Friday, August 28, 2015



"No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car."
--W.C. Williams

The blizzard was on its way, although it was still October of 1979. Trendy bars are one of the country’s social barometers, and I was working in one of them. Rumblings of the storm began in the men’s room, spread to the women’s john, made it’s way into the kitchen and finally, to the table tops and bar proper. First, spoken about in whispers and, later when it had gained the arrogance of the heavens’ participation, shouting its’ preeminence over the lesser pretenders to the social circle of wealth and power. Cocaine was coming to a theater near you.
If I had been watching I’d have noticed plenty of signs to indicate I had lost my bearings and the demons were slinking in. The drinking was obvious. My sarcasm and anger which masqueraded as irreverence and humor, black as that might be, took over. A willingness to entertain, at first, those who offered me reefer and drugs, in lieu of cash, as tips after a night of alcohol was a sign, but I had finished, A Case of Insanity and that, if nothing else, persuaded, or deluded me, into thinking that all was right with the world.
My brother was moving back to Brooklyn sometime before Christmas, leaving me to rent his apartment, as illegal as that might be, for as much as the traffic would bear. An apartment to rent, in the heart of Greenwich Village, was like having “the letters of transit” in Casablanca: I would never be lonely again. It also would bolster my cash flow, enabling me to work as much, or as little, as I wanted, and concentrate on my writing and it’s aftermath, selling the script.
Oren & Aretsky’s was getting almost ridiculously out of control. Indeed, the inmates were running the asylum. One evening, as Kenny and John were counting the night’s receipts and I was tallying the liquor count for the day bartender to replace the booze that was poured, they exclaimed that they were two hundreds dollars short. They recounted twice and still came up with that exact amount. We knew we were stealing of course but were very crafty about it. There was no way we could have been off by two hundred bucks. We huddled around the register and looked at each other, befuddled. John, after drinking most of the later part of the evening and who could best be described at being three sheets to the wind, gazed into the register, seemingly trying to study it’s secrets. Then, with bloodshot eyes and all the seriousness he could command, looked at us and said, “Maybe we should count the dimes again?” Kenny and I looked at each other in utter amazement, poured John another and poured ourselves a hefty drink as well and left, leaving it for the bookkeeper to sort out. The two owners knew that some of their profits were going south, but that was really par for the course in the saloon business. However, they wanted to know “how much” was on I-95 heading for warmer climes. They hired Ron, an exceptionally handsome and charming guy in his mid-thirties, as manager. He was given the responsibility of running the saloon and taking a complete inventory. Ron, a few days after coming on board, announced to the staff, and especially the bartenders, when the inventory would take place. In effect, he told us what side of the street he was on and, essentially, gave us license to steal. In fact, the day before the count was to begin, Ron, long before there were SUV’s, pulled up in an old station wagon and loaded many bottles of Champagne, wine, and liquor, which, I’m pretty sure, stocked his home for many months to come. The fox, once again, was guarding the hen house.
Ron was a friend with one of the great characters I’d ever met, Ray Garcia. Ray was the maitre d' of Tavern On the Green, the legendary restaurant located in Central Park. Ray once told me he was good for well over two grand a week in cash. He’d arrive at my bar late at night, have a Remy, leave between twenty and forty dollars on the bar for a tip and be gone. He was a charismatic Latino, who wore elegant tuxedos, black patent leather shoes, but no socks, ever. I knew his game, and he knew mine. We liked each other from the start.

I’d sit in my chair, or lie in my bed, and fantasize about all the things my screenplay would bring me if I sold it. Money and power of course played prominently in my mind though those were least in importance, while identity and retribution were. All those who’d fired me, doubted me, cursed me, and helped to make me feel worthless, were the powerful elixirs that fueled my flights of fancy. When I was much younger and watched The Roy Rodgers Show on TV, I wanted to be adopted into what appeared to be a loving family who’d not only accepted but championed life’s differences. Roy and Dale had adopted children from all over the world to be one harmonious whole, or so I then thought. I wanted to create a similar family, albeit with adults, from the proceeds earned selling my screenplay. However, my fantasies were far narrower, less forgiving, juvenile, controlling, rage and fear-based. I wanted the same type of outcast as myself, who was literate, artistic, funny, melancholy, and forlorn and, who conformed to a similar and fractured philosophy that informed me, to view me as their savior. It was only those people who’d drink from the goblet of my success. For the others, I had nothing but contempt. In reality, it was me who wanted to be saved.
It was not the quality of my dreams, but the reality of my drinking that led me back into the offices of Dr. Bernstein. The nights and days that I was working were laced with Chivas during the shift and Martel Cordon Bleu, after I got off. The nights that I was off found me in The Cedar, drinking with a friend or two. However, I did not believe I was an alcoholic. In fact, that thought never crossed my mind, and why should it. I never woke up in the morning craving, or needing a drink nor, if days went by without a drink, was I required to inebriate myself. Emotionally, however, I was a textbook example of alcoholism, drug addiction, or most any substance abusing disorder. I was doing what any escape artist did; free myself from the day-to-day grind. Tragedy or crisis, I’d prefer to take “straight-up.”
I sat in Bernstein’s waiting room thinking what I was going to tell him. The words that formed in my mind were half-truths. I could not be totally honest with him or anyone else for that matter. I felt depressed, irritable, and slightly paranoid. I should have been there for a lie detector instead of blood test. I, no matter how good my initial intention, was playing hide and seek with the truth. I was scared in fact to tell him, or anyone else for that matter any part of the truth, as I knew it. If I did that, he could very well suggest (demand) that I give up the booze and I thought I’d probably stand no shot at getting any kind of medication that might soothe my nerves and make me forget who I was for a little while. I was the only one who knew some of the recesses of my mind that I was hiding in, and I was not about to give myself up.
Sitting in his examination room, I tried to concentrate on his map on the wall of all the fish in North America. The closest I had ever been to a fish was in Lundy’s, a seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay. There’s not that much to engage your mind within an examination room except yourself. Shit, anything but that. Bernstein came in and all the dramatic dialogues I had had since I made the appointment evaporated. I tried to think of nothing. Nothing’s wrong; nothing to worry about; nothing I can do now.
Bernstein looked as he always did, handsome and healthy. He extended his hand, and we shook. “How are you?” I asked first, trying to perhaps make him the patient. It didn’t work.
“I’m fine,” he said and smiled. “How are you?”
“I’m O.K. Pretty good. Hangin’ in.”
“Is this a multiple choice test?” he quipped, and added, “I haven’t seen you in awhile. What have you been doing with yourself?”
I told him about the bars, and the screenplay, and the drinking. He looked at me and listened without the air of judgment I felt he, or anyone in positions like his, would have. He considered what I said and then, without commenting on what he heard said, “Let me examine you and then we’ll talk.” He took an unusually long time in checking my vital signs and then examined me some more. He called in a nurse to draw blood and after she was finished I got dressed and waited to be called into his consultation office.
Sitting opposite him I expected to hear the worst. “I don’t like the way you look,” he began, “your blood sugar was somewhat high, nearly three hundred; high, but not alarming. What concerns me is your overall physical appearance. Your pallor is sallow, not what it had been and you appear pretty nervous.”
“Well I am nervous. I’ve been working pretty hard like I told you before. I know I’ve got to cut down on the drinking.”
“Well the drinking could be a contributing cause, and it is a concern. If you need to see anyone I could make a recommendation.”
“No, no I don’t need to do that. No, I don’t need you to do that. I’ll cut down and see what happens,” I said, eager to ingratiate myself and wrap this up.
“I’d like to read your screenplay. You know I’m a fan.”
“Yeah, absolutely. And thanks. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, I’d like to see you back here in a month.”
“Yes, sure O.K.” I stood up and we shook hands. It was a good while longer than a month before I saw him again.

There’s an emptiness or depression that settles in after I complete a major writing project. It must be similar to postpartum depression that women experience. You’ve gone to sleep and awakened with your characters. You’ve worried over what they feel and how they’re feeling. In some cases you’ve experienced, with them, nearly their whole lives. A void remains where people once were if you’ve done your job properly. I tried to force myself to do things that would fill up my time, even going into work two or three hours early, just to be someplace where I wasn’t alone. As long as I could hear voices, see or detect movement, I was calmed to a certain extent.
Jean and I were seeing more of each other. She had wanted to break off her relationship with a man she called Jeff. She said that he was not the kind of man to anger by doing something he could not tolerate. I didn’t really understand that but made no demands on her. I was trying to psyche myself up to type, print, and push my screenplay. I was also becoming more aware through therapy that I could no longer work off my anger toward women through either sleeping with or manipulating them. My fantasies for revenge and retribution were not directed at women at all, I thought, but men. It was men, and the institutions made by men, that I wanted to break through and/or destroy. But I was wrong: I was an equal opportunity hater.

Christmas time in New York City, 1979, ‘tis the season to be angry. My anger, perhaps hatred, was directed toward anyone having a good time, shoppers carrying the tiny mittened hands of children, families planning their holiday reunions, The Salvation Army, Santa and his helpers, reindeer, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, gifts, Christmas trees and bells. I wanted nothing to do with that stuff. At the bar, I would fantasize poisoning the drinks of those who mentioned the upcoming festivities. And then I heard from Brasz.
Brasz, who could give less of a shit about anything that smacked of religion, wanted to come up from New Orleans and spend the Christmas recess with me. He was feeling particularly miserable himself, having just gotten divorced for the second time, and hadn’t, up to this point, received much commercial success with his paintings. I welcomed the company even though my pad was so small you had to go outside to change your mind. In fact, I awaited his arrival like a man drowning who sees a life preserver coming his way.
It didn’t take us long to catch-up with one another. In a sense, he was much more honest with me than I with him. He laid out his divorce without embroidering it nor reveling in it. C.T., Cecil Taylor, whom Brasz saw before coming to my place, had, he said, penetrated his defenses by saying to him that, “he had brutalized his young wife.” He meant emotionally, not physically. He expressed a desire to return to New York City and begin putting the pieces of his life back together, away from the South and the life he’d had there. “It’s up here, Savage,” he said, “the art, the painting, you, my friends, family even. I just want to get back here. I’m tired of the scene down there.” I nodded my head and told him, without telling him too much, about the last couple of years and what I was doing now. I touched on the high points, the screenplays, bar scenes and women, including Jean, the newest woman on the horizon. I saved my failures and drinking for last. I casually mentioned to him that I thought it would be better, better for my diabetes, not to mention my imagination, if I smoked a little pot instead of drinking so goddamn much. Brasz, not liking alcohol to begin with, quickly concurred...if I could control it. After so many years of not smoking pot, I didn’t think it would be a problem I told him, knowing I was lying as the words were coming out of my mouth.
We were supposed to meet his parents at a nearby restaurant. His parents, especially his mom, were pretty hip when it came to pot, and we had plenty of time. Brasz, at that time, smoked reefer constantly. He went to his suitcase, opened it, and produced a bag of pot and rolling papers. He deftly rolled a joint, lit it, and handed it to me. In the time it takes to blink your eyes, almost seven years of abstinence was inhaled, then expelled. The high hit me in seconds. In a minute or so, I became afraid and started to feel the onset of an insulin reaction. I felt shaky, disorganized, paralyzed and weak with fear. Brasz, who was watching me, must have seen how white, sweaty, and blood-drained I was and asked if something was wrong. I asked him to get me a Coca-Cola. I gulped it down and felt better, but not much. I knew, however, that the sugar was in my system, which calmed me down. I never did meet his parents that night. He told them that I’d gotten sick, which was already, “old news.”
“What else did you bring?” I asked him the next day. He hesitated for a moment and then told me he had brought up some coke as well. I thought about that for less than a minute, then tried a little of that, too.

It is somewhat unfair to place Brasz at that place in time that was to serve as the beginning of yet another run. No one can stop anyone from doing what they are hell bent to do. The ones who do stop, I believe, are either those who really want to be stopped or are bullshitting to begin with. Nobody put anchors on my arms and forced me to shoot drugs. No one forced my mouth open and made me guzzle booze down it. Drugs and booze, though they whisper, talk, or shout out to you, are inanimate. Whatever life, will, and power they possess, you, and only you, impose it. You have to pick them up, and embrace them. You have to fool with them. You have to love them. You. Anybody who says differently is either lying, or has never been in love.
If it wouldn’t have been Brasz, it would have been someone else, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. Someone across the bar would have said something, left something and I, saying “fuck-it” or a variation of that hyphenated form of defeat or emotional surrender, would’ve taken the bait, accepted the “tip” and taken off from there. It would be too easy to assign blame to those friends or family members who either condoned, helped me and, in some instances, purposely lit the fuse. At certain points in my life I was weaker than others. All the nuts and bolts, all the Fox locks, Medico locks and Fichet locks were unscrewed or unscrewing. The demons, once handcuffed inside my stomach, were slithering through.
Jean knew nothing of my past or present actions. I wanted it that way and would fluff off her questions about my drinking or drug usage. She wasn’t the type of woman who asked for, much less demanded, explanations for a person’s behavior. Either she’d accept it, or leave. She wanted to “do” for whomever she committed herself to. Many people mistake “kindness” for “weakness.” I’m one of those people. Actually, Jean cared too much about the person she loved and not enough about herself. She was self-effacing to the point of it being destructive for herself and, in this instance, me as well. However, some relationships go past the point of no return almost immediately. Each represent something else to the other and the other has absolutely little or no idea at the time what that might be.
Jean had access, through her soon to be ex-boyfriend, to top quality drugs, specifically reefer and coke. Many times in the past, I’ve known women who had the same conduit open for them. These drugs were given to them as gifts, to do with what they wanted. In this instance, however, they were certainly not gifts. In fact, they were fraught with danger. When the subject came up, I didn’t want to appear too excited, fearful of her withdrawing her offer. What I did say was that I could use the cocaine for my rewriting and typing and the pot for creativity and a way of leveling out the coke. I was lying of course, but say something long enough and you begin to hear a smattering of truth and, a short time later, you believe it’s gospel.
During my years of abusing drugs, cocaine had little appeal to me. Occasionally, I mixed it with junk. That was called, “speed balling,” going up and down, like a roller coaster, but I never went out of my way to do that. In fact, I thought it a waste of time, not to mention money. Cocaine was known as “a rich man’s drug” for good reason. The high lasted twenty to thirty minutes, leaving you wanting more, immediately. That was good, while the money lasted, which, in most instances, was not very long, while with one blast of heroin it was, “Goodnight Irene.”
I reasoned, if “reason” could ever be applied to my way of thinking, that unlike scag I wouldn’t “fall in love” with coke, thereby making it a “safe” drug for me, and, if what I had learned was true, coke was not physically addictive, allowing me to stop when the rewriting and typing were completed. What I failed to understand was myself. Had I been a caveman and discovered that dinosaur dung would get me high, I’d be out there with a shovel and extra-large width rolling papers.
I’d meet Jean once or twice a week and each time she’d give me one to two gram vials of rock cocaine and beautiful budded sinsemilla as well. I’d enjoy my new found ritual of chopping the rock into powder, so bright you could almost see your reflection in it, making lines on a mirror, inhaling and waiting for the surge of adrenaline and power, the tingling and the numbness. At other times, the coke was a yellowed rock, and, when cut, smelled like cat’s piss, while at other times she brought Bolivian flake cocaine, pure as the driven snow. I became, in a short period of time, well-versed in the gradations and potency of snow.
The stars of my cocaine constellation were almost aligned. One piece, a large piece, presented itself in the form of tenants for my brother’s apartment. For weeks I’d been interviewing people who had responded to the ad I’d placed in The Village Voice. I was charging roughly three hundred dollars more than the pad actually rented for, or nine hundred bucks a month, which was still cheap, considering the size of the place and the location. None of the people who I’d seen seemed like good candidates. One afternoon, before I had to be at work, I met Paul and his friend, Artie. Paul was in his early thirties, handsome, Jewish and a graduate of Harvard. Artie was one of the original producers of Woodstock, the concert. The apartment was for Paul and his girlfriend, Judy. He told me the rent, for which he’d pay me in cash, was not a concern, and the security I required, within his means. I was comfortable with him and told him the apartment, upon my receipt of the security deposit, was his. We shook on it. He inquired, quite naturally, if I did any blow. I nodded. He produced, from the pocket of his sports coat, what I took to be three to five ounces of powder and didn’t bother to ask me for a mirror or any of the accouterments that went with the ingestion of cocaine. He merely took out a straw, placed it in the bag and gave it to me. The only thing he did was admonish caution. We sealed the deal over the next hour. My constellation, now complete, was the nose of Zeus, with a straw protruding from it.
Before too long, I was shooting the coke. I was curious to feel what the “rush” was like. Comparing “snorting” to “shooting” is like comparing Spam to Filet Mignon. The “rush” from the coke froze you, shocked your system, stopped time. It also made me want to continue doing the drug endlessly. With all the will I could muster, I held myself in check by doing essentially two things. I sniffed rather than shot the coke when I could get it, and I spent much time with Brasz going around town, talking about the writing I’d done and the painting he was doing and, as strange as this might sound, laughing. We shared a very skewered view of life, and each of us had a very funny way of presenting it. Beyond that, I can’t really explain why or how our friendship worked, but for a very long time, and through many upheavals, it did. When speaking with Jean, I sometimes resisted asking her to bring whatever she could to our next rendezvous. Although, often times, she’d bring packages of reefer and coke with her. I couldn’t refuse if that occurred.
Brasz had decided to go out to Queens to spend some time with his family before returning to New Orleans. When he left, he took one of my lifelines with him. However, I still had some controls inside and outside of me that governed my actions in regard to a full scale, all-out, no-holds-barred, assault on my body and mind. I was still in therapy with Handelsman. I needed to show up for work, and I wanted to try and sell my screenplay. As many as two out of the three contributed to my undoing, so had they kept me propped up and functioning.
When Paul arrived with his girlfriend, Judy, to give me the money required to move in, he asked straightforwardly if I wanted to be paid in coke rather than cash. Bartering coke for services, he told me, was something he did all the time. Wanting the cocaine, but needing the money, I opted for the cash. Although, in the weeks and months following his arrival, different arrangements were instituted that would, if they appeared in a work of fiction be both comedic and tragic, the Janus face of drama.
The high point in 1980, literally, at Oren & Aretsky’s came the afternoon I had a bar full of people mesmerized by the American Hockey team playing, and beating, the Russians at The Winter Olympics. The high point, figuratively, was a succession of days and nights all through that year, and the year beyond. I had become friendly with another staff member at the bar who opened with me for Saturday and Sunday brunches. He too, enjoyed his cocaine and his liquor. We lived near each other and cabbed to work together. Once there, we spilled some of what we brought on ashtrays, or the bar itself, and began our day, wired. I then went and began chilling a pitcher of Beefeater martinis in a stainless steel cocktail shaker, and packed that in ice. Once he prepped the kitchen, and I the bar, we indulged in more coke while we drained the cocktail shaker. By noon, we had a pretty good buzz on as the afternoon unfolded.
From this vantage point, it seemed like everyone in New York City either used coke, sold coke, did both, or knew someone who did. As I said, customers who knew me, or wanted to impress me, gave me the drug, gratis; I gave them a drink. In the course of these exchanges, I met some wealthy and arrogant stock brokers who used a lot of the powder and were always looking for new connections, for it. They asked me if I could help them. I didn’t like the sonsofbitches but figured there’d be something in it for me, and there was. They’d give me the money and I’d make the arrangements, always taking a cut, both in money and coke. I was able to be somewhat honest with them for quite awhile and used the Dylan credo, “to live outside the law you must be honest,” until one evening, when they were unable to pick it up when they were supposed to. They called and asked me to keep it overnight and bring it down to Wall Street the next day. Needless to say, by the end of the evening, less than half of what they had purchased remained. I couldn’t replace it, nor did I have anything like lactose or milk sugar to cut it with, but I did have Sweet n’ Low packets. They each contained one gram. I mixed two of them in with the coke and gave it back to one of them the next day. “I should give him a cup of coffee to go with it,” I thought, while I handed the package over. They never called, or came back to the bar. I said to myself, “Fuckem if they can’t take a joke,” but on the other hand, I felt dirty. The longer I was involved using drugs, the lower I’d stoop to obtain them. It seemed every time I opened my zipper to pee, I heard “Taps” being played.

One afternoon, while finishing the typing on, A Case of Insanity, Jean telephoned. She sounded desperate and in pain. She was staying at her friend’s apartment, which was near mine, and I hurried over to where she was. The apartment was dark. No lights were on as I made my way into the dining room and sat down at the table where she led me. I tried to look at her in the winter afternoon’s dimness and saw her eyes red-rimmed, from crying and, as my eyes began to get adjusted to the light, I saw a discoloration around different parts of her face. I got up and went to turn on the lights. When I returned to the table, her face showed sickened hues accentuated by bruises and cuts. Every time she breathed, I saw the effort it took, and the pain she tried to conceal.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Jeff got angry,” she finally replied.
“And what? And did this?”
“Why can’t you breath right?”
“I just came from St. Vincent’s. He broke a few ribs too. He threw me down the stairs and I’m all taped up.”
She began to cry. I got up, went to the bathroom, got some tissues, and returned to her. I took her hand in mine and sat there, watching the tears run down her cheeks. After she stopped crying, I asked her why he’d done something like that to her. She explained that he had suspected her of seeing some one else and when she confirmed it, he became enraged. When he left, and she was able to move, she got some of her things together, took whatever she could from his drug cache, and cabbed over to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
“Can I stay with you?” she asked.
“Yes, sure you can,” I replied, but I was torn. I didn’t want her to live with me. I didn’t want anyone to live with me, but under the circumstances, I would have felt like a complete asshole if I’d said otherwise. I picked up her suitcase and we began a journey that, unbeknownst to us at the time, would take up the next ten years of our lives.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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