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 Press have 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.)
Web sites like Spacetaker.org, Glasstire.com and, of course, Houstonpress.com will give you the when and where on local openings, but be careful: Just because there's going to be a bunch of people standing around looking at art doesn't mean the drinks are going to be free. Legit nonprofits like DiverseWorks, the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston usually charge for booze; they don't plan to sell the artwork and don't need to get people all liquored up so they'll buy something to impress their friends. It's at art dealers like International Decor Gallery that you'll find the good shit. Can you say Veuve Clicquot?
If you do find yourself at an opening where they're charging for drinks, don't give up and cash out immediately. Fellow staff writer Craig Malisow and I recently went to an event at the Museum of Fine Arts where you could get served only if you bought a ticket from the staff. Saying I was a member yielded nothing; only big-bucks donors were getting comped. (This would've made me angry if I actually had been a member.)
Then Malisow noticed an impromptu segregation going on between the two catering tables: One was staffed by gay men, the other by heteros. He sauntered up to the more stylish of the two, smiled and asked for a drink. Voilà: one gin and tonic on the house. A few minutes ticked by and the museum staff began closing up shop, making my turn easy. All I had to do was sigh and complain I'd just missed my last chance to buy a ticket.
"Well, what would you like?" asked the waiter.
"Anything you got."
The B List
Knowing a club owner is a surefire way to get free drinks, but you usually have to put up with his inane I-have-this-collared-shirt-in-six-different-colors attitude the whole time. And then you've got to fake like you're going for your wallet every time a new drink arrives, just to hear him tell you once again how he's a big shot who never, ever would dream of making his good friend pay.
In other words, the A list is for assholes.
The B list is where it's at, especially when it comes to scamming free drinks. Knowing the owner of a bar will get you only so far; knowing a bartender or a bouncer will get you all the way.
On a recent Saturday, fellow Presser Ray Hafner and I strolled up, makeshift bandannas in tow, to a pirate-themed party at Copa Cobana Latin Lounge. We were greeted at the door by one of his college friends, who handed us each two free drink tokens and waved us in. And that was just the beginning.
A half-hour later we checked in with Haf's buddy and got another set of tokens, which we studied carefully before spending. It was then we noticed they were plastic doubloons (arrrgh, matey!) marked up with a Sharpie. As there were a bunch of unmarked doubloons scattered around the bar for that extra-special seafaring effect, all it took was a quick trip down the street to borrow a Sharpie and aye, the treasure was ours for the taking.
But this doesn't mean you should just walk up to random bartenders and bouncers and try to become best effing friends with them. No matter how many times you go by and chat, you will always be labeled as a customer -- a friendly customer, perhaps, but a customer nonetheless. You've got to seize other opportunities to meet these folks, such as industry nights at other bars.
(Not So) Special Events
People who work in bars -- God bless them -- usually have to sling drinks on the weekends, so they typically go out on Mondays and Tuesdays when the rest of us are curled up on the couch, giving our wallets and livers a break. Since these are the nights when the industry comes out to play, they're called industry nights.
Much like industrialists encouraged workers to blow their paychecks at the company store, bar owners offer plenty of drink specials to industry people on Mondays and Tuesdays. Anyone can take advantage of these deals, but a good booze mooch knows there's a huge difference between a cheap drink and a free one -- an infinite difference, if you think about it -- so I was quick to click when the owner of Joia announced the club's inaugural industry night on MySpace.com.
"RSVP and i'll hook you up w/ some drinks," said the posting.
"I will be attending," said I.
MySpace is kicking Friendster's butt in the battle to be the most popular online networking site, and part of MySpace's success can be found in the ease of its "events" section, where dozens of soirees are usually listed. Many of these postings offer chances for free drinking. And many of them do not, as I learned when I signed up for the release party for the latest issue of Envy, one of our city's free NYC-style glossies.
A magazine release party has to have free drinks, I figured. Otherwise you're just going to an overpriced bar to pick up a copy of something you can get anywhere. Not so with Envy, whose event at Hue set me back seven bucks when I ordered a cocktail. I made a note to remember "Houston is not New York" and began chatting with one of the mag's street-teamers, who told me she had just bought her own drink, too. Party on, party people.
Online listings can do only so much unless you learn to read between the lines. Say the Museum of Natural Science is debuting an exhibition on a Friday. You can bet there's going to be a celebration on the preceding Wednesday or Thursday. Just show up, pull out your cell phone and stroll past the people giving out name badges. If you do get stopped, use one of Mark McLin's tricks: Walk right up to the table and ask where your badge is. When it can't be found, ask the staff to make you a new one.
But the most special of events are those where you don't have to pretend you belong, and nowhere is this more the case than at the tailgate parties for Texans home games. The whole thing's like a convention for the Drink Givers of America: Rows of hard-core fans pass out booze and barbecue to anyone who's hollering for the home team.
"We can't go down on the field and play with them, so let's do everything else around it," says Shin, a 36-year-old whose tailgating crew, Team Smoke, sets up kegs, grills and satellite TVs for every home game. "Let's get in good spirits. Let's go win the game. If we win, let's come out and let's party about it. And if we lose, we're still going to party."
We didn't belong, but Hafner and I walked into the backyard like we owned the place. It was a week after we'd pillaged the pirate party, and we were crashing a shindig Haf had found on Facebook.com, a networking site for college students. It had been posted by a 19-year-old named Eric, whom neither of us knew, but it promised "2 Kegs. Jungle Juice. Best Tits Contest." We were so there.
"Hey!" some guy yelled as we entered, stopping us dead in our tracks. And then, "Y'all need to get some beer."
We scooped some punch out of a large cooler and surveyed the scene. Damn, these kids looked young. Most of the guys were wearing Polos -- a lot of pink -- and standing around the keg. The girls: low-cut sweaters, standing in concentric circles around the guys. Everyone seemed caught up in their own conversations, except for when some dudes convinced a couple of lucky ladies to do keg stands.
"Chug, chug, chug," the crowd chanted, and the girls chugged, chugged, chugged.
Up walked a peroxide blond who said, "I'm so glad to see y'all here. I was afraid there weren't going to be any older people."
"When'd you graduate?" asked Hafner, who's 22.
"O-four," she said, referring to high school. Hafner's smile dropped a bit.
"Well, you've got nothing to worry about," I said, wondering if she had any idea I was a year shy of 30.
She asked us who we knew there. When we told her no one, she thought we were joking. After all, who would just show up at a party without knowing anyone?
Mooches, that's who.
A good house party is the Shangri-la of free drinks. But the older you get, the smaller and more sedated the parties become: Large crowds of strangers are replaced by intimate groups of friends; beer and Jell-O shots give way to wine and martinis. All of which can be fun, but small crowds seriously limit your scamming opportunities.
The key to crashing any party is to act like you belong. Walk right up to the first group you see and give those folks a big "Whassup?" After a round of hellos, move straight for the booze, because once you have a drink, everyone's going to assume you should be there. Then it's all a matter of outpacing the rest of the crowd in the combined effort to drain whatever alcohol is on hand.
Bubbling over with confidence from Eric's party, Haf and I drove around near the Warehouse District, looking for a two-kegger we'd heard about from a friend. We were circling the 'hood in a spiral when we saw a clump of pickup trucks parked outside a two-story house. I made Haf stop, even though he was pretty sure it wasn't the right place.
I should've listened to him. There we were, standing right in the middle of a birthday party full of Latinos. My eyes were on the table full of drinks; Hafner's were on the group of little kids playing with their parents. Even the best crasher knows when to bail, so we mumbled something about looking for a friend and headed back to the car.
A couple of blocks later we found what we were looking for: hipsters, standing in a yard, sucking down butts and Shiners.
We walked up, whassuped a few people and headed for the keg.
"Is that thing floated?" asked some guy in line behind me.
"Not yet," I said. "But it looks like it will be soon."
No local lush worth her margarita salt would miss Friday afternoons at the giant Spec's on Smith Street. Come five o'clock, the TGIF crowd swarms the joint, stocking up on beverages and delicacies for the long slog ahead.
On a recent Friday afternoon there were four little booths set up by alcohol distributors, all offering free mini-shots. The dude manning the Knob Creek booth was pouring the heaviest, so I asked him how many shots he was allowed to give out. His answer: one per person. When queried whether I could show up again later wearing a fake mustache, he said, "No way, Jose." Why? Because he gets to take home whatever he doesn't give away.
The women who do promotions in bars aren't so lucky.
"We give away everything," says Lena Cruz, a 25-year-old model who's been doing street-team promotions for three years.
Promotion models are like free-drink pixies, and sightings of these beautiful, booze-endowing women are all too rare. When they do show up, they usually pass out drinks and disappear faster than you can say, "May I have another?"
Most people think the bar brings them in; most people are wrong. It's illegal for a bar to give away drinks. What has to happen is a manufacturer has to sell to a distributor, which in turn has to sell to a retailer -- that's one, two, three tiers -- and then the distributor has to walk into the bar and buy back the booze to give it away. If it sounds complicated, that's because it is.
"A lot of people think we just go out and we have our own credit cards and we buy beer and give it out," says Cruz.
Yeah, and a lot of people apparently don't think things through: Look, it's another random group of hotties buying drinks for the bar. I love it when that happens.
The real deal is branding. These promotions exist so you'll associate Cuervo or Jägermeister or whatever with good times, pretty ladies and cheap key chains. Think of it as a live Super Bowl commercial.
Distributors are prohibited by law from telling bars exactly when they're coming, so you have to keep your eyes open. Last month when I was scanning free drink options at a random wake -- don't ask -- I got a call from a buddy who had seen a giant Jägermeister van parked outside the Wet Spot. Fifteen minutes of zigzagging through traffic got me there just in time to sample one of the last free shots of licoricey goodness.
Actually, anyone who's ever tasted Jäger knows it wasn't very good, but it was the best shot I didn't buy that night.
Women typically have it easier than men when it comes to scamming hooch off fellow bar patrons. All they have to do is sit back, look bored and wait for not-so-poor saps to offer them a beverage. I wanted a little bit of that free-drink love for myself, so I decided to cruise some gay bars with my friend Anthony (not his real name), who's no stranger to the scene.
But first I had to learn how to make an entrance.
"No, no, no," he told me as I practiced at a restaurant in Rice Village. "Keep your head up and stop right when you walk in, making eye contact with everyone for just one second. You have to own the place."
After confusing a couple of waiters, we decided I was ready and headed out to JR.'s Bar & Grill, right in the heart of the gayborhood. We made our entrance, headed to the back and awkwardly stood near a couple. No luck there, so we cruised around the joint in search of a single, older man. We were chickens hunting for a hawk, and we thought we'd found one standing alone at the side bar, watching a drag show on the wooden stage.
"Hey-ay," said Anthony.
"Hello," replied the guy, looking awfully suspicious.
Now either he was onto us or we weren't as fetching as we thought, but he had no interest in buying us cocktails. No interest at all. This was turning out to be tougher than we'd imagined. We went and checked in with a female friend who'd come along and told her we were going across the street to the Montrose Mining Company, a place that's just as dirty as it sounds. She opted to stay at JR.'s, preferring its pool tables and sports-bar vibe to the thought of cramming around a large bar with a bunch of men staring at dick dancers. To each her own.
As Anthony and I stood around, making eyes at people on the back patio, he motioned to one group and sighed, "They're just not coming up to us because they know we're out of their league."
Yeah, that must've been it.
After some stilted conversation with another couple, we slowly backed away and returned to JR.'s, where Anthony began doing some serious pouting -- as a gay man, he couldn't help but take offense at his lack of freebies. I chatted for a bit with our female friend, who illuminated the true depth of our failure: The woman had scored a free drink while we were gone! She was just sitting at the bar when a guy came up, started talking to her and -- well, what do you know? -- bought her a drink.
It was easily one of the least successful nights of my ten-day binge. I knew I'd done something wrong, but I wasn't sure what, so I called up 22-year-old Ryan Cotter, enfant terrible of Houston's gay scene, and asked him for some tips.
"When you see an old guy by himself, he'll do almost anything to not be standing there by himself and to have someone in his company, especially a younger, attractive person," he said. "So try to make some eye contact across the bar and then go over there and say hi. Almost instantly he should offer you a drink. If not, you can inquire about his drink and be like, 'Well, I don't know. I'm trying to decide what to get. I'm not sure what's good here. What do you recommend?' "
When I said that's what Anthony and I had done, he told me it rarely works when you do it as a couple. And that's when it hit me: The mark is going to assume the two of you are together, no matter what you say to the contrary. And even if he does think you're available, he knows you're less likely to run off with an old dude when you have witnesses.
Cotter's been scamming booze far longer than he's been of drinking age, and he offered some other tips that'll work in any bar, gay or straight:
Place an order every time someone gets up and asks if anyone needs anything. It's assumed you'll pay, but we all know what happens when people assume.
Got a friend who always starts a tab? Just go up to the bar when he's not looking and order away.
Clump together with groups when they enter the bar and just throw your order in with theirs. Someone's probably buying the first round.
Tell a friend you'll buy the next round. Don't.
Say you've only got a hundred and the bar won't break it.
And finally, "just go up to a friend or anybody and say, 'Hey, buy me a drink.' You'd be surprised how often that works."
Back to the Source
It looks so inauspicious, tucked away in an industrial park off Hempstead Road in northwest Houston, but Saint Arnold Brewing Company is a must-visit for the booze mooch on Saturdays.
Somewhere between 250 and 400 people come out for the weekly tour, says brewery owner Brock Wagner. "There are about eight people who, if they don't show up, I'm concerned for their health."
On a recent Saturday, 300 visitors crammed together next to the brewery's large metal tanks, listening to Wagner recount the legend of Saint Arnold, who was perhaps the coolest clergyman of all time. Back in the seventh century, Bishop Arnold advised his parishioners against drinking water, saying it was nasty and foul. But beer, on the other hand well, let's just say ol' Arnold was a popular guy.
And the miracle that earned him sainthood? Shortly after his death, legend has it the procession carrying his body stopped at a pub -- it must've been a long walk -- and discovered the publican had only one mug's worth of beer. But that mythical mug never ran dry and Arnold got the drunken funeral he deserved. And the rest, as they slur, is history.
Wagner and company work hard to keep Arnold's spirit alive, offering up four eight-ounce beers to anyone who comes by. If you want to avoid wasting time in line, snake your way through the crowd during Wagner's speech, so you'll be in front once the floodgates are open, and then you can just get back in line and drink one beer while waiting for the next. Or you could take the slow approach, as many regulars do, bringing their lunches and chilling out on lawn chairs. You make the call.
Many Saturdays you can keep your holy buzz going at Cactus Music & Video, where pints of Saint Arnold Amber Ale are given out during in-store performances. Stop by and you'll see some of the same faces you saw at the brewery.
Another opportunity to drink freely from the source is at Haak Vineyards & Winery in Santa Fe. A friend and I recently drove down, straight through Klan country, to see what kind of freebies Haak had to offer. (In case you're wondering, Haak is the last name of the vineyard's owners, not a misspelled denigration of the wine's quality.) And it was good, at least in terms of free drinking.
Some wine snob next to me at the tasting kept throwing his nose in the air and dumping out his samples, but I drank all six given to me and managed to finagle two more. On the way out, I noticed a full glass of vino on the back porch. It had been sitting there awhile and had even begun to separate a little, but I did what any respectable boozehound would do: I chugged it.
Who's the real wine lover now?
By the eighth day of my drinking streak I was a little short on inspiration (not to mention brain cells), so I set up a meeting with filmmaker and master crasher Michael Ayers to talk freebies. He was roaming around the Wild West parking lot when I arrived.
"Excuse me, are you with the Wilson party?" he asked an elderly guy getting out of his car.
"I'm with the Mack Lewis party" was the reply, and Ayers had everything he needed to know.
We walked inside and told the woman at the door we were with the Lewis party (which we soon learned was full of septuagenarians). She pulled out two red tickets and handed us each one. Ayers said he thought we got two free drinks, but she said the policy had changed.
"Well, can we have an extra ticket?" he asked, making her eyes roll and her head shake.
Ayers isn't the slickest-looking dude -- hangdog face, shaggy hair, thick glasses -- but this works to his advantage. Even though she had seen him a dozen times, the doorkeeper still didn't recognize him. Nor did the waitress who took our drink orders, although she did inform us the happy-hour policy had changed: Now you had to buy a drink before you could get a free one.
When Ayers asked why the deal was different, she said, "People were taking advantage of it, leaving right after they finished their free drinks."
Well, imagine that.
Ayers loves the thrill of the crash. He almost got his ass kicked once at a small-town wedding when the groom walked in the kitchen and saw him chowing down on the party's grub. (He ended up paying for what he ate.) His biggest feat to date is crashing the Super Bowl, he says, adding it was a little scary how easy it was: "I made it past three checkpoints."
According to Ayers's account, he showed up, wearing all black, at the hotel where the halftime crews were loading the bus and mixed in with the workers, getting a free ride all the way to field level. After that, he just made sure not to stand in one place for very long.
When it comes to crashing smaller events, he recommends always carrying an empty box in your car, anything that'll make you look like a delivery driver. And then you've just got to talk your way past the guards.
"They usually make minimum wage," he says, "and by the end of the night they're pretty tired."
He also recommends buying copies of every color wristband available, so you're ready for whatever may come. He has a buddy who goes out with one of each color pinned to the inside of his jacket.
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"They worked great at the rodeo cook-off," he says.
If Ayers is to be believed -- after all, his specialty is lying about his importance -- he's pulled off some great crashes over the years: parties, mixers, the Academy Awards. But I soon found myself telling him about all the different ways I'd found to scam drinks. Perhaps I was drunk on seven days of success (and, you know, three beers), but by the time I left I was sure I'd taught him a thing or two.
I'd scored way more freebies than he had in the past week. And the Wild West thing was a bust. I could've done much better at an art opening. I could've gotten trashed. Could it be that I was the master of free booze?
Or at least that's what I thought until it hit me: He hadn't paid for any of our drinks at Wild West. I had bought them all.