I wanted to hate the Volstead Act. The bar's been open for several years, but I'd never been until a few weeks ago. I had, however, been to the Cruise Room in Denver, a similar celebration of Prohibition. If all nostalgia is a hopeless dream of recapturing what's been lost, there's something especially hollow about nostalgia for an era we didn't live through. Prohibition nostalgia, a booze fantasy of naughty behavior, feels like cuddling up to vice, an expression of our superbad outlaw selves, but safe — like inhaling vaporized water instead of cigarette smoke.
The actual Volstead Act, also known as the National Prohibition Act, stipulated that "no person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor except as authorized." To celebrate the Volstead Act with craft cocktails, we have to forget that from 1920 to 1933, the sale, transport, et cetera of alcohol was controlled by criminal gangs killing more people than they'd ever killed before, that thousands more died annually from drinking tainted booze, and that hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in breweries, distilleries, saloons and restaurants. Nostalgia is not about facts, though — it's about feelings. "A throwback to the good 'ol days," the Volstead Act's website declares. "A bar with drinks made to reflect the styles of the Prohibition era in the heart of the Davenport District."
Remember Prohibition? How we'd smuggle booze across the border, chased by crooked cops? How we'd work our stills, run our rum, bathtub our gin? Remember my tuxedo and your sequined gown, how we'd dance the night away in speakeasies, sipping martinis, laughing and smoking, our chauffeur driving us home to drink more gin and make wild pagan love as the sun rose pink around us? The law was something sophisticated people like us flouted. The law made outlaws of us. Most of us, anyway. Remember? How we were outlaws? We'd rob banks with machine guns, like Bonnie and Clyde, killing people and taking what we wanted, making wild pagan love after it all. Actually, maybe we need to edit some of this nostalgia just a little — like the killing part, or the details and consequences of the bank-robbing part. But the generic outlaw part? Let's keep that. It's cool. And in our nostalgia, no one has to get hurt. We can embrace our naughtiness, safely — with vapor, instead of smoke. Never mind that to be really, really cool, we have to pretend we don't care about dying at all, or we have to join a real death cult, like the heroin club. But we're not talking about the sickness of the heroin club here. We're talking about Prohibition romance.
In Denver, a place like Spokane, where another prohibition — against weed — has recently been repealed, the Cruise Room posts its Prohibition propaganda on cards propped on each table, which I read while I waited for my cocktail. The soundtrack was Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke. The card said, "Distinctive, sophisticated and chic — the Cruise Room is Denver's oldest and most fascinating bar... opened the day after the abolition of Prohibition in 1933 (although many believe the facility was home to an illicit speakeasy throughout the 1920s Prohibition era)."
Illicit speakeasy sounded real good, real naughty. I was in the right spot — Denver's oldest and most fascinating bar — doing my naughty stuff where people had done their naughty stuff all those years ago. The scene was safe but outlawish. Women were flapping and we were all smoking like crazy, saying the most outlandish, sophisticated things. Although that's not quite true — about the smoking, for example. I mean, how naughty can you be and still live? Also, nobody was flapping. And nobody was going to be making wild pagan love later.
I'd thought wild pagan love was going to be a huge factor here, that the Cruise Room would involve all kinds of illicit, you know, cruising — bondage and anonymous sex, rough trade and humiliation, maybe stuff with donkeys. But no. The "cruise" in Cruise Room comes from the fact that it was designed after a "lounge on the Queen Mary, an iconic 1930's ocean liner."
So no donkeys. A relief, really. But also a little disappointing. A lounge on the Queen Mary? Not as cool as a speakeasy. And what decade were we inhabiting, anyway? Could we have it both ways — Roaring Twenties and Great Depression? Maybe Dust Bowl chic was becoming a thing. But I didn't want to be in the Depression. I wanted to be a robber baron, an industrialist or financier before the market crash, before economic ruin and suicide. I went back to the propaganda, learning that at the Cruise Room, "skilled mixologists take no shortcuts. Every ingredient is painstakingly measured to the half-ounce — spot pours are non-existent and unthinkable." I didn't know what spot pours were, exactly, or why they were unthinkable. I always liked it when my mixologist just sort of poured the bourbon over the ice. But at the Cruise Room, cocktails were "often the result of a laborious 12-step process."
That stopped me cold — 12-step process being so close to 12-step program. I'd thought this was going to be a safe fantasy, in which no one would get cancer or machine-gunned or sent to rehab. I thought we were going to be F. Scott and Zelda before everything got so horrible and real. No sanitariums. No raving. Just cleaned-up Jazz Age.
Cab Calloway started singing "Minnie the Moocher," trying to bring me back to the party, but I'd been waiting 20 minutes for my Manhattan and was losing patience. When my drink finally did arrive, it was mediocre, the result of a spot pour, possibly. There were no flappers and no one saying anything sophisticated. I realized I'd be better off with Civil War reenactments, where people pretended a lot harder, all that nostalgia for camping and killing, the romance of human bondage and battlefield amputations without anesthesia.
I left the Cruise Room thinking of Johnny Rotten's words at the end of the last Sex Pistols concert: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" I considered embracing punk nostalgia immediately, but before I could locate an authentic-seeming CBGB with nontoxic vomit and urine piped in, I paid a visit to the Volstead Act — intending to hate the place, to have a drink and brood about false longing for an era I hadn't lived through.
But I ran into trouble right away. My Manhattan came in about two minutes, made with Angel's Envy bourbon, which might be the best bourbon I've ever tasted. The vermouth was perfect, too, as was the cherry. I took notes — about nostalgia and the romance of vice, how coolness often involves a pose of indifference to death, and how asinine that is. I wondered if legal weed has made us hungry for Prohibition, if there's something American about wanting to be an outlaw. But safe. I wondered if I brooded as well, now that I'd quit cigarettes. I brooded about how stupid I was to wait so long to quit. There were no flappers in the place, no sophisticated conversation. No one was acting like an idiot, except me, maybe, in my head. I ordered another drink, the second as good as the first. Damn near perfect. I managed to write this anyway. ♦
Samuel Ligon is a fiction writer and the editor of Willow Springs. He teaches in EWU's creative writing program.