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.