They meet at churches and Catholic schools. At the Reformed Church on Monday; St. Anthony’s on Tuesday; St. Stanislaus on Wednesday. Gathering in circles, they say the serenity prayer, repeat the twelve steps, and share with one another. They also sponsor each other, helping fellow group members struggling to keep clean, and adhere to no formal hierarchy of leadership.
There are 19 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings a week in Greenpoint. It makes sense: Greenpoint drinks. According to the New York State Health Department, drug-related death and liver disease are significantly higher in the neighborhood than New York City averages. And with the increasing gentrification, it seems like there’s a new bar opening up every week.
Then again, maybe it was once worse. Outside St. Anthony’s on Leonard Street, Mark, Ziggy, and Danny C. – three middle-aged men –sat on the steps of the school, waiting for the Tuesday evening chairperson to arrive. Casually chatting, they smoked and sucked down Big Gulps. A homeless man lied balled up on the stairs next to them.
“Greenpoint Avenue used to have ten to twelve bars,” recalled Danny C, who wished to remain anonymous. “There were bars down Calyer, bars down Meserole… then we’d go to the afterhours on Kingsland or on Withers.” Danny’s been sober for 25 years now.
“We just talk about our lives, the same way you people do,” Mark said, when asked how sober people socialize. “We go to the movies, we go to barbeques. We have places out on Coney Island and Brighton Beach. There are sober retreats.” A younger man, no older than 25, who refused to give his name, stood with the group, brandishing the AA emblem on a sobriety coin which he hangs proudly around his neck.
That same evening, on the other side of Greenpoint, Laura O’Neill set up a separate sober event at another religious space. At 129 Russell Avenue, the Lutheran Church of the Messiah, O’Neill runs No Lights No Lycra every Tuesday at 8:15 PM. No Lights No Lycra is a drug-and-alcohol-free lights-out dance party held in the church basement. April 9th marks the three-year anniversary of the event.
O’Neill’s commitment to the event is impressive, given that she already co-owns Van Leeuwen’s, an ice cream shop with three storefronts and six trucks. On top of that, she now also runs a recently opened Balinese restaurant on Driggs Avenue, Selemat Pagi. Still, O’Neill says she would never take the event off her workload. “This is my favorite part of the week,” she said. “I’m not thinking about business, I’m not thinking about money… I’m just dancing. And that’s really therapeutic to me.”
No Lights No Lycra, which originally started in O’Neill’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia, is held in a church because it “has to be separate from nightlife.”
“People shouldn’t be coming here post-happy hour,” said O’Neill. “This is about dancing while sober. Alcohol is such a crutch. You don’t need it. You don’t need a drink in your hand. This is a chance to dance however feels good to you.”
Back on Leonard Street, Mark and Danny C.were excited to hear about No Lights No Lycra. When informed, however, that the event isn’t explicitly intended for sober people, but rather is just a drug-free night, they cooled considerably on the idea of attending. Both agreed that there’s an implicit distinction between a dry event and a sober one.
“No drinking just means they’ll be getting high before it,” Mark said. “I guarantee it.”
“A no-alcohol dance… that’s just people not drinking for a few hours,” added Danny.
The dancing at No Lights No Lycra actually lasts for approximately one hour, ending before 10 PM. Talking is discouraged, and those in attendance mostly dance in isolation from one another. At the three-year anniversary, about two dozen people came, most of whom were in their twenties.
Afterwards, the dancers briefly congregated outside the church; it was an unseasonably balmy night, and no one was in a rush to go. Luke Santy, a regular attendee, said he was glad the event was dry. “It implies a certain type of experience,” he said. “Something personal. It’s not outward.” Molly Rosen, another regular, said she’s always sober for the event, but that that it wouldn’t matter either way. “This is about dance politics, not drinking politics.”
O’Neill freely admitted that No Lights No Lycra is “not a true sober event… most people go get a beer at the Palace Bar up the block afterwards.” But she hopes the dance will eventually create closer bonds among some of her neighbors.
“In Melbourne, the [No Lights No Lycra] group is really a community,” she said. “They go out together. There’s less of that here. I wish there was more.”