A Christmas Present Memory

   

THIS STARTED IT ALL…

   Some years back, I received a Christmas gift from a relative who really knew my tastes and proclivities.  She sent me something I had never seen before, nor even imagined existed: an electric Martini shaker/stirrer machine; without doubt the most decadent toy I ever owned.

   Naturally, I had my doubts about the gadget, but after studying the little booklet that came with it, I fell to the happy task of testing out the machine… and it worked wonderfully!

   I never enjoyed such expertly mixed Martinis as this machine cranked out. And it had two settings, which I gleefully tested out: Shaken to icy perfection or stirred to a gentle clearness like a gem. And you know what? I hated the damn thing.

   Along about my 4th Martini I had an insight. The machine, with all it precision expertise, had made me unnecessary. Yes, I measured the gin, bitters, ice, and vermouth – but then the device yanked me out of the most physical part of the process. I’d lost the tactile connection of manually working the alchemy of mixing a cocktail. And with my new toy, the cocktails always came out perfect.

   How very dull!

   True, a bartender at a saloon also removes me from the process – but when the barman turns out a perfect Martini, I can tell him “thanks.” I can express my appreciation to a fellow human being – verbally as well as financially. And I always retain the memory of a happy moment when a fellow aficionado worked his or her wonder for me. But how does one thank a gizmo? Do I call the factory to thank the person who runs the machines that make the machine? A person I will never see. Do I give the thing a thimble of oil and say “Have one with me”?

   Using the machine, made me feel dehumanized. I saw nothing good in a device that invariably whips up drink after drink without a misstep.

   Hell, I even cherish the bad Martinis I have had. Like the time in 1982 when I sauntered into a dive bar in lower Manhattan around the corner from a long gone Job Lot store. This place served shots and chasers. And the price fit a young man’s budget. A shot of Barton’s Reserve Rye with a ginger ale back cost – ready? – 75¢. You read that right. Three quarters of a dollar. Counting for inflation, in today’s coin of the realm that comes to $1.96. Good luck finding prices like that today.

   Well, I frequented this goodly establishment from time to time. And one day, as the barman saw me and reached for the rye, I upset the local ecosystem by asking for a Dry Martini, straight up with an olive.

   The barman just stood there looking at me.

   He said nothing. He just looked and looked.

   Then he squinted and asked me, “You sure you have the right place, buddy?”

I said yes, and I felt like having Dry Martini, straight up with an olive.

   To this day I swear I saw a tear forming in the corner of his one good eye.

   “Buddy, you know how long I been slinging drinks here? Nearly 40 years and nobody, but nobody ever asked me for a Dry Martini, straight up with an olive. Or a twist. Or a dash of bitters. Nobody. I waited and waited, but long about the Korean War truce I gave up hope. Some bars just serve shots and a chaser. I resigned myself to my fate. And now you come here.”

   Then he stood mute again for a moment. Silently, he reached under the bar. My life flashed before my eyes for I knew what awaited me. In a saloon like that I would either get a Louisville Slugger or a sawed-off shotgun.

   But the barman did something I had never before seen him do. He smiled. And he came up with a classic V-shaped cocktail glass. True, it had a layer of grime on it but the sentimental fool had clearly kept it there just waiting for me. And now, after cleaning the glass to a shine, he paused a moment, knowing that he would now make that long-dreamt of Dry Martini.

   He really dug the moment! With the greatest of care, he measured out the gin and then poured it into a cocktail shaker that had probably sat on a shelf since Prohibition. Then he added exactly the right amount of dry vermouth to make a classic Martini. And from god knows where the old codger produced a bottle of Angostura Bitters and carefully plopped in two drops. Then he placed the cap on the shaker and shook with all the pent up energy he had harbored lo those many years waiting for this moment.

   After the requisite number of jiggles, he unsealed the cap from the shaker and poured the drink into the glass with a sacramental, almost priestly air. And he added an olive then slid the drink over to me. He awaited my approval. I sipped. And told him what I thought: “Excellent blending!” and he beamed! “And if you remember to use ice next time, it will be even better!”

   His mistake crushed him. He took back the drink before I’d finished half of it and replaced it with a jigger of Barton’s Reserve rye with a ginger back and we never spoke of that moment again. But damn it, that inept cocktail still stands as the single best bad Martini I would ever have. I have had so many Martinis that I cannot count them. But never did I have one made with such loving care and hope and expectation. Not once did anyone come close to putting in the feeling that this grizzled, one-eyed barman poured into the drink. I shall always remember it with an unmatched fondness.

   Now I ask you. Can a machine do that?

   So I packed my new Martini machine into its box where it remained until the next wedding rolled around. I knew some young inexperienced couple just starting out in life will need a measure of perfection as they face disillusion and and the inevitable let-downs in that first year of marriage. And for newlyweds, a dingus that delivers a perfectly turned out stiff drink will provide more joy than any pressure cooker or crock pot.

   I got a lovely thank you letter from the newlyweds.

   I read it while sipping a dry Martini I could’ve shaken a bit more, one that I went too heavy on the bitters with. But what can we expect from a human in place of a machine? And I fixed the shortcomings with the next cocktail. And the one after that…

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2 Responses to “A Christmas Present Memory”

  1. scottross79 Says:

    Goddamn WordPress won’t let me “Like” one of your essays. Again. (It also sends notices to the wrong damned email address.)

    You not only have a wealth of good stories – common enough if a person has really lived – but you TELL them perfectly. That is a gift most people lack, and why so many similar anecdotes leave us a bit glassy-eyed and fumbling for a pleasantry at the end. There is a kind of Ellisonian logic and clarity to your prose, and that indefinable something extra that is not just wit or even knowing how to stud your sentences with grace-notes, that makes a select clutch of writers, of which you are one, a great pleasure to read. And, as always with your work, the story is ABOUT something. Not just a nice reminiscence. That is a gift as well. A hard-earned one.

    Bravo! (Or should I say, “Cheers”?)

  2. Nadine B. Says:

    Scottross79 — I’m glad you commented on Rev. Camarena’s essay defining the meaning of the martini experience and the humanity surrounding its preparation. I’m glad you broke into the surface of the ice, so to speak, because the essay was so perfect, although I wanted to comment, I didn’t know how to express my thoughts and the pause became a lapse, but now I can.

    To think that the barman had waited for a martini request since, what . . World War II? I’m picturing the New York City of Al Pacino’s young Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER film, and then in a flicker of a moment did not include ice in the mix? When the Cosmic Clock finally struck after forty years of silence, the barman must have felt his mistake so viscerally, that in my own imagination, it felt as if a layer of his soul was sliced away by a pendulum.

    This writing is stunning, and it takes guts to create stunning.

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