Life, Death, Alcohol and New Jersey

I met up with a friend recently when I was visiting New York. It was the day after Clarence Clemons had died, and since my friend lives in New Jersey I offered him my condolences. He told me that if you don’t live in New Jersey, you can’t appreciate how much Springsteen and his band mean to the people who do. And I take him at his word on that.

As I often do when I consider matters of life and death, I shared with him a bit of wisdom taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet says that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” I wish I could say that I’m well-versed on Shakespeare, but unfortunately I’m not. I only learned of the quote because it was often cited by both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These two men represent, in my mind, the truism that overarching brilliance can take a person far beyond their original station in life. If Shakespeare’s words had an impact on these two great men, who am I to question it?

I’m not a religious person, in the least. All of those many years of Catholic school just didn’t take root with me. But the beauty of Shakespeare’s words is that I don’t have to be religious in order to believe them. If a person falls out of an open window, and an awning breaks that person’s fall and they walk away without a scratch, well it just wasn’t their time yet. But if somebody else gets run over by a sightseeing bus, as recently happened in the city where I live, it just meant that that person’s time had come around. And there’s nothing that either person could have done to change that. I believe that as much as I believe anything in life.

Since my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in 25 years, we had a lot of catching up to do. And with all that catching up came lots of drinks. Pitcher after pitcher of beer, topped off by a concoction of Hawaiian Punch and too many types of hard alcohol added in (makes the karaoke sound better, I was told). So when we left the bar at 2 AM, the story here began to take shape.

I had stopped drinking, by and large, late last year. I hadn’t had a beer in almost seven months, which probably hasn’t happened since about 1983. I had grown tired of battering my liver, and decided on my own to see if I could live without it. And it turns out I could. But being out with a friend–and one who I hadn’t seen in so long, at that–made everything else go out the window. I reverted to my old habits, and drank with reckless abandon. By all rights, I should have been falling down drunk, due to a lowered tolerance for alcohol. But, as it turned out, the opposite was true.

I found myself on Canal Street in New York with my drunken friend, and realized that I had to take control of the situation. With just a few dollars in my pocket, and no idea where I was, I knew this was not the time to be staggering about. I told my friend I was going to get him home, no matter what it took, and that was the end of it. The problem was that he lives in God-knows-where, New Jersey. Which it might actually be called, because I had no idea what the town’s name was, let alone what the street address in this unknown town might be. And good luck getting into a cab with that.

I made the decision to get my friend back the hotel I was staying in, which was a few blocks away on Canal. Maybe I could stash him in the hotel lobby (they would love that one, I’m sure) or maybe I could get him into the fitness center or the laundry room or something. Anyplace would be better than where we were.

We made it down one block on Canal, and he’s alternating between calling me a dick and threatening to fight me. Thanks for nothing, right?  But he was my charge, and I had a mission to get him off the street safely, so he could say whatever he wanted to.

At the first intersection, my friend stepped off the curb and into the street. That was when his knees gave way, and he fell down and hit his head. But he didn’t just hit his head, he cut it open, too. So now there’s blood everywhere, and I’m really thinking that something needs to happen, and fast. Cabs wouldn’t pick us up because of the blood, and I wouldn’t know where to have them take us if they did.

Fortunately, I had my friend’s cellphone, and so I called 911. The ambulance came after what seemed like a very long time (magnified by the situation, I’m sure) and they loaded my friend in and sped away. I saw a spot of his blood in the street, and realized that he might not come out of this alive. Shakespeare’s words weren’t quite so comforting to me then.

After an extended cry–thinking that I had let my friend down and failed in my self-appointed mission–I got up and walked back to the hotel. As I walked,  I began hoping that Shakespeare had been wrong. Maybe, if my friend was in the hands of paramedics and doctors and technicians who all knew what they were doing, my friend would still be OK. I wouldn’t call what I was doing prayer, but I’m sure that more religious people than me would call it just that. I was hoping against hope, and pleading with the ‘divinity” that Shakespeare spoke of to give my friend a break. It was all I could do at that moment, and if I had really believed Shakespeare’s words I would have thought it was a waste of time. So my faith in the wisdom of  Shakespeare/Lincoln/Douglass was tested that night.

The next morning, I got a text  from my friend saying that all was well. But in the meantime, I learned about what had happened to Ryan Dunn of Jackass and his friend. (FWIW, I’m completely of the thinking that Ebert said what needed to be said, and Bam Margera should STFU about it). No Porsches were involved with my friend and I, fortunately, but a night of drinking had turned out bad for them, and I went back to worrying that maybe something bad had happened to my friend. It wasn’t until I got a Facebook message from him the next day that I knew everything would be OK. And I can’t describe how grateful I am for that.

It was a harrowing night, and one which I probably won’t forget anytime soon. For one thing, I am going to cut out drinking for good. I don’t need it, and if nothing else I realized that drinking can have some bad consequences, even where no driving is involved. But, more importantly, I realized that life can be subject to tragic turns at any moment. We can’t be afraid of them, but we can’t pretend that they don’t exist, either. Every day is a gift, meant to be enjoyed to the fullest extent possible. Plan for the future, yes, but don’t be fooled into thinking that life will last forever. It never has, and it never will.

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