Mr. wOw’s Highs and Lows

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The screwdriver that changed Mr. wOw’s life.

Mr. wOw had to have been one of the most cautious 15-year-old runaways ever. He had never been a “bad boy”; didn’t cuss, didn’t sass his mother (too afraid of her hair-trigger temper and stunning slaps for any of that) and didn’t hang around with a bad crowd. Or any crowd. Mr. wOw, a little husky, bespectacled and fascinated with old movies, wasn’t exactly popular. I was a truant and a great big liar in every matter concerning school, and it was that issue that finally propelled me from home, for good. (“We’re going to send you away,” said the guidance counselors. I figured I’d go before I was “sent.”)

I wasn’t afraid, the day I hopped the subway and headed for Times Square. I knew exactly how I was going to get by. I was not naïve or un-experienced. My disordered childhood had left me fatalistic, singing a very dark version of “Que Sera, Sera.” I never once wondered, “How have I ended up here?” Only, “Of course you’re here – what else can you expect?”

But despite sordid surroundings and interactions with people living on the edge, Mr. wOw disdained both drugs and drink. Neither was at all appealing. Drunks, with whom I often had to deal, were disgusting. And I hated the smell of liquor. Drugs? Not in a million years. What was the point? I didn’t even smoke cigarettes. I liked my consciousness just as it was and didn’t see a need for it to be altered. Anyway, considering the life I led, especially my first year away from home, I needed all my wits about me.

In time, Mr. wOw settled down a bit (no more night after night on the streets), made real friends for the first time in my life and very much enjoyed the burgeoning liberation of the era. Of course, I wasn’t working, so I could be “liberated” whenever and wherever I pleased.

However, I was still drug-free and abstentious. This could not last.

At a party with friends, at which Mr. wOw thought he and everybody else was having a great time, the host suddenly announced: “You are the only person here who is not stoned and you are bringing everybody down.” Well, when one is 17, one does not wish to be told he is bringing the party to a screeching halt with his fussy attitudes on drugs. And so quicker than you can say peer pressure, I popped my first tab of acid. It was OK. Had some fun, got a bit paranoid, had to be kept away from mirrors because tripping I saw myself as hideously unattractive. And so it went for the next few years. I never sought out acid, but rarely refused when it was offered. Lord knows, I didn’t want to bring the party down! (For the record, Mr.wOw has never sampled cocaine, heroin, meth, Ecstasy or any other recreational drugs.) I would take a puff or two on a joint but really hated that – I loathed all forms of smoking.

There were some hilarious times under the influence of LSD and some really bad trips. One was an epic freak-out that had me running down the street in my underwear – all the way to the sedate West Side Hotel where I was living – and convinced if I leapt out the window the entire evening would be reversed and I could refuse the drug that was now so terribly affecting me. (This made total sense to me!) Luckily I did not live alone and I was forcibly restrained from a death plunge until I moved from utterly crazy to my usual – but un-fatal – acid paranoia.

Drinking continued to repulse me. My boyfriend of 33 years (I really hate the term “partner”) still reminds me of when we first met, some years before we officially got together. We’d run into each other at bars and he’d be drinking beer and I’d be all, “Ugh, how can you? Drinking is bad. It smells bad. Bad for your health!” Then we’d go to his place.

This distaste for demon rum lasted until I was 19. I’d been hitting the bars since I was 15, but managed to get away with grabbing an empty glass, filling it with water in the bathroom and pretending it was a drink. I thought this was pretty clever. But one weekend I went up to Amherst, MA, with a friend. We went to a local bar. He was not amused by my machinations to get out of drinking. “This is ridiculous. You’re a man, you’ve got to learn how to drink. Here, take this. It’s called a screwdriver. You won’t even taste the vodka.” Well, when you are 19, you don’t want your manhood questioned over a little thing like drinking. Quicker than you can say more peer pressure, I gulped that screwdriver.

Hmm! Why, I didn’t taste the vodka. It was a slightly bitter orange juice. Sure, I’ll have another. And another. And another. Six screwdrivers later I was on my ass. I woke up with six heads and all of them had crashing hangovers. Oh, no! If this was drinking I wanted no part of it. I was so right to have abstained all these years.

Silly me. Whereas I had no inherent attraction to drugs, apparently drink was in my blood. (Well, my dad was an Irish singing bartender.) For all the pain of my first hangover, as soon as I got back to Manhattan, at the first bar I went into, I ordered … a screwdriver. My career as a youthful barfly began.

And so, from the age of 19 to the age 57, the present time, drinking has been an issue in my life. Oh, there were plenty of good times. I really enjoyed being buzzed. And in my careless unemployed youth, which lasted until I was 24, I can’t say I regret my love to lush. Later, my drinking – my incredible capacity, my recklessness under the influence – would have severe and lasting consequences. I carry a great deal of guilt.

Eventually, the vodka disappeared from the freezer and the gallon jug of white wine from the fridge. By that point I was in my late 30s. Drink had not affected my work, but it was only a matter of time. I stopped cold for six months, and then, almost by accident, found I could drink socially, not morning till night. (Mr. wOw keeps a totally dry house. If you come for dinner, BYOB.)

But even drinking “moderately” is probably no good for me. The temptation to have just one more – and then another – is always there. A few times a year I give in, and suffer hellishly after. I haven’t lost my taste for it. I still like the liquor buzz and the convivial spirit of the bar. I would call myself a controlled alcoholic. Or maybe that’s a copout? If you like it as much as I do, maybe you are simply an alkie – don’t try to dance around it with a temperate adjective.

Drinking has brought me a great deal of pleasure and a mountain of pain. I don’t have to imagine what my life would be if I’d never taken that first screwdriver, if I’d never found that I just loved liquor. I know what it would be – much better, healthier, happier.

And most important – I wouldn’t have to spend those few extra minutes in the morning dabbing concealer on the broker capillaries on the side of my nose.

This story has no moral or wind-up. Because as soon as it’s written I’m going to have a margarita.

And when work is over, I’ll struggle with the impulse to have another. I’ll probably win that struggle today. But I won’t feel too smug. Tomorrow is another day.

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