I don’t drink alcohol any more. At least that’s how it looks right now. These days my liver seems fairly unhappy, and my doctor and I don’t know why yet. But I haven’t had a drink since my fiftieth birthday in 2019.
I’d been considering sobriety for years. But after I saw the movie The World’s End, the wheels really started turning. The film’s a comedy, but it also strays more than a little into deep pathos. The main character is a charismatic, likeable addict and an expert manipulator whose self-destructive impulses end up forever changing him and all his friends. I’m glad to say my relationship with alcohol was never as dramatic as all that, but it did play a big role in my life for many years in one way or another, and leaving it behind has felt like a great step forward.
Back in 1992 my liver was arguably one of the toughest around, and on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, California, my two best friends and I were getting ready to head out on the town. On the afternoon and evening of the last day of December, the weather was warm enough for me to unreflectively wear a T-shirt and jeans. Back then, that was my uniform.
The three of us had been invited to spend the evening with an old roommate of ours who was far too cool for us. I’ll call her Carol. I suspected Carol had only chosen to move in with us in the first place because she had no other options. When she showed up for the interview, Carol’s good looks rendered my awkward roommate and awkward me nearly speechless. Once the short tour was over, we enthusiastically offered Carol the room. She gratefully accepted but felt the need to clarify one thing: “Just so you know, I’m the big lesbo!” To my enduring embarrassment, my roommate and I spluttered, “That’s okay!”
No surprise, then, that Carol had gotten out when the getting was good. She now lived in a much nicer apartment with much cooler people. But tonight, in a fit of generosity, she’d invited us along to bar-hop through the Mission and Castro.
Carol’s generosity might have stemmed from the time we’d run interference when her mother came by unannounced while Carol was away. Carol was not out to her mom, a devout Catholic who very well might have tried to end Carol’s life if she found out Carol liked girls. While our sweaty evasions might have raised suspicions, seeing even one of the posters in Carol’s room, which we had to physically prevent her mom from entering – that would have removed all doubt.
Now, tonight, we were out on the town. Carol’s people talked among themselves; we three geeks tailed them. Speaking only for myself, I was hoping a little extra cool might flake off of one of them and stick to me. The first drink at the first bar was uneventful and therefore failed to hold Carol’s interest. She decided time was a-wastin’ and conducted her motley entourage straight to the King Arthur’s court of lesbian bars, Cafe San Marcos.
It should come as no surprise to a modern audience that we three geeks were not welcome there. And quit understandably so: we were underdressed, awkward and glaringly straight. I do wish Carol had warned us we would be intruding. Maybe she just wanted an indirect and nonverbal way of getting rid of us. But I suppose that if she’d said something before we went in, I would have learned nothing. We were intruding on the safe space of a marginalized group. We deserved every hairy eyeball we got.
So after one drink we trooped back down the stairs and headed toward our fallback, our sure thing – our beloved and awful regular bar, Doctor Bombay’s. I guess these days I’d look back and label it a slacker bar. In 1992 it just seemed welcoming: cheap drinks, the same music on the jukebox that we listened to at home and, in the men’s room, at least a half-dozen urinals filled with ice.
With all hope of cool removed, we could dedicate ourselves to getting properly drunk. We eagerly began the speedy journey into the future that enough alcohol produces. I’m sure we enjoyed the New Year’s countdown, and perhaps we even sang Auld Lang Syne. I’ll never know for sure.
The next thing I heard was “last call!” shouted over the sound of torrential rain. That’s right, New Year’s Day 1993 and the fundamentally unpredictable marine weather of San Francisco had betrayed our faith in T-shirts.
Somehow I’d ended up less drunk than the others, and it seemed like a good idea for me to have an Irish coffee so I could more energetically steer the three of us home. Closing time meant the subway had already stopped running, so I walked sixteen blocks home in a downpour with one of my arms over each of my friends, struggling to keep their wet drunk bodies on the straight and narrow. On the way my roommate plucked the round lid off a trash can and wouldn’t let it go. I prayed no cops saw us.
When we got home we were of course all soaked to the bone. I prepared the sofabed for my East Bay friend, and he passed out before I could get him to drink some water. Meanwhile, my roommate had vanished undetectably into his room.
Our cat and her tiny kittens were staying in my room that night. They were sound asleep until I finally blustered in and half-swung, half-fell onto my bed.
I enjoyed a brief, blissful moment of calming rest. Sleep seemed very close. Then, slowly, the room began to spin. I lurched upright, sweating, and realized I was about to be very sick. The bathroom was unbelievably far away. So I crawled to the cat litter box, which I’d filled earlier with a fresh load of fine, clumping litter, and vomited up everything in me that wasn’t bolted down.
Stories of bad hangovers are not only boring, but they also invariably fail to capture the depth of personal distress we experience when we’re in the throes of one. So I won’t bother telling you how absolutely awful the next morning was. The many indignities we lived through while trying to consume Fawlty Towers and ramen.
But before I draw the curtain of charity over this chapter of my life, I must tell you this last thing: when I woke up, I blearily saw that all five cats were huddled in the corner of their bed. They were staring with deep dismay at the cat litter, which thanks to my late-night contribution was now nothing but a solid brick.