Illustration by Lily Padula
My sister got her first ticket for drunk driving while a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
She was in La Crosse again when she got her second OWI – operating while intoxicated – this time as a 26-year-old college dropout who was partying during Oktoberfest. She blew a 0.18 when police pulled her over going the wrong way down a one-way street. She was not a very sympathetic character to the judge, who gave her the maximum fine of $1,200 and the minimum jail sentence – five long days in La Crosse County Jail.
When she was released, thinner than normal after refusing to eat, she was driven home to Milwaukee by our mom. She spent the next 45 days in the passenger seat while her license was suspended and was restricted to an occupational license for a year. When she drives to work, she blows into an ignition interlock device to prove that she doesn’t have alcohol in her system. The device costs her $1,200 for the year. It goes off spontaneously, forcing her to blow into it while driving.
Her sentence includes a 30-hour Multiple Offender Program, which features classes every Saturday morning at Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Downtown campus. One of her assignments was to bring a “concerned other” to class to lend moral support. I volunteered to go.
The class had 14 offenders – all but one on their second OWI – and 11 “concerned others.” The instructor talked about how she used to drive drunk before fully understanding the consequences.
Participants in the program were in their mid-20s, like my sister, to late 50s. Their stories ranged from pathetic to frustrating.
There was the bartender who stayed after his shift to drink with friends; the woman who went out to celebrate after her divorce was final; the girl who was sleeping in her car and failed a sobriety test when a cop showed up; the man who was changing a flat tire and stumbled one too many times as a squad car drove up; the woman approaching her 30s who admitted she’s been under the influence since she was a teenager.
Drinking has never been taboo in our family. Our mother recently switched from brandy Old Fashioneds to vodka cranberry – it’s too hard to find a bartender who knows how to make an Old Fashioned when she travels.
It was our fun-loving but hot-tempered Italian mom, however, whom my sister was most afraid of after her second OWI. She confessed after the three of us saw Ragtime at The Rep last fall. They screamed at each other on Wells Street for what felt like 20 minutes but probably was closer to two. And then our mom, in her typical, supportive fashion, made sure my sister had called a lawyer (she had) and figured out what to do about work when she had to serve some jail time (she was working on it). Mom later rearranged her schedule so she could go to La Crosse and wait while my sister served her sentence.
Just two weeks after The Confession, the three of us went to Minneapolis for the weekend. My mom brought vodka and cranberry juice.
The multiple offender class was a mix of facts about drinking and driving laws, personal stories, and video clips from news stories about texting-while-driving tragedies and drunken-driving fatalities.
The melodramatic stories reminded me that I’m lucky: Lucky that I’ve never been a victim. And lucky that I’ve never been caught.
It’s easy to judge a room full of “multiple offenders,” but I’ve also stayed too long at too many happy hours and driven home. The difference between me and my sister: luck.
One night after a book club get-together, my friend tapped the car of an undercover cop while parallel parking. She was arrested that night for her second OWI. I probably had as much wine as she did but I made it home safely. The difference between me and my friend: luck.
The week my sister was arrested, a drunk driver went through a stop sign in Kenosha County and killed a 5-year-old boy. It was the 29-year-old driver’s fourth offense.
I have a 3-year-old daughter. I can’t imagine the loss that boy’s family has felt.
We live in a state where drinking is part of the culture. Tailgating is as much fun as the sporting event; church festivals sell beer. Wisconsin has been cited by the Wall Street Journal as having among the most lenient drunk-driving laws in the country. Milwaukee was recently named one of the most hungover cities in America in yet another alcohol-related survey that “honors” Brew City.
Isn’t it time to sober up? ■
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of