"600 Words" by Esther J. Cepeda
For those who followed columnist Neil Steinberg's public meltdown in September 2005, when he was arrested on charges of domestic battery, the money shot of his new book "Drunkard: A Hard Drinking Life" comes early:
"We are arguing just outside [Kent's] door. I'm yelling, she has the phone… she's dialing…she has the phone up against her head and I suddenly swing, an arcing, open-handed slap, knocking the phone hard against the side of her head."
There, on page 22, Steinberg pulls back the curtain on an episode that made headlines from the pages of his own paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, to the front page of rival Chicago Tribune and even his old haunt the New York Daily News, making a spectacle of the sometimes wicked, sometimes sweet curmudgeon from Berea, Ohio who climbed the ivory tower of journalism into a four-times-a-week column at a major American newspaper.
The slap that changed everything.
The slap that changed readers' image of Steinberg, 48, from doting dad to two young boys and devoted – if oft-times bumbling – husband to a beautiful lawyer, into a stereotypical sauced newspaper man and, worse, wife-beater.
That slap confined him not only to jail – if only for a night – but many nights to a cold guest bedroom, and sometimes even to chillingly welcoming bars where fellow journalists revel in the tradition of downing drinks once deadline is met.
And the slap wasn't even the worst part! There was the indignity, sure, but there was also the parade of disappointed friends and family, clueless counselors, way-too-Jesus-y AA devotees and, of course, glorious, ever-beckoning alcohol which, if you don't drink much, you might not notice is almost literally everywhere.
So why – why?! – would anyone who'd gone through that miserable trial relive it nearly three years later, again so publicly, as he steels himself to embark on press engagements in support of his sixth book "Drunkard: A Hard Drinking Life", published by Dutton.
"People ask me if I'm embarrassed about it," Steinberg told a crowd of family, friends and award-winning journalists at an intimate book party in downtown Chicago Wednesday night, "but I tell them: 'I wasn't embarrassed to down every drink in sight, why would I be embarrassed to talk about how I got myself out of it?'"
A few days before, he'd answered my first question – why!?! – in his inimitable Steinbergian tone: "If you don’t write about something, then it's lost and I thought it was valuable to remember this," he said as Sun-Times news men and women flitted in and out of his office. "I really did it because I really wanted to redeem this experience. As Dante said, if you've got to go to hell you've got to take notes."
Harrowing, painfully lonely notes. Notes no one wants to fess up to when the hangover hits. Notes you wouldn't wish on an enemy. And yet, notes that at the most unexpected moments ring brightly, reverberating with hopeful – and really funny – timbres.
"I was writing it as it was happening, so I like to think they're fresh," he said. "The editing was excruciating – that was as difficult, if not more difficult, than the writing. At the time [of recovery] the book was the one thing I could control. I couldn’t control the drinking, the law, or the case but I could control the book. During the editing I had to really battle to keep control if it."
And was it worth it?
"If I wrote ‘Ulysses’ it was," he says, reasonably tired of pondering it. "Given the pain, ‘The Sun Also Rises’ would not have been worth it to me, I would have much rather avoided the whole thing."
"That said, I feel I did the best I could with a bad situation. I at least rose to the occasion and didn’t move to a Red Roof Inn and continue drinking. At least not yet."
Esther J. Cepeda writes the “600 Words” & “Pregunta del Dia” columns, and is also a Director at the Chicago-based United Neighborhood Organization. Her reporting and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of UNO. “600 words” is a registered trademark of EeJayCee, Inc., Copyright 2008. May be reprinted with permission, contact email@example.com