Beer Mystic Burp #12: Stroh’s Cans to the Head

I suddenly have vivid memories of survival in Flint, Michigan, Motor City Jr., birthplace of GM. I was a stranger here because I rode a bike with books of poetry in my back pocket and some locals could smell this alienness a million miles away. Riding a bike was simply deemed unpatriotic, weird. Motorists cut you off the road because, as they made quite plain yelling out the side window, that since bicyclists don’t pay road taxes they were justified in hurling empty Stroh’s cans [or not always so empty] at your head – and somehow manage to hit you in the head! – as they pass you in maybe a souped-up Wildcat [or Olds 442] at 45, turning up WRIF as they passed – AAAARRRRGH! How did they do that; where is their practice range? Is there a Stroh’s Empty Can Lobbying Range out North Genessee Road?

So, instead I’d bike to school on the sidewalks only to come out of my Native American History class to find my tires slashed [radical motorists?] and then one day, stolen. Me and my father headed down to the police station on a Saturday morning to browse through the hundreds of recovered bikes, unable to find mine. I considered picking out a nice one and claiming “There it is!” What would have been the difference to them, to anyone? But I’m as bad a liar as my father was. That’s a lie, some will say. See what I mean? [Was my father loyal to my mother only because of his inability to lie convincingly and thus never risked having an affair?]

After that I’d either get a ride with my mom on her way to some housecleaning job in Grand Blanc [perfectly named suburb, really] or hitchhike, giving myself enough time, knowing most days I wouldn’t get picked up and I’d end up walking.

I never got picked up much on my way home either. Until one day a cool, spacy lady, with a Ziggy Stardust-type shag haircut stopped, leaned forward across the steering wheel – her perfect smile and cleavage creating a makeshift sign of the cross in my mind. She owned the Hair to the Throne beauty salon at the mall. I tried to remember Ziggy lyrics to impress her: “she could lick’em by smiling / She could leave’m to hang…” But these just seemed too suggestive, maybe they weren’t even right…

I thought of other beauty salon names: Hairport, The Mane Attraction, Hair Brained… as we rode in, but didn’t say a word lest she think I was disrespecting her career. I watched her shift gears perfectly, her perfectly tanned and contoured limbs in total sync with her Porsche. “I like a manual; I like control.” I could barely speak – beauty [especially from outer space] does that to me. She turned up her tapedeck: “… droogie don’t crash here / There’s only room for one and here she comes…” With hair, lyrics and music all totally in sync. I was hopelessly in awe.

She picked me up about twice a week, and always offered to shag my hair – for free. I always managed a smirk. “Don’t you trust me?” “Yea, but…” There was a date or something like it in here somewhere but opportunity-snuffing levels of shyness prevented any advances that might have led to drinking Blue Nun on her couch, listening to her records, staring at a framed Helmut Newton nude on her wall…

You know what I did? I changed my schedule at college so I would no longer run into her. Such is the annoying power of beauty.

My parents had moved from Upstate New York to Wisconsin to Flint, Michigan, in the space of a few years; the American dream eluding them like a quarter rolling down the street and down a sewer grate. What a coincidence, my father was a metallurgical engineer who “made” that very sewer grate and that one and – and no, I didn’t know Michael Moore or members of Grand Funk Railroad, although my brother had Mark Farner’s English teacher, so you can stop asking…

They found a provisional apartment in a cheap part of Flint, downtown, near the Buick plant, with a view over its expansive flat roof – maybe on Industrial or Stewart Ave. The apartment was a noisy, dingy hole with smokey shag carpet that had absorbed its share of suspicious bodily fluids. They lived here for 6 months as they searched for a more suitable home in an affordable suburb.

The Lion’s Den or Flintstone Bar & Grill or something, was located right under our front window. Assembly-line workers would hang out here after their shifts, all times of the day; some coming off the third shift were already drinking by 7 in the morning. There are some truisms that are true: wherever there’s demeaning labor, there’s a bar close by – usually right across the street from any factory.

I came to visit my parents from college during holidays. My father would get up at 5. I’d watch him leave the house – tie, white shirt – passing the men hanging on the corner, leaning against the mailbox, the lamppost, just starting to drink or wrapping up a bender. He worked at the General Foundry, which produced heavy metal parts – brake drums and stuff – for GM cars, mostly Buicks and Chevy Suburbans.

Late at night I couldn’t sleep so I’d stare out the window and felt like asking: “Don’t you have any place you need or want to be?” I knew they didn’t; wasted, they couldn’t even dream where they wanted to be without seeing a commercial of it first. Guys hacking and spitting, horsing around with cocked revolvers and karate moves – “From One Beer Lover To Another” [classic Stroh’s slogan]  – trying to forget the way home to wives who’d long ago given up on them and their stories. Too high, too wired, chugging beers outside, chucking the empties against a side wall under my bedroom window.

One night a bullet shot through our front window; nobody got hurt, no one found the bullet. My father called the cops who came shuffling in on their heels. They were immediately perturbed that he’d called them; it wasn’t urgent, no one had been hit – at least not in our place. Flint had a high murder rate back then, similar to Detroit’s I think, a quite hard little city and so, don’t call the cops unless its bingo, and you can produce an actual shooting victim.

I looked it up: Flint still has a high murder rate to this very day, ranked 7th among US bigger cities, only 4% of US cities are less safe than Flint. This was stuff you didn’t see in documentaries about America at that time, at least not the ones my parents had seen prior to emigrating from Amsterdam. Socialists handing out The Militant newspaper at the plant gates knew why and they didn’t mind telling me or anybody else: these images simply don’t jive with capitalist propaganda’s “roads paved with gold” – ending their sarcastic phrases with an all-knowing “HA!”

My mom, in 1961, descended our Hawthorne hovel stairs down to the luncheonette to confront the be-bopping rockabilly types – or were they bikers? – demanding they pleaz turn the jukebox down. They fooled with her, trying to dance with her to make light, you know, harmless… Ah, it’s a generation thing. And here she was [a notoriously light sleeper who can hear a gun being cocked a thousand miles away] up to her old tricks again. Heading down our stairs in her pink deja vu night gown and curlers, calling my father a lafaard [chicken]. On the street, confronting these men, pointing her finger like some half ghost – “I haf to werk in de morning!” They couldn’t believe their eyes; there they stood with gashes in their foreheads [like shimmering wounds you swear could talk], holding their paper cups filled with rotgut vodka and diet Faygo Red Pop, or crushing beer cans in their bare hands or flicking their butts at the dogs scurrying by, knocking each other’s hats off, some rough-house punches launched now and then. But suddenly you could hear the chuckles trailing off and you could hear Flint’s “quiet” – the eternal plant hum – meaning that in some way they respected her as a working-class lady or something.
By the time I came back in the spring, my family had found a home in the suburb of Burton with its winding, bird-name, dirt roads where my father announced he’d gotten me a job at the General Foundry as a fill-in and molder’s assistant. You have to understand that working in a foundry where they bribed every OSHA guy to ever come through it was dangerous to life, lung, and limb.

I rode in with my father at 5:15. The first day he gave me all the standard safety equipment he could find: earplugs, air mask, helmet, gloves, goggles. Walking onto the foundry floor that first day was like something out of “Man Who Fell To Earth” – I swear I was the only one wearing any of these recommended safety devices. And one of the only ones to ever wear any of these things, many didn’t even know this equipment was available, not that they would lower themselves to  faggot status and requisition any of it.

My father never said much but some mornings he would say something that would just hang there in the car like an aphorism propelled by flatulence. One morning he described his blue collar crew: “It’s good people forgetting how good they once were and too tired to act that way now anyway.”

The work was so hard, dangerous, suffocating, hot, and mindless but still you had to manage to keep your wits about you or die. My entire body ached for weeks like it was entering some new devolutionary [reptilian] phase. Every afternoon at 3:30 I’d take a really long shower at home noticing that the smell of hard labor in a dangerous place – the soot, the oily coal dust, the grime, the  stink, the fear – “never” really came out of your nose, pores, ears with ordinary soap. Blow your nose, it came out black. I remember staring at the white toilet paper holding my alien black snot.

By 3:45 I’d be out in my parents backyard with a book of poems; I was reading Leonard Cohen’s The Spice-Box of Earth as I sagged into the lawn chair in the sun … “Beneath my hands / your small breasts / are the upturned bellies / of breathing fallen sparrows” … drifting in and out of sleep. A kind of hypnagogic state of reverie where your dreams are still enamored of life’s possibilities, which I now remember with some fondness as some of the most satisfying moments of my life. That is how good it felt and I don’t know exactly why.

I was awakened and staring into a late afternoon sun, which was suddenly blotted out by a dark head, a pretty eclipse in the shape of Faith, our cheery neighbor girl. Robust with baby-fat arms, a cheerleader-hopeful, and a body already developed far beyond her ability to know what to do with it. You know the kind, always futzing with their bra straps and saying things like “You gotta have Faith,” without any sense of irony or self-consciousness. But, you know, you never know.

Blond, Botero-esque, tentative, crossing her legs – I’m squinting into the sun and now her eclipse – fingering her bellybutton, wondering “what do you think of this bathing suit? My mom thinks its too much.”

“There’s not too much of much there.”

“So you agree with me?”

“I guess.”

Her smile was like quicksand, it took possession of her entire face, totally transforming it – dimples, freckles, green eyes enlarged and then disappearing, before her smile took possession of you. It was summer and for Faith it wasn’t much of a vacation, having to babysit her bratty brother all alone every weekday, cooped up in the house, with a strict prohibition on friends – her parents enlisting neighbors to keep an eye on the house. Faith was all of 15 [she may have even been lying about that] and no ordinary girl and she was bursting at the seams to have me notice that. Or so I thought.

Her father was a dour guy in an Army jacket with a perpetual scowl even when he was on his beloved riding lawnmower. I only learned later how brutal he was as an ex-military whatever. Her mother was an overworked drone [accounting at Fisher Body] the dread of consumption far outstripping income weighing heavy on her former good looks. She was someone you’d have compassion for her if you didn’t know her daughter.

“My parents say they can’t afford to take us on vacation, so we’re not goin’ anywhere.”

Over the course of the summer she would regularly – every day! – invite me over to listen to records: Uriah Heep, Peter Frampton, Jojo Gunne, Todd Rundgren, Bad Company, Grand Funk – did I like them too? You can be honest without being too dismissive – I liked this and that by Todd, 1 or 2 by Grand Funk…  that is as close as a 19-year-old guy comes to tenderness.

Should I bring over Neil Young’s On The Beach, Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece? Eno, Roxy Music? Better not. If her father were to come home drunk or sober after work he’d be pissed if he found me there and he would, as I understood it, beat her. She said he liked the belt, with the buckle. She could show me. I said I believed her; no need to yank down your hot pants to show me the bruises… OK, I see and, yes, definitely dramatic and he’s definitely a shithead [she may have called him that herself more than once] …

Her brother played up his full brattiness, announcing at regular intervals that he was going to rat on her for showing her butt to me. “She shows her boobies all the time. Give her a quarter and you can see’m too. Mom says Faith’s a slut.”

“SHUT UP!” she chased him through the house, swinging her fists in the stale air. Chased him up the stairs and locked him in his room.

He chanted “Slut! Slut! Slut!” as he banged on his locked bedroom door, the walls and floor.

“He was a jerk when he was born.” Exasperation, furrowed brows. “I’m not like that. Really!”

We went downstairs to listen to her records. She sang along to Uriah Heep: “We must keep them away / Or pretty soon we’ll pay / And count the cost in sorrow…” gazing at the wall, on the edge of the couch. “That’s ‘Circle of Hands’ and if I saw them live – that’ll never happen with my prison-guard parents – I wonder if Heep’s words could help me…”
She closed the door, put the needle down on another record – JoJo Gunne. It was pretty dark and I could hear her breathing, singing along “I make love, I make love, duduhduh / But just don’t gimme none of that / Too cool for love / It might just hit you right between the eyes…”

She guided my hand over her wounds, duduhdu, like I was a marionette who, by tracing her body with my hands, could give her shape and meaning. But how all this escalated in conjunction with blood pressure, blood engorgement, pulse rate and a scandal involving exhibitionism, and blackmail is another intriguing story altogether.

Her brother had opened his bedroom window was yelling “HELP!” at the top of his lungs and started tossing stuff out – lamps, board games, puzzles, clothes, model cars, walkie talkies …

Faith had an absolute fit. Screaming, her hands flexed like a bobcat’s claws. I helped her gather the stuff off the front yard – the kid, I agreed, was a brat, definitely disturbed. We brought the stuff back into the house and upstairs because if she didn’t put his room back in order before her mom or dad got home she’d get a whipping. “Whip the slut,” I heard him say in a creepy tone of voice.

“My dad likes the belt. He’s Army. I hate Army.” She opened the closet, showed me the belt with a buckle of two rifles crossed over a Confederate flag. “The only way to make him happy is let him watch TV.” And that is what he was now doing – well, that plus yelling at the screen and pelting it with his favorite toys. Knifing a stuffed animal with a scissor. Fluff all over.

“You want lemonade? I don’t have beer.”

“No, I better go. I don’t wanna cause any problems.”

“Can we do the same thing again some other time?” She sounded so desperate. Like your arm is a lifeline.

“Why not. I’ll bring some LPs over.”

“Totally Cool!”

“I better go.”

“ OK, but remember ‘today is only yesterday’s tomorrow’.”

It was around this time I started drinking beer. I’d had beer in high school but shotgunning clandestine Genessees outside a pup tent along a trout creek and then chasing trout with your bare hands in your underwear wasn’t quite the same thing.

After a long, cold spell in relations with my father due to the complications highlighted by the generation gap, my disdain for authority and preference for an unruly haircut, his relationship to me and to the labor market slowly began to evolve. It would take another 10 or so blows – being summarily dismissed for doing his job too well, seeing the people who worked for him being treated better – to his upstanding belief in the work ethic and that quality and experience were always in due time justly rewarded… before I would eventually be proven right. He asked, “What’s so great about being white collar anyway?” There’s no dignity in being right, there is no victory when all we have left is bitter memories of the moment we began buying into the big lies told to us by men in suits. He even traded in his Green Card and became a US citizen, hoping that would further prevent his being dismissed/fired so easily. “First we have to pay for the big lies with taxes and then we pay for them again later with our dignity.”

We didn’t drink a lot together, just one or two before and/or after dinner, usually what was on sale at Meijer’s Thrifty Acres – Stroh’s, Milwaukee’s Best, Pabst, Bud, Schlitz, Heileman or sometimes something exotically “foreign” like Molson’s or Coor’s.

We’d sit in the setting sun in the backyard – you could hear the clack of dishes as my mom cleaned up – discussing, ah why not, the Maize & Blue’s Big Ten fortunes, the boldness of young women today, did women “belong” in factories? My mom now yelling at my brother to do his homework. We even improvised a tenuous version of the Stroh’s commercial we both loved where a father emotionally confronts his son asking: “Son, answer me. Do you drink beer?” The son responds tearfully: “Yes, dad, I drink beer. I’m 34 years old!” The father places his arm around his son, and simply wants to be assured that when his son drinks beer it’s Stroh’s.

I personally preferred Stroh’s, still a local beer at that time, not because of any inherent great taste, but because it was local, affordable and certainly did not taste any worse than the giants. We poured the on-sale beer into our glasses and then crushed the cans in our hands as we looked toward the horizon, an empty lot with mounds of dubious landfill dumped there. We both smelled of sweet bug spray. Few words were spoken – a little baseball or football, the foundry, the ex-murderer I work next to, shoveling off the foot of soot off the sagging foundry roof and whether this job was safe, how difficult it was getting up at 5 when I only just got to bed at 2, with Faith hearing me returning, whispering out her window: “I SEEE you! Do you want to see ME?” I could only think  about her old man, and, NO, I do not have a death wish.

There was an element of bonding, something challenging, something alchemical about discovering how far down the price scale you can go before beer becomes undrinkable. Where is your threshold, that moment of equilibrium where beer is both affordable and still tastes good. Where does affordable become cheap; where does beer slide from hops to piss; where does that delightful buzz crash dive into headache? You squat down by the cans on the bottom shelf that don’t even bear a logo and are just called BEER.

We established that the secret of a drinkable, mediocre beer is this: you must enlist your own taste buds to collaborate with imagination, speculation, a greater narrative and through some willful, although not altogether clear, alchemical formula of equal parts hope, magic, thirst, air temperature, beer temperature, and a beer’s inherent hopsly qualities plus the ingrained conviviality bred by comradely consumption of beer. And thenamong the interworkings of all of these variables, a standard, mediocre, factory-brewed beer may actually emerge as a good-tasting brew, well beyond even its own wildest advertising claims and for a few moments then you [we] are engaging in heady alchemy, making of a mediocre brew something special, something other worldly.

As someone wise or drunk or both – or was it just me? – once said: “It’s not you, it’s not the beer, it’s the story you and beer together tell.”


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3 thoughts on “Beer Mystic Burp #12: Stroh’s Cans to the Head

  1. Great piece Bart. Fascinating to see Flint BEFORE the decline mapped out in ‘Roger and Me’. Or, I’m guessing here, around the same time. The truth is, huge sections of industrial America were dying for a decade or more before the 80’s, and the cities they sustained along with them, and the people left behind were angry, marginalized. Still, now all that’s gone, what do we replace it with?

  2. yea, tim. in a certain distant poetic way, the things i [among others] experienced in thanx for yr comments tim. always welcome. flint in those years was a pre-precursor of what is happening now in the US. i already sensed decline and total macho denial of that decline. th problem now is that everyone sees the problem NOW but not in 1995, 2004, 2006 – then the grumpy crazy progressive anarcho types were typecast as sore losers or delusional or worse… now everyone knows the problem. yes, it is difficult going back to those places. i also lived just under asbury park and saw it go to less than zero. i mean there were about 2 dozen people living in bruce’s asbury or so it seemed. it just did not feel like a first world place when i lived there in the mid-80s [ocean grove, next town s. of asbury] but strangely i enjoyed the feeling of decay as a kind of quiet triumph, a whimper of capital or i dunno… it was interesting.

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