Tuesday, August 18, 2015


My folks were, by now, suspicious. My behavior and appearance looked and sounded all too familiar. While in Lenox Hill Hospital, a friend of the family, the same person who had assisted in getting me into New York City Community College, had recommended a psychologist, Dr. Irving Handelsman. After some prompting I made an appointment. I called and spoke with him, but before I could see him, I would have to take some psychological tests on 86th Street. He’d see me a week after that.

Christmas morning, 1972. Diane had gotten up first to go home and change. We were going to The Palm Court in The Plaza Hotel for brunch and then out to her family’s home in Princeton, New Jersey. I made sure that although I was spending more and more money on junk, I’d have enough to cover the tab at The Plaza. I was running with Raymond on my lunch hours up to Harlem to score. When I couldn’t go with him, he brought the stuff back to me. I got up, lit a Lucky, went into the bathroom, shaved, showered...and fixed. I remember putting on a Billie Holiday album and listening to some of her last recordings on Verve, when she was singing with Ben and Sweets, The Hawk, and the rest, sounding oh so old and young in the same moment. It was rumored that she would have to drink a fifth of scotch just to get her vocal chords to loosen before she could attempt to sing. If you could sing like that, would you make a pact with the devil? Would you be willing to live with that amount of pain in exchange for the jolts of ecstasy that come with living life a few speeds below God? I will never know, of course, what it felt like playing Bird’s alto break on Night in Tunisia, nor Billie’s way of twisting the word love around her tongue and mouth like she invented and owned, not only the existence, but the essence of it. However, I do know something about hitting the right chord with a word or sentence that came from a place I knew nothing of, and that’s magic enough for me. And so, I sat on the corner of the bed and listened while she sang, and I tried to sort out why the love of a beautiful and smart and talented woman, the talent that I obviously had, but just as obviously did not believe in and thwarted, that the friends, the job, the family, was not enough to dissuade me from doing what every fiber and bone in my body was telling me to do: destroy it.
Diane looked lovely when she came back to the hotel. We walked to The Plaza and then into The Palm Court. There is something eerily beautiful on holiday mornings in New York City, especially to those who live here year round with little or no means of escape. It is quiet and respectful. The hotel was decorated in plush reds and greens burnished woods and plants and ferns small and large and larger, Christmas trees and Christmas wreaths as centerpiece and ornament giving one the impression that this was how it looked for as long as The Plaza had been in existence. The attention to detail was still there. The silverware weighed heavy in your hand; the dishes were china, the glass, crystal; the service effusive; the food wonderful and plentiful; the cost...worth it.
We cabbed it to Penn Station and caught the train to Princeton. Her parents, she explained, were “disappointed” with her over her two divorces and lack of a “real job,” which translated into “failure” in their worldview. She needed, in their humble opinion, either by benefit of marriage or her own endeavors, to achieve financial independence and so carve a place in this world that would be a hedge against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. “Jewish guilt or Catholic, what’s the difference?” I thought, they were “all variations on a theme.” Today, however, I felt removed. After all, it wasn’t my family we were visiting. But I was curious to observe the dynamics of this family. For to watch heredity in action is fascinating, even when you don’t know a person very well. However, it’s enthralling when you not only know that person, but love them as well.
I was Woody Allen, to Diane’s Diane Keaton, in Annie Hall that afternoon. I felt like a Jewish caveman coming from the brisket of beef emotionalism of my family to the clipped-edged bread of Diane’s folks. Her father, dressed in a worn cardigan, button down shirt, corduroy slacks and loafers, sat in his old glove of an armchair and hardly turned his head when we came in. You might think he saw his daughter just this morning instead of last Easter. She went over to him, he nodded hello, and allowed her to kiss him on the cheek. He turned his head when she introduced us. I went and shook his hand. I asked him how he was, he said, “Fine, thanks.” and that was that. Her mom was a little more demonstrative and friendly, but not much. As nuts as my parents are, I thought, is preferable to this ice. But what the hell is “preference” in this regard? I “prefer” to get shot by a cannon instead of a bazooka? I “prefer” to get cancer instead of leukemia? Fucked is fucked. Sometimes, our sight is limited to only what we can see.
We stayed as long as was necessary. I don’t remember much about their home, the dinner, the conversation, or the ride back to the train station. Diane and I spoke about our families and how each was crazy in its own way, whether suffocating close and overprotective, or cold, aloof and castigating, each family induced feelings of failure and guilt. Merry Christmas, and pass the heroin, please.

That Tuesday, it rained all day. A cold and dirty New York City rain was falling when I left to meet my father at Handelsman’s office. I asked Diane to come along, though I told her to wait for us at a pub across the street, on Lexington Avenue and 38th Street.
My father was already there, sitting on the edge of a sofa with his back to me, talking with Handelsman. Handelsman saw me and motioned me inside. I took a seat in a swivel chair, at the farthest end from them. He looked like who he was: a retired Naval officer, in his late fifties, of medium height, well built, close-cropped bristle of gray hair on top of penetrating blue eyes. He spoke in short, direct sentences. My father turned to face me. I knew something was wrong. “Norman, no sense in wasting time--your time, my time or your father’s money--I think you should go into a drug program, tonight if possible,” Handelsman said, looking directly at me.
I paused, for effect. “What are you talking about? I’m not using any drugs, what are you talking about?”
“You’re trying to bullshit me and your father, but I’m not buying it and I hope he won’t either. I got your tests back. I’m going to say it again: Immediately, tonight if possible, go into a program, full time, 24 hours a day. It’s the only thing that we’ve seen work with addicts. And you’re an addict, no doubt about that.”
I puffed up, pretending I was egregiously wronged. “Listen, I don’t know why you’re saying that, but I’m not using drugs. I’m smoking some reefer, but I ain’t using dope and I resent you saying I am.”
“Resent it all you want,” Handelsman continued, stone cold sober, looking at me like he could see through me--which, of course, he could. “You’re shooting that shit into your veins right now. The only successful therapy for you is in a program.”
“I’m not going into a program. Why can’t you treat me?”
“I can’t. You’ll come once or twice because you’re curious, or maybe looking for magic, and then stop. You can’t do anything that’s difficult right now, and therapy is difficult. I can’t treat you; you’re simply not old enough. Emotionally, you’re just an infant, not old enough for therapy. But go into a program, complete it, and come back after you’re clean, then I can help you.”
“I’m not going into a program,” I protested. The lights in the room were starting to spin. I could not look in their eyes. My father, who had been staring at me, now turned to Handelsman.
“What should I do doc?” he asked him.
Handlesman faced him squarely and said, “Don’t be an asshole. Do him some good, but most importantly do yourself and the rest of your family some good. Cut him off. He’s been sucking on your tit for too long anyway and as long as your tit is out there and it’s fat with milk he’s going to keep on sucking it until it’s all dried up. He’ll never get any help and will probably die. I can’t make it any plainer than that.” He turned to face me and continued, “Grow up and get some help Norman, then maybe we can do something and you can be something.” With that he stood up.
Outside, I said to my father, “He’s fulla shit. I’m using a little pot, that’s all.”
My father looked long and hard at me and said, “Don’t lie to me willya? Jesus Christ, just don’t lie to me. I feel so stupid. So much like a jerk. You know that expression, Fool me once I’m a fool, fool me twice you’re a fool?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled.
He wanted to say something but stopped short. I thought he wanted to have someone beat the shit out of me like I had seen him do many times to those he caught stealing from him, even those who had worked for him for many years, perhaps, especially them. But all he said was, “The car is parked in a lot a few blocks from here. I’ll drive you back.”
“Diane is with me; I want you to meet her.”
“I’ll get the car and meet you on the corner.” He walked away and for the first time I could detect a slight slouch in his gait.
Diane sat in the back seat on the way to The Navarro. I noticed him looking at her in the rear view mirror. I couldn’t tell if he was attracted to her, impressed, or just wondering why a woman like that was with me to begin with. If one were to look inside the car at the three figures sitting in there, no one would have guessed that we knew each other at all.

My use escalated in proportion to my fear and, I became reckless, going up to Harlem alone and at odd hours. I saw ghosts in doorways, cops in rain gutters, and stickup men and murderers waiting for me around every corner. I felt something was coming and it was coming soon.
One day to the week after the meeting with Handelsman, my parents came to my room. They looked pretty beaten themselves. “Norman,” my father began, “we’re letting you go: no money, no contact with us and especially with your brother. We’ve already sat “Shiva” for you. (“Shiva” is the Jewish word for the period when a family sits in their home for a week mourning the death of a family member.) I, we, your mother, and me want what’s best for you...and for us...always have. We want you to go into a program, but that’s up to you. We just wish you good luck.” They had stood the whole time. Now they both turned and, without saying another word, left.
I was stunned, but to keep from becoming hysterical, I used some of the junk I had stashed in my room. In fact, whether or not they would have cut me off or had given me thousands of dollars would have mattered hardly at all. For alcohol and drugs, by this time, was a prelude to, or an ending for everything. If I felt lousy, I used. If I felt good, I used. In order not to get too high, or too low, I used. I had long ago passed that line of demarcation where chemicals were used to enhance or alter my experiences. Now I used them to not experience, and used heroin because I simply did not want to feel.
But for a moment I panicked. I felt the air was being sucked out of me. I called Areba. They would not even talk to me without a deposit from my father. I called my mother. She told me there was nothing she or anybody else could do, and hung up. After a period of time, I calmed down and tried to figure my next move. My rent was paid through December, another week and half. I’d move in with Diane. I still had stolen merchandise to take back for cash, and I still had a gig. “O.K. don’t panic, you’re cool for a few weeks anyway,” I told myself and further admonished, “Get some fuckin’ backbone, will ya?”
New Years Eve, 1972. I was now out of The Navarro and living with Diane. I’d been able to lie to her for the time leading up to moving in with her about my stopping to use, blah, blah, blah, but I knew, in my heart, that Handelsman was right. I needed a 24 hour residential program to watch my ass constantly if I stood any shot at all at beating this fucking demon, but I also knew that I would not go in anywhere as long as I had a dollar in my pocket, a roof over my head, and a way to go. Steve, my old Seagate buddy, had invited us over to his apartment in Brooklyn, on Shore Road, overlooking the Verranzano Narrows Bridge, that I’d seen being built from my bedroom window in the early 60’s, to celebrate the new year. Neither of us felt much like celebrating, but we went because the alternative of being alone with each other was getting to be worse. I had a few bags of dope which I used before he picked us up and kept one for later. Raymond and I had spoke before about hooking up later in the night. Drug dealers were always more generous on the new year, and we didn’t want to miss what could be dope heaven. So with one foot planted in the past, another in the here and now, and a third waiting until I could make an excuse to leave, I sat and tried to tolerate the next few hours.
It was a small gathering. Donny and Tony and their girlfriends, Steve and his future wife, and Diane and I. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what we spoke about. I just kept watching the time and waiting. Finally, I went into his bedroom and called Raymond. Then, I went over to Steve and told him flatly that I needed to leave to meet someone and get some junk. Donny, seemingly disgusted with what I had turned into, kept his distance. “Fuckem,” I thought. I’d always remembered a line from B. Traven, Morals is the butter for people without any bread. Steve said he’d drive us back. I made no apologies but said “goodbye” and left. Diane, who could not as yet identify, nor articulate what she was feeling, sat beside me and understood that this was what it was, a struggle, a battle of herculean proportions. What she hated was her powerlessness to stop me, her inability to do battle with an inanimate substance that I’d invested with so much power over me, that was larger than this life, a life that was filled with betrayals, insecurities and fears. Steve dropped us off on 23rd Street and sped off. He would have stayed with me all night if I let him. I put Diane in a taxi and walked across the street to Raymond’s building, buzzed twice, buzzed again, and waited.

New Years week, Diane and I went to The Museum of Modern Art, to see an Avedon retrospective. I stared at his picture of Pound, with all those meaty creases in his face, his eyes were mad and beautiful and suffused with grief, fucking grief. I was done. I was just waiting for somebody to stop me. We walked back on this cold January night along Fifth Avenue from 53rd to 91st Street not saying much. There was nothing much to say. I told her how well we fit together, how our hips and flanks rubbed against each other walking and how we were probably thinking the same thoughts. She squeezed my hand tighter. Both of us knew the end was near, but we didn’t know how it would be played out.
The next day at work I noticed shoppers hanging around the book department who seemed “off.” They seemed to be watching me as I went from my register to the back to get change. Some of them who left turned up hours later. I knew it was time to leave. And I did.
Diane came home that day from work to find me in her bedroom shooting junk. Enraged, she slapped my arm that held the syringe. The needle ripped from my vein and landed on the floor. I sprang up and slapped her across the room. It was the worst thing I had ever done to a woman in my life, much less one I loved. I sat down on the edge of the bed and just stared. She came and sat beside me. “Norm,” she almost whispered while stroking my head, “I love you, but you’re going to have to do something. I’ll help you, but it’s you who’s going to have to do it. But, I have to tell you, whatever you decide to do, you can’t do it here.” She went into the bathroom to wash her face. When I heard the water running I went, picked up the syringe, injected the junk into my other arm, and told myself something I’d been saying for many, many years: “Tomorrow.”

Paula, the woman who had told me about Areba at Addiction Services Agency, now told me about programs that were free: Phoenix House, Daytop Village and Project Return. Both Phoenix House and Daytop were 12 to 24 months while Project Return was nine. Phoenix House was still shaving heads (a punitive measure designed to penetrate the denial system of hard core addicts), and Daytop’s therapeutic community was located in upstate New York. Still thinking like an addict, I opted for the shorter program.
Project Return’s storefront was in Hell’s Kitchen, on Ninth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets. Chris Maples, the director of this facility, was a big, white, walrus looking man in his early thirties. He didn’t speak as much as he drawled, like he was from the midwest instead of the city where he’d grown up. The storefront was a small, ugly establishment that, upon entering, had a desk and a few chairs. There was a larger section in the back room that was setup like a classroom with many cheap folding chairs and a blackboard. I sat opposite Chris as he explained how they could arrange a hospital for me to detox in or I could go to a hospital of my choice. Either way I had to come in “clean.” “There’s something else that you should know about, Chris,” I said.
“Lay it on me,” he responded, deadpan. It seemed he had heard it all.
“I’m diabetic; I use insulin, needles, syringes everyday. I need to eat pretty much on time, need certain...”
“Whoa man, hold on a second...wait a minute baby,” he said with his mustache curling into a smile. “You mean to say,” he continued, “that you ate good out there shootin’ dope? You were really picky about what kind of food you’d put in your mouth...and takin’ care of your sickness man, that was a real priority?...are you sayin’ that to me?”
I stammered a bit, felt embarrassed but finally said, “Well, not really, but I do have to eat right, that goes hand in hand with what I have to do and I thought...”
“Yeah, I know what you thought, but don’t think too much--that’s what got you in so much fuckin’ trouble to begin with. We’ll take care of your fuckin’ diabetes man, and the food, well, it ain’t from the fuckin’ 21 Club but you’ll survive. Either you want to do this thing or your bullshittin’ yourself.”
“No man, I ain’t bullshittin’ myself; I just wanna make sure.”
“I know what you’re tryin’ to do, and I know what you’re really trying to do even if you don’t. You want to clean up but you’re gonna make it so hard that you say to yourself, ‘How can I do this man, I gotta take care of myself and this and that bullshit and sooner or later you’re gonna run yourself right out the fuckin’ door man, and into a bag of junk. Now, just get yourself detoxed and we’ll help you do the rest. You won’t eat like you did in the past, but you won’t starve either. And whatever you need, if we don’t have it, we’ll get it. Now get the fuck outa here, and call me when you’re ready to be discharged and I’ll have a staff member pick you up at the hospital. I don’t want you to spend one fuckin’ day by yourself on the street. You got that?”
“Got it. And thanks.”
“Don’t thank me for shit. I did nothin’ to get a thanks for.”
“Then thanks for nothin’.”
“Get the fuck outa here already, and try not to kill your stupid self before you get into a detox.”
I left as the next beaten up, thin, Puerto Rican took my seat at Chris’ desk, and the process began all over again. It was January and it was cold. Junkies had a harder time navigating the streets in the winter. Residential programs might be a pain in the ass, but they usually had heat.
Back at Diane’s, I made two phone calls, the first to a woman who I knew had detoxed a little while ago. She said Mt. Sinai was pretty good. She used the word “pleasant” to describe her stay. The next phone call was to Carol to ask if she was holding any dope. She was, and I went over and got some.
After a weekend of waltzing around each other’s feelings, Monday was almost welcomed, even though it meant I was going to Mt. Sinai to be admitted and Project Return after that. I imagined myself a convict about to turn himself in. I can’t help it. I’m always looking for romance, no matter how mundane and pedestrian the situation is. Besides, living it is always more boring or horrific than remembering it.
Sitting across from the admissions person in the emergency room, I had the distinct feeling that Mt. Sinai did not want to deal with drug addicts. They liked their nuts “shelled” not messy, unpredictable, intractable and “borderline” as drug addicts were generally classified in those days to be, and maybe even now as well. They had an outpatient service for addicts I was told. Quickly, I told the gentleman that only that morning I had been in a train station and imagined myself jumping into the oncoming express. He found a room for me.

They really weren’t equipped to deal with a drug addict. A psychiatric wing in a hospital is equipped to treat with a host of mental illnesses such as the many forms that depression can take, schizophrenia of certain varieties, affective and personality disorders that Jean be part of a chemically dependent persons’ profile. But chemical dependency, if that is the primary disorder, is not something that traditional hospitals were prepared for in 1972. I believe Dr. Otto Kernberg coined the term, “Borderline Personality Disorders.” The border that exists between neurosis and psychosis. I’ve always considered it more than just ironic that artists have defined the internal condition much quicker than scientists have. Maybe Homer predicted it all, but a wonderful saxophone player, Dexter Gordon, who played in “’Round Midnight,” wrote a tune in the 40’s I think titled, “Disorder At the Border,” intuitively felt “borderline.” Dexter, interestingly enough, was a drunk. At that time the professionals had not yet integrated the psychobiology, neurobiology, and the field of psychoanalysis that are now regarded as the cutting edge in treating these disorders. Now there is a scientific basis that during the period, usually preverbal, that the child’s body, in its reaction to stress--whether one traumatic episode or a cumulative series of episodes--in an effort to restore balance, “dissociates” from that stress or “object” and then “splits off” from that object which can, and often times does, result in lifelong patterns of reacting to external and internal stresses. It has been equated to an early condition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Scratch the surface of an addict of any kind, and you’ll more likely than not, find the Janus face of “mom” deep deep into the abyss staring back at you. I wonder if that’s what Nietzshe had in mind. Addicts, as borderline personalities often are, were not good candidates for traditional verbal therapy because of their low tolerance for frustration. They were not, on the whole, very verbal in regard to identifying feelings because their traumas had taken place before they had the ability to speak; a primitive or archaic trauma(s), and usually, when they could identify what they were feeling, ran from it. They were not particularly good candidates for pharmacological interventions because of what drugs did for, and to them. In short, they were a very difficult population for traditional modes of psychotherapy and psychiatry at that time. Mt. Sinai did know enough about addiction to detox me using methadone. The process lasted about a week. Aside from individual therapy with a psychiatric resident and his attending physician, there wasn’t much else with the exception of getting my diabetes under control. My blood sugars were stabilized by keeping me on a restricted diet and, after the drugs started to leave my body, my head cleared. That was a good, and not so good, thing. I felt lighter, faster, but now, in a rush. An addict wants things yesterday, and since they had what I thought then was a “basket-weaving” approach to mental illness, I reasoned I could speed up the process. The sooner I could get out, the sooner I could go through Project Return, and the sooner I could get out, the sooner I could get back with Diane, and the sooner I could do that, the sooner I could get back with my family, and everything would be O.K. In not so many words I told this to the attending psychiatrist assigned to me. He persuaded me that just honoring a three and a half week commitment would be a step in the right direction. I couldn’t argue with him, although his interns also benefited from my decision. Fifteen of them were able to probe a white, Jewish, articulate, college educated dope fiend in sessions lasting an hour at a time. Their inquisitions felt like a beehive of dentists looking for cavities with those little silver hooks. I stared into those scrubbed-faced, bright-eyed interns and saw what a disappointment I must have been to my folks and, twisted role model for my brother. They listened to my story, asked questions, and split. Not even a “thank-you” at the end. I guess they’re used to working on cadavers which, as long as it’s nobody they knew, or love, are free of reciprocity and are, best of all, wordless.
Hospitals in general, and psychiatric wings in particular, are fascinating places. Our minds are so eccentric and so wonderfully misshapen that lending, or trying to lend, order to them so that they might function in a disordered, irrational, inchoate world leads, most directly, to many complications. I had the chance to see, and in some instances get close to, other patients struggling for equilibrium in this topsy-turvy world. There was beautiful Valerie, a fifteen year old who had the body of a ballerina, a mind of her own, and a wildness of will. Coming from divorced Park Avenue wealth, she’d had a history of running away and finding men in bars who would take her home, fuck her, and throw her out. Brad, a sixteen year old, acne faced introvert, also from divorced Fifth Avenue old money, found men to seduce and then hurt him, and had come down from a preparatory school near Saratoga, to play havoc with his body and family. Mr. Patrick, a grizzled sixty year old who, when I first met him, couldn’t talk and had to be fed by the orderlies and, after many shock treatments, began to see a curtain lift. The others wore paper slippers and did the “ol’ thorazine shuffle,” where they’d walk along, holding a railing, spit dribbling down their chins, not knowing, or caring, where they were or why they were there. And there was Carol, twenty something, who fucked interns, residents, doctors, orderlies, nurses, and anything else that showed a pulse. She had tits I wished the horses I’d bet on had for noses. We laughed and sang and tried to sort through the mess that we found ourselves in. We all walked through the same fire, but our flesh burned differently. Some people never see this side. What boring lives they must lead.
My fantasies, before sleep would claim me, were, as I view them now, childish, grandiose, bourgeois, and, finally, when all is said and done, delusional. The only thing now that keeps my embarrassment at bay is that it was simply the truth. And to me, as I recall and recollect, touching. It took a lot of work for me to be able to say that now, but at that time I’d imagine myself strong, healthy and responsible. Responsible to my diabetes, and responsibly concerned for my family. I’d imagine myself going into Project Return and coming out the other side with the riches of the world before me. I’d be driving a Porsche again, with Diane beside me, as we’d tool through a countryside, bucolic and inviting, my accomplishments, fused and translated into status and stature. I’d have the respect of artists, and the notoriety that accompanies success on the grandest of stages. I’d make up for the terrible anguish I had put the people who loved me through. We’d all be together again, this time out of love and desire and not out of a need that bordered on sickness. It does not make me proud to say that, but this work would be a lie if I didn’t.
Besides a young do-gooder social worker, who kept persisting that she be allowed to get in touch with my parents to facilitate a “constructive dialogue” between us and whom I had to tell that should she get in touch with them without my permission I would find her and strangle her in the night and probably get away with it since I happened to be in a “fuckin’ nut house” at the time, I had a pretty good stay at Mt. Sinai. Besides using the time to heal emotionally, there was a gym upstairs that allowed me to physically heal and get stronger as well.
February is Diane’s birthday month. She visited me on a frigid evening, looking beautiful and wearing a coat she loved, a fur, three quarter length, very elegant. Eyes followed her wherever she went, but on this night there was an added sensuality that made you, whether man or woman, consciously or not, follow her sight and scent until they no longer registered. We walked into my room where I kissed her lightly and wished her a happy birthday. She took my hand and led me into the bathroom, closed the door, and leaned her back against it. I smiled as she untied the belt and slipped the fur from her shoulders. There was nothing else to undo after that.
The day before I left, I spoke with Chris Maples at Project Return, and arranged for a staff member to be there when I got discharged. I didn’t want to give myself one day out on the street. I thanked some people for what they had done for me, gave out and took some phone numbers, and left. Maxwell, a young black staff member, accompanied me to the Induction Facility on Forty-Eighth street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. But first, before getting there, we stopped for a hamburger; the first real food I had had for three and a half weeks and the last real food I would have for months.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment