I got sober here almost thirty years ago. That’s what struck me last December 31, as I danced my butt off in the basement of St. Anthony of Padua’s Roman Catholic Church on Sullivan Street in New York City, welcoming in the New Year with a mob of sober drunks. Yes, here I was dancing under the influence of something more heady than Moet this New Year’s Eve, surrounded by mylar waterfall curtains, and the familiar pull down shades of AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, changing color with every turn of the disco ball.
In the fall of 1991 I was sitting in the second of sixteen rows of folding chairs, a box of Kleenex on my lap, flanked by massive columns that supported both church above and my shaky sobriety below. Now here in the countdown to midnight, voguing to Madonna with a Woodstock hippie in pajamas, I realized this was the very spot I had counted my first 90 days without a drink or a drug decades ago. This was where the Soho Group of Alcoholics Anonymous met, and still meets today. Flash back to me in gold tights and a green suede mini skirt, crushing on a rockabilly cat across the aisle. Thank you Johnny Cash wannabe in the stretched T, you kept me coming back to AA for that first year—you and my sponsor Cindy, the big sis I never had. After the meeting, Cindy and I would hit the Malibu Diner on 23rd Street for oversized Greek salads with extra dressing and bottomless cups of decaf. Cindy taught me how to stay away from the first drink and how to smudge a make-up pencil to get that smoky eye look. From September to December, 1991, the Soho Group, the boy with the ducktail, and my glamourous sponsor, poured the pillars of my foundation for a life lived without mood-altering substances, one-day-at-a-time.
. . .
Around midnight on December 31, 2019, wearing frames I’d picked up at the dollar store that flashed “2020” in three speeds, I felt safe—safe and happy raving with a few hundred personalities swigging seltzer. In my drinking days, going out dancing never felt safe. There was the time I fell off the stage GoGo dancing on the boardwalk at Coney Island, and once I walked home alone over the Brooklyn Bridge, at 3AM, in a red sundress. I meant to take a cab, and had even tucked a twenty dollar bill in my bra for that purpose, but I ended up spending it on more vodka cranberries instead. Staggering barefoot in the pre-dawn down an unlit staircase onto the off ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, heels in hand, fear overtook me and I started running. For blocks and blocks I ran down the middle of the street, where it felt safer, where I could spot shadows lurking between cars, all the way home, until I reached my building—relieved, ashamed and baffled by my behavior. Scared of waking my landlord, I tiptoed up three flights—this was not new—but every creaky step betrayed me. I dreaded passing Babe the next morning, sitting on the bench in his dooryard, combing the supermarket circulars. He was less like a landlord you write a check out to on the first of the month, and more like an Italian uncle who would scold you for parking too far from the curb, or wasting money buying coffee out, instead of brewing it at home. I knew Babe always heard my key in the lock as dawn broke over South Brooklyn, and I knew he saw those empty bottles of Chianti, tucked under tomato cans in the recycling bin.
. . .
Yes, now I felt safe—here clasping hands with a little girl and her sober mom, twirling around a church cellar at the Soho Group’s New Year’s Eve Dance. I felt safe, happy and damn lucky to be back here on the very spot that I had clung to for that first year, that spot where I first surrendered to sobriety and felt safe, as I cupped warm urn coffee, and took it all in, in small sips. Tonight I knew where I was, and I knew I’d get home safely. I knew I’d remember everything the next day, without remorse or a sour stomach.
“Some don’t make it back.” I’ve heard that said often in the rooms of A.A. After sobering up in my mid twenties at the Soho Group, I stayed alcohol-free for thirteen years, making Brooklyn Heights my home group for years, until just after the birth of my first son. The promise of A.A. as “a bridge back to life” had come true. I had a life: a husband, a house, and now a fat baby at the baptismal font. But I was doing zero maintenance on that bridge—my connection back to AA was crumbling. I’d drifted. I’d moved deeper into Brooklyn with my non-alcoholic husband and away from my homegroup. I’d lost touch with my sponsor and most of my sober friends. And then it happened. I slipped. But I was one of the super lucky ones. I didn’t have a full out sloppy slip, with blackouts and benders and smash-ups with the family KIA. It started with just a sip. In my mind I’d decided it was safe to start taking communion wine with my wafer at Sunday mass. No matter that countless practicing Episcopalians take the host but pass on that sip from the silver chalice. And for years, this was the extent of my drinking, one sneaky sip I looked forward to on Sunday mornings. Then other things happened. I’d heard that beer was good for breast-feeding. I latched onto that rumor, like a babe at the breast. I started downing O’Douls “non-alcoholic” ale at our weekly mommy nights. When I went to my dentist for a routine filling, I insisted he tap the tank of laughing gas, when novocaine would have numbed well enough. I remember that buzz which settled over me in the dentist’s chair. Relief, I thought. From everything.
Soon after I woke up and realized my marriage was over. I was a wreck. Day drinking seemed like an option. A friend offered me a mimosa in her home. I took one sip—panicked—snuck to her bathroom and poured the rest down the drain. Soon after that, I climbed up one flight of stairs over a fish store and entered a crowded room with flies circling. I started counting days, for the second time around. At forty-eight, I was a humbled newcomer again. My sponsor was twelve years my junior. It was awkward, yes, but it felt honest and right to reset my sobriety clock. And thanks in large part to these no-nonsense oldtimers of Old Park Slope Caton, my kids have never seen me drunk.
. . .
In my twenties, before I poured that last bottle of Four Roses whiskey down the kitchen sink, my twin loves were drinking and dancing. I started drinking fairly late, at 19, when I’d help myself to my father’s scotch, put on his headphones, raise the volume on his Ohm speakers, and burn rubber to The Gap Band. Booze and boogie shoes quickly became my dream couple, allowing me to float in a fantasy stupor where all care and self-doubt slipped away. From there I went on to be a “maniac on the dance floor”—a self-destructive eighties girl flash dancing her way through four years of college—squeezing that last cup of beer from a warm keg.
For fun, my alcoholic brain sometimes likes to play this game where I remember fondly (but falsely) occasions where liquor paired perfectly with certain activities like ball games with Budweiser, or tailgate parties with pina coladas, picnics with blushing Zinfandels, or art gallery openings with jugs of Gallo red. But the winner of this stagger-down-memory-lane game is always dancing with drinking. Evenings out started the same: plug in the hot rollers, mix a cocktail, and get down while dolling up, still in my underwear, to the Saturday night line-up of DJs on WBLS and Hot97. A whiskey sour next to my make-up mirror was the kick-off. Stepping out an hour later, with coral lips and cat eyes, and Run-DMC in my head, I felt just fine. And that’s how it went, in my twenties. But over time, nights out ended in close calls with questionable characters and near scrapes in unknown neighborhoods. Every one of those nights, however, had started out just fine. From Halloween dance parties in Bushwick lofts with Solo cups of mystery punch, to doing the twist on the Coney Island Boardwalk while taking nips from a hip flask of Jack Daniels, it was always a good time. Until it wasn’t—until someone flicked a cigarette and started a fire, or until I fell off the band stage on that Coney Island boardwalk.
. . .
If only evenings could have ended as safe and fun as they had started out. It really only ever felt safe to drink at the start of my drinking, as a teen, in front of my dad’s turntable, moving to Stevie Wonder coming from his Koss headphones, in the safety of my childhood home. And if only my drinking and dancing partner Mary was still here. Mary, who dared me to put down my rum and Coke and never-finished Times crossword, and climb up onto the bar with her at Peter McManus Pub in Chelsea. Dear, departed drinking playmate and party girl Mary. Quirky, curly-haired writer Mary, in rhinestone glasses and GoGo boots. Loyal friend Mary, who helped me through heartbreaks and hangovers. Subversive yet wholesome Mary from Michigan, who baked soda bread, wrote thank you notes, remembered nieces’ birthdays and snorted lines of heroin. I never made the connection between her non-stop runny nose and her habit until years later, when her boyfriend called me to say he’d found Mary dead from an overdose. I pictured her slumped in a fake Queen Anne armchair, pale as parchment, her dark curls against floral upholstery. She was forty-six.
Indeed, I danced my way through my drinking twenties, but I was hardly dancing with the stars. I was working as a waitress at the LoneStar Roadhouse near Times Square. At closing time I’d do lines at the end of the bar with the manager, and once, with a customer who talked me into leaving with him. I went home with this grown man who, as it turned out, still lived with his parents somewhere way the hell out on Long Island. I remember feeling increasingly unsafe passing exit after exit on the LIE, riding unbelted in the death seat of a stranger’s Toyota. I remember turning up the volume on the radio and singing along to Chaka Khan: “I’m Every Woman… It’s all in MEEE…” Any drug that can delude you into believing you’ve got the pipes of a 10-time Grammy Award winner, well, that’s a great drug. Until it isn’t. He led me to a mattress on the floor of his parents garage. I’ve heard it said in the rooms of A.A. that God watches out for children and drunks. Which maybe explains how I got myself out of that one—while still fully clothed—and was able to call a cab to take me all the way home in those pre-Lyft late-eighties.
One gift of sobriety, along with holding down a job and not losing my kids to the courts, is that I now get to do something I really love, dancing—safely. I’ve hit many an A.A. group anniversary, where I’ve joined Friends of Bill W. on subterranean church linoleum, cleared for dancing. I still start getting ready at five, with my own creation: The Magoo (cranberry juice, sparkling water and two wedges of lime, served up in a fancy glass.) I still tune into WBLS. I wear less make-up now, but still move to the music. At six I head out to scoop a friend in my KIA beater. The koolest legend, Kool D.J. Red Alert, is blowin’ it up over the airwaves and through my car speakers. I pull up, safety-belted and chair dancing in the driver’s seat. My date is tall and her dress is short and sparkly. “Damn girl, who’s your target? These all gotta watch out!” Beatrice has all the head boss and eye looks as Mary. And a wit just like Mary’s too, drier than a Wasa cracker or top-shelf vermouth. It’s going to be a fun night, I think. Throw your hands up.
I really love Alcoholics Anonymous group anniversaries. They are feel good phenomena that pretty much follow the same format: a meeting, followed by a potluck, then sometimes, dancing. I gravitate to the ones where there’s dancing. Everyone shows up bathed and beaming to celebrate the founding of their “homegroup,” the group they most regularly attend, where they know other people, and are known in return. Sober drunks with sixty years and sixty days come to these. A church basement or parish hall is dressed up in balloons and crepe garland; Hershey kisses scatter folding tables, covered in plastic cloths. The speakers are often old-timers with good stories to tell, pulling in outrageous details of their “drunkalogues” or firsthand details about the group’s early days. The dinner spread is legit. A line of volunteers dish out baked ziti, collards and fried fish from foil casseroles set up over sternos. Urn coffee and birthday cake for dessert. I’ve developed a taste for those giant sheet cakes with piped icing. The ritual of eating that 2” square of cake, along with every alcoholic in the room eating theirs, is a highlight for sure. A centered feeling comes over me as I lick frosting off a plastic fork under twinkle lights. I am safe. And this is fun. Details may vary from group to group, but every space feels hallowed on these nights. The people who populate it are thankful for their lives, freed from the hamster wheel of addiction, just for today.
Then dancing happens. I bring the DJ a bottle of Poland Spring and I’m “setting it off” to one-hit-hip-hop wonder Strafe, while folks are still on the food line. When the clean up crew starts collecting cola cans and rolling up tablecloths, I’m still on the linoleum with any takers I can pull up off their folding chairs. I can’t say Beatrice and I have shut down every A.A. party from northern Manhattan to the outer banks of Brooklyn, but the bulletin board of Alcoholic Anonymous’ Intergroup is a good place to start for leads on sober dance happenings.
We head home a little after eleven. DJ Chuck Chillout has pulled out his airhorn. I drop Beatrice off, she bends into the passenger window and smirks: “I had a great time tonight. Maria N. gets a second date.”
. . .
Group anniversaries and sober New Year’s Eve parties aside, I dance mostly on my yoga mat, to the line-up of Saturday Night DJs on WBLS, or to my own ‘80s Hip Hop and New Wave playlists. I’m still self-conscious when I share in meetings, or read at open mics, or take my top off to new a lover, but at home or in public, I’m comfortable on the dance floor, even if I’m the only one dancing. I don’t claim to quite find my Nasty with Miss Jackson anymore, but even well into middle age, and without a craft beer in hand, dancing still brings on my happy—more than ever. Clear-headed, I tap into that elusive “conscious contact” with my higher power. I feel everything in the present moment—neurons firing through my fingertips, the beat beneath my bare feet. I am a consenting adult at my own one-woman rave, enjoying this gift of sobriety: a healthy body doing what it loves, and hurting no one, especially not itself. Of course, when I’m out dancing, there’s the bonus of connection with other abstaining alcoholics. Doing the Electric Slide with fifty friends of Bill—in-sync, or close enough—well, It’s Electric.
. . .
“We drank alone. But we don’t get sober—then stay sober—alone.”
It’s 1:30AM and I’m still on the dance floor, throwing hands up with oldtimers and seven-year-olds. The Woodstock hippie shuffles in his drawstring polar fleece, cotton wadded in his ears. But no amount of cotton can drown out the cheer that went up at the stroke of midnight and echoes even now.If it’s in the cards, in twenty years, on New Year’s Eve, 2040, I’ll be 75 and I’ll be here, surrounded by these poured cement columns, getting what’s left of my groove on with a beautiful group of sober drunks.
. . .
Where can you go to dance yourself happy? For one thing, the International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous of New York City (ICYPAA NYC) throws a serenity dance cruise on the Hudson in July. But if AA dances aren’t your thing, consider “Conscious clubbing,” a term coined by Samantha Moyo, founder of Morning Gloryville, a sober breakfast rave phenomenon launched in East London in 2013, and which has spread to cities worldwide. Some Morning Gloryville events have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but online raves are happening right now. And LOOSID a sober social network, with a mission to make sobriety fun, puts out playlists, and pairs subscribers to events of interest too.
Tonight, still sheltering-in-place here in The Baked Apple, New York City—one hot spot of the COVID-19 pandemic—Beatrice invited me to Reprieve, a clean & sober non-stop dance party. I registered for free through Eventbrite and joined the dance floor, courtesy of Zoom. By the end of it we were doing backbends over our sofas to Total Eclipse of the Heart. Before signing off, I reached out to Beatrice in the comment thread : “Let’s do it again,” I typed. “Totes.” she typed back. Sure, I’ll return this Saturday night to dance with sober drunks. It looks like it’ll just become the latest turn in my healthy sober dance move.