On a lanky, man-shaped landmass just off the western coast of Florida, sandwiched between the massive Gulf of Mexico and Little Sarasota Bay, chaos reigns beside the wine-dark sea.
I was sitting beside the plaza of a five-story condo complex, right near some small docks protruding out into the bay, studying a sign above the brackish water pleading, emphatically, for people not to kill the local manatees. I was sipping whiskey, absently wondering what manatee tasted like—if it would be, y’know, worth it—when I heard my name and turned around, and saw my dad there, calling.
“Sarah, come here. You’ve got to take a look at this.”
We walked back over to the building, one of the six housing structures composing this community, and he led me inside of the ground floor trash room—the chamber to which all garbage chutes of this particular tower connected. Before I could wonder what we were here for, he threw up the lid of a random bin, and it rattled immediately with the incriminating clink-ah-clink of so, so many empties. Wine, brandy, beer, liter bottles drained of every drop… and this was every one of those bins! I remember saying, “Jesus Christ!” And then I caught myself. No need to jump to conclusions. It was Tuesday afternoon. “Do you know when they come take the trash?”
“Yeah,” Dad nodded, smile widening. “They said Monday.”
A couple years ago, I took a trip that changed my life—or, at least, my outlook on it. I’ve had a few of those; I know how to recognize them. They usually tend toward keeping the bleakness away, so long as they don’t involve a stay in jail—but only a few really end up feeling like I have a message to spread around by the end of it. This is one of those.
My dad and I had come alone to coastal Sarasota two days before for a somber occasion—namely the impending death of his sister from a decade-long duel with cancer. At last, after ten long years and a million varieties of disease, it was looking like nature had finally figured out a way to take her down. Goodbyes were implied—never spoken. Tragic as it was, this was a last hurrah—one last gathering at Grammy’s house to spit in death’s eye, drink wine, and proclaim in common cause that, dammit, we were not afraid.
This was not my trip in any way, and I left all ego in the truck back home. For a good week’s time, I would be spending every waking moment in the state of strange consciousness one gets with the awareness that they are not, against usual judgment, the main character of life.
It goes without saying that at times like this, liquor helps.
Considering my reputation, my father and I were both openly conscious of how unwelcome the behavior of a boorish drunk drawing the wrong kinds of attention might be this week. Moderation was planned, abstinence considered. Take it from someone who’s been that girl—sometimes the only way to win is not to play. This was on my mind the entire journey. I was ready to be good. But as I’d soon discover, in this regard at least, we really had nothing to worry about at all.
After the first casually chaotic ordering of affairs that tends to follow a cross-country family reunion, we were hustled from the airport through increasingly beautiful foliage to where we’d be staying, at my grandparents’ home, four floors up in a fifth-story condo in a six-building, one hundred-seventy-three-unit complex. The place was literally an island, with a bay side and a gulf side just a baseball’s heave away from one another, and a view of the water outside of seemingly every window. I’ve never been one for Florida weather, but a beach is a beach and a view is a view, and my was the view here beautiful. I could be comfortable here without a drink, I thought. They put rehabs in places like these for a reason.
After a change of clothes to suit the sunshine, we were hastily invited down to the outdoor plaza for a different sort of gathering, some sort of mid-afternoon Sunday potluck. Champagne flutes were passed around, two bottles to a table for a dozen-plus of us in sprawl. Then cocktails were brought down from the condos above in makeshift sports-bottle shakers, coolers full of them, and snacks. A brown-loafered sir named Bill introduced himself as “the Margarita Man.” I had two drinks in two minutes, just out of reflexive politeness, and I could feel myself recalibrating. “Good god,” I wondered aloud. “Could this all be for us?”
“Nooo!” answered a female chorus, laughing gamely while their husbands sipped. “We do this every day!”
The coastal winds had shifted. I stole away to the nearest store and bought the biggest bottle of 100-proof Wild Turkey I could find. I needed ammunition. One can always mooch within reason, but I was here for a week, and these were my kind of people. You don’t approach a crowd like that with an empty cup.
Now, for perspective’s sake, I should clarify that I am nowhere near this age bracket. These were retired people, who’d raised their families, made their fortunes and were finally cashing in. There are outliers down ‘round fifty-five, but my eyes were on the ones at seventy, eighty—the kind of people whose lives you feel humbled to hear about, who make you sit back and come to know your own naivety. As for me, my student loans are still so recent that I’m pretty sure my creditors have yet to actually notice that they’re not getting their money back. So take my wisdom for what it is—slim—and bear in mind that all I’m saying is what I’ve seen. And what I’ve seen is beautiful.
The metaphor hits you immediately—this is just like college. The only reason they get away with saying they don’t drink at breakfast is because obviously they call it brunch. Every other person you see on a walk around campus is either discreetly shotgunning beers by the pool or needing some help popping a bottle. They’re either coming from or going to vodka bars down the street like the Blasé Café at all hours of the day, assuming they leave the grounds at all. And just like college, they all know each other, they’re all in this trip together. Why not play tennis? Why not go out in a boat? Wanna drink? Why not?
I learned of long careers in spirited conversations—the writers, the foreigners, the bewilderingly healthy.
“You’re 90?” I asked one woman, tipsy and tactless in my disbelief. Her name was Maggie, and as she refilled her glass of champagne, eyes inscrutable behind her shades, she assured me it was true. And then she went on, in her timelessly alluring English accent, telling me the further enthralling adventures of her estranged stepdaughter, “The bitch from Hell.”
I walked back that evening from a kayak trip embarked on solely to buzz by Stephen King’s house while screaming, and was heading upstairs for a post-trip drink when I heard the sound of my name. I tilted my head back just in time to realize that my grandmother was above me, four floors up, pouring a Manhattan in my mouth. I wish I’d been quick enough to close my eyes—my only warning had been, “Look up.”
* * *
Maybe I’m showing my own hand too much, but something in my experience suggests to me that most dedicated drunkards don’t put a lot of energy into the fear of growing old. Who if not us has a more nuanced, embedded appreciation of the passage of time—the inevitability of Monday mornings, our Lost Weekends, the existential terror of watching the sun rise with your buddies and a double-digit BAC? (One of the defining images of my life was sitting with my good friend Devin in his driveway, passing a bottle of wine between us after everyone else at the party had gone down, watching a row of joggers amble silently by us beneath the brightening sky. Two ships in the night, that was us. I felt like I was in a movie.)
We are a sort well-acquainted to the passing of the days, who regard our futures as mere theories, opposing sobriety for as long as we’re able, as the world’s uninvited jesters. We look at life and laugh aloud, and we take what we can get. Our biggest fear is organ failure—the gray hairs just add character.
Which is not to imply that we are all at some level suicidal—heavens, no. Just the opposite, I’d argue. And if there’s anything about old age that gives us pause or worry, it’s not the open question of whether or not we’ll make it there, but the anxious wonder of what we may have to give up in our lives to be successful on the way. It’s an idea that used to bother me in my quiet moments, and I think any honest drinker would agree. “How long can I keep this up?”
I’ve felt for awhile, perhaps egocentrically, that after a certain age, drunkards of the world oft find their eyes lingering on the froth at the bottom of their glasses, looking deeply inward, chasing the myth of the old soul. That we could drink our way to some theory of unified wisdom, and maybe somehow get it. Just look at the literature, look at Bukowski—it must be admitted that there is a certain characteristic fatality to the tone of our literature’s heroes. The pains of the world affect us more. We feel and speak acutely. Maybe we’re malfunctioning, or maybe it’s everyone else that has the problem. It’s a worldview that lends itself to pessimism, or a flirtatious belief in demise as a form of mercy.
As far as Bukowski goes, for instance, the man could spin a funny story, but some of those poems… morbid death-pleas. Like his brilliant “Poem for Personnel Managers”,
We are shot through with carrot tops
and poppyseed and tilted grammar;
we waste days like mad blackbirds
and pray for alcoholic nights.
Our silk-sick human smiles wrap around
us like somebody else’s confetti:
we do not even belong to the Party.
And, he muses, if you’re ever going to kill someone:
who stand and smoke and glower;
we are rusty with sadness and
with climbing broken ladders.*
It’s all so heavy. These are the kind of lines that should be only read in dark rooms with tumblers of bracing whiskey, and hopefully a friend at hand to keep your worst demons at bay. And of course we can all relate to these sentiments—when was the last time you hunkered down with a solemn vow to just keep on drinking ‘til the roof caved in? Christ, we’re a downright existential people! But I no longer believe that this kind of mortal weariness should suggest any kind of foregone conclusion.
The first Monday of our trip brought news from north of the Boston Bombing, adding a surreal backdrop to our already weird circumstances. We were refugees on a tropical island, hearing daily reports from a distant war. At the same time, I was becoming privy to the daily casualty reports on the ground here—who broke their hip, whose husband died, whose surgery was coming up—all without a trace of surface mourning, but a sense of needing to be said. These were people who had been there before, who had felt the ecstasies of earthly riches, and the agonies of loss. The deepest forms of everything, often more than once.
And yet they partied.
My dear aunt could not partake, but she could join us, she could watch, all these aunts and cousins and uncles and neighbors, gathering on the plaza and in Grammy’s place late into the night, smiling and joking along as she watched us all insult each other and lose our minds. On a lark, my dad changed his voicemail message, so that all in attendance would know: “Sorry I can’t make it to my phone right now; if you’re calling about my sister, go ahead and pull the plug.”
“Dick!” she shouted at him, over the din of the rest of us cackling. “Oh, you are such a dick!”
That night and many others, Grammy and I ended the night on her porch, watching the boats on the Bay, the sky and the sea before us in their living shades of black. We drank red wine, and talked about the Big Questions, agreeing to always disagree, and getting cozy with it. Across the Bay on a high-up hill, a hospice building stood, its windows bright, but empty. The running joke was, “when I’m ready to go, just put me on a boat, point me there, and push me over.”
Here was a place where death was real at every sunrise—it was there, but you couldn’t feel it, not as easily as you’d think. It was like we were in a fortress, on a battleship, well-defended, well-stocked, and with no reason in the world to ever let the party end on anything but our own terms.
And there’s a reason why I’m bringing up all this existential crap, and it’s not just because, as drinkers, we’re well-acquainted with the comforting thought that someday, for us at least, the bullshit will be over. The whole wider society has long lent a quiet reverence to the act of growing up, flaming out and dying young. You know the names without my prodding—there are T-shirts, tribute art, the 27 Club. Holding up young departed icons in a kind of broad, cultural jealousy—survivors’ envy. They may’ve ended in flames, but damn, the ride looked fun…
Now I say to hell with the romance—reality is better. From one week in the company of the living, I learned that there is a fearlessness to sticking around, and there’s not a reason in the world to think you won’t be able to go out how you want it. You’ll have to grind a little in the middle, sure. But the last chapter will be worth it. For us, there’s always somewhere.
Live fast and die young—there’s your media cliché. But on the sands of Sarasota I learned a renewing lesson. I saw a wiser outlook. What would you rather do—leave a beautiful corpse or a scorched Earth? Don’t live fast and die young. Live long and die hard.
* Bukowski, Charles. “Poem for Personnel Managers”. The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. New York: HarperCollins, 1969.