“What’d you get up to last night?”
“Got wicked drunk.”
“Yeah? Where’d you go?”
“I didn’t go anywhere. I drank at home.”
“You had a party and didn’t invite me? Who showed up?”
“No one. I got drunk by myself.”
“No shit? What’s wrong, man? You wanna talk about it?”
I do wanna talk about it. Not about what my friend wrongly assumed was the dark motivation that would drive me to drink alone, but the very act of drinking alone.
Somewhere along the line people got the idea that solitary boozing is a sure sign that the drinker is about to slip over the edge into something dark and sinister, whether it be suicide, skid row or a staff position at a drinking magazine.
And on the surface, it makes sense. Alcohol is the original social lubricant, after all, it makes any gathering loose and friendly, it has the unique and beatific ability to spin laughter and camaraderie from the dry straw that is the strained silence of the sober. Strangers become friends, friends become cliques and cliques become vast drinking scenes. It is the golden bond that connects you with most of your friends and acquaintances. It sure as hell isn’t a collective interest in stamp collecting that holds the gang together.
Drinking alone, on the other hand, is a much more pure and forthright form of imbibing, and I say that because it focuses entirely on the simple act of putting alcohol into your bloodstream. It tosses aside all the half-hearted pretensions about merely using alcohol as a social tool. It gets down to what drinking is all about: getting loaded, and by doing that, getting down to the inner you. The inner joy, the inner madness, the subconscious you, the real you.
Now, there are those who abhor the very idea of spending a moment with themselves. Put them in a quiet room for five minutes and they’re picking up the phone or turning on the TV. “Deep down in his private heart, no man respects himself much,” Mark Twain was fond of saying, and he was dead right. Why should those people want to hang with their inner selves? That entity is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger, and worse, a stranger who knows all their deepest, darkest, most terrible secrets.
Which, ironically enough, is exactly why you have to hang with him, because sooner or later that bastard will turn on you. The longer you keep him locked up by himself, the weirder he’s going to get, and he will eventually manifest himself as a nervous breakdown or very self-destructive behavior.
That’s where your old pal booze comes into play. You already knew the sauce is the supreme moderator, a perfectly charming go-between when dealing with friends and strangers, but did you also know it is as equally adept at opening up internal lines of communication? Whiskey is the key that sets the monkey free, goes the old saw, and that monkey is your Id, your subconscious mind, the inner you. Instead of letting that monkey out in public, where he tends to go berserk (or so they tell you the next morning), set him loose in a calm room. A quiet place bare of predators and prey. Get to know him. You might be surprised. You might even start liking the little bastard.
Find Your Circle of Solitude
“So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.”—Charles Bukowski
Just as it is nearly impossible to write anything worth reading while someone is looking over your shoulder, it is just as nearly impossible to tap the subconscious mind while drinking in the company of others. Which is a shame because never is the subconscious mind more lucid and willing to speak than when you are loaded.
So find your quiet space. Lower the lighting and unplug the phone. And for the love of God, turn off the TV. That evil box is the antithesis of inner thought, it is a jabbering knave that never shuts up or listens, it is expressly designed to steal your attention and direct it to its own petty needs. Turn it off or, better yet, throw it out the window.
A dining table, in my opinion, is the best place to drink alone. There is something about having the glass and bottle sitting right in front of you, ready for action, it brings to mind Bogart in Casablanca, except you don’t have Sam sitting at the piano, tickling the ivories. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some music to set the mood.
The Soundtrack of Isolation
“The only thing better than one of my songs is one of my songs with a glass of scotch.” —Jackie Gleason
While you may prefer metal, rap, punk or, egad, techno when you’re out swinging with the gang, the point of drinking alone is not to get pumped up but to hunker down with the inner workings of your psyche. Slow and melodic, even nostalgic music is best. Tom Waits, the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, Johnny Cash and Portishead work for me. You know what puts you in a meditative mood. Find your slow inner beat and cater to it.
Choose Your Moderator
“I let my drinking do the talking.” —Humphrey Bogart
Whiskey on the rocks is Johnny Carson. A cocktail is Conan O’Brien. A strong burgundy with some bite is David Letterman. Beer is Jay Leno, which is why I stay away from it. And make sure you’re well stocked. The last thing you want is Johnny, just when the show is starting to roll, taking a powder on you.
Now that you’ve picked your host, you’re ready to start rapping with your Id, right? Wrong. Before you can get acquainted with yourself, you have to get acquainted with the bottle.
Befriend the Bottle
“A well-made Martini or Gibson, correctly chilled and nicely served, has been more often my true friend than any two-legged creature.” —M. F. K. Fisher
After three or four drinks you’ll start realizing there are clear advantages to drinking alone, namely:
You’re the bartender. Drinking alone means you can drink exactly what you want. Let’s admit it, what we drink in public is not necessarily what we really want to drink. There are social norms to conform to, there are reputations to maintain, there are friends to impress. Your mouth will order a shot of tequila when your soul wants a Black Russian.
You control the pace. Want another? Pour it. No standing in line for a drink, no pressure to take yet another sham shot of girlie juice, no bouncer telling you you’ve had enough. The bottle in front of you never says no. Only yes, yes and yes!
Booze tastes better. Read a good book alone in a quiet place and you will absorb and understand the beauty of a perfectly worded sentence. Read in a crowded and loud room and you will skim the beauty and absorb nothing. The same goes for drinking. There are no distractions to divert your attention from the rich bite of a mouthful of bourbon. You will notice the vast array of flavors and aromas. You will realize hidden depths of taste in a cocktail you had imagined a shallow pond. Show me someone who is drinking alone, without any desire to seek out human companionship, and I’ll show you a drunk who truly enjoys alcohol.
The bottle doesn’t jabber. One of the greatest pleasures in life is a comfortable silence between friends. You know what I’m talking about: you’re having a quiet drink at a table with an old friend, and both of you feel absolutely no need to engage in idle prattle, there is a fine understanding that nothing needs to be said, you merely sit and bask in the light of each other’s company.
Those moments, unfortunately, are few and far between. These days we’re so damn afraid the other person will think we’re boring and start looking for someone a little more chatty to sit with, or, worst of all, yawn. And it’s from the belly of that fear the current plague of pointless small talk was born. I’ve gone out drinking in the company of a great number of people and at the end of the evening I won’t be able to recall having a single inner thought of value. Or a single valuable outer thought, for that matter. When you’re jabbering at friends and they’re jabbering at you, the inner drunk is neglected, he merely sits there and broods.
When you are drinking with the bottle, however, you are rewarded with a vast, gently rolling plain of comfortable silence. The bottle never gossips or tries to interest you in stereo speakers it is planning on buying, it merely sits there in pristine silence, filling your glass instead of your ear.
You can act any damn fool way you wish. The bottle will not condemn you for laughing out of turn or pounding the table like a bad character actor. It will quietly salute you. You can get as maudlin, dramatic and sentimental as you wish, without anyone telling you to snap out of it, cheer up, or cool out.
Meet Your Monkey
“You don’t know a damn thing about a man until you’ve gotten stinking drunk with him.” —Charles Russell
After about five drinks the monkey will start rattling the cage. Let him out.
Examine his fine smile. This is the giddy you that is so charming with the ladies at the bar. Note the wily gleam in his eyes. This is the happy-go-lucky sport that comes up with wholly improbable, yet wildly optimistic schemes while loaded. Sense his light heart. This is the jovial soul that will laugh at the worst bar joke ever told.
Doesn’t seem like such a bad guy at all, does he? Introduce yourself. Buy him a drink. Let him buy you a drink. Anyone who buys you a drink can’t be all bad, right?
It is now that you will recognize the monkey for who he truly is: he is you without social constraints. A slave unchained. He is you without the worry of what other people think. He is what you want to be, not what your parents, friends, lover, boss and God want you to be.
After a couple more rounds, a rich warmness will settle upon you as the alcohol rallies your collective self esteem. At this point you’ll start to think, Hell, this guy is a fucking prince.
Understand that this is the guy who has stuck with you every step of the way, he stood with you in every fistfight, he was there when you were struggling through the blackest shadows of depression, he helped you plant the flag on the tallest peaks of success. All this time you were hoping everyone else was watching, and all along it was always you, gazing from within.
Wallow in nostalgia. Everyone loves a good story and your inner self remembers them all. Revel in all the good things you’ve done, laugh off the mistakes you’ve made. Realize that every step and misstep of your life has led you unremittingly to this single pristine moment: Drinking with the best friend you ever had or ever will have.
Don’t be afraid to get emotional. In a crowd you are not likely to follow your own emotional path, you adopt the emotional direction and tone of the gang. Now you can feel anyway you want. Laugh. Cry. Do whatever the hell you like. If you catch yourself feeling self-conscious or foolish, pause and remind yourself you are your only audience. Who’s going to tell on you? The bottle? No. I know the bottle, and the bottle ain’t talkin’.
As you dive deeper into the bottle, and deeper within yourself, you will start feeling a strange wholeness. The surface you will blend with the submerged you, and though the pair will never entirely merge (if you pull that one off, you should put in an application for the position of Dalai Lama), they will mingle and they will learn to like each other. And that’s the whole point.
Before your inner journey ends, make certain you realize exactly what you’ve pulled off. Look at yourself in the mirror and fairly tremble with your newfound power. You have built bonds and allied yourself with the one person who will determine more than anyone else on the planet whether you fuck up or seize your dreams.
* * *
In the morning you may not remember much of your adventure, but that’s okay, because the monkey never forgets. And a stranger who genuinely likes you is a very powerful ally, because he will come to your aid when you least expect it.
The next time you get loaded with the gang, gaze into your drink, your secret mirror, and think: “Hey, old friend. Remember our quiet time together? Remember the thoughts we shared? We’ll meet up again down the road. Just you, me, and the bottle.”