Summer Guide: Cheap Beer and Summer Memories

It's with some regret that I recall the people in whose company I learned to drink. Not because they were sodden miscreants, but because our youthful friendships, born during suburban Phoenix summers spent sipping cheap beer and two-dollar wine, didn't survive into our more sober middle age. I find myself wondering, always at this time of year, what became of them — and whether their taste in cocktails matured.

We did our drinking mostly in parking lots and on street corners. There was a boy I called Face (I was a giver of nicknames, and rarely referred to anyone by his real name), who introduced me to a beer called Mickey's Big Mouth, a malt liquor served in a green, grenade-shaped bottle we found fetching. And there was Brain, a perennial clown whose premature baldness and affection for convenience store Chianti set him apart. One night Brain, tipsy on Boone's Farm Tickle Pink, slipped an entire wine bottle into his pant leg and walked around with it there for nearly an hour. It seemed awfully funny at the time, in good part because we were drunk and 17.

I drank strawberry margaritas while sunbathing with Michael Encyclopedia, a precocious blond girl who once slept with the guitarist from Foghat, and cheap bourbon pinched from the liquor cabinet of the parents of my friend Snoozin Froops. I and some of the other reporters from my high school newspaper spent a good chunk of our senior year in a long-defunct German pub at Metrocenter, not because we liked bratwurst or brown mustard, but because they served Michelob Dark by the pitcher. To minors.

While my classmates were attending homecoming games, my drinking buddies and I slipped into outfits made entirely of spun petroleum and headed for Bobby McGee's, where we ordered Blue Sails, which stained our tongues and got us just tight enough to dare the Hustle. At a west-side discotheque called Truffles, we entered Bump contests and got shit-faced on giant ceramic troughs filled with Brown Cow, a Kahlúa drink made with sweetened milk. Why we were never carded is beyond me, especially as we only ordered drinks that tasted like children's breakfast cereals and therefore screamed, "I am underage!" We were kids; any cocktail that didn't involve whipped cream topped with shaved chocolate tasted like cow piss to us.

After high school, I began frequenting local bars with new friends: a corpulent, mouthy girl I called Laytchie McJeep and her best gal pal, a tall, insolent teen known as Uncle Shwana Mblanston. We visited only the cheesiest downtown discos, where we danced 'til 3 in the morning, our revels fueled by vats of something called Pink Lunch, a cocktail involving tequila, grenadine, and Welch's Lemonade. Pink Lunch was Uncle's invention, one that Laytchie bullied bartenders into making for us at each of the horrible holes where we woozily slam-danced through the early '80s.

The last time I was sick from drinking was with Unc and Laytchie. It was New Year's Eve of 1983, and we were wedged onto the dance floor of a downtown shithole called Sammy's Steak House. They didn't serve steak there, but rather — at least at midnight on December 31 — very cheap champagne. A white man dressed as a black woman kept shoving plastic cups of the stuff into our hands and I, determined to not stop dancing, kept swilling the crap. A half-hour later I was hanging out of the backseat of Laytchie's Camaro, barfing into potholes in the parking lot.

There's a paper store on that lot today. Every time I drive past, I recall that drunken night long ago with both shame and gratitude — for past friendships; for Scotch on the rocks; and for warm summer memories.