Give me money – I need a drinkI always felt he had something good inside him.
by L W Oakley Wherever there is a hunting camp table, there is a bottle on it. Like other bottles on other tables, some people drink from it and others don’t. Of those who drink, some drink more and some drink less. Many hunters who drink, sit and drink continuously. I have watched them. Like great snakes devouring their own tails, they are slowly devoured by the contents of the bottles they drink from. Every camp, like most families, has at least one drunk and, like most drunks, they know who and what they are.
The camp is a place to which men withdraw and feel safe. Late at night, it’s a place where men bare their souls and tell the truth about their lives to other men, especially the mistakes they regret and the feelings they keep hidden and seldom admit to having.
I have heard them. And I have taken my turn: not as a sinner does, confessing to a priest before being given penance, or as a prisoner addressing a jury of his peers before sentence is passed, but like a prodigal son, returning home, expecting to receive nothing – not even forgiveness A small group of people stood outside the liquor store on Barrack Street that morning waiting for the doors to open. It was 9:24 and there were six long minutes to wait. They appeared to not know each other in spite of the fact that they had probably waited there together before.
Someone else was about to join them. He was coming through the parking lot in a wheel chair from the room he rented in the downtown Kingston area. I recognised him immediately. It was the man I affectionately call, “The King”. I had not seen him in weeks and smiled to see that he was still alive. At that moment, I realised he was someone worth writing about.
When the doors finally opened everyone went in except for The King. He received special treatment at the liquor store. A clerk came out and took his money. The clerk went back inside the store and reappeared minutes later with a bottle inside a brown paper bag. The King put the bottle in his lap and wheeled away. //IRONICALLY IT WAS HIS WEAKNESS THAT GAVE HIM THE STRENGTH HE NEEDED TO SURVIVE// I watched until he was out of sight because I expected him to stop and quickly drink from it the way I had watched him drink from other bottles while begging from his wheelchair at the corner of Wellington and Princess Streets. That was his corner. It’s where I first noticed and introduced myself to him. That was before he needed the wheelchair and the walker that he used before that.
Alcohol had destroyed him. Not because he couldn’t stop drinking. Not because he couldn’t escape from or let go of his demons. Not even because no one loved him. Alcohol destroyed him because he was weak. And he was weak because he wouldn’t stop feeling sorry for himself.
He looked and dressed and smelled like the chronic alcoholic he was. He was gaunt, unsteady and flushed in the face. His clothes were filthy and stained and reeked of booze and puke and urine.
He was arrested on his corner more than once, probably for drinking in public. One day I watched two policemen pull up to his regular spot in front of the pharmacy and take him away in a cruiser. They wore rubber gloves while lifting The King into the backseat and putting his wheelchair in the trunk. He resisted and argued and was obviously drunk.
He told me he was 57 but he looked like he had been dead for 57 years. To most people he was just some old wino or another rubby on the street. His friends called him Donnie, but I always called him The King. I felt he had earned it. I gave him that name because he was also one of the strongest people I have ever known.
Ironically it was his weakness that gave him the strength he needed to survive. He sat out there on Princess Street for years begging for money day and night so he could abuse himself and be alone with his affliction. He put himself on display even on cold winter days showing the world what alcohol can do to your body and mind and, worst of all, your spirit.
In spite of his situation, he still had some dignity left. He never asked passers-by for a handout or a dime for a cup of coffee. He never told people that he couldn’t find a job. He never held up a sign scrawled on a piece of cardboard saying that he needed money for food. He just sat there and let you look and decide whether to help or ignore him.
The King didn’t need words or a sign with a message. He was the message. And that message was always the same. If you dared to look, it came through loud and clear. It said: “Give me money. I need a drink.” Lots of people gave on a regular basis – and not just loose change. Sometimes I gave him a $20 bill. He drank it all away. But who cares. He deserved it. Thoughtful people saved him a trip to the liquor store.
They went and bought him a bottle with their own money and handed it to him right there on his corner.
I once asked him what he liked to drink.
“Anything,” he replied, in a raspy voice. “What about Rye?” I asked. “Anything,” he said, again. “What kind of rye should I buy you?” I asked.
He had to stop and think and seemed almost confused before he smiled and said, “Five Star.”
His life was simple. He only had one problem: his next drink. But it was a big problem. Bigger than all the combined problems of most people. But maybe his life was too simple; not because he couldn’t solve his problem but rather because he only had one. We need our problems. They keep us going. Our problems define our lives. They make life interesting and worth living. Where would we be without them? Eventually his problem got worse. Things eventually get worse for everyone. The King couldn’t save himself. He lost his strength because his body failed him and that meant he was too weak to get out and beg.
I always felt The King had one thing worth having. He had something good inside him. It gave him the strength to endure in spite of the pain and suffering and humiliation he lived through on a daily basis
We could all use a little touch of that.
LW Oakley lives in Kingston Ontario, and is best known for his outdoor books; Inside The Wild, and Inside The Wild 2.