Devin Allen makes me drink. You know, the dude from West Baltimore, who captured the historic Time cover during the uprising back in 2015. Since then he’s traveled the world, had multiple shows, was recognized as the inaugural Gordon Parks fellow, taught numerous youth programs, and has donated hundreds of cameras to kids in Baltimore. And still, he makes me drink. I hit him up about business, and he invites me to Aloha on Charles Street, which is literally 100 feet away from my office.
I have been to Hawaii twice and Aloha on Charles Street looks nothing like the tropical-fruit-garnished-drink-serving bars on the island. Aloha is a Japanese sushi spot, but they sell bar food like fried wings and shrimps––oh, and they sell Korean food and Chinese food too. It’s actually a good business plan. It’s also the only mostly Black dive bar in Charles Village or Mount Vernon, I’m not really sure what they call that neighborhood. They have a restaurant upstairs, but I meet Moody—we call Devin Allen “Moody”—downstairs in the dive part. It’s easy to find him, his neat fro is always picked out and rounded to perfection, floating atop a crowd of people who are enamored to be in his presence.
“Yo this my bro D. Watkins,” he laughs says, introducing me to a new person every week. “He a top author, he from East Baltimore, but he cool.”
Moody has to say this to the crowd, because I’m ‘noid around strange people, even after I had two or three. And then I pound vodka gimlets, as we trade dreams until the lights fade and the Lyft guy rolls up, drops me off, and I prepare to do the same thing again the next day.
Kondwani Fidel makes me drink. I try to commit to work, I really do, and when I’m in almost in rhythm and the words are flowing, he beats down my line and pops in the group text we share with Moody like, “Where you at Dummy?” If Moody replies first, we instantly get an Aloha invite, so we go. Koni drinks vodka gimlets too, which is dangerous. Dangerous because any bartender can make them, it’s just vodka and lime juice––some spots use a little simple, some used fresh lime and others used the bottle stuff. Either way it’s drinkable and they work. Dangerous because Koni orders them back to back, slamming empty glasses on the table—I try to keep up, he challenges me to, but I have to explain to him that I’m older. I used to be him 10 years ago. Not a world-renowned, celebrated writer, who graced many magazines and televisions screens like him at 24. Not a dude who goes out and inspires kids to read at age 24, like him––but a young dude who could drink all night and pop in the morning like I haven’t had a sip.
I’m too old for that, the way we drink physically hurts, but still, we do this at Aloha, but really do it at Clavel. With age, I’ve actually developed a liking for gentrified cocktails, made with organic mixes and delivered by farm-to-table people who roll their own cigarettes. Ain’t I a contradiction? Well Koni is a contradiction too, because he also lives in East Baltimore and guzzles those same drinks.
Tariq Touré keeps me from drinking. His poems and insight are wrapped in meaning and give hope. We ate chocolate chip cookies over my house on Christmas Eve, where Tariq explained that we too can “Be the Light,” without alcohol. Tariq’s Muslim and offers us wisdom and guidance. I probably would not have had a drink, but Lawrence Burney, who’s also a writer, and Koni––they make me drink. I think that Tariq thinks if I put the bottle down and developed even-more-focus, I could strengthen my brand, gain a bigger audience and get that Ta-Nehisi Coates love. But Tariq is smart, he knows I don’t want to be loved like Coates, I want to be loved like Little Melvin. A dude that made mistakes, recognized them, and then used that power to help others choose a different way, while still being respected enough to walk on any block in Baltimore. I want to be loved like Little Melvin and would be honored to die in Baltimore just like Little Melvin.
But I might be too ‘noid to live like Little Melvin. My old ways haunt me. Too many strangers speak, and I don’t know if they are plotting or just like my work––this is still Baltimore and the reason I hate going out now. A dude stared at me during one of those Aloha nights. I felt his eyes so I took the knife off the table and put it in my pocket. My friends were on their thirds and fourths, I was still sipping number one, staying on point, waiting for dude to make his move. I caught him looking for the third time, so I nodded, “Wassup?” He leaped from his stool and bolted in my direction, I rested my hand on the knife handle and slid my chair back.
“D. Watkins, you D. Watkins, right?” he screamed, “I don’t wanna blow up your spot, but can we take a selfie? It’s for my daughter! Pleassse! She gonna love it!”
I removed my hand and put a peace sign up for the picture.
I make my drink. I can’t put that on Koni or Devin and it’s not fair for me to leave Tariq with the responsibility of encouraging my sobriety. The fact is that alcoholism runs bone deep in my family, my bloodline keeps these Baltimore bars and liquor in business, celebrating any and everything all of the time, even the stuff we shouldn’t celebrate, like making it to see tomorrow with that morning sip. Using it as a fix all for the pain, agony, and hurt that comes with existing in Baltimore as a Black person––there’s no shortage of that. And no shortage of the alcohol needed to numb it. Aloha has plenty, and carryout so you can take some home as well.