The River

Friday, November 14, 2003

Drink, drank, drunk

Frank Paynter, in an evocative remembrance on his blog, mentioned Spec's bar in San Francisco. Hey, I'd been to that bar. It was one of the bar-bars recommended by Jim Atkinson in his book, The View From Nowhere, a funny look at good bars and the drinking life. A friend and I, on a visit to the city, had sought the place out. We both loved the book, and we both loved to hang out and have a few beers.

We stopped in in the afternoon, after visiting City Lights (the beats man! the beats hung out here!). It was almost empty. My beer was a bit warm, which, beat atmosphere notwithstanding, is annoying. The bartender told us we should come in later. More people would show up. That's when the bar achieved its special atmosphere. It's warm, he said.

So I was going to tell Frank about this funny book, which was the reason I knew about Spec's. I looked for it on the Net, and found that Jim had written an article for Texas Monthly that touched on his bar-bar book, but mainly focused on his battle with alcoholism. A great article that begins with...

It comes back to me in the strangest ways, at the strangest times. I took my last drink eight years ago and have even lost some of my sensory memory of the smell and taste and effect of the stuff. But just the other day I was idling at a stoplight on Lemmon Avenue in Dallas when my gaze happened to fall on a wispy street guy who was lolling on a bench at a bus stop. He was tippling from what appeared to be a brown-bagged quart of beer. It was a muggy afternoon, and when he held the bottle just so, I could see the beads of sweat on its amber neck twinkle in the sunlight, a tiny, esoteric image that apparently meant a great deal to my subconscious.

"Damn, that looks good," I said under my breath, startling myself. Then, just like that, the thought was gone, but it served as a reminder that no matter how far I think I've walked away from the Beast, he's always just a step behind me. I may have stopped drinking; I may have even stopped wanting to drink. I may, as I frequently do, feel so well that I forget I was ever sick. But I'll never stop being a drunk, not really.

Not that I was the worst drunk I've ever seen. I was what is called a "maintenance drinker," meaning that I tended to keep a healthy amount of alcohol in my bloodstream at all times. By healthy amount I mean, in my prime, eight, ten drinks a day—more or less evenly divided between lunch and the cocktail hour—or more, if somebody was throwing a party and invited me and sometimes even if they didn't. While my consumption definitely qualified as pathological, it produced, miraculously, only moderate damage to my life and none to my liver.

Don't get me wrong: My bottom was plenty low enough for me. But in terms of gross damage, I've heard and seen much worse. Guys who lost everything and wound up living in their cars—I mean lawyers and accountants. Guys who had to head off to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to escape the Beast. In rehab I met a heroin addict who, when she was temporarily discharged to get emergency care for a heart infection, dropped by her favorite dealer on the way to Dallas' Parkland Hospital, scored some scag, and got high. I later heard that she had died of complications from the infection—the ultimate way to escape the Beast, I guess.

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