It was late Wednesday afternoon. It always seemed to be a late Wednesday afternoon. Not every Wednesday afternoon, mind you, but enough Wednesday afternoons to make one remember such a detail.
It was always the same — one glass of Champagne, one artichoke and a slice of pie. The only thing different was the conversation. This was long before a pandemic ever disrupted affairs. Back then, you could count on things like clockwork. And Inez was as regular a regular as there ever was.
Often people think of bars as hangouts for hipsters. And sure, the hipsters breeze through every couple of years or so, dragging along their Caipirinhas, Old Fashioneds, Fernets or whatever is “in” at that moment. Folly is in the flush of youth. Making a mistake as a youngster means that you have your whole life to fix it. Things are different when you get older.
There is a saying that goes, “If you can’t look back at your younger self and see that you were an idiot, then you are probably still an idiot.” The great thing about that sentiment is that it is not age specific.
Inez was not a hipster, at least not in the modern sense of the word. She was always well dressed and well mannered. She was polite and came from a generation where politeness was not mistaken for weakness. What was it Teddy Roosevelt said? “Speak softly and carry a big stick”? Inez would have remembered, because she probably just missed hearing him say it in person, by maybe a decade or two. I am guessing because I never asked and she never told.
And truth be told, she wasn’t drinking Champagne, it was California sparkling wine, produced by a winery that adhered to the “Champagne is only produced in France, in the Champagne region” adage. Which, of course, wasn’t actually a law then, but rather a guideline thanks in part to the fact that the international legal definition for champagne was ensconced in the Treaty of Versailles, that great flawed instrument that technically ended the first World War but sowed the seeds for the second. Ironically, the U.S. never signed that treaty. Woodrow Wilson proposed 14 points, and many were adopted, but the American Senate ultimately refused to ratify the treaty, much to the chagrin of the British and the French, but to the delight of California’s sparkling wine producers. All facts that Inez might also have remembered firsthand.
But Inez never talked about such things and I never asked. Instead, we talked about everything else. She knew she had more time behind her than in front of her, but that didn’t stop her from making plans for the future. She had goals, dreams and hopes. And she was pursuing them. She had great stories about what she was doing in her art and dance classes. She also had great stories about where she was going.
She was witty, charming and funny. She was also at least 20 years older than most of our customers and that was nearly 20 years ago. In my long career behind the stick, I have met many interesting people, several girlfriends, several publishers, assorted celebrities and my wife, not least among them. It’s funny, though, that when I think of my favorite customers it is always Inez whom I think of first.
Recently I received a letter that read in part:
“Hi Jeff, I am a 93-year-old 2 ounces of bourbon, three shakes of bitters, over a lot of ice drinker and have been for 40 years. I read your column in the IJ and always enjoy it. My daughter purchased your book, “Twenty Years Behind Bars,” and brought it over for me to read and I found it hysterical. I just don’t know when I have laughed so hard. How many books does one read and get such a kick out of it? I have limited months to live but I thank you for bringing such humor into my world.”
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• “It is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years,” a quote incorrectly attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
• “I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty,” said Champagne Bollinger’s Lily Bollinger.
• The Inezes of the world are always there, whether it’s Champagne or if it’s bourbon. We just have to remember to value them while they still are.
• Bourbon is the last name of the former French royal family (and the current Spanish one). Those French folks should really think about copywriting.
• Laughter is not only a gift we can give to ourselves, but also one we can share with others — no matter what our age.