‘My drinking stopped when he asked if I knew my liver was supposed to be an internal organ’

I once took an extended tour through the world’s bacteriological hotspots. Now I just want to get home safely and look at my snaps

Barry McKinley in Paris: a doctor poked a finger under my ribs and said, “You do realise that the liver is supposed to be an internal organ?”

Barry McKinley in Paris: a doctor poked a finger under my ribs and said, “You do realise that the liver is supposed to be an internal organ?”

 

I quit drinking in New York City on January 1st, 2003. I was a regular feature in half the Irish bars in Manhattan, always paid my tab and tipped well, never shouted at the TV or smacked the side of the jukebox. One of the bars I frequented had a sign that said, “Be Nice, or Leave”. And I was always nice.

I started drinking at 15 years of age, not hard drinking, three, four and sometimes five pints, just enough to make the stars weave on the walk home. In my twenties, in Paris, it was all anisette and heavy burgundies; in Germany, Apfelkorn and Cuban rum. By the time I got to the USA, I was back on the pints. Only this time it was vodka.

That sort of drinking always comes to a depressing halt; mine occurred when a doctor poked a finger under my ribs and said, “You do realise that the liver is supposed to be an internal organ”.

Anyway, about a year after I stopped, I was walking down Broadway when I heard my name called out.

“Barry, Barry, Barry, Barry, Barry.”

You can always gauge the level of shock and surprise by the number of times your name is used in greeting. I looked around and saw a bartender from a grungy dive I used to frequent.

“Mikey,” I said, “long time no see.”

“What in God’s name happened to you?” Mikey said, “Many is the night we look at the empty stool where your body used to be, and we wonder where you went. Eddie Fallon reckoned you had an accident, you working in the construction game, but Big Bertie said no. ‘Barry,’ says he, ‘is not young, so it’s more likely a heart attack.’ Gunter Maguire put money on cancer.”

“Were you betting on me?” I asked.

Mikey shifted sheepishly, but even if it had been part of a barroom gamble, it was nice to know that these men were thinking about my welfare. It was touching to know that a group of rough and ready men, hardened creatures of the night, had taken the time to consider my absence.

I had always been a solitary drinker. It came with the DNA. My grandfather had been a singular and querulous individual at the counter. Once, when a man beside him tried to start some light banter with the line, “Your daughter is turning into a fine looking young woman,” my grandfather sized up the man’s reflection in the Power’s Whiskey mirror and replied, “you ever mention my daughter’s name in a public house again, I’ll break you in two”.

I had been a drinker for almost 30 years, but this was the first time I realised that the private men in public houses could actually form a tribe, a clan, a community of black sheep and prodigal sons. We had a bond that was stronger than blood. The fire that ran through our veins tied us together. We were family. Frankly, I was moved.

Mikey lowered his voice in dread and went on. “There were nights,” he said, “when I thought the darkest of dark thoughts. Maybe it wasn’t an illness, maybe it was a mugging in Central Park, and your body weighted down and tossed into the reservoir. I went so far as to ask Donnie Boyle from the twenty-second precinct if there had been any dismembered torsos turning up on the books.”

Mikey spread out his arms like Christ the Redeemer, ready to welcome me back into a world I had forsaken, but it was time to come clean. It would be all right, I figured; my clan would understand.

“Mikey,” I said, “I quit the booze.”

For a moment, it seemed as if all the traffic had stopped on Broadway. People looked out windows, and waited. Women with strollers stopped strolling, birds paused in flight and slowly but surely, the redeeming arms folded in rejection and the hands became trembling fists.

“Did you?” said Mikey, his eyes narrowing, “Well, in that case, fuck you.”

And with that, he was gone. The traffic started moving again. The strollers strolled and the birds went about their business. Broadway was suddenly a very lonely place. For an orphan.

Being a tourist

Rome – I’m standing on the corner of Coronary and Panic (well, Coronari and Panico to be exact) and I’m wondering how I came to be such a lousy traveller. During the 1980s I took an extended tour through the world’s bacteriological hotspots, from Calcutta to Jakarta to Lima – and it never cost me a thought. Once, I boarded an overnight (and ridiculously overcrowded) ferry to the island of Penang. The sea level rose within inches of the portholes, the exit was padlocked and there was only one life jacket on board – worn by the captain. No big deal. Packed between strangers on the floor, I slept like a babe.

These days I start every journey with the same ritual. I lock myself in the plane’s WC and listen closely to all the mechanical sounds: the groan of hydraulic pumps and the grinding of gears, the whine of the flaps and the roar of the engines.

“We are all going to die,” I say to the mirror as I mentally focus on the micro-cracks in the fuselage. I picture a wing detached and a downwards spiral, a field littered with body parts, luggage and teddy bears. There are always teddy bears in the smoking wreckage; I suspect the crash site photographers bring a sack load and scatter them about.

“Are you alright in there?” the flight attendant will always ask. “You have to go back to your seat. We’re about to take off.”

What’s the difference between a traveller and a tourist? A traveller wants to experience everything; a tourist just wants to get home and look at the photographs. I’ve become a tourist.

I cross the Tiber to Hadrian’s tomb, a circular fortress that was once the tallest building in Rome, a second-century Trump Tower, but at least Hadrian managed to build his wall. The sun is beating down and I don’t have any sunscreen. Tourists are never prepared for the obvious.

St Peter’s Square is full of pilgrims, but no sign of the pope. I stand around for a little while, until a priest appears on the balcony and there is a momentary gasp from the crowd – and then an awkward silence. We were expecting Bono and we got Larry Mullen. I move away from the piazza, following my little tourist map, heading for Gianicolo Hill where I will see “Roma in all her glory”.

The little map tells me to follow the Via delle Formaci, but what it doesn’t tell me is that there are no footpaths on this street. It’s like the Running of the Bulls, but with Vespas and crazy Fiats instead of cattle. Stick out an elbow, and you could lose it to a wing mirror. I battle through the honking horns and the kamikaze Ferraris and eventually make it to relative safety.

I’m parched, so I start looking for a nasone – one of the 2,500 drinking fountains scattered around the city. There’s one close to the Villa Aurelia with a bunch of tourists lined up, taking pictures of each other pretending to sip from the spout – is there anything that people won’t post on Facebook?

The author Barry McKinley and sons at the Trevi fountain
The author Barry McKinley and sons at the Trevi fountain

I walk onwards, to the sweeping curve of the Via Garibaldi. Rome is laid out below, a magic carpet covered in fabulous trinkets, all spires, domes and the shimmering white monument to Victor Emmanuel, looking like a decoration on a New Jersey wedding cake. I see the Pantheon. Earlier I stood under its giant oculus in a shaft of daylight that could easily have beamed me aboard the Starship Enterprise. I’m never impressed by natural beauty, but give me a Machu Picchu, a pyramid or a Stonehenge, that moment when the hand of god touches the fingertips of man, and I’m all agog.

I wander down into the bucolic village that is Trastevere where I find a little cafe close to the John Cabot University. It’s full of chirpy American college girls with miniature backpacks just big enough to conceal a Barbie. I ask for a coffee, using “por favor” and “gracias”. Why am I coming out with Spanish words in Italy? It’s like going to Connemara and speaking Welsh.

I finish my coffee and head back into the melting heat. I should have gone to the water park with my wife and teenage sons, but I hate fibreglass and the way it fractures into long, lethal fingers. Every time I slide down one of those tubes, I imagine the awaiting skewer and my final moments as a squirming, screaming shish kebab.

Back across the Tiber to the Piazza Navona. I stop into the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. Saint Agnes is the patron saint of gardeners and girl guides. Her skull is on display behind one of the altars. I light a candle, and then another, and then one more. Tomorrow I have to catch a high-speed train to Milan and I’ll spend most of the journey standing in the washroom, looking in the mirror and waiting for the inevitable derailment.

I look up at St Agnes and the skull so perfectly severed, it could easily have happened in a water park incident. I light a final candle. It’s the only thing that can save me. That and the Xanax.

Barry McKinley is the author of A Ton of Malice: The Half-Life of an Irish Punk in London (Old Street Publishing, £12.99)

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