Beach Bums

Ever since the Beachbum was 86’d from his local library (apparently bunking overnight in the stacks is frowned upon … who knew?), he’s procured his books the same way he procures everything else: by beachcombing. Vacationers tend to leave their paperbacks behind when it’s time to head home, so we catch up on our reading after they’ve caught up on theirs.

Rummaging through a lifeguard station trash can, we found a title that really spoke to us: Drink Your Troubles Away, by John List. This 1967 volume turned out to be full of bad drink recipes — because the book wasn’t about cocktails, but about the benefit of drinking raw vegetable juices. No wonder it was in the garbage.

Thankfully, our next find was more booze-positive. Up In The Old Hotel, a collection of New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell’s pieces from the 1930s to the 1960s, affectionately chronicled Manhattan’s demimonde of barflies, scofflaws, and goldbricks — in other words, our kind of people. Mitchell’s most infamous subject was one Professor Seagull, who cadged drinks for decades by convincing New Yorkers that giving him a handout meant contributing to the completion of his life’s work, a voluminous history of the world. When Mitchell finally got a peek at the never-finished manuscript, it turned out to be a lot of mad ravings. Professor Seagull may have been the king of the moochers, but the book’s sole drink recipe appears in a profile about the king of the gypsies. Cockeye Johnny Nikanov conducted his larcenous affairs from a couch in his lower East Side tenement, where he was habitually drunk by noon. Cockeye’s cocktail of choice was a recipe of his called Old Popskull: equal parts gin and Coca Cola. Don’t try it at home … or anywhere else, for that matter. It is truly horrible. Almost as horrible as the end that Cockeye met in 1944. “He overexerted himself carrying a watermelon home,” reported Mitchell, “and had a heart attack.”

We were stoked when we dug The Beach Bums out of the sand. But this 1959 paperback’s lurid cover illustration didn’t quite prepare us for the downbeat, surprisingly philosophical novel within. Author Jack Owen’s alter ego, Roger Anderson, flits from bar to bar and bed to bed in order to keep his existential ennui at bay. The bars include actual Hawaiian nightspots of the period, including the Moana Hotel’s Kamaaina Bar, Spence Weaver’s Gourmet restaurant, and Don The Beachcomber’s Dagger Bar. Roger’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Bunny, is even a waitress at Don’s. So where do the bad drinks come in? Everywhere. In a book set during the heyday of the tropical drink, where every Waikiki bar Roger goes is famous for its mouth-watering exotic cocktails, this guy invariably orders a Martini or a double Scotch. So do all his drinking buddies. Martinis and double Scotches aren’t intrinsically bad, but they positively pale next to what these people could have been drinking. Finally, on the second-to-last page of the book, a character asks the question that was on our lips from page one: “What about Navy Grogs?”

James Jones wrote about Army grog in his 1977 meditation on WWII, entitled, oddly enough, WWII. Deprived of the cognac and chianti their fellow GIs were swigging in Europe, infantry units on Guadalcanal had to make their own home-brewed hooch. One popular recipe involved Aqua Velva aftershave and grapefruit juice, but Jones preferred a concoction called “swipe.” He reveals the recipe on page 122: “We made our ‘swipe’ by stealing a five-gallon tin of canned peaches or plums or pineapple from the nearest ration dump, and putting a double handful of sugar in it to help it ferment, and then leaving it out in the sun in the jungle with a piece of cheesecloth or mosquito netting over it to keep out the bugs.” The result was “the most godawful stuff to drink, sickly sweet and smelling very raunchy, but if you could get enough of it down and keep it down, it carried a wonderful wallop.”

Hmn … what are the odds of us beachcombing a can of peaches around here?

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