By the time I arrived at the bar last Saturday night, I had already knocked back a couple of strong gin and tonics and a cold MGD. This particular bar, the Knockout down in Bernal, proudly serves up something called the “Hamm Job,” which is a shot of cheap piss whiskey and a can of Hamm for the low price of $5.50. It brought me back to those NY nights at my favorite bar, the Cherry Tavern, in which I used to down Tijuana Especials (a shot of cheap piss tequila and a can of Tecate for $5) all night without blinking an eye.
It was 90s night at the Knockout, and the DJ was spinning up an enjoyable mix of Pavement, Blur, Nirvana and Snoop. Things were a little mellow, but then he busted out with “Just Like Heaven” and that immediately populated the dance floor. While I was getting my nostalgic groove on, I felt a tugging on my arm and turned around to see a completely beautiful Indian woman. She asked me, “straight or gay?” I told her I was straight and she said, “that’s great, let’s me introduce you to my friend! It’s her birthday!” Her friend was not nearly as beautiful, but at that point I was drunk so I didn’t care. I talked to the friend, I think. Or maybe I just sputtered and drooled, so intoxicated that I was unable to formulate full sentences. I don’t remember. I don’t remember going home either.
I do remember vomiting shortly after my arrival home. And I remember passing out, only to wake up an hour later to vomit some more. Then I remember Sunday morning, working on a contract from home while my head was splitting open, trying to sip water but afraid to do so because I felt like it would make me throw up even more. It was an awful feeling, but it was a familiar feeling, the same feeling I’ve experienced nearly every time I’ve drunk too much in the past 3 or 4 years.
It’s sad really. I used to absolutely love alcohol. And I’m not talking about the taste of fine wine or expensive scotch. Now that I’ve turned all lawyer, I have been splurging a bit more on the pricey booze, and I must say that it’s kind of nice. But really, I’ve never been one to drink alcohol for the taste. If I wanted to drink something that tastes good, I’d chug down a bottle of Yotvata chocolate milk, or maybe a smoothie. My love for alcohol comes from the feeling it gives (or used to give) me: the warmth that spreads over my body and became more intense with every sip, the tingling numbness, the reassuring dulling of the senses, the sudden appearance of beauty where it was not found before, the newfound appreciation for old friends and lovers, the unquenchable desire to sing and dance.
If you are willing to indulge me (not that you have a choice), I’d like to take a little stroll down memory lane to relive some highlights of my nearly lifelong romance with the amber (and clear, and red, and sometimes mutli-colored) nectar. If you know me personally, then chances are that you’ll remember some of these moments yourself. If you don’t know me personally, something tells me that my relationship with booze was not unique, and so hopefully reading this will give you a whimsical smile and maybe even elicit a chortle. That’s really my favorite thing in the world: eliciting chortles.
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I got drunk for the first time when I was twelve. My sister was staying at a friend’s house and my parents were out at a movie, so I was home alone. A couple of the “bad kids” in the 7th grade had already experienced getting drunk, and I wanted so desperately to be able to join in the conversations discussing the excitement of not being able to see straight, so minutes after the front door closed behind my parents I ran downstairs to the kitchen and opened up the liquor cabinet. I was so nervous about getting caught (what if my parents suddenly decided to cancel their movie plans?) that I grabbed the first bottle I saw without perusing my options, which was dad’s cognac. I filled up one of our plastic tumblers and promptly chugged as much as I could.
I was vomiting within minutes, and then I experienced a couple of hours of nightmarish nausea before I was overtaken by merciful sleep. All in all, it was not a success. I was so embarrassed with my failed act of rebellion that I didn’t even bother making up a good lie to tell my schoolmates on Monday. I eventually told my sister, who laughed and explained to me that next time I need to (a) not go for dad’s most expensive booze, but to rather steal from the large plastic bottle labeled “Vodka of the Gods,” and (b) mix it with something, preferably orange juice. This is one of many life lessons learned from my older sister—I could probably write an entire post of them. In fact, I’m adding that to my list of future posts (yes, I keep a list).
Middle school ended and high school began. I drank a fair amount in high school, no more than your average suburban high school kid, but more than most of my classmates had when I eventually got to Columbia (sheltered rich kids and the whatnot). A lot of kids went to keg parties, but I wasn’t really friends with the kids who threw those gatherings (the proverbial “in-crowd” a.k.a. “the Socks”). I used to hang out a lot at Old West Pool Hall, which was one of the few public places in Marin County where high school kids were allowed to smoke cigarettes. The place was always packed with kids smoking, and occasionally shooting pool. After the “no smoking in establishments” law was passed in California my senior year of high school, Old West suddenly had no customers and the place was closed within 4 months. But before that, we used to go there nearly every weekend night, and there was an older guy named Dan who worked there (or maybe he just hung out there, I can’t recall). After work, Dan would drive with us to Mr. Liquor a few blocks away and buy us whatever alcohol we wanted, in return for a small tip. I used to like to drink rum—I’d hold a pint bottle in one hand and a bottle of Stewart’s Oranges and Cream in the other. I don’t recall the experimentation process, but somehow I discovered that Stewart’s Oranges and Cream was the perfect drink for eliminating the harsh aftertaste of cheap rum. I’d switch back and forth—a swing of rum followed by a swig of Stewart’s, repeat until wasted. Either that, or we’d have forties of Mickey’s.
The purpose of drinking was to get drunk, period. I later learned that there was a term for what we did, called “binge drinking.” To me this was ridiculous; we weren’t “binge drinking,” we were “drinking.” Why the hell would you drink disgusting booze if you weren’t trying to get completely shitfaced? I’ve heard that in European countries, parents encourage their children to drink wine with dinner in order to give them an appreciation for alcohol in a form other than binge drinking, and that these same kids don’t spend their high school and college years leaning over the toilet and making bad decisions. Go figure.
When I was 18 I spent a year in Israel, on a program with a bunch of other American 18 year-olds. Conveniently, the drinking age in Israel happens to be 18, so you’d better believe that we enjoyed ourselves. Many of my fellow participants on the program had never been drunk before, and you can imagine the vomit, headaches, and wild making out that happened during those first few months. Not that an experienced drinker like myself was any better at imbibing. We drank “Gold Vodka”, which was 7 shekles (under 2 bucks) for a fifth, or if we wanted to splurge, Keglovitch, which was I think 12 shekles. We drank Goldstar beer only. If you ever meet somebody who goes to Israel and orders a Beer Maccabi, I want you to punch him in the face, do you understand? And we drank 95. That’s 95% alcohol, 190 proof. We’d mix it with anything available—95 and OJ, 95 and coke, or mix it with beer for a “strong beer.”
How I miss those drunken Israel nights! I spent my first 4 months on a kibbutz, and we used to get wasted and then get naked and play in the huge piles of cotton that would eventually go into the cattle feed. We held a century club (100 shots of beer in 100 minutes…power hour is for sissies) around the ping pong table, eating sunflower seeds and leaving the table only to piss or vomit (sorry there is so much vomit involved in this post, but it was, and apparently remains, a pretty important part of my relationship with booze). For Halloween, we had a “trick or drink” party, where everybody made a different mixed drink, and you’d from room to room and try a bit of everything. People would get loud and obnoxious. Some would throw bottles. Some would make out. It was bonding, dammit.
I’ll never forget the first time I blacked out. I mean, obviously I forget what actually happened (I was blacked out for chrissake), but I sure as hell remember the hangover. We were living in Jerusalem at the time, and we used to like to pick up cheap booze from what we referred to as “Ye Olde Liquor Store” before heading to “Ye Olde Drinking Square” (or in Hebrew, “Kikar Shikur”). I was supposed to split a fifth of vodka with a buddy of mine, but he kind of bailed on me so I ended up drinking most of it myself. I woke up the next morning at my grandmother’s apartment in Rehavia. A friend of mine had walked me there, and had stayed all night by my side, afraid that I was going to die. We went to breakfast and she said that I had spent most of the night in a catatonic state, talking about how much I missed my ex-girlfriend (we dated for a month before she dumped me, and then I was obsessed with her for the next 6 months or so. Anybody who was friends with me at the time who is reading this now might be laughing, but they weren’t so happy with me about it then. And I know what you’re thinking now, so don’t say it. Asshole). This was the first time I felt “hangover shame,” a weird sense that I completely fucked up everything the night before without actually having any recollection of what had transpired. I would get hangover shame quite often for the next few years, until I got to Japan, where the rule is that “whatever happens when you’re drunk doesn’t count,” so there’s no need to feel bad the next day.
But I’ll get to that soon enough. Before Japan there was college, where I, like 80-90% of Americans, became what would most likely be considered to be a full-fledged alcoholic. I probably drank 3-7 nights a week, and would always binge drink. Being a cheap student, I was not yet ready to enjoy good-tasting drinks. Poland Spring sold vodka for $11.99 a handle, and Jim Beam was, well, Jim Beam. It was harder to get Mickey’s on the east coast, but we still drank plenty of Colt 45 and Old E. And Bud. College was the only time in my life I think I’ve ever drunk a lot of Bud. We drank Bud Ice, because it had the highest alcohol content and thus gave you the most bang for your buck.
I lived in a 14-person suite my freshman year, and we instituted a “drinking buddy” system where every week each resident would have to drink with somebody else. We put a lot of work into planning this out—I believe there was even a spreadsheet. The idea was that by getting drunk with somebody, you could really connect with him or her, and I must say the system worked. I truly love my college friends, and I feel like this is, to a large extent, due to all of those nights getting wasted together. In fact, I’m not sure how people who don’t drink are capable of making friends.
Or making out, for that matter. Think about it—when was the last time you had a first kiss with somebody where alcohol wasn’t involved. Nowadays it’s usually a glass or two (or three) of wine, but back in college—well you remember. You’d go to the bars (the same bars you went to every night) and get completely wasted on cheap margaritas, and then if you were lucky, end up making out with somebody in the bar for all to see, and if you were really lucky, you’d end up taking her back to your bedroom. Then, in the morning, either one or both of you would be embarrassed or disappointed in yourself. If neither party was disappointed, you’d start dating, and the romance would last for about three weeks. Every once in a blue moon, a relationship would ensue. We all remember that night that [NAME REDACTED] made out with that incredibly drunk and confused girl in SoHa, and was embarrassed about it but kept secretly dating her for 7 years until they finally got married. Now that, my friends, is romance.
I want to go back to the alcohol/friendship relationship point I brought up two paragraphs ago. One thing college really instilled in me is the importance of alcohol in creating tight bonds. I often say that my best friends in the world are those people “with whom I have been to hell and back,” and that’s sort of a colorful way of saying “with whom I have gotten very, very drunk on many, many occasions.” I have difficulty trusting people who don’t drink, or won’t drink with me. Getting rip-roaring drunk is an important way that we expose ourselves. I want to be comfortable making myself vulnerable to my closest friends in that way, and I want them to be comfortable doing the same for me. I’ll fully admit that I’m not the best drunk in the world, and I know that some of my most inspired benders have left many of my friends ranging from irritated to genuinely pissed off. And of course, the same is true of my reactions to their most extreme booze-fueled evenings. But really, who cares? It’s important for my friends and I to see one another at our most base and most vile, when the truth comes out, when we’ve lost all control. There has been judgment, there have been mornings where apologies were absolutely required, and some wounds have taken longer to heal than others, but in the end, these experiences were integral parts of forging my closest interpersonal bonds.
My copious drinking in college prepared me for the next phase of my life: Japan. Japanese people love performing all activities like there’s no tomorrow, and it begins and ends with binge drinking. There is no sipping fine wine, there is only chugging Asahi and “tea drink” by the liter in 2-3 hour nomihodais (arrangements where you pay a set amount for unlimited drinks—very easy to take advantage of as a foreigner with a much higher alcohol tolerance than the average Japanese person). The “drinking to form friendships” concept is also taken to the extreme, as many Japanese people are literally incapable of opening up to others, especially foreigners, until they are three (or more) sheets to the wind.
In Japan I drank like I was still in college. We had all sorts of social events based around drinking, like “conbini golf,” where we all dressed up in tacky golf clothing and walked from conbini to conbini (convenience stores), chugging beer and yelling “fore!”. I once attended a “konpa” (group date), where I introduced the body shot to rural Japan. There was also our annual Halloween party, a 5-hour nomihodai that never ended very well. I had a Japanese girlfriend who loved drinking, and our favorite activity was to split a bottle of sake and just get tanked together. I will admit that drunk sex can often be sloppy and unpleasant, but I do think that sometimes it’s fun to just get plastered with somebody you’re dating and see what happens.
By my third year in Japan, my tolerance to alcohol had reached a truly frightening level. I remember the day of the Aussie Rules Football final, Sydney Swans (woo-hoo!) vs. West Coast Eagles. I went with an Aussie friend of mine to an Aussie bar in Shinujuku to watch the game, which started around noon. We started drinking at noon on Saturday, and finished up around 6 AM on Sunday, essentially taking no breaks. I took the train back to my little town in Kanagawa, had a quick nap, then planned my lessons for the next day with no trouble at all. Okay, maybe the lesson planning was a wee bit difficult, but the point is that I could drink like that without dying.
Then came law school. I cut down on my drinking, as I decided I did not want to be one of those LA people who drinks and drives all the time. Also, upon turning 26 years old, my hangovers became truly crippling. The first horrific “adult” hangover I had came from our post first-semester party. Coming from the responsibility-free life of being a foreign English teacher in Japan, my first semester of 1L year was a very painful, horrendous, depressing and all-around shitty jolt back into reality. They say that your 1L grades are the most important (and that’s true), so that initial final exam period was the first time I had truly felt stress since…hell, I don’t know. After finals were done, our school took over Boulevard, a really cheesy, shi-shi, obnoxious club in Hollywood, and we celebrated by punishing our livers like they were convicted heroin smugglers in Turkey. A sober classmate tried to drive me home, but when we got about a mile away I needed her pull to over so I could fall out of the car and vomit. Two other classmates walked me home (G-d bless them), and upon arrival back to my apartment I promptly threw up again, and continued to vomit pretty steadily until about 4 PM the next day.
And it’s been all downhill from there. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything quite so bad since the Boulevard night, but I’ve had many a Sunday lost to headaches and nausea, even when I don’t drink that much. With the exception of my last stint in Japan, when I actually gained my tolerance back (and had many agonizing hangovers along the way), I’ve now essentially quit binge drinking. I’m drinking more wine, and I’ve graduated from the boxes to bottles with prices in the double digits. I keep a bottle of nice scotch in my desk at work and like to take a nip at the end of the week to celebrate (or at the end of a long day midweek, if necessary).
I miss binge drinking. I still get the desire to quite often, what with work sucking and all. Now that I’m single, I’m going out and about more, and binge drinking is what I’m used to doing when I’m out and about. But, as the saying goes, with getting older comes old age. I’m not 24 anymore and shouldn’t be abusing myself as if I was. Quitting binge drinking is probably not a horrible thing—like everybody else, I’ve had a few drunk nights I wish I could erase, and for which I still feel the need to apologize (two that immediately come to mind are the Giants/Mets game senior year at Columbia and my final night in New Orleans). As I think I mentioned before, I’m not the best drunk.
Still, alcohol will always have a very special and warm place in my heart. The wild karaoke, the sloppy wet kisses, the “I love you man,” the l’chaims in multiple languages, the stumbles home, the pissing in the bushes, the wrestling on the pavement, the bedroom eyes in all rooms, the falling down and laughing, the slam-dancing, the liquid courage, the getting naked, the innocent mistakes and the not-so-innocent mistakes, the late night confessions, conversations and revelations, the agony and the ecstasy, and the general revelry…these experiences made us who we are. I’ll drink to that.