My 2nd First Step is a blog by LaRue Cook, a former senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. His posts chronicle his new life as a driver for Uber and lyft.

An Ode to Alcohol

An Ode to Alcohol

When people climb in my car, they ask, "What's your craziest, funniest drunk story?" Friends ask the same question. They all assume, especially in a small market like Knoxville, that one of the few reasons to request an Uber or a Lyft is because you're headed to get drunk, or you're too drunk to drive.

There is some truth to that. Although I've given more than two-thousand rides and most have been of the sober (or at least buzzed) variety. Which is largely due to my nearly religious cutoff time of 1 in the morning. I enjoy this job, and while there is more money to be made after midnight, I avoid the wee hours out of fear that I might no longer enjoy this job. People recalibrate their inhibitions when they're drunk. People vomit when they're drunk. I have been those people.

Sure, the "fun drunk" does exist. Remember Courtney the Accountant? Or the five women and Billy Joel? I have plenty of those stories that I haven't bothered to write down. Like Rick, for instance, the guy in the tattered, faded Atlanta Falcons jersey. I picked him up after the Super Bowl, the night the New England Patriots made a historic comeback to stun Rick's hometown team. I arrived to find him standing outside an empty bar smoking a cigarette. He didn't notice me at first, blowing smoke and staring into the void of an epic loss. I rolled down the window and called out, "Rick?" He shook himself to reality and stamped out his cigarette with his foot. 

Rick was painfully defeated, and I realized he was also inebriated once he slurred his first, "Fuckin Tom Brady." Rick let out a shoulder-shrugging sigh. "He's the Goddamn greatest." Rick took off his glasses and ran his fingers through the receding red stubble on his head. Then he quickly put his glasses back on and pointed his right index finger. "Fuck. That. Guy." He poked holes into the air to help punctuate each word.

Rick was entertaining in that diehard fan way, a manchild wallowing in the inexplicable loss of his boyhood team. It was a "how could we let that happen!" diatribe at its finest, complete with the hypothetical logic of "if we would have done this!" or "if we would have done that!" when, in the end, the game is over. Rick wasn't belligerent, just disappointed, and over the course of the twenty-minute ride, I gathered that this was a rare night of excess. He was the head chef at a locally-owned restaurant on the west side of town, and he told me he'd spent his entire adult life in the business, starting at seventeen as the grill cook at a Sonic Drive-In.

"One Super Bowl I was working at Hooters for Christ's sake," Rick said, turning his palms and his eyes toward Heaven, or whatever he believed was up there. "I was their best damn cook, so they put me on fuckin wing duty. I went to sleep still doing this shit." He began moving his arms in small circles, like he had a metal bowl in each hand, tossing wings in hot sauce. "If you can work the wing station at Hooters on Super Bowl Sunday, you can do anything. Fucking anything." Rick quit moving his arms and swatted the air as if to say, "Brother, please."

For reasons I couldn't follow, Rick's friends had switched locations before he'd shown up downtown. So Rick, being a true Falcons fan, opted not to bar hop and relished the relative quiet of a place known more for cocktails and bruschetta than lite beer and wings. He could watch a flat screen without distraction, order a beer on demand. But when the Falcons let their lead disappear, Rick only had the alcohol and the bartender to commiserate with in his disbelief. It was sort of depressing, this forty-something man going home drunk to an empty condo, in desperate need of a warm body and having to settle for a twenty-minute ride with me.

But even through the drunken haze, you can catch a glimpse of a man's heart. And Rick was alright, probably the same earnest, endearing man sober as he was drunk—just less demonstrative and introspective, maybe not as quick to drop the F-bomb. He was a man who hadn't let the hops and mash mix into anger, the way so many men do when they live and die by the results of a game.


I've shared some of my encounters with drunks while having a beer or three with friends. They laugh out loud. They ask me why I don't share those stories on this site, instead of writing ad nauseam about Black Lives Matter.  

But it's all in the delivery, isn't it? I can make you laugh, if I think levity is what lies at the heart of the story. I can make a story smack of sentimentality, like my previous post about those nerds. I do have it in me—hope, that is—despite how pessimistic my tone can turn during these musings of mine.

Which is why I'm conflicted about the next story I'm about to tell. I picked up two drunk women recently at a country-western club called the Cotton Eyed Joe, so named for the popular song and line dance. I'm conflicted because of how drunk the women were and how embarrassed they'd be if they read about that side of themselves on the internet. Of course, the same could be said for the women at the country club, or just about anyone I've written about. But it's not you, is it?

The Cotton Eyed Joe exists in the recesses of my mind as one of the last bars where life floated along in that smooth simplicity of youth. It's a club that thrives on its own self-aware cliche, the "J" and "O" on the neon red-and-blue sign shaped like a cowboy boot and spur. The unofficial dress code for women consists of cowboy boots and short, flowing dresses, or Daisy Dukes. The men occasionally oblige with boots and snug Wranglers and a tucked-in Oxford and a cowboy hat, maybe a bolo tie if they've pre-gamed enough.

As for my buddies and I, we never acted the part. We'd only drive the twenty-five minutes from campus to West Knoxville on Sunday nights for the "free dance," when the DJ wasn't confined to the do-si-do. Well, that and the free beer. There was a cover charge, but every Sunday after midnight, pitchers of the most watered-down lite beer were zero dollars. We'd show up at 11:45 and drink till last call, which was around 3. I was the only one who'd act a fool, falling in with the solo line dances, old favorites like the Electric Slide and, of course, the Cotton-Eyed Joe. I'd like to tell you that I chased every clear plastic cup of Natty Light with a cup of water, or that I sweated out enough of the alcohol to sober up for the drive to campus during those pre-Uber, pre-Lyft days. But I won't. 

I haven't been back inside the honky-tonk since I left Knoxville in the summer of '07. And in the year since my return, I've had one ride request to the Joe—a group of female foreign exchange students from Germany who wanted to see "real" cowboys.

But on a recent Saturday night, the same night Drake's new album was released, the ride-share gods inched me farther and father into West Knoxville. I received a Lyft request to an address I didn't recognize until I spotted the neon red boot and spur en route, rising just above the tree line. It was nearing my cutoff hour of 1 a.m. I sat in the parking lot and spun the proverbial roulette wheel of scenarios in my head, wondering why "Denise" would hail a ride nearly two hours prior to closing time.

Three middle-aged men wearing ten-gallon hats were perched on stools at either side of the two entrances, one for 18-and-under, the other for 21-plus. They were swapping bouncer stories, or maybe marveling at the warm March weather, soaking in the calm before the Saturday night stampede of drunks stumbled out in droves. Finally, two women emerged, visible for a brief moment in my rearview. At night, I rarely get a close-up of my passengers. My attention is elsewhere, confirming the destination on my app, cueing up the GPS on my phone, before navigating my way out of strange driveways or apartment complexes or parking lots. I don't have a chance to look them over, basing my initial assumptions on name, location, and tenor of voice.

Denise and her female friend weren't wearing Daisy Dukes, I did notice that, but both were wearing short dresses. They sat in the back seat and were strangely silent for having just exited a club at nearly 1 in the morning. Before I was out of the parking lot, Denise said, "Excuse me, where are you taking us?" She smacked her lips open and shut, a distinct pause between clauses, like she was irritated at me over a destination I didn't choose.  

I fought the urge of a smart-ass reply, calmly reading off an address that was just a few minutes away. As if she didn't remember entering the address, Denise let out an "uggh" and slapped her friend's knee. 

"Can you give him the address?" Denise demanded more than asked. "We need to go back to her house. I can't be without my fucking car. I told you we'd get stuck there."

The friend was giggly and chipper, reciting the new address in a town over, roughly twenty more minutes farther west of where we already were. 

"We should just go downtown," the friend said. "Forget about it—we can get the car in the morning."

"No," Denise said. "Fuck that. We're drunk."

"You're drunk," the friend said and giggled. "I would've stayed."

"Bitch, you weren't gonna get laid," Denise said, teasing in her voice, although I could detect an edge of resentment, too, like maybe the night's plan hadn't been Denise's, or hadn't gone how she'd predicted. 

"Don't blame me for being a light weight," the friend shot back. "Them boys were all up on me, and I wasn't ready to leave."

"What the fuck..." Denise said and paused, her brain working to select what came next, "...are you talking about?" The "about" tumbled from her lips, like the "b" had tripped over her tongue. She'd gone from a relatively harmless zero to a volatile sixty in the time it took me to drive to the main road, only about a quarter mile.

"You weren't goin nowhere but an empty bed," Denise said.

"Let's go downtown and see," the friend said, either oblivious to the condescension or too drunk to care.

I was nearing the interstate onramp when Denise blurted out, "Take us to that Taco Bell up there."

"Rude, party of one," the friend said and snorted as she laughed.

"Um, please," Denise said. 

"Like you need something to eat," the friend said. 

"You're no skinny bitch," Denise said. 

I did as I was told, never one to not oblige the passenger, especially not a drunken one, similar to tip-toeing around a child's potential tantrum, not wanting to shift Denise's drunken attention to me. I couldn't yet piece together the dynamic between the two women, or why it was they'd gone to the Cotton Eyed Joe, or why they'd left early. They were friends, or at least this routine had gone on before, to the point that Denise seemed accustomed to having the upper hand.

The Taco Bell drive-thru was six or seven cars deep, and Denise's friend asked if she could smoke a cigarette. It's a bold ask to make in a non-smoker's car, and I've only been faced with it on a handful of rides. I reluctantly said yes, as I have on the other occasions, not particularly keen on confRicktation, even when it relates to something as innocuous as telling a person I'd rather the stale smell of smoke not settle into my leather interior. But I've always preferred people I've never met to consider me "cool" or a "nice guy," reinforcing my own self-image, often to the detriment of people who have to see me more than once. Besides, I've never found smoking to be all that repulsive, just a vice I never bothered to pick up.

"Just keep it out the window as much as you can," I said.

"You know he really doesn't want you to," Denise said.

"He just said I could."

"You don't pick up on shit, do you?" 

"You need to get laid," the friend said and laughed and snorted.

I cracked a smile myself. Then I heard more of a slight pop than a smack and looked up in the rearview as Denise was retracting her hand from her friend's face. The friend let out a few staccato giggles of shock. I'd obviously never met the two women, so every hole of their story I fill in is merely a hunch, or perhaps a projection of my own experiences. I assumed then that Denise and the woman smoking a cigarette, both in their mid-to-late twenties, were relatively recent friends, probably friends in the way that they'd traveled in a similar weekend social circle, deciding to split off as a duo on non-partying weeknights.

Denise hadn't hit her friend, not in the traditional sense, just pushed her friend in the cheek, enough to turn the woman's head. This was a side of Denise the friend hadn't seen, and in that instant, I could comprehend that she'd already begun to retreat emotionally, aware of the friendship's limitations. She didn't see any use in confRicktation with a woman who would now return to that weekend social circle. 

"What do you want?" Denise asked.

We were next up to order, but the friend didn't immediately answer, still reorienting herself. Denise had put the confRicktation behind her as if it had been a natural reaction in the course of conversation. Whatever kind of liquor she had inside her was blurring conscious and subconscious thought. Her actions, in her own mind, weren't attached to any consequence or reality, only her childish need for retribution, her focus now returned to the hunger pangs.

"I don't need no damn taco," the friend said. 

"Just order something, dammit," Denise said, craving a companion to justify the calories. I'd pulled forward so that Denise was face to face with the intercom. 

"Ma'am, please don't cuss in my ear," the disembodied female voice said sternly.

The friend laughed, still buzzed enough to find the sophomoric exchange entertaining.

"I apologize," Denise said. "My friend's had too much to drink."

"Can you believe her?" the friend said, projecting the question at me. 

"What do you want, what do you want, what do you want!" Denise pouted. "We're not moving until you order."

The situation wasn't yet dire enough for me to intervene, or to remind Denise that she wasn't in control of the brake pedal. "Fine," the friend said. "One of those bell nacho things."

"OK," Denise said into the intercom. "We want a bell nacho and..."

"Ma'am, we ain't got no bell nacho," the woman said.

"Nacho Belle Grande," I said.

"Yeah, that," the friend said, giggling.

"Thank you, sir," Denise said, as if she were addressing me for the first time. "We want a Nacho Belle Grande... and I want a... bean burrito."

"Oh my gosh," the friend snorted. "More like a diarrhea burrito." Denise stayed facing the intercom but reached behind and swatted her friend's leg. Her friend high-pitched laughed at this, saying "Ow," as if they were two kids tickling one another, faux fighting.

"And can I get an order of cinnamon twists and a caramel apple empanada? And a Diet Mountain Dew to drink?"

"Like a regular Dew matters after all that," the friend jabbed.

"That's it," Denise said.

The woman repeated the order and gave Denise the total. The banter had nearly cleared the line ahead of me, creating a disproportionately long line behind me.

"What if I wanted a drink?" the friend said. 

"Shut up," Denise said.

"I should've gone downtown by myself," the friend said.

"She's too drunk to go anywhere, isn't she?" Denise said rhetorically.

"I'm the wRickg guy to ask," I said. 

"You're a nice guy, aren't you?" the friend said. "I can tell nice guys."

"Would you quit hitting on everything with a dick," Denise said.

The friend giggled again to circumvent further insult. I wondered if her response was one of admission, or a learned response to hostility, a defense mechanism to avoid verbal exchanges that could reveal her insecurities.

I pulled to the second of two windows, and Denise handed the woman her card. 

"Sauce?" the woman asked.

"Sauce?" Denise asked her friend.

"I didn't even want the nachos," the friend said. 

"Hot and fire," Denise said. 

"I'm not passing out next to you tonight," the friend said. "Look out below!"

"I'm so sorry for her," Denise said as the woman handed her the bag and drink. "You have a good night now."

I rolled forward but Denise told me to stop. 

"I don't trust them ever," Denise said, rummaging through the bag to double-check her order. "OK. You can go."

I heard Denise tear open what I assumed was the bean burrito. She went as quiet as she'd been since the Cotton Eyed Joe. I'd kept the music nearly inaudible, and Drake's album was nearly halfway through. I clicked to track three, "Passionfruit," and turned up the volume. The friend wasn't smoking anymore but her window was down. The air was balmy. I opened my sunroof as I merged onto the interstate. 

"Oooh," the friend said as the Latin backbeat found its stride, a half-step too slow for the salsa, and Drake began to croon. "Turn. This. Shit. Up!" 

I did, loud enough that Drake could be heard above the wind whipping through the car. I was relieved. Denise was occupied with her burrito, the friend was shimmying in her seat, and I could cruise uninterrupted for fifteen minutes, no more listening to two drunk women bicker. My reprieve barely lasted a full song:

"So, what do you do?" the friend yelled, leaning up between the seats. I have a stock explanation for the existential crisis—leaving ESPN, traveling for a year, coming to terms with mistakes and lessons learned. But I wasn't in the mood for the dramatic Q&A that would surely ensue.

"I had a decent job for a while in the northeast," I said, not yet conceding to turn down Drake. "I saved my money. Decided I wanted to travel for a year, so I left."

"Then why the hell did you come to Knoxville, Tennessee?"

"Close to home," I said.

"Why'd you ever leave then?"

"Wanted to get away from it," I said and smiled.

"Where all'd you go?" she asked. I lowered the volume, realizing there was no wearing her down.

"Ireland, Italy, out West," I said. "Just spent a lot of time with me, myself, and I. We had a lot to say."

The friend giggled and put her hand on my shoulder. "I'm saving right now too," she said. "To see the world."

I was nearing the fork where Interstate 40 and Interstate 75 split, the former headed west toward Nashville, the latter headed south toward Chattanooga. The GPS told me to veer toward Chattanooga, but I grew up in a town on the way to Nashville and you can get to Lenoir City either way. So I asked, "Toward Nashville, right?," and the friend said yes

"What the fuck?" Denise screamed through a mouthful of bean burrito. "Chattanooga, you idiot."

"Sorry," I said. "I was raised in Kingston. Just used to going that way. You two originally from Lenoir City?"

"Hell no," Denise said. 

"I'm from Georgia," the friend said.

"California," Denise said.

"Then why in the hell did you come to Lenoir City, Tennessee?" I said, harmlessly mocking the friend.

"A change," Denise said. "Sometimes you just need a change."

"What about you?" I asked the friend.

"Same," was all she said.

"A change," I repeated.

"So what're you running from?" Denise asked.

"Myself," I said.

"I'm running from everyone else," the friend said and laughed.

"You two are ridiculous," Denise said.   

"Why are you so special?" I asked.

"I came here for a guy," she said. "It didn't work. You move on. No big fucking deal."

"I was actually out you're way back in September," I said. "I drove from here to San Francisco, all the way up the PCH."

"How cool," the friend said.

"I've done it," Denise said, "a few times."

"How'd you two meet?" I asked.

"Me and the guy?"

"No," I said. "You two in the backseat?"

"Oh, we're bartenders," Denise said. "Well, I'm a bartender, she waits tables."

"You like driving for Uber?" the friend asked.

I said that I'd been driving for more than a year without complaint. But I told her she was technically in a Lyft.

"Yeah—I'm fucking paying like forty-five dollars for this," Denise said, chomping down the remains of the bean burrito, then crumpling the wrapper. "Fucking Uber wouldn't take my card or whatever the hell. You owe me, big time."

Denise wasn't paying forty-five dollars, but she was in no state, nor was I, to explain to her that Uber and Lyft are virtually the same app and virtually the same price. I steer the conversations, same as I do the car, and I've been around enough drunks (including yours truly) to know that the war is getting them home without incident. So any battle not directly related to that goal isn't worth fighting. Denise could've said the capital of California is San Francisco and I wouldn't have made a sound.

The silence settled in again as we neared the exit. I pushed the volume up on my steering wheel, letting Drake drown out whatever discussion Denise and her friend were having, something about staying over night, not being able to drive, the friend saying she was all right to drive. They reluctantly agreed on the smart choice. After a pause, the friend tried to whisper, "Check your phone." But the alcohol had rendered her unaware of her decibel level, like someone wearing headphones and screaming over music no one else can hear. "I'm gonna send you a text."

"Whatever," Denise said. "Whatever the fuck you want."

"What do you think?" the friend asked in the same failed whisper.

"You're an idiot," Denise said.

The text wasn't any of my business, nor did I want it to be. I had a hunch and would've preferred the friend heed Denise's advice, just this once. The four-lane highway running through the heart of Lenoir City was empty, fast-food signs and car lots gone dark. The town has grown in population over the past decade, which in small town U.S.A. tends to mean a new factory or two, which begat a few more restaurants, which begat a bigger high school gym or football stadium. But it's small-town roots remain intact, Knoxville still the "big city," the Cotton Eyed Joe as far east as some folks are willing to venture. The bars and clubs of downtown and campus might as well be as far away as California.

I crossed the other side of the highway onto a side street that curved around to an apartment complex. Denise was digging through her purse, the wrappers rustling. 

"Where are the fucking keys?" Denise said in drunken exasperation. "Did you get them from her? Fuck. Text her. If we don't have those fucking keys."

"I thought you put them in your purse," the friend said. "I never had them. You're the one who wanted to leave."

"Way to help," Denise said. "Way to help. Thanks for that." I had parked the car in an empty space and was idling. A light appeared in my rearview. Denise was using the flashlight on her phone, but it was aimed at the darkness in her purse casting shadows across her face, which was oblong and mostly covered by strands of smooth black hair, her complexion olive, her features harsh and scrunched in irritation. 

"Thank. Christ," Denise huffed. "Found them. I'm out."

Denise grabbed the Taco Bell bag and what was left of the Diet Dew sloshed in the cup. She opened the door and slammed it shut. I watched over my shoulder as she walked to the complex, not looking back. Denise was tall and rail thin, despite her friend's claim that she could do without the bean burrito.

"Hey," the friend said. "Do you go out?"

The car was dark except for the greens and blues glowing on my dash. She'd leaned up in the seat, her stale breath grazing my ear, a hint of fruity liquor in my nostrils. 

"Now and then," I said. 

"Like you drink and dance and stuff?"

"I've been known to."

"You want my number?" she asked.

"Um, sure," I said. "Never can have too many friends."

"Put it in your phone," she said. 

I removed my phone from the holder on the dash and opened my contacts as I felt her lean forward farther, peering over my shoulder.

"Wait, you haven't even seen what I look like," she said. She opened her door, clicking on the interior lights. "Look," she said. I craned my neck and left my eyes on her for a few seconds, hoping I wasn't tipping my hand one way or the other. I could describe this woman for you, I could, but I won't. You're already embarrassed for her, just as I was then, the alcohol clouding her judgement of the situation.

Now I'm the one in your crosshairs, my handling of the situation on trial, rather than her lack of inhibitions. I will admit that Denise was more attractive to me physically, and that if this woman had looked like Denise, I would've been less hesitant to put her number in my phone. There is a shallowness to that admission, yet that is the sobering reality, the first-impression concessions we often make for those who are pleasing on our eyes. You could argue that I should've declined her number, not given her false hope, although what would you do in the situation? Would this woman even remember me in the morning? What if the roles were reversed, a man hitting on a female driver? Would the woman be more justified in her dismissal, more justified in her uneasiness with being pursued in a dark car? 

I turned to my phone. "What's your name?"

"M...E...G," she said. "They call me Meg."

"Meg," I said. She recited her number as I typed. "Got it."

"Text me next week," Meg said. "I'm a good time."

I nodded and smiled. Meg lingered for a reply, then climbed out. She called after Denise, "Score."


I told the heavily abridged version of that story to two female friends at a bar. They laughed at the dynamic, the "asshole drunk" friend versus the "silly drunk" friend. They laughed at "diarrhea burrito" and at the number of F-bombs dropped by Denise. They laughed at the whispers that weren't whispers and Meg's bold move.

In fairness, the hilarity of Denise and Meg is, of course, in the recognition of the caricatures, the "I've been there before" connection the two women hearing the story have with the women in the story. That is not lost on me. I can also relate, or commiserate, as the case may be. I can't help but wonder, though, if our fascination with the inebriated doesn't ignore what has driven two women, or anyone, to drunkenness. We soak up what transpires without bothering to consider the disregard for self-control and the demons that led to the dangerous excess.

There is an inherent sadness to Denise and to Meg, the woman suppressing a rage that bubbles over when fueled by alcohol, and the woman perhaps selling herself short, searching for a guy to text her, a friend to treat her with respect, relying on liquid confidence to convince herself she deserves both. I don't find much humor in that. I've given too many rides to too many women and too many men and heard them say words that I can't repeat. I've seen a woman go limp in my backseat, dead weight that I had to help her male friend drag up apartment steps. If I find anything in those people anymore, it's humanity, it's in the self-inflicted pain, in the tangible struggle of one day to the next, however it is you can manage to get there.

I know that struggle. I've been drunk in a lot of bars—in bars across the Southeast, the Northeast, and out West; bars in Chicago and Milwaukee, pubs in Ireland and bars in Italy. I broke my finger while riding a mechanical bull at the Bourbon Cowboy in New Orleans. (For the record, I went longer than eight seconds.) But it all started here in Knoxville, Tennessee, during my four years as an undergrad, when I still had to chug a beer and slosh down a shot, unable to appreciate the bittersweetness of each sip. It's where I first experienced what anyone who's spent any time in bars refers to as "whiskey drunk," that stage when the senses slur as much as the words, when the unadulterated emotions spill out, right along with the vomit. Some of those nights in those bars aren't so much memories as stories that are recited as folklore about a young man I used to know.

There's a dive bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side where I once ordered the "PBR and a shot" deal three times too many. I was later told that I said to a man who was harmlessly hitting on my ex-girlfriend that I would end him. I grabbed him by the shirt collar and actually said, "I will end you." Apparently, the man must've seen something in my eyes to believe that I would, although I'd like to believe that was the Jack talking. I can't rightfully say for sure, even now, because I'm not sure I could tell you what it was the boy inside those eyes was even thinking, or if I would even recognize him.

I'm not an anomaly in that regard. I've driven enough sloshed twenty-somethings (and thirty-somethings and forty-somethings) to worry about people looking down from whatever false pedestal they stand on. Perhaps that unidentified anger and vindictiveness lays dormant inside all of us, in that confounding blur of youth that we often never grow completely out of. The liquor simply awakens it, manifests it in forms that are out of character, or in character that we have yet to face, a side of ourselves that we spend a lifetime avoiding.

This essay isn't a scientific exploration of the societal acceptance of alcohol as lethal drug in America, nor is it about the razor-thin line between a beer or two a night and a problem. I haven't done any research on what constitutes alcoholism, nor have I been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. So I risk this being read as uninformed or flippant, but the reality is addiction and mental instability is singular, a case-by-case basis that can't be defined in a textbook or generalized by a psychologist. Fact is I'm drinking a beer right now, as I write the epode to this impromptu ode. I can't sleep. I'm taking the edge off, as some might say, quieting the voices that can become deafening and debilitating, the voices that speak these words I write, the voices that only you can hear and only you can answer. I was arrested when I was twenty-three for public intoxication, and then I wrote a cover story for a weekly newspaper about my nearly forty-eight hours lost inside the Knox County jail system. I pled guilty to "criminal impersonation" for entering a bar with a fake ID at nineteen. If you're keeping score at home, it was removed from my record after eleven months and twenty-nine days of being "crime free." I've never been charged with driving under the influence, although that doesn't mean I haven't, just that I was fortunate enough to never be caught.

I don't owe you any of this, but to write about Rick and Denise and Meg, to write about drunk people with any level of sincerity, or dare I say humor, I must acknowledge my existence on the other side of the story. Or risk perpetuating the hypocrisy that comes with diagnosing social ills while still partaking in them. It's easy to point a finger and giggle when your head isn't hovering over the toilet.

Nowadays, I rarely get as drunk as that boy I used to be on the Lower East Side. On the occasion that I do, I tend to be as nostalgic and sentimental as Rick, ticking off the places I've lived and traveled, the friends I've made and miss, the voices I'm not likely to hear again. I tell folks that I wish I would've been inside myself for more of those moments, more sober for a life that I can't ever relive. And that, I believe, will always be my regret, that many of the moments I hold dear are drunken vignettes singed at the edges, like old photographs salvaged from a house fire. 

If there is any laughter in that, it is only to keep from crying. 

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