Sober October: Part I

That time we ordered a bunch of drinks at Bar Shiru in Oakland... Back when we could order drinks at the bar.  (Pendarvis Harshaw)

My longtime friend Charles Perkins—funny guy, real insightful professional computer programmer who grew up in the hood and is kinda on the cutting edge of a lot of cool shit—goes on a limb and says he’s jumping into that Sober October movement.

London, another friend—talented R&B artist, acclaimed bowler, table tennis tyrant and dart-throwing fanatic—says he’s in.

Me, an impressionable friend who happens to love sipping red wine while writing late at night, hops in the thread like, say no more fam: “We in this thang.”

It’s been ten days: 45 news cycles, a handful of natural disasters and the death of Jonathan Prince marking yet another police killing. Plus the Oakland A's got my hopes up just to lose to the Astros in the playoffs and break my heart again. I haven't even mentioned politics nor my personal life. Suffice it to say: there's plenty of reasons to have a drink. But I haven’t given in, and I'm proud of that.

That pride doesn’t just come from surviving the first presidential debate—the equivalent of standing next to someone ironing a musty t-shirt—it comes from breaking away from habitual actions. A broken cycle. This past week represents change in the most minuscule fashion, but small change is better than a big bag of the same ole shit.

Anti-alcohol sign on the Jibboom st. Bridge in Sacramento.
Anti-alcohol sign on the Jibboom Street Bridge in Sacramento. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I’m not the only one who's been on a 2020 binge. Drinking is up in the United States, according to anyone paying attention to social behavior. If you need numbers and statistics, peep this NPR article from last month. It says that according to Nielsen, alcohol sales are up. And, at the same time, many in-person AA meetings aren’t happening. That doesn’t bode well for the long term when it comes to alcohol, Americans and health.

Do I have a drinking problem? Uh… I mean, who really does? I more so have a, "Oh man, I drank too much last night" problem. You know, the "It’s 2am? Ok, just one more glass of wine" conundrum.

We’re all familiar with the “Daddy, why does your breath smell like that?” issue.

Yeah, that’s what I’m dealing with.

I’m drinking more than usual. White wine with this lunchtime salad. A shot of bourbon before that 6pm video chat. When my friend Will died a few months ago, I had tequila for breakfast, took a shower (had tequila in there), wiped my tears, got dressed and then started my day.

Twenty years from now there'll be a knock at my door. When I look through the peephole and see my kidney standing there, punching its palm with a fist, talking about how it wants payback for the way I treated it in 2020, I won’t be surprised.

Alcohol is pervasive. It’ll jump into you. One minute you’re talking to a neighbor, next thing you know you have a Corona in your hand. It’s one of the most widely marketed things in our economy—billions of dollars are spent each year to ensure that you can’t venture into a city center without encountering alcohol advertisements.

I know alcohol is one of the strands that make up the fabric of this society. I question whether it’s holding it together or holding it back.

On one hand, in a year like this it can seem damn near asinine not to drink. Over two million people worldwide are dead from a virus that wasn’t on the map in October 2019. America, with over 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, compiles even more reasons to drink with its ever-present layers of racism, police violence and race-based inequalities, packaged all up in an election year unlike any other.

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On the other hand, there’s got to be another way other than drank.

Driving down Fruitvale Avenue last Friday, I saw some of my folks having a posthumous birthday celebration for a childhood friend, Willie Clay, who was killed 14 years ago. Balloons. Airbrushed T-shirts. Big bottle of dark liquor on the steps. If I would’ve pulled up, I would’ve poured up. Another reason to drink.

I hit the horn, tossed up the peace sign and kept pushing.

On Monday I stopped in North Oakland to pay my respects to a childhood friend’s grandmother, Albertha Bell, a woman who fed me on plenty of days as a youngster. After turning down a few shots of Hennessy from loved ones and awkwardly trying to hold conversations with folks I hadn't seen in years, while wearing a mask, I had to dip. The reasons to drink were just too persistent.

The next day I woke up to news that my neighbor’s uncle, Frank Cordero, passed due to kidney failure. My first urge was to buy the family some flowers and a bottle. I settled on donating to their GoFundMe.

Honoring the dead without alcohol is odd. But one week of being grounded, focused and sober helped me realize something about life. Breaking personal habits clears the lane for critiquing larger cycles. Seemingly individual traits are more than likely inherited behaviors.

That one time I had beer and wine while sitting fireside on a rooftop in downtown Oakland.
That one time I had beer and wine while sitting fireside on a rooftop in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

This past weekend began with a phone call from my uncle in Brooklyn, concerned about the spread of wildfires. It was late even on west coast time, so when I figured his words would be slurred, my prediction was right. Two days later, a Sunday morning call with the woman my father is dating bookended my weekend; she was concerned about him relapsing, and asked if I could do anything about it. I called his Northern Florida area code of 904 and talked to him, but beyond that, I realized, there's really nothing I can do.

All that I can really do is for myself. And the first thing is getting familiar with cycles, and realizing that these cycles are familial.

That said, I get where I’m at. How I’ve been drinking since I was a teenager. And how this international pandemic is probably one of the most alluring reasons to keep on down that path. All across this country, folks are throwing back a hard scotch on the rocks in a comfy chair or slamming a shot of cheap vodka straight out the bottle while idling in the corner store parking lot.

There’s plenty of reasons to drink. But, for whatever reason, I’ve jumped into this Sober October thing.

As we deal with elections, the approaching holiday season and the end of daylight savings (seasonal depression be kicking my ass), I’m choosing this random set of 31 days as a reason not to drink.

Let’s see how it goes. I'll keep you posted.

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