Whiskey Wisdom

    Click here to read an excerpt of Chapter 2: How to be the Most Interesting Person in the Bar





    Gap-Toothed Girl


    On the 22nd of August, 1998, about one hour before sunset, a waifish girl with defiant eyes and a gap-toothed smile stood at the third-story window of the orphanage in which she’d been brought up. She stared across the level landscape, her brows knitted, her brain sunk in thought. It was here, watching the sun go down, that she made a monumental decision.

    Not one hour later, after having stole three-hundred dollars from a man named Kenneth Dvorak, the foster father who, on and off over the past three years, had systematically raped and abused her, she crept under cloak of twilight toward the outskirts of town, where she would hitchhike her way to Las Vegas.

    She didn’t at this time know that moments after leaving, she’d been spotted by a lieutenant of her foster father. Nor did she know that this man had followed her.

    In her backpack, among her clothing, was a photograph she’d once come across in a magazine. It was a black-and-white picture (circa 1954) of a young ballerina walking en pointe upon a row of wine bottles. She cherished this picture, and it was with all of her being that she longed to develop the same catlike grace and the same delicacy of balance that this ballerina had.

    In fact it was this very picture which, the year before, had given her an idea that would prove to be the defining factor in all her life to come.



    So here’s this sixteen-year-old girl called Dusty May standing at the window, who has an idea as big and as bright as the burning sun she’s watching sink, who has no means — and more: who has no means of developing means.

    But what she did have was greater yet.

    She had focus and will, and she possessed the total desire to infuse her life with purpose.

    And so it was that she ran away from the rural Nevada orphanage that had housed her for fifteen years and where for five years she practiced, with a military-like discipline, morning after morning, gymnastics in the cold gymnasium, which she grew to both love and hate.

    She made it.

    Everything she set out to do, she did.

    Overcoming colossal odds, outwitting the man who would destroy her, beating the bad dreams of abuse and rape, sleeping in stairwells — she earned her way doing backflips on the pavement for five dollars, front flips for ten, and by becoming the “greatest street performer in the world,” as one person put it, “the street corner her stage.”

    She succeeded because she believed that talent is meaningless, that desire and practice are paramount, and that ambition is more important by light years than “natural-born gifts,” which she did not really believe in.

    She succeeded because she believed that the way of the world is to bud, to blossom, and to die, and that all humans, no matter how good, bad, or ugly they may become — no matter how free or how enmeshed in vodka or vice — all, in the bloom of life, glimpse greatness and see for themselves something powerful and profound and poignant in their future, and that that vision is the true and accurate vision of human existence, the one that must be kindled, cultivated, clawed-for, and kept at all costs, because it is the vision that is the deepest and the most difficult to maintain.

    Dusty decided, and then she acted. That was all.

    She didn’t believe she was bound by upbringing or genetics.

    When I first met her, she was looking for empty whiskey bottles, so that she might practice her bastard art of balance, and she’d come by the bar where I worked.

    I said she could have all the empty whiskey bottles she wanted given one thing: she allow me to watch what she was doing. She agreed.

    And fell on her ass more times than she could count, but kept practicing — five, six, seven hours a day.

    It was this monomaniacal focus I came to see as the true quiddity of genius.

    The first time she pulled it off was on an early summer afternoon when she was practicing in a park. A huge handsome black man was doing dips nearby. He stopped. He watched her. When, at last, she was finished, he came over and spoke to her.

    “To say the least,” he said. “To say the very least, you, little girl, are a fucking beast.”