It was hardly worth noticing. A bottle of vanilla extract, fallen and lost at a bus stop across from the Mount Auburn Star Market. Spotted and forgotten on the way to sightseeing in, and from, Mount Auburn Cemetery.
But on the way back, walking on the Star Market side of the street this time, several steps past the bus stop it registers: Another small, brown bottle, face down under the bench. Turned over, it’s revealed to be another bottle of vanilla extract, and the the mind reels at the oddness.
But the mystery was short-lived. The initial suspicion, that vanilla extract is a source of alcohol, turns out to be correct. On the way to confirming this, I find that alcoholics “try to hide their alcoholic breath by sipping Listerine, Scope or vanilla extract,” according to one Alcoholics Anonymous branch, but from another that “When a farmer in Aroostook County, Maine, announces that he is going to bake a cake, he is speaking figuratively.”
It goes on:
What he means is that he is bored with the loneliness of Aroostook’s vast reaches, with the county’s most famous product, potatoes & with life in general; & that, to relieve his boredom, he is going on a vanilla-extract bender. In order to buy liquor he might have to drive as much as a hundred miles over drifted or rutted roads, to reach a town uninhibited by local option. He tipples on vanilla, which is rich in alcohol, because it is easily & legally obtainable, in quantity, at the nearest grocery store.
Along the well-traveled length of Mount Auburn Street, it’s as likely that vanilla is the drink of choice among teen trainees as it is for hardened, or softened, boozers. But as a substitute for the real stuff it shows the typical, can-do ingenuity of the alcoholic, which tends to twist the gut of those who are not yet there. Drink enough water and you’ll get drunk, although you run the risk of lapsing into a coma first; longtime Massachusetts residents, or at least people paying attention during the 1988 presidential campaign, will remember that Kitty Dukakis slugged down rubbing alcohol; and then there’s mouthwash, which, like vanilla extract, serves double duty as cover-up and what needs covering up.
To consider how low one can sink, consider the scene in humid Downtown Crossing two or three winters ago, a brutal season when the homeless bunked regularly at the T stop’s far end when the red line entrance shut down. MBTA police would go through every once in a while and roust the sleeping men, usually with bemused gentleness. The bums, predictably, didn’t want to go, since it meant exposure to bitter cold, so sometimes the police had to be insistent. They cajoled, they carried them out.
In this case, a police officer had taken an old bum’s Listerine and was walking slowly backward with it, keeping it just out of reach, to lure the guy out. The homeless man was shambling after it, shuffling, half-blind, hands reaching for the bottle of mouthwash that would be his again only when he was back in the freezing cold. With the warmth of the T stop forbidden him, he’d need it.