Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Barography: Shades of Green

Last time I told you about the first bar I chose to go to, back in Appalachia. Today I'd like to talk about my first New York bar, Shades of Green. My pal Alex has already talked about it at World of Awesome, but I think I might have a thing or two to say about it myself. For me, Shades is particularly relevant to me as it is the first bar I ever drank at.

I've talked before about how I didn't drink as a teenager. I saw little reason to; I didn't particularly care for those yokels who talked about nothing else, and my buddies and I were having fun in our own weird, incredibly nerdy ways. When I first entered college and heard the term "straight edge" I thought, well, hey, that's me.

That's right, I once thought I was straight edge. After puberty's wildest throes had hit and I remained the same insecure, dateless nerd as before, I settled in a sort of "well if I'm going to be like this, I might as well be this way on purpose." So I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, and I didn't allow girls to touch my dick. (Dry humping was extremely OK.)

But this isn't here to be an examination of my weird sexual hang-ups as a young adult. You have to pay therapists lots of cash money in order for them to pretend to be interested in such; I can't imagine casual readers of this blog, looking for some laughs, some recommendations, and the occasional sexy picture of yours truly, could be paid enough money to read about it. No, this blog is about drinking, and this entry is about how I started drinking.

It started, like so many life-altering decisions throughout my life, with a crush on a girl. Margo was my first college crush. She was fun and funny and seemed to think I was, too. I started hanging out with her and her friends my freshman year, hoping to win her over, and, I'll be damned, it started to work. But, oh, how I remember that fateful day.

"Hey, this weekend we're going to Shades of Green. It's a bar nearby, you should come." I was almost ashamed to admit that my alcohol consumption to date had been a few sips of Natural Light given to me by my father as a sort of reverse psychology maneuver when I was six and a Budweiser a buddy smuggled in for me at Academic Appalachian Camp at Transylvania University (those are all real things) that I drank out of obligation.

I realized the reasons I hadn't drank in high school were pretty much not applicable anymore. It seemed quite unlikely that some dumbass redneck I could barely tolerate sober would swing by a bar in the Village just when I was finally drunk. So I nervously agreed to go along and the rest is history.

God, I remember those early days, those "trying to figure out how to do this" days. I hadn't acquired the taste for beer yet, nor, really, for anything else. I believe my first regular drink was a whiskey sour. A goddam rail whiskey sour! Lord, the thought of it gives me the sweaty mouth something awful. I recall experimenting with white Russians--another punch to the old digestive system, there. For a while I settled upon bourbon and the occasional cider.

But that's not altogether interesting, is it? The more I look back at the time and all that it led to, I find that the pertinent question is not "Where did I start drinking?" nor "How did I start drinking?" but "Why did I start drinking?" and even more "Why do I drink?"

"Why I Drink." Sounds like the worst essay ever. But this isn't so much a list of grievances (though Lord knows my students give me new and weirder reasons every day) or heartbreaks (I try to contain that in my songwriting, for your sake, dear reader) or occasions (End of the World Day!) or what have you, it's more a "why did I take to this activity I never thought I would like?" situation.

The answer requires a bit of backstory that I never quite understood until, well, until I saw a therapist. Near the end of my marriage I sought out therapy in order to learn how to argue with my ex--arguing and fighting seemed like an anathema to me, and it was driving her crazy. Well, one week in, we split, so for the next year I basically met once a week to figure out what the fuck was wrong with me. And, as far as we could tell, it all pretty much boiled down to one thing.

I wasn't screwed over by my parents or some touchy relative or high school melodrama. I was simply aware of too much, too early. This may come as a shock to those of you who know me now, but I used to be a weirdly smart kid. Standardized tests were my bitches, gifted classes, academic team, the whole shebang. And that did very well for me in a lot of ways. God knows I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't used to be really smart.

The problem was how early I was so smart. When other kids my age would be at the pediatric dentist's office, they'd run straight for the play area where there were blocks and such. I can distinctly recall being four or five and sitting next to my mom in the waiting room. I knew about the play area; I wanted to go there desperately. But to ask seemed crass; I would not go unless the subject came up from an adult.

I was a hopeless social neurotic since before I could multiply. Every single thing that would happen my mind would race the way only a precocious only child's could. I was used to living in my head, and this brain of mine used to work quite quickly. Every second of social interaction would include my brain coming up with a dozen ways this could be embarrassing if I do it wrong. I've tried to explain exactly how this works in my own stream-of-conscious internal narration, but I can't possibly layer all of it.

Take a simple thing like an attractive girl saying "Hello." My brain would immediately come up with at least ten reasons she said hello, each with its own backstory and connotation and reason. I would ten proceed to think of a dozen or so responses TO EACH OF THOSE REASONS and play them out in my head for possible missteps. At the very same time, I'm also thinking at least five or six things about myself, what I look like, how I'm holding myself, how I think that looks vs. how it looks to her, what other people looking in on this interaction might see, etc. Also simultaneously I would think of a slew of other times attractive girls greeted me and how they went wrong or right. All of this happens in the space of a second.

And it never stops. This is what it's like to live in my head, twenty-four hours a day. It takes me at least an hour to get to sleep as I replay everything in my head like an obsessive quarterback, imagine alternate ways things could have happened, and hate myself for how they did happen.

I spent eighteen or so years feeling this constantly. The first time I ever got it to calm down was that first night at Shades when I got drunk for the first time. They say alcohol dulls your brain, but for me, at least, that can be a good thing. Intoxicants are a much-welcome vacation from my own thought processes. Of late I've somewhat quantified what happens: with good booze or smoke, my head feelings lay low while my physical sensations seem intensified. I react with surety, whether wrongly or rightly, and, in fact act on my own accord as to what feels right. There is no microscopic examination of every possible meaning of every word or thought; there is sheer blissful existence.

I know that cannot be a permanent condition. Hell, I wouldn't be half the man I am today without my weird brain circumstances. Rare is the situation where I can't make a friend or get along well with folks, and I don't doubt the computations and permutations have helped greatly with this. It's helped as a teacher, too. I can smell a neurotic kid a mile away. I've taken some aside, "You're thinking this, right?" and their eyes widen in recognition.

Why do I drink? Oh, there's more reasons than I have time to tell you, from the exuberant to the melancholic; a night out cracking jokes with friends, a series of whiskeys to put a bad day away, to loosen up those dancing shoes, to give thanks for what I've had, to mourn the things I've lost. But the overall "Why does this guy like drinking so much?", the big reason? Sometimes it's nice to just enjoy myself and shut down the crazy parts of my brainstuff.

Anyway, Shades is a fine place with great Smithwicks and hordes of fond memories. I remember chasing tail with college buddies (to absolutely no avail). I remember taking my visiting parents there for lunch when the waitress said in her thick Irish accent, "Joe Rice, what are you doing here this time of day?"I remember having my fedora stolen, saving me from being a guy that wore a fedora. When I think of early good college times, I usually think of Shades, and it's not lost its charm yet. And they let you play Settlers of Catan in the back!

Author's note: I went through all my college photos and couldn't find a single one taken at Shades. I think that might actually speak to how much fun was had there. I did, however, find lots of embarrassing stuff to put on the facebook.


  1. I can't believe that was your first bar here. JB and I went there one night on the way to Irving Plaza. It was horrendous, and that's also how we stumbled out

  2. Actually that was actually my first bar in NY too. With Shawn. We dressed up and I even wore a skirt. Then we met some nice boys from West Point who let us sit with them and bought us shots all night. Ahh the memories.

  3. i said actually twice. how annoying.