My choice to remain as I am, or sober, comes with the occasional reminders as if to say, “Just so you know, it’s still the same out there.”
I rarely look at myself and think of me as sober. After nearly 25 years, this has become a part of who I am. Sobriety is part of my behavior. However, the understanding of why I stay sober remains, and should I choose to slip backwards—there would be a certain failure, and it is that certainty that keeps me as I am — sober.
The other day, I walked through the isles in one of the nearby drugstores. I stopped at the end section to notice a new product. It was non-alcoholic wine. It was white wine to be exact. I have never seen this before. I have seen non-alcoholic beer, but not wine.
In all honesty, my experiences with wine never ended well. It was cheap. It went down easy, but it often came up just as easy. I never drank wine often. If I did, I only drank it because a bottle of Kani Wine was less than say, five bucks. It was either that, or I drank wine because there was nothing else for me to swipe.
After I passed the green bottles with black labels and gold lettering at the end section, I let out a small laugh because I could not think of a reason why anyone would drink non-alcoholic wine.
I was once asked my opinion on drinks like this—and my opinion remains unchanged. Drinking non-alcoholic wine or beer is no different than smoking an empty crack-pipe or shoving an all-natural syringe into the mainline without the euphoric effects of heroin.
True, non-alcoholic wine or beer comes with the taste (I suppose) but it comes without the ritual. And by ritual, I mean all the readiness I went through to find my score. My rituals were half the enjoyment. The ritual was the first step which triggered the next. The next step was the anticipation of the first taste, followed by the first gulp. which signified and separated me from the basic anxieties of life as I knew it . . .
But that was a log time ago.
I no longer stop and think of me as sober. I think of me as, “Me.”
Sometimes, I come across the reminders of who I was and where I would be had I not chose to live as I do.
This is an example of one of those times . . .
I saw Mark on a semi-crowded evening train while making my way home from work. He was sitting in the two-seater near the door that leads to the next car.
I thought to myself, “God, it’s been years since the last time I saw him.”
The years were not kind to Mark. His face was boney and withdrawn. His eyes were sunken with dark rings beneath them. He looked sedated, as if the methadone armies carried him from one battlefield and placed him in the program of another.
In my opinion, the only difference between heroin and the program was the purity of the poison. Both are horribly addictive and very potent, only, the program is legal and its poison is synthetic and uncut, which makes it better than the street junk.
Mark is younger than me. He was once good looking too. He used to be in shape and healthy. His eyes were once a bright shade of blue. There was life behind them. It was the kind of life that drew people to Mark and made him likable to almost everyone he met.
He looked old when I saw him. He looked much older, in fact, with only the tiniest remnants of his once youthful features. The brightness in his eyes had been muted by an older than two-decade sickness. His charm had vanished and Mark’s body was only a frame of his once, strapping self.
“He looks pretty bad,” I thought to myself.
I have seen the methadone zombies that stand around near the clinic on 35th. Street and 8th.
They stand near the bus stop in front of the old Peep-Show and argue about how to beat the system. They talk about the government and how to get over. They all appear to have that same look in their eyes. Sometimes, they nod and slump down. They swivel downward, but the never fall to the ground. They just hang there in their haunting nod, as if the opiate gods dangle them from invisible strings. When I saw Mark, I knew what I was looking at.
He sat in the corner seat against the wall of the Long Island Railroad and sunk down with his knees propped up against the seat in front of him. He wore a red set of Rosary Beads around his neck. His buttoned down shirt appeared cheap and oddly colored, but it was neatly pressed. His jeans were perhaps the same style he wore when I saw him last. They were acid washed, like the way-back look from the mid-80’s, which, together with his dirty white hi-top sneakers and his dated leather jacket, put Mark in somewhat of an 80’s time warp.
Streaks of black and gray hair stuck out from the back of his Yankees baseball hat. It was odd to see him. He looked as if he had aged more than 50 years, but yet, I could still visualize the child he used to be. I could see him exactly as I remembered.
If I had to compare my feeling to anything, I suppose I could compare it standing in front of a man’s coffin at his wake. The body and face resembled the man that was—but his life was gone. And while Mark was not dead, he looked far from the lively person I remember.
After many years of being away from my former self, I am used to the fact that most who knew me then never recognize me now. I suppose with all the years between, there would have been no way that Mark could recognize or even remember who I was. However, this proved to be inaccurate.
My seat faced the direction of his. I looked down, mostly, but I must have looked over too often or stared too much. As our eyes caught towards the end of my train ride, I looked away as if I were nothing more than a stranger.
Benjy was my kid name. It is also a name that makes me cringe with an uncomfortable hatred for my youth, but it was the only name Mark knew me as. I looked at Mark. He was smiling at me. His smile was the kind of smile an old man has when a friend or family member comes to visit him in the hospital.
“Whadya say, Mark?”
I stood from my seat and walked over to him. The other passengers noticed this. Mark was an obvious sight. His speech was slow and relaxed in rhythm. He sounded as if the years he spent burnt away the better parts of his mind. He looked odd and very pale. I assume the other passengers watched me approach Mark out of curiosity. Perhaps to them, Mark was never a real person. He was just another junkie and they were surprised to know he actually knew people in this world.
“It’s good to see you,” I said.
“It’s good to see you too, man.”
Shaking Mark’s hand was no different than shaking a grandfather’s. His grip was not firm and his hands felt brittle to me.
“It’s really weird to see you,” he said. “Someone was telling me about you the other day. They said you were like some kind of writer or something.”
He started to laugh, “They said you weren’t little anymore, and I was like, ‘Na, Benjy Kimmel?”
Then he held his hand out in relation to the floor to explain how small I used to be.
“I was like, ‘You mean, little Benjy Kimmel?’ and they were like, yeah man, he’s like some kind of writer now.”
“Not really,” I said.
“That’s not what I heard,” said Mark.
“I heard you write like poetry, and I was like, go figure, ya know?”
Mark’s eyes were half-closed. It was painful to speak with him. It hurt to see the progression of his drug addiction and it was painful to recall that I was there with him in the beginning.
“Man, of all people I could have seen today, I see you,” he told me.
“What’s it been like, 20 years or something?”
I answered, “It’s something like that.”
Mark’s speech was very slow, but it was not quiet. I could tell his voice stirred the everyday commuters as they tried to enjoy a quiet ride home and bury their attention in a newspaper or book.
“Wow . . . So you’re doing alright, huh?”
“I’m hangin in there,” I said.
“That’s really good news,” said Mark.
He mentioned I girl I once knew. “I can’t wait to see her and tell her how I ran into Benjy Kimmel.”
Mark began to laugh but quickly apologized. His face turned serious for a second. “Oh, I’m sorry man. I heard you don’t like to be called Benjy no more. It’s Ben now, right?”
“It’s Benjy to an old friend like you,” I told him.
We spoke for a short while until the train reached my stop. The other passengers continued to watch curiously. I could feel their eyes at the back of my head.
As I turned after saying goodbye, I noticed Mark reach for the red Rosary Beads around his neck. He lifted them and then he kissed the Cross. I saw that as moving. I am not sure what he prayed for. If it were me he prayed for than I am truly humbled.
I see non-alcoholic wine or beer as nothing more than a reminder of the ritual that almost killed me. I see it as a reminder of the sickness that keeps people Mark on liquid handcuffs (Liquid handcuffs is another way of saying the methadone program)
So what do I say about drinking non-alcoholic wine or beer?
I say the same thing as if there was alcohol in it.
It’s not for me.