Sunday, June 29, 2014

My First Drunk

This article first appeared on on April 5, 1999. While I didn't write it from the perspective of my parents, I framed the story with their eventual reaction, which strikes me as novel now that they're gone and I'm that much older.  The only thing that bothers me about this piece now is that thirtysomething braggadocio -- looking back 10 years on things like hard drinking and lionizing ourselves over it.  We were idiots, at a time in our lives when it was normal to be idiots.

J kept on drinking, as drinkers do.  I went out for drinks while visiting Pennsylvania last week.  Four bottles over the course of 3-4 hours, spent the last hour drinking water to come down a bit.  It worked out OK, although if I'm driving, I try to stop at three, along with eating plenty of food.  But I've never forgotten that first time ...
I got an alarming phone call the other night from a high-school friend telling me that a mutual friend, whom I’ll refer to a J, got DUI’ed.  I’ve known J all my life – in my earlier essay, Seasons in the Sun: My Life as a Little League Baseball Player, J was on the same team of perennial losers.  We went to high school together, and our first two years at Penn State.  We go all the way to back to tricycles and training wheels, and I still see him, usually at the local bar, when I go back for a visit.

The news in itself was not shocking.  I get reports that J’s drinking five/six nights a week.  And I mean pounding it, not just having a beer after work.  He’s had a rough time of it:  his immediate family has all passed away, and he’s going through a divorce.  At this point, with immediate family members intact and no such emotional and financial devastation on the horizon, I feel relatively unscathed.

The first time I got drunk, J was driving.  Actually, that’s a pretty good story to tell in light of this recent bad news.  It’s not meant as a cautionary tale.  We are not crusty-lipped addicts begging for change by the 7-11, but, admittedly, if I were J, I’d take a hint.  I’ve hardly been a teetotaling angel since then, but I do find myself toning it down as time goes on.


We must have been seventeen.  J’s two months older than I am, and he had been driving at least a year.  Like every other teenager in our small town, we had become habitual cruisers.  There was nothing else to do at night but drive around and listen to J’s tapes, which then consisted of T. Rex, Frank Zappa, whatever metalhead band was ruling the early 80s charts and J’s dad’s Lawrence Welk tape, for kicks.  J had a souped-up, silver 1976 Nova with tailpipes and shag seat covers.  To break up the monotony of cruising, we frequented a place called Holiday Lanes, a bowling alley with a large pool hall, where we got to be very good at the game.  (From what I’ve heard, Holiday Lanes is now a pierogie factory.)  (2014 Sidenote: pierogie factory, used-car lot, warehouse ... I don't even know what it is now, save I saw a farmer's market advertised for the parking lot space a few years ago.)

By seventeen, this got to be old hat for us.  I knew J was already going out to bush parties.  (Bush party:  drunken rural teenagers congregated in the woods for the purposes of swilling beer, abusing various illegal substances, and who knows, maybe even GETTING LAID, to the tune of Ted Nugent and Aerosmith.)  My next-door neighbor, Bobo, who was two years older than J and I, had taken to partying a lot with J, and I knew it was a matter of time before I got dragged along on one of these clandestine excursions into oblivion.

Sure enough, that summer was it.  Summer vacation:  the only teenage luxury.  I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have three comfortable months off.  There have been rare occasions as an adult when I’ve had three months off, but they tended to be angst-ridden periods of unemployment and eroding bank accounts.  As a teenager, I felt honored to be unemployed.  It was a good feeling while it lasted:  stay out all night, get up late, live like a low-budget rock star.

All I needed to complete my portrayal was a senseless episode of alcohol-induced self immobilization, and J was about to provide for that.  I can’t recall the exact circumstance, but J and Bobo took it upon themselves to take me out one night in June, just after my 17th birthday, and get me wasted.

I didn’t know what to expect.  One of my older brothers was famous for living it up in high school, but frankly, I was too young to tell when he was in this state and later found out that I liked him better wasted.  My father allowed no alcohol in the house, a rule I find myself keeping as an adult.  Once every few months, he’d go off to “pay his dues” at the local American Legion bar.  This meant he’d put on a collared shirt – a rarity – go out and get tipsy with fellow WW II vets, and come home an hour later looking loopy and relaxed.  It seemed to be a burden on him; I’ve never seen the man truly wasted.

I don’t know how most places in America are regarding underage drinking, but back then in small-town Pennsylvania, getting served in most bars was not too difficult for teenagers.  Yes, sometimes a kid would get carded, which simply meant he would leave.  Most likely, another bar would serve him with nary a wayward glance.

So this night was a double whammy:  getting drunk and in a bar.  I’ve since realized that drinking in a bar before 21 is an incredible adventure … that becomes pathetic once you can get in legally.  I think that initial thrill is what keeps many people coming back to the bar:  the promise of a wild night, getting out of one’s head, maybe running into someone like Cindy Crawford and getting laid, even though a simple motor function like standing at a urinal becomes a major feat of physical prowess.  As time goes on, the fantasy mellows into the hard reality of avoiding reality.

We picked a non-descript bar in a town about five miles from ours so no one would know who we were.  It was no problem getting served.  We must have looked exactly how we were:  three scared, nervous kids pretending to be older.  The first thing I noticed, after throwing down my first mouthful of Yuengling (pronounced ying-ling), the local beer on tap, was how awful it tasted.  I’d tasted beer before, but it was dawning on me that I’d have to drink a lot more than a mouthful tonight and somehow not make that squirrel face every time.  Like a woman with Tom Petty’s face and a great pair of breasts, beer has made its double-edged pleasures known to me, but it wasn’t love at first sight.

The game plan was to keep moving, one bar to another away from our home town, our own magical mystery tour.  We must have quietly sipped two beers a piece in that first bar – nothing untoward happened.  This being my first time, I didn’t know what would transpire and simply felt at ease with the world, which I should have taken as a sign that I was getting drunk, as the situation had my nerves jangled before sitting down at the bar.

We piled back into J’s Nova and started blasting Zappa’s Joe’s Garage.  We were carrying on like maniacs.  The simple act of getting served in a bar at our age was a triumph, like breaking into the bank of adulthood and stealing what really mattered.  Bobo broke out a bottle of Jack Daniels he had from somewhere.  We all took turns at it – and I thought beer was bad.  To this day, J.D., that Tennessee redneck, will beat my ass with a gravel-filled whiffleball bat.  Back then, it tasted like gasoline and made my eyes water.  After a game sip or two, I handed it back.

Round two:  same scene.  Just walk right in, sit right down, avoid eye contact, and order a Yuengling.  It worked again!  At this point, we started slipping into moods that, unknown to us then, were drinking roles we’d play to this day.  J:  vaguely angry, scathingly funny, but a little woozy, as if he might doze off before insulting you.  Bobo:  an instigator, fucking with people for no good reason, one moment enjoyable but a pain in the ass the next.  Me:  pensive, much more open than usual, slowing down everything around me to match my inebriated state of being.

It was around then I started noticing my vision getting blurry.  The edges were frayed.  It was as if the world were turning into a crappy high-school film projector, the sound of flickering celluloid and that gently flashing white light.  I’ve since seen this quality perfectly captured in the Vietnam Vet party scene in Scorcese’s Mean Streets, especially when Harvey Keitel tumbles to the floor.

Bored yet?  Well, we were too excited by the newness of it all to be bored that night, but it started hitting me that this was all it amounted to:  sitting down and drinking.  Maybe talking to the person next to you.  I could do this!  There was no great mystery, no “adult” requirement to it that we didn’t already possess.  Frankly, most of the adults around us were acting like slobbering idiots.  We fit right in.

Round three:  a little weak in the knees, but still standing.  Again, recollections are hazy, but I was still functioning.  Back into J’s Nova.  Some Sammy Hagar on the tape deck this time:  Three Lock Box.  Rock and roll!  Or a reasonable facsimile thereof!  Bobo passed back the J.D., and this time it went down easy, no sting at all.

Another town, another bar, another barstool, another Yuengling.  I wish I could pepper this story with interesting situations and wild Hunter S. Thompson style encounters with freaks and losers, but it wasn’t all that dramatic.  All the freaks and losers we were running into seemed fairly normal.  I was finding this adventure pleasantly smooth, like the cool, clean taste of Yuengling.

Round four:  it’s safe to say that I was completely trashed.  The last thing I remember telling J was, “My gums are going numb.”  After that, I don’t recall saying much of anything for the rest of the night.  It was also at this point where I first experienced what I can only call stop-time drinking.  I’ve felt this since, but only on a handful of occasions where the alcohol consumption was irrationally large for me. 

But stop-time drinking is when you’re so drunk that your mind starts working faster than your motor functions, and you have to wait for your body to catch up to your already-sluggish synapses.  This means that you sit there and watch yourself raise your hand to the glass, your glass in the air, move your arm back, aim the glass at your mouth, deposit the beer into your mouth, move your arm forward, place the glass on the table, pull your hand from the glass and sit there with a look on your face as if you’ve just invented fire.  It’s like an out-of-body experience where your soul forgets to leave your body, so you have to watch yourself from ground level.

I was there.  The vision was all blurry and colorful – Van Gogh was my optometrist.  Sounds started to disintegrate.  I could hear and was aware of them but did not respond.  Bobo would call out my name, and I would turn my head two minutes later as an after thought.  I didn’t focus on taste that first time out, but I would have eaten anything handed to me at that point:  a juicy steak, a shoe, a piece of dog shit in a hot dog bun.  And it wouldn’t have made any difference.  If a talking billy goat had sat down next to me, he would have said, “Shit, this kid is grossing even me out.  Bartender, a bowl of Yuengling and an old Campbell’s Soup can.”

Round five:  when the chickens came home to roost.  God only knows what J had on the tape deck this time around.  Bobo passed back the J.D., and I did my thing.  When I passed it back, he and J started laughing hysterically.  Apparently I had just guzzled half a bottle of Jack Daniels as if it were Kool Aid. 

I look back on this last bar the same way Napolean must have looked back on Waterloo.  It was my ignoble undoing.  I had the drill down at this point, but I still can’t imagine how any bartender in his or her right mind would have served us.  We were three hideously drunk teenagers, barely able to stand, blurry-eyed and slurring.  But we didn’t just get served:  the bartender hooked us up with a free pitcher of kamikazes.

For those unfamiliar with this acidic, sweet and highly-alcoholic beverage, a pitcher of kamikazes shared among three grown, sober men is enough to get all three highly inebriated.  The state we were in, it was like Dylan picking up an electric guitar in 1965.  Whatever world existed before this picture seemed tame and respectable compared to the depraved one we were entering.  We would have boo-ed ourselves, but were so drunk we couldn’t even say “boo.”

I remember needing assistance to walk to the men’s room – one of those electric Rascals I see old folks using would have been grand in this situation.  Bars should keep a Rascal in the corner for times like this, when one of their patrons has simply gone too far, which has happened nearly every time I’ve been in a bar.  The world was a kaleidoscope at this point.  Colors, sounds, smells, everything flashing around me like machine gunshots in some slow-motion war.  Getting this drunk is like crawling so far inside yourself that you feel as though you’re not just looking at the world outside – you’re looking at yourself outside.  You do not like or dislike what you see.  You do not feel happy or sad.  You just bob along like a corked bottle on the ocean, the note inside a blank page.

It was then I found I couldn’t walk.  I have only been this drunk one other time, my college graduation, a three-day bacchanalia of degradation and good times.  J and Bobo had to prop me up, like a wounded hero, and drag me out to the Nova.  The situation was so bad they put me in the shotgun seat that Bobo had been claiming all night.  The tape deck in J’s Nova had a small digital clock on its face. I remember putting one hand over an eye because I was seeing three or four clocks.  J told me that after a few minutes, I simply put both hands over my eyes, like the “see no evil” monkey and moaned, “I know what time it is, too late, too late,” over and over.
I don’t know how, but we made it back home.  Bobo lived next door to me.  He asked if I was all right.  I grunted.  He went into his house as J pulled away in the Nova.  I was standing in front of my house, about two in the morning, and even this far gone, I knew I couldn’t go home.  I had to get myself sober first, whatever it took.
So I walked.  My house was right by a schoolyard.  I walked up to the north side of the schoolyard, which bordered a cemetery and woods beyond that.  I sat down on some steps and tried to remember what I had for dinner.  I couldn’t, but that didn’t matter.  My mother’s spaghetti and beef sauce came flying out at this point, all over the steps.  A tear-jerking, rasping, gasping moan of a puke the likes of which I had never felt before.  Spaghetti was never meant to come out my nose – this I remember thinking as I watched it happen.
At this point, a car pulled up and stopped.  Someone inside said something to me.  I don’t know how I responded, but apparently I did.  The person said something again.  I responded again.  The car pulled away.  It might have been Jesus, the toughest guy in high school or Jacqueline Smith offering me head.  I didn’t know.  It didn’t matter.  I had a warmed-over pasta feast at my feet and a new lease on life.
As with all such violent regurgitations, the immediate feeling afterwards is sheer orgasmic bliss.  A great feeling.  I was still obscenely drunk, but I felt like I could at least walk now.  So I walked, with the attitude that if I roamed around the cemetery, which was on a steep hill, I could somehow get myself straight again.  The walk up the cemetery hill was tough, and I found myself breathing hard and sweating at the top.
The way down was worse.  I had little control over my legs and found myself breaking into a slow jog that turned into a reckless shamble by the hill's bottom.  I yelped as I ran, sure that I would tumble over a tombstone and crack my head open on a piece of cold, smooth marble.  The night went this way, slow strain followed by frenzied release.  I found myself memorizing the names on the tombstones, and feeling bad about the small stones with lambs and angels to signify the death of a child. 
After a bit, I sat down near my grandparents’ tombstone.  My grandfather, who worked at a coal mine, died before I was born, but my grandmother, a tough old Irish Catholic, died only a few weeks before, after a long fade from a stroke six years earlier.  I wiped the sweat from my brow with the American flag planted on my grandfather's grave, to honor his time spent in WW I.  I held my head against their cold stone.  My grandmother wouldn't have approved.  All I did was hold my head and think the clouded thoughts of a boy drunk and alone.  The slight clicking sound I was hearing in the dead of night was my grandparents turning over in their graves.
My head started spinning, and I threw up again, although not the Italian delight I had left on the schoolyard steps.  It seemed that I was covering all the points of my childhood with vomit, like a dog marking his territory.  With my hands, I shoveled some dirt over the mess and stood up strong for the first time in hours.  I headed back to the house, the sky still thankfully dark, and tip-toed to my room. 

Lying down was a major problem.  The first attempt made me violently ill, and I ran to the bathroom and vomited again.  I found myself pressing my face against cold objects, in this case, the comforting porcelain of the toilet, which felt so good against my hot skin.  The bathroom carpet under my legs felt as good a bed as any, and the short, blue shag tempted me greatly.  But I knew falling asleep on the bathroom floor wasn't right.  I got up and went back to my room, this time taking my clothes off because of the sudden cold sweats that soaked my shirt. 

I tried lying flat again, and this time threw up on myself.  By then, I was genuinely exhausted and decided to wipe myself down with my bed sheet and throw it on the floor.  I laid flat, finally, even with my bed seeming to move like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist.  After a few minutes, the spins passed and I fell asleep.

Looking back at each step of this night, I find myself wishing the story would have ended at each one, beginning with the first beer, and ending with the next morning.  In my drunken stupor, I had forgotten that my mother peeked into my room every morning to get the dirty laundry I had sitting by the door.

The morning after was no different.  At eight sharp, she poked her head inside my door.  Even drunk, I was a light sleeper, and the sound of the door knob turning woke me, although I kept my eyes shut.  I heard my mother let out a slight gasp, then a moment of silence, then the door quietly shut again.

The sun was out, and I raised myself on my elbows to see what she had seen.  I was naked, but had somehow managed to put my black Chuck E. Taylor high-tops back on.  My chest was covered with dried brown vomit, which I started scratching off, like a young snake shedding his skin.  My sheets were puke-streaked and balled up at the bottom of the bed.

Worst of all, and something I had no control over:  I had a raging hard-on, the likes of which I awoke to every morning as a teenager. 

That was a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy.  My mother had seen me naked with a full erection.

I decided that the world as I knew it had ended, and a new world fraught with all possibilities, good and bad, awaited.  My head was pounding, and I was still tipsy.  My mouth was dry, but I had no urge to drink.  My grandmother's religious lecture about the man in hell dying of thirst in a pool of cool water up to his chin came back clear as day. 

The total failure I felt made me fearless.  "What more could go wrong?" I asked myself as I slipped into my pajamas.  As I walked into the kitchen, my father took one look at me and burst out laughing, as did my mother, who was making scrambled eggs, the sight and smell of which made me gag.  My hair was plastered straight up, and my father said I was white as a sheet.  He was laughing.  And he clearly was laughing at, not with, me, because I didn't think I could ever laugh again. 

"Had a rough night?" my father asked as he wiped his face.

I groaned at him.  He started laughing again.  My mother, whom I found hard to face, shoveled the eggs onto her plate.

"Want some eggs?" she asked.  I shook my head and sat down at the far end of the table.  My father got up and drew me a glass of water from the tap.

"I'm still drunk, Dad," I said.

He just kept on laughing.

"I will never drink again," I lied.  My father couldn't stop laughing.  My mother was smiling all the while, too.

"You will, Bill, you will," my father said, "but if you're smart, and I know you are, you won’t forget this time."

He finished off his glass of water, patted my shoulder, then went out and mowed the lawn, far too early.  I think the lawn was his car stereo, and the sound of the mower was his rock and roll.  The whining of the motor ate into my skull.

My mother has never referred to that morning; I am a far more relaxed and grateful man for it.  The thoughts that must have went through her head as she saw me naked, puke-streaked and aroused would surely make a story far longer than this one, and I have neither the inclination nor right to tell it.