Drinking isn’t just a hobby; it’s a way of organizing your social life, your nights. Drinking is a destination. What should we do tonight? Anything can and may happen once you’ve gotten going, but all you really need to do is collect some people and pick a bar, and there you have it. “I’m an alcoholic!” we would say cheerfully, and then order another drink and talk to another stranger. I remember (fondly) reeling up First Avenue one night with my friends, a massive buzz, and a bag of Doritos. Two of us got into a very intense conversation with a legless Vietnam vet about President Clinton, free love, and barbecue. When we looked up, the third girl was gone. She had zipped off to Brooklyn in a taxi, and in her place there was just a sack of chips sitting on the sidewalk. It was always like that. Because alcohol makes the promise that a night rife with strangeness is always only a few more drinks away.
The problem, of course, is that sometimes you find yourself waking from a liquid night to a world swimming with questions like What did I say to her? Where is the Alka-Seltzer? Is it just that I’m adventurous and young (or young at heart) and crackling with joie de vivre, or is something subtly, totally wrong with the way I drink? It’s a creepy prickle of not-quite-recognition, like seeing a fin emerge from the oceandolphin or shark?
But when you’re in your early twenties, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re still a kid and nobody really thinks less of you if you treat the Odeon as a fancy kegger. It wasn’t until two years ago, after a particularly brutal holiday season that culminated in my turning green at Christmas lunch at my step-grandparents’ house in South Carolina, that I decided the time had come for my own personal Noble Experiment. The clincher came when I started dating someone who was experimenting with sobriety. Spending time with someone who never drinks makes you realize that you never don’t. And if I could not drink on a first date, I reasoned, I could surely resist alcohol forever.
Drinking isn’t just a hobby; it’s a way of organizing your nightsA destination. Anything can happen once you’ve gotten going, but all you really need to do is to collect some people and pick a bar.
It was cool at first. Being sober at bars and parties seemed as surreal as being sloshed used toan altered state. I didn’t have to wonder what I’d said, I saved money, I became involved with a gym. My nascent romance was scarier and harder to get going than past relationships had been because we never had those explosions of feeling that are the natural corollary to walking home tanked together at two in the morning. Everything chugged along for about two months. Then I got bored.
One night, my (now long-gone) boyfriend and I went to an Irish pub around the corner from the theater where he performed. We sat in a booth with some friends, eating French fries and carefully, slowly drinking beer. After the first pitcher, he said he thought we’d better go home. After the second, I said I thought so, too. After the third, the room was loud and vivid and I felt connected to the wildness in a way I hadn’t in months. I turned to him, grinning, and said, “Isn’t it fun to act like normal people?”
The next morning, he threw up seven times.
Besides the mad-hatter fun of drinking yourself googly-eyed, there’s another reason so many New Yorkers keep on drinking: It’s part of our jobs. A few drinks at a professional gathering make you a little looser, a little livelier, a little more likely to succeed (or so it seems). And a few moresomewhere else, laterserve a very different function for the driven striver: They can actually make you stop trying. Everyone in New York, whether a silversmith, a Wall Street guy, or a waitress, is dying to get aheadis feeling like he or she ought to get ahead. We owe it to ourselves, we reason. But your self can be a very tough taskmaster, and he is always, always around.
Except maybe when you’re drunk.
Justin, Anne, and Tim are all going out tonight to celebrate their friend Mark’s 30th birthday at a bar in Soho, but first they are easing themselves into the night with a few rounds of vodka and grapefruit juice at Justin’s railroad apartment on Tompkins Square Park. In the kitchen, he has a blue shelf where he’s laid out his works: shot glasses and wine goblets neatly arranged next to maybe fifteen bottles of liquor and a copy of Complete and Utter Failure. “Just to remind me,” he says cheerily. I ask how many drinks they average a week.
“About twenty,” says Mark.
Anne laughs. “Yeah, twenty in a night, maybe.”
“I do not,” he says.
“I get up at 6:30 every morning, and that is not conducive to staying out late,” says Tim, who actually has to look good at that hour because he’s an on-camera reporter. “On the weekends, I go out hard. I feel like I’ve worked very hard, so I want to play very hard. That’s also partly this cityNew York, what do you do? You go to bars. That’s part of the life here. You work your ass off and . . . ”
“We drink so that we stop,” Anne says. “We used to do this Friday-night thing every week where we’d get wasted because it was the only way to make ourselves unwind for the weekend, when what we should have been making ourselves do was go to bed. But you feel like you can’t; if you work hard, you have to play hardotherwise you’ll never do anything but work.”