Thanksgiving 2016 my partner and I headed down to Boston for a meal with friends. We were in the post-election haze, feeling apprehensive, angry, and stupid. The future was bleak and our imaginations filled in the four years ahead of us with every disaster imaginable: constitutional rights trampled, women and immigrants and people of color suppressed, racists and anti-semites given free rein, nuclear war, and, worst of all, the smug, sneering faces at the presidential prick’s rallies, reveling in their victory and wallowing with pride in the “greatness” to come. Trump was, in characteristically perverse style, correct: we were so tired of winning.
It was Thanksgiving, though there didn’t feel like much to be thankful for. Everything we did have, stability, friends, family, health, and so on, felt blotted out and stained. Perhaps that in itself reflects a kind of privilege, the privilege of forgetting the relative ease of your life. Despite looking forward to a couple days spent among good friends, all I could see was the four years ahead and the failures behind: repeated struggles on the academic job market and the ongoing existential crisis provoked by same, worries about settling into a life of mediocrity, a pretty sad looking bank account, and deeper anxieties that are frankly none of your business. If I had so far managed to suspend all that angst, to tell myself that it was all temporary and that I’d come out okay in the end, the election seemed to nudge my situation out of the virtual and into the actual. Four years is a long time. Maybe it’s forever.
I had been tasked with bringing liquor and cocktail materials, so in the back seat of our rental car, there was a box with a standard set of ingredients and tools: rye and gin, lemons and limes, dry and sweet vermouth, bitters, and a travel kit of bar tools my partner had thoughtfully purchased for me. If life was in doubt, we could at least drink.
The meal was good and it was good to be with friends. It was a smallish gathering, maybe ten people total. I mixed drinks for some, others sipped wine. We ate goose instead of turkey, a welcome change of pace. Despite our best efforts, conversation drifted toward “the political situation,” or whatever you call what was happening. And we kept talking and drinking cocktails and wine, and the conversation kept drifting, and soon it became clear that the party was still going, but we could not just keep pounding cocktails or we’d all end up passed out on the floor. No problem, I’d go get some beer.
New York City’s liquor laws are incomprehensible, but you learn to navigate them. As a Jew, I find their Old Testament-style mysteries relatable. They dictate that a grocery store can sell food and beer but not wine and spirits. A liquor store can sell wine and spirits, but not beer or food. This leads to a kind of Talmudic hairsplitting, where some liquor stores will not sell bitters, deeming them food rather than drink. Grocery stores and bodegas, because they sell food, will not sell wine. Instead, they stock the abhorrent “wine product” Chateau Diane, because it is not technically wine, whatever that means. Liqueur-soaked cherries, while they contain spirits, are abominations in the eyes of the Lord and so find themselves exiled to specialty food stores. The ways of the New York City Liquor Authority are not to given to man to understand.
Massachusetts liquor laws, while reasonable on their face, conceal a cruel caveat. You can get your food, wine, spirits, and beer all in one place, sure. But on two days a year — Thanksgiving and Christmas Day — the state reverts to its bygone Puritanism and forsakes the sale of alcohol. There is a good reason for this. The idea is that restricting alcohol sales will reduce drunk driving on two of the worst driving days of the year. It’s sensible legislation. It probably saves lives. Fine.
They don’t tell you this when you enter the state, though. There are no holiday signs that read “Welcome to Massachusetts: Hope You Brought a Six-Pack.” There is no warning posted above the Gillette razor blade factory that greets cars entering Boston. And this seasonal dryness, I would argue, is salient information. It’s the sort of local custom you want to know, like which side of the road to drive on or whether tipping is expected in restaurants.
And so, when it was no longer feasible to keep drinking cocktails made with London gin and high-proof rye, and I volunteered to make a beer run to the corner store, my hosts looked at me with pity in their eyes and delivered the bad news. It was not only unexpected, it felt a little outrageous, and so I went a little libertarian. How could the government decide that on whatever random day that I could no longer use my hard-earned money to buy something that was legal basically every other day of the year? This government meddling in the lives of ordinary citizens cannot stand. Even if there was a public health logic to the law, there was no justice in it.
Surely there was some exception for this. I mean, you used to be able to smoke in Denny’s restaurants for years after smoking was banned in all other restaurants. Why? You aren’t really eating Moons Over My Hammy unless there’s a charred, stale smell lingering in your nostrils, that’s why. Cigarette smoke is part of the gestalt, same as the earth tones of a Starbucks. There must be some national chain that had flexed its muscles and demanded an exemption in order to corner the Massachusetts holiday booze market. But no, I was told, no such luck. American capitalism’s pitiless amorality had chosen today, of all goddamn days, to take a holiday.
I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking, but at that point I made recourse to my usual strategy when these things happen and went into full denial. Drinking more was no longer the point (yes it was). This was a matter of principle (and also the drinking). “You could buy booze yesterday, and you’ll be able to buy booze tomorrow,” I declared. “I’ll be damned if I can’t find some today.”
Every city has a black market. Downtown Manhattan used to be littered with black market outlets, like an illicit mall. Handshake drugs in Tompkins Square Park, dimebag hustlers in Washington Square Park, bootleg CDs sold from tables scattered all over the Lower East Side, unsanctioned t-shirts on St. Marks, prohibition-era speakeasies, the various hook-up spots gay men would frequent for anonymous sex, and so on. They’ve mostly been flushed out, or at least reduced in size, by Giuliani-style crackdowns, overpolicing, gentrification, drug delivery services, and the internet. But before all that, if you knew where to go and what to do when you got there, it was there for you, at least theoretically. I never lived in that New York. Maybe I caught a glimpse of it, some remnants are still around. But I’m not well-trained enough to know it when I see it.
Boston must have been no different. But if my senses were dulled to New York’s black markets, then I knew nothing at all about Boston’s, much less those of the specific neighborhood where my friends lived, Jamaica Plains. What was I or anyone doing in Boston, anyway? My friends had moved there for a job, but despite their best efforts, the city was not to their liking. The only reason any of us were there at all was because these friends are the sort of people you make the trip for. What dark avenues would I have to travel to find Boston’s Thanksgiving demimonde? How would I perform the subtle gestures, the knowing nods? When asked for the secret password, what would I say? How long would this journey take?
Like 30 minutes, as it turned out. I headed out into the night with another guest, who I’ll call Paul, and our hosts’ dog, who is a good girl but not very intimidating. We walked down a hill, crossed a major intersection, cut through a park and some public housing and ended up on a street with a strip mall on one side and some convenience stores on the other. There was nothing doing in the strip mall, but one of the convenience stores was open. Paul and I figured our best bet was just to pop in and ask. It must be a slow night, maybe they’d be grateful for the extra business and flout the law. Paul stayed outside with the dog, I did a quick lap around the convenience store, and found that it was the sort of place that apparently never sold alcohol, not even on regular days. I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew of anywhere that might sell us some beer. She shook her head, even after I said I’d be willing to pay a little extra. She was a middle-aged woman, clearly English was her second language, and she didn’t want to be rude but also obviously did not want whatever problems I was bringing with me. I thanked her and left.
Paul and I stood there for a minute considering our options. As we were about to walk off, a kid, maybe mid-to-late teens, who had been hanging out in the store came out and asked if he had heard right: were we looking to buy some beer? He told us he knew someone who could hook us up, he’d be right back.
Paul went into the convenience store and pulled out cash from an ATM, and by the time he came out, the kid had returned.
“Okay,” he said, “My guy’s got a case of Corona.”
“How much?” I asked.
Now, $60 is an absurd price for what he was selling, well over twice what you would pay in any grocery store. But the situation was desperate, and there was risk involved, and I was just happy things were resolving themselves so quickly.
“Fine,” I said.
“No,” Paul said. “40.”
This seemed unusual. I didn’t know Paul well, but he didn’t strike me as the kind of guy to haggle with strange men on the street. He was a mathematician, so maybe that had something to do with it. But really, I think he understood that he was in the middle of a story he’d tell people when he got back home, and that he hadn’t played an active enough role yet. He wanted a better part. I understood the impulse, no one wants to be a bystander in their own story. At the same time, I worried he would blow it, that his attempt to seize narrative agency would read as arrogance to the kid, and we’d be left standing there, two beerless schmucks and one dog on a chilly Thanksgiving night.
“50,” he said.
“Done!” I said, before Paul could speak up.
The kid pointed to a corner about 300 feet away, and told us his friend had it in his trunk, that he’d pull up over there. We walked down and waited. Nothing happened. We kept waiting and nothing kept happening. We agreed that something felt off, that we should go back and ask the kid what was up. I could see him still standing in front of the convenience store, a silhouette against the fluorescent lights glowing in the window. But we didn’t want to risk not being at the corner, just in case the car with the beer did show up. Also, we didn’t know this kid. He seemed fine, but it was a weird situation. If I asked him what was up, maybe he wouldn’t like it. So we agreed that Paul would stay at the corner with the money, and I’d take the very good but, again, not very intimidating dog and go talk to the kid. We referred to this as “our strategy.”
As I approached the convenience store, I realized there was someone new talking to the kid. He was bigger and older. I asked what was up, and the kid said the beer was here. Why did he tell us to wait at the corner? We never got an answer on that. I waved Paul back over, and he handed money to the new guy. Maybe it was the shadows cast by the convenience store light, or maybe it was just the situation, the saddest drug deal ever made, but the new guy looked tougher, harder. He held eye contact and didn’t smile.
“So,” I said. “Where is it?”
“It’s right there,” the guy said, and nodded to his right. I looked over and saw a dark alley leading to a staircase. It had “trap” written all over it. I felt proud of myself for recognizing the situation, on having both “book smarts” and “street smarts.” What a rare combination!
“Hell no,” I said. “I’m not going up there. Bring it down here.”
“It’s right there,” the guy said.
“Just bring it down and we’ll go,” I said.
Things were getting tense. Anything could happen now. The guy looked exasperated.
“It’s right there. On the ground. Pick it up,” he said.
I looked down and saw, on the ground in front of the alley, a box wrapped in a black plastic bag. Jesus. I handed the leash to Paul and hoisted the box onto my shoulder, satisfied by the weight and clinking of the bottles. I thanked the new guy.
“You guys aren’t from around here, are you?” he said.
“No,” I said. “Where I’m from you can just buy beer at the fucking CVS.”
Paul and I headed back and burst into our hosts’ apartment, a petty victory wrapped in plastic and firmly in hand. People exploded in shock and joy, a little because we got the beer, but mostly for accomplishing what had seemed like an impossible task. We played a drinking game, and I lost badly. It had felt like a season for losing, the post-election darkness closing in and smothering whatever meager optimism had survived the generally inhospitable conditions in which it clung to life. But really, in the haze of a good meal among friends, we were all winning. Against all probability and in the dumbest way possible, we had pulled one out, or at least that was what it felt like at the time. Is it overblown, irrational, borderline incoherent to say that, in overpaying for a case of shitty beer off some dudes in Jamaica Plains, we were were taking one back from Trump, someone who we thought, even before his inauguration, had taken so much from us? Yes, yes, yes. It makes no sense. But I didn’t care at the time. I don’t care today. The connection was felt if not real. It’s Thanksgiving. Give thanks for what you can get, get it wherever you can, make it mean what you will.