Committing to Drink

When your editor asked me to contribute to Drunk & Unemployed, I wasn’t sure I had anything relevant to offer. Though the tone of DnU is carefree, its devotion to the grain and grape is serious, even studious. Wines, spirits and brews are examined with rabbinical care, and their properties noted as a poet might delineate the properties of some magnificent bird or tree, or a scientist some new industrial plastic.

Conversely, my experience with alcohol has mostly involved getting drunk on it. Don’t get me wrong: I can taste the stuff, and even appreciate somewhat its finer qualities. If a person has any aesthetic sense at all, it’s going to spill over to food and drink whether he works at it or not. So I pick wine to go with what I’m having for dinner. But when I’ve finished dinner I’ll generally keep drinking the wine ’til it’s gone, and then see what’s left in the fridge or at the bodega.

So what could a slob like me, who drinks for the effect rather than the affect, possibly have to say to you good people whose drinking is sophisticated, who can discern notes and noses, and for whom the provenance and processes of your bev are more important than the quantity?

Well, I came up with something. Forgive me if I presume, but I think we have something in common: We drink. And, while at your tastings, you may swish and spit, I assume elsewhere you swallow, and probably more than do most people who are not experts in the field. I wouldn’t compare your drinking with mine—that would be slanderous. But I will say that I’ve seldom met an art connoisseur who had a hard limit on the number of paintings he would view, a sensualist who allowed himself only so much physical pleasure and then no more, or a bon vivant who locked the liquor cabinet after the first round.

In short, many of you are probably as serious about drinking as about drink. On that head, I do have something to say. I’ve been at the game for decades, and have figured some angles on drinking at the expert level, which, while they do not take all the sting out of hangovers and morning-after recriminations, can at least make the tippler’s life more manageable.

To follow are four good basic rules for the serious drinker. Younger readers may wish to learn them; experienced readers may wish to compare notes. And if you believe none of this applies to you, well, enjoy yourselves, because you are in the comfortable position of applying the situations described here to the sad condition of others, which is always a pleasure.

1. Clear the decks.

“Let a man drink ten barrels of rum a day,” says Captain Shotover in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, “he is not a drunken skipper until he is a drifting skipper.” Shotover, that hardy salt, could indeed navigate well enough on ten barrels, but like all Shavian heroes, he is exceptional, not to mention fictional. No man living has that kind of fortitude. But when we’re drinking, we may imagine we do.

And sometimes we’ll be right. I’ve seen drunks leap hedges, declaim poetry, and fist-fight better than they ever could have done sober. But I’ve also seen them break their legs, forget the words, and get their asses kicked. Alcohol disinhibits, which can make us momentarily awesome, but it also depresses motor function and spatial, moral, and gyroscopic judgement. So while in short bursts, and with muscle memory cooperating, it can be a blessing, mostly it will just get in the way, sometimes disastrously.

Now, some supermen can do a lot of things very well when drunk—and these get into the worst trouble of all. We hear so often about poor teenagers who get drunk at the prom and crack up their cars that we forget the greater menace is the guy who has driven drunk a thousand times, no problem, and whose number—and that of his victims—finally came up.

So when you’re going to drink, make a safe space for it. Lay out your logistics for the evening so that you won’t be obliged to perform any physical activity that can go badly wrong.

Absent yourself from driving, of course, but also from cutting meat; pouring hot beverages; taking a luxurious, hot, sleep-inducing bath; taking books off a high shelf; anything involving bats, clubs, or prongs; etc. If you’ve lost your keys, call a friend instead of trying to climb into the third-story window.

Dancing’s fine, great in fact, unless it’s onstage, because then you might fall into the orchestra pit. Singing, mandatory if it’s karaoke or you’re Shane MacGowan; otherwise just make sure no cameras are rolling.

2. Don’t make plans.

Ah, arrangements made over drinks! It sounds so plummy and civilized.

Don’t do it. Do not commit to any course of action, no matter how minor nor even jokingly, when you’re drinking.

One day, years ago, I was practicing with my band when an unexpected knock came at the door of our rehearsal space. It was a friend I’d seen at a party days earlier. He was carrying his saxophone. I had invited him to play with us. I certainly didn’t remember having done so, though I had apparently been specific enough to give him the proper time to call, and none of my bandmates had been let in on it, either. It made things very awkward.

It’s still not as bad as “But you said you loved me!” but if you don’t make and follow this rule, it will inevitably come to that.

(You may wonder: “How will I remember this when I’m drunk?” The same way you remember to perform any other action that you know you’ll be tempted to avoid—by making a policy of it. If you make a policy of exercising every morning, you may not always do it, but you certainly won’t forget that you’re supposed to do it. Same with drinking rules. They have the force of moral law, and even when pissed you will feel the weight of its hand upon you.)

3. Don’t drink to forget.

The guys at AA are bores but they know a lot about drinking, and one of their best sayings is: No matter how bad the situation, alcohol can always make it worse.

Drinkers and non-drinkers alike tend to accept the drunken binge after a romantic disappointment as cathartic, even therapeutic. Even the oft-concomitant puking is humorously appreciated as part of getting that man/woman/sadness out of one’s system.

But I’ve come to realize that getting drunk doesn’t actually fix anything except sobriety. Not bad jobs, not bad luck, and certainly not bad love.

People in distress drink reflexively to put away pain. In fact, the hangover is actually a desirable part of the experience, as it lengthens the distraction from pain. (I’m half convinced that many of us drink at least in part and subconsciously for the hangover, because it emulates the numbness of drunkenness, but uncomfortably rather than pleasurably, which may suit our Puritan conditioning.)

Alas, both experience and observation have taught me that, unlike other painkillers, drinking delays emotional pain instead of killing it. It may seem to kill it, because the sufferer becomes quieter about his pain afterwards. And no wonder: To be driven to drink is humiliating. So the sufferer will recoil at the sodden mess his sorrow made of him, and his friends will accept that the ritual has exorcised his pain. Thereafter he will not cry in his beer, but in his room, alone.

So let your mind and soul produce without assistance those awful, gut-ripping convulsions that distinguish heartbreak, and just get it over with. When you can again smell the flowers, feel the sun on your cheek, and thrill to children’s laughter, that’s the time to refill your glass.

4. Don’t kid yourself.

Drinking is awfully romantic. It has inspired more poetry than any woman this side of Dante’s Beatrice (probably because poets tend to be relationship-averse). Be drunken continually, drink to me only with thine eyes, jolly good ale and old, and all that. The poets themselves (and the novelists, and the musicians, etc) are even allowed, in fact encouraged, to be drunks.

Why? For one thing, because it’s tradition. Those murals of famous writers at Barnes & Noble, where they’re sitting around having tea and coffee? Everyone knows that’s bullshit. Look who’s up there: Poe, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. In reality they would all have been down the block at a Blarney Stone, trying to convince the bartender to give them a tab, or to trade drinks for review copies.

But also it’s because habitual drinking is associated in the popular imagination with genius. Anyone can be transformed by love, or filled with the holy spirit, but few of us can keep it up for long; that kind of genius comes and goes. The singer/songwriter, however, can get shitfaced every day and even for performances, which some people get a big kick out of. (You saw that Replacements show? They were so wasted!) And they can get away with it, unlike a drunk accountant or dentist.

If you aren’t an artist, intoxication can make you feel like one—kind of like Rock Band makes non-musicians feel like Jimi Hendrix or Johnny Ramone. It’s genius in a bottle, relatively cheap.

On top of that romance, there’s the romance of things that fade away. Man’s love affair with alcohol is ancient and deep-rooted but, here in America at least, it’s begun to succumb to the same hectoring that is scrubbing away all our other vices. As the world gets punier and stupider, it also becomes more temperance-minded.

For some the romance of drink serves as an entree to serious drinking, and then for sticking with it when their friends have more or less given it up, come what may.

This is an understandable and, in a way, noble reaction. But it is vanity. There is only one reason to keep drinking: Because it feels good. It feels better, in fact, than a untaxed liver and an unenlarged heart. It feels better than clear-eyed mornings and restful nights. It feels better than the quiet of a home in which the old lady is not nagging you about your drinking. And it is more reliable than friends or family.

If you can face that, without romantic mists to cloud the cold reality, then you are going about the business the right way. Bottoms up!


Roy Edroso maintains the website alicublog, and has written for the Village Voice, Esquire, Salon, AlterNet, and others. He lives in Brooklyn.