The heat of the night

The heat of the night

Michal Jackson fights the cold with Rod Steiger
Michael Jackson

16 October 2002

Publication: Issue 26

The last time I drank liquor out of a bottle was with Rod Steiger. The drinks cabinet in our stretch limo contained a fifth of Wild Turkey. I would have made a tasting note, but I was distracted by our chauffeur.“That’ll kill you,” he warned, taking his eyes off the road to harangue us. A London bus swerved. “Whiskey never hurt anyone,” said Steiger. “Drinking out of the bottle you’ll all get each other’s germs,” the chauffeur persisted. “You saying we have dirty mouths?” demanded Steiger.He survived the London limo ride and the germs. When his final credits rolled a couple of months ago, I recalled Steiger as a good man with whom to have a whiskey. Back then, he was hanging out with Norman Mailer, who had decided to try film-making. The three of us were going to the London premiere of his first movie. The film made me more grateful than ever for Mailer’s novels, but had the merit of several boxing scenes. I cannot resist the square ring. Neither could Mailer. Boxing should be banned, but I shall watch it until some busybody has the sense to decide what’s good for me. My mother objected to the fact that the under card took so long. At Madison Square Gardens, the title bout would not start until at least 10pm Eastern. That would be around 3am in Britain. My father would get me out of bed, sling a blanket round my eight-year-old shoulders, and sit on a sofa with me while our old-fashioned, second-hand valve radio gamely tried to keep its grip on the commentary: “The British contender carries his nation’s hopes with courage and skill. His ring craft has surely won him a point’s lead … oh, he takes a sharp jab … there could be a slight cut … ” This would be interrupted by an angry cry from my mother. “That boy” (me) should be returned to his bed forthwith. Otherwise, he would catch a cold. “Sssh!” responded my father, but it was too late. Our radio had been reduced to static. When the commentary returned, a
split upper lip was kissing the canvas. Everything had been going so well until my mother intervened. She had distracted him, and he had momentarily dropped his defence in face of The Brown Bomber From Boston/Brooklyn/Baltimore (tick where applicable). My father figured he could do something about the apparent certainty of my boxing career being ended by the common cold. He was not a drinker, but he knew that spirits were medicinal. He would buy a miniature of Haig and stir it into a beaten egg, sweetened with sugar. It seemed a bit slimy, like many of life’s pleasures; we all have to start somehow. The taste for whisky was imprinted on my palate, to be rediscovered a decade later.Another decade and I was getting my eggs fried at three in the morning, in the canteen at the newspaper where I did shifts rewriting news agency reports. I was bylined as a “ringside reporter” when I smacked smarts into lifeless accounts of title fights 3,000 miles away. Steiger and Mailer appreciated the breakfast, but the kippers gave us the hell of a thirst, something which tended to afflict the guys who unloaded trucks in Covent Garden produce market. The pubs there opened at 5am. “Are you gentlemen bona fide market porters?” demanded the publican. “Yes,” I said, ordering whisky with hot milk for the three of us. I knew what bona fide porters drank – and it was a cold night. “Yes,” said Mailer. “See my cauliflower ear?” The publican hesitated. Never mind Mailer’s ear; he didn’t like his lip. A fast-talking American in a suit was clearly not a market porter, but etiquette was to pretend, straight-faced. The publican had not recognised either Mailer or Steiger. Steiger broke the impasse. He impatiently reached for the drink that had been poured and downed it in one, like a man who had worked all night for it. Then he murmured, in a London accent worthy of Michael Caine, that he could really use another drink. He had presence; I now understood the meaning of the word. The publican looked at Steiger but saw a market porter. Hypnotised, he dispensed drinks for Mailer and I, and started to refresh Steiger’s glass. In a big city, you can get a drink at any hour if you know where and how. Steiger used The Method.

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