Sweat: The Fortified Connoisseur

by

08/18/2005

475 17th St, Brooklyn, NY 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

I grew up in Windsor Terrace, a fan-shaped neighborhood hinged on a verdant traffic circle near Prospect Park. The circle was a lowlife Mecca, a point of convergence for the neighborhood’s various derelicts, criminals, drunks, addicts, lunatics, loners, vagabonds, and weirdoes. In the summer of my sixteenth year I took a job that occasioned my getting to know a number of those individuals by name, though not their given names, or at least not the names that their parents had given them (it was strange to think of those castoffs as even having parents), but by the derogatory nicknames appointed them by Mac O’Donnel, my supervisor, manager of Reilly’s Fine Wines and Spirits.

I worked as a stock-boy, transferring bottles from box to box in a dank cellar stacked with slumping boxes. Every now and then I’d climb the narrow staircase to surface in the store proper, where I’d find Mac perched on a stool behind the counter perusing the sports pages of a daily newspaper, or staring vaguely out the storefront window. Mac was tall, with a fat belly and skinny legs and a terse demeanor. Sometimes he’d acknowledge my presence with a grunt, but more often he’d say nothing at all as I wandered among the shelves, tallying bottles. Tallying was dull, but not as dull as working in the cellar, if only because every once in a while one of the neighborhood castoffs would shuffle past the window, stimulating Mac to a rare display of his creative powers.

“Hey look, it’s Sly,” Mac would say, when a certain disheveled man shuffled down the sidewalk, his face turned up to the trees. Sly was short for Sylvester, after the cartoon cat, which alluded to two of Sly’s habits: meowing loudly as he paced the block, and chasing after sparrows and pigeons. Sly lived at a nearby residence for retarded people, and his caterwauling was as much a part of the sonic landscape of the neighborhood as the blithe chatter of his unattainable prey.

Mac’s other coinages included “Mr. Clean,” for a man with soiled rags and straggly hair. Rumor held that Mr. Clean had lost his mind in Vietnam, which was supposed to explain why he had turn his front yard into a barricade, heaping it with bags and bags of garbage. Glimpsing him in front of the store was a rare treat, as he rarely left his guard-post. And then there was “Sweat.”

Sweat was black; for this alone he stood out. He was also homeless and a drunk. As the name suggests, he perspired inveterately. His brow glistened, his T-shirt was perpetually drenched and jaundiced, and he trailed an odor of ammonia and alcohol and sometimes a hint of the cheapest cologne. He’d slink into the store two or three times a day for fixes of Wild Irish Rose. “Irish” was a fortified wine, meaning it was spiked with hard liquor, and came in screw-off flask bottles like bottom-shelf whiskey. In itself it was a sort of castoff, shunned to its own opaque refrigerator, so as not to offend certain customers—the type who drank wine for the taste. Priced at $1.50 (then the cost of a subway token) it was by far the cheapest product in stock. It was also the most popular, and Sweat, a connoisseur of the stuff, was the store’s best customer.

Normally, when customers entered the store, Mac affected a blank expression, regardless of the extent to which he slandered them behind their backs. Sweat was the exception. When Sweat appeared Mac would pinch his nose or wave a hand in front of his face. “Christ almighty!” he’d say.

Sweat was inured to this kind of denigration. Paying no attention to Mac, he would beeline to the “Irish” fridge, snatch a flask, clap his change on the counter, and exit. But on one fateful morning, he made the mistake of striking up a conversation while Mac rang up his purchase.

“Man,” he said, “You guys are the best.”

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?” said Mac, sweeping a heap of damp change off the counter and into his palm.

“Murphy’s down the street raised the price to two bucks, but you guys still got it at one fifty, same as it’s been for ten years.”

Mac shot Sweat a withering look.

“Yeah?” he said. “Well… Good for Murphy.”

When I came to work the next day the price of Wild Irish Rose had been raised to two dollars. Sweat was forlorn but continued to frequent the shop, perhaps because it was slightly closer than Murphy’s to the traffic circle, or perhaps because, like some battered spouse, he had acquired a taste for mistreatment.

*

That summer I played guitar in a band that specialized in punk and ska and other youthful genres. We played at a string of dives and friend’s basements throughout the city. We even managed to play to a packed crowd at a now defunct East Village club called Coney Island High. I sorely hoped that our band would become famous, mainly because I figured that that was pretty much the only way I was going to get a girlfriend. At 16, I was short and skinny and not yet pubescent. With my long hair, I was often mistaken for a girl. There was one bus driver who, on my trip to school, routinely addressed me as “ma’am.” I was too embarrassed to correct him.

I hoped for the band to redeem me, but found that it only compounded my frustrations, as all of the other members had girlfriends at one point or another. Sometimes the singer called out of practice to take care of “relationship issues.” I never really knew what such issues were and never cared to ask. All I knew was that they led to my being left with the responsibilities of goading people into practicing and recording, and sending out demo-tapes and setting up shows, and making sure everyone showed up on time and knew what songs we were playing. And writing songs. I was a heavy-handed, unnatural musician, but if not for my constant toil, the band could never have existed.

About halfway through the summer, just after the July Fourth liquor rush, Sweat stopped showing up at the store. I expected Mac to say something—to find a way to ridicule this conspicuous absence—but no such thing transpired. Instead, in the long and listless afternoons leading up to Labor Day, Mac began to talk about his personal life. He told me that he was in a band that played hard rock every Wednesday at a sports bar in Brooklyn. He played lead guitar (like me). Curiously, he said nothing about wanting to be famous.

I might have started to like Mac—I might even have told him about my own musical ambitions—but during the second half of the summer he became preoccupied with a strange woman who began dropping by the store. She was cute, with a pert nose and a pixie cut; by comparison Mac looked like a fat unstylish slob. Inexplicably, she was English, and a lawyer. I could not understand what she saw in him but guessed that she had a fetish for blue-collar men, and hadn’t managed to land a fireman or a cop, so had settled for a liquor store manager who kept a baseball bat behind the counter.

Mac would let her sit on his stool and swivel and collapse into his chest. Around that time, he stopped disparaging the outcasts and losers and rejects who filed by the window. Though I had never really esteemed his derisiveness, I now began to consider him a “sellout,” much as I did my bandmates who dodged practice to spend time with their girlfriends. Whenever Mac’s girlfriend came around I would shut myself in the basement, where for lack of anything else to do, I’d leaf through old Wine Connossieur magazines that Mac had memorized in order to be able to inform customers about the nuances of wines he’d never tasted. When I ran out of magazines I read the labels on every bottle, and then the names carved into the ceiling beams—Dave and Dan and Pete and Frank—generations of stock-boys who had spent their summers counting and shelving bottles and collecting a measly wage from Mac and moving on, hopefully, to something better.

I also began carry a spiral-bound notepad in my back pocket. I wrote songs, including one about some of the drunks in the neighborhood. It was called “Liters and Quarts,” and it shamelessly plagiarized the famously drunken songwriter Shane MacGowan. I considered it the best song I had ever written but my band never got to play it. By the end of August, our lead singer had departed for college, and soon after, the rest of us members parted ways.

One morning, pricing bottles of cheap rose wine in the store window, it occurred to me that not only was I not famous—now I was not even a guy in a band. I tried to think of what I was, and all I could think of were things I wasn’t. I wasn’t anyone’s boyfriend and had no immediate prospects of becoming one. I wasn’t a man—my voice had barely changed—but neither was I a boy, evidenced by the fact that I was wiling away my summer working. I was a stock-boy in a liquor store, and that was all. A friend to drunks. Or an enemy, depending on how you looked at it.

Compared to my situation, the life of a drunk suddenly looked enviable. If you were a sodden bum at least you knew where you stood. You were accountable to no one. If you wanted to walk into a shop rank with sweat, you could. If you wanted to smash bottles and flick off passersby and speak in verse, you could. Shane McGowan was a drunk, and no wonder! How else to reconcile this middling, petty world with poetry and romance and passion? Failing becoming the next McGowan, wasn’t the best thing to become a bum?

Walking home after work I stopped across the street from the traffic circle. Sweat’s bench was empty. A few other drinkers milled about, leaning against a black monolithic War Monument, the axis on which their lowlife world seemed to pivot. Two women tussled over a paper bag, hurling epithets. They were old and angry and broken-down and strange. The road around them yawned like a chasm.

*

One day just before school started I got together with Jonas, the guitar player in my late band, and his girlfriend, Valerie. As we sat on our backpacks in the middle of a muddy field in Prospect Park, Valeria produced a pint of Dewar’s Scotch and untwisted the cap. She said she had pilfered it from her parents’ liquor cabinet. She had been siphoning their Scotch for years and had developed a taste for it. She handed me the bottle.

I took a furtive sip. “Its nothing like a single-malt but it’s definitely a superior blend,” I said, trying out some the jargon I had gleaned from Wine Connoisseur. She nodded appreciatively. “That size bottle costs about six-fifty,” I added.

I’d tasted alcohol before but always in moderation, for fear of losing control and embarrassing myself. I’d certainly never had any Scotch. Now I was curious. I took a gulp and another. I was drunk. Jonas and Valerie finished the bottle and soon we were clambering up a wet mound of dirt, pushing each other into the dirt and laughing. I tried to wrestle with Valerie—I would show her I was stronger than I appeared! Jonas tackled me. We threw our arms around one another’s shoulders and promised to start a new band that would be better than our old one because it would have a horn-section. It would launch us to super-stardom. I shoved Jonas roughly. He laughed and shoved me back. I tried to trap him in a headlock. “You fuckin’ sellout!” I shouted. “What are you talking about?” he said. Was I trying to hurt him? If so, I clearly wasn’t doing a very good job. I gave up.

A while later I trudged home across the field. I thought about Valerie. She painted her eyelids and wore a dog collar. She drank whiskey. You couldn’t ask for a better girlfriend. If I could have sex with her everything would be perfect—even with the lack of a band and the crappy job. I imagined her ditching Jonas and running across to hold my hand. It was so easy to imagine I thought there might even be a chance it would happen. And yet I knew my confidence was in some way a result of being drunk.

*

By September, Mac’s lawyer-girlfriend had stopped hanging out around the store, and Mac went back to commenting on passersby and customers. But his usual imaginativeness had faded. “Just look those ugly dykes,” he said once, after a pair of women left the store with a bottle of the “rosee” he so often touted.

A week before school started I told Mac I was going to quit. He told me I had to stay until after Labor Day. I knew I could not say no. If I were to dissent he would find a way to humiliate me. I decided to allow myself a unit of merchandise as compensation. I would take the most expensive bottle in stock—a liter of Chivas Regal. No one would notice its absence. Only I had a complete knowledge the inventory.

But there was one hitch. Mac might suspect me if all of a sudden I were to show up to the store with a backpack, so I would have to sneak out the bottle on my person. Which meant I would have to choose a flask shaped bottle, so that I could tape it to my leg, as it was still too warm to wear a jacket.

Alone in the cellar, I surveyed the shelves for the right type of bottle. Chivas Regal didn’t come in flasks, but there were plenty of decent liquors that did, including Dewars. In the end, however, I thought about the store’s owner, a kindly older man who worked there on occasion, and decided against taking anything too expensive. That evening, after saying goodbye to Mac, I minced out the door with stiff legs and a thumping heart, a thief and the owner of a bottle of “Irish.”

*

I drank the wine alone in my room with the door closed, listening to a melancholy rock band. I played the same song over and over. Then I ambled out of my house into the dusk.

I walked up the street with no particular destination until I found myself at the traffic circle. Cars spun around the spot of green like horses on a carousel, their headlights streaking red and yellow and white. Through this swirl of color I looked for Sweat. His bench was empty. I crossed the street and sat in the middle of the circle. I watched the cars listlessly, letting the traffic blur as my eyes went out of focus.

I slumped on the bench and let a satisfying sense of self-pity wash over me. I contemplated my future: I would never become famous; I would never get a girlfriend; I would forever be an outcast, unwanted. Despair is an acquired taste, and now, like a true connoisseur, I rolled it around in my mouth. How warming and delicious, to be lonely.

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