Francis Meyrick

The Gentle Drunk

Posted on March 21, 2012

The Gentle Drunk

If you were a career old drunk in Dublin fair city in the nineteen seventies, then apart from begging, scrounging, watching the girls, and hoping for a hot meal, one other important consideration was “getting back to the hostel” in time.
“Hostel” was perhaps too fine word. “Flophouse” would be politically incorrect. The old warehouse buildings, that stood on the docks, alongside the river Liffey, had long since been condemned, but never torn down. The lumbering edifices were long past their prime, as tired as the weary old river, that nonetheless stubbornly persisted in flowing on through old Dublin town. The river never really hurried, it never really got excited. It was just there, always, reliable, just flowing along, doing its thing. In the same way, those old buildings were equally determined to always greet the dawn, regardless of fading glory. And falling plaster, broken windows, cracked ceilings, plentiful evidence of mold, dilapidated stair cases, dangerous floors, and unspeakable, ancient, stained toilets that stank to high heavens.

And then there were the drunks.

They would stagger out in the morning, and stagger back home at night. Clutching brown bags with cheap bottles of wine and spirits. Many would leave angrily, cursing at the idealistic volunteers from the local Universities. Mostly young women, with admirable “Mother Theresa” protective instincts.
I would watch them, including my girl friend, Dympna, gently administering to filthy old hags, combing old Mary’s lice ridden hair with kind words and subtle de-licing fluids. There were some equally idealistic young men as well, somehow still in the full flow of first manhood. When you still believe in an achievable, much better world, in which you are in the vanguard of the forces of Good. Before a weary cynicism creeps in. Before you start wondering.
At night, the same angry drunks would return, including the ones who had sworn they would never, ever, come back. Still angry, they would curse out the next batch of idealistic “save-the-world” volunteers, and stagger upstairs to fight over a bed. These varied from ancient steel and wire constructions that belonged in a museum, to extraordinary King Size monstrosities (usually housing two, three or four disgruntled occupants), to just plain mattresses strewn around the floor. If you went up there at night, maybe to deal with a disturbance, you were treated to the sound of several hundred men and women snoring in different rooms. Dublin produces a fine crop of drunks every year. There were usually a few awake, staggering to and from the urinals, still cursing, whining, or occasionally crying. In the middle of the floor there some old barrels, used as urine receptacles for those too drunk or infirm to reach the so-called bathrooms. I’ve seen four foot tall steel drums overflowing with freshly contributed urine. Emptying them out was a spectacular engineering challenge.

There was a seedy, depressing, unutterably failed air of melancholy about the place. These were mostly (not all) older men and women,who somehow had failed in their lives. Deep down, they knew it, and often wore that scowling, defiant, defensive expression, that spoke of their sense of deep injustice. It wasn’t their fault of course. It was somebody else’s. It was amazing what pearls of wisdom these denizens of this strange Other World would bestow on those around them. Many had it all figured out, and could lecture you for hours with a careful exposition on your failings. All you had to do was ask. Or get in their way. Or try and pinch their bed.

Ah, surely, as I said before, as an old drunk in Dublin fair city, apart from begging, scrounging, watching the girls, and hoping for a hot meal, one other important consideration was “getting back to the hostel in time”. The reason for that was that the early arrivals got the beds. The later arrivals fought over the mattresses. And the even later arrivals… well, they just had to flop down in the kitchen, on the floor. It was the only place left. It would be a strange, disturbed night, bodies everywhere, bizarre sleeping sounds, and the odd volunteer or two, sitting in a chair, watching over their brood. It was a time for thought, if you were so inclined, and if you were awake.
Thus, one night, I found myself awake, unable to sleep in my uncomfortable chair. I wondered what I was doing there. I was a student, an idealist, a dreamer and a reformer. You could have mentioned any worthy cause, and I think I would have jumped up and joined in a flash. I was the Universal Soldier of volunteer causes. In my own way, I simply meant well. Little did I know (but I was to learn later) how much the world mocks (and abuses) such naïve, albeit beautiful, dreaming.
I remember I was getting depressed. The place was sordid, it stank, everybody stank, everybody was grumpy, awkward, sullen. The slightest wrong word, look, gesture, and some old fart would take furious offense. He or she would then leave the next morning, cursing, and swearing they would never, ever, darken the hallway with their illustrious presence again. The occasional one was violent, and you had to watch them. I was grateful for my height.
The depression worsened. What was there to learn here? What was there to achieve? Nothing. It was a hopeless, diseased, putrid end-of-the-road last stop for a gaggle of filthy drunks. There was nothing there for me. Why was I there?


The door into the kitchen opened with wholly unnecessary force, and one of our angry, violent drunks, burst in, trailing a rancid cloud of loud profanities. Big John. You had to watch him. Big John was always angry. He had bladder problems, and the shortest route to the bathroom, strangely, was through the so-called kitchen. The door, so rapidly opened, collided with a sleeping drunk’s head, with a frightening smack, and I winced at the wood-on-skull impact. A sleeping drunk, Benjy, surprised, woke up, and rubbed his head. He caught my expression, sympathetic, and just grinned. Wordlessly, he shook his head, and his expression beamed a message.
Hey! It’s alright! It’s just Big John! The dufus! I’m okay!
I looked around for a safer place for our sleeper to lie, but the entire kitchen floor was covered with bodies. There literally was nowhere else. I beamed that message to Benjy.

Sorry, dude, doesn’t look like there is anywhere else…

In silent answer, Benjy just shrugged his shoulders. He wasn’t worried.
Two minutes later, Big John was on the way back. He stormed through the kitchen, loud profanities in tow. Benjy heard him coming, and quickly got his head out of the way. Big John, with no consideration for anybody except himself, stormed out. The door slammed. Back to bed. Peace returned. Benjy made himself comfortable again, and dozed off. I was impressed with his composure. Most drunks would have cursed at Big John, and there would have been a ruckus. But Benjy didn’t take the slightest offense.
Fifteen minutes later, I was dozing off in my chair.


Take two. Benjy got it in the skull again. He woke up with a start, rubbing his head again. I felt compelled to remonstrate with the passing cloud of Ugly.
“Jesus, Big John! Have some consideration, boy! You just smacked Benjy in the head!”
But the Angry Cloud didn’t listen. It swept out of the kitchen. I looked at Benjy, still rubbing his head. Benjy just shrugged. His eyes were actually amused. The unseen message hit me with its complete lack of anger or annoyance.
That’s twice! What a pudding that guy is!
I beamed back my reply:
You all right? Heck, I admire your patience!
Benjy wasn’t worried. Just a big grin, and he relaxed again.
Two minutes later, the Angry, Loud, Cloud of Un-Peace returned. Deftly, Benjy moved his head sideways, out of harm’s way. Then he went back to sleep.
Fifteen minutes later, I was dozing off in my chair.


Take three. Smack! Same-same!
“Big John! For Christ’s sake! Have some consideration!” Now I was getting cross. My gaze went from following the Angry Cloud out of the kitchen, to Benjy, who was hurting pretty good, rubbing his head furiously. My expression was beaming this message:
That son-of-a-bitch! Are you okay, Benjy??
To my astonishment, Benjy, very much the injured party, was not too upset. Surprised, but not even remotely angry. His gaze followed the Angry Cloud out of the kitchen, and then he looked at me. Then he burst into a fit of the giggles!
Hey, Francis, can you BELIEVE that moron Big John??
Now I started to giggle. A few minutes later, the profanity laced Angry Cloud was on the return journey, but Benjy was waiting for him, pretending to be asleep. At the last second, he whipped his head safely out of the way, grinned delightedly at me,giggling, and went back to sleep!
Fifteen minutes later, I was dozing off in my chair.


Take four. Smack! Same-same! There was no way Benjy could guard against the first attack. That got him in the head every time. But he had gotten wise to the Angry Cloud’s return journey. That one Benjy could avoid. By now, we were both in hysterics. There was something so ludicrous, so over-the-top about the Angry Cloud’s cussing and swearing, his forced march to and from the toilet, the furious indignation that his personal plumbing was not functioning correctly, the door slamming and the carrying on, that you couldn’t help but snicker.
What made it worse, as the night progressed, was that Big John started noticing the muffled hysterics, from all around the room. He started stopping, and asking, what was so Fu-fu-fu-fuckin’ funny?
Nothing, we would say, innocently, and the whole room of thirty drunks, lying around the floor, would go off into more muffled hysterics. You had to be careful around Big John, because he could throw a punch. That made it even funnier, to be laughing at his expense behind his back. Benjy was completely into the swing of it now. He took the first wakening bang in the head with stoic endurance. Then he would lie in wait for the return passage. Wait until the last second. And then neatly twist his head out of the way at last second. The door would slam, Big John would be gone, for a while anyway, and Benjy would bob up happily, and look around the room with a triumphant expression.
Nah-nah-na-na-nah! He didn’t get me that time!
And off we would all go into peals of hysterics, tears of laughter pouring down our tired faces…

* * * * *

I look back on that night now, a long time ago, and I marvel at an unexpected lesson learned. I have remembered it. In the midst of seedy, decrepit, unutterably depressing humanity at its worst, there is still humor and kindness. Tolerance of others. Compassion, even. Benjy never took offense. Despite being smacked in the head and rudely woken up fifteen times in one night. He took it in his stride, and enjoyed the amusement that grew into unbridled hilarity. We didn’t actually speak one single word directly to one another, but on another level, purely through eye contact, we had a deep conversation.
That son-of-a-bitch! Are you okay, Benjy??
Hey, Francis, can you BELIEVE that moron Big John??
Ha-har-har! He didn’t get me that time!

The human spirit has great reserves of capacity, tolerance, and compassion.
There is hope. Amidst the sewage.
Yep, there’s plenty of sewage. But, also…
Plenty, plenty of hope. Warmth, even.
I smile every time I think of old Benjy, giggling delightedly, whipping his head out of harm’s way at the last second. And then gazing triumphantly around the room, eyes full of laughter, as if to say:

“See that? See that? Missed me! Nah-nah-nah-na-na!”

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 21, 2012, 7:25 am

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