My Last Call for Drinking in Philly

Philadelphia culture is steeped in booze. And the city’s resurgence is all but built on imbibing. So what happens when you decide you’ve had enough?

Illustration by Tim Parker.

Illustration by Tim Parker.

I tend to begin a lot of stories with, “I was listening to a radio program, and … ”

Ideally, you assume this anonymous program is Fresh Air or This American Life. Perhaps a great new podcast you’ve never heard of. I’d settle for Radio Lab or All Things Considered.

We’re about to get pretty personal here, however, so I’ll come clean with you up front: I was listening to Preston & Steve. It’s pretty much always Preston & Steve. I’m 31 years old, and I think fart sound effects are funnier than ever. There you have it.

Anyway, as I was saying, I was listening to Preston & Steve on the way to work, and they were discussing how much Americans drink. Like the hosts, I was shocked to hear how much some of us are throwing back — according to one study examining the costs of alcohol control in the U.S., the top 10 percent of drinkers consume, on average, almost 74 drinks per week.

Suddenly I felt a lot better about my Saturdays in the Citizens Bank Park parking lot. Not to mention my Sundays at the “pool club,” which is basically a large puddle in Northern Liberties surrounded by pitchers of margaritas. By comparison, my happy-hour habit didn’t look so bad at all.

My relief, however, was short-lived. I was nowhere near the top tier of imbibers, but according to the study, I was still drinking more than most. Maybe not egregiously, but enough to start connecting some dots on a Monday morning.

Now, I had considered that I was drinking too much before. Of course I had. You don’t drunk-text your dry cleaner without asking a few questions the next morning. But I had never seen it all laid out so neatly, with cold, hard numbers illustrating how I measured up. I had never known the number of drinks a woman can have in a week and still be considered a moderate drinker. (The consensus seems to be around seven, for the record.) I had never Googled — and then tried frantically to un-Google — the number that constitutes a binge (two fewer than it takes me to dance in public).

And this was going to be a problem. Because while I’m strangely comfortable ignoring my health, after spending 13 years in the Philadelphia Catholic school system, I’m much less able to ignore rules. Especially rules with numbers.

There are a lot of things I have yet to learn to do in this life, but sitting down, shutting up and following the rules isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m scary-good at it. If the key to success was memorizing commandments or adhering to draconian dress codes, well, you’d be reading about my Fortune 500 company in Forbes, not about my drinking problem in a local magazine.

So, no, turning a blind eye to my newfound drinking limits wasn’t really an option. Regrettably, neither was relocating to England, where lenient health officials allow a much more generous 14 drinks per week. My dogs hate the rain, and my Philly accent doesn’t translate well.

IN MY DEFENSE, I had been following some rules, if not the CDC’s. My grandfather, who celebrated his 90th birthday with a pint at Coach’s and named his cat after Schmidt’s beer, passed on some handy guidelines for drinking in Philadelphia. They go something like this:

1. If possible, don’t drink until 6 p.m.

2. If not possible, find a clock that sees things your way.

3. Remember to tip your bartender.

My people, you see, aren’t only Catholic; we’re Northeast Philadelphia Catholics. We have open bars at funerals and kegs at christening parties. Our God so loved the world that He returns once a week in the form of box wine. It’s not that you can’t avoid an alcohol problem in the Northeast — you certainly can, and most people do — but if you’re prone to ordering the third round, you have plenty of company along Frankford Avenue. (I’m a little biased, but I’d argue you have The Best Company.)

The only part of the city that could, in theory, out-drink the Northeast is the one I currently call home: Deep South Philly. There’s not much that surprises me here anymore, but even I wasn’t prepared for January 1st at Ground Zero. As West Philly gathered for New Year’s potlucks and Fairmount went to yoga and even Old City slept in and lay low, Two Street said, “You know what, fuck it. Let’s roll around in some feathers and get this party started up again.” Mayfair might have taught me how to open a bottle of white zin with an Ugg, but it was Whitman that showed me how to pressure-wash beer-soaked confetti off my sidewalk.

Not that the rest of the city is the picture of sobriety. Far from it, especially these days. Alcohol is seemingly central to “New” Philadelphia’s revival as both a place to visit and a place to call home.

Over the past couple summers, we’ve perfected the art of — maybe even invented the art of — the legal-loophole pop-up beer garden. Our bartenders have become celebrities, and our coffee roasters have spun off artisanal distilleries. Philly Beer Week, a 10-day celebration of our drinking past, present and future, confidently claims to take place in “America’s Best Beer Drinking City.” Sure, there are art galleries and concert halls and, soon maybe, boutique hotels in Fishtown. But it was Johnny Brenda’s that sparked the neighborhood’s transition from blue-collar to bougie, and let’s be honest: No one is crossing the bridge or booking a room for hot yoga and locally made ceramics. They’re there for Frankford Hall, Barcade and Morgan’s Pier.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. Philly’s top-notch drinking scene is great for the local economy, and it’s great for a night out. But again, if you’re trying to avoid eye contact with the next round, you might find yourself in trouble. Alcoholism — a word I’ve somehow tiptoed around for a thousand words now — is a lot harder to spot when it’s wrapped up in the guise of culture, whether that culture is beef-and-beers in Bridesburg or $16 craft cocktails in Bella Vista.

IF IT ISN’T already obvious, I’m not qualified to give any advice, and I won’t attempt to. What I will say is that if you have a little voice in your head that wants to talk about how much you’re drinking, know that it’s not going anywhere. Because here’s what I’ve learned about that little voice: After years and years of being brushed off, it doesn’t take rejection personally. Like that guy you met on OkCupid with the dreamcatcher tattoos, it’s perfectly content to wait around and bide its time on the sidelines until you’re good and vulnerable. Then, it’ll come on strong with everything it’s got.

Fortunately, the conversation wasn’t as difficult as I feared. Maybe I have good genes. Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Maybe, like everything else left over from my 20s, my drinking problem was so half-assed that it couldn’t stand up to a little questioning. Either way, I’m grateful. The devil on my shoulder, while still alive and well, is a much more agreeable tenant these days, and he almost never goes on late-night Amazon shopping sprees anymore.

That’s not to say I don’t miss sticking around for last call. I do. Because while there’s a lot to be said for drinking less — you feel better, you look better, you sleep better, you sex better, you headstand better, you eyeliner better — there’s also a sense of loss.

Some of that loss is very concrete. I was devastated to discover that my beloved corner bar, the one I’ve spent years defending as a misunderstood national treasure, is nothing more than a smoky, greasy little hole. There were a few friendships that couldn’t survive on Diet Coke alone. It turns out that I hate karaoke, and my days as a casual sports fan in this town are, I’m afraid, over. Without something to take the edge off, I just can’t stand to watch all that losing.

What I really miss, however, is a little harder to put my finger on. Drinking, for me at least, was always more than liquid and ice and a glass. And it was more than a pleasant buzz. It was a type of communion with the city, a means of connecting, an effortless way to tap into the energy of a time and a place and become part of the fabric. The ritual of sitting down to the bar and sharing a few drinks, whether on Frankford Avenue or 13th Street, was a big part of my relationship with Philadelphia.

I suspect I’ll never be able to truly replace that feeling, and that’s okay. If I learned one thing in my 20s (emphasis on “if”), it’s that sometimes you have to let go of the things you love to move forward and grow. But at the same time, I’m no Oprah, so I also learned that you need to supplement that coffee-table Zen with a good solid crutch.

Most people go with their version of God. Exercise is popular. I have a friend who swears by the sobering power of bonsai trees. Personally, I’ve found that pizza — that other storied indulgence that Philly is known for far and wide — goes a long way in filling the void. Lorenzo’s, in particular.

There’s a common misconception that Lorenzo’s tastes better when you’re drunk, but I’m here to tell you that no, no it does not. It tastes best when you’re stone-cold sober for the first Saturday night in a decade and can appreciate its simple, honest beauty. Each bite is the perfect balance of old and new, of decadence and comfort, of nourishment and vice. Go for the second slice, and you’ll even get to catch up with your old friends regret and bloating in the morning.

The best part? There’s only one rule at Lorenzo’s, and it’s not that hard to follow: No toppings on a slice.

Published as “Broad Street” in the March 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.