John Barleycorn HTML version
Back in Oakland from my wanderings, I returned to the water-front and renewed my
comradeship with Nelson, who was now on shore all the time and living more madly than
before. I, too, spent my time on shore with him, only occasionally going for cruises of
several days on the bay to help out on short-handed scow-schooners.
The result was that I was no longer reinvigorated by periods of open-air abstinence and
healthy toil. I drank every day, and whenever opportunity offered I drank to excess; for I
still laboured under the misconception that the secret of John Barleycorn lay in drinking
to bestiality and unconsciousness. I became pretty thoroughly alcohol-soaked during this
period. I practically lived in saloons; became a bar-room loafer, and worse.
And right here was John Barleycorn getting me in a more insidious though no less deadly
way than when he nearly sent me out with the tide. I had a few months still to run before
I was seventeen; I scorned the thought of a steady job at anything; I felt myself a pretty
tough individual in a group of pretty tough men; and I drank because these men drank
and because I had to make good with them. I had never had a real boyhood, and in this,
my precocious manhood, I was very hard and woefully wise. Though I had never known
girl's love even, I had crawled through such depths that I was convinced absolutely that I
knew the last word about love and life. And it wasn't a pretty knowledge. Without being
pessimistic, I was quite satisfied that life was a rather cheap and ordinary affair.
You see, John Barleycorn was blunting me. The old stings and prods of the spirit were no
longer sharp. Curiosity was leaving me. What did it matter what lay on the other side of
the world? Men and women, without doubt, very much like the men and women I knew;
marrying and giving in marriage and all the petty run of petty human concerns; and
drinks, too. But the other side of the world was a long way to go for a drink. I had but to
step to the corner and get all I wanted at Joe Vigy's. Johnny Heinhold still ran the Last
Chance. And there were saloons on all the corners and between the corners.
The whispers from the back of life were growing dim as my mind and body soddened.
The old unrest was drowsy. I might as well rot and die here in Oakland as anywhere else.
And I should have so rotted and died, and not in very long order either, at the pace John
Barleycorn was leading me, had the matter depended wholly on him. I was learning what
it was to have no appetite. I was learning what it was to get up shaky in the morning, with
a stomach that quivered, with fingers touched with palsy, and to know the drinker's need
for a stiff glass of whisky neat in order to brace up. (Oh! John Barleycorn is a wizard
dopester. Brain and body, scorched and jangled and poisoned, return to be tuned up by
the very poison that caused the damage.)
There is no end to John Barleycorn's tricks. He had tried to inveigle me into killing
myself. At this period he was doing his best to kill me at a fairly rapid pace. But, not
satisfied with that, he tried another dodge. He very nearly got me, too, and right there I
learned a lesson about him--became a wiser, a more skilful drinker. I learned there were