6 – Get Me out of these Seatbelts

I skulked home to New Jersey and did more consuming of guilt than beer. I mowed lawns, tried caddying at the country club, all the while plotting to get out of the house, but I was stuck upstairs. My parents found me mystifying and infuriating. After one of our brief, interminable dinners, the three of us at cardinal points of the dining table picking at casserole, my father announced that he and I would take a drive. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled the car to the side of the road, and, in the phosphorescent gloom, we had the talk. What did I want? What did I think my strong points were? Did I think I had a ‘problem’? How could he help? This called for powers of self-assessment I didn’t have or want. My heart pounded. Where were my cigarettes? I hated everything.

A good-paying job with a liquor importer and distributor fell into my lap. I commuted to the Park Avenue headquarters where I served as a factotum. The most onerous thing I had to do was wear a Mr. Peanut costume at the Christmas party to celebrate the company’s acquisition by a huge snack food conglomerate, a case of the hors d’oeuvre consuming the cocktail. That spring, the Teamsters went on strike, shutting down the Jersey warehouse operation, so it was up to us white-collar guys to keep the operation flowing. I rode shotgun in a panel truck, delivering cases of liquor throughout New York City. We made all the stops, from the spotless loading dock at the Waldorf-Astoria to the plexiglass-reinforced liquor stores of Spanish Harlem. Other times, I worked fulfillment, packing orders in the warehouse, loading trucks and boxcars.

One special day, I helped make a batch of gin. In the recesses of the warehouse, the old still occupied its own room, which it seemed to have completely outgrown, as if it were a monster adopted when it was cute and only the size of a tuba. Crowning the great, copper boiler, like an upturned umbrella of gold, was the alembic for the juniper berries, orange peel, ginger, and other spices. From this gleaming hopper, helixes of copper piping sprouted and spun, looping down into the receiving vat. Grain alcohol percolated in the boiler, sending vapors through the botanicals and up into the piping, where it condensed, and out poured mother’s milk.

 

I told everyone I was saving my money so I could return to college and finish my degree. I reapplied and was accepted, but, in truth, all I wanted was to go back and finish my drinking. Under my parents’ roof, I certainly couldn’t drink the way I was used to. Taking occasional long weekends to go get fucked up with my friends didn’t fill the need. Sleeping in my childhood bedroom was taking a toll. Self-restraint imposed by circumstance was one of those ‘sounds right’ sobering-up techniques that drunks use all the time when contriving to bring calamity down around their heads.

One spring night, I went to local bar to have a friendly beer with a friend of a friend, and when he didn’t show, I let it rip. Six, seven, eight shots, chased by a Bud or three. I swallowed the last of my beer, pushed back from the bar, and fumbled toward the bathroom. When I returned, my stool had been taken. The bartender shrugged. I could make an issue. Fuck it. I left.

My better angels told me how very fried I was; so, taking precautions, I cinched myself into the seatbelts and aimed the Barracuda up the middle of the road. If I kept my foot off the accelerator, I could exploit the forward momentum provided by the idling engine, while focusing all my efforts on navigation. If I shut one eye, I could make the white line behave. I rolled along deep in thought, until I heard a knock on the window. Applying the brake, I swung my gaze to the left.

“Can I see your license and registration?”

“Oh. Yeah. Um. Sure, Officer. Yes. First, let me get out of these seatbelts.”

After a struggle with the buckle –

“Step out of the vehicle, sir.”

I had been arrested for drunk driving by an officer on foot. Apparently, I was tracking past the police station at considerably less than five miles an hour. My license was suspended for six months.

The State of New Jersey insisted on educating me about the consequences of mixing booze with cars. I had to attend a series of classes at Bergen Pines, a mental hospital in the next town over. It dominated the suburban plain like an emerald city made of ochre bricks. You could see it for miles; thank goodness. I hitchhiked and walked the distance there and back. They lectured us on the alcohol-related automotive tragedies and showed movies featuring the Jaws of Life. Somehow, I have no recollection of mandatory AA meetings. The experience was gruesome and quickly forgotten; another reason to get the hell out of the Garden State.

 

With all the cunning at my command I kept my back-to-school balls in the air. It involved an exhausting and preposterous excuse-and-promise pantomime. I made lists and solemn vows, waving my hands through the air for good measure. My enthusiasm was pretty convincing and I believed it myself. “It’ll be a good thing, not having a car. I’ll stay out of trouble, because I won’t be able to leave campus.” I would find a nice, quiet dorm and walk everywhere.

As soon as of my folks’ taillights winked out over the horizon, I exhaled and hitchhiked down to The Roc.

The less said about the subsequent year the better. Nothing was the same. There really wasn’t much difference between misery in the dorm and misery in New Jersey, except for the depth of field and the volume of distractions. I was simply there to drink. I sagged into a self-fulfilling prophecy depression. Yes, I was too fucked up. There could be no concentrating on anything like schoolwork, so I loaded up on Lit. courses to keep the academic pressure on.

My classmates were long gone, taking with them my social context, my reputation, and my sense of humor. People didn’t seem to like me much; consequently, I drank in my room, even when I got my car back. Winter lasted forever. I always kept a six-pack of bottled beer outside my window, where it froze and thawed and froze again, losing all flavor and carbonation. The perfect loser’s beverage.

My city connections enabled me to score some excellent pot, which scored me temporary campus cred, especially with the stingy, late-night, pothead crowd. I didn’t consider this to be dealing: I was acting as a host. Many nights I got high by myself, cueing up classical LPs on the turntable – the 2001 soundtrack, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Rite of Spring. The pounding of Stravinsky at three o’clock in the morning brought down the wrath of the other guys on the corridor, as opposed to blasting The Who’s Live at Leeds, which could be slept through effortlessly.

Finally, I closed the book on the protracted academic farce, let the school year end with a whimper, and got my ass back to New Jersey.

 

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