We always had supper at six. And we called it supper. Dinner was something you went out to. When the money was good, when my father worked seven days a week instead of just six, we would go to the Horn & Hardart.
“You get anything you want,” my father would tell me. My eyes would open like a lightning bug in a jar. I would order steak, Salisbury steak with thick brown gravy, and peas and mashed potatoes. If I had enough room, and my father had enough money left, I would finish with rice pudding. The Horn & Hardart rice pudding was creamy and rich, with raisins as plump as tapioca balls.
When we got home, my father would do what all fathers did after a good meal. He would sit in his club chair, put his feet up on the ottoman, and unbutton his pants. Now this was living. Often, as all fathers did, he would call to my mother, “Rosie, get me a Schlitz.” My father was always a Schlitz man. Sure, when company came, he’d lay in a six-pack of Miller High Life. But the Schlitz went so much better with his El Producto Blunts.
I did most of my growing up in a time and a neighborhood where men drank. Not some sissy cocktail like martinis. A working man had a two-choice drink list. You had a shot or you had a beer. Sometimes both.
I grew up in a neighborhood that had a taproom on almost every corner. We never called them bars. They were places where you could get a cold one from the tap and a more than generous fill of a shot glass. They were places where men went to forget and women went in the back door.
This time of year, as we played in the street until you couldn’t see the wire for wireball, we would watch our fathers come home. Many arrived in time for dinner. Then there were the men who came late. Billy Flanagan’s father never made it home in time. As the darkness crept, we would see him stumbling down the street, the brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes. His nose – red and bright and bulbous – would light the night.
Drinking wasn’t the answer, but it sure helped with the questions. As I grew up, I drank in moderation. Beer at the beginning. Then I worked my way to wine. Boone’s Farm Apple wine, now there was good drinking. There’s a study that just came out. I don’t know if you saw it. It says that, compared to their grandparents, young people in New Jersey today start drinking alcohol at an earlier age and are about ten times more likely to have used illegal drugs.
The survey says that 43 percent of 13- and 14-year olds now drink in some form. And 61 percent of young people have used illegal drugs. It would be easy to blame this all on advertising. All those beer commercials with people having the times of their lives.
The thing of it is, kids do what kids see. They don’t need messages from commercials. If they see their parents or grandparents drinking, that’s message enough. If they hear old war stories about how a little pot never hurt anyone, how could you blame them for experimenting? This isn’t about Madison Avenue. This is about Carlton Avenue and King’s Highway. This is about what happens at your dinner table. This is about making sure there is a family dinner table. As a parent, you have a pretty simple choice. You can act as a role model. Or you can answer the phone when the cops call.