Knocked Out of Being Loaded

Drinks with Molly, a wrecked car and why some of us should stay sober.

The good thing about growing up in the daily newspaper business back when I did: You were surrounded by a lot of really good drinkers. I don't use that language facetiously. A good drinker is somebody who really does know how to drink, even drink a lot and still keep a handle on it.

I also was surrounded by some bad drinkers. The full spectrum. The choice was mine. I worked for a guy in Detroit who was one of the best drinkers I ever knew. He gave me a little speech one night at a bar:

"Schutze, drinking is the art of maintaining control while losing control."

Pretty pithy, eh? Especially when you're talking about beer. Oh, but wait. I almost forgot. There was another part to that speech. He said, "Schutze, you've got the losing control part down cold."

Yeah, well, much later and after too many years trying to master the other part, I just quit drinking. At that point I was in my late 30s.

People ask me sometimes how I did it. How I quit. Did I do A.A. or rehab or a shrink or what? I say no. I used a special program called "fear-of-wife." It gets me out of the question.

But since I did quit, does that mean I'm an alcoholic? Sure. If you want to call me that, if it's important to you, feel free. I won't argue. I happen to think I quit before I had to take that particular question to a jury, but I'm not touchy about it.

I quit because my drinking mentor in Detroit was right. It is an art. You do have to learn how. And if you're in your late 30s and still haven't got it down, then the window of opportunity probably has closed for you. At that point you're already wearing out your inner gizmos, so it can only get worse.

I always figured it was kind of like being in the ballet at age 38: You've put on some serious chunk; the knees aren't the pistons they used to be; you can't quite get up tall on those tootsies; and whenever you do hoof it out onto the boards the ruffians in the balcony start shouting Italian swear words.

So at that point maybe it's time to seriously reconsider. Maybe the ballet isn't the right thing after all. Time to call your brother-in-law about that offer in the lawn sprinkler business.

But what did make me quit? It can't just have been my wife. That kind of decision is too deeply personal. You make it for yourself. And why didn't I just learn the part about maintaining control? You know what? The losing control part was the only part of drinking I really liked. If you drink like that, you have a lot of brushes with stupidity and near-death in varying ratios. That was the cocktail I was going for.

I drank with Molly Ivins when she was at The Dallas Times Herald. We weren't close friends when we were sober, but we were great buddies drunk. Molly was the least technologically astute person I ever met. We spent hours in her rented house once, me on the sofa watching (and drinking) while she fiddled with a TV set and a huge dust-encrusted reel-to-reel tape recorder her father had given her when he packed her off to Smith.

The technology for recording television had just been invented and introduced. Molly heard about it. She was trying to do it by running the reel-to-reel tape recorder next to her TV set. She kept saying, "All I get is the sound." Molly also was one of the smartest people I ever met, sober. Drunk, I felt I was more her equal.

She gave me a lift home that evening. She had driven her old car, a VW bug or something, to a Chevy dealer for a trade-in. She chose that dealership, she told me, because it was the first one she came to. A salesman talked her into buying a Camaro Z28 with the biggest engine GM could cram into it. She was a terrible driver stone cold sober in a VW, so you can imagine what it was like riding with her in the age before seat belts when she was driving that rocket, drunk on her ass.

Somehow we wound up in the big freeway interchange downtown, which was nowhere near where I lived. Molly took a turn a little broad around a long bridge abutment. A thick curtain of sparks came up and danced in through the window that was cracked open on my side. She didn't notice. I had hot spots on my scalp and could smell burning hair.

The next day we both showed up late in the Times Herald newsroom, where we sat at desks facing each other. She came in and slumped into her chair. We nodded hello. Probably said hi, hey, how's it going, fine. A while later, she said, "My car is really slow."

"Slow?"

"Yes. Unless I really step on it, it goes very slow. And then it makes a lot of noise and smells bad, and I can see black smoke in the mirror."

I suggested we go out to the lot for a look-see. When I was still drinking I feared morning-after automotive look-sees, especially in the front bumper area where I was always chary of finding Cub Scout caps. In this case, the entire side of the Camaro was caved in — oh, yes, I did remember some difficulty opening and then shutting the passenger side door the night before — and the rear fender was crumpled into and pressing against the rear tire, where the metal appeared to have dug deep trenches into the rubber so that the inner white fabric was exposed.

She said, "I really have to floor it to get it up to speed."

She did agree, once we saw the problem, that it required expert attention. She said it was still under warranty, so she was going to take it back to the dealer. I bit my lip about the warranty. I did say, "You have to have it towed." But Molly, sober or drunk, was just not a worrier. She drove off into downtown traffic, engine roaring, tire smoking and shrieking, and gave me a wave. Next time I saw the car it looked brand-new.

You kind of need to be like that if you intend to go on being a bad drinker. It takes a certain nerve. Maybe that's what I lost. I still see that sheet of sparks in my dreams. I also wanted to be a dad about then. Nobody wants a drunk dad. Another big factor was that I had quit smoking the year before I quit drinking. Talk about a jones!

Oh, man. For one thing, I was the son of a Midwestern clergyman, so I had to start smoking when I was 12. My hunger for sophistication only grew worse, so that by late teenage I was smoking those French Gauloise cigarettes, which are sort of like smoking ground-up tumors. Even though I ran cross country, every single Gauloise I smoked made me want to sit down. Instead of blowing up railroads and getting hanged and stuff, all the French Resistance really needed to do was give away Gauloise to the Nazis. As we know, carcinogens and alcohol only cause the French themselves to have better heart rates, but that's another story.

When I started having trouble feeling my toes I got off Gauloise and retreated to milder American brands like Luckies and Camels, but quitting smoking, when I did it at age 37, was still really bad, with all the nasty physical withdrawal symptoms one associates with needle drugs. Somehow I did it. I was already on that fear-of-wife thing, so that probably helped.

Quitting drinking was different. First, it was much easier. It's different for everybody, but for me stopping drinking was psychological — more about not wanting to get killed, not wanting to kill anybody else and not wanting to be such an asshole — where smoking had been a needle in my arm.

Once the inner commitment was made, it wasn't that hard to do. And once I stopped being drunk a lot, I made all kinds of intriguing discoveries about the world. When I drank, I assumed everybody was as drunk as I was. I worried about America. How could a country survive with everybody roaring around drunk with Molly Ivins running into bridge abutments?

So that was my first big discovery. Everybody wasn't drunk with Molly. I was. In fact when I sobered up and started watching, I saw that the vast majority of people who drank had mastered my mentor's maxim about maintaining while losing.

I still watch. People don't drink at a flat level. They drink a little more, let the string out, and then they reel it back in, cut back on the vino at dinner, let themselves dry out a little. They adjust. That's so amazing. I never heard of that.

The second discovery was that there's something beautiful about drinking when people do it the right way. I watch them moving off on this vibe, this conversational wave that carries them out to sea for a while. Then they call it quits.

Quits. Who knew?

People ask me if I miss it. No, I don't miss my own drinking, because I don't miss the people shouting Italian swear words at me. I'm glad to have that out of my life.

What I miss, I suppose, is the ability to do it the right way, to maintain control while losing control. I can't say I gave that up, since I never had it. But I watch people who do have it, and I think what a gift it is. I can't ride out there with them on that wave. And yes, that's a price I must pay for never getting it right.

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