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Cheech Marin is in the room, but Steve is inching toward the drink table.
It's Thursday afternoon, happy hour, and Cheech is giving a speech about a touring exhibition of Chicano art he's brought to Houston: These paintings are fantastic. It's great I'm sharing them with you. I used to do a lot of drugs, man, but now I'm respectable.Et cetera. Et cetera.
The crowd at Willow Street Pump Station is full of well-to-do professionals. Most of them have come straight from work, still wearing their suits and skirts, to see the paintings and to stand near Cheech, who says he wishes the venue were larger. A full mariachi band -- we're talking multiple guitars, a horn, a vocalist -- lines the wall behind him; it feels like he could throw down a hat and start dancing at any moment.
Steve, a fortysomething local artist, rocks back on his heels, staring with blank interest, a small smile crooked on his face. He probably would've shown up even if the Chicano actor hadn't. There's a great spread -- queso, tostadas, gorditas -- and a great view, with Allen's Landing on one side and the county jails on the other. And there's beer. Free beer. Lots of it.
"Drink up and look at the paintings," says Cheech, and the band starts strumming and blowing and ay-ay-aying away.
The crowd breaks formation, splitting into those seeking freebies and those seeking celebrity. Steve heads straight for the drink table, orders a Negro Modelo and walks outside. He chats for a few minutes with Cheech and mingles a little bit, finishing his beer before heading out.
Steve is a booze mooch, someone who cruises from one event to the next, scamming drinks at every stop. And this time of year he's got plenty of options.
With most arts organizations slowing down over the summer months, fall is the season of openings, galas and premieres. It's also the season of free drinks: There's wine at art galleries, beer at warehouse parties and champagne at swank hotels. If you look hard enough, you can find a group of people celebrating any night of the week. Look a little closer, and you'll see the same faces time and time again.
"I can go through Houston for an entire week without ever having to pay for anything," says 45-year-old Michael Ayers, a local party crasher who plans to publish a book on the subject. "It's amazing how many people are taking advantage of it."
Ayers is a master of high-stakes thriftiness. He's honed his craft over years of sneaking into weddings, soirees and sporting events, doing it as much for the thrill as for the freebies. But other regulars on the scene are in it solely for the drinks, people like Steve, the guy who went to Cheech's event.
"Free beer's the best," says the artist, who asked that his real name not be used.
Steve's been going to openings for 20 years, and he's got the belly to prove it. But art openings are only a drop in the free-drink bucket. This city is flush with corporate parties, drink promotions and happy hours, all offering up free booze. It's just a matter of finding out when and where the drinks are to be had. And that's where we come in.
After years of research, we at the Houston Presshave become pretty damn proficient at sniffing out freebies. And just to stay up to date, last month I went on a ten-day binge, scoring at least three free drinks every night at spots all over town (see "One Man, Ten Days, 80 Free Drinks"). Now it's time to share the wealth. As a public service to all the booze mooches out there, we present this guide on how to drink for free in Houston.
Gallery openings are the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am of free drinking. Only at a picnic overrun by mosquitoes will you find it easier to catch a buzz.
They're "gravy," says 53-year-old real estate agent Mark McLin, who sidelines as Houston's self-styled professional mingler. McLin attends several social events a week, gabbing, grubbing and chugging while passing out his business cards. On the front are his contact info and the phrase "Do you want to mingle with me tonight?" On the back, his code of ethics, including such nuggets as "Thou shall have plenty of parties and social events to go to even if you have to invite yourself."
McLin is a big fan of the openings on Gallery Row, a stretch of art dealers on Colquitt where even the amateur mingler can score tons of booze without shame. All you have to do is cruise from one gallery to the next, copping wine at every stop, and then repeat as much as your liver desires.
Beer lovers will want to hit up openings at the Art Car Museum and hang out with Steve's peeps. There you'll usually find two kegs and a half-dozen bottles of wine, all laid out without a gatekeeper to regulate how much anyone drinks. On a recent Saturday night, I scored four cups of brew in less than an hour and received a dandelion from some dude in a hazmat suit. (Um, you had to be there.)