Port in the Storm

2/5/2019

The whole world is three drinks behind. If everyone in the world would take three drinks, we would have no trouble. If Stalin, Truman, and everybody else in the world had three drinks right now, we’d all loosen up and we wouldn’t need the United Nations.

– Humphrey Bogart

Bradley is something of an institution to the nightlit streets of Rochester, New York, and any serious drinker knows him by name. Even the city’s more casual weekend warriors are sure to recognize his voice: the barky baritone growl of a life well-smoked. Come sundown, the darkness buzzes mad with his muddled grit – the sound you would hear if every crumbling brick of the city could speak. And speak, they do. In reverberations of Bradley’s raspy rambles: echoes taunting time’s constant threat of expiration.

 

Bradley must be Death’s most frustrating assignment yet.

 

To say he’s living on borrowed time would be an understatement. It’s more like he’s living on stolen time. Like he made a deal with the devil years ago and he keeps shrugging it off: “Sorry, bub, guess ya shoulda read the fine print…”

To say he’s living on borrowed time would be an understatement. It’s more like he’s living on stolen time. Like he made a deal with the devil years ago and he keeps shrugging it off.

Well into his sixties, Bradley haunts the same local dives I do. Whether I’m at the Bug Jar or the Marshall Street Pub, I know Bradley is never too far away, that it’s only a matter of time before he ambles over to bum a smoke and a beer, the brickly boom of his voice always preceding him.

 

He seldom remembers me, but then again, I’ve never seen him sober.

 

“Bradley!” I call out as he stumbles into earshot.

 

“Merh – how’d’ya do? The name’s Bradley…it’s nice ta make your acquaintance, young man.” We shake hands; his feel like leather.

 

“I’m Dustin – nice to meet you; how goes it?” I introduce myself for what must be the sixtieth time.

 

“Eh, be better if I had sutten’a drink and sutten’a smoke, if you know what I mean.”

 

“Hey, I hear that,” I say, producing a cigarette and a lighter.

 

“Err, thank you kindly.” He lights up and billows out smoke in a flash, the old pro, returning the lighter to my palm so quickly it makes me dizzy. He takes another hearty drag of the Dunhill – its cherry-crackle rips, burning paper quick as brushfire.

 

It’s the middle of December. The moon is full and frozen; it licks the smoke clean in a gale of pallid light. My eyes trace that spectacle of sky above us; his burrow into the cracks of the sidewalk below. Bradley motor-mumbles something indecipherable under his breath, like he’s revving up to speak, so I look his way. He’s wearing a thin army surplus jacket that buttons up in the front and drapes down to his ankles. He looks a bit like Bukowski did toward the end –the reddened, bulbous nose; laugh lines like parentheses around the lips; deep set wrinkles etched into his forehead; and a wool cabbie cap to top it all off. His voice, too, grow­­ls, staggers, and slurs like the old poet:

“Err, hey, do you got an extra quarter on you to spare? I’m, uhr, twenty-five cents away from a forty-ounce down there at corner store-uhr,” he places a hand on my shoulder, “Er, you do know the store there that I’m talkin’ about, don’t ya, bruther? The one down over there-err – on Monroe, yeah?”

 

Yeah, I know the store. I’ll leave it unnamed, so as to save the owners any potential legal strife, but that particular bodega has kept me drunk since I was 19. At one point, I found myself there every day, for one vice or another. They also sell individual cigarettes, loosies, at 75 cents a pop – perfect for when you don’t have enough cash for a whole pack, but still need a quick fix; or, if you save for a few days, you can cop a five-dollar pack of Senecas on the low (technically only sold on the reservation), but only if they know you. They even let me pawn a pair of headphones for a six-pack once upon a time.

 

“Bradley,” I slur, placing my hand on his shoulder, “if you recite me one of one of those famous monologues of yours…I’ll go in there, I’ll walk right into that bar over there, right behind us and I’ll come back with – for you, I mean: I’ll get you any drink you want…anything on the menu.”

 

“Oh, well, ya’see,” Bradley says with a grin. He closes his eyes. His head drops, and his whole body twitches a little, jerks ever so slightly, barely perceptible, as he sways from side to side. His breathing gets heavier and heavier, until it’s on the cusp of hyperventilation. He’s preparing, shaking off what’s left of Bradley. He’s clearing out the clutter of himself to make room for someone else, a new character to inhabit his being. When Bradley acts, he doesn’t just act, he becomes…transmogrifies. He stands perfectly still for a windswept second in the cold.

When Bradley acts, he doesn’t just act, he becomes…transmogrifies.

Then his head fires upright, and suddenly Bradley is gone. In his stead, the actor Peter Finch stands before me – more accurately, Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, from the 1976 film, The Network, stands before me – wild-eyed and sick of it all. He’s ready to incite the revolution, live on national television. Without warning, he begins:

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad…everybody knows things are bad…It’s a depression…yeah…everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job.

 

“The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counters, errr…Punks are running wild in the street…and there’s no one anywhere that seems to know what to do with this…Well.

 

“We know our air is unfit to breathe, our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes—as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

 

“We know things are bad…Worse than bad, they’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy!

 

“And so we don’t go out anymore, err, we sit in a house as slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms…Let me have my toaster, and TV, and my steel belted radials and I won’t say anything.’

 

“Well I’m not going to leave you alone – I want you to get Mad!” He’s raised both arms now, chopping the air to emphasize the punchy rhythms of his already belligerent roar:

“I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot!” He pauses, puffs the dying breath of his cigarette, and drops it to the ground. Shaking his head in contemptuous disbelief, he crushes it under his boot and continues.

 

“I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crying in the streets,” He screams, “all I know is first you’ve got to get mad…you’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, God dammit…my life has value!”

 

That last line seems to have gotten caught on something in his throat. His voice cracks a sliver on “God,” but he quickly regains his fire. I’m in awe. Ignoring the mortified passersby behind Bradley, I lean against the brick of the bar and watch as he wraps up the final few lines of the famous rant.

 

“So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna to take it anymore!’”

 

With that, he closes his eyes once more and deeply inhales, breathing Bradley back in, in one big gulp, as the spirit of Howard Beale leaves, dissipating on the winter wind. When he comes to, he’s aglow as I clap and cheer. I undo my lean from the wall for a full-on standing ovation. He tries to stifle a crooked grin, but to little success.

 

“Thank you, thank you,” he says, giving two big curtain call bows to his audience of one.

 

“You are the fuckin’ man,” I say, extending my hand for a gentleman’s shake. He grasps it firmly.

 

“Oh, it’s nothin’ at all, young man, nothin’ at all.”

 

“How about that drink, eh? Must’a worked up quite a thirst with that one.”

 

“Absolutely,” he rasps under his breath, “A mighty thirst indeed.”

 

As I open the door, I’m blasted with too loud tinfoil pop music, a rush of hot air, and the overwhelming pub-stink of stale beer, cheap bourbon, and fried food. Feels good to be home, I smile to myself, before making the familiar route through the mudroom, around the dine-in tables, and a straight cut across to the bar. I drop my elbows on the bar’s edge, let it hold my drunken weight as I wait for the bartender to make his rounds. It’s surprisingly crowded for a Tuesday night, especially considering the cold: cracking down closer to the zero-degree mark one day at a time. I’ve been home for winter break I think three days now and tonight’s high is two degrees. No wonder Bradley keeps wasted like that. I can’t even fathom roughing it through these frigid nights, and certainly not sober. Not a chance. I’d be drinking for warmth, too, if I were him, shit. But, then again, I also came here tonight alone, got myself almost as drunk as Bradley did, and I have a warm house to sleep it off in tonight. The same warm house that I’ve been drunk in every night since I came home. So, what’s my excuse?

But, then again, I also came here tonight alone, got myself almost as drunk as Bradley did, and I have a warm house to sleep it off in tonight.

“What’ll it be?” The bartender is a big and bald pull back to the present.

 

“Uh…” Shit. Bradley never told me what he wanted. Oh well, who doesn’t like whiskey?

 

“Two more double Jack and Cokes and a couple PBRs, please.” Might as well stock up. The thirst is strong tonight. The bartender nods and goes about making the drinks.

 

Tonight’s thirst, though, is not a uniquely strong thirst. Not by any means. Having first acquired it in high school, it’s become pretty unquenchable in the past decade or so. I quickly developed a reputation in eleventh grade for being able to consume superhuman quantities of alcohol. Kegstands, funnels, and shotgunning tall boys all became increasingly familiar (and enjoyable). After graduation I took four years off to really hone my craft: I added liquor chugs and amateur beer pong title wins to my CV. By the time I got to college I was probably overqualified, but I didn’t get lazy. I perfected my cocktail-making skills at SUNY Geneseo, where I opened a boutique bartending service for house parties called Get Lit (the menu was based on famous authors’ favorite drinks) and I drank like it was a part-time job. And now that I am two years into my MFA in Creative Writing, I’d like to think that I spend time perfecting my pallet with fine scotches and high-end potato vodkas when what I really do is perform the role of drunk writer alongside a cast of writer-friends who tend to fancy themselves the same.

 

This is not to say that my drinking hasn’t slowed down. It certainly has, to a two or three night a week habit. I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. At least not in the way that Bradley is, living his life one drink at a time. But I wouldn’t say that my relationship with alcohol is entirely healthy either.

I don’t think I’m an alcoholic. But I wouldn’t say that my relationship with alcohol is entirely healthy either.

It is possible, though, that the only thing separating me from becoming a serious alcoholic like Bradley is a severe enough trauma. Vietnam whittled Bradley into who he is today, as it did with so many men of his generation. After his involuntary service in the army finally ended, he returned to an America that was vastly different from the country he’d left behind. He was rebuked, spat at by passing strangers. The love of his life left him to deal with his war-torn demons on his own. He came home to nothing except for a terrible case of PTSD, with little to no psychiatric treatment available. So, he self-medicated, presumably to buffer the loneliness, to damper the daily hallucinations, and to fill a newly created void of purpose.

 

Although Bradley has been a bit of a heavy drinker since he was a teen, the war sent any latent issues of dependency or addiction he may have flirted with in the past into full swing. The somatic blur of strong drink came to fill the hole in his life left behind by the end of the war. His devotion to booze, now, goes beyond that of worship. At his age, with his health as brittle as it is and his addiction so extreme, withdrawal could actually kill him.

 

Although the numbers are nearly impossible to come to with 100% accuracy, there are roughly 554,000 homeless individuals in America (as of 2017). Roughly 38,000 of those people are veterans. 35% of the total homeless population suffers from addiction. And 26% suffer from mental illness. As you might be able to imagine, however, mental illness and addiction tend to fuel one another in a vicious cycle, leading to a sort of Sisyphean uphill battle that never seems to end.

 

What we need is better and more easily accessible mental health and substance abuse services. We need to put a system in place that provides immediate housing for the homeless, as well as access to treatment programs. This can, in fact, be easily achieved. And in the long run, it will save everyone a lot of money.

 

Chronically homeless individuals often cycle between the streets, emergency rooms, inpatient hospital stays, detox programs, psychiatric facilities, and jails, all of which cost the taxpayer money. Chronic homelessness, in fact, has been shown to cost the average taxpayer about $35,578 per year.

 

When you give homes, however, to those who do not have them, the rates of chronic homelessness drop significantly. This is known as Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) or the housing-first initiative. Since 2007, when select cities in the US started implementing PSH, the national rate of chronic homeless has dropped by 30%. Denver, Colorado was one of the few US cities to take on the housing-first initiative. And in so doing, the city saved $15,733 per year, per person. The program was a success.

 

With housing and a network of support, chronically homeless individuals finally had the opportunity to get back on their feet. The savings in Denver were more than enough to offset the cost of PSH ($13,400), which means that taxpayers still saved an additional $2,373. Every city, as far as I’m aware, that has adopted this policy has saved a substantial amount of money – and, doubtless, many lives.

 

The homeless are often blamed for being homeless. It is much easier for people to criticize an individual than it is to turn around and take a look at the complex systems in place that create them. It is so easy to look down on people while they sleep on the sidewalk below you. It is easy to forget that all it takes is a single crushing tragedy – a natural disaster, a war, or being thrown deep into crippling despair – to potentially put us in Bradley’s ragged boots.

All it takes is a single crushing tragedy to potentially put us in Bradley’s ragged boots.

All that really separates rungs of the social ladder are gaps made of luck and circumstance.

 

Hugging four drinks to my chest, I lean my back against the door of the bar to open it with my weight. The cold is sharp and sudden, and the wind is given shape, in thin currents of snow dusting the sidewalk. Clumsily, I squat to place the two cocktails and two beers onto a nearby table, spilling some of the syrupy whiskey-cokes onto my jacket in the process. I turn around to look for Bradley, but he is nowhere to be found.

 

I walk to the nearest end of the building and peer around the corner to see if maybe he’s found someone else to bum a smoke from while waiting for me to return with our drinks. Nope. I check the alleyway beside the bar to see if maybe he’s sought refuge from the stabbing wind. No sign of him. I pop back into the bar’s entryway for a second to ask the bouncer if he knows where Bradley may have gone.

 

“Yeah, I told him he had to get a move on,” the bouncer says, “that fuckin’ guy stands outside the bar every damn night, asking people to buy him drinks and shit. Not good for business. Scares the customers away.” I consider informing him of the fact that Bradley is the sole reason I just ordered double the drinks I otherwise would have, but I get the impression that this thin-lipped boulder of a man’s opinion of Bradley is not going to be swayed tonight, so I keep it to myself, letting the wind slam the door behind me on my way back outside.

 

I lean against the brick of the building and light a cigarette, thinking that maybe Bradley’s unquenchable thirst will send him back towards the bar anyway, against the bouncer’s wishes. The wind has let up for time being, and the night is so quiet the falling snow can be heard as it hits the ground, creating a kind of static ambience that becomes as good as silence with time. I pick up one of the whiskeys with my free hand and look idly into the dark liquid. Vapors lattice between the ice cubes, twisting upward and out above the glass like a thinning fog.

 

I take a hearty swig, draining nearly half the glass in a single go. Well, looks like I’ll be drinking for the both of us tonight then, Bradley, I think before taking another sip. This one’s for you. I raise my glass to the sleepy cityscape of downtown lit up before me, hoping that somewhere in that complex of ice and concrete, Bradley’s able to survive the night.

 

I do not go back inside until it’s time for me to settle up with the bartender. Instead, I stay put, back against the wall, drinking and smoking in the cold until the very last sip. It’s nothing compared to the frozen hell so many are in for tonight, I know, but it’s my small act of solidarity.

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