break loose like he’d just been uncorked. But this rarely happened in public with other people around. It was the reason he could pretend for so many years that he was a good person and just like everyone else. It was also the reason nobody ever believed my mother or me when we tried to explain what it was like living with Eddie.

Some of my own favorites that I can recall were the Sharltesville Hotel (best Pennsylvania Dutch food), the Conrad Weiser Inn, the Douglassville Hotel, Bowers Hotel, Haag’s Hotel, the Yellowhouse Hotel and Stahl’s Coachmen’s Inn, to name a few rattling around inside my head. And Birch Tavern, in Reading, was my mother’s favorite place for seafood, though the Sho-Boast was a close second.

But by far, my mother’s favorite place overall was the Peanut Bar in downtown Reading, near the Penn Street Bridge. An Reading institition since just after Prohibition, over time it became more of a restaurant with a bar than a bar that served food. The menu changed around a lot, but we always found something good to eat there. The Peanut Bar’s quirky novelty was that the bar and tables all had endless dishes of shelled peanuts which you were encouraged to shell and throw on the floor. The floors were generally covered in peanut shells so your feet crunched on them as you walked through the bar, almost like walking through a field of dry autumn leaves. I have no idea how often they swept the floor, but it couldn’t have been daily. For as long as I can remember t-shirts with the Peanut Bar logo on the front had a pretty funny slogan written on the back that read, “sorry, no elephants ….” Eddie knew the owner, Harold, of course, and he always found a table for us, even when it was packed.

The food in these places was often quite good and usually inexpensive. There were places in rural, landlocked Pennsylvania known for their seafood, and my mother loved crab cakes and lobster. So Eddie took a particular delight in finding these places. Whenever we went to them, it almost seemed like he invariably knew people there, as if he’d canvassed the place recently or he’d known them for years and years. It was hard to tell which it was, because he did seem to know everybody in the area and he was to the casual observer a “people person.” He always talked to strangers like they’d known each other for years, but he talked to people he did know for years the same way so you could really never tell at all. He was just the consummate salesman and was always “on,” even when he was just selling himself.

As a result, wherever we went, Eddie was the life of the party. To other drunks, he must have seemed positively like the Oscar Wilde of the bar scene. He was the wit among the witless, the prince of the plastered. When we studied Shakespeare in Junior High, the character Falstaff reminded me of Eddie, and it was ironic that I recalled sometimes seeing the beer Falstaff at a few of the more obscure bars we frequented. Falstaff’s boasting and high opinion of himself fit Eddie’s personality like a glove. And both were overweight and out of shape yet were stronger than they appeared.