Wednesday, December 31, 2014

May Old Aquaintetcetera -- by Dave Mondy


"What are you doing New Year's Eve?" is never really a question for bartenders, because the answer's always the same: I'll work an insanely awful shift -- then rake in quadruple the usual cash. A strange dynamic: like running a marathon with wrist-weights and griping spectators, but a winning lottery ticket waits at the finish; exactly like that, actually -- if one also did shots during the marathon.

I never knew how to feel -- but when my fellow bartenders and I slumped into stools at 2:00 A.M., post-close, just ghostlights on behind the bar while we cursed/laughed/imbibed, I'd always think, What a wonderful way to ring in the year. I'll never know camaraderie like that again; if I ever served in a war, I'd probably feel something stronger with my fellow soldiers, but barring that? (Anthony Bourdain, in his memoir Kitchen Confidential, describes restaurants as run "like para-military operations")

Though I escaped the service industry after an 8-year sentence, and it's now been many years since I served, I can't quite distance myself like I'd like; I got out for many good reasons and won't be returning; and yet, when I see a bartender four deep at the bar on New Year's Eve, with a printer spitting twenty tickets into the service well, I can't think, There but for the grace of god...

Instead, I think: Lucky S.O.B.

And the best New Year's Eve story I remember is from my first year bartending. 


The latest science says I don't remember what I think I remember -- none of us do. Researchers have recently illuminated much about our murky memories (a few fun podcasts that tackle the topic: The Story Collider and Studio 360, TED Radio, and Radiolab), and this isn't woo-woo stuff -- we're talking hard sciences and Nobel Prizes.

Key findings: When remembering an old occurrence, you're actually only remembering the last time you remembered it. The only time you have a shot at remembering how something actually happened (according to neuroscientist Daniela Schiller) is during the first remembrance; after that, it's every bit as blurry as a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy...

So if you have an important memory, (attempt to) never remember it! At least, not too often -- each recall wrecks, bit by bit.  And never write of it, idiot. Once you do, you're only remembering the story "based on a true story" -- never the story itself.

But that's another key finding: Even the first time you remember something, you're already carving the recollection to fit a personal plot arc. "The remembering mind is a storyteller," says Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his research into memory. Not only does he show that we constantly misremember/manufacture memories to fit some subconscious theme, but we often have vivid visual memories of things that never happened. 

Alternately, hyperthymesia is also recieving more study -- it's a psychological condition where a person possessed extremely detailed autobiographical memory. Many hyperthymesiacs -- there only 55 known in the U.S. -- can replay any day of their past almost as if a DVR was hardwired to their mind's eye (it's a real life version of the Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You). This ability to remember everything is often crippling. "It seems like you hold onto everything, it just seems like you're stuck in the past all the time," says one sufferer. Maybe hyperthymesiacs can't lie to themselves, can't tell themselves the story they need to -- and so, can't walk into the future. "It's long been believed by research scientists that forgetting is adaptive," said James McGaugh, U.C.-Irvine neurobiologist who first documented hypthymesia. 

Storytelling -- fictional nonfiction -- as survival mechanism; scientific confirmation of Joan Didion's great opening line, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." 

Though, as D'Agata noted, the last phrase of that essay is, "Writing has not helped me see what it means."


I remember only that the man looked average (which is to say I remember almost nothing); maybe a slight accent was almost heard over revelous din -- but I couldn't even distinguish Eastern European, Middle Eastern, East Indian? Such a busy bar, and if there was anything weird about him, he was less weird than the thousand natural weirdos a bartender's heir to.

I noticed eyes wet and weighted? No. Now I'm just grafting features onto a face due to what happened later.

I know he sat down after eleven and ordered a Strongbow Cider (I might not remember the man, but like any decent bartender, I remember his order). He downed it too quickly and ordered another -- but the man seemed stone sober when he walked in (where had he just come from? I wonder now), so I served him again. He downed that cider quickly, too.

Then he asked for a Macallan 25, neat.

The rarity of the order allowed me to serve him his third drink in forty minutes; Macallan 25 sat on it's own bottom-lit dais and cost 40 dollars a shot. Everyone who ordered it knew it as a sipper.  So I pulled the Scotch off its pulpit, but before pouring the shot, I remember asking the man for a credit card.


Reminiscing: the most common vice on New Year's Eve? It must beat out boozing -- because even the sober binge on memories (in fact, it's often unintentional memory-binging that drives the sober right out of sobriety).

"No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time... It is the nativity of our common Adam." 

So (and so stately!) states English essayist Charles Lamb; but the Bartlett's Quotes rebuttal by Thomas Mann would be:

"Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells or fire off pistols."

Somewhere between the two is my usual thought, expressed (alas) by a commenter on one of the many Famous Quotes websites:

yea random but you have to pick someday... most obvious who cares?!! look back etc...?


That C is a Pacman eating an ellipsis on its way to a question mark.


The man at my bar asked me if I asked this of all customers -- asked (basically) if all customers had to provide pre-payment for expensive drinks, or was this latent racism?

"Yes," I lied/confirmed/said.

"Okay-okay-man," he said as one word, then handed me a VISA from a weird wallet otherwise devoid of cards.

I swiped the card, then pulled the Riedel snifter off its metal rack -- making that cool sHNnnggg! sound.


Molybdomancy: the vocab word of the day, which makes it the last vocab word of the year. Use it three times out loud, until it intimates itself into your regular lexicon. For example:

"Molybdomancy is the practice of throwing hot lead into cold buckets of water, then divining the future from the resulting splatter-sculptures, and the shadows such sculptures cast."

"Molybdomancy is traditional New Year's Eve practice in Germany and Finland."

"But Wikipedia is quick to note that, though molybdomancy is still practiced in Finland, 'the results are never taken seriously' --  apparently some Wiki-editor worried we'd think of Finns as terribly backward. But, really, looking into the future on New Year's Eve is as common as casting glances back at the past. Think of resolution-making, for example."


On Dec. 31st, 1906, Mark Twain acted out the perfect problem of New Year's resolutions. An audience arrived to witness the man make a speech, but instead, he showed up in costume -- specifically, the 'costume' of a conjoined twin. A young man was tied to Twain's waist with a rope, and then the connection was covered with a shirt.

The main gag of the skit: Twain was the sober twin, who gave a long speech on the evils of alcohol, and he encouraged the audience to make resolutions against drinking. Unfortunately, the man playing his twin silently imbibed behind Twain. And, being conjoined twins, they shared a stomach -- so as Twain railed against drunkeness, his character became increasingly drunk. Eventually, he fell over and this brought down the house.

What a metaphor, though: A person makes speeches on behalf of their better nature while another side of the self simultaneously acts the opposite. Resolutions may be good or bad, but they certainly show us at war with ourselves. Twain, gimlet-eyed, had little doubt about which self usually won out:

"Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."

Or maybe Anaïs Nin had it right: "I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me."


Resolution-making may be a common tradition across cultures -- but different countries have delightfully different customs for NYE itself: in Ecuador, many men play the "widow" of the ending year by dressing in haphazard drag to perform fake-sexy dances for passing cars; in Scotland, there's the tradition of first-footing just after midnight, where one tries to be the first person of the year to set foot within a house (bearing gifts of whiskey, of course, but also coal).

In the U.S., the second most-noted tradition -- just behind the final countdown in conjunction with the Times Square ball drop -- is The Kiss at Midnight.


Five more bottles of Prosecco needed to be opened while my fellow bartenders divided the already-opened bottles amongst 100+ champagne flutes arrayed along our bar; we'd promised a complimentary toast to every couple in the restaurant, to accompany that midnight kiss, and it was already 11:55.

Maybe that's another reason I quick-poured his Scotch and didn't notice how he immediately downed it -- how he downed 40 dollars worth of liquor in an instant. I quick-poured it, perhaps, because I believed no human alone at midnight on New Year's Eve should be without liquor (should they so desire it).


The Kiss at Midnight, such a popular trope in movies -- but the best, most famous, and (still) most brutally affecting? The final climax (not the diner climax) in When Harry Met Sally, all the better because Harry initally makes fun of the New Year's Eve moment -- before using the moment more effectively than any human before or since: 

"It's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."
But excerpting Harry does a disservice to Sally and to Nora Ephron's script, in general. So (WARNING): only if you've seen the movie and if you enjoyed it and if you're a bit of a sap and if you're lonely -- and if you're looking for a delightful way to hurt yourself (so good) this New Year's Eve: The full scene.


For counter-programming, here's a couple darker kisses on New Year's Eve:

A.) Michael Kissing Fredo in Godfather II

B.) Little Bill Kissing a Revolver in Boogie Nights

Sad that your life lacks a cinematic smooch at the witching hour? Take comfort in the fact that: A.) you won't kill or be killed by your brother, and B.) you won't be involved in a murder suicide. 


That New Year's Eve Kiss -- or lack thereof -- is, apparently, a pretty big deal; I've certainly been lonely on New Year's Eve, but I didn't realize The Kiss was a reason to never leave the house (especially if one hunts down -- and here's a term to really chill the soul -- message boards devoted to divorcees). For example, to fully plumb the depths of pathos/bathos, try on this excerpt from a
Christine Clifford, President and CEO of Divorcing Divas, a Minneapolis-based organization dedicated to supporting women as they transition through divorce... [has] suggestions for those of us who are single and not quite ready to mingle. "Close your eyes at midnight and remember your favorite kiss," Christine says. "Or get a big bowl of Hershey's Kisses, and eat a dozen of them at midnight." If you want to be really cheesy and aren't worried about embarrassing yourself in public, make a photocopy of your dream New Year's Eve date and give him or her a big smack.
Though the company's mission is noble and just, that paragraph makes Michael's kiss merciful by comparison.


If it sounds like I protest too much, that sounds about right.


Post-toast, I saw the empty snifter and knew he shot the stuff -- but when I grabbed the glass, he said, again one-worded, "Again-thank-you." 

The italics in his eyes, in his thank-you, weren't imagined, weren't added later by memory. They were there in the original instance. And sincerely said italics have an impact.

He'd just spent over 50 bucks at my bar in under an hour, and he wasn't asking for anything else, either.

"No thank you," I said, even though my own italics were forced; I tried to mean them -- for that moment, he was my favorite customer at the bar.

And then I didn't think of him at all, as I closed many, many tabs. At some point, after one minute or ten, I might've noticed his big jacket spread across the bar. At some point, ten or two minutes after that, I might've noticed his hands working furiously on something beneath the jacket.

I tried to ignore it, but something serious assembled beneath that jacket. Lumps surfaced spastically on the jacket's back -- like pairs of feet kicking beneath blankets, used to suggest sex in 80's movies.

Finally, I figured out an excuse: "Let me grab that coaster," I said, simultaneously reaching for it and brushing back the jacket. He grabbed at a sleeve, to keep me from seeing, but it was too late: in his hand, a little pen knife, and etched through the black lacquer of our old oak bar, there was his name: HASSAN


Confession: A few months ago, I went through a bad break-up of a long relationship I'd imagined would go on much longer. 

Resolution: When asked to do the New Year's Eve post for Essay Daily, I resolved to not mention that break-up (and to certainly not make the post itself about that). I suppose when a person first writes memoir, they imagine that crafting the past -- the truth as the writer sees it -- lends power. Lets a person grab that all-important last word. But after working at things a little longer (I initially worked as a live storyteller and once or thrice lent my spin to romantic splits), the writer (hopefully!) sees such attempts as tacky. Cheap. 

Even if you get the last word, you're using a bullhorn for something that wants a whisper -- a phyrric win that comes at the cost of the only real memories you retain.

Verbal Kint's coffee cup famously crashes to the floor at the end of The Usual Suspects, and the audience sees the secret thread strung through the story they just observed; I tried to avoid writing of the break-up, but similarly (though with a tragic lack of Benicio Del Toro), I see it's the secret thread for the whole damn thing.


"What-the-fuck-what-the-fuck-get-the-fuck-out-get-the-fuck-out," I said as one word. But Hassan had already stood and stepped away from the bar.

The restaurant's bartop had been imported at great cost from a closed pub on the coast of Ireland -- this was how our owner operated. He ran an Asian-fusion restaurant which somehow amalgamated all the elements of his heritage into a truly eclectic decor. Beautiful. He paid a lot for this furniture -- and a bartender that allowed it to be defaced would, obviously, be fired.

Bright white letters -- in an aggressive stick-like font (like Def Lepard's) -- glowed as if neon. I slapped a coaster to hide the scar on the bar, and just as I looked up in time to see HASSAN exit the restaurant.

In front of his empty stool, he'd left a stack of 6 twenties. No need to run his card. Hassan had left me a 55% percent tip.

The last time I saw his eyes, which was right after I pulled away the jacket: he looked up at me with such unknowing offense; the family dog that's accidentally killed the family cat; he knew he'd done something stupid, and was as surprise as I was to witness it.


I kept the coaster on the bar during our post-close drinking. Fellow bartenders did the same for several shifts. By the time our owner noticed the name etched into the bar, there was no way to trace it to anyone.


It's such a dumb little moment -- Hassan carving his name into the bartop -- but I think of it every New Year's Eve, and every time, I think he probably got it right. Usually, I wish I was as bold as Hassan.

He was a stranger in a strange land who, still, managed to celebrate with the classiest liquor the bar could proffer. But, nonetheless, when midnight struck, he was reminded of just how alone he really was.

So, he sought to make his mark.

Etching one's name into a bartop might seem a stupid way to make sure that the memory of your existence lasts -- but I'm not sure that publishing mid-tier nonfiction affords a person any more immortality, and that's the best shot I've got; at least Hassan was sharply honest. 

This is why a person wants a romantic partner on New Year's Eve, and barring that partner, a person thinks of family: We just want some witness to verify that we were here. And we want to know the witness cared.

Let me make a post. A photo. A movie. A novel. A post. Look, here's the thing: I was here.


The other Big Idea was that this post, the last one for Essay Daily's advent calendar, would have 31 sections.

But it's time to ellide that.


A person.


Could stretch the conceit.


Could make it look intentional.


Could get to #31.


The reveal: She remembers how we stopped working; I remember how she stopped trying; and we're both right; which is to say: she's no villain and I'm no hero.


We all remember what we need to.


Tap dancing now. It's like when I was bartending. The deadline is only a minute away.


Sometimes I feel, for a second, like I have hyperthymesia; because the old memories feel so fantastic I don't want to make new ones. 

But also, I don't want to corrupt the memories by telling them; talking them; typing them. There were memories with her I'll never tell anyone -- not because they're scandalous, but because I won't tell myself. The best ones shouldn't be obsessed over like some weirdo -- should just be re-experienced once or twice when you think: I was lucky to be around for this. It was a time worth no reporting -- and it was great.

A good time.

Can't explain it without ruining it.


It's now 11:59, and I just pressed POST. To no response. Such is the danger when away from your home base, playing an away game at a foreign apartment.


Time for new memories. Figured it out. At a weird bar typing this problematically on a phone -- but this feels like an honest post this way, too; maybe Hassan would approve; last recommendation: Reverse fireworks.


  1. This is one of the best things I've read all year (This one so far and last, too).

    1. Thank you. What a wonderful thing to hear at the start of the year.

  2. What a thrilling essay! Dave deserves a byline at the top of this . . .