At the beginning of the week I was having one of those nights when I was wide awake thinking back over the years of my life, (I'm pretty sure we all do this) and was imagining what it would be like to have a voiceover telling my story that I could hear. I posted on my Facebook page that I would want Peter Coyote to do the narrative voiceover of my life. (Perhaps there is a voiceover going on that we don't hear, but if we could, Peter Coyote's voice is the one I decided I could listen to.) Imagine my surprise when I went to watch Ken Burn's documentary, Prohibition, on PBS last night and Peter Coyote was the voiceover narration. As I was listening to his voice, and the subject matter of the history of American drinking, it seemed as though I was listening to the perfect analogy of my own life in America. The first part of the documentary was the idea that America from the early 1800's to the time of prohibition we had become a nation of drunkards, progressing from grog and beer to the eventual distillation of spirits, which exacerbated the drinking affect into developing crime, abuse, and general mayhem because everybody was drinking constantly. It was pretty interesting to apply the analogy of one life to this history, from the first drink to the eventual point of prohibition, all narrated by Peter Coyote. I thought it was a rather interesting coincidence, (that I posted this earlier in the week wanting him for my voiceover) but in my mind it was so pronounced that I paid close attention to it.
I don't know why I was so unaware of the state of America at that time, and I remember in school making fun with other kids of Carrie Nation--with her hatchet destroying bars and getting arrested over and over again. It seemed like such an extreme thing to do, but apparently, there were many who felt the same as she did. In Ken Burns fashion, the documentary is filled with tin-type photos, only in these photos, everyone seems to have a glass of whiskey or a bottle in their hand. I remember a history teacher saying once that, "Small pox and whiskey really won the west." I thought it was curious that a teacher would say this, but it got my attention and I listened to him more intently for the remainder of the year. I even remembered it when I began teaching, that a teacher can say something that is another way of perceiving the truth and it quite suddenly arrests his students. (I had also read a book called 'Lies My Teacher Told Me') I tried to never tell lies about history, either America's or my own. (And, yes, it did get me in trouble sometimes, especially since I was really candid about my own history of craziness) I can recall lying in bed as a teenager, imagining soldiers coming into an Indian camp with cases of whiskey instead of guns. I also remember being told to be careful driving across the reservation, (which I've done hundreds of times) because there were lots of accidents and drunken Indians (that's the term I heard).
Growing up, I saw the changes that occurred in adults with the advent of alcohol, even to the point that I noticed the difference between those drinking beer and whiskey, that if it were whisky the adults were drinking, something dramatic was going to happen, and it usually did. I can remember living in Page, Arizona, (on the reservation) and my mother taking us to a motel late at night because my father had been drinking. My mother did not want to subject us to his crazy behavior, as he became violent and abusive. As much as my mother wanted to save us from the drunks, it was all around me from the beginning. By the time I became a teenager, I was adept at handling drunks, and had even mastered the art of the language of drunk talk. My best friend Red's dad, was also a drunk, and a mean one. I spent many a night at Red's going through the paces that a drunk will put you through. I always felt bad when Red would come to school with a black eye or a swollen face from his Dad, who would not have thought of punching him in the eye if he had been sober. I think that was the power of our bonding for so many years, because we had histories that were deeply ensconced in drinking. For many years as a kid, I was called The Little Preacher because I unabashedly spoke out against drinking. However, it was not to much of a surprise when Red and I both discovered what all the fuss was about with drinking, and along with being in high school in the early seventies, we were soon teenage drunks and pot heads, doing the same things we despised as kids. We didn't really need alcohol to be two of the craziest kids in school, but we didn't know that then, and we developed a reputation for dramatic antics right from the beginning. This led to fights, expulsion from school, juvenile detention, care wrecks, (Red's brother Clayton was killed in a firery crash when he was a junior in high school). And I think about now, of the many things we did that never would have happened if not fueled by alcohol. Red was the best shoplifter I ever met, so we always had access to a bottle whenever we wanted it.
From the very beginning, my personality was one that would dramatically change during consumption. However, as I think about it now, I fell in with all the drinkers who were also dramatically changed. Very early on in my drinking career, I never knew what was going to happen or where I was going to end up, and it was the same for many of us who had a history of it in our lives. Like many drinkers, I usually fell in with the most dangerous ones, the ones who had no brakes. And it is also why so many of them died an early death. I also became very aware that this was happening to me, and like America and Carrie Nation, I was continually welding my hatchet. Maybe if I chopped up enough bars, maybe if it were completely removed from my life, things would be different. I knew I had the dreaded gene, and I think through reading books I educated myself to at least become aware that I would die young if I didn't change something. I was twenty when this finally happened the first time, and I was able to find complete sobriety for eight years. It only happened, however, after a brush with death, and a conversion to Christianity. I have been able to survive, (like America) only because my narration included long stints of sobriety. Although I wish I had been able to keep my long runs going, I have to be satisfied with today.
During my twenties, I was able to keep away from it through a rigid form of control. Christianity helped a lot, but I continued to read my way into a very strange place. I almost felt like I read my way out of Christianity. Maybe I shouldn't have, because once philosophy, theatre, and art began to take a more dominant control over my life, I left a beautiful wife, a job that was very demanding, and I left the church. I discovered theatre in a much different way than when I was a kid, and quite suddenly, the controls that I had manifested with my hatchet were disappearing. I was discovering the 'drinking writers' and artists, and rediscovering the heady romance of music. Little by little, I fell headlong into a frenzy of theatre mania. For many years, I was able to maintain my drinking to binges, although the binges would sometimes go on for three or four days. I would be able to stay sober for months at a time, which were then followed by worse binges. I was becoming an alcoholic cliché. Finally in NYC, while doing a play there, I fell headlong into a binge that I couldn't stop. Here's a sample of a monologue I wrote during this time.
It was Spring in New York City
a breeze was blowing down Broadway
we were bewitched
drunk with power high on art and Irish whiskey
we sold the Brooklyn Bridge to Christ himself
on 1st Street and Tenth at 3:00 am.
the first day we arrived.
Each night we walked to Soho,
spilling coffee on a well worn rehearsal hall floor—
mixing our blood with each other as we put our bodies
minds, and souls through a maze of senses, memories, and illusions—
waking up all the sleeping dogs,
kissing death like a lover in the name of Thespis—
holding tightly to Hamlet’s hand
as we walked through the haunted kingdom.
We opened on a Thursday—
a tiny theatre called Theatre 4S in the East Village,
a cast of six, an audience of old friends, lovers,
wives, girlfriends, dogs, writers,
actors, and two hairdressers.
The play began and someone laughed at the first line—
the second got the same we found a groove in the hardwood floor—
sold our souls to the sound of our words,
the tap of our feet, and the steady rhythym of laughter,
intoxicating, liberating, terrifying sound of laughter.
After the play we all walked up to the roof for some air and New York City skyline.
The chatter was good and alive, the energy was rising, the air was crisp,
stories we had saved for years spilled easily from our lips,
a boozy family circus of stars, drinking drink for drink on drink—
falling sweetly into the arms of art, the most powerful aphrodisiac of all.
At three in the morning I am still standing on the roof—
Dylan Thomas is buzzing in my glass,
John Barrymore is trying to lend me his coat,
Tom Waits is playing ballads recollecting heartaches as love falls
on the early morning end of a four day drunk.
I try to apologize to Jesus for selling him the bridge,
to Buddah for not sitting still and finally
I looked to the East but the light has stopped at the ocean’s edge—
I lift Dylan to toast the edge, beyond the darkness my companion beckons like a siren—
and I know that my romance with ghosts is nearly over—
I’m standing on the top of New York City staring out to the sea,
staring out to the abyss, and the voices
I hear now are speaking their final lines to me
as I slowly closes my eyes to fall from grace.
I never recovered from that night.
I was so afraid of something good happening to me—
When I finally fly home, I’ve lost everything.
I start each morning with a glass of Skye and orange juice.
Slowly, I disintegrate to here—this place—
and then one night I decide to put myself out of my misery—
the same way as all the other times, the same as now—
I take the pills and climb into bed, like this, and I wait for the end—
sessions over, Dr. Bob—thank you for your efforts…
(I so want to rewrite this monologue right now.)
Shortly after this, I began another long period of sobriety. I came home, got a job teaching and stayed sober for almost eight years. I can pinpoint the moment I knew I was in trouble. After a major operation and my father's disappearance. It's always the same pattern, long stints of sobriety followed by violent binges. It's so difficult to explain the way it happens. The chemistry of it is mind blowing. I need another reason to live, I'm looking for that now. When I go through these things, the hatchet does come out. I have to start with prohibition. I have to bust up the bottles of booze. Unfortunately, I often turn that hatchet on myself. I have some ugly scars and some fresh cuts. And who would have thought they can put the same thing in a pill? It takes longer for a pill to manifest craziness, but for someone like me, it eventually does. This is a horrible pattern to have to live through, but, I would rather stay alive and live through it than to die and leave it in crates of writing. Somewhere out there, there is someone who can use a guy like me. I know that sounds like a contradiction, and perhaps we are living in a society where it's not prudent to be honest about our lives, however, the upside is, that it forms a character of authenticity in spite of the many wrecks along the highway. When given the mandate of a road trip, I have lots of experience, and know the highways very well.
I have a play, C&W, the medication of the rural masses…" that I produced once in Phoenix. The critic applauded the play, but said that it was implausible that one of the characters would get drunk and take his friends hostage. It was a funny thing for him to say, especially since I've been taken hostage a number of times by a drunk. I write what I know, but who would have thought a kid like me would grow up and write plays for the theatre. It doesn't make sense. And who would have thought that the plays would be well crafted and entertaining. I can't help it if Eugene O'Neil, William Inge, and Sam Shepard were my teachers. Lately, I've been asking myself, however, if we are a society that can still talk about issues that are destroying us. Prohibition, in some form, is always a good idea. When I was in Texas, there was a world wide AA conference in San Antonio. If my memory serves me, there were about 250,000 people in attendance. Can you imagine the world if these 250,000 people were still out there drinking? Just a thought, but a provocative one.
The next part of my life and the long sober period is here, (Thank God) I'm looking for that opportunity that God always seems to send me. The hardest part is being aware and to be able to see it and act on it when it comes. Where is my philanthropist? I know you are there, please contact me, asap, my best work is ahead of me, and… Peter Coyote is narrating my life.