Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When I drink alone I prefer to be by myself.


I will say (I say it often, actually) my drinking did, in fact, disturb me. I was ambivalent about quitting. I lacked drive. It is hard to know whether mine is an addiction or a weak moral will. When I left Chicago, it was on a clear, sixty-five degree morning in late July. I asked the valet who delivered my car if the beautiful weather was typical. He took the dollar from my hand, flicked his cigarette to the pavement, and snickered.

Night before last I’d arrived in Ohio, a Howard Johnsons just east of Indiana. Conveniently, it had a little lounge attached, a dank hovel with a medium length bar and six or seven candle lit tables, a few cheesey looking cushioned chairs scattered around. Three or four people sat at the bar. The once red carpet had by now been so worn and soiled it appeared in every way more like a dark, odious sponge tacked to the floor.

I was swigging my second long-neck when four skells I’d seen earlier came through the door. I’d noticed them unloading their truck as I entered my room. They must have arrived about the same time I did. Wearing flannel and leather, bearded and loud, they now found a spot at the end of the bar. No one but me seemed bothered.

I wanted to sit quietly. I simply wanted to hear the songs I’d played. Taking my beer, I moved to a dimly lit table in a
corner near the jukebox. The red-orange chair I’d squeezed my butt into hobbled on uneven legs. I tried hard to block out their agitating voices, but the four cretins at the end of the bar were so voluble that others had to talk over them to be heard. The song playing softly was barely audible then and something ugly was growing inside of me. I cranked down another gulp. I sneered at the four assholes intruding on my space. Something about them triggered aggressive and angry impulses. My reaction felt territorial. I swashed down the rest of my beer.

The song I had been trying to hear was playing softly, woodwinds and strings, Saxon, folksy, something John Barleycorn. The loud, gruff stupidities rising from the end of the bar, the music overrun and barely audible, I grew angrier, fidgeted, stared. Then it dawned on me, a peculiar self-revelation. Maybe the music got into me, entered in a way that smoothed over my discomfort. Or maybe it was that I knew, if confronted, those four mutts would take turns kicking my sorry behind around the parking lot out back.

Whatever the cause, it was a stark moment of clarity that amounted to this: they were not the source of my agitation. Whatever was going on, this was all about me. My discomfort had something to do with the very fact that I was here. That I was drinking when I knew (even now I want to take that word back, replace it another like “suspected” or “believed”) but yes, I knew I should not be drinking. I also knew that if one of those gorillas caught me eyeing them, there might be an unpleasant price to pay. I did not always get in trouble when I drank, but whenever I did find trouble, I’d usually been drinking. I had no intention of getting my ass handed to me by four local rabble-rousers outside some two-bit Ohio lounge. So I set the bottle on the table and returned to my room, a little sad, a little lonely, dreamless, yes, but none the worse for drunken impulsivity.

The next evening I landed, still in one piece, in downtown Chicago. The only room I could find was at the Hilton. “Probably the last room in town,” the clerk informed me. By the looks of things, she had spoken true. Two other less expensive hotels I’d stopped at had been all booked up. The Hilton’s lobby was packed with conventioneers (a medical convention I’d later learn). I took the room. Once settled, I saw it was nearly time for dinner. I determined first to go for a walk, look around a little, and see where my travels might take me.

I’d heard Chicago was a lot like New York. It’s not. That’s not to say that my discovery of a nearby park fronting horizonless Lake Michigan was not captivating. Certainly, it was very inviting with couples walking and joggers passing by, children playing everywhere. But when I made my way back into the city all I discovered there were depressed little streets and generally poor quarters, empty storefronts, brick walkups, an occasional wine store, auto-body shop, or Chinese takeout. Not far from my hotel I spotted a little watering hole whose signage carried a name I knew. I’d been listening to Buddy Guy in my car, on and off, since I’d left Jersey. It was his name I saw above the entrance. Three times I walked past before deciding to head on in.

I couldn’t believe the luck—Buddy Guy’s Blues Club! When I had first seen it I thought it was a gimmick, that his name had been used only as a draw. As things turned out, he really did own the place. Legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy. Framed pictures and concert posters, a souvenir vendor selling novelities and t-shirts bore witness, as did other memorabilia, guitars the color of “cherry-wine” and gold records plastered all around.

I took a table situated before a well-lit stage where a little blues ensemble, a southern band, was playing, not too raucous, almost gently, brushed symbols and a slide guitar with bass. A waitress approached. Despite my Ohio moment of clarity, I remained incapable of reconciling my presence there in Buddy Guy’s with the thought of a diet cola. I ordered a bucket of frogs-legs and a brown ale.

Several brown ales later, I was feeling light. I paid my bill and left. That I’d entertained the possibility he, Buddy Guy, might be hanging around shaking hands, signing autographs, maybe even playing a set made me feel a little foolish when I considered it. I wouldn’t be hanging around there if I didn’t need to either, if I had someplace better to be. I stepped into a wine store, picked up a decent pinot noir and a corkscrew.

Back in my room I felt tired. I was sweating. The light stabbed at my eyes. They felt wooden and heavily drawn. I felt their weight settled just beneath my brow and distributing itself in a tight pattern along the flinty scar-line just under the skin. I dimmed the light, drew the cork from the bottle, and poured some wine into a plastic cup. I prayed some words. I paced. I drank myself to sleep.

Now it was Sunday, and I was pulling out of the parking lot. By evening I would arrive in Ellenville, Iowa. I debated whether I would drink there. I should not. A voice on the radio revealed that the unusually cool weather would end by mid-afternoon. I saw the valet snicker in my mind and rolled the window down. A wall of red tail lights glared at me. I rolled along in slow city traffic, popped in a Buddy Guy CD, and settled in for another long traveling day.

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