June 17 2014 06:28 PM

A legend of literary journalism pauses for a drink

Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Alone, but not for long, Mike Sager sits hunched over a table at a corner booth at Beaumont's in Bird Rock. The place is clean and contemporary. And as long as it's not the weekend—when lipstick-wearing divorcées show up in droves and singer / songwriter-type guitar music rattles the water glasses—it's quiet and cozy.

People know Sager here. Within minutes, he's holding court with the restaurant's owner, returning the hello waves of young women and discussing his drink of choice with his server.

"I switched to Manhattans," he says, his hands wrapped tightly around the rye-whiskey cocktail garnished with three brandy-soaked cherries. "I was in Brooklyn one night, and they said, 'What do you want?' and I said, 'I'll have a Manhattan,' and I've been drinking them ever since."

"But in that particular style—up, no rocks, in a bulb glass, right?" the server asks.

"Yeah, because a Manhattan is traditionally served, if you're like an Esquire man, in a really weird glass—it looks like a pudding thing—and some people put it in a martini thing, both of which I spill," Sager says. "Even in a Mexican restaurant, I don't want my margarita in a fucking weird glass. No, just give me a bucket."

The irony is that Sager is an Esquire man—a writer-at-large for the magazine for more than 15 years. He's the kind of hardworking, no-bullshit kind of Esquire man who enjoys an expensive cocktail in an upscale place like Beaumont's, just not in a fancy glass.

Next to Sager is a gift bag stuffed with a magazine and books—fiction and nonfiction books both penned by him and a few published by his company, The Sager Group, which also supports and promotes music, film and other pursuits deemed worthwhile by Sager himself. He's a man with a gaping soft spot for young, artsy types who need help.

Mark Wahlberg's face is peeking out over the top of the bag. Sager profiled the actor for the latest Esquire, flawlessly employing his literary approach to nonfiction that gives readers a detail-laden, insider view of the man who once rocked the pseudonym Marky Mark.

"He pulled down his pants in front of me and I was so shocked that I didn't notice if they were Calvins," Sager says. (Wahlberg appeared in Calvin Klein underwear ads in the '90s.) "I really fucked up, but I think it actually ended up better because of it... I just ruined the punch line to my story."

Sager's work as a journalist isn't always as glamorous as watching A-list actors drop their drawers. The former Washington Post staffer and Rolling Stone contributing editor has lived with crack gangs, rubbed elbows with Aryan hate groups and penetrated the porn world. "The Devil and John Holmes," Sager's Rolling Stone story that eventually became the basis for Boogie Nights, might be his best-known piece.

When Sager tries to conjure up drinking stories, he mostly thinks of bar bathrooms, white powder and long, blurry nights.

His best stories, those that spill out after a drink or two, are mostly about his intense experiences with story subjects he shadowed for months. Those folks have taught him some important shit. Like the 92-year-old writer Sager profiled—the old guy forgot about winning a presidential award for his work but remembered perfectly the feeling of his grandson's warm sticky hand in his.

"Every time I go do a story, I have these weird realizations," Sager says, two Manhattans in, before leaping to his next story about a story—this one decidedly less touching.

"I spent two to three months in Palestine during the Intifada," he says. "One of the reasons I didn't want to leave is because we had this huge brick of hash I didn't want to leave behind... I ended up having to roll over it with my car to make a piece flat enough to take home."

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