The Urban Hermit
By Sam MacDonald
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Sam MacDonald
All rights reserved.
Getting Fat and Going Broke From Ivy League to Big and Tall
Some men spend their whole lives, from their infancy to their dying day, in going down the broad way to destruction. ... The way to Heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel up hill, though it be hard and tiresome, and contrary to the natural bias of our flesh.
— Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edwards, "The Christian Pilgrim," c. 1745
MacDonald, perhaps you could trade this in for a six-pack.
— Dr. Bernard Lytton, Master of Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, upon handing me my diploma, 1995
I was a football player in high school. Never a great football player.
Probably not even a good one. But I loved it.
Even in ninth grade, when I didn't get to play a single down. Even sophomore year, when I had to give my cleats up in the Coudersport game because our star fullback forgot his and everyone knew I wouldn't need mine. I had to warm up in regular sneakers. It was raining. I fell on my face. Repeatedly.
But it was a small town, so I got to play eventually. Especially senior year. There were only twenty-three guys on the team. At five feet eleven inches and a solid two hundred and fifteen pounds — athirty-two-inch waist and a forty-four-inch chest — I never came off the field.
We finished the season with one win, seven losses, and a tie. But I didn't care. I loved it. Hitting people. Talking shit. Joking around with the guys. Wearing my jersey to school on game day. I was a starter, man. A starter on the worst team in town history, but that didn't matter. It was 1990. I was eighteen years old. A bit bookish, perhaps, but strapping in my own fashion. And I didn't have to give up my fucking cleats to anybody.
Sports gave way to booze when the season ended, though, and that's when I discovered that I had real talent. I'm not saying that my tolerance was world-class: I understand that Andre the Giant could suck down more than a hundred beers in one sitting. I couldn't touch that, but I could kill an entire Stroh's thirty-pack over the course of an evening, with a bit of Southern Comfort thrown in for effect.
So I drank a lot. And I had fun. Loads of it. And not the kind of fun people look back on ten years later and regret. I didn't hurt anybody. I didn't steal anything. I didn't wreck any cars. It was a good time, plain and simple.
Besides, it's not like I was a complete degenerate. My parents rode me pretty hard. I delivered home-cooked meals to dying widows. I got good grades. I got accepted to a fancy college. I was a decent kid, for the most part. One who liked to drink beer.
That carried over into college. I shot on the trap and skeet team. I completed a community service fellowship at a home for wayward children. One summer I worked my ass off in a brake factory. I washed dishes in the dining hall. I completed a double major in four years and maintained a respectable GPA.
And I drank.
By sophomore year the renowned British urologist Bernard Lytton, who served as master of my residential college, began checking into my antics. One morning he strolled into our suite unannounced. The stereo was playing GWAR at top volume; a smashed wheelchair was smoldering on the floor. I was sitting on a dirty love seat contemplating a Barbie doll. I had given her a Mohawk haircut to match my own the night before. I had not been to bed yet, and looked it.
Aghast at the scene, Master Lytton asked where the smoldering wheelchair had come from. I said I didn't know. Which was true. He muttered something about turning down the music and bolted.
A few months later I sold some books and bought a very expensive bottle of scotch with the proceeds. That night the master barged in on a small party I was attending. He complained that the noise we were making was ruining a symphony in the dining hall. Or maybe it was an opera. Either way, I tried to smooth things over by offering him a pull on the bottle, which I was holding in my right hand. "It's really good scotch," I said.
He seemed to mellow a bit. Really he did. And he seemed to be considering the offer until his glance shifted to the red plastic cup I was holding in my left hand. "What are you mixing it with?" he asked.
"Gin and tonic," I said.
He looked at me, perplexed.
"Well ... gin, really," I said.
He did an about-face and bolted once again.
We had a series of similar run-ins throughout my time in New Haven. Once, he called me on the phone at six o'clock Sunday morning: "MacDonald," he said in his grim, groggy English accent, "it appears that you had a party last night."
"Yes, Master Lytton. Didn't see you there. Too bad, we —"
"Yes, Master Lytton?"
"It appears that one of your guests attacked my buuuuhhhdbaaaahhhth."
"Your birdbath, Master Lytton?"
"Yes, MacDonald. My birdbath is on its side. You will kindly come and right it."
"Yes, Master Lytton. Sorry about —"
And what a birdbath. It was concrete or marble or something equally heavy. And it was huge, apparently built for a condor or a family of ostriches. The bowl alone must have been three feet across. Or ... Actually, maybe it was a sundial. Either way, I bet it weighed three hundred pounds. It had come detached from the base (which probably weighed another three hundred pounds) and was embedded eight inches deep in the master's lawn. It took me and two roommates thirty minutes to fix the cursed thing.
Senior year I personally purchased more than fifty kegs for parties in a suite known as the JE Sextet. I was a better customer than all the jocks at the SAE house combined, according to the woman who owned the liquor store.
My once-solid frame was showing signs of that excess, of course. My waist had expanded to thirty-eight inches. Or maybe it was forty. I should remember getting to forty inches. It seems like a landmark moment. Like turning sixteen or twenty-one. Or your first kiss. But I don't remember it.
I vaguely remember forty-two, though. Forty-two inches is closer to fifty than thirty. That's what struck me about it at the time. That, and the fact that most stores didn't stock anything bigger. Even Wal-Mart . Forty-two was the end of the rack. It was the big-and-tall store after that. Where fat people shop.
I didn't hit forty-two until some time after graduation. When I moved to Baltimore. That's where everything hit the shits.
It was spectacular.
I moved to Maryland with my cousin. John Paul MacDonald. We called him Skippy.
Skippy had been my steady drinking partner for years. Then in 1996 — the year I walked away from a half-assed career in computers and the year he graduated from college — we headed to Baltimore together. My sister taught middle school there. We crashed on her floor for a few months while we looked for real jobs. Then a few months more while we lowered our expectations and looked for jobs waiting tables.
We were bouncers at a Fell's Point bar called the Horse You Came In On Saloon. We also tended bar at the Waterfront Hotel, where they filmed scenes for the television show Homicide. Every afternoon it filled up with starstruck old ladies who asked if we knew any of the actors. The old ladies never tipped, so Skippy always told them they had the wrong place and sent them to a dirty dive bar about five blocks away. We thought that was pretty funny, but the comedy act didn't last long. I refused to work Labor Day because the owner didn't tell me I was scheduled until the night before. He fired me. Skippy went to work the next morning and called him an asshole. Skippy got fired, too.
So we moved from job to job, apartment to apartment. Two good-natured, booze-soaked idiots who loved drinking and spending money and letting the dealer come over with the Ecstasy and cattranquilizer when things got strange. We spent most of our nights in a bar called Kisling's. It was a fantastic place. Just a few blocks from the gentrified nicety of Fell's Point, Kisling's was more of an everyman's joint. There were yuppies, sure, but the place was lousy with motorheads, skinheads, bikers, young couples, and just about every other kind of degenerate. We were especially fond of an ancient lady named Miss Jenny, a tough old bird who usually started drinking early in the afternoon. By early evening she would tell us all about her parents, her children, and how someone tried to slit her throat in a robbery. She had the scars to prove it.
Kisling's was especially popular with a peculiar breed of young tradesmen who had grown up thereabouts. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters. A few of them had started their own businesses, buying houses and refurbishing them. It was the nineties, dammit, and they were getting rich. Just like everybody else. A few of them became hard-charging real-estate tycoons, flipping house after house, working like hell and drinking whenever they got the chance. Those guys could put away the booze. It was a privilege to waste my time with them. Really it was.
A pint of Rolling Rock at Kisling's was a dollar. Shots were free if you knew the right people. I always knew the right people. So I was always there. Tuesday became known as "boys' night," when a few hard-core regulars bellied up and enjoyed the midweek quiet. Wednesday was five-dollar all-you-can-drink night. (Those of us who were not real-estate gurus — mostly the college graduates — threw a handful of nickels and dimes at the bartender when we were low on cash. He never counted it.) Fridays and Saturdays were a given. Somebody called to demand my presence if I failed to show, which wasn't often.
When Kisling's commissioned a commercial and began searching for someone to play the lead — a big fat guy who sat around and drank a lot — I was the natural choice. A production crew transformed half the bar into a living room. I put on a Ravens jersey, drank a bunch, and danced around. The camera focused on me, then slowly pulled back to a wider shot revealing that the living room was actually part of the bar, which was full of other patrons. They did it over and over, trying to get the drinking and the dancing just right. I am not sure what the message was. Something about mixing your living space and the ambience at the bar. Like it was a second home. Which to me it was. All the commercial did was make it official. For a whole year, every place I went in Baltimore, I'd hear people say, "Hey, is that the Kisling's guy?"
Kisling's. Man, I loved that place.
I quit one job after another during those four years in Baltimore, moving from bouncing and bartending to investment banking and financial publishing. It's not that I couldn't do the work. Even with all the drinking, the late nights, the ever-expanding waistline, I was a good employee. In fact, I hardly ever quit until I got a promotion. The last thing I wanted was a job that called for nice clothes, a respectable car, and a decent apartment.
Journalism, I figured, was my last resort. Hemingway made it sound easy enough. Boozing it up in Paris. Bullfighting in Spain. The Sun Also Rises even revealed what I consider the first and only rule in journalism. According to Hemingway, for journalists, "it is such an important part of the ethics that you should never seem to be working."
Never seem to be working? Hell. I'd been a journalist for years and I didn't even know it. So in 1999 I signed on as a reporter at a small weekly newspaper twenty miles south of Baltimore. It was a good paper with a real newspaper guy in charge, but the pay was not what I might have hoped for four years gone from the Ivy League. One of my college friends was already a day-trading millionaire in Manhattan. He owned three apartments in the Village. He even rented a beach house in Montauk for a whole summer and purchased a new Audi to get himself there.
Rumor had it that another classmate was making inroads as a head-office guy in professional baseball. He had lived on my floor junior year. (His name was Theo Epstein. He eventually became the youngest general manager in the history of baseball and led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 2004.)
Another friend from college was selling paintings on a city street until a rich guy bought one for something like fifteen thousand dollars. So the painter took the money and hopped a flight to Morocco. Someone told me he was paying less than fifty dollars a week for his apartment, which came complete with a girl who provided cooking, cleaning, hashish, and blowjobs. I never bothered to confirm any of it. All I could do was imagine. What would that kind of life cost in New York? Baltimore, even? The blowjobs alone would have been astronomically expensive.
My monthly encounter with the Yale alumni magazine was becoming a tense affair. So-and-so has recently finished her third year at Harvard Law. ... Such-and-such has been named a partner at Goldman Sachs ... tenure track position ... travels through Europe and Africa ... It was the late 1990s and everyone was loaded. Even the heavy drinkers. Sure, a few of my classmates were living on credit, but most of those were the long-view types who decided to forgo instant %riches for med school or academia, or artsy types who laughed at the blind ambition corrupting everybody else.
I tried to join the second crowd and blame my relative poverty on my profession — journalism just doesn't pay. Which is true, in a sense, but my classmate who was working as an editorial page editor for The Wall Street Journal was doing all right. One guy who graduated a year behind me already had a piece published in Playboy. In fact, they published it while he was still in college. That's the Big Time. The major freaking league. I consoled myself by recalling his last name — a name hinting that his grandfather might have invented the atomic bomb. Tough to compete with that kind of pedigree, that driven Ivy League type. I was just a hillbilly.
Still. I bet he got invited to the Playboy Mansion. Imagine. An uptight Yale guy wallowing around in the Grotto, trying to get a handful of sopping-wet Girl Next Door in all her coked-up, silicon-stiff absurdity.
Or maybe that's just projection. Come to think of it, if he ever did make it to the mansion he probably selected a manly-looking cocktail and nursed it just long enough to chat up a features editor, or line up an interview with someone who mattered. Yeah. It's only important to never seem like you're working. Had he figured that out? Who knows? I never knew him all that well. I don't even know if he's related to the atomic-bomb guy. That's just the kind of thing you tell yourself when someone makes it to the Big Time and you don't.
In the meantime, I could barely pay my living expenses as I scrambled to account for a decade of drinking on credit and borrowed time. These pipers, they were vicious, and they demanded to be paid. And not in an angry bookie sort of way. Flight from an angry bookie allows for radical action. Friends converge. Siblingsrally. Parents hawk heirlooms: Silver, china, everything goes except the rosaries. Anything to protect the prodigal prodigy from shattered teeth and broken thumbs.
Or so I imagine. My financial crisis was doubly cruel in its dullness and the damnable respectability of my pursuers.
Despair finally descended on me in April 2000, almost a full decade after I had embarked on my long, raucous march into irresponsible living.
The first disaster played out on a visit home when my father took my aging Ford Taurus for a spin. He meant to fill it with gas, a generous paternal gesture that morphed into a nine-hundred-dollar calamity by the time I stumbled out of bed later that afternoon.
He immediately recognized the awful metallic rumble — the strange symphony I had been ignoring for months — as the last gasps of a shattered machine. "Even the tires are shot," he explained in the driveway as I tried to shake off a hangover. "The belts are exposed. They're rubbing on the road. Can't you hear it on the highway?"
"Well, yeah. I thought I heard something, but ..."
"And the CV boots are gone," he said. "Can't you hear it when you turn?"
"Yeah, I guess so," I said. "Yeah. I was going to get it fixed, but the money ... you know. I'm waiting until I get my tax return."
"You can't drive this car back to Baltimore like this," he said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Urban Hermit by Sam MacDonald. Copyright © 2008 Sam MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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