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The Lois Beer Club

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Drinking with George – Excerpt #2


A Proper Pint  

There are plenty of fine beers brewed in Ireland: Beamish, Harp, Kilkenny, Murphy’s, and Smithwick’s, to name a few. But when an Irishman (or woman) refers to “a proper pint,” they’re probably talking about Guinness. And the only way to appreciate a Guinness is to drink one pulled from the tap.

Unless you happen to live in Dublin, however, you’re not going to find a proper pint. You may think you’re drinking the real Guinness, but in the eyes of many Irish beer snobs, their sacred stout loses quality the farther away you get from the old brewery at St. James’s Gate.

My first visit to Ireland was a short one — an overnight trip to Belfast for an appearance on a local chat show. I made only one request of the show’s producers: I had to have a proper pint of Guinness. “No problem,” they assured me. ” We’ll take you out after the show.”

We wrapped around eleven P.M., which also happens to be closing time for most Irish pubs, but the producers promised me that they knew a place that was open. We entered a bar that didn’t look anything like the Irish pub in my mind’s eye — instead, a Liberace-clone played piano to screaming old ladies — but I wasn’t about to let the aesthetics interfere with my single-minded goal. “A pint of Guinness, please.”

The bartender raised his hands apologetically. “We don’t carry Guinness here.”

“All right,” I conceded. “How about a Murphy’s?” No. “Harp?” No. I worked my way through every Irish beer I knew. The bartender just shook his head each time. “So what do you have?” I finally asked.

“Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light…”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily drink any of those beers at an All-American picnic or a barbecue, preferably from a tub filled with ice. But not on my first trip to Ireland. Fortunately, a helpful waiter noticed my frustration. “I might be able to get you a Guinness,” he volunteered, sprinting across the street to a closing pub and returning with a couple of freshly poured glasses of the good stuff.

It was delicious, so much so that I later bragged about the experience to some of my Irish friends. They weren’t exactly impressed. “In Belfast, you say? That’s not a proper pint.”

It wouldn’t have mattered if I was in Kilkenny, Limerick, or Cork — I had to be in Dublin to drink a real Guinness. I wouldn’t find a reason to visit Dublin for several years, but when I did, I went straight for the teat, pulling a draft off a keg inside the brewery’s company store. I also bought a postcard for my Irish friends, inscribing it with the words “This proper enough for you?”

I got drunk for the first time when I was sixteen, at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York City, where I was visiting my sister, a hostess at the Illinois pavilion. During the day, the Fair was a testament to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” and included the premiere of an animatronic Disney show called “It’s a Small World.” After midnight, once the mostly teenage staff was rid of the guests, the Fair became an international kegger. Party at the French pavilion! Party at the Japanese pavilion! I remember making a fool out of myself trying (unsuccessfully) to vault a hitching post at the Texas pavilion. Fortunately, my idiotic behavior escaped the notice of one of the other hostesses at the Illinois pavilion — my future wife, Bernadette. Small world, indeed.

I brought my taste for beer back home with me. But for Catholic teenagers in 1960s Chicago like me, with zero interest in politics or activism, there weren’t exactly a lot of opportunities to get wild and crazy. I spent the rest of the summer hanging out at Janson’s, a drive-in at 99th and Western. It was a lot like American Graffiti, except instead of souped-up hot rods, the kids drove their parents’ Plymouths.

One day my friend Terry Thulis and I got restless and wandered up the block to 100th Street, where we stumbled across a bar called Littleton’s. It was your standard neighborhood “old man” bar, dark and musty. Neither of us looked like old men: I was your typical sixteen-year-old kid, while Terry, a late bloomer, couldn’t have looked older than nine. But that didn’t stop us from dreaming. “Maybe they’ll serve us,” I said.

We poked our heads inside. It was dark. Very dark. Bizarrely dark. As our eyes adjusted, we saw that the place was nearly empty except for a couple of grizzled drunks at the bar. I nudged Terry. “Should we?”

We tried to look casual as we strode to the bar. The bartender was an older guy, maybe seventy, with white hair and eyes set so deep that you could hardly see them. He hummed a happy tune as he stacked some glasses, and he greeted us warmly when he noticed we were there. “Oh, hello!”

“We’d like a couple of drafts,” I said, hoping my voice wouldn’t crack.

“Coming right up!”

A few seconds later, he deposited a pair of beers in front of us. I looked at Terry in stunned disbelief. We emptied our glasses as fast as we could…and asked for two more.

“Sure thing!” the bartender replied. Chipper fellow. But there was something weird about his eyes….

“George,” Terry said, nudging me under the bar. “I think he’s blind.” He waved his hand toward the bartender. No reaction. I did the same. Still no reaction.

“I think you’re right!” I said. I looked over at the two drunks at the bar, who clearly weren’t blind. They were shaking their heads in disgust, universal sign language for “you little motherfuckers.”

“So wait a minute,” Terry whispered. “We have just found a bar, one block away from Janson’s, with a blind bartender who will serve us beer?”

“We can’t tell anyone,” I whispered back. “Not a word!” We quickly made a pact to keep our newfound oasis a secret.

Our “secret” lasted about fifteen minutes. By the following week, Littleton’s was overflowing with what used to be the Janson’s crowd: dozens of bicycles parked in front, a hundred rowdy teenagers inside. My guess is that the two old drunks tipped off the cops, who showed up that weekend to bust up the party.

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