To Live and Die in LA

I have a very intimate understanding about my limitations with alcohol. I stand at about 5’6,” I’m a rail thin 130 lbs., and on an empty stomach, even a sip of wine will make my face tighten and my skin blush. I think it also has to do with being Asian: statistically speaking, one third of the Asian population does not produce alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that helps break down alcohol. That said, I also have a sad belief in the stereotype that a “real man” can handle his liquor. So when my out of town buddies get together for a night of carousing the streets of Los Angeles, you know that I’m going to be ordering my cocktails with the best false bravado I can muster. At the end of a good night, my head is just slightly fuzzy and my motor skills are diminished only negligibly and I certainly don’t vomit.

The night I’m going to relate to you was not one of them.

Sometime, December 2003.

Steve, my very good friend of ten years, flew in from his swank setup in Manhattan for his annual visit to see his family and other people, like his friends: myself, trapped in suburbia, and Dave fighting the war in the urban battleground of the big city. Every year the tradition is to go to LA and have a few drinks and a few laughs. This year, we also added Andy, an old high school compatriot, to the festivities. It was about eleven PM by the time we got to our destination. I hadn’t eaten since three.

Another part of the tradition, I suppose, is to go to a Korean bar, since Dave and Steve are both Korean. Steve phoned ahead to get directions while he drove. The Korean bar we were going to was New York, New York, located on Wilshire and Western, in case you’d like to experience the Korean bar scene for yourself. Forty-five minutes later, we were parked and we strolled into the joint trying to look inconspicuously cool as bar etiquette dictated.

Dave was waiting for us at a small row of squat, circular tables he had wrangled together for our party, puffing away coolly on his fancy eurotrash cigarettes. I’ve known Dave for almost fifteen years and during that time I’ve never admired him for his physical attributes or sense of style. Now that our relationship has dwindled to a “see you whenever” basis, Dave has seemingly morphed into a “cool guy” icon overnight. Here’s a quick visual. Dave is appreciably tall. He’s thin with a slender face. He has stubble bristling over the area around his mouth and chin. His flaxen hair is long and thin and hangs down over his eyes. He’s got this kind of intriguing, self-important image about him that draws you closer only to be repelled by his dismissive personality. I grabbed the chair closest to him and basked in his aura while I adjusted to the surroundings. Steve, stockier than all of us and who would probably last the longest of our group in a fight, grabbed a chair opposite me and talked to Andy about law school.

Being in a Korean bar is jarring for me in the same way Mormon gatherings are. I’m conspicuously aware that I’m in the dark skinned minority. In fact, when I looked around, the only other person who was close to my complexion was Andy–a tall lanky Indian whom I was never close to and whom I could never read. We had shared some classes in high school and he hung out with Steve and Dave mostly, so I’d have to classify Andy as a second-degree friend at best. That being so, I would have to look elsewhere for dark skinned camaraderie.

On the up side, you can smoke in Korean bars. They get around the inspectors by not having any ashtrays in the conventional sense. They craft these makeshift ashtrays with plates and wetnaps, easily passed over by the eyes of the most scrutinizing inspector.

Since it wasn’t a full bar, the alcohol for the evening was a Korean beer called Hite and a Korean alcohol called Soju. I had had Soju the year previous and I remember liking it since it was largely tasteless and smooth going down. It’s similar to vodka, actually. So to get things going I had a couple of shots of Soju in between scarffing down handfuls of complimentary popcorn to soak up the alcohol.

For about forty-five minutes we knocked back drinks and yelled conversation across our small cocktail tables, and then the alcohol caught up with me. I started slurring my speech and wobbling in my chair. I wasn’t out of control mind you, but I was definitely on my way. Logic dictated that I curb the drinking and begin the process of sobering up, but it was too late. I was functioning under the twisted version of logic and instead ate more popcorn, thinking that that would stave off alcohol poisoning.

Forty-five minutes later, we all decided to leave and do something else. I suggested we eat to soak up the alcohol, but no one else wanted to eat and I didn’t want to be the lightweight who hampered the evening’s festivities. So I said I’d be fine without food and that I had had enough popcorn to see me through. As soon as I stood up and walked outside, however, my concern for how much I was reacting to the alcohol jumped up considerably. I ran a quick mental diagnostic. Motor skills severely compromised. Body temperature dropping to dangerous levels. I stumbled outside and I was shivering. At that moment, I knew that I stood on the threshold of being completely shit-faced so in the back of my mind I was hoping that it was too late in the night for other forms of entertainment to be viable, but then someone mentioned late night karaoke.

I protested adamantly and said that I would simply go with them, but not sing. Of course, what does that really mean when you’re the drunk guy? Dave turned to me and said, “You got to pop that karaoke cherry sometime,” and that settled the argument. So I dragged my carcass into the backseat of Steve’s Honda Accord and shut my eyes, convulsing in shivers the way I had done four years ago after a particularly ugly alcohol binge when I was vomiting for about four hours. The correlation was not comforting.

I could already feel the chemicals swishing around my innards like the chemical catalyst to a bomb. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, hoping that when I woke I would be safe in my apartment with the night behind me. No such luck. Steve turned on the radio and, being midnight on Saturday, all the stations played techno, rife with “bwoops,” and “zoots,” and sound bytes of Martin Luther King Jr. Furthermore, my head was reclined far enough back that my face was no longer beneath the roof of the car, but instead under the incline of the rear window. What this afforded me was constant acid trip flashes in my eyes through my eyelids each time we drove under a streetlamp, which were many. The techno and the lights all melded with my stupor into a private rave inside my head.

We drove for about twenty minutes. Finally we stopped and Steve and Andy debated quickly over if we were allowed to park where we were. I was oblivious to the particulars because I was still playing asleep in the hope to dear God that they would just leave me in the car. My hopes were dashed with Andy grabbing my knee and rousing me. With inexplicable strength and willpower, I pulled myself out of the car and into walking motion. Andy and Dave went ahead and Steve and I brought up the rear. Ten yards into the trip the sudden rush of saliva to my mouth was the harbinger of doom. I grabbed the railing of a nearby flight of steps to steady myself as I prepared to puke into a nearby sewer grate. Steve came running back and tried to pull me in his direction. I suppose he had found a more suitable receptacle for my vomit, but the gravy train had left the station and I could only manage a few feet before I exhaled a pint of hot steaming liquid into a nearby planter. Dave returned to slap my back while I spasmed and he told some curious security guards that I was all right.

After that glorious moment together passed, we climbed and climbed a seemingly infinite stairwell. At the top, I vomited some more. “Round two,” Dave called it and he held the waist of my coat away from the blast radius. I was beyond all consideration for where people may have to walk the following morning and just puked right there on the walkway. Chunks of partially digested popcorn riddled the liquid on the ground and Dave exclaimed excitedly, “Ooh popcorn!” and squatted down, placing his face disturbingly close to my vomit.

Afterwards, we caught up with Andy and gathered inside the late night karaoke place. It was one of those places that rent out private rooms so you can sing to your heart’s content without the fear of strangers ridiculing you. Having freshly vomited, I basked in the mental effects of alcohol while being free of the intestinal effects and thus was filled with a surge to make a fool of myself. So, while my buddies were still looking over song selections and instructions on how to work the machine, I grabbed one of the mics and sang the first two verses of My Way and then closed off with a “Goodnight Seattle!” Then I sat catatonic on the edge of the couch while my compadres rocked out to In My Places. Finishing that, Steve wanted to hear my full rendition of My Way, so he selected that as the next song and we sang a duet together, altering the lyrics where appropriate. I thought that would be a fitting end for my singing contribution and I found that the pain in my head and the queasiness of my stomach could no longer be ignored, so I decided to lie back on the couch and be as inconspicuous as possible.

I attempted deep meditation to calm my throbbing skull and my tumultuous bowels, but Dave turned the volume on the karaoke machine up to stadium concert decibel levels and the sound pierced through my eardrums and into my brain like knitting needles. Meanwhile, Steve attempted to draw me out of my meditation by coaxing me to sing our song from past math classes, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. I was really feeling like shit, so I declined, not wishing to break my concentration. So Steve went it alone, starting with the sexy baritone that the beginning of the song calls for. Hearing his voice fill the lyrics whisked me away to our sophomore year in high school, writing line after line of math for seemingly endless algebraic proofs, with nothing to keep us sane but this one song between us. So when it came for the alto to chime in, I couldn’t leave my friend hanging. I grabbed a mic and screeched out with the best falsetto I could muster. From there, Steve and I sang both parts where we pleased. We were both Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield at the same time! It was wonderful and terrible to behold. Afterwards, I collapsed back into the sofa, spent. Now nothing could call me away from Zen. Or so I thought.

I’m not sure who selected this track, but Sixteen Tons started to play. A bit of background here: as someone who works in a highly physical profession–I’m a server at a popular Italian restaurant–I can sympathize with the words of Sixteen Tons like no other. As such, the song holds particular sentimental value for me. My friends are fortunate enough to have jobs that are not as physical or no job at all. Steve is a paralegal for a hoity toity law firm in New York. Dave is a bond writer for a Los Angeles based Korean business. Andy is a law school student. These guys singing Sixteen Tons is like singing the national anthem of a foreign country. There is something lacking in the delivery unless you really experience it. To hear my friends butcher the song was more grating on my mind and soul than any amount of inebriation could ever be. Like Lazarus rising from the grave, I cracked open my eyes and commandeered the nearest mic and began singing the song with the kind of gusto and passion that the song deserves much to the fear and dismay of those around me. Their singing stopped momentarily and they stared, wide eyed. Then the song ended and I crashed onto the safety of the couch once more.

Then some scary shit happened. Somebody selected In Da Club by 50 Cent and a few measures in I was compelled to the nearby corner trashcan where I vomited another good pint of liquid. Then I lost all ability to sustain that position and I remember collapsing towards my side. I use “towards” because I don’t remember ever hitting the floor. When I came to, I was twitching. My head was resting on a raised part of the floor used as a makeshift stage with the corner gorging my temple and the unmistakable flow of blood was gushing from my nose and soaking into a small pool into the dark green carpet. Saliva drooled out the corner of my mouth and ran up my cheek. For a moment, I experienced what I like to think bad stroke victims feel when they lose all ability to move but their mind is still intact.

I was freaking out, watching my limbs and torso twitch like that! More absurdly, my friends continued to sing their damn song, blissfully ignoring the epileptic mass of flesh in the corner. Realizing no help would come, I returned to diagnostic mode. I tried small movements, like my foot and then my leg. After those preliminary tests, I realized that there was no cause for panic and set myself upright again and over the knee-high trashcan so I could let my nose bleed into my vomit for a nasty cocktail. A few moments later, Dave approached me to gaze upon my works and despair. I assured him that I was fine, once again, not wishing to be the guy who ruins the night. Afterwards I managed to situate myself onto the couch and bleed out the rest of the night into my hands and my handkerchief.

After a few more screeching ditties, our hour rental was up and we stumbled out into the night once more, but not before a Kodak moment of tomfoolery with Dave and Steve leaning completely horizontal off spring toys that children ride in a small park we had found in the center of the mall. Once we got back to the street, I shoved myself into the backseat to rest while my fellows smoked and tried to get Steve to puke to sober him up for the ride home. For my part, I concentrated on warm thoughts and played with the drying blood on my fingertips, sticky and full of texture.

Cigarettes done and Steve unable to induce his own vomiting, Dave poked his head inside the car and we said good-bye. From there, Steve, Andy and I drove up and down one of the shittiest streets in America that jostled my bowels while we tried to find an on-ramp to the freeway. I was forced to have Steve pull over lest I vomit onto the nice Korean doilies that covered his car seats.

Right palm placed steady against a brick wall, I forced out the last remnants of my stomach while Andy snapped a picture on his digital camera. I was slightly mesmerized and bewildered by my regurgitation because I noted something moving amongst the debris and I could only hope it had already been there pre-vomit. Afterwards, back in the car and on the road, I made the standard drunken apology for having mired everyone down in my incapacitation. “What are you talking about?” Andy asked genuinely, “The night isn’t complete until someone bleed-vomits.” Steve concurred and apologized to me for not having joined me in the vomiting with the world spinning gloriously behind us. I managed to crack a smile at the thought. Mercifully, I passed out on the ride home. When I awoke, we were at my apartment complex and I bid Steve a safe trip home and told Andy how it had been good to see him after such a long time. Then I stumbled upstairs and after about an hour of tossing and turning and listening to my stomach I fell asleep. The following morning I went to work without the slightest trace of a hangover.

I have a death wish. I know this with utmost clarity and I’m okay with it. I’ve often wondered when and how my death will come about. In all probability, I will probably die in some alcohol related death. I repeatedly poison myself with it. I ride with people who are under its influence. I drive home across long distances at stolen car speeds while alcohol slows my reflexes and blurs my vision. My only hope, since not-drinking-alcohol is not an option I’m willing to take, is that I die in as good of company as the friends that saw me through that particular evening. During my time as the burden of the evening, these guys, minus the minor seizure fiasco, really looked out for me. The following day, Steve and Dave gave me a call to make sure that I hadn’t vomited in my sleep and gone the way of Jimi Hendrix. These guys are definitely people I would gladly die with.

And I’d like to think that I came close to it.

Here’s to next year.