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Hitting the Limit

[whitespace] guy drinking How much is too much?

By Michael Stabile
Photos by Farika

During therapy a few weeks ago, I accidentally confessed to my therapist how much I really drink during a given week--or at least how much I thought was safe to confess. Usually, I stick by the old standard of "a drink or two with dinner" and "maybe four or five on one of the weekend nights." But this time I slipped up. I confessed to about six drinks on each Friday and Saturday, and maybe as many again on one random night of the week--sometimes on Tuesday at Trannyshack, sometimes on Wednesday at the Love-Haight Lounge, sometimes on Thursday at the Top. Suddenly, my therapist insisted we discuss my problem with "binge drinking."

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a binge drinker is one who consumes five or more drinks at one event (an evening out at a bar, for example) at least once a month. While I've realized for quite some time that I drink a fair amount, it seemed almost ludicrous to single me out when everyone I know participates in the same degree of intoxication, give or take a shot of Jagermeister. As a man about town, it seems only natural, and perhaps healthy, that I melt away the day with an evening martini or a few Buds to free up my wandering and wanton eye. Everybody does it, don't they? This is cocktail culture and I'll be damned if my therapist is going to imply that I--and consequently most people I know--are alcoholics.

Then again, I remember reading someone's memoir of the late '70s and early '80s, when The Village Voice classifieds first started calling out to those with a cocaine problem. Coke addiction may seem rather straightforward now, but the author decried it as seemingly a ridiculous notion at the time. No one gets addicted to cocaine, she and others thought--it's just a bad habit that some people overdo. Which, in the late '90s--with our generation's requisite and ordered progression from marijuana to ecstasy to speed to coke to heroin--makes addiction to something as innocuous as drinking a relatively benign phenomenon. If everybody does it, how could it be a problem?

And for drinkers in San Francisco, the situation is complicated by both history and location. First, San Francisco reputedly has been a heavy-drinking city since the wild Barbary Coast days. When the 1906 earthquake and fire struck, Italian merchants on Telegraph Hill poured barrels of red wine down the slope to slow the coming flames.

In the '20s, Hollywood used the city for legendary three-day bacchanals, the most infamous of which, thrown by silent-film comedian Fatty Arbuckle, ended with the death of starlet Virginia Rappe. In the 1930s, Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora sipped martinis like water, and later hard-drinking Chronicle reporters gathered at the Palace Hotel for Scotch on the rocks. The Beats drank wine by the jug. By the mid-'90s, the retro cocktail culture was in full swing, with Herb Caen Day celebrating $1.50 martinis.

Of course, being so near to Napa and Sonoma, we are also under tremendous pressure to know one's wine. The overconsumption habit is less a temptation than a decree. We're a city of lushes and always have been.

As one woman I spoke to on the subject said eloquently, if apologetically, "There's a difference between a drinking lifestyle and alcoholism. We're just out to have fun--alcoholics have a disease." While I'd like to believe it's that simple, and while I have no immediate intention of ordering Calistoga at Bix, one has to wonder. When do we say when? Do we even need to?

people drinking

Like many people her age, Caroline, a petite twentysomething journalist, approaches the dangers associated with alcohol as casually as a younger generation of gay men approaches AIDS.

"I know two people who have been seriously injured in car accidents, but neither one was alcohol related. The only real connection to it has been through [the television show] Party of Five," she says, reflecting on the central premise of a San Francisco family orphaned by the drunken-driving-related death of their parents. "I probably should hesitate before getting in a car with a person who's drunk, but most of the time I don't think twice about it. I've seen many more friends' lives destroyed by drugs than drinking."

While Caroline describes herself as a relatively casual drinker, she blanches at the NIAAA's definition of a "binge" drinker. "More than five drinks in one evening, once a month or more?" she giggles increduously. "Uh-oh!"

Caroline's hardly alone. Drinking to get drunk, or getting drunk on a weekend evening, is hardly a signifier of problem drinking among San Francisco's young and urbane. And getting ripped is not just the domain of the down-and-out. "Cocktail culture" may have begun with a retro emphasis on elegance, but in its wake it left a reactionary culture which blends alcohol consumption with the ethos of early '90s grunge. While microbrews continue to be popular and sweet new spirit infusions continue to be produced, it's suddenly hipper to be ripped on wine coolers than on Cosmopolitans.

James, a bartender in the Lower Haight, sees the trend unfold each night. "You wouldn't believe how many people ask me to make them Long Island Iced Teas," he says, shaking his head. "Or the Stinging Bee--a double shot of Jagermeister and Honey Jager. And this is at 9pm on a Wednesday."

Colin, a Castro district bartender, also sees evidence of a newfound trash chic. "A man's man drinks beer, and a lot of it. A year or two ago, it was Hefeweisens and Raspberry Ales. Now everyone drinks Bud Light or Rolling Rock." The effect may be the same, but the loose ties to glamour and sophistication have been jettisoned. "If someone does ask for premium liquor," James points out, "it's on the rocks, no chaser, no mixer. Ketel One [vodka] on the rocks, Herradura [tequila] neat. The kids who do order cocktails are bridge-and-tunnel types or leftover swing dancers."

As for the frequency with which young San Franciscans drink, whatever the poison, few seem concerned about getting "addicted" to alcohol. "I can't remember the last time a day went by without having at least a beer," confesses Trent, a 28-year-old working at a downtown advertising firm. "You just get used to having it around. You get home from work and there's always alcohol around, even if you're not planning to--or don't--get drunk. It's a reward for a hard day's work--it's not like we're college kids anymore. We should be proud we make rent."

Molly, a 25-year-old administrative assistant, says she can't imagine going to social engagements without alcohol. "A few years ago, you would meet someone for coffee if you wanted to hang out. Now it's happy hour everywhere you turn. Coffee is for breakfast and alcoholics."

There has always been a blurry line between alcoholism and social drinking. Alcoholic Anonymous and other organizations provide lists of questions to help one determine the difference.

  • Do you ever get drunk when you don't mean to?
  • Do you ever regret something you did or said after a night of drinking?
  • Have you ever called in sick to work because of a hangover?
  • Have you ever planned on taking a break from drinking and then failed?
  • Do you ever watch the bartender to make sure he/she has poured you an acceptable amount?
  • Have you ever blacked out?

If you answer yes to one of these questions, you may have a problem. If you answer yes to more of them, however, you're merely a member of the latest generation to hit its limit.

As much as we may like to think of ourselves as excused from alcoholism by reveling in a kitschy tongue-in-chic retrospective, nearly every generation has used one excuse or another to defend itself against accusations of abuse. Cocktail culture is just another.

Cassi Vieten, a member of a UCSF research group studying the link between genetics and alcoholism, has found not only that certain people are predisposed to alcoholism, but there is a similar genetic predisposition to "party." According to Vieten, "some members of each generation ... have a higher genetic tolerance to alcohol, meaning they can go out, get drunk and be relatively immune to negative effects of heavy drinking such as feeling nauseated or passing out." While this link is found most often in people with a family history of alcoholism, it may also explain why within each generation, a group finds that can "hold its liquor" better than others. In the early stages of this manifestation, such a group feels superior to the late-stage alcoholics of years past who couldn't make it to work because of a hangover.

Do we need to re-evaluate our habits? Probably. Are we headed for national disaster? It's debatable.

Obviously, there will be some casualties, but with no end in sight, few are giving up what's become a lingering habit. Besides, do you really want to drink sparkling cider on the eve of the millennium?


Stumbling tours of San Francisco.

Binge drinking responsibly.

If you think you need help.


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From the June 7, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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