Sunday, December 23, 2018

388. Booze and Me

                                 Hustle No. 1

This is the one that's getting sales in England.  Here too, I hope. Mini-biographies of some of the most colorful people who lived or died in the city where anything goes.  My personal favorites: Cardinal (Was He or Wasn't He?) Spellman and his double life; J.P. Morgan and his nose; Brooke Astor, with whom I could have danced up a storm; and Texas Guinan, who when her speakeasy was raided and she and all her patrons were arrested, threw a party for patrons, reporters, and police at the police station.  

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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                Hustle No. 2:  Holiday Special

Bargain, bargain, bargain!  All my paperbacks are now available from me (but not from Amazon et al.) through December 31 with free shipping.  (U.S. only.  Sorry, Canada, Australia, and Japan.)  This is my hustle for the biggest gift-giving season of the year, and I want everyone to be happy (myself included).  For the books, see under BROWDERBOOKS below, following the post on booze and me.  As always, signed copies are available from the author. 

                     BOOZE  AND  ME

         “You don’t know anything about drinks!” my partner Bob declared, with a touch of scorn, when in my apartment, early in our relationship, he saw me fumbling an attempt to serve him some alcoholic concoction he had requested.  Far from feeling put down or insulted, I took it as a back-handed compliment, since most of his friends were alcoholics, and mine were not.

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         That I ever came to terms with alcohol is surprising, given my beginnings.  I was born and raised in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, which was determinedly dry and, in consequence, the national headquarters of the WCTU (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union), that heroic striver for temperance. In Evanston, no liquor could be sold within the city limits, for sober Methodists had founded Northwestern University on the lakeshore in the 1850s, and the university’s charter banned the sale of liquor within four miles of the university.  Of course one could bring in liquor and serve it discreetly at home, as I knew from an early age, when, exploring the alley that ran beside our house, I detected a telltale smell from the contents of a neighbor’s garbage cans.  I didn’t know what it was, but it was suspicious, and only that one neighbor’s cans gave a whiff of it.  The nearest liquor stores were on Howard Street, the boundary between sober, honest, Republican Evanston and the huge, corrupt, and bibulous Democratic city of Chicago.  Or one could drive west four miles and find roadside bars and liquor stores catering to Northwestern students of a thirsty disposition.
          Even if liquor had been flowing everywhere in Evanston, our house would have been the exception.  “No Browder can drink!” my father often exclaimed, and for good reason.  He had once imbibed a little too freely, until my mother got her minister to talk to him, following which the imbibing stopped cold.  As I would learn later, his father, a brilliant young lawyer in Indianapolis, had ruined his career and marriage through alcoholism.  When my grandmother saw that her husband wasn’t going to change, she divorced him – unusual in those days, but she was a strong-willed woman -- took not a penny of alimony, and sent her four sons out to sell newspapers on the street.  It was a tough, challenging childhood, with just barely enough food for all, but my father and his siblings came through.
         So in our house, alcohol in any form was taboo – a ban that lasted as long as my father did, reinforced by strictures at the Methodist Sunday School that I attended.  Methodist Sunday School? you may ask.  Didn’t that involve taking communion with bread and wine?  Bread, yes, wine no; Welch’s Grape Juice was substituted.  

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instead of

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         Once, at family gathering at an aunt’s home, my Uncle Mox was present.  An Annapolis graduate and now a stern-faced captain in the Navy, when off duty he could be a bit of a clown.  He faked a fashion parade, holding an umbrella up at an elegant angle, and then appeared in various hats confiscated from other members of the family, including the ladies.  This performance delighted my brother David and me, the only children present, but my father, suspecting his brother’s inspiration, frowned.  And he frowned even more when, sure enough, Uncle Mox produced a flask and offered me and David a nip.  We obliged him, but I winced at the unfamiliar taste.  Sensing his brother’s disapproval, Uncle Mox said, “It’s better that they get their first taste from me, than from some bum in a bar!”  My father was not convinced.

         When I went off by train to California to college, the Santa Fe line spent a whole day crossing the level plains of Kansas, and the bar in the club car was closed, since Kansas was the one state in the union that was still dry.  Not that I cared; just turning 18, I wasn’t into liquor, and it wasn’t into me. At college I participated in the inevitable freshman-year beer drinking, facilitated by a draft card with an altered birth date that made me 21, but this did not distract me from my studies.  After all, I was only half Browder, and the other half, my mother’s family, the Felts, had no history of alcoholism.  But for my older brother it would be a different story; he would in time become an alcoholic, though he finally quit.

         When I was about to enter high school, a Catholic family had moved in on Bryant Avenue, the one-block street where I grew up in north Evanston.  Their arrival occasioned the hushed comment among the Protestant neighbors, “They’re Catholic, you know,” answered by a discreet, “Oh.”  But since the family had three attractive teen-age daughters, their home soon became the teen-age center of the neighborhood, and remained so throughout my high-school years.  And when I first came home from college for the Christmas holiday, I was invited to a party that the girls were giving for their Northwestern friends.  Eyebrows were raised again among the neighbors when a truck drove into their back yard and unloaded quantities of beer destined for the gullets of the guests.  

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On Bryant Avenue ... !
Bjarki Sigursveinsson

But the imbibing was discreet, no one got drunk, and a good time was had by all.  Still, for sober Bryant Avenue, it was an unprecedented event.  Only years later, when my mother became a widow, did she drive a short distance out of town to buy wine to serve her clubwomen friends.  The club ladies convened at her residence for serious discussions of plays or poetry, intensely cultural occasions that could hardly be termed orgies.

         After college I got a Fulbight scholarship and spent two years in Europe studying French language and literature and hitchhiking around on vacations.  To initiate me into the marvels of liqueurs, in Paris my friend Bill bought tiny bottles of Bénédictine, Chartreuse, and Cointreau.  

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Their taste, sweet and pungent, was a new experience for me, and even a sip or two went a long way, for they are high in alcoholic content.  Learning that the first two had been perfected over many years by French monks, my Protestant psyche was smitten with respect for those adventurous holy men, and for what Catholicism, which shunned Welch’s Grape Juice for real wine in communion, was all about.  (I didn’t realize at the time that the monks perfected their liqueurs primarily for medicinal purposes.  A noble goal, but not what I had in mind.)  Dining in modest French restaurants on a student’s budget, I learned even there how to eat a meal course by course, and how to sip wine in the process.  France, after all, was not Evanston, and I was only half Browder.

         When I came to New York for graduate studies, I was suddenly immersed in a culture where drinking, and often heavy drinking, was the custom.  So began my adventures and misadventures with gin.  Everyone was drinking martinis, often with only a trace of vermouth, so I did, too.  I soon learned that one martini made me sociable; two made me a babbling idiot and a friend of everyone; and three fuzzed my mind and guaranteed a fearsome hangover on the morrow.  Only gradually did I come to learn that martinis were not for me, whereupon I instituted a ban that continues to this day.

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My enemy.
Dennis Mojado

         But that was not the end of gin for me.  When the sultry, hot days of summer hit New York, I learned that a gin and tonic was just the thing, cool and refreshing, but with so modest an input of gin that I didn’t get drunk.  Civilized drinking at last!  From my martini days I had already learned the different brands of gin, with costly Beefeater at the top, until I heard of even costlier Tanqueray.  Fortunately, I came to shun these English exotics and settled for a good, solid American brand: Gordon’s, less classy, perhaps, but easier on the budget.
         Yes, gin has had a special place in my life, which is strange, since I’m not drawn to hard liquor.  When, at election time, conservatives praise the manly whiskey-drinking heartland and evince scorn for the wimpish wine-sipping elitists of Martha’s Vineyard, I know which side I’m on; even though I’ve never been there, I’ll take Martha’s Vineyard and its elitist wine-sippers any time.  Yes, to this day I go with wines, not whiskey.  But since I like gin and tonics, gin is different.  For one thing, I’ve trodden it and even been tripped and wounded by it in the wild. 
         Essential to all gins is the juniper berry, and one species of the juniper shrub it comes from is trailing juniper, known as trailing yew on Monhegan, the island off midcoast Maine where I have often vacationed.  A prostrate, mat-forming plant, it likes sandy soil and on Monhegan is especially common in a low, sandy area known as Lobster Cove.  I have often hiked there, have been tripped by it, and once got a sprained ankle that had me housebound and limping for days.  Yet from this treacherous trailing plant, as from other forms of juniper, comes the dark purple berry that flavors all gins.  The name itself, “gin,” is an Anglicization of the French word for juniper, genièvre, or maybe the Dutch word genever.  And its history is colorful as well.

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Juniper berries, ripening and ripe.

         Gin in some form dates from the Middle Ages and was considered medicinal.  (That’s what they all say, isn’t it?  Coca-Cola and heroin were once advertised as  medicines, too.)  Be that as it may, when Hollanders tried the medicine – WOW! – it did wonders for them.  And when English soldiers went to reinforce the Dutch fighting the Spaniards around Antwerp in 1585, they tried the new drink and again – WOW! – they found themselves supercharged with courage. 
         The English soldiers took their “Dutch Courage” back to England, where, being cheap and easy to produce, it became vastly and disastrously popular, especially with the urban poor.  Hogarth’s 1751 engraving “Gin Lane” shows the resulting devastation, which caused the government to legislate bans on the drink, which in turn provoked the production of illicit gins.  Such gin, flavored with turpentine, bore names like Cuckold’s Comfort, Royal Poverty, and My Lady’s Eye Water. 

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Hogarth's "Gin Lane."

         Modern gin dates from the late nineteenth century, when several London distillers began producing a refined, nonsweet gin quite different from the one that got Gin Lane its name.  But gin was still favored by working-class Londoners, as evidenced by Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, when Eliza Dolittle says of her mother that “gin was mother’s milk to her.”  And history was repeated in America in the 1920s, when Prohibition spurred the production of “bathtub gin,” which was indeed at times made in a bathtub.  But Prohibition was repealed, and gin, being mixable, was used in numerous cocktails and is so used today.

         Here are a few special experiences with alcoholic drinks that I treasure.

·      A wine that Bob and I bought at a modest price, not expecting anything special, and that proved to be velvety, or what the French call velouté.  And instead of one blunt, unchanging taste, it was like a musical phrase, starting on one note and modulating to another.  We experienced this twice, to our surprise and with no strain to our wallets.

·      Alone in my apartment on a cold winter night, drinking full-bodied coffee that I had made myself, while sipping Courvoisier VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), an imported French cognac that did put a strain on my wallet.  Sipping from a brandy snifter, I could savor its rich aroma before drinking it.  And if I had a cold, it did wonders in masking the symptoms while I imbibed and savored.
·      Sipping wine and nibbling an assertive cheddar cheese with my ailing partner Bob, and our friend John Anderson, at Bob’s bedside while he had Parkinson’s.  It was our Sunday ritual, following which John and I went out to lunch, and Bob’s home-care aide served him in bed.  These were not velvety wines, just ordinary ones that I bought cheap (ten dollars at the most), and that John, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, rated as 4 or 5.  But even in these unremarkable wines he and Bob could register nuances of flavor that my palate failed to detect.
·      To sip the Italian liqueur Strega after a sumptuous meal at Gargiulo’s, Bob’s and my favorite Italian restaurant, located in distant Coney Island and reached by a long above-ground subway ride through the wilds of Brooklyn.  Yellow-tinted, Strega is a blend of some seventy herbal ingredients and has a bold, rich taste with a trace of mint.  Strega is the Italian word for “witch,” and it did indeed bewitch us, even to the point of ordering a second one that was usually on the house.  Wonderfully relaxed, we coasted on this experience all the way back by subway to Manhattan.

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Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Merry Drinker.
He's having fun, but not my style at all.

         Obviously, I’m a savor-and-sip imbiber, not a guzzler.  For me, this is civilized drinking.  And when, a few times in the past, I drank too much and got tipsy, and drawled or mumbled my speech, I felt great self-contempt and got home and to bed as soon as I could.  Blessed are the prudent and the at least semi-sober.  But as a friend once reminded me, down through the ages and in all cultures, alcohol and tobacco have been celebrated in poetry, art, and song; of the joys of abstinence, hardly a word.

Coming soon:  A grim one: War Is Fun.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018, and at the Brooklyn Book Festival 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

"To read No Place for Normal: New York is to enter into Cliff Browder’s rich and engaging sixty years of adult life in New York. Yes, he delves back before his time – from the city’s origins to the 19th Century that Ms. Trollope and Mr. Dickens encounter to robber barons and slums that marked highs and lows of the earlier Twentieth Century. But Browder has lived such an engaged and curious life that he can’t help but cross paths with every layer and period of society. There is something Whitmanesque in his outlook."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Michael P. Hartnett.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  What price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, but women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

5.  Fascinating New Yorkers: Power Freaks, Mobsters, liberated Women, Creators, Queers and Crazies (Black Rose Writing, 2018).  A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.

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"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there." Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder   

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