My happiest days as a secret drinker were in Kansas City, when my youngest daughter was still a baby. She was allergic to breast milk, so I’d take a bottle of soy milk, bundle her in her sling, and we’d walk to the convenience store half a block from my apartment and buy a half-pint of Jack Daniels and a large Diet Dr. Pepper in a styrofoam cup. Then I’d pour out half of the Dr. Pepper in the alley behind the store and refill it with whiskey. Finding these geographic nooks and crannies in a city is much harder than you’d think, until you begin to search for them.
We’d walk together through the streets of my neighborhood. Our route usually took us past the abandoned boarding house where Hemingway had lived when he wrote for the Kansas City Star. My daughter drank her soy milk (she was a two-bottle kid, and so I always brought a second bottle of soy milk in my pocket), and I drank my drink. We’d look at each other under the trees on Rockhill and Hyde Park, grand old decayed Kansas City, past the stone mansions and the brick halfway houses and the Nelson-Atkins Museum and Walter De Maria’s illuminated pond. She’d fall asleep, and then I’d take her back home and put her in bed. That’s how she fell asleep every night, until she was a year and a half.
In winter, I’d bundle her under my jacket, with just her little face peeking out, and sometimes we’d go to a second-story Irish bar on Main Street, and other times to Dave’s Stagecoach Inn—a dive I loved on Westport Road. A secret drinker misses bars. Like the ritual of chopping your coke or heating your heroin, a drink at the bar is very different from any other kind of drink, even if the bartender is too busy to make conversation and no one else wants to chat. One very cold winter night, when the bar was full at Dave’s, a bartender I’d never liked told me: “I can’t serve you with your baby in here, man.”
“You’ve served me with her in here plenty of times before,” I said. “The baby’s not drinking.” At the few bars we frequented, most people liked to see me with my baby. Most drunks are friendly and kind, generous people who appreciate the difficulties of others and like babies.
“You shouldn’t have that baby out in this cold, I can’t serve you.”
“I’m sorry, what did you just say?” I yelled at him. “Did you just tell me how to take care of my baby? How many children do you have?”
I could see he didn’t have kids. I lost my temper. My baby was warmer snuggled up under my heavy winter coat than she would have been at home in bed. “The one thing I can’t bear is people telling me how to raise my children,” I said to a woman standing next to me. She nodded sympathetically.
Later, after I quit drinking, I wanted to go apologize to the guy. But if you’re a drunk, once you start apologizing, it never ends. I don’t care what they say at AA.
Secret drinkers are everywhere. You’re constantly surrounded.
Say you decide to have a drink on your lunch hour or in the quiet afternoon. You see a woman sitting alone in a booth with a glass of white wine and a plate of uninteresting vegetables in front of her. It’s not readily apparent to most people that she’s hiding anything. And that’s the ruse: She knows the general public doesn’t associate white wine with the alcoholic’s drink of choice.
You notice a guy in the liquor store looking nervous at the register, almost as if he were planning to rob the place. He takes his pint of rum but not his receipt—he’s of age, so what’s his problem? He is in fact glancing over his shoulder, but he’s not worried about the cops or you. He’s looking for the people he hopes he won’t see or, more specifically, people he hopes won’t see him. He’s looking for his wife’s friends. For members of his home group at AA. Coworkers. Old lovers, who know he’s supposed to be sober. Students or customers. All the people he lies to—those who think he no longer drinks.
When a secret drinker enters a restaurant, even before he sits down, he takes note of the bartender, the bathroom, and a table with its back to the bar. “That’s where we’d like to sit, please,” he tells the hostess. Ideally, there is a wall or a pole or some other obstruction between his table and the bar. If the bar and the bathroom are far apart, a good secret drinker will suggest a different restaurant. The best restaurants have both the bar and the bathroom completely separated from the dining room, which allows the secret drinker to easily keep pace with his date.
The first rule of secret drinking: Keep your date drinking, too. Only a sober person can spot a drunk.
The secret drinker will go to the bathroom more often than an ordinary person. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, without a hint of sarcasm, “You have a small bladder.” The smart secret drinker will drink plenty of water and will often order several beverages—coffee, Diet Coke, sparkling water—in order to reinforce the illusion that he is a recovering drunk.
Even when the secret drinker gets stuck in a restaurant where the bar and bathroom are inside the dining area, there are workarounds. About a year ago, I was having dim sum one morning with a date on the Upper West Side in a place where the bar was in plain view and opposite the bathroom. There were no other dim sum restaurants in the neighborhood, and once we were inside, my date wanted to sit beside me in a booth. I had spotted a little basement breakfast place around the corner on the walk over, a long shot but my best hope. As with most restaurants, the bathrooms in the dumpling place were close to the exit. I went to the bathroom, slipped out the back door, and darted into the breakfast place. They didn’t sell liquor but did have wine in little bottles. I asked for three bottles of Merlot—undrinkable stuff, slightly better than cough syrup, really—and paid with cash. I stood on the sidewalk and, with my date’s back to me, gulped them all down. I made two more visits back there before our meal was over. This was despite the fact that I had to come in the front door. I didn’t know how to explain it to my date—who by this time had reason to be suspicious. But luckily, she didn’t notice. If she had, any old lie would’ve probably worked. It was 11 in the morning and the truth was too absurd, even for me.
Rule number two: Always carry cash. Your bank statement is your enemy, and you can’t pay in a hurry with a credit card.
In Seattle, on a date with a different woman and an older friend of hers, I tried the same trick at a seaside restaurant, and they saw me come back in the front door every time. (I’d always wedge the back door open, but it’d rarely stay that way. Kitchen staff go in and out of these doors a lot, and they usually lock automatically. You can knock, and they might let you in the first time, but they won’t repeatedly.) My date’s older, savvier, more skeptical friend, a criminal-defense lawyer from Louisiana, took notice and said: “You go to the bathroom in the back and come back in the front.” She raised an eyebrow. “Are you going next door to drink?”
She liked me, but she had the low-down. I said, “I like to look at the ocean for a minute when I have the chance. I live in Kansas City. It’s a treat for me.”
I don’t think even my date bought that one, but if you control the discourse, you control the truth. Secret drinking is just like any other kind of cheating. You’re never really busted until the evidence is absolutely overwhelming or, fool that you are, you admit the truth.
Rule number three: Deny, deny, deny. If you haven’t learned this one in the course of ordinary life yet, learn it today. Of course you want to tell the truth. Of course she tells you she’ll forgive you if you’ll just admit the truth. And when she tells you that lie—the lie about forgiving you, the lie of absolution with confession—she means it. She doesn’t know it’s a lie. But after you admit the truth, everything changes.
Here’s another example of how to beat the bar-bathroom problem: It was a big night out at Masa in New York. I had eaten at the restaurantbefore, and I knew there was no bar. I couldn’t repeatedly leave the restaurant: It was in a mall, and there was no rear exit. So, it came down to my socks. You can fit as many as three airplane/minibar bottles of liquor into each sock. If you carry a purse, of course, it’s probably much easier. You can use your suit pockets, but that’s risky; there’s probably going to be cuddling in the taxi on the way to the restaurant. On arrival, go to the bathroom and hide the bottles. Usually there’s a shelf, a cabinet, a drop-panel ceiling—something. I’ve hidden regular-size wine bottles in restaurant bathrooms before, but at Masa there was nowhere to hide anything. Those Japanese and their minimalist aesthetic. There wasn’t even a removable top on the toilet tank (bottles will float very happily in there, though you risk someone taking a peek if they interfere with the apparatus or make a noise—I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this method.) So I put mine in the garbage can, tucking them beneath the trash. When I returned to the bathroom I’d always empty the trash into the toilet or my pockets, all but a tissue or two, so that an employee wouldn’t take it and find my bottles.
It was a beautiful evening: My date drank sake at the sushi bar, I drank vodka in the toilet, and she didn’t worry about me getting drunk. We took a bicycle cab from Lincoln Center all the way to our hotel on Gramercy Park, where there were still bottles in the minibar that I could drink and refill with water.
Another piece of advice: Don’t forget your cell phone. This won’t work as well with an intimate acquaintance, but with casual friends or at business lunches or dinners, a cell-phone call is an ideal excuse to leave the table. Step outside to another nearby place. Or, if your destination is a bit more remote, stash a bottle in your glove box or under the seat (it’s awkward if someone notices you opening your trunk in the middle of an imaginary cell-phone call).