Saturday, July 17, 2010

The 18th Amendment

I grew up with people who directly experienced the results of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The amendment was known as Prohibition and it banned the creation, sale and consumption of alcohol in this country from 1920 to 1933. 'Banned' is the right word. It hardly stopped it.

Even now in my 60s I still marvel at how a nation passed such legislation. I've hardly been alone in my amazement. Daniel Okrent did more than just be amazed. He sets out in his just published, highly detailed book, Last Call, to explain how the forces and the mood of a people came to create, pass and sustain such legislation for 13 years. And they didn't just get mad at alcohol and its effects in 1919 and reach January of 1920 and start the Prohibition clock. As Mr. Okrent finely shows, there was a history behind it that started as soon as people hit the shores, at least as early as the 1700s.

My amazement began when growing up in Manhattan I heard stories of how my grandfather's flower shop on 18th Street and Irving Place was the front for one of New York's many speakeasies. In this case, Pete's Tavern, an establishment that started serving the nectar in 1864, and realistically is still doing it today--without interruption.

The shop occupied the first eight feet or so of the storefront. You gained access to the speakeasy after going around the flower shop refrigerator. There is still a break in the floor as you walk in that shows where the tile was disturbed to accommodate the flower shop. There is also a break in the bar's rail where it was made to end so the flower shop could be squeezed in to provide "cover."

Apparently, flower shops were a favorite "cover" for speakeasies, which were hardly hard to find in New York at any time. If you couldn't get an illegal drink in New York, you weren't thirsty.

Immediately to the left of the entrance still hangs a huge weight driven pendulum clock, that sadly, for some time now, has not been working. My father always filled me on stories of the shop and Pete's and told me that he'd climb up on a stool after school and wind the clock in the family shop. He had a good number of years to do so, too. He started doing it when he was in grammar school, and by the time he graduated high school, Prohibition was repealed and now he too, could legally drink. And he did.

Aside from letting people pass through to take advantage of what was behind the refrigerator, my grandfather and his brother did sell flowers. Certainly enough to support them, gradma and the four boys, making enough to eventually move to a far bigger store a block away on 18th Street and 3rd Avenue (after Prohibition, when Pete's said they'd like the space back), and to even move from there across the street, north to the other corner, and remain in business until 1975. For over 50 years, there was a family flower business on three different corners, all within a block of each other. They knew the neighborhood.

Mr. Okrent's book is as much a history book as it is anything else. It is richly detailed, heavily documented, has pictures, and is going to take me forever to read, for one because it probably would be considered a slow read because of its content, but also because I take time reading a STOP sign.

But the explanation for Prohibition is revealed. And that's what matters. To me, in an astounding piece of scholarship, Mr. Okrent recounts how a Currier and Ives print of George Washington is altered to please the current "Tea Party" to keep Washington from being portrayed with a glass of wine in his hand as he addresses his troops. The bottle itself on a table is replaced by his hat. The print was reissued in 1876, in its altered form, from something that was first published in 1848. There was "spin" in 1876. And it didn't just start then, either.

Mr. Okrent, has often happens when so much history is researched and fed back to a curious public, is now the go-to guy on Prohibition. A Ken Burns piece awaits, made possible by the book.

Recently, Dan summarized five books that all had something to do with alcohol for a piece in the WSJ. Among these books was one I pounced on, The Speakeasies of 1932, a book illustrated by the great caricature artist Al Hirschfeld, with text by Mr. Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn. There is an introduction by Pete Hamill.

The book is a treasure, with full page Hirschfeld prints of various speakeasies and their bartenders and customers. The adjoining one page of text is lively written and describes a style of people and times that can really only be seen on Turner Movie Classics these days. Al Hirschfeld passed through the Prohibition era as an adult, a customer and an artist. His life span of 99 years allowed him to see people attend Broadway shows in tuxedos and then, to him, sadly in tank tops and shorts.

Pete's was famous. Still is. I thought surely Al made it to 18th Street and took notes. Maybe I'd read about my grandfather holding the door for him and pointing which way to go in case he wasn't there for the roses.

Sadly, Pete's didn't make it into book. Al and his drinking buddy were uptown from there, and downtown from there. East and west. Of course this doesn't mean he didn't make it past the carnations one night.

He just might not have remembered.

No comments:

Post a Comment