It is 9:30 on a crisp morning in Hillcrest. The sun is out after a chill rain yesterday, and I notice for the first time that the monkey flowers beneath my window have blossomed the color of new blood close to the skin. I am on my second cup of coffee and cannot describe the taste of it held too long in the mouth; earlier I was wondering how one would explain to someone insensate the difference between a sip of orange juice and a subtle but poignant pain. I see my wallet next to the bed and know there is money in it. The room smells of last night’s pipe tobacco and spiced cider, and I don’t mind. Traffic on Route 163 outside my kitchen window, beneath the bridge on Robinson Avenue, sounds for all the world like surf in the wake of a distant storm.
I am curious about the fate of the madman who was following me around for 24 years trying to kill me. Where does that part of you go when it’s gone? And he is gone. I don’t sense him. Is he gone for good or waiting like a shadow at the end of the day?
August 1974: New York City. I am staggering down Columbus Avenue cackling to myself. I turn abruptly west on 69th Street, lean against the red brick of a popular restaurant, and vomit onto a wooden crate littered with wilted lettuce. I almost choke because I’m laughing so hard. I press my face against the cool brick, wipe my mouth with my white shirttail. I am gasping for air, my shoulders rising and falling, helpless with mirth. I am afraid I might choke on my vomit, like Jimi Hendrix, and the thought sobers me a little, but only a little. The sky is lightening over Central Park, and at five in the morning I can already tell it will be another hot day.
I press on toward Amsterdam Avenue, still laughing, weaving unsteadily with the night’s tequila. I am thinking of the waiter, Noah, and how he nailed those pretentious queens at table five.
I was behind the bar at Dazzel’s on 68th Street. It was my first week as a bartender, and it had been a good one. The heat wave had brought business into the air-conditioned bar, and actors and Puerto Ricans drank piña coladas at the tables on the sidewalk. Nixon had resigned on the air a few nights earlier, and the neighbors had crowded around the television set, clutching their gin and tonics, their Camparis and kirs. I had raked in almost $300 in tips that night alone.
Noah and I had established a system of duplicate slips with a code. (spf meant “Short Pour to the Floor”; JP meant “Jersey Price” — add a dollar. Or AT for “Aggravation Tax.”) The night before I found myself weaving toward West End Avenue at dawn, two aging men, Broadway groupies, had come in, already drunk, and made lewd comments to Noah and me. The men at table five were both bald, though one combed strands of hair over the top of his head, and both had gin-blossom noses. The balder of the two wore a cranberry ascot. They asked for the wine list. We had no wine list.
“We have house burgundy and Chablis,” Noah told them. “We have cabernet sauvignon by the bottle, a Colombard, and we might have some Beaujolais. Other than that, we have Yago Sangria.”
They sent back the burgundy, then the cabernet, then the Beaujolais before Noah agreed to run across the street and purchase a $6 bottle of Valpolicella. They then ordered steaks.
The only edible items on Dazzel’s menu were the burgers and the chili; the cook, a Chinese guy named Alan, was usually too drunk to manage anything else. He would throw tantrums every hour or so, and I would calm him down with steins of dark Würtzburger beer. Noah took their order and returned to the bar. We were faced with three open bottles of red wine. Noah poured for the two of us.
We drank as the middle-aged couple arched their plucked eyebrows at steak that was either too rare or too well-done for their liking. They sent back four steaks before settling for medium-well-done fifth and sixth pieces of New York cut and asking for ketchup.
“Do you believe it? Ketchup!” Noah was pouring from the third bottle now, the burgundy, and his face was flushed with laughter. “Ketchup.”
My previous experience with wine was all cheap gallon stuff in San Francisco, just something to punctuate the joints and lubricate cotton mouth. I was now enjoying the adult buzz of the oenophile. I felt confident, worldly, and warm as the bar filled with the pre-theater crowd headed to Lincoln Center. I watched Noah fold a bar towel over his arm, grab a bottle of Heinz, and approach table five. He presented the bottle with a flourish and asked, “Heinz 57, sir?” Then he cracked up laughing. I laughed with him, and we were joined by a few customers crowded into the service area of the bar who had overheard the snobby complaints from the two insufferable patrons on whom the joke seemed lost.
When we finished the three bottles of wine, Noah taught me to drink Cuervo Gold tequila from a pony glass with an orange juice chaser. “You’ll never get a hangover as long as you drink O.J. with it,” he told me.
We closed the bar at 4:00 a.m. and sat together among upturned barstools for another hour until we had finished the bottle of Cuervo. We exchanged secrets: Noah confessed he was gay and I told him about my ambitions to write. We tsked-tsked about poor Steve, the bartender who was teaching me to tend bar. “He’s an alcoholic,” Noah pronounced, “a stone drunk.” I nodded sagely, shook my head, and drank. We were right about poor Steve. He was dead a year later at age 32 from cirrhosis.
The image of Noah presenting the flaming bastards at table five with the ketchup bottle returned to me as I vomited on 69th Street in the first hint of sunlight. I laughed for the next three blocks before climbing the stairs to my apartment and passing out next to my girlfriend. I woke up four hours later, still in my clothes, smelling of cigarette smoke, puke, hamburgers, sweated alcohol, and feeling, all in all, just fine. I had the kind of hangover I would have many times later in my 20s: groaning manfully, exaggerating my well-earned discomfort after a roguish debauch. I felt like Humphrey Bogart or Hemingway. I was on my way to being the kind of hard-drinking, two-fisted, virile novelist I wished to become. Never mind that I hadn’t written anything yet. In a way, this was more important.
I date my love affair with drink from that night and do not count the episode at an abandoned airport in Illinois when I was 14 years old. That February night 9 years earlier I had been drinking gin (Gordon’s, if I remember correctly) from the bottle with Eddy Kozak (also dead now for many years), my friend Rick Charts, and two girls: Colleen Skow and Sandy something.
That memory is a blur of lipstick and inexpert, erotic fumbling in frozen mud on the old Antioch runway beneath the headlights of Eddy’s Fiat. I recall being frog-marched at the end of the dimly remembered night down the quarter-mile road to my house, Rick on one side, Eddy on the other, at four in the morning. We slipped and fell on the ice, laughing and cursing, covered in mud and puke and blood from somewhere. They carried me past my house to the unheated summer cottage where they stretched me on a box spring and covered me with a mattress. A couple of hours later, my father came in to wake me. He stood in the doorway of the cottage, silhouetted against the gray dawn over the snow-covered Illinois lake and said, “Fun, isn’t it?”
We must have woke him with our pathetic slapstick down the long driveway. He must not have returned to sleep, and I still picture him sitting in the dark, smoking his pipe, resisting the temptation to see if his drunken son was freezing to death. It must have disgusted and hurt him, the sight of me disheveled and stinking like that, huddled beneath a mattress and shivering, hiding like a thief, but he never said anything else about it.
I discount that dalliance with booze, since many people have some story like it and do not become alcoholics. Often these adolescent episodes serve as a cautionary experience, resulting in a lifelong wariness of intoxication. I, however, learned nothing. It was nine years later on 69th Street in Manhattan that I thought I knew the answer to my father’s question. Weaving and cackling, reeking and fondling a pocketful of money I might easily have been killed for, had I heard my father’s voice ask, “Fun, isn’t it?” I would certainly have answered, “Oh, yes, Dad. It is.”
The night before I got married at the end of July in 1977, I got roaring drunk with my bartender friend Gerry. I kept calling it “my last desperate and pathetic fling at youth,” to which Gerry would reply, “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s a damned fine desperate fling at youth. Nothing pathetic about it.”
Early that morning was my first blackout. I rose from our bed, punched out the screen door to the patio of our West Side garden apartment, and tossed and smashed my bride’s potted plants against the side of the building. I went back to bed and to this day have no firsthand recollection of the occurrence.
Winter 1978: California. A new parent, living in low-income Navy housing in Coronado, California, I work two jobs, one as a part-time bartender and one as an occasional waiter. On days and nights that I am free, I sit in front of my Olivetti electric portable and try to write short stories for the magazine markets. Next to me, invariably, is a large tumbler of scotch or gin or rum with soda or lime juice. I write until I can no longer clearly see the page and typos become the rule rather than the exception. I write over a dozen stories in three months, and while I come close several times, I am still two years away from publication. Rejection letters are a terrific reason to drink.
My first short story sales are in 1980, two stories to two editors in one day. This is a terrific reason to drink.
For the next four years I work as a part-time bartender while writing, making the infrequent short-story sale and working on novels. By 1984, ten years after I started drinking in earnest, I have not been sober for more than a week at a time in three years. I have become what they call a “functional alcoholic.” That is, I don’t beat my wife or child, I don’t get fired, drink in the morning, or hide bottles anywhere. I am productive. I do get a costly and much-deserved dui while driving home from work one night at 2:00 a.m. Still, I can’t imagine life without the large-molecule compound of ethanol lubricating the machinery of middle age and a mediocre career.
With drink, everything seems possible, and without it, quite impossible. My sober world is stale and profitless except for my young son and the dreams I share with my wife, which swell, take on dimension and color, with whiskey. No less a person than William Faulkner commented on the range of perceptions seemingly unavailable without bourbon. Even hangovers, even when I’m crying with the pain of them, seem a preferable alternative to measuring out one’s life in coffee spoons. It would be a long time before this beggar’s choice could be identified as a kind of abiding depression.
Meanwhile, my drunken transgressions can always be accommodated by literary history. I am in good company: Raymond Chandler and Mark Twain, Anthony Burgess and Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, of course, and John Cheever, Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Stone, Poe, and Raymond Carver. The scent of booze is on the page: Jim Beam, Tanqueray and Guinness, Pouilly-Fuissé, Rémy Martin, or Dry Sack, all seem nearly visible characters in the best work of these authors and, more frequently, in my own. Failure and mortality, the gray consequences of choices, thin and laughable aspirations can all be transmogrified, or at least kept at arm’s length, now the length between me and the typewriter and the glass.
Ironically, my work continues to improve despite the path I am on. It probably would have anyway and possibly sooner. My marriage is foundering, but I can point to the page and say, “I’m doing all right.”
June 1985: Chicago.
I am sitting at a table on my brother’s patio at his house on Chicago’s North Side. My brother is next to me, my mother across from me. It is, I don’t know, say, 3:00 a.m. We are all drunk, but I’m the only one weeping.
I am about to leave my wife in San Diego for another woman, and the pain is at the same time unbearable, terrifying, murderous yet exhilarating, life affirmative like a million-dollar wound in combat that will leave you crippled but save your life. I am here because a shrink told me to go somewhere for a week or so, away from both women (“Do you have any family you can visit?”), and get some perspective. I’ve been playing music all night with my brother and sister, some old friends, swatting mosquitoes in the humid night, drinking shots of J&B scotch and Stroh’s beer. The night has become strange and cruel, oppressive and oxygenless. My mother is a hulking shadow in the moonlight, speaking in clichés, while my brother refuses to use the word “divorce” and urges me to start courting my wife again (soon he will leave his own wife of 22 years for an airline hostess/exotic dancer in Texas). My sister and her lesbian partner are snuffling cocaine, making out in the garage. Before the sun comes up, after my sister passes out, her friend will try to give me an ineffective hand job. I leave, walking south along Lake Michigan, passing the homeless and deranged, all of us sweating liquor in the predawn heat. Many of the street creatures greet me as if they know me, welcoming me as if it is among them that I truly belong.
When the sun on the horizon is mirrored on the surface of the lake — a glowering fireball behind streamers of carbon, clouds of industrial smoke — I begin to experience my first truly psychedelic hangover, my nerves singing like piano wires and stretched like weapons. I am in hell, I realize, and I try to clock exactly when it was that I entered and which way might be out.
Later that day I board an airplane back to California. Flying through dense clouds, reasoning through Valium and Bloody Marys, I decide to leave my wife, knowing that no matter what decision I make, I am pretty much damned.
1987: Mexico. Sitting in my living room looking out the picture window to the surf beneath the cliffs, the squadrons of gulls, pelicans, a spill of sea lions and surfers. On the mesa to the north are horses and a caballista hustling tourists for rides on his tired mounts. In front of me on the coffee table is my Olympia manual typewriter, the early pages of my third sold novel, page proofs from my second book, a bottle of Cutty Sark, prescription bottles of Valium and Tylenol with codeine. In the platen of the machine is a nonsense poem called “Mexican Holiday” that reads like rock-and-roll lyrics:
The Buddha says a man could be born a blind leper in a ring of fire and know only Nirvana / Well, Nirvana is closed for an hour to sweep up the floors, put new records on the juke box.…
I am drinking, chewing the codeine I was prescribed after my operation for swimmer’s ear, and taking the edge off everything with Valium. I am smiling out the window; my fingers seem numb, swollen and too fleshy, uncontrollable and fascinating like an infant’s. I type clumsily:
In the news today, a man took a job as a grapefruit in a well-known breakfast cereal / He could not be reached for questioning, but he’s expected to show up / His wife says, “Thomas has no grapefruits to hide / Thomas has no cornflakes to grind”…
I have, just the night before, come to the true conclusion that the woman I left my wife for two years ago is insane. I keep eating Valium and codeine, drinking, sneaking up sideways, crabwise, cowardwise toward death. It is 11:00 a.m. and I should be dead by sundown. Instead, I sleep for 24 hours. When I wake up it is noon. The ocean is still there and the gulls and seals and surfers. The poem is still there — and the bottle. I am puzzled that I am still alive. At least I don’t feel much.
January 1991: Chicago. A lesbian bar on Belmont Avenue. It is my sister’s hangout. All her friends are there, and I know many of them; they are buying me drinks. Nice women, attractive, smart, and funny. I decide they are very desirable and ask several repeatedly to go to bed with me. I don’t remember how crude I might have gotten. Crude enough is my guess. My sister pushes me up the stairs of her apartment that night and I leave early in the morning. She doesn’t speak to me for three years.
February–May 1995: San Diego. As if atoning for something, I befriend a lesbian drinking buddy in Hillcrest. It is on the heels of another relationship that turned to shit in a way everyone but me found predictable.
I’ll call my friend Chris. She introduces me to her friends in the gay bars of Hillcrest. I drink with some charming people and drink a lot. Chris and I pass out together fairly often, at her place or mine. Some affectionate fumbling is involved, but mostly conversation, Trivial Pursuit, or the Chinese game Go. We nurse hangovers together with flat beer and screwdrivers. We put her ailing cat down together and hold a long wake. We cry about a lot of things and discuss the poetry of Anne Sexton, who had been Chris’s writing teacher. Mostly we tell each other stories, and hers still seem better.
I have been drinking for 21 years now. I should probably do something about it but exactly what is unclear.
May 1998: Sharp Hospital, San Diego.
The pain is so intense I would start drinking again in a heartbeat if I thought it would help, but I know it won’t. I haven’t had a drink for four days because my doctor told me to stop. I did and yet my liver and spleen swell with portal hypertension. I am doubled over. Only morphine helps.
After two days in the hospital the swelling has gone down. I don’t drink for five weeks, and then I do.
I’ll probably never remember the exact, specious train of thought that led me to martinis before dinner last July. It probably had something to do with my doctor telling me that my liver had much improved and I therefore did not have cirrhosis as he had feared. Whatever it was, it started me off on a binge that halted a week later. On the wagon again for three weeks, then a slip. No problem. I was learning to stop; I just didn’t quite have it down yet, that’s all.
Two weeks dry and then drinking again for 11 days. My landlord has to carry me into my apartment one night. He is a good man. He understands, but of course he worries. I dry out for a week, and then I find myself in a neighborhood bar, later a liquor store. For the next 10 days I am drinking moderately. It seems I’m learning how. Only five or six drinks a day. I am proving I can drink responsibly. I was worried over nothing.
One night at the end of September I’m sitting in my apartment watching Jay Leno and sipping vodka. Leno’s not that funny. I get up to turn the channel — no remote — and I black out for maybe ten minutes.
The next thing I remember, I’m sitting in my chair again, still watching Leno, though it’s way past the monologue. Some airhead actress is talking to Jay about her kids. I thought I’d changed the channel, but nothing has changed. Except a few things.
The television set is now on my bed. The bed is collapsed at the bottom end. My vcr is cracked and resting on the floor at an angle to the shelf next to it. Videotapes are scattered everywhere. The wooden tray table to my left is splintered and collapsed. As I reach toward the set to once again change the station, I see that blood is running down my arm. Blood has soaked the collar and right sleeve of my shirt. With sticky fingers I trace the blood to the back of my head and note with detachment: Ah, I’m bleeding profusely from the head. Oh well, the head bleeds a lot.
The next morning I wake up in my clothes. Blood is everywhere: on the pillows and sheets, soaked through a towel around my head. I am scared and sick. I realize I must have fallen against the shelf and hit my head on the vcr. I should have bled to death, died the way William Holden, the actor, died: drunk, falling, and knocking himself out on a coffee table. My hands are shaking so hard I can barely dial my best friend’s number. “You’re right,” I say into the phone. “I can’t quit by myself. I need some help. Can you get me in somewhere?”
“Yes,” comes the voice on the other end, fearful but relieved. “You’re doing the right thing. Stay there. I’ll call you back. Don’t drink.”
September 1998, Tuesday, 4:00 p.m.: Vista Mesa Hospital, Nurses Office.
Admitting nurse: “Have you ever smoked marijuana?”
“Yes, but not in recent years, really.”
Nurse: “How are you feeling now?”
“Very shaky. Very tired.”
Nurse: “Have you ever taken amphetamine?”
Nurse: “Crystal meth?”
Nurse: “What about lsd?”
“Oh, yes. Back in the ’60s and early ’70s.”
Nurse: “How often?”
“I have no idea. A lot.”
Nurse: “I see. Heroin?”
“No thanks, heh heh. I’ll take a Valium if you have one.”
Nurse: “Did you ever take heroin?”
“Yep. Back in ’69.”
“I used to.”
Nurse: “Here, you may have a Valium. Do you want one or two?”
“These are the ten milligram. Holy shit. I’ll just take one, but thanks.”
Nurse (stops writing): “We had a patient addicted to cocaine. She also took about 12 of these a day.”
“Christ, that would kill a yak, wouldn’t it?”
Nurse (resumes writing): “You’d be surprised. Ever take Quaaludes?”
“Of course. Whatever happened to those?”
Nurse (not answering): “Just experimenting again?”
“Well, no. Actually, I was quite enthusiastic about them.”
Nurse: “How much do you drink?”
“Is a lot a number?”
Nurse: “Do you drink alone?”
“Not counting my warring legions of inner demons?”
Nurse: No response.
“Yes. I drink alone.”
“What do you mean?”
Nurse: “Aerosols, paint, glue?”
“What am I, insane?”
At the end of the admissions interview the Valium has kicked in and I want to sleep. I have just honestly admitted to taking large quantities of almost every mood-altering substance I’ve ever heard of. I realize I’d been a walking pharmacy before I’d even started drinking seriously. I want the nurse to note that I never drank absinthe (I could never find it), nor had I inhaled the Amazonian powder of Jaguar adrenaline, curare, and fire-ant extract. I do, however, tell the nurse I smoked jimsonweed once. “And if you drink mescal with it and pass out, you get those flying dreams, you know? Only you’re flying about 100 miles an hour and you’re, like, an inch off the ground.” As I talk around the thermometer in my mouth, I realize I’m still loaded, though I haven’t had a drink in 18 hours. The nurse, who is taking my blood pressure, seems to know this.
My hands are shaking too hard to fill out the forms legibly, and my friend has to write in my social security number, driver’s license number, date of birth, next of kin, etc.
I am checked into detox. For the next three days I sleep mostly, try to eat something, have my vital signs taken because you can die while detoxing from alcohol. At times you want to. I attend meetings with other patients and therapists that I recall only dimly. Snatches of things people said waft in and out of my awareness: Denial is God’s mercy at work. If we knew how fucked up we truly are, we’d kill ourselves.… I was walking around with a hole in me, and that hole was the shape of God.… Of the ten of you in this room, only two will make it in recovery. Your odds aren’t good.…
The book I brought with me — The Man Within, Graham Greene’s first novel, which I had never read — is taken away along with my aftershave lotion, my Swiss Army knife, and my nail clippers. At two o’clock in the morning on the third night, I get up, go outside by the soda machine, and, with my head in my hands, start crying and cursing myself. My roommate, a kid of 18 and a crack addict, follows me and lights a cigarette. He is to leave the next day for UC Santa Cruz to study architecture. I apologize for waking him. Once I start, I can’t stop saying I’m sorry.
“That’s all right,” he says and gives me a cigarette. That was the only conversation I ever had with him.
October 1998: Group therapy session 11:00 a.m.
Each patient has a nickname that is the name of the drug he’s been given in treatment. In some cases, like Xanax, Vicodin, Everclear, and Snowball (a black cocaine addict), it is the name of the drug he’s been addicted to.
Prozac: “I think Paxil has a point. This guy, and we all know who I’m talking about, is treating us like criminals. What are we, a chain gang?”
Paxil: “Yeah, it’s like, what crime did I commit? I thought we weren’t required to go to AA meetings if we didn’t want to. I think Peter is a goddamn Nazi, and I don’t appreciate…”
The man I’m calling Peter is an assistant counselor at the hospital, a therapist in training. His manner could be gentle and solicitous one moment, then overbearing and preemptive the next.
Therapist: “No names here. If you have concerns with a member of the staff you may bring it up with that member, discuss it with the administrator, or bring it up at the community meeting. If you have anger problems or issues with authority, this is an opportunity to deal with them in a safe environment. What will you do when someone rubs you the wrong way out in the world? Drink again?”
Paxil: “That’s why we’re bringing it up now. This is group therapy, isn’t it?”
Prozac: “Okay, let’s call the guy Colonel Klink. This guy gets me out of bed to go to a fuckin’ AA meeting?”
Therapist: “We’ll have none of that, please. No names. I don’t think this is the best use of our time just because two of you seem to have difficulty with a single staff member.”
Xanax: “I sense a certain lack of respect from the guy.”
Wellbutrin: “Me too. A little common courtesy wouldn’t kill him.”
Buspar: “I don’t have any problem with him.”
Zoloft: “Neither do I.”
Lithium: “The guy should be working as a prison guard.”
Therapist (seems surprised that it is not just two of us complaining about Peter): “What about you, Manuel?”
Manny is a heroin addict who has been prescribed so many different drugs it is easier just to call him by his name. “I’ll kill the motherfucker if he gets in my face again! I’ll deal with it like a man!”
Therapist: “Manuel, calm down. They’ll be no violence here. This is a safe place.”
Manuel is still shaking with hallucinations, rage, and paranoia. On the tail end of heroin withdrawal, earlier he had started freaking out in the kitchen because he thought he was hallucinating spiders in the corners of the walls. The spiders were actually there — it is, after all, October in San Diego — but Buspar and Zoloft and I told him we didn’t see anything. Since early this morning his eyes have been darting around the room with menace and fear. His feet are up on his chair, his skinny wrists wrapped around his skinny ankles. He is wearing shorts and a T-shirt with two buzzards on it. One buzzard is saying to the other, “Patience my ass. I’m going to kill something.” Along Manny’s forearms and calves and even feet there are dark tangles of scar tissue, his tracks. “The tracks of my tears,” he told me one night. “You like that song by Smokey Robinson?”
Manny is 46, my age. He looks like a Mexican Keith Richards. He has been a junkie for 30 years. He has hepatitis. He keeps trying to escape, but they keep him so drugged — and he’s half-fried in the first place — that he forgets where he is and what he is doing.
Therapist: “I don’t want to hear any more on this subject. Today Nils is going to read us his autobiography. Are you ready, Nils?”
Nils is ready. A 30-year-old alcoholic from Sweden, Nils checked himself in after a lost weekend culminating in his drinking vanilla extract and aftershave lotion to calm his shaking. He ended up in the emergency room, then at Vista Mesa, since VM was and is the only treatment center that will admit patients on a Sunday.
Nils reads to us about his mother’s prescription-pill habit, how he was elected by his father to administer her pills. Nils’s father was rarely home, his work and extramarital affairs kept him away. When he returned he was often drunk and would beat Nils’s mother. When Nils got to the part when he, as a little kid, was hiding in a closet, listening to his father slowly mount the staircase, slur his mother’s name, and pound on her bedroom door with angry brick-sized fists, Nils broke down in tears. One of us handed him the box of Kleenex.
We would all join the Kleenex Club, as we came to term it, over the next few weeks.
On the patio, between lectures, therapy, study groups, and video viewing (“High Risk Factors,” “The Critic Inside,” etc.), patients have 15 or 20 minutes to drink decaffeinated coffee and smoke cigarettes. Much of the dialogue between “inmates” — as we call ourselves — goes on in “the yard.” It is, in a way, a benevolent low-security prison environment, and in a way it is also like military service during wartime, according to several veterans. That is, you get to know people very well, pretty intimately, pretty fast. You will likely never see these people again, and not everyone will make it. Some will lose their jobs, homes, marriages, their children, their sanity, their lives. No one knows how it will sort out in the end, and we eye each other with speculation: casualty or survivor?
Nils is looking pretty drained after reading his autobiography, and he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. We talk about Peter, the counselor, again instead. It is something else that unites us — our resistance to him.
Paxil: “Maybe the guy’s job is to press our buttons, be the jackboot.”
Prozac: “Yeah, test our response to authority.”
Zoloft: “Maybe he’s an actor they hired.”
Wellbutrin: “Yeah, a year from now we’ll be at the Old Globe or the San Diego Rep and he’ll be onstage.”
Buspar: “Yeah, he’ll be Lennie in Of Mice and Men.”
Xanax: “Blanche in Streetcar.”
Manny: “Who’s Blanche? Who’s Lennie?”
Conversation inevitably turns to booze and drugs, the good old days, imported beer versus domestic, bourbon versus vodka. The aberrant behavior and pretzel logic of the career boozer. We compare notes.
Buspar: “The last time I quit drinking I kept finding bottles hidden around the house. They kept turning up for weeks. The thing is, I live alone. Who the fuck was I hiding them from?”
Lithium: “Did you ever leave a little bit in the bottle next to the bed so when you wake up at 4:00 a.m. after the alcohol level drops and you’re all deranged and puking, you can do a shot and go back to sleep?”
Evercleer: “I drank mouthwash once.”
This leads to a discussion of the guy from West Covina who spoke at the AA meeting in La Jolla Saturday night. His name I can’t recall, and he would be anonymous anyway, but I remember his spiel: rapid-fire-stand-up-comic perfect. He spoke about sitting beneath his posters of Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, lighting his pipe made from a toilet-paper roll and aluminum foil, seeds and stems sparking, flying onto his Rolling Stones T-shirt. He joined the Navy and learned to drink. “After a weekend pass,” he recalled, “I drove back to base on Coronado in my piece-of-shit car. I still had a bottle of bourbon with me and I was still blasted. I ran over the Marine and the guard tower at the entrance. There I am, upside down in my car looking out the window at the trashed guard tower I had knocked over. I could hear the Marine cursing, but I couldn’t see him. My only thought was to reach around the car and find the bottle and pound as much of it as I could. I knew I was going to the brig and I wouldn’t get a drink for a long time.
“I was forced into treatment for six weeks with a bunch of other drunks and fuckups. The first day, this officer, a psychologist, urges all of us to be as honest as possible with ourselves and each other while we’re there. This one guy named Paco raises his hand and says, ‘I think I should tell you, my name’s not really Paco. It’s Randy.’ The officer thinks this is great. ‘That’s the first step toward honesty, Randy. Thank you. I’m going to make you a trustee, the patients’ representative.’
“From that moment on we all knew Randy was gonna be the guy who makes it. He always had his clipboard and took role call and did bed checks, and all his paperwork was cross-referenced with footnotes and everything. He was released early and went on leave. A few days later he showed up back at the facility. He pulled up in a nice car that he must have stolen, threw a whiskey bottle at us that smashed on the curb, gave us the finger, and peeled out of the parking lot. I guess he’s Paco again.”
The speaker recounted his dogged experiments to both drink and take Antibuse and his success at doing so, the results of which were hilarious and disgusting.
That afternoon on the patio we started calling each other Paco whenever we noticed behavior that was too gung ho, too born again, or seemed too likely to relapse outside of the hospital.
Days later: My turn to read my autobiography.
Nils tosses me the box of Kleenex before I start. Everyone laughs — so do I — and I hand it back to him. “I won’t need it,” I tell him. “It’s not that bad.” I begin to read.
I was born August 2, 1950, in Oak Park, Illinois. My parents were middle class. My father worked at the now-defunct film division of a national magazine while my mother stayed at home with me and my 18-month-old sister. In most respects they were the classic 1950s couple. At least they worked at it.
My relationship with my mother was antagonistic from the start. I was a difficult child, and she was not a woman cut out for motherhood. Being the oldest son, my father doted on me to the eventual resentment of my sister.
My parents did not use alcohol much that I recall, and I knew little of my mother’s prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse until later.
One early memory is that of having a Catholic priest over for dinner one night. I was still an infant. A game was played that involved either my parents’ or the priest’s giving me sips of beer. I would sip at the beer, then fall comically on my butt (I remember wearing diapers), and then get up unsteadily and say “ma,” or more. This was repeated until I fell asleep — or more accurately, passed out.
The family grew to eight children. My older sister and I continued to do battle: her vying for my father’s affection or attention and both of us living with the uncertainty of Mom’s changing moods. My brother Ron came along three years after me, and over the years we grew to be allies against our mother and the women in the family. My father pretty much ignored Ron. My mother alternately ignored him or dealt with him as an idiot who got into trouble because he was “not that bright.”
At some point in the ’60s my mother used the (then) over-the-counter amphetamine Dexedrine. She would talk on the phone for hours to other mothers, dispensing advice about parenthood. She was active in founding La Leche League to promote breast feeding, then out of fashion. At night she would sit in front of the television taking swigs from a bottle of prescription Nembutal, a powerful barbiturate.
The relationship between me and my growing number of siblings became: the girls were the cooks, launderers, and caretakers of the younger ones, and I was protector, settler of disputes, and father in absentia.
My father worked long hours and had a long train commute. Once home, he was interested in the newspaper or television: ball games, Gunsmoke, or The Defenders. He was often met by the rantings of my mother: accusations and complaints of wrongdoing by one child or another. This was dealt with by my father’s belt to our backsides (me and my brother, mostly). While this would be called child abuse today, it was then considered merely sensible discipline. My father did not seem to enjoy this duty, but at times I sensed a real anger, a displaced rage at my mother. My parents often fought, but I believe my father truly cared about his children.
(While reading this I pause often for water, my voice wavers, and I rest the notebook and my hands on my thighs to steady them, but I can’t seem to keep them still. When I turn the pages, the fluttering of the paper makes a deafening racket. I shake as if I’m terribly hung over, yet I haven’t had a drink for ten days. I’ve often read in public and not found myself particularly nervous; now my voice accelerates to hurry the end of this thing. I see from the outline they’ve given us that I’ve had to write about painful memories, early sexual episodes, all kinds of shit. I barely recall going through the exercise in detox, floating on Valium. I see that my handwriting is alternately childlike and palsied. The other patients are shifting in their chairs, their eyes averted to ceilings, shoes, fingernails. It’s impossible to tell if they’re bored, embarrassed, moved, or indifferent.)
My earliest painful memory is of being tied to a chair at the age of five or six while my mother picked up my father at the train station. When they returned, standing in the doorway my mother pointed to me and said to my father, “You see what this bastard made me do?” My father was appalled, and I don’t remember his punishing me any further. I have no recollection as to what offense I was supposed to have committed.
To paint my mother as a monster is hardly realistic. She was under tremendous pressure to run a household and ride herd on five to eight kids. Eventually she gave up and let my sisters take over while my brother and I did outside chores — or, at times, pretended to while we played war, cops and robbers, or spacemen.
An early pleasant memory was my first birthday party at my grandmother’s. I remember being in a high chair with a large cake in front of me. It is painted with colored frosting on the sides, like a drum. I remember the candle and much smiling, clapping, and singing.
Trying to remember my earliest conflict (as we are all asked to do) is difficult. They seemed to begin at birth. Most of them with my mother. I was rebellious, she was impatient. I was made to feel irresponsible by the age of five. She could be loving and reading to us on her lap one moment, then calling us “sons of bitches” the next.
She once took me to Grant Park, where I climbed the statue of U.S. Grant. She smiled up at me with pride. She had had her hair done, she wore lipstick, pearls, and a dark blue skirt and jacket. She was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Not long afterward she was chasing me around the house with a fireplace poker. I had no doubt she intended to kill me. Again, I have no recollection of what I was supposed to have done or not done.
At this point I stop reading. I am overcome with embarrassment. I seem to be blaming everything on my mother. This sounds ridiculous to my ears. “I’m not saying,” I tell the roomful of drunks and drug addicts, “that I drink because of my mother. I mean, she did the best she could.”
“Doesn’t sound like she did her best to me,” Paxil says.
“Me neither,” says Buspar.
“Please continue,” the therapist says.
I read on about my Catholic education, the death of my father when I was a teenager, the drugs, and my 24-year acquaintance with my true love: booze, hooch, juice, John Barleycorn, firewater, rotgut, spirits, a drop of the creature, the hair of the dog, a stiff belt, a cold one, a cocktail, a snootful, tying one on, going on a toot, getting shitfaced, hammered, smashed, three sheets to the wind, twisted, blotto, polluted, fucked up, destroyed.
I describe almost two and a half decades of behavior that consumed much of my liver, my memory, and my spirit. A portrait of the uncommitted suicide. When I read aloud the second-to-last paragraph I hesitate, hear the shuffling of chairs, the clearing of throats, and the cracking of knuckles, my own breathing, the sound of traffic on 163, a motorcycle starting up next door, and the strains of jazz piano coming from a car radio in the parking lot near the window. Feeling suddenly, painfully, self-conscious, I nearly don’t read the final paragraph. I do it anyway because when I wrote it, I know, I wasn’t self-conscious at all.
“The bottle is empty,” I read, “The barroom is closed. It’s time to turn up the lights and for me to come home. I pray to God I make it there.”
This petition is met, I think, with silence. No one says anything or clears his throat or farts. The quiet is complete except for the sound of my breathing and my heartbeat in my ears. Oh, and there is, too, the jazz from the car radio in the parking lot.
That was last year. Not so long ago, but there is, nonetheless, something about being able to say, That was last year. The sun is going down and the room is the color of rosé wine or tequila, orange juice and grenadine. This is the time of day that’s between one thing and another — the day’s work and its rewards, discipline and utilitarian concerns, problems of the prosaic and the hour of poetry. Some punctuation is customary here, and liquor over ice, at least momentarily, still seems just the thing. With the next several thoughts, whiskey takes on all the appeal of a tumbler of battery acid.
One drink must become two, and then I am confronting a kind of Catholic Grand Guignol at 4:00 a.m. A cast of grotesques will populate the shadows of the bedclothes, and my thoughts will accelerate down a black corridor of self-loathing. A weird kind of masochistic sexual arousal will do its peculiar pavane with nausea. I may or may not remember the evening’s telephone calls. I will be certain I am dying, and I will, more or less, be right.
It might have been nobler to have put down the bottle for reasons other than my expired liver, but I doubt other reasons would have sufficed. The grape and the grain are seductive enough to eclipse the memory of pain and the certainty of a too-long, agonizing, and disgusting death. If one wants a drink badly, even The End won’t stand in the way. But I find I am not suicidal. So I don’t drink. Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight, not now. I have arrived at a new drug. After almost 30 years of what might be termed reality abuse as much as anything else, being sober (as opposed to simply being dry) becomes a type of altered consciousness, a kind of cognitive cocktail.
“Happiness, too,” Camus once wrote, “is inevitable,” and he was right enough. It is what he might have said to Charles Bukowski’s character Hank Chinaski in the novel Hollywood when Chinaski suggests a drink and his friend cracks, “That’s your answer to everything.” Hank responds, “No, it is my answer to nothing.” Had I read those words two decades ago, I might have adopted them as my mantra. The closest I came was Nietzsche’s “God is dead, myths are dead, and with the death of myth, life became random, accidental, and meaningless.” This was great stuff when I was in my 20s, but it wore thin and I missed its cheap warmth when it did. It also proved to be demonstrably untrue since my life became as much an ongoing project of self-mythologizing as an ongoing project of self-destruction. I miss Nietzsche’s cosmic facileness, Bukowski’s handiness with a ritual phrase to shrink the distance between the glass and the lips. I miss them the way I miss the clear or amber or blood-red potion that enabled me to rationalize anything. I am left with few certainties other than death and mystery and Mr. Camus’s inevitable happiness. In other words, though the innings are late, I am in the game.
This new relationship between the self and the world is not so much good or bad (mostly it is good, I think), not so much better or worse (it is mostly better), as it is something more to the point — it is interesting. Among the sins I consider unforgivable in myself — forget adultery or murder or even despair — is boredom. I don’t, of course, mean boring others; there can be a real perverse satisfaction in that when it is called for. But to actually be bored is the kind of unimaginative opting for illness that is a true, greasy illumination of evil. When the Buddha said, “A man can be born a blind leper in a ring of fire and know only Nirvana,” I know what he means; that saying is hardly as inscrutable as it at first appears. It is at least a colorful proposition. Trying to find the elements of wonder in our own idiocy, the amazing if abysmal failures at apprehending reality, the texture and scope of the play we find ourselves in, that is, if not Nirvana, at least fun, when you think about it. And you can’t think about it as well when you’re drunk. No question there is a bittersweet satisfaction, sharp and dry as a martini, in ruefully marinating in easy, boozy cynicism. But I find I can be world-weary and cool, romantically grizzled, tragically hip, and completely wrong about everything when I’m sober. And I can remember that I was wrong.
So I don’t drink. Not tonight. Oh, and there is some ice cream left from last night when I didn’t drink either.