Just in time for my 23rd birthday, I was laid off from a job I loved but, in retrospect, wasn’t ready for. It served as impetus for 13 days of drinking, a kind of extended pity party.
I should note that my birthday and last day at my first professional job wasn’t technically the start of the drinking; my go-away day was a Monday and as a young man living in a city with friends who liked to celebrate, I had already partaken on the previous Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When you work at a seven-weekend festival that’s wrapping up, that amount of celebration is not unusual. What followed was, at least for me.
Not only had I lost my job, but I had just moved to a new place where my two roommates were headed out of town for a festival in California, leaving me in kind of an empty nest. One of them never even moved back in and the other one still owes me money. But that’s water under the bridge; the point is that many things conspired to make me want to drown my sorrows.
When you have your 23rd birthday, there’s nothing unusual at all to have a few drinks on a Monday. And the next night was Flip Night at the old Shacki Patch, where a really good band always played and if you called heads or tails correctly when the bartender flipped a coin, you got your drink for free. I don’t remember Wednesday’s deal, but Thursday was Men Are Pigs Night at the Ferris Wheel, where you paid $2 at the door and could fill almost anything (beer ball, garbage can, you name it) for $2.25 (alas, it was Golden Anniversary) and, again, you’d hear a good band play.
Then the weekend came about and the cycle repeated.
Finally, on a Wednesday, a friend called and asked if I wanted to go out, and I just said no. I’ve come to realize that moment of knowing this could all keep going south was a big moment.
The days in between
“These are the days in between,” a song by that name by Canadian band Blue Rodeo would say many years later, “when everything seems hollow and mean. Don’t want to move, just want to forget. Smoke another cigarette and go back to bed.” Substitute “alcohol” for “cigarette” and you pretty much had the second half of that August.
In my new unemployed state, I would rise in the morning feeling number, draw a bath and listen to an earlier Blue Rodeo album, “Casino.” It’s still one of my favorites but the songs really hit my mood. Like album opener “Til I Am Myself Again.”
I want to know where my confidence went
One day it all disappeared
And I’m lying in a hotel room miles away
Voices next door in my ears
Daytime’s a drag
Night time’s worse
Hope that I can get home soon
But the half-finished bottles of inspiration
Lie like ghosts in my room
Admittedly, I wasn’t in a hotel room, but I felt a sense of transience that left me rootless. After what seems like a pretty successful college run, I’d moved four times in the previous months and now lived in a place virtually abandoned by the roommates I’d moved in. In days before the internet, you just had the phone, the front doors of your friends’ places and alcohol. Lots of alcohol.
Fire and ice
As I tried to come to grips from going from award-winning college journalist to finding what seemed like the perfect job to applying for unemployment benefits and feeling like a drain on the society I had wanted to better, finding solace in a bottle was not difficult. The house I lived in was a couple doors down from a Paura’s Liquors where Mad Dog 20/20 was available for about two bucks. The Pauras owned the first place I lived in town, and then where I moved as I started my drinking days. Months after I moved out into another apartment they owned over the liquor store, that house of blues burned down under suspicious circumstances, at least if you buy the story that a tenant who was evicted told the landlord, “I’m going to burn your fucking house down,” and shortly thereafter somebody who knew about the well-hidden basement started a fire in it. I don’t know if he successfully fled or if somehow the mystery wasn’t solved.
The liquor store, which I lived over before and after the house itself, just burned down a few months ago. In between, a bar across the street from it named Embers (ironic, in hindsight) also burned down, under suspicious circumstances. As did the New York Pizzeria a block down, which was a frequent source of sustenance. So much of my past burned, but not before I tried to burn my own future.
Embers — which featured a special of a pitcher of Bud Dry or Bud Ice (remember that?) for $2.10 — was one of my several bars in the neighborhood, on top of the apartments of friends who gladly shared their alcohol with me, as I would with them (the liquor store did good business).
Other bars in the area included:
The Sting, right across the street at West Third and Bridge, which had a nice patio. I had a portable phone that got reception there, the novelty of being in a bar and being able to send and receive calls predating the popularity of cellphones, which has since slid into a selfie, self-centered, phone-fixated culture. But I digress. The Sting is still there, although I couldn’t tell you when I last visited.
Walking down Bridge between Second and Third streets, you would first encounter the oddly named Gokey’s Cheese Shop. It was a generally quiet place where the college theater kids, some of whom were my brother’s friends, would hang out. It later became Cafe Zero, a quasi-biker bar with the best jukebox in town (blues, obscure rock, etc.). It is now the eastern half of my current favorite bar, The Raven, and the Cafe Zero sign hangs in the women’s bathroom.
Step out of Gokey’s, walk a few steps west and up a flight of stairs and you’d be in The Brick Bar. With its brick decor and nice view of downtown, it has remained somewhat encased in amber, almost the same as those days. I visited most frequently when a friend bartended and offered, ahem, drink specials not on the menu. I keep meaning to go to the Brick when they host a band called the Red Elvises, described as “a Russian-American band that performs funk rock, surf, rockabilly, reggae, folk rock, disco and traditional Russian styles of music.” Which is simply the most beautiful description of a band I’ve ever read.
Stumble back onto Bridge Street and hang a left on West Second and you’d reach Hard Times. Whether a literary reference or an apt description of a rust belt town during the recession, the place had a crooked pool table where we learned to play the slant and a bartender named Renee who always seemed to be working. We were often the only ones in it. No surprise it didn’t stay open much longer. It’s been renovated and is now a calzone eatery.
From there, you’d travel a couple blocks down to the short Water Street for the rest of the neighborhood bars. The aforementioned Ferris Wheel was apparently a former punk club with chain-link fence on windows. It was a total dive and I loved it. It’s been through a stretch of businesses, including Club Crystal, but then came back as just The Wheel.
Across the street sits one of the venerable bars in town, Old City Hall. So named because, well, it used to be the city hall. A majestic building that has been in various conditions over the year, it attracted a more earthy clientele and Dead-influenced and cover bands were the usual fare.
If you crossed Bridge to the upper part of Water Street, which is a parking lot, you could find Shenanigans open some night. It was also owned by the people who had laid me off, so while it was a nice place, I wasn’t in any hurry to visit. But it didn’t stay open long either.
The road out and back
Any and all of these places were stops, early and often, during my 13 days as a drunk. The thing about an extended bender is that you’re not necessarily drunk the whole time, but you are drinking for a lot of it.
Usually a beer, some cheap vodka, some 20/20 or whatever else was in the house was part of my post-long-bath lunch, perhaps with ramen noodles or mac and cheese or a sandwich. Sometimes I went out in early afternoon or, when more patient, waited for my friends to get out of work. They’d call me or I’d call them, but I almost always had somebody willing to lend an ear and bend an elbow for a beer. With no need to drive, we didn’t put the brakes on our habit til we were tired or closing time.
Then stumble home, the block or so back to my empty apartment a trip of building sadness and loneliness. I’d shut off the lights, put in a cassette tape and lay on my mattress and stare at the ceiling, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Or I’d climb in the hammock on the small back porch and swing back and forth, gazing at the stars and feeling especially small.
Then, finally, I had enough of having enough.
A friend called to see if I wanted to go out drinking, but before I could turn the corner into my third week of drinking, I politely said no, I didn’t feel like going out that night. After some small talk, I hung up and felt a bit better. Hangovers and drinking binges and blackouts can only seem like reasonable answers for so long.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time but, knowing some alcoholics who never figured out how to refuse a drink, I realize in retrospect it was a big step. If you or a loved one are battling the bottle, hope exists.
Summer melted into fall, the patio bar of The Sting was filled with leaves instead of people, and then winter settled in. Winters in my town are, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, invented by God to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like. Fortunately, I felt that actual feeling less and less.
I worked a couple of weeks at the beginning of the spring semester at the college bookstore, a time they called rush when they hired additional temporary help. As expected, that time came to an end but with an employer actually thanking me and saying they were sorry they couldn’t keep me on. Even as I went back on unemployment, that bit of uplift meant a lot.
Within a couple of months, I was interviewing for an actual dream job — doing publicity for Oswego’s Harborfest. I’d never actually done PR in my life, although my friends at the newspaper who were PR majors asked me to help me with their homework, so I read their books, helped a bit, and sniffed: “A PR person is a cross between a journalist and a whore.” But then I discovered I really wanted to be a whore, so to speak, to sell a festival that I enjoyed to the world.
While I’d written news stories, I had never penned a press release and had only news clippings in my portfolio. So I went to Penfield Library on campus and read every PR book I could find as well as “What Color is Your Parachute?” I came up with the idea of writing a news release on myself as my cover letter, and sent everything off. I figured it would either net an interview or a one-way ticket to a garbage can.
It got me an interview. It went OK. They gave the job to someone else.
That person quit after one day.
I was a number-two choice, but the festival director called me and essentially gave my life a second chance. I worked for Harborfest for seven years, learned a lot, made countless friends and built professional experience that still underpins what I do at work.
And, more importantly, has never made me want to drink for 13 days in a row again.