“You sound like a complete asshole, dude.”
The remark caught me off guard, but it shouldn’t have. Its source, Brendan, and I have been good friends since we were 13 years old. And after taking three small but deliberate sips of a pilsner, I’d described it as having a “strong, hoppy start, but a leaden, kinda pale ale-like finish”. The insult thus came from a reputable source, someone who has seen me at my worst, and someone who had every right to speak the truth.
My critique of the beer, and the subsequent gut check from Brendan, were signs of the unfortunate self-seriousness that accompanies growing up, and the timelessness of friendships that fight it.
As years have passed, most of the details have faded. Scripted stories from the past turn into broad memories; the memories turn into themes; the less-significant themes disappear. In my adult life, though, two details remain from all memories: the friends I was with and the beer I was drinking. The former have remained remarkably stable, their ranks growing at times, but their loyalty and their levity serving as rocks. The latter has succumbed to adulthood, shifting in phases, each one more evolved than that prior.
The shift in beer preference hasn’t been planned. Its coinciding with a generally more serious outlook is probably nothing more than randomness. But in an annoyingly introspective time in my life, the beers that I’ve drank are important. They, and the asshole friends like Brendan, are most of what I’ve got. So here goes.
A DECADE OF MACRO LIGHTS
My family was packed into the closest thing to a frat house that the University of Notre Dame allowed. It was family weekend at ND, and we were with my older brother Neil, then a freshman, for a pre-game “keg and eggs” party. I was, like any 12-year-old, bored by the surrounding grown-up chatter, uninterested in the runny eggs, and feeling quite anxious. My dad, much to Neil’s dismay, gave me a quarter-full Solo cup of ice cold Bud Light.
I took my first sip, thrilled but scared, and gulped it down.
It was absolutely disgusting.
Not that I’d let anyone know that. The beer made me feel like one of the adults. I engaged in conversations that I could only somewhat comprehend, laughing when it was necessary, and doing my best to mesh. The typical boring, tag-along affair was now the party of my life. As the youngest kid in the family by four years, these moments of ostensibly equal standing were few and far between but immensely cherished. (Note: Mama and Papa Ruddock weren’t OK with me drinking beer outside of these rare settings until I was in college.)
Years later I was a proud member of the (now-defunct) Beta Beta chapter of Kappa Sigma Fraternity. Milwaukee’s Best Light–“Beast”–was the beverage of choice based on its price and the fact that “skunking” it had no discernible effect on its horrendous taste. Beast accompanied and fueled many standard fraternity events: nighttime dance parties, happy hours, etc.
But it also helped us gather the courage to speak to each other as emotionally honest human beings, a task that certainly doesn’t come naturally to 18-22 year old men. At one annual tradition we’d gather all of the pledges and brothers in a dimly-lit room. Select brothers would take turns sharing stories of personal tragedy and fraternal assistance. As we sipped our various macro brews, tough-as-nails guys bared their feelings in front of their closest 75 friends. We talked of family members lost, addictions overcome, academic problems dealt with, and more. Every brother’s story was met with resounding support and signs of affection.
As a sophomore I observed the testimonies with a case of Beast at my side. After hearing a brother speak about losing a close friend I gained a booze-abetted understanding. My sheltered life would, at some point, yield tragedy. And these were the guys I wanted with me when it struck.
POST-COLLEGE ADJUSTMENTS AND OVERPRICED EUROLAGERS
Modern undergraduate education is good at developing some skills: critical thinking, time management, and basic budgeting. If you’re lucky (poly sci major working in advertising, so, nope!), maybe it actually will give you some professionally-relevant knowledge. What it is not good at is giving you any semblance of what the hell is in store for you in the real world.
Like many fresh college grads, I overestimated my own intelligence and the fulfillment that working in corporate America would provide. Having spent four years writing essays about complicated, esoteric subjects, I was ill-prepared to spend 50 hours a week poring through spreadsheets and emails. Similarly, my social life experienced unwelcome change. It had previously involved going to parties where I was widely recognized, reasonably well-liked, and plenty well-financed to attend. (Beast is, again, quite cheap.) You didn’t have to impress anyone at a frat party.
From this relaxed environment I was plunged into a bar-centered, prohibitively expensive scene in a city where self-seriousness is a redeeming virtue. I tried to blend in, thus, by buying clothes and beers I could barely afford and knew little about. Macros were replaced with $8 pints of Eurolagers like Stella Artois and Kronenbourg. The beers were emblematic of my struggle to fit in and adjust: I was expending more effort and money to look cool and succeed but wasn’t quite “doing it” right.
Alas, it was over a tallboy of Stella that I met one of my closest friends, a guy who would help steer me out of my wayward ways.
Atop our Upper East Side rooftop, fellow Gilmour Academy Lancers Brendan, Eric, Bryce and I were engaged in a debate about applied physics. Much like the Supreme Court in President Obama’s reign, we were split. A coworker, Tom, volunteered to be our Anthony Kennedy. The details are unimportant–none of us could probably pass a 9th grade physics class these days–but the required experimentation involved me throwing a bratwurst across Third Avenue to see where it landed.
After declaring a set “fault line” and placing multiple spotters, I hurled the brat much further than I thought scientifically possible. Tom prevailed, but more importantly, showed himself (and his friends, who I remain close with to this day) to be above the city’s bullshit self-importance.
Icing was a brief but critical phase in my beer-life story. On one occasion, the aforementioned party placed a Smirnoff Ice in the charcoal chamber of a grill, forcing my new friend Dave to drink it. Months later, it provided the highlight of the best weekend I’ve ever spent with my older brother.
Neil and I are close, but due to distance and conflicting work schedules have spent far too little time together. We capped off a great and rare three day trip in Indianapolis by attending a Browns-Colts game. Sunday afternoon, fresh out of early-morning mass, we were two of four Browns jerseys in a sea of blue pregaming at Kilroy’s. One group eyed us from across the bar; based on experiences in enemy territory with Giants and Jets fans, I expected trouble.
Soon after, a waitress came over with two Smirnoff Ices on a tray and informed us we had been Iced. The formerly-menacing fans were now smiling and waving at us, and the server informed us the beverages had been paid for. Indianans, I learned then, haze people by buying them drinks.
CRAFT BEER, DAYDRINKING, AND THE FACTORY OF SADNESS
In 2012 I was single and most of my friends were not. Tom, an exception, became a regular drinking buddy. Occasionally joined by
gingers redheads Blake and Keaton, we began to eschew latenight bars and overpriced beers for daydrinking (which generally featured terrific beer specials) and build-your-own-six-packs with puppy-watching. Craft beer was blowing up in New York, and we had finally decided that we’d rather drink fewer but better-tasting nice beers than chug Eurolagers or macros.
Aside from the better prices and selection, places like Top Hops and Pony Bar provided ideal venues for actual conversations. You didn’t go to these places to talk to girls or fist bump to some terrible Bieber song; you went there to shoot the breeze and bullshit with friends.
Craft beer also helped bring cohesion to a group of friends largely split by relationship status. Eric started hosting us for Browns games at he and his now-fiance’s apartment. He provided the TV and NFL Sunday Ticket; we provided the beer from City Swiggers; the Browns provided myriad reasons to drink them.
Craft beer-drinking isn’t about excess, but some days the team gave us no choice. The drafting of Brandon Weeden caused a hole in my apartment wall via Eric; just about every pass Weeden attempted in the NFL coincided with an incremental beer consumed.
Unlike the team we watched, there was a creeping suspicion that we were growing up. These Sundays would be some of the last occasions we’d have to relax, all together, without children or other serious-life accouterments.
HOME SWEET DORTMUNDER
In the short-term wake of a serious loss, suffering is omnipresent. This makes it easier to remember the few good moments, most of which involved beer.
Eventually the inevitable occurred. Tragedy struck. “Fortunately” (the word seems imprecise here, but I can’t do any better), my network of fraternity brothers stayed true to their word. The pledge class three years below mine sent weeks’ worth of gourmet ready-to-eat meals to my mom. My class sent a boquet of flowers with a note so beautiful that I wept for minutes at a time while reading it. Coworkers and other friends acted similarly, checking on me multiple times a day, inquiring about my family, and taking care of my affairs back in New York.
I heard the bad news over a Narragansett Light with Tom and other former colleagues. My mom broke the news by first asking if I was with friends. Looking into the bar at Tom I emphatically replied “yes”.
Later that night Eric and Brendan dropped their Friday plans to join me for Great Lakes Dortmunders at my apartment. It was a reminder that, no matter where we had gone in life, my friends would be there through the shit times. (They later changed their flights at a considerable monetary cost to get me on an earlier return flight.)
The next morning I showed up to LaGuardia hungover and a visible mess. Trying to choke down food and choke back tears, I boarded the plane with the brim of a Cleveland Indians cap draped over my eyes. A United flight attendant noticed me, touched my arm, and found me an isolated seat in the back of the plane. Later, she politely inquired what had happened. She said a few soothing words and brought me two Heinekens, refusing payment. Those who say humans falter in the face of adversity have yet to witness America’s worst airline provide exemplary customer service.
After the services, Eric, Brendan, John and other Cleveland friends joined my family and I for way too many Dortmunders. At the risk of garnering Brendan’s wrath, the beer’s familiar smoothness but bold, sweet flavor is something I’ll always cherish. It will serve as a reminder of the imperfect but memorable journey that has gotten me to this point. And more importantly, of the most crucial theme I have come to understand: how indispensable good friends are, and how fortunate I am to have so many of them.