My first alcoholic drink was sometime in Wagga Wagga, a large town in the Riverina district of NSW on the west coast of Australia. Rich farming country that bred healthy football players and at least one famous cricket player. Anyway, the first drink was from a long neck of Crown Lager or Fosters while our parents were out. My twin sister and I tasted the beer and then screwed up our faces in revulsion. How could our parents and their friends drink so much?
The next day, my mother found evidence of the stolen beer and come down upon us in a furious rage with the consequences being grounding, holiday cancellations, the usual silence. The first of many repercussions from booze.
I would later find out that alcohol was less about taste and more about the feeling. That explained the raucous laughter and frivolity of adult dinner parties and the hijinks of picnics by the river. Children played while the adults drank. So it always was in middle-class Australia.
While at boarding school in Melbourne, having just turned 14, I had my first intoxicated experience, seeing the world through the glorious crazy haze of booze. It was a Sunday, and one of the older looking kids went into the bottle shop at the Chevron nightclub, where some ten years later I would dance to techno and house, on St Kilda Road. We walked to the Fawkner Park and proceeded to swig from the bottle of Bundaberg Rum. Foolishly, I said, “I don’t feel anything,” and skulled a VB chaser. I quickly realized that alcohol takes a while to work through the bloodstream, and by the time we had walked back to the boarding house, I was out of it.
He’s “out of it,” they said with a quiet admiration as if sobriety, the “it,” was a prison. Being out of it was a noble cause, the seeking of pleasure. To quote Hemingway, “I have drunk since I was 15, and few things have given me more pleasure.”
This first time at the tender age of 14, I went from the Hemingway’s noble intoxication to the Chaucerian fordrunken, utterly stupidly drunk. After passing out on my bed in the 1970s boarding house, I woke in the shower to my school mates shouting at me that I had to make it to dinner. With no leave pass, not turning up to dinner was a major discretion, and the House Master would soon learn of my wasted state. I somehow made it to the dining hall and stared morosely at the slop on my plate.
After this rocky start, I soon learned how to balance intoxication and being wasted, sometimes going over the top but discovering the gloss and glamour F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in his really depressing book, “The Beautiful and the Damned.”
“There was a kindliness about intoxication – there was that indescribable gloss and glamour it gave, like the memories of ephemeral and faded evenings.”
Fitzgerald was of course one of the great alcoholics.
As a teenager in the eighties, I could not have agreed more. Being wasted, inebriated, cocky drunk gave me a confidence a weedy teenager from the country should not have had. I could talk to girls, even sometimes convincing them to go for a walk to some dark corner to kiss, fondle, and sometimes more. Bleh, teenage boys can be creeps.
Over the subsequent years, I have sailed the choppy seas of exhilaration and shame, navigating with a fine Aussie Shiraz or a cheeky Zinfandel from California, mixing a burgeoning problem with pretentious choices in my favorite wine shop. I can’t separate the big events in my life – deaths, wakes, weddings, celebrations for promotions, Wednesdays – from the experience of being intoxicated. Sadly, this also applies to the great disasters – crashes, arguments, disgraces.
Defeat and victory go hand in hand with intoxication in the storybook of my life. The booze numbs the feelings, distills the anxiety into a “gloss and glamour”
Sometimes I would listen to Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” and feel a twinge. Was that me? There were so many mornings filled with regret for fordrunken conversations and stupidity. Alcohol is not a performance enhancer, I would say while sober.
There ain’t nothin’ short of dyin’,
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin’ city sidewalks,
Sunday mornin’ comin’ down.
Recently I stopped drinking, and to my surprise, I am calmer, feel better, and I wake with a drive to face the day despite the standard stresses and confusions of late capitalism. The story told in the ads and books and movies is a lie, at least to me.
The booze is no good for me.