The Scarlet Pimpernel

We here at the Alembic (we, meaning I) tend not to endorse any one product. We (I) tend to see the diversity of the world’s merchandise as something of a use-as-needed set of resources, not to be overdosed or obsessed upon, to be experienced in a responsible and sober manner, aware of its benefits and limitations, with the ability to walk away if the product begins to overtake the consumer’s existence. There is though, a whole subterranean second life of a product, and that is the marketing and trading in the putative value of that product, for good or for ill, wagering on the success or failure, by the money people that really don’t care about the item itself. It’s a means to an end, which is fine, except the last thing I need is to feel I am being manipulated into trends by bloodsuckers. Sometimes it is best to give them a taste of their own medicine. Follow me now…

It was at one of those high-end bars, dark and moody, surrounded by people with filthy riches and filthier thoughts, that I sat with a somewhat stoic and thoughtful air about me.  It was a hotel bar. Having some time to kill I had stopped in, only to find myself in the middle of a launch party for a new whiskey owned by some Silicon Valley types and endorsed by a major famous person. Taylor Swift or Jonathan Swift or Kevin Spacey or Billy Retard. Whoever is au courant, these days. I can’t keep up. Anyway, free samples of the stuff were being brought around on silver trays. Some of the promotional agents were touting it as the next big thing and most of the people there, full of shit as they were, agreed. I wanted no part of it. I snuck up to the bar and called the bartender over.

“Do you have any Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon?” I whispered. 

The bartender’s eyes immediately lit up with the familiarity of dealing with someone on the inside, someone who knows what they are talking about. He told me to wait a minute and then disappeared into the back. He emerged after a few minutes with a bottle of the bourbon I had requested, a bottle that was half full (I’m an optimist, after all) and said it was the manager’s personal stash.

“How much for it?” I said.

“Fifteen dollars a shot,” he said. “Those are friend prices.”

I told him I wanted the whole bottle, what was left anyway. He looked at me for a minute. I said I was willing to be reasonable. There are about fourteen two-ounce shots in an average 750 ml. Charge me for seven, expect a generous gratuity, and it’s one less puddle head you have to deal with for the rest of the night. Being a prudent gent he agreed, and I was soon nestled at a corner table with a glass and my bottle at my fingertips. Just as I suspected, a clean cut fellow who was half buried in his phone, texting away, came up and asked me, not really paying attention, if I liked the bourbon. He was one of the financial backers, a twenty-six-year-old tech billionaire, who seemed more concerned with social media real-time location tags than the bourbon itself.     

“Your bourbon should be served in a horse trough,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” he whispered. “Attention and interest are today’s real currency. Minute-by-minute valuations are now possible through the use of tracking apps. Every time someone checks in to this party on-line my worth increases. The stock goes up.”

“Your name wouldn’t happen to be Shkreli would it?”

“I wouldn’t admit it if it was.”

“What about the bourbon?” I said.

“Today it is bourbon,” he shrugged. “Tomorrow it’s a clothing line. Next week it’s a car show. My business is hype. And business is good.”   

He looked up and noticed the bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean on my table.

“What’s that?”

“This is Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon.”


“As in George and Weesie Jefferson,” I barked. “How the hell do you think they moved on up, to the east side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky? The man knew his dry cleaning and his bourbon.” 

“Of course. Makes perfect sense,” said the techie, who was negative three years old when the show went off the air.

“I’m kidding. Think more Thomas Jefferson. Think Port Jefferson. Think Jefferson Airplane. Think Jefferson Starship. Point is, do you know what this bourbon does after it is made and packed in oak casks?”

“No.” He put down his phone. I had his full attention.

“They sail it around the world. They put it on a big ship and it aerates and matures on the high seas. What does your bourbon do? It sits on some Kentucky horse farm. My bourbon outruns Somali pirates.”


“My bourbon sails neath the Aurora Borealis.”

“I’m intrigued.”

“My bourbon navigates the tempestuous waters of the South Indian Basin.”


“My bourbon watches the sun come up off the coast of the Palmyra atoll.”

“I want some.”

“You can’t have it. I own this bottle.”

“I’ll get my own.” he said, sulking off. A minute later he was back with a look of desperation on his face. 

“My bourbon survives the Bermuda Triangle,” I said, taking a sip. “Taste the triumph.”

“I want to taste the triumph.”

“You can’t taste the triumph.”

“Let’s get serious. How much do you want for that bottle?” he said, crumbling.

I watched, satisfied as he began peeling Ben Franklins off a hefty roll.


Outside the air was cold. I shoved my hands in my pockets, tucked my chin into my coat and walked down the street. I stopped at a liquor store, bought a fifth of Old Crow for about six bucks, took a belt and then handed it off to a fuliginous homeless fellow curled up next to a building, whose look of gratitude was the only genuine article of the evening.

“You put the pimp in Scarlet Pimpernel,” he rasped.

Considering a career as a professor of economics, I jaywalked to the opposite side of the street.

More Alembics to come.


New Lang Syne

Happy New Year, everybody! In honor of another successful negotiation of the holiday season, and to celebrate the running of yet another tinseled and ornamented gauntlet, I’d like to reflect on what ended up being a truly ridiculous Christmas, if only because writing is therapy, and I need all the help I can get. 

It all started when I missed a flight out of Atlanta Christmas morning. I had checked a few days prior and saw that my standby flight was almost guaranteed on an empty airplane, which, on Christmas Actual, because of bad weather and cancellations, turned into the ass-end of a thirty-person standby list for a flight that had one seat left. Which wasn’t even the biggest problem, as it turned out.

Word went around fast that the extremely popular biscotti cookies that were being given out in honor of Christmas were tainted with some rabidly aggressive strain of E-Coli, or a bug similarly hostile to the human digestive system, and the plane’s passengers, even before takeoff, were beginning to show signs of intestinal distress. To make matters worse the only seat available was all the way in the back, wedged between the lavatory, for which there was already a line, and a screaming kid who had judiciously decided to avoid the line, taking it upon himself to create his own personal lavatory in his underpants.

All the standby fliers sitting at the gate were tugging their collars nervously at the thought of a mass evacuation of diarrhea at forty thousand feet.  No Christmas destination was worth that. A few people came up the jetway, green and gasping, surrendering their seats to the more intrepid travelers, whose threshold for human rot and decay was somewhere on the level of emergency room medical personnel and Navy Seals trained to withstand extreme forms of torture.  None of us knew what was worse, missing the plane or actually making it onboard.

“What type of world do we live in when harmless and delicious cookies suddenly turn into aggressive little terrorists?” said a man sitting next to me, his fists clenched in anger. “We can’t even trust food anymore.”

I waved him off, taken as I was with a Christmas news story on CNN about a 400-pound bearded woman who had stabbed a man in the neck in a dispute over a cigarette. I sensed a certain suppressed mirth in the otherwise staid reporter’s detail, as she kept reiterating that the woman was “again 400 pounds, and had a beard,” which basically eclipsed any other part of the story. The woman, “400 pounds and bearded, mind you,” was caught after she fled the scene. She was caught fifteen feet away, gasping and panting, her bearded face doubled over her 400-pound girth as police handcuffed her, the bearded 400-pound woman.

“Is the man okay? The stabbing victim?” said the anchorman.

“Did I mention this female behemoth had a beard?” said the reporter.   

Hypertricosis is no laughing matter. Neither is obesity. But somehow, when the two conditions coincide, it makes it alright to laugh about it. Don’t know why. Just one of those inscrutable truisms. 

The smell from the plane was slowly seeping up the jetway while we waited for our names to be called, like the lottery of the doomed, so we could be led down the gangplank to certain horror. I could see through the window that even the pilots were freaking out, and they had their own private room up front with a locking door. They fanned the air wildly, radioed up to the gate for the agents to get the plane ready for takeoff, and to get an extra supply of barf bags, and to stop fucking around. They promised to drop all the oxygen masks immediately upon takeoff, and to even leave the plane door open a crack for the whole flight just to air it out.

The man who had termed the biscotti cookies “tiny terrorists” ended up being the last person on the plane. We watched him as he paused at the door, turned to the rest of us, gulped and disappeared.

No travel for Paddy the Duke, so I went back to my neighborhood to search for a restaurant open for holiday business. The pickins were slim. I eventually settled on a new restaurant called, “Wasted–A Grub Shack.” Catchy name. I had the wrong idea though, as the sign wasn’t referring to inebriation, but to exotic foodstuffs–worms, crickets, dogfish, larvae and such (actual grub)–items usually deemed unfit for consumption by western standards.  This was the new holiday gourmet.

“Keep an open mind and an open mouth,” the husband and wife team of owners declared as I was seated at a table. They wished me a fond Merry Christmas and offered me a menu. I couldn’t decide between the worms or the pupae platter, so they just started me out with “yartsa gunbu” tacos, which is a Tibetan caterpillar fungus, and a chia shake. They told me that chia was a superfood, gluten-free, rich in protein and anti-oxidants. All the rage in certain health circles, which meant that the chia pets of the eighties would soon be extinct. Chalk another fragile species up to human interference.

Instead of “It’s a Wonderful Life” the mounted television was showing the old Jean Luc Goddard movie “Alphaville,” an experimental film so eerie and strange that even nihilists and the Goth culture won’t have anything to do with it. I moved on to my main course, the Death’s Head Moth burger with a side of critters, as I told my hosts about the E-coli outbreak on the plane I was supposed to be on.

“All our food is guaranteed E-coli free,” they boasted. Sure, I thought, even E-coli wouldn’t be caught dead in this stuff. E-coli, as it turns out, actually has some dignity. I thought about ham, I thought about turkey, I thought about pumpkin pie, stuffing, gravy and egg nog. I wished for a traditional Christmas, never knowing how good I had it. I got a sample of mollusk meatloaf and dung beetle lasagna and finished the whole thing off with a cup of Kopi Luwak.

“How does it taste?”

“Like shit.”

“We knew you’d like it.”

More Alembics to come.