John T. Griffith 5:14 p.m., May 22
*Disclaimer – Mostly sort of true.
It all started when Kyle mailed me a martini shaker. He said it was for my birthday, which is in December, and the shaker arrived mid-February. But it was a brand new martini shaker nevertheless. “Here’s to make you a REAL writer,” he wrote in green sharpie on the makeshift cardboard packaging. Straight from Oakland, California. Only Kyle.
You see, Kyle has a special relationship with the martini. I recall a time, several months ago, when my old friend was living in a co-op house in the East Bay. He had just been fired, again, for being a stubborn loud-mouthed rock&rolla, again. He had little money, was uncertain about next month’s rent, and survived primarily off of grits and butter. He lived in a cold spare room furnished with nothing but a bed, a Beatles poster, and his pride and joy: a free craigslist roll-top desk upon which sat his coveted martini set. At the end of a long day of unemployment, with a Jaguar guitar on his lap and a spliff in his hand, Kyle would smooth-over the subtleties of modern college drop-out living with an artisan martini, made exactly to his specifications.
So, of course, Kyle mailed me a martini shaker. It was like getting a lawn bowling set from your grandpa. Sure, it looks fun, but where does one begin? I wasn’t even sure, strictly speaking, what constituted a true martini. I had heard that using vodka was a faux-pas, though I didn’t know why. I also knew it involved olives. Kyle had had the foresight to include a jar of Santa Barbara habanero-stuffed green olives – the best he had come across, according to an enclosed note. But beyond that, I was lost.
I’ve never ordered a martini. I mean, I don’t want to look like a jerk. Who drinks martinis? The last time I saw one ordered was around noon in a dim Portland bar off Burnside. The guy was in a full suit and apparently in shambles.
Had his wife left him for a Swiss parachute instructor? Had his revolutionary invention, Das Fön, finally been debunked as just another Spork pretender? Was he mortally ill?
I watched the broke-down businessman drink five martinis in silence - tipping too much, fiddling with his Blackberry, sighing - and the association has stuck ever since.
Martini’s are where once-sprightly entrepreneurs go to die. Or at least regroup. Like my good friend Kyle. The martini says, “I may have lost everything except the shirt on my back, but, goddamnitall, I’ve still got my class!”
I asked my friend Leif about the proper method in preparing the beverage. Leif knows things. He said that I’d need a bottle of gin and some vermouth. Simple enough. However, his direction to simply “rinse” the glass with one form of booze (the vermouth), discarding the remnants only to fill the glass with another (the gin) aroused a deep-rooted contempt within me.
I thought back to my college days in Humboldt. It seemed like just about everybody had a vaporizer, back then. Once one had finished smoking their high-velocity homegrown ganja, they would tap the ashen remains into a coffee can. When the can was full, they would bake a cake and get the whole block stoned.
Surely I could come to a similar arrangement with the martini. But the thought of a coffee can full of liquor was a bit too bohemian for me at the time, and besides, who’s ever heard of a vermouth cake? I soon learned that this approach produces what one calls an “extra dry” or “Gibson” martini.
My main problem with the whole thing, I suppose, circled around the empirical exactness of it all. One drop too much of either component spoils the grand alchemy of the drink, according to most. It’s a connoisseur’s cup, I quickly discovered, and that did not sit well with me.
I am a Sagittarius. Ask anybody who knows what that means and they will tell you that I’ve never read a recipe, never consulted an instruction manual, and most certainly have never, ever calculated ratios of booze in a drink. I’m a man of instinct.
The entire notion of the martini insulted the better senses in me.
So I took the next best route: utterly uninformed improvisation. I’ve always liked tequila because it gets me naked in no time. I decided, sure, swish the tequila around the glass. But don’t be a fool. Leave the juice in there. Let it do its thing. I called it the Cheswick Martini, and I thought it was a pretty clever name. It implied, like the characters in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a certain derangement which, I thought, would compliment the effects of the drink.
I threw a small party in order to showcase my pet beverage. We cooked Italian food and garnished our drinks with cayenne pickled garlic. It was awful. Still, we were high-tingled in no time and soon wandered off into the booming club district of Hillcrest. We smuggled some of the sauce in a Nalgene. Someone had the epiphany of dubbing it a Communitini.
We ended up in the Brass Rail. ‘80s night. The DJ played “Let’s Hear it for the Boys” and the shirtless bartender served dollar drinks, his steel nipple rings shimmering in the strobe light. I went out to the porch for a cigarette.
A girl in spastic red hair grabbed my cigarette and puffed on it as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Like we were engaged on our way to Reno and, of course, she always takes a drag without asking. She blew a cloud of smoke in my face and went for my drink. “I’m Kiki,” she said, killing my gin and tonic.
I was quickly falling in love with her. I envisioned us robbing banks together, sharing fifths of mescal in the Nevada badlands at midnight, driving with the top down. I sensed she might pick my pocket when I wasn’t looking, and it thrilled me. We would become impromptu yacht pirates and blast “My Generation” at all times, eating ceviche with orange deep into the warm Caribbean night.
Granted, spontaneous romance was the last thing I’d expected from arguably the gayest bar in San Diego. But when Kiki (probably no one has known her true name since she was seventeen) grabbed my hand and pulled me to the dance floor I became like a puppy – submissive, obedient, excitable. She tore off my shirt and guided me to the stripper pole, where I threw my legs around her neck and spun with arched back while Michael Jackson sang about illegitimate offspring.
We laughed insanely as we stumbled down the sidewalk to her house. This is it, I thought. The woman of my dreams. When we got in the door she thrust an acoustic guitar into my hands. “Play something,” she commanded. Kiki went to the kitchen, the metaphysical scandal of her hair-do trailing behind like an auto fire. I heard her open the cupboards and crack an ice tray.
“So, love,” she said with an air of conspiracy. “How do you take your martini?”