“Alcohol is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed be the facts.” — Finley Peter Dunne
Today marks one year of sobriety. One year of sitting uneasily on a wagon traveling down a bumpy, winding road. One year of wincing as I watched friends allow that wonderful elixir of confidence and abandon to travel down their throats and nuzzle warmly within the confines of their stomachs.
One year of wanting a drink.
♫ Where are you going I don’t mind,
I’ve killed my world and I’ve killed my time,
So where do I go, what do I see,
I see many people coming after me,
So where are you going to I don’t mind,
If I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die,
So I will follow you wherever you go,
If your offered hand is still open to me,
Strangers on this road we are on,
We are not two we are one ♫
— “Strangers”, Dave Davies (The Kinks)
What has one year of abstinence (regarding the drink, mind you) taught a drunkard such as myself?
I have come to accept that alcohol, for better or worse, is inseparable from human society. It is an ancient custom, dating back to the days when one could not guarantee the safety and quality of water. Fermentation kills the bacteria that might have otherwise compromised the health of the drinker. Water is a necessary component of the body. Alcohol is a necessary component of people.
Thank God for the holy manufacturers of non-alcoholic beer and spirits. It has served as something of a savior for me at my most desperate moments — the moments in which I almost fell off that rickety wagon.
I was out with two friends who I had worked with for a short period of time at the beginning of the year. I suggested our first meeting spot, a Biergarten in the Lower East Side. I had a particular craving for German beer, a wonderful complement to warm summer days. Unfortunately, the establishment did not have any non-alcoholic beer. I settled with another favorite of mine, a virgin mojito. My friend ordered a stein, that massive glass filled to the brim with booze that conjures pictures of lederhosen and dirndls framed against the alps. I stared on in envy, recalling the joy that I once felt wiping away the remaining foam that settled on my chin after knocking the glass back.
Our next stop was a bar I had been meaning to go to for a long time — The Magician. It is purely vintage in its aesthetic, something out of a neo-noir film. I’ve said it before, I am a relic. I have always felt that I was a man out of my time, aesthetically speaking. The bar very much appealed to me for that reason, it was an interloper as well.
One of my friends wanted to try something different. Offering my expertise, probably sounding like a retired mafioso, I asked if they had ever had rye? To my shock, he said he hadn’t. Our mutual friend admitted the same. I made it my mission to correct what I viewed as an egregious wrong and suggested they indulge in my personal favorite spirit — Canadian Club.
Canadian Club, a product of the prohibition years, was a mainstay in my personal bars from the moment I moved out of my childhood home. I snagged a 12-year-aged bottle of it at a duty-free shop during my return from the Great White North. I hosted a Christmas Party that same year, opting to save the bottle for the holiday so I could enjoy it in good company. By the time I went to indulge in it and take a reprieve from my duties as a host, the bottle was empty — bone dry.
I should’ve made a list of last-minute wrongs to right before I gave up the sauce. Now, I just stare longingly at bottles of Canadian Club. If I’m Gatsby, Rye is my green light.
My friends opted to sample a glass of Bulleit Rye first. I didn’t protest, even though I personally wasn’t a fan of that choice— imagine a teetotaller making a fuss out of one’s choice in rye.
“Listen, bub, I might be sober but I’ve still got taste.”
They let out the customary hoots and hollers that accompany straight whiskey. They appeared to have enjoyed it, I did the same vicariously. One of the two then ordered a glass of Canadian Club to put me at ease. When the glass arrived I felt that old, familiar urge rear its ugly head. I got tense, shook in my seat a bit.
“Apologies, can I just take a whiff of it before you drink it? Just to bring back old memories, ya know?”
He obliged, with reasonable hesitancy, and handed me the glass. I threw one leg over the side of the wagon, started looking for a soft patch of grass to land on. The second the smell hit my nose I was transported back to those holy moments when the first drop hits your tongue, tickles the back of your neck. The warmth that envelops you and radiates around you. The weight that makes your steps pronounced, makes the bartop feel like a pillow. It took a lot for me not to land on the grass, the memory of what follows that warmth doing most of the heavy lifting.
Here’s a law that Newton missed in his day: For every drink a man takes, the drink shall in turn take a bit of the man.
“♫ So you’ve been where I’ve just come,
From the land that brings losers on,
So we will share this road we walk,
And mind our mouths and beware our talk,
‘Till peace we find tell you what I’ll do,
All the things that I own I will share with you,
And, if I feel tomorrow like I feel today,
We’ll take what we want and give the rest away,
Strangers on this road we are on,
We are not two we are one ♫”
I’ve learned a lot about myself as well through sobriety. I’ve learned that my worst fear — that people only enjoyed Mr. Hyde’s company — was unfounded. I have lost no friends, other than Mr. Booze, since my decision to abstain. I look back at those “glory days” of beer-soaked floors, messy make-outs with strange women, and the unfamiliar rooms I’d wake up in with embarrassment now.
A scar rests on the back of my head, a trophy earned in Seaside Heights, New Jersey during my senior year of High School. We were there to celebrate graduation, that monumental milestone that, at the time, seemed to signal the end of the world. I was feeling a bit jilted, a friend of mine whom I had plans to hook up with had been swept off her incredibly intoxicated feet by an older man, 25 if my memory serves correct.
I was incensed at the time. Now, as a 25-year-old man myself, I’m disgusted.
How did younger Dylan handle this moment of insecurity?
He decided to drink an entire bottle of vodka.
By the time half of it was finding its way into my bloodstream, I was preaching on top of a couch, condemning the “Soddom and Gomorrah” that was Seaside Heights. Another two friends of mine had the decency to walk me back to the beach house that my group of friends had rented. I thank them to this day — I would’ve probably ended up in the ocean if they hadn’t intervened.
Looking back, I don’t think I was angered at the fact that my “date” had been stolen. I now realize I was simply annoyed that others would be as foolish as I viewed myself to drink to the same degree that I had.
“What, are you trying to kill yourself?”
Upon arriving at the rented house, I proceeded to try and kill myself.
I finished the bottle, sought out more to drink. I was a locust, plaguing the crops.
What was a friendly and quickly reconciled bump into a friend of mine was transformed into a boxing fight by others at the party who mistakenly took it for a fight. I was shirtless a few moments later and dancing like Muhammed Ali. Also like Ali, I encouraged my friend to rock my head a few times without raising my gloves to protect myself. I think I felt my brain bouncing around in my skull.
Young men are simultaneously the most dangerous and self-destructive primates on the face of the Earth.
The fight concluded when a well-placed punch sent my head into an electrical box that rested on the wall behind me. I saw white, all white. I still contend that the Angel of Death was one moment away from replacing my former date before I came back to reality. I heard someone yell “he’s bleeding!” I scoffed, naturally, and decided to investigate by placing my hand on the back of my head.
Red, completely red.
I blew a raspberry and put my gloves back on — Ali wasn’t out for the count. Those slightly less intoxicated felt that they had seen enough and broke us apart. I demanded whiskey from my caretakers but was denied on the grounds that it would further thin out my blood which was currently fleeing my body like the passengers of the Titanic. They provided me a joint to smoke and wrapped an American flag around my head as a makeshift bandage.
At the hospital, I told the reception staff that I wanted to be buried with Catholic rites and an Irish padre. A beautiful nurse gave me a shot of tetanus in my pale Irish ass instead. She then stapled the cut closed.
“How you feeling, kid?”
“Fine and dandy, thank you.”
At every graduation party that summer I was greeted with a call of “Dylan, show us that scar!” I always happily obliged.
That was the only time I’ve been to the hospital, though I tried many times to end up back there, one way or another.
“♫ Holy man and holy priest,
This love of life makes me weak at my knees,
And when we get there make your play,
‘Cos soon I feel you’re gonna carry us away,
In a promised lie you made us believe,
For many men there is so much grief,
And my mind is proud but it aches with rage,
And, if I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die,
Strangers on this road we are on,
We are not two we are one. ♫”
I’m running out of time. Not time as in mortality, I’ve still got a while. I’ve got work at 10 AM this morning, I’ve got to leave by 9:30 at the latest. There’s plenty more I should probably talk about here, more stories to share that involve me flirting with that lovely angel, seeing how much I could tease her without actually “buying the barn” so to speak.
Does anyone still use that expression? “Buying the barn”?
I’ll end with something that I’ve been thinking about a lot.
“Finnegan’s Wake”, the Irish folksong that James Joyce turned into a long, and very confusing, novel, tells the story of Tim Finnegan. Finnegan was a roofer who had a penchant for the drink. One day, after indulging in much too much, he falls off his ladder and plops a big fat kiss right on that angel’s lips. His family and friends gather around his corpse, flanked by a barrel of porter and whiskey at both ends respectively, and mourn the loss of the man. Fights break out amongst the mourners (customary at most Irish funerals) and soon all hell breaks loose.
Somewhere in the confusion, a bit of the whiskey, that lovely “water of life” ends up on Finnegan’s body.
“♫ Tim revives, see how he rises
Timothy rising from the bed
Said “Whirl your whiskey around like blazes
Thanam ‘on dhoul, do you think I’m dead? ♫”
Even if I manage to stay sober for the rest of my life (likely elongated due to my healthy liver, unfortunately) I think I’d like to be buried alongside a cask of whiskey. Not only for the possibility that our ancient Egyptian comrades were correct in their beliefs on the afterlife, but also to potentially pull a “Finnegan” and give me one last brouhaha with friends and family to send me out correctly.
I think it’s fair that my one cheat day be before I have to face St. Peter, no?
“How are ya, Pete? How’s about you let me in, got a hell of a headache and could use a warm cloud to lay on.”
Sláinte to all my friends, family, and readers for one year without the water of life.
And to myself, that other stranger on the road.
I’m still learning a lot about him.