Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 6, 2024

The Sunday Essay: Lush and lost on Ponsonby Road

Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

Drinking wasn’t just a pastime, it was my profession – and it got way out of control. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

When I talk about my former life in Auckland, it’s hard not to talk about booze. Every neighbourhood had its own series of stories, from Kings Road bar hopping to Kumeu long lunches. But it was the 1.7-kilometre stretch of establishments in Ponsonby, from Three Lamps to K Road, that made up the blurry patchwork of tales I collected in my seven years living in the city.

Each drink and bar suited a particular mood, and on Ponsonby Road I indulged them all: espresso martinis at Mea Culpa to send me sparking into the night; Sunday bubbles at Chapel gearing up for another work week; chardonnay at Ponsonby Social Club as banter ricocheted off brick walls; Jack Daniels and coke at The Whiskey, kissing strangers in curtained corners.

Drinking was not only a pastime but also my profession as a brand manager for a portfolio of New Zealand wineries. It was my job to ensure our wines got into all the right places, which mostly meant sitting at a desk crunching numbers and doing deals, but also involved going out and being seen with a bottle on the table. There was always an occasion to drink. The release of a new vintage. A VIP winemaker in town. Tuesday.

Strangers were new friends, bartenders were old mates, but colleagues were family. We clinked glasses when we smashed the month’s sales numbers and commiserated when the targets were beyond reach. We hopscotched from afternoon sessions and happy hours to degustation dinners and cocktail nights. We drank rounds by the bottle and waded into pools of laughter, double vision, and messy smiles.

I remember dancing into the small hours of the morning at Longroom because my colleague Tom wanted to dance, and even though I didn’t care for clubs, I wanted Tom. Thick beats pumped through the crowd as the floor heaved with aftershave, sweat, and spiced rum. Tom went home with me that night, and many nights thereafter. He was worth dancing for.

On another occasion, one of my wine brands sponsored an evening with a famous poet. He showed up as the sun was setting, and from behind dark glasses asked if the wine was red.

“It sure is,” I said.

“Terrific. Pour me a glass and leave a couple of bottles nearby.”

I was surprised he could even stand when it came time to recite his work to an eager audience. I tugged on the sapphire pendant around my neck as I worked out how we’d refund tickets if he didn’t make it through the night. But then he sat on a stool in the corner of the room, and for the next 45 minutes there was nothing else in the world except the cool words coming from his mouth: sexy sonnets about skin on skin and heartbreaking lines about loss of life. The man was a pro.

At some point over the course of every drinking session, a responsible voice inside my hazy brain would cut me off from further drinks. I’d switch from alcohol to water and ride the wave of elated drunkenness as sobriety kicked in.

But during the last two years of my life in Auckland, things began to darken, and it seemed the voice had abandoned me. My workplace had grown volatile amidst rolling redundancies. Close friends had moved away, giving up 3am last calls for nappy changes. I left a boyfriend I loved because his drinking was out of control, but when I turned to alcohol to ease the heartache I ended up unravelling myself.

My workdays smudged into a new normal. I’d spend the morning hours hungover at my desk, pounding coffee and painkillers as I scanned sales numbers and warehouse stock levels. By lunch I was coming right, chatting to sales reps over the phone and finalising marketing collateral with the design team.

Then, around 3.30ish, the rising terror of an evening spent sober would jolt me into action. I’d get up and stalk the desks, seeking a lifeline, until I caught the eye of a colleague and smiled. They’d smile too, but hesitantly. I’d approach and ask how their day was going, they’d let a complaint slip, and I’d solve their problem with the suggestion of an after-work drink. No, I can’t, they’d reply. I really shouldn’t. I’d brush it off and say, All good, and return to my desk. Thirty minutes later they’d appear beside me. OK, just one, they’d say, as deep relief washed through me.

We’d taxi to Ponsonby Road and stumble from bar to bar, pretending it wasn’t a school night, hoping we wouldn’t reek of alcohol at work the next day. At some point my colleague would call it a night, but I’d keep drinking until no one was left but the bartender closing up, and then I’d have a drink with them.

Somehow I’d make it home for two blinks of sleep until my alarm would blast through my bedroom. Slumped over in the shower, I’d swear to stop doing this to myself, but then I’d arrive at work and it would start again.

One day I woke up in a strange, bright apartment. I squinted into the morning sun. There were bed sheets twisted around my body and my phone was on a side table. I was hot, sweaty, and desperate for water. Then I heard a rustling beside me.

“You have to leave,” a man shouted. “Get dressed.”

My mind churned slow and heavy.

“Seriously, get up!”

I felt something land on my leg. I turned over as my eyes adjusted and found a man darting through the room, picking up clothes and tossing them at me. I watched my boot sail over the bed and land hard on the floor.

OK,” I snapped.

The questions hammered in my head: did we sleep together? No. What’s his name? It starts with an H. Where am I? I think his place is near the waterfront.

“My wife is on her way. She can’t know you were here.”


When I was dressed and heading out the door something flickered in him, and he shifted from anger to remorse. He offered to drive me home, and even though I was wary of him, I was disorientated enough to agree. His car’s passenger seat was piled high with cleaning supplies and empty boxes. He shifted them to the boot as he admitted, “I’m in the process of getting divorced.”

Silence settled thick between us as he drove across the city, while flashes of the night before clapped like thunder in my mind. Shots. Laughter. Another bar. More shots. A taxi ride to his place. His angry words in bed when I was passing out and he wanted to have sex. In the morning, I remember slurring.

It had been risky. Going home with random men wasn’t something I’d done a lot in my lifetime. But it had become a way of forgetting the lonely chasm of aimlessness I couldn’t see my way out of.

I asked him to drop me two blocks from my flat because I didn’t want him to know where I lived. At home I stumbled into the bathroom and finally saw what he’d woken up next to: sunken eyes, pale face, matted hair, dry lips. The room was spinning and I felt sick. I went to rub my sapphire necklace – I’d worn it every day since Mum had given it to me 10 years prior – but the necklace wasn’t there.

I tore into my bedroom and dug through my bag, but couldn’t find it. I went back into the bathroom, scanned the basin, medicine cabinet, the ledge by the window – nothing. That’s when my brain began drip-feeding me fragments from the night before. We were making out. I was hovering over him. The necklace kept catching on my chin. I took it off and slapped it onto his bedside table. It was still there.

I imagined his wife finding my necklace and the fight that might ensue. Would she yell? What would he say? Then I teased out a tiny thread of hope that maybe he’d turn out to be a good guy; that he’d see the necklace, slip it into his pocket, and return it to me. But that couldn’t happen, because he didn’t have my number and I’d made sure he didn’t know where I lived. I knew one of them would most likely drop the necklace into the rubbish bin, that it would be taken to a landfill, and for the rest of my life it would lie somewhere on this earth without me.

Monday morning I handed in my resignation. I didn’t have a job lined up and my savings account was an embarrassment. I sold all my stuff and had a farewell party, then spent eight months drying out in the spare bedroom of Mum’s place in Arizona. When I was ready to return to New Zealand, I knew I couldn’t go back to Auckland. It was too risky.

So instead, I moved to Wellington. I got a serious job in government where I met Patrick, a colleague who became a friend and then my flatmate. Hanging out with Patrick was easy for two reasons: one, he didn’t care about the peppery notes or lingering tannins in his glass of shiraz. Two, when he asked about my past (What was Auckland like?), he didn’t push when I gave vague answers (Oh you know, just different.)

As I walked the city, hair blown across my face and the scent of coffee roasting in the air, I began unpacking the looping picture-show of shame that had followed me across the North Island. It would take me years, but I rebuilt my life into something new: I woke at 5am, did morning routines and yoga, attended university lectures, and spent my nights dreaming rather than knocking back Jager shots. I started seeing a man who’d set a personal goal not to drink for a year, and we agreed to have a sober relationship. For the first time, I’d found a way to stand on my own two feet without a glass of wine in each hand.

It took four years and three attempts to return to Ponsonby. The first time back in Auckland, I didn’t even make it into the city – I landed at the airport, did a work presentation 10 minutes down the road, then flew straight back to Wellington. The second time I stayed on the east side of the city centre, restricting myself to Parnell and Newmarket, the calmer parts of town where I could do some shopping.

But the third time, I stayed a block from Ponsonby Road, where all my demons had been lying in wait for my return.

Within hours of arriving, I spotted old colleagues drinking beers in the sun at Chapel. At dinner, I was seated next to an industry somebody who was rumoured to have had an affair with a sales rep. I even ran into a winemaker friend who was doing a tasting that afternoon at Ponsonby Social Club.

“You should stop by,” she said. “We’ll be serving samples from the new vintage.”

I smiled and nodded, happy to see her, but knew I couldn’t go. I’d later flick through online photos of friends who had shown up, catching glimpses of my former boozy life that had charged on without me.

I had to admit I missed it: the shyness that faded with each sip, the hiccup of time between drinks one and two when I was still lucid but starting to loosen up. I imagined returning to my previous employer, begging for my job back, and cannonballing into the industry again, because it had felt good to be great at something: to nail my sales goals, to represent wineries I believed in, and to feel like I’d earned a big night at the end of the day.

But the larger part of me, the one that had sobered up, knew that was an awful idea. Because in the absence of alcohol dulling my senses, I’d found new ways of living my life. I had learnt to work through problems with words instead of wine. I had friends who understood that I preferred coffee catch-ups to after-work drinks. I had made memories in Wellington that were clear and easy to recall – not foggy fragments and blackout nights I couldn’t piece together.

On that third trip to Auckland, Patrick came along as well. Even after four years living and working together in Wellington, I hadn’t shared much about my time in the wine industry. He was also unfamiliar with Ponsonby, so when I gave him a walking tour of the neighbourhood I let slip a few details about my past life.

I pointed out a bar where I could never remember to close my tab at the end of the night, prompting the 5pm walk of shame the next day to retrieve my credit card. We crossed an intersection where the night of my 29th birthday the heel of my stiletto snapped off mid-stride. And I hurried us past a corner bar where my hair once flickered over a candle and caught fire.

Patrick grabbed my arm, stopping us in the middle of the footpath.

“Who were you?” he asked, squinting at me as if I was no longer recognisable.

I held my breath, searching his face. Had I revealed too much? Had I just erased all the progress I’d made in Wellington by coming back to the place I’d worked so hard to leave behind?

Patrick broke into a smile, shaking his head and chuckling.

“I’m messing with you. I like learning about who you were,” he said, linking his arm in mine as we resumed walking. “Keep going.”

Keep going!