SOCIALIZING AND SOBRIETY

 

I. An Innocent Tourist In Boozeland

I am not a drinker. On just one drink, I broke two teeth trying to give a hickey to the Statue of Liberty.
-Woody Allen

Alcohol has varying connotations in my family history, ranging from addiction and loss at one extreme, to the childlike joy on my father's grown-up face as he posed for a New Year's Eve photo as the baby New Year, clad only in a towel. Between these poles, were the ordinary stories I grew up hearing, of highly liquid dinners and lunches, followed by intoxicated drivers' attempts to head home, or back to work. Our puritanical fitness-obsessed society now paints these anecdotes as instances of abuse, but they were the norm for many years.

Though my parents drank at parties and on special occasions, and my father was expected to drink for work, booze was a distant presence in our house. I think my entire family was still working from old cultural stereotypes that said Jews did not drink, that a Jewish house was a house of food. Unlike many of the kids I grew up with, I don't remember having any curiosity about alcohol, or any desire to try it. I was too busy enjoying food and looking forward to dessert.

I think I was subconsciously reflecting cultural messages about alcohol and being a guy, but not in the way that would have pleased Madison Avenue. If being an American Guy was all about playing sports, drinking beer, and bagging chicks, and if I already felt alienated from some of that, why would I bother with the rest? Sure, I would still pursue girls, but since I couldn't do so the way I saw on TV, I would be different. I would talk to girls rather than show off for them athletically, and my social fantasies would involve going for ice cream or pizza rather than beer.

Looking back, I don't see my alternative vision of maleness as any hint of future queerness, but as the recognition that as a disabled Jewish nerd, I was never going to be the blond football god, and that I might as well acknowledge that and figure out another path for myself. Of course, now when I tell people that my fantasies about women involved sharing, deep conversation, and only light erotic touching, they see the Faggot Alarm going off. But if my behavior embodied any danger signal I should have been worried about, it wasn't homo-ness. It was Nice-Guy-ness, that disorder that causes attractive people to confide in you, admire you, and trust you, while they go off and date someone who may not treat them as well but who definitely turns them on more than you do. And do you want to know the best/worst part about Nice Guy Syndrome? It's like Type O blood, and can fit itself in anywhere along the continuums of gender and sexual orientation.

II. Puritan College Days

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.
-National Lampoon's Animal House

Annoyingly self-righteous about my purity, I went off to college without ever having tasted alcohol or tried drugs. I so equated indulgence with macho boorishness and immaturity that I looked down on my friends who got drunk every weekend. Like the archetypal violent homophobe who later turns out to be queer, I wanted to stay away from alcohol because it scared me to death. It was alien to much of my upbringing, and it had killed people I loved and looked up to, but even more than that, being intoxicated represented for me an unacceptable loss of control, the violent overthrow of the Nice-Guy persona I hated but needed; Nice Guy may have been the neutered embodiment of frustration, but he helped keep my sadness, my anger, and my growing desire for sexual fulfillment under wraps. I guess I didn't want to scare anyone else, or myself. I didn't know what the intoxicated Danny was capable of, and I didn't want to find out.

[For those of you reading along and saying to yourselves, "Come off it, Kodmur! We're talking one drink, not getting wasted!", you're technically correct, but you've obviously never seen me with a bowl of peanut M & Ms or a bag of Mother's Cookie Parade Assortment.]

Because college was some distance away from nearly everything and I had no car, it was easy for me to pretend that the bar-hopping my classmates were doing was taking place in some alternate universe. Over the course of four years, I grew more tolerant of other people's drinking, and even started considering that maybe I should bend a little and try a drink, just so I could say I did and cross it off my list. But somehow, I never got around to it.

My senior year of college was chaotic. I was trying to map out my future, while wrestling with competing attractions to women and to men, and before I knew it, I was in graduate school. As I have mentioned previously, Berkeley's independent spirit helped liberate me as a human being, as a man with a disability, and as someone who was beginning to acknowledge his gay identity. All these steps represented gratifying progress; I only wish my available social outlets had been a source of pleasure rather than anxiety.

Gay student social gatherings were difficult for me. Outside their doors, I may have been part of a critical mass of people on wheels, but inside I was one of very few out disabled students. The tentativeness that everyone muddles through while coming out was magnified for me tenfold. I made friends and had some experiences with dating and sex, but like other students, I knew that all the serious socializing happened away from campus, not at our awkward LGBT dances, but at bars and clubs in Oakland and San Francisco, places I didn't see myself going to.

Every so often during graduate school, I would get fed up with the dysfunctional and incestuous campus gay scene, and gather up my courage and go to a bar or club. On rare occasions, I had fun, but mostly I just felt like I didn't belong; the quiet places were too dead and deserted for conversation, and the popular places were too loud and flashy, and filled with the kind of guys I feared (and knew) I wasn't.

A turning point for me came when I found myself being a sideline coach for a friend at one of these places, helping him gather the courage and resolve to chase the guys he wanted, even though I couldn't get motivated to help myself.

That was far from the worst case of Sideline Syndrome I had to put up with. Once, at a party, someone told me that my sobriety was making other partygoers uncomfortable. It wasn't that I was radiating glowering disapproval from some dark corner of the room; I had long since given up such sour and pointless feelings of superiority. What was bugging people was the combination of my sobriety and my frightening elephantine memory. See, my friends wanted a feeling of security at a party, but also deniability. If they got wasted and did something (or someone) regrettable, they didn't want any reliable witnesses around.

They knew I wouldn't gossip, but they also knew I wouldn't forget, and that just by looking in my eyes, they'd feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Even today, I drop hints to friends that I'd like to join them on recreational bar-hopping nights, and they tell me not to come, not only because they know it's not my thing, but also because they don't want me to see them getting smashed and misbehaving, as if such a vision would corrode my innocence and diminish my respect for them. Such a gesture is too kind-hearted to anger me, but it does make me feel more like a mother or sainted grandfather to some of my friends, and less like one of their peers.

I had just resigned myself to making an occasional new friend on campus and staying out of the mad rush for companionship when a campus friend introduced me to the world of online chatting and personal ads, Here at last, I thought, was my chance to put my best self forward, a persona created entirely from the strongest weapon in my arsenal: language. Well, over the years the Internet simultaneously gave me freedom I'd never known before, and a new kind of confidence-draining servitude.

Being online allowed me to present myself as I wished, but it also meant I would spent the majority of my time convincing people to meet me in the first place, taking weeks or months sometimes to facilitate the kind of introduction I might have accomplished in minutes at a bar or club. It was and is a dysfunctional way of meeting people, but it gave me a great excuse for avoiding San Francisco, and by extension the rest of the outside world. To reverse the Kander and Ebb lyric, I felt that since I couldn't make it there, I couldn't make it anywhere.

III. Paradise and Expulsion

It's a privilege to pee!
-Urinetown, the Musical

After several years of such counterproductive stewing, I began making my peace with San Francisco. I joined a synagogue there, and found a whole new group of friends. I even discovered a bar I liked. It had a mellow and relaxed front room, and a lovely sunny patio out back, and it was just around the corner from my synagogue. I got in the habit of dropping in before or after meetings, and I really enjoyed myself. The first few minutes would feel awful, but then I would find a friendly face and start conversing. What helped reduce the pressure enormously was a little deal I made with myself: "OK, you're gonna go in there and just talk to people, and not try to get any phone numbers. If you meet a cute guy and only talk to him for a few minutes and never again, it still beats the hell out of negotiating online for six whole weeks just to have coffee with someone."

My new approach was liberating. It led to some disappointments, like realizing the alarming number of guys who go to bars with their boyfriends, as if socializing weren't confusing enough already. But for the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in a gay social space. Of course, it didn't hurt that friends from the synagogue liked going there, and that it was frequented by the kinds of guys who never hung out anywhere near nerds like me in school. In a way, being there felt like closing a circle. After distancing myself from a particular kind of masculinity all my life, I was finally surrounded by it, and it was kind of fun. Looking back, I should have known it was too good to last.

After I'd been going to this bar regularly for two or three months that summer, one of the bartenders, gruff, middle-aged, with a barely-concealed chip on his shoulder, called me over into a corner. He quietly gave me a tongue lashing, and believe me, it wasn't the fun kind. He said, "Look, this is about the eighth or ninth time I have seen you come in here on my shift. You never buy anything, and I want you to know I think it's disrespectful to us as a business for you to come in here and make use of our social space without supporting us with your money. I have to tell you that if you want to be welcome here, you're going to have to start buying drinks."

I gulped, shocked at his vehemence, and told him I'd be sure to change my ways. I went across the room back to where I was sitting, and in a shocked stage whisper said to the guys at my table, "I've just been lectured to for not buying anything!"

Maybe the bartender thought I was trying to start something. Maybe he thought he had been nice to me by keeping his scolding private, and that here I was, repaying his tact with a public confrontation. Maybe he was just a schmuck. I don't know for sure. What I do know is that he heard my stage whisper, marched over to my table, and announced that I should leave. Had I been a suitably sassy drag queen or one of my bar-hopper pals, I might have come up with an appropriately withering exit line, but I couldn't. I was too mortified.

I wish I could tell you the bartender had been hallucinating, but he had observed me accurately. In weeks I hadn't bought a single beverage. Now, I wouldn't have bought alcohol for myself under any circumstances, but my friends asked me later why I hadn't even bought a few lousy Calistogas, especially since I'd been going to this bar on several very warm thirst-inducing afternoons. Able-bodied friends, that is. My crip friends knew the punch line of my story even before it came out of my mouth. From what I could tell, the bathroom was inaccessible, and I couldn't see the point of putting liquid into my body without a safe and comfortable way to let it out. I am not usually bashful, particularly when the topic is inadequate access, but the bartender's anger kept me insecure and on the defensive from the beginning. I couldn't say a thing to him, and I just left.

In the months after this happened, I got a lot of mileage out of telling the story. Some friends got angry when they heard it, which was gratifying. Some people just laughed their heads off. My mother got a particular charge out of telling people that her teetotaling son, who had spit out the wine at his bar mitzvah, had gotten himself thrown out of a bar. I laughed too, but the experience made me feel as though my permit to hang with the cool people had been revoked, that I'd been deported by some cockeyed Border Patrol. So I went back to the Internet, where being a nerd was natural, and no one could kick me out and send me home, since I was already there.

IV. Unexpected Sunshine

And if ever a cold wind blows, you can turn to your
long-agos, and find that smile.
-Howard Ashman

I nursed a grudge against that bar for months and refused to go back. I didn't want to be reminded of my humiliation, but I was also concerned about the righteousness of my anger, and my cause. See, I had checked out the bathroom from the outside, and it looked inaccessible, but I hadn't gone in. The deeply twisted pessimist in me was worried that I was mistaken, that it might be fully accessible after all, which would have made my ejection even more pointless and painful. My anxiety about this transferred itself from one bar to all bars, and I didn't go out anywhere in San Francisco, unless I was eating out, visiting friends, or seeing a play.

Finally, on one sunny Sunday afternoon, a friend and I were sitting in Dolores Park, and I was confessing that I'd run out of patience with meeting people online, that I needed to find a way to meet people in person again. Even though he's not a licensed therapist, he pointed out that I was allowing myself to be punished and traumatized by the actions of one cranky bartender. He said, "It's a nice day, and I want a drink. Let's go back there and hang out on the patio." I had misgivings, but I trusted him and wanted to break out of my rut, so off we went.

He got a drink for himself and a Calistoga for me. As we sipped and chatted on the patio, I was remembering why I had liked the place so much, but I was anxious. I was riskily ingesting liquid, and I didn't know what the consequences might be. Would I end up facing inaccessibility and wet pants, or would I find a perfectly accessible toilet and feel even more humiliated? Thankfully, the truth fell somewhere in the middle. The bathroom was not completely unworkable, but it was complicated and difficult enough that I could not have managed it without help. So had I not had the wind knocked out of me, I could have mouthed off to that bartender about the lousy access, and been totally in the right.

My friend and I emerged from the bathroom confident and relieved. I felt so daring that I risked another Calistoga. He and I decided to go into the main room and mingle a bit. As we entered from the patio, I saw a cute guy who blurted "Hi there!" as if he knew me. We couldn't place each other, but knew we'd seen each other before. He started chatting with us, telling us amusing stories, and all the while, he and I were throwing questions at each other, to see if we could figure out what our connection was. As I looked at him, and as he started telling us about his job, it hit me.

"Waitasec! Where did you go to high school?" He looked at me quizzically, since usually only people of roughly the same age think they know each other from high school, and he and I were over a decade apart in age. He told me which school, and I pointed at him and said, "That's where we know each other from!"

Five years earlier, during my heroically misguided attempt at high school teaching, this guy had been one of my students! He and I beamed, blushed, and started laughing, out of relief that the mystery had been solved, out of mild embarrassment that we'd been flirting a bit, and out of sheer glee at the absurdity of the situation. We ended up talking for a long time, giving each other an entirely different perspective on our school experiences. Once I got over my innate horror at having hit on a student even inadvertently, I realized how healing the experience had been. After all, meeting him at the scene of my ejection meant I could replace a very bad memory with a very good one, and talking to him about high school meant that I could begin to feel better about a very painful time in my life, one so difficult I haven't yet known how to write about it.

I'd like to see what happened that afternoon as a good omen, and as a recommendation for the future. Meeting people in person right away isn't that traumatic, and neither is hanging around a bunch of gay men, even if they're happily boozing it up and I'm not, even if they are mostly jocks and frat guys and I'm still an insecure nerd. Because ultimately, an actual smile of recognition or welcome does more to buoy my spirits and give me hope than does an extended electronic interaction, no matter how impassioned or heartfelt it might be.

That doesn't mean I'm going to start prowling bars like a kid who's just turned twenty-one and is embracing his right to get hammered, but it might mean I will try a little harder to turn off my computer. Except of course, when I'm writing for BENT.

©2003 Danny Kodmur

 

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DANNY KODMUR lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the Bay Area. You can write to him at dkodmur@comcast.net. He doesn't accept drinks from strangers, but he'd be happy if you bought him a cookie.

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets: A Holiday Tale ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2003