When I was eight years old I used to help my old man, kind of like Daddy’s Little Helper, only a bit darker and more twisted. My Dad was an alcoholic. He affectionately called this his, “bottled up bottle illness.” He was a salesman for a liquor company, travelling the back roads of Northern Ontario cajoling and bribing hotel owners and bartenders to push his brand of hooch over all the others lining the shelves running along the glass mirrored walls behind countless bars. It was a mug’s game, but I suppose that it paid pretty well at that time and allowed him to drink on the job. I guess that would be the equivalent of a glutton cleaning up restaurant scraps, or a male sex addict doing the laundry at Hugh Heffner’s mansion.
There was a hitch in this otherwise seemingly idyllic picture. (Isn’t there always, just ask Bill Clinton) Although the better part of the job was walking into a bar and buying rounds for the house all night long, technically drunkenness was frowned upon. (It really wasn’t, but the companies had to pretend that it was so they wouldn’t be seen as a bunch of Al Capone styled gangsters peddling rot gut to the masses.) In the public’s jaundiced eyes the immorality of sex and booze and smoky billiard rooms still shared the same shameful spotlight of judgemental scrutiny. Basically all of this drinking and backslapping fell under the guise of PR. The Willy Lowman School of sales, “They gotta like ya Biff.”
My father’s problem was pretty straightforward. He could drink all the whiskey he could find, but if he ever was convicted of a DUI he was immediately and ignominiously fired. Those were the rules. Unfortunately my Dad fudged the rules a couple of times and spent a decade or so bouncing from one company to the next. Finally he came up with a Master Plan. The penalty for a DUI was automatic dismissal, but the fine for an unlicensed minor driving was only $25. So one day in 1958 I slid behind the wheel of his brand new Mercury Monarch hardtop for the first time (they always had to be hardtops with him) and he taught me how to drive. The car was huge and I was small, so I needed to sit on pillows to see over the massive chrome embossed steering wheel. By the time I was eleven I’d be taken out of school for our road trips. I’d drive those back country gravel roads well into the night from one honky tonk hotel to the next, with my Dad perched in the backseat swilling whiskey and telling me stories about his Dad, or his air force times in Europe during WWII. Looking back, in a crazy sort of way, we bonded during those drives, not as father and son but something else that to this day remains unnamed. The bars out in that neck of the woods were rough. Loggers and miners were the clientele, beer with whiskey chasers, straight up. Sometimes my old man disappeared through a heavy wooden tavern door until the early morning hours. I remember on cold fall nights I’d sit in the Mercury alone smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. I’d think about things that I was still too young to understand. Sometimes those thoughts troubled me. I loved my father, but I didn’t know why.
It was 1961 and Elvis was still the boss of the airwaves in those remote little blue collar towns. The new rockers emerging from England were pretty boys, unwelcome in these hard rock rooms. I’d listen to Elvis croon his ballads about love gone wrong, or snap my fingers to his rebellious rock and roll epics. After all, Elvis was a kid that had no one and came from nothing, and I was a kid that felt he had no one and could trust in nothing. I kind of thought I might understand what made him an outsider. We might have shared an empty place inside of us, a place no one else could see or find? Maybe my father was one of us too.
I learned one thing on those nights. I hated that goddamn place.