How Can One Cold Beer on a Hot Day Hurt?

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How Can One Cold Beer on a Hot Day Hurt?

By Bill Manville 07/20/15

Just one beer? Let me tell you about the day I learned there was no such thing.

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“Bill, I hit bottom when I got fired and my wife walked out,” began an email I got after my last piece ran in The Fix.

Signed “Brent,” my reader went on. “I bought a case of gin and had one last big Niagara of a drunk. I woke up with two nails of pain driven through my eyes, my car wrecked, and no memory of how it happened. I got rid of what was left of all that gin, plus the wine my wife used to drink. Nor did I need AA's help to decide never to drink again.  

“That was 14 months ago, and I was flat broke. I'll say this for sobriety. You have what might be called a 36-hour day – no morning hangover, the evening isn't spent in a bar. And Bill, while sobriety is many things, it’s also boring. There isn't anything to do but work. I'm a software-programmer. So I'm not hurting for money. 

“I'm never going to go back to drinking, and I won't touch dope. But Bill, these long summer days, a thought's begun to tickle me from the back of my brain. Wouldn't just one glass of ice-cold beer taste good on a hot afternoon? 

“I truly love beer’s taste—not its effect. I did not need AA’s help to learn the value of sobriety. If these 14 months have led me to construct a new life; well, I did it with a lot of blood, sweat and fortitude of my own. I’m not going to throw all that away. I will never allow myself to go back to those days when I used to go to bed drunk more often than not.

“So you see I’m not talking about drinking that beer for effect. What’s on my mind is I can just see the ice-cold beading running down the side of the glass. Bill, what answer do I give myself to my own question: wouldn’t just one beer taste good? Are you asking me to lie to myself and say 'No, it would not'?”

* * *

I bet that like me, most Fix readers can read between the lines of Brent’s email. Can’t you almost feel his addiction laying up there in the dark, at the back of his head, devising plots and slippery rationalizations, saying, "Brent, old boy—after all these months of hard work getting sober, you know the score. You’ll never let yourself go through that again. One beer and you’ll stop."

Yes?    

My answer to him began on a note of disbelief. "Just one beer?" I wrote him back…and went on to tell him about the day I learned there was no such thing. 

It was also the day I learned about drinking and sex. 

When I was brand new in the army, a sheltered 18-year-old, virginal and never in a bar in my life, I got a 72-hour pass from infantry basic training and went into town—Jacksonville, Florida—with John K., a fellow private, from Canton, Ohio. John had some errands to do first. We agreed we'd meet at 5pm—four hours later. As for me, what was I to do early mid-afternoon and alone in a strange town? What do Hemingway heroes do? I decided to have a drink.  

Long, dark and mysteriously inviting, gleaming with dark wood and neon beer signs, there was music playing when I walked into the Green Cockatoo Bar. A dozen stools stood yawning and empty. I sat down at one end of the bar, hoping to appear confident to the bartender. A young woman came in, and of all the empty stools waiting in the place—gulp!—she decided on the one beside me. 

She wore a long full skirt, hands deeply thrust into patch pockets in front. She swiveled around to face me. When she parted those pocketed hands, it turned out the skirt was slit to the waist and it parted, too. She wore no underwear, but her Delta of Venus was shaved, and she was tattooed: a bright red cherry with a single green leaf.  

"Still got yours, soldier?" she said, and I fled.

Still secretly smarting with the ignominy of how little I knew of the workings of the world, I met up as planned with fellow recruit, John K. He took me into a hotel bar but first explained the laws of grown-up drinking. "If we have less than three shots, that's a waste of money so unless you promise to have three, let’s not go in at all." 

How did that add up? Since drinking was wasteful to begin with, weren't three shots more wasteful than one?  

Wouldn’t none be thriftiest of all? 

But still secretly ashamed of how little I knew the workings of the world, I copied his sophisticated cross-legged stance at the bar…listened carefully as he ordered "Park & Tilford Reserve," by full brand name. How knowing, I thought, how jaded and grown-up, what a world metropolis must be Canton, Ohio—if only I'd been lucky enough to have grown up there myself!

After one drink I relaxed, after the second told him about high society in the Green Cockatoo bar, and after the third was laughing at myself right along with him. What terrific stuff was this Park & Tilford Reserve! When we ordered our fourth, I wrote the brand name down on a piece of paper and stuck it in my wallet.

It took me a long time to learn P&T was as cheap and nasty a rotgut “blended” whiskey as could be but I did also learn that memorable day that commercial sex was not for me and why three drinks were better than one.  

Since that time, I don't think I ever set out to have "one drink" in my life.  And, Brent from what you tell me about your drinking habits, the odds are, neither do you. What does one drink mean to people like us?  

Old time addicts used to call their use of booze and dope their habit. Sobriety is a habit too, and the first rule of habit formation is "Never Let An Exception Occur." Entertaining fantasies of just having that one perfect glass of beer on a hot day allows the old thinking to go on. 

When I first came into AA, most drinkers fell afoul of the hard stuff. Bourbon, gin and vodka were the money end of the industry. But in recent years, I've seen more and more newcomers at meetings with beer habits. A counselor at a rehab told me he felt this was because hard liquor could not advertise on TV, while beer gets to put on these terrifically seductive Life of gusto commercials that attract young people.  

Since I used to be in the advertising business myself, this suggests to me that the beer people are going to be putting out more products, more variations on the beer idea, so they can be marketed through TV.  

A cold beer on a hot day! How many times have I heard someone extolling that supposedly innocent idea. But when I hear those words, what I suspect I hear talking is not the person but the cunning, baffling and powerful voice of his addiction. One cold beer, and stop with that? 

Brent, if you were a member of AA, just to utter those words would get you laughed out of the meeting. That's one of the difficulties of trying to sober up alone.

AA offers the accumulated wisdom of the millions of drunks who have gone before you. Doing it alone, you have to find out by yourself what works, what does not. It can be done, but the odds are against you. It's lonely, unnecessary and slow, like re-inventing the wheel.

P.S. I’d like to close this piece with a word or two about Brent‘s statement that he finds sobriety boring. I remember back when hijackers flew two Boeings into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, demolishing the Twin Towers with enormous loss of life. When a call for blood donors went out, people who had never been to New York, disliked New York and who made jokes about New Yorkers, immediately lined up across the country to give blood, and if their hospital collection point was swamped, made appointments to come back whenever they could be taken.  

No planes were flying so structural engineers in Wyoming and Louisiana, medics and nurses in Virginia, steel workers in Kansas got into their cars and drove to New York to volunteer their help.

I saw an interview with a firefighter who'd come up from Philadelphia. "Won't your wife miss you?" he was asked. "You go out with men on a call," he said, "maybe you walked into their firehouse 10 minutes ago, but now they're your mother, they're your wife, your family, nobody thinks of anything but helping each other get the job done." Money for victim relief poured in by the ton, and armed forces recruiting stations were besieged with people wanting to sign up. 

You may call this patriotism or idealism…I believe it was, if only for the emergency moment, a purpose in life grander than yourself, a more deeply satisfying feeling than the counterfeit joys of making money while afloat on a sea of booze and dope, the unending masturbation of showbiz and trivially entertaining yourself to death—a chance at last to break free from the narrow and forever tyranny of me, me, me. 

Commenting on why the attack brought Pearl Harbor so immediately to mind, Harvard historian Ernest May said it was not just the fact of surprise. It also reflected "the idea that this, too, would unite us. I think people were reaching for that." 

Posters proclaiming "United We Stand" sprung up on every wall.

Our economic system pits people against each other, the competitive "war of all against all." It may be the most efficient ever invented but in the end, is it anything more than getting and spending? It does not satisfy a basic human desire, the one that brought the Philadelphia fireman to New York for no pay: the exaltation of spirit that comes from working together for a noble goal. 

That fireman was an instance of community, of human solidarity—emblematic of the kind of group morale that is the healing force in 12-step programs. When AA speaks of a return to spiritual satisfactions, this is what is meant.

Honor and altruism are in us all, one of the joys of life to feel and answer their call. Too bad it takes a national catastrophe to awaken it because my experience is that kind of external awakening does not last very long.  

The only benefit you specifically name in being sober, Brent, is it allows you to make more money. Now I have nothing against making money. Until I have enough to pay my mortgage, buy the groceries and call the plumber if the john springs a leak — and all the rest — I’m not interested in hearing about the “spiritual values” AA puts at the heart of sobriety. 

But Brent, you tell us yourself you’re “not hurting for money.” Since you took the trouble to write me at length, let me proceed on the assumption you are not as sure of your sobriety as your words alone would have me believe on face value.

I suggest before you relieve your boredom with an actual first glass of ice-cold beer—and find yourself walking through the door it opens to all the rest—you try an AA meeting or two, and talk to some of the long-term sobriety people you find there about what they mean by spiritual values. 

To me, they are as real as music or love—nothing you can touch but the very essence of what makes life most worth living.

Bill Manville is a regular contributor to The Fix, and a novelist and former contributing editor to Cosmopolitan. He last wrote about being a bar-fly and a sober New Years.

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