Sitting in a bar with a guy’s guy, a man so manly he not only writes crime novels, but also solves actual crimes, I lost control of the debate and joined him in ordering a Sambuca. To illustrate how far from sophistication I’d slid,Sambuca does not rate an entry in Alexis Lichene’s Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits. Ouzo gets an entry. Pernod. Pastis. Absinthe. But not Sambuca, refuge of ex-cops and the Common Man, especially the Italian-American, went-to-community-college, Tea Party version of the Common Man.
Sambuca is an angry liquor. If you don’t believe me, set it on fire. Watch it burn. Let the whole goddam Federal budget go down in flames. See if I care.
Well, I do care, but as I mentioned, I lost control of the debate. Sometimes Sambuca comes to your table flaring up against government interference and high taxes. A licorice-based apertif like pastis might have noted that from 1932 to 1986 the tax rate on rich people never dipped below 50%, while now it is 35%, pretty low by historical standards. Only taxes on poor people have plateaued at a higher level—10%—than in 1932, when a person earning $2,000 would owe 4% of his wealth to the guvmint. Samuca, flavored with star anis (so close to anus!), could care less about such pointy-headed facts and figures.
Other times, like this one with the ex-cop, Sambuca arrives in a calmer mood, with its three little coffee beans floating in clear resolve to take back our country, take it way back, back to the late 19th century, when violent boom-and-bust cycles were a commonplace of a deregulated market, the gap between rich and poor yawned, and a cabal of super-wealthy industrialists had the politicians in their pockets. Sound familiar? Never mind, says Sambuca. And never mind that the 1890s kicked off the Progressive Era, named for the pinko policies that came out of such extremes—child labor laws, women’s right to vote, restrictions on how much arsenic manufacturers could put in wallpaper. (Seriously, arsenic gave wallpaper a vivid green tint you could admire until you got poisoned and died.) Never mind. Obama’s a socialist and let’s get rid of the EPA, Department of Education and collective bargaining, which fought for the pension check that Mr. Sambuca used to paid for his drink.
Sambuca’s inability or refusal to grasp complexity is born out by what happens when you add a splash of water. It becomes cloudy, confused, opaque. So do Pernod, pastis, ouzo and absinthe, all of which are frequently taken with water as a matter of taste. In the writing program where I teach, we value such complexity, but because Sambuca hates the taste of compromise and never reaches across the aisle, its tendency to cloud up when assimilated with other substances is so little known it’s practically classified. Also a state secret is why Sambuca is served with those three beans. One conspiracy theory contends that the beans represent health, happiness and prosperity, three qualities that were not widely shared in the 1890s.
The Sambuca arrived. We raised our snifters to health, happiness and prosperity. He tasted uncompromising principles of small government and individual liberty to fire the union organizers in the arsenic factory, replacing them with 11 year olds. I tasted capitulation.