The Drinking Life

When your soul feels as cold as a frozen burrito in January

Work, Oscar Wilde claimed, is the curse of the drinking class. While that's admittedly a good line, it's not of course strictly true. Serious drinkers understand that when the calendar rolls beyond the holidays and into the bleak backstretch beyond the New Year, drinking is work (and curse) enough--and hard, damaging work at that. Winter is hell on drunks, and during those interminable months of wind chills, ice storms, and travel advisories, the Midwest is a horribly inhospitable place for an alcoholic. The charms of winter sports are utterly lost on the poor souls who can barely summon the energy to put on a change of clothes, let alone bundle themselves for the six-block morning stumble to Hum's for the daily supply of liquor.

Spring, summer, and fall are drinking's intramural leagues, purely recreational tune-ups for the real, punishing professional drinking season that pretty much commences in earnest with the dark onslaught of the fascist mind fuck that is the end of daylight savings. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, if the alcoholic gives thanks for anything at all, it's for the pathetic blessing of liquor delivery and the generosity of less desperate friends.

I don't miss my drinking days--I've been sober for 15 years--and have never felt much compelled to rehash the brutal stupor in which I spent so many years. It was a messy and humiliating way to live, and what memories I've managed to retain from that time of my life are mostly unpleasant. There's something about a Minnesota winter--everything, actually--that fails to lend itself to the tired romance of alcoholic dissipation. A productive wastrel like Charles Bukowski, for instance, had the decided advantage of spending his life in the more hospitable climes of California, and managed somehow to live to the very ripe old age of 74. I suspect that he might not have fared so well in the Midwest, where we don't have a particularly impressive track record for turning out successful alcoholics. We tend to make a rather different sort of contribution to all those myths of the tortured inebriate. Poet John Berryman jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in 1972. He was 58 years old, and it should come as no surprise that he chose the month of January for his suicide. Former Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson was 35 when he died alone in his apartment in February 1995.

James Dankert

The problem, of course, is that winter is isolating and boring, and when you combine torpor with alcohol, cold, and darkness, you have the makings of a particularly lethal cocktail. Granted, there are apparently plenty of hardy, well adjusted people out there for whom the winter is generally enjoyable and at worst a foolish test of character. We all know those masochistic "Is it cold enough for you?" types, and most of us hate them with a passion that borders on the homicidal. There are also the snowmobile and ice fishing folks, who at least manage to combine some sort of proactive--if stupefying and wholly inexplicable--recreation with their drinking. And then there are the rest of us, who spend January through April trapped in an emotional gulag--Siberia, essentially, without the diversion of forced labor. T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, but he obviously never lived in Minnesota in the winter without a car. He obviously never lived in Minnesota with a car. He obviously never lived in Minnesota, period. Because from where I sit, and from where I sat slumped for years bundled in a blanket and seeking oblivion and pissing into a bottle because I was too drunk and lazy to make the trek downstairs to the bathroom, April is the dim light at the end of the long dark tunnel.

I'm afraid that I don't have a whole lot in the way of amusing anecdotes from my days as a miserable attic wretch and drunk. I did once spend a wholly insensate night on the Astroturf fairway of a mini golf course in the Wisconsin Dells, and was awakened by a father and son who were gazing with undisguised disgust upon the hungover spectacle splayed before them. The father, I vaguely recall, provided his son with a personally humbling yet morally instructive critique of my debauchery before leading the boy away to the swimming pool. Given enough distance from this episode, I suppose I could laugh at the foolishness of my misspent youth--although, actually, I was well into my twenties at the time, so it's probably not all that funny. I can also be grateful that this incident occurred during the summer months, when such behavior could be merely humiliating. If I had passed out in such a public place in the middle of winter--which was often a real enough possibility in those days--I could easily have frozen to death.

Miserable as I may well have been, I was nonetheless not much interested in freezing to death, and something in me continued to find the idea of public humiliation distasteful. I suppose it was encouraging that there were still a few beleaguered remnants of common sense and dignity stashed away in closets somewhere in the back of my brain. At any rate, the fear of just such a calamity was what kept me indoors for most of the winter during the latter years of my drinking career, hunkered down like a groundhog and hoping that one day I'd emerge from the darkness of my hole and see a shadow that confirmed the reality of my existence, if only to myself.

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