Wednesday, August 19, 2015


A hotel for transients and a massage parlor bracketed my home for the next month. During the 1970’s dope and sex ran like rivers through Times Square in reds and neon's giving light to the pimps and pushers and the stiletto heels of women and the wigs of transvestites who were followed, none to quickly, by the worn heels of policemen’s shoes, who gave less than an fiddler’s fuck about pursuing them.
Project Return, in those days, was a poor program, serving mostly blacks and Hispanics. I was one of two white guys, out of three hundred, in the program; the other blanco being Joe, a brilliant chemically mercurial Ohio nut, who possessed no valance. Phoenix House and Daytop Village were our rich cousins. Like the founding of America, those there first were loathed to share the wealth. The facility itself lacked certain amenities in the dead of winter: consistent heat, hot water, running water, working bathrooms and nutritious food. Besides that it was paradise. There were about thirty of us living in the facility learning about the program before being promoted to the Treatment Facility, located on 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Each morning I’d take my insulin injection in front of a staff member, who’d then put back the syringe, insulin and alcohol in a locked cabinet. He would then check the number left against the total count and I’d go and have breakfast. I’d begun dealing with the fact that I had diabetes, a dangerous disease that demanded vigilance which, unfortunately or not, had to be acknowledged and dealt with by people who could, and probably did, (in my head,) equate having a disease with weakness. And since these men had, for the most part, spent a portion of their lives in jail, my masculinity was even more threatened. In the first few days I was there, we had orientation sessions about our expected behavior in the facility. There were the cardinal rules that, if violated, were grounds for expulsion: No drugs; No sex; No violence or threats of violence. There’d be no ”selling wolf tickets” which were verbal threats designed to challenge one’s “manhood.” There were other suggestions, one of which was, “Do not sneak up on anybody; do not touch anyone on their backs; do not make sudden gestures that might be misconstrued.” Some of the men who I was living with were men not to be trifled with.
The first important thing that effected my diabetes that I had to adjust to were the meals. I’ve heard that meals in the “joint,” (prison), were similar: high caloric, simple carbohydrate starch foods: pancakes, syrup, powdered eggs and bread, bread, and more bread. Lunch: Father John (who was a real priest, and who’s parish was in Greenwich Village), Sandwiches: Two slices of bologna, a slice of cheese on a roll which was as round as a beach ball. Dinner: meat, which was mostly gristle, deep fried chicken, potatoes, pasta, rice, and more rice, pasta and potatoes. Everybody ate it, and nobody complained much, except me.
Each person coming into the program had to get on welfare. Besides getting funded by other parts of the city, state and federal governments, food stamps were granted to those who showed special needs. I was one of those people. I’d always wanted the light to shine upon me, but not that way. Not only did I buy food that only I could eat, but I also brought in soda, juice and/or candy, like Milky Ways, to fight insulin reactions. When the soda, juice and candy were pilfered, which they initially were, and since no one owned up to that, I had to, in groups, confront the entire facility. The idea was that it would be close to premeditated murder to steal something that would help keep a person alive in a medical emergency. Not many would, or could, buy that argument, especially when they were sitting across from a reasonably healthy person. Others could give less of a shit who died, as long as their sweet tooth got filled. But struggle is a strange thing. Live with men long enough, and engage with them to fight the same demon, a similar foe, piss in the same toilet and shower in the same stall, wash with the same soap and eat the same food, build a common home and something happens. You still might not like the cocksucker, but you begin to respect him. However, men are also men, and being men, are animals, and because they are animals and also human which gives them the capacity to think, it makes them, at times, more dangerous than animals.
Alcoholics and drug addicts, while not like the proverbial myth of the “hooker with the heart of gold,” are, once they’ve given up the drink and/or drug, simply emotionally damaged people. It is also true that addiction is pleasurable and huge chunks of real life are difficult and painful, and they want nothing to do with that reality. Whether their addiction can, or should, be classified as a disease, a physical and emotional bodily pursuit to compensate for a lack in natural hormones and other secretions, a flaw in their character, make-up, upbringing or environment or all of the above, is not for me to say. What I can say, and will say, is this: If a scumbag stops using drink and/or drugs that person is still your ordinary run-of-the-mill scumbag, until he or she decides to work their ass off to change that as well. At Project Return, as in life, I met plenty of scumbags, and some of them, one of them, most of them, was/were stealing my candy.
We were good at lying. We had to be: “Who me? No, man, no couldn’ta been me; I waz visitin’ my dead aunt in Baltimore, man, you crazy.”
Even caught red-handed: “No man, that ain’t no Milky Way you be seein’, you see some guy, who it might be I can’t really say, but he be breezin’ by me and handed me this wrapper man, and stupid as I am, I just latched onto it. I tried to shake the motherfucker loose, but it just sticks to me, you see?”
“C’mon John, I saw you take the fuckin’ candy.”
“Me!?” You saw me take the candy!? Not me, you didn’t see me; it was not me you saw.”
“Yeah you, I saw you. You.”
“Who you gonna believe,” he said, pausing for effect, “me or your lyin’ eyes?” On and on and on it went until I got up some nerve, spoke to a staff member and called a special group to confront the whole house. It’s so easy to remain as passive as I was and watch as your life slips away from you. People will tear small bits of flesh until only the bones remain, and they’ll justify it. “Hey, man, you were just lyin’ there not doing a damn thing to save your poor ass and I needed those shoes, your job, your wife, your space. If you wanted to live so goddamn badly, you shoulda said somethin’. How the fuck were we supposed to know?” A good question. I could talk about many things, but how I felt wasn’t one of them. I did not like to verbalize what I was feeling, and for good reason. It simply never felt safe enough for me to do that. Like it or not, I simply had to grow up.
Growing up is painful at any time, but some people begin growing up emotionally from birth, instead of at twenty-five years of age. Since I still go kicking and screaming from, and to, any and all responsibilities, I can say with certainty that the structures I have had to build inside my body and psyche, ones that have enabled me to work and love with a degree of maturity, were, and are, fought for everyday. It was never a question of rebuilding what was destroyed. Instead, it was almost a matter of building from scratch. Nobody gets out of this life without paying dues, some more than others.
After speaking up, confronting the house about the Milky Way thief or thieves, and staying alive through the medium of verbalization and, working my ass off, I was promoted to the Treatment Facility, or The Wild West. The “Treatment Facility” sounds like something that neo-Nazis had thought up for a remote corner of Idaho and the two Jews who live there, but it was really the place where the addict was either going to “grow” or “blow.” Either they were going to go through the pains and frustrations of “growing up” or they were going to “blow” this opportunity and usually end up in a jail, an institution, or die.
I slept on the top bunk of a metal framed, double bunk bed, with a mattress as thin as a wafer. Underneath me was Starling Lee, nicknamed, “Heavy,” a three hundred pound black man, who was born and raised on the streets of Harlem. He’d been sent from Rahway Prison in New Jersey, where he was doing time for assault with intent to kill, to Sing Sing, in upstate New York where he’d been convicted of manslaughter and was about to serve seventeen to twenty-five years. However, he was not without friends who had friends. A judge had offered him a way out, a “last chance”: Go into the program and complete it, or do the seventeen. He opted for the program.
Starling had begun using heroin in the 1940’s, when a fifty cent cap would last for days. He was one of Billie Holliday’s morphine connections when she’d come to the city to play. Starling was not only a jazz aficionado but had hung out with many of the musicians as well. He’d been in and out of jail since he was a kid. His body still contained metal from three gunshot wounds. He’d used so much dope for so long that most of his veins in his arms had collapsed. His hands and forearms were swollen like balloons from trying to shoot dope into his arms, missing and finding nothing. Eventually, he’d have to pay someone to find a vein in his neck in order for him to get the “rush” he was looking for. He’d point to the veins in his arms and say, in his voice, sounding like sweet gravel mixing, “I got a Cadillac in this one here, a little ol’ Chevy here, and a goddamn Rolls Royce over here.” Starling not only made it through the program, but he worked for the program as well after he “graduated.” As you might imagine, the young kids looked up to this giant of a man. He really did have a spirit that infused the work with a joy of being alive and clean of narcotics and jail cells, some real, and some self-imposed.
We were an odd couple only in appearance. We listened, when we could, to the albums I brought with me: Monk, Miles, Cooke, Holiday, et al. I told him stories about Sam, The Towne Hill and The Copa and he told me tales of Monk and Miles and Sonny and Billie; how he had breakfast in Monk’s kitchen with Monk doodling on the piano while eating scrambled eggs, the grease on the keys as thick as a thumb; Billie kissing his cheek before she went on stage to sing; the nights of hanging out at Minton’s with Cluck and Bags and Monk. I was like a sponge. We’d sit and watch the thick blue smoke from our Lucky’s or Commanders, and listen and laugh to Monk’s solo on Bag’s Groove or sing to Sam’s Night Beat late, while the house was going to sleep. Those were wonderful times.
But it was treatment I was supposed to be getting, not a cultural sabbatical, and, in fact, it was treatment I got. Areba had only twenty or so people to deal with at any one time. Our home, at full capacity, held one hundred and ten crazy-assed dope fiends, men and women. In some ways, the women were harder to treat then the men. Men could be men in the street and still get over without giving up their identity, but women, in many cases, lost whatever they had of their femininity in order to boost, rob, hustle, mug and, in some cases kill, or nearly kill, to support their habits. In many ways, they’re tougher than men and not at all ashamed to demonstrate it. Also, their stories were more heartbreaking and tragic. There was one woman who, while bathing her young son, nodded off to sleep, killing him. Some would say that she deserved whatever harsh consequences awaited her, and they might be right. However, it is my experience that no one can punish anyone as stringently, as punitively, as relentlessly as an addict punishes themself. It is never ending and endures whether they stop taking drugs or not.
“Treatment” in a therapeutic community is designed to be a pressure cooker. There were confrontation groups three to five times a week, day long marathons, conducted monthly, designed to break down one’s resistance's in order to accept truths and admit vulnerability. There were individual sessions as needed, and the daily regimen of your job function: service, kitchen or maintenance crew, acquisition team--”acquisition” being a fancy word for “hustling,” where those of us who could bullshit the best, got to go out, with an old, battered and shorn tax-exempt certificate, to any and all variety of merchants and other business owners, to “acquisition” what was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Finally, for those people who had been in treatment the longest and, who now had the responsibility of junior staff members, were the top positions of Chief Expediter and House Coordinator. The house hummed all day long and into the evening. The service crew cleaned all day long. Therapeutic Communities are the cleanest facilities in America. The hint of dirt is enough to get the whole house on a ban. A “ban” is when privileges are denied, such as going out of the facility, watching T.V., or engaging in any social activity. A ban could also be designed to curtail an individual’s activities. The kitchen crew was the next step up in responsibility. You had to get up earlier to prepare breakfast, and were the last to leave after the “family” ate dinner. To compensate for this the kitchen crew was usually granted privileges such as not having to work on the weekends when an alternative crew would be assigned to prepare meals. (And so on up the ladder of success.) I had very little desire to progress that way. That kind of recognition mattered little to me. What mattered was getting passes on weekends to see Diane. I wanted to discover what it was I was going to do with her, and with the rest of my life.
Hector, a thin, Puerto Rican of medium height, who had deep brown eyes, an acne scarred face, Mick Jagger lips, a quick mind and a wicked sense of humor, was the Director of the Treatment Facility. All staff were ex-addicts and most were Puerto Rican as were the founders, Julio Martinez and Carlos Pagan. “Sabige,” he’d say, “you a stupid motherfucker, you know that? You with your B.A.’s, your M.A.’s, your Ph.D.’s, PPP’s LSD’s QXZ’s all them fuckin’ degrees man you just stupid, man.” He’d pause for effect. Usually, he caught me mopping a floor, staring off into space, trying to sneak a smoke, or all of them at the same time. He usually denied me passes of any kind on the weekends on G.P., “general principles,” and kept me on the lowly service crew for nearly four months while people were usually promoted in two to four weeks. “Deny Sabage, and let him deal with it,” seemed to be part of the plan. Hector’s other refrain to me was: “Your father, he stupid too--I see where you get that shit from man. He could bullshit, just like you man. He would of made a good addict man, we tell him that the other week man and he love that shit: lyin’, schemin’, gettin’ high. He eat like a motherfucker man, that get him high I think, no doubt about that shit, man.”
My father had been coming once a week, sometimes with Diane, to attend groups designed for the “trainees’”, (the moniker of the residents there) significant others. Hector continued, “But you man, you don’t wanna be like him man; no, you wanna get the hell out of the city man, be a farmer like me man. This shit too evil man, too hard on the soul. Someday I’m goin’ back to PR, man, be a fuckin’ farmer...fuck this city shit man.”
After months of dusting the air and cleaning the bathrooms, sometimes with a toothbrush, they put me on the kitchen crew, which was an adventure. Up at 4:30 in the morning to begin preparations, I had the job of putting out the bags of garbage from the night before. One morning, I felt something against the front door making it difficult to open. I pushed and pushed and finally succeeded in getting the door to where I could go out, sideways. I found the reason for the difficulty. A dead body leaned against it. It was the second time I’d seen a dead body since being in the program. The first was when a staff member asked me to accompany him to the city morgue, near Bellevue, to identify a guy I’d made friends with in the program, Alfred Rickets. Al had gone home on a pass that weekend and, on his way back to the program, was pushed on the tracks of an oncoming train off the elevated El in The Bronx. I went with Fat John, a staff member, identified his face which graciously still was intact on an otherwise mangled body and was pretty shaken up for days afterward. It was shortly thereafter when I was promoted to be in charge of the kitchen crew, an opportunity I really didn’t want. I had to get up earlier than everybody else; I was in charge of seven people, a hopeless and thankless task, preparing meals in addition to keeping track of, and ordering, the food. I’d never cooked before in my life. After doing this for about a week, the house called a group designed just for me. It was a “Roman Encounter.” A Roman Encounter is when a person sits in the middle of fifty people or more and turns to face them one at a time while they tell him or her not in the kindest terms, what they feel about them.
“What we supposed to do with that fuckin’ pancake man, throw it or build with it, I know we can’t eat the motherfucker.”
“I needed a motherfuckin’ gun for that chicken last night. That chicken was bleedin’ so much, I felt sorry for it. Don’t you care what you’re servin’ your family?” That was it, of course. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get through it. The pride and quality that one should have for their job was lacking they felt. I was awakened in the middle of the night by some senior member of the facility, wearing a white glove with a speck of grease on it. My eyes slowly focused. “You gonna kill us tomorrow morning, man, with all that grease on the grill. Better get your ass down there and clean it good.”
Eventually, in group, I was able to delve into the emotional depths of what food in general, and the kitchen in particular, meant to me. It was a rancid blend of love and disease. Besides the obvious discomfort of having the responsibility of preparing meals for a hundred people, and being in charge of seven who were as crazy as me, there, intertwined with the present, was my past, where food was the hub and the kitchen the wheel. The last thing I wanted to be responsible for was feeding myself or others. The last thing I wanted to address was diabetes. The last thing I wanted was for my life to revolve around what I had so despised and rejected, namely my body. This was compounded by those in authority who had initially dropped me in that god awful situation. In short, I was angry as a motherfucker. I got it out, and got it right. I was put back on the service crew in a manner of speaking.
Staff had other plans for me. They, while trying to keep my ego in check, had begun to use me to “acquisition” goods and services that they had a hard time obtaining for themselves. I was only one of two other people in the facility with a valid drivers license, the other being George, a recent admission. He was a fat, tattooed chef who had spent too much time imbibing chemicals and powders that had nothing much to do with gastronomy and everything to do with hunger. I found myself hustling everything from cartons of cigarettes, fresh fruit and vegetables, to mattresses, linens and couches. I went to The Gotham Book Mart, where I had a slight friendship with Brown, who then owned the store. I thought some of the people in the program would like to do Gelber’s play, The Connection and was able to get ten copies of it. Nothing much happened with it. The same was not true for The Village Vanguard. Starling and I went to see Max Gordon, the owner, whom I knew from my poetry reading days with Fran, and who Starling knew from his forays into the West Village to hear people he knew perform. Max told us to check with him before a performance and he would, if space was available, give us a table or two to listen to some jazz. We caught the first set of Sonny Rollins before going back to the program, drinking club sodas and laughing at our sober glasses and Sonny’s arpeggios.
This quasi-freedom was making me itchy to get out and get going. I was getting edgy, restless. I’d been in treatment for almost six months. If you counted Areba, Lenox Hill and Mt. Sinai Hospitals I had been “institutionalized” for over a year. The next “phase” in Project Return was “education” where you either got a GED, (General Equivalency Diploma) or a job while living in Project Return’s facility on East 52nd Street. It also afforded one the freedom to come and go with few restraints while you learned what it was like to reenter the world of work and responsibilities while building a little bank account. Most people who’d come in with me had already made the move. They were holding me back for reasons I couldn’t fathom, except for one. I was proving very useful to them.
One day in group, George was pissing and moaning about being used by the program. “I’m just driving around all day picking up all your personal shit, the program’s shit, and not getting my shit together,” he whined, “I came here to get help, not to pickup Carlos’ shit.” The staff member who was leading the group shouted back at him to just do what he was told and stop being such a baby while doing it. George incensed, reached into his wallet, removed his drivers license, and ate it. “Now I can’t drive, you sonofabitch, I guess you’ll have to use me some other way now!” he exploded. I also felt used, but was not as famished. It would take a few more weeks for my “shit” to hit the fan.
One hot Saturday morning in June, I was standing outside the facility smoking a Lucky. I was pissed because another request for a pass to see Diane was denied. Instead, I was supposed to drive the van over to a Health Fair that we were participating in somewhere uptown. Carlos, the second in command at Project Return, and a guy I never liked too much, drove up in his car. “Hey, Jewish, come over here,” he said. He, for some reason liked to call me “Jewish” instead of my name. I never warmed to that form of endearment. I strolled over to his car.
“I thought Maxwell told you to get the fuckin’ van,” he said as he was getting out of his car and coming towards me.
“He did, but I ain’t goin’, not until I speak to you,” I replied.
“We got nothin’ to fuckin’ talk about man. You gotta get the fuckin’ van, go to the fuckin’ street fair, run your mouth about what we do here in this fuckin’ program like save motherfucker’s lives like yours, then come home here and do what you have to do.”
I wanted to punch him in his mouth. I wanted to strangle him on the sidewalk, walk over his body, take his car and split. Instead, I calmly said, “No, not me. I don’t have to do that. You might think you own this plantation, but I ain’t no slave.”
Even in the bright sunlight his face turned redder than red. Barely able to contain himself he said, “Well motherfucker, no one sent you a fuckin’ memo to come here. You were just another greasy motherfuckin’ dope fiend who’s ass we saved. Just go and pack your shit and leave.”
A crowd of people from the facility was standing around us now. Starling was tugging at my sleeve but I brushed off his hand. “That’s right Carlos, nobody sent me a memo, but nobody, including you, can throw me out either. I’ll leave when I’m good and ready unless you want to make an issue out of it. One more fuckin’ thing. You didn’t save my ass, I did. Me and the other people in here, but certainly not you.” We glared at each other for a few minutes. “I’m gettin’ out of here,” I finally said. I turned and walked back into the facility, up the two flights of stairs to my bunk and began packing my belongings. Maxwell and Starling followed me and watched as I threw my clothes into the bag I had brought with me when I entered Project Return.
“I’m gonna miss ya man,” Starling said.
I stopped what I was doing, went up to him and put my arms around his massive bulk and hugged him. I was grateful that Starling was too smart to try and talk me out of it. “I’m gonna miss ya too, but this ain’t goodbye, ya know what I mean?”
“I hope not; ain’t too many white motherfuckers to get down with these days. It makes my shit feel legitimate.”
“Don’t be sayin’ that. Hold onto my record player and records til I can get back to them.”
He nodded and pulled me to him. “If I didn’t like women so much, I could fuck ya.”
“Thank God for that! My asshole would look like a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.” I turned to Maxwell. “You could do me a favor.”
“I’m quiet because I figure you’re here long enough to know what you’re doing. What’s the favor?”
“I need to make a phone call, and I need thirty-five cents for a bus ride.”
“Sure, just wait till that skinny motherfucker is gone. I got to make this month’s rent, ya know what I mean?”
I packed my stuff, talked with Starling some more than went downstairs to make my phone call. Diane picked up. “What’s for lunch?” I asked.
“Good, you got your pass,” she said and I could hear the smile in her voice. In the next sentence I would erase that.
“Not exactly. I’ve decided to leave. What’s for lunch?”
“Tuna fish,” she said, her voice a little tremulous.
“Great, I’ll see ya soon.” I hung up. I got the thirty-five cents from Maxwell as well as my insulin and syringes and walked through the front doors. Everybody had already left for the Health Fair. I pushed my way up to Madison Avenue and stood on 43rd Street waiting for the uptown bus. I was scared and kept looking around, as if somebody or something was following me.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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