S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “White Knuckler,” Park looks at his mom reaching age 100 and mixing it up with a bestselling author.
My mother and her two best friends from high school are all a hundred years old. What’s more they’ve lived disease-free lives and are only losing their marbles and mobility now. Think about that: it’s Fountain of Youth, Devil at the Crossroads stuff. They’ve seen everyone they grew up with die (often horribly) while to them a big deal is the toe they stubbed back in the Nineties.
I’m happy for them, and my mother’s genes are why I’m still around, but what are the odds of one person in a class living that long, much less three girls who met in the hallway freshmen year? I’ll win the lottery before that happens again (if, in fact, it ever has before).
And if we are talking a deal with the devil my mother regrets it now. She’s seen enough.
“Every night,” she told me last week, “when I go to bed, I pray to the Lord that I won’t wake up.”
“But you don’t believe in Him,” I said.
“I didn’t say it was working.”
The temptation is to set voodoo aside, look for common threads in the lives of these characters. Here, too, similarities abound, as they were all thin, even-tempered women who picked at their food, drank a lot of milk, smoked and drank moderately (if at all) and walked. Mainly they walked. Any time of day, no matter where they lived or what else was happening in their lives. I remember, when I was maybe six or seven years old, being called “one of the ducklings” by a friend’s mother.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you’re a High boy,” she said. “You and your brothers were always trailing your mother around on walks.”
Even as I was the only one to catch the bug. Or, more likely, had “ambulator” in my DNA like those three did. It’s such a natural mode of transit for me that I’ve never considered it exercise. I walked instead of riding a bike as a kid (I was always in trouble for selling the Schwinns my parents gave me at Christmas) and have long embraced the notion that: “It is solved by walking.”
So naturally I covered hundreds of miles in the d.t.’s. I wasn’t going to take insanity lying down: I figured as long as I was moving, I had a shot. I did many of these hallucinatory rambles in Hillsborough, California, the stuffy, privileged enclave where I spent my junior high years. My brothers and I would cross a golf course on the way to school every morning, and it was always so hushed and beautiful there. The long, perfectly manicured fairways, the dapple of light through the eucalyptus trees, the soft twitter of sprinklers.
So a decade later, when The Dread had hold of me and my brain was “creeping like a toad,” I’d head for that golf course if I was anywhere nearby. I felt safe there, so if this was the episode that ended in death or madness at least I’d go belly up in a fairway. (Vastly preferable to my wino hotel room, where you could lay unnoticed for weeks.)
And what I must have looked like! That was a country club course and I was a bloated, long haired, 6’6”, unshaven wino in rags, alternately shivering and sweating as I moaned, waved my arms and marched up and down the fairways. I even kept an old golf bag stashed in a tree, so when I felt particularly vulnerable I’d sling it over my shoulder, act like I belonged there.
I didn’t fool anyone, of course, and was often chased off by groundskeepers. Looking back, though, I appreciate that young me in ways I didn’t then, because it wasn’t at all clear I’d survive alcoholism, much less life in general. It’s even possible that—in a rare lucid moment, or maybe when I was finally coming down—I’d contrast my present state to the preppy twelve-year-old I’d been, striding across that grass with a bright, limitless future in front of him.
But I doubt it: even the young me felt the shade, sensed there was a big fork in the road ahead. (And my first drink confirmed it.) I remember sitting in my living room in the Nineties with a high school classmate who’d come to buy weed. We hadn’t seen each other in a while so we were smoking and talking and—brusque as this woman was otherwise—she was even blunter stoned. So when we finished the joint she looked around and shook her head.
“Christ, High,” she said, “it must be tough, eh?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Having as many talents as you did, the whole world at your fingertips … and you end up in a dump like this, growing weed.”
I was momentarily stunned. Then I did what I always do when I like something and laughed.
“What is it, Wilson?” she said finally. “What’s so funny?”
“What you said: it’s so perfect. I don’t know what other people had in mind for me, but this … this is my mountaintop.”
I might have seemed like a most-likely-to-succeed type, in other words, but it was just a ruse. The class presidencies and honor rolls and cartoons and sports and acting were just experiments, stuff I was trying on for size, clothes that didn’t fit.
It took pot growing to check the boxes, afford me the time and freedom I craved. I was forty by then, and had fifty full-time jobs behind me, so I knew a miracle when I saw it.
In the meanwhile I was rarely a “woe is me” drunk: I saved that for the hangovers. When I pondered alcoholism (and I did that often in those early years), I didn’t consider it a moral failing or a disease: instead it was like clumsiness, or being shy, just an affliction to overcome.
Which meant that fat clown staggering up and down those fairways, in the same Levi jacket he wore until it fell off him, that seemingly doomed buffoon? He was way more student than victim. I committed myself to mental wards and read every tome I could find on alcoholism, searching—not just for a way to quit—but one that wasn’t so goddamned hard.
Because sobriety was no goal: if I’d enjoyed that I wouldn’t have been a rummy in the first place. So the only thing between me and premature death or madness was the same liver malady that was causing the withdrawal, a genetic inability to metabolize booze.
The irony (along with many drugs) has provided some solace since. I know I’ve a soft spot for the true “white knucklers,” those alkies who leveraged their shame into sobriety: that takes real determination. I remember attending a reading at Portland’s Powell’s Bookstore in 2004. The author had written a memoir about his own struggles with booze and, in deference to that, I’ll simply call him “Bubba X.” His book was a bestseller acclaimed for its brutal honesty (even as its veracity was questioned later).
Not that it mattered to me: I’d enjoyed it in any case. The reading was scheduled for seven-thirty, so I arrived early to browse the “Recent Fiction” section. I was in an aisle between two shelves and next to me was a bearded guy that I literally despised on sight. This was a rare occurrence for me, so my senses shifted to high alert. Particularly when it was obvious he didn’t think much of me, either.
We circled like sworn enemies; we didn’t growl or paw the floor or anything, but we might as well have. Instead we’d bang shoulders when we passed, or give the other guy a quick jab in the ribs. Soon we were both snorting like bulls, as if a single word from either of us would spark violence.
We circled like sworn enemies; we didn’t growl or paw the floor or anything, but we might as well have.
I was disappointed when he glanced at his watch and walked off. I gave myself time to settle down, then walked up the steps to the reading room. I’d never seen it so crowded and was lucky to grab the last seat in the last row.
Good for this Bubba X. guy, I thought.
Then he strolled to the podium and—do I need to say it?—it was the asshole from downstairs. It was so perfect I guffawed. A little too loudly perhaps, as I would have sworn Bubba X. glanced my way, but it was hard to tell because his head was on a swivel, anyway. He also fidgeted, pulled at his beard, cleared his throat, blinked rapidly and did these weird shoulder rolls, looking exactly like what he claimed to be, a guy who needed a drink.
Or maybe he was just hungover, or running on coffee and cigarettes. It was obvious that his hostility towards me extended to the world in general. He spat out some opening words, then picked up the paperback edition of his book, waved it over his head.
“Do any of you really want me to read from this?” he said. “I mean you’ve already done that or you wouldn’t be sittin’ here! After two months on tour I’m fuckin’ sick of reading out loud! So let’s see a show of hands here. Who’d rather I skipped the reading part altogether, went straight to the question-and-answer section?”
There had to be a hundred people in there, and I was the only one who raised his hand. Well, waved it, actually … the more I saw of this guy the less I wanted to hear him do anything.
But was he grateful? Did he appreciate my support? Not judging by his sneer, or the way he made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and pointed it at me.
Pow! he mouthed, then turned to the audience. “Okay,” he growled. “You guys asked for it.”
He flipped open his book, began reading in the middle of a paragraph. His jaw was clenched, so it was hard to make out. I was reminded, in fact, of those Chipmunk records from the Fifties, or a guy grunting Morse code. I stood up to leave and had taken maybe two steps when it hit me:
Damn! I thought, that’s me up there! That’s what I’m like without booze or pot!
It was a humbling notion, and I immediately cut Bubba X. some slack. Sat back down and stared at the ceiling until he was done. A few dazed stragglers clapped, then he asked for questions.
Suddenly everyone’s hands shot up. It seems a large portion of the audience were patients from a local rehab center, so Bubba X.’s derangement meant nothing to them (they saw and heard worse every day). He answered their queries as quickly and dismissively as possible, only raising his voice when the subject of A.A. came up. He’d made it clear in the book that he loathed the organization for its emphasis on a “higher power.”
“Don’t even talk about it,” he told us. “If there is a god I hate him!”
When he’d answered everyone else I raised my hand.
“Yeah?” he sighed. “What is it?”
“So to put it simply,” I said, “you—like W., our President—are a ‘white knuckler.’ You stay sober with grit.”
I meant it as a compliment but Bubba X. wasn’t having any. He scooped up his book, came lurching around the podium.
“What’d you say to me?” he spat, his voice low and threatening.
Suddenly we were downstairs in the aisle again. I grinned.
“I said you’re a white knuckler, buddy boy.”
“YOU SONOFABITCH!” he screamed, and flung the paperback at me. (It was a poor throw and landed three rows short.) “HOW DARE YOU SMEAR ME WITH AN A.A. TERM!?”
Really? I started laughing again, but to my utter surprise and delight, the crowd sided with Bubba X., especially the rehab characters:
“Hey! Show some respect, man!” they yelled.
“Yeah, lose the labels!”
“We’re talking a disease here!”
“I’m wounded by your stereotyping!”
I closed my eyes, soaked it all in. It was just like the old group therapy days.