The interview had gone fairly well, I thought. I was academically qualified, I had sufficient and varied experience related to the opening, and the only other candidate did not use deodorant.
The job was in a Moslem country, so somehow the discussion turned to my liquor allotment. By the interviewers' reaction, you would have thought I had just announced I was a polygamous fruitarian. All I said was I do not drink, so they could give my ration to someone else. The interview ended. I never heard from them.
I do not drink? Consumers of alcohol have captured the language and social customs of America in much the same way conservatives of old were said to have laid claim to the flag. Of course I drink. I imbibe apple and orange juice, V-8 and soda (I get off on peach) and, if cornered, I will even take an occasional glass of water or milk.
My aim here is not to make converts -- who can compete against Billy Martin or The Bull? -- but rather to persuade "drinkers" to grant the rest of us the freedom of self-denial -- as long, of course, as it does not impinge on public safety or undermine the foundations of society in some other fashion.
It is they who are the proselytizers, not us. I do not shove my peach soda into anyone's face and insist they must try it, it's soooooo good, or declare that they are poopers of parties for not trying just a little cranapple.
Although I find hard to believe figures indicating that one of three Americans do not drink (they must have included newborns, gnomes and inmates of institutions), certainly nondrinkers are becoming a force, even if we are all wimps. In the hope that we can avoid plunging our society into the same kind of polarization surrounding battles over smoking, the following areas of drinker/nondrinker relations in America need to be openly discussed.
What if Johnny and Jennie do not drink?
I started nondrinking at birth, immediately preferring mammae to bottles or cans. But my problem did not really become evident to my peers until high school, when I failed to mature to the point of feeling a need to consume a six-pack every Saturday night.
"Does your new boyfriend drink?" I would ask my sister. "All boys drink," was the reply, immediately transforming me into a eunuch. Could your son survive such ridicule if he chose a similar path of nonconformity?
The statistics are clear: Lower the drinking age, lower more coffins. The arguments surrounding voting and military service ages are a ruse. The reason kids want to drink is obvious: it is expected of them. Not so much by their peers as by their parents. I mean, would you rather your son be a peach-soda-drinking physicist or a halftime-show pimp for some beer company?
Chances are your children do not come home from their junior high drug and alcohol lectures and inquire why you drink. Not if they have properly absorbed their living- room lessons, anyway. One of my son's 10- year-old friends has already made it clear to me that the only way to eat oysters is to wash them down with beer.
Could you handle it if your childen did not choose to booze?
For years I did not understand how this was done in the absence of bread. Now I am not sure if it is proper in the absence of liquor. At present, toasting is about as awkward for the nondrinker as removal of contact lenses in public. Should I raise my water glass while others heft their steins? What is the appropriate stance? Perhaps, in the age of the booze-free, some ecumenical gesture will surface: the slapping of hands, the raising of spoons, the knocking of knees, the mixing of peach soda and V-8. Should I inquire of the president what he does when Sheik Yamani comes for dinner?
Will they or won't they? Why do I have to worry whether I am going to choke on the chips and dips for lack of something nonalcoholic to drink when I go out? Those who drink counter that I do not provide them with the same freedom of choice when we have a party. But I do not require them to wear muzzles either, nor ask them to put on masks and pretend to be someone more open or truthful or interesting than they otherwise might be. If I wanted theater I would go to Olney (I like their ice cream and the air smells like peach soda).
Holiday parties are particularly difficult for the non-drinker. The institutionalized Christmas bash is the worst, especially if one mixes nondrinking with membership in a minority religion. To observe people commemorating the birth of their Lord by getting bombed is such a mystical experience that once will suffice for a lifetime.
Minorities and women are continually raising the issue of their portrayal on TV and elsewhere (get back, Mark Twain), but when is the last time you saw a show starring a nondrinker? Even Miss Marple could not live without her sherry. Can you imagine J.R. rolling out of bed and asking his latest conquest if she would like a V-8? Then of course we have those humorous imitations of drunken behavior which always make the one out of three of us who do not drink roll in the aisles, in the general direction of the exit. If drunks are so funny, why do we lock them up and hold them responsible for their actions? "It was just bad luck that a cop stopped us and it's hard to steer with your elbows, but it's always a riot." Right?
The Nondrinker as Nerd:
A few of us are jocks. Most of us can smile. Not many of us are politicians. Fewer are in executive positions. The weak ones smoke. Some of us think. I would rather weld. All of us are known for our independence, a trait born of persecution and alfalfa tea and contributing to the drinkers' perception that though we are certainly not wild, we definitely are crazy guys.
Nondrinkers are indeed a curious lot. I doubt we could ever be bonded together organizationally to march on the White House, much less Milwaukee, since we have come to nondrink from diverse perspectives. But we are okay. Really. We will not barf in the back seat of your car, or lose consciousness before you can ask for the name of our insurance agent. If we say something embarrassing at your party, it will be expected of us. We will not make a fuss if someone at the next table is drinking and breathing in our direction. We like your company, most of the time, and, besides, we know you do not have much choice whether to drink or not. There is not enough peach soda in Washington to go around on a Saturday night.