Drinking While Broke, Funded By Other Broke Drunks

by Jeff Winkler

I have a drinking problem.

Not in that jokey-jokey, I-wouldn’t-call-my-drinking-every-day-”a problem” way. Quite the opposite, actually. Like that “every day” part, that’s no joke. It’s often heavily, and before noon on weekends. That’s not why it’s a problem, though. And it’s not a problem based on obvious actualities. Like the frequent 24-hour hangovers, the unsafe hook-ups, the avoidable physical altercations, the weight gain, the lost jobs, the arrest and conviction, the detainments, or the immediate family member currently serving a stint for DUIs and our multi-generational history of alcohol abuse.

For some self-hating reason, I consider those issues to be simply part and partial to good training for a heavy drinker, like building stamina and endurance for a marathon, or practicing how to correctly fall in judo. All jokes aside, it’s actually a bit depressing. I know. Truly heavy drinking usually is. My dad ran a halfway house. I’ve seen what real drinking does to people. It’s actually nothing like a marathon. It’s more like suicide, or trying to do judo while drunk. Rather, I know I have a drinking problem because my bank account has a drinking problem. It’s there in black-n-white. I try not to look at it, always declining to print a paper receipt because it’s quite, well, sobering.

Last month, I made about $500 dollars, about $250 of which went toward booze. Around the same time last year, I was making about $1,800. I spent about half of that income on alcohol, too. No matter what my expenses, I’m somehow manage to blow the rest of it on drinking. The precision of booze-buying vs. other necessities is actually kind of impressive, although not as impressive as the $600 I just spent in a 72-hour period, most of which was spent in a poorly-lit room.

I currently have $63.17 to my name and despite just losing my job — our family-owned newspaper went the way of many family-owned newspapers — and no foreseeable income, my last purchase was beer. Two sixers of High Life to be precise. In fact, I’m getting drunk as I write this.

This lack of money and income should be a cause for concern. Like most problem drinkers, though, I may be in denial (ignoring for a moment, of course, this here widening gyre of Wallacian self-reflective analysis, to which the author himself was susceptible, along with alcohol abuse). My continuous problems with both money and booze began at the same time, so I long ago dismissed any debate about causality vs. correlation as both trifling and beside the point.

You see, the great thing about being an 18-year-old sahib traveling alone in Tibet and Nepal is that you drink with impunity and anyone will take your white dollars — the restaurants, the liquor stores, the Kathmandu whore houses, even the dry-state black markets. Unfortunately, that’s also the worst thing — anyone will take your white dollars, including thieving whites. I strongly suspect it was the crazy Russian girl, who first conned her way into my room — “to split” the cost — before gobbling up all my diarrhea pills behind my back because she thought they were fun drugs and later said she was pregnant when I asked her to leave me be.

The whole story is hi-larious.

Suffice it to say that just as I was about to pay for a beach-side beer in Goa, India, I found myself without both passport and money. All of it. Gone. I’m pretty sure it was that commie who stole my shit. What’s worse, I was piss drunk, and it’s doubtful any of it would have happened had I been sober. The incident still bugs me. At the moment of “oh shit”-ness, I was drinking with a nice, old Aussie (he was about 24). When we couldn’t find my must-haves, that drunk geezer did a couple things I’ll never forget. First, he gave me a lotta rupees for a bus back to the consulate in Bombay. Then he bought a few more rounds.

And that’s been the general tenor of life for the past eight years.

Being poor and/or in the hole is quite educational. Not in that
I-have-student-loans-because-I-got-a-liberal-arts-degree-instead-of-a-free-library-card-and-still-live-in-the-big-city kind of way. I mean, genuinely poor and in the hole. Like having to ask friends for money to get through next month’s rent in that slum house with its dual-use sink/shitter of which the garbage disposal is broken. Or quickly memorizing area codes so you recognize and avoid bill collectors calling because of an uninsured ambulance ride. Or not being able to afford either a phone or insurance. Or helping to solicit funds for your friend’s procedure because the only thing she could possibly afford are booze,”all natural supplements” and other drastic self-inducing abortion remedies.

Mind you, these examples are purely hypothetical.

What’s not hypothetical is all the petty borrowing I’ve done, usually because I couldn’t balance either my checkbook or my drinking. Like the $500 dollars I still owe a friend four years later. I know I’m going to hit him back just as soon as that big freelance check comes in. Sometimes, I feel slightly guilty for not settling that debt. Other times, I remember how I thoughtlessly got in his passenger seat while he drunkenly drove around the city one night. He’d just had a very ugly fight with his girlfriend and was trying to “cool off.” I’d preferred he’d die with an equally wasted friend than perhaps died alone. Anyway, at 70 m.p.h. downtown D.C. is surprisingly beautiful.

Then there’s the friend who just paid me back the $200 I gave him years ago. I first met him at the local bowling alley. It was a drug deal. Since our first meeting, he’s been kicked out of at least three bars, caused thousands of dollars in property damage and broken his foot by … well, no one’s quite sure; blacking out can have that effect. We lived together once and he smashed our mirror with his fist, although to be fair, that was long after I’d shot arrows into the living room walls, “Hunger Games” style. After all the booze, we barely had enough for food, let alone rent. That hasn’t changed much. I’d trust him with my life. I never once asked about the money, not even when we using our paychecks’ last few dollars on booze. After he gave me the cash, I immediately bought us a few rounds.

Asking to borrow money is a very personal interaction. It can be humiliating. And humbling. And it’s often haunted by a stigma. Call it begging if you want, because that’s essentially what it is. When I get asked, it’s often a similar situation and I’m pretty sure I can see my friends’ pride getting stuck at the base of their sternohyoid. That’s why, as opposed to parents or payday loaners or the officemates, our lot tends to ask one another for a dime or two.

You can ask one of those healthy friends who’s got money and is, at best, a “social” drinker. But the feeling of mutual understanding is nonexist. One of you has the upper, moral (and perhaps steady) hand. Reformed drunks can be great. Often, they know exactly where you’re coming from and because they’re not spending every night drinking their income, they have plenty of cash-on-hand. Just watch out for the baptised-in-firewater born-againer. They’ll drive you to the bottle faster than anything.

Maybe my friends are not problem drinkers, I certainly wouldn’t want to insult them by labelling them as such over their objections. But almost every person I’ve borrowed significant funds from — and vice versa — has been on the wrong-end of substance self-control, at one time or another. Some may call this “justifying.” I prefer to call it camaraderie. Or, maybe, shame-raderie.

We’re smart. Nothing like that old drunk on the corner who’s been forced into AA and doesn’t even know what “Sub Pop Records” is. We’re all in our mid-twenties, drinking heavily and coming of age during the recession. We all feel as if we’re teetering on some troubling lines. Or, at least, I do. None of us is really a disease-model “alcoholic” and we all get jobs, however menial, when we need them. Still, it could go either way in the near future. I’m somewhat fearful of those very real possibilities. While facing those realities, I’d love nothing more than to clasp the hands of my fellow strugglers, except we’re all holding our drinks.

So instead, I’m comforted by the fact that when struggling financially because of my own self-destructive behavior (shoot, I’m not gonna to just stop) I know to whom I can turn for help — others in the same boat. It’s like what Wavy Gravy said: “… You’re sinking but you reach down to help somebody who’s sinking worse than you are. And everybody gets high.” Granted, he was technically talking about acid, but you get the point.

And I certainly hope my friends understand this exchange is a two-way street. After all, when we loan each other cash, it’s not like the person is some unrelatable stranger. We know each other’s habits. All of them. In the long run, we’re all “good for it.” And anyway, it’s not like any of us can really hide. We know where to find one another most nights of the week.

Jeff Winkler lives in Arkansas. He’ll humbly accept a proffered drink, if you insist. Photo Credit: Flickr/crizzirc

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