We have a problem in this country. We tell our young people that they're never — ever — supposed to drink anything but water or Sunny D until they're 21, and then we set them loose into a society rich with "drinking holidays" all over the country, from Fargo to Fort Lauderdale, where you're encouraged to gather with thousands of other inebriated people and "have a good time." That's just a recipe for disaster. So here are some of the best pieces of advice we could come up with for that newly minted 21-year-old about to have his first drink in a public setting (wink-wink).
Not a fine time to start drinking — One of the unwanted effects of a really big drinking holiday is that phenomenon known as "Amateur Night." People who don't drink suddenly decide to give alcohol their best whirl. This is not recommended for obvious reasons. You'll have one hour of fun and, if you're lucky, you will wake up the next day in a dirt lot off Michigan Avenue with a chip bag stuck to your face. (And that guy you thought was Willie Nelson? ...) Though it's probably unrealistic to suggest, you might try doing your first St. Patrick's Day stone-cold sober, just to see how hot the messes can get.
Flying solo — There are plenty of reasons to have a co-pilot, from having a designated driver to having somebody to watch over you (so long as you choose somebody you trust). Going with somebody isn't absolutely necessary, but be aware that going alone means you want to stay aware of what's going on around you. Lurking around any corner could be somebody peeing on a wall, a roofie-slipping creep, or even a drunken, finger-biting mad Charlie LeDuff.
Come early, come late — Properly tailgating usually involves arriving so early you can find a decent spot to park your vehicle. But you have to consider what can happen when arriving hours and hours early with a car loaded to the door handles with cold beer and whiskey. If you're going to arrive early, keep in fine fettle for the long haul. Don't think you can manage? A better approach might be enjoying the "rock star effect" of arriving late, enjoying the peak of the fun, and leaving before anybody has noticed (the old "Irish dip").
The spewing of the green — Should you drink green beer? Probably not. First of all, we'd bet good money that the beer can't be that good in the first place if they'd add green food coloring to it. Second, what's green when it goes down will probably be green when ... you're wearing it.
Keep it simple — When the bars on Michigan Avenue are three rows deep with dozens of people trying to order from overworked bartenders, realize that now is probably not the time to order anything involving lemon twists, freshly scraped nutmeg, or two different kinds of bitters. As a bartender in the know tells us: "Pick a booze, one fucking straight booze, and everyone drinks it."
Eat something, you fool! — Whatever you do, don't rush out and start drinking without laying a foundation — in your stomach. Eat something hearty that will keep you from getting so wasted you wake up later wondering why you're in Singapore with a two-week beard.
Yes, there is a real holiday under all that cheap beer — It appears there was an actual St. Patrick and he seems to have been a pretty good guy. He wasn't Irish, but he had that Irish toughness. According to myth, a few snakes tried bothering him while he was fasting, and got up from his 40-day fast and chased every one of those suckers out of Ireland. (That's one tough hombre, right there.)
Now, some people actually do set out to enjoy the rich heritage of Ireland on the big day of its patron saint. They head out to listen to Irish music, to eat Irish delicacies, and, yes, to sample Irish beer and whiskey. In consumerist America, however, almost every holiday is an occasion to try to sell you more booze. (Just look at how the marketing department has pulled "Drinko de Mayo" out of shape!) That said, there are still oases of authenticity: Should you want the full ethnic experience, see about a membership in the Gaelic League Irish American Club or head out to Claddagh for some Irish beef stew or their all-day Irish breakfast.
Generally speaking, try to take the temperature of what's going on around you. If you are trying to enjoy the "frat boy" version of the holiday and you happen in upon a serene bar with bearded men singing about Carrickfergus, this is probably not the time or place to shout out an order of Irish Car Bombs for all.
Slow down and stay hydrated — One drink an hour seems like a reasonable pace of consumption, but if you and your friends feel the need to power through a bottle of whiskey, at least try to space those slugs out by occasionally drinking water. Alcohol will dehydrate you. Plus, festivities usually take place on a brisk, cool day, when you might not realize how much moisture you lose through breathing. If you want to keep breathing, water is your friend.
Don't drink it all — An old drinking saying dictates that you stick to one drink and don't deviate from it. Or that if you do switch, you take it down a notch, from liquor to beer rather than vice versa. Honestly, we doubt the biology of it. (It's really about how much alcohol you consume.) But we can see where it would help that greenhorn beer-drinker decline the rounds of whiskey shots that get ordered at the bar, or to politely refuse the flask of hooch out in the parking lot. Even longtime, dedicated, athletic drinkers forget from time to time: You don't have to drink everything that's put in front of you.
Know before you go — Chances are you're going to have to go "water the hedges" at some point. In a public place, that can be anything from a challenge to a misdemeanor. The wisest will have scoped out portable johns off the main drag, or maybe some less sanctioned space that will at least help preserve modesty and decorum. Know where to go, and be sure to give yourself time to get there. A lot of sloppy thinking can take place when you have to piss so badly your teeth are floating. And to absolutely murder an utterly defenseless quote from Mark Twain: When you have to pee, everything looks like a urinal.
The Technicolor yawn — There are so many names for it — driving the porcelain bus, laughing at the ground, tossing your cookies, losing your lunch — but it all means the same thing: You've had too much to drink and now the contents of your stomach are ready to pull an outski on you. Please, please, people: Get away from the crowd. Go find a corner or an alley or someplace as soon as you feel that saliva curdling under your tongue.
Don't overdo it — Yes, alcohol can enliven something that's already fun, but it isn't "liquid fun in a bottle." You can't fake fun by getting loaded. In the end, it's about the people, the fellowship, the pleasure of sharing food and drink, and the spectacle of a local tradition. Don't fall for the hype. Enjoy the real thing. As a friend put it, trying to find the ultimate booze high on St. Patrick's Day is "like wanting to fall in love on Valentine's Day." Keep those expectations realistic, and you should be OK.