by Jeff Oaks
There are always two things I want on my birthday: white birthday cake and Guinness. Together if possible. I don’t remember the moment these two non-foods came together, but I’m willing to bet it was somewhere around my graduate student days. I don’t remember drinking Guinness as an undergraduate (which doesn’t mean I didn’t drink it, just that I don’t remember), and it likely would have been too expensive for me then. I lived in London for my Senior Spring semester, and I probably tried it then. I do remember that as soon as I tried Guinness I liked it, and that although I’ve drunk lesser beers (I’m looking at you Rolling Rock and the early nineties!), they’ve never meant much to me. I was thinking about Guinness the whole time. It’s the pumpernickel of beers.
Here’s what I think happened: after I got my MFA, I joined a gang of gay guys who always met on Friday night at a bar named New York, New York. It was in Pittsburgh, where I was trying to figure out how to make a living doing as little teaching as possible so I could do as much writing as possible. I had just broken up with my first real lover and was glad to find a company of friends to hang out with. And I took strength from that group. I flirted with folks at the bar and was flirted with. I slept over at and with and on and in strangers’ apartments. I took it all fairly seriously, since this was the age of AIDS as well, and it was around us. We talked about who had it and who didn’t. We all joined the University of Pittsburgh’s groundbreaking Men’s Study so we could be tested every six months for free. But we were also happy.
And on the weekends, we drank ourselves silly. The little knot of friends I had were all smart, witty, sensitive and surprisingly tough. We got to NYNY early, staked out seats at the bar where we quickly endeared ourselves to the bartenders, accepting free drinks from the lonely rich gays who also came in early, from the occasional visiting businessman, actor, lawyer or student, and watched everyone who came in. We laughed a lot. We made each other laugh. We sometimes laughed extra loudly if we thought another group of gays was beginning to get more attention than us. We tore them to shreds in stage-whispers. We filled the jukebox with hours of our music. It was hilarious and theatrical, ending often in laughter and mutual drink buying.
How did I get here from Guinness? The only time I’d drink Guinness back then would’ve been a special occasion like my birthday. It’s too heavy a beer for anything else. And it was a beer that held a kind of meaning, that had ties to where I thought I ought to live: England. If for Elizabeth Bishop, the taste of the Atlantic was what knowledge would taste like, for me Guinness is that taste: rich, deep, a little disgusting, earthy, complicated. It was everything the thin gold beers we usually drank wasn’t. They were water next to it.
It’s taken me decades to invent a life that feels as rich and complicated, as heavy and fulfilling as Guinness. Nearly twenty-five years after graduating with a Masters in Writing, I’m finally beginning to believe that I know something about life, having been loved and betrayed, having bought a house, lost a parent, lost friends suddenly, having held a dog in my arms while he died. One of the reasons I wanted to taste Guinness is because one of my friends described drinking it to be like “drinking the water that collects underneath the New York City subway tracks.” I was interested immediately. I’m often attracted to the things other people find hideous or gross. For me, they’re missing out on the depth of it, stuck in an image that will keep them from really tasting it for themselves, as a way to test themselves, rich, velvety, smooth, and heavy right down to the bottom of the glass.
Don’t ask me about the white birthday cake. That’s for another essay.