My life with booze—a teetotaler’s drinking diary

Photo by Kate Drabinski.

It’s the Booze Issue, and I gotta say, I’m the least likely contributor to such a thing. I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until my mom force fed me some champagne the night of my high school graduation. I was one of those straight edge teens, but not cool enough to be straight edge, so really mostly just a total dork. I’m a rule follower by nature, and back then, if it wasn’t legal, I wasn’t doing it. I kept my head down, my nose clean, and my grades up, assuming that was my ticket out of Boise, Idaho and on to bigger, better things.

And then I hit college. Everyone was boozing it up, and I was the one my dormmates called when somebody seemed too drunk to get home from whatever frat party they stumbled into. I remember getting a call at 3 in the morning one weekend, somebody begging me to help get a friend home. I threw on some clothes, hopped on my moral high horse, and swooped in to save the day. I ended up covered in alcohol others spilled on me, but none got in my mouth, and everybody ended up safely back to the dorms, heads in the toilet while I invisibly patted myself on the back for my Good Choices. Because I am a nostalgic motherfucker, I still have a square from that alcohol infused sweater, cut out and kept in my scrapbook, a memory of before I started getting into the hooch myself.

That started at the end of my first year. I hit the spring party and I don’t remember what I drank, but I do remember waltzing around the Intrepid down at the Chelsea piers with my skirt pulled up to my neck yelling, “WHY WON’T ANYONE LOOK AT ME???” Friends assured me later that yes, people were looking at me, and I felt gratified. Oh, so that’s what alcohol is for.

And then I was a drinker, sort of. I spent weekends at the Night Cafe, a dive bar on the corner on 106th and Amsterdam, where I was never asked to prove my age and got my first introductions to other things my high school self promised never to try: public sex, weed, and cocaine. Oh, college, the memories!

But drinking was never really my thing. I drank to gin up some courage on occasion, and to fit in, but I didn’t really develop a taste for it, preferring the sweet taste of nicotine instead. I was a smoker, totally committed to a pack a day. In order to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day—that’s 20 cigarettes in maybe 16 to 18 awake hours—I had to smoke whether I was drinking or not. I’ve always been more anxious than depressed, so cigarettes fit my personality better anyway.

I left New York City for the Bay Area for graduate school, where sophisticated graduate students drank beer with flavor and eschewed the rail drinks of my youth. I went through a few bouts of wine tasting and attempts at that snobbery, but it was way out of my price range. When I quit smoking (still got cancer, oh well) my taste buds came back, and I got really into tasting whiskeys. They tasted so good on my refreshed tongue. OK, maybe I could get into booze.

And then I moved to New Orleans, broke up with my girlfriend, and went on a multiyear bender. New Orleans is known for its food and its drinking, but mostly we weren’t drinking anything fancy. I drank more Miller Lite in those years than most of y’all did in your entire college career; I drank enough of it to get drunk on the stuff—no easy feat. And then there was that Mardi Gras when I got my front tooth knocked out by beads, dumped by a Coast Guard pilot when she saw my new grill (“Sorry, I’m shallow”), and drank so much Jameson that I woke up in an emergency room, no idea how I’d gotten there. It was the last time I drank during Mardi Gras, or much at all, for a very long time.

It’s a funny story now, but here’s what happened: I drank a lot, left the bar with a man, and ended up falling after he pushed me against a car and started doing I-don’t-remember-what to me. I hit my head so hard on that car that I had a concussion, and mine was the ambulance blocking up traffic in the French Quarter that night. Nothing funny about it, and the losing side of boozing it up so many of us end up on.

In Baltimore I have become a social drinker, still usually with the cheap beer and rail drinks, because I’m old enough not to care what other people see me drink. My go-to is Charles Village Pub, where on weekdays you can get two-for-one vodka sodas from 3:30-6:15. I’m a cheap date, so one round of those and I’m as tipsy as I want to be. On classier days I can be found with the $5 beer-and-a-shot at Cultured in the Mount Vernon Marketplace with my work wife. We will occasionally make poor choices and have a second whiskey with our beers, and those are the nights I end up in a car home.

And then I got diagnosed with cancer, and now I don’t drink at all. Like, at all. I had two sips of a delicious mimosa at Clavel last weekend, but that’s all I’ve been able to get down. I mean, I could drink, but it just feels wrong—I have CANCER. I’m lucky that this doesn’t feel like a loss, because there are times in my life when it would have felt just like that. For now I’m one of those teetotalers, though I’ve dropped the judgment, adopting my dad’s life philosophy: different strokes. Drink up, Baltimore, and give me a call if you need a ride home. I’ll just need to borrow your car.

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