There was an interesting piece on NPR this morning about baseball’s reaction to the alcohol-related death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock. Autopsy reports indicate he was drunk at the time of his accident. As a result, the Cardinals join several major league teams who have either banned, or are considering banning, alcohol from their clubhouses. What the NPR report also touches on, but too briefly, is the fact that this ban goes nowhere near the grandstands where these sports are played. Booze makers are huge sponsors of just about any event you can think of, and our slavish devotion to their product makes them wads and wads of cash money. They help us spend more than we can afford, do stupid shit, and, too often, inadvertently kill ourselves. Even worse, we sometimes kill others.
This report meshes perfectly with a piece I have been struggling with for a couple evenings now, and inspires me to try and finish it rather than dump it and write about something else. It is basically about how limitless alcohol consumption can spoil an otherwise enjoyable social event. My story could easily be about a family dinner or a dirty rock show (and I could tell plenty of the latter stories, believe me!). If a social situation goes south, more often than not it seems booze is the instigator, the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but is loathe to seriously address. So we say, “Well, at least it’s not me!” and order up another round.
Previously I have mentioned that I have a lot of admiration for boxers; not necessarily for the sport or the moral fortitude of its participants, but for the commitment to conditioning these athletes must make. My wife, Julia, actually did some boxing a few years ago in Tucson, so it is a mutual interest of ours. We decided to head down to the Press Box Saturday night, pay the $5 cover and watch the much-ballyhooed rumble featuring today’s four best fists in the business – Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Julia and I arrived for the fight at 7:00 PM. The place was already packed to standing room only. We thought about throwing in the towel, but figured what the hell. Participating in an event like this is pretty well outside of what we usually do, so we decided it was worth a little discomfort. We shouldered our way to the main room and planted ourselves below a decent-sized flatscreen in time to watch the first of two fights on the undercard.
The energy of the room was high-spirited, but not mean. Loud and boisterous, there was a generous amount of good-natured trash talking going on between supporters of the featured rivals. Meanwhile, two lightweights were flailing away at each other onscreen for 12 entertaining rounds. Eavesdropping on conversations around us was a gas, as was handicapping the main event with complete strangers. Julia is much more loquacious than I am, and I got a kick out of seeing her engage with some of the other people there.
I did feel for the student-aged servers trying to make their way through the throng hefting trays laden with booze and food. A night like this has to be miserable when you are 5’4” in heels and weigh 88 pounds. Then there are the guys in backwards-ballcaps slurring drink requests into your face with every step, even as they leer into the depths of your pushup bra. That concern for their working conditions didn’t stop us from ordering a big appetizer sampler, however, which we ate standing up while taking turns holding the tray. I made sure we tipped lavishly to compensate, and I definitely didn’t leer. I don’t mind crowds like this in certain instances, but I have to confess it was a little unsettling when some guy came up, ran his hand over my shoulders and said, “How’s it goin’, babe?” I turned a “what the?!” expression on him and he shied away muttering something. A few moments later I noticed him about two strides away standing with his wife (presumably) who was about my height, my width, had longish hair and a black shirt on, just like me. I don’t know which one of us should have felt worse. At least he didn’t grope my ass.
As the booze flowed – tray after tray floating through the room at about shoulder height – the trash talk ripened and became angrier; chests puffed out and arms starting hanging wider and wider from their attached torsos. Onscreen the second bout of the night was not doing as much to hold the throng’s attention as the first had, so there was a bit more interaction among the patrons. It was getting more crowded. And it was hot. Fisticuffs, booze and heat are perfect fuel for revving up the old testosterone, and motors were starting to race. By the time the main event started, the room we were in was a powder keg ready to go off, and it was only a matter of time.
I have spent enough time in bars in my day to be able to pick out who the troublemakers are, and there was one glowing like a neon sign just behind us. The guy was what my son refers to as a “bling-blinger.” Picture a stereotypical native of say, Superior, putting on the airs of a gangsta rapper from the mean streets of a place like Philly. Baggy pants, some kind of baggy jersey, a cap backwards and sideways, and “bling” that looked like it had been won from one of those machines at the grocery store that dispense treasures in small, barely-openable plastic egg things. He was loud, brash and obnoxious. When he had to make his way to the restroom, he just shoved his way through without any excuse me’s, causing many people to grumble and mutter. What was hilarious, as Julia pointed out, was that his mode of speaking seemed to change based on whom he was addressing. One minute he sounded like a character from a Wayans Brothers movie, the next he sounded right out of Cheech and Chong. The guy just couldn’t seem to pick an ethnicity to emulate and go with it. It was actually hilarious.
Six or seven rounds into the main event I was suddenly splashed with beer, and the crowd behind me surged. I turned and saw a knot of people engaged in trying to separate some combatants, and sure enough it was Mr. Bling. There were also a couple women involved, and when one girl turned her face she was bleeding like she’d been struck with a bottle. Amazingly, there didn’t seem to any bouncers on staff to resolve the situation by giving the fighting morons the heave-ho. The crying, bloody girl left, peacemakers seemed to be getting things sorted out, and the next round of the fight I’d actually paid to see was starting so I turned back to the TV screen. The crowd was electrified, and it was not pleasant.
Not five minutes later they were at it again. This time more people were getting agitated, and a guy near me was being restrained by his girlfriend who was exhorting him, “Don’t get involved, it doesn’t concern you!” By now things were getting messy, and there was still no sign of any staff to sort things out. Let alone the cops. It started to mellow, then Mr. Bling was throwing haymakers at someone again. This time things were really out of hand. The fight on TV was into it’s last couple rounds, and people were climbing up on the tables, obscuring view of the television sets, to get a better vantage point on the melee raging 5 feet away from me. Profanities were hurled, and middle fingers were waved . . . and I must confess I was in the thick of it. Julia too. I can’t remember the last time I actually told someone to fuck off and meant it, not counting my drummer of course. It was ugly. With one round to go, things didn’t really settle down, they just climaxed with the end of the fight. Then Julia and I made haste to just get the hell out of there!
The night was fun, and the boxing match did a heck of a job living up to its hype. All the extracurricular stuff sucked. I came away convinced more than ever that alcohol is a friggin’ scourge.
I realize that is an easy point to make, and I’ve burned a lot of words here to get to it. There is so much talk these days about all of the evils in the world that threaten us. Booze scares me more than anything. Yes, it is horrific when someone gets hold of a firearm and goes on a rampage, but it is hard for me to get too riled up about the need for gun control when I consider how poorly we do enforcing existing alcohol laws. There are so many people crowding up our prisons in this country – we have 5% of the world population but 25% of the number of people imprisoned – many of whom are locked up for relatively minor drug offenses. Meanwhile I constantly hear stories of people who are multi-DUI offenders yet haven’t spent more than maybe a night or two in the can. I’m not a big marijuana activist, but it seems ludicrous to me that alcohol is legal, cheap and readily available to pretty much anyone of any age yet the left-handed tobacco remains something that can put you away for a significant amount of time.
How many drunks get into their cars any given night in Missoula? I don’t think at any point I’ve ever worried about a gun-toting maniac no matter where I am or what I’m doing (except maybe in the front row of a Ted Nugent concert), but once night falls and a loved-one is out and about, I’m nervous for the faceless drunk who just might be en route to causing a ripple effect of shattered hearts. How many people are hurt by stupid choices made under the influence of alcohol? How many people are shot, stabbed or killed in car accidents tied to drunks? Drinking is easy enough to shrug off as something social that is okay if you control yourself, but most people I know who drink have driven drunk, at least once, and that is all it takes – one time. That includes me, and I’m not proud of it. It has been a long time since I have done so, and it will certainly never happen again.
One can look at this story and blame the boxing match and the aggressive frat-boy stereotype for what went down the other night and you would certainly have identified some of the key ingredients. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the more alcohol you pour down people’s throats the more likely it is that things like this are going to occur. There is a culture of cool attached to drinking that I find more and more off-putting. I am voting myself out of it. I climbed on the wagon about a month ago after my own personal-worst alcohol experience, which luckily occurred at home. Since then, every social situation I’ve been in that included alcohol has been more and more of an indicator that being on the wagon is the place for me – whether it is out on the town or even at band practice. A good buzz can be fun, but the associated risks are just not worth enough for me to face anymore. I have friends and family who drink, a lot, and I worry about them.