I’ve never ordered a screwdriver. Never had one ordered for me. Never mixed one unless you count a fifth-grade Monday morning science fair when I got desperate for a topic the night before and decided my topic would be Mixology, the science of matching drink recipes to astrological signs. I got that from a Southern Comfort advertising supplement in the Sunday News aimed at selling more booze. It sounded like science to me, however, so I poured a bit of vodka and a bit of orange juice (per the Mixology supplement) into an empty pill bottle and declared it my science project.
What happens when a fifth-grader shows up to school with a little, tiny screwdriver and a poorly constructed Mixology wheel that involved awkwardly cut posterboard and some scrawling regarding what Leos, Scorpios and Sagittariuns should (should) drink to maximize their happiness and attractiveness? Nothing good, I assure you. Even in 1974, this wasn’t really an accepted science, though my flustered science teacher passed me because, I assume, it was just easier that way.
There was a bottle of vodka stashed behind the Log Cabin maple syrup in a kitchen cabinet above the closet where we kept the Pop-Tarts and paper napkins. I didn’t know what vodka was specifically. My parents didn’t drink all that much. Mostly our liquor was kept around for parties, of which we had few. Without the Mixology supplement from the paper, I wouldn’t have known a screwdriver from a rusty nail. But it did get me through one simple school assignment that came to be daunting the longer I put it off.
My mother liked to tell me I did that: put off the things I didn’t want to work on, and that I only liked to do the things that interested me. She was right. I can’t believe that was uncommon for 11-year-olds now or then. So one of her pieces of advice was Tackle the unpleasant tasks first.
Fair enough. I will tell you that the reason I’m mentioning screwdrivers and science projects and meandering a bit is today is the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s passing. But I don’t want this to be about unpleasantness. Too much of my relationship with her was exactly that, so I thought I’d take the time and use this platform, if you don’t mind, to recall a few other things she advised me beyond the routine (like “look both ways before crossing the street”) and the toxic (like “stay with your own kind,” and I don’t think she meant that in terms of baseball fans).
• Don’t rest on your laurels. This was usually mentioned when I got a B in the marking period after an A or an 80 the test after I got a 90. I didn’t want to tackle unpleasant tasks and I didn’t see any point in breaking new ground in grades. There were no laurels to rest on when it came to my Mixology project.
• Carry a raincoat. This was less about weather than appearance. If I had a professional appointment, I should have my trench coat handy, no matter that it was sunny outside, so when I arrived, I’d have something on my arm. Thus, the receptionist could “take my coat” which my mother considered an essential social transaction. I have no idea why this was going to puff up my aura in any given scenario, but the London Fog people would have loved her.
• Keep a five-dollar bill in your shoe. This was the deluxe version of keep a dime in your shoe for an emergency phone call. I guess pickpockets would never go for your feet. She was big on this when I went to my first Mets game on my own when I was 14, preaching it to both of my friends who accompanied me to Shea. One of them assured me he had five dollars in his shoe. My mother could have that effect on people. I’m surprised he didn’t use the dime in his other shoe to call her and check which shoe should have which.
• Don’t be snide. This wasn’t all-purpose advice, just a one-off. I don’t remember what I said to generate it. But I imagine it really was quite snide.
• Oy, don’t bring in Sisk here. That was more for Davey Johnson than it was for me. Mom had a funny conception of how bullpens worked. Regardless of whether it was Ron Darling or Ed Lynch or Sid Fernandez starting, she’d ask as the game began, “Who’s backing him up tonight?” She was convinced each starter had a reliever designated as first out of the pen to clean up his mess. She never asked that when Doc was pitching because Doc didn’t need any help. I tried to explain it’s a matter of situations, that we won’t know who will come in in advance, that it depends on innings and lefties and righties and so forth. But she’d always ask. And she never wanted to see Doug Sisk.
• Flap your arms if you’re drowning. She swore it worked for her once. I’ve pretty much avoided swimming for the last thirty years, but I’ve never forgotten what to do when I get back in the water and things go inevitably awry.
• Practice your piano. I was subjected to three years of piano lessons. I didn’t ask for them, but there they were. Never got the hang of playing with two hands, however. Could do a mean right-handed version of “Saturday In The Park” after a while, but that was it. Yet it was important that I practice. Why? Not to build character. Not to open up a new line of work for me (I wasn’t envisioned, for all my practice, practice, practice, getting to Carnegie Hall). But because — and this wasn’t a matter of maybe — when I got older, I’d go to parties and would be the life of them because there’d be a piano, and I would play and everybody would be drinking and having a good time, with me and my playing the root cause of their joy.
This has never happened. Never. I don’t much care for parties and I haven’t been to one that involved a piano in ages. I’ve yet to meet anybody who lit up a room by playing a piano. I imagine somebody who could mix a good screwdriver would be more appreciated.
Which brings me to my favorite piece of advice my mother gave me. It was from the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I was 19, feeling vaguely adult for the first time (for the record, 28 years later, I still feel vaguely adult). Mom and I are in the car, going somewhere I’m assuming I didn’t want to go, talking about something I’m assuming I just as soon would have preferred to avoid. I’m an adult now. I don’t want to be in the car with my mother. But here I am, just as I’ve always been, and she asks another in a long line of questions I don’t particularly want to answer.
“Have you tried drinking?”
She meant alcohol, like the kind we used to keep in the kitchen cabinet for those parties that allegedly featured loads of merry piano-playing. (Come to think of it, the same bottles from when I was in fifth grade were probably still stashed up there behind the Log Cabin and above the Pop-Tarts and paper napkins.) Since I was of legal drinking age, this wasn’t necessarily an old-fashioned gotcha! question. I was 19. That was old enough to drink in 1982. So I said yes, a little.
And I braced. I braced for a lecture on the evils of overconsumption. I braced for a Captain Obvious speech about drinking and driving. I braced for being warned that I’d be led astray by those who were not my kind getting me drunk and poaching the five-dollar bill from my shoe while I lay passed out on the floor, left only with my respectable raincoat and, if I was lucky, the dime in my other shoe.
But that wasn’t where she was going. This was:
“Let me tell you something. If you’re ever out somewhere and you order a screwdriver and they say they’re out of orange juice, don’t have it with grapefruit juice. I tried it once, and it was terrible.”
That was it. And while I’ve yet to order a screwdriver, you can bet the last five-dollar bill in your shoe that I will not accept one should some crafty bartender — who clearly lacks proper Mixology credentials because he doesn’t even bother to consult my star chart — attempt to slip grapefruit juice into my pristine vodka.
Besides, that’s not a screwdriver. That’s a vodka greyhound.