Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan
It’s nearly January, and though my thoughts should be occupied with the holidays, the bowl games, and clearing snow from my driveway, I am still mourning the end of the baseball season.
It’s not the baseball itself I miss. Three months after the last out of an ignominious Brewers season, I’m hard-pressed to remember a single moment that didn’t involve a trip to the disabled list or litigation. In truth, I’m in my early-winter melancholy because I miss Miller Park, my most reliable source for free drinks.
Not beer. There are plenty of places in Milwaukee where you can find a complimentary libation pressed into your hand. What I miss is pulling into the stadium parking lot, tearing off the stub of my parking pass, and turning it in at the lower concourse level for my free Pepsi. Yes, Pepsi.
There is a delicious irony in having to go to the home of a team called the Brewers to land free soda. But I’m not driven by irony alone. I have a chronic illness that I wouldn’t mention at all, except that it drives my hard nondrinking ways. My Crohn’s disease can feel like I’m digesting broken glass, when it’s not controlled by diet and vials of medications lined up like tasting flights from Walgreens. And that’s what I was talking about at Froedtert Hospital one afternoon with my doctor.
“Would it be a major lifestyle change,” he began, “for you to give up alcohol?”
I thought for one brief second. “No. Probably not.”
“Good,” he said, “because I’d recommend it.”
I should have qualified my answer. It has not been a major dietary change. But in Milwaukee – Brewtown, USA, where beer seems to run in the veins of its residents – it is a major lifestyle change to tell people that you don’t drink.
And so a nondrinker in Milwaukee turns to subterfuge to hide his dirty little secret. A cocktail glass filled with cranberry juice looks identical to a vodka and cranberry juice. A mug of root beer made by Sprecher Brewing Co. looks identical to something sludgy and alcoholic.
Yet inevitably, you encounter a situation in which your next drink order is in someone else’s hands.
Person at party: “Let me get you a drink. What are you having?”
Me: “Just a ginger ale.”
Person at party: “What? Oh, come on – are you sure?”
Me: “No, really – I love ginger ale. It’s gingery and sparkly and dry all at the same time.”
When I moved to Milwaukee eight years ago, people cautioned me that this is the kind of city in which friendships run deep enough that it might take awhile to find a social niche. So within a couple of years, I’d taken up curling. Every week, I’d spend a few hours burnishing my competence at sliding a 47-pound slab of granite down a sheet of ice while remaining upright, then retire with my teammates to the social hall to, ahem, debrief.
And, as my teammates would slug down the shots of lime schnapps that materialized on the table in front of us, I would nurse a tall glass of Sprite, thirst-quenching and, I must say, satisfying. But after we’d talk a few minutes about the night’s curling exploits, it was tough to keep the conversation on common ground. Hey, I see you enjoy natural and artificial lime flavoring in your drink, too … And so I slid away from curling.
I am not a sociologist, but as an observer of my adopted hometown, it is impressive to note how many of the things that bring Milwaukeeans together come with a chaser: a trip to the zoo, where a stroll along monkey island can include a beer with the bonobos. Summerfest, the ethnic fests – it’s a city not only of Oktoberfest, but of Novemberfest and Decemberfest.
And the traditional lines are blurring. As I write this paragraph in a suburban coffee shop, living the writer’s cliché, there’s a group buying beer at the front counter.
So what if you don’t drink?, you say. We don’t mind having a teetotaler along for the ride.
And that’s a fine line of reasoning, right up to the point that the nondrinker realizes that he’s the only one in the room who is not
actively altering brain chemistry, and that puts an additional 6 inches of room between me and the city into which I’m trying to assimilate.
A couple of months ago, I ran into the father of an old college buddy at (where else?) a ballgame. “Hey! Let me buy you a beer,” he said, excited to see me.
“Thanks, but I’m off beer these days. Medical reasons.”
“No beer? I’d rather be sick.”
No, he wouldn’t. But I do see his point.