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Drinks in the City

For many of us, a romance with the city is amplified by a romance with alcohol. Sometimes, it’s hard to live with both. Just as often, it’s hard not to.


If New York is a martini, then alcohol is the olive—that necessary extra fillip that makes the whole thing fun. Of course there are New Yorkers—and you may be one of them—for whom a night on the town means a terrific piece of fatty tuna, and alcohol is no more or less seductive than ginger ale. In that case, you should go ahead and enjoy your fish; we’re happy for you. Because for a lot of us, alcohol is like love: an endless source of pleasure and havoc and confusion.

My fantasies about a life in this city fell somewhere between Patti Smith’s and M.F.K. Fisher’s. I never specifically conceived of this as a drinking life, but as soon as I came here, I found that a drink or five was always in order. When I moved to Manhattan in the mid-nineties, there were pink drinks everywhere you looked. I spent much of my first two years in this city whirling drunk through places I couldn’t believe I’d been allowed inside—various perfume-launch parties come to mind. It sounds cheesy now, but it didn’t feel that way then. Walking into one of those rooms in our best Banana Republic and seeing famous people—is that Duff?—was thrilling and unbelievable, and a few free vodka tonics heightened the sense of surrealism into actual fun. Also, everyone I knew from school had moved to the East Village to log hours at the Blue & Gold doing $2 shots after a tough day at entry level. Being drunk seemed right, everywhere.

People drink in other places, but there are certain things about this city that make it a paradise for the smashed. For one, you don’t have to drive, or, as my friend Scott Burns puts it, “if you can remember where you live in New York, you can continue to drink.” Burns, who is closing in on 40, lives in L.A. now, where he writes screenplays and drives around in a Jaguar, but he lived in New York for many years. Ah, yes, he remembers it well: “Just the way that I would socialize in New York would be different,” he says. “I would work, and then when I was done working, I’d go out to dinner, and we’d have a bottle of wine, and then we’d have a drink or two or three. And that was something you could do every night because you weren’t in charge of getting you home—something yellow was.”

It isn’t just a matter of taxis and bars that stay open till four in the morning. There is something psychic, as well as material, that makes New York go so well with the splash of liquor. “I think that there’s sort of a struggle to New York which you allow yourself to reward with a drink,” says Burns. “Sort of a victory drink you can have to say you and your friends conquered the city for the day.”

He misses that, he told me one hot, windy evening over gimlets on the outdoor patio at the Hudson Hotel. “I felt that things here were more unpredictable. You didn’t really know what was going to happen; you didn’t know who you were going to meet; you didn’t know where you were going to wind up. It didn’t seem to have the same rate of redundancy as L.A. has. I don’t know that drinking is the same kind of social lubricant in L.A. that it is here, because the big social lubricants there are who you know and what you look like. Alcohol will only change that so much.”

There is a democracy to drinking in New York. Pete Hamill, the ghost of alcoholic New York past, calls it “the great leveler.” The boozy New York youth of the forties and fifties that he describes in his memoir was spent largely in the “snug darkness of saloons,” in the all-male world of Brooklyn bars, and later in places like the Lion’s Head in the West Village, where an artsier machismo pervaded. “Drinking was part of being a man,” he writes. “Drinking was an integral part of sexuality. . . . Drinking was the sacramental binder of friendships. Drinking was the reward for work, the fuel of celebration, the consolation for death or defeat. Drinking gave me strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true.”

Drinking, like everything else, feels slicker and less original than the classy-broads-and-Coney-Island yesteryear that Hamill remembers, but sex and camaraderie and consolation are still part of the package. So is manliness, but manliness is no longer just for men. We’ve come a long way, baby, and the city’s most famous drinker in recent memory is the Cosmo-swilling Candace Bushnell (along with her shiny shadow, Carrie Bradshaw), a woman rather than a man boozing it up as she trolls the night for erotic adventure and fabulosity in general.

The picaresque narrative of drink has been successfully repackaged for the highlights-and-heels set. People complain that Sex and the City is gay-male fantasy, but to me it feels very much like heterosexual recreational New York: cocktails, self-involvement, shagging. And like most New Yorkers, the girls on that show drink a lot more than they fuck.

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