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Bottoms Up


Harry Buschman

I was just two years old when the 18th Amendment was passed, and like most children born in that era I should have grown up in the middle of a temperate and tee totaling family. I did not, however. Although Prohibition was supposed to make America a soberer country, God fearing -- sedate and abstemious, it brought out our darker sides.

There is a danger in denying people the fruits of their labor and the pleasure of their vices. Prohibition did exactly that. There is an even greater danger in taking away the bottle before it’s empty, rather than permitting the drunk to finish it. In other words the discontinuance of a habit forming narcotic is more dangerous than the habit itself.

When God created man and woman he provided them with fascinating physical differences which were obvious to the two of them from the start. He realized His mistake almost immediately, but not being able to undo what He had done, told them both to back off, to ignore these trivial differences and get on with the business of seeding and weeding. Well, there are more than four billion of us now so it should be apparent that men and women will do whatever they damn please in spite of the consequences so long as there is fun in doing it. So it is with drinking.

My family were not profligate, nor were they drunks. I was never sent to bring my father home from the corner saloon, but none of them could stand for a law prohibiting them from drinking -- or smoking -- or any of the things they liked to do.

They were only minor offenders during the Prohibition era. My father and a neighbor from upstairs made wine in the cellar. Almost every tenement along St. John’s Place had a winery in the cellar, and in late summer, crates of wine grapes were piled high on the sidewalk outside every grocery store in Brooklyn. We carried the sour-sweet smell of fermentation in our clothes and hair all day and when we rolled into bed at night the bedding reeked of it. It was good wine too - better in some years than others, but good or not so good it would be gone by Thanksgiving.

My uncle made beer in the bath tub. It was a powerful beer, more powerful than the wine. He would finish a new batch every Saturday afternoon and when I took my Saturday night bath, the residue left my skin as soft as a baby’s. Between the wine and the beer our family weekends were filled with song and merriment, but had we observed the strict prohibitive amendment we would be fighting with each other until Monday rolled around.

Hard liquor was out of our league, so we had to be satisfied with wine and beer. I think the thorniest problem we faced was where to store the bottles when they were filled. Fermentation can be an explosive process if not done carefully -- I remember we kept the wine in the cellar but the beer was hidden in boxes behind the Kranach and Bach piano in the parlor. It was touch and go keeping it back there, and my mother was never really at ease when she sat down to play the piano.

We had relatives out in a place called Bergen Beach, a small community fronting on Grave’s End Bay. It was a secluded cove that led to the ocean by a route so tortuous that Coast Guard vessels ignored it. They didn’t bother brewing their own out in Bergen Beach, they enjoyed the cream of distilleries world
wide. They bootlegged -- they flourished, and in those ten years that spanned the 18th to the 21st Amendments they lived the high life.

Before bootlegging began, however, the aunts and uncles out in Bergen Beach lived from hand to mouth. My uncles Everett and Slocum were veterans of WW I and wore their army uniforms because they had nothing else to wear. Everett was exposed to phosgene gas and Slocum was hyper-sensitive to sudden noises, both of them worked as deck hands on a chartered fishing boat. It was the duty of all deck hands to clean and gut the fish on the trip back from the fishing grounds. There would always be more fish than everyone wanted and most of the blowfish, eels and sand sharks would be thrown back as food for the gulls - except Everett and Slocum brought them back home with them. That kind of fish is often called the garbage of the sea, but it was the main bill of fare for the folks in Bergen Beach. Whenever we went for a visit we made sure we didn’t stay for dinner.

Bergen Beach was not a beach at all. It was a little bluff of land, slightly above high tide level surrounded by wiry beach grass and dry reeds. Scrub oaks, stunted and starved for fresh water offered scarce shade in the summer and barely survived the fierce and frigid winds of winter. There was no sand, the land ended abruptly in mud banks where disgruntled sea gulls sat hunchbacked like money lenders in the temple and looked out on the bleak aspect of Grave’s End Bay. The only reason they sat there was to wait for the garbage the charter fishermen and the net boats threw overboard after following the runs of blue fish, bass, porgies and flounders.

This was the poor hand fate dealt my two veteran uncles, Everett, the gassed, Slocum, the jumpy, and their frugal wives and backward children.

When we went to visit we would take the Flatbush Avenue trolley car. We got on in the densely populated downtown of the tenement district of Bed/Stuy, and as we headed south, civilization would drop away bit by bit, the air would grow colder and more saline. Just when you’d think there was no point in going any further, the trolley made a hard left and between banks of tall reed grasses where no sign of life could be seen, it would travel on a single track, with a single wire above, the final mile to Bergen Beach. There, everyone got out -- even the motorman. He would cast a cautious eye about him and walk to the end of the car and pull the trolley wheel down. He would walk back again and raise the front trolley wheel -- the car was now set to run in the opposite direction. He would get in again and walk to the other end of the car and take his position as motorman -- off he’d go, the trolley swaying left and right as it grew smaller in our sight, leaving us marooned and homesick for the sight of
city people.

Bootleggers took a long careful look at Bergen Beach - they liked what they saw. It was off the beaten path and had access to the sea, and the sea was the source of the good stuff -- the single malt stuff from Scotland, the rare wines and brandies from France and the powerful whiskeys of Ireland. The waterways were hazardous, there were shoals and shallows blind inlets that led nowhere, there were tides that could run out and strand a boat in a muddy flat for twelve hours until it came back in again. Knowledgeable sailors could outrun the revenue boats here. They could run out to the twelve mile limit in the dead of night, all lights extinguished and come back again without the Coast Guard ever knowing.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Everett, the gassed and Slocum, the jumpy, and when the captain of the chartered fishing boat told them of his decision to go the bootlegging route they were all for it.

“Fishin’ days are over boys. I’m goin’ for the bucks.”

“Count us in,” Everett and Slocum were quick to volunteer.

“It means night work,” he reminded them. “It means sailin’ in the dark, mebbe even bein’ shot at.”

Everett glanced quickly at Slocum. “That okay by you, Slo?”

Slocum swallowed hard and nodded, but he didn’t say anything. Both of them had a wife and two kids and the money was too tempting to ignore.

During one of our final visits to Bergen Beach, (which later became known as 'Smuggler's Notch') we found Everett nattily attired in a pin stripe suit, wearing patent leather shoes and sporting a mustache. He was now a Mafioso soldier and he wore his mob uniform as proudly as he had worn the uniform of Uncle Sam. He added a play room on the side of his house in which he spent his idle afternoons. In it he installed a tournament sized billiard table and a bar. Outside Slocum’s modest bungalow sat a bottle green Buick roadster. They were our two richest relatives, and they stayed rich until the 21st amendment was passed which made it legal to sell booze again.

It was fish gut time -- all over again.

©Harry Buschman 2004

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