One for the road

Postcard From The Edge: Here, even if you get sloshed and are then driven home in a limo, you're still made to feel like a menace to society. Yet this is a city where buying crack is easier than buying a drink if you're under 21
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The Independent Culture
By sheer co-incidence, I'm nursing a serious hangover when Tom calls. Have I ventured down from my hill-top retreat recently? As it happens, I tell him, last night I watched supermodel Veronica Webb chain- smoke and drink with her friends at a bar in Hollywood. And then I got drunk and ranted rather too loudly that the fashion world's definition of beauty is a pubescent-looking anorexic with high cheek bones.

"I'm grounded," grumbles Tom when I ask what he's been up to. "I got done for drink driving."

Tom was arrested on the Pacific Coast Highway as he drove back slowly (too slowly as it turned out) to his girlfriend's apartment in Malibu. One too many vodka tonics and the next thing he knew there were flashing red and blue lights in his rear-view mirror. The LAPD didn't batter him with electrified night-sticks - he's a white male who wears suits and sounds like he's just walked off a Merchant Ivory film-set - but he was kept over-night in jail and subsequently banned from driving for six months.

"Not being able to drive in LA is like being castrated," he wails. "The loss of power, status, mobility. Just getting the groceries is costing me a fortune in cab-fares."

"It's only six months."

"Only six months!" Tom almost screams. "I'm not immortal. It's not like I can hop on the tube or get the Number Six bus to work. No car in LA. No life. Simple."

A few weeks later, Tom is bent over a barbecue grill, sipping from a pint mug of Pimms, and cracking jokes about this summer's "hot" films: Independence Day, a science fiction thriller about aliens taking over America ("they're from outer space, not Tijuana") and John Carpenter's Escape from LA, a sequel to his Seventies cult classic, Escape from New York. Tom jokes that Carpenter's film has already been entered in the documentary category for the Oscars.

He adds that he has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since his arrest.

"I didn't know you had a drink problem?"

"I don't," he snorts. "It doesn't matter if you're not a dipso. If you get done for drink driving you have to go."

Drinking and driving is, of course, unforgivable. But compulsory AA meetings strike me as a little excessive - as yet another example of a disturbing trend in California: punishment by public humiliation. You now have to sit in a classroom at "speed school" and recite the highway code if you top 65mph on a freeway. And woe betide those who get nicked for kerb-crawling. There's another weekend seminar - "the school for johns" - at which a prostitute lectures on the dangers of paying for sex.

But back to matters more savoury. What's so wrong with drinking? In every civilised country, it's a national pastime. Here, even if you get sloshed and are then driven home in a limo, you're still made to feel like a menace to society. Yet this is a city where buying crack is a lot easier than buying a drink if you're under 21, and where freebasing heroin is called "substance abuse". In LA, thanks to the 12-step recovery freaks, displaying a weakness for Johnny Walker black label is, by contrast, tantamount to burying your head in a Tesco shopping-bag full of glue.

This is the land of the free, home of the brave. Yet, paradoxically, it feels as if there are as many rules and regulations to be obeyed on the outside as there are in gaol. In a country where you can be sued if a burglar slips on your iced-over drive, people seem to have got their priorities wrong. Instead of banning smoking in bars and public places, why not do away with "Saturday night specials" - inexpensive hand-guns sold at corner stores?

This is also the land of brain-dead health fanatics who have facelifts in their thirties, of endless commercials for new-fangled "butt-thigh- ab" busters, and hormone-guzzling wackos who believe there will never not be another tomorrow. At the other extreme, tens of millions of "weight- challenged" Americans continue to stuff their faces.

Tom nods his agreement as my rant ends.

"Right on," he says as he hands me a bottle of ice-cold Budweiser and an American-size cheeseburger, big enough to feed an entire modelling agency.

It suddenly occurs to me that Tom looks remarkably upbeat, considering that only a fortnight ago he sounded on the verge of suicide.

"Why so cheerful?" I ask.

"You know what they say about the Malibu AA?"

"No."

"More deals are made there than the Polo Lounge [a hang-out for the A- list elite]. Every player with a drink problem turns up, and always on time. You're sat in a circle right next to thems. They're all in brand-new sweatshirts and Ralph Lauren chinos. It's the ultimate yuppie cult."

Had Tom been banned from driving for 12 months and then fined heavily, he would have been justly punished. As it is, his public humiliation has backfired. Tom's agent jokes that if he completes the "program" he's bound to get at least a development deal. If he really starts knocking back the Johnny Walker, he might even sell a script

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