When I was a freshman at Solvay High School in the early Eighties, I knew a kid a few years ahead of me. A cool kid. Let’s call him Kelso, after Ashton Kutcher’s character on That 70’s Show. That wasn’t his real name, but he had some of the same qualities. Lanky, easy good looks, popular with the ladies, someone my dweeby self wanted to be seen with. Kelso’s big thing was shaking hands in the hallway. If he was walking towards you between classes, and he smiled and stuck out his hand to shake, you didn’t hesitate. Shaking Kelso’s hand in the hallway, or more importantly, being seen shaking Kelso’s hand in the hallway, was an instant conferrence of cool. If he liked you, then you had a chance that everyone would like you. Maybe even senior girls. Maybe even ballet-dancing, senior girl cheerleaders who walked by your house every day.
Kelso was famous for a few other things. His car for one. He drove a beat-up green Chevelle. It made a ton of noise as it peeled out of the parking lot after school. We all wanted to ride in it, especially after basketball games when practically the entire high school student body would meet up at the village pizza parlor. It would not be an exaggeration to say we worshipped him. In fact, I remember drawing a picture of Kelso burning rubber, empty beer cans tied to his bumper like he was just married, with my friends and I kneeling behind his green Chevelle, eating his dust, and praying, hands clasped, eyes closed, hoping he would allow us to be in his presence, suck up some of his aura, and best of all, drink his cheap canned beer.
Because the other thing Kelso was famous for was drinking. Except he used to call it “soaking.” As in, “We were soaking over at Cheesy’s house last night.” Or, “Come by on Friday night and soak. My parents are in Florida until next week.”
Solvay, New York was a mill town. We lived in the shadow of the Allied Chemical plant that covered twenty blocks of the main drag, Milton Ave. The plant spewed pollution into the air and toxic waste into our nearby lake, Onondaga. A lake once, and perhaps even now, considered the most polluted body of water in the country. We could see the lake from the front steps on our high school. On really hot, humid days, we could smell it. The joke around Solvay was that Onondaga Lake was so polluted, it was where Jesus practiced walking on the water.
Being a mill town, Solvay was also a drinking town. The greater metropolitan Syracuse area, of which Solvay was a part, was also one of the great test markets in America because it was so average. Zima? Tested in Syracuse. Ditto, the McDLT (Hot side hot, cool side cool, remember?) Later in life, and in an episode that relates to this story, a woman I met at an AA meeting in Washington DC remarked, a little too cheerfully, upon learning I was from Syracuse, “Oh. The birthplace of alcoholism.”
As young adults, trying to get and/or drink beer was our primary objective. Just like kids today, we knew where all the parties were, who would buy for us, which stores would sell to minors. In one famous and oft-repeated incident, we were at one of these shady markets. We put our six-pack of Molson Golden on the counter. The shopkeeper said, “That’ll be $10.99.” “What!” we protested. “OK. $12.99, then,” he replied. We promptly paid our $10.99, which in 1982 was about three times the going rate for a six of Molson. Not that we were complaining. To us, it was a bargain.
So. We looked up to kids who drank. Kids who drank were cool. We wanted to be cool, so we drank too. Not having gazelles to kill or vision quests to embark upon, we performed the only rites of passage we could in blue-collar mill-town Solvay. We drank to prove ourselves. We drank to be cool. We drank to be adults. We drank because we wanted a ride in Kelso’s Chevelle. We drank because we wanted guys like Kelso to deem us worthy. We drank because we wanted guys like Kelso to love us. He had what we wanted, what we desired with all our teenage being: popularity, women, cool. Drinking would only bring us closer to his throne, a throne we knew someday we would usurp.
Sneaking beer onto the fifty yard line of the football field at night and drinking it was our sport. Running from the county sheriff’s helicopters’ spotlights when our parties on top of the local reservoir were busted was our pastime.
But here’s the thing. For all of my adult life, I’ve still been trying to get a ride in Kelso’s car, praying that he would pick me up and take me to his party, let me wear his crown for just one night. Until recently, like Kelso’s long shadow, alcohol has been my constant companion for almost thirty years. Why?
There are a million reasons why people drink. In my case, I can think of a few. Drinking would make me cool. Drinking would make me popular. Drinking was something men did to prove themselves. I was an introvert, so I had to drink to loosen up at parties. I was depressed so I drank to drown my sorrows. If I drank, women would find me cuter than that boring sober guy over there. People who drank always had more fun. I always had to have one more because I thought everyone was having more fun than me and having one more would help me “catch up” and have just as much fun as everyone else. Et cetera. All lies, I know now.
About a month ago, I had what I like to call an Incident. People like me, who drank almost every day for the better part of their adulthood, are bound to have a few Incidents in their drinking lives. Some learn their lesson after the first one. Some, it takes twenty Incidents to get them to change their ways. Some never learn and end up killing others, or dead themselves. The specifics of my Incidents don’t matter, really. What matters is that finally, after more Incidents than I deserved, I made the decision (the morning after, sick and embarrassed and apologizing to everyone in sight, as these Incidents so often make one do) that I would not drink alcohol again, for as long as I lived. By the time of this last, final Incident, I realized I had probably drunk enough alcohol for five lifetimes. I didn’t want it in my life anymore. And as I realize now, one month sober, I never needed it at all.
My problem had always been that I couldn’t have just one. One almost always led to an empty bottle. In between one and the empty bottle was what my therapist calls “my blind spot.” So apt. I have thought and thought of the reasons why I always seemed to enter the dark territory between one and the empty bottle and…I can’t tell you why. That’s my blind spot. Truth is, I don’t have to know the reason why, only the reason why not. Why not to even start so that I never again get to a point where I just can’t stop.
All these years, I’ve been trying to be the cool kid. The kid with 12-pack in the dark at midfield, drinking for ten thousand reasons, none of them true. Have I had my last drink? I’d like to think so. The pressure of such a commitment can hang over a person. Giving up drinking, especially in our culture, is usually viewed as denial. I choose to view it as freedom. Freedom from the overwhelming pressure to drink that our culture puts on us.
And now that I don’t drink, I notice alcohol everywhere. My local supermarket has a huge banner hanging over the entrance that tells customers the chain is selling liquor “at the lowest prices allowable by law.” The corporate website of an iced tea brand I once fancied tells me, within a few mouse clicks, which bourbon to mix with my tea so I can make cocktails for Derby Day. My workplace, in their daily e-newsletter, includes a story telling me of the science behind why strawberries and white wine go together. My local big-box home decor retailer displays an entire line of Red Cup Living accessories, including reusable red cup drinkware, red cup twinkly lights, and even red cup wastebaskets, presumably for you to puke into after you drink too much from the red cup wine goblets.
I realize this post is just a tiny placeholder in the larger story of my drinking life. I’m trying to explain something that I’d just as soon forget, and I realize it doesn’t make for compelling storytelling. I want to be done with this story, with this long, half-remembered chapter of my life. I don’t want to write about it anymore because I don’t want to think about it anymore.
The experts say that writing about painful experiences helps one through the healing process. I say there’s already too much grief porn in the world today. So I’m going to stop right here.
The positives: My new favorite drink is unsweetened iced tea that I make myself. I’ve taken up surfing, and at forty-six years old, I know it’s going to take a lot more effort to stay in shape in order to live a surfer’s life. I don’t wake up with headaches anymore. I don’t need to make excuses, about anything. I don’t have to apologize nearly as much as I used to. I don’t have to worry about not remembering what I said or did last night. I’m saving a ton of money; money I can use to boost my record collection. For the price of a six-pack or a halfway decent bottle of malbec, I can buy six or seven records. These simple pleasures are enough for me now.
And it’s also enough for me to know that, finally, my blind spot is in Kelso’s rearview mirror.