Smoke rose from the cigarette in my mouth. It burned my eyes, transforming the setting sun before me from orange to a pale brown. I wasn’t a smoker, but the alcohol coursing through my veins drove me to stop and buy a pack. I stood in front of the 7-11, smoking and staring at the sun.
The sun dropped below the horizon as I finished the cigarette. I lit another one, then started my motorcycle and headed home with the cigarette dangling from my lips. It bobbed in the wind, periodically releasing ash and sparks over my shoulder.
Elizabeth walked onto the porch as I pulled into the driveway. She watched me get off my bike, then said flatly, “You’re drunk.” I had not stumbled or said a word. I had only made eye contact with her and yet she knew. After fifteen years together, my wife could tell whether I had been drinking from subtle changes in my behavior that others never noticed.
I lied. “I had one beer.” Actually it was true if I ignored the bucket of liquor that accompanied that beer.
She frowned, seeing though my bullshit. “I thought you were gonna lay off?” When she realized I was not going to answer her question, she continued, “Are you coming in for dinner?”
My son Gage ran from the house on the stiff legs of a two-year-old and yelled, “Da!”
I lied again. “Not now. I want to mount that rear fender.”
“OK. It’ll be on the stove when you’re ready. Gage and I are gonna eat now.”
They went inside the house and I headed for my shop. Once inside, I grabbed the bottle of gin tucked among motorcycle parts on the shelf. I filled my mouth then sat on a stool with the bottle between my feet. I lit a new cigarette and stared at the motorcycle with no intention of working on it.
The smell of Loctite came to me. It was an odor intimately tied in my brain to working on machines. Combined with the fresh wave of alcohol from the gin, it was now relaxing me. I stared at the motorcycle on the lift before me, running my eyes over the curves of sheet metal which mirrored the wheels and engine. It was a lovely form that caused my thoughts to drift slowly. They floated here and there, eventually coming to my first motorcycle and how I had cajoled my Old Man into buying it for me.
I was born in Philadelphia, the city of “Brotherly Love.” The place never showed an abundance of that feeling when I was a kid in the 80s, but it did have plenty of racism, greed and drugs. When it came to race and ethnicity, each group lived with there own kind. The Irish hung with the Irish, the Blacks with the Blacks, the Jews with the Jews, and the Italians with the Italians. There was no mixing. Neighborhoods changed from one group to the next across a single street, and as a kid I had a map of these sociopolitical divides memorized since crossing them quickly changed my standing. Shenanigans passable in the Jewish areas were spotted and dealt with swiftly in the Black areas. Italian kids were tough as nails. And Irish kids were never to be fought because their parents procreated with authority, giving them countless siblings who would materialize from nowhere as backup the moment a punch was thrown.
Greed was another of the city’s great attributes. Politely branded “entrepreneurial spirit,” it was nothing more than Machiavellian aggression where roles were overstated, opponents and colleagues were fucked for gain, and money was king. Business was conducted with an iron fist and consequences were rarely considered. The behavior trickled from adults down to kids, influencing playground transactions. Toys would be bartered as if on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and when a kid had nothing more to offer he was pushed out and ignored like a leper.
Racism and greed never got to me. But it was the city’s third problem that did: booze and drugs. Alcohol came into my life the same way it did for most kids, from their parents’ bar. Ours was an inconspicuous block of laminated wood and fake leather that sat unnoticed by me for years until one day my friend Trevor and I were alone in my house. We had heard rumblings from other kids who had drunk alcohol that it made you feel giggly and light-headed. Curiosity got the better of us, and we began inspecting the bottles on the bar with intent. First was peach schnapps, which sounded too fruity even for a kid. Next came gin, which sounded too weird, though I had no clue it would my crutch for decades to come. Finally we found whisky. Trevor and I had been watching Western movies, the ones dubbed “Spaghetti Westerns” because they were filmed in Italy rather than the American Southwest, and we both knew whisky was the choice of all gunslingers. Trevor opened the bottle, sniffed, then recoiled. After my sniff, we agreed it was too potent to drink straight. We knew adults usually mixed alcohol with other non-alcoholic drinks and began debating what to mix our whisky with. After a bit we agreed - Milk! We grabbed two pint glasses, filled them more than half way with whisky then ran down to the kitchen and topped off the glasses with milk. Five minutes later we were riding our BMX bikes across town with our drinks in hand and no clear destination. We got drunk, fell off our bikes and spent the rest of the day doing all the dumb shit inebriated kids do. But most importantly, we never got caught.
The following years, my taste for alcohol grew. I would drink whatever I could get my hands on, though getting booze when you’re young is hard. I eventually took to hopping from one backyard in my neighborhood to the next to see what was in people’s garages. It was normal for people to keep a handful of beers in the house, then put the rest in a refrigerator in the garage. I would dress in dark clothes, paint my face black and carry cheap throwing stars bought in Chinatown like some deranged, beer-foraging ninja.
One night I came to a garage with a big roll-up door, wide enough for two cars. There was a door next to the rollup which at the time was unlocked. I went inside and found a refrigerator stocked with a fancy-looking beer that had a label which read “XX.” I unshouldered my empty duffle bag and filled it with all thirty or so beers. But before I left, I took the time to look over the tools on the guy’s workbench. Most of it was junk, except for a nice pair of bolt cutters. I threw them in the duffle and headed for the park to begin drinking.
A week later I returned to the garage. This time the door was locked, so I rolled up the garage door a foot or so and prodded it open with a stick then slid under on my back. Again I unloaded the refrigerator of beer then left, taking the time to lower the garage door and toss away the stick.
Though I did countless stupid things as a kid, I was smart enough to stay clear of the garage for almost a month. But when the desire for beer became too much, I went back. The door was again locked. When I tried the garage door, it did not move. On the framing was a new padlock, which gleamed softly in the moonlight. I stood in the moonlight cursing. But then a smile came to me and I ran home. A few minutes later I returned with the guy’s bolt cutters in hand. I squeezed the cutters with all my strength, using the framing of the garage door for leverage, until they slammed shut and the lock broke with a loud PING! I retreated to the bushes and watched the house for any signs of someone heading out to check on the noise. But no one came, and after I was sure the coast was clear, I rolled up the garage door and propped it open with the bolt cutters. I slid under the garage door and unloaded all the beer in the fridge into my duffle bag. I slid back under the door, and with no intention of returning I left the guy’s bolt cutters leaning on the garage door.
My love of alcohol soon spread into weed, then into anything I could get my hands on. I went to school drunk. I came home high. I did everything as far from sober as possible. It became my new steady state. But things soon began to turn to shit as my friends died. One was hit by a train while high on weed. Another got coked up and was run over by a car. The deaths shook me up enough to move away from drugs but not booze, and for the next year I continued drinking everything within grasp.
One day I came home from school, and my dad asked me to speak with him and my mother in the kitchen. “Your mother and I need to talk with you,” he said as I took a seat beside them. “I’ve been offered a promotion.”
My dad worked for an electrical connecter company as a middle manager, which meant he traveled, had meetings and expensed lunches. Beyond that I did not know or think much of his job, so I responded, “OK,” in the tone of an uncaring teenager.
“It’s in Harrisburg,” my father said. “Which means we’re moving.”
“No way!” I burst out. “All my friends are here. I’m not leaving.”
“Your mom and I have already made the decision.”
“I won’t go!”
“You will go.” My dad raised his voice and leaned towards me. He was six and a half feet tall and over 300 pounds, an ex-NFL lineman who intimidated me even though I would never have admitted it. “It’ll get you away from these so-called friends of yours and give you a fresh start.” My parents knew of my drug and alcohol problem, but were the type to avoid directly addressing them. Hearing him say this caught me off guard.
“Harrisburg is a very nice place,” my mom said in a softer tone. “You’ll love it.”
“Where’s Harrisburg?” I asked.
“It’s an hour west of here. It’s the state capital. It’s as nice as Philadelphia, just…a bit more rural.”
“No, just smaller and less congested,” she said.
“That sounds horrible. I don’t want to go.”
“That’s too bad because I already said we’re going,” my dad said in his end-of-the-conversation manner then got up and left without another word. My mother smiled and rubbed my hand then followed my dad out of the room. I was left to smolder in juvenile anger. How dare they make me leave all my friends and the place I knew. But no matter what scheme I envisioned pulling to make them stay, I knew there was no changing the outcome. So, like countless kids before me, I began to scheme how I could work the situation to my favor.
Later that night after my dad had cooled off, I strolled into the living room and sat next to him as he watched TV. Without making eye contact with him, I said, “If I go without making problems, can I get a motocross bike?” I had always wanted one even though there was nowhere in our neighborhood to ride it.
“I can do that,” he said still looking at the TV.
And with just those few words and never looking at one another, the move was settled. A week before Christmas we were gone.
Our new home was in the middle of the woods. Neighbors’ houses could be seen in the winter when the leaves had fallen, but come summer they were almost totally obscured from view. The first days of school were a culture shock hell. Upon discovering I was from Philly, the other kids took to calling me “city slicker.” I countered this with something like “dumb ass rednecks” or “inbred hillbillies.” A few punches were thrown, but many of these same kids eventually became my fiends. Adolescent boys work this way: first they taunt and humiliate, then they become inseparable.
The day came when I got the motorcycle my Old Man agreed to buy to shut me up. It was a Yamaha TT350, a used four-stroke dirt bike built for trail riding. I had searched the magazines dedicated to selling used trucks and bikes for weeks and finally found it near my house and for an amount my dad was willing to spend. Without our own truck or van to pick it up, the owner agreed to deliver it to our house. The day he came, my dad paid the man in cash then promptly walked back inside our house before the man was even out of our driveway. I had my motorcycle!
I stood in awe of the bike, drunk with the fact that I finally owned a motorcycle. Vibrations ran to the core to my limbs as I stared at the machine. And then reality struck: I had no clue how to ride the thing. I had never driven anything motorized before and had only vague clues of what to do, clues gathered mostly from television and watching adults drive. I mustered my courage to do the only thing I could – figure it out on my own.
I rolled the bike from the driveway into a swath of dirt surrounding our house. At the time there was no grass, just woodchips that the previous owner put down to keep the mud from getting everywhere. I straddled the bike and begin kick starting the engine. My first attempt resulted in a harsh recoil of the kicker arm, sending a shock wave into my knee. At the time, the workings of an internal combustion engine were a black box to me, and I had no clue what a compression stroke was. The kicker arms went all the way down the on my second attempt, but nothing happened because the choke was off. The third, nothing. The fourth, nothing. And for the next ten minutes I kicked and kicked until I was sweating and the engine was surely flooded with gasoline.
I sat on the front stoop of our house and looked at the bike, doubtful of whether I still liked the damn thing. But then I got up and pushed the kicker arm slowly until I began to find the “sweet spot” where the piston was just on the opposite side of the compression stroke and kicked. The engine came to life.
I gave it gas, then quickly released the clutch. The motorcycle stalled. Surely it needed more gas, so I started the bike again and after gassing the hell out of the engine quickly released the clutch. The motorcycle shot out of my hands and across the yard until it hit a tree and fell over. I ran over and picked up the bike. After starting it again, I gave it gas and quickly released the clutch. The motorcycle rooster-tailed woodchips and shot across the yard on its rear wheel with me chasing along behind holding the handle bars. I let off the gas and got back on the seat with a slight incline in front of me. I took a deep breath then gave it gas and quickly released the clutch. The front wheel shot up and the motorcycle flipped over, landing between my legs and crushing my nuts.
For an hour I practiced giving the motor just enough gas so that when I quickly released the clutch the bike would start moving with just enough control that I could stay on but not rocket off wildly. This persisted for two days until, while staring at the clutch lever and pondering my sore ribs, I had an epiphany: what if I let the clutch out slowly? I tried and the bike began moving slowly and controllably. I felt as if I had solved some great puzzle which for eons had plagued mankind.
For years that motorcycle held my attention enough to break my desire for booze. I learned how to work on the engine, how to weld parts broken by the abuses of off-road riding and, most importantly, how to logically think through problems. That bike led me to my next bike and to another after that. But over the years old desires had crept back in, slowly at first, then more aggressively. And in what felt like a blink of an eye, my hair was going grey, and I was still bound to booze.
“Hey. Are you coming in?” Elizabeth asked, poking her head into my shop.
“Yeah,” I said coming back to the present. The half-finished bottle of gin sat between my feet amid a detritus of cigarette butts.
“You’ve been out here for hours. It’s past midnight and you never ate dinner.” She looked sad.
“I promise I’ll stop this,” I said.
“If not for me, then Gage. He deserves to have his father around.”
I let that sentence sink in. For a brief moment I thought about telling her how much I really drank each week but could not come to do so. The thought of her thinking less of me was too much.
“Why do you drink so much anyway?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I knew alcohol problems ran in my family, but my dad entirely ignored alcohol. The few times I asked him about it he was evasive, changing the subject without showing any readable emotion. Had he had a problem but just never spoke to me about it? His father had a wicked drinking problem. One morning he was on his roof repairing a hole when a travelling salesman walked up to the house to hock something. My grandfather, who was already drunk before noon, told the man to “get the hell of his property” without listening to his pitch. The salesman must not have moved fast enough because my grandfather got off the roof and chased him down the driveway with a roofing hammer.
“Well you better figure it out soon,” Elizabeth said.
“Why?” I asked her, thinking she would say she would leave me.
“Because before you know it Gage will be a man, realize you’re being a bum and kick your ass.”
I nodded, remembering the day I first overpowered my dad wrestling in the living room and how that moment changed the power structure between us, how he spoke differently to me, looked differently at me. “True,” I mumbled.
“Come on,” Elizabeth said coming over and gently pulling me up by my arm. “Let’s go to bed.”
“I know,” she said leaning her head on my shoulder. “And tomorrow’s a new day.”
A few days later, I went for a run. It was the first time I had exercised in a long time and it was brutal. But getting in shape, I hoped, would keep me from laying into the bottle. I was running through town when I came to a four-way stop sign. A car full of young girls came to a stop in front of me on the cross street and waited for me to run through the intersection. As I passed in front of their car, I heard them giggle. I opened my stride and stood taller in hopes of looking like I was a seasoned runner, a man in good shape. As I cleared the intersection, their car accelerated and passed behind me. I could hear them speaking through the giggling but nothing was clear beyond one word that I caught just before they drove beyond earshot – “old.”
Thanks to Scott Serafica for the illustration used with this story. More of his terrific work can be found at: http://www.scottserafica.com/
Thanks also to Eric Bachman for editing.