Memoir

Fire Island and the Summer of Pernod

Spending summer swimming at the bottom of bottles.

Fire Island and the Summer of Pernod

Hen I was younger, my father’s best advice for drinking underage was never to ask for anything too trendy, sweet or unusual. His own standard teenage order was Johnny Walker Black, rocks, twist—“more booze, less rocks.” Save for the occasional martini, this has been his drink his entire life, and he’s never had any use for drinking trends.

When he was sixteen, his ordering at bars was made even easier with an ID bought from someone named Pell Wilson, Jr. My dad doesn’t remember much about Wilson except that he recently had turned eighteen and was looking to sell his old license. (In New York in 1959, one only needed to be eighteen to drink, and men were issued a new set of identification along with their Selective Service papers.)

Illustration by James Hindle

A lifelong New Yorker, my dad passed feral childhood summers in Fire Island’s Seaview neighborhood, where his father had built a little glass box of a house to which he and my grandmother were devoted. It was as “Pell Wilson, Jr.” that my father started bartending as a teenager at Goldie’s, a seasonal piano bar facing the bay in Ocean Beach and a popular spot with the island’s summering gay community.

Discreet, tall and cute, from a family of registered socialists on the Upper West Side who loved Fire Island and didn’t care about anyone’s sexuality, he appreciated that it was good job. Except during the summer of 1960, when an insane taste for Pernod took hold out of nowhere, and almost made him quit.

The rumor had spread across the island that the thick, licorice-scented (or reeking, if you ask my dad) liquor was an aphrodisiac, a claim that was never substantiated. That summer, it was all anyone at Goldie’s drank. They took it like a Pastis, on ice with a little water, so the drink turned from clear to cloudy. The reputation for sexual enhancement stuck among both the gay and straight patrons of the bar; from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the owner of Goldie’s couldn’t keep Pernod in stock. Every week, when the bulk of the crowd went back to Manhattan to work, he ordered more cases freighted in. Every weekend the Pernod swillers came back, and he ran out. The shippers didn’t have room on their boats to carry all the bottles he was trying to get.

A night spent at Goldie’s meant that by the end of it my dad’s clothes, hair, and skin all stank of licorice. My father, who did not enjoy Pernod whatsoever, was almost done in. He didn’t bother holding his nose and throwing one back to see if all that business about the aphrodisiac effect was true.

Labor Day came and went, and the summer people went back to New York. My father made it through the season, now and forever an avowed hater of Pernod. The owner of Goldie’s, meanwhile, continued ordering cases of it weekly. After a winter of stockpiling, he had what my father estimated to be the biggest one-bar supply of Pernod on the eastern seaboard. The next year the summer crowd came back to revel at Goldie’s, and no one touched it.

Maybe Pernod’s mythical status as an aphrodisiac had been dispelled. Or maybe everyone realized, like my father, they never liked licorice in the first place. Maybe they just no longer wanted to wake up to its bizarrely lingering scent. At any rate, as my dad says, “the trend just evanesced.” And if the boozing zeitgeist had alighted on some other trend, my father, who is seventy now, doesn’t remember what it was.

When he recalls the summer it brings up dueling senses: memories of fresh summer nights on the dark, quiet island; Goldie’s anything-goes ethos; and to this day, a slight flip of the stomach and an inclination to vomit. He swears that somewhere in a cellar on Fire Island there must still exist a dust-covered supply of vintage Pernod by the case.

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