The High & the Low

One for the Road

The fine art of drinking on the run

Illustration: Michael Witte

There’s a scene in Walker Percy’s Love in the 
Ruins in which the protagonist, Dr. Tom More, is holed up in the Paradise Estates pro shop with a skinny black kid named Elzee Acree and the slightly unhinged white Colonel Ringo, who has been defending the Christian Kaydettes from Bantu snipers (the book, it should be noted, is set during “a Time Near the End of the World”). In addition to the fact that Percy has here written some of the funniest passages in all of American literature, he highlights two of the more time-honored means by which the average Southerner has managed to enjoy a much-needed drink of whiskey. First, when Tom arrives at the pro shop, he has on his person a pint-size flask—in fact, he has it always, as did, presumably, the young Walker Percy, who grew up in Mississippi at a time when the Early Times both he and Tom preferred was not legally available. Then there is the restorative concoction requested by the colonel after a bullet grazes his private parts: “Bring me a Seven-Up, Elzee…. Now pour out the neck and fill it up from Doc’s bottle there.”

“Pour out the neck.” The very phrase is proof of Percy’s unerring ear and flashes back to teenage dances and Friday nights hanging out with the bad boys underneath the football bleachers before anybody knew how to buy marijuana. A spiked Seven-Up, Coca-Cola, or Dr Pepper remains the perfect beverage for foxhole moments, hot days, rural road trips, and places where it is still not very acceptable to be seen imbibing.

Of course, in New Orleans, where I live and near where Percy set his novel, there are few places where the latter is the case. It is legal to drink on the streets, and people persist in drinking while they’re driving. They bring their own drinks into restaurants, and they take the restaurants’ drinks out. The most popular—indeed, beloved—receptacle for all this activity is the plastic or Styrofoam “go cup” (or, to use one of the hokier monikers lately emblazoned on the thing itself, a “Geaux Cup”).

They are in use 24/7, but the time to stock up is Mardi Gras. Since each krewe prints up its own versions and uses them as “throws,” a particularly energetic and focused parade-goer can catch up to a year’s supply. More useful than beads and doubloons or the occasional rubber chicken, they can also be put to immediate good use. In fact, pretty much the only people during a Mardi Gras parade not holding a cup are the riders themselves, who wear the adult versions of sippy cups around their necks so that their hands remain free for throwing. (My husband once rigged up a pedal-operated contraption that sent a fairly steady stream of alcohol into his mouth via a rubber tube that snaked up through his costume—a stroke of ingenuity that may explain why, toward the end of his ride, he hung upside down from his harness without realizing that he was doing so.)

But New Orleans is certainly not the only place where people tote their drinks around. Every single afternoon of my childhood, my father came home from his office, mixed a couple of martinis in the glazed McCarty’s pottery wine cups he and my mother received as wedding presents, and took them with him to pick up his best friend, Nick. The glazed clay kept the drinks cool while they sipped and talked and drove down Nelson Street to see what was happening. I was reminded of this ritual years later when I picked up my friend Keith Meacham in a hired Town Car for a longish ride to Tribeca from the Upper East Side and she emerged from her apartment building with two Scotch-and-waters in sterling-silver julep cups. The driver didn’t know what to make of my delight, but then this was Manhattan and he was from Uzbekistan.

A few years ago, a total stranger from Memphis gave me a go cup printed with one of my father’s more priceless utterances: “She ain’t much in a parlor, but she’s hell in a tonk.” It’s the punch line of a long story that I’d just repeated in a column in the New York Times, and even though the guy had no idea who my father was, he had the good sense to appropriate it. This is a safer bet than buying cups with preprinted logos with slogans that tend toward the hackneyed: “Cheers Y’all!” “When in Doubt Wear Camo,” “Time flies when you’re having RUM!”

Still, there are some good ones. At a dinner party in Montgomery not long ago, my host sent me home with two worth keeping: “S.L.U.T.S” (“Southern Ladies Under Tremendous Stress”) and “D.T.M.D.C.” (which stands for “Don’t Touch My Damn Cup,” helpfully printed with the owner’s name). My cousin Linda Jane also turned me on to some good ones from a store in Baton Rouge called Paper N Things where she buys her own considerable cache. Two, involving the same body part, made me laugh out loud: “Does this cup make my ass look BIG?” and “Your boots may be made for walking but mine are in case I need to kick your ASS.”

As much as I love—and use—a go cup, I also would like to say a few words in praise of the flask. Not only are flasks elegantly shaped and often very beautiful, they are also crucial to have on hand in times of stress, duress, or just plain boredom. Hemingway, not surprisingly, had a lot—you can see his entire collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where Mary Hemingway sent them from Cuba. Also, there’s nothing sexier than a guy who pulls a proper flask from the inside pocket of his blazer or the hip pocket of his chinos, and casually offers you a nip—a guy a lot like Percy himself, who describes doing that very thing in his seminal essay on bourbon.

In the all too common event that such a man is not around, ladies must learn to keep one discreetly tucked into a handbag. I myself learned this lesson the hard way, during the interminable ritual known in my adopted hometown as the Mardi Gras ball. A ball, unlike a parade, is not an occasion where a lady can waltz around carrying a go cup—until recently ladies weren’t allowed to drink at all unless a male krewe member deigned to duck “backstage” and mix them a clandestine toddy. Even now, it’s not easy. Just prior to the presentation of the debutantes who make up the maids and the queen of the court, the sparsely located bars shut down and everyone is forced to take their seats in uncomfortable hotel ballroom chairs in order to watch an endless stream of girls in white promenade, curtsy, and promenade again for such a long time that you pray to lose consciousness. To the locals, who seem to enjoy themselves immensely, it’s like church—it’s what they do and they’ve been doing it so long that the women, at least, manage to do it without alcohol. Not me. So this year, a year in which I will happily attend because I happen to love one of the debs, I have planned ahead. As I type, I have on my desk beside me a very handsome, gracefully curved, six-ounce flask made of English pewter and inscribed with my initials. It was given to me years ago by my very generous friend Anne Buford, along with a case of very old Macallan Scotch. I drank the Scotch, on the rocks, in a nice heavy glass and forgot about the flask. Until now. It is the perfect size for an evening clutch.