Traditional Czech drink: New York, N.Y., Aug. 2-3, 2002

Editor’s note: I’m falling deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit swirling with barely legible notebooks. In the summer of 2002, I left Bremerton on June 29, heading west by northwest. I ended up in Canmore, Alberta, on Canada Day, after narrowly avoiding a run-in with a mama grizzly and her cubs at Lake Louise, then trekking through an afternoon snowstorm in shorts and T-shirt. I eventually made it to Chicago, where I enjoyed an adventurous fortnight before burying my head and rejoining the road. I went east, arriving  in suburban Philadelphia on the last weekend of July.
The following weekend I agreed to go to New York City with Lauri Lebo and Jefferson Pepper. As the latter had summarily appointed himself my spiritual advisor, I had little choice. Follows is just a short anecdote from that trip. There is more to come, surely.

Lauri, Jeff and I took a late-night stroll after returning from fabled Chumley’s in the West Village, where we sat and sipped beer among a legion of literary titans, feeling quite small by contrast.
The walls were plastered with atmospheric photographs and jackets of books that supposedly were at least partially written on the premises.
Our famous companions included Lillian Hellman, Orson Welles, Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, Dorothy Parker and more. Every last one of them mocked my thinly veiled, never-delivered-upon artistic pretensions.
Gary and Sue, old friends of the Lebos, were our hosts for the weekend. At Chumley’s, Gary regaled us with tales from his old neighborhood in Philadelphia’s Great Northeast. The stars of this milieu were a pair of brothers called Crazy Newman and Little Newman. The former was the neighborhood munitions expert. He taught the other kids how to craft pipe bombs and detonate homemade explosives.
He ended up in the nuthouse (hence the nickname, I suppose).
Little Newman is in jail (at least that was his status of Newmans Crazy and Little as of August 2002).
Little Newman once got caught soaping windows on Mischief Night, Gary said, and his dad beat the shit out of him. The same dad used to wake the boys up with the help of a BB gun.
The Gonuts: I asked Lauri to read this over and let me know if I’d forgotten anything, and she adroitly saw where I’d omitted the Gonuts completely. She didn’t say so, but this is an egregious oversight.
The fucking Gonuts!
I’m a little hazy on the details. I think the Gonuts refers to both Gary’s childhood band and its primary anthem. If I’m not mistaken, Gary was the main songwriter. I’m not sure if either of the Newmans were in the band.
It may have been the only song. Again, memory fails. But it had a catchy refrain (I’m not sure if there were other words), and we were singing it the rest of the weekend:
“We’re goin’ goin’ goin’ gone, we’re the Gonuts! We’re goin’ goin’ goin’ gone, we’re the Gonuts! Yeah!”
Here’s to the Gonuts. May they live forever.
I welcome corrections and additions.
More about Chumley’s: It was founded by Leland Stanford Chumley in 1928, it was founded as a Prohibition-era speakeasy. It never had a sign at its location at 86 Bedford Street, where Chumley converted an old blacksmith shop into a clandestine drinking joint complete with trap doors and secret stairways.
Leland, who had come east from Chicago, was quite the eccentric. Opening a speakeasy in New York was one of the least eccentric things he ever did. He had worked as a mercenary, an organizer for the Wobblies and a stagecoach driver among other interests.
Sadly, Chumley’s has been closed since 2007, when the chimney in its dining room collapsed and caved in a wall. Plans remain in the works to reopen, but it has been slow-going to say the least.

On our post-Chumley’s stroll, we stopped at Penang Bar and Grill.
Jeff was delighted to spot a bottle of becherovka, aka “traditional Czech drink,” on one of the lower shelves.
A wave of giddy nostalgia overcame him. When giddiness hits, there is no containing him.
There was no alternative: We were going to drink traditional Czech drink!
It was, he allowed, the wondrous libation that Josef Sklenar got him drunk on when he visited Prague.
What were the odds?
The bartender told us about a crazy dude from the Czech Republic, a “real stand-up guy” named Milos.
It was Milos who started this silliness.
The bartender allowed that he wasn’t much for traditional Czech drink himself.
In fact, he said it tasted like shit.
“I thought, ‘I’ll fucking drink anything,'” he said. “So I down it. Shit tastes awful.”
Milos, however, was always a real stand-up guy.
Our friendly bartender didn’t know whatever became of Milos.
One day he just stopped showing up, leaving behind a bottle of swill he couldn’t sell for love nor money.
Until we arrived late one Friday night.
Tastes like shit.
Jeff was undeterred. He asked how much it might set us back for three shots.
“One dollar each,” came the reply.
He said he’d be happy to give it away, except he has to clean the glasses.
Na zdravi!
We toasted Milos, because after all, he always was a real stand-up guy, and threw down a shot or two of traditional Czech drink each.
We were riding too high to worry much about the taste.
Upon further research, I am pained to realize we might not have toasted with appropriate cultural etiquette. While drinking traditional Czech drink, there are responsibilities to consider and uphold.
According to a handy, 12-step Internet guide to Czech drinking etiquette, you’re supposed to clink glasses and look each of your companions square in the eye. If you for some reason fail to make eye contact with any of your drinking companions, you have conveyed a sign of grave disrespect. A convivial sin.
Sorry, dear friends, if I failed you.
The following day was Saturday.
Jeff and I took the green line to Harlem and had a bunch of fun that I’ll chronicle at some later junction. At the end of the night, we returned to Penang.
There was becherovka left in the bottle.
Maybe Milos would be there.
He was always a stand-up guy.
Same bartender.
No Milos.
I think the bartender was happy to see us. He could see his way clear to finally dispatching of the bottle of wretched swill.
“You guys can have the whole fuckin’ bottle for all I care,” he said.
We went to work on it.
It doesn’t really taste like shit going down, I thought.
Not bad at all. For a fleeting moment. Then almost immediately rises a nasty, lingering, afterbite that clings to the tenaciously back of the throat.
I voiced this opinion.
Jeff, not surprisingly, was disappointed in my assessment. I had betrayed the spirit of the moment.
“I’m not really an expert on alcohol, but I sort of like it,” he said. “Really. It has a sort of complex aftertaste.”
Complexity, after all, is in the palate of the swiller of traditional Czech drink.
Na zdravi, Milos!
You were always a stand-up guy.

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One Response to Traditional Czech drink: New York, N.Y., Aug. 2-3, 2002

  1. Andrew says:

    I just had a couple of Czechs stay at my house for a few days. Friends of a friend of mine, a Philly native who has lived in Prague for some 15 years or so now. The Czechs had asked prior to their visit if they could bring anything. “Anything but Becharovka,” was my reply. Because really, in all honesty, I strongly resemble a raging alcoholic in many respects, and there are few infusions of good ole CH3-CH2-OH that I will not gleefully swill down regardless of whether or not I’ve had breakfast yet, but that stuff is nasty. I’d rather drink water. Yes, that’s harsh, but deserved.

    I can also attest to the toasting conventions of which you speak: In the U.S. our eyes follow the glasses or bottles as they clink together, presumably because of our Yankee aversion to wasting any precious commodity. Czechs always look you in the eye as they toast, which is made more complicated by the fact that they clink the top of the glass, then the bottom of the glass, then clink the glass bottom on the table surface, all in one smooth motion before applying the beverage to the lips.

    But really, to appreciate Czech contributions to boozy culture, disregard Becharovka and just drink Czech beer. Mmmmm. Jedna pivo prosim. That’s all the Czech you need to know.

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