August 20, 2010

Drinkers

The handyman told me that sometimes the mountains split thunderstorms in half, so the storms miss the town, so they pass around both sides of the valley. Together we watched charcoal clouds drop from the northeast. They hadn’t reached us yet, but it looked as though rain was already coming down on Belvedere. The handyman’s theory intrigued me. First, he was local, so he would know these things. Second, he was sober when he told me about the storm-splitting mountains.

“It’s happened before,” he said.

“For real?”

“Oh, I’ve seen it.”

He was a tad annoyed at my skeptical tone. He’s always annoyed at my skeptical tone. He once told me to alternate the mowing direction on my lawn for the good of the grass’s health.

“I’m not playing with you,” he had insisted when he saw my doubtful eyes, “it really does help the lawn.”

More often that not, though, he’s not sober. This is a drinking state. It’s not just that its social life revolves around drinking – you can say that about almost anywhere you go. But drinking is how life’s done here.

The list of reasons is not novel: the long, frozen winters, the boredom, the small – laughably small – pool of eligible life mates, the defiant lack of opportunities besides contractor, farmhand, retiree, layabout, trustafarian, and barkeep, and the absence of any sort of nightlife that does not involve drinking. I don’t drink much to begin with, but I drink more up here. That wine is available both at the Grand Union and the Mobil station is a sign that you need to ramp it up.

One of my neighbors is another locally-raised guy. He told me at the café that he was seriously thinking about cutting back on the drinking. It’s a pledge that crops up voluntarily and publicly as a kind of confessional. If he hadn’t told me, I’d never have known my neighbor had a problem. The drinkers here are highly functional. I forgot to mention one more kind of job people can get here: social work. The most unlikely of the unlikely become social workers or nurses or caretakers of the elderly. One man on my road lives in a small house with a front yard overgrown by years of thistle weeds and tall grass of shocking heights. He also saves his trash in dozens of 30-gallon bags piled up on his porch. I recently found out that he works as a counselor to troubled children.

So I was sitting with my neighbor, a social worker, at the café’s counter, a random meeting. Hannah had just delivered us coffee.

“Yeah, I think it’s time I cut back,” he said.

“Why?”

“No need for it every night. I want to limit it to the weekends. It adds up, David.”

He was about thirty years old and had talked about buying a gun – a .38 – to keep at his bedside.

“So how much do you drink, anyway?”

“Well, I’m on vacation now.”

“Right.”

“I guess about 17 beers a day.”

Seventeen? For real? I don’t think I could do four. I don’t think I could manage all that liquid.” I thought about my gas issues. Beer drinking on that scale? A physiological impossibility.

My neighbor looked at me, incredulous and, not to mention, offended. I remembered then that I sometimes saw him walking home carrying a PBR 18-pack.

“We’re talking about all day long, David.”

“All day?”

“Sure. Then it’s not so bad. That’s just two beers an hour.”

Half this town lives in poverty. You can hear it in the sad conversations under the greasy lights at the Mobil station.

“But I’m really giving up beer now.”

“Oh, yeah,” says the woman, indifferent. “That’s great.”

“Yeah, totally cutting back on that.”

Over the years, plenty of people I know here have gotten one or more “deewees,” arrested for driving while intoxicated. No matter who it is, nobody is ever surprised. Fines are paid, classes attended, life goes on.

There’s an herbal wellness store in town run by a cute, braided-haired woman from New Jersey. Basically, the only age-appropriate potential partner for me in town. She sells medicinal herbs, ointments, tinctures – everything you would expect, including the self-effacing resignation of just being one girl fighting the onslaught of unhealthy, poisonous living. She’s this kind of healer: when I asked her about my acupuncturist’s prescription that I rub my stomach “37 times. Always 37 times,” her face became solemn and she wondered, “Maybe it’s a sacred number.” Thinking about Dr. Weng’s brutal practicality, this made me want to laugh. But this herbalist has an adorable ass and a sweet disposition, so let it be a sacred number. I’m lonely up here. We became friendly and she told me about her sort-of boyfriend who lives in Cape Cod. He visits periodically to check on his properties and have sex with her, before heading back to the Cape to “drink himself silly.”

The herbalist is convinced that the drinking is far worse on Cape Cod.

“Look, David, it’s even more isolated, first of all. And there’s the off season where entire towns are deserted, except for locals with nothing to do but check on their shuttered trinkets stores and hang out at the bars. Cape Cod is much, much worse than Vermont.”

I hate to say this, but it’s disappointing that Cape Cod has a bigger drinking problem than Vermont. It sucks the air out of the romanticism of frontier drunks and makes the truth of it a little more terrifying.

As much as I wanted to believe in the wondrous dream of a mountain splitting a storm in half, it’s not what happened that day. The storm came, rain came, my gutter overflowed again and poured water into the sun porch. I’m not saying the handyman isn’t on to something. He’s been around here a long time. But on that day it was just a lot of talk.


- Vermont

August 3, 2010

The Secret Life of Toilets

If you ever need a toilet fixed, please don’t come to me. Oh, I’ve replaced the floater ball on one and the thingamabob on another. But I don’t understand the dark life of toilets. I’m not privy to their secret underside of thermodynamics, gravity, and their vascular system of water, porcelain, and pipes. I’ll probably just panic and call up a gentile, which is exactly what I did last week when I found a puddle next to my downstairs toilet.

The white bread I’m talking about is a local boy and all-around handyman. By boy, I mean he’s 47. By local, I mean he’s a functioning alcoholic. By all-around, I mean he plays excellent poker. By handyman, I mean he’s fathered several children in the county.

His forte is plumbing. He’s not licensed, but few up here are licensed for anything, yet most refer to themselves as experts in every known construction discipline. This one used to be in the Navy. Maybe that’s where he learned about plumbing. Winston Churchill said the traditions of the Royal Navy were “rum, buggery, and the lash.” My take on our Navy is more literal: Water, salt, and rust. I think three items should be the limit to describing anything. I could describe Vermont this way: Carhartts, untended beards, and muscle shirts. Also, lots of drinking. And many single mothers.

“Jack,” I said when he picked up, “I got a big problem over here.”

There was a beat of impatience in his voice when he asked me what the trouble was. We don’t get each other. It’s a case of world’s colliding. Basically, I don’t fit in up here and I never will. I stand out. My jokes fall flat. But in this village I depend on guys like Jack. He always comes through for me; I think he likes helping the city boy who knows basically nothing.

“It’s the toilet, man. It’s leaking all over the place. Can you come and help me?”

“Is it sweating?”

“Sweating?”

“Is the bowl wet on the outside?”

“Yes, it’s wet everywhere and it’s leaking from the bottom and there’s a big puddle next to it. A really big puddle.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“What? Dude, water’s all over the place.”

“Does it leak when you flush it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“So don’t worry about it. It’s the weather. It’s hot and humid so the toilet’s just sweating.” We were in the middle of a heat wave. Temperatures in the 90s, thick humidity, a sultry haze, everyone down to half speed. We get this kind of weather in New York City, but I had never before seen the phenomenon of the sweating toilet.

“You can’t be serious. You should see the size this puddle. It’s an ocean.”

“David, I’m standing next to a toilet that’s doing the same thing. There’s a big puddle right beside it.”

“Really? A big puddle?”

“Just leave it alone for a few days. Call me on Saturday if it’s still doing it. The temperatures are supposed to drop by then.”

I’m a skeptic at heart. Most people lie or have no idea what they’re talking about. Most people just follow a script doled out to them when they were born.

“Okay,” I said.

Sure enough, within a few days the weather had cooled down and the toilet was dry as bone.

The story had gotten around the village and I was roundly mocked at the café for my ignorance. Griswold explained to me that this thing with the toilets always happened during hot summers.

“The porcelain gets warm, so the cold water causes a lot of condensation. And yeah, puddles. It’s no big deal.”

“Never happens in New York. And you know how hot it gets down there.”

“Our water’s a lot colder. It’s cold mountain water.”

Of course, cold mountain water. I should have known.

I ran into Jack a few days later. A six pack was nestled in a plastic crate mounted to his bike’s rack. He smirked sweetly when he saw me.

“Still got that toilet trouble?”

“Oh, Jack,” I said woefully, “don’t you know? I always have toilet trouble.”


- Vermont