A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill
Hamill grows up in a New York Irish ghetto in the middle part of the 20th century, surrounded by poverty and alcohol. His father is disabled, and soothes his depression with alcohol, which lends to hardships at home. Hamill learns early in his life about the bar scene, where his father his king:
‘One Sunday when I was almost eight, he said to me, Come on, McGee. I walked with him up to the corner and for the first time entered the tight, dark, amber-colored, wool-smelling world of a saloon. This one was called Gallagher’s … In that room, the men were jammed together at a high three-sided bar, talking, smoking, singing, laughing, and drinking. They drank beer. They drank whiskey. There was no television then, so they made their own entertainments … Hey Billy, give us a song! someone yelled. And then he started.’
Fortunately for Hamill, he relied on and learned from the wisdom of his mother. But the influence of his father and his environment overwhelmed him:
‘And so the pattern had begun, the template was cut. There was a celebration when you got drunk. There was a victory and you got drunk. It didn’t matter if other people saw you; they were doing the same thing. So if you were a man, there was nothing to hide. Part of being a man was to drink.’
Parts of the book are funny, funny in that characters revolve in a state of drunkenness; so, inevitably, sad. Hamill has a run-in with the law in Mexico:
‘And how did I get here? In the black closet, as I gazed at that sliver of light, the night played out in my mind. If I hadn’t gone to the party, or if nobody had cut in when I danced with Yolanda, or if I’d said no to Manny, said, Manny, I don’t want to go anywhere, if I’d gone home and read a book or made some pictures; if I’d had some money to bribe the cops; if. If, I said. If. I wondered what time it was too. What day. Wondered what my mother would think if she heard I was spending my life in a Mexican prison.’
Hamill eventually gave up drinking. His work as a New York city editor must have demanded it. His family was suffering from it. And the body will demand that costs be paid.
‘Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness. I never thought of myself as a drunk; I was, I thought, like many others — a drinker.’
The lines between alcoholism and social drinking and drinking for pleasure can be blurred as well.