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An essay by Heywood Broun

Alcoholic Liquors

Title:     Alcoholic Liquors
Author: Heywood Broun [More Titles by Broun]

"The moment, now, had arrived for a Daiquiri," writes Joseph Hergesheimer in his San Cristobal de la Habana. "Seated near the cool drip of the fountain, where a slight stir of air seemed to ruffle the fringed mantone of a bronze dancing Andalusian girl, I lingered over the frigid mixture of Don Bacardi, sugar and a fresh, vivid green lime.

"It was a delicate compound, not so good as I was to discover later at the Telegrafo, but still a revelation, and I was devoutly thankful to be sitting at that hour in the Inglaterra with such a drink. It elevated my contentment to an even higher pitch, and, with a detached amusement, I recalled the fact that farther north prohibition was now in effect. Unquestionably the cocktail on my table was a dangerous agent, for it held in its shallow glass bowl slightly incrusted with undissolved sugar the power of a contemptuous indifference to fate; it set the mind free of responsibility; obliterating both memory and to-morrow, it gave the heart an adventitious feeling of superiority and momentarily vanquished all the celebrated, the eternal fears."

We wonder what they put into Mr. Hergesheimer's Daiquiri. It seems to us a rather optimistic and romantic account of the effect of a single cocktail. One of the reasons why we were reconciled to prohibition was the fact that we invariably felt cheated whenever we read any loving essay about rum. In the theater, too, again and again we saw some character raise a glass to his lips and immediately begin to sing about young love in May if he happened to be the hero, or fall down a flight of steps if he were cast as the low comedian. We tried earnestly enough, but these experiences were never duplicated for us. No songs came to our lips, nor comic tumbles to our feet. Nor did we ever participate in Mr. Hergesheimer's "contemptuous indifference to fate." It was not for us in one cocktail; no, not in many.

Occasionally, it was possible to reach a stage where we became acutely conscious of the fact that Armenians were being massacred and that Ireland was not yet free. And later we have known a very persuasive drowsiness. But as for contempt and a feeling of superiority and a freedom from the eternal fears, we never found the right bottle. There was none which opened for us any door of adventure. Once, we remember, while on our way from the office to Seventy-second Street, we rode in the subway to Van Cortlandt Park and, upon being told about it, traveled back to Atlantic Avenue. It was a long ride for a nickel, but it hardly satisfied us as authentic adventure.

Even the romantic stories of our friends generally seem to us inadequate. Only to-day A. W. said, "You should have come to the party. We played a new game called 'adverbs.' You send somebody out of the room and choose an adverb, and when she comes back you've got to answer all the questions in the spirit of that adverb. You know rudely, quickly, cryptically, or anything like that. And then Art did a burlesque of the second act of Samson and Delilah and Elaine passed out completely, and every time anybody woke her up she'd say, 'Call me a black and white ambulance.' You had ought to have come."

We couldn't have added anything to that party. When it came our turn to answer the questions in the adverb game it would be just our luck to have the chosen word "gracefully" or "seductively" or something like that, and probably the burlesque was no good anyhow unless one could get into the spirit of the thing. That is our traditional failure. Right at the beginning of a party we realize that it is our duty to get gay and put ice down people's backs and all that, and it terrifies us. Whenever a host says "Here, drink some more Scotch and liven up" we have the same sinking feeling that we used to get when one of our former city editors wrote in the assignment book opposite our name: "Go up to the zoo and write me a funny story."

The whole trouble with life so far is that too much of it falls into assignments. We're not even content to let our holidays just happen. Instead we mark them down on a calendar, and there they stay as fixed and set as an execution day. There are times, for instance, when we feel like turning over a new leaf and leading a better life and giving up cigarettes, but when we look at the calendar it isn't New Year's at all, but Fourth of July, and so nothing can be done about it. Columbus Day or Washington's Birthday generally comes just about the time we've worked up an enthusiasm for Lincoln, which has to go to waste, and the only strong impulse we ever had to go out and cut loose was spoiled because we noticed that everybody we met was wearing a white flower in his buttonhole and we remembered that it was Mother's Day. There are even times when we don't want to play cards or travel on railroad trains or read the newspapers or go to the movies, but these times never synchronize with Sunday.

When we first took up drinking we hoped that this would be one of the avenues of escape from schedule and assignment, but it didn't work out. Even here there were preliminaries and premeditation. First of all, it was necessary to cultivate a taste for the stuff, but that was only a beginning. There were still ceremonies to be complied with. Drunkenness never just descended on anybody like thunderstorm, rain or inspiration. It was not possible to go to sleep sober and wake up and find that somehow or other you had become intoxicated during the night. Always an act of will was required. A fixed determination, "I'm going to get drunk," must first be set, and then the rum has to be ordered and poured out and consumed pretty regularly. In fact, we never could look at a bottle without feeling that the label probably bore the express direction, "Take ten times every hour until relief is obtained." Even before the Volstead act liquor was spiritually a prescription rather than a beverage.

We never had the strength of character to get any good out of it. It's a fallacy, of course, to think of a chronic drunkard or a chronic anything as a person of weak will. Indeed, as a matter of fact, his will is so strong that he has been able to marshal all his energies into one channel and to make himself thereby a specialist. In all our life we have never met but two determined men. One took a cold bath every morning and the other got drunk every night.

[The end]
Heywood Broun's essay: Alcoholic Liquors