Drunk on a Steadying Presence

The last thing I did before was visit a library. The Friday ahead of a citywide stay-at-home order, I cut out of the office early and ran over to Harold Washington to pick up Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc, a book you would’ve heard me relentlessly shoehorn into conversations at parties for weeks after had there been any to attend. I did this counting on the idea that 1,600+ pages would get me through a good chunk of quarantine while the libraries were closed, but it turns out there’s a lot of negative space in that thing; I read it in six days. To balance it out, I spent April reading — and I promise this is the only time you’ll see me talk about this unprompted — Infinite Jest. It’s fine. Also, the only other people I know who’ve read or own this book are women. Just saying.

But that Tuesday, the last night out I had before was at a brewery. Beer and books, books and beer. Bikes. This is, fundamentally, all I have been for seven months. Maybe longer, depending on who you ask.

I had a car that week and was still going into the office while they allowed it, clinging in desperate futility to the psychic separation of work and home. Driving around, walking the floors, anything outdoors that week was like living the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” Traffic and people had been dwindling for days prior, though, so that isn’t my abiding memory of the pandemic shutdown. My abiding memory is going to a brewery in a suburban strip mall called Soundgrowler — no surprise here, either, to learn metal is on the playlist and a skull adorns the logo — that a guy I’d met just shooting the breeze maybe a month before at a bar down the street from me had recommended. I dragged a friend out in the snow and we went for tacos, had a couple and turned it around. It felt funereal because it was, a quarantine whimper to usher after in.

You know how it’s been since, more or less. Zoom and Google Hangouts and Houseparty, masks, six feet of distance, half-empty businesses offering a fraction of what they could for a fraction of the hours to keep the lights on for employees who can’t pay, employers who can’t make rent, landlords who can’t understand their power, governments groaning at the weight of it, riots, marches, fundraisers, QR codes, Tiger King, the Trapt guy, “The Bigger Picture,” how it started, how it’s going.

All of this blends together for me, temporally, spatially, cosmically. Current events function as a noisy background to one long smeared season of distress that looks set to continue long into 2021. It all feels the same after a while. And though I’d like to be able to tell you what was going on in the world as I was downing Djuna Barnes or Click, Clack, Moo/Cows That Type, the truth is that I can better distinguish when things were by what I was drinking. Breweries have anchored me because beer, as a product, as an activity, as an idea, has not changed from before. In this regard, at least, it’s a steadying presence.

I’d conservatively estimate that before Soundgrowler, I’d been to maybe 50 or so breweries in my lifetime. That sounds like a lot, but we’re really only talking like three a year from 2005 on, hardly feats of alcoholic strength when you consider bachelor parties and brew dudes and things to do on vacation. But it didn’t immediately occur to me that I could drastically increase that number before the year was out because initially, nothing was open. Yet, as summer approached and the city and surrounding areas lurched back into something like a functioning society, breweries figured out that while bars wouldn’t be taking their wares for some time, pickup and deliveries were viable for the committed home drinker.

My driving routes when I’d get cars for work were always the same: Go as far in one (preferably unfamiliar) direction as possible, find a brewery nearby that served supper, grab grub and a few pours, and turn it around to get back before any chance of a good parking spot near my house had gone. But now that kitchens were closed, there was less motivation for me to stick to only those places that served food; I could go to any brewery so long as pickup was an option.

It started slowly. Things tentatively reopened in mid-June and I wasn’t getting cars much, but I made a point to visit Imperial Oak because, as the name would suggest, their program is full of barrel-aged stuff. I wound up meeting one of the owners and recommending a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid to one of his friends. I wasn’t there long all things considered, but it was enough to pick up some bottles, take in the setup, assess the patio situation, determine the safety of the place for a possible return visit someday when things got better. If they got better.

A couple of weeks later, I was driving out aimlessly on a nice night and stumbled upon a second location for More Brewing, home of the Arketype, one of my favorite beers of 2019. I remember the exact words I mumbled to myself as I looked over before immediately hitting the exit were, “What the hell is this?”, which I then repeated to the bartender managing to-go orders after walking into a vast, empty space and picking out a four-pack. They had opened the second location in February, days before the stay-at-home order. All set to go, staff trained up, place built out, and then… which was the first time I’d hear this story. But not the last.

There was the trip to the other side of the lake for a friend’s furniture pickup, where I stopped into the well established Greenbush, the modest outpost with immodest murals Burn ‘Em, the Michigan version of Beer Church, and another strip mall at Chesterton, “brewed by veterans for veterans”; I have no idea what that means beyond police regalia on the walls, but the cherry porter is good. I’ve mentioned Faklandia, MobCraft, Stillmank, Dead Bird and Ahnapee. There was Blue Nose and the truly hidden F.I.B.S, whose name appears to be missing a period until you find out what it stands for. There was stopping by Nik & Ivy in Lockport, a town I couldn’t find on a map again if you held a gun to my head, the week it opened and getting the story from one of the owners. There was Skeleton Key, where I received a free saison out the trunk of a complete stranger and amateur homebrewer’s Subaru. There was chair-buying, birdwatching and waiting out the rain at Scorched Earth, a name more apropos in retrospect than I’d originally intended, followed by a quick stop at Noon Whistle. There was the Sunday afternoon jaunt to One Allegiance and Black Horizon, where I walked upon the floor the last night before it got redone. There was another day trip around the lake’s rim to the old factory at Zorn, the established Shoreline and the jaded Justin at Hunter’s Brewing.

That’s through early October. Now look at this map. Look at this fucking map. That’s so much beer to pick up. I’ve been to more than 20 new (to me) breweries this year and picked up so many bottles and cans and still, still, I’m nowhere near the end. With patio season winding down and COVID cases winding up as we return to the caves, time’s nigh when I’ll have to do more than gaze upon these reserves; at some point, I’m gonna have to drink this stuff. But it’s nice to remember that I did do something this year even if it wasn’t much. 2020 has been about damage limitation — physical, monetary, psychic. But it’s also been about finding flowers in the concrete, light in the cracks, air in the depths. Everyone’s done it their own way, some healthier than others, but I was never in it for my health. And so long as I have my eyes and my tastebuds, I’ll have pages to turn and pints to tipple. Beautiful sentences and bottled mementos of an unwanted year.

– – – – –

I’m giving books and beer more credit than they deserve, actually. This year has also been about bikes. MotoGP, man. What a year. What a fucking year. There’s so much to love if you’re not crippled with a gambling addiction and don’t have your kid on a grid. For pure spectacle and the chaotic attraction of unpredictability alone, no sport has it beat. You could’ve put money down on the Lightning or the Lakers and felt confident. Joan Mir? Please.

Alex Rins, who started the 2020 season with a broken leg and missed the first race in Jerez, became the eighth different winner in eight races on Sunday at the Aragon Grand Prix after perfectly judging his tires and the Suzuki’s effortless cornering ability; if he hadn’t crashed in Austria or slid off in the wet in France, there’s every chance in the world he’d be leading the championship right now instead of teammate Mir, who finished third on Sunday and now leads overall despite having still not yet won a race. In between the Suzukis? Alex Marquez, who followed his debut podium in the French rain with a haters-silencing second that, were it not for a massive front end slide with a lap to go, could’ve been his first win on a bike no one but his brother wants. Rins came from 10th on the grid, Marquez 11th; Fabio Quartararo, who started the day on pole and in the lead of the riders’ championship, finished out of the points with bad front tire pressure and dropped to second. Maverick Viñales did the opposite of his usual thing and was quick off the line but faded to fourth; in the post-race press conference, he jokingly asked for a round of applause from the journalists for getting a good start. Andrea Dovizioso, who finds novel ways to count himself out of things, managed seventh from a 13th starting spot and actually closed the gap to the leader. Taka Nakagami hasn’t finished out of the points yet this year and he’s 29 points out of the lead. He hasn’t finished higher than fourth.

This time last year, with four races to go, Marc Marquez to 18th place was a separation of 192 points; with 25 points for a victory, that’s the equivalent of nearly eight race wins’ worth. This year, first to 18th is separated by 100. The only people mathematically out of it are Iker Lecuona, Bradley Smith, Stefan Bradl, Tito Rabat and you. I say this strictly in theoretical terms: If Cal Crutchlow won all of the final four races and no one outscored Joan Mir, Crutchlow would tie Mir and take the championship based on race wins.

It’s like this everywhere in the MotoGP paddock this year. Unlike World Superbikes, where Jonathan Rea has done six championships on the bounce, his remarkable 2019 fight back against Alvaro Bautista the stuff you rave to your kids about and his latest won just this weekend in Portugal, the only championship that looks decided in the grand prix paddock is the one that’s actually over, MotoE — and even then, Jordi Torres only took one win in seven races and didn’t even assume the lead of the series until the first race in a double-header to close out the season in France last weekend; were it not for Matteo Ferrari’s two DNFs and a 16th out of the points for Dominic Aegerter (both of whom, along with Eric Granado, led MotoE at one point or another during the season), we’d be looking at a whole other riders’ table.

Moto3 is a series I’ve hardly watched in 2020, but the results early in the season suggested this was going to be Albert Arenas’ year to lose. Arenas — whose last name I will never not see on a timing screen and immediately think Gilbert — has been a winner in each of the last two years but never quite had the consistency to challenge for the title; this year, he returned to the Aspar team after a couple of years away and opened the season with three wins in five races… but has struggled since, with just one podium in the last six rounds. Behind him lies the smooth (but still winless) Ai Ogura, first-time winner (then second-time winner) Celestino Vietti, (also winless but slowly coming good) Tony Arbollino, the endlessly inconsistent John McPhee, and another first-time winner, Jaume Masiá — and that doesn’t even account for the reckless (but now winning) Darryn Binder, morally compromised Romano Fenati, Tatsuki Suzuki, Dennis Foggia, Raul Fernandez…

And how close is Moto2? About like this: The championship lead changed hands among four different riders during the course of the Aragon GP alone. Luca Marini came in with a dwindling lead he’s been protecting since Brno, but an injury sustained during a Friday practice crash in France meant he was riding for points as damage limitation; an early-race low side was all it took to wipe him out of the picture. That left his Sky VR46 teammate, Marco Bezzechi, with the lead both of the race and the championship, which he looked set to keep… until a little over a lap to go when the front washed out from under him at the treacherous Turn 2. Sam Lowes then assumed command of the race and championship… and while he won the former, a last-lap duel for second saw Enea Bastianini get the better of Jorge Martin, which means that he’s now leading the riders’ championship. Any one of these four guys has been consistent enough to deserve it this year (and even with two needless COVID-related absences thanks to an Ibiza trip and two further DNFs, Jorge Martin isn’t completely out of it in fifth, either), but new faces like Joe Roberts, Aron Canet and Jake Dixon mean no one can afford to let off. It’s insanely close and though the races aren’t always tight, the title fight is.

Everywhere you look, there’s something interesting happening that changes from week to week. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of my life, where each week now feels conclusively identical. The normalcy of a racing season, of the rhythmic loops of motorcycles for 40 minutes at a time, of the tension and release of a close race, all of that is something I can still recognize. As a product, as an activity, as an idea, the ritual hasn’t changed from before. In this regard, at least, it’s a steadying presence — even if everything bottled inside it, shook and waiting to be untapp(e)d, is not. Drink up while it’s fresh. It’s best that way.

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