Gut Instinct: Giving Hank's

art19472nar A blurry Line separates my professional dipsomania from the swollen-livered lushes with rheumy eyes and a predilection for salty snacks and airplane-bottle booze. I call it Sunday.

On fat-newspaper day, I take a sabbatical from that sweet devil sauce.After a week spent investigating dumpy saloons and pseudo speakeasies, Sunday is reserved for sober R&R, a day when I don’t fall asleep with jeans bunched around my ankles. Recently, though, a fellow writer requested my secrets of freelance-writing survival. Though I could condense my tips to one sentence (“Eat dollar dumplings, embrace rejection and purchase a thesaurus”), he preferred face time at a dive. “How’s Sunday?” he asked.

“Do I have to drink?” I replied. “Not if you don’t want to.” Since I’ve got the willpower of Eliot Spitzer in a hen house, I agreed to convene at noon at downtown Brooklyn’s Hank’s Saloon (46 Third Ave. at Atlantic Ave., 718-625-8003; B’klyn).This flame-decorated honky tonk was formerly the DoRay Tavern, a gritty hangout for

Mohawk Indian ironworkers. Now, Hank’s is both a rocker clubhouse and a sunlight-deficient bunker for blue-collared lugs and pensioners.

“What are you doin’ here?” asks the paperclip-thin bartender, her voice chain-smoked to a rasp. “Not even my regulars come till later.”

“We were looking for quiet,” I say, sitting at a school-desk table. “Well, you found it,” she says, as ’60s ditties soundtracked the saggy-ceilinged dugout.

Stella Artois and Sixpoint Sweet Action pints are ordered, running $6 apiece. Ouch. This isn’t faux-dive dive. This is a dive.We drink slowly and talk quickly. The bartender would like these reversed.

“Know what you guys need to do?” she calls out. Call my parents more often? Make love without whiskey’s aid? “Shots,” she says. “It’s time to do kamikaze shots.” Before we can beg off, she mixes a tart batch and fills several glasses. Too Midwestern-polite to decline her offer, I carry the sorority-girl slurps to our table.We disappear them. “Bring them back up,” the bartender commands.

She refills our shot glasses.We empty them. It’s 1:14 p.m. “How am I going to explain this to my wife?” my friend asks, his tongue booze-thickened.

“Blame me,” I volunteer, sipping my Sixpoint. For my friends, Josh is equally an excuse and an indictment for tardy arrivals and slurred speech.

Our alcohol-greased conversation resumes as AARP-aged customers trickle in, bearing pretzels and newspapers—the armaments of daytime drinking. Hockey players skate across squiggly TVs, while rain spits onto the gray sidewalk. It’s a textbook day to drown miseries, both real and perceived—and, it seems, to gamble.

“Who wants to play high card?” the bartender asks, bringing out a deck. High card is simple enough to hook elementary-schoolers.

Each gambler receives a card, with the highest suit winning. Straightforward, yes, but I’m a cheapskate. At casinos, my miserly ways send me to nickel slots, where I try tricking waitresses into serving me free gin and tonics.

“Come on, it’s just a dollar,” the bartender says. Those are my magic words. I peel off a buck. She passes me the deck to shuffle.

“I can’t shuffle.” “Shuffle,” she commands, as I fumble aces and fours.Though my hand-eye coordination lets me chopstick up string beans or smoke Wii tennis forehands, I shuffle cards like a thumb-less ape. Kings, queens and twos fall to the sticky bar, causing one patron to roll his brown eyes: I’ve failed at manhood.

“Give me those,” he says, taking the cards and shuffling with World Series of Poker flair. The seven contestants each snag a facedown card. One by one, they’re flipped. I receive a king. I’m a winner.

“Beginner’s luck,” scoffs a whiskey drinker. “Let’s play again.” We do. I receive a queen. Win No. 2— eight dollars. “Again,” the whiskey drinker commands.

He ain’t losing to a card-fumbling sissy. Instead, we both lose to a drinker munching baked potato chips. “Who’s in for another round?” the bartender asks. Following gambling’s cardinal rule, I cash out while I’m ahead. We return to our seats. I try completing my origin tale, when the bartender notices our empty cups. “Another beer?” “No, thanks,” I say. It’s impossible to be a productive member of society when you’re seeing double at 3 p.m. “You need more beer,” she says, passing us two Pabst cans, just three bucks apiece. I part with my gambling winnings; the house always wins. Here’s how I lose: “How about some whiskey with that beer?” she asks. During any lengthy drinking session, imbibers both professional and amateur reach a critical juncture, wherein the seesaw of sobriety tilts in the balance. Another beer? A glass of water? A toin-coss decision determines your future, sending you careening downward or landing with a soft, dignified thump.

“We can’t end the day without whiskey,” my pal says, ordering up Old Crow, preferred wincing whiskey for American alcoholics.

“That’s what I like to hear,” the bartender says, setting up two amber shots of avoidable disaster.