Why I like drinking: a series of interviews

Drinking_Rgarner
Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

When drinking and college converge on a page, it tends to become a notoriously sticky subject.  It makes the headlines when tragedy strikes: an alcohol-fueled death or a catastrophic series of events leading to someone’s violation. We are constantly inundated with the controversies, the reforms and the failures of college drinking culture. For such a ubiquitous 21st-century headline, the feedback is consistently passionate and electric, and understandably so.  After all, when alcohol and college mix to form that A1 feature, it is because they spark some of the greatest tinderboxes of controversy on the American palette.

But what if we were to move away from the greater dilemmas and approach alcohol one drink at a time? I wanted to know about people’s personal relationship with a pastime so intrinsically stitched into the patchwork of college life. According to [email protected], 54 percent of UC Berkeley students drank in the past 30 days. If drinking is a more routine practice than test-taking for many students, then maybe it deserves some integrity.

 

W
hy do you like drinking? I figured the best way to answer this question was to sit down, grab a drink and ask other students. As I started compiling interviews, I noticed common threads among the responses that surprised me. These were people studying different things, in different parts of their life, yet virtually all of them seemed to drink for the same reasons.

“I like drinking because it puts me in a state of mind where I’m more comfortable to talk with other people and more comfortable in my life. More content, is how I would put it. With my life and social situations.”

More content with life? That seems like a strong statement, but the longer I thought about it, the more it seemed to ring true.

The person talking is Ernest Templin, a fifth-year student finishing up his degree in engineering physics. For me, that curriculum would be a reason in itself to pick up the bottle, but Ernest seems to genuinely love what he studies. He’s the kind of guy who could talk ardently about the mechanical optics involved in the creation of an iPhone antenna. (Yes, that’s right, iPhones have antennae.) He is also a classically trained musician.

Ernest shares his thoughts while perched on his cushioned rocking chair, idly sipping from a brown bottle of Fat Tire Amber Ale. The room is tastefully decorated and jazz music resonates smoothly from the speaker system on his desk. From the street level, someone on a night walk might see his upstairs room of Kingman Hall co-op aglow with a warmly decadent mélange of Christmas lights.

“It’s a very social thing and I’m a very social person. That is the main reason why I drink. It definitely gives a confidence boost in both your abilities and your persona.”

With his credentials and amiable personality, Ernest will likely be occupied with a host of job offers just after wrapping up his degree this fall semester. I ask him if he thinks his drinking habits might change when working full time. “I’ve worked in internships and the 9 to 5 before, and most of the time at the end of a long day you just go to sleep. But in college I know I am a night owl and end up drinking more because I have the option to stay up late and wake up late.”

I ask him to describe the sensation of drinking to someone unfamiliar to it, and he begins describing it with the clinical manner of a scientist.

“It gives you a slightly warm full-bodied sensation. You are a little less affected by temperature differences, hot or cold. It makes your vision slightly ‘tunnelly,’ and you have certain social inhibitions that are either relaxed or completely gone. You feel more comfortable saying things to people that you wouldn’t say otherwise.” He reclines back in his chair and laughs. “Sometimes you get a little nauseous when you are drinking.”

Ernest seems like a candid person, there is absolutely no posturing involved when answering my questions. As my first interviewee, I’m curious how his responses might differ from the rest of the appointments I have lined up throughout the week.

Already I had experienced a handful of last-minute rejections. The deal breaker was the lack of anonymity that I felt the piece needed. At first, I assumed I would have no trouble at all finding interview candidates considering the grounds of my offer, but I was coming to realize that drinking was a loaded topic when talked about publicly. People just didn’t want their names associated with it; they had jobs or were about to dive into the working life and worried it might jeopardize their occupational integrity. After all, how could they ensure that their interview wouldn’t become part of another vehemently dark profile on the disasters of college drinking?

Drinking illustration

 

“M
y first experiences with alcohol at Cal were probably in a frat house on welcome week and were similar to my very few high school experiences. Just whatever would do the trick.”

I am sitting across from Collette Wylie at her favorite place to drink, North Berkeley’s Tigerlily bar and bistro. We are situated on rustic wooden barstools and the entire place emanates a laid-back yet sophisticated ambiance. The clientele chat earnestly among themselves in pairs, tending to their artisan cocktails and Asian-inspired California cuisine.

“Right now I am drinking a Fieldwork IPA,” she says.

Collette is a senior majoring in political science, but her job interests extend to the upper echelons of the food service industry. Although she currently works part-time for a photography firm in the Mission, she has aspirations of going to bartending school after graduation. Her outfit is elegantly simple and she moves and talks with a concise deliberation that suggests confidence and thought.

“It gives you a slightly warm full-bodied sensation. You are a little less affected by temperature differences, hot or cold. It makes your vision slightly ‘tunnelly,’ and you have certain social inhibitions that are either relaxed or completely gone.”

-Ernest Templin

“My favorite drink here? It would have to be Sergeant Pepper George. Green chili vodka, becherovka, Oolong tea syrup, condensed milk and lime. My favorite drinks usually revolve around vodka, gin and egg whites.” This is a far cry from the Coors Light of fraternity houses.

The bartender, a young dark-haired man wearing a flannel and a backward hat, wears a warm smile when asking us if everything is going smoothly. It is evident that these two know each other. She thanks him and he returns behind the counter where he starts artfully shaking something up in a mason jar.

“You feel less inhibited. It makes you say things you wouldn’t normally say. The sensation, when used right is a positive one.”

Collette, who turned 21 in March, describes her last few months of alcohol intake as mostly consisting of a drink with dinner. She says she loves drinking but for much more than just the way it makes her feel.

“I like people. When you mention ‘alcohol,’ it usually means connecting with them. It means going out with people for dinner, for drinks, a group activity that provides you with two hours to talk to another person. That is what I think about when I think of drinking. Just a really nice time to connect with someone.”

 

Jamie Payne and Alastair Boone, a former opinion writer for The Daily Californian, have studied English at UC Berkeley and are well acquainted with the ins and outs of publishing houses and local bars. Both are in their final semesters of studies, on the precipice of full-time work as connoisseurs of the liberal arts.

Jamie, 32, is a longtime musician who spent much of his 20s working on large international cruise ships. His Facebook profile is cluttered with posts of drumming videos and the latest progress on his most recent paintings. In short, he has a full-time beard, an obsession with cats that predates internet eminence and a longtime romance with music and literature. In describing his conduit to UC Berkeley, he said, “I came to UC Berkeley because I needed to get off the road, I was drinking too much. The music I was playing wasn’t fulfilling, the life I was living wasn’t fulfilling.”

We agree to meet at The Graduate, a bar on the corner of College Avenue and Claremont Avenue, but I’m half-an-hour late, so the duo has a chance to get a head start by the time I arrive.

If you have ever been to The Graduate, you might get the impression that the bar has been carved into the edifice of Claremont since the christening of the university in 1868. It’s got four stars on Yelp and the regulars swear it’s the best place to start and end the night — any night of the week.

As it turns out, I have a personal connection with this place. The first time I purchased a drink at The Graduate it was at 1 a.m. on the morning of my 21st birthday, a Wednesday. I listened as a middle-aged man in a fedora issued life advice until last call.

When I walk in around 6 p.m., the place is already full and hot as a sauna. Jamie and Alastair wave me down from the back of the pub. They are squeezed around the circumference of a Formica table, sitting on bar stools while someone plays Neil Diamond’s classics on the jukebox. People here seem friendly, at least at this hour.

Jamie has already formulated a sort of flowchart on a napkin in preparation for this meeting. (I have included a polished rendition of the diagram below because of the illegibility of his original handwriting, but to be clear, the concept is all his own.)

Jamies chart

“I’ve gotten very drunk alone. Blacking out? Hmm.” He muses for a second in mock contemplation, “Not so much anymore.” We order a pitcher of Racer 5 and Jamie excitedly gets to work on explaining the interworking of the chart, something he is obviously quite proud of.

“Now this,” he says pointing to the “Purely Social” part of the diagram, “is for dealing with parties that you don’t really want to attend. It’s a Christian art show, the theme is cityscapes and they are serving two buck chuck.”

“The reasons I drink are for enhanced contemplation. Music, school and painting. You can basically get another point of view available for you. It’s a tricky game. I’m not sure if I actually drink to relax or if I simply associate it with drinking. Now I have a drink after school or work. It’s like a reward. You have an alternative point of view ready for you.”

Jamie is a sociable guy with a great sense of humor. It’s apparent he can talk about anything and drinking is a conversation in which he is well versed.

“I spent a lot of time playing music in bars and being on cruise ships. When you go to some of my favorite (overseas) bars, you feel like you have a little slice of home and there’s more blue-collar people.”

In the background, people are getting louder and a line forms behind the complimentary popcorn machine.

“When I’m home in San Francisco, I usually go to Trader Sam’s,” says Alastair of her favorite dive bar. “It’s a combination of people that play Nelly on the Jukebox and a Tiki bar. Often you’ll see six or seven bikers inside, sipping fruity drinks, looking stoic, with tiny women sitting next to them.”

“Now this,” he says pointing to the “Purely Social” part of the diagram, “is for dealing with parties that you don’t really want to attend. It’s a Christian art show, the theme is cityscapes and they are serving two buck chuck.”

Like most people whom I’ve interviewed, she says her college drinking adventures began in the orbit of the Greek system, although she did not remain in a sorority for the full four years.  Plastic handles, compulsive drinking and partying with strangers were common themes. “When I was a freshman, I was drinking cheap vodka,” she says shaking her head. “Now I prefer drinks with tequila.”

 

“M
y name is Charlotte Jamar and I’m a junior at Cal.”

It is nine at night and we are on the deck of a Northside co-op chatting under a sky illuminated by orange light pollution. Charlotte carries herself with a pleasantly amicable manner, smiling frequently, and I can’t help but to notice that she sits with perfect posture before the biology class reader I just interrupted her from reading. She is the appointed health manager at Stebbins Hall, where she lives with 63 other students and works hard to organize social events that get people out and exercising.  She likes to swim, run and hike; the job seems to come naturally.

“I drink a couple times a week. When I turned 21, I started drinking more regularly,” she says.

“Beer, mostly, but on occasion I’ll drink wine. When I drink, I normally drink a beer or even half of a beer at the end of the day.”

She describes herself as not much of a partier, but like everyone else I’ve interviewed, she seems to enjoy drinking for the social effects.

“It allows me to loosen up. I’m not as stressed. Things become simpler. Sometimes when I’m drunk, I’ll make connections that I normally wouldn’t because drinking allows me to slow down and reflect. I feel happier (laughs), usually.”

Charlotte answers the questions thoughtfully, as if carefully handpicking every word. I’m struck by her neatness, the wholesome sense of moderation that she seems to live her life by. So I’m caught a little off guard by her next response.

“I definitely drank more my freshman year. I would go to frat parties nearly every weekend, although I didn’t always drink. But I found when I started drinking, I wouldn’t stop. So I would go to a party and either not have a sip all night or I would go out of control a little bit.”

She shows me an old video of her falling belligerently into some bushes. “I’m already a lightweight, and that night I probably drank a whole bottle of wine to myself.”

This seems to be a reoccurring tale. People tend to go nuts their freshman year, drinking with abandon, then level off into relative moderation as they mature. At the epicenter of the madness is Frat Row. But what was it that was so compelling about the Greek party for youngsters? I decided that if I wanted answers I would have to get them from the ringleaders of the madness, the architects of the party.

 

O
n a Thursday night, on the corner of Derby Street and College Avenue, it is almost eerily quiet. I walk up the acoustic front steps of the old pink Victorian, a six-pack of Drake’s dry-hopped pale ale in my right hand, and knock on the heavy door. In a moment, Jack Gilmore, a Haas senior, opens the door and greets me warmly with a handshake. Inside, throngs of well-built guys are sprawled around the room in various stages of their weekday night. Two of them discuss macroeconomics at a wooden table and hardly flinch as I walk into the room. The rest are on a wraparound couch, leisurely flipping through readers and scrolling through computer screens in their athletic shorts. Jack offers me a seat and we crack open some of the bottles while getting acquainted.

After some introductions, David Nussbaum, a senior studying rhetoric, offers to show me around the place. He explains that they just wrapped up a grilling session on the deck, where I find another small posse of strapping lads hanging out in their sweatshirts on an outdoor couch, talking and laughing, enjoying the mild evening before school gets into full swing. After just a few minutes of observing the social permutations of the group, it becomes clear that these guys are very comfortable around each other. It seems like, well, a fraternity of sorts, and for good reason. Prior to living together in this house, the trio that comprises the night’s interviewees were living in what was once the fraternity house Sigma Alpha Epsilon, or SAE, now resigned as  unaffiliated student housing.

After talking on the balcony, we funnel into Jack’s double bedroom. Surf posters neatly adorn one side of the wall but besides that, the room, like the house as a whole, looks a bit like the centerfold of a Company Store catalog: organized and seemingly uninhabited. Seniors David, Jack and Davis Case sit in front of me on what must be the 10th couch I’ve seen tonight, poking fun at each other and laughing about something.

How would you describe the sensation of drinking to an extraterrestrial?

David Nussbaum:  Sometimes it tastes bad.  Other times it tastes good.  Usually it’s fun.  Sometimes it’s not.

We all wait quietly for elaboration on this proverbial piece of David’s mind, but it never comes.  Then they all erupt into laughter while Jack reaches down for another beer.

Jack Gilmore (with a mock bemused expression):  Well, we got the rhetoric major out of the way… I would say alcohol induces a feeling that gives you both courage and a sense of being carefree, and allows you to have fun in an environment that can often be filled with stress.  It allows you to connect with people on a deeper level without inhibitions.

Davis Case:  It’s a social event.  Whether I go to a bar and meet new people or hang out with my old friends, it’s just a fun way to hang out.

How have your drinking preferences changed throughout college?

DN:  Shitty beer and Kirkland Signature vodka.  It used to be a utilitarian mindset to get to a level that everyone else was on.  I’ve learned that it’s often better to try something new or drink a good beer with a couple friends.

Specifically what were you drinking as a freshman?

DN:  Keystone. Keystone Light.

JG:  We drank a lot of Keystone.

DN:  And something horrible we called, “Rocket Fuel” (everyone moans).

JG:  It’s when you put Jolly Ranchers into a handle of Vitali so it turns the entire thing green.  And you just pretend it’s rocket fuel and drink it.

DN:  It looks, and tastes, like nail polish remover.

JG:  But I would say that as I’ve gotten older, drinking is more casual, and more responsible.  Instead of going 180 degrees with plastic handle, I’m sitting around and drinking on the back balcony.  More enjoyable and it tastes better too.

Do you have a favorite bar?

DN:  I think Taphaus is our place.

JG: Taphaus.

DC:  Taphaus.

Are there drinking hotspots throughout the year?  Do they exist?

JG:  Well, you have to start with welcome week, you consume more than you do all year—

DN: Well those are cop-outs, because everyone is expecting to drink more those days.

JG:  But I do.

DN:  But what about the sleepers?

DC:  Well, actually Labor Day was a big one for me…

All: Game days.

“I would say alcohol induces a feeling that gives you both courage and a sense of being carefree, and allows you to have fun in an environment that can often be filled with stress.  It allows you to connect with people on a deeper level without inhibitions.”

-Jack Gilmore

How much do you drink per week?

DN (Cracks open another beer): Now?  One time per week.

DC: 1-2 times a week.

JG:  See I lived in the fraternity house for the past two years, so if you look at those years I was drinking probably 3-4 times a week.  Now as a senior getting ready for recruiting and interviewing, I drink probably about 1-2 times per week.  Trying to temper my habits there.

Why do you like drinking?

DN: It allows me to interact with people on sometimes a deeper, sometimes a more surface level.

DC:  It’s the social aspect.  You’re not only hanging out with people while you’re drinking, but also before, when you buy the alcohol, and after.  Since I’m living with these dudes we’ll all come together and talk about what happened last night when we are sitting down sober the next morning.

JG:  Everyone says you don’t need alcohol to have fun, and that’s true, but alcohol allows you to let down your guard and be who you are around people who you really enjoy being with.

David: Fun and alcohol aren’t mutually exclusive.  You don’t need alcohol to have fun, but sometimes it’s fun to drink.

JG: Like Davis said, alcohol is a medium to reach another social level of interacting.

DN:  And also beer poops.

Walking home I reflected upon the drinks, the people, and the parallels I encountered during the interviewing process.  Besides their status as full time students, the interviewees seemed to have little in common.  Yet their motives for drinking collectively echoed virtually the same sentiment: I like drinking because it makes it easier to connect with other people.  If alcohol is a bridge between two different people, then of course Frat Row would be your first party pitstop if you are a disoriented freshman amongst forty thousand strangers.  But the odyssey to understand each other is never quite over, we are always grappling to fasten a link between ourself and others.  Sometimes a beer in your hand just makes it that much easier.

 

 

John Lawson is a writer for the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]