08 Jul How Drunk Do You Have to Be?

This week, Jill and I woke one morning to discover that we had been hit by a drunk driver. That is, our house had been hit — specifically, the iron fence in front of our house. The mishap is notable because the driver left the scene of the accident.

More notable still is the fact that the driver did not, or could not, stop until he hit our fence. That wasn’t easy to do, since he had to 1) run through a broad intersection, 2) veer right and jump the curb, missing a light pole to one side and parked cars at the curb on the other side, and then 3) skid across 15 feet of sidewalk before making impact with our fence.

He must have been speeding. And he must have been drunk. He took out two sections of fencing and left one headlight behind. This evidence tells us that he drove a Ford, but that’s all. Nobody in the neighborhood saw the accident. We speculate that he might have veered to miss another vehicle: our busy intersection sees a lot of accidents. Police records show no accidents at our intersection during the time of our hit-and-run.

You may have noticed that I identify the driver as “he.” Males are twice as likely as females to drive drunk. Nearly 90% of drunk drivers are under the age of 44. This statistic could be a product of natural selection. I drove drunk once when I was 17. I am amazed I got home safely. I never did it again. But I could have killed somebody. And, yes, I could have run into somebody’s house or fence too. The stats for drunk driving in America are sobering.

Our culture celebrates drinking alcohol in ways that make it difficult to discourage over-drinking. Let’s be honest: we drink to get a buzz. As a species, we’re hard-wired to want that buzz. Perhaps many or most of us need that buzz to cope with the stresses of being human. That is why the “war on drugs” (alcohol is our primary drug) is a war we have never come close to winning. And we won’t win. Sorry, but the stats show us that this is so.

Drunks used to be funny. Many comics have made careers portraying drunks — W.C. Fields, Foster Brooks, and Dudley Moore, to name a few. If these are names you haven’t heard before, there’s a reason: being a public drunk stopped being funny in the 1980s, about the time that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) got its start. Dudley Moore’s “Arthur” (1981) was the last of the drunk-is-funny showcases and it skirted controversy because Arthur never drove drunk (his chauffeur drove) and, in the end when it counted, he sobered up.

I never liked “Arthur” because Moore’s raucous drunk, although well played, was just too annoying. The tragedy of heavy drinkers is their conviction that, when drunk, they are immune to fault and downright charming in every sloppy, stupid thing they do. Before it was closed down for serving alcohol to minors, a bar at the end of our block used to disgorge drunken teenagers on the weekends. These beery children would stumble past our house, bellowing and whooping as if they had just won the lottery and sometimes pausing to piss in our yard or a neighbor’s. That’s why we installed the iron fence out front.

It remains an American rite of passage for teenagers to get roaring drunk at least once in their young lives — a rite that most Europeans cannot understand, because Europeans have apparently figured out how to teach their children better. (As for the Russians, who can blame them for drinking to excess?) Most of us give up over-drinking after we’ve been sick one too many times. I remember very well my semi-final bout of alcohol poisoning in college, when I spent most the night puking in the bushes in front of a friend’s house.

My last bout with alcohol was just ten years ago. I was going through a hard time and decided to unwind by drinking a lot of wine at a party. Oh, how I paid for that. I don’t drink much now, though sometimes when offered drinks at a party I may walk to the edge of drunkeness because it seems to be the thing I need. That’s the tricky elelment about humans and alcohol: the need.

I’m obliged to remind you that Jill and I live in a former frat house — an animal house — and we’ve got the photos to prove it. Ours was such a notorious partyh house that after Jill and I moved in (it was then condemned property), we’d get youhng people knocking on our door that first year, asking when the next party was. If you want to know more about all of that, read the book: From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story

Admittedly, the headlight on our sidewalk was funny. And the repair to our fence won’t be expensive (Jill said, “File a claim with homeowner’s.” I said, “The only claim I’ll ever file with homeowner’s is when and if the house burns down.” Premiums, you know.) So it was a hit-and-run of little consequence. I’m hoping the driver in question got a scare — it could not have been a pleasant thrill to skid up and over the sidewalk as he did. But, chances are, if he’s drinking heavily, he’s forgotten all about it. Here’s hoping he won’t drive through your neighborhood.