I don’t have a drinking problem. Or do I? I don’t think so, but I’ll let you be the judge.
I do drink a little more than I should, but just a little. There are two important considerations, I believe. First, alcohol has never disrupted my life in any way. Second, although I can’t be sure, I really doubt that my alcohol consumption will shorten my life. If anything, it’s more likely to extend it. I love hearing those stories about some guy who lived to 108 or whatever, and when asked what the secret to his longevity was, replied that he drank three beers and a glass of Scotch every day. I drink less than that (usually), and on as many days as not I drink nothing at all. As everyone knows, many “experts” claim that drinking in moderation, especially red wine, is good for your health. As an equal opportunity drinker, I enjoy not only red and white wine, but beer, especially a dark IPA, and hard liquor, vodka and bourbon being my preferences.
I know that alcoholism can have tragic consequences, so I’m not making light of the subject, but I really am because I just had a couple of beers. My father’s brother, a troubled man with a checkered life, divorced and living alone, drank himself to death at 52. But another uncle, my mother’s brother, drank a whole bottle of wine after he came home from work (he was a plumber) on many days for many years. Like my mother, he was emotionally distant, but lived a blameless life and always provided for his family, and his drinking never affected him. He’d just drink all that wine, sleep it off, and wake up the next day and go to work. In fact, I was unaware of this until after he died, aged 90, when two of his daughters, my cousins, told me about it at a family picnic.
My father also made it to 90, though he drank much less. He always bought those big, cheap gallon bottles of Gallo burgundy, and often had one small glass with dinner. He also enjoyed a glass of Drambuie (great stuff) now and then, but not once did I ever see him get drunk. He always stopped after one glass. Not me. I just keep going. I can’t help myself. He outlived my mother, who rarely touched a drop of alcohol, by eight years.
My in-laws were heavy drinkers, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them alcoholics. He lived to 86, she to 94. Not a bad run in either case. The war criminal Winston Churchill was a notorious drunkard, who may have spent more time intoxicated than sober, yet he reached the big nine-o.
The Bunch of Grapes Tavern in Boston was a favorite watering hole for some of America’s Founding Fathers. Paul Revere was a regular patron too. Many are familiar with the quip of that old rascal Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Ben lived to 84 at a time when, as you know, life expectancy was much lower. That’s even a little higher than the average life expectancy for men today! The great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who was around for 94 years, took it to the next level: “When we drink, we get drunk. When we get drunk, we fall asleep. When we fall asleep, we commit no sin. When we commit no sin, we go to Heaven. So let’s all get drunk and go to Heaven!”
Drinking, even heavy drinking, is part of some of our most cherished traditions. Everyone knows about Oktoberfest in Munich, which carries on for more than two weeks every September, with millions of gallons of beer consumed. I’ve never attended Oktoberfest, which is the world’s largest annual festival, but I was in Pamplona, Spain for the Running of the Bulls in 1986. Before then, I was unaware that tsunamis of wine flow for days before the bulls are turned loose, with drunken revelry and people doing all kinds of crazy things, but only harming themselves.
But back to me. In the mid-1970s, at Adelphi University, I became friends with the best teacher I ever had, Bob Pasotti, a professor of philosophy, which I majored in. He’d had a serious drinking problem before I met him, and was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. While teaching at Adelphi, before I met him, he rolled his car while drunk and lost his drivers license. Now and then we’d get in my car and drive to Leo’s, right there in Garden City, have a burger and a few beers, talk Plato, Nietzsche, politics, and everything else. He never went overboard; he seemed to have gotten his drinking under control. He said something to me once that has always intrigued me. He was talking about his past, and I said something like, “I hope I never end up joining AA.” He replied, “You’ll never be an alcoholic. You don’t have that personality.” What he meant by that, I’ll never know, but he was right!
Bob introduced me to great books, firearms, then hunting. He retired, and with his wife, a very sweet lady, moved to a house he had in Vermont. For several years it was a tradition for me to go up there for opening day in November. Neither of us ever got a deer in the Vermont woods, but I always enjoyed it, though I was beginning to detect some serious character defects in Bob not related to alcohol. Then one day I called him and his wife answered, telling me that he had fallen off the wagon again and she had him permanently thrown out of the house. That was the end of our friendship.
I had a terrible marriage, followed by years of bitter divorce litigation. It’s a deeply personal story, and some may think it’s bad form for me to bring it up, but I will anyway because alcohol was part of it. One misfortune after another happened to me trying to please this woman, but here I’ll mention the worst one, the very premature birth of my twin children and their subsequent disabilities, after well over a year of dealing with fertility doctors I had little confidence in and procedures I was not comfortable with. I’d come home after a long day of driving propane in rural Connecticut to a bitterly hostile relationship, a son far behind in development and a severely autistic daughter. After she served divorce papers on me we still lived under the same roof for more than a year. In all seriousness, I don’t know how I would have survived this without a hit of anesthesia after walking through the door. Usually I’d stop off on the way home and buy one of those small bottles of cheap vodka, which was good for two stiff screwdrivers. Sometimes I bought a six pack of Sam Adams Boston Lager, and would sit there cracking open one bottle after another, though I never went past four because I didn’t want to get drunk. But buzzed? God, I lived for that. Occasionally I’d buy a bottle of wine. Back then, though for some reason not anymore, a full bottle would get me drunk, so I didn’t mind when my wife took a glass from the cupboard and poured a couple for herself. We were equal sinners when it came to alcohol; we both drank a little more than we should have, but it never got out of bounds. I used to think that if we did everything together the way we drank together, we would’ve had a perfect marriage.
Alcohol has different effects on people. Whenever my wife drank too much I could always tell, because she would act like a normal person instead of her usual neurotic self and she would speak slowly and deliberately without ever slurring her words. The divorce business was settled twenty years ago, and in the intervening time we have tried, and often failed, to be civil on the telephone when the need arises to communicate, which is why we both prefer email. But when I know in advance that I have to speak to her, always over something regarding our children, I’ll have two beers or a big glass of wine beforehand, because I can’t deal with her if I’m totally sober. Over those years, a few times she let her guard down and I could tell she’d been on the sauce. She was Connecticut, high social class, and she’d taunt me about my Long Island accent – you know, New Yawk and all that. One time she mimicked the way I talk; another time she said, “Are there any r’s in your vocabulary?” I got a kick out of that one. Me, I’m different. I slur my words when I’ve had one too many, and try as I might, I can’t hide it, people pick it up. I can also be a bit obnoxious in the things I say. I remember once seeing a funny t-shirt in a catalogue that read “Instant Asshole, Just Add Alcohol.” I’m not saying that shirt ever fit me – well, okay, it did once, but only once (I think), before I passed out from drinking a whole bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. That was just before my eighteenth birthday, when I was away at college, and it’s the drunkest I’ve ever been.
Speaking of my eighteenth birthday, in 1971 it fell on a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Back then, the drinking age in New York was eighteen, and a lot of young people, including me, had some kind of fake ID showing a false date of birth which allowed them to buy alcohol or be served in a bar. I looked young for my age so I was always getting proofed. I was home from college for four days, and the night I turned eighteen I went to a local old man’s bar, the Williston Tavern, just for a beer or two. I was smiling as I sat down at the bar, ready to triumphantly whip out my drivers license when asked for proof. But the bartender just served me my beer without saying a word. How disappointing.
Despite all the bitterness and financial ruin which followed my divorce trial, and left me no choice but to move back into my parents’ house on Long Island for two years, I naively held out hope that we could somehow reconcile after reaching a settlement, even though there was no way we’d ever live together again. I pictured driving the hundred miles to northern Connecticut and staying there every other weekend with my now ex-wife and the children. Deep down that was so important to me, and there were glimmerings that it could happen.
Then she found a new boyfriend, and on a visitation weekend (this was in April 2002, shortly before my daughter became too difficult to handle and my ex had her placed in a group home), we exchanged the children, as usual, in a parking lot. This guy, whom I knew nothing about, was behind the wheel and I pulled in and parked my car so that I could totally avoid seeing him. My wife was pretty (not anymore though), and on this day she was wearing a nice outfit that made her look particularly attractive. Despite all our irreconcilable differences – and I’m sorry if I’m being too personal here – our intimacy (on the rare occasions that we didn’t sleep in separate rooms) was wonderful, and the thought of her abandoning me for another man, while also destroying my family, crushed me. I’d been invited to a small gathering that night, a birthday party for an old boss of mine, an ace mechanic, who had turned 80 and was now almost blind, fading with diabetes. He was one of a kind, a really great guy. His house was less than a mile from my parents’, and I just wanted to drop in for a little while. But when I saw all those liquor bottles on the counter, only one thought came to mind: I need to escape from reality. I made myself two screwdrivers in a tall glass, more vodka than orange juice, close to a pint. I was absolutely shitfaced in no time. I don’t remember the rest. A few months later I stopped by to say hi, and my boss’s wife told me that she and her daughter tried to prevent me from getting into my car, but I broke loose and drove off. I made it home safely and must have snuck in while my parents were watching TV in the den. I only recall falling out of bed, making a loud thump on the floor above them, and facing their wrath the next day. It was a short drive, only a few hundred yards of which was on a busy street, but what I did was insane; I could’ve killed myself or someone else, or lost my commercial drivers license and my livelihood. I’m still deeply ashamed of that episode.
But honestly, I never did anything close to that before or since. Nevertheless, I do plead guilty to five or six counts over the last fifty years to DWB – driving while buzzed. Was my blood-alcohol level over the legal limit? I don’t think so, but if it was, it had to be very slight. In my heart I know I was wrong, but I must also say that each time, despite feeling a bit less inhibited than usual, I was always aware of my surroundings and as a safe driver, felt that my judgment was not at all impaired. But I’m not making excuses; when you reach the buzz level, you should wait til it wears off before operating an automobile.
I’m retired now, but at the end of every workday, when I was driving oil, with the stress of divorce years behind me and living alone, I couldn’t wait to open a bottle of beer or pour a glass of wine or make myself a bloody Mary as soon as I got home. God, how I craved it. But it’s strange. If I’m just relaxing at home all day, I hardly ever feel the need to go out and buy something. If I don’t have ready access to it, my body sends some kind of signal to my brain and I don’t miss it. At this very moment, for example, there’s only coconut water and iced tea in the fridge. (I wrote about those two beers yesterday.) I just took a sip of iced tea, and it’s not like I’m thinking, “Man, I wish this glass was full of Drambuie or Bailey’s Irish Cream.” But if those products or any other adult beverages were in the house, I’d be drinking in no time.
That’s my problem: a total lack of discipline. So instead I discipline myself by almost always buying a limited amount of alcohol – say, one bottle of wine, or two of those 19-ounce cans of IPA (I don’t trust myself with a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles), or maybe one tall IPA to wash down two of those tiny shot glass-sized bottles of liquor, like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam, which by themselves provide a faint buzz. No way I’d buy a 750-ml bottle of Jack or Jim; I know from experience how that goes. Admittedly, any of these options is overdoing it a bit. With all due respect to my Uncle Tony, drinking a full bottle of wine at one sitting is too much. But if I buy a full bottle, I’m going to drink the whole thing. Every time. Thank God the liquor store I patronize now sells those smaller bottles of Mondavi, about half the amount of a full bottle. But damn it all, I always end up buying two of them.
I’m writing this a few days after Christmas 2021. It was another healthy, successful year of drinking. I did get soused three times, which isn’t bad. Not bad at all, really. Each time I was home alone. The first time was in March, when I called my son on his birthday and he said, “Dad, you sound drunk.” That made me feel bad for him and bad for me. I said to myself, “You jerk, don’t ever do this again,” but not before stumbling and falling, and stepping on my $12 landline telephone, cracking it. The next day, while driving to Walmart to replace it, I reached back and felt a bump on my head. Where did that come from? The second time was in June or July, and it was the same deal. I’d gone food shopping, and couldn’t resist putting a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA, a longtime favorite, in my cart. Naturally I drank it all in less than two hours. I don’t recall any details other than falling down again in my apartment.
And the last time was just last week. I bought a bottle of Pinot Grigio at the liquor store, which was in the same shopping center as Beer World, where I bought two tall cans of Voodoo Ranger IPA, their 9% brew, which is pretty potent. I figured I’d drink the wine that night, the beer the next night, even though I normally skip a day or two between sessions. You already know what happened. I was into my second Voodoo to cap off the night when, before hitting the floor, it hit me that I was being stupid again. The next morning I noticed that I’d cut my hand somehow, and I stared at the glass that still had plenty of beer in it, which I hastened to pour down the sink. And it was all so preventable if I’d only bought my limit, which I almost always do. But really, what’s a measly three violations in one year?
When it’s all said and done, I think my drinking pattern since early adulthood has, if anything, been a help not a hindrance. As long as you don’t self-destruct, as long as you truly don’t abuse alcohol, what’s wrong with lightening life’s load a bit now and then? “Eat, drink, and be merry.” We’ve all heard that, and most of us look back fondly on the good times and special occasions with family and friends when there was plenty of grog to go around. And think of all the healthy exercise it’s given our livers. Show your liver some love, for Chrissake. Give it a good workout every once in a while.
I know I’ve been self-indulgent in this essay, but I’m sure there are plenty of sinners out there a lot like me who can relate to it. I wrote this for you. I hope it got lots of smiles and chuckles. And if we ever meet, I promise to buy you a drink. Or two. But two’s the limit.