Smoke tasted better than air. In 1961 I sat alone in East Who-Gives-A-Fuck and breathed it in deep. The smoke caressed my lungs like sandpaper and I relished every minute of it. You see, you don’t need to smell the cap of vodka to know whether or not it’s any good. All that matters is taste. Letting the poison slither down your esophagus like a snake, clouding your senses, taking you to nirvana, was all you really needed. That was all I needed. Maybe it’s because you’re too afraid to kill yourself that you drink before noon or maybe it’s because you seek salvation. Either way, there’s something magical about inebriation.
He walked into the bar like the owned the place. A pompous bastard strutting in with tailored slacks, a clean shirt, and a beard too unkempt to not be carefully maintained.
He took the stool next to mine and ordered a Mojito. The bartender gave him a strange look. I’d never heard of the drink.
“You new in town, pal?” I said.
“I’m not sure, define ‘new.’” He said.
“Well, that’s worth thinking about.”
“So are most things in life to anyone worth their salt.” He said.
“Well then, let me welcome you to–”
“Let me buy you a Mojito. They’re really quite exquisite.”
“I take it you’re a man who’s seen the world.” I said.
“I’ve seen my fair share, been married four times, seen atrocities committed by man, as well as miracles and wonders of life.”
His drink was delivered to him. His fingers curled around the glass dripping anxious drops. The drink prescribed sweet salvation, perspiring the weakness of mortal sin. No stomach for straight liquor is no stomach at all.
“I once knew a girl.” He said. “Her name was Elizabeth. You would have liked her. She smiled like Aphrodite would have at a funeral, hair like melted wax, breath like lead paint. She was sweet.” He took a deep sip from his drink, finishing it.
“Sounds it.” I said.
We talked for several hours about everything under the sun. He regaled me with stories of World War I, World War II, his three ex-wives, and three children: Jack, Patrick, and Greg. I told him some of my best stories as we sat in the bar on that hot day in July. It was nice. He reminded me of my father in a lot of ways.
“Maybe you should slow down a bit.” I told him.
The bartender handed him a fresh drink, this one darker than the others. “Maybe.” He said. “But the drink is one of the few things that brings me joy anymore.”
We sat in silence for a few long minutes as he polished off another glass. I’d lost track of how many he’d had. “You sound like a man who’s given up on life.”
“I don’t know about giving up on life,” he said. “I can’t really say I’ve had much faith in it from the beginning.” The man had problems. He bowed his head and stroked his beard and stood to leave.
“Life is worth living.” I told him.
“Indeed.” He turned to the door. “The key is simplicity.” He said over his shoulder.
“Simplicity?” I asked.
“From one member of the lost generation to another, life is simple, treat it as such.”
I later learned the identity of that man as I read about him in the paper the next day.