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Explaining New York City Nightlife to a British Person

Questions from a Brit about drugs, booze, tipping, and afterparties in the Big Apple.

by Zach Sokol, Allie Conti, & Francisco Garcia; Photo
Jul 10 2016, 4:00am

There's a reason young people continuously move to New York City, despite countless reasons they shouldn't. To start with the bad, real estate and rent prices are higher than ever (despite growing income inequality and an affordable housing crisis), unemployment among 18 to 29-year-olds is just shy of 10 percent, spaces for artists are closing left and right (which, in part, leads to the gentrification of new neighborhoods), and student debt is inspiring millennials to bail on the country entirely. Plus, we'll never win the fight against the city's rats.

Despite the terrifying barriers to entry, as well as the myriad factors that make living here comfortably unsustainable, New York City is the best city in America, especially when it comes to nightlife. Yes, it is the "city that never sleeps," and not just because residents are up all night stressing about whether they can afford rent next month. New York City––and its infinite options for hedonism, inspiration, and opportunity––will always attract people from all corners of the world, from all walks of life.

If there's a niche facet of culture you're interested in, you can almost certainly find the right community for you if you go digging enough—be that in NYC's clubbing scene, our sex party subcultures, our countless options for fashion heads and foodies, and so on and so forth. It's the "golden age" of weed dealing in the Big Apple, cops are being less prickish about people drinking or pissing in public (super important when it comes to partying), and our pizza and bagels are still danker-than-dank. Bars stay open way later than is reasonable, and you can literally find a stranger to make you your favorite sandwich at any hour, of any day, at nearly any bodega.

Arca and Shane Oliver of Hood by Air doing a DJ set at 5 AM (RIP Spectrum). Photo by Zach Sokol

Recently, my colleagues across the Atlantic asked me to come up with some questions I had about UK nightlife, which they sufficiently answered (though I'm still not sure why cocaine is called "gak" over there). All in all, the replies confirmed what I already believed: London and its nightlife is essentially a watered down version of the city I live in. Call London "New York Lite™." With the very-real fear of how Brexit will change life in Britain, maybe now is time to consider a move to the States (depending, of course, on who wins our nightmare of a presidential election). And you might have some questions, even if they're as simple as, "What's the difference between 'molly' and 'E'?"

Francisco Garcia, a curious chav, had some questions about nightlife in the States. Though I can't speak to other cities, I can speak to New York, where I've lived for nearly seven years and where my dad grew up. While no primer on NYC nightlife could ever be complete, VICE staff writer Allie Conti and I did our best to answer questions about cheap booze, hard-hitting techno, and drugs that are considered social taboos. NYC is a city that will shit in your mouth and slap you across the face, but chances are the good stuff will outweigh the bad, and every other city will pale in comparison once you've clocked enough hours here.

DRUGS

Fran "Brit" Garcia: Is the weekend-long "rager" a thing over there? Like, do groups of frothing 20-somethings go out on three-night binges of increasingly depressing predictability and regularity? Or would it be considered transgressive and/or over-the-top?
Zach "Yank" Sokol: Yes, we certainly do, though the "group" aspect really depends on your social circle. It's not at all uncommon for gangs of friends to go out several nights a week and ruin their bodies together. Weekends tend to see those nights out followed by days of hedonistic hangover cures and group hangouts—an eighth of weed, disgusting bodega food, paranoid games of Uno. That changes when people get jobs that aren't just day jobs. Also, doing drugs on a Monday night isn't really fun, so fuck it.

I would say the "weekend warrior" trope is real not just in New York City but throughout a lot of America. Even though we should probably feel lucky we have jobs, lots of young people with Monday-Friday, 9-5 gigs often suppress their hatred of toiling away in front of screens, doing things they don't like in order to pay rent, by obliterating themselves on weekends. And then gluttonous recovery. I don't think Americans are great at balancing their professional and personal lives in a way that lets them grow both.

Brit: I've never quite been able to wrap my head around "molly" as a cultural phenomenon over in the US. What are the defining traits? Is it an aggressive, bro-y thing or what? Over here it has very different cultural associations––mainly early 90s acid house, the second summer of love and all the joy and empathy, albeit chemically-induced, that entails.
Zach "Yank" Sokol: I think the major difference between UK and US ecstasy culture is that "raving," as it's generally understood in Western culture, first took off in the UK. As a result, it will always feel like the US got into X––or E––after the Brits. A few chapters in Simon Reynolds' Energy Flash break down the history of ecstasy and dance music in both the US and UK really well. But you gotta remember that Detroit is responsible for techno, and Chicago and NYC pioneered house, so your Second Summer of Love isn't something we romanticize too much over here. I do know multiple people who have tattoos of Babyshambles lyrics, though, so I don't know what that says about transatlantic musical tastes.

The UK has a long and storied history with ecstasy, but so does the US. In 1985, a club in Dallas called Starck legally sold ecstasy, which, in part, led to the DEA reclassifying it as a Schedule I narcotic later that year. And the Chicago and New York house scenes of lore (think 90s clubs like Warehouse, NASA, Limelight) certainly weren't shy about it.

The main thing you're referencing, which is a conversation that's been running for at least three or four years, is that Americans refer to ecstasy as "molly," and not "E" or "ecstasy." When it comes to MDMA in America, pill form is way less common––or at least it was when the mainstream conversation around molly began. Instead, you'd buy powder, crystals, or "moon rocks" (boy, if you were lucky!) of supposedly "pure" MDMA (but realistically bath salts or speed/meth) sold in those lil plastic coke bags or in hand-packed capsules. Rappers and pop stars began referencing the drug, and many remember when "popped a molly, I'm sweatin'" became a household meme (Trinidad James isn't remembered as widely). That was 2012! The EDM bubble's popped. You asked in our first exchange why us Yanks don't fuck with ketamine over here––but me and your boy Max Daly subsequently answered that ;)

Brit: How much is too much? Is it common for people to go through a gram by themselves? Or is it more of a caring/sharing vibe?
Zach "Yank" Sokol: People like to front as if they're not stingy, but they are. Most people are leeches anyway, and affording luxuries like drugs isn't cheap in NYC, so stinginess is understandable. In your immediate friendship group, where everyone already owes someone else $20, you'd be an asshole not to share, though. I'll say people regularly offer drugs in social situations as a lame power move, to get attention, friends, or something sus'. And yes, a gram a night is common for many, though so is the number of young people who face addiction and substance abuse problems. Feels bad, man. People are always down to share weed, though.

Brit: Are any drugs taboo or just totally uncommon in NYC nightlife?
Allie "Yank" Conti: I know that ketamine is very prevalent over in the UK, but I feel like here it's definitely not as popular and is considered borderline unacceptable in a lot of social circles. I don't know where the stigma comes from, but for a long time I associated it with the movie Party Monster and an antiquated scene of down-and-out drug users, as opposed to quote-unquote "normal people" who just liked to get fucked up on the weekends. Even in New York, you usually only find yourself being offered K if you're with people who are significantly older than you are and have actually lived through that era. People in their twenties tend to balk at the idea of ketamine and have mostly never dabbled in it, unless they're from overseas.

Brit: There's a big university drug dealing culture over here, a lot of people will dabble in college/uni. Is that a thing over in the States?
Allie "Yank" Conti: Yeah, for sure, and I wish I participated to an extent. The people I used to buy drugs from in college are now totally upright members of society with boring-ass jobs who would never do it now. They basically made good money for four years and suffered zero consequences. Fuck, it was probably the coolest they ever were and ever will be. Meanwhile, I worked at a series of fast food restaurants and as an overnight security guard. Not a lot of social cachet in that, and the hours and wages were definitely worse.

Brit: The whole issue around legal highs is massively topical at the moment in the UK (there have been some high profile changes in the legislation over the past month or so). What's the general attitude towards this weird compound substances over there? Things like Spice, etc? Are they more prevalent in less densely populated areas where "traditional" drugs are that bit more difficult to acquire? And what are their social implications?
Allie "Yank" Conti: I've never seen K2 or Spice or any other synthetic, gas-station-purchased "drug" available in a social setting post-high school. From anecdotal experience, they're still used by 20-somethings in my hometown, but I'm from a suburban place that borders on rural. I literally cannot imagine someone offering me synthetic weed or bath salts at a party in New York. Doesn't happen here. Would be considered bottom-of-the-barrel trashy and would put people off massively to the point that they would leave.

Zach "Yank" Sokol: Allie's right, though people did fuck with salvia in high school, and I know a lot of kids who messed around with Silk Road to obtain research chemicals and synthetic analogs in college. Then media coverage of the horrors of bath salts and synthetic weed took off in America, and it scared people for good reason. There is still a synthetic weed problem in Brooklyn (some call it an "epidemic"), especially among poor and marginalized communities. Allie did some good reporting on this.

Brit: On that note, which drugs hold which place in the social pyramid?
Zach "Yank" Sokol: Cocaine will always be associated with wealth, or a superficial facade of wealth. Otherwise, unless you're getting extremely pure drugs, everything else ebbs and flows in terms of trendiness. The past couple years, more and more mainstream rappers have rapped about "xan," or Xanax. Before that, it was lean (which can be reaaaaally expensive. As Gucci Mane rapped in 2009, "$600 a pint, the going rate off in the A"). Also, molly had its moment when it intersected with both hip-hop and the EDM bubble and totally become a talking point throughout mainstream American pop culture. At the end of the day, whatever the biggest rock stars talk about will probably end up being the trendiest for at least a little while, and rappers are our biggest rock stars today.

Boooooze

Brit: Can you explain the "bum-wine" concept? We have similar stuff here like Buckfast/MD 2020, which have been appropriated by middle-class uni kids looking to get smashed like proles, minus the lingering threat of imminent financial oblivion. Is it the same deal over there?
Allie "Yank" Conti: Man, I love bum wine. I had a relatively unusual experience, because I spent a good portion of my college years living in a trailer and living out some sort of redneck-punk fantasy, but my friends and I used to buy something called Wild Irish Rose that would put you on your ass for $4. We also used to drink MD20/20, but mostly because of the Elliott Smith song. Franzia, which is a boxed wine, became popular here for a while. Most people don't fuck with any of that after their early twenties, but if someone offered you a swig at a party you might think it was cute or ironic or nostalgic and indulge.

Brit: What's the deal with tipping? Is it really mandatory? That is such a foreign concept to our tight British arses. We leave maybe 20p, max.
Allie "Yank" Conti: Yes, tipping is mandatory, unless you're a huge piece of human garbage. It's really ingrained and socially reinforced––if I saw someone not tip, I would think less of them. The idea is usually a dollar a drink if you're ordering a beer or something that takes only a second or two to procure. You're generally expected to give more if you're ordering some fancy shit, like a cocktail with more than three ingredients. If you're tipping on a card at the end of the night, 20 percent is the standard but 10 percent is the bare minimum.

Zach "Yank" Sokol: I agree with Allie, fully. I think the only exception––a very rare one––is if you're at a bar, it's not busy, and the bartender is outwardly rude (assuming you're not doing something dickish, like texting while asking for a drink). You'd only not tip to send a message, and this shouldn't be a message you send unless it's a battle worth picking. Otherwise you're on some Larry David shit.

The only other exception is when buying a cup of coffee. I was a barista for a while in college, and I didn't expect people to tip me if they ordered a drip coffee or iced coffee. If it's anything else––an Americano, cappuccino, flat white (just kidding, only silly Brits order those)––you should tip. The worst, though, is when someone doesn't tip, but makes it a whole awkward thing where you can tell they're over-thinking that decision through their body language or whatever. Just make a choice, be confident about that choice, and then get the fuck out––you're holding up the line!

Brit: I know you don't have a 'pub culture' (not that we will have for much longer, they're all dying) BUT is it a thing to go to a bar for a few post-work drinks, like several nights a week? Or would that be an intervention-triggering no no?
Allie "Yank" Conti: Definitely a thing.

Zach "Yank" Sokol: 100 percent a thing. Shout out to Broken Land, Happy Fun Hideaway, Jimmy's, The Commodore, Bossa Nova, 169 Bar, Forget Me Not, etc.

Brit: What's the policy on drinking alone? Not in the "9 bottles of paint stripper" sense, but the "4 cans in your pants with The Sopranos boxset" sense?
Zach "Yank" Sokol: A six pack, HBO, some masturbation, and maybe a spliff by yourself a few times a week is normal in your twenties. If you're doing this more than three or four nights a week, maybe you've got to check yourself––or your body will start warning you by getting all doughy and sad. If you're finishing a bottle or an eighth of weed alone in a single night, something's not going well in your life.

Lotic DJ'ing the five-year anniversary party of Tri Angle Records in a bank vault on Wall Street. Photo by Zach Sokol

Other stuff

Brit: When do you generally (all weekenders aside) get back from a night out? Is it all over by 4, like on this christ forsaken isle?
Zach "Yank" Sokol: In New York, it's common for people in their twenties and early thirties to come home as the sun is rising or even when the next day is already in full swing. As expanded upon below, there's a whole "Afters" scene just for electronic music, so you could technically party all weekend without ever leaving a room with DJ decks. While I think the vampire life option is more common during weekends, you can definitely stay out just as late during the week. Clubs and bars open to at least 4 AM, and if you're familiar enough with the party scene, you can probably figure out which locale will be busiest on a given night. Mondays and Tuesdays are chiller, but even then there are options to get weird and stay out if you look hard enough and have the money and resources to keep the party going. This is even more true if you're in a band, living in a commune/squat/arts space/ DIY space, or paint graffiti. "The City That Never Sleeps" tag has always been true and still feels on point to me.

Brit: What's the deal with afterparties? Is there an age-point when it just gets a bit sad bringing back a collection of gurning strangers to your flat every weekend? Or is it strictly mates only?
Zach "Yank" Sokol: The "Afters" nightclub and rave scenes—meaning parties that cater to catatonic young people (the dregs from any good party) from 4 AM to jah-knows-when—are super sus and depressing. Probably the only place you'll regularly see ketamine use in NYC.

But when it comes to art openings, record releases, fashion shows, or anything that involves a PR firm and lots of money, getting invited to the after party is more important than the party itself. And after parties at stranger's apartments are always where the fun, spooky, and memorable stuff happens—even if the memory ends up a bit foggy. You have to know when it's time to leave though, otherwise you'll be stuck in an awful conversation and won't have sex, or you'll be the asshole cockblocking someone else.

Brit: Please, please I need to know. Do people earnestly refer to EDM? Is it actually a thing. Please, I need to know.
Zach "Yank" Sokol: "EDM" refers to a very specific type of electronic music in the US. It's mostly associated with white, cis "bro" culture, or "basic" college campus culture. The opening scene of Harmony Korine's Springbreakers satirized this pretty well. The Zac Efron EDM movie wasn't received so well. As noted before, that mainstream EDM bubble has mostly popped. Only parents and people who don't listen to dance music of any sort would refer to electronic music, generally, as "EDM." And the culture that surrounded EDM at its peak did not reflect how deep and complicated dance music culture was in other communities in the US at the same time. Or how deep, complicated, and influential it still is today.

Here's a weird example: In April, 2014, Walt Disney Records put out an EDM remix compilation of music from movies like The Lion King. That same month, DJ Rashad, a genius and a pioneering force behind footwork, overdosed and died. A lot of people were affected by Rashad's passing, while most people don't even know about that embarrassing paycheck Avicii took from Disney.

But my mom doesn't know what footwork is, and she does know EDM means "awful music with that wub wub wub" sound, and she'd probably be able to recognize Skrillex (though, tbh, no shade on Sonny). What does that say about America, our cultural capital, its nightlife and the canon? I'm not quite sure.

Follow Zach, Allie, and Francisco on Twitter.

All photos by Zach Sokol