Interviewing a young lady who bounced back from the gutters of the Big City and below…
ALCOHOL & ISM
I work with a young waitress who knows more about drinks than many seasoned waiters. Her name is Sue. She has the friendliest smile and she genuinely cares about people. I have never seen Sue having a hangover. In fact I have never seen Sue having a drink. Looking for information on the general subject alcohol and alcoholism, I tell Sue that I would like to write about her thoughts, her viewpoint as a waitress.
Her “Why?” gets an honest answer, “I am after an article which compares the perspectives of a cocktail waitress vs the attitude of a recovered alcoholic.” A question-mark is on her face. I can feel her thoughts as she is measuring me from head to toe with a where-is-he-coming-from-look.
My “You are an experienced cocktail waitress, may I interview you?” gets turned down. Sue is modest in her answer “There is not much to write about me.”
Sue suggests that I should interview her mother. I meet her mother, who considers me as a strong possibility for more than just a date. An interview for an article about her, titled “My life behind bars!” does not appeal to her at all. In her words “Barkeeps are lonely creatures.” She points out, “I give drunks all the advice they can handle, nobody ever listens to me!” Without giving it much thought, I say “I am going to listen to you!” And she holds me to my word. I must admit I dearly enjoy every minute with her. I take her uptown for a weekend. We stay in a fancy hotel in San Francisco on Nobhill. We are laughing and joking about the architectural phallus shape of the Coit Tower, while visiting the same. We plan to see the city and the bay from above. The tower is closed. Later from a distance, looking up Telegraph Hill, I tell her the stories I have heard about Lillie Hitchcock C. and her love for firemen. We are much like kids and we have fun to imagine why Lillie had the same erected in 1933 and what part of the San Franciscan firemen she had in mind, to be memorialized by the round very masculine looking tower.
We dine in the finest places and visit the opera and museums. She turns out to be a lovely romantic woman who has not been to the city for over twenty years. She had never been to an opera in all her live. The last museum’s visit she remembers was in her high-school years. She has not taken more than one day off, once every six months or so, in more than twenty years. The three-day vacation means a lot to her. On her second day she starts to worry and on her third day all she talks about is the need to return to her business soon. I get to know the mother really well. She is a wonderful person whose motivator is an endless tape playing work-work-work, work-work work, work-work-work.
The day after I get back from the city, the daughter surprises me. Sue asks me if I am still interested to write about the disease of alcoholism. Dead sober with a winning smile, looking straight into my eyes Sue says: “I am an alcoholic.” She adds to it “Somebody might learn from my past!” With twenty-four years of age she has been around bars and drinks for twenty of her twenty-four years. I ask her about her father. “My dad was a bartender for many years; now he is the advertisement manager for a radio station.”
Sue has this beautiful green eyes which sparkle. Mentioning her father, her face changes. I recognize sadness. She looks down on the floor while she talks about him.
Her mother owns the bar and small restaurant outright. Sue grew up in the little apartment above her mother’s bar. Officially she was not allowed in the bar when she was little. Attracted by the red lights, the bar’s smoky interior and the fancy bottles, Sue spent many hours in her mother’s bar. She always liked to read the labels. Here and there she got a little taste of one or the other of these foreignly named and most tempting smelling liquors. “Jaegermeister, it’s the latest craze around young people now!” She says. Ten years ago, she liked it already. It is a dark liquid which looks much different to what she thought it should taste, she says she was hooked on it for some time. Uso and Pernod were once her favorites, made from anise. Vodka a distilled grain spirit, pictured a building with an onion shaped roof from somewhere in Russia. Bagpipers in skirts on whisky bottles meant it was distilled overseas and the bottle with the turkey on the label was American whiskey. Certain bottles were more decorative than others. Her mother explained such as: “Women and liquor, by being more expensively dressed, more attractively packaged, they want the average Joe to think that they are better than these others, these cheaper looking ones.”
Sue learned counting in the bar and she never forgot the numbers learned as a little girl. “Twenty-four, two dozen, ten + ten + four bottles are in the well!”
The more expensive back bar held between seventy-two and eighty-eight different bottles. Sue also knew from early age that there were two different types of ice tea. One was to quench the thirst. The other was bad news. It was the kind which made her daddy crazy. That is why he was not allowed to live with her mother anymore. “One too many Long Island Iceteas and too many drunken brawls!” that is what Sue recalls as words her mother used to say.
Sue tells me about her being sent to her grand parents in Florida. “They spoiled me rotten.” Still, she couldn’t help it, but got in trouble with the law. Police busted her and another young woman, in a van. Both girls where slightly drunk and pretending of not knowing what they were doing. Just a little earlier, an hour or two earlier, both had been allowing this one guy some favors in return he showed them how to shoot up. Alfredo was his name. He was a small time drug pusher and social outcast.
Sue had started to like him a lot. “It was not his Boston bankroll.” Sue thinks she was attracted to him for he was willing to teach her everything nobody else had ever taken the time to explain to her. Alfredo was an outlaw. He was in his late twenties, hung out along the beach, had no steady job, but women flocked to him and nothing seemed to be forbidden territory for Alfredo. Sue feels fortunate to have had him as a teacher. The incident in the van was nothing but a first attempt to experience what heroin was all about. Sue does not remember much about anything, except her waking up, coming to, at the police station and her grandpa getting her.
The police officer said they had found her in a stolen vehicle parked in the sparsely lit side street behind an adult movie theater. A male suspect had gotten away. The police report mentioned drugs and paraphernalia. Sue did not deny anything but repeatedly pointed out, “It was not my fault the van was stolen.”
Turning fifteen she was returned to California. It was good to be home. She was happy to be with her mother, who worked every night to pay the bills. After a few weeks of exceptional good behavior, Sue started to sneak for herself drinks from the bar. From a sip once in a while she advanced fast to taking as much as a bottle at a time, she was hiding her booze in her room. Some night’s when her mother worked she was laying in bed slowly getting drunk. She drank to alter her surrounding, to dream of far away places. At times she went down to the ocean and shared her treasured bottle with one of the homeless people. Such gave her the feeling to do something good, to share.
The disappearance of bottles did not go unnoticed and confronted by her mother Sue immediately denied any wrong doings. Confronted, an intoxicated Sue argued with her mother. “Not knowing what else to do, I accused her of spying after me!” Sue says.
The mother remembers, “Sue didn’t know, that she was going downhill fast.” The mother’s pleas, urging her to stop lying, to go back to school, to be a good young lady, to try to understand how hard she, the mother, has been working all these years, did not mean a thing. The mother threatened to call her father and even to talk to the youth authorities. Her prayer “Somebody help me!” went unheard too. “Sue had to do, what she had to do, to get clean and sober!” says the mother.
Sue recalls being angry and after a final fierce argument she decided to make her move. “I wanted to show her that I was no, no li’l kid, no more!” Sue was looking for an easy way out of her problems. “Without saying Good Bye I just walked out on her.” Sue took the bus to Salinas, the center of Americas salad bowl. She planned to get onto a train. At the Amtrak station Sue changed her mind. She only had ten dollars in her purse. Sue walked along the well-lit frontage road parallel to the tracks. Scared by the looks of a bunch of street people, with a dry mouth and her desire for a drink, she told some Latinos in a lowrider to go f… themselves.
However, minutes later she accepted a ride from a friendly looking Caucasian fellow. She did not think twice when he asked “How much?” and answered “Got to have something to drink first.”
“He was a delightful man, married too.” She explains herself and her first date on a long road traveled “Guys are generous if they are happy!” There is no shame, no fear about what I might think, in her voice. “He wanted variety, that’s all!” She mentions selling herself for some booze and a few bucks as if it had happened to someone else. Back on the street, still before dawn, one understanding fellow, a trucker, with a heavy Southern accent, picked her up. He was her second date.
They had breakfast at the Crazy Horse truck stop south of King City. Here she told him that she wanted to get to the East Coast, away from this State. She did not tell him why. She did not tell him about her anger against her mother. She did not tell him that she was trying to run away from all the problems alcohol had caused her. He did not want to know. He was only interested in what he saw in her. And within ten days and five truck drivers later she was in New York. Sue knew that she was above average developed. Eagerly she accepted an older man’s help, whom she had met of all places at the fish market. He, Marco, asked her for a date. She accepted. He wined and dined her, she was making out with him in a hotel room. He was an exceptional lover. He also was the most smooth talking man she had ever met since Alfredo, her Cuban friend from Florida.
Sue loved it to be praised. She loved it even more, to drink and to reach an euphoric state of drunkenness. She got both, compliments and as many drinks as she could handle. Her new friend, about her father’s age, was unable to invite her into his house. Marco did not want her to meet his family, his wife, his children. Yet he talked about them to her. Instead he introduced her to some acquaintances. One of them found her an apartment. The Big Apple provided her with easy money. “I’m short on cash?” never reached a death ear in her newest circle of admirers.
Men now started to tell her that they loved her refreshing funny, carelessly childish behavior. They thought she was great whenever a little tipsy.
Sue had always loved flattery. She wanted to be the center of the attention. She was quite ready to seduce the men who catered to her needs for alcohol and attention. To be called eccentric erotic after a couple of alcoholic beverages was for her an affirmation that they loved her the most, whenever she had a few drinks. She didn’t really care what she drank, what counted for her was only the effect, the alcoholic fog, the euphoric stage.
Whenever she did not have a date, Sue went to wild parties, where she could dance all night. Seeking out party-places and action-spots became an obsession. There she could act out some of her fantasies. There she found all her connections for drugs. There she got alcohol and felt safe for she knew that if needed she could always crash on a couch, bed or the floor. Sue had made herself six years older. She had always been taller and bigger than the other girls her age. Now the drinking and street life made her easily look older. Just sixteen, everyone believed her that she was twenty-two.
She did whatever it took to enjoy the easy life in the fast lane. Some of her days were occupied with sightseeing, shopping, movie and theater visits and being treated like royalty by her date. The not so glamorous sides were at the times when she suffered behind closed curtains. Such attempts to keep the world out were side-effects during detoxification from large quantities of consumed alcohol. Sue did not mind being Marco’s Lolita. She was there for his friends too, whenever asked. She met some influential people this way. Money and gifts were coming her way, and she thought she was happy. Most of the time Sue was in an euphoric state. Drunk she laughed a lot. She got a wish granted, she hugged and kissed and danced and laughed. She took trips by plane and trips by boat. The people’s names she does not remember. “Men, just guys!” she says.
A Benny for breakfast, Champagne for lunch, Cocaine with dinner and Cannabis at night became the daily routine. Some men she will never forget. She was toyed with by these men-friends, who also had become toys, her toys. “They gave me money, jewelry, clothing, anything I wanted.” So she says. During the first year rich older men had become her livelihood. She had no problems to extract money from these men. It was Marco who paid for her luxurious apartment. She paid for everything else. As Sue puts it, “I did not know better!” and “I thought I had it made!”
Change came sudden.
“It started out with a visit at the doctor, earlier during the day.” The night which she did not want to remember, was soon followed by days she couldn’t remember.
“I knew something was not right. So I went to this gynecologist.” ” ‘Warts! Genital warts!’ he said.” She says. Sue told Marco exactly what the doctor had said and that he did not believe that her actual age was twenty-three. High on booze, low on energy, exhausted from a bad day, tanked up, she talked. That’s all, they, Marco and she, did this night, talk smoke and drink. He left her in the morning without his usual “Ciao, ciao cara mia!”
Drunk and high on dope, she had started to brag about her real age. Out of her mind she overlooked for a moment that her friend had much more to lose beside his marriage. Running around town with a minor, could have been for him an unnecessary shortcut to prison. By nightfall Marco’s friends knew about her age and everything else. They too dropped her like a stinking rotten mackerel.
Looking back, Sue is sure that the thought that she was younger than Marco’s own daughters, must have caused great pain for him. Sue is convinced that after finding out how young she really was, he hated himself. Marco was a Church going good man, who didn’t like to go to prostitutes but felt a girlfriend on the side was in order. Sue knows that Marco was also afraid of what he could catch next from her and bring home to his unsuspecting wife. The damage done, by her mouth running wild, was irreversible.
To overcome the devastating feelings of being dumped, Sue got into more alcohol and drugs. Sue got evicted from her studio apartment. To make nightly rent for a motel room, she was stealing, begging and tricking men into paying her advances. She was promising anything but seldom delivering a thing.
She needed the cash. She took it and left. It was so easy. All she did was taking up front money and assuring the sucker she would be right back with her most awesome endowed Puerto Rican girlfriend for a threesome he would never forget. She didn’t have a girlfriend and she didn’t come back.
It was not long that she moved in with an older girl who was supporting herself on and off the streets. “Tina was cool!” Doing anything and everything and staying out of jail was the goal. Tina taught Sue the ropes. Sue made good money. She was posing for pictures, working as a call girl and delivering packages. For more than three months, but less than six, Sue did not drink one drop and was doing very good.
Until one night, when for no apparent reason, Sue bought a bottle of vodka and finished the same by herself. She does not know why. She got depressed, and from here on drinking became more important than working. Which made her more depressed. Being drunk for days at a time, the little money she had saved ran through her fingers. Using uppers and downers to counteract the booze, she got kicked out by her roommate, who had no understanding for Sue’s alcohol addiction. Adding to her problem, she also had stolen money from Tina, not much, only a few hundred dollars.
Soon her tolerance level for alcohol was starting to play games with her. Some days a bar-liter was not enough to put her to sleep, on other days two drinks got her drunk. Drinking alcohol turned into a scary experience now, for she never knew, once she started drinking, how it would end and where. The having a couple of glasses of vodka with a hint of cranberry juice at a bar early in the evening and waking up in a motel room alone the next morning, or was it two mornings later, was not new to her. But not remembering how she got to the motel, and with whom was a frightening thought, especially as all the signs, used condoms and empty bottles, indicated that there must have been quite a party. She could feel her body aching. While worshiping the porcelain throne, throwing up and trying to throw up but there was nothing coming out beside a trickle of saliva, her brain tried to recall anything about the past night. Names and places often became foggy, so did her actions.
Looking back Sue is thankful at times for her memory-loss. There is much she does not want to remember anyhow. She answers, “I lost a week, a whole week in black out once!” to my questions about these memory losses. “I started out in the city, . . . I found myself in a big house in Pittsburgh, . . . a bundle of C-notes in my purse . . . How they got there I don’t know.”
Sue never kept any money for more than a day or two. It went as fast as it came. Somewhere, somehow along the path she took, her income dropped, or maybe it was that her habit was getting too expensive. To make just enough money to pay for a cheap motel room, a meal at a coffee shop and a bottle of vodka, during these days became hard work. Sue was always broke now. Sue recalls her wanting nothing more than to get out of New York. She set out to make just enough money to buy a ticket to travel back home. Whenever she had sufficient money in her pocket, she postponed her trip to California and got high instead.
Sue tried to control her drinking by going to church. It worked. She did not drink for over hundred days. Life looked much better. Then she got kicked out from the women’s shelter, where she was staying. At the time she was using a stolen I.D. card belonging to her past room mate; and she called herself Tina. Thrown out after being caught selling a lid of pot, she walked up the street. Sue was wishing to die, looking down into the snow and mud.
Cold, empty, depressed, seventeen years young, feeling a hundred years old, here she was without any future. She had dumped her trash bag with clothing for it had gotten too heavy.
Once more she had nowhere to go.
The twelve months which followed, was a year in hell, her working the streets. She was not even eighteen but looking in the mirror scared of getting old. Now it was not uncommon that potential tricks turned her down. It hurt to be told: “Listen you are sure you are alright?” “You look sick to me!” At a bachelor party the men send her away with a “Put your drawers back on and go see a doctor, you look too scary all bruised skin and bones!”
Sue is shaking her head saying: “I was lucky!” She adds “I did not know that this was to be my bottom. I had lost sight long ago. Yes, I had to hit bottom first.” She explains that she got arrested during a drug raid. She does not know where. “Somewhere in New Jersey, in a bed, with some guy who was wanted by Interpol.” “Somebody up there watched out for me!” Sue says, looking up to the ceiling.
The Judge offered her a way out, which was cooperation and drug treatment. She was turning eighteen then. That is how her new life started. She just had her AA-birthday. Pride fully she shows me her six-year coin. It says on it “TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE.” The Sue I work with looks healthy, good natured and average. I guess she weights one-hundred-and-thirty pounds. The Sue she talks about was skinny dwindling down to less than eighty pounds. The Sue I look at is nothing like the Sue she says she used to be.
I have been over to her mother’s place now several times for coffee. Without the mother’s confirmation I would never believe what Sue says she has been through. These days Sue is still going to counseling and group sessions. Sue is very educated about drugs and alcohol. Proudly Sue tells me that she is sponsoring, helping a number of other young women to break the habit. She says she has found a way to live with her disease called alcoholism. Sue does not hate nor blame alcohol for her problems in life. She says: “Alcohol is good for many purposes! However, my body can’t handle it. I thought to be an alcoholic is a weakness. It is not true. For me knowing that I am an alcoholic gives me the strength to concentrate on other aspects in life and to stay clean and sober. I wish my dad would understand what I’m talking about!”
Sue gets quiet. She looks at the floor, then up to the ceiling and adds, “It’s called acceptance. I have to accept myself for who I am. I also have to accept others for what and who they are.”
She smiles again and with a questioning look asks me: “Are you really going to write about me?” I say “Yes, I shall.” She adds “And if, don’t forget to mention my new motto, happy joyous and free from alcohol and all mind-altering drugs!” Today’s Sue, she is much admired by all the coworkers and guests alike. She has never missed a day at work, never been late in over two years I know her.
What I respect most is her being proud of her achievement to overcome being enslaved by alcohol. Her disease has led her downhill onto the wide avenue of drugs, prostitution, lying, cheating and stealing before coming back up a narrow path of truth. She is setting a good example for the coworkers and I am glad that I am allowed to work with her. Sue is a great person, who could be called religious. She believes in a better life with God’s help. I listen to her explaining her interpretation of “TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE!” However, she is not preaching like the door to door Bible thumpers. “This past six years I have been trying to find my God, a caring forgiving and good God. I found him. I found my God. He has no sword and he doesn’t punish people, he guides me and I talk to him. He is my friend.” Sue is dead serious as she says what she says.
She also has a warm peaceful glow on her face and she talks like she knows exactly what she is talking about. She explains to me in AA she was asked to find her own concept of God.
“I am a human, I make mistakes. God helps me to stay away from the first drink. He knows I cannot drink. I know that I am not a saint. All I do differently is that today I cheat, steal and lie a lot less than what I used to. With God’s help I try to become a better person, one day at a time. Whatever I do, I have stopped lying to myself.”
I have never heard her say a word of fear when she talks about her Higher Power whom she calls God. She says her God loves her more than anybody ever loved her. Sue talks freely about the twelve steps which are the foundation of her recovery.
“It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.”
Talking to her mother, who is my own age, she tells me “You only like my daughter for she has my looks. When I was younger I looked exactly like her!” The mother also complains bitterly about her daughter not having finished school. She does say that her daughter has been a failure all her life just like the father. The mother does not think being a waitress to be much of a job either. She sums it up with “All she has going for herself is her pretty face.” The mother is not sure about the effectiveness of AA. She calls it a modern day’s Recovery Movement and thinks it is good. Nevertheless, she doesn’t trust whatever Guru’s might run the show. She knows there are Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotic Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, Shoplifter’s Anonymous and another one-hundred-and-fifty programs, all off springs from AA. At least so the daughter had told her. All these programs are based on Alcoholic Anonymous 12 step-program.
The daughter says there are no Gurus in AA. The mother is a skeptic. She knows about the Volstead Act and how it turned out. She also knows about the WCTU from 1874. The mother confides in me that business for her bar has not been too good lately. She is worried about these anti-alcohol-movements. She knows the government is involved. The Surgeon General is behind the signs now posted in all bars, saying alcohol is not good for pregnant women. She often wonders if these government implemented anti-alcohol-movements just as the anti-smoking-movements will kill off any bar-business still left. She is considering selling her business, but she is afraid to be too old to start over. For her, the bar owner, the word government control is a red flag, meaning interference with the private sector and bad for business.
Thinking back, she says: “There has, since ancient times, been alcohol available and consumed. People always used to get drunk!” She blames her failing business on the latest health fad, the ban of smoking in bars and restaurants. The mother cites the bible as a source of her wisdom about public drunkenness “It says in Genesis that Noah got drunk on wine.”
Sitting at the word processor, I reflect back at both women. The mother, wrapped up in her own world, does not seem to understand how successful her daughter is in life. Yet such does not matter to the daughter. I admire the daughter’s ability to speak freely about her past. There was nothing secretive in her voice. She did not seem afraid to tell the truth. I think of the quote “TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE” and ask myself “What greater success than finding one self’s values early in life could there possible be?”
It is 1997. This article is written during a time when smoking and public drunkenness is frowned upon, at least in California, USA, where I live.
I talked to several owners of on sale liquor licenses, they confirmed some of what Sue’s mother had told me. Only a few years earlier there was not one bar to be found which was nonsmoking. Ten, twenty years ago to have a night out on the town included getting drunk. The neighborhood bars used to be crowded. Ninety percent of the bar customers were heavy drinkers. Liquor licenses in Monterey were sold for a hundred thousand dollars or more. To have a bar and be allowed to serve liquor used to be a mint.
Nowadays, in 1997 the bars are less crowded. Half of the customers do not drink alcohol. From the other half very few have more than two drinks. It is suddenly okay not to drink. Liquor licenses aren’t worth much today in California. Part of this trend is the ongoing education of the public about public drunkenness and its dangers for society. More and more cities join into efforts to let the people know they don’t want alcohol misuse.
Who would have believed that one could celebrate New Years Eve without alcohol only ten years ago? But Programs like First Night – a New Years Eve with music and entertainment but no drunkenness which is said to have originated in Boston – have been very successful in Monterey in the past two years and are catching on fast.
Talking with Rod A. a counselor at the Clint Eastwood Program he defines alcoholism as a family disease. It is an overwhelming desire to drink alcohol, even thought it is causing harm, the alcoholic is unable to overcome his disease without help from a Higher Power. The statistics say there are at least five million practicing alcoholics and approximately one third of the high-school students in the United States are thought to be problem drinkers.
Albert T., a bartender on the Monterey Peninsula for over 30 years, tells me, “I used to push drinks to get the sales up. Bartenders these days are out of a job unless they adapt to the new responsible drink service theories.”
The idea behind “resposible drink service” is to hold the person who serves the alcoholic beverages fully responsible for what and how much he serves and to whom. The trend as seen in Monterey is not unique. A similar trend can be seen Statewide and as I am told Nationwide.
I searched for more answers about alcoholism and any possible cure. I checked medical books, the local libraries, the INTERNET and even talked with my house doctor.
I did however come across the following by Ann Giudici Fettner
. . . It has long be thought that alcoholism resulted from a combination of psychological and social factors, Current scientific research suggests that a tendency to abuse alcohol runs in families and that an inherited chemical defect also plays a role. In April 1990 researchers discovered a rare gene, possibly one of several, that my increase susceptibility to alcoholism, suggesting that alcoholism sometimes may be inherited. In particular, the dopamine-receptor gene is believed to be associated with severe alcoholism, providing a possible link to such disorders as Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, and autism.
Now I understand Sue a lot better. I understand why she does not complain about hangovers at work. I understand why she does not drink any alcohol. I also understand why she does not advertise being a recovering alcoholic.