This Drunken Life: The Face of Madness

This Drunken Life is a weekly series of stories that chronicle the strange and wonderful things that can happen while out drinking. Names and faces may be changed to protect the inebriated.

What expression does the face of madness wear? Is it anger? Rage? Hatred? Cold, distant, unflinching stoicism?

Nope, not even close. Madness, my friends, wears a big drunken grin that’s perpetually on the edge of an infantile giggle. And not long ago, madness was grinning right at me.

I was working a private event for a high class venue and a supposedly high class client. Going in, I’d imagined a room of be-suited salt-and-peppers, the kind of men and women who discuss last weekend’s traffic out to the Hamptons and the ramifications of removing tax shelters from major capitalist players. Infuriating, sure, but established. Mature. Not born during George Bush Sr.’s administration.

Such a crowd seemed fitting for the goal of the evening: to learn the difference between Old World and New World wine, followed by a blind tasting where guests would have to identify a mystery wine.

“A noble venture,” I thought before the client arrived, swirling my glass. “I should suggest this event for my own organization.” I swirled my glass again, nearly spilling it everywhere.

And then the masses descended upon us. Some 150 junior analysts filling the tiny tasting space, all aged somewhere in between “college super senior” and “hey, Jurassic Park came out the year I was born!”. The executives and national directors I’d expected were nowhere to be found, instead replaced with children dressed up in suits that Mommy and Daddy had gotten them as gifts for being such precious, priceless little blue-bloods.

Not that I’m biased, no no, not at all.

Within the first 10 minutes, I’d gone through three bottles of wine as I scrambled to keep up with the swarm of thirsty, thirsty bankers. It was oenophile whack-a-mole, every glass I filled replaced by another one or two or three. For awhile I tried to slip in the tasting notes as I poured, but met with varying success.

Some people listened, genuinely interested and some pretended to listen. Some just walked away mid sentence and others didn’t even look at me, simply thrusting their glass in my face and demanding a pour.

Oh and saying “thank you”? As vestigial and optional as a withered appendix.

Catching my breath at one point, I looked out at the throng of guests as they laughed with one another. At one another. At their surroundings, at their good fortune. They all wore the same look of triumphant entitlement, victors enjoying their spoils.

As I picked up discarded glassware and went to empty out my station’s overflowing spittoon, I thought about those psychology experiments where participants are separated into prisoners and guards, then given tasks to illustrate the power of authority and the imprinting effect of a prescribed role.

“Are we only what others tell us we are?” I asked myself as wine splashed onto my pants. “If the roles were reversed, would I act any differently?”

In the back kitchen, the venue organizer told me that the client had asked we stop serving and put out water instead. During this brief dry time, one frantic guest came up to my table and begged: “Is there any wine or anything you can serve us? Anything at all?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to wait until the blind tasting.”

“When is that?” he demanded with frenzied eyes.

“Soon,” I offered in consolation. He turned away in anger, off to try another station.

By the grace of some patron god of wine, the blind tasting round went quickly and the guests departed immediately after, seemingly unaware that we were open to serve for another fifteen minutes.

Clean-up was smooth, with other staff sharing their exhaustion but, amazingly, not giving in to total despair. They treated the experience like a war wound, a challenge overcome. With tired smiles they sorted recycling, packed up tables, racked glassware and stacked up chairs. They had every reason in the world to be infuriated with the client’s behavior and yet they weren’t, not in the least.

Walking home in the thick humidity of a mid-summer’s night, my throat sore, head pounding and back aching, I returned to that question I’d asked myself earlier: If I were the one wearing the suit, surrounded by those enabling me to drink myself silly in high-class dismissive fashion, would I behave any differently?

I wanted to say “No”, but really, who would want to say “Yes”? The truth is, we become acclimated to the way others treat us and everything becomes relative, making it nearly impossible to tell when we’re being unkind to those outside of our group. In this case, the group divide was clear: the served and servers, and witnessing that wide gulf between the two made me desperate not to wind up on the wrong side of it.

It makes you ask yourself: How far would I go to avoid that fate?

Sure, some steps are clear: hard work, clever planning, identifying what you will and won’t put up with. But what about the slippery, slimey realm of the political and the nepotistic, all those tiny little capitulations you agree to because the cost-benefit analysis says it’s worth more to hold your tongue than to anger a powerful, albeit awful, human being?

And then come the ramifications. If *you* won’t take a stand and sacrifice the comfort of complacency, why should anyone else?

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