S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Pick Your Poison,” Park warns about the dangers of Olde English 800 … and Thomas Wolfe.
Olde English 800 malt liquor. “Acid in a can” as my Bay Area buddies and I called it, and forty-five years later I still can’t walk past a poster of it without cringing: I was drinking six quarts of it a day when I ended up in my first mental ward and—given the way it twisted me and the outrages I committed under its influence—got off lucky at that.
I know I never touched it again. Then in 2012, when I was closing down my Portland grow room and wondering where to relocate, my buddy Tony DeBola and I checked out houses for sale in Florence, Boregon. It’s on the coast near the Dunes National Park, and he thought we could buy a cheap old house and remodel it.
I was good with that … it was the staying in Boregon part that bothered me. I’d lived in four states and it was the only one that (even after thirty years) still felt alien to me.
But you never know: maybe Florence hid my dream home, some weathered, Robinson Jeffer’s shack high above the sea.
Instead the realtor showed us plenty of dumps but none of them were near the water or looked even remotely habitable. I’d decided Florence was safely out of the equation when we pulled up to the last house on her list and Tony perked up. It was close to the beach and, at least relative to the other places we’d visited, seemed in decent condition.
Plus it was surprisingly cheap. The two of them stepped from the front of the car as I peered out the back, taking a closer look at the yard.
“Hey, DeBola!” I said.
He turned back. “What?” he said.
“Forget this place! Let’s go!”
“What do ya mean?”
“Check out the yard.”
There were knee-high weeds everywhere, so it wasn’t immediately obvious, but he finally spotted the telltale glint of bronze and gold, realized the house was ringed by hundreds, maybe even thousands of empty Olde English cans.
Tony had only drank it once himself … I heard the crash, and the next thing we knew Tony was crawling up the driveway with a large, bloody gash on his forehead.
Tony had only drank it once himself, at Gumbo’s cottage in Burlingame. He and our friend Ted had a few cans, then headed home in Ted’s Chevy.
Or tried, anyway: they couldn’t have gone a block when Gumbo and I heard the crash, and the next thing we knew Tony was crawling up the driveway with a large, bloody gash on his forehead.
That was the last time he touched the stuff and now he stepped back, shook his head in awe.
“Holy shit, High,” he marveled. “I wonder if it’s a sign.”
“More like a warning, I think.”
Then Bobby Wade called yesterday. He’s taught at a Portland community college for thirty years and he’s an old Bay Area buddy so is, of course, an alkie.
With a predilection for Rainier Ale (a.k.a. “The Ripple of Beers”). Unfortunately they’ve stopped shipping it to the Northwest and he’s been auditioning replacements for a year now.
“Think I finally found a winner, High,” he told me.
“Don’t tell me, Bobby,” I said. “Not …”
“That’s right, man, the Olde English.”
“You don’t drive on it, do you?”
“Oh hell, no … I get in enough trouble drinking it here at home. Monday I nearly drowned in the hot tub, and I woke on the neighbor’s lawn this morning.”
“Sounds about right.”
“That’s why I called you,” he said. “I know you used to drink the stuff, and it’s so cheap it’s damn near free (Bobby’s a renowned miser), but do you think it’s safe for me to drink, living alone like I do?”
I started to laugh, then remembered how unhappy he’d been since he flew off a Pescadero, California cliff with Ned Gumbo in ’75. They were in a Morris Minor convertible (at least until they hit the beach a hundred feet below), and the badly broken Bobby hadn’t been the same since.
Plus he was stuck in Portland.
“Don’t worry about it, pal,” I said. “I read that the Miller Brewing Company is discontinuing Olde English, anyway.”
“What!?” he gasped. “How could they do that to me!?”
Also on The Big Smoke
- Risen Apes: Cyber Grime
- Communiqués From Geezerville: The Ping-Pong Wars
- Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise LXI: No Matter What
Speaking of cringing: it’s what I did yesterday when I saw a photo of the novelist Thomas Wolfe. I’d tried reading his first and best-known novel, Look Homeward, Angel, back in 1968, but he was such a delirious over writer that I couldn’t get past the first chapter.
Then I read Scott Turnbull’s biography of him and liked the guy even less.
A year later I attended my first A.A. meeting in Longview, Washington. It was at my bank’s urging (too many bad checks) but hey! I had a good time, hadn’t laughed that hard since the Olde English days.
Afterwards one old millworker after another walked up, shook my hand, marveled at someone my age working on his sobriety.
It felt good, like I was the young prince, like maybe I had a chance. Then Dan X. and his wife Katie Sue shattered the spell. She was from Asheville, North Carolina and had grown up next to the Wolfe family, and proceeded to tell me that—not only was I the spittin’ image of Big Tom—but his reincarnation! That I walked like him, told stories like him, gestured like him and, what’s more (if I still had any doubts) … she bet I wrote on top of refrigerators and suffered from brain fevers as a kid, too.
I had, of course.
Oh great, I thought, I’ve been a fat, drunken, no talent lout before!