Pete Hamill Saved My Life
When I was in my twenties I was not someone you could be friends with, not for very long. I drank a lot. I organized my life around earning enough money to sustain myself while deciding where I’d go Friday night or after work if the opportunity was offered, by pretty much anyone who’d have me.
No, I didn’t get arrested or fired. I didn’t beat women or wake up in the ER in a urine-soaked rage, but I drank every day. I did not: remember your birthday, plan my future, care about much beyond this afternoon or do much of anything not punctuated by a drink.
Drinking was always a part of my life. My father was a rooted, vaguely Irish cop in Newark, New Jersey. While my mother was home on a Saturday cleaning the Venetian blinds in the tub and watching my younger siblings, my father would take my older brother and I to a tavern called The Roscommon House, a typical cop bar serving shots, beer and sandwiches. The Ros was dutifully attended by guys with names like Murph, Sully and Red, yet owned by a jolly Portuguese couple, Jimmy and Mary Monteiro. He tended bar while she cooked roasts in the back. There were a few German guys in the joint, maybe a Pole, but no one with skin darker than sun-washed bone. I didn’t see this as odd; it was just life.
Danny and I would shoot pool and drink birch beer while my father sat at the bar and drank Schaefer. The jukebox crooned. My father once let me go to NYC with a cab driver named Charlie Pujaski to ride the Circle Line boat around Manhattan. No one thought this might lead to a Mystic-River moment. I don’t remember much of the day except that Charlie brought me to the Ros afterward to wait for my father.
On off days Dad would bring me to Pat DeLuca’s chicken market where, at the age of eight, I worked for a few hours while he delivered phone books — his side job. The chicken market was littered with drunks, bookies, dogs and cats playing with severed chicken heads, and of course, a monkey in a wooden cage. The guys would often give the monkey beer. It got out one night and Pat came in the next morning to chicken carnage and an exhausted, one-eyed monkey.
My job was to carry the chickens to the back room to have their throats slit before being stuffed upside down into metal funnels where they twitched and gurgled their final breaths over a toss of sawdust. They were plucked, gutted, cut, wrapped in butcher paper and then I’d carry the warm bundle back to the waiting customer. Sometimes Pat would send me to the laundromat down the street to buy change. No one, I’m surmising, ever messed with me because I was Jerry Hefferon’s kid and he would beat them half to death if I was ever harmed. He was built like a dumpster and had a kind of smiling Charles Bronson quality about him and besides, nobody screwed with the cops in those days.
Today, parents would find this upbringing horrifying. “What, no Mandarin lessons or family yoga? How did you survive? Here’s the name of a fabulous therapist.” To us and the kids we went to school with, it was a perfectly acceptable way of life. We all went to church together on Sunday mornings and an occasional communion breakfast afterward. My brothers and I played on the same little-league team, the Galante Giants, sponsored by, and this may have been prophetic, the Galante Funeral Home. Another Newark cop, Tommy Monaghan, coached the skinny hopes we bore in ill-fitting uniforms. My parents loved each other and us kids even more. We regularly went to The Reservoir, around the corner from the Ros, for spaghetti, meatballs and Jerry Vale music. There were other bars, other banquet halls redolent with ball-breaking and the tinge of hops. We hadn’t yet landed on the moon.
My father died of heart failure a month before my ninth birthday. He left my mother with four young kids, no income, no high-school diploma and little hope. Somehow, she managed to figure it all out. She got her GED, her driver’s license, a job ‘down the County’ and we survived. There was always booze.
My mother didn’t drink, except for a Dewars and water at family functions, but everyone else did. Children’s birthday parties in the sixties and seventies were family affairs. No one rented giant, blow-up bouncy crap or dragged all the classmate’s parents to Chuck E. Cheeses for shitty entertainment and worse pizza while fawning over their little princess.
“We’re having a party.” Mom went to the store for pretzels, beer and mixers while one of us took all the bottles of VO, scotch, gin and Aunt Anita’s B&B from the liquor cabinet and displayed them on the kitchen counter. Everyone over the age of sixteen drank. No one ever stabbed a relative.
I remember when my mother let me have my first beer. She gave me a half-can of Rheingold and I was so proud I took it out front to drink it on the steps so the neighbors could see me. I hated it. The bitterness shocked my taste buds and my heart sank. What was all the excitement about? This is awful. Then I learned. You have to drink a lot of it. It gets better. Oh yes. Over time, I mastered it.
In my twenties I worked as a restaurant manager, where I got paid to watch over a bar, and I guess, the patrons. My friends were my coworkers or the regulars, or whomever would drink with me. Nothing or no one was permanent and neither did I have an inclination to change that. Friends from the past were gone, friends from the present will one day be groggy memories, friends from tomorrow may never come. Friends were the people I drank with. When they weren’t around, there was always a new one. My life took on the same fatalism. I can live without that girl or this wife, because I’m funny and charming and I can always get another one. Then I’ll lose her because apart from being funny and charming, I’m an asshole.
I was. Now, I wasn’t an asshole because I couldn’t hold a job or I peed in your mom’s sink. I was an asshole because I didn’t care enough to do the right thing more often than not. Everything in life was fleeting, from the romance at the bar, to the friends I lost, to the aspirations I thought I’d had. When I blew it again, I could always find a party.
“A man becomes preeminent he’s expected to have enthusiasms.” Thanks, Mr. DeNiro.
I’d like to think I’ve found that. Being sober helps. I still drink, but I don’t get drunk. I drink much less often. I go weeks at a time without one. From the time I was 18 until about 50, apart from training in the police academy, I never went three days without one. That’s a lot of empty calories and the promises that go with them.
I managed to land a job as a Sheriff’s Officer. I managed to get promoted. I managed to become a father. Enthusiasms.
When I worked the four-to-midnight shift I would go home, drink wine, smoke a cigar and read. I found something more thrilling than booze, but not yet a replacement for it. Let’s not get crazy. Books, specifically Cormac McCarthy books, didn’t replace wine, they enhanced it. I tried writing and I liked the process. I found I had a modicum of talent for stringing words together. I never liked process before, only results, happy if they came quickly and defeated if they didn’t. But writing stayed with me, so did the wine. One Saturday morning my ex called me to ask why I wasn’t at my son’s tae-kwon-do belt test. I had gone out the night before and forgotten to set the alarm. I wasn’t even drunk, just preoccupied. Selfish. Not caring quite enough.
I didn’t drink for weeks for the first time in my life. I changed my habits. I learned to live without it. Shortly thereafter I was in a bookstore and picked up a copy of Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life. I’m not one to believe in signs but I happened to flip to a passage in which Pete said that drinking takes away two things a writer needs — memory and clarity. His words punched me in the chest. I was in the early stages of becoming a wannabe writer. I’d fall asleep with three wines in me and wake the morn with no recollection of the brilliant idea I’d had the night before. But I wanted it. I needed it to prove to myself and my progeny that I could care enough, for a very long time, the kind of time it takes to be good at something. Pete Hamill saved my life.
It took a good six months but I finally lost the taste for the buzz. It knocks once in a while, but I’ve learned not to answer. My drinking didn’t so much stop as recede, like a prairie from a railroad. Thanks again, Pete. Cheers.