I was once a bartender in Manhattan. Practitioners of that wet trade call St. Patrick's Day amateur night: all those bush-league barflies standing over the gutter, barfing like frat boys. I used to believe the lot of them deserved the Irish nails that would be driven into their shamrock skulls come sunup.
I no longer feel this way.
Ex-bartenders, mind you, are allowed to be snooty about how they handle their waters. I, myself, hadn't had a hangover since high school. Then came last Sunday, the end of my first lost weekend. All across America, ministers were shaking hands with their parishioners while poor Bowman sat upright in a chair with damned monkey music playing in his skull. Feathers on his tongue. The very air sandpapering his neck.
My editor at Salon thinks my experience will be of educational value to those of you planning to paddle out into green rivers on St. Patrick's Day and get MacSkunked.
If my words are to serve as a talisman, you must first look to land far away from Ireland. The land of Ivan and Nyet -- Mother Russia.
I am plotting a new novel about a Russian in California. Listen, I tell you from professional observation that most citizens of the Emerald Isle drink like fishes, but the Irish are little boys compared with the Russians. They're cowards. Puppies. The comrades I once served could drink you so far under the table you'd be in the basement. I knew a Cossack who would go on weeklong benders, getting fed vodka intravenously while he huddled in an empty bathtub.
Now, I'm no stranger to hooch. But my drinking sympathies are in sync with the Irish. Blessed waters should be a gentle ocher color, the color of beer, whiskey and scotch. Or chestnut. Or liquid mahogany. But vodka is clear like water. How the hell can it have a hearty taste, let alone be good for you?
Yes, I drank like a fish, but I was still a virgin when it came to vodka. Yet I couldn't write a novel about a Russian in California without experiencing this Russian wetness myself. I had to do the research.
I had the occasion to learn the ropes from novelist Martin Cruz Smith, author of "Gorky Park." "This is how Russians drink vodka," he told me. I will share what he said.
The Irish don't give a flying fig what vessel the blessed waters are stored in. But Ivan cares. Smith used his thumb and his pointer to denote the required size of the Russian glass: It should be a small one, cut crystal. I asked if it should be room temperature or frozen. He said it didn't matter.
To cut to the chase, Smith said you should drink vodka with little snacks: "Sausage or different kinds of pickles. Pickled mushrooms." You must throw back your glass and drink the vodka all in one gulp -- then eat something.
"But most important," he insisted, "do not breathe between the drinking and the eating."
Why not? "Because you must not mix oxygen and vodka. If you can just go immediately from here to there without any oxygen, you won't get drunk quite as fast."
I didn't ask Smith, "What about getting hung over?" That seemed un-Russian. Un-Irish as well. But I have a doctor friend in Holland. (Ha! According to my slang thesaurus, one form of drunkenness is called "being full of Dutch courage." That means gin. Gin is as clear as vodka. Gin is a poison invented by the Dutch!) This sawbones e-mailed me the six factors that cause hangovers (and I quote): "1) guilt about drinking, 2) neuroticism, 3) being angry when drunk, 4) being depressed when drunk, 5) negative life events and 6) being Irish."
Well, I had no guilt. I was not neurotic, angry, depressed or a Mulligan. My few "negative life events" seemed negotiable. Why was I hung over last Sunday? Because I got ripped Saturday night. How did I get drunk? Well, obviously because I must have breathed!
Oh, I paid dearly for this Russian breathing, let me tell you. There's a grim Richard Thompson song about getting sauced that goes, "I'll regret it all in the morning." My Sunday morning consisted of nothing but regret. Sure, it could have been worse. My wife could have witnessed me with Smirnoff, but she was out of town. I spent the night on a wooden chair pulled in front of the VCR. Who knew how many times Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" had unspooled itself during the night?
I probably rushed my drinking (and breathing) because the vodka tasted so mild. Where was its sting? Soda water has more bite. Ha! If you know vodka, you know what a Russian joke had been played on me.
I began my morning by gobbling acetaminophen like candy. I wanted acetaminophen to be my friend; I wanted acetaminophen to be my wife; I wanted acetaminophen to be my Jesus. But acetaminophen was neither my friend nor my wife nor my Jesus. Acetaminophen was just a bitter disappointment -- it did not stop the monkey from beating my brain as if it were a raw hamburger patty.
I then staggered with my backpack, filled with six jugs of Aquafina ("Purity Guaranteed"), to the new 14th Street Y, where I got naked and lugged my water into the sauna. The digital thermometer said 160 degrees. That seemed hot before I walked in. It didn't seem so hot when I was inside. Large naked men -- older than I -- were hunched on wooden slats complaining about the lack of true heat. I hunched down among them and opened a bottle of water. One of the naked men left the room to fiddle with the thermostat. I sat. It got hotter. I sat and sat. I drank Aquafina. The monkey kept slapping my brain. "Enough! Put the hamburger on the skillet. Please! I beg you."
I sat and began to sweat the Russian out of my system. I replenished my body with Aquafina, whose purity was guaranteed, whose purity would heal me, would turn me back into an American. I imagined that all the naked walrus men around me were the spirits of Nikita Khrushchev. They were all sweating for my benefit. This was a huge communal purging of Smirnoff.
How long was I in the sauna? Hours? Days? It was a very, very long time. About 20 minutes. What a dumb idea going to a sauna proved to be. The heat was unbearable. I was left too sick to get dressed, too sick to go swimming. I was just hunched naked on a wooden bench. This hell was no cure.
So what good is this sorry Russian tale to you? I will tell you. Tonight, whatever your drinking plans are, you must believe in your heart that you are Irish. Believe you have an "O" before your last name -- even if your last name is Asian or Spanish. Do this and you will have no trouble avoiding any liquid that's as clear as H2O. You must drink only wholesome brews that are the color of dried moss, liquors with the same tint as the fuzz on Siniad O'Connor's delicate Irish crown --or has she grown back her locks? Whatever. Just stay away from Russian rain. Only beer and scotch and whiskey will be honey tonight.