What Drunken Driving Taught Me

I hadn’t been to a gay bar in ages. Between Covid and addictive “dating” apps for cruising inappropriately unavailable men, it seemed an almost quaint idea. But on the evening of New Year’s Day, the first Saturday in 2022 — which could have been the start of a much-needed dry January — San Diego didn’t have much else to offer a bored, divorced, nearly senior tourist from New York. So I drove my rental convertible to one unsatisfying bar and then to another more interesting one, a small leather dive called the San Diego Eagle.

One Wild Turkey on the rocks led to another, as it often goes with me, a heavy drinker for decades. When the bar closed at 2 a.m., I knew I should not drive. But after stumbling around looking for sober-up sustenance in a shuttered neighborhood, I fell into my rental car.

I didn’t notice that I had nicked the passenger side mirror of the car parked in front of me as I pulled away from the curb. Nor did I understand why a man started violently pounding on my window as I drove away. Safe in my hotel parking lot five minutes later, I got out and walked a block on El Cajon Boulevard to McDonald’s. That’s where several policemen surrounded me outside, threw me against a patrol car and handcuffed me.

“This is a setup,” I yelled. “You’re profiling me because I came out of a gay bar!”

An officer politely assured me otherwise and said that after the man at my car window phoned to report me, a helicopter made a video of my erratic driving. I had to take a breathalyzer test, walk in a straight line and answer questions. I demanded to know why the cops surrounding me weren’t wearing masks when the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was surging. They ignored my imperious tantrum. Moments later I was in the back of a police car.

At a downtown police station I was thrown into a cell, or maybe it was called a holding tank. Inside, under unflattering lights, someone slept with a jacket over his head on one of two steel benches beneath a banged-up pay phone. Next to him a lidless toilet overflowed onto the linoleum gray floor.

As the hours passed, more men joined us. None seemed as agitated as me, a person who can’t even wait for a table at a trendy restaurant. One man kindly told me how to use the number on my wristband to call a bail bondsman who took my case and found the number of my one friend in the area, a divorce lawyer with a sense of humor.

“Someone’s had an interesting night,” she told me when I reached her in the morning.

In a way, she was right, given the novelty of an experience that, thanks to the leg up I had in life, I knew would eventually end.

Most of these guys had been in jail before. Most seemed to have no money for bail, and many sounded ashamed when they had to call parents or spouses, especially when they told them how much they needed.

After 16 hours, a bologna sandwich and a tiny carton of milk, I was released. I could feel my privilege reeking like a strong cologne and, with something between admiration and incredulity, one of my cellmates asked, “You had a friend to pay your bail?”

Months later, after major fines, 16 hours of community service, lawyer fees and a broken car mirror to pay for, I signed in to my first of 12 weekly California court-mandated 90-minute D.U.I. group rehabilitation meetings on Zoom. I had six two-hour education sessions ahead, too.

At the group rehab meeting, I had to introduce myself by telling my story, which I filled with disgruntled details about being framed, rather than hideously drunk, while driving. I regretted mentioning I had a lawyer because our facilitator seized on it to let me know that nobody was above the law. (Paul Pelosi learned that when he was arrested and accused of drunken driving after a dinner party in Napa, Calif., last spring.)

“Nothing’s going to fix it, no matter how much money you have,” the facilitator said.

She was tough, obsessed with rules, and the months ahead with her seemed impossibly long. I tried to switch groups. But the agency providing the service couldn’t help.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one person dies in a drunken driving crash every 45 minutes. That grim statistic is behind the mandate Congress attached in 2021 to the infrastructure bill requiring that, starting as early as 2026, automakers equip cars with technology that can prevent impaired driving. Until then, willpower and common sense are the only equipment that so many of us have.

Like a resentful adolescent, I stuck with my program and, despite myself, learned a thing or two. Our instructor told us that one in three drunken drivers forgets what he’s learned in training and ends up in bigger trouble. Learning that it can take hours for each shot of alcohol to leave the bloodstream — drinking water or coffee or eating something doesn’t do much — had its intended clarifying effect on my nights out.

By the time I finished my course, driving a car while drunk felt unthinkable, and in addition, I’d cut way down on my Manhattans and martinis and lost 15 pounds. My disdain for our tough group leader, who told us in harrowing detail about her own struggles, turned to appreciation. Somehow this unlikely group of fellow reckless drivers had become if not family then familiar to me, and our regular time together had become an emotional ballast.

At the end of my last meeting, members wished me luck. Then our group leader bid me well and added that she didn’t expect me back. She hit the end meeting button and was gone, leaving me with free time on Wednesdays and a certificate stating I’d completed the course for my record.

Another January has rolled around — much drier, this time. What lingers now, over a year after my arrest and months after my last group meeting, is a sense of vigilance. Also a delayed sense of shame. Regret and humiliation, not indignation, are the response I should have had that New Year’s night.

Life is full of dangers and many are worth the risk. Driving drunk isn’t one of them.

Bob Morris is the author of “Assisted Loving,” “Bobby Wonderful” and “Crispin the Terrible.” He is a frequent New York Times contributor,

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