The young man whose habitual drunkenness and general air of misery had once moved me to stage a clumsy one-man intervention, looked great — sober and fit. Reading that fact up front might ruin a little of the suspense, but our story winds through such a long spiral that it seems wise to toss it out like a highway flare.
It really begins last Friday evening, when I ran into a neighbor while walking to Circle K. After we’d talked for half a minute, he revealed to me that he’d lost his job.
This neighbor, whom I’ll call Bill, had been working as some kind of senior salesperson at Ikea. By his own account, he was one of few people on the floor with any clear idea of what he was doing, especially when it came to handling the end-of-summer rush that brought all the returning ASU students flying through the doors. “To envision it properly,” he used to say, “think back to the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan.”
When I asked him what his bosses had been thinking, he shrugged and said, “They offered to take me back at a reduced rate of pay and half my old hours.” He was half-smiling, as though cheered by the absurdity of the offer. “They didn’t want our pay cutting into their bonuses.” He shrugged again. “Corporate America.”
“Good God,” I said. I knew Bill just well enough to know that he was already sporting a laundry list of problems. He was HIV-positive. His mother was dying of some equally dread disease — I’m not sure, but I think lung cancer, which would explain why I’ve forgotten. I like to pretend lung cancer doesn’t exist. “You seem awfully cheerful about all this.”
Sighing theatrically, he shifted his eyes from me to the setting sun. Then he said something like “It is what it is” or “What are you going to do?” His smirk deepened, and as it did I realized exactly how the shit-eating grin got its name: it’s the grin you grin when you’re stuck eating shit and there’s no other dignified thing left to do.
Bill promised me the rest of the story if I agreed to meet him at a neighborhood bar. “Give me a couple of hours,” he said. “Because, first: pizza.”
“Comfort food,” I said, nodding. “Got it.”
Two hours passed, and I walked the 200 or so yards from my apartment to the bar, which, having remained in business for nearly 40 years, qualifies, by Valley standards, as a historic landmark. As far as I can tell, its walls have worn the same posters and license plates for that entire time. The clientele doesn’t dress, or for that matter behave, to impress. Nothing makes me feel less dissatisfied with my own four walls than nursing Diet Cokes for an hour or two in that stale ambience, surrounded by sloppy drunks.
When I opened the back door onto the patio, I saw no sign of Bill. Sitting around his favorite table were a few ancient regulars. Aside from them, the place was empty. After sitting alone at a banquette for a few minutes, I saw the door from the bar swing open. In walked the same Young Drunk whose fate I’d agonized over two years ago. Spotting me, he strode right over. I noticed his glass – actually, a paneled beer mug made from plastic – was filled with something that looked like water.
Pointing to it, I asked, “Are you off the – “
“Off the sauce,” he said. “You bet.” And then he pulled up a stool and told his story.
After living for a few months in his hometown in the Midwest, he’d come back to Phoenix and, to his surprise, found a better job in his field – “mental health care” – than the one he’d left, along with an apartment only a mile from his new workplace.
“Then,” he said, “this girl I work with sold me a car for $700. Everything fell into place. I remember thinking to myself, “Somebody up there likes me. Somebody up there really fucking likes me.”
Apparently spurred by this epiphany, he undertook some research. “I found this website that keeps track of all the places where you use your ATM card, and it told me I was spending $400 every month at this one bar by my house. Four hundred dollars! I wasn’t even drinking that much anymore – just a couple of drinks here, a couple of drinks there. So I said, ‘Fuck that – I want my disposable income back’.”
He looked much better than when I’d seen him last. He’d lost most of his beer gut, of course. The bloat had also vanished from his face, so that his skin looked taut and shiny. Truly, it was an impressive transformation. We talked for another 45 minutes or so. Gradually, I began to suspect Bill wouldn’t show – maybe he’d scarfed too much pizza too quickly and fallen asleep. I must have started looking restless, because the Young Drunk, now the Young Ex-Drunk, asked if I were getting ready to go. I told him I was and gave him my e-mail address. Then we said good-bye.
The truth is, I had wanted my reunion with the Young Ex-Drunk to end on an inspiring note. Call it an occupational hazard, but I spend so much time meditating on virtue and vice and the wages of sin that it nearly flattened me – in a good way, like winning the Lottery – to note that he’d not only landed on his feet but made a wholly rational decision to snuff out a bad habit. But toward the end, his conversation had taken a nebbishy turn – he’d started complaining about his sex life. (“I swear to you, I have no damned idea where to meet women.”) I left before it could spoil the effect.
Though neither had asked to compete for my admiration, I couldn’t help comparing the Young Ex-Drunk and Bill, which contest Bill aced hands-down. His unruffled fatalism looked like a mark of valor and good breeding. I could picture him saying, “Cheerio! Must dash, or Jerry will be cross,” before stubbing out his Woodbine and leading his company over the top at Loos. The Young Ex-Drunk’s thrashing-about in the mundane seemed base by comparison. It reminded me of my own thrashing.
A veteran of 12-step once told me that “sober” stands for Son Of A Bitch – Everything’s Real, which would explain the Young Ex-Drunk’s slack-jawed confusion. Bill’s fatal illness, the mememto mori he’s lived with for some time, could have had the opposite effect of teaching him detachment. Maybe I’ve seen too many war movies (a trait, judging by his Private Ryan reference, that Bill and I would seem to share), but detachment, when it looks like sang-froid, impresses me in the way that height and bulk impress me.
But, being content, for the moment, to admire these gifts from a distance, I’m glad Somebody Up There can still throw an occasional bone to those of us frailer specimens who cling with both hands to the here and now.