Sunday Night Drunks

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The old man grabbed Mike’s shoulder abruptly, then physically turned Mike to face him. “Saaaaaaaaaay! A little longer with me-saaaaaaaay!” He sang nonsense words in an off-key drawl, trying hard to harmonize with the inane music blaring from the overhead speakers. The words didn’t match at all.

“You know a guy like me and that’s over there,” he nodded his head toward the bar as he slapped Mike’s shoulder a few times, then he stumbled toward his bar stool, sat down, and took a swig of beer. He wore a long sleeve pullover and a ball cap over a pair of beige shorts, and he was likely in his late 60s. He immediately conjured images of Bobby Moynihan’s character Drunk Uncle from Saturday Night Live a few years ago.

Working hard to contain my laughter, I leaned in and whispered in my boyfriend Mike’s ear. “So that just happened.”

He turned to me, mock horror on his face. “What was that?”

And I just grinned. “Clearly, he is very interested in you. He tried serenading you! And then a guy like him and that over there!”

Mike fought off laughter. “What does that even mean?”

A feigned look of seriousness crossed my face. “Look, you have a free pass tonight. If you want to go home with that very handsome man, you are certainly allowed for tonight only.”

“No thank you!” Mike pursed his lips and narrowed his eyebrows, staring me down, then we both burst out laughing.

The bartender, a thick barrel of a man with a full beard, whispered an apology to us. “Guys like that, drunk this early on a Sunday night, well, let’s just say I’ve seen him do worse than that.”

We both ordered a gin and tonic, then sat down at an empty table to sip our drinks and chat. The bar was mostly empty. After a long weekend of hanging out with the kids, running errands, and working in the house, we thought we might head down to the local gay bar, the Sun Trapp, for an evening drink. I wanted to go early, Mike wanted to go late. It was a holiday weekend, I reasoned, so maybe it would be busy early, giving that Labor Day was the next day. So we compromised and arrived at the bar at 9:30. He was right, it was dead.

Random conversation between us varied from topic to topic. We discussed guys we used to date, our high school graduations, and what we had looked like as teenagers. We laughed at old family stories and held hands across the table. I watched through the window to where a solo man, clearly very drunk, gyrated on a dance floor all by himself to a techno-version of some song that should never have had a techno-version of it made. All in all, it was a lovely evening. I commented on how this didn’t feel like Salt Lake City, this felt like some small town gay bar in an unfamiliar place on a week night. And we laughed about that as we finished our drinks.

A half hour passed as we chit-chatted, and we decided we could do one more drink before heading home for the night. (I had to work in the morning, but he’d get to sleep in). We went back up to the bar to wait our turn, then heard a man walk up behind us.

He made a clicking sound with his tongue, appraising us uncomfortably, then he walked up to the side and looked us over. “Well, Charlie,” he said to his friend at the bar, “look at these gents. They don’t have an ounce of fat on them! Not that I’m complaining!” Mike gave an awkward laugh and avoided eye contact as the man continued. He clearly hadn’t looked closely, as there is at least one ounce of fat on me. “I mean, I don’t mean to be friendly, but as much as I enjoyed the view from the back, look at the view from over here! I better not be too friendly, Charlie, or the next words to come out of my mouth will be ‘drop your pants!'”

Mike gave me a look that indicated he wanted to roll his eyes. Just then the bartender indicated to the drunk old man that had been singing that his cab had arrived.

“I ain’t gettin’ in no cab!” he slurred. “I know I ordered it, but I ain’t going! And I ain’t cut off, even if you say I am or was!” He struggled to stand up from his stool, clearly outraged in his drunken stupor.

The new man continued speaking, and I finally looked over at him. He looked like a hippie, with a bandana around his head, and a long beard that extended past his rib cage. His face was old and weathered. He wore a baggy t-shirt to hide his ample stomach, and a pair of jean shorts.

“Not that anyone is asking me, but a few years back, I up and quit everything and now I’m driving a truck! I can have anybody I want back there. A while back, my brother-in-law told me he needed to find me a girlfriend, but I just told him, I don’t need no girlfriend, I just need me a sex slave! He called me crass, but I’m not afraid to say it! I’m 63 years old, what do I have to lose! Nobody wants any of this anyway! Now I just gotta find somebody who does!”

My attention went back to the previously singing man. “I’m not going, I say! I want one more!”

By the time I could turn back, the truck driver was hitting on a girl who had lined up behind me at the bar. “Well now, a pretty girl like you needs a drink! What do you want, honey?”

We left shortly after that and headed home. I contemplated all of the little bars in all of the little towns around the world, all with drunks just like these guys, early on a Sunday night, flirting blatantly with whoever walked in front of them. It was entertaining, but heartbreaking also in its way.

Sober and content, I drove toward home, jabbing Mike with my elbow.

“You were very popular this evening!”

He wasn’t flattered. Not at all.

Boozed

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My brother vomited on me when I was 7.

He came into the room drunk, at age 15, and vomited sticky alcohol on my bed, where I’d been sleeping. When I jumped out of bed, I landed in more of it, slipping in it and landing on the floor.

Twenty years later, I was working as a substance abuse professional  in a drug and alcohol treatment center on a reservation, primarily treating Native American clients. Despite having never tasted alcohol or drugs in any form, I assessed my clients on their alcohol struggles, pretending I was an expert. Teaching my group of adolescent males one evening, I assigned them to draw a picture of their first experience with alcohol, using markers, crayons, and colored pencils. On my blank sheet of paper, I drew a childlike image of my seven-year old self being vomited on.

During my time as a substance abuse professional, I saw some of the worst consequences of drug and alcohol dependency. Men who violently harmed others while using. Drunk driving related accidents that resulted in death. Children taken away by Child Protective Services due to parents using drugs in front of them. Sexual assaults. Prison sentences. And I saw the injustices of the system, stacked against the offender who has no money, endless lists of court requirements to accomplish that make holding a job and having family responsibilities impossible.

These experiences shaped my religious and cultural beliefs: that alcohol was bad, bad, bad. Growing up Mormon, I learned about the Word of Wisdom, a religious teaching that teaches Church members to avoid alcohol, drugs, and coffee. The teaching was pretty direct, but the culture that formed around it was one of distaste, disgust, and condemnation. I saw those who chose to drink alcohol, or worse, do drugs, as selfish, poor decision makers with little self-control who needed to make better choices and be called to repentance.

And then it was suddenly Christmas Day, 2011, and I tried my first sip of alcohol, a frothy taste of spiked egg nog. I was 33 years old. The drink was good, tasty, and I remember getting a feeling of anticlimactic awareness afterwards; I drank and everything in the world was still fine. A few weeks later, I tried my first vodka-cranberry, and a few weeks after that my first rum-and-coke. They were delicious and made me feel happy, comfortable, and relaxed. It took me longer to try beer and wine, hard alcohol and various mixed drinks. And I learned a very simple lesson: drinking alcohol is fun so long as you drink smart and responsibly.

I’ve come to love that loose relaxed feeling a drink can bring, like all the little wires of stress in my brain unravel and I just want to smile. It’s like slipping into a hot bath tub, that initial rush. Yet many make that fatal mistake of drinking more and more to prolong the result, but more leads to dizziness, muddled thoughts, electric brain and poor equilibrium and decision-making.

I’m 37 now and I still approach the world with a certain amount of naivete and innocence, but I do take care of myself. Last night, I went out dancing with a few friends. I had two drinks during the course of the evening, and smiled and relaxed and danced. And then I was done drinking and had water instead. I watched as some of the people around me started to get sloppy, slouching against walls, unable to stand up straight or walk well. I watched some get flirtatious with others, making their dates or spouses jealous. One man flirted with me aggressively until I rebuffed him, and I saw him ten minutes later drunk and asleep on a corner floor.

Many members of my family still have a very negative reaction to the idea of drinking. A beer in the fridge or a public mention of an alcoholic beverage elicits a sad, ashamed face, like the ones I give when I hear about some sort of deep offense or betrayal.

In most areas of my life, I dwell comfortably in the middle, on my own terms. I like alcohol, carefully paced and planned for, and enjoy the relaxation and sunny outlook it can bring. I prepare before I drink, making sure I’m hydrated and fed, and that I’ve exercised earlier in the day. Yet I get weary of those who drink too much or who don’t take care of themselves. Drinking responsibly means self-care before and after and arranging rides home.

My relationship with alcohol has changed a lot over the years. It can literally destroy. But a drink now and then is nothing to be ashamed over.