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At a small Japanese restaurant in River north, Neil Steinberg, 47, settles into a back booth. Shooting his cuffs—his shirt is impeccably starched, his suit a ringer for one from Savile Row—he peers through his glasses and studies the menu. He knows Japanese food, thanks in part to visiting his older brother, Sam, who lived in Tokyo for several years, and he loves it. So he decides: For lunch, he will have the combination box of sushi. And to drink: He orders hot tea.
He understands that everyone will want to know what he is drinking. “I am, after all, the most famous drunk in Chicago now,” he says.
For years, Steinberg has been known as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, the writer of a splashy full page he has produced since 1996. He now writes four times a week. His column photo shows a slightly bemused man with an ironic glint in his eyes. In person, Steinberg is less bemused than intense, a fast talker consumed with whatever subject he is discussing. Emotions do not lie deep beneath his surface; rather, they roil through his conversation, spilling out in unexpected and at times unsettling ways. A listener sometimes just wants to jump out of the line of fire. In his column, Steinberg often writes about ordinary people (a girl and her bat mitzvah) and the thrills of the mundane (he got free sponges at the housewares trade show). And he sometimes adds a heavy dose of his own opinions on politics (in print he wondered how sick Cook County Board president John Stroger, a stroke victim, really was). Recently, on the anniversary of the war in Iraq, Steinberg apologized for his early support. But he also writes in the column about his own life: his smart, sassy wife, Edie; his two young sons, Ross and Kent; his ramshackle 1905 house in a “leafy suburban paradise.”
His claim to being the city’s most famous drunk stems from an incident in September 2005. It all happened so quickly, and yet it had been building to that moment for a long time. Late at night, Steinberg was arrested on a domestic-battery charge for striking his wife—for slapping her because she said she was afraid of him and she started to call 911. He was also charged with interfering with the reporting of a domestic battery—that happened when he ripped his kitchen phone off the wall and hurled it across the room. Steinberg was immediately placed on leave from his job. He announced through the Sun-Times that he had been drinking before the domestic-battery incident, and that under court order, he would be entering an alcohol-recovery program.
“Everyone focuses on the slap—and that was the only time I ever hit my wife,” Steinberg says. “But the big issue was really the drinking. I had been drinking.” In less than 24 hours before the incident leading to his arrest, Steinberg had consumed a third of a bottle of Cognac in the early-morning hours, knocked back two vodka tonics and a beer before a 10 a.m. editorial meeting, taken a “long and boozy lunch” with a college friend, had several drinks before boarding his evening Metra train, where he consumed two glasses of wine in the bar car, and then slammed back a drink at a local pizzeria when he picked up the family dinner. He topped the evening off with a snifter of Cognac. Drinking, he admits, is the greatest love of his life.
“Drinking is my essential nature,” says Steinberg. “That kind of drinking [before the incident] didn’t happen all the time. For one or two days a week, I could go to work and come home and not have a drink at all. And at the time, I’d say to myself, See, I’m fine.”
In his new book, Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life (due from E. P. Dutton on June 19th), Steinberg examines in unrelenting detail how he had been drinking—sometimes up to 40 ounces of hard liquor a day—for a long time. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being fun. The book starts the day before the domestic-battery incident and then takes the reader through Steinberg’s 28-day rehab and his struggles to stay sober (under the threat of a divorce) in the first months afterward. His wife, Edie, is a pivotal yet aloof character in the account. She is a driving force in his quest for sobriety, yet she moves quietly around the edges of much of the book, reading her Al-Anon pamphlets and refusing to indulge her husband. Drunkard is, by turns, horrifying (Steinberg drinks the bottle of vanilla used for his kids’ French toast), exasperating (he turns a speech in New York into a scene from The Lost Weekend), frightening (he leaves his young son Ross alone in the children’s section of the Northbrook library so he can run out and buy a pint of bourbon), and funny (home from jail, he wishes he had spent half as much time thinking about his life as he had planning his kitchen renovation). The book is a compelling read, sad and wistful and breathtakingly forthright. Amazingly, it also has a lot of laughs.
“Well, all I have is a certain candor,” Steinberg says, “and if I give that up, I’m lost.” He may not be lost, but not that long ago he was on the brink of irretrievably losing some fundamental part of himself. By his own admission, he still struggles every day not to drink. And he struggles to find a new way of living—without losing his marriage, his work, and his sense of humor.
Photograph: Anna Knott
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