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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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As far away as today

November 1st, 2006


To the junkies and lushheads in two-bit scratchpads,
And the flophouse grads in morgue iceboxes,

—Mezz Mezzrow, Really The Blues

You know when I drink alone,
I prefer to be by myself.

—George Thorogood

I was no pinky-lifting drinking dilettante, no sloe gin, no umbrella drinks, and nothing in a coconut, thank you very much. I was the real deal. Bombay, yes, Frangelica, no. Oh, I had smokes, and I had other smokes, and more than enough in the way of powders and pills to fuel a run at the Presidency, and I inhaled everything, but it was Drink that ran the show, and Drink that pimped me for a big chunk of the twentieth century.

With all due apologies, when Booze is home, you can always go back, because it’s always right there. It’s been more than sixteen years since I’ve been “home,” but I know that front door is wide open; I see it all the time. Middle-aged memory may not be enough to convict, but I remember the shadows and the doubts. No coherent recall, but there was little coherence to begin with. I could lay down a timeline, and I could lay down graphs, but that wouldn’t be the real picture. It wasn’t a complete sentence life. More accurately, it was…

…a ridgetop view, knee-deep in the dreamy top of a fog bank, a sunset colored in bruised yellows, pinks, blacks, and blues. In the distance, jagged points of clarity tearing through the mist. Below, a shrouded ghostworld of memory, haunting glimpses, muffled wails, despair and elation, cauldrons of seething mental storms, Disney Fantasia, and twisted Munch screams, all deadened by the ethers of gin and beer.

Muddy memory trying to create a clear picture of a past that was never clear, the drunken backround roar of a terminal binge, cackling highs, insane lows, slowly killing myself, always masking the suicidal nature of the beast, affecting the superior attitude of the falling alky, rampant cynicism covering the deepest fears and failures.

I could go on and on in this vein, but to no purpose. What could have happened, of course, did happen, and, now, only through concentration and condensation, do I ever confront the terrifying maelstrom. I choose not to do that very often. I am what I am, and I was what I was. The in-the-moment, day-to-day reality of my drinking career was always foggy, but I didn’t see it that way. It all seemed crystal clear when it was happening. To paraphrase Tom T. Hall, I liked beer, because it made me a jolly good fellow. A friend of mine put it even better, with his motto: “Let’s get drunk, and be somebody.”

The Formative Years

A journey of a thousand miles
must begin with a single step.

—Lao Tzu

Whiskey, rubbed on the gums to allay teething discomfort, may not have been the most efficacious remedy our ancestors ever came up with, but I know quite a few people who received the same treatment without suffering any long-term side effects. I managed to scrape through early youth with no more than an occasional sip of beer, or wine, or Christmas eggnog, slipped to me by doting relatives. It wasn’t until my teens that alcohol began to insinuate itself as a player. The seduction wasn’t particularly subtle, but certainly clever enough to fool me.

I was just another dippy Catholic preppy kid, following generations of like footsteps, falling for the roundhouse curveballs pitched by the Madison Avenue hurlers. With Budweiser, I, too, would be king. Miller would take me to the high life, Marlboro would make a man out of me, and I could always find four out of five doctors to recommend anything bad I wanted to try.

The parochial system was fertile ground for budding boozers, providing more than enough guilt to make forbidden fruit both fashionable and desireable. We didn’t chase after low-life, guttersnipe inebriation. Hell, no, we were going to be the best and the brightest, clubby single-malt gentlemen. We had lofty aspirations, and, for role models, the giants of the literary world: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the Lost Generation writers. Athletically, we had Mickey Mantle, Bobby Layne, Sonny Jurgensen, and the legendary Babe Ruth, and if they could do it all while “training” on cigars and scotch, then, surely, so could we. The Christian Brothers weren’t known for making grape juice, were they? Movie stars drank hard, on and off the screen, and our favorite music was provided by legions of altered long-haired realities. Billboard babes beckoned, not to altar boys but rather to those who could pull off a James Dean slouch and light a kitchen match with the flick of a thumbnail, though the last bit probably lost something in translation when performed by scrawny acne-ridden twerps in blazers and neckties.

Wink, wink, nod, nod, hand over your fake I.D. and the nice man behind the counter would sell you all the Schlitz you could puke. After all, this was America, land of the free-fall, and home of the brave beer gut.

The fabulous high school years marked a gradual increase in destructive behavior. Living right outside Washington D.C., which meant eighteen years old for beer, wine, and admission to most night life, we were provided more than ample opportunity to hone our party skills, all of which were designed to impress girls. Drunk driving, falling down, passing out in somebody’s back yard, and an inability to string a pair of sentences together were considered de rigueur for the young man-about-town.

Fortunately, or maybe not, I demonstrated a greater capacity than most of my peers for consumption, which, coupled with an apparent knack for keeping a moving vehicle between the white lines, if not always in the correct lane, singled me out as a “safe” choice as “designated driver.” The cosmic punch line will be me getting run over by a drunk driver. As I understand it, today’s “designated drivers” must adhere to a somewhat more stringent set of criteria. I’m just glad I could help blaze this trail.

Reefer madness didn’t make an appearance until the tail end of high school (Catholic schools of 1970 weren’t pushing any envelopes), but most of us had a taste or two before we went off to waste our parents’ dough in college.

College demanded a lot more effort than high school, testing academic, social, and survival skills. For myself, and many of my contemporaries, except for an occasional “all-star” team journey, or a stint at Camp Runamuck, it was our first serious emergence from behind the apron strings. Simple things loomed large at the time. Only a few dweebs managed to get up in time for a real breakfast in the dining hall, which was the genesis of “coffee and a donut” as a dietary mainstay. What to do with all the dirty laundry? What used to be a simple matter of throwing it in front of the washing machine, and, presto-change-o, having it magically reappear, back on the bed, ironed, folded, and sorted, was now a big deal. You couldn’t have it all over the room ( not all the time, anyway), because there was always the remote fantasy in which you might convince a drunk coed to visit your digs. Now, some of my classmates actually located and used a local laundromat on a semi-regular basis. Others, like myself, refined the art of cramming twenty-seven cubic feet of sweaty socks into three cubic feet of duffel bag, which was then further reduced, and shoe-horned into two cubic feet of closet, there to season for six to eight weeks. Fork-lifted into vehicles, these prescious time capsules were then brought home for the holidays, and joyfully celebrated by mothers from sea to shining sea.

Frat parties were a mainstay of the college experience, complete with kegs, open bars, and grain punch. Grain punch was a curious phenomenon, and something I’ve only seen on college campuses, those bastions of higher education. The “punch” was a potent concoction assembled in thirty-gallon plastic-lined trash cans. A gallon jug of 190-proof Pharmco or Everclear grain alcohol was poured into the can, followed by Hawaiian Punch concentrate, water, ice, and, for disguise, cut up oranges, lemons, and limes. Guys, sticking to beer, would attempt to ply young ladies with the sweet nectar in order to, of course, create an environment conducive to uninhibited, unfettered, intellectual debate.
Pot came into its own at college. Friends who attended other schools confirmed that there were a handful of “professional” students on every campus, many on the seven-or-eight-year plan, who funded their education by selling a complete line of expanded consciousness, everything from Dr. Bo (Colombian pot called Colombo, or Dr. Bo, because it operated on your head) to Dr. Owsley, whose Orange Sunshine and Blue Cheer were big favorites.

These myriad opportunities for screwing up still weren’t enough for someone who truly valued the fine art of debauchery, so I had to fill in the blanks with increased solo activities, on occasion managing to academize alcohol and marijuana.

One great encouragement that, in retrospect, probably didn’t do me a lot of good, came from a creative writing prof who had graded one of my essays. He had red-penned my opus with exclamation points, “Good job”, “Let’s talk”, “What was your inspiration?”, and an A+, almost unheard of in his class.

Today, I still recall what he wrote about what I wrote, but I can’t remember a damn thing about what it was I wrote that got him all jazzed. Time-out for Freudian Field Day. As far as the “inspiration,” I remember that, too. A couple of doobies, a fifth of Gordon’s gin, V-8 juice, some celery stalks for swizzle sticks, and a pack of Marlboros were all it took. I was a little hesitant about how truthful I should be when I talked to him, but I was bold, and he took it all in stride. I got a half-hearted spiel about maybe trying some work without any “outside” influences, but I had a hunch he was a bit of a toper (maybe even a doper) himself.

Down the Tubes

I’m sittin alone, Saturday night, watching the Late Late Show.
A bottle of wine, some cigarettes, I got no place to go.
Well, I saw your other man today; he was wearing my brand new shoes,
And I’m down to seeds and stems again, too.

—Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen

What were once vices are now habits.
—Doobie Brothers

After graduation, most of my contemporaries quickly joined the mainstream, eschewing the “Animal House” of college for the upward mobility promised by job recruiters. I, too, was through with the college life, but I wasn’t about to join the “military-industrial” complex. Instead, I carried through with a promise I had made to myself, albeit a promise I thought was facetious, which was to take my retirement early, while I was still young enough to enjoy it. That’s how I ended up in Big Sur, with a new set of contemporaries who shared my world view, a smoky, psychoactive vista best seen through beer-goggles.
Within our collective shell, we were the same as any barroom society, and I could move from dive to dive and be right at home. On the rare occasions when money was abundant, I might go to Monterey for a few days, hang out on Cannery Row (yes, that Cannery Row), and bullshit with other pretenders who thought they could bask in Steinbeck’s reflected light.

After years of too long, I had an inkling that maybe all my rowdy friends didn’t really have all the answers, which meant that I didn’t get it either. Barroom to barroom, shitty odd job to shitty odd job, binge to binge, with nothing getting done. It was time for a change. Not that change happened right away. Mistress Drink would slyly favor me with some unexpected pleasure, a friend would appear, magically, with a case of beer and some green bud, and, once again, “The reasons to quit don’t outnumber all the reasons why” (Merle Haggard).

The bubble finally burst, while broken down on the side of coastal Highway One.
My running partner, Dawg Dave, and I, were on our way to greener pastures, fed up with our nowhere lives in Big Sur. We were headed for Florida, where prospects seemed better that day. (I have no recall as to what those prospects might have been; maybe nickel beer.) We had also run out of people to borrow twenty bucks from. Fifteen miles into our 3,000-mile odyssey, Dave’s old black Econoline overheated and died.

While walking the two miles to the nearest pay phone, I had my little epiphany. Before I called a friend for a tow, I rang up almost ex-girlfriend (now wife) Deborah and begged my way back, but only after she extracted a promise from me that I would go to AA.

To her great surprise, and mine as well, sobriety took, and now we’re millionaires, living the good life, in the big house, when we aren’t traveling to The Continent, or The Islands, or The City.

Okay, so the millionaire part, and the house part, and the travel part aren’t really happening, but I’ll remember tomorrow that I joked about it today, and my head won’t hurt when I do it. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue, Ferrandino | Link to this Entry


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