Part of my duties at GrossePointeToday.com is compiling the public-safety reports. After three weeks of this, I’m ready to wrap myself in cotton batting, sell the bikes at a garage sale and never go outdoors again.
It’s the drunk drivers, of course. Most of these arrests are well after dark, when I’m safe in my wee bed, but the other day I came across a report for a broad-daylight arrest, on a residential street where I ride my bike. The driver blew a .23, driving with a dog in his lap. For some people, cocktail hour boils down to “any hour that I’m awake.”
This got me thinking about Alcoholics I Have Known, and the humiliations they went through en route to either sobriety or a parting of ways with your truly. Bed-wetting, seizures, property destruction, emotional devastation, and the usual run-ins with the authorities. I thought of the times I spent watching drunks make that another-round gesture at the waitress, the circling finger.
“But I don’t want another,” I might say.
“That’s OK, I’ll drink yours.” Never let a cocktail go to waste.
A year or so ago, I linked to a Washington Post profile of Elmore Leonard, the first I’ve ever read that discussed his drinking problem, conquered years ago:
One day in the early 1970s, Dutch came back from one trip to Los Angeles — where he might go through 20 drinks in a day — and started throwing up blood. It was acute gastritis. His doctor told him this was usually seen in “skid row bums.” He found himself arguing with his wife “every single night,” with him saying “vicious things, which I couldn’t believe the next day. I’d be filled with remorse.”
He moved alone into the Merrillwood Apartments, where he lived and wrote and went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and tried to stop drinking for another three years. “I was flat broke.” The book he was working on, “Unknown Man #89,” was rejected by 105 publishers before finding a home.
“It was a very difficult time,” remembers Bill Leonard.
The couple divorced in 1977, the year he had his last drink — Scotch and Vernors ginger ale one morning while shaving.
It was funny to read this, because alcoholism was a theme in his 1970s-era work, and even a casual reader would know the details came from having walked the walk — staggered the walk, maybe — to the point that I had to put “Unknown Man #89” down from time to time and let it soak in for a while. Two characters are alkies in various stages of recovery, and the picture he paints of one of them sitting in a Cass Avenue bar, ordering glass after glass of cheap white wine, is like something by Edward Hopper. He even gets the stance of the bartender down, the way he leans back against the ice machine and props one foot up behind him, hand resting on his thigh. I think I’ve been to that bar. It’s called the Good Times. Ha ha ha.
The other detail that kills me: The drunk drinks wine. Because everyone knows that if you only drink wine, you’re not an alcoholic. I know a guy whose dad killed a fifth — yes, an entire bottle — of bourbon every night between 5-something, when he walked in the door, and 8-something, when he went to bed. His mom nearly matched him. She had to have a hysterectomy, and the doctors told her she needed to at least taper off before the surgery, so she switched to wine, usually two bottles a night. The father was a high-ranking executive at a major corporation, had a Harvard MBA. He wasn’t an alcoholic because he had an important job that he was good at.
(They had four boys. One had a drinking problem and died young in a one-car fatal, another lost his medical license for self-prescribing heavy-duty narcotics, a third was diagnosed with Korsakoff’s syndrome while still in his 30s and the fourth seems OK. The old man was told he was threatening his health with his drinking and quit in his old age, justlikethat. Well, he always did have an iron will.)
There’s another Leonard book, “Freaky Deaky,” with a character who probably does have Korsakoff’s, although it’s not stated out loud. He’s just addled from a life of drinking. I love that Scotch-and-ginger-ale detail from the writer’s life, because there’s a long passage in that book about an end-stage alky’s morning routine — his servant brings him two vodka-and-ginger-ales on a tray for his eye-opener:
Donnell would have to wait for the swollen face to show life mixed with pain, then for the man to get up on his elbow and take the drink. Donnell would then step out of the way. Soon as the man finished the drink he’d be sick starting right there if he didn’t get to the bathroom in time. Starting this wake-up service, Donnell had brought the man Bloody Marys, till he found out being sick was part of waking up. Did it one week and said, Enough of this Bloody Mary shit, cleaning up a bathroom looked like somebody’s been killing chickens in it.
Part of living with an alcoholic means cleaning up their messes — of all sorts. I never had much of a taste for it.
A note: Every so often I write about drinking in this petulant tone, and it usually kicks up a private e-mail from a reader, suggesting I’m “struggling” with drinking myself. For the record: I find myself drinking less these days than ever — hardly ever during the week, mostly only on Friday and Saturday night. Since I’m chronically sleep-deprived, one too many glasses just makes me soporific. Also, the older I get, the less I need to drink to feel it the next day. Hangovers suck. I’m lucky to down three glasses on a Saturday night, these days. So I’m cool. If I’m struggling with anything, it’s how to pass these lessons down to the next generation. Is it possible to learn about drinking without major trial and error? I wonder.
OK, then. Off to work. A bit of bloggage before I go:
Chris Matthews: Capable of learning?
I wonder if it drives Alice Waters crazy that successful cookbooks are written by people like Hungry Girl. “Cap’n Crunch Chicken” — it is to laugh. (If you click through, examine the picture and weigh in: Cheekbone implants, or are those the real thing?)
It’s not all bad news in the economy: Abercrombie & Fitch is struggling. Huzzah.
If I want to get done in time to take a sprained-knee bike ride (with wraparound ice pack), I gotta get going. Have a good weekend, all.