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Authors: Pete Hamill

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A Drinking Life (43 page)

Across those first months, I began to think that I only had to give up one drink: the next one. If I didn’t have
that
drink, I’d never have another. If that was a trick, then the trick worked, most of the time. The rest of the time, I needed words. For years, I had interviewed politicians in bars. Now I suggested we go for a cup of coffee. Dinner parties were problems because I was always explaining myself.

No, I don’t drink, thank you.

Not even
wine?

Nothing, thanks.

But
why?

I have no talent for it, I said.

Now I saw more clearly what drinking did to people. In Hollywood, I met old directors and forgotten screenwriters and unemployed actors: all broken by booze. I heard jokes about the Malibu AA, where there were eleven actors in one group and one driver’s license. But I didn’t laugh, felt no comfort in their humiliation. I remembered some of the final tortured stories by Scott Fitzgerald and felt surges of pity, for Fitzgerald, for the people I met, for my friends. I resisted pitying myself. I have stopped, I said to myself. If I begin again, I don’t even deserve pity.

The temptation to begin again grew weaker and then, before the year was finished, disappeared. Somehow, I’d replaced the habit of drinking with the habit of nondrinking. I still visited bars, listened to the stories, remembered the few memorable remarks, but even the bartenders now began to pour a soda when I walked in. My own imagination helped me. I couldn’t imagine enduring again the physical horrors of hangover. And I didn’t ever want to spend a day lacerating myself over the social or personal crimes and misdemeanors I’d committed while drinking. No more apologies for stupid phone calls, asinine remarks, lapses in grace. I might still do such things, but I would do them with an unimpaired mind.

Now I had more time than I’d ever had as an adult. I had gained the time I once spent drinking and the time I needed for recovery. And I began writing as never before, studying the craft with a professional’s forever unsatisfied standards. I had lived past the first rush of arrival, when raw talent can carry you across most barriers. Now I had to learn enough to last a lifetime. I’m still learning.

2

O
NE JANUARY
afternoon, after five sober years, I went for another walk in the snow. The children were home in the big house on Prospect Park West, and if I had not yet repaired some of the damage I’d inflicted on them and others, I was trying, I was trying. I wandered into the park, which was whitening under the heavy snowfall. And stood under a dense pine tree and then imagined figures coming down hills and across snowy meadows. Down there by the lake, Maureen Crowley was waiting for me on a bench. Over in the boathouse, Burne Hogarth was explaining trapezoids and Laura was in a blue smock, pulling heavy drags on a cigarette, while snow skirled like fog. In the snow, my mother was calling us home to dinner. Tim was there and Billy and Jake, all of us laughing, bellywhopping on Suicide Hill before heading for Boop’s, and Jose was jogging down snowy roads, and Joel Oppenheimer was defiantly smoking his black tobacco cigarettes while snow gathered on his Mets cap. Beside the Swan Lake, the Tigers and the South Brooklyn Boys were gathering in some violent ritual of the tribe. Up on the hill beside the Quaker Cemetery, Bomba the Jungle Boy was waiting out the winter beside a fire in a cave.

Then I heard my father singing.

On the west coast of Ireland

One morning there was seen …

And I loved my life, with all its hurts and injuries and failures, and the things I now saw clearly, and the things I only remembered through the golden blur of drink. I reached down and took a great mound of fresh snow in my hands and began to eat. I was home. I was free. I’d leave the rest to Providence and Paddy McGinty’s goat.

The author is grateful for permission to include the following previously copyrighted material:

Excerpt from “We’re Off to See the Wizard” by E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. Copyright © 1938, 1939 (renewed 1965, 1966) by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. c/o EMI Feist Catalog Co. By permission of CPP/Belwin, Inc.

Excerpt from “Paddy McGinty’s Goat” by R. P. Weston, B. Lee, B. Adams, and B. Allen. Copyright © 1917 renewed 1945 by Francis Day & Hunter Ltd. and Jerry Vogel. By permission of EMI Music Publishing.

Excerpt from “(There’ll Be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” words by Nat Burton and music by Walter Kent. Copyright © 1941 by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc., and Walter Kent Music Company. By permission of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc.

Excerpt from “Solamente Una Vez” by Agustin Lara. Copyright © 1941 by Promotora Hispano Americana de Musica S.A., copyright renewed. By permission of Peer International Corporation.

Excerpt from “La Cama de Piedra” by Cuco Sá\nchez. Copyright © 1957 by Editorial Musicana de Musica Internacional S.A., copyright renewed. By permission of Peer International Corporation.

Excerpt from “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell. Copyright © 1971, 1975 by Joni Mitchell Publishing Corp. By permission of Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Excerpt from “Stele for a Northern Republican” from
Born in Brooklyn
by John Montague. By permission of White Pine Press.

Excerpt from “Fall 1961” from
For the Union Dead
by Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell; copyright renewed © 1992 by Harriet Lowell, Sheridan Lowell, and Caroline Lowell. By permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.

Excerpts from “In the Egyptian Gardens” from
The Strange Museum
by Tom Paulin. By permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.

Excerpt from “Animals” from
The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
by Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1969 by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O’Hara. By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

“Magnificent.
A Drinking Life
is about growing up and growing old, working and trying to work, within the culture of drink.”
—Boston Sunday Globe

As a child during the Depression and World War II, Pete Hamill learned early that drinking was an essential part of being a man, inseparable from the rituals of celebration, mourning, friendship, romance, and religion. Only later did he discover its ability to destroy any writer’s most valuable tools: clarity, consciousness, memory. In
A Drinking Life,
Hamill explains how alcohol slowly became a part of his life, and how he ultimately left it behind. Along the way, he summons the mood of an America that is gone forever, with the bittersweet fondness of a lifetime New Yorker.

“A vivid report of a journey to the edge of self-destruction. Tough-minded, brimming with energy and unflinchingly honest.”

— New York Times

“A remarkable memoir. Energetic, compelling, very funny, and remarkably — indeed, often brutally — candid, Hamill’s tale won’t soon be forgotten. An author of rare distinction and moral force.”

— Entertainment weekly

PETE HAMILL began his writing career as a night-side reporter for the
New York Post
in 1960. He is the author of seven novels and two collections of stories, and his writing has appeared in most national magazines. He has been a columnist for many years, and currently writes a column for
New York Newsday.
He lives in New York City with his wife, writer Fukiko Aoki.

Cover design by Steve Snider

Cover photograph courtesy of Bettmann

Author photograph by Fred R. Conrad

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