by Joe Bonomo
Crossing First Avenue in lower Manhattan I hear over my shoulder a wheezy voice long associated with the Bowery. “Hey you. Ya ever been married? You?”
I turned. “Oh. Yeah. I am. Happily.”
“Nah. Not me. Never. You’ll never see me tied down!”
With that he eased himself across Fifth Street with a gait resembling a careful child on his first bicycle. Tempered, quasi-confident, scared to death. In the few moments I saw his face, all that registered were the clichés of a drunk: the bulbous, mottled red nose; craggy, deep-set lines; watery, vacant eyes.
Like many of us, I’m rarely as pleased as when a second drink has been placed before me.
Here’s a dream: I wake up bathed in vulgar red light, stretched out on a narrow bench in the back room of The Union, my favorite bar in Athens, Ohio. Rather than feel dissolute, or depraved, or hungover, I’m warmed and cocooned, content. There is no back room with a bench in this bar, at least that I’ve seen. In the dream I awake blessed in the clearly identifiable mood of being placed, rooted, surrounded in the air by comfort and safety. I’m in a bar in a dream and I’m home.
I stand across the street and watch as Kevin skulks down Union Street, ducks into the smokes shop to grab a newspaper, and disappears into the Union. It’s noon, or earlier, maybe it’s eleven. He is walking, then he vanishes into the lunch gloom of the bar. I want to follow him in, to begin the slow, glad dissolve of an afternoon, to welcome the warm, gold mirage, but I have somewhere more important to go. I stand on the street for a minute, feeling vaguely dumb, watching the door. In retrospect, I was a cousin to Paul in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” who wanted to be involved in the theatre in some urgent but undefined way and after a performance followed the singer to her hotel where he simply stood, across the street, and watched her go in and then imagined what her room was like, how it was appointed, the splendors behind closed doors, the riches bestowed upon a star. I’m standing and watching, too, as a local drunk-star walks his beat.
And I’m wondering, poised between theory and practice. It’s a useless place, in many ways. I tend to romanticize from theoretical positions, a dangerous and solipsistic behavior. In the Old French, romanz meant a verse narrative, a story told of love affairs. By the mid-seventeenth century, the word romance came to mean, in literary terms, “characteristic of an ideal love affair.” My love affair with drinking was consummated mutely, without the passion and totality that I craved. Most people regret having not attempted something grand—do I regret not being a barfly? The question feels silly as I write it, and yet the question lingers. Had I a doppelganger on friendly terms, I might have struck a bargain: you go into that bar and drink yourself into oblivion; I’ll go the other way; we’ll meet up. One night—we’d been drinking—Amy and I talked about trying a kind of liquored-up immersion journalism, dropping out of the academic life, hitting the road, finding a comfortable saloon, and becoming committed, open-to-last-call barflies for a year or so; our angle was to write about the experience, burdened as we were with the pressure (and the desire) to find a marketable book idea. Soon enough Amy demurred out of fear that a year of hard drinking might re-wire her body toward full-on alcoholism. Fair enough. I didn’t give in so easily.
Romance, early beers, early clichés. Cheap Red White And Blue beers in rural Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. My friend Marty’s uncle’s family owned Genesar, a small brick home built in the eighteenth century, and acres of surrounding farmland buttressing the bay. The house had been added to the National Register of Historic Places fifteen years before Marty and I arrived in a beat-up/patched-together ’66 Travelall, giggling on our way to spending a week on the beach at Assateague State Park, near Ocean City. We camped for the night and plugged in to the ageless and heady vibe of the land. Early beers: the horizon lengthening, softening toward dark sweetness; the buzz of cicadas tuned to a new key singing songs of dusk landscapes that I knew the words to; strangers-now-friends leaping from corners, or materializing next to you, magically; tunes from the boom box duetting with breezes over corn and bean fields, the far-near Atlantic Ocean. I was 17 or 18. I remember this night as an especially wonderful night of drinking . . . what followed were years of ebb and flow between reason and excess, between logically counting the plastic cups in my hand at the bar and waking up afraid to look in my wallet, between not tonight and not enough, between chasing beers with water like clockwork and tumbling down the stairs.
When I was twenty-two I was arrested for drunk driving in Washington D.C. Marty and I’d pulled out of a pizza place in Adams Morgan and I’d neglected to turn on the headlights; a few minutes later the Park Police pulled me over. Is this luck, I asked myself when the first breathalyzer didn’t operate properly and I was driven to a park sub-station across the Anacostia River to try and blow again. By this time my blood-alcohol levels were lower, and I was arraigned on a lesser DUI. My car sat forlorn in the park overnight, a red ribbon of ignominy hanging from the front door. After a visit to the D.C. courts I opted to enter a diversion program that would expunge my record. I was deeply embarrassed, and wanted a kind of civic cloth to wipe it all away. I’d been arrested in December; in January I was back at graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, where I’d been living at the Union Bar from Thursday to Sunday. I was required to make weekly visits for one month with a university-appointed drug and alcohol counselor, a large man with an open, pleasant face who seemed to regard me, professionally and politely, as the obligation I was. He swiftly administered an alcoholic diagnostic test (I passed) and suggested that for the duration of our sessions I cease drinking. I of course agreed, though I found the prospect galling: I was in grad school with a growing troop of drinking buddies, living in a small town with an absurdly high bar-per-capita ratio. For a month I drank ice water standing next to juke boxes, pool tables, and pinball machines, and drank tea and Coke at home, and awoke clear-headed.
The sessions with my counselor continued unremarkably. Within a few sessions he’d decided that I wasn’t a problem drinker, that I’d been reckless and stupid; I’d fucked up and was now paying for it. We discussed addictions, social drinking, pressures of all sorts. Eventually he had his feet up on the desk and we were laughing about other things, sports, living in Appalachia. He is an alcoholic, and like many who’ve quit drinking has applied his new-found energies not only to staying sober but to help others stay sober, and what stuck with me was a story he told me early in our sessions. His low-point as an addict—which he related to me with an effective blend of fire-and-brimstone and contrition—came on a blizzardy night. He found himself desperate and out of his mind in a strange town, running without shoes for miles to the nearest liquor store, bounding through snow drifts risking frostbite and worse to get to a bottle. His long climb out of this hole, he told me, had been arduous and painful, the place where he now stood sorely welcome.
Though the image of my counselor in the snow, lunging against health and reason, was vivid, I resumed social drinking as soon as I could, balancing his addiction woes against my internal rudder. Parties, bars, home, years. My worst hangover came nearly a decade ago in Manhattan; I was drinking at the International on First Avenue with Bill Millhizer of the Fleshtones, and the bartender was pouring four-fingers of Wild Turkey, on the house; hours later Bill and I ended up around the corner at the Grassroots Tavern on St. Mark’s Place. I remember that we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish the last pitcher of beer, I remember weaving as I stood outside on the street—I don’t remember making it from the East Village to the subway at 14th Street to Brooklyn, where I was staying at the YMCA in Greenpoint. I was sick in my room, and woke up the next morning in misery, an axe in my head, feeling dissolute, steeped in remorse, gagging toward a day and night of holding down little more than water and toast. I was in my mid-thirties, and I resolved never to drink to such excess again.
I’m curious and a little embarrassed by way the hardcore miseries of my experience are deflected away by the tendency to romanticize bars and heavy drinking. Note my passive voice. I’m doing the sentimentalizing here. My counselor’s tale of desperate addiction is only one of many, and I’ve seen enough depravity and self-indulgence, misery and self-deception in my decades in the bars, and among some of my unfortunate friends and acquaintances, to recognize that a barfly’s life is vexed, unhappy, and sad, nothing to preciously elevate. There’s a nice-looking dive bar near the intersection of Belmont and Clark, in Chicago. Every time Amy and I drive by I say, I’d like to go in there. I haven’t yet. I think I’d rather be on the outside looking in, setting the scene, emotionally sloppy on my own movie set, buffing my slumming credentials. Perhaps I have to accept an aspect of myself that is childish. I should just name it: my name is Joe, I’m an addict, and I’m addicted to romancing debauchery.
I’d like to think that I’m in recovery, but I’m not so sure. Addiction to romanticizing, addiction to sentimentalizing, can be dangerous lifetime habits. As an addict is wary of his next sip, her next pain pill, so am I wary of the next indulgent slip into idealizing, because it could be fatal to what I might call the Mature Life. While an addiction to romancing debauchery is certainly better for my physical and mental health than actual debauchery, it poisons in a different way: I can place a dive bar on a pedestal high enough that all I really see is its appealing shape, its blurring borders in Ideal Land, the pretty wink of neon signs. Romanticizing a bar is like falling for the Platonic promise of model homes at new housing developments, or the house façades on a movie set. The crisp front walk and neat green hedges, the clean white paint and trim, the shimmering bay windows present the family within as cast by Woods-Were-Once-Here Corporation. When we walk into a stranger’s home we know the odd smells and psychological histories, the muttering corners and emotionally weighted heirlooms, actual realities, the flawed families inside not reading from scripts, but improvising daily.
In Manhattan over several summers I’d embark on dive bar crawls, hitting Rudy’s, Siberia, and Bellevue near Port Authority and fading Times Square, and Mars Bar, Mona’s, and Sophie’s, among many others, in the East Village. Only Mona’s took; I still drop in to this dark, comfortable hole when I’m in the city. Some of the other bars felt to me like anthropological sites, environments where I could enjoy myself, certainly, but where I didn’t really belong, not because I didn’t live in the city, or because the prospect of an afternoon bender isn’t appealing to me, or because I’m frightened of the unhappiness that drifts over me at certain joints after a couple hours, or because I can’t humanely imagine the desire to drink oneself into oblivion and erase what needs erasing. In the imagination it’s easier to mitigate the addictions of men and women who don’t have the luxury of pretending that to dissolve, to vanish, to crumble is romantic. Living too long in the imagination is tempting, and dangerous—I remove myself from tangible reality and create a false comfort. My drift toward romance and sentimentality is analogous to addiction as it divorces me from the world, creates a reality in the mind that’s always hospitable, always heartening, never too dark to acknowledge, where the story ends before the sad denouement. Perhaps writing “sad denouement” is too tender a way to describe the brutal reality of some addicts. This is part of my problem. Like all addictions, mine tells lies.