The Problem With Staying Sober

You never get drunk

A long time ago I had a shiny black bedroom, exactly the size of my single bed. I woke up in it most noons feeling like this:

The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by the secret police. He felt bad.

Kingsley Amis wrote that in Lucky Jim a long time ago. As for me, the secret police of my mind have been leaving me alone, for the most part. I just passed three years of not drinking.

I would like to report that I don’t miss the bad old days at all. But it’s a little trickier than that. The end of small creatures dying in my mouth during the night also means the end of that moment–three or four pops into it–when my possibilities were large and lurking just around the corner, and the lousy stuff of my life was at least amusing.

I miss that moment, when nothing really mattered. And I will certainly miss it tonight, when I walk into our Best of Philly party up on North Broad Street.

It will be a fine party. I used to get drunk at these affairs and flirt with women too young for me by, oh, three decades. Exactly what these parties are designed for. Now what?

I just googled “why I went back to drinking,” and man, I was hoping for some bit of élan out of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers scene, maybe some bit of wisdom from Noel Coward. Instead it’s sad sacks who pop up, who write things like “My biggest problem in the past was failure. When I failed at something small I could get through it, but I did not let it go.”

Anyway, Noel Coward has been replaced by Charlie Sheen. I was rooting for Charlie there for a moment, even as his rock star of decadence stance could never last. This is who I am, he was saying. Screw you. Screw everybody.

I found that kind of refreshing. He might be crazy. He might also be saying something honest about mortality, as he was saying what he actually thought.

I think we’ve gotten really bad at that. Instead, we obsess over a lot of small things. Yesterday I saw an item in the Inquirer warning about a new danger related to smoking: “More than 80 percent of the adolescents with hearing loss did not know they had a problem. The study authors suggest periodic hearing tests for adolescents exposed to secondhand smoke,” evidently because if you have a problem you don’t know about and don’t suffer from, you need to be brought up to speed.

Really, losing a little hearing over a little smoke in the den of your adolescence does not matter. Though this is a dangerous thing to suggest, because we think that everything matters. A thousand years from now, anthropologists will look at this era and scratch their heads: Man, they sure worried over a lot of stupid stuff. Didn’t they know they’d be dead soon?

That is what I miss about drinking, because what inevitably pops up–a few glasses into it–is that very little is really all that important. Which might not be a philosophy to take to the bank, but it certainly beats worrying about secondhand smoke dulling the cochlea of kids, or realizing how foolish it might be to chat up women half my age.

Tonight, I will move about the Best of Philly party, worked hard on by many people, attended by many terrific and important Philadelphians. I will make small talk with some of them.

I will pluck a small piece of food from a tray or two. And I will keep moving, and make two loops, and on my third I will slip right out the door, into North Philly on a warm summer night. Where I am sure there are no secret police.