Only the rich, the ignorant, and the newly vaccinated travel to faraway places for vacations during the pandemic. But for reasons that have nothing to do with vacations or holidays I recently drove across the COVID-19 wasteland to take up temporary residence in Malden, Massachusetts, just down the road from Melrose. Living here north of Boston I have taken to walking my dogs up and down Malden’s hills, and after the first snow I started noticing nips everywhere and photographing them for the record. A nip series sounds like it should be pornography, but instead it’s our effort at Proxy Holidays to document life during the pandemic, when restless souls are walking or driving the local streets lit and prepared to litter. Once I mentioned the 50 ml nips to Billy, he started noticing them in Hamilton, Ohio, where he lives in a working class city not unlike Malden. This Smirnoff nip was found in melting snow in front of my rental house. Though I am not the photographer that Billy is, as you can see by examining his dark, brooding photograph of a Hamilton nip on our landing page, I am proud of this photograph. It seems right that the bottle is upside down.
I like to walk up and down the hills of Kimball Street and Cherry Street and around the bend on Lebanon Street all the way to Foster or Sylvan, and most weeks I see more nips than a hotel mini bar holds. Among these there are two beverages—if that’s the appropriate word—that seem to be most popular. Smirnoff is one of them. Smirnoff vodka comes in many flavors, though finding “kissed caramel” surprised me. I guess “kissed caramel” means there’s just a touch of caramel flavor added, though the image of a gooey kiss comes to mind. Seeing this nip I decided to do what I otherwise have avoided doing—I posed the bottle. This meant placing it in the rock wall to my right going up the hill. The rocks of Malden are something to behold, though to be sure I know more about spirits than rocks. I am not so much the materialist these days, and my opinions are less unassailable than they were in my youth. But there is no doubt that the rocks of Malden are impressive.
I am also certain that Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov, born a serf, never imagined that his vodka would someday be sold in little plastic bottles as easy to squash as a peasant uprising, even if he lived to become one of the richest men in Czarist Russia. What would he make of his concoction being distributed by the British multinational Diageo in 180 nations? How would it sit with him to know that his vodka is made by a company that once owned Burger King? I suppose I can’t be sure that this bottle contained Smirnoff vodka since I didn’t turn it over—there are only so many germs worth risking for the sake of photography. But the S and M that are visible suggest as much. Life is hard in a pandemic, harder for some than others.
The mythical Dr. Aloysius Percival McGillicuddy is said to have prized his mustache and dueling pistols as the proprietor of the Shady Eye Pub, where he served drinks and Kick in the Pants Coffee in the mid-19th century. You can read about this “legend” at the website advertising his liqueurs, everything from Mentholmint—combine two parts Mentholmint and one-part chocolate liqueur for a mentholmint patty—to Wild Grape and Raw Vanilla. Walking the streets of Malden and Melrose to keep off pandemic pounds, I am no idler or flâneur, and neither do I especially like apple pie, much less the proverb concerning its relationship to American ideology. I found this nip in an asphalt driveway just off the sidewalk on Lebanon Street. Orange is the color of hate, they say, which may explain our recent politics but presents a mystery when I think about the branding of this liqueur. How is it that an apple pie liqueur is sold in nips dressed in orange? Wouldn’t red or green or yellow be more appropriate? Are there orange apples?
So many of my nips were spotted among dead leaves that I am tempted to call this series “nips in nature,” though that would sound like an ad for a nudist colony. Moreover, there is nothing natural about our pandemic. There’s a tradition of “having a little nip” against the cold outdoors, but so far there haven’t been many really cold days in Malden. It’s only the pandemic and human weakness that I blame for this drinking. It pleased me to find a Jack Daniel’s nip among the leaves, however, since unlike Dr. McGillicuddy Jack Daniel once lived—in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where his whiskey poured into square bottles is made in a dry county, 31 million gallons of it a year. “The mash for Jack Daniel’s is made from corn, rye, and malted barley, and is distilled in copper barrels” says Wikipedia. But my favorite story about its production process has to do with the oak barrels in which it is aged. These are later sold to Lowe’s Home Centers to be used as planter pots. I have three of the pots at my house in Oxford, Ohio, where my wife and I grow flowers in them. The other barrels are shipped to Scotland to be used in the production of whiskey or to Barbados for rum and Louisiana for tabasco sauce. The cycle of life for oak trees, liquor and hot sauce!
I know only a little about Malden, having been here not quite five months now, but I think that the Forrest Dale Cemetery is the biggest cemetery in the city. Many people jog alongside its stone walls or inside its gates. I walk by it when I want a more peaceful walk than Lebanon Street permits and more trees than the crowded houses on the neighborhood streets can accommodate. One day on such a walk I spotted this Ketel One Vodka nip on the sidewalk beside the stone wall. Ketel One is a vodka made in the Netherlands, a country I have never visited. I prefer gin, so I don’t know if it makes sense that it is called a “premium” vodka. Does a premium nip cost more? “Ketel” refers to the copper pot first used to make the vodka, but I can’t help also hearing the word “kettling” as it refers to the police strategy used to contain protesters. Some of my friends in London were subjected to this not so many years ago. It’s about managing crowds to prevent violence and is itself a form of violence. Some people drink to let off steam. That also rarely works.
Because readers of Proxy Holidays are connoisseurs of art, they will know about the famous painting by Edgar Degas titled “Two Bathers on the Grass” and painted between 1886 and 1890. It can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, although maybe with the pandemic surging it can’t be seen now. This “Baccardi in the Grass” can be seen right here and now at Billy’s website, though the bottle photographed has probably been removed to the trash bins of Malden, especially since the grass it is resting in belongs to a nursing home where I hope nobody is dying tonight.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, as the saying goes. I’ll admit that I don’t know why Fireball is Malden’s second most popular drink bottled in nips, at least by my count. I must have come across seven or eight nips with this devil on the label in the last week. Billy says that it appears to be the most popular nip in Hamilton, so there must be something to or in it. It’s said to taste like atomic fireball candy. It was first made by Seagram’s before its formula was sold to The Sazerac Company, which sold $1.9 million worth of it in gas stations, supermarkets, and convenience stores in 2011, and $61 million in 2013, which pushed it above the sales of Jameson’s Irish whiskey. By 2016 it was selling to the tune of $150 million, more than Jägermeister, and it’s now the top-selling liqueur in the United States. In 2014 the governments of Norway, Sweden, and Finland recalled it because it contains high levels of propylene glycol, one of the ingredients in anti-freeze. Ads for it say that it “tastes like heaven,” which I doubt, and “burns like hell,” which is probably closer to the truth.
When I was a kid I liked butterscotch candy more than atomic fireballs, but I knew nothing about its history. Butterscotch was first made during the 19th century in the town of Doncaster in Yorkshire, England. Doncaster has been voted one of Britain’s worst ten towns two years in a row. This has nothing to do with butterscotch, unless its citizens are drinking the beverage pictured here. It is 196 miles north of Old Malden, the town Malden, Massachusetts must be named after. I can’t remember where I found this nip.
This nip puzzles me. I found it at the bottom of the hill on Cherry Street. Its label suggests that it once contained Corona beer, the unfortunately named Mexican beer, but who would want to drink 50 ml of beer? A few thimblefuls of beer aren’t good for much by way of a buzz. Thus the mystery. Does the Corona nip contain something other than beer? Is the label a ruse? Does truth no longer exist in our Trump-addled, sick society?
This is my favorite nip photo, a nip without its label beside the curb, crowned by a cigarette butt as it rests among dead leaves and grit. Trash can be beautiful.
Nip is said to derive from “nipperkin,” which Wikipedia defines as “a unit of measurement of volume, equal to one-half of a quarter-gill, one-eighth of a gill, or one thirty-second of an Englishpint.” And just so you know this, “Malden is derived from the Old Englishmæl duna, meaning ‘the cross on the hill’” according to the same encyclopedia. That is all very interesting, as they used to say on Laugh-In. Malden has a cross to bear, it seems. This poor nip is trying to exit its sad life.
There’s no reason to end a nip series on a sour mash note. It takes energy to walk the hills of Malden. You use it up. You burn calories. You can’t go on but you do. That’s how it is in the pandemic, whether or not you’re a rock star.
I feel like a cuttlefish in a cuttlefish stew. Cut up in brine. Seasoned and chunked.
Like yak testicles turning on a spit, basted in a language I don’t understand.
Like asphalt pie, patched in but too flimsy to drive on, ever weary of bad road.
After the news I can’t sleep. A Food Network cameraman is following me around in my dreams, farting an air of iguana curry. I can’t locate my inner sauna, my frozen lake.
Someone asks if I will remove my sarong, display my insect parts. I’m supposed to eat a bucket of tree grubs faster than the next guy.
No, that’s not it.
I’m in the Mekong Delta beside an octogenarian drinking rice whiskey and singing the sins of my countrymen.
Snort this, the old man says, for TB.
It might have been outside a temple in Bhutan where he hid his last prayer as they bulldozed a road and a little jet sputtered off toward a mountain.
It might have been late night in Berlin eating currywurst and doner kebab as Metropolis was screened and there was too much good wine.
At some point a decision? God forbid. It might have been anywhere.
Who will tell us what to eat on Monday? Langoustines and pata negra?
Who knows what there is to do in Akron?
Where to go when the night runs into morning?
What to do with all of the bones?
Like Typhoid Mary, summer came and went. Political criminals and oligarchs, opportunists, traitors, liars and others paid to lie about liars ate it like the spring before it, in big media gulps, immense helpings, straight up the nostrils. Then this.
Strasbourg? Cuisinier et voyageur.
I found myself reading about Frigyes Karinthy, the distinguished Hungarian writer. One day early in the last century he was sipping coffee in a Budapest café when he heard the roar of an incoming train. He sat and processed the sound for a few minutes and then realized there was no train near enough. I must be hallucinating, he thought. But he wasn’t. He had a brain tumor.
Cooks have had it hard. It’s no longer confidential. There’s that. Travel is worth it and can be lonely. That too. To give us the world, from East Africa to West Virginia, with humility and style.
Smoking a joint on a Seattle balcony looking out to sea, as the world is made and undone.