I came to New Orleans for oblivion and found god. I don’t mean the god you hear when I say god. I mean something that is in everything, that exists between us, and that I could only find through drugs and alcohol before I got sober. Don’t get me wrong: running barefoot through the French Quarter and challenging anyone who will take me on to barstool spinning contests at Johnny White’s because I had to leave Jazz Fest because Bonnie Raitt was controlling the weather and her brothers were about to make it rain is a blast. So were the times I wrestled the guy who had just given me cocaine in the bathroom of The John at six in the morning while wearing my stained $12 seersucker suit from Bloomin' Deals. And who doesn’t love to drive up and down Dauphine Street at ten miles an hour, bumping into cars parked too close together, while screaming the lyrics of “Waltzing Mathilda” along with Tom Waits.
Waking up with bruises and bumps is a small price to pay for a night or a week or a month or five years of forgetting everything in New Orleans.
I didn’t stop drinking because of drinking. I loved to drink. It gave me life. It gave me joie de vivre. I turned into a madman before and after every full moon. And there were so many people to drink with. The Quarter is filled with wonderful souls who will happily stand beside me at breakfast time outside Lounge Lizards and shout to the bourgeoisie that You’re all slaves!.
What I learned is that I didn’t have a problem with drinking. I was damn good at drinking - save for those times I may have broken pint glasses after slamming down a drink or accidentally kissed your girlfriend. Or the time I lost the motorcycle I bought with my FEMA money. Not lost like those many times I found it days later in front of some dive bar. Lost like gone. What I didn’t know how to do was live without drinking, and I got a glimpse of this while evacuating for Hurricane Katrina with people I knew only from drinking. I got to see their fears, their worries, and who they were as people. Not the actors on barstools. I saw that many of them were just as afraid as me. I don’t mean of the storm or the repercussions. I mean of life. You can’t tell anybody this while you’re sitting on a barstool. Don’t get me wrong - for some it is just a happy-go-lucky-bender-night or a-stage-I’m-going-through-that-will-change-when-I-have-a-kid-or-get-the-right-job drunk. The beautiful thing about New Orleans is that either way nobody will question you. And for some this is just fine, but for an alcoholic like me, using medicine to mask the pain, it only creates more delusion.
Didn’t I say I found god? What I meant was that I found you. I found a way to love everyone … I mean truly love everyone without keeping score or thinking what I could get or what he said or why she isn’t calling or …. That’s all that I mean. And I couldn’t have found that alone. And I couldn’t have found that at a bar. I needed someone who had once been just as deluded but had found a way out. I met some guys. They told me what they had done, asked me if I was willing to go to any lengths to stay sober. I had heard this before, but this time I was out of ideas. Sobriety sucked. Hear me, please. I quit drinking because being sober sucked. That’s usually an earmark of a real alcoholic. It is also called a dry drunk. Or untreated alcoholism. I didn’t know this then. What I did know was that I was either going to have to be drunk all day and night for the rest of my life or I was going to have to listen to someone else.
That guy - the one I listened to - took me to see Reverend Horton Heat when I was two months sober, and I danced like such a crazed man that I must have lost a pint of sweat. He took me out to see live music and to get donuts at three in the morning, and we went to BBQ’s and ate pizza and I met friends at bars and bought a house in the hood and got to know all of my neighbors and gave them vegetables that we grew together and had events that brought the community together. I did most everything that all the rest of the people in New Orleans do. I will tell you that eating crawfish straight out of the pot is much better when you are very drunk. So is sleeping with women who you aren’t attracted to.
Back to what this man (and many others) did for me. They loved me. And what I learned was that they were doing this to ensure their own sobriety, and not only to ensure their own sobriety, but to find quote-unquote-god. And wasn’t that all I was looking for in the bottle? A spiritual experience? A need to be okay?
Sobriety sucks in the first few days, weeks even, but for me, by the second or third month, I believe because I was helping others and righting my wrongs, I would wake up on St. Philip and Villere, to horns blowing outside my window and smoke rising and curling with a wisp of tangy deliverance that beckoned me down the stairs of my Creole cottage and into the street where I joined in the throng of people celebrating the life of one who has died, dancing and bending and laughing, as I met the eyes of everyone from the man tapping the Irish Rose bottle to the old lady on her porch waving at everyone who passed by, and man … sobriety was working.
Now I know sobriety sucks after five months for some, five years for others, etc., etc., but it is my belief, based on my experience and the observations of others, that it doesn’t have to suck. That man who took me to see Reverend Horton Heat … what he did first was show me how to look at how there was a common denominator in all my problems and resentments and how my fears had been there since I was a kid and neither I nor alcohol could rid me of them. He showed me how to make things right with those I had harmed. Then he drove me out to a place on the West Bank at the end of Manhattan Boulevard where there are hundreds of drunks who need help. He gave me help, and then showed me how to give these other men help. And that helped him. And those drunks helped me. For once in my life I was able to stop thinking about myself. And that is my problem. When I go somewhere now it is not about what I can get, but what I can give. Sometimes that’s a hand with the dishes. Sometimes that’s listening to a friend as we sit outside the detox on St. Ann at six in the morning, waiting for the doors to open, again.
What do I do now that I am sober? Whatever I want. Where do I go now that I’m sober? Wherever I want. That is the beauty of being recovered. And there is so much more to tell you.