By Stewart Mandel
As a white, heterosexual, college-educated male, you would think I have no idea what it’s like to be part of a frowned-upon minority. You would be wrong.
I know what it’s like to endure puzzled looks and subtle digs from people who can’t comprehend my chosen lifestyle. I constantly find myself in awkward social situations where I’m forced to hide, or make excuses for, my dubious identity.
I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a non-drinker.
No, I am not Mormon. I am not a recovering alcoholic. And I’m certainly not pregnant. It’s pretty simple, really: I don’t like alcohol. But try telling that to the average, socially active young adult, for whom drinking is as much a part of their day-to-day life as food, shelter and reality television.
“Peer pressure” is most commonly associated with adolescence, but I was largely immune to it back then due to the fact my friends and I weren’t particularly cool. (Our big indulgence during a spring-break trip to Hilton Head senior year of high school? Getting somebody’s dad to sneak us a case of Zima.) Yet there’s only one reason I can think of why I kept half-heartedly drinking all the way through my 20s: Because everyone else was doing it.
Thank god my friends weren’t heroin addicts.
Finally, one night in the summer of 2006, I walked into a bar with friends, breathed in the familiar, wretched stench of week-old Budweiser and decided then and there — I’m out. No more nursing a single bottle of Miller Lite for two hours while my friends ordered multiple rounds. No more ordering Gin and Tonics and pretending like they’re “my drink.” No more headaches and hangovers that began before I went to sleep. I retired for good.
It wasn’t until that moment that I truly appreciated just how ubiquitous alcohol is to our social culture. Suddenly I found myself discreetly clutching an Aquafina bottle amongst a circle of Sam Adams drinkers at parties and barbeques. Suddenly I found myself standing awkwardly off to the side while the rest of my softball teammates downed victory shots during their usual post-game slosh fests. Suddenly I was the lone diner in a party of eight to put my hand over the wine glass when the waiter came around the table.
If I had a nickel for every time someone’s looked at my empty hand and inquired incredulously, “Why aren’t you drinking?” … Well, I’d have enough to buy a six-pack of Coke, still my beverage of choice more than 20 years after my mother finally stopped making me drink milk.
I wasn’t always this way. Back in college, I happily sipped on cups of watered-down Keg beer and cans of Busch Light, for the same reason everybody else did: Because we could. We were underage, we were free from parental oversight, and, most importantly, we were in college. We were living the Animal House dream — one Whiskey Sour at a time.
As a freshman, there was still a giggly novelty that came with getting “buzzed.” Northwestern used to run a “drunk bus” from the fraternities back to the dorms on weekend nights. It had to be the worst job in all of Chicago to be one of those drivers — someone always wound up yakking in the front seat.
As a sophomore, the mere ability to procure alcohol carried extremely valuable clout … with freshman girls. Even then, I found the liquids I was shoving down my throat to be mostly disgusting — and I assumed everyone else did, too. I was under the mistaken impression that we were only drinking this stuff to, you know, get wasted.
Over the course of our junior year, however, everyone started turning 21, and suddenly there was no longer anything rebellious about drinking. Suddenly we could simply walk into a bar and fork over seven bucks for a pint of Guinness just like everybody else, which is exactly what most of my friends did. This should have been red flag No. 1 that I wasn’t quite in step with my peers.
The place to be on Monday nights my senior year was Tommy Nevin’s, an Irish pub off-campus where the over-21 crowd mingled, threw darts … and drank heavily.
Back when we’d been relegated to frat parties, nobody much cared what brand of beer or vodka they were drinking, so long as they got to drink it. On a dark dance floor full of intoxicated 19-year-olds, nobody much noticed if you stashed a half-finished cup of stale beer on a window ledge.
It was at Nevin’s where I learned for the first time that there’s actually a class system associated with beers. You didn’t drink MGD at such a reputable establishment — you drank Newcastle or Harp. My friends fruitlessly attempted to educate me on the finer points of beer. Try this one. You’ll like it. It’s a “Pale Ale.”
Now that we were drinking the “good stuff,” there was no more faking my distaste. Inevitably, when the lights came on at 1 a.m., I was the one guy in our group still holding a half-full glass. C’mon, dude, chug it. I tried my best, but I’m guessing I looked like a 4-year-old forced to take his Robitussin.
Next thing I knew, I was a young, single adult, and there’s really only one thing young, single adults do when they get together: Drink. Gone were the days when you called up your friends and debated whether to go to a movie or play cards or make a late-night Denny’s run. The only point of discussion now was which bar we were going to and when. Eventually, making plans with most of my male friends could be condensed to one word. “Beers?”
Sadly, I’ll never get back all those hours I wasted standing against the wall in loud, crowded bars, drinking beers someone automatically ordered for me, listening to drunk strangers unload their slurred thoughts about women and the Georgia Bulldogs. Thankfully, my current circle of friends mostly enjoys cozier settings like restaurants, dive bars and peoples’ apartments.
Still, there are certain concepts of grown-up socializing I can’t seem to grasp.
For one, people in New York are constantly going to “happy hours” after work. Nearly every bar in the city advertises happy hour “specials,” and they invariably include one common theme: cheap appetizers. As a more avid eater than a drinker, this part appeals to me.
However, as best I can tell, most happy hour patrons have no intention of eventually moving to a main course. The drinking starts at 6 p.m. and ends around … bedtime. Personally, I can only make it until about 8 or 9 before becoming consumed by one thought and one thought only: When’s dinner?
Call me old-fashioned, but I need my three square meals, and a handful of mozzarella sticks does not qualify as one of them. Neither does a slice of pizza at midnight. There have been more than a few gatherings from which I’ve discreetly disappeared for a half-hour to sneak across the street to Subway.
Second of all, the no-drinking thing can be a hazard in the dating world. Standard first-date protocol says that man and woman “meet for a drink,” usually at a café, wine bar or lounge of some sort. This often left me in a conundrum when I was going on first dates. Obviously, I didn’t want to make the girl feel like a lush by making her drink by herself, but neither was there any logical reason for me to sip on a Coke at 9 o’clock at night.
So I’d usually order a glass of wine, which in hindsight was fairly stupid, seeing as A) Wine is expensive; and B) in the event there might be a second date in the offing, I’d now given the mistaken impression that I’m some sort of wine connoisseur. In truth, were the waiter to secretly switch my Merlot for a Cabernet, I wouldn’t notice the difference.
And lastly, there’s the dicey issue of dinner with friends. Believe me, there’s nothing I love more than dining out, but large dinner parties inevitably consume large quantities of alcohol. Inevitably, when the check comes at the end of the night, we’re all supposed to throw our credit cards on the table and split it. I certainly don’t want to be the asshole that gets out a calculator, so I end up paying not only for my share of the appetizers but my share of everyone else’s booze.
I know I can’t possibly be alone on this. Non-drinkers of the world: It’s time for us to unite.
No longer will we stand idly by while bartenders stare at us like common criminals for having the audacity to ask for ice water. (Don’t worry, lady — I’m still going to tip you.) No longer will we humor our buddy with a polite chuckle when, for the eighth time that night, he shoves a shot glass in our face and says, “You sure you don’t want one?” (Yep — I’m sure.) And no longer will we be coerced into sticking around for “just one more drink” at 3 in the morning solely because we’re the ones holding the car keys.
Ah … whom am I kidding? It’s far easier to just play along.
Pass me those celery sticks, would you? I have a feeling we’re going to be here a while.