The Swan Song of A “Civilized” Drinker
I USED to drink and I don’t any more, but this isn’t the story of a reformed rumdum. I slept in no gutters. I kicked no cops. I lost no week ends. No colored animals followed me around. If people weren’t there I didn’t see them. I was just what psychiatrists call a “social drinker,” which means someone who handles the stuff with ordinary moderation and average common sense.
It also means my drinking history is the kind you don’t read about. When a real career lush straightens out, his struggle to climb on the wagon and stay there is often spectacular. When a mere moderate decides to lay off, on the other hand, he simply quits.
Still, as I know from experience, going dry is quite a thing even when it doesn’t involve a battle with the bottle. So I figure it’s time a former social drinker spoke up for a change, instead of leaving the field to the snake-pit set, and that s what I’m going to do now.
I don’t claim my story is typical. I can’t. Reasons and reactions don’t run much to form in cases like these and are apt to be pretty varied and personal. It’s probably about as typical as they come, though; and one of the things that make it so is that once in a long while, on special occasions like Christmas or New Year’s, JT to celebrate a bit of extra good luck, I used to gèt tight.
I also got tight now and again when the occasion wasn’t special, but such lapses were very rare, and they, too, were approximately typical. Any man who drinks at all and tells you he never has lapses is either lying in his teeth, suffering from a conveni-
ent disorder of the memory, or else is endowed with such fantastic restraint he wouldn’t holler if he sat on a tack. I have sworn a tremendous oath to myself not to lie about anything in the whole of this piece, in or out of my teeth, and my memory is working fine. I say these dizzy spells were rare, and they were rare. Mostly I just had two or three beers, or a couple of small whiskies, or the odd cocktail, and let it go at that.
In this modest and decorous fashion I went from day to day. Sometimes I drank my ration in the neighborhood beer parlor, where there were comfortable chairs and little gratings along the wall through which music came at regular intervals. Sometimes, if I happened to be downtown and was in the mood, I nipped into a proper bar, with stools to sit on and bartenders in white jackets. Generally, however, I did my drinking at home; looking over the edge of the glass at my wife and feeling relaxed and content.
That was pleasantest of all. Often, particularly on a winter night when the firelight danced on the living room ceiling and outside there was a bitter
wind and the sifting hiss of snow, it was nothing short of idyllic. It seemed impossible I could ever want to live any other way. And yet . . .
Something strange was happening to me. Some nights I wouldn’t even take my cherished glass of red wine with my meal. The next night I’d have wine again and the curious thing was that I then drank it almost sullenly, as though I was going through a ritual I didn’t quite believe in any longer and which had got tiresome.
Although I recognized the truth right from the start, that drinking was beginning to bore me, I couldn’t take it in. I thought I must be coming down with flu, or maybe my liver was out of whack, or I was working too hard —a consoling thought but not too realistic. I could understand how I might have taken a brief scunner to whisky, because it had never been a favorite of mine and I’d gone off it l>efore. I could see why l>eer mightn’t appeal as much as usual, because the weather was too cold. It was obvious why I didn’t fancy a Tom Collins, or anything else that was summery and full of ice. What
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really baffled me was this new attitude toward wine.
1 guess that’s one place where my case isn’t typical at all; or at least not typically Canadian. I loved wine; not only the taste and effect but the idea of it as well. It was what you drank with food so as to bring out the flavor of rich meat and fresh vegetables, and it was all tied up in my mind with small French inns on long straight dusty roads, where you walked in out of the sun and sat resting with a bottle of it in front of you and a wonderful smell of cooking in your nostrils. It was part of my youth, and I was sentimental about it accordingly; and up to then it had also been a mighty satisfying part of my middle age.
I kept on feeling vaguely tired of drinking until after a while it got so I’d go a week at a time without opening the cupboard where I kept my threebottle cellar. And then one afternoon I headed for a cocktail party I would have liked to steer clear of and couldn’t without being too rude, and on the way the feeling wore off. I don’t know why, unless it was the attractive prospect of free drinks, but it did. As I got near the house where the party was, I found myself hurrying; and it seems to me, now 1 look back, that I actually licked my lips.
I know for sure I licked them the following morning, because they and the rest of my mouth felt like the entrance to an abandoned sulphur mine, or possibly a heap of dead leaves which had been trampled flat by a hyena. That cocktail party turned out to be one of the occasions when I didn’t quit while I v 11 ahead; and in
the course c built up to the
outstanding ; \y life. I wasn’t
hooting drunk, didn’t stagger or
drop the plate ot ndwiches I carried politely around with me at a certain point. 1 only glowed.
The trouble was I glowed too warmly. 1 would tell somebody it was a nice day for the time of year and to ray overheated ears it sounded like the kind of wise and humorous remark Confucius might have made. Everything everyone else said sounded good, too—until a large woman with little dull eyes backed me into a corner, where I couldn’t get away, and talked. And talked.
And talked . . .
Moron in a Mirror
Half an hour later she stopped, briefly, to clear her throat, and I escaped. As 1 fled I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror across the room and the sight finished what the combined effect of the large woman and the gradual wearing-off of the drinks had begun.
My face was pretty well flushed anyway, with one thing and another, and in the bluish glass it was three shades of purple—livid, more livid, and downright ghastly. Even allowing for the macabre color scheme and a slight difficulty in focusing, I was shocked. Was this loose-lipped moron in the mirror the brilliant guy who’d been saying such memorable things? Was this the charming, talented fellow everyone was so fond of?
In a pig’s eye it was. It was just me, with too many cocktails under my belt, and all of a sudden I wasn’t having any fun. Instead of being a roomful of gay and amusing people, and me the gayest and most amusing of them all, my fellow guests and I now struck me as a whole lot more like a bunch of parrots who had somehow
got trapped in an open grave that was slowly filling with rain.
The boredom with drink I’d noticed growing on me for weeks past came to a head, and there was nothing vague about it any more. I knew now what I wanted to do, and staring at the oafish purple face in the mirror I made up my mind. As of that moment I was on the wagon and I would stay there for keeps. The way things have worked out, it was the best decision I ever made.
I knew I’d still have to go to a cocktail party now and then from mere politeness, just as I’d turned up at this one. I could always ask for a ginger ale or a Coke, though; and I figured my friends would get used to my soft drinking after a while and quit kidding me—and they did. I hoped it wouldn’t make me feel snooty to keep sober while they were knocking the stuff back—and it doesn’t.
Drank an Overcoat
The only real snag I foresaw was that maybe being dry would begin to bore me after a while as much as drinking had bored me already. I suspected that life without dinner wine and nightcaps and mildly stimulating visits to the local pub might prove a trifle flat. I was wrong. I get a bigger bang out of life than ever.
It isn’t because my health has improved, either. I feel fine, but I felt fine in the old days too. I ate well and slept soundly and I put a good deal of it down to the worry-diminishing qualities of a small daily dollop of drink. However I still sleep like a chloroformed dormouse and eat like a famished wolf and my worries are still the same size, so 1 guess the dollop didn’t actually make much difference.
Last night I got to wondering just why I was having such a good time as a teetotaler and wrote down a list of all the reasons I could think of that might explain it. The first item was the amount of money I’ve saved through not drinking in the six months since I laid off. I calculated by figuring what I spent on beer and wine and whisky and such in the six months immediately before that, and the total shook me to the teeth.
During the winter of my last wet year I had drunk four tons of the best quality furnace coal, 50 fine juicy beefsteaks, 15 dozen strictly fresh eggs, four really good shirts and a nice warm overcoat. At a less selfish level, the cost of bathing my tonsils would have looked after a poor sick kid in a children’s hospital for three weeks and a few days over. As a matter of straight dollars and cents, the semester’s drinking had set me back $250 —about six times as much as I expected it to be when I started doing my retroactive bookkeeping, and exactly 250 times more than I had any business spending out. of a lower-middle-bracket income like mine.
To get the six-month total I naturally had to begin with separate items for each class of drink (beer, wine or spirits); and that meant breaking the thing down into further items according to whether I was figuring what I drank at home or in the pub. If you’ve never done that with your own booze budget, assuming you have one, here’s how the breakdown looked:
Home—24 pints every
3 weeks........... *$37.50
Pub —3 bottles twice a
Home—a bottle every 4
with each of 6 meals 15.00
drinks a night...... 84.00
Pub—2 drinks and tip,
once a week....... 37.00
*1 cashed the bottles for “free” beer.
Two hundred and fifty bucks would be small change to a millionaire, but to me it’s big money. I have to work at east three weeks to make that much, and when I thought about that I remembered it wasn’t only money I spent on drinking. There was also time.
As well as the three weeks out of every six months it took me to make enough to pay my drink bill, when I might as well have been working for the brewers and wine growers and distillers instead of for myself, 16 eight-hour days during the same period were devoted to sitting around in bars or pubs. In effect, that is. In actual fact the sitting used up 128 hours, spaced out in ones and twos mostly at night, or in the late afternoon if my work was done.
Still, what I earn depends a great deal upon how long I’m willing to keep on the job. So if I’d added one of these pub and bar hours to every day except Saturday and Sunday (there were enough to do it throughout the whole six months, too), and worked that much extra, I could have made myself $165 more than I did. Thus the real cost of my six months’social drinking might fairly be said to be $415.
Newspapers for Two
It could be jumped another $50 to $465, because I haven’t so far taken into account the liquor bill on the special and unspecial occasions when I got tight. And there were practically always other expenses, on those rare binges, which I wouldn’t have let myself in for if I hadn’t been high. Taxis, when a streetcar would have done just as well; whacking great tips dished out because I felt like a big shot and wanted to be taken for one—things of that sort. Not to mention long-distance phone calls to people I barely knew and didn’t need to talk to (once, I remember, I called an almost total stranger in Hollywood, and the bill was only a few cents short of $25).
The next item on my list of dry benefits was leisure. The 128 hours, distributed over six months, meant I could lie in bed for an extra hour five mornings a week and, in effect, not rob myself of any working time. Or I could get up at the usual time and save my hour for the end of the day, when I could knock off an hour earlier and read, or listen to the radio, or talk to my wife, or simply sprawl in my favorite chair and do nothing whatever. And since these last are things I much prefer to staying late in bed of a morning, that’s how I actually do spend most of my bonus time— but not all of it.
I can’t afford to miss out entirely on the $165 I said could be added to the real cost of drinking, and two or three days a week I work during the saved time, instead of reading or listening to the radio or talking. The result is that I earn about $75 a month more than I’d have made in the old days. I get to keep it myself, too. It doesn’t siphon off into the cash register at the pub or the liquor store. It goes for the third item on my list—the small luxuries.
We now take two copies of the morning paper. It costs 50c a week instead of 25c., is underwritten by a
single bottle of the beer I don’t drink at the pub I don’t go to, and lets my wife and me bury our noses in the news simultaneously at breakfast. There are no more waits while one of us finishes a section the other wants to read. If you don’t think that’s a luxury, try it some morning and you’ll see.
Another small and luxurious new thing is that I can now shave with each edge of a razor only once, whereas before I had to make it do for three shaves and sometimes four. The difference in cost is about 50c (two bottles of beer a week) with the type of blades 1 use. The difference in comfort is enough to rate as a real pleasure. Especially now that I’m buying a superlative kind of shaving cream more than twice as expensive as the perfectly good brand I bought in the wet era, and using the wonderful stuff in huge blobs that produce a lather like very rich whipped cream.
I Gan Think, Now
Mv wife is in on the midget luxuries too, of course. Two old-fashioneds I don’t order, plus the tip I don’t give the waiter who doesn’t bring them, will get her a pair of nylons. If she tires of the color of a lipstick when it’s only half finished, she can throw it away without feeling unduly extravagant. She can buy new hats on sheer impulse now and again, and gadgets she knows aren’t worth a $3 bill but which fascinate her to pieces.
And the result of these and a lot of other little things is that my wife has more fun, and laughs more, and isn’t so budget-stricken. I’m glad for two reasons: it’s more pleasant for her;
I get a solid dividend myself.
The intellectual side is flourishing also. We now take every issue of nine magazines every month, for example, and consequently have more things to talk about and are getting pretty sharp about current affairs and such. I find I’m reading twice as many books as before, and concentrating better on them and remembering more of what I read.
In the dinner - wine - and - nightcap period 1 used quite often to feel so genial I couldn’t be bothered going back over something I hadn’t understood the first time I read it, or I’d lose interest altogether if the going got tough and start looking at something that had pictures.
I also find 1 spend more time thinking for myself nowadays, and am much better able to sit still and keep quiet. 1 don’t know whether this is a cause or an effect of the all-round slackening of tension I’ve noticed lately—a slackening which is one of the things social drinking is supposed to do and doesn’t, or didn’t for me at any rate.
Those are a few of the things I’ve got out of not being a social drinker any more. It hasn’t been a dramatic change. Going dry never Is, unless you were a sodden wreck to start with, and social drinkers are a very long way from that.
Just the same it only takes a couple of small drinks to make a big difference sometimes — the difference between driving safely home from a party, for example, and having a traffic accident and winding up in hospital or on an embalming table at the undertaker’s instead.
The money saved doesn’t seem much —until you figure it out, and then it looks mighty good. The time you spend drinking isn’t much, but it’s enough to count for a lot of pleasant hours when you divert it to other purposes. A-