Growing Up

(Originally published August 16, 2011)

AT THE REHEARSAL dinner the night before my friend Mike got married, the Pastor – who happened to be the father of one of the groomsmen – told Mike he should be well-rested and clearheaded on the day of his wedding, and that he should go back to his hotel room early to prepare for the biggest day of his life.

Five hours later we were at a club downtown, watching a girl in fishnet stockings do acrobatics on silk scarves hanging from the ceiling, when Mike decided it would be a good time to run outside and play hide-and-go-seek.

“Did I do a good job hiding from you guys?” he asked me and my friend Luke, a groomsman too.
Luke, to Mike: “Yes, Mike, you did,” even though Mike “hiding” was just him standing in front of a wall.
Luke, to me: “I think we need to take Mike home now.”

We walked Mike to a long flight of stone steps leading down to the street and asked him “how [he] felt about stairs” in his current state. Mike responded by sitting on the handrail and trying to slide down it. He fell off, but caught himself, somehow wrapping his arms and legs around the railing like a koala (less gracefully than a koala, perhaps, but it’s hard to compare, as I’ve never seen a koala quite that drunk).

An hour before that, we were at a bar called “Tilt,” which oddly contained zero pinball machines. Mike had just had a beer or two, followed by a glass of vodka, followed by a mixed drink containing vodka, pineapple juice, and blue curacao, called a “Blue Lagoon.” Blue curacao is literally blue – it’s Triple Sec with food coloring – and dyes its drinker’s mouth blue too. One of Mike’s frat brothers from college mused, “How hilarious would it be if Mike’s mouth was blue when he said, ‘I do’?” and suggested we force Mike to guzzle Blue Lagoons all night to make it happen. Note also that throughout our time at Tilt, Mike was wearing a huge, white novelty bow – the kind you see in Lexus “December to Remember Sales Event” commercials – on top of his head. I don’t know where it came from, but it looked ridiculous. When Mike realized that, he undid the bow and wrapped the ribbon around his neck like a big ascot. (That made it worse.)

Two hours before that, the restaurant hosting the rehearsal dinner followed the meal with an open bar. Most open bars water down the drinks to save money. Here, the bartenders seemed to be trying to bankrupt the restaurant by making the “mixed” drinks pure alcohol. Luke had me try his “vodka soda” to confirm it was just a “vodka.” My Mojito – the house beverage – tasted like rum with a light syrup drizzle and raw mint leaves floating on top.1 Meanwhile, we watched Mike down a pair of Dirty Martinis before we went to Tilt. Knowing the bartenders’ M.O. – and given that a martini is just straight gin or vodka with a few drops of vermouth – I can only imagine what they did to make them extra-strong; for all we knew, Mike’s Martini contained grain alcohol or gasoline.

Finally, two hours before that, the Pastor told Mike to take it easy.

We all know how that turned out.

To further emphasize the uselessness of that advice, Luke and I got a call at 9:30 the next morning from Rob – the groomsman who was the Pastor’s son – to ask if we wanted to stop by Mike’s hotel room to start the day with Mimosas. So we did.

I tell this story to provide context: my friend Mike is the most “grown up” person I know. That was my impression of him leading up to the wedding, and nothing that happened that weekend to change my feelings about it. Because I don’t know what “grown up” means anymore.

Nick and Glenn of Clikit or Tikit have each told me stories about when they discovered they at least looked like adults. Nick was walking behind a woman on a subway platform who began clutching her purse and walking faster when she saw Nick out of the corner of her eye.

“That reminded me I needed to shave,” Nick said.

And Glenn, one time, missed the last train back to Connecticut from NYC and tried to sleep on the steps at Grand Central Station. A cop woke him up and said, “Hey, buddy, you can’t stay here.” Because a kid’s allowed to get “tuckered out” and take a nap any place, but an adult just looks homeless.

I hit a personal milestone two months back: my 25th birthday. I wanted to write about it at the time, but I didn’t have a good hook; it was just another story about acting stupid in New York again. But now that I’m framing it as a mature contemplation of aging, I can discuss – guilt free – acting stupid in New York.

The evening in question was actually two nights after I turned 25. On the night itself, I stayed home to host a screening of the film we’ve been working on along with a discussion about what needed to be changed in the final cut. My sister baked a platter of cupcakes to celebrate my birthday, but they went untouched because we were all about business. (Fine, I ate two.)

The next night, Thursday, I met two high school friends, Katie and Luke (same Luke from the wedding) in Stamford. Katie talked about going on her first sales call that week to answer questions for clients. Luke asked if we could make vague plans for a vacation several months away, to have something to look forward to at his soul-sucking day job. Two other friends, Dennis and Tommy, couldn’t come. Tommy wasn’t feeling well, and Dennis – a substitute teacher, just hired full-time – had to stay in to finish grading papers before graduation.

Everyone was being way too grown up. Friday night, I wanted to go to New York and act stupid, like a kid.

I did act stupid – believe me – but for once it was like an adult.

This is the third in a series of stories involving my friend Ted (“TED Talks,” if you will, which you won’t, because that name is taken, but maybe someone Googling them will now stumble on this page by accident).

This “TED Talk” begins in a cigar bar, a strange place for me considering I’ve spent most of my life deathly afraid of smoking.2But I knew we’d made the right choice of activity when I saw a guy at a table by the window who looked like the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World.” We wanted to sit near him to hear all his witticisms, but the bartender was a cute girl, so we sat at the bar. (Even though both of us were dating other people at the time and weren’t going to do anything, such is the power of a cute girl.)

“I’m an actress,” the bartender told us.
“Oh, cool. TV? Independent features?”
“Student films!”
“Student films? Why didn’t you say so? How exciting!” (Such is the power of a cute girl.)
“I didn’t know anything about cigars or do any kind of job like this before working here,” she said, “but the owner hired me anyway and basically lets me run the whole place.” (Such is the power, and the glory, forever and ever.)

How unqualified was she? When she wasn’t handling customers, she practiced striking matches, to overcome a “match phobia” she had. On a theoretical list of things to be comfortable with in order to run a cigar bar, “matches” might be near the top.

After about her sixteenth match, Ted and I decided to take advantage of their BYOB policy and duck out to a corner store to buy drinks. As we browsed six packs of craft beer, a tall can near the bottom of the adjacent refrigerator window caught my eye:

“Is that Four Loko? I thought that stuff was illegal.”

For those unfamiliar, Four Loko is like Ambrosia, the mythical “nectar of the Gods” from Greek mythology, in that you may have heard of it but never seen it, and it’s supposed to get you crazy fucked up. Four Loko is a self-described “malt liquor energy drink,” and the secret to its power lies in combining an “upper” (caffeine) with a “downer” (alcohol). Side effects may include: your heart stopping.

“Should we buy a couple of these?” I asked.
“Later,” Ted said. “Let’s have a few beers first.”

He grabbed a pack of Dogfish Head Ale but I couldn’t stop staring at the Four Loko. I’d never seen an alcoholic beverage more brazenly marketed to children:

The name: a “cool” misspelling of an easy-to-spell pair of words.
The flavors: blue raspberry, fruit punch, green apple, etc.
The design: camouflage meets Bubblicious.

Finally, its location in the convenience store refrigerator: 2nd shelf from the bottom, hard to spot for an adult of average height but eye-level for a toddler.

We bought ours beers and went back to the bar. The match-phobic “actress” popped the tops and cut our cigars; Ted’s was bigger, which prompted me to make a self-deprecating crack about cigar size being related to penis size, until I remembered the “penises” would be going in our mouths.

I’m not a smoker, as I said, so I approach smoking the way I do most things: extreme focus and diligence. When I wasn’t talking, I was puffing the cigar, and I wasn’t talking much, because our conversation got hijacked by another guy at the bar telling a long story about working on “a top secret project” for an unnamed software company that had tried to invent a digital microchip to replace silicon (because silicon has physical limitations, but a digital microchip’s space would be theoretically limitless). It took several years and millions of dollars to find out this idea was dumb. I couldn’t told him that just hearing about it, but I didn’t say a word, and my cigar didn’t need to be re-lit once before I finished and stubbed it out.

Ted and I paid our tab and went back to the corner store, 2nd shelf from the bottom. “All they’re missing is a cartoon mascot,” Ted said.

One last indication that Four Loko is for children: the taste. It’s like a slushy with the ice melted, or without the ice period; pure syrup. I guess they intended for the sweetness to mask the alcohol – there are four “drinks” in a 23.5 ounce can; thus: Four Loko – but the sensation is merely delayed. It bypasses your tongue to hit the back of your throat and the pit of your stomach. It’s a lingering, slow-building unpleasantness, like the aftereffect of having a wet towel snapped at your balls.

We loved it!

Not Four Loko itself, obviously, but being treated like rock stars for drinking it openly in public. A group of twenty-somethings literally clapped and cheered as we passed them on the sidewalk:

“Four Loko!”
“Yeah!”
“Woo!”

I raised my can in a toast and took a huge gulp to wild applause. Then I waited for them to leave so they wouldn’t see me grimace when I tried to swallow it.

Even better was the reaction we got at an indoor/outdoor chicken shack, the look of fear in the eyes of the guy behind the counter when he saw the trademark camo cans:
“You guys need to leave. Right away.”
“Can I just use your restroom?” Ted asked.
“No. I will not serve you. You need to go, right away. Please leave. Please leave now.”

It felt like one of those scenes in a movie about racial tension, where the Korean shop owner grabs a bat from behind the counter as soon as black people enter the store. In our case, the guy was black and we were white, but it was similar in that we’d done nothing to cause trouble.

It was only after we weren’t allowed to order chicken or use the restroom that the trouble started.

First – because being denied access to a restroom didn’t mean Ted no longer needed one – we still had to find a restroom. We located a payphone. If you’ve never seen a New York City payphone, it looked like this:

0013018-Edit

Ted told me to stand guard, then walked in and pretended to make a call while pissing onto the sidewalk below. “It’s a trick I’ve seen homeless people use,” he explained. As Picasso once said, “Steal from the best.”3

Second, we still had to eat. Neither of us had eaten since lunch, and chugging Four Loko on an empty stomach was as bad an idea as wearing a big white bow on your head or using it as an ascot.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Crocodile Lounge’s free personal pizza with every beer is an unbeatable deal. There’s a place called “The Gold Room” in Los Feliz that does a beer, a shot of tequila, anda taco for four dollars, but it’s too crowded, and pizza trumps all. The only issue, on this occasion, is that you have to order the beer to get the pizza, and the last thing we needed was more to drink.

How unnecessary was another beer? I wasn’t even able to order one. Ted ordered for me, because I was so obviously hammered that just me talking to the bartender would have gotten us thrown out.

While Ted ordered, I leaned on the counter where they served the pizzas, to compose myself. It worked. I started to see things more clearly, like how inappropriate Ted was being by ordering two additional beers for the Hispanic guys working the pizza counter, then loudly insisting they drink them because “[they] need to enjoy themselves!” The guys were polite enough to toast Ted and take a courtesy sip before serving us our pizzas and sending us along. Before we went, I grabbed the red pepper flakes and started shaking them onto my pizza. That reminded me I was still drunk, because I don’t like red pepper flakes – at all – and now they were everywhere.

I ate the pizza anyway but drank the beer to counter the spice. So I needed another beer, which meant another pizza, which meant we weren’t going anywhere. Ted and I grabbed a two-person table and sat down.

Unfortunately, there were already two people at that table.

We found ourselves sitting with a nice couple from Northern New Jersey. Ted introduced himself with slurred gibberish and covered his face with his hands. While he faded fast, I started a surprisingly competent conversation about how nice Northern New Jersey is, and more broadly about rental prices in various cities throughout the United States. I cracked a few jokes and seemed to be winning them over, even as their table was being taken up by two total strangers, one of whom was now laying halfway across it, asleep.

I’ve said before that I met Ted at camp, but never went into the specifics of how it happened, specifics perfect for the topic of “growing up.”

Camp was located at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, and each camper got a two-person dorm room with a roommate. On move-in day I arrived first, and lay on my bed with the door shut, trying to finish the fourth Harry Potter book. I’d just returned from a twelve-day trip to Nova Scotia with my grandparents where they taught me about my Scottish roots and took lots of pictures of me wearing dorky hats. I was a very docile and well-mannered 13-year-old.

Then Ted arrived.

He said, “Hey,” and started unpacking. The first thing he unpacked was a stereo. He plugged it in, popped in a Rage Against the Machine CD, and turned it up loud while unloading the rest of his stuff.

Remember, I was reading the fourth Harry Potter book, the new one, about 100 pages from the end, and suddenly I couldn’t hear myself think. What I could hear was:

Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.
Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.
Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.
Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.
FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!!
FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!!
FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!!
FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!!

(“Killing in the Name” lyrics courtesy of sing365.com)

I didn’t like Ted at first, but I got over it fast. He knew all the coolest music: Rage Against the Machine, The Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Ween, Cake… When I played him what was popular in Connecticut at the time – the ska band “Less Than Jake” – I found myself apologizing. “I guess it’s supposed to be dance music,” I said, and then realized how stupid that sounded.

Not only did Ted know music, he dressed stylishly (for a 13-year-old) and even convinced our camp counselors to bend the rules on things like letting us hang out in girls’ dorms or go off campus. It felt like authority figures were trying to earn his respect. Even though he was two months younger than me, Ted seemed years older than everyone.

“Hey. Wake up.”

Back at the Crocodile Lounge, one of the bouncers was prodding Ted’s shoulder to get his attention.
“He’s with us,” I said.
“I don’t care, man. Can’t sleep here. He’s either got to wake up or go home.” (Once again: kids get “tuckered out,” adults look homeless.)

Ted lifted his head, groggy and confused. Then he stumbled into the bathroom and vomited in one of the urinals. The bouncer immediately revoked the offer to “wake up” or “get out.” It became more of an “and” thing.

I thanked the lovely New Jersey couple and we left. I chased down a cab and directed the driver back to Ted’s. I steadied Ted as walked up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. I made him drink water, sent him to the bathroom to vomit some more, and let him pass out. I had to leave early the next morning but got a text around 2 PM:

“Hey, I don’t remember what happened last night. Did you get back okay?”

Of course. I’m a pro. I took care of both of us. For once I felt older than Ted, which worked out because I technically am.

And while my other friend Mike is most grown up of all, it was Luke – the youngest of the wedding party – who got him back to his hotel after he got drunk enough to play hide-and-seek, who made Mike drink not one but two glasses of water to curb his inevitable hangover, who put a wastebasket by the bed in case he got sick. I was there too, but Luke took the bulk of the responsibility. That’s the biggest part of being grown up: taking responsibility for those in need.

But the most fun part of being grown up is everything before that.

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