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Monday, February 2, 2009

The Ligher Side of Alcoholism


I get so self-righteous these days about drug and alcohol related scandals. Michel Phelps, sucking on a bong: a disgrace! Drunk drivers free to roam after a second DUI: they should have their legs cut off at the knees so they can’t drive!

I wasn’t always like this. In fact, I was quite the anti-prohibitionist in my youth. I started stealing bourbon from my mother when I was fourteen, although “stealing” is not really the right word. Better ones would be “helping myself.”

My mother frequently left me alone on weekends, beginning when I was thirteen or so. She was dating, and later married a man who had a home in the middle of the state, an hour’s drive away. They had bought a ramshackle house on a lake and spent their weekends trying to make it habitable. Sometimes I went and helped. Other times I stayed home.

When you’re an adolescent and you hear about people sneaking pHisoHex bottles filled with vodka into parties you would never be invited to, you get a little curious to find out what that is about. There was a liquor cabinet in our house right under the cigarette drawer. There were half bottles of just about everything there, but mostly there was Early Times bourbon. It was, after all, a Southern home, and the tall, mint julep glasses were kept on the shelf with the good china.

I grew up with the smell of bourbon. It was on my mother’s breath, and it was on my dear father’s breath. Occasionally, when I was not much more than a toddler, he would allow me a small sip from his bourbon and water. I kind of actually liked it, but always made a sour face when I swallowed, which seemed to amuse him. At Christmas, Mom made bourbon balls, so I was pretty much living on bourbon street from day one.

I learned soon enough that bourbon could be mixed with cola, root beer, or orange soda, and make for a sickly sweet, mind-altering taste treat. The problem was, it gave me the most uncomfortable case of hiccups every time I drank a glass of it. It was a cartoon cliché. By the time I was fifteen, I replaced what I drank from my mother’s bottles with water so she wouldn’t know I was sneaking it. By the time I was 16, I embezzled entire quarts, because bourbon was bought in three-fers at a shamelessly named store called Liquorama, and it should come as no surprise that Mom couldn’t keep track of what she bought.

Before Liquorama was built, houses of spirits were small, dimly lit mom-and-pop shops with unlit parking lots so the world wouldn’t see your shame. The liquor store clerk would wrap your bottle in a tall, skinny bag and twist the top shut for you so you could sneak out and pretend that maybe you had just bought a few pairs of socks or a small baguette. Buying booze in the 60s was just one step above slipping into a peep show.

Whenever my mother or dad went to the liquor store, I always wanted to go along, because I enjoyed the seediness of it all and loved the smell. Liquor stores all smelled so clean, like doctors’ offices, but the shops themselves were in leaky, run-down buildings with dirty tile floors and cracked windows. I would have to wait outside the liquor store while a parent went in, catching only whiffs of the store as the door was opened and closed. Kids were not allowed inside.

But in the 70’s Liquorama came around. Built on cross streets at one of South Tampa’s busiest thoroughfares, Liquorama brought alcoholism out of the closet. It was the size of a grocery store, and it had a huge, colorful, brightly lit, spinning sign out in front, welcoming all who came near it. Giant letters spelled out the week’s specials, splashed haphazardly across the giant picture windows that lined the front of the store. Shame and intimidation were thrown out the window, and people were saying it loud: “I’m drunk and I’m proud!” They even let kids in if they were accompanied by a person of age. Their shelves were new, everything was clean, and the floors were buffed to reflection.

Liquorama had the audacity to offer its shoppers grocery-store sized carts, and you got discounts if you bought in bulk. You never saw skinny little bags anymore. People left there, beaming with the pleasure at having saved a lot of money by buying a case, instead of just a quart. Its parking lot was luminescent and inviting, and they were open late. It was as elegant as a trip to the yacht club.

Liquorama became an even bigger hit once the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. Today I prudishly think, “What was the state thinking by doing that?” but apparently the liquor lobby was better funded than any religious body or temperance league.

The 70’s were a stain on every other decade in America. Indeed, it was a smeary wipefest on the butt cheeks of history. Look at who ran the country: Nixon, Ford, and Carter (okay, I liked Carter and still do.) Look at what people wore (shiny acetate, flammable shirts and platform shoes), how we behaved (like stoned, drunken idiots), and what kind of music we listened to (because “that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh” we liked it). Mix that with a generous portion of alcohol, Quaaludes, and mushrooms; add the dark, thick gravy of hashish oil. Season with Valium and acid. Lather, ingest, and repeat daily, and maybe you can see how our view of normalcy could have been just the slightest bit tarnished.

In our mid-teens, we were always trying to look older and trick Liquorama into selling to us. We dressed like 60’s hippies to attempt to accomplish this, but without much success. Knowing someone just a year older was a feather in your cap, even if you were 16 and they were 17. My dear friend Julie often took on the burden, not just because she had nerves of steel and bigger balls than any of us, but because her patience was as short as a clipped fingernail, and she got sick of arguing over who would do it. If she was unsuccessful inside, she would merely flag down an older alcoholic on his way into the store. Inexplicably by today’s standards, those people always bought the bottle and kept the change. And we were happy to let them have it. At last my hiccups were gone, because I had my own job, my own car, and I earned money that could be given to moral halfwits who would buy me rum. Life at sixteen was good, I sometimes thought.

Again, it was the 70’s. No one took responsibility for anything.

My most favorite booze-friendly establishment was this mega-disco on the northwest side of town called The Mad Hatter. They had a big, flashing-light dance floor, mirror balls and dizzying light machines and seizure-inducing strobes. There were speakers the size of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music was deafening, the lyrics insipid and repetitive, but we gave it all tens because it was easy to dance to.

Around the dance floor were tall tables with stools. The tables had long, draping tablecloths on them, and it was at one of these tables where I received one of the two hand jobs generously given to me by girls I knew.

There were delightful pinball machines that gave you three games for a quarter and five balls a game. But all of this paled by comparison to the Mad Hatter’s greatest feature: The Saturday Drink or Drown Night.

I suspect that there are few left who remember Drink or Drown night. A lot of the participants ended up dead on the highway. The rest are now suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. Those who remember must have somehow managed to stop drinking, and perhaps have had Recovered Memory Therapy which brought this twisted, satanic event back to light.

Drink or Drown Night, simply put was this: All you could drink for five dollars. I think it was five; maybe it was ten. And I think it was Saturday, but it could have been Friday, or Friday and Saturday, or all the time. Are you getting the picture? I think most of it remains buried under the part of my life I reminiscently refer to as, "blackout."

Drink and Drown Night included all the beer, all the wine, all the highballs, all the cocktails, all the martinis, all the cordials, all the liqueurs and daiquiris and mai-tais, and all the grain alcohol your stored in your pHisoHex bottle that you kept in pocket or purse, because sometimes the lines to get the drinks were so long, you needed to have a pick-me-up while you waited.

It was pandemonium, pure and simple. Naturally, I went whenever I could find someone who would go with me, which was often. The place was soaking wet from spilled drinks, thrown drinks, vomit and urine. Clouds of marijuana smoke poured from the restrooms and mixed with the dry ice clouds hovering around the dance floors. Or there may not have been dry ice. It could have just been my vision. There were threatening arguments; there were wet t-shirts, and women yanking down each other’s tube tops. It was packed and hot; everyone sweated, yet despite it all, the whole place managed to maintain the spicy aroma of Paco Rabonne cologne (in the penis-shaped bottle) mixed with the pungent stench of Jovan Musk Oil. People passed out on the dance floor, and the rest just danced around their bodies, soaked in the fluids on the floor. Thus, the drown part of the evening, ladies and gentlemen.

Leaving the place was tricky. People lined up at the doors, and every few minutes a brave lookout staggered out as a sentry to make sure there were no fights with weapons going on. When the all-clear was given, people would dash to their cars as best as they could dash, but even then it was possible to get sucked into a brawl that followed you out the door.

People who were smart in that part of town on Saturdays (and/or Fridays, or all the time) locked and dead-bolted their doors. Only crazy people would be driving in that area late at night, even though there were two drive-in movie theatres within spitting distance of the Hatter.

Finally, after enough complaints, the city council took measures to put the kibosh on Drink and Drown Night, not just at The Mad Hatter, but at any establishment that offered a smorgasbord of alcohol for one low price.

I don’t bring that lushy, exotic time of my life into my memory very often. I’m a little embarrassed about it. I had a reputation as being a fairly dependable drunk driver. There were times I was so tanked that I had to drive with one eye shut so I wouldn’t see double. It was just short of a miracle that I was never arrested, or worse, killed somebody. So when I see similar things happening with young people today, I forget I was once in their shoes, overdoing anything that could possibly be overdone. I am the worst possible hypocrite. I think, “What is with these kids? Why are they doing this? Haven’t they learned from our mistakes?”

But then I think of the hand job, and I understand.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, my entire teenage life summed up in one brilliant story. You have an amazing gift to reveal our past lives through honesty and humor.

    Never change; even a hand job deserves a righteous memory.