The first diploma I ever got hung proudly in the one place I felt people would truly contemplate it: my bathroom wall. I had worked hard to get it and wanted it fully appreciated. The space was small and with few distractions, so I imagined that as folks would go about their business they’d be happy to meet face to face with my diploma and indivertibly contemplate its scholarly script. Plus, the diploma always got a response from the bathroom-goer. Nine times out of ten, any newcomer to my bathroom would exit with a surprised look and say, ‘Really? Columbia University? Bartending?’ and I would slowly smile and gloat (each time) filling with pride and a sense of endless accomplishment because I had snagged a coveted Ivy League education, even if only in the unscholarly art of mixing the perfect orgasm.
I didn’t have stories of all-nighters and brilliant professors to back up that piece of paper. No enlightening moments where the world was reshaped through relentless academic efforts. Here, there was nothing groundbreaking, just a lot of drinking.
It seemed too curious a juxtaposition to ignore: nestled among one of the most prestigious and rigorous universities was a formal class on the making of drinks, and this was before mixology was in vogue. There was even a syllabus. I am not sure what drove me to take the class more: the free drinks, the promise of making great money, or the coveted Columbia degree. It has been almost twenty years since then, but I recall fondly many nights of madras sunsets and ruptured ducks and sex on the beach. The lecture hall would be cramped with eager students watching and feverishly scribbling recipes and concoctions they would later try on all their frat brothers. I brought my own guinea pig with me when I snuck in my boyfriend, whom I ended up marrying several years later. “I’ll just act like I belong” he promised, insisting that attitude and appearance where all that mattered.
The teacher (a slightly drunk older graduate student) would prepare each drink and then offer it up to be tasted. Invariably (and I assume in his efforts to “belong”) my boyfriend’s hand went up every time and the instructor must have appreciated his enthusiasm because he got the drinks most of the time.
As he slurped toxic mixes of vodka, triple sec and lime juice I’d quiz him on his experience. Was it too strong? Too sweet? Refreshing? How many could one enjoy? Ice or no ice? I’d zealously jot down his answers on my yellow bartending notepad, absorbing the drink through his palate. Occasionally I would venture and take a sip of the hard liquor, but my taste buds where always angered by those attempts, craving much more the soft touch of a cool Friuli wine.
The class was a good three hours long and by the end of it my source of information, whose standard bar order was Diet Coke, was a complete waste of slurred speech and mixed messages. My biggest challenge was always balancing his 6’2″ 200-pound frame to get him out of the classroom and on to the subway for the ride home. To his credit he was a happy drunk, always compliant and did little more than fall into a heavy sleep and wake up with a bad headache. Still, he was always game for more: insisting I needed to know if a Mexican Mudslide was sweeter than a Blind Russian (it’s not), insisting I’d have to understand each drink to learn them well, and he, graciously enough, would be willing to comply. It’s all in the name of education, and an Ivy League one at that.
In the end it all came down to one recipe. In front of the entire class and a panel of five judges, I would have to pick one card with one drink and mix it properly. This was my ticket to a coveted Columbia degree. It had been weeks of flashcards and a very hung over boyfriend. I couldn’t falter now because I knew we both would not survive another ten weeks of this. When it was my turn, I walked up to the judges and valiantly waited for their order. It was a Raging Bull. I smiled and couldn’t help but think of Robert De Niro’s beat up face as the young boxer he portrayed in the movie of that same name years ago. I didn’t share any of De Niro’s demons, though. I knew what I was doing and quickly assembled the drink as if I had made it every night: Kahlua, sambuca, and tequila layered in a shot glass in that order. Attitude and appearance is key, I learned that from my drunk boyfriend.