40 Years in Beer, Part Forty: Here’s why my tenure at Rich O’s BBQ began in 1992

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Your brain on tonic-clonic.
Joe was secretive about this.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty Nine: I’m off to Spijkenisse with a beer list in my hand (1992).

With this 40th chapter of “40 Years in Beer” we at last reach 1992, roughly the midway point of the narrative. Whether or not the chronological proportions add up is less important than the plain fact of 1992 being a great turning point in my life, because it is when I decided at long last to take a chance, risk failing, and commit to something concrete.

I joined my future (now ex-) wife and her family at Rich O’s BBQ in hope of transforming it into a specialty beer bar, this being noteworthy because I barely understood what “specialty beer bar” meant, and we’d be doing it in New Albany, a place regarded as the land that time had forgotten.

In due course we succeeded. BBQ was discarded, and the much decorated Rich O’s Public House emerged, eventually to be joined by the New Albanian Brewing Company, complete with house-brewed beer.

As for the exact reason why the summer of 1992 suddenly revealed a career crossroads—well, please keep reading. Photos from this period are scarce, and I’m looking. There may be revisions if any turn up. 

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No doubt you will recall my favored student Joe – a dentist, sportsman, Guns ‘n’ Roses fan and all-purpose lover of life – who introduced me to Zlatý Dukát, Košice’s foremost Pilsner Urquell dispensary, and a place where the old (communist) ways stubbornly resisted the jarring arrival of capitalism.

40 Years in Beer, Part Thirty Six: One fine evening in Košice with Pilsner Urquell at the Zlatý Dukát

Attentive to my cultural needs, Joe also saw to it that I witnessed a boxing match, which otherwise closely resembled an East Slovak industrial league ice hockey game; after all, he was the local VSŽ steel mill team’s attending doctor. Catching wind of the game, another student invited me to her apartment for a pre-game meal and some tailgating (this colloquial American term required explanation, and a lesson duly ensued).

She’d prepared a carry-out hot toddy of sorts to accompany the hockey bout, and to my everlasting chagrin, I slipped on the ice in route to the hangar-like arena, landing without injury on a snow bank but shattering her thermos bottle. I still feel bad about that, although she was forgiving about the loss and demanded little in the way of reparations.

Now it was February, and I’d made it back safely from the trek to Spijkenisse. In two days the journey home to America would commence with an overnight train to Bratislava, then a connection to Vienna, and I used my available time to pack and prepare. The books I’d shipped to Košice months before stayed there, along with the South Korean boom box, in hopes that my successors would find them useful.

The remaining pile of souvenirs, belongings and appendages was sorted, discarded, consolidated and crammed into my internal frame backpack, except that my pack rat-like proclivities rendered it utterly undersized for the task, requiring the quick purchase of three other variously sized bags. Among them was a black faux leather duffel from Romania into which a dozen bottles of liquor and champagne, three of which contained the Slovak equivalent of untaxed moonshine, were wrapped carefully with newspaper and arranged to cushion potential impacts.

Something any of us would be proud to say: “My booze took up a whole seat in steerage.”

This frightfully heavy booze bag became carry-on luggage on all three legs home, ignored by cabin attendants and entirely unexamined by customs officials. Once in Louisville, the bag started to come apart at the seams; happily, not a single drop was lost to accident or mishap.

Packing completed, Joe declared that he and several other students wished to host a sendoff at the Zlatý Dukát, which proceeded normally with a meal and beers. As closing time approached, Joe suggested we have a nightcap at a newly launched “club” somewhere in the ‘burbs, located in a former communist-era retail space at the ground level of a high rise residential rabbit hutch.

I believe Boro tagged along, which meant that three of us, as opposed to only two, were compelled to empty the whole bottle of Russian vodka appearing at our table.

I cursed Joe in a previously unknown second language, and if you thought I was violently ill following the famous Danish lunch in Copenhagen in 1989, you should have been there at the hospital hotel in 1992 shortly after Joe dropped me off.

On second thought, you shouldn’t. It was a Grade-A spectacle of bodily expulsion that sensitivity and decorum prevent me from describing in detail, resulting in extreme bottle fatigue next day at the very same time I’d be schlepping all those over-packed bags to the train station.

40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Two: A placid traditional Danish lunch in Copenhagen, 1989

Consequently Joe volunteered to drive me, and as we said goodbye, he furtively produced a beautiful oil painting of a bucolic Slovak folk scene, rolled up but delicate, and requiring attentive handling (in Vienna I found a cardboard tube to house the painting and some twine, lashing it to my other bags). Presumably the painter was locally renowned, and Joe made me solemnly promise never to divulge his role as the painting’s donor, a deal I’ve honored until now.

Exiting the continent, I’d chosen to become a smuggler of illicit hootch and valuable art. Fortunately the Cold War was over, although a supermarket shopping cart would have been helpful.

After valedictory beers in Vienna, I found myself back home again in Indiana, and not at all sure what to think about it. Predictably, my first impulse was to pick up where I’d left off, grabbing hours at the relocated Scoreboard Liquors, placing my name on the substitute teaching register, diving back into the FOSSILS homebrewing club, and tinkering with the beer selection at Sportstime Pizza and Rich O’s BBQ.

But toward what end? The question could no longer be ignored. To be candid, just about everyone (including me) regarded the Slovak teaching interlude as being a “last in series.” Ten years after university and approaching the age of 32, wasn’t it time to transcend the gig economy (as my modular work history would be dubbed so many years later), settle down, get married, and do something positive with my life?

(In 2005 Noel Gallagher provide an interesting perspective. Too late, yet appreciated.)

No doubt I responded to these “what color is your balloon” considerations with an understated shrug. It had long since become obvious to me that I was a late bloomer and a slow learner. I was perfectly content to delay the inevitable denouement, and managed to do just that for a few short months.

Then came June, and a renewal of the FOSSILS Patoka Retreat, an overnight camping/crashing party held at the lakeside summer home of my longtime friend Bob’s family. Without warning, my well-ordered procrastination was unceremoniously upended.

The tipping point seemed innocent enough.

I awakened somewhat groggily from a drunken nap on a warm, hazy Saturday afternoon, lying flat on my back in the grass and staring up at the sun. At first glance, this was no cause for concern, given a fondness for excess and dissipation during early adulthood, most famously following an instance of Southern Discomfort.

But this time I sensed a motley crew of onlookers gazing down at me with expressions of perplexed concern, and slowly it emerged that my internal calendar was wrong. It was Sunday morning, not Saturday, and thus far I’d consumed only coffee and doughnuts. As such, why was I hugging terra firma?

Because, in point of fact, I was returning to consciousness after suffering a “grand mal” seizure, as these brain wave circuit explosions were termed at the time (nowadays tonic-clonic is the descriptor).

Epilepsy is one cause of seizures, in addition to low blood sugar, high fever, stroke, dehydration and the combined effects of detoxification. In itself, a seizure is statistically unlikely to kill you; however, this depends on where you are and what you’re doing at the onset of unconsciousness. You wouldn’t want to be perched atop a ladder or in the pool.

There was an immediate sinking feeling of déjà vu in 1992, seeing as this seizure had a predecessor, occurring in 1983 at a McDonald’s restaurant in Brazil, Indiana, as we prepared to return home from a weekend of Indiana high school semi-state basketball games. I’d recently been ill with a bad case of the flu, which landed in the middle of an extended binge; instead of taking it easy, I continued working both my jobs and swallowing handfuls of painkillers and chasing them with over-the-counter amphetamines and washing it all down with wretched cheap beer.

I was weakened, exhausted and probably intoxicated—for three weeks. Quite likely the seizure in 1983 was my brain’s way of saying ENOUGH, already.

According to friends who were with me at the McDonald’s in Rio (Hoosierland), when I began howling like a coyote and thrashing on the floor, generalized panic ensued as a big post-church crowd of stolid senior citizens and their grandchildren fled higgledy-piggledy for the exits, abandoning their coffees and happy meals, quite certain that demonic possession had come calling (in truth, I’d have liked to see the reaction).

First the headlong flight, then the farce, as an ambulance was called, taking only seconds to arrive because the hospital was situated within eyesight, literally right across the street. It took far longer to strap me to the gurney than make the return journey via internal combustion. They’d have been even faster jogging both ways using the crosswalk.

The ER doctor diagnosed the seizure and instructed my friends to drive me home, reassuring them that my vital signs were fine, and a recurrence was unlikely. Three days of tests followed at Floyd Memorial Hospital, the conclusion of which reminded me of a Yogi Berra concussion tale (we thoroughly examined your brain, and found absolutely nothing).

Actually I felt a much better upon release, primarily because it gave me a chance to be rehydrated and sleep off the bender.

In short, medical science had surprisingly little to say about the seizure (in effect, “shit happens”), although there were frequent expressions of concern about certain of my less beneficial lifestyle choices. Probably it was a fluke, they said, but also a warning sign. My body might appreciate better nutrition, less alcohol, and a wee bit of exercise.

Fortunately I had insurance for the hospital stay, but typically, the hospital stay magically made my insurance go away. Funny how that cause and effect tend to work out in L’America.

A similar pattern unfurled in 1992, with two key differences: This time I didn’t have any insurance, successfully pleading indigence, and a neurologist was assigned to my case. His name was Ed, and by the year 2000 he and his wife had become stalwart Public House regulars, although upon being introduced to him in 1992, Ed’s role was strictly professional. He’d be interpreting my “spells,” as the old-timers would have called them.

Ed’s diagnosis was open-ended. On top of the other reasons why seizures occur (or don’t) could be added factors like scars on the brain; whether half an inch long or the size of a pinprick, these might (or just as easily might not) be to blame, but there’d be no way of knowing short of a performing an autopsy. I was yet again cautioned to cease my wicked ways, and if this wasn’t possible, at least drink more water.

In those prehistoric times, the prevailing medicine available to prevent seizures was known to have deleterious side effects including liver toxicity, and drinking alcohol while taking the pills was not recommended. I’m told the medical situation with respect to diagnosing and treating seizures is much improved nowadays, but in 1992, I might as well have been prescribed leeches.

In effect, I was being told that it was impossible to know why the seizure occurred, given that neurologists freely acknowledged there was far more they didn’t know about how the brain worked than could be stated with certainty, and palliatives were restricted to taking medicine of an aggressive nature capable of doing as much harm as good.

For this advice I was charged $300 and told that if I wished to avoid taking the medicine, there was a consideration that had not been mentioned even once by medical professionals nine years before: I shouldn’t be driving a car. For the first time in my life, the realities of automobile imperialism were laid bare. To refrain from driving a car in the absence of public transportation or taxis (recall that I was living in the county outside of New Albany) would have been wildly impractical.

On the other hand…

Given that Amy and I already were living together, it made far greater sense to work with her at Rich O’s. She could drive for so long as we commuted from the Knobs, and we’d move closer to the business as soon as we could (a few months later we had an apartment fifty yards away from the pub).

For the next two years, I didn’t drive. In 1994, after a battery of follow-up medical tests, I was given the okay to resume my love-hate relationship with cars, and there has not been a recurrence of these two seizures until this very day.

Meanwhile, the imperial phase of my career in beer was launched. Those many beer-related ideas gleaned from Scoreboard Liquors, Fat Cat’s and European travels slowly began being applied to reshape the business (the travels eventually continued, but trips became necessarily shorter).

40 Years in Beer, Part Eleven: The Fat Cats Deli & Pub was short-lived but inspirational

I knew absolutely nothing about the business of food and drink apart from what I’d observed while eating and drinking. There was no pay scale, benefit package or business plan, aside from cocktail napkin-borne scrawling as the days passed and lots (and lots) of pizza and beer.

I didn’t know whether it would work. Honestly, I knew very little, period. My self-confidence was scant. But the seizure’s aftermath induced something that procrastination couldn’t: a sense of urgency.

Next: Smoke, mirrors, draft Guinness and learning how to be “just a singer in a rock and roll band.”

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