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The billboards advertising dead bodies are gone at the Metro Center station, replaced with spots for West Virginia, where the only thing without a pulse is the economy.
The advertising campaign “West Virginia is Calling” has plastered posters touting the state next door as a vacationland escape from city living.
I’ve only been to West Virginia once, a year or so back, but the posters at Metro Center bring back as different, more stereotypical, remembrance of the “wild and wonderful” state.
I had been living in the South for a couple years when I traveled to McDowell County to report a story about a high school that had won a string of 10 state basketball championships before the mines closed and took the school with them.
After a three-hour drive from Southwest Virginia, a photographer a year shy of retirement and I arrived in a depressed former coal town. First thing, we ran into a middle-aged guy leaning on his pickup, waiting for his wife to get out of the health clinic. I asked about the team. He said he wasn’t living there when the Blue Demons packed the school gym with fans.
Aside from the three of us, the streets were empty. Having grown up in an economically depressed manufacturing town in Michigan, I knew where to find locals who’d be willing to reminisce. “Where’s the bar,” I asked.
The man smiled. “Why you want a drink? I’ve got some of the local brew,” he said, at least as I remember it.
Before I could respond, the man reached deep behind the Chevy’s bench seat and came out with a Mason jar filled with clear liquid. He unscrewed the top and handed it to me and smiled. Two years in the South, and here, before noon, finally it was—-a Yankee’s chance to imbibe the local brew, a chance to pencil off the square marked moonshine. I was already formulating the story for friends back home.
My experience with odd liquors up to that point has been limited to Everclear as a teenager in Canada, soju doped up with bear gallbladder in Korea, and some clear liquor in a bottle filled with snakes while on vacation in Vietnam.
Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting much pleasure from the Mason jar. But I’ve got manners. Like in church, when a man offers you the cup, you drink from it, regardless of the looks of the guy who lipped it before you.
I leaned the jar back to my lips expecting a turpentine sensation going down. But the liquid hit the lips lightly and rolled back easy, not like water, but not like fire either. I’ve always had a hard time calling liquor “smooth,” but that’s the word for stuff in that jar.
At Metro Center, the posters show people gambling, rafting, riding horses, enjoying all those things you can’t do in the city. And all that’s all fine. But don’t forget the fine local brew.