Monday, August 24, 2015
PENTHOUSE/POORHOUSE: AN ADDICT GOES TO HEAVEN: FROM CHAPTER VII: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
“Nothin’ happenin’, brother,” Julio said when I called him several times over the next few weeks. I kept myself busy by pecking at poems and a short story that had my interest, but I knew I was just really killing time. Also, I made myself not call Diane or Nina. It would have been another form of addiction. No matter what I thought my intentions were, I would eventually try to use them as a buffer against the frustrations I was experiencing. Besides, I’m a superstitious bastard. Should I fuck around, mess with, lie to, manipulate someone else, or have anything less than honorable intentions, the world will repay me in kind. In this instance, not reward me with a job. It is, I know, the dumbest form of black and white morality; it denies the complexities of life; it negates human instincts and compulsions and it puts in motion the gears that grind down every decision; it rewards pleasure, sensual and otherwise, with a discipline that punishes any act that is less than stoic. The possibility exists, of course, that all of what I just said is bullshit. Maybe, I was just frightened or not in the mood. Or, maybe not.
“Maybe, there might be a little something,” Julio said the following week. I jumped on a train and breezed into Manhattan and sat outside his office and waited a long time.
“Well brother,” Julio gleamed, “I told you I’d get you somethin’.”
“Man, that’s great,” I said. I was sitting opposite him in his office on 28th. Street, off Broadway. “What is it?”
“You ever do any P.R. work before?”
“I don’t even know what the fuck “P.R.” means, let alone do any,” I replied.
“Public Relations,” Julio said laughing.
“No, never did but I can do it, whatever it is. You think I can do it?”
“Yeah man, sure. You can bullshit, can’t you?”
“Yeah, good at that.”
“That’s it brother. You just stay with me and you’ll know all you need to know. Besides man, I wanted you to work with me, even though it only pays 10 thousand a year. That’s what the line is man, sorry but that’s it.”
“ No, that’s cool, man,” I said feeling important by working with him, but shortchanged at the same time.
Not only did I get a job but it was with Julio Martinez, the president of Project Return, a major player in the substance abuse field. Martinez, coming from Spanish Harlem, was stricken with polio of the hip as a child. Later, to support his addiction, he carried two sawed-off shotguns underneath his arms to use in stickups and drug dealing. After years of prison, and more heroin abuse, he was given, in the 1960’s the first dosages of methadone in what was Morris Bernstein Institute, a division of Beth Israel Hospital. He was then recruited by Phoenix House, while he was in the hospital, to come out and help build a program founded on the drug-free concept contained in the philosophy of the first drug-free therapeutic community, Synannon. He helped build and establish Phoenix House’s first facility on 116th Street in Manhattan. After successfully completing treatment and working for Phoenix House, he decided to open up a program of his own, targeting adolescents and Hispanics by being bilingual.
Project Return (now Palladia), currently enjoys multimillion dollar government and private funding. Subsequently, Martinez lobbied for, and became the Commissioner of Substance Abuse for New York State. He successfully navigated the political and heavily trafficked, shark infested waters to secure that title, wresting it from the many other people who had a much better and more traditional resume who had vied for the position.
For the first few weeks, besides helping to move the Executive Offices from 28th Street to University Place, located three blocks from New York University in Greenwich Village, my old stomping grounds, I went to meeting after meeting with Martinez. I learned how he thought by listening to what he said, and what he didn’t say, and then having lengthy conversations with him about both. I familiarized myself with the local, state, and national representatives in the media and began learning, without benefit of traditional education, how to communicate with them in order to sell Project Return. I took funding proposals home to read and stacks of literature on treatment methodology, media relations, and community based organizations. Gradually, I began writing speeches for him, and public service announcements (P.S.A’s.), press releases, producing and editing radio shows, conducting tours for politicians, funding-sources, and visiting professors and dignitaries. I would be able, in time, to make decisions that would impact on how we were perceived, hence funded. It was an exciting, not to mention heady, gig. The only real drag was living in Seagate. It would take me an extra three hours, round trip, traveling to and from Manhattan a day, but finding an affordable apartment was difficult.
However, it felt like I was coming home for a second time except that these people, unlike my folks, hugged and greeted me like I was a soldier returning from battles, some lost and others won. It was a drug addict’s fraternity. Almost everyone there, except for their natural family, never belonged to anything that could be considered traditional, like a club or fraternity. They might have tried at one time or another but failed at it. No one here had ever asked to be an outsider, nor would they know how to describe what an outsider was to those who were not. They, we, me, simply are and were. In this instance, we had all struggled against the same opponent which had kicked our collective asses. We had handcuffed the beast inside our bellies with the knowledge and fear that we were our own jailers and the only ones to hold the key.
“We the fuckin’ underdogs, man...and that’s good, man; you sneak up on the motherfuckers in the night, man, and make off with the goodies before they know they be taken,” Julio would expound and add, “’positive manipulation’ bro, that’s what we do man. Where else can you be a dope fiend without shooting dope, man? You still get the fuckin’ rush, man, you still cop, you still get over, only this time you help another motherfucker and their fuckin’ family to save their asses. You go to bed at night and you feel good, man, real good.” I began to feel like the team who always beat the spread.
Julio made sure I was introduced to all the public officials involved in the field of addiction and the other directors of public relations from the other rehab programs, especially the more powerful ones: Phoenix House, Daytop Village and Odyssey House.
Phoenix House was led by Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal who was a handsome, suave, and savvy MD. Between his commitment to, and knowledge of, the field of substance abuse, plus his ability to persuade the most reluctant of human beings, Republicans, to believe in his approach to treating addicts, built Phoenix House to where it is today, the largest therapeutic community in the world. Also, his social circle which included business leaders and entertainers made notoriety, legitimacy, public profile and fund raising that much easier. Daytop Village, had Monsignor Bill O’Brian at the helm. Bill had God, and his associates, sitting on The Board of Directors. While Odyssey House had Dr. Judiann Densen-Gerber as founder and president who was also a JD, and also from the Gerber Baby Foods family, quite a trifecta.
Project Return had government funding and little else. Not even a Latin band playing Guantanamera at Christmas to help us with some “non-discretionary funds”--moneys to be used however the program saw fit, and were not given or raised for specific items. When I asked Julio if he wanted me to help him add some board members he answered me by saying, “Bro, I thought you’d never ask.”
Wanting to stay away from any family members, the first people I thought of were Ron and Leslie. Ron was away for business but Leslie, delighted to hear from me, accepted my offer to show her around the program. She’d offered to have Tom pick us both up in her limousine, but I declined the offer. Instead, I said we’d be taken around in the program’s van. I wanted her to get close to some of the kids I’d selected that day to show us around, figuring a little “slumming” might be just the thing she needed to get involved. We set a time and I began making my preparations.
On a cold December morning, with the sun just able to get shafts of light through Manhattan’s buildings and onto the streets, so that you had to use your hand, at times, to shield the glare, we parked in front of Leslie’s building. The doorman walked Leslie out and to the van. The light played off what she wore: a white cashmere coat, a herringbone white and beige cashmere scarf, a white woolen dress and, on her head, an expensive white fur hat. I was glad that I had them clean the van. I waited outside to open the door for her.
“Good morning, and thanks for coming,” I said.
“My pleasure,” she replied, “I’m very interested in this.”
“Terrific, let’s get going,” I replied. My hopes in involving them ignited, and I began thinking of giant fund-raisers at The Plaza Hotel, shit, maybe Madison Square Garden.
We began at the Treatment Facility on 43rd. Street where I introduced her to the staff and explained what this part of the program was trying to do. I had arranged for her to speak with a few of the trainees--or residents--who’d been there for awhile, were doing well, and were able to articulate how their lives had changed through the efforts of both themselves and the program. I made sure to point out the areas of the building and program structure that were in need of repair and that additional funding would help address. Government moneys, I was quick to say, do not cover all our needs.
From there we moved back to The East Side, where our Education Facility stood. She told me she had noticed it on some of her daily excursions from her apartment. This facility was much more sedate because of the nature of this phase of the program. However, I had arranged for her to meet the director, some staff, and speak to some who were still trying to gain employment or were studying to complete their GED or college education.
Next and last was the Adolescent Component on 34th. Street where we housed and helped kids as young as thirteen, who were usually mandated there by the courts or The Bureau of Child Welfare. Starling Lee, my old bunkmate from my treatment days, was the Assistant Director of the facility. He was made for these kids and they him. They took to each other like fish to water. Leslie watched as this black bear of a man took me around and hugged me. Starling and I had resumed our friendship, occasionally going out to dinner and jazz clubs after work. We picked up where we ended with a naturalness that defied logic. I could see in her eyes a genuine affinity for this kind of friendship, which led me to wonder about her background. Many people, particularly white people like her, who enjoyed bank accounts containing money measured like long-distance telephone numbers, looked askance at relationships like the one Starling and I enjoyed, but not her.
The kids took one look at her get-up and flocked around as we toured the facility. Young black kids, who were not too shy about many things in life, wanted to get closer to a woman who, up until that point in their lives, they had only seen in the movies, on T.V., or in commercials. She was very comfortable, not at all awkward or nervous. After I showed her certain aspects of this modality, answered her questions and had the kids ask her a few questions of their own, said good-bye to Starling and took her to our last stop, the Executive Offices, where Julio was waiting.
Julio was on the phone looking and sounding busier and more concerned than he usually did. Leslie and I sat facing him in his office after I introduced her to the staff there who had a similar reaction to her as the kids on 34th Street. I watched their eyes follow her as she went with me to each person there.
Julio cradled the receiver, looked at us, lit a cigarette, and said, “Sorry about that, always something crazy happening in this business.”
“I’m sure,” Leslie said.
“Has Norman been a good guide, showed you what we’re about?”
“He’s been wonderful. You have something very special here.”
“We try, we try. I’m very glad you had the chance to see it. Sometimes you just work and work and you never know if what you’re doing really has any value to anybody outside the, the, how should I say it?, program itself,” Julio said. I could see him looking at Leslie trying to size her up. He could see, and I could feel, that although she might be directing her words towards Julio, she was really looking at me.
“Those kids, those kids can break your heart,” she said, and added, “People should know what you’re doing. They should care about that.”
“I agree, absolutely agree, but man, brother, sister!, that’s so hard, getting the word out. That’s what I hired Norm to do.”
“Well, I must tell you, he’s very good at it,” she said, trying to sound objective.
“Well thanks, but before this turns into a Norman Love Fest are there any questions you’d like to ask the boss here?”
They both laughed at the remark with Leslie shaking her head “no” and Julio getting up from his desk at that gesture.
“Well I’m sure,” I continued, “that Leslie will share with her husband Ron what she saw and felt today and then, if they’re both agreeable, maybe we can all get together to see if we can take this thing a step further, but no matter how this turns out, I’m sure glad you had a chance to visit today. And the kids loved you. You know that don’t you?”
“Yes I do, I really felt that, I did, and Ron should be home from business at the end of next week, but I’ll be speaking with him this evening and I’ll tell him how excited I am over this program,” she said, and got up as well.
Julio took her hand warmly in his, and shook it, thanking her again, as I held the crook of her arm and began to go out of his office.
“Just a second Norman, I have to ask you something about the meeting you went to last week. I have to speak to The Monsignor in a minute, and I need to know exactly what happened. Leslie could you give us a minute?”
“Yes, of course,” she said and moved to the outer office.
“Mary, could you give Leslie some information about the program?” Julio said, and closed the door.
“Don’t fuck her, whatever you do,” he said once the door was closed, barely able to contain his smile.
“What are you talking about, man?” I replied, but knew what he was talking about.
“I’m telling you we got her, man...if you don’t fuck her. She wants to fuck you, I could see the way she was looking at you, man, she was eating you alive, but, if you do that, we could lose her, you know what I’m talking about, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re talking about.”
“O.K. go on, but don’t fuck her, you hear me?” he said, laughing as he ushered me out of his office.
Sitting over a cup of coffee, in a restaurant near her apartment I asked, “Now that the boss ain’t here, what do you really think?”
“Oh Norman, I wasn’t kidding when I said I was so touched by what I saw, especially those youngsters; they could just break your heart, they really could.”
I thought I had her. I thought Julio was wrong. She’d been honestly moved by what she had seen and now wanted to do something about it. She wanted to get involved with the program and help these kids. “Leslie, how would you and Ron feel about really helping us?”
She reached over and put her hand over mine. Her fingers were soft, her nails were polished a beautiful scotch salmon color and her ring, a Tiffany cut, five karat diamond, sparkled in my eye. I could smell her perfume. My heart raced a little faster. “I couldn’t really answer for Ron,” she began, “but I...I...” and here she leaned toward me and said, “would like if we continued this conversation lying down. Do you think we could do that?”
The end of her sentence came so quickly I felt myself blushing. “Leslie, what did you just say, I thought I...”
“I said, it would be so much nicer if we were lying down next to each other while we discussed this.”
I looked into her eyes which were back lit with sin and watched as she brought my hand to her mouth and placed the flesh between my thumb and index finger between her lips and lightly bit it.
“ Ah, geez, I don’t know Leslie,” I weakly replied, Julio’s voice inside my head.
“If you’re worried about Ron, I can tell you he really doesn’t care. We’ve had this arrangement for years now; we’re together because we still do care for one another, but really for the kids and we allow each of us to...to, to go our separate ways, sexually. He’s out of town most of the week and we’re just together on weekends, but even then, in separate beds.”
“Even so Leslie, I don’t know...I.."
“Don’t answer me now, think about it...and I’ll think about what you said...about the program, that is.”
I got up, reached for the check and she reached for the inside of my pants leg and rested her hand on the inside of my thigh. I looked down at her and she laughed.
“I could be bad,” she said.
“I believe it,” I replied, paid the check and was gone.
Saturday morning I was getting dressed to meet some friends to play basketball by the boardwalk in Coney Island when my phone rang. “Hello,” I distractedly said into the receiver.
“Hello, Norman, this is Leslie.”
“Yes, Leslie, hello. Howareya?” I replied, a bit confused as to why she was calling me at home on a Saturday.
“Naughty, Norman, very naughty. I told you I could be bad,” she nearly whispered.
“Naughty, why naughty?” I curiously said, belying my cock’s activity as it sprang to life.
“Norman, I went into the bathroom this morning, took off my nightgown and just as I was going into the shower, I looked down and, and,...and decided I wanted to be a little girl again...Do you know what I did?” her voice getting even lower.
“No, tell me,” I said, whispering as well, and feeling myself being sucked into the receiver.
“I shaved myself; I shaved my pussy---I’m a little girl again. Norman, can you come over now, right now; there’s no one home. Ron is away for the weekend with the kids. Come over, now.”
I wanted to go. Christ, you know I wanted to go, but Julio’s words were still inside my brain dueling furiously with the image I now had of Leslie’s pussy. “Leslie, I can’t today. Jesus Christ, I want to but can’t. Shit. I have an appointment with Julio today. We’re taking...”
“Oh, don’t tell me that, please, Norman, come over, now.”
“Ah, I want to, I really do, but can’t. How’s Monday though?” I weakly countered. The idea of fucking her blowing whatever chance I had of getting what the program needed from her, ringing in my head.
“Monday’s not good, but Tuesday, Tuesday is very good. Eleven o’clock Tuesday?”
“I’ll see you at eleven,” and hung up. My prick stood at attention. “At ease,” I instructed it, “you’ll kill me yet.” I looked at the phone, so at peace in its cradle, belying its potential for madness, mayhem, and endless destruction. However, nowhere was safety less imagined and heeded then in the hidden recesses of craving. There was never really a question as to what I would do, only when I would do it. The mental ping-pong match over this was just that, merely sport. But unlike sport, the outcome had already been decided once the question was posed. It was never “if” I’d fuck Leslie, but when. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had some piece of work on my hands, with more work to be done.
Worried on Monday that Julio would, as they said in a period not too long ago, “queer my action,” I resisted telling him of my phone call from Leslie. My mind, or cock, was already set in stone. Come Hell or high water, I would see Leslie the next day. What I’d do afterward was anybody’s guess.
Tuesday morning, I went into the office and tried to look busy. I lied to Julio telling him that I had an appointment with a director of public affairs from a radio station in the late morning to discuss airing p.s.a’s for us. If I thought things were going well, I told Julio, I’d invite him to lunch.
“Sure go ahead. Do what you have to do,” he replied, not very concerned with what I told him.
There is something about the promise of sex when it’s illicit that ratchets up the stakes. New is new and that’s exciting in and of itself, but new and taboo elevates the game to a new level.
The concierge behind the desk made the call up to her apartment and motioned me to the elevators. The uniformed operator took me to her floor and left more quickly, I thought, than the previous time I visited. Both attendants had to know, I was sure, why I was going up there. When I approached her door, there was a large stone holding it open. I lightly pushed it away, entered, and closed the door behind me. Her voice said, “Lock it, please,” which I did and began making my way down the foyer and, instead of going into the living room, turned right. I passed three large rooms that opened off the hallway and poked my head into each one, finding nothing. The room, which seemed like a quarter mile away when you first entered, faced out into the hallway, and was, the master bedroom. It seemed nearly as large as the living room, and it also had a bank of windows covering one entire wall facing The East River from a considerable height. Leslie, lay underneath the ivory colored sheets.
“You should have a fuckin’ cab service in here,” I said, as I walked to where she was. She tilted her head back on the pillows and laughed. She sat up and grabbed the front of my pants, pulling me closer to the bed, and began to undo the belt, button, and zipper. I got out of my coat and watched as my slacks fell around my ankles. She reached in, held my cock in her silken hand, and slipped it out from the fold in my underwear; her head bobbed over it, then placed me in her mouth and gently sucked. “Whoa man,” I said to myself, “if I let this go on a minute longer one of us is going to be very disappointed, and it better not be her.” I pushed her shoulders back and placed Leslie on the pillows and began to get out of the rest of my clothes.
Once in bed, after we kissed and touched and held each other, I was eager to see what had gotten me so aroused: her young and innocent pussy. I pulled back the sheets and slowly, with my head near her thighs, began lifting her nightgown, kissing and nibbling at her as I went. When I pushed her lace as far as it needed to go, I saw it, as pure as the time when I hid, at five, with the little girl my age, who was my next door neighbor, in my closet only to be discovered by each of our parents. This time, there would hopefully be no discovery, and no reprimand. Her mound was white, slightly swollen, and smooth as a cue ball, only moist. I went down for a closer look. She came twice before I penetrated her.
After cigarettes, she took my hand and led me into the bathroom, larger than some apartments I’ve been in. We got into the shower and were attacked by water coming out of eight or ten different nozzles at the same time. We soaped each other up and washed each other off. Coming out, I dried myself on a heated towel from a rack near the shower’s glass doors. We went back to the bedroom where, after little coaxing, we started all over again. After showering again, Leslie went out of the room and returned with a tray of Brie, crackers, strawberries, and a split of Moet champagne.
Thinking we had nothing much to talk about, I was anxious to leave. Yet, within a short period of time it proved otherwise. Not only did I find Leslie extremely intelligent, but very much the outsider too, in an era that made it more difficult to be one, in many different ways. Born to a religious Jewish family she soon discovered she did not fit and consequently, when young, took off for a life as a bohemian in Greenwich Village. A story almost paralleling my own, except that she’d done it a decade or so earlier. She took up with a black folk singer which explained the photograph, in a time when interracial couples ran far greater risks than they do today. Her love of and, interest in, music, literature and the arts dictated what she was willing to do. Ron, a casual encounter, turned serious when she got pregnant. The rest, as they say, is history.
We talked some more about the program, drugs in this time as opposed to her time, writing, parents and the general meandering conversation you have when you’ve been unexpectedly surprised by someone else. After a few hours went by I said that I had already stayed too long and promised to call her in a day or two. She told me to be sure to bring my work the next time. “What do you think I brought this time?” I replied.
It was a wild ride that I was on with Leslie. I had thought that I was pretty sophisticated and aware of most every strata of life that Manhattan had to offer. I wasn’t.
Soon Leslie had become involved with Project Return. Ron, though interested, indulged his wife’s “passions.” In turn, they introduced Julio and I to a few people who they thought might be interested in our cause, such as Alvin Ailey, who eventually did become a supporter of the program. It also freed Leslie to become more involved with me as well. Having to meet me for lunch or dinner to help promote or sponsor this or that gave her excuses to slip away, almost at will.
During that Christmas, up through the new year and the winter months beyond, she showed me a Manhattan that I never knew existed, much less experienced. She shopped with me in Bergdorf’s, Dunhill and Paul Stuart; dined me at Le Cirque, The Four Seasons and Le Cote Basque and, of course, picked up the tab. We went to dinner at restaurants that had no name and were housed in brownstones where there was no menu and the food was as pampered and exotic as the patrons. I went to art auctions at Southby's and The Met to hear opera and, afterward, she in a gown and I in a suit, to Greenwich Village to hear jazz and eat bacon and eggs at some greasy spoon at four in the morning. I would go downstairs, after work, and Tom, her chauffeur, would be waiting to open the door for me and drive me back to Coney Island. The first time I was surprised, but by the second time I walked into the car like I was paying the tab. One evening, Leslie, bedecked in a floor length fur coat, waited for me inside the limo. On the way home she asked if I knew who’s coat this was. “Yours,” I said.
“Who’s was it before it was mine?” she coyly asked.
“I didn’t think you bought used,” I teased.
“Funny, very funny. No, I’m the first one to wear this, but it was made for someone else.”
“Who?” I asked, playing the game.
“Streisand. This was her coat until three this afternoon. My friend at Bergdorf’s got off the phone with her, and she just decided that she didn’t want it, and I did. Look at what she had them do to the inside.”
I peered as she took the belt off and the coat fell away showing her nakedness. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, smeared with grease and dirt from decades of grime from the exhaust fumes of cars, buses, and diesel trucks, now twinkles as it reminds me of an escapade of excess each time I pass through it.
I was working at my desk at Project Return when the phone rang. I picked it up and found Ron, Leslie’s husband on the other end. The conversation began innocently enough, he telling me how pleased he was that Leslie was so involved with the program and he wanted to thank me. I was somewhat confused and leery, thinking that a shoe was about to drop, but I was wrong. He told me that he had read my work, liked it, and was encouraging his wife to try and help me get it published. To that end, they were arranging a poetry reading at their apartment for a certain date with people they thought could be instrumental in achieving that goal. However, he assured me, Leslie would start making contacts now. I thanked him and said goodbye. I thought of two dozen reasons he had made that phone call to me but, in actuality, will never really know the constellations in another person and how his, or any other life in this life works.
pgs 122-128, From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015