We all know what getting drunk means and we all know what cities are and the title is pretty self explanatory, so I'm gonna use my obligatory top ten introductory statement to break down my criteria for judgment, expose my biases and shortcomings, and hopefully, inspire you to go in search of hidden gems. That doesn't mean there aren't some things you need to know beforehand, because there are, so let me break them down real quick.
(A) Every city has its own ambiance, its own unwritten set of rules and expectations and social customs that dictate expected behavior. My preference lies with a certain type of neighborhood and social setting/experience that you will pick up on very quickly. I'm a pattern guy. A Puritan really.
(B) While I've traveled quite a bit throughout the US, there are certain pockets of the country I havent spent much time in so my list will be noticeably absent of them: New England, Gulf Region, California Coast.
(C) There are a few places I've spent good time in but I'm just not feeling: NYC, DC, Pacific Northwest.
(D) I'm only listing cities I've actually drank in. There are many places I've been that I wished I would have grabbed a beer, but this list is from experience only.
(E) Food matters. See (A).
That's all. Let's do this.
P.S. I've also included a few guest entries from some of my favorite drinker/writer/travelers. Those are coming tomorrow. I was tempted to include my most memorable drinking experience with each one individually but decided against it for their sake.
10. Fort Wayne, Indiana
I was born and raised on the East Coast. Spent the first decade or so of my life in small town Pennsylvania Dutch Country clipping tobacco plants and cleaning up cow shit on Amish farms, so the transition to small town Midwestern life was pretty easy for me. And that's mostly how I define myself geographically, for better or worse, I'm a Midwesterner. And although I almost always love my home state of Michigan, to me there is no more quintessantially Midwestern state than Indiana. Because the French settled most of Michigan's major cities and nothing about Michigan seems French, I feel like there is no real unified cultural, historical, or social identity here. There are small pockets of flavor scattered around but no real connectivety exists between them. What's good about Detroit has nothing to do with what's good about Marquette which has nothing to do with what's good about Ludington and you get the point. But being from a state like Pennsylvania, which played such a significant role in shaping early America and developing our national mythology, a strong sense of history and heritage were always important to me. All those field trips to Independence Hall and Gettysburg and Valley Forge did their job I guess... So, all this to say that I secretly admire you, Indiana. An unintentional hybrid of Kentucky and Iowa born of a deeply internal conflict of political and social morale. I feel like you are a state that knows who and what you are and isn't afraid to own it even if you struggle with it in the privacy of your own hearts and minds. Perhaps it's that vibe of collective confidence tinged with unspoken but acutely aware introspection that makes Indiana a pretty fucking amazing place to drink too much and lose your guts all over your porch before climbing into your buddy's truck to smoke a fat ass joint and find more beer before all the pretty girls come to their senses and go home. Cornfields and fishing. Hoosiers basketball and teen pregnancy. Tractors and meth. As an outsider looking in that's how I see it. I'm sure it's more complex and three-dimensial to natives but I said I admire you, I never said I wanted to be a native. But all this, I'm afraid, is a digression. What I want to talk about is getting drunk in Fort Wayne. So I will. Hard drinkers and lovers and workers. Truckers and waitresses and hockey players and semi-pro wrestlers. All of which make for pretty good drunks. My first time in Fort Wayne I hit up an 80's WWF legends event. Watched an insane battle royal. Shook hands with Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Virgil gave me props for my sick ass throwback Jordans. Hit up a Golden Corral for lunch and cleaned them out of banana pudding. Afterwards I sat at the bar drinking beers next to Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake without even realizing it until I climbed down off my barstool, sat at a table, and figured shit out. Also watched a curling match. Yeah, that shit actually exists in real life. At the end of the day Tutanka kept his title, a khaki shorts and flip flopped fanboy picked up Beefcake's bar tab, a thick brunette in gray sweats won the curling match, and I passed out in the car while Josh drove us quietly back to Michigan.
9. Charleston, West Virginia
No list of drinking towns would be legitimate or trustworthy without a representative from Appalachian country. There are many cities capable of filling the void and I considered quite a few before ultimately settling on Charleston. I'm a sucker for Southern accents and state capitals. Hillbillies and moonshine. But contrary to my love for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, I'm a fully indoctrinated Yank, born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon, so the opportunity to visit Charleston and grab a couple beers with two of my favorite West Virginians, Mr. McClanahan and Mr. Knabb, was an honor and a privilege worthy of any list. The bar was dark. Dank corners. Dirty ashtrays. Filthy bathroom stalls with no toilet paper or proper ventilation. Stale pretzels and shitty Bud Lite. Too many empty bar stools. And all of this by choice. It was a truly great American establishment. Authentically Appalachian. A place I'm looking forward to revisiting when and if. But lets not get too far ahead. On this particular night there were two different versions of what went down. One involves a talented group of charming and witty writers winning over a bar full of country boys with their elegant prose, mad ukelele skills, and masterful culinary prowess as displayed through a donut eating contest which I fucking destroyed... But maybe all that was the beer. Or the spiritually uplifting but strangely hedonistic conversation I had with a Mormon social worker whose family owned a bed and breakfast just outside of Palmyra, New York where the Latter Day Saints hold their annual Book of Mormon pageant. In hindsight, perhaps I did misread the room. Or perhaps, as I like to think, it was McClanahan's way of further internally mythologizing his West Virginia mountain men heroes, even if only subconsciously. His version involves us getting out of there at just the right time before we got our asses whooped. Something about us being “artsy fartsy college folk writer fags.” I don't remember really. I was drinking and it all sounded like babble. Drunk or not. Outnumbered or not. I'm not getting my ass kicked by a handful of inbred goat-fuckers. I'll never know whose version of the story was more accurate but my daddy taught me a long time ago (I'm lying. My dad never taught me shit. I made this up after reading then rewording a Dr. Phil quote.) that there are three sides to every story. Your side. My side. And the truth which is somewhere in the middle. And I'm sure this night was no exception. But it was the next day that really gave Charleston its own special place in my heart. I was sitting on a screened-in back porch, sipping oatmeal stout, admiring the colors and texture of the rolling West Virginia landscape, reading a book on underground Texas gambling in the 60's, when Knabb's sister called me in for lunch. Tacos. What's life changing about a taco? It didn't change your life, so really, mind your goddam business.
8. Las Vegas, NV
I know. I'm a goddam cliche. But cliches are cliches for a reason; they're easy to confide in. But this might not be what you think. Other than some good poker rooms, I'm really not a fan of the Vegas strip. I'm not a gambler (“Poker is an honest trade.” - Doc Holliday) and bright lights and tourists and fake tits don't do much for me. It's once you leave the strip that Vegas is interesting. Drinks and motels and hookers all get cheaper. Everyone's hustling someone for something and all the locals smell dead. In any given bar on any given night you can always find dollar beers, strung out seventy-year-old gamblers, grizzled parolees and the foul-mouthed, soft-lipped women who love them, overweight tattooed hookers and the suckers who will meet their unjust financial demands, and most importantly, people who know how to mind their own fucking business because they don't want you minding theirs. And that is such a huge quality when choosing a place to drink. Nosy people suck and its always better to booze up with people who don't give a shit where you came from or why you're there. But the real magic is that it all works. Everyone gets it and understands what it all means and they know how to have a good time because of it. Then somehow, halfway through the night, stangers become more than that, not quite friends but something close to it, maybe something more significant even. Then the night ends and you go home and never think about each other again (except for mornings like this) and you start all over the next night with a whole new set of characters and it all feels so fucking good the blood inside you craves it... So yeah... Vegas. Not to mention the best tacos I've ever had outside of Mexico (I kid. I've never been to Mexico) I found in a little dive joint beside a tattoo shop over by UNLV's campus. No one spoke English, not even the menu, so I had to rely on the pictures. And I was doing a commendable job until some guy saw me and helped out. He told me he was a homosexual New Age Priest from a local temple whose body was not in tune with his HIV medication. But after lunch he bowed his head and chanted an old Celtic safe travel prayer for me while running his finger along the edges of my sun tattoo on my right forearm. Turns out they were the best tacos I ever fucked with and my travels were indeed safe even though they shouldn't have been. So to you my New Age friend, I sincerely wish you had Magic Johnson money so it would all go away, but alas... Viva Las Vegas.
7. Chicago, IL
The Windy City. The hot dog Mecca of the Western world. The Midwest's very own megatropolis. OpenOffice is giving me the red squiggles so I'm hoping I just made that word up. If so, don't forget to credit me as its inventor when it reaches the OED. You know what. Fuck it. History is made by the people who steal it. That's my word. Megatropolis. Say it one time in your mind then feel it in your mouth until it becomes a part of you that can never be given back. Tastes good, yes? Megatropolis. Chicago. Despite it's size, it is designed like every other Midwestern city, albeit on a much grander scale. There's a core center city built off of a major US highway and the rest is comprised of small pockets of neighborhoods with their own individual identities. North side. South side. It doesn't matter. Chicago is the best of the big three. Actually, I've never been to LA so I can't call it, but it beats the shit out of NYC with its garbage and overcrowding and smell that takes weeks to seep out of your pores. I've never left NYC without having to scrub off a light coating of unexplainable grayish grime that stuck to any skin I left exposed. Maybe out of spite, I don't know. Maybe in out-of-towners it senses a natural hope and love of life that it immediately tries to defeat. Goddam you, NYC. But in fairness there are two things I respect about the city. Its food and its vastness. There is nothing you can't eat or drink in NYC if you really wanna taste it. Nothing you can't get high off of if you really wanna smoke/snort/swallow/shoot up/fuck it. Nothing you can't find if you look hard enough. Nothing you can't obtain. No skyscraper you can't jump from. No language you can't hear spoken. No one you can't kill. Chicago is almost there but not quite. Not now. Maybe not ever. In another few years Houston will surpass Chicago in population and Phoenix and San Antonio aren't far behind. At .87 percent, it has the lowest increase in population percentage of any of the ten major US cities. National demographics are changing and the Midwest as a whole is on the decline. Chicago is strong but not invincible. But at the end of the day the true greatness of a city isn't measured by its expected population growth but by the quality of the people who live there. And that's why I love Chicago. So many friends I love and admire and respect. Not just fellow artists and writers but quality human beings. Friends who share their homes and hearts and their liquor equally. Friends who break prior engagements to meet you for a beer when they find out you're in town. Friends who join you on your never ending quest for the perfect hot dog (Byron's Dogzilla). Friends who clean your piss off the floor when you're too drunk and inconsiderate to aim. Friends who help you polish off two fifths of moonshine, pass out on a hardwood floor, then wake their asses up two hours later to get you to Union Station. Chicago. Friends. Gifts to humanity.
6. Buffalo/Niagra Falls, New York
I know Buffalo and Niagra Falls are technically two different places, and one could argue not similar enough on any level to be grouped together as one, and I'd feel that, but they are forced together for these purposes not just because they are super close in proximity but because I have never been to one of the cities without spending time in the other on the same day; my life and thoughts and experiences in these two places are so closely intertwined that I've never bothered to disconnect them mentally or emotionally. Until recently, Buffalo was the furthest west I've been able to find Yuengling. It's heading my way, but slowly. So for that reason alone I could leave it on this list and sleep easy, but I'm gonna give you more tonight. Much more. A piece of me. A shared moment between our souls and psyches that can never be undone. I'm giving you hard work and waterfalls. Asian tourists and suicide. Chicken wings and undergound rap. Cheap trinkets and death. All with enough power to make us contemplate our own existence, the sources of our worst fears, our condition as temporary organisms vs. our obsession with immortality. It's all there waiting for us somewhere between the exact moment the Niagra River first free falls from the edge and the time it reaches bottom. Between the time the first whiff of bourbon hits our nose until the precise second that cool burn stings the back of our throats just before the rest goes down smooth. But more than that, Buffalo always means good people. I've been making the trek once a year for the past five years or so to attend the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair. Always a great time during and after. Always time for a beer and Buffalo wings during and after. The first drink I ever had in Buffalo was at a place called Nietsche's. Crowded joint. Decent live bands. Above average cock to cunt ratio. I had a really great balcony seat. I remember heading back to the bar to order another drink and I ran into a guy from the fair whose name I forget in spite of what happened next. Before I got to the counter he stopped me and introduced himself and asked if I wanted a beer and I accepted for two reasons. 1) My health teacher in fifth grade told me it was impolite to turn down a gift that someone else offers, that giving makes people feel good and by denying them the opportunity to feel good we were denying them self worth. 2) On October 19, 1993, at 4:16pm, I promised myself never to turn down a free beer. So I was locked in morally even if I wanted to object. Now here's where the magic happened. Keep in mind we were in Buffalo and this was a pretty big place, always crowded, so the beer selection was solid, but somehow, someway, as if an angel or a time traveler who relived this moment with me two hundred times in the past and/or distant future somewhere along the space time continuum, he simply pointed at me, nodded his head, and said, “Yuengling.” Not as a question or an idea but as an absolute as certain as sunsets and gravity. And I nodded back in acknowledgement of his excellence and that was that. One moment shared between two men who understood the universe as it was meant to be understood. That was my Buddha moment. My instant enlightenment. I drank that beer then had another and another and many more since then, but in that one moment...