S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Last Licks,” Park shares his path to quitting alcohol, it wasn’t an easy one.
If you want a drunk’s perspective forty years after quitting here it is:
I never think about booze now. Hell, if they aren’t obviously drunk, I barely notice other people drinking it. But then I’ve felt that way since I quit. Sobriety wasn’t my idea; I might have been the mental ward patient but it was my body calling the shots. So I made the most of my first two commitments even as I conceded that surrender was inevitable, that drinking was a war I couldn’t win.
I’d go down fighting, of course, but my body would save me from myself whether I liked it or not. Which makes the idea I’ve been tempted to drink since absurd: it’d be tantamount to reaching for a glass of bleach.
Personal aversion therapy as I called it. Even as I still know, like it was yesterday, that if I could drink, I would. (What a gloriously sick thing it is to be human!) In the meanwhile there’s the memory of who I was leaving Agnews State Hospital in July 1970 with Reagan’s boot up my ass. I was wearing mental ward denims, had four hundred in cash, a portable typer and a large leather suitcase a junkie had given me.
“You don’t need luggage where I’m going,” he said. “Fill it with empty dreams.”
I didn’t want to make him feel bad (or worse, anyway) so I took it. I was in Burlingame, looking for something to put in it, when I spotted a sign in the window of Ernie’s Liquors, advertising their house brand at two bucks a quart. Now I knew all my alkie routines by then, but in Agnews I’d had enough time between shrinks and poker games to realize that if my doom as a drinker was inevitable, then there was little time to waste.
And what better partner than my old standby Ernie’s Black Label Whiskey? I strolled into the store, stuffed that suitcase with ten quarts. (I was thinking what? That Sodom and Gommorah—where I was headed—would run out of liquor?) I lugged the bag to the counter, saw my old buddy Clyde at the register.
He’d saved my ass many a time, holding my bounced checks until I could cover them.
“Clyde,” I said, “it’s good to see you again.”
He shook my hand, then peered into the suitcase. “High,” he said, “weren’t you just in the nuthouse?”
“How’d you know?”
“Well, you sent us a postcard for one thing. You’re also wearing a uniform that says Agnews State Hospital on it.”
“Oh, right. I lost the hat.”
“Sooooo you go in there, and when you come out … you want to drink more?”
“It’s terrible, isn’t it? How does Reagan get away with it?”
Clyde rang up the bottles, but only after I showed him cash. I wrapped them in socks, underwear and T-shirts from J.C. Penney’s, then boarded a Greyhound bus for L.A.
The last time Carl Sampson had offered me shelter it was that Corralitos “commune.” Now it was a house full of hippies in the Sierra Madre Canyon. I was hoping for a bedroom (or a closet at least), but after Carl discovered the whiskey bottles he demoted me to the porch. That seemed a little harsh at first. Then I took in the beautiful view (it overlooked the canyon’s edge) and realized the couch out there was pretty comfortable. Plus it wasn’t likely to rain in Southern California in July, so I’d be all right.
The question was: for what? I never knew what went on in that house, for instance. Everyone seemed very young and very blonde and thought of me, as Sampson described it, as a guy who’d “escaped” from a mental ward.
I did nothing to disabuse them of the idea. They’d scatter like rats when I went inside to shit, shower or grab something to eat, but the place had a weird vibe regardless. One of the roommates was a chemist who made windowpane acid in the basement and—judging by their paranoid behavior—he was using his friends as test subjects.
Sampson had given me a couple sheets when I arrived and at some point most days I’d peel off a pane, wash it down with a hit of Ernie’s. They complimented each other well and for a week there I even had a Mexican lover named Rosemary. She couldn’t speak English but “hard up” is a universal language and we were both obviously that. We had sex on the couch (often to applause from the ever-changing cast of stoners inside), and—at least for the first couple hours of her trip—I thought she liked the LSD I gave her.
Then she ran down the stairs and disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. (Carl, in a vague attempt at assuaging my feelings, claimed she’d been picked up and deported.) Mostly I just stared out at the canyon and daydreamed. The mornings were rough, what with the d.t.’s and all, but by noon I’d usually drank enough Ernie’s to smooth things out. That had been my “life plan” the last five years—to drink until I died, went crazy or quit—and I thought I’d stuck to it pretty well. Now, however, came the hard part; now was the denouement.
Overly dramatic, perhaps, but on acid and rotgut whiskey everything was. When the Ernie’s was gone I found a liquor store that delivered and switched to tequila. I was making no plans for the next day and was in no condition to work even if I’d wanted to. I rationalized this by thinking Fate had something big in store for me.
Hopefully it wasn’t rolling off the couch and into the canyon. Instead I was shaken awake late one morning by a girl named Genoa. It seemed the FBI had raided the place the previous evening, arresting the chemist, Sampson and everyone else they could find.
Well, except for me. Unable to wake me, and finally determining that I was “nothing but a fat drunk” as Genoa put it, they’d left me facedown on the porch. She was the first to make bail and had been instructed by the others to “tell the crazy guy” what had happened.
I thanked her, made sure Sampson was going to make bail, too, then walked over and stared at the canyon floor. I had the shakes, I was nearly broke and, except for my typer, was wearing everything I owned. This (along with zero prospects) might prove to be good news in the long run, however … perhaps I’d finally hit the proverbial “bottom.” I got right with a few shots of tequila, took a shower and left Sampson the suitcase with a note of thanks inside.
I had the shakes, I was nearly broke and, except for my typer, was wearing everything I owned. This (along with zero prospects) might prove to be good news in the long run, however … perhaps I’d finally hit the proverbial “bottom.”
Then I did what any institutionalized guy would do: I grabbed a Greyhound back to the Bay Area and committed myself to a third mental ward. Reagan had closed the usual hangouts, of course, but this place (“Crystal Springs Rehabilitation Center”) was semi-private. I’d learned about it from the Sandbag Circuit vets; also what to tell the admissions officer to waggle a grant (now that State Disability was no longer footing the bill).
Whatever I said worked, and as I strolled into the alkie dorm I was greeted by cheers from those same Agnews buddies. I received numerous compliments on my tan and if any of them were surprised (or disappointed) to see me again they didn’t let on. Crystal Springs was cavalier about treatment and we only had to see our assigned shrink twice a week. So I went through withdrawal and recovery, then devoted myself to reading, poker, basketball in the gym (scoring at will against schizoids and drunks) and long sunbathing sessions on the veranda. Except for the dorm bed and the company I could have been in a resort, at least until a shrink I’d befriended killed herself. As far as anyone knew her last act was to hand me a poem by Robinson Jeffers, Not Man Apart. (“Love (life) … not man apart from that.”) Then she drove to San Francisco and took a header off the Golden Gate Bridge.
It shocked and saddened me, of course, but I told the staff who worried about my stability afterwards that (appearances notwithstanding): “I don’t do suicide.” Sure I was only twenty-three, but I’d experienced the full gamut of mental horrors by then, and none of them had me gazing longingly at the rafters. That would mean surrender and it was hard enough giving up the booze, much less my life.
No, as I lay on a chaise lounge, slick with suntan oil and sipping on sodas, I considered my alkie run over. This seemed absurd on the face of it (given that I’d drink for another five years), but I feel the same today because the experiment was over. I’d proven to myself that I wouldn’t be an old man sipping muscatel in a trailer park, and that my alcoholism had an expiration date. I’d quit the benders to string things out a little (I did) and try to pick my spots in the future (I mostly did).
The drugs? One thing at a time, I told myself. When September rolled around I called Dick Kent at Lower Columbia College and waggled the promise of a tuition-and-fee waiver and a work-study job. Walked to the highway and stuck out my thumb.
The first car that stopped was a dark green Jaguar. The window rolled down and I looked in to see a tiny Japanese guy behind the wheel.
“Two questions,” he said.
“Shoot,” I said.
“Where you headed?”
“That’s cool, I go past there on my way to Seattle. Number two: it’s eight hundred miles and I’ll need help with the driving. Do you do cocaine?”
I’d never even seen it before.
“Oh yeah,” I said, and slid into the passenger seat.
God Bless the Seventies.