Project Sensitivity

The reason that my friend Brad and I undertook Project Sensitivity in the first place, we tell each other earnestly, is that we want to do something with our lives that will really make a difference. The concept — to get drunk together in every state — was born one day in 1999 when he and I were looking at a road atlas, trying to remember anything, and one of us observed that we'd gotten drunk together in a lot of different places.

We had. Brad and I have been one another's best friend of record since 1975, when we were both 13 and attending public schools in Goddard. Brad's family moved to Alabama our senior year, but Brad returned shortly afterwards without them, and moved into the Western Holiday Motel on West Kellogg — an eccentric detail that transformed him instantly into the only high school senior any of us knew who enjoyed maid service, however sporadically, and a 3.2 bar on premises. In 1980 the two of us went off to KU, living for the first week in Brad's smelly Chevy hatchback and then beneath a neurotic miser and his inconsolable dog Snuffy in a house on Michigan Street. In the coming years, while I moved back and forth between Wichita and Lawrence, Brad stayed in school, miraculously graduated, and next resided in France and then Leningrad (there was still a Cold War underway at the time of which I'm writing). In the USSR he met his first wife, and the two of them relocated to Philadelphia and then New York, where they split up. I moved to New York for a year during all this — Brad was in Philadelphia at the time — and today Brad can be found back in New York, where he lives with his fiancée and two-year-old son. I, of course, am still in Wichita.

Brad has been gathering PhD's during these past couple of decades — we now refer to this era, hilariously, as "our youth" — but what I've been doing, mostly, is traveling all over Europe and the United States meeting up with him and drinking. States that Brad and I took before we even knew we were working toward a goal include:

California, where, at San Francisco's underlit and tawdry Sumiko Lounge, Brad's wife was laughing too hard to be able to explain to me that my wallet had just been stolen. When she finally got the words out, I tracked the thief to the men's room, where he retrieved my wallet from the trash can and then told me that he was worried about me. "You guys drink too much," he said.

New York, where a bartender at a Venezuelan bar on the Upper West Side, upon being asked the prices for bottles of Carta Blanca, Dos Equis, and Corona beer, declared in frustration, "All Mexicans are the same."

Wisconsin, where the two of us, having decided upon a relaxing game of ping-pong while acutely drunk at a rented house, permanently destroyed a $600 Japanese ping-pong table we were trying simply to unfold.

Illinois, Chicago specifically, where we were asked to leave a bar called the Manhole — imagine it, if you can — and where, emboldened or possibly rendered insane by his first-ever Prozac prescription, an acquaintance horrified us by stripping naked while dancing with another guy at a crowded nightclub a little later. (We left that club, again at management's request, and were kicked out of yet another before the night was over.)

Brad and I are political, so when we saw on the atlas that day in 1999 that we had been drunk together in over a dozen states, our first impulse was to add up the states' electoral college votes to see if we had enough of them to win the presidency in the first round of balloting. We didn't; of the 270 votes needed we had only 246: 24 short. Anger, denial — we went through all of that. And then Brad and I made a pledge to one another — that we would get drunk together in enough states to take this imagined "presidency," that nothing (nothing short of "renal failure" — Brad's favorite phrase) would stop us. And thus was Project Sensitivity born.

Birth of a liver problem

It wasn't called Project Sensitivity yet: the name came to us only much later — earlier this year, in fact — when, en route to Michigan for the sole purpose of getting drunk there together, we stopped for some reason at a JoAnn Fabrics and bought some Mother's Day stickers on clearance. One said SENSITIVITY, and we put this on what then became the Official Project Sensitivity Atlas alongside another sticker, this one of a sepia butterfly. It was this year, too, that we finally came up with a title for the solemn, inevitable documentary we're all the time imagining for one another: At Play in America: The Project Sensitivity Project. Morgan Freeman augustly narrates.

And as for the presidency, we took that a long time ago, at a gig our friend Freedy was playing in New Haven, Connecticut, later in 1999. We were the merch guys, selling T-shirts and CDs while empty Foster's cans collected on the ledge behind us, and when we were sure that we were good and drunk Freedy interrupted his show, attempting disastrously to explain what was taking place to a roomful of bewildered Yale students. I wanted to request "Hail to the Chief" as a joke, but couldn't think of what it was called and yelled out some nonsense into the confused silence instead.

So, yes, while our goal is noble, it can be demeaning too. Still, Brad fears imitators; he envisions ruthless trust fund kids who unfairly live in the same state as their best friends and who use their limitless resources to hire drivers to wheel them across the interstate network on drunken tours. As such, Brad has made rules to safeguard our accomplishment thus far: Only one state can be taken per calendar day. Participants must become drunk within the state they are claiming. And legal definitions of "drunk," broadened on what seems to be a daily basis lately, don't apply; if a single shot of vodka renders an individual too impaired, legally, to drive, then what Brad and I are talking about is closer to alcohol poisoning. We grew up in the 70s, and back then if, in a standing position, you could stammer out syllables that in any way resembled spoken English, you were still sober. The penalty for driving under the influence, should you then drink a lot more and attempt to operate a car, was that the policeman threatened to call your parents if you didn't drive straight home.

Staggering forward

Of course Brad and I never had any intention of stopping at our imagined "presidential" win — whatever that means — in Connecticut; and now Project Sensitivity, unwittingly begun in 1978 in Kansas, has taken us to victory in thirty states. We now have 397 of a possible 538 electoral votes, or 74 percent, our most recent addition being 5 from New Mexico; we drove there a couple of weeks ago, checked into a hotel in Clayton, got drunk, passed out, and drove back the next day. Next summer we plan on renting an RV and knocking out the "nuisance states" of the northwest: the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. Louisiana and Mississippi are planned for Brad's birthday in April. Johnny, who's been with us for several of our successful campaigns, has been named Designated Replacement, a kind of cabinet-level position wherein he'll carry on for Brad or me should either of us die or go to rehab or find God. A website has been mentioned, and when Brad talks about underwriting it makes me uneasy because I can't tell if he's serious.

Brad has a plan for the conclusion of Project Sensitivity. Brad's plan is that we'll take the District of Columbia last, and that there'll be a gala there to which anyone who's been drunk with both of us in two or more states will be invited. At this gala, in Brad's plan, there will be formal wear and tearful speeches and fond looks back and champagne. At first I was skeptical. Would it have to be at the Watergate? And would enough people qualify to fill a banquet hall, because wouldn't an empty gala be depressing and lame? But I started compiling a list and was surprised to find that more than sixty people are already eligible to attend.

Brad's our strategist, and I'm sure that the gala will come off just as he's planning. But sometimes I picture Project Sensitivity coming to a different kind of end. I can imagine Hawaii: the ship docks amid artificial fanfare — E!, let's say, is the media sponsor of Project Sensitivity by then — and a second-string celebrity, someone maybe from Talk Soup, is ministering to a small, puzzled crowd that's gathered around the cameras wondering what's going on. The nurses wheel us down the gangway and there's a state official on hand to verify that our wheelchairs have come to rest on Hawaiian soil. There's a doctor, too; he or she wakes us — let's make it a woman for Brad's sake — and administers a little alcohol while we blink like dazed cave animals brought suddenly into the sunlight and paw uncomprehendingly at the festive little hats that the nurses have dressed us up in and at the festive bibs they've strapped across our chests to hide the feeding tubes. "I don't know you," one of us will wail despairingly at anyone we see, while the other mutters dear god, dear god, dear god and clutches at his armrest.

Now the doctor has taken a little blood, and, although the music has paused, the crowd continues talking through this dramatic juncture unabated: "What are they doing to those old guys? Who are they? What's with the faggy fezzes and bibs?" The doctor nods at the results of whatever test she's performed and makes notes on the charts that rest in our laps, and perhaps Brad whimpers as this young woman appears magically in his shallow field of vision. Perhaps I wet myself, or claw indecorously at an orderly, or try feebly to somehow get away.

And now the doctor is at the microphone, flanked by the official and the unknown plastic celebrity. She waits uncomfortably for the attention of the small crowd, which continues milling around and talking as though nothing were happening, until finally a guy notices and elbows another guy, and they point at the group at the mike.

In the momentary lull in the noise, the doctor sees her chance. "I certify that these men are drunk," she proclaims winningly. The celebrity gasps and claps, and a noisemaker goes off somewhere, but the crowd seems troubled by this news. "I'm calling the cops," a man in the audience yells. Sudden balloons frighten us. "I don't know you," one of us cries…

And thus, in my uneasy, occasional imagination, is Project Sensitivity triumphantly concluded.

I can easily understand how some of you might view all this as sophomoric and stupid — I see it that way myself — but I honestly believe that when it's over something will have been achieved. And just what, you're dying to ask, could that "something" possibly be? My honest answer is that friendships, like any relationship, require attention if they are to remain vital, especially in the case of two guys like Brad and me, who live in different states, disagree on Eraserhead, don't both smoke, and don't share a sexual orientation. I would do anything — anything at all — for Brad, and how could Project Sensitivity not be proof of that? (The exception is donating a kidney, which Brad, with his expertise in renal failure, has ruled out as something that either of us is probably able to do.) And surely Brad's willingness to match my commitment to a pointless goal, to drop everything and embark on day-long drives whose destinations promise only suspicious locals, horrible, untraceable smells, Bedside Valet coffee, and hangovers (Maryland, which we almost had to give up on, springs instantly to mind) is proof of the same impulse in him. It was partly an interest in the ridiculously juvenile and arbitrary that initially brought Brad and me together twenty-nine years ago; and when Project Sensitivity is completed, he and I will have a minimum of fifty such memories to share.

Now cue a talentless marching band, because we're ready for number 31.