Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Rosie Schaap writes the monthly “Drink” column for The New York Times Magazine. She has also contributed to This American Life and npr.org. Her memoir, Drinking With Men, will be published in January, 2013 by Riverhead Books. You can follow her on twitter.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Rosie Schaap: I couldn’t have been more than six. My parents had thrown a party on Christmas Eve, and I was first to rise on Christmas morning. They hadn’t cleaned up after the party, and there were snifters on the table that still had a few sips of Amaretto in them. It smelled like candy, so I drank it. My parents woke up to find me laid out under the Christmas tree, snoring.
How did your family treat drinking?
Perhaps because there was, to my knowledge, no history of alcoholism in our family, there was a relatively unburdened, unworried, and open attitude about drinking. My mother was a very funny, dazzlingly glamorous, abundantly affectionate, and often spectacularly difficult person whose tastes in most things—film, music, art, and drink—reflected her upbringing in 1950s New York. She had more than a touch of Holly Golightly about her (mixed with some Marjorie Morningstar and, alas, a bit of Medea). She loved cocktails popular in her own young womanhood: A Brandy Alexander, a Grasshopper, a Bullshot, a Harvey Wallbanger, a whiskey sour on the sweet side, and frosty beach drinks like pina coladas. She played the role of bon vivant (is there a feminine equivalent for that phrase?) capably, but in truth it took little to give her a good buzz. Two drinks were usually enough for her. She also believed the oft-repeated line that there are no Jewish alcoholics (yes, we were a Jewish family that celebrated Christmas, because mom liked any holiday that involved decorating, presents, and food) which of course we know isn’t true. So I think my enthusiasm for drinking and, more specifically, for bar culture, came as a surprise to her. She got it; she liked bars too, though she seldom was a regular at one. But when she realized that I had, in college, become a bar regular, she worried more about some terrible Looking for Mr. Goodbar kind of scenario than she worried about the alcohol itself; she was more concerned about who I was drinking with than what I was drinking.
Because I write a column about drink for The New York Times Magazine, I dedicate one night a week to tasting something new and/or special, or checking out a new bar. But I’ve been at home in, and in love with, bar culture most of my life, and I don’t think that will ever change, so I still stop by my favorite neighborhood bars two or three evenings a week, but usually for no more than two drinks. Drinking without a social context—without conversation, without friends, without the lively hum of a bar or a party, without a sense of community to accompany the pints or cocktails—doesn’t interest me. Three days a week I don’t drink alcohol at all; in middle age, I need those days in order to get work done. I’ve heard that there are people who can write while drinking. I’m not one of those people.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
Yes to both. I drank a lot in college, and in the decade after I graduated. My drinking probably peaked in my mid-20s. I think that’s a deeply unsettled, hazy time for many women. I had no idea what shape the rest of my life might take, and the bar was a refuge from fretting about that. Drinking at home, alone, has never been my thing. But in my 20s I put in long, long stretches at bars almost every night, often from early evening to early morning. Inevitably, I packed a lot of drinking into those many hours. As for drinking less, I really slowed it down in my late 30s. With age, my habits have changed out of necessity, not by design. I’m 41, and I just can’t drink as I did in my 20s and 30s. I drink much less now, but I think I drink better.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
Oh, that depends on the time of year, the time of day, the place, my mood. My standard order, since I was 20, has been a pint of Guinness and a neat Jameson. But I love a strong, well-made cocktail, I love earthy red wine. I love good gin or crisp cider in warm weather, and whiskey and rum and all manner of hot toddies in winter. My palate for drink is much like my palate for food: If it tastes good, it is good. Although I make it my business to know what’s going on in the realm of liquor, fashions and trends in drinking mean little to me in my everyday drinking life; they are, by nature, ephemeral. I drink what I want, I drink what gives me the most pleasure. But I do go through phases: last summer I knocked back a lot of kalimotxos, a classic Basque combo of cheap red wine and Coca Cola. (Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. SO good). Right now, I’m having a little romance with rye Manhattans, on the dry side.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
My happiest memories of drinking always involve, first and foremost, happy memories of people. I spent the summer after my freshman year of college studying in Dublin. At Trinity College, I learned about Irish literature and folklore and history. But at Grogan’s, my favorite pub, I learned how to be a good regular—a kind of code of openness and generosity and collective spirit. And when I say generosity, I don’t just mean knowing when it was my turn to buy a round. I also mean a kind of discursive generosity, the importance of not dominating a conversation, of listening to my fellow drinkers, of showing a bit of deference to a great, professional bartender. Later, I found equally wonderful communities in the New York bars where I was a regular in my late 20s, and many of the people I met back then remain among my closest friends. If I enjoy the company in which I drink, I enjoy whatever I’m drinking, no matter if it’s really plonky wine or the most exquisite cocktail I’ve ever tasted.
What about the worst time?
I recount this story in detail in my memoir, Drinking With Men. I was 17. I had dropped out of high school, gone to work in a bookshop in New York for a spell, then took my final paycheck and bought a one-way plane ticket to California, just in time to catch a Grateful Dead show in Oakland. After that, I followed the band down to LA for a few more shows, and made what seemed to me, at the time, a killing selling tie-dyed t-shirts. I spent much of the money I’d made at a dive bar in Inglewood where I drank something like 21 shots of whiskey. I blacked out, of course. I came to briefly in a motel room crammed with hippie kids, then fell back asleep. The next time I woke up I was about 350 miles north of LA, with no memory of how I’d gotten there. But I was told about what happened the night before in great and distressing detail, and I felt so lucky to be alive I almost kissed the ground. That loss of control terrified me, and I never went on a binge like that again.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
Drink is a pretty powerful muse. It’s hard to pick just one book or song. My friend Kate Christensen is a superb novelist whose works often feature drinking scenes (her first novel, In The Drink, perfectly captures the fraught relationship young women trying to figure out their place in the world often have with alcohol that I suggested earlier in this interview, but with great tenderness and humor and understanding, not judgment or prescription). I’m a devoted fan of Kingsley Amis’s witty, funny, opinionated writing on the subject; what drink columnist wouldn’t be? There’s a line in “Chivalry,” a song I love by The Mekons, that has sometimes haunted me during tough times: “Fear and whiskey kept me going.” Looking back (especially on that night in Inglewood), I know that has sometimes been true for me. But then, so have these lines by Bertolt Brecht:
On a gray morning,
In the midst of whisky,
God came to Mahagonny
God came to Mahagonny.
In the midst of whisky
We noticed God in Mahagonny.
Substitute Dublin, Montreal, or New York for “Mahagonny,” and I’ve often felt that way, too.