Village Voice: The Sober Bunch

The first time I met Michael Nouveau, he was holding a tray of Jell-O shots. He was at the Lower East Side bar Fat Baby for one of his parties, called Nouveau, where Larry Tee was DJ’ing. Nouveau works in advertising at Rolling Stone and has to be at his desk by 9 a.m. He’s like the younger version of Steven Lewis, the nightlife veteran who designed clubs like Marquee and ran Limelight in the ’90s, who says, “I think it’s important to be sober. Many people disagree, and if many people didn’t disagree with me, I would never have made any money. So I’m glad that nobody agrees with me.” Ironically, Lewis served nine months for conspiracy to traffic narcotics (he maintains his innocence).

Like Nouveau, addVice’s Elhaam Yavari, who is of Persian descent, never tried drugs. When she was a teen, her semi-strict parents grilled her after she came home from parties. Today, she goes out an average of three nights a week—including her DJ gigs at East Village Radio and the Dark Room. A teetotaler surrounded by people who partake, she says, “I have so many really good friends and they just equate coke with a good night. I think doing coke is like admitting defeat. It’s like a drug to keep you awake. Like, are you that old?”

When she first started her job at addVice, bands would ask her to find drugs, but she was useless: “Dammit,” she remembers thinking, “I’m going to lose a client because I can’t get them high?” It never happened, but she quickly learned what 53-year-old Steven Lewis has known for years—that being the only sober person in a roomful of drunks has its advantages. “It’s a business,” he explains. “And if you’re a business person, no matter what the job is, if you’re selling doughnuts or tropical fish, if you’re drunk and on the job you’re not going to do such a good job.”

Justine D. got her start working for Lewis at the club Life in the ’90s. After getting sick for several weeks, she decided she wasn’t going to drink anymore. “If I wanted to be taken seriously I had to be sober,” she says. “I was coming across so many casualties, nightlife casualties, fucked-up party dolls.” She imbibes a couple of times a year, usually on vacation, but never on the job. “I’m not falling off a wagon,” she says. “I mean, I don’t even own a fucking wagon. Some people don’t even have that luxury.”

At the end of a Motherfucker event, Justine D.’s sober state of mind allows her to take over the most sobering of duties: counting the money. Her partners in Motherfucker are all partiers. Michael T., the embodiment of glam-rock decadence, has been quoted in the Voice half-joking about his own habits, usually involving boots, boys, and bathroom lines.

While she finds the act of people doing cocaine “alien,” her partners’ partying doesn’t bother her. Still, she gets a bit of a ribbing for being the odd one out. “Yeah, we make fun of her sometimes, because she can be a little bit rigid,” says Michael T. “But I don’t like people that are messy—and I don’t consider myself to be messy.”

“I’m a fuckin’ lame knitter,” cracks Justine D.

The sober clubbers—no matter how they arrived at living the clean life—have experienced similar awkward situations. When they ask a bartender for water or soda, they get the cold shoulder. They aren’t invited to the after-after-parties. But then, the after-after-parties are a drag anyway. Justine D. recalls one event thrown by a member of a prominent local band. “Everyone was a fucking mess, one girl was puking out of a window, there was wall-to-wall people,” she says.

But they say they don’t feel uncomfortable around people who drink or do drugs—it’s the other way around. Lewis once faked doing rounds of grappa to please some buddies of his; Yavari’s copped to holding a beer just so she doesn’t have to answer questions. “I still have people who still insist on putting their drinks up to my mouth,” says Kenny Kenny.

“I think people feel awkward around us sometimes,” says Cohn. “They don’t say it, but you can tell. Some people are wasted and they apologize. A lot of people apologize. ‘I’m so sorry I’m drunk.’ And we’re like, ‘Good, that’s what we’re partying for. That’s what we want.’ It was funny, one of the first places we did our night at turned out to be a really big spot to get drugs at. And we didn’t know. We didn’t care.”

The sober hipsters say they are frequently mistaken for being wasted anyway. Says Lewis, “I’m hyperactive, I’m bug-eyed and sometimes prone to fits.” Tee describes himself as “a 33 record spun on 45,” and Hill says, “I still am a party animal. There’s barely any difference except that I’m healthier and I’ve lost 35 pounds.”

When people learn they don’t drink or do drugs, the sober hipsters are asked questions that seem silly: “How do you do it?” “You must be so bored,” “Why not?” And dumbest of all: “What do you do for fun?”

“I’m a fuckin’ lame knitter,” cracks Justine D.

Says Rood, “They think it’s like we have an extra head. That they think we can’t go anywhere without a drink—that’s incredible. That’s horrible.”

“I probably have a lot more fun than you think,” says Yavari. “I’m always having a good time no matter where I am. I’ll be at the same places you are. I just won’t be having an alcoholic drink. I’ll be drinking water. I’ll be dancing and meeting people and telling jokes—and remembering it.”