The Only Good Teacher I Ever Had
David Drake was the only good teacher I ever had, or at least the only teacher I was glad to run into later in life. David was a college English II professor of mine back in Florida. He was youngish then, 31 maybe, feathered hair, smart and funny as hell. He introduced me to Guided By Voices via a full 90-minute tape he dubbed just for me. He was the first to push Bukowski on me — Bukowski, who would later help to try and kill David.
David was a great teacher, convincingly passionate, simultaneously cynical and hopeful. A thin sheen of whiskers shadowed his neatly trimmed face. He smelled not too much like nice cologne and was clearly into personal perfection. He was never without a tie. I would sometimes see David Drake out in the world partying very hard with his “older” friends, and even then he always wore a tie, with tucked in dress shirt.
In David’s class in Florida, I wrote a paper about Kate Chopin’s famous Louisiana novel, “The Awakening” wherein I “proved” that the main character actually didn’t [SPOILER ALERT] kill herself in the waters of Grande Isle, a treatment David loved; technically he was the first person to ever tell me that I should try and get something published. I ignored his advice for a long time though and focused on music until I graduated and moved away from Florida to Louisiana.
In 2001, I am living in New Orleans and writing my first novel (something neither David nor any other teacher of mine would’ve ever predicted). Just as I begin looking for an editor to read my final draft in a town where I know no one, I receive an email from David Drake, who’d seen my name on a New Orleans byline. We hadn’t spoken in seven years. He now lived in the French Quarter, about a mile from my apartment. No shit.
We meet up and hit it off even deeper, because now we’re both grown. He is very excited to help me with my novel, and invites me over to his microscopic, book-crammed but impeccably neat French Quarter apartment for weekly editing sessions. He walks me through changes he’s annotated in each chapter. During every visit he is always tucked in with tie. I wonder if he removes it after I leave each night around midnight, before he turns his small couch into his small bed.
David’s editing suggestions are all top-shelf. I should be paying him thousands of dollars. But he simply likes hanging and helping me tell my story of moving to New Orleans. He appreciates especially its glorified drinking and drugging, and the way there is no darkness in it; I make it all sound fun as hell, he says, as he compares me positively to his ideal: “Bukowski uses alcohol to mask pain, but you use it strictly to increase pleasure. It’s real nice.”
David though, has used alcohol to almost kill himself, he admits as we edit. “Yeah, I almost died,” he chuckles, pen in hand, tie around his throat. “That was pretty recently, just since I’ve been living in the Quarter.” He follows up with the “funny” anecdote of how he once in blackout gave the VertiMart delivery guy his $800 in rent money instead of $80 for the vodka he ordered. “I was reading too much Bukowski,” he laughs again, like it was all ages ago. “Unfortunately, my hero was an acute alcoholic poet who lived in the French Quarter.”
Bukowski is associated more with Los Angeles, but he lived in New Orleans in the early 60s while his first real publisher, LouJon Press in the French Quarter, hand-printed hundreds of copies of Bukowski’s first ever books, It Catches My Heart In Its Hands and Crucifix in a Deathhand. I hadn’t known that before I moved to New Orleans. David, however, moved to the French Quarter specifically to live blocks from the former printing space.
But in his early 40s when we reconnect, David and his Greyhound lithe body can’t take the type of chronic alcohol abuse detailed in Bukowski’s books. David casually tells me scary stories of extreme symptoms. “The final straw was when my legs unceremoniously froze up and came out from under me,” he laughs, looking so healthy and vaguely happy now it’s hard to imagine he only recently suffered from what old-timey doctors call “alcohol leg,” a sort of multi-neurological demolition derby, sponsored by drinking until you can’t keep down food. Paralysis sets in the extremities, and spreads in a “stocking-and-glove pattern,” quoth the health terminology — a detail right out of Bukowski.
With just his parents’ love as medicine, David yanked himself back from death’s precipice on his own. Statistics on the success rates of alcoholics trying and quit on their own aren’t encouraging, but then nothing is. Professor of neuroscience Bankole Johnson at the University of Virginia School of Medicine claimed in Scientific American (July 2011), “Data suggest that [rehab is] not much better than spontaneous rates of recovery. For alcoholism, up to a quarter of people respond on their own, and a lot of recovery centers have rates that are not even that high.”
So, David is making his own rules of recovery. First, he imposes loneliness. He says that since his death dance, I am the first human he’s interacted with outside of work at the local community college. He has put himself under house arrest. His tiny apartment features a classic French iron lace balcony that he never walks out on, afraid to see people having alcohol-related fun.
David even feels the need to sell part of his extensive Bukowski collection. When he tells me he must take a break from Buk, I start to picture Chinasky as David’s burdensome drinking buddy. Every authority from AA to Psychology Today agrees that ex alcoholics must do away with their old drinking buddies: “If your loved one is starting to hang out with the old gang…” states the official AA literature, “eventually…they will succumb to their old ways.”
But despite even his Bukowski breakup, my youth doesn’t allow me to take his situation seriously enough. He invites me to bring my girlfriend over with me one night for dinner, and because I haven’t told her David’s life story she meets me there with beer in hand. After he implores us to feel comfortable drinking it in front of him, we drink it in front of him. I deeply regret this.
I also regret how he enjoyed living vicariously through my novel’s young, drunken lovebirds. He helps tremendously to streamline the work and in return I feed him life in New Orleans, life outside his walls. It clearly makes him maudlin. “This story has lots of life and feeling, man,” he tells me. “Me, I feel like I can’t really feel anything anymore. Not like I used to.” Alcohol leg for the soul.
But playing dressup clearly brings David comfort. He reminds me of the narrator of my favorite novel, The Extra Man: a confused young fellow who clings to the trappings of the “young gentleman” in a feeble attempt to impose order on the chaos his neurosis otherwise causes him. Japanese society is also said to have “necktie alcoholics”: white-collar drunks who aren’t considered alcoholics so long as they play their worker-bee roles. It became easier to imagine my brilliant professor as a former raging alcoholic once I also began wondering if he slept in dress shirt and necktie.
And then one night at his place as we work on my novel, I noticed he loosens his tie. The next week, beer shows up in his fridge, a six-pack of Budweiser tallboys.
“Wow, what’s up with that?” I chuckle. “Is that for me?”
“You can have some, of course.”
“But you didn’t buy it just for my visit?”
He says he’s been having half a glass of beer, cut with water, with his dinner lately. Tonight he plans to drink the other half of the can, cut with water, while we work on my novel.
I make jokes about The Wagon, and falling off, but really I have no clue how to address what I feel is coming for him. This is our last editing session. With about one-third of my novel left to go, David Drake disappears, or at least quits answering his phone, his email, and his French Quarter doorbell.
It makes me as sad and worried and guilty now as it did then. I continue trying to reach him for months. Finally, I write him a sixth email telling him that I am afraid he’s lapsed back into alcoholism and that I feel I have no choice but to try and contact his parents so that he will not die. And finally, he writes back.
“Don’t threaten me, asshole,” he says. My concern angers him, he lashes out. He doesn’t tell me why he disappeared while we are getting along so great, and doing great work together. Nor does he admit whether he’s drinking again, but he does give me his father’s phone number before telling me to fuck off. I never call his father. And I never hear from David Drake again.
I go no further, assuming that, just like Bukowski and everything else in the world, I was a trigger for him. He never joined AA, but he did what AA would have told him to do, and dumped me. He had to — though I’ve not found anything on the internet about how an alcoholic shouldn’t explain to their friend why they must let them go. If I served any positive purpose, maybe I helped chase David further up the ladder of sobriety, or helped him reach some other new finish line, as he certainly did for me.
If anyone recognizes the guy I’ve described, tell him that Michael Patrick Welch is glad he isn’t dead, and that my novel — which I eventually finished editing alone, and many people loved, and which I dedicated to David — wouldn’t be the same without the only teacher I still think of often.