The City That Was: The Worst Party Ever
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
The years at our cavernous flat, 1907 Golden Gate, demanded fortitude for partying. If you weren’t social, you didn’t live there, and much of the household activity involved setting up or breaking down elaborate events. We all sort of cringed when the “official party season” approached, right after Burning Man, with the first Decompression parties, until they got so big they needed a whole street to contain them. After we had cleaned up Decompression in late September/early October, it was time to do Halloween, and by the time that was contained, it was time to set up the Proust Wake in November. In December, there would be the Christmas Eve feast of 7 fishes, which was all my doing, but the household rallied right after New Year’s to stage 12th Night. By the time that was mopped up, we were done hosting for a while, although we did once have a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
We celebrated the regular stuff, too, but not with hundreds, just dozens. And then there were constant smaller occasions, like the birthdays of so many friends. Almost all the parties were memorable and wonderful, for the guests. If you were hosting, it was all a big, charming blur. However, one of those birthdays was an infamous disaster, so bad it stands out in the haze of 1907 party history.
It was the birthday of our friend Dean Gustafson, a really wonderful painter. His relatives in Sweden said he was more Swedish than they were, so when his birthday rolled around, we did it Scandinavian style: a long banquet table for all the guests, and all the appropriate foods, like lefse (Swedish potato tortillas), pickled herring, cheeses, cucumber salad, and of course, aquavit, the rather unsavory caraway liquor that staves off depression during brutal Scandinavian winters.
The aquavit was frozen inside a block of ice studded with flowers, with only the neck of the bottle sticking out. That way, it stayed icy cold until it was empty, on a deep tray on the table. There was a ritual to consuming it. Everyone got a shot poured at the same time, and everyone, on cue, lifted the glass, looked everyone around the table in the eye, said “Skol!” and downed it. The other part of the ritual was chomping a bit of rye cracker before drinking, and a piece of herring after, to kill the absolutely horrible taste.
After we’d leisurely finished a few bottles of aquavit, everyone was in the best mood. We spent hours hugging and pledging undying friendship. It was such a good time that we decided to do it every year, and we really looked forward to Dean’s next birthday.
The first year of aquavit parties was a good one for all of us. The second year was not, so we were hoping the aquavit birthday would raise our spirits. People arrived that night with other things to contribute, like beer and wine, and in order to move the love-bomb inebriation along a little more quickly, people started having some additional booze between ritual shots. For a few hours, it was fine, and we all felt a little happier. And then it got weird.
Suddenly two people went missing. Following the shouting, we found them on the steeply pitched roof upstairs, fencing. They’d been taking lessons and thought it was a good time to practice. We watched in horror as our obnoxiously drunk roommate and friend parried and lunged on a 45° sloped roof, brandishing lethal weapons, and begged them to come in.
We returned to the table for more ritual drinking, with additional drinking between each skol. Soon, one by one, the guests rose, white-faced and sweating, and ran for the bathroom; we heard the sounds of epic heaving through the door. Everyone threw up, in rapid succession, in the closest bathroom. The guest of honor, too polite to puke in anyone else’s bathroom, quietly disappeared, to heave elsewhere.
Cleaning up after 1907 parties was always fairly unhurried. But the bathroom closest to the aquavit banquet stank hideously of vomit, and then it stank hideously of bleach the next morning, when some hung over person managed to clean it. For Dean’s next birthday, we had an ice cream social instead.
Of course we never took photos at those parties, so our beautiful flower filled aquaivit ice mold was never documented. This photo appeared on the excellent site, The Salonniere.