drunk on the dark streets of some city,
it’s night, you’re lost, where’s your
you enter a bar to find yourself,
order scotch and water.
you ask for a vodka.
you pour the vodka into the top of
the beer bottle.
It’s one a.m. In a dead cow world.
Excerpts from “Big Night On The Town” by Charles Bukowski
Alcohol is the polycephaly of drugs. It is a multi-faced Hydra sprouting ticks and personas with each severing shot. Alcohol is shape shifter, a mood lifter, an undresser, and a depressor. It is the fraternal twin to a great meal, an unhinger of inhibitions, a religious rite, and a glass of demolition. And it is everywhere.
Since fermentation is a natural process requiring only two abundantly prevalent materials (yeast and carbohydrates), alcoholic beverages have existed in almost all climates since the beginning of recorded history. Since ancient times, beer, wine, and more potent distillations have held an ever-present mystique, a power sometimes even thought to be divine. In Greek mythology, Bacchus lead his bands of maenads on drunken rites considered so unpredictable and freeing they contained an essence of the secrets of the Gods themselves. Since the Last Supper, Christians receiving the Eucharist remember the blood of Christ through wine. Way back in 2600 B.C, Mesopotamian Queen Puabi from the First Dynasty of Ur was buried with all of her servants (each ceremoniously/forcibly poisoned) and hundreds of gold and silver goblets and jars for her daily allotment of beeri. Medieval alchemists in Western Europe searching for a universal elixir practiced distillations and found a kind of gold in alcohol. In the 14th century, French philosopher and alchemist John of Rupescissa lauded aqua vitae, or what he termed the 5th essence, as a panacea for all disease and even corruptionii.
The point is, no matter what grows where, people have found a way to unleash the woozy raucousness inside themselves: yeast and carbohydrates. And why bother with anything else when alcohol gives you so many options? Beer. Wine. Gin. Whiskey. Vodka. Rum. Tequila. Brandy. Alcohol can be anything you ask it to be. It can doll itself up with painted lips of maraschinos. It can stiffen into hair-on-your-chest in the form of over-the-rocks hard fire. It can be contemptuously snobby, recklessly wild, cheap, or casual. Served in bulbous wine glasses, stocky pints, wide and delicately blooming martini glasses, or kitschy vacation shot glasses; its liquid bends to fit any receptacle – glass or human – that will clasp it.
But this lithe liquid is not all that bends. The darker distillations transform the drinker too. We’ve all seen the angry drunk, with his fists clenched at flies in the corner, looking to pick a fight with any beating heart that crosses his path. Or the sad drunk, who comes to the party to cry. The sudden maelstrom of self-confidence in the flirty drunk, the disaffected drunk, the unaffected drunk, and so on. And with it all contorts Charles Bukowski, mother of all ornery writer drunks, twisting and bending the way we see the world.
Charles Bukowski, American poet, novelist and short story writer praises alcohol like a giddy medieval alchemist. Called a “laureate of American lowlife” by Time in 1986, Bukowski covered the lives of poor Americans, underpaid manual drudgery, and depraved, urban underbellies. Between the 1940s and 1990s, Bukowski published over forty-five books of poetry and prose, though he didn’t work as a writer that whole time. A lack of publishing success in the 1940s forced him to quit writing and hold odd jobs, working as everything from mail carrier, truck driver, parking lot attendant, stock boy, gas station attendant, and dishwasher. Bukowski even worked at a dog biscuit factory, a cake factory, and a slaughterhouseiii. Ultimately choosing to abandon the blue-collar life and opting for that of a starving artist, Bukowski wrote and drank… a lot.
He loved the maddened life of drunkards, the vivacity of dingy bars, and the reprieve alcohol gave him from suicidal tendencies. On the topic of boring and lifeless marijuana smokers, he said, “Alcohol gives you the release of a dream without the deadness of drugs.” And though he occasionally had to give up his elixir of life when diagnosed bleeding ulcers and Leukemiaiv, Bukowski stated multiple times that alcohol saved his life, that it provided a cool glass shelter from his reccurring will to die. And ultimately, it was not alcohol that brought down Charles Bukowski but a case of leukemia in 1994. By his own admission, Bukowski said, “if I hadn’t been a drunkard, I probably would have committed suicide long ago.”
Through the alcoholic advocate Charles Bukowski, we see one again the contradiction of alcohol as both healer and destroyer. Medical researcher and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush wrote a series of essays in the early 1800s with Thomas Trotter on the life-threatening effects of alcohol abusev. The influence of their prognostic writings helped shape public opinion that ultimately lead to the Prohibition. So sure were many American citizens that alcohol was responsible for all societal ills, some towns even sold their jails on the eve of the Prohibitionvi. In the United States today, excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death, falling just behind smoking and poor diet and exercise habits. In a 2001 government study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated alcohol was responsible for an annual 75,000 deaths, costing each fatal drinker an average 30 years of lifevii.
Yet on a broader scale, alcohol has been attributed to be a primary factor in the development of Western civilization, as the healthier shitfaced individuals experienced longer life and greater reproductive successviii. And the water of life earned its name in the Middle Ages as the liquid refuge from the rivers of Black Death flowing all across Europe. Alcohol was a medicine and safety net during even the 18th and 19th century when, despite finger shaking by Quakers and Methodists, the antiseptic superpower provided delicious protection from water rife with cholera, typhoid, and dysenteryix. Alcohol can be anything you want it to be. If you wish it, mix it carefully, and respect its mystical potency, it can be your saving grace. In the words of Charles Bukowski himself, “I think a man who can keep on drinking for centuries will never die.”
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.