When Scott Magnuson sat down to dinner at his H Street pub, the Argonaut, with his wife, Shaaren, and their daughter, Ara, one summer night in 2011, a casual observer of the little family scene would hardly have guessed that his marriage was imploding.
Shaaren could no longer handle Scott’s excessive drinking and drug use. He had broken so many promises and she had grown so wary of him that she kept him in her sight as he slipped behind the bar to order their food. When she saw him pour himself a beer, she took Ara and quickly left the restaurant.
With his wife gone, Scott went on drinking for hours with the bar employees. As Shaaren waited up for him at home, panicking, her husband was, she says, “snorting Adderall and walking the streets of D.C.,” wasted.
But when he finally dragged himself into their house on Linden Place at 5 a.m. the next day, Scott says, he was done. “I was tired,” he says. “For the first time, I saw the pain I had created.”
Scott had abused substances for more than half his life, since he began sneaking beers at age 14 from the fridge at his first restaurant job. From the moment he started drinking, he recalls, “I drank and drank until I couldn’t drink anymore.”
That night in 2011, he decided that he couldn’t drink anymore.
“If you don’t want to slip, don’t go to slippery places” — it’s an adage often repeated in the 12-step world. For Scott, for years, no place was as perilous as the Argonaut itself.
“Working in a restaurant didn’t cause me to use drugs and start drinking,” says Scott, 36. “But being in that environment — it’s like fuel to a fire.”
He and Shaaren, 39, are sitting in a quiet spot at the Argonaut, openly discussing Scott’s addiction and its corrosive effects, which they describe in their recent joint memoir, “Torn Together.” They hope that the book and their 18-month-old support group for workers in their industry will help open a dialogue about pervasive substance abuse in the bar business.
There’s plenty to talk about. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is due to issue new data on drug and alcohol use by restaurant workers this month. But in its last survey, released in 2007, 12 percent of full-time restaurant and hospitality workers reported heavy alcohol use, and 17 percent reported having used illicit drugs. Among various occupations, restaurant and bar workers ranked No. 1 for drug use and fourth for alcohol abuse.
Working in a bar is a career that comes with pressure to be sociable, to take the shots that bargoers will buy you, says Chandler Christian, who has worked in the industry for years in various roles and has been at the Argonaut for the past four. “Traditionally,” he says, “the bartender is the guy who will drink you under the table.” Now, imagine if that bartender is prone to addiction.
“If you had an office job, you’d have been fired long ago because you didn’t come to work, or you came to work under the influence,” Shaaren adds. “But those things don’t happen in this industry. You can keep your job.”
Now that he’s sober, Scott is determined to keep his.
Scott Magnuson met Shaaren Pine in 2005 at the Argonaut, a nautical-themed pub that was one of the first to plant a flag on H Street NE. Shaaren was 30 and drawn to the goateed 26-year-old behind the bar. He was wild, impetuous and almost instantly devoted to her.
Before long, Shaaren was working at the Argonaut, too, picking up shifts to earn cash while in grad school and be closer to Scott. There was hardly a night when the couple weren’t at the bar, cooking, running food, pouring beers, and then hanging out drinking in the hours after last call, stumbling home and sleeping late.
They were married in 2007; Ara was born within a year. By then, Shaaren was aware that what had been a phase for her was a problem for Scott. She would wrest promise after promise from him — that he would stop drinking, stop smoking and settle down. He would swear that he would, but then she’d find pill bottles in his laundry, which he would explain away, and later, alcohol hidden around the house.
When a fire in 2010 shuttered much of the Argonaut for months, Shaaren re-wrote the bar’s employee manual to insist on a drug-free workplace — and no drinking on the job.
It was a change, she acknowledges now, that was probably aimed solely at Scott, but it seemed to apply to everyone but him. He was secretly taking painkillers and making frequent trips to the bar basement to sneak swigs of vodka.
How could Shaaren not have known that her husband was an addict? “I had nothing clean to compare him to,” she says. She has never used drugs herself, but she eventually learned that Scott had been abusing them the whole time they’d been together.
Also unaware of Scott’s addiction was his partner, Joe Englert, who owns stakes in 10 D.C. bars and restaurants, including 75 percent of the Argonaut.
When Shaaren called him to tell him about the extent of Scott’s drinking and drugging, Englert recalls, “I felt defeated and sad for the both of them because of how much time they had put into [the Argonaut], and that it was partly responsible for his troubles.”
But the business side was complicated. The Argonaut needed Scott, who, though a minority owner, runs the day-to-day operations. “You don’t want to scare away a good person like Scott by being overly paranoid or overly on top of him while you’re building a business,” Englert says.
By the time Shaaren called him, however, Scott had already left for rehab. After hitting bottom that summer night in 2011, he finally checked into a 21-day program in Florida.
When he emerged and began outpatient treatment, he and Shaaren started Restaurant Recovery, a nonprofit organization that they hope will someday help underinsured bar and restaurant workers afford treatment. For now, they hold Restaurant Recovery meetings at the Argonaut on Monday afternoons, hours before nightlife workers usually clock in. Five or six people will usually show up to talk about their struggles at the meetings, which Scott leads. Upstairs, Shaaren will make time for the addicts’ loved ones if they want to talk.
“We’re not sure Restaurant Recovery will get anybody sober,” Shaaren says, but it’s important, adds Scott, for “people to see somebody that’s happy.”
On a recent gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the brunch crowd has descended on the Argonaut. Eggs and wings fly out of the kitchen, and the bottomless mimosas flow.
While Scott runs glasses and hauls ice, Shaaren welcomes customers at the host stand. The two are aware of the irony of serving unlimited alcohol, but business is business.
When he first left rehab, it was hard for Scott to be around the pub. At first, he recalls, “you look at everybody else that’s drinking and having a good time, and you’re like, ‘Why can’t I just drink and have a good time? What’s wrong with me?’ ” Now, he’s not as bothered.
“He’s much calmer and much more at ease,” Englert says. “He knows who he is.”
Scott has added a new tattoo to his heavily inked arms: a phoenix wrapped in flames, a mythological bird symbolizing rebirth and renewal.
There are other signs of his new life, too. He works out almost every day and has become a devotee of meditation. And for the most part, he no longer works the bar floor, preferring the zen of the office on the Argonaut’s second floor. Hanging on the avocado-green walls are the certificates marking his successful completion of drug and alcohol treatment.
Scott and Shaaren have bought a second home, a cute rambler in South Bristol, Maine, where Shaaren has spent many summers since her childhood. They also purchased a little general store and cafe there, on the waterfront. Whenever Ara, now 7, has a break from school, that’s where they are.
Asked what advice she could offer to others, Shaaren pauses for a long time. “There are no right answers. You have to do what’s right for you, because the statistics are so grim,” she finally says. “I can’t say stick it out, because what happened with Scott has been kind of miraculous.”
Scott has slipped a couple of times, including last summer, when, he says, he wasn’t working out or meditating and drank to the point that he was sick. The relapses lasted no more than a day, and each has been a learning experience. Sobriety, he knows, is a tightrope he’ll have to walk every day.
To get here, Scott says, “I had to change my focus from ‘Woo-hoo, bar! Party time!’ to ‘It’s a profession,’ you know? It’s my job.”
“It took a while to make that change.”