As an alcoholic, I was a complete failure.
I still remember the first time I got drunk. I was about seven or eight, and was with my parents and sister at the home of Aunt Gladys (my mother’s sister), her husband, Uncle Irv, and my cousins, Gil and Howard.
It was the Passover holiday, and as the symbolic (and customary) four glasses of wine were being consumed I was trying to hold my own. For all I know, it was four sips that I had taken, but that was enough to start the room spinning and for me to be carried to a nearby couch where I spent the rest of the evening reclining (yet another Passover tradition). I recall the adults being amused at my condition. (These days they would be called enablers.)
Some of you may recall a product called Ben-Gay, which has many supposed uses, but probably serves no purpose other than to make you feel more miserable than you were before, especially when you’re seven years old. Some well-meaning person applied it to my neck, and 70 years later I can still recall the distinct odor of this odious ointment. Whatever it did do, it didn’t stop the room from spinning. I don’t recall throwing up. (That would come in later years.)
Of course, drinking was not only reserved for holidays. It was not unusual to let kids drink the hard stuff prior to any festive occasion. Before meals at my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, my grandfather, Morris, whom I came to realize in later years subsisted primarily on alcohol, would bring out a tray of shot glasses and a bottle of Seagram’s or something similar, and all of the men would toast each other with a collective l’chaim! and take it down in one slug. This was referred to as a “shot of schnapps,” not to be confused with the commonly known flavored liqueur.
None of my uncles nor my father ever dissuaded me from joining the men, although my own “shot” might have been a quarter inch instead of a full jigger. Regardless, it sure burned going down. Very often I heard the phrase from the men, “That’ll put hair on your chest!” Those who have seen me without a shirt can attest that it worked. Miraculously well. (Obviously, the hairless chests sported by body-builders, actors, and most women signifies a lack of “schnapps” during their youth.)
My father typically drank a can of beer with his dinner virtually every night. Just one. It was usually Budweiser, as I recall, but it might have been Schlitz—I’m familiar with most of the major brands of that time. Regardless, he was not a beer snob. Nor did he buy it in bottles. A can of beer, and that was it. I never saw him drunk, or even tipsy. For that matter, I’m not sure he ever saw me drunk, except for that time when I was seven.
Dad had a well-stocked liquor cabinet, and when my parents entertained he was quick to offer one of the wide-variety of liqueurs in his collection: Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Bénédictine, Kahlúa, Galliano, Drambuie, Bailey’s, and Triple Sec, among others. It’s amazing that I can remember them all. In fact, after my parents passed in their nineties, my sister and I found many of those bottles in a storage closet. Most of the bottles were still half-full, and I left them for some anonymous party-goers.
My dad’s father Morris (of “schnapps” fame) was another story. He drank his beer from quart bottles. He also regularly fell down the stairs. It was a long time before I put those two activities together. He never seemed to get seriously injured by these falls, except for the last one. That’s when he broke his hip, which eventually led to his demise. To paraphrase Jesus, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” (I always thought that was a quote from Shakespeare until I read the New Testament. It’s amazing what you can learn by reading this well-known and perennially popular book. But I digress.)
When I was a senior in high school I once threw a party in our “finished basement” for some of my friends. Not unexpectedly, someone showed up with a six-pack. Also not unexpectedly, one of my good friends got stinking drunk and wound up singing while he wiped up the beer he had spilt on the linoleum floor. The party got out of control when it was crashed by some kids from my high school who were not only uninvited but generally feared as well. I had to call on my dad to help break things up, but he didn’t make me feel any worse than I already felt.
In 1964, the World’s Fair came to New York. My buddy Ron and I, having already been accepted to college, skipped school one day and took the opportunity to practice our high school German at the Heineken Pavilion at the Fair. When an attractive mädchen wearing a cute dirndl asked us (in English) what we’d like, we responded, “Zwei bier, bitte.” She looked a little confused, obviously not having taken four years of high school German. But she got the message. She also failed to ask us for our ID, and brought the two Heinekens in official-looking beer steins. (Allow me to send out a hearty Danke schön! to the late Herr Gross for our wonderfully forgettable years of German at Wantagh High School, during which time I learned to recite a list of many prepositions, ask where the post office is, and order a beer.)
As a college freshman the following year I got my first taste of what it felt like to be stupid drunk. At a party in some Boston suburb, I drank too much and remember only two things from the evening: telling a young woman how much I admired her breasts, and joining a bunch of other people on the side yard who were throwing up in the flower bed. Fortunately, making a fool of myself was not a thing I did too frequently.
I continued to be what’s innocently called a “social drinker” for much of my adult life. For six years, until April 1973, I smoked dope much more often than I drank, and as much of a problem as it might have been, it did not seem to affect me as much as alcohol.
It was in the spring of 1973 that I enrolled (for some reason—perhaps at the intervention of The Almighty) in the class “Drug Use and Abuse” when I was in my first year of grad school at UC Berkeley. Each week of the ten-week class Professor Jones introduced a new class of drug and we explored its short- and long-term effects. Included were hallucinogens, depressants, stimulants, opiates, nicotine, etc. There was also a week during which we studied the use and abuse of alcohol. I don’t remember much about it, probably because I was still drinking at the time, and memory impairment is one of the primary side-effects of alcohol consumption. Frankly, I don’t know how I ever survived the college experience. But I did.
It was during that class that I stopped smoking weed (because of the effects I realized it was having on my ability to study and concentrate). As a result, I lost what had been my “great escape.”
But I continued as a social drinker—wine, beer, and occasionally something harder. Never once did I consider myself an alcoholic.
After graduation we moved to Maryland, and for a few years during and after the time my first marriage was ending, I frequented JK’s Pub in Columbia, Maryland. As a “regular” I was invited to hang my personal beer mug on a hook above the bar. My mug was white ceramic with gold lettering featuring the logo and name of my third alma mater, UC Berkeley.
When I left Maryland and moved back to California in 1983, I forgot the mug. Returning two years later, I visited JK’s and asked the bartender if they still had my mug.
“Oh, no. We wouldn’t have kept it that long if you weren’t using it.”
I scanned the hooks. “There it is.”
He took it down and together we looked at the dead spider inside.
Handing it to me he said, “Here you go. Looks like it hasn’t been used much since you left.” I left the spider in Maryland and took my mug home.
It was during this period that I began writing songs and then musical theater pieces. I became aware of a strange phenomenon—I could craft lyrics to the melodies I composed, but for some reason I could not remember the lyrics. This also seemed to be the case with the lyrics to the many hundreds of songs I knew—from Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers musicals, etc. It was one thing to not remember lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, or Oscar Hammerstein, but how could I not remember my own lyrics? And even stranger, how could it be that singers who performed my songs could remember my lyrics, but I couldn’t?
A moment of truth arrived when my wife Sharon and I were spending an evening at our home with another couple. Over a period of an hour or so together, the woman, known for her “wit and wisdom,” managed to insult my mother, my uncle, and me in subtly snide comments—so subtle that the glass of wine I’d drunk earlier barely allowed me to register what was going on.
Her comments just flew below my radar. Until they didn’t. With a sudden realization, I stood up and walked into the bedroom, closing the door behind me.
I stayed there, my anger growing, until Sharon came in, wondering what had happened to me. I told her to ask them to leave and we would discuss it later. She did not question me until they’d gone. My explanation, filled with anger, apparently did not surprise her. Sharon was aware of the dynamic before I was.
Following this incident (and putting two and two together), my life changed in a singular way—I never again had another drink. And over the years I learned more about how alcohol can affect memory and the brain. (I’ve also learned about how drinking while being Jewish can be another seldom-discussed issue, with both social and genetic elements.)
One of the most difficult things about suddenly stopping drinking is not necessarily the body’s desire for alcohol. For me, it was coming to terms with how to communicate my change in behavior to others. Alcohol is everywhere, and most everyone drinks. Once you stop, you join a segment of society that is often considered odd, “unsociable,” or even “anti-social”—by drinkers, anyway. Dealing with this often requires a certain amount of inner strength and ingenuity that I’d rarely had to tap into previously. This wasn’t always easy.
At a high school reunion, for example, I experienced the strange sensation of watching the entire room slowly transform as my classmates became alcohol-happy. As I scanned the room I was able to detect the few non-drinkers in the crowd. It was a bizarre feeling.
With time, my non-drinking life became easier. What did not become easier was my loss of escape. That old expression, “I could really use a drink,” is more than just a cliché. Having to face whatever might disturb or upset me at any given moment, knowing that I don’t have an easy way out, has changed me. Somewhere along the way I decided that my personal motto is Nietszche’s “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.”
I’ve occasionally wondered whether I ever was (or still am) an alcoholic. Or did I have an alcohol use disorder? I once went to an AA meeting. There was only one other guy present and we discussed it. He was doubtful. In the end, I found a solution to the problem that works for me, so perhaps a diagnosis or “label” is unnecessary.
I don’t know if I’m a better person because I no longer drink alcohol. Being sober 100% of the time can be a burden. But it was my choice, my decision, and I am sticking to it.