Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life

Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life

by Neil Steinberg
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Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life by Neil Steinberg

"A compelling read, sad and wistful and breathtakingly forthright."—Chicago Magazine

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg loved his job, his wife, and his two young sons. But he also loved to drink. Drunkard is an unflinchingly honest account of one man's descent into alcoholism and his ambivalent struggle to embrace sobriety. Sentenced to an outpatient rehab program, Steinberg discovers that twenty-eight days of therapy cannot reverse the toll taken by decades of hard drinking. As Steinberg claws his way through recovery, grieves the loss of the drink, and tries to shore up his faltering marriage, he is confronted by the greatest test he has ever faced, and finds himself in the process. Steinberg's gripping memoir is a frank and often painfully funny account of the stark-yet-common realities of a disease that affects millions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440631283
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/19/2008
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 638,244
File size: 314 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Neil Steinberg is a columnist and editorial board member at the Chicago Sun-Times. He has written for many national publications, including Rolling Stone, Readers’ Digest, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Were everyone like Phyllis, I wouldn't be in this mess. Phyllis is the bartender at the Billy Goat Tavern. Not the famous one, the basement bar off lower Michigan Avenue, a subterranean haunt where Mike Royko drank his vodka tonics and terrorized the tourists. Not the one John Belushi parodied on Saturday Night Live: "Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger! No fries, cheeps!" Not the one where generations of newspapermen drank themselves into the grave or Alcoholics Anonymous -- and really, which is worse? -- leaving behind their forgotten bylines yellowing on the wall over the bar.

No, Phyllis is the bartender at Goat II on Washington Street, about a mile away, a straggler in owner Sam Sianis' constantly expanding herd of Goats -- he has one at the Merchandise Mart, Navy Pier, even O'Hare Airport. At this secondary Goat, there is only one byline yellowing on the wall-mine-segregated from the rest of Chicago journalism. I resist bringing it in. But Phyllis insists, bugging me for a solid year.

"This is your home bar," she says, and eventually I give in.

Phyllis' voice -- I wish you could hear it. A blunt, South Side-tomboy's voice marinated for half a century in nicotine and booze. A bleating, so-what-buddy voice, the voice of a woman who has stood behind a bar for decades and has seen everything, twice. A metal-spoon-banging-against-a-pan voice when barking at misbehaving drunks -- "You! Moron! Out! Now!" -- but soft and concerned when one of her favorites drags his sorry ass into the Goat for a cup of comfort.

"Oh boy, look at you," Phyllis says, sliding the drink toward me.

"Tough day?"

I always mean to ask Phyllis to bring me a photo of herself as a young lady. She must have been a stunner. She still has the rack, the sparkle in her eyes, though they are lost in wrinkles-sorry, Phyl, constrained by the realm of fact, as I like to say. She has the cheekbones. Hearts must have broken. But I never ask -- it seems, I don't know, forward. And with all the smutty things the other barflies say to her -- the guffawing, blow-me-Phyllis remarks they get away with because they too are regulars -- I am inclined not to be suggestive with Phyllis in any manner. "Respect Phyllis!" I bark at them when they say something crude, smacking my palm on the bar.

My loyalty is rewarded. The glass is always waiting. The instant she sees me burst through the front door, her hand shoots under the bar. While I unshoulder the leather strap and set my briefcase down on the littered floor, plant a foot on the brass rail and my belly against the bar, she grabs the stubby rocks glass, fills it with a handful of ice, and then brims it off with Jack Daniel's and sets it down on a square napkin-an unnecessary nicety since the bar is brown linoleum. She is so quick about fixing the drink that I sometimes suspect she senses me coming and starts to pour before the door opens.

I love that. I will not lie to you. The magically arriving glass is my Pulitzer, my round of applause from the world. Love it. I sneak glances at the strangers at the bar and it is all I can do to keep from throwing my shoulders back, waving a hand over the glass, and exuding, "See that? I don't even have to order. I belong here. I'm the king of the bar."

Though I don't say it, I think it. Every time.

I don't drink right away. No, no, no. That would be wrong. Overeager. As frantic as I sometimes am, staring intently at other, lesser bartenders, who often lag, too slow to notice me, too slow to get off the phone, too slow to find the Jack -- there, you idiot, right there! -- so slow I want to slap the bar and snarl, "Hurry the hell up!" As eager as I sometimes am, moving down the bar and dipping my head to catch their attention. As carefully as I track the composition of the drink-the glass, the ice, the booze -- once it has arrived, I always pause to gaze for a rapt moment at the filled glass, the ice, the Jack, the square napkin, the dark linoleum bar. The twirling universe stops dead, the Jack its motionless epicenter. I pick up the glass and take a long draw.

You probably do not drink whiskey. You might not drink at all-a third of the country doesn't, a statistic that astounds me, the way I am astounded by the fact that one-third of all Americans believe in UFOs and two-thirds believe in angels.

But whiskey tastes wonderful-sweet and smoky, cold and comforting. The first sip doesn't do much but reas-sure: the overture, the fugue, the opening beat of the orchestra saying, "Just wait; you're in the right place." Soon -- two sips, three -- the glass is half empty and the grating clank of the day begins to soften and fade. I've made it. I am rescued, plucked from the icy chop and flopped gratefully into the lifeboat, covered with a wool blanket and heading for home. Maybe I'll talk to the guys at the bar. Hello, Franz. Hello, Gino; he pilots a boat of some kind. "Ahoy, Captain," is what I actually say, and if he isn't preoccupied sweet-talking some bottle-blond bar girl who has strayed into his clutches -- her face slack, mesmerized as he tightens his coils around her -- he'll greet me in return.

Maybe I'll pull the folded hard copy of tomorrow's column out of my suit jacket pocket and give it a quick read. Contentment, to spread the pages on the bar, pen poised in my left hand, drink waiting at my right. I smile, reading quietly to myself. Most reporters want to break big stories -- to uncover news, reveal scoops. That never meant much to me. I assume politicians are corrupt, assume hidden crimes are committed. Nothing surprising there. What I really want to do is to write something funny -- to give people such as myself, reading newspapers in bars, something fresh to laugh at. That is the limit of my ambition, to write it and, I suppose, to have somebody notice.

To that end, if the bar is not too crowded and sometimes even if it is, I'll share a funny bit with Phyllis. "Here, read this," I say, passing the copy across the bar. Phyllis, God bless her, drops whatever she's doing and stands there, the back of her index finger to her lips, reading the item with one eye while scanning her flock with the other. She chuckles, her eyes crinkling, a muted "heh-heh-heh." A long moment passes.

"That's good," she finally says, handing the column back, and I exhale, fold the pages and tuck them away, reassured. Somebody likes it. I touch the lip of my empty glass with my finger, look directly into Phyllis' eyes, and she pours. Usually I don't even have to do that. Phyllis is there without my having to go through the effort of touching my glass. In fact, usually I have to put my flat hand over the rim, because I have home to think about. Two, three drinks tops. I drink with an eye on my watch-at 5:15 p.m. I must leave, promptly, to catch the 5:25 out of Union Station. If I've just begun that third drink, I might dump it into my wax cup of water and take it with me, sipping the bourbon through a straw on the sidewalk, disguised as soda. Fooling the world.

Phyllis figures the tab, which at my special rate is never much. I tip well.

"See ya, Phyl," I call over my shoulder.

"Say 'hi' to Edie and the boys for me," Phyllis says, but I never do, because that would tell my wife I have been at the Goat. Can't do that. Not everyone is like Phyllis.

The 5:25 Metra Milwaukee District North Line pulls into Northbrook Station at 6:02. Not a bad ride at all. Usually each passenger has a seat to himself. Etiquette demands that people walk the length of the train, looking for an empty seat, before they plop next to another person.

This troubles and fascinates me, because really, what's the harm of sitting next to somebody? A slight pressure on your shoulder? The presence of another human at your elbow? The need to put your briefcase on your lap? There must be something awful about other people, given how we cringe away from them. I must feel that way as well, because I too take the long walk. I want to spread out, slump, be comfortable, and shrink from the exasperated "oh, all right" glance that a person gives, gathering up his belongings so I can sit next to him.

The bar car stops my trek. Nothing fancy -- a metal counter in the middle of the car, blocking the double doors to the platform. Since you have to enter the bar car from either end, it tends to fill up last and there are often empty seats there. They serve beer, wine, and simple mixed drinks, as well as chips, popcorn, and pretzels.

On the train I shift to wine. The airline bottles of Jack Daniel's they serve look paltry and lost amid the ice after Phyllis' bottomless pours. After bourbon, wine feels like a temperance beverage. Like moderation.

"I'll have a red wine," I say.

"Cabernet or merlot?" the bartender mechanically replies, and I answer, "Either. It doesn't matter -- they both taste the same to me." Which they do. It's wine. It tastes like wine. I take my plastic cup and my little green bottle or two, go back to my seat and read a book, or read the column yet again, or watch the loading docks and the gritty trackside landscape roll by.

Before long the parked semitrailers and gravel lots give way to townhomes and golf courses. Northbrook Station is a pleasant, modern affair, sturdy brick. After scorning people walking the length of the train, looking for an empty seat, when I get off the train I tuck myself behind the lowered crossing gate, while the rest of the passengers stand in front, waiting for the train to pull away so they can stampede across the tracks. I'm pleased with this little bit of separation, counting down the ten seconds it takes for the gate to lift, wondering where they're all rushing to in such a goddamn hurry.

Even waiting, I still get home first. My house is less than two blocks away. That's why we bought it. A block from the train, in one direction and, in the other, a block from the elementary school. Convenient. A ramshackle 1905 farmhouse, with a sort of turret in front. To some it would seem a palace: five bedrooms, a half acre of yard, lots of trees, big back deck, tire swing hanging from an enormous, one-hundred-fifty-year-old sugar maple that fills the front yard and dwarfs the house.

To others it might seem a dump: gray aluminum siding, roof about to go, piebald yard with a scattering of balls there so long they've begun to fade in the sun and sink into the ground, a jumbled interior including, in one bedroom, a closet whose bottom is two feet off the floor. To me it's fancy-I love the turret, love the little black spire on top that some farmer made out of curlicue sheet metal, and especially the big tree, branching into three enormous sub-trunks, its bark thick and deeply furrowed, like the armored skin of some prehistoric beast. I tell people that we didn't buy the house; we bought the tree and the house just happened to come with it.

When I cross the street from the train station, turn the corner, and see the house, framed between two enormous American elms, I feel happy to come home. Even after living there for five years, I walk toward it thinking, That's my house. I can hardly believe it. Who thought I'd be a guy who owns a house with a front porch and a bay window and a big sugar maple with a tire swing? A house all lit up like a cruise ship in the evening darkness.

Sometimes my boys see me and come running -- I have two boys, Ross and Kent. They are nine and eight, but still sometimes shout, "Dad!" and race up to me full bore, and I spread my arms and brace myself for a hug that almost knocks me over. Big boys.

Inside, walking to the door to greet me, is Edie. My wife. The prudent man never writes anything about his wife that won't fit at the bottom of an anniversary card. But I've put Edie into my columns for almost twenty-five years, back to the days when we were in our early twenties and dating. I do it out of a blend of sincere sentiment, open braggartry, and the constant need to fill space. I consider her interesting, which might be the biggest compliment a man can pay his wife after being together for decades. Four weeks before I find myself in a jail cell, I write an item in my column headlined "Reader, she married me," a bit of prose that you may file under "tempting fate":
People who meet my wife invariably say the same thing. "How could somebody so pretty, so nice, end up marrying you?"

Their voices drip with amazement, and they really get their back into that "you," like Frank Thomas smacking a fastball into the stands, infusing that single syllable with a heavy dose of befuddlement and wonder. "How could she marry you?"

Sometimes they stop and begin to apologize, realizing what they've said -- kind of an insult to me, really -- but I wave it off. I've asked her that myself, because it is something of a mystery.

"You make me laugh," she always answers, and while that isn't my first choice -- I would have preferred "Your smoldering good looks haunted my dreams and set my heart aflame" -- it will have to do. It is enough. And I do make her laugh, sometimes intentionally, such as the elaborately planned joke that drew a great guffaw while she was in labor, undergoing a contraction, with our first son. I was immensely proud of that -- few audiences are tougher than a woman about to give birth.

While she pops up now and again in the margins of this column, I rarely sing her praises directly. First, so as not to brag. A guy bragging about his wife is a guy about to get divorced.

And second, because there is an inherent risk in writing about somebody, and I don't want to foul the nest. It was in a column twenty-three years ago that I -- unfamiliar with the term "strawberry blonde" -- referred to her hair as "dishwater blonde," which I thought was the proper term. It wasn't. I would be reluctant to bring it up now, had she ever forgotten or forgiven me for it, but she hasn't, so I don't really lose anything by using the deathless error as an example of why I tend to draw the veil.

Long-standing gripes aside, the beauty of being with somebody so long -- our first date was in 1982-is that you can see them grow and change over the years. When I met her, she was a student at Northeastern -- the one in Chicago -- working at Mindscape Gallery, an art glass place in Evanston. The clerks were all pretty young women who worked on commission and I, naive, mistook their desire to sell stuff as an interest in myself as a person. She said she was studying philosophy, and I asked her if she had ever read Sartre's Nausea. She said no.

"Then you're not studying philosophy," I replied, with characteristic smugness she would devote her life to deflating. It wasn't much of an opening exchange -- not exactly Nick and Nora -- but it was a start.

She went to law school and joined a white-shoe law firm -- it was always funny to run into people who knew her in high school as a quasi-hippie-chick artist, to register their jaw-dropping shock when confronted with this razor-cool attorney in a gray pinstriped outfit. Maybe that's why I don't write about her -- not enough room to do her justice. Anyway, for whatever reason, she married me, exactly fifteen years ago today, and I'm deeply grateful for that.

That might seem like something oddly personal to run in a big-city newspaper, but that's the kind of column it is. The readers seem to enjoy it; they feel they know me, know my kids, my wife, know the "leafy suburban paradise" of Northbrook, as I call it in a kind of mocking trope, a parody of Homer's "wine dark sea." It's a razzing affection, since Northbrook really is the scrub sink catchall for those striving suburbanites who can't assemble the necessary funds to live in its tonier neighbors -- Highland Park, Glencoe, Wilmette, Winnetka. Put it this way: downtown Highland Park boasts a Saks Fifth Avenue, a Williams-Sonoma, a Restoration Hardware, and a collection of similarly snooty stores. The most prominent features of downtown Northbrook are a hot dog stand, an old auto garage, a car parts store, and a softball field.

Edie loves it, and she stands out among the suburban matrons, at least in my eyes. At forty-five, Edie still carries herself with the air she had when I met her at twenty-two. She is no longer ready to go out for the evening by slipping into a purple unitard and a pair of jeans. But still trim, with her long strawberry blond hair cascading down her back. She's not going to cut it, she tells me, but instead become one of those old women with long hair. I say that's fine with me -- as if she'd change for my sake if it weren't. Having watched plastic surgery performed, my advice to her has always been: Grow old.

All is not cooing doves and sweet sympathy, of course. This is, after all, a marriage. I don't like that she doesn't work -- it made sense the first five or eight years when the kids were young, but nearly a decade on, with the boys approaching middle school, the benefits of her being at home seem counterbalanced by our deepening pit of debt.

She doesn't like that I drink -- I can see her face fall when she greets me at the door, looks into my eyes, and detects it. The glow, the softening of my features, the flush in my cheeks. She describes it as a slight drooping in the corner of my mouth.

"Like my grandmother after she had her stroke," she says with disgust.

This fuzziness in me touches off an opposite reaction in her: a hardening, a sneer, a quick turn of the head, a swap of cheek for lips, and then a silent retreat into the kitchen.

I write off her concerns to wifely nagging, sparked by oversensitivity; if I even think about taking a drink she can later smell it. Sometimes she lets it pass, sometimes she doesn't.

"You've been drinking," she says.

"I had a glass of wine on the train," I say, ruffling up a false indignation, ignoring the two or three bourbons at the Billy Goat.

My attitude is: I work, I earn a good paycheck, you get to stay home with the kids and do whatever you want. Drinking is something I've earned the right to do. It's mine, my pride and joy and solace, and you can't take it away.

"It isn't as if I come home and beat you," I say.

Thus we deadlock and the years click by. Occasionally the system will swing out of control-a festive lunch with a publicist stretches into dinner. Suddenly I'm not on the 5:25. Suddenly it's nine p.m. and loud and noisy and happy and I look around and register my surroundings and think, Whoops, I better call Edie and tell her where I am, and I'm yelling on a cell phone from the Old Town Ale House.

"Honey," I slur. "Shomething's come up!"

Two or three times a year it is one a.m. and I'm walking down a deserted stretch of suburban highway, looking for a cab, after sleeping through my stop and the five stops beyond it. Edie meets me at the door, her face frozen with contempt, then turns wordlessly and heads upstairs to sleep in the guest room. Once she sleeps there for three nights straight while I pour on the charm. She turns to me, eyes afire. "Not a drop! Never again!" And I have to keep from laughing, because that's just crazy. A week later it's forgotten -- at heart she is an easygoing child of the sixties, and we'll be at a restaurant, and I'll order a glass of wine. She purses her lips but no more. The second glass always earns me an annoyed glare.

Then one night the pattern breaks.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Hysterically funny."
-New York Post

"A compelling read, sad and wistful and breathtakingly forthright."
-Chicago Magazine

"Steinberg is a lively writer, with a keen gift for observation."
-Washington Post Book World

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Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was hard to put down. It was also difficult to wrap my head around. In much of the book, Steinberg just doesn't seem to 'Get it.' I realize he was writing as if were were there with him as he walked on and strayed from the path toward recovery. May he find strength. May his family be blessed for their tremendous strength and courage and may they continue to have both! This is a painful and fascinating read, though also a bit gruesome (someone's pain up close and personal) in that it is a bit like seeing an accident - Look! Don't look! It is, in the end, a fascinating read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the book gave the desperation of addiction a face one that could belong to anyone. It brought the challanges of addiction to life in a way I have not read before. Great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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