FROM TIME to time I see one of those party animals with an underslung belt and a capacious midsection wearing a shirt that has this slogan:
I don't have a drinking problem.
I drink, I get drunk, I fall down.
One thing you always figure when you see someone wearing one of those shirts: He's got a problem.
Alcohol is America's favorite legal drug, and in today's cholesterol-counting, iron-pumping smoke-free environment that means we don't quite know how to handle it.
We tell our children it's not good for you, then salute their birthdays with a bottle of chardonnay. We tell teen-agers not to drink and drive, then watch them as they watch us bid goodbye to dinner guests who stumble down the front walk.
In upstate New York one town has been buzzing with the suspension of a clutch of high school football players for drinking. Since East Aurora, N.Y., is no different than thousands of other towns, it turned out that a fair number of kids spend Saturday night cuddling up to a beer can.
The father of the quarterback was so enraged that his son was suspended for the season for behavior as much a part of sports as cheerleaders that he even brought suit against the school board.
One suspended player said, "The younger kids do it just because they want to be like the older kids. The older kids do it because it's the social thing to do; they want to be like the adults."
Kids know that being adult means drinking, some because they've seen their parents order wine with dinner, others because their old man smacks them when he's finished a six-pack or their mom nods off around nightfall, still others because they keep up with current events.
One man's drinking, according to prosecutors, led to the deaths of five people when a New York City subway train ripped through a station with enough speed to bisect the lead car.
A co-worker said the motorman's drinking problem was common knowledge but that no one had reported him to superiors; you had to wonder whether such discretion would have extended to crack. The last half year has been dominated by news accounts of rape charges against William Kennedy Smith, and those accounts have been dominated by alcohol.
She drank, he drank, the senator from Massachusetts drank, although he says, like the T-shirt, that he has no problem. I asked a former prosecutor about sex crimes and alcohol. The prosecutor laughed dryly and replied, "Alcohol is a factor in just about every crime we prosecute."
If we were to run a story saying that a single substance was said to be involved in the majority of crimes in New York City, the fatal crash of a subway train and the ruination of football season in East Aurora, it would make a big splash.
Unless the substance was alcohol. Americans love drug abuse stories because they make them feel pious. Most of us have outgrown marijuana and evaded crack's seductive stranglehold. Alcohol is either as ruinous as illegal drugs -- or it's the stuff of which wedding receptions and tailgate parties are made. It is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing.
One of the great attitudinal shifts in the last 20 years has been the public perception of smoking. Smokers have become pariahs, standing outdoors in the cold, having a smoke in one of the few remaining areas that does not sport a drawing of a cigarette with a big decisive red slash.
Cigarettes are not against the law; they are simply against public opinion. And it has doubtless saved lives to have the world see smoking as a vice.
It still sounds somehow prissy to use that word for drinking, perhaps because, unlike smoking, it is commonplace for people to drink occasionally with no ill effects. Or to think they do; one woman told me she suspected she had a problem when people habitually said, "You were so cute last night." She has been going to AA for two years now, no longer cute but sober.
But there can be little doubt that a more convincing atmosphere of public disapproval about drinking would save lives. The quarterback in East Aurora complains he is getting mixed messages.
"When you watch a football game, what's the commercial you see?" he says. "Bud. Miller. It's like hand in hand: football and beer." Luckily for his parents, who are suing because they say his suspension is too severe, he didn't learn about mixed messages while he was sailing through the windshield of a car.