Thursday, August 20, 2015



"I guess nothing ever works for us. we’re fools of course--
bucking the inside plus a 15 percent take,
but how are you going to tell a dreamer
there’s a 15 percent take on the
dream? he’ll just laugh and say,
is that all?..."

In the program, we had learned the concept: “Act As If,” which meant that even if you don’t “feel” something positive, “act as if” you do and that positive feeling will eventually assimilate into your being. So, as I dragged my bag, and ass, up 43rd Street to Madison Avenue, in the sweltering New York City heat, I “acted as if” I was “cool,” strong, directed, and assertive. I kept fingering the thirty-five cents I had in my pocket, lest I should lose it.
Sweat had begun to pour off me by the time the bus came. I deposited the thirty-five cents and took a seat between two sweating people. Without air conditioning, you had the discomfort of sticking to their flesh as you tried to slide between them. I looked around at the people riding with me. I knew no one, yet I knew them all. I imagined I carried the stigma of being an X-addict. I felt I had a huge X in the middle of my forehead. I looked at my bag of clothes, the track marks on my arms, and thought of another Project Return slogan: “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”
Diane lived on the top floor of a brownstone in a once quiet, but now fashionable section of the city, on Madison Avenue between 91st and 92nd Street. The burgundy carpet and wood banisters were aged, the carpet shorn, the wood banisters scarred and burnished; the stairs smelled musty as memories crept through my nose, as I climbed up the five flights. If this was new, what was old?
Diane was nervously skittering around the apartment when I opened the door. She was very obviously trying to busy herself and not think too much about what was to come next. It was the kind of moment that I’d had all too often where the distance between me and a person I loved was represented by ice, so thin, that the slightest weight upon it would cause fissures and breaks. They’d begin from the core and spread, web-like, to the parameters of the frozen water. I would, with a certain amount of excited trepidation, place my foot gently upon the surface until the first sound birthed from my heel preceding my toes’ rupture of form. It’s interesting to note that I loved both the crunch and the squiggles of aborted lines my weight produced.
She turned around when she heard me enter. Her hands fluttered to her face and made a gesture of welcome, while her smile belied the apprehension in her heart. She was far too well schooled and gracious to allow another to feel her misgivings and doubt. I dropped my bag and went to her, took her face in my hands, and kissed her. There are many things you try to do in any given kiss. This kiss had too many messages. Trying to simplify, and perhaps obscure, what those messages were, I led her into the bedroom and said, “I told you I was going to get a pass this weekend.” We made love in the summer heat for what seemed like a long time. It was very hot, and we perspired freely. Spent, we lay there and allowed the air to cool our bodies.
She had an old brass bed, fluffed with lace and pillows. We ate our tuna fish sandwiches and drank coffee on it. It tasted like the most exotic fare to me. I smoked a cigarette while we listened to Miles play with Trane, Bye Bye Blackbird. I felt I had gone to heaven. We showered, dressed and went for a walk on Fifth Avenue. The sense of freedom I had was intoxicating. It was one of those rare times when I could laugh simply because someone had thin legs, or dressed in the most incongruous way, and children looked astonished slurping ice cream cones which dripped on their shirts, which were splattered with chocolate, strawberry and dirt which now looked like a Pollock painting. My dick got hard because a breeze blew against my pants or the material against it aroused me. My nipples grew erect because the fingers that nestled in the crook of my arm belonged to someone who was just in my bed and I’d brought the bed outside, and it moved with me. I thought we made a fine couple. We were nearly the same height, our hips moved together, bumping and grinding, while my arm went around her back and my hand rested casually on that wonderful space, her hour-glassed curve, between her hip and rump. She’d say that she should have been born during the Victorian period. Her body and spirit told her so.
She said that she felt we were “soul-mates” destined to return as brother and sister. I gave her a copy of Cocteau’s, Les Enfants Terribles, which served to excite her and prove her point. I had a few misgivings. That kind of intimacy unnerved me. In fact, “intimacy” was something I wanted only on my own terms. I moved closer, or further away, at my discretion only. Should the other person ask for, much less demand, more of me in ways that I could not easily define, or made me uncomfortable, I was usually, and quickly, “in the wind.” What dictated my ability to get closer to another human being, in this case a woman, was need, most often my own. A neurotics dream is always empty. It cannot be filled by anything tangible. I can remember many months from where we are now in this story, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, after having made love to Diane, I lit a cigarette and called either my father or Julio, the founder of Project Return, about some inconsequential bullshit. After I hung up the phone she said to me, “Why after we make love do you have to call a man up?”
I looked at her a bit dumbfounded and replied, “I don’t know. I never thought about that before.”
“Well, maybe you should. Maybe you should think about it.”
I looked down at the floor, not really wanting to meet her eyes. An anger, born out of embarrassment, crept up around my chest, and I felt my face flushing. I took a drag off my cigarette and tried to think of a way to squirm out of her apartment. I didn’t think of that moment until I began writing this book. Prior to that afternoon, Diane, because of who she was, tried to possess me in ways that I simply was not ready for and, in fact, frightened the shit out of me. I was tethered to invisible entities. I could not articulate that then and did not have the faintest notion of that truth. What I did know was that Diane and I were just beginning to know each other without the cushioned barrier that narcotics supplied. In these last fifteen years, I have seen more relationships end because one partner stopped using the drug or drinking the booze that either started or solidified the union. Consequently, much of the behavior, attitudes, and needs that attenuate that lifestyle ceases. The union, in essence, is worse than new. It is now without the old comforts that memory suggests. Life without the anesthetic is a motherfucker. Lois Wilson, the wife of Bill Wilson who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, is known to have said, “Giving up drinking is easy; it’s life that’s hard.”
We returned to her apartment near sunset. The sunlight coming into her windows had that blood red glow as it washed over the room. I sat in the kitchen and watched Diane brew some tea. “Norman, do you think you really did the right thing by leaving?” she asked with her back to me.
“I do, yes, emphatically, yes,” I quickly responded.
“You don’t think you should have...”
“No, I don’t. Don’t worry, I know what I’m going to do. I thought of it while we were walking,” I lied. I felt it would come to me any second.
She turned around to face me, waiting for an answer. I tried to buy some time by patting my knee for her to come and sit in my lap. She obliged. I put my arm around her waist and cupped the underside of her breast. “Don’t start,” she said, and laughed. “You don’t know what the Hell you’re going to do, do you?”
I looked up into her face, smiled and shook my head. She bent down to where my face was and kissed me softly on the lips.
“Don’t panic,” I said trying to sound upbeat and confident, “whatever you do, don’t panic. We’re going to get through this weekend just fine. We’ll go out, eat something, see a movie, come back, get The Times and boom, it’s Sunday. Sunday, we’ll go for a walk get something to eat, maybe see another movie; keep busy, ya know? We’ll keep busy and then it’s Monday. Monday I’ll go see my uncle and borrow some money, maybe a hundred and get a hack license. I’ll drive a cab. I need a job right away and that’s the quickest and easiest thing I can think of doing, plus I make a couple of bucks in tips everyday and can start paying my own does that sound?”
“Whew! You can really bullshit when the chips are down, can’t you?”
“Part of my charm. It goes with that envious blues feeling.”
She got up and I slipped my hand under her dress. She gave me one of those “you got to be kidding” looks.
“Hey, without the dope my dick’s like a propeller.”
“Polanski’s movie just opened today, The Tenant. We can eat at that little Italian place that we like and go to an early show.”
“Polanski? Sounds good to me.”
“Maybe you can shut down the engine for a few hours or fly on automatic pilot?”
“Coupla hours? I can do that on my head.”

Monday morning I went to a cab company on Eleventh Avenue and 60th Street to inquire if they’d sponsor me for a hack license. You needed a company’s signature to get the process moving. I saw the shape of some of the other potential employees who joined me. It seemed they’d sponsor a dead person if they thought they could drive. At that time, a beginning driver got 47% of the meter for the first six months plus tips. This was still a time in New York City when, even owners, were somewhat human. My next stop was Uncle Stretch, a relative I never liked much.
Stretch became a very wealthy man after he turned forty. A frustrated actor, ladies man, and bon vivant, he reminded me of Willie Loman’s brother in Death of a Salesman. Stretch went into the real estate jungle, bit some flesh, nibbled the edges of legitimacy, got the right people drunk, or laid, or both, and came out a rich man. He never let you forget it either. Although he never let you forget much of anything, even when he was poor. “You O.K. kid?” he asked as I walked in. I knew he knew I was no longer in the program. I was no longer somebody else’s problem.
“Yeah, Stretch, I’m fine,” I replied, the words sticking in my craw. When I didn’t like someone, it was real hard to ask them for anything, not impossible, just hard.
“What can I do for you?”
“You can lend me a hundred ‘til I get a hack license.”
He eyed me suspiciously and said, “You sure it’s for that?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“No fuckin’ around?”
“Hey Stretch, if I was fuckin’ around I wouldn’t have come to you, would I? So, please, don’t make me feel like a schmuck. I’m askin’ you for a hundred when I know you’re carrying a lot more than that, and, if I’d asked you for more, you’d give it to me.”
He took out a roll from his pocket, peeled off two fifties and handed them to me. “Can I buy you lunch?”
“Gimme another hundred and I’ll buy you lunch.”
As he was laughing, I turned around and left saying, “Thank you,” over my shoulder.
I went to Long Island City to go through the process for my interim license, a written test and physical examination.
The written test was a breeze: Where’s the Empire State Building? (sticking out your ass, I thought) and other toughies like that. I was a little worried about the physical though. My arms hadn’t completely healed and there was the matter of my diabetes. I decided to hope, and lie. Fortunately, the doctor was young when Broadway was a prairie. He never looked at my arms, and when he asked if I had any of this or that, I just did what Nancy Reagan advised, “Just Say No.” They stamped a few papers, I paid a fee and went back to the cab company. The dispatcher told me I could begin the next day. I had a job.
I chose the early shift: In by 7 a.m. off at 4. I drove a Checker cab. It was fun in the city and shook like a sonofabitch on the highway, but even that was a hoot. In even the best of circumstances, dealing with the public is hard, but dealing with the public in scorching, humid, New York City traffic, where the pollution and heat are beyond belief can, at times, be suicidal. On the other hand, driving again was a kick, and some passengers were eccentric and/or interesting, and somehow it gets to be 3:30 and you put on your “Off Duty” sign and made it in. Your shirt was soaked, the passengers have blurred into a stew of shoulders and faces, but there’s money in your pocket and you’re on your way home. You’ve worked, and worked hard. There’s a sense of accomplishment, and money in your pocket to prove it.
I was smarter this time around. I was more protective of myself. That first week I called Julio in his office. He took my call and registered his disappointment but told me to come by or call anytime if I felt the need. It reassured me that the president of the program told me not to be a stranger. It wasn’t like white, money hungry Areba, who had to have a deposit before saying “Hello.” I walked through Central Park listening to the thumping rhythm of conga players and smelling the sweet aroma of boo.

Compulsion to me, in large measure, is seduction, and being seduced, is very pleasurable, even if the end result is misery and pain. If I were given a penicillin shot as a kid and had had an allergic reaction to it that brought me very close to death, or had nearly dried up all my tear ducts, as so often happens, I doubt I would fantasize about my next injection, but I’ll be goddamned if I don’t walk by a liquor store, or drug store, or hospital, and don’t stare a little too long at the displays in the window, or wonder what kind of prescription the person in front of me is filling, or think about all those lovely medications that are inside the confines of locked cabinets in hospitals. Even the simple act of lighting a cigarette can be fraught with seduction. The smell of burning sulfur, after the match is struck, reminds me of cooking up dope. At the beginning, when you’re clean from drugs, everything, or nearly everything, reminds you of when you were getting high: the streets you walk down, the connections on the corners and in houses, neighborhoods, times of day when you usually scored, episodes of eluding cops and muggers, routes that you took going to and coming from. Manhattan was one network of subterfuge. And you miss that too; you miss the drama. But Diane didn’t miss that drama and had a hard time understanding why I did. What she (and I) didn’t know is how much I was drawn to a life of fantasy; how even the love between two people, when stripped of its most fevered and childlike dimensions, implies work.
I really didn’t want to think about too much except getting up in the morning and driving a cab and staying away from drugs, which didn’t include alcohol.
I should say, that at this juncture in my life I didn’t include alcohol as a drug, hence a substance to avoid using. In fact, Therapeutic Communities gave those they were treating, ”drinking privileges” when they, at a certain point, demonstrated behavior and took on responsibilities that clearly indicated their commitment to drug and/or narcotic abstinence which preceded their reentry into society. Even the federal and state governments in funding treatment programs made a strict delineation between alcoholics and drug addicts, never equating the two. Today, however, those agencies are aligned to a great extent and, even in some quarters, given equal billing. Therapeutic Communities these days no longer give drinking privileges and, in fact, strongly suggest that their graduates attend AA and/or NA meetings.
It was enough for me to get up in the morning, go to work, come home and be with Diane. I needed my life to be simple and she was complicating it, goddamn her. She wanted to get married. She must be crazy, I said to myself but to her I said, “Now’s not the time.” I was so conscious about slipping back into the abyss of addiction that I talked about drugs all the time. So much so, it must have seemed to Diane as if I was still using and, in that regard, I still was. I was caught in the fear that only those who have rewired their neural networks understand and, in a perverse way, have come to love. But, marriage!? Christ, it scared the shit out of me. I knew, or thought I had an inkling of what her motivations or anxieties were, and in a pique of righteous outrage, did not care to talk about much less consider them. I asked her what the rush was. I asked her to give me some time to ground myself. In the moments that it takes to get a thought fleshed out, I ran a few hundred scenarios through my mind that sprung from fear and need. I didn’t want to lose her, and I needed a place to stay. I wanted to negotiate this, stall for time, make her see my side and join me there; anything, but make a decision. Besides, as long as I was staying clean, working and taking care of myself physically, I was doing a hell of a good job for both of us, I righteously felt. Also, the fact that I was not fooling around with anyone else should be enough to signify my commitment to her. Well, some days it was, and some days it wasn’t. She too had her own time table. In those days, I hated those who had a different schedule than my own. I wanted every person, every star, planet, organism, and god, secular or heavenly, to understand and conform to my needs, especially when I thought they were so humble and virtuous. It turns my stomach to say it, but I was something of a misguided idiot when it came to putting my values, my ideas, my desires, my needs, my my my what a jerk I could be. Diane would have to cope with her anxieties the same way I was, alone. It mattered not one iota that it was she who stuck by me, fed me, housed me, and tried to understand me. The poet in me said to her, “I’ve got nothing, and I want to share it with you,” and she loved me for that. I had not come to the point in my thinking, or had yet realized and understood, that although we are alone with our share of pain, loneliness, confusion and fear, a union of two can, if strong, provide a sanctuary, a hedge against the war that is fought within and without.
When reasonably healthy, there wasn’t a grateful bone in my body. In fact, I could be, and in many instances was, a first class prick. I didn’t feel myself as “needy;” I felt like I had my balls back; and I was frisky. I probably scared the hell out of Diane. The more independent I felt, the more I distanced myself from her. Like a child, curious with his own image, and entranced by the spaces around him, I felt the need to explore. We had reached that point where arguments--a carousel of angry horses--were as predictable as death, with language, simmering with accusations, anger, and the bluish black hue of gangrene: “You did this, so I did that.” “Well, I only did that because you already had done this.” “I wouldn’t have done that if only you were listening to me, but you really wanted to do that anyway, so be honest.” “That’s a lie; you’re just lying.” “Shut up already, just shut up.”
“Can’t we have a conversation?” she’d say, “can’t we ever talk?”
“This ain’t talking, this is finger pointing time and I ain’t gonna buy into it. I’m getting out of here.”
“That’s just like you. You never stay around long enough to resolve anything. Either you leave, or just stop talking.”
When I knew she was right I had no stomach to fight. I had an inclination to run. I have always thought that the truth was very much like answers: over rated. A person is only able to deal with certain things at certain times. Anything else, overloads the circuits. We had a stalemate, but a stalemate to me meant looking for an out, not another game with the same player. I still did not have the capacity to work with, and through, the net of lace and steel that constitute the filaments of another person. And so we fought and made love; fought some more and made love. It began getting too crazy, frustrating, and threatening for me. I called Julio and made an appointment.

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked me, a Marlboro pursed in his lips, underneath his neatly trimmed mustache.
“Split,” I answered.
“Where?” he inquired. I could see light dancing in his eyes.
“Shit, I don’t know man, that’s why I came to see you.”
“Well brother, you can’t live me with. I love you dearly, you know that, but shit, Linda would have my balls. She has them anyway, but I spoke with your father...”
“Yeah?” my ears pricked up.
“You know, he can use you now. He lost a lot of bread with that store in Queens, man. He needs someone he can trust. Not forever, but for now. How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t know, man,” I replied, but I lied. I wanted to go home. I wanted to get away from Diane. I wanted to prove I wasn’t such a fuck-up to him, with him.
Julio, besides being a superb administrator, was, without formal training, a brilliant clinician when it came to the drug addicted. He read me like a book, but he knew how a decision needed to be arrived at independently. He let me digest the desire, feel the fear, and assimilate the emotions. Then he said, “I think you can handle it. Besides, I think it would be good for you in a variety of ways. You’ll be busy from morning to night, and he’s smarter now and understands more about you and himself. You understand more too about your shit and his. And brother, workin’ for him “straight” would relieve some that fucking “guilt” you feel.” He paused then continued, “I’ll call him.”
I went back and sheepishly told Diane. It wasn’t easy. She saw me as another man leaving her. I told her that it wasn’t so. It just meant I was going back home for awhile to try to build a better foundation than driving a cab could provide. We’d still see each other as often as we could, but staying like we were would only disrupt our relationship further, possible destroy it. I didn’t want to do that and neither did she.
“One day you’re going to have to stay someplace, with someone, long enough to work out and through the difficulties,” she said.
“I know, I know,” I replied, but I really didn’t know and couldn’t really hear what she was saying. I had one foot out the door and the other foot in Brooklyn. She didn’t stay while I was packing.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment