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Last Call For a Professional Bar-Fly

Drinking nearly destroyed New York's most notorious nightlife critic. But it also gave him a new lease on life.

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Greenwich Village bars: a great place to bottom out.

By Bill Manville

05/12/11

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The first page of my first published book began like this:

"There was a fountain in the center of a bar I used to make when I first came to live in the Village.  I remember a brass merman perpetually sounded a sea trumpet there, forever calling surrounding mermaids to a wilder dance.  No cold water flowed from that fountain—something better: the great ocean basin offered all the bottled wines of the world. It all seemed an image of the way I wanted to live—generous, naked, overabundant, and noisy."

That was how my drinking career began. It ended with me walking around London alone, dazed and drunk, leaving my weeping wife back at home.

Those were the days when I was living on the Five-Martini Diet—writing for Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan Magazine by day, and passing out before dinner more nights than I like to remember.  I’d just mailed Helen a piece that ended, “I always tell people deeply in love to get married soon as possible. So they’re not too old when they get divorced.”  I don’t know how my (then) wife tolerated my drunken half-ass jeering as long as she did.  This time, I’d hit too close to home. Her face turned red.  Ducking the ensuing quarrel, I jammed a pint of gin into both my raincoat pockets, slamming out of the house. At every little red telephone kiosk I passed, I’d lift one of the bottles to my lips. Finishing the first in three or four gulps, I promised myself I wouldn’t buy another.  A few hours later, I bought two.

I still don’t remember why I was carrying my passport. In any case, I managed to fly from Heathrow to JFK in a total blackout, waking fully clothed on the floor of a tiny apartment my wife and I kept in New York.

This was at the tail end of my second marriage. The only intelligent thing I’d done in my life until then was not having any children. My family was mostly disgusted with my antics. Most of my New York friends were fed up with my drinking as well. So I was alone.  But l knew someone who’d welcome my call. I dialed up my old liquor store and ordered a case of gin.

There were bottles of tranquilizers in the medicine cabinet—I’m not sure who left them behind. l washed down a handful with a glass of gin, drinking my way into two hospitals over the next ten days. The first was the posh Doctor’s Hospital, on Manhattan’s East Side. No one there even mentioned A.A.  I was still young enough, and reasonably healthy. They had me on my feet in three days.  After a shave and a haircut, I celebrated how good I looked in the barber’s mirror by ordering a martini in the first bar I passed.  This time when I came out of my blackout, my bladder was so paralyzed I could not pee.

I ended up at another hospital, with a doctor perched beside my bed. “Do you know who I am?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “You are the end of fun.”

It turned out she was Roosevelt Hospital’s Dr. LeClair Bissell (who later founded Manhattan’s famed Smithers rehab). Back in my late twenties, when I was Grey Advertising’s chief liquor copywriter, we’d once met over a drink at the White Horse Tavern. Since then, she’d gone on to med school. I’d gone on to become a drunk. She shook her head sadly and advised me to sign myself into rehab.

I laughed.  “You actually think a bunch of holy rollers is going to turn me around in 28 days?”

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