Subs & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Part 2: A Day in the Life

Don Fertman woke up one morning 40 years ago and poured himself a drink, as usual. But the future Subway exec didn't know this day would be far from ordinary.

Post by Don Fertman February 14, 2024
Don Fertman

In 1983, after a difficult transition from rock life to office life, Don Fertman got sober. He’s sharing excerpts from his forthcoming memoir, “Subs & Drugs & Rock & Roll: A Boomer’s Long and Winding Road From The Beatles to Subway Boss, Descent Into Addiction and Road to Recovery,” with All Sober. Read Part 1 here!


Since I was planted in front of a TV set at a young age, I tend to think of my pre-sober life in terms of images, snapshots, close-ups. The turning points in my life appear in these flashes and sequences. Hearing my parents argue with one another on the other side of the door. Ducking a flying baby table on wheels, thrown by my irate dad at my mom. Sitting in their bedroom watching The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when I was 10 years old. Setting up my first stereo, a gift from my father; I played the “Dr. Doolittle” soundtrack, then advanced to The Monkees and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Getting a job in the franchise sales department of Subway, a small but growing business run by its charismatic young founder, Fred DeLuca. Meeting my wife, having my kids, appearing on “Undercover Boss,” receiving fan email from a man in Indiana named Harold.

But there is one date that literally marked the difference between life and death for me.

June 6, 1983: Permit me to set the scene.

A spotlight falls on a bed with a nightstand at its side, two books visible on top. A closet with accordion doors is behind the bed frame, right door partially open. Inside the closet is a haphazard grouping of bottles with varying levels of liquid, some half-filled, or, as I had begun to see things, half-empty. A loud guitar belts out power chords and a scream, as The Kinks’ Ray Davies sings, “I’m in a state of confusion.” We catch a glimpse into the room ….

The two books on my bedside table lean against one another at random angles. Their titles tell the tale of my personal conundrum. Ken Keyes Jr.’s “Handbook to Higher Consciousness” sits right above “The Life and Death of Keith Moon.” The contradiction is an inadvertently apt description of my own descent into an alcoholic morass. I’d discovered booze as the answer to my lifelong spiritual search and the ultimate question of my existence at the time: Why bother facing another day? But now the bottle has me in a chokehold.

On that morning, I dragged myself out of bed in my usual bleary condition, slowly opened the bedroom door to check the hallway for signs of my roommate, and discovering blessed solitude, stole across the hall to the sanctuary of the bathroom. A look in the mirror at the circles under my eyes and my pasty complexion immediately reminded me that I was far from the man I could be and wanted to be.

I brushed my teeth, ran a comb through my hair and tiptoed to the kitchen for a tall glass, into which I poured slightly more than an inch of orange juice. Then back to my room, door shut, I reached behind my bed for what was left in a bottle of Majorska vodka. I took little notice of the row of empty red-labeled bottles strewn in the back of the closet, certainly no thought in my brain of the significance they would be playing the following month.

I opened the bottle with a slightly shaky hand, added enough vodka to fill the glass, gulped it down in hopes of bliss, but knowing full well it would only keep the demons at bay for the morning. As it turned out, not even that — what went down came back up, mixed with bile that burned my throat. Not a regular occurrence, but enough to keep me a bit on edge for that early wake-up-call drink. After a second brushing of the teeth, it was back for another stealth visit to the kitchen, more OJ, back to the room, rinse, repeat.

Once the vodka got to where it was supposed to go, I went about the business of shakily getting dressed for another day at my “when are you gonna get a real job?” job, as my father liked to say. The job? Public relations expert, franchise sales guy, newsletter writer-editor and company photographer for what would become the largest fast-food chain in the world — Subway!

At the time, it was still a small shop, though having recently passed the 200-store mark, the sense was the company would be around for the long term. My own future, however, was a bit more uncertain.

My clothes were somewhat disorganized, but not too rumpled, with no more wrinkles than most bachelors in their late 20s would have in their wardrobe. The condition of my room was similar. One of the strange quirks of the alcoholic is the ability to live what may look to the outside world as a relatively normal life, while inside riding a sweaty horse into some godforsaken apocalypse that I was convinced was just around the corner.

That harsh climax had yet to show itself after two years of dreadful anticipation, but this day was heading into the void at full gallop. I had not a clue it would be my last day as an active alcoholic before 40 years of sobriety … and counting.

author avatar
Don Fertman
Early in his recovery 40-plus years ago, Don was given a second chance by the founder of the small fast-food company where he worked, called Subway. He rose through the ranks to become its global chief development officer, retiring in 2021.

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