THERE’S NOTHING THE MATTER WITH ME!
That’s what the man said as he hocked his shoes for
the price of two bottles of Sneaky Pete. He drank
bayzo, canned heat, and shoe polish. He did a
phoney routine in A.A. for a while. And then he got
hold of the real thing.
I NEVER DRANK because I liked the flavor, but I did like the effect it produced. And one or two little drinks on a Saturday night soon blossomed into three or four. A little bit at a time, I discovered that I enjoyed the stuff. It did things for me that nothing else could do.
I happen to be in the furniture business, and a more miserable business was never invented. In the furniture business you must have a little drink to celebrate an excellent sale. Also you must have a little drink to drown your sorrows when there are not sales. Hah!
First I drank in celebration and in depression, and then I drank all the time. The little three-quarters of an ounce developed into a big fifth. That was during Prohibition, and we had flasks that were about that long, and I didn’t carry a little bit at a time, I carried it all at once, and it hit me right in the shoulder blades. You could always tell who had the flask by the way he walked around. I liked that! I liked it because they had to come to me to get a drink.
From the little bit of drinking that we’d do on Saturday and on week-ends, it went into a long, steady grind of drinking all the time. And little by little I developed a persecution complex. It seemed that everyone was after me. My business associates said I drank too much. I was married to a very charming girl, and she expected me to bring home money on pay-day. All that silly stuff. I belonged to a golf club over in Jersey in those days, and I didn’t play much golf, but I spent a lot of time drinking the liquor. It got so bad that whenever I went into the nineteenth hole for a drink, everybody would move down the other way. Finally they asked me to resign. It seemed I didn’t pay my tabs on the first of the month. A miserable bunch of people!
So, a little bit at a time, it began to filter through that I was no longer wanted. I felt very sorry for myself. I knew I was a wonderful fellow. While shaving in the morning, I would look in the mirror and say, “Aaaah, Bill, you’re a doll!” Now that’s a poor way to go through life, whether you’re an alcoholic or not!
So then I decided that I would try will power. All you have to do to stop drinking is precisely that—stop! Well, I didn’t drink Tuesday, and I didn’t drink Wednesday, and I didn’t drink Thursday, and I said to myself, “There’s nothing to this!” So I went out Friday and got drunk.
About this time a bartender friend of mine told me about that little drink in the morning. He was a lovely fellow! He gave me this prescription: You take a jigger of gin, the white of an egg, and a dash of orange bitters. Can you picture this trembling drunk pouring out the white of an egg? For a few mornings I would go
down to the bar and he’d make this concoction for me and it was wonderful. But pretty soon I dispensed with the egg, I didn’t have the bitters handy and there were no small glasses, so I drank the gin right out of the bottle.
My years of flight started from that point. I sold my business, loaded my car with whiskey, and away I went. I didn’t stop at five hundred miles. I went out to Seattle. I couldn’t go any further because that’s the end of the line. I went into business out there, and in twenty months I was bankrupt. I felt awful sorry for myself, because now I’d entered into the “sick” stage. I would get so sick that when I had to get a room in a hotel I’d always get twin beds, one to sleep in and one to be sick in.
It took me nine months to get from Seattle back to New Jersey. I went the long way, by way of San Diego. When I got back I had fifty dollars, a beat-up Oldsmobile, and no whiskey. I felt very sorry for myself. I’d been robbed, lied to and cheated. And, I told myself, it was all their fault!
I wake up one morning and the Oldsmobile is gone and so is the fifty dollars, and I’m standing in the middle of my wardrobe. I have a pair of dungarees with the fanny out of them, a blue shirt, a pair of shoes and no socks. I’m sitting on the end of this bench down in Lincoln Park, and another bum comes along and he says, “Hello, Slim! Hey, that’s a fine pair of shoes you have there!” Well, right away I could tell that this fellow knew class when he saw it. I liked this boy. And I started to tell him of my former exploits. Well, he seemed to want to concentrate on the shoes. At that time, shoes were bringing seventy-
five cents in pawn. So we went down and pawned the shoes and we got two bottles of Sneaky Pete and a pair of canvas relievers. This was November. There’s nothing the matter with me! I’m all right!
I’d gone down to the bottom of the barrel. Not all at once; it took twenty-five years, a lot of money and a lot of heartaches. There we sat on this bench, this bum and I, telling each other of the wondrous things we’d done, and he loved me and I loved him. There’s no love like one drunken bum for another. As I looked off into the sky, and the snow started to fall, I said, “You know, it’s getting cold on this bench . . .” and I turned around, and the bum was gone. The dirty dog took the other bottle with him!
Pretty soon another guy comes along, and he says, “If you don’t get off that bench you’ll freeze to it, and you’ll get pneumonia, and you’ll die.” I always hated to think about dying, because I was such a lovely fellow I knew they’d miss me on earth. He says, “What do you say we go down to Sally?” Well, I didn’t know who Sally was, but I knew in my condition she wouldn’t care for me. “No,” he says, “we’ll go down to the Salvation Army.” I hope none of you have to resort to the Salvation Army as a means of food and shelter, but they’re wonderful people, understanding people. They have a deep love of God that many of us who walk around in our daily business world never will understand. They give just for the glory of giving. They took us in and gave us a bed, and next morning they put us out in the baling room. For that labor we received ninety-five cents a week and our room and board, a magnificent sum for one as dirty as I was. But like all drunks, when they start to sober up for real,
I looked around me and saw all these other bums, and gee! I knew I was head and shoulders over those other guys. I worked hard for two weeks, and finally I got promoted to be the helper on the truck at three dollars a week. A little bit at a time I progressed, until I became a driver. Utopia! I didn’t have to sleep in a dormitory where there were two hundred any more. I slept in a room with absolute privacy—there were only six! And now I was getting five dollars a week.
Well, I don’t have to tell you what happened. No drunk can stand prosperity. So, I ended up back out in the street, only this time I had a pair of shoes, and a fellow had given me a size forty-six gabardine suit. I have since developed into a forty-long, but a forty- six had always been just a little roomy for me. I wondered what to do then. I didn’t believe in God because I knew God was something that had been cooked up for public consumption, mass appeal; you got to have something to keep the dummies in check.
I was going places, and I did. I went from store to store, and from door to door, and I slept under the bridge. I drank bayzo, canned heat, Sneaky Pete, shoe polish, anything that had an alcoholic content. Why I didn’t die, God only knows. I didn’t wash for weeks on end. I was just a dirty, filthy, slimy thing that came out from under a flat rock. How God in His wisdom let such a thing live only He knows. I don’t. No sense of responsibility, no moral code, no sense of ethics—nothing.
One day, on Broad and Market Streets, I ran into my wife. She said, “Well, what happened to you?” I said, “Why—uh—hello, Ma—I—I don’t feel well. I been a bad boy!”
My wife was raised very tenderly and gently in a parochial school. She never had to work as a young woman. She ended up slinging hash in a dime hash-house to support my daughter and herself.
She took me to a hospital. The doctor said, “Let him try A.A.” I stayed in the hospital ten days. I promised her I’d go to an A.A. meeting. She took me home, bought me a fifteen dollar suit, and I went out and got a job working for a guy that used to work for me. And every Wednesday night I’d go down to the A.A. meeting. I’d look in—some guys talking about the grace of God. I’d go home. On the way home I’d stop and have one, two, three, four. When I got home, my wife would ask, “How was the meeting?” and I’d say, “Oh, the meeting’s all right; it’s just not for women. You know, they have a lot of old bums there. And next to the speakers’ table they have another little table, and they got a bowl of cracked ice on the table, and a bottle of rye and a bottle of scotch.” She said, “What is all that stuff for?” “Well,” I said, “they just put that there to test you.” So when I’d come home and she’d smell liquor on my breath, I’d tell her I’d just been testing. And I did test, a little bit at a time, until I came home one night about two o’clock in the morning, drunk as a goat and twice as stinking. I’m pounding on on the door, demanding an entrance. My wife opened the door and I fell in. She said, “What happened to you?” And I drew myself up to my full height and I looked down at her—my wife is only about five foot two—and I said, “Madam, they put me to the test, and I have failed!”
So ends the sordid part of my story. It’s not a pretty thing. But I don’t want to ever forget, because three
quarters of an ounce of whiskey can put me right back there. Now for the story of how I finally got the A.A. program.
It seems that this particular Sunday I’m lying flat on our parlor rung. I know I’m dying. I know this is it. “Oh, God, if I could only try that A.A. again!” So we call up the Alanon Club. A guy answers the phone and says, “Alanon Club, Louie speaking.” Right away I knew it was a phony deal. He told me who he was! “Hi!” I said. “This is Mr. G.” “Oh, is that so?” “Yes,” I said, “This is B.G.” “Well,” he said, “would you like to come up to the Club?” “Yeh!” “You got a car?” “No.” “Well, get on the bus and come on up.” And up we go.
The Alanon Club, in 1945, was a big mausoleum with thirteen steps leading up into it and bare as a barn. We walked up, and here was this great big guy about six foot two, broad as a house, smoking a pipe. “Hiya, boy! My name is Charlie!” This guy I don’t want to talk to. I want to see Louie. “Well, that’s all right. Meet Joe.” Joe’s a boy about so broad, bronzed from the sun to the color of a mahogany table. Seems he was a keeper of the greens at a golf club somewhere. “How are you?” he says, “What is your name?” “I’m not gonna tell you!” “Well,” he says, “my name’s Joe, this is Charlie, and this is Frank.” “All right, mine is Bill. But fellows, you don’t know how sick I am. . . .” Everybody laughed.
In to see Louie, and then we go into the coffee bar. “Give him some coffee.” A meeting upstairs. Joe’s on one side, Charlie’s on the other. The girls have swept up my wife and taken her off into another room to tell her the facts of life. Their version, not mine. I
looked over at my wife and waved, and she looked over at me and waved back. They’d been talking to her, you see. And the meeting started.
The first speaker got up and he started way back at the Boer War and brought us all the way up to the White Cliffs of Dover. Then he took us back into the African campaign, and I said to Charlie, “What does this have to do with being . . .” and he says, “Shadd-up!” The second speaker told a most poignant story. He had a lovely wife and three beautiful children. It seemed that he just purchased a new electric stove a week before Thanksgiving. She had Thanksgiving dinner cooking on the new electric stove. He had one of his cronies ring the front doorbell, and when she went to answer the bell, he and two other fellows took stove, dinner, and all right out the back door. Oh, did that make me feel good! I looked over at my wife and grinned. I never did that!
Finally the meeting is over, and we go home. My wife says, “Sit in the chair and read that A.A. book.” “I can’t see, Ma!” “You sit there and read it!” “What are you gonna do?” “I’m gonna make a nice pot of coffee!” So the night passes. I read a little, drink a little coffee. Very sad.
Somehow ten days pass in rapid succession. I recognize food for what it is. I begin to feel alive again. I was sober for the first time in my life because I had a desire for sobriety greater than any other desire. Meetings and more meetings. Three months went by, and they said, “Bill, get up and say a few words.” We had about eight people in the group then, and I looked at these eight people and I stuttered and stammered,
and finally I said, “I’m glad to be here!” And I sat down. The applause was tremendous.
At six months I had begun to speak at different meetings. Pretty soon my halo was killing me. My ermine cloak was smothering me. I used to look down and wonder what the other little people did for a living. I didn’t walk in, I swept in. All that I’d accomplished in six months was sobriety. I was as dry as dust, and just about as useless. One night we went into the Club and Jack said, “Bill, we’re short a speaker, will you say a few words tonight?” “Of course!” The meeting started, and I didn’t see Jack any more. They called on the first speaker—and it wasn’t me, and they called on the second speaker, and the third speaker—and the meeting was over! I had brought my harp to the party, but I didn’t get to play!
That taught me the most important lesson I have ever learned in my entire life. That is that A.A. doesn’t need me, but I need A.A. Very desperately, very sincerely, very humbly. Not all at once, because you can’t get it all at once, just a little bit at a time. They told me, “You’ve got to get out and work a little; you’ve got to give.” They told me that giving was living, and that living was loving, and loving was God. And you don’t have to worry about God, because He’s sitting right in front of your eyes.
You get just a little sobriety, and you get just a little humility. Not much, just a little. Not the humility of sackcloth and ashes, but the humility of a man who’s glad he’s alive and can serve. You get just a little tolerance, not too much, but just enough to sit and listen to the other guy.
Somewhere along the line, if you’ve forgotten how
to pray, you learn a little about that too. I divorced myself from the Church when I was twenty-two. I got to thinking about that, and I spoke to Father McNulty about it. “Don’t worry, Bill,” he said, “you’ll develop an awareness of God.”
We had a basement apartment, and it faced right on the sidewalk, and outside our bedroom window there was a little bush about so high. One morning I awoke, and there was a little city sparrow taking a bath on this little bush. The weight of this tiny creature’s body caused the branch to rise and fall. Isn’t that a wonderful thing to see? An awareness of God, yes! You’re aware of the sunset, you’re aware of the blades of grass, you’re aware of food cooking on the stove.
You delight in walking down the street, and you see someone you know, and the first thing that enters your mind is, “What is there good about that guy that I know?” You find that big people discuss ideals, average people discuss things, and little people—they just talk about other people. And you realize that if you put this all together, you get a little humility, a little tolerance, a little honesty, a little sincerity, a little prayer—and a lot of A.A.