Drink the Water
October 11, 2012 | by Alia Akkam
Liquor has never touched my Middle Eastern father’s lips. Or so he claims. In the late sixties, when he lived a spell in Munich, embarked on spontaneous sojourns to Italy, and dated a Finnish broad named Helvi I once saw in a faded wallet-size photo—activities that made him sound so much more alluring than the stern killjoy I remember—I like to think he nursed a few carefree beers just like any lonely expat. When he made his way to New York a few years later, renting a dingy studio on the upper reaches of Broadway, when he was still the man my mother fell for—an Arab version of Adrian Zmed with a rustling gold chain around his neck and swarthy looks that back then meant you were handsome, not a possible terrorist—he used to smoke cigarettes, my mother tells me. Perhaps he also took nips of whiskey from a flask.
But the only father I know, the real one, returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia when I was eight years old a sudden gung-ho Muslim. He was no longer the aggressive moderate who was content with me just saying Bissmilah at the start of each meal. Now, every moment he wasn’t holed up in a Hilton for work or stuffing fried eggplant into pita bread at the dinner table was spent hunched over a miniature Koran, recapturing the lost Islam of his youth, of his family, of the native Syria he hadn’t called home for more than two decades.
Freshly brewed mint iced tea. Distilled water from the Poland Springs gallon bottles that lined our laundry room. Dr. Pepper, when its effervescence became a salve for the wheezing that permeated my bronchitis-ridden childhood. These were the beverages welcome in our teetotaler home. Although my mother, a Catholic girl from Queens, didn’t have religion propelling her consumption habits, she harbored something worse: distaste for even innocent bubbles. “Champagne burns my ears,” I remember her whining—and she rarely invited company over for anything more than a cup of Earl Grey.
While my father’s religious upgrade was, I suspect, inevitable, 1987’s biggest surprise arrived when the general contractors my parents hired to strip our living room of dark paneling erected not only Sheetrock, but a bar in the basement. My father is known for eccentric ideas and the urgency associated with implementing them. But for a family that shunned alcohol, desire for a structure that by its very existence promoted the swilling of booze seemed ludicrous, masochistic.
“It is important to have a bar,” my father would say matter-of-factly when asked about this bizarre home addition. And so, the cedar marvel made its debut. Other than the minis of Johnnie Walker Red my father had managed to pluck, on his many trips, from the distracted flight attendant’s trolley, the bar was empty. “This is good stuff,” he would say as he carefully arranged the tiny bottles on the bar. Just holding the cool glass against his skin made him feel powerful. He had no idea what the amber liquid tasted like. He never would.
Brand names were important in my home. “Panasonic is not good enough. We must buy Sony,” my father would roar when it was time to buy a television. “Is Whirlpool really the best?” he would demand of the refrigerator salesman at Sears.
To him, acquiring Johnnie Walker was just another way of proving he had made it in America. That he would never crack it open, never take a swig, that it would sit for years, untouched on a bar collecting cobwebs of dust did not matter. He, a man once impoverished, forced to share a crowded floor with brothers and sisters for a night’s sleep, had a bar in his home, just like J. R. Ewing and Krystle Carrington.
He wasn’t the only one who succumbed to fantasy. Some evenings, at my grandparents’ house, Grandpa (the non-Muslim one, of course) would pull a bottle of Romana Sambuca out of the cherry server in the dining room and retire to his beloved armchair with a glass. There was nothing illicit in these moments. In fact, they seemed rather peaceful. It was the only time I saw a person drink before my eyes, unless you counted television. Reared on Three’s Company, I was entranced by the Regal Beagle watering hole, loved that Jack and Larry had found a home here, and one that was far more magical than the ones that lay beyond the rounded doors of their Santa Monica apartment complex. Here they talked, drank, pined for the company of pretty blonde ladies. My father might have objected to this scenario, but I wanted to be granted entry.
Once the bar arrived in my basement, a glimmer of excitement in an otherwise bland suburban existence, I spent much time down there, poring over my prized stash of fashion magazines, the ones that flaunted the gussied up images of models Kim Alexis and Paulina Porizkova. In my mind I pictured these beautiful women, with their shellacked red pouts and sparkling dresses accentuating fierce cleavages, sitting at a bar, filled with happy people and mysterious rows of bottles, waiting for boyfriends resembling Ken dolls to come and buy them martinis and whisk them off to dinner. In the basement I discovered my own Regal Beagle.
Sometimes a friend would come over. We’d play one of our numerous games—pretending we worked in an important office, dialing fake numbers on a fake phone, or making fake eggs on a fake stove while chatting in fake Southern accents. Soon, we added the bar to our make-believe repertoire. Too young to know terms like Old Fashioned and Sidecar, the drinks we mixed out of water had no name. Mismatched glasses were brought down from the kitchen. Comments like “What can I get for you tonight?” were uttered. It was the same year Tom Cruise starred in Cocktail. My friend saw it with her mother at the theater, but I wasn’t allowed to join.
The games trailed off as I morphed into adolescence. A treadmill now stood next to the bar, another of my dad’s short-lived obsessions. I used it all the time, thinking multiple sessions would sculpt my seventh-grade body into cheerleader shape and grant me instant popularity and forbidden make-out sessions in grocery store parking lots with boys who had not yet looked at me.
As I slid along doggedly in my sweaty tank top, Z100 blaring the likes of P.M. Dawn and TLC, I’d gaze at the neglected bar. If you ignored the potpourri of shopping bags, paper towels, and masking tape that littered the top, never quite finding their way back to their proper cabinets upstairs, it still looked brand new, as if unwrapped from a Levitz showroom only the day before.
By then I had stopped envisioning a bevy of eighties supermodels clinking glasses. I knew the bar would not fulfill any glamorous destiny. More miscellaneous objects would be lazily abandoned on its top. An aura of desolation would continue to cling. Upstairs my father would continue to obsess over a new blender purchase, occasionally making his way down just to make sure those bottles, with their unbroken seals, remained. But I would not be there to see.
When she’s not interviewing architects and designers as managing editor of Hospitality Design magazine, Alia Akkam eats her way through her favorite borough as editor of Edible Queens and pens stories on restaurant and cocktail culture for outlets such as Paper and Liquor.com.