Saturday, August 29, 2015
"HABIT, THE GREAT DEADENER"--FROM CHAPTER VIII: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Slowly, Jean had begun to tell me bits and pieces of her life with Jeff. She had met him when she was a young, twenty-one year old, a stewardess for T.W.A. Airlines and, after a brief courtship, began living with him. Shortly thereafter, he was having this young, but ballsy, lady fly to Italy, where she smuggled in baby laxative, used by him to cut cocaine. He was from a well to do family on Long Island, had already been married and divorced, and was supporting two kids he had fathered. At six feet, six inches in height and weighing two hundred and thirty pounds with a mane of red hair, he was an imposing figure. Kenny, who worked behind the bar with me, had a girlfriend, Merrin, who had worked in a bar across the street from Elaine’s that Jeff frequented. He was not a man to trifle with, Merrin told me after Jean had already moved in. She related several incidents in which Jeff had pursued those with whom he’d argued and even shot at. Jeff, Merrin had told me, was said to “eat trees.” Jean concurred. She told me however, that I had nothing to fear, since he was taking it “on the lam” after DEA agents had begun pressing him to provide names that had bankrolled his last drug deal. Jean, not knowing the name or names of his drug contacts, did know that it was some crony of our late president, Richard Nixon, that the DEA wanted to nail through him and was pressing him for. Rather than give up the name, Jeff had cut a deal with them that made them believe he was going to inform on this person and, once the meeting was set, never showed. Instead, he left with pounds of cocaine, while the DEA was left with egg on its’ face and anger in its’ heart.
I was impressed by the story, but not too concerned about my safety. At that time, I was more concerned that a potential supply of free drugs was out of reach. After walking her back to my apartment, helping her unpack, and giving her space in my drawers and closet, I made a hundred different compromises in my mind to allow her to stay with me. But it was Jean who was quickly compromised. I needed all things an infant does: food, clothing and shelter. It began as a lie and ended in this truth: Jean probably saved my life.
As this life with Jean began, other things ended. My attempts at getting my last screenplay bought went nowhere. I left Jay Allen’s cable TV show for which I’d been writing.
I started to resent everything that I “had” to do. I hated the fact that I was “serving” people; I disliked paying rent; I felt that therapy was a poor excuse for living; I believed I should be out in Hollywood pushing my work. Hearing what Jason and Sig would say about “them”, meaning the studio executives, having to see you in order to believe you and your work existed, made me that much more obsessed about getting out there. I reasoned that success hinged on three things: you had to have been born into it, fuck into it, or luck into it; a boxed trifecta, but, in all instances, you had to be there to lay down a bet.
I broached all the subjects with Handelsman. He knew about my slide back into drug taking to some degree and felt me slipping away. He cut down my sessions. I felt he was lining up new meat. However, there was one session when I casually related the conversation I had with my mom, the one about my father not being able to visit me in the hospital when I first got diabetes. For Handelsman, this had epic ramifications. He’d known, of course, how crucial diabetes was to me, how it had altered my life, reached me at the time of puberty and effectively separated me from my father. I had no real memory of what my life with my father was like before diabetes. Try as I would, I’d only be able to recall certain vague incidents before the onset of the disease: when I tried to put my fingers through the slats of a metal electric fan at the age of four or five, he, sitting next to me, slapped me hard in the back of the head; I remember rubbing my groin up against his leg (and it felt good) when we’d play wrestle on Sunday mornings in his bed; and I remember the time we faked boxing with each other when I was about ten in the living room where we had a floor length mirror. I backed up into the mirror which broke in a million pieces and he chased me around the kitchen/living room with his hands outstretched trying to grab me by the throat. Other than that he was a very “gentle” man. I probably brought this up at the very time when therapy was unraveling. I knew, subconsciously or not, my drug taking would make it impossible to delve any further into this now. In effect, I protected my very destruction.
Handelsman asked, a few sessions later, if I wanted to take a break from therapy for the rest of the Spring and Summer and resume in September. I took this as rejection saying to myself, “That motherfucker!” and then out loud, “Yeah, sure, I think it’s best,” and left. Had I developed a sense of entitlement, a self-esteem, an anger properly directed, I would have said something like, “You ain’t throwing me out now! Not after the pain and the money and the effort that I put in here! Yeah, I’m using drugs again, but that’s what a drug addict is supposed to do. Let’s find a way out of this mess!” Instead, I felt like I let him down, like I let my old man down. That weepy self-pitying bullshit that I so much loathe hit with a vengeance. I was embarrassed by the fact that here I was again doing it in the same old self-destructive, morally indefensible way. I had a very difficult time deciding who were my doctor, my friends, and my family. It all fused, I thought, into some sort of bizarre conspiracy, one that was out to get me. Probably, more to the truth, was that Handelsman thought that maybe the intensity of therapy could be better addressed after a brief respite and that we’d pick it up again come September. That idea never made it into my head.
Jean, my “need” incarnate, was the exception but I didn’t know her all that well yet, so I was also none too sure about her. I quickly tested her and put her through, what can only be described as accompanying me on a trip through Hell.
When Jean’s cocaine ran out, I found myself asking Paul, my upstairs illegal tenant, to sell me quarter grams to grams of coke (when I couldn’t obtain the drug for free from the patrons at the bar or other characters I knew), and deduct it from the monthly rent. Also, I was about to change business addresses.
Ray Garcia, the maitre d’ from Tavern On the Green, whom I’d written about previously, and the new manager of Oren & Aretsky’s were going into the restaurant business together. Bankrolled by this wealthy tax shelter operator, Herman, who had successfully backed this French restauranteur, Robert, in a number of well-known places, such as La Cage Au Foile and Chez Pascal, was now going to put the three of them together in another venture, Bistro Pascal. The location was in prime territory, Sixty-third Street between Second and Third Avenue. It had three separate floors, each with private banquet rooms, a small, but cozy marble bar, floor length sculpted mirrors, seductive lighting, plush carpeting, fresh flowers, the best in wines, champagnes and liquors, three different chefs preparing foods, and waiters, skilled in the art of presentation and service. I opted for what I thought would be a better job, but it wasn’t.
When Bistro Pascal first opened, we enjoyed the blush of first love. Celebrities, whom the owners knew, paid their respects and brought their friends and others who fed off, or on, them. The booze flowed. The food was wonderfully prepared and consumed eagerly by mouths that were really more concerned with talking, while coke spoons glittered in recessed corners. Most everyone who patronized us for the first few weeks did so gratis. And, at first, the tips were generous. Later, after the bloom was off the rose, The Bistro generated little heat. Decadent though it was, it was not enough to interest those who either created scenes or took part in them. Those of us who had been around restaurants for awhile could smell the odors that emanated from the corpse, only hours old, once the process of decay took over.
First to be let go was the chef who was hired just to make pasta, next to get the ax was the sommelier. Then, as business worsened, waiters left, either on their own volition or they were asked to leave.
However, at the time, it didn’t bother me at all. I was experiencing a rebirth of the senses, of creativity, in part fueled by the alcohol I was consuming but especially from the reefer I was smoking. Again, it coincided with Brasz arriving from New Orleans.
I must say, at this juncture, I was, in the parlance of literature professors, an “unreliable narrator” for chunks of time between 1980 and April 1987. Not that I would purposely lie or fabricate events in order to make this memoir more engaging, or readable. Simply put, I was under the influence of many different drugs (sometimes singularly and other times in consort with one another), that consequently, the events which I’m going to describe, flow into and out of one another with no clear remembrance of time. The clarity of each experience is also colored by various substances. There was the tedious suction of the cycle of addiction, the repetitious stutter of days without content or light, there also were days, weeks and months, whole chunks that, while hardly ever being devoid, or free, from the influences of certain chemicals, were however, given to flights of fancy and, in no small measure, hope. It was in those times that I had some marvelous bursts of creative energy, and certain adventures, that would not have happened if I were stolid and tame, instead of being, what I was, which was, unquestionably, “unreliable.”
I wore an off-white suit with a party colored, striped tie and blue shirt that I’d bought at Paul Stuart to my parents’ anniversary party I’d made for them at Bistro Pascal. They were celebrating forty-two years of wedded bliss. My father, almost sixty-two, was nearing retirement. In expectation of reaching that milestone, he’d bought a large two-bedroom condominium in, what once was, one of the more exclusive buildings in Miami Beach. A man whom he’d helped get his start in business, who became a multimillionaire thanks, in part, to my father’s introductions at his initial business undertaking, had lived there before him and introduced him to this luxurious way of living. My father, not nearly as wealthy, nevertheless wanted to emulate him. Also, he had little patience to hunt for a place that would be more suited to his and my mother’s lifestyle. He was a Jew, who liked Jews, defended Jews (he was busted in the Army after he punched a Captain who’d passed an anti-semitic remark), yet he didn’t want to be around Jews who were...too Jewish. His plan, though not well thought out, owed more to expediency than anything else.
Bobby, according to my father, had cost him close to three quarters of a million dollars by persuading him to purchase another store in Brooklyn that would be his to nurture and run, but instead ran it into the ground. Bobby, along with a young butcher (who liked his whiskey, his women and his cocaine), tried to make the store successful but could not. Once seeing that this new sibling of a store was deformed they, like the elders in Sparta, left it on a mountaintop to die. My father could not make it any better and, six months after they bought and renovated it, sold it for a substantial loss. Still, my father could not let go. My brother, not thinking very clearly and caught in the addictive process as well, abandoned the business and went out to make his way in the world, but he was floundering, like I was. I had, of course, introduced him to Paul, who was subletting his pad and so Paul also became one of his cocaine connections. And so my father, wanting to facilitate a lifestyle of “the rich and famous,” reluctantly turned to figures he knew could not be trusted, but instead thought could be manipulated. It would prove, in the years to come, to be his undoing.
My mother, closing in on sixty-one, was experiencing the Jewish version of living death: having a first-born Jewish son co-habitating with a woman of not only another religion but another race as well, in this case, Chinese. She’d long ago given up the wish for me to be with, let alone marry, a Jewish woman. She was fond of the expression she’d often repeat to me: “Lord, throw me amongst my own.” I, however, had never really had wonderful dealings with “my own.” In fact, in so many ways, I was running away from “my own,” my own mother in fact. However, my mother imagined what others would say about her and her parentage, after seeing her son involved with an Oriental woman, and it embarrassed her. Mom, whose sensitivity knew no bounds and whose pain was visible and endless, demanded a respect from her immediate family that, due to all of our self-serving and narcissistic natures, was impossible. Never realizing the price she tried to exact from this particular family, she grew more bitter and angry as time went on in response to our collective inability to honor her wishes, in matters both deep and superficial. She, unlike the three males that circled around her and flew into her arms only when necessary, was essentially honest, hardworking and guileless. Her one flaw that caused her immeasurable suffering and pain, among the many flaws that each of us has, was her inability to allow people, especially herself, to have flaws.
Ray and Ron treated us to a wonderful anniversary dinner that night. Oysters, shrimp cocktails, melon and prosciutto, rack of lamb, Halibut, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, salads, champagne, whiskey and brandy were brought by waiters who lit our cigarettes, emptied our ashtrays, and fawned over my parents in ways each of them thought they deserved, but rarely experienced At the end of the evening, when my father asked for the check, even though I’d already told him that I had taken care of everything beforehand, was simply told, “It’s been taken care of.”
I was comfortably uncomfortable. My father could have stayed longer and stared at the “action,” especially the women, but my mother was relieved when he decided to leave. I would suspect it was when I ordered my third cognac, which John poured, with a heavy hand.
Brasz was now contemplating moving back to New York City and teaching in one of the public schools here, something Louis, his father, had done all his life. Becoming his father freaked him in similar ways it freaked me when I noticed my own replications with my father.
As early as 1965, my first go ‘round at Kingsborough Community College, a professor had us reading Max Lerner’s text on American history. The title escapes me now. It was there that I read about the symbolism involved in American’s defeat of England, its’ father figure, necessary to becoming a man, or independent, in its own right. Later, of course, once I became enamored of psychology in general, and Freud in particular, the book which profoundly effected me, among his many works was, Totem and Taboo. Many times Brasz and I would discuss this work in relationship to others, such as Levi-Straus’ Trieste Tropics, but mostly in ways that impacted on our upbringing and current lives. The love and disgust we had for our fathers manifested itself in the many ways we were drawn to their lives, emulated their lives, but were also repulsed by their lives and, sometimes in the case of my father, his flesh as well. The thought of having to assist him in getting up or, if a time came when I’d have to assist him in managing his hygiene or other daily needs, was enough to make me want to either be so far away as to make my intervention impossible or die first. Brasz, unlike myself, confronted his demons, walked over and through them, never around them, ate them, laughed at them, and accepted them, sometimes without the benefit of understanding or liking them.
Jean, who was always a diligent and hard worker, had begun a career in selling co-ops and condominiums in the hot New York real estate market in the early 1980’s. She’d made a few quick sales, which totaled well over fifty thousand, and made my life a hell of a lot easier. By this time, we had settled into a domesticity that seemed quite natural. We were together and, as such, shared in expenses and confidences. Her time, scheduled around showing apartments, was her own and we, Brasz included, made the most of it.
Brasz and I were like two old washer women. We could talk and gossip forever, sometimes calling each other two or three times a day, whether we saw each other or not. We could trade barbs, create syncopated riffs, ideas, indulge ourselves in music, literature, and painting, comment on writing and writers, loves--past and present--and compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In short, we, while never fucking each other, were the closest thing to lovers, falling over and sorting out each other’s adolescence in an attempt to sway and subvert the advance of age.
A little reefer, clams and black bean sauce, Chinatown, Sonny’s East Broadway Run-Down, Cecil Taylor’s loft, Chambers Street, Fat Tuesdays, Museum of Modern Art, the rumblings of hip-hop Bronx, graffiti, Crash, Daze, A-1, East Village run-down, comeback art scene, midnight ramblings, day-glo, Haagen-Daz, a smattering of coke, The Bistro, painting and a different way of writing: short poems, titled, “One For...” which took jabs at our cultural heroes of the day, such as: One For Nancy
Nancy Reagan is on top
of the drug problem.
It’s made five Colombians
With stiff dicks,
One For John
John Wayne, doctors said,
Is in stable condition
After having everything
From the neck down
He’ll be given,
As protective measure,
A football helmet,
Upon his release;
Baring any further
It was in that vein that one hot summer afternoon that I, high as a kite on some powerful sinsemilla, ( a potent strain of marijuana), strolled in the summer garden of The Museum of Modern Art, and came up with an idea for a play, Starsky and Butch. I was with Brasz and Jean and we, besides digging the paintings, were enjoying a glorious June day in New York City, talking about whatever nonsense came into our heads. A few weeks before, a building exploded in Queens, (certainly, nothing to make light of--except when your twisted on some good pot), and a Puerto Rican terrorist, Willie Morales of the FALN, was taken into custody, but not before he’d blown off all the fingers of one of his hands in this, their hideout and bomb factory. Yet, miraculously, incredulously, Morales had escaped from a locked ward in Bellevue Hospital, under the twenty-four hour a day guard that our finest, The New York City Police Department, was able to provide. John Santucci, the Queens District Attorney at that time, had sat red-faced in front of a blistering assault by the city’s media, and sworn that they were in hot pursuit and it was just a matter of time before he’d be apprehended and the city could, once again, sleep peacefully. The question of “how” he’d managed to escape, despite having no fingers and little left of his hand, (not to mention the rest of his cuts and bruises over his whole body), remained unanswered...until now. I surmised, to Brasz and Jean, that a gigantic ace bandage, with a metal clip, was hurled into Morales’ room by none other than the District Attorney, John Santucci, (named “Douchie” in my play), himself. Morales was having an affair with Santucci’s punk-rock daughter, compromising pictures were taken by a renegade terrorist, and Santucci had promised the FALN that no efforts would be made to stop their next and last act, (they’d promised to leave the country if they’d successfully complete their final and most appalling act of terrorism) until Morales had thrown a wrench into the agreement by blowing himself up. This came at the worst time: Santucci was about to be supported for a higher political office and his wife, a long suffering, whining, Jewish woman would, at long last, get out of Queens and into a position she’d long aspired to: First Lady of Brooklyn, where her parents still lived. Santucci, forced to put his best detectives on the case, called into the investigation: Lt. Tootsie, modeled after Telly Savalas’ TV character, Kojack, a New York City police detective and Starsky and his irrepressible partner, Butch, a send-up of another TV cop drama.
Brasz and I took the idea and created these mad riffs until the bones appeared, followed by the flesh and viscera. We lampooned our TV heroes, politicians, marriage, alternative lifestyles and love; we even managed to broach the subject of AIDS, (just beginning to gain notoriety in the media), by creating a character who was a doctor who lived in a bubble, rode around in a wheelchair, and treated all police personnel.
After this burst of energy subsided, after the laughs, and the insights and the language and the inspiration retreated into the reality of work--work at The Bistro and work on the play--I could not sustain both. The play was shelved.
Artaud, in his book of essays, The Theatre and Its Double, equates writing with any biological process. You can no more “give up” writing than you could pissing. It’s really not a big deal, almost like being born with a sixth digit on you foot or hand. Hopefully, you never learn how to live with it, but how to use it.
Because I had difficulty staying with one thing when that one thing presented obstacles (I was either unwilling or unable to work through), I flitted from one thing to the next, much like the women and jobs I’ve had in my life. Poetry, was usually what I returned to unless the spirit had been temporarily extinguished from my world. Besides, poetry, as Bukowski has said, is the fastest horse in the literary race. Why say something in a hundred pages when you can say it in ten lines? For me though, it was not philosophy or literary principle; the reality was (and is), that that is how I thought; that is how I trained my mind to think. I have done it so often and for so long that it’s as natural as, well, pissing.
And so, with a niggling feeling inside me, a feeling that was not new to me, a feeling that told me I was copping-out, lying, that I was too easy on myself, that I was afraid, afraid of failure, looking stupid, unlearned, not assured, clumsy, awkward, and most importantly, vulnerable, I went back to concentrating on poems.
The summer passed in a kind of blue haze interspersed with jolts of lightening. I worked and I wrote poems And when I wasn’t working I was with Brasz in Cecil’s loft on Chambers Street, listening to him, Jimmy Lyons, alto sax, Allan Silva, bass, Andrew Cyrille, drums and Ramsey Ameen, a gone violin player from New Jersey, rehearse for their gig at Fat Tuesdays. It was magical and I felt privileged to be in their presence digging the way Cecil’s compositions came together.
It was at Fat Tuesdays that the music, played in front of an eager and receptive audience, adhered to the structure of practice yet allowed for the thrill of improvisation: Jazz. Brasz and I would meet at my place and go to the club where we’d be let in and into the band’s dressing room. We’d break out a little reefer, while others opened a secret stash of hashish, and we’d pass the joint or the pipe. It was in these moments I felt that I’d realized a dream: to be among jazz men and writers and friends, sharing a moment like it’s no big deal, like I belonged there, because I was there. At the end of the sets, when evening turned into night and then morning, we’d sit with the musicians sometimes commenting on how they (and we) thought the sets went, any interesting occurrences that were detected by the few and many, and where should we go now, either to eat or hear more music.
Luckily for me, I mostly kept myself in check that summer. But, ever so slowly, I was becoming pray to the web that I myself was weaving, shutting off avenues of escape as this cocktail of chemicals and creativity sweetly spiked and distorted what I thought were opportunities or interpreted as reality.
That October, I turned thirty-three years old, and still in my own dark wood. Having no guides, either Sherpa or of a metaphysical nature, to navigate this secular Hell I was in, I tried to write my way out. I’d come up with another idea for a play shortly after my folks made the move to Miami Beach. Whether it was an attempt to keep them close or because they were gone I felt secure enough to begin it, I can’t say. The play, Eat It, It’s Good For You, is a surreal exploration of growing up Jewish in Coney Island in the Sixties. The entire play would take place in the kitchen where a gigantic refrigerator would spill some of its contents every time a character would open it while they exclaimed that there’s nothing inside to eat. The characters would sing and dance in response to the mother’s telling them what she was preparing for meals; one son would come to the table swathed in syringes; another son would have his brain removed after consenting to drop out of college and begin working for the father; each character would demonstrate their madness but never have it acknowledged, much less discussed. The kitchen is the battlefield, words are bullets, and food is love.
Try as I might, I could not make it work. As much as I loved the idea of writing this play, I was beginning to get more consumed with the life of decadence that was engaging me at The Bistro. Even when Brasz’s father died, I was not able to make it to his funeral. It wasn’t as if I was too fucked-up; it was too inconvenient to go on a Saturday. Brasz played it off at the time, but later told me how hurt he was that no one, especially me, thought enough about him to be at his father’s burial... “I was by myself, man, just alone back there in the chapel.” He didn’t have to tell me how he never really spoke to his mom and sister much. I knew that, and I also knew that even his father’s death held little sentimentality for him. That wasn’t the point. I felt like, and was, a first-class prick. Some things I did want to look at too deeply, and this was one of them. Had I looked, I would have seen a person as emotionally stingy as my parents were, maybe worse. I gave when it suited my purposes, seemingly afraid that emotions were a finite ingredient and would, if one were not careful, exhaust themselves.
What seemed to be inexhaustible was the cocaine that was permeating every nook and cranny in every social scene that New York had to offer. I had now taken to stealing and bartering with Paul, my upstairs tenant. I’d call him up, all hours of the day and night, and tell him either to leave a package of coke for me under his mat or, if I had some expensive wine or champagne to exchange for his product, I’d see him in person when I got home. There was still the chance encounters in The Bistro that provided the drug to me for free. For instance, one evening as we were all sitting around talking, sipping our drinks, getting ready to close, Robert, the part owner of the The Bistro came to visit. He motioned to me, the largest, (and he thought strongest), of the group to accompany him downstairs to where the dress lockers of the staff was located. He asked which of these was Charlie’s locker and I pointed it out to him. He informed me that Charlie was keeping amyl nitrates, or “poppers” (a capsule that, when broken, emits fumes so powerful that they give the user a rush of euphoria for a short period of time) as they were colloquially called, in there for him and that, before going home, to where his girlfriend or wife waited he would need their company. “I cannot fuck without my poppers,” he informed me in an accent so French I saw Paris on his breath.
“What’s the combination?” I asked.
“I do not know, the fuck Charlie cut out man without telling me,” he growled. “I need poppers to fuck,” he repeated.
“Don’t panic,” I said, “we’ll think of something.”
“I need a fucking crowbar,” he said, “wait here.”
I sat down and lit a cigarette and wondered how my life had come to this. Robert returned carrying a crowbar and a bottle of cognac. He took a swig from the bottle, passed it to me and, while I was drinking, reached into his sport jacket inside pocket and produced a baggy full of cocaine. As I was drinking, my eyes were drawn to the bag where I saw that good yellowish hue of rocks and powder that promised a high uninhibited by coarse mixtures of cut coke of inferior quality.
“Here, have a toot. The coke will make you strong,” Robert said as he passed the crowbar, baggy, and straw to me.
“Hey Robert I appreciate it, but I want to take some of that home, put it in my pocket. I get stronger when some of that shit is in my pocket.”
Robert laughed. “Yes, I know what you mean. Get started I will make you stronger as you go. Take a toot.”
I did. Robert took a twenty dollar bill from his pocket, took the baggy back and poured a very generous amount into the bill and began to fold it just as I snapped the lock. Inside Charlie’s locker was a box of amyl nitrates which Robert took and put the whole box into a pocket of his jacket.
“Those beautiful faggots, know how to fuck,” Robert exclaimed, as he drank off the rest of the cognac and walked back upstairs.
Tommy Sig had introduced to me to a friend of his, Donny ..., who had been the accountant of a famous and legendary entertainment impresario, Bill Sargent. When I had met Donny, he produced two two-gram vials of cocaine, a bottle of Martel, and a pack of Camels. During the course of getting shit-faced that evening, we shared a few secrets, and a few laughs. He’d told me a few things about Sargent that he knew and some rumors that had circulated among the Hollywood gossip mill. I realized Donny, like a lot of the people I had met, was very good at his chosen profession, but also out of his mind.
Sargent had produced the play, “Knockout” on Broadway, which ran for quite awhile, among other theatrical and film projects. He had negotiated, unsuccessfully, with the National Football League to have the Superbowl become a close-circuited event to which he’d have exclusive rights. He was a short, stocky man who, rumor had it, had tastes that were gargantuan. One evening as I was tending bar at The Bistro a limo pulled up outside and out he stepped with two young blond beauties on his arm.
He made his way into The Bistro speaking loudly about how an ugly fuck like him could have the good fortune of being serviced by these two foxy young “things” on his way over here in the limo. He appeared to be somewhat high but, the educated eye could see, he had just begun to fight. Sargent made his way over to the bar and ordered drinks all around. I looked at him and said, “Donny ...says hello.”
He backed away, pushed the two young girls from his arm, and glowered at me. “What did you say?” he bellowed.
I read it like this was anger feigned and did not feel the least bit threatened. “Donny ... says hello,” I repeated.
He rocked on his heels and moved closer. It seemed that all the noise in The Bistro ceased. Ray, who knew he was coming and had greeted him at the door, just looked from him to me, seemingly to prepare for whatever was going to go down.
“Do you know what that cocksucker did to me?” he shouted. He spoke fast, out of Brooklyn, like a Damon Runyon character.
“No, I don’t,” I replied, trying to keep the smile on my face from showing.
“He stole my fuckin’ car in California, the prick. Fuckin’ Rolls, fuckin’ Rolls good choice, huh? Stole the fucker and down in some fuckin’ Southern state, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas some fuckin’ state down there they caught the bastard for drivin’ drunk, drivin’ high drivin’ some goddamn way and he was broke, the sonofabitch always broke, a head for figures but always broke, and they threw him in the clink and who do you think he calls to bail him out, who?...Me, he calls me Goddamnit. And what do I do? I fly the fuck down there, wherever the hell it was and I go and I’m sweatin’ my balls off down there it was so goddamn hot and I bail him out and I’m at the fuckin’ desk signin’ the papers and what do you think the cocksucker did?...He stole my fuckin’ car again! Can you believe that!? As I’m bailin’ him out, he goes behind the cow shit police station, opens up the car with the keys that these dumb ass cops just gave him back and before you know it he was off again. Never did find the sonofabitch, either.” He laughed so hard then that he coughed and turned beet red.
“What did you do?” I finally asked.
“What did I do? I’ll tell you what I did. I found a goddamn bar, had a few quick fuckin’ drinks, and got my fat ass out of there and went home. Do you know where he is now? Cause if you do man call him, tell him I love him, all is forgiven. He’s so good with numbers.”
“Nah, I don’t, but if I do, I’ll tell him...what are ya drinkin’?” I asked.
“ Cognac, of course. If you’re a friend of Donny’s I better watch my ass. I’m takin’ everyone to The Palladium after this. Come with us. I want to keep you close.” And then he laughed that massive laugh again. He came over and stretched his frame across the bar and pulled me close and whispered, “You do any blow?” I nodded my head. He reached into his pocket, produced a suede sack lined with thin plastic, and gave it to me. “Just put it in your pocket, hang onto it.”
Later, when I went to the bathroom and opened the sack, it was filled with a white substance I had little trouble placing.
It started to get bad toward the end of November. I’d come home, slightly “lit” or drunk or both, at one or two in the morning from The Bistro. Usually I’d have coke in my pocket or, more likely, I’d made arrangements with Paul to get some in exchange for wines or rent. I’d open the door and the light and hear the T.V. from the bedroom. I knew that Jean was up, but I wouldn’t go in there right away. First, without taking off my coat, I’d get a glass of water, tissue, a piece of cotton and a spoon. Then, I’d go into the bedroom where I’d place them on the table where my diabetic supplies would be, hardly able to make eye contact with Jean. She’d be sitting up and after I took off my coat, got out of my outerwear and sat on the corner of the bed, adjacent to the table, Jean would slide over towards me and we’d kiss, briefly. My mind, my being, all my energies were directed at getting that drug into my vein. Sometimes, because my veins were so beat-up and difficult to find, she’d help me to find a new one. Other times, after the first shot, I’d throw-up the food I’d eaten that evening and wait for it to be over, then continue. After, if I was lucky, and finished with the first run, I’d go to the refrigerator and consume a tall six-pack of beer, or a bottle of booze or wine, until I could relax enough to lay down and try to find sleep.
If I was not lucky, it would be the beginning of a run that would take me into places that only desperate people inhabit, and it wouldn’t end until other forces, from within or without, muted then dissipated the uprising.
“Old money” always danced to its’ own tune. The period of the early 1980’s saw the swift and, sometimes brutal rise, of the new barometers of society’s privileged class: Wall streeters and drug dealers. The climate in New York City, especially in those areas neglected because of social class and voter registration roles, and dominated by an insatiable urge for “more,” made the neighborhoods pulsate with “more” desperation.
In those early years of the 1980’s, the East Village was littered with chicken bones, rib bones, paper and plastic bags from newspapers and bodegas, half-gutted buildings with yawning black doorways or other carved entrances, the sound of mice and rats ticking through the garbage and the wails of fire alarms and police sirens. There were lots more to be seen and heard, but usually I had my head buried too far down in my collar for them to make much of an impression. I’d begun to notice the first wave of crack cocaine from those who flew madly around the streets, their eyes wild with pleading, saliva congealed in the corners of their mouths, young people brazened by necessity displaying different acts of desperation. Neither desperation or neighborhoods like the East Village were unfamiliar to me. What was different was my age. When in my late teens or early twenties, the element of danger was on the periphery of my actions. I was not stupid about the risks I took, and I tried not to be too reckless or visible. The truth is that I was reckless and did stand out though I didn’t think so. I believe most, if not all drug addicts believe, for quite awhile, that their actions go undetected by all who matter, their loved ones, authority figures and, most importantly, the law. Now, I looked at the scene and recognized that I, now in my thirties, was more vulnerable to both those who sold and procured drugs there and the cops who chased them. For now, the drug scene, even during the seven years I’d been clean, had gotten more unstable because the age of those involved got younger and the drugs harder.
There were new indignities and humiliations suffered, beside the traditional dangers that attenuated my cravings, sparked by my appetites and mania. When I first made my journeys into the drug world I’d met up with those who sold “dummy bags,” bags that were supposed to hold dope, but instead had turned out to be nothing more than milk sugar, baking soda or aspirin. Also, I had had my share of run-ins with violence: I’d been cut and held-up at gunpoint. Now, twelve and thirteen year old kids were having us stand in line (which sometimes snaked down entire buildings and into the street), only, at their discretion, accept bills larger than ones, and arbitrarily decide who was and who wasn’t going to get served that day. Sometimes they’d serve you themselves, while at other times you’d have to go to a door, which had a hole cut out, and ask for what you wanted: “I’ll have four D’s and two C’s,” which meant: I’ll have four bags of dope (heroin) and two bags of coke; the dope being ten dollars a piece and the coke five. You would then put the money through the hole and wait for the bags to be placed into the same hand, then you counted it, quickly, and split. Of course, everyone waiting on line and those downstairs knew you just scored, so getting off the block could present problems. Luckily, it never did.
One of the reasons it never did was because there were times when I was able to persuade, cajole, or beg Jean to go down there instead of, or with, me. There were nights where I’d have just enough coke to wet my appetite but be unable to procure the amount necessary to satiate my thirsts. On those evenings, I’d walk or cab down to the alphabet blocks to get what I thought to be the amount needed to satisfy the craving, usually thirty dollars worth. I’d get back, shoot the drugs into my system, get so wired that I’d go right back for more. And more. And more. I had taken the Freudian act of stuttering to new and more frightening levels.
I’m sure Jean thought if she left me, I’d die. And that is probably true. She had also turned into my nurse, as well.
There was a study made of nurses who, during and at the end of World War II, married some of the quadriplegics that they cared for. They loved these men, of course. Yet, on other levels that the study addressed, they discovered that the power and control that they had over these men were enormous. These men needed them completely, forever. In a sense, that gives one a pretty secure feeling. Well, a drug addict or drunk also gives the other person (if they aren’t an addict), a similar feeling of security. Where is a three month old infant going? He might crawl around the crib a little, get lost for a period of time, but that’s about it as far as his excursions are concerned. He’s really not going far and will always come back. And that can, and often times does, infuriate the addict. Because along with all those other fucked-up feelings is that we, I, hate to feel controlled. Of course, we put ourselves in that position being as goddamn needy and helpless as we are and project, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it! In fact, we begin to suspect that there are “ulterior motives” behind the person’s kindness. It’s fucking madness. “If she does that, then she’s really making me do this and I don’t wanna do that, but I want her to do this,” and “what kind of idiot can she (they) be if I get them to do this for me and even though I asked them to how could they do this knowing what “this” really means to me and...” How can anyone win with a stacked deck like that?
This is not to say that Jean was passive or silent during my periods of addiction. She’d prompt me to seek help, keep doctor’s appointments, eat as appropriately as I was able and make it known that she had confidence in me that I’d eventually tunnel out of the hole I was in. She did not demand I do anything, nor did she remove herself from my equation of self-destruction, though she did make a few suggestions. She wanted me to see Bernstein for a physical exam, and, to escape from New York City by visiting her folks in San Francisco shortly after Christmas.
Once again, I sat facing the fish of North America waiting for Bernstein to appear and calm the voices raging in my head. I sat, stripped to my waist, looking at myself in that examination room light. My arms appeared thinner with fresh needle tracks in the crooks of them. I’d lost muscle tone. My eyes felt glassy and dulled, while my nerves, the ones on the surface, were raw and bleeding. I’d decided to just lay it out to Bernstein and see how he saw it. I was hanging on by a thread, even Ray Charles could see that.
Bernstein came in, looked at me, began to smile then thought better of it and remained silent. I told him what I’d been going through. He didn’t look upset or displeased. Those are feelings I am so sensitive to that the slightest hint of them is enough to heat the emotional beaker even before I’m conscious of the match being struck.
In his office, after the examination, I sat opposite him and waited to hear what I’d waited to hear each and every time I sat facing a person I was attracted to and depended upon, magic words to make it all go away, to make it all better, to make me well again. The first words he said to me were words I never imagined him saying and, almost twenty years later, in the writing of this work, are the real “magic” that has allowed me to, so far, avoid the consequences of the spiral of addiction. He said, “Why didn’t you call me?”
A friend? A friend and doctor? Could this be? I didn’t know. That possibility left me in uncharted waters. What did he really want from me? What toll would he exact? And if there wasn’t a toll, if this was not a question designed to manipulate me at best, enslave me at worst, then what? That kind of honesty was beyond my ability to understand, let alone trust. Yet, it insinuated itself so profoundly that twenty years later I not only remembered the question, but the inflection and tone as well. But at that time, sitting opposite him in his office, I couldn’t sort anything out. Instead, tears began welling up in my eyes that I struggled for control. “I’m so goddamn depressed,” I began. “I aborted two things I started to write that I liked. I want to sleep when I’m not using and burn myself up when I’m not sleeping. I don’t know what the fuck to do at this point. Maybe tranquilizers, maybe...”
“No, no tranquilizers, not now. I think that the reality of using drugs again depresses the hell out of you.”
I looked at him and nodded, yes.
“I’d like you to try this antidepressant, Mellaril, twice a day, once in the morning and one right before you go to bed.”
“What should I look for?”
“Don’t look for anything, let it find you. And if that doesn’t, we’ll try something else. Stop the drugs, if you can. Give this a chance to work. And call me. Anytime. Even if it’s just to talk. If you find that you can’t stop this slide by yourself, we’ll figure something else out, but let’s not wait too long. I want to see you in a month, O.K.?”
“Yeah, O.K. And thanks.”
He wrote out the prescription and I left. I didn’t take the pills, stay in touch, call, or see him in a month. In a month I’d be in San Francisco, trying to improvise on a torpid script. I was trying to get some jazz back into my life.
pgs 154-164, From Chapter VIII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015