Liquor & leaves #8


Today’s liquor: bourbon & Coke
Today’s book: Cutty, One Rock by August Kleinzahler

Been ages since I had a whiskey & Coca-Cola, or a rum & Coke, or a 7&7, or anything like that, not because I’ve stopped drinking alcohol but rather that I haven’t been a regular soda drinker since high school. I grew up in Dallas, TX, the land of Dr. Pepper and Blue Bell ice cream, so I’m well familiar with sodapop floats and the exquisite pleasure of a frozen Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle on an August afternoon. But I more or less gave all that up the moment I got to college, switching one cold carbonated beverage (soda) out for another (beer). I don’t miss it. I have a Blenheim’s Ginger Ale every now and then, when I’m in a bar but don’t feel like drinking. But that’s rare. I have never regularly stocked any kind of soda in my fridge during my adult life.

But, this past weekend, my brother and his family were in town, and that young trio ached to visit the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta. Well, my brother ached. His wife seemed lukewarm, I wanted to check out the Civil Rights Museum, and my two-year-old nephew wanted to gambol around the dead grass and shy dogs of Centennial Park. We went anyway. Coke was calling to us.

And Coke was right. It is a delightful place, cheesy and inspired and sentimental and goofy. People in our tour group came from India, Argentina, and Australia. We took pictures with the cuddly polar bear mascot imaginable. Our tour guide’s voice was so supple, low, and husky that I had trouble thinking straight around her. (I have odd fetishes–but I guess that’s true of everyone.) I really did learn a lot about Coca-Cola. I was overwhelmed by mountains of advertisements, archival documents, devices, photos, cartoons, machinery, old soda fountains, expired syrups, labels, bottles, logos, and other ephemera. I even teared up at the “Moments of Happiness” video short that introduced us to the museum.

All of this is to say that I’m a classic American sucker after all, despite avoiding carbonated sugar drinks for two decades. Coca-Cola is in my bloodstream, no matter what I do. It’s OK to recognize that, occasionally. I laughed out loud watching my brother’s (Russian) wife get increasingly excited, so that, by the time we were in the tasting room sampling over 100 Coke-produced sodas from around the world, we basically had to drag her away… into the gift shop. (“Exit through the gift shop” is exquisitely, obnoxiously American, too.)

August Kleinzahler chafes at, and is overwhelmed by, his Americanness, too. A devotee of the blues (that most American export of all), a Jersey native who fled to San Francisco, a great poet and essayist, he’s truly American in that he hides his sensitivity and sense of beauty beneath a brawling, bruised exterior. He’s a scrapper. Here he is in this essay collection/memoir cutting wise, talking shit about his parents and the Mob, refusing to suffer fools–himself very much included. Tough guy, tough unsentimental prose. Even the title, a no-nonsense whisky with little embellishment, gives you a sense of the man.

It’s a good book, often great once Kleinzahler gets past the need to prove himself and instead gets into the quiet ambiguities, lush descriptions of plants, and the forgiving nature that seems natural to the man. In other words, when he cuts his Cutty with some Coke.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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