what mardi gras means to me…

Jack Daniels.

Yup.  In my mind, Mardi Gras will always stand out as the occasion on which I was first introduced to that tawny dark elixir that has been both the cause of and solution to so many of my life’s problems.

FifthOfJack

All the proof I need that God both exists and desires us to be happy

It was at a house party (because where else would I have been on a Saturday night freshman year…?) hosted by Travis I-forget-his-last-name.  No, not theatre Travis… or the Travis with the gorgeous smile and a huge dick (seriously, it was like a third leg… so I heard…).  This was the Travis who was super pretty and wore make-up on a daily basis and aspired to being Dolly Parton’s exclusive wardrobe designer.

Anyway, I was at this party, which was Mardi Gras-themed, with the guy I was not-exactly-dating at the time, Dan (whose last name I do remember but am choosing not to share).  I’d met Dan some weeks earlier, I think in the fall semester, and decided I would make him fall in love with me.  By most accounts, I succeeded.  He was cute, with a frightening sarcasm that was only magnified by his inescapable Southern Indiana twang.  He also had a tendency of getting too drunk at parties and breaking bottles while threatening to “cut a bitch.”  I wouldn’t see that side of him till later.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.

Back to the party.

Up to this point, my college drinking had been pretty standard, underage-undergrad kind of stuff.  Bottom-shelf vodka with Country Time lemonade.  A box of Franzia white zinfandel here, a bottle of Boone’s Farm there.  I had become especially fond of Skyy Blue, a now-discontinued malt beverage which I believed at the time to be classier than Smirnoff Ice.

Suffice it to say, I hadn’t yet encountered anything “real”.  The hard stuff.  The stuff that puts hair on your chest (which, as a gay man in the age of Queer as Folk was the last thing I needed more of).

But then Dan, dancing me up against a wall just off the kitchen in Travis’s townhouse apartment, held a curious square glass bottle up to my mouth, a bottle that let out a stronger aroma than anything I’d ever before contemplated putting in my mouth.

~we’ll take a short pause here while you chuckle at the myriad dirty jokes I just set up for you~

He encouraged me to take a drink, just a sip.  I was hesitant.  Whiskey was intimidating.  Whiskey was what grown men in bars drank while throwing darts and chasing tail.  Whiskey was what brought about downfall in country-western songs and Lifetime domestic-abuse specials.  Whiskey, I believed, turned people into angry drunks.

Then again, I was eighteen, dancing with a cute guy who liked me, and being presented with a new form of alcohol to imbibe.  My powers of judgment could only take me so far.

It was love at first sip.  The flavor was overwhelming, and the burn on the way down like nothing I’d experienced before.  I took another, and another, and another, each one more ambitious than the last.  A thickness seemed to settle in my skull, and a comforting buzzing sensation came to my lips.

“That’s how you know you’re doing it right,” Dan said, when I mentioned this to him.

~we’ll take another short pause to let that one sink in~

All joking aside, there was no turning back from this moment.  No possible path of return.  My existence had effectively been split into Life BEFORE Jack Daniels, and Life AFTER.

*****

Jack – when it could be acquired — became my new default social beverage.  While I didn’t mind it straight, I found it much  more conducive to the party setting when mixed with a soda.  The classic Jack-and-Coke.  Incidentally, this also helped shield my underage consumption — before each party, I’d simply get a 20-oz Coke from the vending machine in the dorm lobby, pour out the top third or so, top it off with Jack, and give a slow turn (to mix it, of course).  I’d then carry my fully loaded 20-oz bottle to wherever we’d be dancing our asses off that night.  To the unsuspecting eye, I was committing a sin no graver than allowing so much high fructose corn syrup to enter my body.

*****

Whiskey has, for better or worse, remained a staple of my diet ever since.  Though it hasn’t always been Jack Daniels.  Eventually, a fifth of my favorite dark liquor got to be too much of a luxury.  In fact, I still trace the moment the recession became “real” for me to the night I stood in the liquor aisle at Bloomington’s sad little Kroger on Second and College and thought to myself, “Well… the Jim Beam is eleven bucks cheaper.”

From there, it was a steady decline, as mine and all of middle-America’s earning power continued its downward spiral.  From Jim Beam, to Evan Williams.  Sometimes Canadian Club.  I knew we were really broke when I no longer felt embarrassed every time I picked a bottle of Old Crow off the shelf.

And, of course, the lower the quality of the whiskey, the greater the need for a mixer.  Regarding that — around ten years ago, my taste in soda shifted toward the diet variety, thus making whiskey-and-diet the most frequent three-word combination in my vocabulary.

Incidentally, I’m giving diet soda up for Lent.  You know… since we’re on the subject of Mardi Gras… that’s what started all this, remember?

*****

The economy is improving.  The benefits of that improvement are gradually making their way to more Americans than just those who manage hedge funds.  Wages are up, and so is workplace participation.

I can buy Jack Daniels when I feel like it.

Which is not to say I do.  One blessing, so well-disguised, from years of being flat broke is the appreciation I now have for frugal choices, even when they aren’t necessary.  I’ll usually get Old Thompson for my regular whiskey.  Jack gets to be something special.  And maybe that’s how it should be.

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