In the terrible, often carefully hidden, mental category of ‘things I have done in the past that I am not proud of, and indeed ashamed of,’ my driving drunk–on many occasions–must take dubious pride of place.
I learned to drive as a teenager, and often drove during my college years–through New Delhi’s even-then chaotic roads–borrowing our family car from my mother. These were short trips, and I did not ever, it seems, drive to and from a party where alcohol was consumed. Matters changed once I moved to the US for graduate school.
Shortly after I secured myself my first teaching and research assistantship, I decided the time had come to buy a second-hand car for commuting. I bought a Toyota Corolla, and used it to drive to campus, to my classes and my work at a campus research lab. I also used it to drive back home after an evening spent drinking in pubs–either on or off campus.
I was not a light drinker (international students were notoriously prone to heavy drinking.) I drank beer by the pitcher; I liked to keep drinking till I could tell the alcohol had changed my perception of myself, the people I was surrounded by, the world I lived in, my take on states of affairs around me. That is, I drank till I was good and drunk. As I continued to drink, I would discover the wisdom of the old adage, ‘you don’t buy beer, you rent it.’ And then, when I was done drinking–in all probability, because I had run out of money, or because the campus pub was closing, or because I had become ravenously hungry–I would stagger out, head for the parking lot, get into my car, and drive home.
This pattern continued after I began working at Bell Laboratories in Middletown, New Jersey. I drove thirty miles each way to work–in a Toyota pick-up truck–and often went out for drinks after work with my colleagues. We drank beer for hours, and sometimes closed out the night with a whisky or two. We snacked during our drinking–something I did not do in my graduate school days–but there was no doubt that our BAC was still alarmingly high when we left to go home.
I never got pulled over; my only ticket for speeding came when I was stone cold sober. I never ran across a DWI check on a local road. I got lucky, very lucky. But I flirted with death and negligent homicide nevertheless. Two horrifying recollections from that period: on one occasion, I drove into the divider on a state route, badly damaging my front tires; somehow, I managed to pull the car to the side of the road, walk to a pay phone, and call a tow truck before a police car showed up. On another, I woke up in the morning, unable to remember where I had parked my car.
I do not know why so many of ‘us’ drove drunk. We were young and male, and that had something to do with it. Bad things happened to other people, not to us; and besides, we knew what we were doing. Or so we thought. Drunk driving was not approved of by many around us; but we forgot about that social norm once we were three sheets to the wind. One of us got busted for drunk driving, and lost his license; he was a repeat offender. We clucked our tongues and went right on driving drunk. Sometimes, I would chastise myself and resolve not to do it again. But I think I broke down all too often.
Shortly before I quit my job and went back to graduate school, I sold my truck. Thanks to insurance hassles, I was sick of driving that damn thing. And I was going to go live in New York City; I did not need a car. From that point on, a night of drinking would end with me in a subway car, or, when I could afford it, a cab. And when I didn’t drive, the horror of what I had done in the days when I drove drunk sank in.
But nothing quite reminded me of the distance I had come and of the catastrophes I had been singularly fortunate in avoiding like a Brooklyn College student’s thesis, written on the topic of New York State’s efforts to combat drunk driving–through a combination of laws, market pressure, and social norms. She was writing it in memory of her uncle, killed by a drunk driver on a highway. Sitting in my office, talking to her as she struggled to maintain her composure while she explained the impact of that tragedy on her father, her family, her cousins, I confessed to having been a drunk driver in my past, even as I could not look her in the eyes.
Note: The title of this post is derived from an Australian anti-drunk driving campaign slogan: If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.