Friday, August 28, 2015
PUSH THE PEDAL TO, AND THROUGH, THE FLOOR
and adjust, no one to drive the car."
The blizzard was on its way, although it was still October of 1979. Trendy bars are one of the country’s social barometers, and I was working in one of them. Rumblings of the storm began in the men’s room, spread to the women’s john, made it’s way into the kitchen and finally, to the table tops and bar proper. First, spoken about in whispers and, later when it had gained the arrogance of the heavens’ participation, shouting its’ preeminence over the lesser pretenders to the social circle of wealth and power. Cocaine was coming to a theater near you.
If I had been watching I’d have noticed plenty of signs to indicate I had lost my bearings and the demons were slinking in. The drinking was obvious. My sarcasm and anger which masqueraded as irreverence and humor, black as that might be, took over. A willingness to entertain, at first, those who offered me reefer and drugs, in lieu of cash, as tips after a night of alcohol was a sign, but I had finished, A Case of Insanity and that, if nothing else, persuaded, or deluded me, into thinking that all was right with the world.
My brother was moving back to Brooklyn sometime before Christmas, leaving me to rent his apartment, as illegal as that might be, for as much as the traffic would bear. An apartment to rent, in the heart of Greenwich Village, was like having “the letters of transit” in Casablanca: I would never be lonely again. It also would bolster my cash flow, enabling me to work as much, or as little, as I wanted, and concentrate on my writing and it’s aftermath, selling the script.
Oren & Aretsky’s was getting almost ridiculously out of control. Indeed, the inmates were running the asylum. One evening, as Kenny and John were counting the night’s receipts and I was tallying the liquor count for the day bartender to replace the booze that was poured, they exclaimed that they were two hundreds dollars short. They recounted twice and still came up with that exact amount. We knew we were stealing of course but were very crafty about it. There was no way we could have been off by two hundred bucks. We huddled around the register and looked at each other, befuddled. John, after drinking most of the later part of the evening and who could best be described at being three sheets to the wind, gazed into the register, seemingly trying to study it’s secrets. Then, with bloodshot eyes and all the seriousness he could command, looked at us and said, “Maybe we should count the dimes again?” Kenny and I looked at each other in utter amazement, poured John another and poured ourselves a hefty drink as well and left, leaving it for the bookkeeper to sort out. The two owners knew that some of their profits were going south, but that was really par for the course in the saloon business. However, they wanted to know “how much” was on I-95 heading for warmer climes. They hired Ron, an exceptionally handsome and charming guy in his mid-thirties, as manager. He was given the responsibility of running the saloon and taking a complete inventory. Ron, a few days after coming on board, announced to the staff, and especially the bartenders, when the inventory would take place. In effect, he told us what side of the street he was on and, essentially, gave us license to steal. In fact, the day before the count was to begin, Ron, long before there were SUV’s, pulled up in an old station wagon and loaded many bottles of Champagne, wine, and liquor, which, I’m pretty sure, stocked his home for many months to come. The fox, once again, was guarding the hen house.
Ron was a friend with one of the great characters I’d ever met, Ray Garcia. Ray was the maitre d' of Tavern On the Green, the legendary restaurant located in Central Park. Ray once told me he was good for well over two grand a week in cash. He’d arrive at my bar late at night, have a Remy, leave between twenty and forty dollars on the bar for a tip and be gone. He was a charismatic Latino, who wore elegant tuxedos, black patent leather shoes, but no socks, ever. I knew his game, and he knew mine. We liked each other from the start.
I’d sit in my chair, or lie in my bed, and fantasize about all the things my screenplay would bring me if I sold it. Money and power of course played prominently in my mind though those were least in importance, while identity and retribution were. All those who’d fired me, doubted me, cursed me, and helped to make me feel worthless, were the powerful elixirs that fueled my flights of fancy. When I was much younger and watched The Roy Rodgers Show on TV, I wanted to be adopted into what appeared to be a loving family who’d not only accepted but championed life’s differences. Roy and Dale had adopted children from all over the world to be one harmonious whole, or so I then thought. I wanted to create a similar family, albeit with adults, from the proceeds earned selling my screenplay. However, my fantasies were far narrower, less forgiving, juvenile, controlling, rage and fear-based. I wanted the same type of outcast as myself, who was literate, artistic, funny, melancholy, and forlorn and, who conformed to a similar and fractured philosophy that informed me, to view me as their savior. It was only those people who’d drink from the goblet of my success. For the others, I had nothing but contempt. In reality, it was me who wanted to be saved.
It was not the quality of my dreams, but the reality of my drinking that led me back into the offices of Dr. Bernstein. The nights and days that I was working were laced with Chivas during the shift and Martel Cordon Bleu, after I got off. The nights that I was off found me in The Cedar, drinking with a friend or two. However, I did not believe I was an alcoholic. In fact, that thought never crossed my mind, and why should it. I never woke up in the morning craving, or needing a drink nor, if days went by without a drink, was I required to inebriate myself. Emotionally, however, I was a textbook example of alcoholism, drug addiction, or most any substance abusing disorder. I was doing what any escape artist did; free myself from the day-to-day grind. Tragedy or crisis, I’d prefer to take “straight-up.”
I sat in Bernstein’s waiting room thinking what I was going to tell him. The words that formed in my mind were half-truths. I could not be totally honest with him or anyone else for that matter. I felt depressed, irritable, and slightly paranoid. I should have been there for a lie detector instead of blood test. I, no matter how good my initial intention, was playing hide and seek with the truth. I was scared in fact to tell him, or anyone else for that matter any part of the truth, as I knew it. If I did that, he could very well suggest (demand) that I give up the booze and I thought I’d probably stand no shot at getting any kind of medication that might soothe my nerves and make me forget who I was for a little while. I was the only one who knew some of the recesses of my mind that I was hiding in, and I was not about to give myself up.
Sitting in his examination room, I tried to concentrate on his map on the wall of all the fish in North America. The closest I had ever been to a fish was in Lundy’s, a seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay. There’s not that much to engage your mind within an examination room except yourself. Shit, anything but that. Bernstein came in and all the dramatic dialogues I had had since I made the appointment evaporated. I tried to think of nothing. Nothing’s wrong; nothing to worry about; nothing I can do now.
Bernstein looked as he always did, handsome and healthy. He extended his hand, and we shook. “How are you?” I asked first, trying to perhaps make him the patient. It didn’t work.
“I’m fine,” he said and smiled. “How are you?”
“I’m O.K. Pretty good. Hangin’ in.”
“Is this a multiple choice test?” he quipped, and added, “I haven’t seen you in awhile. What have you been doing with yourself?”
I told him about the bars, and the screenplay, and the drinking. He looked at me and listened without the air of judgment I felt he, or anyone in positions like his, would have. He considered what I said and then, without commenting on what he heard said, “Let me examine you and then we’ll talk.” He took an unusually long time in checking my vital signs and then examined me some more. He called in a nurse to draw blood and after she was finished I got dressed and waited to be called into his consultation office.
Sitting opposite him I expected to hear the worst. “I don’t like the way you look,” he began, “your blood sugar was somewhat high, nearly three hundred; high, but not alarming. What concerns me is your overall physical appearance. Your pallor is sallow, not what it had been and you appear pretty nervous.”
“Well I am nervous. I’ve been working pretty hard like I told you before. I know I’ve got to cut down on the drinking.”
“Well the drinking could be a contributing cause, and it is a concern. If you need to see anyone I could make a recommendation.”
“No, no I don’t need to do that. No, I don’t need you to do that. I’ll cut down and see what happens,” I said, eager to ingratiate myself and wrap this up.
“I’d like to read your screenplay. You know I’m a fan.”
“Yeah, absolutely. And thanks. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, I’d like to see you back here in a month.”
“Yes, sure O.K.” I stood up and we shook hands. It was a good while longer than a month before I saw him again.
There’s an emptiness or depression that settles in after I complete a major writing project. It must be similar to postpartum depression that women experience. You’ve gone to sleep and awakened with your characters. You’ve worried over what they feel and how they’re feeling. In some cases you’ve experienced, with them, nearly their whole lives. A void remains where people once were if you’ve done your job properly. I tried to force myself to do things that would fill up my time, even going into work two or three hours early, just to be someplace where I wasn’t alone. As long as I could hear voices, see or detect movement, I was calmed to a certain extent.
Jean and I were seeing more of each other. She had wanted to break off her relationship with a man she called Jeff. She said that he was not the kind of man to anger by doing something he could not tolerate. I didn’t really understand that but made no demands on her. I was trying to psyche myself up to type, print, and push my screenplay. I was also becoming more aware through therapy that I could no longer work off my anger toward women through either sleeping with or manipulating them. My fantasies for revenge and retribution were not directed at women at all, I thought, but men. It was men, and the institutions made by men, that I wanted to break through and/or destroy. But I was wrong: I was an equal opportunity hater.
Christmas time in New York City, 1979, ‘tis the season to be angry. My anger, perhaps hatred, was directed toward anyone having a good time, shoppers carrying the tiny mittened hands of children, families planning their holiday reunions, The Salvation Army, Santa and his helpers, reindeer, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, gifts, Christmas trees and bells. I wanted nothing to do with that stuff. At the bar, I would fantasize poisoning the drinks of those who mentioned the upcoming festivities. And then I heard from Brasz.
Brasz, who could give less of a shit about anything that smacked of religion, wanted to come up from New Orleans and spend the Christmas recess with me. He was feeling particularly miserable himself, having just gotten divorced for the second time, and hadn’t, up to this point, received much commercial success with his paintings. I welcomed the company even though my pad was so small you had to go outside to change your mind. In fact, I awaited his arrival like a man drowning who sees a life preserver coming his way.
It didn’t take us long to catch-up with one another. In a sense, he was much more honest with me than I with him. He laid out his divorce without embroidering it nor reveling in it. C.T., Cecil Taylor, whom Brasz saw before coming to my place, had, he said, penetrated his defenses by saying to him that, “he had brutalized his young wife.” He meant emotionally, not physically. He expressed a desire to return to New York City and begin putting the pieces of his life back together, away from the South and the life he’d had there. “It’s up here, Savage,” he said, “the art, the painting, you, my friends, family even. I just want to get back here. I’m tired of the scene down there.” I nodded my head and told him, without telling him too much, about the last couple of years and what I was doing now. I touched on the high points, the screenplays, bar scenes and women, including Jean, the newest woman on the horizon. I saved my failures and drinking for last. I casually mentioned to him that I thought it would be better, better for my diabetes, not to mention my imagination, if I smoked a little pot instead of drinking so goddamn much. Brasz, not liking alcohol to begin with, quickly concurred...if I could control it. After so many years of not smoking pot, I didn’t think it would be a problem I told him, knowing I was lying as the words were coming out of my mouth.
We were supposed to meet his parents at a nearby restaurant. His parents, especially his mom, were pretty hip when it came to pot, and we had plenty of time. Brasz, at that time, smoked reefer constantly. He went to his suitcase, opened it, and produced a bag of pot and rolling papers. He deftly rolled a joint, lit it, and handed it to me. In the time it takes to blink your eyes, almost seven years of abstinence was inhaled, then expelled. The high hit me in seconds. In a minute or so, I became afraid and started to feel the onset of an insulin reaction. I felt shaky, disorganized, paralyzed and weak with fear. Brasz, who was watching me, must have seen how white, sweaty, and blood-drained I was and asked if something was wrong. I asked him to get me a Coca-Cola. I gulped it down and felt better, but not much. I knew, however, that the sugar was in my system, which calmed me down. I never did meet his parents that night. He told them that I’d gotten sick, which was already, “old news.”
“What else did you bring?” I asked him the next day. He hesitated for a moment and then told me he had brought up some coke as well. I thought about that for less than a minute, then tried a little of that, too.
It is somewhat unfair to place Brasz at that place in time that was to serve as the beginning of yet another run. No one can stop anyone from doing what they are hell bent to do. The ones who do stop, I believe, are either those who really want to be stopped or are bullshitting to begin with. Nobody put anchors on my arms and forced me to shoot drugs. No one forced my mouth open and made me guzzle booze down it. Drugs and booze, though they whisper, talk, or shout out to you, are inanimate. Whatever life, will, and power they possess, you, and only you, impose it. You have to pick them up, and embrace them. You have to fool with them. You have to love them. You. Anybody who says differently is either lying, or has never been in love.
If it wouldn’t have been Brasz, it would have been someone else, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. Someone across the bar would have said something, left something and I, saying “fuck-it” or a variation of that hyphenated form of defeat or emotional surrender, would’ve taken the bait, accepted the “tip” and taken off from there. It would be too easy to assign blame to those friends or family members who either condoned, helped me and, in some instances, purposely lit the fuse. At certain points in my life I was weaker than others. All the nuts and bolts, all the Fox locks, Medico locks and Fichet locks were unscrewed or unscrewing. The demons, once handcuffed inside my stomach, were slithering through.
Jean knew nothing of my past or present actions. I wanted it that way and would fluff off her questions about my drinking or drug usage. She wasn’t the type of woman who asked for, much less demanded, explanations for a person’s behavior. Either she’d accept it, or leave. She wanted to “do” for whomever she committed herself to. Many people mistake “kindness” for “weakness.” I’m one of those people. Actually, Jean cared too much about the person she loved and not enough about herself. She was self-effacing to the point of it being destructive for herself and, in this instance, me as well. However, some relationships go past the point of no return almost immediately. Each represent something else to the other and the other has absolutely little or no idea at the time what that might be.
Jean had access, through her soon to be ex-boyfriend, to top quality drugs, specifically reefer and coke. Many times in the past, I’ve known women who had the same conduit open for them. These drugs were given to them as gifts, to do with what they wanted. In this instance, however, they were certainly not gifts. In fact, they were fraught with danger. When the subject came up, I didn’t want to appear too excited, fearful of her withdrawing her offer. What I did say was that I could use the cocaine for my rewriting and typing and the pot for creativity and a way of leveling out the coke. I was lying of course, but say something long enough and you begin to hear a smattering of truth and, a short time later, you believe it’s gospel.
During my years of abusing drugs, cocaine had little appeal to me. Occasionally, I mixed it with junk. That was called, “speed balling,” going up and down, like a roller coaster, but I never went out of my way to do that. In fact, I thought it a waste of time, not to mention money. Cocaine was known as “a rich man’s drug” for good reason. The high lasted twenty to thirty minutes, leaving you wanting more, immediately. That was good, while the money lasted, which, in most instances, was not very long, while with one blast of heroin it was, “Goodnight Irene.”
I reasoned, if “reason” could ever be applied to my way of thinking, that unlike scag I wouldn’t “fall in love” with coke, thereby making it a “safe” drug for me, and, if what I had learned was true, coke was not physically addictive, allowing me to stop when the rewriting and typing were completed. What I failed to understand was myself. Had I been a caveman and discovered that dinosaur dung would get me high, I’d be out there with a shovel and extra-large width rolling papers.
I’d meet Jean once or twice a week and each time she’d give me one to two gram vials of rock cocaine and beautiful budded sinsemilla as well. I’d enjoy my new found ritual of chopping the rock into powder, so bright you could almost see your reflection in it, making lines on a mirror, inhaling and waiting for the surge of adrenaline and power, the tingling and the numbness. At other times, the coke was a yellowed rock, and, when cut, smelled like cat’s piss, while at other times she brought Bolivian flake cocaine, pure as the driven snow. I became, in a short period of time, well-versed in the gradations and potency of snow.
The stars of my cocaine constellation were almost aligned. One piece, a large piece, presented itself in the form of tenants for my brother’s apartment. For weeks I’d been interviewing people who had responded to the ad I’d placed in The Village Voice. I was charging roughly three hundred dollars more than the pad actually rented for, or nine hundred bucks a month, which was still cheap, considering the size of the place and the location. None of the people who I’d seen seemed like good candidates. One afternoon, before I had to be at work, I met Paul and his friend, Artie. Paul was in his early thirties, handsome, Jewish and a graduate of Harvard. Artie was one of the original producers of Woodstock, the concert. The apartment was for Paul and his girlfriend, Judy. He told me the rent, for which he’d pay me in cash, was not a concern, and the security I required, within his means. I was comfortable with him and told him the apartment, upon my receipt of the security deposit, was his. We shook on it. He inquired, quite naturally, if I did any blow. I nodded. He produced, from the pocket of his sports coat, what I took to be three to five ounces of powder and didn’t bother to ask me for a mirror or any of the accouterments that went with the ingestion of cocaine. He merely took out a straw, placed it in the bag and gave it to me. The only thing he did was admonish caution. We sealed the deal over the next hour. My constellation, now complete, was the nose of Zeus, with a straw protruding from it.
Before too long, I was shooting the coke. I was curious to feel what the “rush” was like. Comparing “snorting” to “shooting” is like comparing Spam to Filet Mignon. The “rush” from the coke froze you, shocked your system, stopped time. It also made me want to continue doing the drug endlessly. With all the will I could muster, I held myself in check by doing essentially two things. I sniffed rather than shot the coke when I could get it, and I spent much time with Brasz going around town, talking about the writing I’d done and the painting he was doing and, as strange as this might sound, laughing. We shared a very skewered view of life, and each of us had a very funny way of presenting it. Beyond that, I can’t really explain why or how our friendship worked, but for a very long time, and through many upheavals, it did. When speaking with Jean, I sometimes resisted asking her to bring whatever she could to our next rendezvous. Although, often times, she’d bring packages of reefer and coke with her. I couldn’t refuse if that occurred.
Brasz had decided to go out to Queens to spend some time with his family before returning to New Orleans. When he left, he took one of my lifelines with him. However, I still had some controls inside and outside of me that governed my actions in regard to a full scale, all-out, no-holds-barred, assault on my body and mind. I was still in therapy with Handelsman. I needed to show up for work, and I wanted to try and sell my screenplay. As many as two out of the three contributed to my undoing, so had they kept me propped up and functioning.
When Paul arrived with his girlfriend, Judy, to give me the money required to move in, he asked straightforwardly if I wanted to be paid in coke rather than cash. Bartering coke for services, he told me, was something he did all the time. Wanting the cocaine, but needing the money, I opted for the cash. Although, in the weeks and months following his arrival, different arrangements were instituted that would, if they appeared in a work of fiction be both comedic and tragic, the Janus face of drama.
The high point in 1980, literally, at Oren & Aretsky’s came the afternoon I had a bar full of people mesmerized by the American Hockey team playing, and beating, the Russians at The Winter Olympics. The high point, figuratively, was a succession of days and nights all through that year, and the year beyond. I had become friendly with another staff member at the bar who opened with me for Saturday and Sunday brunches. He too, enjoyed his cocaine and his liquor. We lived near each other and cabbed to work together. Once there, we spilled some of what we brought on ashtrays, or the bar itself, and began our day, wired. I then went and began chilling a pitcher of Beefeater martinis in a stainless steel cocktail shaker, and packed that in ice. Once he prepped the kitchen, and I the bar, we indulged in more coke while we drained the cocktail shaker. By noon, we had a pretty good buzz on as the afternoon unfolded.
From this vantage point, it seemed like everyone in New York City either used coke, sold coke, did both, or knew someone who did. As I said, customers who knew me, or wanted to impress me, gave me the drug, gratis; I gave them a drink. In the course of these exchanges, I met some wealthy and arrogant stock brokers who used a lot of the powder and were always looking for new connections, for it. They asked me if I could help them. I didn’t like the sonsofbitches but figured there’d be something in it for me, and there was. They’d give me the money and I’d make the arrangements, always taking a cut, both in money and coke. I was able to be somewhat honest with them for quite awhile and used the Dylan credo, “to live outside the law you must be honest,” until one evening, when they were unable to pick it up when they were supposed to. They called and asked me to keep it overnight and bring it down to Wall Street the next day. Needless to say, by the end of the evening, less than half of what they had purchased remained. I couldn’t replace it, nor did I have anything like lactose or milk sugar to cut it with, but I did have Sweet n’ Low packets. They each contained one gram. I mixed two of them in with the coke and gave it back to one of them the next day. “I should give him a cup of coffee to go with it,” I thought, while I handed the package over. They never called, or came back to the bar. I said to myself, “Fuckem if they can’t take a joke,” but on the other hand, I felt dirty. The longer I was involved using drugs, the lower I’d stoop to obtain them. It seemed every time I opened my zipper to pee, I heard “Taps” being played.
One afternoon, while finishing the typing on, A Case of Insanity, Jean telephoned. She sounded desperate and in pain. She was staying at her friend’s apartment, which was near mine, and I hurried over to where she was. The apartment was dark. No lights were on as I made my way into the dining room and sat down at the table where she led me. I tried to look at her in the winter afternoon’s dimness and saw her eyes red-rimmed, from crying and, as my eyes began to get adjusted to the light, I saw a discoloration around different parts of her face. I got up and went to turn on the lights. When I returned to the table, her face showed sickened hues accentuated by bruises and cuts. Every time she breathed, I saw the effort it took, and the pain she tried to conceal.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Jeff got angry,” she finally replied.
“And what? And did this?”
“Why can’t you breath right?”
“I just came from St. Vincent’s. He broke a few ribs too. He threw me down the stairs and I’m all taped up.”
She began to cry. I got up, went to the bathroom, got some tissues, and returned to her. I took her hand in mine and sat there, watching the tears run down her cheeks. After she stopped crying, I asked her why he’d done something like that to her. She explained that he had suspected her of seeing some one else and when she confirmed it, he became enraged. When he left, and she was able to move, she got some of her things together, took whatever she could from his drug cache, and cabbed over to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
“Can I stay with you?” she asked.
“Yes, sure you can,” I replied, but I was torn. I didn’t want her to live with me. I didn’t want anyone to live with me, but under the circumstances, I would have felt like a complete asshole if I’d said otherwise. I picked up her suitcase and we began a journey that, unbeknownst to us at the time, would take up the next ten years of our lives.
pgs 148-154, From Chapter VIII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015
Thursday, August 27, 2015
ain't so bad--
but on the south side
it fuckin sucks.
gives a shit
about your fever,
your head or
to bring you
a cup of tea
at the Stillwell Avenue's
of the soul.
Have a good
Greenwich Village, 2015
New York City is saturated with dreams by people of all ages. Everyday, those dreams are crushed out, if they’re lucky, or shit rubbed into them if they’re not. Numbers are big. Lotto is big. People are working at what they don’t want to be: There are actresses as waitresses, writers as bartenders, actors as cabdrivers, dancers as horticulturists. All of them are making the rent while waiting for a phone call. When the phone rings, it could be from your agent, a publishing house, Vegas, Hollywood, Broadway, or God. Usually, it’s your mother complaining about her hemorrhoids and why you haven’t called. It’s such a tough town that your dreams have to be tougher, more tenacious, and harder to extinguish. If you give them up you’re no longer a child, you’re just an adult with an asshole and an opinion, and Christ, everybody has those.
I opted out of group. I felt I had had enough. I didn’t want to hear the same people with the same voices enunciating the same problems, including myself. “Shut the fuck up and get on with it,” I said to myself. Perhaps the decision to leave group was evidence of a further withdrawal from humanity where everyone was allowed to be human, painfully human. I, however, was leaning away from that. My next screenplay, A Case of Insanity, would testify to that. What is closer to the truth, and what I believe today, is that the addict (me) on an unconscious level always desire a substance or substances that will allow them to return to the fantasy. They are never neutral and each and every decision or rationalization that turns you away from a structure or situation that represents “health” or the possibility of staying in “reality” is a step, perhaps a small step at first, back to the abyss.
A Case of Insanity was a fictionalized recounting of the Son of Sam murders. In it, I tried to sum up the narcissistic and dangerous 1970’s. It was a cold, ice-like work that should have been directed by Fassbinder, in black and white. There was no one in the work that the audience could root for, let alone identify with. It was self-interest that paved the way for the decade of mergers, consolidations, ice, cocaine, and money, that was but a prelude to our run toward shallowness and homogenization.
The latter part of September, a thin strip of magnesium was lit: flash/poof. When that happened in science class, a blinding flash occurred and then, like The Lone Ranger riding out of town, you Hi-Ho’d Silver’d it to another class. However, when that flash occurred in my life, it lay smoldering in my brain for weeks, sometimes months.
A friend to whom I’d given my first screenplay, Coney Island, had in turn given it to a big-time producer, and he called me. He told me that my script was one of three being considered for production. He was to have lunch with him later that week and, since he’d done many favors for this man, was sure that he could push my interests further. The flash occurred, and I was not to wait. I wanted to work harder on A Case of Insanity. I went out for coffee to fuel the effort.
I bounded down the flights of stairs and out the door into the afternoon bustle. Nothing could go wrong. I was invincible again, a king in spite of myself. There, parked in front of my building, sitting in a blue, beat-up Kharman Ghia reading, was a beautiful Asian young woman. “Jesus, this is too good to be true. Everything fits,” I said to myself. Fate grabbed me by my balls, and led me toward the car.
She looked like my alter ego sitting there. She was tranquil, self-contained, and absorbed. I was like an inert gas possessing no valance. “Ah, excuse me,” I said, bending my knees slightly to get on a level with her window. Her face turned slowly toward me. “Christ,” I said to myself, “she’s more beautiful full-face.”
“Excuse me,” I said again, “are you an actress?”
“No, I’m not,” she replied pleasantly enough, with no hint of being put off or arrogant.
“You’re not, huh?...Well, maybe you should be.” I pressed on. “Listen, I know this might sound a bit strange but I just finished a screenplay where my protagonist meets and falls in love with a woman of Asian background, and I’m not sure whether some of the scenes I wrote work. Would you mind reading it and maybe we could talk about it later?”
“I’m not an actress, and I’ve never read a screenplay before.”
“You read; I see you reading,” I said, and we both laughed. “That’s all you really have to do. Either it will sound right to you or it won’t,” I continued, pushing her.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” she said, trying to let me off easily and without too much discomfort for either one of us.
I was not to be deterred. “Why don’t you give me your number?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Stop saying that, will you? You’re not married, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” she answered.
“Well, I’ll give you my number. How’s that?”
“No, that won’t work. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Do you live in the neighborhood?”
“Yes, not far.”
“Good, think about what I said. I’m sure we’ll meet again or, if you change your mind, you can contact me through The Cedar Tavern across the street. Everyone knows me there. My name’s Savage and,” I turned around pointing, “I live right here, 2-A.” I looked back at her, smiled and said, “O.K. take care of yourself.”
“You too,” she said. I turned and walked away. By the time I returned with a container of coffee it was after six p.m. (the time when those who play the alternate street parking game in Manhattan can safely leave their cars without getting a ticket or towed), and she was gone. As I was going up the stairs, I thought about being out there the same time tomorrow, but, once I got upstairs, I couldn’t wait for tomorrow. I wrote a note and put it on her windshield with my phone number, asking her to call. I got upstairs and it began raining. It was the kind of rain that stopped and started again. When it stopped, I changed the note. It began raining, again. I changed the note. Again, it rained. “Fuck this,” I said to myself. I set my alarm for six a.m. I woke up, wrote the same note and left it under her wipers. I forgot about the trees, they leak. The Kharman Ghia and wet note was still there; I ran upstairs and changed the note.
Two weeks later, I saw her again. I went up to her car and leaned down. “How come you didn’t call?” I asked, trying not to startle her.
She turned her head slowly in my direction and said, “I’m still deciding.”
“It’s a good thing I didn’t need open-heart surgery. Well, how about it? Will you read it, or what?”
“I’m going away to my sister’s in Cape Cod. I guess I could read it then, up there.”
“Wait, don’t go nowhere. I’ll get you a copy. And call me when you’ve finished. My number’s on the first page,” I turned to go but quickly added, “What’s your name, by the way?”
A month later and I heard from no one: not Jean, not the producer, and not from my friend who gave it to him. I decided to call him. I’ve learned, most painfully, that when you have to call “them,” “them” being jobs, producers, women, in short, any person that you want or expect something from, it’s usually no go and no good. The answer you were hoping was “yes” is invariably “no.” This time was no different. “Norm, I’m sorry,” he began, “I made a mistake. I’ve been meaning to call you back, but I’ve been busy, ya know? Anyway, I misinterpreted what he had said to me initially, I’m sorry.”
“That’s O.K.” I said to him. “You only heard what we both wanted to hear. Anyway, at least you tried for me. Most wouldn’t have done that. I appreciate it.”
After two years of waiting and hoping, I resigned myself to the fact that Coney Island, was a dead issue.
I needed a gig. I continued writing A Case of Insanity, but needed to make rent. I was friendly with a guy from Handelsman’ group who was a lawyer, whose family owned banks, who wanted to fool around with television stardom, and thought with the rise of cable and public access stations, he could become a TV talk show personality, eventually being picked-up by the more traditional networks. Really, he enjoyed fucking society dames and this segued nicely into that. He asked me to write for him for nothing until he made it, and he’d give a few bucks as a stipend per week. When I asked him if he knew anyone in the bar business that he could introduce me to he said, “Yeah, sure my cousin has a very successful spot he just opened. It’s right around the corner from the studio. We’ll go after the show for a few drinks. I’ll introduce you.”
Steve Oren, was a half partner in Oren & Aretsky’s. It was one of the more successful watering holes on Third Avenue, between 84th and 85th Streets. It was the saloon of destination for The New York Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers from the late 70’s until the early 80’s. Oren, once the male model for Winston cigarettes, had been married to Jennifer O’Neal. After meeting me, he introduced me to his other half, Ken Aretsky, who hired me. He started me at first with two shifts but shortly expanded them to include brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Where there are high-priced professional jocks, there are beautiful women, and where there are beautiful women, there are guys spending lots of money to be seen with them and, if they’re lucky, bed some of them down as well. It’s synergistic and combustible, while it lasts. Everyone who’s associated with the saloon makes money, and I was no exception. In fact, I made a lot of money because I knew what to do behind this kind of bar. I was fast, funny, but aloof. I remembered the customers, not by their names but by what they drank and how much they tipped. I manipulated most by knowing who they were and what they wanted and purposely crossing up their signals in conspiratorial exchanges and intelligent and funny repartee; and, like most bartenders I knew, stole. I poured generous amounts of whiskey into their glasses, bought the tippers drinks, and averaged between one-fifty and two hundred dollars per shift, cash. I also ate and drank for nothing during the time I spent there. The food was terrific, and the liquor top shelf.
My three compatriots, Kenny, John, and Barry had been working there for quite some time when I arrived. Kenny and John were bartenders and Barry was the head chef. There were many other people who worked there. There were two Chinese men who worked in the basement, for instance, who did nothing except peel potatoes for the hundreds of orders we received each night for French Fries, but it was those three with whom I grew close. Both Kenny and John were working to support themselves while they tried to do other things. In John’s case it was acting, in Kenny’s, writing.
It did not take me long to make the “Savage Rules” at the bar. No one, no matter how attractive the man or woman might be (unless they were regulars who left a large tip because they were hip to the fact it was your stool they were sitting on, and you needed to see a return on that piece of property), was allowed to stay at the bar waiting for “somebody” to come in without drinking. No one, was allowed to remain at the bar nursing a drink, or worse, a bottle of Perrier, for a period determined by how busy the night was; and no one could drink without tipping. At first, John and Kenny were amazed at some of my actions, but it made them money too so they didn’t complain.
The management was making so much loot they didn’t much care what we did. As long as they heard the cash register ringing, they usually backed our play. Aretsky, a slick Jewish boy from Long Island, dressed in Armani, always had his hand draped around the jocks who hung there, and was the public relations force behind the saloon. The athletes did make the saloon their home, and why not. They were treated like kings and “comped” for what they ate and drank. They made hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars a year and never had to reach into their pockets to pay for anything. Interestingly enough, they tipped worse than jazz musicians. At least most jazz musicians had a reason. They worked sparingly and when they did, usually it was for “short money,” but these athletes, Christ! At first I tried to be humorous with them. “Hey, it’s O.K. to tip, I won’t say nothin’,” I’d say to those who would belly-up to my bar, but they were a dense lot, with a few exceptions, like Pinella from The Yankees and Esposito from The Rangers, who tipped and tipped well. Two incidents serve to illustrate their arrogance and density. The first was with Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. He’d come into the place, and we’d have to hang his white fur coat in a room in the basement and, store bottles of Miller Light just for him because he was one of their spokesmen. We’d lug it upstairs to serve him and whomever he happened to be with that evening. He would point to people he knew and motion for us to buy them drinks, which we did, of course. He never got a tab, and he’d leave us nothing. Finally, one evening, after running around for him for hours, he was getting up to leave and I went downstairs to bring up his coat. Handing it to him I said, “Reggie, I know the booze and food are free, but the service isn’t. That’s how we, I, make a living.” He handed the coat back to me, reached into his pocket, and handed me a buck. I handed it back. “Keep it,” I said to him.” He turned and walked out, shaking hands with a few people as he went.
The second incident happened during a Sunday brunch. It was kind of slow that day. I had the TV on to some football game and a few regulars were at the bar, drinking beer and eating some fries. There was one attractive blond woman, who I didn’t know, sitting further down, alone, sipping on a white wine. I had a seven dollar tab for her behind the bar. I ran tabs for everyone. Walt Frazier, or Clyde as he was known, double parked his Rolls outside the saloon and sauntered in. I said hello to him and he to me as I watched his eyes light upon the comely thing at my bar, fingering her wine glass. He went over to her, said something I couldn’t hear, and she rose to leave. Frazier began walking out of the bar when I stopped him.
“Clyde,” I began, nearly whispering, “she has a seven dollar tab here.”
He turned to her as she was going past him, obviously going to his Rolls, grabbed her elbow and said, “Pay your bill, I’ll wait in the car.” He rounded, and left.
Jean called and apologized for the time lapse between her taking the script, reading it, and getting back to me. I asked her to meet me at The Cedar Tavern where we could discuss it over drinks. I did much more drinking than talking about the script. I didn’t have much interest in the script at that time, but pretended, as I often did at any time, especially with women, that I meant what came out of my mouth. She told me that a ten year relationship was coming to an end. When I inquired further she was, I thought, purposely vague, although she did intimate that the guy she was seeing was wanted by many law enforcement agencies for questioning. When I probed, she resisted and said it would be better, for both of us, if she didn’t say anymore. I usually took what other people said, especially about criminal enterprises, with a grain of salt. Coming from the background I did, it was hard for me to imagine how this diminutive, cultured, and very attractive Chinese woman could be involved with real tough guys. Besides, by not telling me too much she was being loyal, which I admired and respected. I walked her a few blocks to where she was staying and kissed her goodnight, and we said we’d continue this at a time in the very near future.
Being involved with so many different things on different levels did not stem my anxiety from escalating. I began asking the types of questions that smack of self-pity and lead, eventually, to the short and sweet anthem sung by the many drunks and drug addicts that I know, “Fuck-it.” ‘All those years that I’d worked, for what? All those years that I’d abstained from drugs, for what? Where had it all gotten me?’ These questions led to more shallowness. It had just made me more aware of what people had that I didn’t. In fact, it was more painful. Self-pity is one of the more nauseating indulgences that a person can perform, whether silently or for public consumption, it smells of the worst kind of sentimentality and corruption. I have engaged in it more times than I like to remember. It usually is accompanied by a drink or a drug which serves to ease the slivers of razor blades as they cut the memory of recriminations and regrets.
Handelsman, sensing my deterioration, cut down on my sessions rather than increase them. He saw I was no longer able to concentrate for long periods of time without getting distracted. I would say to him that I was feeling like a woman who goes to the seashore and tries to put just the amount of shells she can carry in her apron and take them back to her home to get through another day. My days were being lived only to get through. The constant drinking had begun to take its toll and wither away a resolve that I’d spent a great deal of time and energy to secure.
I began to think: If I just smoke a little reefer again it would take less of a toll on my body.
I was about to unlock a bolt.
pgs 144-148--From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
It was nearly summer, and rather than try to land a gig in the straight world of nine-to five, I decided that bartending, with the double-barreled action of quick money and women, better suited my desires. Besides, I had made many friends from my nights spent at The Other End with whom I played basketball on a concrete slab of a park, on Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, in the afternoon, and I wanted to preserve this day/night dichotomy. Also, I had become friends with someone who would become an important part of my life and influence my thinking for some time to come. One evening I was invited to a crap game hosted by a bartender from The Other End, George, where I met the singer/songwriter, Tom Waits. We became fast friends after our bantering back and forth after we discovered that we had much in common, the appreciation of the writer, Charles Bukowski, with whom he used to play gigs with, being just one.
Waits was carving out a place in the music world that would be uniquely his and enjoying the stress that goes with it. Funny, irreverent, and multitalented, he rekindled the writing bug in me. He’d call me in the middle of the night from places that seemed like outposts in America, small cities in Idaho or Minnesota, that he played in to coincide with the release of his album. We’d usually talk for a few minutes and fill each other in on what we were doing, or reading and sometimes writing. When he stayed in Manhattan, usually at The Chelsea Hotel, a few blocks from my apartment, we’d see each other frequently. We’d bounce ideas off each other and laugh, always laugh about the absurdities each of us experienced and tried to formalize in words. “Savage,” he’d growl, “tell me what you know about Potter’s Field,” or, “what can I do with my strung-out sax player?” One of the most important things Waits told me was during an evening in The Cedar Tavern. I drinking Chivas Regal and he, Wild Turkey, discussing the difficulty of expressing the “truth in confessional writing.” “Savage,” he said, “you’re a writer; it’s O.K. to lie.” He was well ahead of the curve on “creative nonfiction.”
Pat Kenny, a legendary saloon keeper, was opening a place on Bleecker Street. I opened the saloon with him that summer. It was a place that was so old it could have been designed by Margaret Mead. You had to walk down a long flight of rickety wooden stairs to get to the ice-machine and then lug buckets of it back upstairs. You’d do this five to seven times a night. I made all my money in tips from four to five-thirty in the morning when ten to fifteen cops, just having gotten off their shift, would come in to kill a few quarts of Irish whiskey before going home, or wherever it was they were bound.
While working and hanging-out with Waits and Doc, I began writing poetry again and, as if by magic, I came up with an idea for a screenplay. Coney Island, would be about a writer who meets and falls in love with a Japanese woman. However, he is being manipulated by a wealthy socialite who has promised him publication and fame. Does he sell his soul, not to mention his balls, in the bargain? Stay tuned, for a hundred and twenty pages.
At the same time, Handelsman and the group were encouraging me to go back to school to earn a Master of Social Work degree. He thought that I’d make a good therapist, especially in treating addictive-compulsive disorders. I didn’t disagree and, in fact, was drawn to that particular area of psychology and therapy.
The plan that Handelsman had put in front of me was straight forward. The shortest route to being admitted to a psychoanalytical training school would require an M.S.W. He suggested the Adelphi School of Social Work. It was too late to apply, but give me an angle to work on, give me a mountain that is difficult to climb, and I’m pretty resourceful. My father had been friendly with Charles Raffa for decades. Raffa owned a business that sold refrigeration equipment to supermarkets. He had a daughter, Matilda, who was married to the then Lt. Governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo. I contacted Charlie, explained that I needed Cuomo to write a letter asking Adelphi to make an exception to their cutoff date for applications in my case. The Lt. Governor was accommodating, as husbands generally tend to be. I was accepted in the fall term and chose to go at night, leaving a few evenings and weekends open for me to still bartend.
Kenny’s Castaways, the bar on Bleecker Street where I was working, was not throwing off enough money to make it worth my while to remain. A friend, Richie Jossin, whom I met while he was a bartender at The Other End, and with whom I gambled on basketball games (and lost plenty of money, but wrote a poem, Hoops, 3 and a 1/2 Points, which, in a way, while never making it even, struck a sort of balance), suggested that I join him working at another saloon on The Bowery, The Tin Palace. The Tin Palace was an interesting combination of saloon and jazz joint, and pretty soon I had a couple of shifts there.
That September my pop got tickets for the Ali vs. Norton bout for The Heavyweight Championship Of The World, held at Yankee Stadium. I had been an Ali fan since he’d won Olympic Gold. My father, who’d only heard his words from the papers he read, had minimized him for years until I convinced him to watch him fight. Once seeing him in action, my father converted. He acknowledged that even his favorite heavyweight, Joe Louis, would probably have lost to this ring magician. He could punch with either hand, hit hard while backpedaling, dance and box like Sugar Ray for fifteen rounds on a six foot four, two hundred and twenty pound frame, could take a punch and, was one of the great ring tacticians to ever lace-up a pair of gloves. Angelo Dundee, his trainer for all his professional life, had said he was the first fighter he’d ever seen who could go the full three minutes that a round lasted and never blink his eyes. In his prime, I don’t believe there was anyone who could beat him. I remember listening on a little transistor radio the night he fought Jerry Quary in Atlanta, after serving a three year exile for refusing to go into the Army and serve in the Vietnam War. I didn’t hate Quary, but I wanted to see Ali destroy him, which he did; he stopped Quary on cuts in five or seven rounds.
Even though we had ringside seats, the action before the fight was, in many ways, more exciting than the fight itself. Sinatra and Stallone and Frazier nestled among the pimps and women plumed and turned-out in the most outlandish outfits of peacock finery and broad-brimmed hats. They walked in and around Yankee Stadium that night, leaving a scent of sex in their wake. Before the fight, you could see the air pulsating and hear the buzz from the swell. Heads swiveled and turned, and when you looked around, you saw fifty-six thousand other people enjoined in the spectacle.
The awkward style of Norton always presented problems for Ali. He, however, prevailed in a decision that night, but seeing him live and moving in the ring was enough for me. It is enough sometimes just to see them live, working their craft. I used to get a thrill seeing Jordan in his prime, just dribbling the basketball up court.
Waits was back in town promoting his second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, with a couple of nights performing at The Bottom Line and appearing on Saturday Night Live. Doc and I made most of his dates and, after watching Duvall perform brilliantly in Mamet’s, “American Buffalo,” sat in the “green room” while Waits performed on TV. The good times we had though were usually quite separate from those of his professional life.
We would journey to Times Square arcades, catch flesh at some strip club like The Baby Doll Lounge, go to The Cedar or Doc’s pad or mine, talk and laugh and bullshit through the night and then get some food, the greasier the better, at an all night diner or cafe. One night, we even saved a woman, Miriam, in Coney Island. It was after a torrential rainstorm that we decided to journey into Brooklyn, eat at Nathan’s, and show Waits Coney Island where we played some Skee-ball and shot some bears.
In a way I felt that Doc and Waits were the embodiment of the years I’d spent at The New School. Waits was trying to carve out a place for himself in the entertainment industry. He was a triple threat: musician, writer, and singer. Doc, though a psychiatrist, wanted to write and was battling those instincts in his everyday life while attending to people, and I was writing now, while tending bar and going to graduate school.
Things were not nearly as exciting or humorous at Adelphi. After seeing the other students and attending the first few classes, I questioned whether this was the right profession for me. Not only did I feel superior to the students there, but to the professors as well, with the exception of Michael Fabricant, my sociology professor, who espoused the redistribution of wealth as the only real answer to rectify the ills of the ruling class.
The students, mostly women, wore “Have A Nice Day” faces in class that went well with their “reindeer sweaters.” It seemed they were prepared to lie down on the curb’s edge in order for “the suffering masses” to step on their backs while crossing over the puddled streets to the other, and more brightly lit, side. Their maternalism disgusted me. They believed their desire to “help and do good” was enough to warrant their place in the social work world. I wanted to suggest to a few of them, after listening to them espouse their reasons for getting into this line of work, to cut off a tit and hang it on a nail in the caverns of Grand Central Station so any poor person who needed a good suck or two could get one. And the teachers were, by and large, no better. Most believed there was a formula that could and would address any and all existing problems. It was hard to sit and listen to those who so obviously had never been outside a classroom (except, perhaps, in the internship phase of their graduate work), and in the world they tried to represent, theorize. The idea of writing papers for these professors nauseated me. In fact, as far as I was concerned, they should just give me the degree based on my life experiences and accomplishments. Knowing they were not about to do that, I was ready to leave and concentrate on working as a bartender and writing, taking my chances on what would happen next.
Handelsman tried to get me to stick it out and stay in school. He thought I was getting too hung up in the process and was losing sight of the goal. I, however, was enjoying the night life, and all that it provided.
The money I made, working behind the bar, was fast, and so were the women. My only two concerns prior to bedding down with them were: Did I have enough to eat that night to thwart going into insulin shock?; and, did I drink enough not to care what I was doing and with whom I was doing it with? Once I got home, a glass of orange juice would eliminate the first concern, and the drinks I had at the bar would have taken care of the other. Alcohol, like drugs before it, created a wall between me and the women I was with at any given time. All of these things, the money, the job, the booze, the friends, the women, and the writing, allowed me to keep the myth I had of myself and the world alive, and that was not necessarily a bad thing.
The Tin Palace was, as I’ve said, situated right on The Bowery. Across the street were two local dens of iniquity and infamy. The first was CBGB’s, the first pantheon of punk-rock in America. The second, adjacent to it, was The Sunshine Hotel, the home of those who have hit the skids and, consequently, the underbelly of life, transients, derelicts, alcoholics, addicts, and other pilgrims who have discovered an America that exists in stark contrast to the dot.com fever of our age. The Tin Palace had a glass enclosed front that served as a dining room and looked out at the denizens on The Bowery who, at times, looked in. Our patrons would sit in front eating a steak or lobster special, sipping wine or a cocktail, and those failures of Puritanism would come over, press their face against the glass and stare at them as they tried to eat. We had a bouncer, Jimmy Blackwell, who tried to shoo them away or sometimes had to resort to tougher measures. One night, Jimmy was late in getting to work and I, besides a waitress and chef, were the only ones in the saloon other than a few customers. I looked out front and saw a young woman walking her dogs. I knew her because she lived in a loft next door. It was a time when lofts were still cheap and artists, not brokers, could live in them. I saw one of those “Plymouth Rock” dropouts, very obviously mentally deranged, accost her. She screamed, and I leaped from behind the bar and ran outside. I tried to separate them, but he had her by the hair and would not let go. I saw from the corner of my eye some other booze hounds and former jailbirds running towards us. I didn’t know if they were going to help me or him. While still trying to separate them, I heard noises coming from the other side of the street. I quickly turned my head and looked behind me and saw people I recognized who worked at the gas station, and they were carrying pipes, as they crossed the street. I did not want this to turn more bloody then it was already. Try as I would, I could not get this guy to let go of her. Finally, I took hold of his hair that, because of the grease, nearly slid out of my fingers, and lifted his head up to a point where I could get in a clean shot. I hit him, as hard as I ever hit anybody, over his eye and knocked him over, opening a gash above his eyebrow. But he finally let go. The others from the gas station had scared off the other wanderers. I took the young woman inside the bar and let the cops, who had just arrived, take care of the mess outside. I gave her a drink and poured myself one as well.
The woman went with the cops to the precinct to file a complaint and Jimmy, who had just arrived, called Jack, who owned the place, to get another bartender to cover for me because I couldn’t work. My hand had swelled so badly that I couldn’t put it around a glass, let alone pour whiskey. I took a cab to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the x-rays on my hand and wrist were negative. A week later the young woman found me at work, invited me out for dinner a few days later, and fucked me afterward. I told her it wasn’t necessary, and she said she knew that. I’d say she had class to do that as a matter of course. It simply was something she needed to do to balance the celestial scales.
Bobby, my brother, had moved into my building. Working in my father’s store and living in my parent’s house were too stifling for a lifestyle that favored alcohol, the occasional drug, and women. Although he was tremendously influenced by what my father said, or didn’t say, he still chose to live in Manhattan. Knowing what I did about him, his life in the store and how he’d had to capitulate to most every one of my father’s demands, I’d been encouraging him for quite some time to, at least, live an independent life out of their home. Perhaps, after going through drug treatment, private therapy, and had begun to craft my own life (or so I felt), I was less threatened, jealous and more giving toward him. He had initially found a place near me on Ninth Street, off Fifth Avenue. However, my father rejected it. He waited until my father approved. I introduced him to all my friends from The Cedar Tavern, and The Other End: Waits, Jason Miller, the author and actor, women and the assortment of friends I consorted with at that time, such as Ken Brown, the Pulitzer nominated playwright of, The Brig, Tommy Sig, the actor/director and Dutch, the waiter, actor, stevedore and professor of life lived on the margins. He seemed to enjoy the differences in personality, intelligence, and wit from those friends he knew and grew up with in Brooklyn. In fact, it was like night and day. He was able to enlarge his universe to include those with talent, art, music, and madness in their blood into his own world, enlarging it, and in the process, making him bolder. I did not know, until many years later, that he’d already begun his cocaine odyssey. Knowing what I’d been through, he hid that fact pretty well from me. I knew he liked his alcohol and could drink, but then again, so could I. The only real drawback of having him in my building was my father. He’d call and wake me up early in the morning to go upstairs and rap on Bobby’s door to get him up to go into work. I asked him why he didn’t call Bobby himself and he responded by telling me my brother wouldn’t pick up. They fought with each other all the time and, though I tried to avoid it, involved me too often in their arguments. I have often thought they liked and, in some perverse way, needed it.
Nearing summer, I had finished Coney Island, and the poetry I was writing was beginning to find an audience in small magazines and presses. I was also finishing my run at bartending. The night life was taking a toll on my diabetes. I felt by arbitrarily taking my morning shot whenever I arose and eating at different times, coupled with the amount of booze I was consuming, I had compromised my health. When I saw Dr. Bernstein, for the first time in nearly a year, he confirmed it. Even though my mood was as good as he’d seen in a long time, he didn’t like how I looked, regardless of what the blood tests would determine. Alcohol, he was quick to tell me, is dangerous for diabetics, especially hard liquor; first it cuts blood sugar and then increases it. Who can say how much and when? If there’s one thing the diabetic, especially the insulin dependent diabetic, needs to be is consistent. I was about as consistent as a person running for president.
At the same time, therapy with Handelsman was becoming more intense and painful. I was dealing with identification, or lack of it, with my father. My feelings of being less than a man were compensated by drugs, booze and, to a greater or lesser extent, women. My anger and self-contempt knew no bounds. However, with that pain came rewards. I was clean (if you forget the booze) going on six years, independent (a rationalization at best--for I still depended on the largesse of my parents), and had a social life which rewarded me. Although I had not found myself “professionally” yet, I was sure it would come.
Waits was up for a role in the film version of Edward Bunker’s novel, No Beast So Fierce. It was later renamed, Straight Time, and starred Dustin Hoffman. I’d sent my screenplay to Waits at the motel that he stayed at in L.A., The Tropicana, and he had given it to Hoffman. A few weeks later, while sitting in my apartment, Hoffman called to tell me he enjoyed the script but felt it wasn’t right for him, nor his production company, Sweetwall. We spoke on the phone about what I was working on now, and I told him it was a legitimate play about the offspring of concentration camp survivors, the premise being that the children were enclosed in the barbed-wire of their parents’ experience and the harshness and brutality of the parents’ lives impact greatly on the lives of their children. He told me that that subject had always intrigued him, particularly Hitler, and asked me to share some of what I had read about the subject, which I did. He asked me to keep in touch, should I finish that or anything else. It boosted my spirits and was a confirmation of sorts. Still, I knew it was time for a change.
I decided to leave The Tin Palace at the end of that summer and concentrate on getting a square, nine-to-five job. Besides, jazz musicians don’t tip.
pgs 138-142, From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
WAR, COUNTRY & LOVE: THE POLITICS OF ADDICTS: FROM CHAPTER VII: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
On the corner of University Place, in Greenwich Village, on the same block as were the Executive Offices of Project Return, I found an apartment. It was a 350 square foot, one bedroom, in a brownstone, a postage stamp sized pad for 300 bucks a month. It was March 1974. I used a twenty-five hundred dollar inheritance from Aunt Dora who, at the kindly age of 95, still having all her wits about her, conveniently slipped away two weeks before I signed the lease. I was thrilled to find a pad in The Village but thought that this was just a transition between what I could afford then, and where I wanted to eventually be, in one of those beautiful floor through pads with giant ceilings in The Village, with a garden in the back. I am still here, never having made too much bread then, or now.
Julio had most of the ingredients that go into presenting a figure that other men want to emulate. He was smart, sexy, funny, charismatic, and powerful. He had one other characteristic that was important in my particular cosmology. He was emotionally stingy. Although I knew he was more than pleased with my work, he was less than generous. Not only did he not compensate me financially, he hardly ever complimented or acknowledged the contributions I made. It drew me closer to him, because unlike my father, we’d socialize after work, discussing not only our professional concerns but share secrets about our personal lives as well. It was in this kind of relationship that I’d lose all boundaries. Working hours would be unimportant, my food and eating schedules would have to be adjusted to conform to what his life, and my work, dictated. My own needs and priorities would be placed on the back burner. Consequently, there was an anger simmering just below the surface.
As I’ve previously said, up until therapeutic communities acknowledged the tie between alcohol and substance abuse, those who had given up drugs would tend to drink excessively, not ever equating the two as equally, and potentially, addictive. For me, if I did something twice and it pleased me in the same way, I was hooked on it. Any of the “sparks” and/or “levelers” that keep men from going totally insane, such as booze, drugs, food, gambling and women, were incendiary devices that could, and sometimes would, blow up in my face. I was a heat seeking pleasure missile. I tried to keep a balance or keep afloat for as long as possible and pray that The Coast Guard wasn’t asleep when rescue time was at hand. And I made rescue particularly difficult. I asked to be rescued as I was diving in.
“Hey Norm, you don’t have to drink like that. You’re a diabetic man, a fuckin’ diabetic! Have one, and if you can’t have one, have a Perrier or something instead. As a matter of fact, if you can’t drink, I ain’t drinkin’ either.” That’s what I wanted Julio to say, but how could he say that when I told him nothing? And even if I had, why would I expect him, or anyone else to say that? What I was looking for was not forthcoming: a father who would be not only concerned and sensitive to my diabetes, but who cared enough about me to be willing to sacrifice something he loved himself. Masculinity meant excess; moderation was not part of my vocabulary. I kept going to a well that was dry and expected to find water. How long could I remain passive? The answer was endlessly and forever.
My social network had begun to spread out. Besides going with Julio after work to The Cedar Tavern, an old haunt of mine from my days at The New School, I was going to The Other End, a saloon/cabaret on Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. I was introduced to one of the owners, Dan, by a supporter of Project Return, who told me that he might be interested in making a contribution to the program.
During our conversation I met the other owners: Paul Colby, the original owner of The Bitter End, which was the progenitor of The Other End and, Dale, the third partner. Dale, was an ordained reverend who liked having his pulpit on the other side of the bar. It was Dale with whom I got closest. He taught me how to tend bar and mix drinks. It was easy and I enjoyed it. Soon I was hanging out there after work and on weekends. Sometimes, if it was slow, I’d tend bar while clocking the action in The Village. I made friends with some of the staff as well as some of the patrons. I felt safe and in control behind a thick piece of wood that ran the length of the bar. The skills that I honed there would come into play later.
There were many different worlds that I would traverse over the course of a week; the non profit world of substance abuse programs, the wealthy and mannered world of the rich and powerful, and the careless and heated world of saloons, music and immediacy.
One afternoon, after having lunch with an editor from The Atlantic Monthly at The Harvard Club, and drinks with a friend of hers at The Algonquin Hotel, Leslie took me back to her apartment. For quite some time I felt the relationship we had was growing stale. In fact, I was beginning to feel more than a little embarrassed. I felt uncomfortable and ridiculous for accepting lunches, dinners, and gifts as a catalyst, carrot or end-product of our sexual union, but she held out to me both the promise of publication and helping Project Return; she had me by both balls.
“Did I ever tell you about my villa in Sardinia?” she began, over a cup of coffee.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied, not caring to listen to her tell me about it either. My mind tried to land on something else, something less ephemeral.
“Well,” she continued, “it’s lovely, beautiful. We’re on a hill, overlooking The Mediterranean. The breezes are soft and the air seems perfumed with a sweet salt and jasmine that’s just indescribable. It’s...luscious, that’s it, luscious.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
“You know if Ron were dead, we could just go there, leave this country for half a year at a time. You could write, and I could...I could just be. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” She took my hand in hers and stared into my eyes.
I felt as if someone had walked over my grave. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” I finally said.
She paused, “Of course I’m kidding. You know I’m kidding. I love Ron and my children. I was really testing you.”
She wasn’t kidding, and she knew I knew she wasn’t kidding. It was time to bail out.
Fortunately for me, the bail-out had a parachute named Dinitia. She was a producer of documentaries who called my office one day to inquire whether she could look at the link between drug addiction and suicide. After checking her credentials with our psychiatrist, who was on our Board of Directors, and Julio, I accepted her invitation to meet. I also accepted her invitation to go to the Emmy awards where she won for her documentary on rape. She was very smart, attractive, and provocative, my Holy Trinity. It wasn’t too long before we were involved with one another on more than a professional basis.
I took Dinitia to my poetry reading at Leslie and Ron’s apartment knowing full well the effect it would have on Leslie. In fact, that’s why I took her. Julio, his wife, my brother, and a few of my friends accompanied me as well. Leslie and Ron had invited a few Broadway producers, literary agents and some actors that I remembered from their days on television. I poured myself a tumbler of scotch, went to the piano, and began to read. I read for about an hour. Afterward, many of their friends came over and told me how they enjoyed hearing poetry that came from the rough and tumble world and not the sylvan playing fields they’d always believed that poetry occupied. Then, an old, but attractive woman who owned a literary agency came up to me and told me she enjoyed the work, but I went on too long. I should, she told me, never overstay my welcome. It’s her remark that has stayed with me most. After I read, waiters came around with trays of food and champagne. As we were talking among ourselves, the lights dimmed, a man who had just arrived came over and sat at the piano, and Leslie, wearing a black unitard, stood by his side as he began to play. Leslie sang an opera leider and danced for twenty minutes. It seemed like she caught everyone off guard, and it took some time for us to catch up. She walked off to a smattering of applause. Julio whispered to me that she reminded him of a degenerate Peter Pan.
By the end of the evening, no offers were made to me, but I achieved what I wanted in more ways than one. Besides, it was a very unique evening for the ex-addicts, barflies, and one time denizens of the deep. We were flying in a new ozone layer, complete with U.F.O’s and servants. I went over to Ron and Leslie and thanked them for the night. Ron shook my hand and told me it was a pleasure. Leslie, kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “You’re a bastard.” I did what any good showman would do. I didn’t overstay my welcome.
Six months later I received a postcard from Leslie. It informed me that she and Ron were moving to another state because he wanted to be closer to his manufacturing concerns. She said she would miss me and Project Return and would call me when they got situated. For the briefest of seconds, I was sorry to see them go.
Dinitia and I were moving too, farther apart. Neither one of us were terribly upset by this fact. She was busy in one way, and I in another. We just drifted until we stopped calling each other. Being as visible as I was in my role with Project Return, coupled with having saloons in Greenwich Village where I was known and liked by the owners, gave me more than enough opportunities with women.
In fact, I was flying pretty high and could do no wrong: I was writing P.S.A’s for radio and television that were being aired with frequency and I was engaging private enterprises to donate money, services, or goods. Richard Wilde, a friend of mine from Seagate, was the chairman of the Commercial Art Department at The School of Visual Arts. He helped orchestrate a class project: To create a brochure for a nonprofit that would look as professionally put together as one from the private sector. It was beautifully done, and it was free. I was becoming more sure of myself. From a stuttering kid who was afraid to speak up in front of groups of people I didn’t know, without a drink in my hand or a needle in my arm, I became the lead voice of public relations concerns at meetings that would involve other drug programs. I was on a roll and wanted to become better.
In July of that year, I decided I wanted to go into private therapy. I had become aware of a disturbing trait. I hardly ever finished what I began, either in my creative work or in relationships with women. Also, I knew I should be taking better care of myself diabetically. My energy was at such a high level that I felt I could be finishing major writing projects that I’d outlined or started, and fulfill some of my early dreams.
Handelsman, the psychologist who was brutally honest with me before I went into Areba, was the person I wanted as my therapist. I wrote him a letter telling him so. He called me, and we met a few weeks later in his office. Once he saw that I was no longer using narcotics and independent, he agreed to take me on as a patient. First, he said, he would want to see me in a group that he ran twice a week and, if he thought I had the staying power after my adjustment to the group, he’d see me individually as well. I tried to argue with him. What I needed, I told him, was one to one therapy, not groups. I’d been in literally hundreds of groups. “The people are all different in my groups,” he said. “They are highly intelligent and so diverse that you would benefit greatly from their insights and, maybe, they could benefit from yours. Besides, you’ll be able to help someone else,” he concluded. I hadn’t thought of that.
The group was diverse and had been in therapy with Handelsman for a considerable period of time. There was Sarah, who’s father was a dentist who, when Sarah was a young girl, treated her without the benefit of novacaine; Frank, a former colonel in the armed services and present judge in Manhattan, who’s wife would maliciously mock him for not knowing how to salute; Esther, who nailed her diaphragm to her former lover’s door; Sidney, a gay aging tenor at The Metropolitan Opera, who took young lovers who regularly robbed and beat him; Oscar, a multimillionaire stock broker who lived in a rent-controlled hovel and could never indulge any of his desires, let alone fantasies; Allen, a photographer who now could only take pictures, but never develop them and there was Emily. I remember my first group with them. I’d gotten through the obligatory introduction of myself when Emily, an aspiring psychoanalyst, said, “Why do you talk like a southern black man?”
I thought for a moment, looked at her directly, and replied, “Because Jews ain’t white,” parroting Brasz’ line, and added, “or aren’t you hip to that? You remember the Holocaust, don’t you? Frying those gypsies and Jews and watching Jesse Owens win the gold you had to know Adolf would have liked to bake him, too. In fact, you look a little German to me.” I wanted to wink at her, but refrained from doing so.
Emily remained calm. “We’ll deal with that later,” she smugly said, “you’re too new.”
“With all due respect: Fuck that. Deal with it now,” I shot back, and added, “Besides, I’m not new; inside this skin is an aged infidel. Don’t be afraid, either c’mon and run it, or shut the fuck up.”
She remained silent, while the others in the group looked on. Handelsman knew I had quickly, and effectively, turned the game. And in the process had established myself. But Emily was not wrong, I knew that too. My identity was still up for grabs. My insides had not solidified. Hell, that was why I was there.
Handelsman agreed to see me twice a week privately. I’d still be in the group but would have the opportunity to explore what was kicked-up in there, or brought to light on my own in individual sessions. That was probably in the group’s best interests. I knew I had anger, but not nearly to the depths of which I was to explore. The anger I had could have knocked out the sun. Even to this day, there are certain instances that can bring me back to a state of inner fury as quick as a synapse.
My desire for recognition from people who either had no interest in, or were incapable of providing that, could best be illustrated by two examples. The first involves my father and brother. One afternoon the three of us were sitting in a coffee shop in Manhattan. I was telling them about some of the things I was involved in and then rattled off a short list of accomplishments I’d had up until then for the program. My father looked at my brother with this, “I really don’t want to be telling him this but I just have to” expression. I could feel my blood begin to heat. I couldn’t hear the words as quickly as I could sense them. Then, without looking at me, he said that if he’d been in my position he would have already had at least two large fund-raising benefits under his belt. I looked at him and the feeling that I had done nothing in those two years washed over me. The half million in free advertising, the new brochure, the speeches I had written, not to mention the personal successes I’d had were turned into instant shit. “Hey motherfucker,” I wanted to say, “what the Hell have you done? You were handed your business. I went out and created mine.” Instead, my blood boiled, but I remained silent.
The second incident happened with Julio. We’d been going to high level funding meetings, both in Manhattan and Albany. We spent a lot of time together but, as I’ve said, I had lost perspective of what I was doing to and for myself and had wanted to carve out some distance from him. It was a Friday and I had made plans to meet some friends that evening at The Other End. I gathered my things and stuck my head into Julio’s office to say good-bye to him when he motioned me inside. Carlos was sitting there smoking a cigarette and didn’t turn his head in my direction. “What’s up?” I said.
“Where ya goin?” Julio asked.
“Nothin’ man, just seems ya leavin’ a little early, no?” Julio said, in a way that implied a curious displeasure. Carlos, without turning his head, said something to Julio in Spanish. Each time they did that it irked the shit out of me, and I had voiced that complaint more than once.
“Early?” I began, trying to choose my words carefully, being immediately put on the defensive. “It’s after five, and besides, I never look at the clock, but you know that already. I’m going to ask again, what’s up?”
“There’s a community board meeting that I want you to go to tonight,” Julio said, his tone telling me I had to go.
“Sure, I had plans, but no problem,” I replied, stifling the anger in my chest and stilling the swirling and conflicting thoughts in my head. I wanted (and was waiting for) Julio to come over to me and, in front of Carlos, say, “Norman, I can’t, words can’t, express what you’ve meant to this program. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it but I’m gonna find the bread to give you the raise you deserve.” But he didn’t say that, and never would. Carlos then said something to him so low that I couldn’t make it out. “What did you say, Carlos?” I asked, with more anger than I wanted either of them, but especially Carlos, to see.
“I didn’t say no fuckin’ thing that had any fuckin’ thing to do with you, so take it fuckin’ easy,” Carlos shot back.
“I’ll take it any fuckin’ way I want to,” I replied, and continued, “I don’t know what the Hell is going on here but it has nothin’ to do with me and if it does, if you’re dissatisfied with my work here, then let’s sit down and talk about it, but Jesus Christ, I don’t know what the Hell this is all about,” I said, and paused, thinking how to exit gracefully. “I thought you called me in here to give me a raise.”
Julio laughed and said, “Oh brother, I wish I had the bread, but I don’t. Listen, you don’t have to go to that meeting. I’ll see ya Monday.”
I didn’t say anything. I just turned and went out of his office, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t know then what that was all about but, being as paranoid as I am, thought about it a great deal. It began to eat at me, especially the raise, which I knew I deserved and thought he should find the money from somewhere to give me.
The group I was in was on my ass as well. They ridiculed me about the low salary I was receiving. They pointed to other people that they knew who were in the same field who were not nearly as productive as I was and were making much more money than me. I tried to defend the program by saying that we weren’t funded all that well, but it sounded lame, even to my ears. Why should the situation change, why should Julio change they were quick to point out, if you continue working as hard as you’ve been and not complaining? I had no answer to that. Simply, I was afraid to verbalize what I thought to be the truth. If he could find money for other people, he should be able to find some for me. Confronting him with that I was afraid he’d reply, “Well brother, I guess you should move on, look for something else.” They suggested I look for other opportunities and find out what my market value was and believe in my “worth”, both financial and emotional. In fact, they had some contacts who could, if I wanted, steer me in various directions. But I couldn’t do it. I was in a bind. I was not able to go to Julio because of my own inability to confront powerful male figures, and not able to go against a code of honor that prized loyalty above the needs of oneself.
The risk I always ran in those situations was enormous. The slightest betrayal, even from a person I hardly knew, was enough for me to walk away and sever all relations with him. However, it was more dangerous for me if the betrayal came from someone I needed for safety, love, recognition, and acceptance. At first I’d swallow it, but then that betrayal would quickly turn to anger and anger, turned rotten, would turn to hate. When that happened, it often set the stage for my impulsivity, so I could try to vomit the poison out. Miller, in his play, After the Fall, wrote, God, why is betrayal the only truth that sticks? I am a man who gathers evidence of a certain kind, and betrayal, so monumental and sweeping and painful, is the emotional cud that can be endlessly chewed.
The Greater New York Coalition on Substance Abuse, representing over one hundred programs, both drug-free and methadone maintenance, elected me Chairman of Public Relations. I’d accompany Julio, and other presidents and representatives of programs, up to Albany, to lobby for funds during the fiscal crunch of 1975-76. To be privy in seeing behind those old and burnished wooden doors, to back room politics in action, is to experience a sobering and disheartening observation of America. To watch the games unfold inside the chambers of politicians was an education in subtle executions and, less subtle, pissing contests.
We had scheduled meetings in Albany with the Republican leader of the Senate, Warren Anderson, and some of the major Democratic leaders who had lined up on our side, particularly, Steingut and McCall of the House. Facing budget cuts of such magnitude presented a very real prospect of releasing some residents to the streets to once again experience a lifestyle of misery and pain. Also, we’d certainly be unable to admit future clients. We were inside Anderson’s chambers, lobbying for a restoration of funds.
“We do not have the wisdom of Solomon,” began John Scanlon, a public relations wizard who, at that time, was a consultant for Phoenix House and the The Greater Coalition on Substance Abuse. “If you could, Senator Anderson, visit each of our programs and select the men and women that have to be released, we would appreciate that. For we simply cannot choose.” Scanlon concluded.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Anderson replied.
“We don’t think we are,” Dr. Rosenthal, the President of Phoenix House, said. “There is virtually no doubt that the ones we will have to let go will go back to the streets and resume a life of addiction which means a life of crime as well.”
“There’s only a finite amount of money available. These are very hard and trying times,” Anderson stated with not the least amount of inflection in his voice.
“Senator, it’s cheaper to treat them than to jail them. It cost approximately twenty-five hundred dollars a year to have a person in my program and twenty thousand dollars a year to house them in a correctional facility anywhere in New York State,” Julio said.
“Commitments have been made,” Anderson began. “What about my people upstate? There is more to New York than New York City. I promised my constituents a zoo; a zoo that I have promised them for years; a zoo they can take their children to. What am I supposed to tell them: that the money that was allocated to them went instead to treat a drug addict in New York City? Gentlemen, be realistic.”
We had known for quite some time about the allocations of money through Democratic leaks about the budget. Anderson, and his Republican colleagues, earmarked a small fortune to build a barge, complete with fireworks, to celebrate The Bicentennial of America on a small portion of The Hudson River on July Fourth.
“What about the nine hundred thousand dollar Bicentennial Barge?” I asked, “Couldn’t you omit one or two Roman Candles?”
Anderson looked at me like he was looking at a bug. “Let’s not be funny. That’s America, son.”
“I’m sorry, I must have lost my head.”
One evening, later in the week, Julio called. He asked me to get the car and pick him up at his home, which was only a few blocks from my apartment. As he got in the car, he told me to drive to Gracie Mansion, the home of New York City’s Mayor.
Gracie Mansion is located on East End Avenue and sits atop a small rise adjacent to Carl Shurz Park, a four block long oasis in Manhattan. The park is relatively small, has some trees and greenery, walkways for those with dogs or idle time on their hands, and a few basketball courts. It is located directly behind the promenade that looks onto The East River. It is a sequestered spot in a city that gives little shelter except, for the very wealthy, not to mention prosperous neighbors of the Mayor of Manhattan.
One of those wealthy neighbors was Dr. Judiann Densen-Gerber, the president of Odyssey House, who had a townhouse on East End Avenue, with her husband, Dr. Michael Baden, a former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City. We parked our car near her home and began strolling the five blocks that comprised the park and Gracie Mansion. Julio had spoke during the drive only to say how upset he was that these, “white bread motherfuckers” could do this to him and suffer no consequences. We stopped, after completing a walking cycle of the area.
“We’re gonna camp, motherfucker,” he said as if speaking to himself, but loud enough for me to hear.
I knew immediately what he had in mind. “I’ll call Mitch, the Monsignor, and we could walk across the street and knock on the Dr.’s door.”
“Leave the doctor for last, first call Mitch and Bill and get them on board. Then you can tell her. You know what I’m sayin’, right?”
“On both counts,” I said. “I’m going to ask them if they’ll join us camping out in front of Gracie Mansion with hundreds of dope fiends until they restore the money in the supplemental budget. After they get on board, I’ll call the good doctor and see if we can use her pad for our headquarters. She’ll like that.”
“You’re white, but you’re cool,” he said, and kissed me on the cheek.
“We should include all the drug-free programs we can, right?”
“Yes, you’re right, call the Rabbi and anyone else you can think of, and get them on board but...”
“Right after Mitch and Bill.”
“People are so scared even if they’re doin’ good because those bastards hold them hostage. Fuck that. We’re gonna show them what some ex-addicts can do, but first we have to make them not feel afraid, and that means that the big boys gotta put their balls on the line before you ask them to.” He paused for a few seconds. He was probably trying to envision what the scene would look like in a week. “What do you think we should call it?” he asked.
“Let me think for a second,” I answered, trying to come up with a catch phrase or sentence the media could capitalize on. “How many people you think we could come up with?” I asked.
“Oh, three or four hundred I think,” he replied.
“The City of the Forgotten,” I said and looked at him.
“That’s it, man, That’s good.”
We pitched tents on the street in front of Gracie Mansion a week later. What began with one hundred recovering addicts, grew to three hundred by weeks end. Once I contacted Rosenthal and the Monsignor, the two most important leaders of drug-free treatment in Manhattan, the project began having a life all it’s own. They spoke with Julio, agreed to coordinate the logistics within their organization, and a due date to begin the operation was established.
Kevin McEneaney, then the Director of Public Relations for Phoenix House, and I, began writing press releases and getting our media contacts synchronized. We wanted to present this as an overnight blitz to thwart the giants of insensitivity, the government, from cutting the funds to our programs. Those who are camping out on the street, we informed the media, are a small sampling of the human beings who are trying to turn their lives around but are now going to be littering the streets should the funds not be restored.
Abraham Beame, a man of diminutive stature and nearing seventy years of age, was the Mayor whose mansion we were camping out in front. By the time Beame awoke, and had his morning cup of coffee, we were snugly in our tents with the major representatives of the top four drug-free programs giving interviews to the print, radio and TV reporters of the greater metropolitan area. Beame had been beset by so many problems during his term as Mayor, that the sight of drug addicts in tents in front of his door made him a hair short of apoplectic. It was bad enough that he’d gotten hammered by the municipal unions, civil service workers, teachers, blacks, Hispanics, the cops, sanitation, and firemen but now drug addicts!? Impossible!
He approached us with a representative and asked if we’d leave if he promised he would conduct meetings to try and restore the funds that the city was eliminating from the treatment facilities. We told him that we couldn’t do that. We wanted the funds restored before we’d leave. He turned, without saying a word, and marched back up to Gracie Mansion.
All that morning, once we saw that we had secured the place for ourselves, and that more room was available, I started to call and invite other programs. They were eager to become part of the demonstration. Shortly after Beame had tramped back up the hill, the bathroom facilities in the park that we had been using for our personal hygiene and sanitation needs were turned off. Instead, we used the hospital’s facilities which were directly across the street from the encampment, and some local businesses, for our biological needs. However, after a few hours, we had overstayed our welcome in most of those alternatives.
I was sitting in the kitchen of Dr. Densen-Gerber, whose townhouse we were using as our headquarters, as she tried using her considerable political connections in Manhattan, to get the bathrooms opened. Stymied on the local level, her next call was to the Vice-President’s office in The White House, Nelson Rockefeller who was then the country’s second in command. I sat, a bit incredulous, as this mini-drama unfolded.
“This is Dr. Judiann Densen-Gerber. May I please speak to the Vice-President?” she intoned into the receiver. “Yes, I’ll wait, but could you please tell him that this is quite urgent.”
I sat, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette. She asked me how many people we had camping out there and what, if any, media coverage we had, up to that point, gotten. The bits of conversation that follows is as close to what transpired as I remember it, given the fact that I was only privy to her remarks and comments:
“Ah, Nelson, hello, yes I’m fine. How are you?...Good, yes, that’s good. I’m glad to hear that....Nelson, have you been aware of what has been going on here in Manhattan, at Gracie Mansion?...No, it’s not funny Nelson, this is quite serious. Those idiots are trying to shut us down and we’re not going to have any of that. But they’re not playing fair. They’ve closed down the bathrooms in the park, Nelson, and I want you to do something!...No, Nelson, I don’t want to hear that. You can do something and you will; you must! I want you to get them to reopen those restrooms. My girls have no place to change their tampax and it’s just horrible the way they think they can treat people!...Well, thank you, Nelson. And listen, one more thing: why are you federal people putting so much money into methadone maintenance and so little into drug free treatment?...That’s bullshit, Nelson. But thank you for this. Goodbye.”
She got off the phone and a smile crept across her face.
“What did he say, Judy?” I asked.
“He’ll get the bathrooms opened,” she replied.
“What about the question you asked him?”
“They’re putting money into methadone maintenance because they want to know that addicts will be confined in inner city neighborhoods. They want to know where they are.”
By the time I got back to the encampment Elaine, from the famous Elaine’s, the celebrity watering hole on the upper East Side, and the actor Ben Gazzara, were feeding pasta to “The City of the Forgotten.” She had brought over huge drums of food on a truck and her and her staff were ladling it out. When I saw her and Gazzara, I jumped into a phone booth and began making calls to the media, hoping for a chance to be on the six o’clock news. Then I went over to Elaine and told her to slow down a bit, to give the media time to get there.
Some of the neighborhood residents, a bit frightened, or angry and certainly put-off at first, were now mingling with some of the people camped out, talking with Elaine or Gazzara or speaking to staff members of the programs. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to a few, stressing our needs and how they, if they believed in the mission of the programs there, could help. And some did. Within an hour, either because Rockefeller or some of the more heavily politicized residents had, or both, called someone, the bathrooms were reopened.
In the days that followed more programs came down to either pitch tents or support us. We orchestrated the media coverage to put more pressure on city government, winning the public relation wars. Every time the press would arrive, Monsignor O’Brian, if he was there, would go into a nearby underground garage and change from his “battle fatigues” into a priest’s collar and robes. Dr. Densen-Gerber’s program, Odyssey House, which specialized in treating young girls who became addicts, paraded those who were clean, pretty, and articulate for interviews and photo opportunities with the media.
We were able to apply so much pressure that Mayor Beame, looking haggard and worn, who everyday, had to pass this sprawling mass of humanity, came down from his seclusion in The Mansion to meet with us. He met with Julio and the other leaders of the programs and informed them that the cuts, at least on the city’s end, would be restored. We relayed this information to the troops, but not before calling the media to alert them of what had transpired. We were in the process of cleaning up and going home and thought it would make a fitting end for the media to celebrate. We slowed our cleanup until a few media reporters scurried over to film the end of that episode and the beginning of another. It was time to go up to Albany again.
I thought it was a little strange that Carlos went with Julio up to Albany to scout locations for the next encampment, but I didn’t think too much about it because I had plenty to keep me busy. I was following up with the contacts I had made during the previous week, talking to the reporters who had covered the story to try and prolong it’s life, and gearing up the program for our eventual journey up to Albany.
Julio returned and briefed me as to whom he saw and the location he had selected for The City of the Forgotten, Part Two. I went up to Albany the very next day to begin meeting with the press from the local, state, and national media housed there. I found it more than a little peculiar when walking through a state building seeking Carl McCall, a representative who was in our corner, that the other leaders from Phoenix House and Daytop Village were also up there trying to meet with him as well. When I asked what had brought them up there, they informed me that they were also negotiating for a location to hold our demonstration. I asked if they’d spoken to Julio about the location he had already selected and they told me they had. They felt they could negotiate a site nearer the capital building. I said that I felt that a site had already been selected, and that since it was Julio who had taken the lead on this, they should just trust his judgment. They listened but said nothing and went on with their agenda.
I found a phone in a hallway and called Julio. He answered, and I heard voices in the background. He told me that he was in the midst of a meeting with people from the other drug-free programs. I told him that there were people in Albany trying to negotiate what they thought was a better site and I asked if he knew about it. Obviously, he didn’t. For some reason, he began yelling at me, as if I were behind these secret negotiations and perhaps it was I who wanted not only a better site, but a better job as well. I felt my face blush and my world get smaller. I felt dizzy and angry all at the same time. He told me to get back to Manhattan immediately and see him as soon as I did. I was embarrassed, humiliated in front of whomever was in his office. I had no idea then what had provoked his outburst, but I was anxious to find out.
I did not say goodbye to anyone. I got in my car and drove back to New York City enraged and in a hurry.
In a little less than four hours, I was passing Yankee Stadium, on my way into Manhattan. A confrontation that I dreaded, was going to happen. The only question I had was how it would play out.
He was still in his office when I arrived, around six o’clock. There was no one in his office, except for Carlos. I felt queasy, but knew I had to go in.
“Julio, why did you talk like that to me, in front of whoever was in here? Why me, man?” I said, pretending Carlos wasn’t in the room.
“Because you’re getting too big for your own good. You’re not running this program, I am,” he replied looking directly at me.
“What the Hell are you talking about? ‘I’m running the program’? Who told you that?” I said and looked over at Carlos for the first time.
“Never mind who told me; nobody had to tell me. I don’t sleep on anyone.” He paused, looked over to Carlos and said something in Spanish. Carlos responded and they chuckled for a second.
“Hey, people I’m in the room,” I angrily said. “Have the common courtesy to wait ‘til I leave to say what you have to say.” And I started to turn around to leave.
“Wait a minute,” Julio began. “You’re going to stay down here and make sure you get the press to come up to Albany to cover the shit we’re gonna do up there. You got that?”
“I think for the bread you’re payin’ me I’m doin’ a pretty good job of doing that, don’t you think?” I said as sarcastically as I could.
“Don’t give me that shit,” he said. “Just do what you’re supposed to do. I’ve been a little too free with you.”
“Hold on. Wait a second. I’m not in the program anymore; I’m working for the program. There’s a big difference.”
“Tomorrow I’ll be up in Albany. You’ll get your marching orders from Carlos. Call him when you get in tomorrow. Just do your job.”
I turned around and left.
I went out of his office angry and confused. Once I got into my apartment, a few minutes later, I called up a buddy of mine, Doc, and asked if he wanted to meet for dinner and a few cocktails. We were to meet at The Cedar Tavern a few hours later. I took a hot shower, dressed, and went across the street.
Doc, whose name is David, was a real doctor, a psychiatrist. I met him one night while bartending at The Other End. He was of medium height, handsome, with dark and mischievous eyes surrounded by a full beard. He would have rather been a comedy writer than a doctor and probably choose psychiatry because it left some room for humor and error. We were both Jewish, funny, and grew up near each other in Brooklyn, he in Manhattan Beach. Over drinks, he cautioned me not to let my emotions get the better of me. After an hour of considering the pros and cons of the situation, he looked in my eyes, saw the expression on my face, and finished by saying that if he were me, he would start checking the classified sections of the newspapers for work.
It didn’t take long for the proverbial “other shoe” to drop. The next day when I went into the office, I felt like a stranger. Everything I did, and was about to do, seemed odd and out of place. I sat down, took a deep breath, and called Carlos. When he picked up the phone, I asked, trying to have no inflection in my voice, “Well, Carlos, what do you want me to do today?”
“Just tell me everything that you’re doing or are about to do. And at the end of the day write it up in a memo and send it over here because Julio wants to know. So, even if you go to the bathroom...”
“Hey, wait a fucking minute,” I responded, unable to control the anger I felt, “what is this?”
“I’m just following directions, man. Just like you have to do now.”
He hung up, but not before I heard the smirk in his voice. I knew in that moment who had put a bug in Julio’s ear. I knew it was Carlos who had planted the seeds. Jealous of how close I had become to Julio, whom Carlos thought of as an older brother, he had probably said things to him about my considering myself at Julio’s level when dealing with the leaders of other programs. The reality was closer to the fact that I was simply smarter than Carlos, could do more than he could, and was in tune with politics and the future of where drug programs were going. He just couldn’t handle it. I sat at my desk and thought about it. My anger was really pain over being betrayed by both Carlos and Julio. Carlos I could understand, but Julio’s response cut deep. I couldn’t fathom how he could take what Carlos told him at face value. I decided that no matter how close I thought I had become to Julio, I couldn’t fight the “Hispanic” bond that they had together. They had known each other too long and had been through too much together for someone like me to make a difference. I quickly wrote a letter of resignation and called a director in one of our facilities to send over a resident who would act as a courier to deliver my letter to Julio in Albany. I then called Carlos.
“Carlos,” I began, “I just wanted to call and inform you that I’m taking a piss...on your head.” I hung up.
I gathered all my papers, almost five years worth, and left. I was in a hurry, and I didn’t want to leave them with any part of me. I had almost eight weeks of accumulated vacation and sick pay coming and whatever else I had neglected to use. It was enough to hold me until I found another job, and just like that I was gone, almost as if I’d never been there. In all my relationships that involved strong emotional components, when the break came, it came quickly, was usually fractured, and had little, if any, resolution.
Years later, Carlos would admit to me what he had done. I took absolutely no pleasure in finding out that it was everything that I thought it to be.
pgs 128-138, From Chapter VII, JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015