Pick your poison

One of the first jobs I ever had was cleaning a bar on Saturday and Sunday mornings during the summer after my high school graduation. Named after some ancient American politico, it was one of those high-volume pick-up places that specialized in cheap drinks, flashing lights, and third-rate local bands mouthing radio-friendly mega-hits to the loose and lonely. It was a popular place.
I would get to work just after dawn, unlock the back door and be bowled over by the putrid stench of stale booze, rotting food, backed-up toilets, and the typical detritus left over by large gatherings of drunken people. By the time I would get home four hours later, I’d be literally drenched in filth. Even after I showered and changed, it would take me another two hours to settle my stomach enough to eat.
There is a talent to drinking alcohol, of course, though it has nothing to do with holding your liquor or how well you can drive a motor vehicle while drunk. A moderate amount can heighten the moment, relax the body, lower the blood pressure and take a little pressure off the anxiety of the everyday living.
But the wrong amount, which for some people could be just one drink, can bring on the depths, the blue meanies, the draining away of active participation in the moment, and usher in orneriness, stupidity and a “blowhardian” view of life. The happy-go-lucky drunk is a myth. Bar fights are common, as anyone who has ever spent too much time in a bar can attest. Drunks aren’t nice people.
Home to the navy and six universities, Halifax has a long history as a hard-drinking town. Tales of drunken sailors from the days of yore still abound. Even today, with more pubs and bars per capita than any city in Canada, it is no wonder that Halifax is billed as a “drinker’s paradise.”
Evidence of this can be found all over the city. You hear it in the cries of “sociable!” that emanate from the pubs on a Friday afternoon in the summer. You see it in the lines of over-dressed (or carefully under-dressed) bar patrons waiting to get into one of the multitudinous urban nightspots on weekend evenings. You experience it the next morning at work when your hung-over co-worker comes in 40 minutes late, plops down onto her cubicle next to yours, and announces that she may have to make a mad-dash to the washroom any minute and is hoping you will cover her ass if the boss happens to come by.
But the statistics around alcohol usage are even uglier.
According to Nova Scotia Health, 240 people die every year in the province due to alcohol–related causes; one in five Nova Scotians engage in binge drinking at least once a month; 600 people are arrested each year in HRM for impaired driving; there are 3,100 alcohol-related hospital admissions in Nova Scotia annually. The annual provincial cost associated with the misuse of alcohol is $242.9 million (compared to the average $224 million revenue the province receives from the sale of alcohol).
And crime statistics provided by the HRM indicate a higher-than-normal rate of assaults, thefts, and robberies occurring in the vicinity of downtown pubs and bars along streets such as Spring Garden, Argyle, Hollis, Grafton, Sackville and Lower Water.
Alcohol use contributes to domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted disease by impairing judgement, reducing inhibition, and increasing aggression. Chronic heavy drinking also contributes to such health problems as anemia, cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis, depression, high blood pressure, and pancreatitis, among others.
Some people are hopeful though. Pointing to stepped-up police enforcement, overly expensive booze, better public education campaigns, and restricted smoking in the bars, they believe that a lot of people are getting the message and finding other, less destructive, things to do on a Saturday night.
Perhaps, but I’m not totally convinced.
I’m not sure if it’s spiritual isolation, displaced aggression, economic fatalism, boredom or what, but it seems there is something inherent in our society that requires a lot of people to get drunk, or high, or messed up in some way that will relieve the pain of living. And since there are a lot of other inebriants these days, some much cheaper than alcohol, I doubt that that all those wayward barflies are home playing pinochle with the neighbours.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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