I usually don’t drink on Mondays. No matter your tolerance, it’s a rough way to start the week and Tuesday morning hangovers stopped being cute sophomore semester.
But my friend J.R. was celebrating his birthday, and I hadn’t stepped into a bar with him since 2002, so I made an exception on this particular evening.
J.R. and I connect back to our high school days, when our parties usually consisted of the gang sharing a handle of Bacardi and a half case of Boon’s Farm at the house of vacationing parents. J.R. lived go hard or go home, so by the time the party would just start to simmer, he’d already be passed out in the nearest free bedroom, usually with a female friend nursing him through his latest journey to oblivion.
This Monday evening, J.R. worked the bar like he was 19 again, downing shots of Van Gough coffee flavored vodka chased with Miller Lite. He was no mas by 9, and I drove him home, back to Hampden.
When I dropped him off, I realized that I had already finished off five longnecks, and the burn was still inside me. I parked the car and walked over to Frazier’s on the Avenue, my neighborhood joint, and dropped my rump on one of the bar stools up front. I would make a Monday compromise, and finish this night at the 2 a.m. bell.
Drinking is something that I do, and something that’s been a part of me for a decade now. I started drinking at age 17, my senior year of high school. I turn 27 this summer. In that 10 years, I estimate I’ve been inebriated over 1,500 times.
How, do I know it’s over 1,500 times? Here’s my equation.
During college, I would drink an average four nights a week, x 52 weeks for four straight years. That’s 832 nights out and about. After graduation, I cut that average number down to three nights a week (working, as they say, is tough shit), so that’s another 780 nights spent sloshed out my gourd. Total sum? It’s an average of 1,612 nights drunk since I was a senior in high school (this doesn’t include actual man-hours. That number, though I’m sure I could figure out an equation, would only depress me).
I came up the hardcore drinking route, busting my boozehound cherry in Baltimore and New Orleans. These are not Cosmo towns, Apple-tini towns, buttery nipple with the cherry topping towns. These are cities built on whiskey shooters, bourbon on the rocks, factory beer frozen chilled in a steel bar coolers.
Of course, the key word here is ‘built on.’ It’s not that New Orleans and Baltimore are too lowbrow to accept top shelf mixed drinks or boutique microbrews. These building blocks of the post-industrial hipster culture thrive in my respective hometowns. It just that the drinking lineage always leads back to hardscrabble staples, back when grandfathers and great-grandfathers would pound boilermakers and 5$ cans after unloading cargo off the Mississippi docks or the latest coal shipment that dropped off on the B&O line at Camden Station, before the Orioles played there.
This lineage creates an unpretentious atmosphere in the drinking culture, even for the blue-blood trustfunders who populate Uptown or live along Greenspring Valley. There are no airs to be carried when one is pounding Natty Bohs in a gentrified Federal Hill or Warehouse District.
My alma mater is Tulane University, nestled among the aging Oaks and Victorian houses of Uptown. The first night in college, I attended a backyard kegger located just feet from Sharp dormitory. My friend N.M., who I met randomly at the university’s ‘welcome freshmen’ ceremony at McAlister Auditorium, and I pounded light beer from plastic cups and puff-puff-passed a joint with a gaggle of other freshmen. It was dark, late, 3 a.m., 100 percent humidity. A sweaty film sheathed my skin. Heat lighting cut veins across he darkness.
Standing there, my heart pulsing and sweat dripping from my pores, I had never felt so connected with my senses. I was grounded in a spiritual aura, a mental plain that makes it clear why Native Americans smoked hard tobacco and hippies dropped acid. There are some sensations that human beings haven’t the will or the evolution to tap without chemical help.
I woke up the next morning covered in my own vomit. Apparently, during the night I puked in my sleep, destroying the sheets my mother packed for me (I spent the next two weeks sleeping on a open mattress with bath towel for a blanket). That morning my roommate S.S. told me that during the night he asked me if I was okay, and that I gave him the thumbs up and proceeded to hurl my insides into his $10 Crate & Barrel trashcan.
This is the compromise you make with yourself when you commit to a hard substance. You hound for the ecstasy that comes with the chemical imbalance, and in return, you accept that shit will happen to you.
On the plus side, there will be nights when the booze gives you just enough edge to dance with that cute girl from the dorm across campus, sweating from Jerry’s off Oak St. all the way back to the Boot, still going at 5 a.m. in the morning. And when the sex energy comes full bore, you’ll have the nerve to attack it, and enjoy the glow of waking up next to naked woman, sleeping in the comfort of your body.
It’ll make you the funniest guy in the room. You’ll crack jokes like Dean Martin hosting a Friar’s Club roast. Shit will be so funny your chest will heave like you’re suffering from cardiac arrest, and you won’t be able to stop telling inside jokes even when they piss off your girlfriend.
Live music won’t just rock you, you’ll be able to see the notes –quarter times and bass riffs and treble clefts– the band flinging them off their guitars, blasting them from brass trumpets, trombones, tubas. Lights will twinkle with a heavenly glow.
In return, there will be times when you have to accept the room will be turning cartwheels in your head for the rest of the night, or that you’ll never get back those hours that the previous night’s booze-fueled blackout stole from you. You will be forced to vomit in public, almost always in the back seat of a cab. And you will fight with the person you’ve committed to love in front of friends and family members, who will pretend to ignore the dark words the couple said to each other.
For now, I live with this compromise, and in the short term it tends to even out. Here’s the math from my Monday night at Frazier’s:
Drink count–Four beers, two whiskey and Cokes.
Plus side: I pick up some pointers on my pool game from J.K., a 40-something native lady who waitresses two nights a week and writes psychedelic novels in her free time. I catch the Orioles throw 7 solid innings against the Seattle Mariners, which leads to a 1-0 victory. My friend J. Beard catches me up on bar gossip. Later in the evening, I talk to K., a young lady nursing a cranberry and vodka. She tells me how she used to drive tomato delivery trucks and flag in airplanes on the runway, but is now settling into a lab tech position at Johns Hopkins. It’s a charming conversation, but nothing comes of it.
Downside: Tuesday morning, I wake up, fight the lump of bile pulsing in my throat, and force myself into the shower. During the day I sweat booze, and try to keep my focus while pushing pages through for deadline. I take a crap and it’s water, and I miss an evening at the gym. Back at my apartment, I fend off the booze depression, and try to stop thoughts from wondering to a place where I think I could do something to unfuck up my previous relationship.
This is a lifestyle, one who’s strengths and limitations I’ve come to accept.
A final note: My father partied, I’m guessing harder than I ever did, through his teens up to age 28. My grandparents and aunts and uncles used to sing him a song about his lifestyle, called ‘Poor Little Potsmoker Me’ (Lyrics- “Poor little potsmoker me, poor little potsmoker me, I used to try the soft stuff, now it’s ole LSD! Poor little potsmoker me”).
Then in 1982, my dad simultaneously graduated from college, married my mother, watch me be born. In a short span he was shoved headfirst into life, with all its authenticity and trauma. As a kid I barely saw my father drink. He tipped back a few cold ones after work, never stumbled home from a late night out. He did smoke a cigarette or two on our back deck to cool down, and he even eventually gave that up.
I’m guessing it wasn’t easy for my dad to turn the corner like that. I’m hoping, when my time comes, I’ll command that same fortitude, and fight the urge with the same stubbornness.