S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Reason To Believe,” Park talks about the three instances his alcoholism made him remorseful.
Last Fall I wrote a piece called “A Letter to Myself at Eighteen.” I thought it was an intriguing column idea, that the fantasy of clueing in my younger self (giving him “Tips for His Tool Kit” in effect), would be interesting.
And it was at first. Then I finished, filed the draft away for later (as I do with most columns), and re-read it a few weeks later.
As an aspiring author I tossed out everything I wrote for decades (thousands and thousands of pages), and damned if the worst of it wasn’t better than that cringeworthy “Letter to Myself.” Its smarmy self-indulgence still makes me shudder, brings to mind Dylan’s line from My Back Pages:
I become my enemy
in the instant that I preach.
It was, in short, a mirthless letter assuring the younger me what a great sense of humor he had. How as grim as things looked then they’d worsen quickly but, Hey! Take heart, Bubba … I must have done something right because I’d do it all again!
Which is kind of my mantra. I was reminded of this as I chatted with my old sidekick Moochie the other night. We’ve both been sober over forty years and were reminiscing about our (mercifully short) stints in A.A. His group, as it turns out, was far more rigorous than mine, even insisted he complete the Twelve Steps to Sobriety.
I knew of them, of course, but felt that—after the first one (“Admitted we were powerless over alcohol”)—they went straight downhill, were more sermon than a how-to-quit guide.
Strangest of all, I thought, was the call for “amends,” this notion you should apologize to people you’d harmed.
Well, yeah, but what’s the holdup? You had to wait for A.A. to tell you?
“So you regret things you did as a drunk?” I asked Moochie.
“Sure,” he said. “Don’t you?”
I thought about it for a minute. “No,” I said, “I don’t, actually.”
Which goes to the heart of my personal philosophy, that addiction’s tricky enough without regrets. Throw in the fact I was a Bay Area guy, a place where everybody drank and you only apologized if you didn’t, and my alcoholism was pretty guilt-free.
There were only three, maybe four times in my drinking years, in fact, when I was truly remorseful about the night before (and yeah, there might have been hundreds more if not for blackouts), and in each instance I apologized to the offended parties immediately.
The first was Pete, my favorite uncle, back in the Spring of 1970. He was a bigwig with a shipping company and invited my parents and I to dinner at his Menlo Park spread. They picked me up outside my wino hotel (“Did you have to stand out front?” asked my mother. “Couldn’t we have met you somewhere else?”) and we drove south on Highway 101. I liked to think I was handling the booze pretty well at the time and only living in that hotel because it was cheap and convenient, but in truth I’d be drying out in a nuthouse three weeks later.
So it was ironic that the whole purpose of the dinner was to set me up with Cassie, Pete’s stewardess stepdaughter. I guess me being his favorite had clouded his judgment somehow, or he didn’t believe the rumors of me being a wino (or even wonder why I didn’t own a car), but Cassie was out of my league regardless.
Which had never stopped me before, of course, particularly with booze around.
“All this ‘alcoholic’ nonsense,” said Pete at his bar, pouring me the straight whiskey I requested. “That’s just b.s., right?
“Oh, absolutely,” I said.
That was my first mistake; the next was waking fully clothed at dawn. I was back at the hotel, at least, so that was something, but what was that turkey and gravy odor? It smelled like Thanksgiving dinner and there was no place to cook or store food in that room.
Then I lifted my head, looked down at my white dress shirt.
It was covered with mashed potato, gravy and cranberry stains like I’d been in a food fight.
Suddenly images from the night before came flooding back. My mistaking Cassie’s graciousness (humoring me like a drunken airline passenger) for attraction. Uncle Pete looking around, wondering what happened to his quart of Old Grandad, and Cassie telling him I was sitting on it. Giving up on cutlery halfway through dinner and using my hands. Dad pulling up to the hotel later, pushing me out while the car was still moving.
Where were the blackouts when you needed them? I was horrified, I’d abused every WASP protocol at once, in front of family no less. As soon as I’d glugged enough bourbon to stand (buck-forty-a-quart Ernie’s Black Label, not my uncle’s smooth elixir), I called him from a phone booth down the street and apologized profusely, not just to him, but Cassie and his wife, too.
Then a few years later, when I was living with my buddy Ron O’Shea in Cotati, California, I fucked his girlfriend Janie one night. This was wildly out of character for me and was easy to blame on the eight hits of acid.
I’d bought two red LSD tabs from a kid we picked up on our way to a Grateful Dead concert. He told me I’d be fine if I took both at once, no problem, then once we were seated at the Cow Palace I looked over his shoulder, saw him slicing a single tab into sections. When I asked him why he acted like he’d never seen me before.
“You think I’m crazy?” he said. “This is a four-way hit, man. One quarter and you’re fucked.”
Oh, great: Buy the ticket, take the rocket. Fortunately I had a pint of Jim Beam in my crotch and by the time it was gone the concert was over and we were back at the house, me humping Janie while O’Shea snoozed upstairs.
The next morning (when the doors opened at six), I was at the Eight Ball Bar with my buddy Nick the Nihilist. I was so guilty about what I’d done and felt so awful otherwise (with a sucking sound where my brain should be) that I was physically shaking. Knew I’d have to come clean with O’Shea but maybe, just maybe, Nick (who didn’t give a shit about anything) could talk me out of it.
I was so guilty about what I’d done and felt so awful otherwise (with a sucking sound where my brain should be) that I was physically shaking.
Failing that there were the Eight Ball’s cheap vodka shots. In the end neither worked because deceit was too much trouble to me; better to suck it up, clear the air (regardless of the short-term consequences), trade a sharp pain now for a nagging one later.
So I returned to the house around noon, told Ron what had happened, and though it was excruciating for both of us we’re still friends a half-century later. (Well, me leaving with Janie later, only to have her cheat on me in turn, sweetened the pot some.)
And finally there was Dick Kent. He was the financial aid officer at Lower Columbia Community College and every Fall (between ’68 – ’70), I’d be on a friend’s couch or the road, not a nickel to my name, and with a single phone call Dick would give me a tuition-and-fee waiver, an EOG grant (still available to white kids at the time), and a work-study job. All I had to do was get to Longview.
I made it to a second term twice (which was mostly a tribute to him) before dropping out. He knew I was an alkie; I’d made that clear from the beginning, just as I did with everyone but employers (they’d find out soon enough), but though I’ve let many people down over the years there’s no one I hated disappointing like Dick. This was a man who believed in who I was, not who I should be, and had always treated me like a son.
So I’d get a 4.00 to assuage both our consciences, then last a week or two into winter term before hitting the road again. Sometime that day or the next I’d give Dick “The Call” (usually from a strange bus station), let him know I’d bailed on our dreams again.
It broke my heart every time, even as I was careful not to offer excuses (a drunk is a drunk, after all), and mostly wanted to assure him I was still alive.
He was unfailingly gracious about it, seemed more worried about how I was than what I’d done. Would assure me he still believed in me and to call him the next time I returned to college.
He was a far better friend than I deserved and stands tall in my Hall of Enablers. So much so that three years later, after I graduated from Evergreen State, I mailed him my diploma.
It was beer-soaked and illegible, of course (I’d used it as a bar coaster the night before), but he’d figure it out.