The Drinking Life

James Dankert

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.

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.

I'm fully aware that blaming winter for the daze in which I spent so many wholly unproductive years is something of a cop-out. Alcoholics famously prop up their misery with excuses and justifications of every imaginable kind, and Lord knows I had plenty of them myself. Like a lot of other alcoholics I was slavishly devoted to dysfunction and despair, and I was lonely and self-conscious. I was also--of course, I suppose--drunk and full of shit. Yet, all of these traits were indeed aggravated during the winter months, when the simplest routines of daily life taxed my already depleted stores of ambition. I embraced poverty, purely out of laziness. I seldom had a car, or if I did it wouldn't start. All shopping--never truer than in the careful consideration of liquor options--was reduced to the sad, basic formula of the biggest bang for the buck; a ratio that was unscientific purely out of ignorance, but which in the case of alcohol purchases could be boiled down to a simple enough equation whose only variables were volume, price, and proof. Biggest, cheapest, strongest: the basic math of the desperate and impoverished alcoholic.

It was too much work and bother to schlep my clothes to the laundry, a laziness that went hand in hand with my increasing indifference to hygiene. That's sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario, I suppose. Eating, even, was too much work, and whatever food I did rustle up generally came from a convenience store and involved nothing in the way of preparation beyond opening a bag or a can and possibly, if I was feeling particularly ambitious, shoving something in the microwave oven.

I ate a lot of microwave burritos in those days. They were 59 cents, I remember, and were doubtless loaded with nutrition.

At this point a reasonable person might wonder: Didn't I work? Yes, I suppose I did, although I don't remember much about that, to be honest with you. I did some little something, the littlest possible of somethings. Parking lots, mall retail, a warehouse job. I always did just barely enough, and was always just barely able. If I had a credo, or anything resembling a self-image in those days, it could be boiled down to those words: barely enough and barely able.

And all of it, every single cold day muddled through, was just barely bearable. Mostly now I remember how the wobbling planet that was my brain would spin into six months of permanent darkness, and I'd flood it with a depressive ocean of liquor until it floated at the top of my skull like a black bobber. Nothing really happened. When I moved I was barely moving, inching my way through thick fog, feeling my way by blind memory through a dark house. I'd sit up listening to the hum of the furnace and the wind in the walls. The long nights crept along in a confused, vacuum silence, and the winters passed in a sort of empirical whiteout. I drank myself further and further into a tunnel that went straight down. I drank until my head was gurgling like an old percolator, and in the middle of the night I would feel like I was trapped in a doomed submarine that was slowly taking on water.

You get the idea. I drank and I drank and I drank, as we used to joke in treatment. It's a gloriously romantic life, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

I used to know a pathetic alcoholic who would stagger around and repeatedly bellow, "Coal miner!" every time he got drunk. It was always amusing theater, and passed for some version of charming tradition in the life I was then leading. As I was generally almost as drunk as this guy was, I wasn't in any condition to recognize that even in his stupor his bogged brain was still somehow, amazingly, capable of stumbling across a perfect metaphor for the shared disaster that was then our lives.  

And now, with winter coming on, I have nothing but sympathy for all the sad characters who are girding themselves for the long, drunken belly crawl through the darkness.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >