Some chemists like to sit around, telling a joke only chemists would appreciate:
“A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks what he wants and he says, ‘I’ll have an H2O!’ The bartender serves him a glass and he takes a sip. The man next to him says, ‘I’ll have an H2O too.’ The bartender smiles, and serves him a glass. The man takes a sip…and he dies.”
Chemists love this joke, because they think that only they know that H2O2 is hydrogen peroxide – but chemistry is not a laughing matter. Chemists: beware the jokes you exchange with knowing smiles and intellectual groans. Below is the true story.
A man walks into a bar.
He didn’t do it every day, he didn’t even care for bars anymore, but he needed a drink; it didn’t matter what it was. It was 96 degrees outside, the teeming city was hot and oppressive and the man had had a very long day. As he walked in his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting – he realized that he hadn’t had a drink by himself since his early 20s. He had been a bit of a mess then, drinking every night, running about town, frivolously spending what little money he had. He had been blessed to chance upon a girl, not the most beautiful girl, nor the funniest, but a girl who cared about him and helped him and eventually saved him. This girl straightened him up, helped him get a job, and made him a man. They fell in love and now had 2 children who looked up to him. The man was a father, husband, and in many ways a success.
The bartender asks what he wants…
The man looked at his watch. 5:20. “I could grab a quick beer,” he thought as he looked around. There was a sparse crowd – almost no chance of getting caught in a conversation or coerced into a second. But even as he thought about it, he could see the shadows of his youth – a life he had left behind. How many nights had he walked into a bar alone, seeking nothing but a beer and not knowing where he was going? Right now he was thirsty and tired, but he didn’t need alcohol to comfort him. Just a water…
…and he says, “I’ll have an H2O!” The bartender serves him a glass and he takes a sip.
The cool water felt good on his lips, his tongue, his whole mouth – he felt a wave a relief. It was not just from the water, but from the strength he had found in himself. He looked down the bar – the next man was sitting there behind 3 empty glasses. He looked as though he had been there for some time, his eyes not quite able to focus. He had been well-dressed, perhaps that morning…or the morning before, it was hard to say. A shudder ran down the first man’s spine. The second man looked up at him darkly, sneered for a moment, and then his face slackened. His head jerked towards the bartender like a poorly controlled marionette doll, his lower lip dangling as a sheen of saliva slid out the side.
The man next to him says, “I’ll have an H2O too.”
He slurred heavily. The second man could sense how drunk he was. He was drowning himself – it had been the worst day of his life. The man had left for work that morning but realized halfway there he’d forgotten a very important document on his desk. When he got home he found a strange car in the driveway. Over the long years he and his wife had become distant, fighting more and more, but he still loved her and had never expected her to cheat on him. Finding some strange man on top of his wife nearly killed him on the spot. He crumbled. She wouldn’t apologize – she screamed, “You made me do this! You don’t appreciate me!” Her words stabbed him like knives because he knew they were true, to a point. He had focused on work – he had to pay for their daughter’s college. She had turned down a full ride to Marist to attend Yale and it was draining every cent of savings they had. He had worked overtime for months on top of his already busy schedule. “I’m doing this for my family,” he would tell himself. He half ran, half crawled from his broken home to his car and drove away. He was manic, his eyes wide and desperate. When he got a hold of himself he was in a strange corner of the city driving aimlessly. He stopped at the first bar he found and at 11am he ordered his first of 12 glasses of whiskey. He was ready for another until he saw this new man walk into the bar and order water. Water!? How could this man just drink water today, the worst day of all time? Water won’t dull the pain! He sneered at the stranger, who looked back at him with a mix of fear and disgust. That was when the drunk man realized that he needed to pull himself together. His marriage may be ruined but he had a daughter, a job, responsibilities… He needed to sober up and head home and make sense of everything. The prospect scared him – home would never be the same – but he knew it was the right thing to do. As he made his order, he had decided to face his crumbling world head on.
The bartender smiles, and serves him a glass…
The drunk man missed the gleam in the bartender’s eye. The bartender hated this man – sitting morosely in the bar all day, not speaking, drooling – he was pathetic. He had at times sobbed, shouted that he wanted to die and his life was over, and generally been a burden, frightening off other customers. The bartender could not stand people like this. The drunk had been ordering the cheapest whiskey all day, not indicating he would tip, and never even acknowledging the service. In reality, the bartender thought the man deserved whatever misfortune had befallen him.
…the man takes a sip, and he dies.
As the drunk man turned the glass up to his mouth, he caught a whiff of the liquid. Hydrogen peroxide!? But why? But then, why not? Wasn’t this what he really wanted? It was his escape. His momentary confusion gave way to resolve – as the fluid entered his mouth he didn’t spit it out, but he let it roll down his throat. He was numb already, it hardly burned at first but then it became an awful, unimaginable feeling, like being stabbed with 1,000 knives. The room started spinning; he felt the breath being squeezed out of his body. He thought of his daughter, and for a moment he regretted everything; but when he thought of what he’d seen that day he knew he couldn’t bear to live. He didn’t die instantly, but he did lose consciousness before he collapsed to the bar. His heart beat on valiantly for a few more seconds before finally all the life was burned out of him.
The man, who had just walked in, jumped up, horrified. “My God! What happened?” he shouted. The bartender began screaming, “You heard him! You heard him say it didn’t you? He asked for H2O2! He wanted this! I just gave him his drink. He wanted it, he deserved it!” The bartender screamed wildly. The living man began to realize he would be late for dinner after all. As the bartender’s voice rose to an insane tenor the man swore never to enter a bar again. “I’m innocent; you can’t blame me for what that pathetic fool wanted!” The bartender was truly mad.