John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 5
This physical loathing for alcohol I have never got over. But I have conquered it. To this
day I conquer it every time I take a drink. The palate never ceases to rebel, and the palate
can be trusted to know what is good for the body. But men do not drink for the effect
alcohol produces on the body. What they drink for is the brain-effect; and if it must come
through the body, so much the worse for the body.
And yet, despite my physical loathing for alcohol, the brightest spots in my child life
were the saloons. Sitting on the heavy potato wagons, wrapped in fog, feet stinging from
inactivity, the horses plodding slowly along the deep road through the sandhills, one
bright vision made the way never too long. The bright vision was the saloon at Colma,
where my father, or whoever drove, always got out to get a drink. And I got out to warm
by the great stove and get a soda cracker. Just one soda cracker, but a fabulous luxury.
Saloons were good for something. Back behind the plodding horses, I would take an hour
in consuming that one cracker. I took the smallest nibbles, never losing a crumb, and
chewed the nibble till it became the thinnest and most delectable of pastes. I never
voluntarily swallowed this paste. I just tasted it, and went on tasting it, turning it over
with my tongue, spreading it on the inside of this cheek, then on the inside of the other
cheek, until, at the end, it eluded me and in tiny drops and oozelets, slipped and dribbled
down my throat. Horace Fletcher had nothing on me when it came to soda crackers.
I liked saloons. Especially I liked the San Francisco saloons. They had the most delicious
dainties for the taking--strange breads and crackers, cheeses, sausages, sardines--
wonderful foods that I never saw on our meagre home-table. And once, I remember, a
barkeeper mixed me a sweet temperance drink of syrup and soda- water. My father did
not pay for it. It was the barkeeper's treat, and he became my ideal of a good, kind man. I
dreamed day- dreams of him for years. Although I was seven years old at the time, I can
see him now with undiminished clearness, though I never laid eyes on him but that one
time. The saloon was south of Market Street in San Francisco. It stood on the west side of
the street. As you entered, the bar was on the left. On the right, against the wall, was the
free lunch counter. It was a long, narrow room, and at the rear, beyond the beer kegs on
tap, were small, round tables and chairs. The barkeeper was blue-eyed, and had fair, silky
hair peeping out from under a black silk skull- cap. I remember he wore a brown
Cardigan jacket, and I know precisely the spot, in the midst of the array of bottles, from
which he took the bottle of red-coloured syrup. He and my father talked long, and I
sipped my sweet drink and worshipped him. And for years afterward I worshipped the
memory of him.
Despite my two disastrous experiences, here was John Barleycorn, prevalent and
accessible everywhere in the community, luring and drawing me. Here were connotations
of the saloon making deep indentations in a child's mind. Here was a child, forming its
first judgments of the world, finding the saloon a delightful and desirable place. Stores,
nor public buildings, nor all the dwellings of men ever opened their doors to me and let
me warm by their fires or permitted me to eat the food of the gods from narrow shelves
against the wall. Their doors were ever closed to me; the saloon's doors were ever open.