John Barleycorn by Jack London
Gradual as was my development as a heavy drinker among the oyster pirates, the real heavy drinking came suddenly, and was the result, not of desire for alcohol, but of an intellectual conviction.
The more I saw of the life, the more I was enamoured of it. I can never forget my thrills the first night I took part in a concerted raid, when we assembled on board the Annie–rough men, big and unafraid, and weazened wharf-rats, some of them ex-convicts, all of them enemies of the law and meriting jail, in sea-boots and sea-gear, talking in gruff low voices, and “Big” George with revolvers strapped about his waist to show that he meant business.
Oh, I know, looking back, that the whole thing was sordid and silly. But I was not looking back in those days when I was rubbing shoulders with John Barleycorn and beginning to accept him. The life was brave and wild, and I was living the adventure I had read so much about.
Nelson, “Young Scratch” they called him, to distinguish him from “Old Scratch,” his father, sailed in the sloop Reindeer, partners with one “Clam.” Clam was a dare-devil, but Nelson was a reckless maniac. He was twenty years old, with the body of a Hercules. When he was shot in Benicia, a couple of years later, the coroner said he was the greatest-shouldered man he had ever seen laid on a slab.
Nelson could not read or write. He had been “dragged” up by his father on San Francisco Bay, and boats were second nature with him. His strength was prodigious, and his reputation along the water-front for violence was anything but savoury. He had Berserker rages and did mad, terrible things. I made his acquaintance the first cruise of the Razzle Dazzle, and saw him sail the Reindeer in a blow and dredge oysters all around the rest of us as we lay at two anchors, troubled with fear of going ashore.
He was some man, this Nelson; and when, passing by the Last Chance saloon, he spoke to me, I felt very proud. But try to imagine my pride when he promptly asked me in to have a drink. I stood at the bar and drank a glass of beer with him, and talked manfully of oysters, and boats, and of the mystery of who had put the load of buckshot through the Annie’s mainsail.
We talked and lingered at the bar. It seemed to me strange that we lingered. We had had our beer. But who was I to lead the way outside when great Nelson chose to lean against the bar? After a few minutes, to my surprise, he asked me to have another drink, which I did. And still we talked, and Nelson evinced no intention of leaving the bar.
Bear with me while I explain the way of my reasoning and of my innocence. First of all, I was very proud to be in the company of Nelson, who was the most heroic figure among the oyster pirates and bay adventurers. Unfortunately for my stomach and mucous membranes, Nelson had a strange quirk of nature that made him find happiness in treating me to beer. I had no moral disinclination for beer, and just because I didn’t like the taste of it and the weight of it was no reason I should forgo the honour of his company. It was his whim to drink beer, and to have me drink beer with him. Very well, I would put up with the passing discomfort.
So we continued to talk at the bar, and to drink beer ordered and paid for by Nelson. I think, now, when I look back upon it, that Nelson was curious. He wanted to find out just what kind of a gink I was. He wanted to see how many times I’d let him treat without offering to treat in return.
After I had drunk half a dozen glasses, my policy of temperateness in mind, I decided that I had had enough for that time. So I mentioned that I was going aboard the Razzle Dazzle, then lying at the city wharf, a hundred yards away.
I said good-bye to Nelson, and went on down the wharf. But, John Barleycorn, to the extent of six glasses, went with me. My brain tingled and was very much alive. I was uplifted by my sense of manhood. I, a truly-true oyster pirate, was going aboard my own boat after hob-nobbing in the Last Chance with Nelson, the greatest oyster pirate of us all. Strong in my brain was the vision of us leaning against the bar and drinking beer. And curious it was, I decided, this whim of nature that made men happy in spending good money for beer for a fellow like me who didn’t want it.
As I pondered this, I recollected that several times other men, in couples, had entered the Last Chance, and first one, then the other, had treated to drinks. I remembered, on the drunk on the Idler, how Scotty and the harpooner and myself had raked and scraped dimes and nickels with which to buy the whisky. Then came my boy code: when on a day a fellow gave another a “cannon-ball” or a chunk of taffy, on some other day he would expect to receive back a cannon-ball or a chunk of taffy.
That was why Nelson had lingered at the bar. Having bought a drink, he had waited for me to buy one. I HAD, LET HIM BUY SIX DRINKS AND NEVER ONCE OFFERED TO TREAT. And he was the great Nelson! I could feel myself blushing with shame. I sat down on the stringer-piece of the wharf and buried my face in my hands. And the heat of my shame burned up my neck and into my cheeks and forehead. I have blushed many times in my life, but never have I experienced so terrible a blush as that one.
And sitting there on the stringer-piece in my shame, I did a great deal of thinking and transvaluing of values. I had been born poor. Poor I had lived. I had gone hungry on occasion. I had never had toys nor playthings like other children. My first memories of life were pinched by poverty. The pinch of poverty had been chronic. I was eight years old when I wore my first little undershirt actually sold in a store across the counter. And then it had been only one little undershirt. When it was soiled I had to return to the awful home-made things until it was washed. I had been so proud of it that I insisted on wearing it without any outer garment. For the first time I mutinied against my mother–mutinied myself into hysteria, until she let me wear the store undershirt so all the world could see.
Only a man who has undergone famine can properly value food; only sailors and desert-dwellers know the meaning of fresh water. And only a child, with a child’s imagination, can come to know the meaning of things it has been long denied. I early discovered that the only things I could have were those I got for myself. My meagre childhood developed meagreness. The first things I had been able to get for myself had been cigarette pictures, cigarette posters, and cigarette albums. I had not had the spending of the money I earned, so I traded “extra” newspapers for these treasures. I traded duplicates with the other boys, and circulating, as I did, all about town, I had greater opportunities for trading and acquiring.
It was not long before I had complete every series issued by every cigarette manufacturer–such as the Great Race Horses, Parisian Beauties, Women of All Nations, Flags of All Nations, Noted Actors, Champion Prize Fighters, etc. And each series I had three different ways: in the card from the cigarette package, in the poster, and in the album.
Then I began to accumulate duplicate sets, duplicate albums. I traded for other things that boys valued and which they usually bought with money given them by their parents. Naturally, they did not have the keen sense of values that I had, who was never given money to buy anything. I traded for postage-stamps, for minerals, for curios, for birds’ eggs, for marbles (I had a more magnificent collection of agates than I have ever seen any boy possess–and the nucleus of the collection was a handful worth at least three dollars, which I had kept as security for twenty cents I loaned to a messenger-boy who was sent to reform school before he could redeem them).
I’d trade anything and everything for anything else, and turn it over in a dozen more trades until it was transmuted into something that was worth something. I was famous as a trader. I was notorious as a miser. I could even make a junkman weep when I had dealings with him. Other boys called me in to sell for them their collections of bottles, rags, old iron, grain, and gunny-sacks, and five-gallon oil-cans–aye, and gave me a commission for doing it.
And this was the thrifty, close-fisted boy, accustomed to slave at a machine for ten cents an hour, who sat on the stringer-piece and considered the matter of beer at five cents a glass and gone in a moment with nothing to show for it. I was now with men I admired. I was proud to be with them. Had all my pinching and saving brought me the equivalent of one of the many thrills which had been mine since I came among the oyster pirates? Then what was worth while–money or thrills? These men had no horror of squandering a nickel, or many nickels. They were magnificently careless of money, calling up eight men to drink whisky at ten cents a glass, as French Frank had done. Why, Nelson had just spent sixty cents on beer for the two of us.
Which was it to be? I was aware that I was making a grave decision. I was deciding between money and men, between niggardliness and romance. Either I must throw overboard all my old values of money and look upon it as something to be flung about wastefully, or I must throw overboard my comradeship with these men whose peculiar quirks made them like strong drink.
I retraced my steps up the wharf to the Last Chance, where Nelson still stood outside. “Come on and have a beer,” I invited. Again we stood at the bar and drank and talked, but this time it was I who paid ten cents! a whole hour of my labour at a machine for a drink of something I didn’t want and which tasted rotten. But it wasn’t difficult. I had achieved a concept. Money no longer counted. It was comradeship that counted. “Have another?” I said. And we had another, and I paid for it. Nelson, with the wisdom of the skilled drinker, said to the barkeeper, “Make mine a small one, Johnny.” Johnny nodded and gave him a glass that contained only a third as much as the glasses we had been drinking. Yet the charge was the same–five cents.
By this time I was getting nicely jingled, so such extravagance didn’t hurt me much. Besides, I was learning. There was more in this buying of drinks than mere quantity. I got my finger on it. There was a stage when the beer didn’t count at all, but just the spirit of comradeship of drinking together. And, ha!–another thing! I, too, could call for small beers and minimise by two- thirds the detestable freightage with which comradeship burdened one.
“I had to go aboard to get some money,” I remarked casually, as we drank, in the hope Nelson would take it as an explanation of why I had let him treat six consecutive times.
“Oh, well, you didn’t have to do that,” he answered. “Johnny’ll trust a fellow like you–won’t you, Johnny!”
“Sure,” Johnny agreed, with a smile.
“How much you got down against me?” Nelson queried.
Johnny pulled out the book he kept behind the bar, found Nelson’s page, and added up the account of several dollars. At once I became possessed with a desire to have a page in that book. Almost it seemed the final badge of manhood.
After a couple more drinks, for which I insisted on paying, Nelson decided to go. We parted true comradely, and I wandered down the wharf to the Razzle Dazzle. Spider was just building the fire for supper.
“Where’d you get it?” he grinned up at me through the open companion.
“Oh, I’ve been with Nelson,” I said carelessly, trying to hide my pride.
Then an idea came to me. Here was another one of them. Now that I had achieved my concept, I might as well practise it thoroughly. “Come on,” I said, “up to Johnny’s and have a drink.”
Going up the wharf, we met Clam coming down. Clam was Nelson’s partner, and he was a fine, brave, handsome, moustached man of thirty–everything, in short, that his nickname did not connote. “Come on,” I said, “and have a drink.” He came. As we turned into the Last Chance, there was Pat, the Queen’s brother, coming out.
“What’s your hurry?” I greeted him. “We’re having a drink. Come on along.” “I’ve just had one,” he demurred. “What of it?–we’re having one now,” I retorted. And Pat consented to join us, and I melted my way into his good graces with a couple of glasses of beer. Oh! I was learning things that afternoon about John Barleycorn. There was more in him than the bad taste when you swallowed him. Here, at the absurd cost of ten cents, a gloomy, grouchy individual, who threatened to become an enemy, was made into a good friend. He became even genial, his looks were kindly, and our voices mellowed together as we talked water-front and oyster-bed gossip.
“Small beer for me, Johnny,” I said, when the others had ordered schooners. Yes, and I said it like the accustomed drinker, carelessly, casually, as a sort of spontaneous thought that had just occurred to me. Looking back, I am confident that the only one there who guessed I was a tyro at bar-drinking was Johnny Heinhold.
“Where’d he get it?” I overheard Spider confidentially ask Johnny.
“Oh, he’s been sousin’ here with Nelson all afternoon,” was Johnny’s answer.
I never let on that I’d heard, but PROUD? Aye, even the barkeeper was giving me a recommendation as a man. “HE’S BEEN SOUSIN’ HERE WITH NELSON ALL AFTERNOON.” Magic words! The accolade delivered by a barkeeper with a beer glass!
I remembered that French Frank had treated Johnny the day I bought the Razzle Dazzle. The glasses were filled and we were ready to drink. “Have something yourself, Johnny,” I said, with an air of having intended to say it all the time, but of having been a trifle remiss because of the interesting conversation I had been holding with Clam and Pat.
Johnny looked at me with quick sharpness, divining, I am positive, the strides I was making in my education, and poured himself whisky from his private bottle. This hit me for a moment on my thrifty side. He had taken a ten-cent drink when the rest of us were drinking five-cent drinks! But the hurt was only for a moment. I dismissed it as ignoble, remembered my concept, and did not give myself away.
“You’d better put me down in the book for this,” I said, when we had finished the drink. And I had the satisfaction of seeing a fresh page devoted to my name and a charge pencilled for a round of drinks amounting to thirty cents. And I glimpsed, as through a golden haze, a future wherein that page would be much charged, and crossed off, and charged again.
I treated a second time around, and then, to my amazement, Johnny redeemed himself in that matter of the ten-cent drink. He treated us around from behind the bar, and I decided that he had arithmetically evened things up handsomely.
“Let’s go around to the St. Louis House,” Spider suggested when we got outside. Pat, who had been shovelling coal all day, had gone home, and Clam had gone upon the Reindeer to cook supper.
So around Spider and I went to the St. Louis House–my first visit–a huge bar-room, where perhaps fifty men, mostly longshoremen, were congregated. And there I met Soup Kennedy for the second time, and Bill Kelley. And Smith, of the Annie, drifted in–he of the belt-buckled revolvers. And Nelson showed up. And I met others, including the Vigy brothers, who ran the place, and, chiefest of all, Joe Goose, with the wicked eyes, the twisted nose, and the flowered vest, who played the harmonica like a roystering angel and went on the most atrocious tears that even the Oakland water-front could conceive of and admire.
As I bought drinks–others treated as well–the thought flickered across my mind that Mammy Jennie wasn’t going to be repaid much on her loan out of that week’s earnings of the Razzle Dazzle. “But what of it?” I thought, or rather, John Barleycorn thought it for me. “You’re a man and you’re getting acquainted with men. Mammy Jennie doesn’t need the money as promptly as all that. She isn’t starving. You know that. She’s got other money in the bank. Let her wait, and pay her back gradually.”
And thus it was I learned another trait of John Barleycorn. He inhibits morality. Wrong conduct that it is impossible for one to do sober, is done quite easily when one is not sober. In fact, it is the only thing one can do, for John Barleycorn’s inhibition rises like a wall between one’s immediate desires and long-learned morality.
I dismissed my thought of debt to Mammy Jennie and proceeded to get acquainted at the trifling expense of some trifling money and a jingle that was growing unpleasant. Who took me on board and put me to bed that night I do not know, but I imagine it must have been Spider.