I just walked into my hotel. Its almost 3:00am here in Anchorage. I immediately walked into the gift shop and grabbed two sodas, a bag of Cheetos and package of skittles. Perhaps it was my clumsy movements. Perhaps it was the hour. My tunnel-vision stare, perhaps? Either way, I’m sober enough to know the night clerk had me pegged for drunk. He had that particular air of one who is humoring the completely addled for just so long as it takes to get them on their way. Fair enough, I thought. Yes, indeed, I did just close down a bar, and I’m at least 2 sheets (if not 3) to the wind. Perhaps I deserve the condescension.
I recall once, when I briefly worked at a cabin resort, a particular school teacher used to come and stay with us. She would down a fair bit of wine and then fail to use out one pay-phone correctly. We were in the middle of Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, and Cell Phones simply didn’t work there, so that pay-phone was her only option. Having been told that the pay-phone wasn’t working, I would ask her what message she received on trying to dial out. If she could remember it accurately, I could tell what the problem was; whether it was her card, a wrong number, or something else entirely. I knew the messages, and I knew what they meant. What I didn’t know what how to get her to take the message seriously in her state. She would just tell me the card didn’t work. When I asked what the specific wording of the message had been, she would look at me, weaving a little, and say; “It says it didn’t work.” In the end I let her use the house phone, because I just couldn’t unscramble the problem she had without her at least telling me what the message had been. I could clearly see that she thought me an illiterate ass for asking her questions she thought she had already answered. I, for my own part, wondered if should would even understand me when she was sober.
Mutual contempt is a mutal solace, I suppose.
Anyway, I reckon I thought about her much as the man at the hotel desk must have thought about me.
But I’m not just a drunkard! I’m so much more!
So, must many people have thought to themselves as they were treated as just another drunk by someone somewhere. It’s easy to consider yourself worth more than your own slurred speech and your blurred vision, but it’s a bit more difficult to think of a complete stranger who is clearly exhibiting such conditions as anything more than the sum total of his drunken idiocies.
It’s an odd thing. Those of us that do drink are bound to drink to excess at some point in our lives. And drinking in excess, none of us are particularly dignified. Yet some get pass, and others don’t. What makes the difference?
I can think of nights playing beer frizbee in grad school, vomitting in the sink of the basement beneath my friends apartment complex. Or was that another friend that did that? I don’t remember really. It’s been 20+ years and quite a few amber ale’s since that night. Still everyone was a friend there that morning. We were drunk, yes, but we were human. We saw each other home and we called to make sure everyone was okay the next day. We would never have mistaken each other for mere drunks.
My Dad drank a glass or three of Christian Brothers’ Brandy every night since pretty much the age at which I was old enough to notice (Okay, sometimes it was E&J). I never thought of him as a drunk, net even the night that he drove home at the wee hours of the morning and sat in the car inexplicably as I waited for him to come in. I finally went out to find him crying. He’d blown a bit more on the slot machines than either he or Mom normally allowed themselves to do that evening, and it bothered him a great deal. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he said. I could hardly believe my ears. It was a couple hundred dollars he’d lost that night, hardly enough to blow the mortgage, but Dad was genuinely disturbed by the night’s events. That he’d driven home was another cause for concern, but I never could tell just how far under the influence he had been that night. Perhaps I didn’t want to. I can still count on one hand the number of times I thought my father was actually drunk, and I never thought of him as a drunk, but that night he called it himself. Perhaps, the nightly brandy mattered more than any of us thought it did.
…at least until the next day when the conversation that night was simply forgotten.
Whatever the damage done to our bank accounts, father had worked out a solution. Whatever had frightened him about his own drinking, he had worked out a solution to that too. He was prepared to face the day squarely, and I saw none of the doubt from the night before. I think I talked to him about it, but I don’t remember the details of the conversation. I suspect I was all too happy to find my way past the memory of that night. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him drunk again.
Though I certainly did see the brandy. Just a glass or two every night.
If I cut my father an ounce of slack, I certainly didn’t cut that same slack for my neighbor. She too had a glass of something on the rocks every night after work. I recall her telling me about how her ex-husband stank of alcohol even when he was sober. She added this to the list of complaints about his abusiveness and general worthlessness. She told me all of this as she drank her own nightly glass of hard liquor, and you bet your ass I noticed. I thought of her as a worthless drunk, someone who buried herself in a glass every night.
Harsh, I know.
A double standard, I also know.
I knew my father. I knew his goals and his values as well as his frustrations, and I knew his weaknesses as anyone who has ever loved another knew them of those they loved. Falling down drunk, he would always be the man I most admired in life. Of my neighbor, I knew mostly frustrations. I knew her to be a pain in the ass at best and a complete fuck-up at worst. I of course knew this mostly from the talk of my parents, and from my own encounters with her. It was easy to think of her as a mere drunk
I also knew that she had a Masters Degree in Archaeology, that she had raised two daughters despite an ugly divorce and who knows what else the woman had dealt with in her life. I think about that now and realize I should probably have found my way to giving her a little more credit than I did at the time. That she was capable of serious study was a mystery to me, and I never saw any of her struggles with a trace of empathy. She would always be a drunk to my eyes, even if she were sober, and my father never would be, not even when he was in fact quite drunk.
So what makes the difference between a drunk and a person?
I reckon that’s a good deal of the distinction itself, knowing the person in the first place, or at least having enough in common to imagine the person in the first place. Without that, it’s all too easy to think of someone who is actually drunk as someone whose drunkenness is a fairly complete personal account.
My neighbor in Fort Defiance always struck me as a drunk. I could recount the many irritations he inflicted upon me during my time on the Navajo Nation, not the least of them being his threats one afternoon to burn down the house with me in it. I learned of these the next day when his brother forced him to apologize to me. All I had noticed was that he was shouting something at me from outside. I had already written him off that day. Didn’t even realize the drama that was unfolding out there.
That same neighbor once told me that he was going to hitchhike to Flagstaff and get a job. This was well into the morning. He had awoken me on a work night, quite drunk and very depressed, and somewhere in the midst of telling me all his woes, this neighbor announced his great plan for turning his life around. I can’t remember what I said, but apparently I did express some doubt. He was quite offended. Asked what I meant by that,I felt fairly flat-footed for a moment. I fished around in my brain and finally came up with one thing which while very true was not nearly as judgemental as the thought that probably led to the comment in the first place. I knew that strategy wouldn’t have worked for me. I wouldn’t be able to just hitchhike into a town, totally broke, and land a job just like that. So, I said so. My neighbor was happy with that response. He took it as a sign of respect, and in a sense it was, albeit one which was quite consistent with the disrespect that had triggered my skeptical comment to begin with.
I did notice that he never actually hitch-hiked into Flagstaff and got a job.
Neither did I.
Not like that anyway.
I always thought of that neighbor as a drunk. I knew him to be a person, even cared about him, I suppose, but I never quite shook the sense that his life had been claimed by liquor. That neighbor used to sober up from time to time, and then he’d REALLY be a pain the ass. Mostly, he’d need a ride to work, because when he was sober he would inevitably get a job. When his brother (who lived next door) stopped giving him rides, the man would turn to me. I remember one summer, I would return from an effectively 16 hour day, starving, with a couple chapters yet to read so I could teach the next day and sure enough he wanted a ride to work. Oh how I wished his brother would give him a ride.
…or that he would go back to being a drunk.
Now there is a damning thought!
But I had it just the same.
And sadly, that wish did come true.
Damn me anyhow for wishing it!
Years later, I lived in Flagstaff. I used to go to a bar named Charlie’s once every week or two, mostly to watch a bluegrass band named Second Harvest. Loved their music! A friend of a friend once sneered at the place, describing it as a gay bar. I always figured it was a place where gay people would be welcomed, but not so much a dedicated gay bar. Just the same, it was my drinking establishment of choice.
I recall one night watching as a brand-new security guy glowered at two men dancing together. It was a spectacular display. Not them. HIM. The look on his face was one of utter contempt. I could just imagine him thinking of reasons to eject them, reasons he never quite acted upon. He did, however, find cause to eject one elderly Navajo man, an individual who though quite drunk had been sitting harmlessly in a corner. As the ‘drunk’ was escorted out and onto the street, I couldn’t help but wonder at the numerous college students boisterously enjoying their own states of inebriation throughout the bar. Some of them were even native, but they were dressed as college kids. They fit, so to speak. Many of those still in the bar were well past the drunkenness of the man put outside, but they were young and they were middle class.
They weren’t drunks. They were just drunk.
He was a drunk, at least as far as security was concerned that night.
They would probably think of him the same way if he had been sober.
Years earlier, I had already encountered that same privilege one weekend when I was doing research in Farmington, New Mexico. I came out of an Arby’s one afternoon to find an empty six-pack of beer in the back of my ‘tribee’ (tribal vehicle). It was a good thing I noticed before someone else did, but I couldn’t help wondering at the thought process of whoever put it there. Did he think he was going to get a Navajo in trouble? Would he have done it had he realized it was a white guy driving the truck? Or maybe it was someone who noticed the white driver, and thought to generate some trouble for the guy clearly out of place. I believe this was the same weekend a waitress invited me to a bar. She made a point to tell me it was where “our kind of people” hung out. I still wonder if she would have invited me had she knew where I lived, where I worked, or what kind of vehicle I was driving?
On a side note, I once walked into a random bar in Farmington. It was a short walk from my hotel, so I thought I’d skip over and drink a beer or three before going back for the evening. No sooner than I entered when I realized I was the only white guy in there, and several people where staring at me in not so friendly ways. Had I been with someone it would have been different. I would still have been a white guy, yes, but I would have been their white guy. I’d done that once or twice before. It works. In this instance I was alone and feeling very much like an intruder at that particular moment. What was I to do? Try to tell people I’m one of the good guys? Hell, I wouldn’t have listened to me. Why should they? I also figured if I turned around and headed out immediately that would set off all kinds of red flags. If I stayed too long I figured someone would cause trouble. Maybe I could talk my way out of it; maybe I couldn’t. So, I sat down and ordered one beer.I drank it and left. As I headed out, I could swear I saw the bartender nodding, as if to tell me I played that one right.
Okay, that last story is probably all manner of confirmation bias, but anyway, that’s how I felt at the time. And I’m still feeling a little buzzed, so I’m leaving it on the page, against my better judgement of course.
My better judgement begins on the other end of a long sleep.
I lived briefly on the south-side of Chicago. By briefly, I mean 3 years, minus the summers. In any event, it was long enough to begin to recognize some of the homeless people in the area. Maybe it was my long hair but one fellow always insisted on trying to sell me incense. I bought a pack. (Think I gave it to a friend of mine.) It should come as no surprise of course that many of these people appeared quite often to be under the influence of something or other. It would be easy to think of them as mere drunks.
One moment stands out particularly in my mind. Some young men in their twenties were talking to one of the homeless individuals. This one was often very drunk. In fact, he was often incapable even of asking for change. When he was that far into his liquor, the man would simply hold out his hand and groan, or mumble something he might have thought of as speech but which no-one but him could really parse. Anyway, the young men, were chatting and laughing. It was almost friendly, but not quite.
One of the young men asked quite loudly; “Do you remember me?”
Swaying a bit, the man slurred out a ‘yes’.
“Who am I.”
His answer? “YOU!”
Now THAT was a mike drop if I ever saw one.
So, what do all these stories add up to? Hell, they probably add up to porridge as far as I can tell. I’ve been drinking. Remember! But if I may take a moment to try and sense the make of the matter, I would guess they start with one obvious fact that drinking begets all manner of foolishness. All manner of terrible things happen once people start tipping those damned bottles. I’m fortunate enough to be one of those people who can stop after 2 or 3 beers and simply call it a night (many can’t), else I might have a lot more interesting stories.
…or perhaps others would have the stories about me.
More to the point, I’m often struck by the perception of drunkenness. Where drunken behavior is concerned, we can tolerate an awful lot from our own kind, however we choose to identify them. Strangers get far less patience. Cross a few social boundaries and the benefit of the doubt wears thin very quickly. Often as not, race and class can provide all the boundary one needs to think of someone not just as a drunk person but as nothing but a drunk, someone whose total value as a human being can be summed up in their smell, their slurred speech, and in whatever other foolishness they have brought with them.
Sometimes, you don’t even need that kind of boundary.
A few hours ago, I sat next to a man about my age, my ethnicity, and near as I can tell about the same economic status as my own. He was eating soup and struggling to get his head under control while the house band at Humpy’s played its last tune of the night. He was chatting quite a bit, though I couldn’t make any sense of it. Nobody else was in ear-shot. I still don’t know is he meant to be talking to me, or if he was talking to an old love, an imaginary adversary, or perhaps even his own guardian angel. Either way I thought of the man as a drunk. He was a bit further into his cups than me, to be sure, but I don’t figure that quite explains the distinction. To me, meeting the man under such circumstances, he was simply a drunk, no more and no less. I on the other hand was just drunk, and there was a difference.
At least until I hit the hotel desk.