Drinks in the City

Photo: Ben Baker

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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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 ocean—dolphin 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 nights—A 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 to—an 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 more—somewhere else, later—serve 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 ahead—is 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 city—New 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 hard—otherwise you’ll never do anything but work.”

If we are too drunk or too hungover to work or go to yoga or get snazzed up for a restaurant, then finally, if only for a few hours, we can stop trying and calculating and pushing. But it’s only a temporary fix, an intoxicated taste of what it would be like to actually be relaxed.

“Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve never known what to do with myself if I wasn’t smoking pot or drinking or something,” Anne continues. “I’m 31 years old now, and I’ve never had a life without that. I’ve given up everything besides alcohol.”

“You want another drink?” Justin asks her as he gets up to visit the blue bar.

“Yeah,” she says. “I feel like for our parents, it was pot and it was part of identifying as a bohemian or living the alternative lifestyle. For us, it’s not even an issue—it’s just how we’ve been socialized.” Justin comes back in and hands her an enormous cocktail.

“My mom drank excessively but stopped,” says Tim.

“My dad’s pretty much a raging alcoholic,” says Justin. “Here’s a guy who was a whiz kid—like a game-show kid—but then … We used to find bottles in the backyard. He still drinks.”

We all shut up for a second.

“There’s a difference in the quality of why I go out,” Justin says, and again he is full of light. “I go out because I had a good week—not in this obnoxious investment-banker way of ‘Oh, I made $2 million this week’ but in that you did something you feel proud of and … we’re good people. How many people who you want to hang out with go home after three drinks?”

“And it makes you feel like your life is more glamorous,” Anne says. “But it’s not.”

At the same time, Tim and Justin say: “It is so.”

I have never been an angry drunk or a wild drunk—mostly I just say weird things, usually back to back. Not so my best friend. Before she slowed down, it had basically gotten to the point that she would turn into the Tasmanian Devil every time we went out. She is beautiful—blue eyes, black hair, the works—and until one night that will live in infamy, she was wearing a fedora everywhere we went. (It looked good.)

We started out at the Cherry Tavern, a bar on East 6th Street with a jukebox and a pool table. There’s a pair of guys who pretty much live there; one is handsome and thuggish, the other painfully skinny with spiky blond hair. I was surprised, to say the least, when my friend became engrossed in conversation with the blond one about his hairdressing career and showbiz aspirations. “I remember getting drunk and thinking, Even though you have the body weight of one of my breasts, you’re kind of fun to talk to, and now I’m going to make out with you,” she says.

I think my jaw actually dropped when I saw her fedora moving closer and closer to his head. “We sucked face, he put my number in his cell phone, I never heard from him again.” But she didn’t care, because he was incidental: Her real conquest that evening was a guy she was meeting in midtown at some place called the Iguana. “My little blond hairdresser was like, ‘Hang out,’ but I told him, ‘Can’t do it. I’ve got to go meet someone I’ve had a crush on since I was a kid.’ ”

Though she couldn’t remember where she was going, my friend got in a cab and, as drunk people will, had the driver pull over on some corner: “All I knew is that it was near Studio 54. So I was yelling to people on the street, ‘Where’s the Iguana at?’ And some giant was like, ‘I’m going right past there; I’ll give you a ride.’ As we were getting in his car, he said, ‘By the way, you should never do this.’ I said, ‘What? Get in a car with some random guy?’ He said, ‘Exactly.’ ”

At the club, she felt great. “I was wearing this tight skirt and a low-cut shirt and my cute hat,” she says. “Plus I was just coming off a kiss.” She quickly found her man. “I remember thinking, I’m going to try and have sex with him, I think.” It was not to be. She hit the dance floor and took a little spill. “All I know is, one minute I’m standing, the next I’m on the floor. I went over like a domino in that tight skirt, and then it split. Not like a little tear. Like a split from the waist to the hem.” Needless to say, she hasn’t seen the guy or the fedora since. She also quit drinking. For a while.

If you are like me, the former fedora wearer, and many of the other people I have spoken to about their drinking, you may eventually get bored of sobriety and leap off the wagon and back into the night—Geronimo! Because unless you are a real alcoholic, who makes an actual and undisguisable mess out of things when under the influence, it is very hard to convince yourself and everyone around you that the dry life is more fun, more rewarding, more New York, than one more round.

Danielle had been a dedicated drinker her entire adult life. “I drank with abandon for kind of 30 years,” she says. “I’ve been single for a long time, and I’ve always gone out. I was married for a brief period but otherwise going out probably every night of my life for as long as I can remember.” She would drink with friends and colleagues and on dates and with strangers. “I needed to eat dinner, and if I didn’t have a plan, I’d just go sit at a bar and have a few drinks and eat there, and then pretty soon I’d be talking to somebody and have a few more drinks, and before you knew it … ”

Danielle is a successful designer, but her own apartment never felt like a place to hang out. “I’ve lived alone in a really small space for a long time. There’s only so much time I can spend in that room, and then I’ve got to go out,” she says. On a moderate evening, she would share a bottle of wine with her dinner companion; on a more liquid night, she’d share two or three and then drink some more at a bar. “It didn’t affect me. I got up and I went to work and I didn’t feel bad. And everybody else was doing the same thing.”

Sometimes you find yourself waking from a liquid night to a world swimming with questions: What did I say? Where is the Alka-Seltzer? Is there something wrong with the way I drink?

She has always been a successful person—smart, efficient, attractive, dry-witted. Danielle never found her life particularly soggy from all the alcohol, and she would take a month off from drinking every year just to be sure. “That was how I let myself know that I was in control.”

But ultimately, she did start to feel herself edging off course. “I read an article somewhere, I think it was Jane Fonda who said something about being an older woman slurring her words, and it just rang; it struck a chord in my head. I thought, I really do not want to be a 50-year-old woman slurring my words at a cocktail party. That is truly unattractive.” So she attended a six-week program at Hazelden, a daily ten-person group therapy that met in the evenings. “It was always in my head that I would quit for a year, and then I would reassess it and decide where I wanted to go,” she says. “Do I want to stay with this life, or do I want to go back to the old life? And that’s kind of what I’m dealing with now. The thing is that it’s hard to replace that drinking time with something else productive. Which is really better for you? Stay home and watch a lot of television or go out and be socializing and talking to people?”

Danielle has been attempting to practice moderation while hanging out with her old drinking crowd. “You really sit and watch the evening take a turn,” she says. “When it starts to go into this other zone, you leave.”

It isn’t easy. “If you get me around a margarita party, watch out,” she says. “When you get the buzz and you just feel like you want to get higher and higher and you just want the party to never end … That kind of high is fabulous. I don’t get that anymore.” She laughs in a way that suggests that little about this is actually funny for her. “I miss the lows as much as the highs—that up-and-down, the kick of it. Everything is very predictable now. And my life has never been like that.”

To bolster her vigilance, Danielle attends AA meetings, but obviously, she never reveals that she still drinks. “They would say, ‘You’ve got a problem’ or ‘You’re just in denial.’ I think it’s very short-sighted and narrow-minded. But I guess historically the AA people say that moderation doesn’t work. I am not convinced.”

For me, moderate drinking has been going moderately well. Having a few cocktails has felt sort of like having lunch with an ex—all the things that used to seem so alluring and destructive are somehow neutralized now that we’re not really together anymore.

But in a way, it’s the worst of both worlds. You don’t get that wacky ultralucid superhealth that comes from complete sobriety, nor do you get the blast of madness that comes from unbridled boozing. One of the the things I like about drinking is that it makes people go a little cuckoo. Pour enough liquor on a conversation with a colleague and Shazam! You have a gossipfest. Add margaritas to a sweaty night in July, and suddenly everything is swirling and sultry and you find yourself falling achingly in love with the dirty city that surrounds you. Meanwhile, moderation is just that: moderate.

As my similarly reformed best friend puts it, “You don’t get to wake up and call all your friends and say, ‘What the hell happened?!’ You know what happened. You had a few drinks, you talked to some girl on the way to the bathroom, you shook hands with your comrades, and then you went to bed.”

Fortunately, drinking is a pliant ex. When you’re lonely or revving to go or just bored, you know you can always bring the old times back. You may just see him socially now, but you know he’d take you back anytime. And sometimes you let him.

Drinks in the City