Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Drunk and disorderly at fourteen.

Drunk and disorderly at fourteen.  ©Joel Baumwoll

I recall becoming interested in beer and booze at thirteen, not long after I learned to enjoy masturbation.   The “forbidden fruit” aspect of drinking in 1953 was probably as appealing as the buzzed feeling.  

The problem was how to get my hands on the stuff.

My early ingenuity revealed itself in the scheme I hatched to get the local liquor store to deliver bottles to my home when my parents were safely absent.  It occurred to me that a deliveryman would never hand over a box full of beer and whiskey bottles to a teenager, but he might to a nine year old.  So I drafted the services of my kid brother.

The plot called for me to be upstairs with the electric razor humming when the doorbell rang.  My brother called out, “Dad, there is a delivery guy here.”  I answered in the lowest register voice I could muster “the money’s on the table and there’s a tip for him.”  Bingo!

Thus my career as a kid boozer was launched.  My friend Bob Logan and I liked to get mildly buzzed on Saturday nights and go to the dance at Montclair High School.  The Dutch courage helped me overcome my feelings of inadequacy with the older girls I liked to pursue.

For some reason that now escapes me, if there was a reason, we decided to really tie one on this particular Saturday night.  Another strategy to get our hands on the stuff was to tell Mr. Larry, the gay antiques dealer, that we would have some drinks with him if he bought the booze.  

He was always holding out promises of fun and games if we came up to his apartment over the store and hoisted a few.  Our subtle plan was to wait for Larry to buy the bottle and then run like hell, a quart of PM rye whiskey stuffed into my coat.

Logan’s parents were going out that night, so we waited, hidden in a pigeon coop in his backyard, alternating slugs from the whiskey bottle and a jug of ginger ale.  

Ah, that was real class drinking.  The cooing of pigeons and the acrid smell of dung did not deter us from our high life adventure.  By the time his parents pulled out of the driveway, we had nearly polished off the whiskey and the mixer.

It was time to go to the dance.

Now, my recollections of a lot of things that night are very acute, but how we got from Logan’s house to a puddle of rainwater in the parking lot of the Acme supermarket is a mystery.  I remember standing in front of the large building that was Montclair High and being surprised that the building was completely dark and locked.  We’d missed the dance!  What to do now, but to go to my house, which was about fifteen minutes away.

The two of us must have stumbled and staggered through the dark streets, past houses in the poor black section of town along Central Avenue, when Bob fell on flat his face.  In the dim light of the streetlight, I saw a stream of blood running down his face from a gash over his right eye.  His eyeglass frame had opened a neat slice on his forehead that bled profusely.  Terrified that he was mortally wounded, I banged on the doors of the darkened houses asking for help.  None came.  

My next move, done with all the clarity of a completely drunk fourteen year old, was to lift Logan onto my shoulders and carry him the remaining three blocks to my house.  My brother, who was home alone, reports being traumatized by the sight of two bloody, dirty, wet and reeking figures rolling in the door like some bizarre circus act.  

Recovering my senses long enough to realize that I had a life to save (little did I know how close that was to the truth), I picked up the phone over Logan’s protests, and told the operator (we had “number please” operator service in 1954) that she needed to get an ambulance over to Three Vincent Place because “my friend was bleeding to death.”

The sharp, penetrating vapors of ammoniated salts woke me from a stupor, to a room full of white-coated men and women and a couple of blue uniformed cops, all looking at Logan and me.  

“What were you drinking?” one asked.  “Nuthin,” I protested, fearing that drinking was a serious offense.  “We wuz smoking.”  “Uh oh” the cop said, “smoking what?” “Chesserfield regulars” I shouted back, tossing a crumpled pack in the air.  It was the first time I had copped to smoking, but I figured, in my alcohol-fuzzed logic, that it was a lesser offense than whiskey.

One cop, with a particularly keen nose for the hard stuff, said "They were drinking Canadian Club.  I can smell it from here." 

I replied indignantly "Nah, we wasn't drinkin' any of that cheap stuff.  We wuz drinkin' PM.  $4.99 a quart."  Apparently, even at the tender age of fourteen, I had developed an appreciation for quality in liquor.

The next question was inevitable.  “Where’dya get it?”  Logan and I told six different and equally improbable stories (found it, took it off a drunk, masqueraded as an older guy), among which was Mr. Larry’s part in this drama. 

Poor Mr. Larry.  His goose was cooked.

The docs gave me as shot which caused me to spend the next seven hours with my face in the toilet, heaving up every thing I had eaten for the past six months.  We had come seriously close to alcohol poisoning, but I didn’t realize that until several years later.

Some months later, Logan and I were hauled before a judge, who told us two boys with IQs as high as ours (I was very impressed with this information) were off on a very wrong track, and forbade us to see each other again.

Six months later, my parents, convinced that Montclair would drive me to a ruined life, moved to an upper-middle class, mostly Jewish community, called White Meadow Lake, near Morristown.  There, they thought, I would meet college-bound kids and leave this life of indolence and drunken womanizing that I had adopted in tony Montclair.  

Little did they know.  But that's another story.

The first week we lived in the new house, I was jumped at night by four anti-Semitic seventeen year-olds (one, the son of the local Policeman, Tony George).  They were bored, beered up and decided it would be fun to drive up to White Meadow and beat up a Jew or two.  Another kid, not as able as I to get away from them, had a fractured skull for their efforts.  So much for upgrading my lifestyle.

But my parents were right about one thing.  I did go to college after graduating from Morris Hills Regional High.  And I never again was able to drink enough to get that sick.

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