Saturday, August 8, 2015



"To give yourself wholly to each particular case, even if this involves you in a series of seeming contradictions, puts you on a straighter course and gives you deeper insights than abstract principles which so often force you to be untrue to what is best in yourself."
--Jean Cocteau

My first hitch at Kingsborough Community College lasted three and a half weeks. Boom. That was it. Next.
My father was friendly with this wealthy woman who was a customer and lived near his store on Flatbush Avenue. She was friendly with a dean from Sullivan County Community College. Not that it took too much “pull” to get me into that shit hole. Luckily, I had a friend Mike, also from Seagate, who was also looking for a place to land. I persuaded him to go with me. The first thing I packed was my bowling ball and shoes. I didn’t take any sugar testing equipment with me. Who had to know?
This was the first time, without being in a hospital, that I was away from home. By leaps and bounds I got crazier.
Sullivan County Community College, since it is located in South Fallsburg, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, known as The Borscht Belt, where hotels such as Grossingers, The Concord, The Laurels, and The Pines, used to be moneymaking enterprises, logically specializes in Hotel Management. I would use that geography to flit from one hotel to the next either working jobs or trying to pick up older women whose husbands had left them there for what must have seemed to them eternity. The male students were housed in an abandoned hotel, The Eldorado. The women were housed up the road in another precursor to doom.
I stuck with a Liberal Arts program. The only thing I wanted to know about hotel management was how to manage not paying in one. The first day of classes was memorable. There was a cute, short, blond-haired girl in front of me talking to a fellow student about how interested in poetry she was. Immediately, I took out my notebook and, with the knowledge gleaned from reading Ginsberg, scribbled poems, confessional in nature, that I could show her at the right time. That time came the following day when, sitting next to her in class, I casually said something that jump-started a conversation between us about the fact that I wrote. She asked to see something, and I showed her what I said was, “a work in progress.” She read mine, laughed appropriately and showed me hers: nihilistic, bitter, sarcastic and...good. I met her later that night, in the lobby of her hotel dorm. We snuck into her room and did what two poets do who are suddenly out of words. Our relationship lasted about a week. I have never, except for self-imposed exiles, stopped writing.
There was a Bar & Grill down the road from the Eldorado. A few days after we tasted the dormitory food, we decided to go there. The bar was new but was built to look old, like a flower without roots. A long dark wood veneer bar, tables with fake wood tops, chairs with imitation red leather, lanterns that were lit by a little bulb. It smelled of stale beer, piss and disinfectant. You know the deal. It served pizza and burgers, beer and liquor, with an emphasis on beer. In the back was a pool table where you put quarters up to play next. A few guys were shooting. Mike and I watched. There was one person, about my age, with sharp features, long shoulder length straight hair, who was thin as a blade but dominated the play. We went back into the first room, had something to eat and drink, and returned to the back room where the skinny fellow was still shooting. I put up my quarter and waited. I saw right away that he was a better shooter than me. However, I caught the breaks the first game and beat him. I stayed on the table until it was his time to play again, and again I caught the breaks. By this time the crowd in back had thinned out and he was the only one who had a quarter up.
“How about playing for a little bit?” he asked.
“How much is a little?”
“A pound, five?”
“You’re not trying to hustle me, are you?” He looked shy, almost embarrassed. “I wasn’t made with a bicycle pump,” I continued, a smile crossing my face.
He blushed. “No, no, nothin’ like that; it’s cool, let’s just play then.”
“Good, let’s just play.”
His name was Ronnie, who had a friend, Larry, watching from a table in the corner. He ambled over and introductions were made all around. We took turns buying each other drinks and shooting pool. Even from the very beginning of my drinking I had a code: Men Drank Seriously. It meant there was a hierarchy in drinking. No mixed drinks. I took a dislike to those who ordered drinks I thought women should be drinking and even then I didn’t like it much. Drinks without ice. Boilermakers. Beer was just a tune up. I thought the same thing about drugs. They should be shot, mainlined. I later found out that an old time expression for martini drinkers was someone who “mainlined” their drinks. Ronnie, once the facade was lifted, was a very good shooter; I lost repeatedly to him. We became friends. They went to the same school as Mike and I did, but lived in a bungalow colony off campus that became our hangout for the next six months.
That place was the definition of a 60’s “crash pad” if I ever saw one, and I’ve seen and been in a few. The bungalow court, having 10 cottages on each side, was pretty much empty. The winter made it look even more desolate. Inside, their cottage held the sad and mildewed furniture that had long since lost its original color or contour. It sort of looked like the outside. Colors were muted and runny with obsolescence. There was a seamless quality between both. Neither held a hint of Spring. Ronnie drank Coca Cola incessantly. Quart bottles lined the bungalow. There was a black wire-haired mutt named Orphan that they adopted and who drank Coke as well. People showed up at odd hours, stayed or left as the mood hit them. Drugs were like cigarettes in the armed services, “Smoke em if ya got em,” and there were all kinds of drugs. My real education about substances began here. I learned how to tell strong marijuana from weak: If you stick some on a wall and it’s still there the next day, well, it’s strong. I learned the pill kaleidoscope, different cough medicines and even a nose drop, Renalgin, that acted like an amphetamine if mixed with soda and ingested. I never had to study for that test. It was a baptism by fire. I was adrift, or, as Stevie Winwood would one day sing, “And I’m wasted, and I can’t find my way home.”

I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, let alone know what my diabetes was up to. There were days I’d skip meals or eat as much or as little as the drugs would allow. I’d try to compensate for this by eating quick acting sugars to try and thwart insulin reactions. One day, I woke up and was so disorientated, I dropped and broke my bottle of insulin...and had no back-up. I did what any person in my state would have done. I went back to sleep. I awoke later that afternoon, went into town, bought another bottle, went back to the dorms, took a shot and promptly went back to sleep. That was the closest I ever came to missing a day.
There was a man who worked for my father, John Smalls, a six foot, four inch, lanky thirty year old Irishman, who smoked Camels and drank a lot, to put it mildly. He was also going blind. My father, after discovering that I had had a drink once or twice, took me to see him in the hospital. It was pretty scary. I had known him when he was reasonably healthy. Now he could hardly see, and a portion of his lower leg was ulcerated. After smelling the disinfectant, and the hospital, and tasting the memories of when I was in one, and seeing him lying there hardly seeing at all, well, let us just say, it gave me pause. Maybe not missing an insulin shot, as inconsequential as that might sound, and as medically undetermined as that fact is, nevertheless kept me ticking long past a time when other watches would have long stopped. In a very real way, it was through my parents histrionic, awkward, and at times intolerable concern that enabled me to have the kind of fear and rigidity that, if nothing else, compelled me to take that insulin shot every single day of my life.
I had no idea, nor did I want to know, what these various substances, natural or otherwise, were doing to my system, and, even if I had known, it wouldn’t have deterred me from choosing the life I’ve led. Thomas Wolfe said, We are the sum of all our moments. Not only do I believe that, I embrace that. “Regret” sounds too much to me like cheap sentiment, a smell worse than cheap cologne.
All drugs used over a protracted period of time result in depression. And it can be argued that the user could be experiencing depression coupled with anxiety before picking up those substances. There is much evidence, as I wrote earlier, that the emotional state of the infant’s body releases chemicals to cope with stress of any kind. In a state of depression we “disassociate” and opiods are secreted to help balance the system. They attach to a receptor in the brain to soothe the person. When most psychoactive substances are used they attach to the same mu receptor. It could make the person feel just like a baby again on some very deep and primal levels.
Even reefer, a “natural” high leads a user into a depressed state when that “naturalness” is denied to him. In fact, the depression might begin descending when the user notices that, “Oh shit, I’m almost out!” Alcohol, that ancient elixir, begins as a stimulant but ends up at the end of the night, or at the end of your life, as a depressant. I didn’t know at the time that hard alcohol first cuts a diabetics blood sugar and then elevates it. Then I did one of the worst things a person in my state could do, think. I began to think of how to balance myself out so the lows don’t get too low and the highs not too high in order to give my life, well, balance. O.K., a couple of Black Beauties in the morning, a few Tuinals, Seconals, Nembutals at night. What came between the rise and fall of the curtain, well, isn’t that what life is for, the mystery? Oh sweet mystery how glad I found you! Unfortunately, in the world of drugs, and especially drug abuse, one and one rarely equal two, two and a half maybe, three, five, perhaps one and a half, but rarely two. But to the Underground Man what does that matter? So two and two doesn’t add up to four, so fuck it. Who said it had to anyway? Logic, what’s that? As Frank O’Hara once wrote, “Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.”
I can only attribute having a strong constitution and new brakes (the longer I drove the drug highway, the less brake lining I had left), to the fact that I’m writing this today, and luck. Let us not forget dumb luck, providence to some, God to others. Since those years were not documented in hard medical data, there is no way for me to authenticate how it played upon my diabetes except to say that as “high” as I got, that’s how “down” I went. A veil of depression and pessimism hung over me. There’d be moments of excitement, even elation, in writing something I thought was good or belly laughing with friends. It was moments of connection with someone or something that would take me out of myself (interesting to note that being “social” also secretes those same endogenous opiods), but those things would be short lived, sucked up by the Black Hole of fear, doubt, insecurity, grandiosity, narcissism, and finally self-destruction that would leave me only to ponder and descend again.
In the dark recesses of what I kindly call my mind, I knew that what I was doing could not be good for my diabetes. But not wanting to admit I was diabetic took precedence. Just how dangerous it would be to admit that I didn’t know at the time. Knowing I was really a diabetic hastened the obliteration. I was developing a pattern, on an unconscious level, the worst kind of level there is, that would lead me back into the sanctity and protection of my family. And that would ultimately prove more dangerous. However, to admit at the time I had diabetes, a disease, would mean I was vulnerable and to be vulnerable to me at the time was far too feminine to consciously contemplate. The time, during puberty, staring into a mirror while my father administered my insulin shot had literally and figuratively “fucked with my mind.” My feelings of humiliation could not be tolerated for very long before they were buried and compensated for in whatever ways I believed promoted the one masculine figure I wanted to desperately identify with, my father. I wasn’t ready, or near ready, to deal with any of this.
And so if I became sick enough, they would take care of me, and, if they took care of me, they would listen to me; and, if they would listen to me, they would love me. It was nauseating, but true. It sickens and embarrasses me to think about, much less write about, this powerful wish to be loved and protected. It has haunted me for decades. It has turned strangers into parents, men into fathers, and women into mothers, and certain situations into parental ones. Looking for safety I found only danger. Looking for danger, I found only myself.
Melville said you can do two things with a problem: “untie it or cut it.” The danger, he continued, was remaining “indifferent” to it. Every time I’d try to “untie it,” I’d get so jammed-up going around in circles that I needed some kind of drug to make the thinking stop. “Cutting it” to me meant the severing of family ties, which was unthinkable at the time. My ambivalence, at times, only seemed like indifference. But it cost. The cost is something that can’t be measured in anything that anybody could understand. Even I could no more understand what my life was costing me than what your life really cost you.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

1 comment:

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