It has taken me a long while to understand that it usually takes me a long while.
I’m a slow learner and a late bloomer. A few dollops of good luck have helped. Nowadays, looking back, it seems that those times when I found myself genuinely ahead of “the curve” were few and far between.
Thankfully beer was one of those rare occasions.
The “40 Years in Beer” series recalls how my inadvertent career in beer came to be. There were very few “eureka!” moments; rather, dozens of small, incremental insights accumulated to produce a pathway, beginning during the 1980s and continuing to the present day.
At the beginning in Louisville and Southern Indiana there weren’t very many of us playing the good beer game. We made up the rules as we went along, and after a while I became good at it. Consequently I’m proud to have been out in front of something, even if it didn’t happen all that often.
It’s August of 1985. I’ve returned from my first journey to Europe flat broke. Employment at Scoreboard Liquors as an aspiring peddler of imported beers resumed, and it was back to work evenings and Saturday. Soon the public schools were back in session, and substitute teaching began anew.
As yet I entertained no thoughts of a career, in beer or otherwise. Had I been asked about the prospects of drinking beer for a living, I’d have been unable to visualize any, apart from the eternal contrarian inside me slowly coming to grasp that if 95% of American beer drinkers preferred mass-market brands, they comprised a huge pool of potential converts waiting to be shown past the Lite, with remunerative odds far greater than opting to sell insurance.
Seriously, can you imagine me, trying to sell insurance?
Europe changed everything, just as I’d hoped it would. In terms of beer, almost everywhere I went there was beer I liked, usually at an affordable price (my stay in Scandinavia was brief for a reason).
I’d visited the Guinness (Ireland), Carlsberg (Denmark) and Hansa (Norway) breweries, reveled in real German beer halls, sniffed around the mysterious Belgian ale periphery, and enjoyed an inaugural exposure to continental beer and brewing culture.
It seemed that in Europe, everyday life and beer culture were mutually reinforcing. The more a Hoosier abroad understood them, the better it got, and for someone like me who was shy and often tongue-tied the jolt of confidence coming from traveling solo in Europe was both needed and appreciated. With it came expanded beer and brewing knowledge, as well as a greater familiarity with myself.
Soon enough it was 1986.
There would be no travel in a year fully dedicated to replenishing funds in preparation for the anticipated Euro Grand Tour II (“The Wild, Wild East”) in 1987.
However two serendipitous opportunities for expanded education occurred in 1986. The first came in spring when Duck, manager of Scoreboard Liquors, fell ill. I became interim manager. For eight weeks Jim generously paid Duck’s salary twice, both to him and to me. It boosted my finances, gave me a chance to learn more about the store’s operations, and ended happily when Duck got well.
Day work at Scoreboard provided ample time to tend to the increasingly renowned “Import Door,” the walk-in sector where I stocked those fancy expensive beers, by today’s standards a tiny collection of 20-25 brands, but one found nowhere else in New Albany.
To encourage exploration I shelved single bottles, encouraged mixed six-packs, and told stories. These beers wouldn’t move on their own, like Budweiser, or on the basis of race-to-the-bottom price points. You had to sell them.
My second opportunity for further education came across the Ohio River in Louisville. Frank Thackeray, a travel mentor and my former European history professor at IU Southeast, would be traveling in Europe with his family, and I partnered with Bob Gunn for housesitting. Frank’s house was on Douglass Boulevard, just off Bardstown Road, which was Louisville’s original post-war eclectically urban corridor.
One might plausibly assume that by 1986 Bardstown Road, along with a few other Louisville hot spots for food and drink, were places I’d been frequenting all along. The truth is more complicated.
Prior to 1986, Louisville hadn’t been a weekly destination apart from periodic Sunday afternoon forays into the West End to buy beer, an act of common shopping sense destined to wait thirty-odd years before finally being legalized in Indiana.
Naturally Louisville was the region’s economic engine, providing employment for Indiana residents. There were concerts at Freedom Hall or Louisville Gardens, as well as plenty of games, ranging from University of Louisville basketball to Louisville Redbirds minor league baseball. Certain of these I attended, but mostly I lived, worked and played in Southern Indiana.
For me the single biggest drawback to Louisville was driving an automobile to get there. Throughout my life, up to the present day, cars have been a necessary evil, their societal pre-eminence established before my birth in the absence of my strongly dissenting voice.
Unsurprisingly the single biggest attraction about housesitting at Frank’s was the notion of hitting Bardstown Road bars and eateries using the power of my own two legs alone.
In Europe I’d walked or used public transportation (biking came later), and while Louisville most assuredly wasn’t European, lodging at Frank’s would make a vestige of real urban living possible, if only for a few short weeks.
ANNOUNCEMENT: At this juncture we must interrupt the narrative for an embarrassingly appropriate digression about drunk driving.
Simply stated, driving drunk has been a problem ever since automobiles were invented, and it might well have preceded internal combustion when it came to horse-powered vehicles steered by intoxicated humans.
Still, drunk driving did not register as a widespread public safety concern until America’s rapid suburbanization after World War II, and looking the other way persisted well into the 1970s. I cannot recall hearing about “designated drivers” during high school, when those “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” public service advertisements were still a decade or more away.
As Barron H. Lerner writes, “In a country that celebrated both drinking and driving, it has long been hard to convince people that it was unacceptable to do both.”
The 1968 Alcohol and Highway Safety Report authored by William Haddon, Jr. and A. Benjamin Kelley concluded that alcohol was a factor in 800,000 traffic mishaps annually and 25,000 deaths. Abstraction began hardening into action only in 1980, when Candace Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after her daughter was killed by a recidivist drunk driver.
MADD’s ensuing symmetry was incredible. Lightner’s creation shot up the charts nationwide, viewed as an overdue corrective, and absolutely nailing the zeitgeist.
“Two modes of advocacy converged in the early 1980s,” explains Lerner. “On the one hand, anti-drunk driving efforts built upon recent progressive activism such as the Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, and second-wave feminism (hence Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
“On the other hand, fighting drunk driving meshed with more conservative, Reagan-era efforts to create ‘wars’ against drugs and crime and to recognize the rights of crime victims.”
MADD’s lobbying efforts were impressive. According to Lerner, “By the mid-1980s, states had passed over 700 new drunk driving laws, closing loopholes, imposing stricter penalties and lowering the legal blood alcohol limit from as high as 0.15 percent to 0.10 percent and then 0.08 percent.”
In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Age Drinking Act. States were given a deadline of October, 1986 to adopt 21 years of age as the uniform standard to purchase and possess alcoholic beverages, or lose 10% of their federal highway funding.
Granted, Indiana’s drinking age was 21 already, but my circle was outraged. I ranted endlessly that an 18-year-old American could work, pay taxes, marry, raise children, own a home, and even fight and die in a war, all the while unable to legally buy a beer.
What we refused to acknowledge was hard data and incontrovertible statistics showing that younger drivers were more likely to be involved in alcohol-related driving accidents.
(Given the general cratering of behavioral standards in 2022, I’ve flipped 180 degrees and now support raising the drinking age to at least 31. At least then I wouldn’t have to watch youngsters pour gallons of abominable hard seltzer down their throats.)
If MADD’s enduring achievement was recasting the act of drunk driving as social stigma, the uncomfortable truth is that I began to feel socially stigmatized. Cognitive dissonance is real, and MADD’s agenda was a howitzer pointed directly at me, because I was wholly a product of the previous era of nonchalant misbehavior.
In high school we’d ice down a cheap Styrofoam cooler, pool our gas money, and merrily quaff beers while driving “around,” a hazardous practice undertaken under the creaky rationalization that underage drinkers had nowhere safe to congregate.
Later each weekday afternoon at Scoreboard Liquors I’d prepare a big iced reach-in container right next to the door so customers getting off work could run inside, grab a couple of tall boys for the drive home, and get back on the road as quickly as possible. They’d pop their tops and zoom off, and we thought nothing of it.
Surely the reason I detested MADD was that deep down I knew MADD was right. When it came to driving drunk, I did. So did many of my friends, and although I can’t speak for all of them, my own cringe-worthy justification was that I drove impaired often enough to become quite adept at it. Doesn’t practice make perfect?
What’s more, thinking deeply about drunk driving produced a queasy corollary pertaining to a broader consideration of personal drinking habits. At 26, this was a discussion I preferred to sidestep. I may have consumed beer (wine rarely, liquor almost never) far in excess of prevailing per capita measurements, but if one tried to make the case of alcoholism, I’d argue vociferously that I never missed work and hadn’t yet been caught behind the wheel with an inappropriate BAC.
And I never was, although this doesn’t ease my discomfort recounting these negligent days gone by.
The older I’ve gotten, the more careful I’ve become. It’s been a very long time since I risked driving drunk, but it doesn’t mean another time won’t come somewhere down the line. It might, which is why I’ve made every effort to organize my life in a way that precludes the possibility.
My consumption of alcoholic beverages also has declined to such a level that sometimes I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. There is sampling and sipping aplenty, just not pounding my way through 10-hour sessions.
In a feeble effort to close this circle and return to the point, I never cared to drive at all, especially not in Louisville, and particularly not in Louisville if I’d been drinking. Staying at Frank’s place during the summer of 1986 would remove driving from the equation.
The only question: What was the best place to drink beer within walking distance of Frank’s?
The answer: Fat Cat’s Deli & Pub, which comes next in Part Eleven.
The cover photo of Bardstown Road in Louisville was taken in the summer of 1986. Leningrad USSR (now St. Petersburg).