Friday, August 21, 2015
YOUR MOST VICIOUS ENEMY--YOURSELF--FROM CHAPTER VII--CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
My stomach began bubbling as the cab approached the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. I knew that it was dope memory. It’s the recollection by the body and brain that junk is near and, more important, available. Every fiber, each granule of your existence cries out for a state, when bliss was, even in hell, achieved. It’s primordial. It defies language. You have no control over the feeling. I’m convinced that even if sight were not an option, there would be a conduit into your consciousness that would inform your being that heaven is just around the corner, and a step to the right. I was going home.
By the time we were through the tunnel and on the Belt Parkway, I was very aware just what was in store for me in Seagate: my parents and opportunity. And I knew that “opportunity” was a charged word. The Verranzano Bridge, proud and majestic, offered proof to me of where I had come from and where I was going. I had seen it being built from my bedroom window and marveled at the sheer will and brilliance of those who designed and those who built her. We curved under her and began the last leg of the ride. Now I was able to look south and see the lighthouse in Seagate, its red eye lit and turning in the sunset. I struggled to see my home from where we drove and tried to imagine what my family was doing as I was, once again, traveling home. We exited on Cropsey Avenue, stayed on the lane that brought us to the first light, made a right, and continued to Surf Avenue. I noticed that less than a year later there’d been changes. Buildings had been gutted that once held friends and dope connections. There seemed to be less commerce and fewer people on the avenue for a summer night, and more street prostitutes on Mermaid Avenue then I remembered. Also, for the first time I felt different. After spending so much time living in Manhattan, I felt more part of that borough than Brooklyn.
My eyes began to open wide as soon as we got to the Surf Avenue entrance to Seagate. I was searching for familiar faces. The cop stopped us at the entrance, looked inside the cab, saw it was me and waved us through. I directed the driver to my home, paid the fare and got out of the cab. I gave him directions on how to get back to Manhattan and watched him leave. I was buying some time to think this out. It was the first time I had been home in about a year.
I walked up to the door, rang the bell, heard the dog bark, and waited. My father opened the door, looked at me and smiled. I walked in and placed my bag on the landing and kissed him. It was a weird feeling. I had, since going into a therapeutic community, begun not to feel intimidated, hesitant, shy, embarrassed, awkward or gay, when hugging or kissing male friends, but with my father and brother I never quite got used to it, touching their flesh never felt right to me. It felt, if you want to know, false and, on my part, insincere.
I walked up the few stairs to the kitchen where my mom was and kissed her as well. The house looked and smelled the same. Everyone was in their right place, except me. From the very earliest age I never felt I fitted there. Perhaps, I said to myself that was exactly what I was still trying to do. I pushed it aside. My brother, Bobby, was still at the store and would be home later. My mom asked if I wanted anything. Coffee would be nice, I said, and sat down in the kitchen. I thought this was a good time to iron out a few things that needed to get said in person. We spoke about our expectations of each other both in his business and in his home. We discussed my personal life with Diane, whom they loved, being personal. My privacy was important, but their involvement was welcome. We would try to respect each others’ boundaries, and, while I didn’t think I could see a future in his business, I’d keep an open mind.
I went downstairs to the room I’d lived in behind the back of the house. My brother had been kicked upstairs because of his escalating erratic behavior and my father wanted to protect his investment. I began to unpack and, as I was doing this, I remembered all the insanity's, large and small, that took place down there. I hoped this wasn’t another chapter.
My brother came downstairs after he came home, and we seemed awkward around each other. I wanted to try and be “adult” and set boundaries for us and so we spoke briefly about my being home, my working in the store, and him getting high. That was his business, I told him. As long as he didn’t do it around me, I had nothing to say about it. I believe he wasn’t too thrilled about me having my old room back and felt threatened by my presence, not only in the house but in the store as well. The relationship we’d had was bolstered by drugs. Take those drugs away and those simmering jealousies, rivalries and fear based realities come bubbling to the surface. At the time I thought there was nothing much he had that I wanted, always a precursor of manipulation for me, and so I concentrated on what I needed to do, staying clean, and working, which was, for me, difficult enough.
In the ten months I lived in Seagate I made it my business not to run into any history other than my family. What’s past is fiction, and what’s fiction is a lie, someone said. I only wanted to cope with the reality of my day to day existence, and for the first seven or eight months that was enough for me. I worked six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. I worked the front-end of the store and was in charge of the cashiers, scheduling, checking in deliveries, doing the daily cash receipts and, when the spirit moved me, I helped unload the eighteen wheelers that delivered thousands of pieces of weekly merchandise for a very small weekly paycheck. I usually came home pretty tired, ate, watched a little T.V., tried to read, and slept. One day a week, I’d go into Manhattan to attend, “splitee groups” run by Chris Maples who’d inducted me into Project Return. These groups were designed for those who’d left the program early to earn the right to “graduate,” should they remain drug free. On Saturday and/or Sunday I’d see Diane. Sometimes she’d come into Brooklyn and stay downstairs with me while other times I’d stay at her place. Things between us were good, not great, but good.
I assumed, because I was doing all right, my diabetes was as well, though there was no basis for it. I still refused to test my urine, much less chart it, so I really had no way of knowing how my glucose was running. What I did know was that I ate pretty good and had no overt symptoms like excessive thirst, urination or hunger, and my physical activities were not hampered, in any way, by my disease. Yet diabetes, as I have said before, was a second class citizen to me. I had it, and that’s all I’d admit. Put a gun to my head, you’d have to shoot me for me to say any different.
Dr. Bernstein was glad to see me. We had begun to develop a relationship that went beyond the physical ailment and stretched into creative, literary, and emotional areas. After the physical, he asked how I was really feeling. “ Like shit, Jerry. I’m not writing, and I want to write. I’m not reading and I want to read. I want to talk about shit, and all I talk about is the store and things I’m not all that interested in discussing.”
“Well, it’s not forever. Are you looking for other things?”
“No, not really, not yet. Maybe it’s time to start looking.”
He studied me for a few moments before he said, “There’s nothing wrong with owning a business you know. You’re not breaking any creative laws. Stevens, was a banker; Williams, a doctor, for Christsakes.”
I smiled for the first time in a long time. “No, nothing wrong in it. I just think I don’t want to do it much longer, but I feel so goddamn guilty about leaving my old man.”
“Children are supposed to leave their parents. That’s how it works.”
“Take care, and thanks, Jerry,” I said and left. I knew my blood tests would be all right. I wasn’t too sure about anything else.
My bones were rattling around again. Writing was tugging at my arm. I began thinking at odd angles. I became unsettled. I saw everything in terms of words put together. It was random and exciting. For some time now I had tried to subvert the process. A writer can no more try not to write than try not to piss. Also, I had come to doubt my motives, which had to do with validation through publication, a very dangerous peg on which to hang my hat, or head. My energy had no place to go. The work I did in the store, the sex I had with Diane, the conversations I had with people, did nothing to stifle the urge I had to write something. In fact, I felt that very urge beginning to turn against me. There were sentences I didn’t want to complete, thoughts were aborted, sex was becoming angry, and the work in the store was repetitious and dull. This could be a trick, I said to myself. You’re really angling to get high again, and this puts you on the fast track. Not only are you putting yourself in a position where the work, imagination, isolation and alienation scream out for a substance or substances to inspire, coat and balm the process but immediate gratification--meaning publication--is slow to come and, maybe, won’t come at all. Then, a descent, terrible and terrifying will follow. If I could not see past the reflection of Norman Savage, diabetic, I was in trouble. Inwardly, I harbored a distorted picture of myself as a grandiose doormat. My fantasies slept side by side with all my insecurities, which usually took much of the bed and blanket and woke up first. Investing so much time and emotional energy in relying on an agent and publisher’s knowledge, whim or lucky guess about what was good and what would sell, was standing on shaky ground at best.
Handelsman, the psychologist who had told me to seek the help of a program before consenting to see me as a patient and, whom I’d see for many years as a therapist, said that my background was precisely why writing appealed to me so much. Besides my loving literature and being a good writer, it tapped into my parental history. I’m never sure from one day to the next if I’m going to be accepted or rejected, and, since rejection was my parental currency, writing, and the “arts” in general, had more of that than just about any other profession. It made sense that I’d want to return to that testicle-slicing machine in some way, shape, or form.
My father, when I told him that I didn’t think I would have much of a future in his business, tried to entice me with money. Without working too hard, he said, both my brother and I could conservatively earn a salary in the low six figures a year. It was then, and is now, a lot of money. I knew, for my father to say this to me, my brother had him worried. He was not at all comfortable with entrusting him to manage the entire business. But, in fact, fearing that my brother would develop a “thought process” of his own, consigned him mostly to the backbreaking labor of managing the nuts and bolts of keeping the staff and merchandise flowing while he made most, if not all, of the financial decisions. He’d minimize my brother’s intelligence, lauded his physical prowess, thus consigning him to a specific and limited role in his business; and it was his business, that he made crystal clear. My brother, though, was demonstrating the very behavior patterns that I had when I used alcohol and other drugs. He was abrasive, late, and sometimes reckless. My father was covering his ass.
Diane’s first husband was a writer and teacher, and she knew what a grinding, frustrating, and backbiting profession it was. She also knew, and loathed, the world of academia where most writers find themselves, either because they need a job when writing or can’t write but need a job. She knew about artistic betrayals, the pilfering of ideas, and spouses. Yeah, Diane was really thrilled about the prospect of my seriously considering taking up the pen again.
It was late February or early March of 1974 when Diane and I decided to take a weekend trip to Provincetown, a beautiful little town on the tip of Cape Cod. It was even better in the dead of winter when the beaches and sand dunes shifted with the winds and the grayish blue ocean was capped by frothy white waves that bit the sand and sprayed your face. The poetry there was rugged, spare, and graceful.
“Writing is a vacation from life,” said O’Neill, the quintessential alcoholic. Even though I realized, on certain levels, that writing was frustrating and dangerous, it was still the best game in town. When I was inside a work, I was lost. When I found words from some part of myself that spilled on the page, I was high and giddy. When I saw my name in print, I felt euphoric, and when I read, I felt myself being sung. It was jazz, freedom, a solo, lyric, a rhythm that was wholly mine, and mine alone. It was power directed at the stupid institutional reality of assholes, myself included. My work ran counter to what academics would consider poetry. Good. I knew I was on the right track, whatever that track was. I knew I hadn’t lived in the poetic garden of the academy where words were measured against meter, and thoughts were reflected in moon streams. My world was not crafted like that. It was unkempt, overgrown with weeds and the detritus from failures. It was Ginsberg’s sunflower in a broken-down greasy train yard. It slept on the I.R.T. subway. It made love to Bennington women and Lexington Avenue whores on the same night. Green pastures were not my thing unless they were bombed-out, and cratered by disease and hopelessness. I liked fucking women who were pregnant with another man’s seed. Why should I make the line rhyme and make sense, when it made no kind of sense to me? I didn’t have to question humanity or the universe. I knew both of them were suck jobs.
I told this to Diane in a Provincetown bar late one night. We were drinking cognac. I was trying to excite her. She was trying to bring me down to earth.
“There’s nothing wrong with owning a business. It’s not like you’d be one of these cheap sellouts. Besides, you could still write and maybe that would show you just how much you want to write.”
“Whatdayamean? I want to write,” I responded, my voice sounding shrill to me despite the balm of the cognac.
“Well write then...you’re lucky to have a business to go into and use as a hedge against the artist’s life. Every one I know who’s trying to make a living as an artist is miserable.”
“Shit, Diane, you’re an artist too. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
“I don’t think I want to go back into those ridiculously small circles of academic artist’s posturing, all those stupid luncheons, and teas and students who just want to fuck anyone who’s a minute older and holding court in a classroom. They think older is wiser, a professor is a trophy that can just fuck wisdom into them. It’s torture and I’m not sure I want that kind of torture again.”
“I’m not your husband.”
“Ah, everybody says that until some eighteen year old bats their eyes at them at a time when there’s some difficulty at home. Maybe there’s money problems, or problems within the department, or the politics of the place is particularly vicious or the sex at home is too predictable, and the thought of a new conquest arouses the blood. Norman, I don’t want that anymore.”
There was no resolution that night. We went back to our motel room whose windows faced the beach. We were liquored up and a little more estranged from each other than when we left New York. We made love that night, but it was angrier and more self-centered than it had ever been.
A short time later, after we returned from Provincetown, an opportunity arose which I thought would solve our differences. Oddly enough, the call came to Diane. The call wasn’t odd. Telling it to me was. In retrospect, I’ve been lucky with women. They have been much more loving and honest with me than I have ever been with them. It sounds patronizing and cowardly (and well it should), to do on paper what I was never able to do with them at the time and haven’t been able to do in person. If it hadn’t been for their love and graciousness, there was a better than average chance I’d not be alive today and, even if I were, would certainly have become less of a man.
Brad was in Mt. Sinai at the same time I was and for the same reason, but Brad was seventeen. I had told him that I was going to enter Project Return and suggested he do the same. He didn’t, but he did have a crush on Diane and kept in touch with her. Brad had called Diane recently to tell her he had left this private school upstate and was now going into a drug program. Also, he said that his school was infested with teens who were substance abusers and, knowing how I felt about teaching and the background I’d bring to the school, perhaps I’d want to get in touch with them. She relayed this information to me, and I made the call. I spoke with the headmaster, telling him of my background and credentials without telling him too much. He invited me to come up the next week for an interview.
That evening, at supper, I told my folks and brother my plans. My father appreciated my honesty, but was neither encouraging nor discouraging. My mom wished me well while Bobby, at first, registered disappointment and then, almost in the same breath, offered to drive me up to the interview. I knew I’d been stepping on his toes, both in the business and in the house. He felt I’d usurped his place in the store as well as the room downstairs and, though he’d never admit it, was probably jealous of my relationship with Diane. I suspected that he felt his life would improve if I was somewhere else. He never came out and said it, but he didn’t have to. And, I wasn’t all that crazy about him either, not if you scratch the surface, I wasn’t. I was diabetic, he wasn’t. I was sick, he wasn’t. My pop had fawned all over him ever since he’d begun playing basketball, and I was certainly jealous of that. My old man, without putting it into words, encouraged him to drop out of school in order to be in business with him, damn the cost, financially or emotionally, to either one. My brother and I really only felt comfortable with one another while drinking or doing drugs. I’ve lived upstairs, in my head, mostly, Bobby the reverse: Dimitri and Ivan Karamazov.
As close as my folks wanted our family to be, that is how far apart we were. The extraordinary amount of energy that each of us gave, trying to be close, made it all the more divisive when any one of us had his own viewpoint to voice, feeling felt, or action to take. The slightest deviation from that point, arbitrary though it might be, could only result in the overwhelming feeling of guilt, as if you’d betrayed your entire family or compromised what was really in your own best interest. Instead of becoming more comfortable with each other, and each other’s voice over time, the egg shell just got thinner and thinner. The sad fact is that both sides of my family tree is littered with fractures between siblings. My mother’s two sisters have not spoken with each other in nearly twenty years since one of their daughters, who was close friends with the daughter of the other sister, was sleeping with her husband. My father’s two cousins, who were brothers, have not spoken to each other in almost a two decades, over money. My father’s sister’s two children, well into their forties and fifties, have had an on-again-off-again relationship with each other for most of their lives. When my father’s mother was still alive she, from the force of her will, brought us together on the traditional Jewish days of observance, birthdays, funerals and, the occasional visit on Sunday. Her personality, overbearing and selfish, as it sometimes was, nevertheless was heated by an unchallenged allegiance to those bearing the family name, Savage. Yet, she couldn’t instill, nor could her children instill in their children, the desire to transcend differences, or geography, to maintain those ties once she died. It was as if we all took a big breath, let out a sigh, and collectively said, “We don’t have to do that anymore.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I said to my brother, “Diane is going to go up with me, but thanks anyway.” Diane’s name was something my brother didn’t want to hear too much. He had registered his displeasure with her months before. Apparently, Bobby felt, if Diane was to truly become part of the family, she would have make sure she took pains to talk with, soothe, placate, sacrifice for, and stroke the ego of everyone who’s last name was Savage, particularly the males, and, as far as he could see, she was not doing that, especially with him. She had not made an attempt to greet him once, and it made him feel very unimportant. She quickly told him that her mission in life was not to be liked, much less loved, by anyone’s entire family, though that would be nice if it happened. Just loving and being loved by the person she desired was sufficient. He was rebuffed, and he felt she was cold. I wouldn’t worry about it, I told her when she told me. She said worrying about my brother was the last thing on her mind.
The drive up to Saratoga was great for me and Diane. There’s something about driving long distances that has always put me at ease. We decided to pack some clothes and stay a day or two to explore the countryside. We both were a little burned out and needed some time away from the trappings of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Ten miles outside of Saratoga, across a little wooden bridge, adjacent to a narrow stretch of the Hudson River, sat Schuyler Preparatory School. The main building was an old wooden Victorian house with a porch that ran around it and overlooked the river. Inside, the building smelled wonderfully old and had wooden floors, comfortably worn armchairs and sofas, a dining room, and administrative offices. The headmaster, Mr. Pouliot, a slender, stern-faced, nervous man in his late fifties, greeted us. I asked if it would be all right if Diane sat in on the interview. He agreed and ushered us into his offices.
The population of the school, he told us, drew kids from the tri-state area who were very wealthy. They’ve all had difficulties in school, he went on, and those difficulties were either predicated or exacerbated by their use of alcohol and drugs. I suggested that their subsequent truancy, suspensions, and ultimate expulsions from other educational venues, could be argued as being a direct result of their substance abuse and learning disorders which were linked to deeper emotional disabilities. By providing them with a safe and nurturing environment and giving them the tools whereby they could confront and support one another in their individual behavioral and emotional battles, they might be able to reduce, perhaps eliminate, their abuse of alcohol and other drugs. They could then, collectively and individually, reap the benefits that had eluded them for so long. I told him about my past in general terms. We discussed my academic credentials and my creative, as well as athletic, interests and skills. Most importantly, I told him about my ability at running “groups,” elaborating on what I had discussed a few moments earlier. It sounded good, even to me. I weaved a very educated and seductive package to someone who needed little in the way of seduction. Pouliot, who’d been looking at Diane as much (maybe more) as he’d been listening to me, hired me on the spot. I believe that if Diane had hiked her dress up further I would have owned a piece of the joint. He told me he’d be sending me some papers to sign and to be up at school at the end of August. I thanked him, got up, shook his hand, took Diane’s arm, and we left. I looked at what would be my home come the fall.
We drove into to Saratoga looking for a place to eat. We passed a slew of little shops and restaurants that are nestled into side streets, finally deciding on Hattie’s Chicken Shack, an old and weather beaten establishment that appeared casual and inviting. Inside, I heard the opening notes to Miles’ Someday My Prince Will Come, and knew we had chosen wisely. The owner and staff were black, and Hattie’s specialized in southern cooking. Diane had fried catfish, and I had the fried chicken. We both shared the corn bread, black-eyed peas, collard greens, slaw, potato salad, and topped it off with thick, rich coffee and banana pudding. We stayed for a second helping of Miles, Monk and the rest of the gang. I asked our waiter where we could stay for cheap, and what else there was to do in Saratoga. He told us about Saratoga and it’s history of horse racing and spas, fun for the mannered gentry. Then he gave us, those with little manners and less money, a place to bed down and where, on the old grounds of Franklin Roosevelt, for twenty-five bucks, you could enjoy an hour and a half of being soaked in a bath generated by the springs underneath the earth and rubbed-down for an hour by a person with educated hands and strong fingers. It sounded wonderful, and it was.
In fact, I felt so good after Diane and I returned that I even enjoyed going with my father to watch Bobby play with other people I knew, basketball in The Brighton Beach League. He was a very good ball player who never really knew just how good he could have been because he, like so many others, subverted and sabotaged himself through drug abuse, but we did, for really the first time in our lives, enjoy each other without using drugs, although the booze did flow.
Besides coaching basketball and running “groups,” I’d be teaching American and European literature in the Fall. I called up Bruce Rosen, my professor from New York City Community College, and pumped him for information on classroom technique and lesson plans, never having been in front of a class, except for the course I taught at The New School. Obviously, Rosen told me, knowing the subject matter well was important, but it was enthusiasm that was usually the difference between understanding something, and teaching it.
I had begun to fantasize, always a risky proposition for me, about what miraculous changes I’d be able to bring to the school, students and, most importantly, myself. How, through my own love of literature, I’d teach them to love what I’d come to love. My job, I believed, was to challenge their fundamental assumptions about themselves and the world they lived in, and coach some of them in the harmony of pure, unselfish basketball. Most importantly, I’d show them, share with them, the tools I’d learned in order to talk about their hidden most feelings and then facilitate their opportunities to change behavior. Then, at night, after I’d put the dorm to bed, under a desk lamp, I’d write my ass off. I’d have time and I’d have peace and clarity, and the words would pour out of me. What I couldn’t catch would collect and puddle under my feet to be mopped up in the next morning’s light. Soon I’d be published, recognized, vindicated, redeemed, and validated.
I was so sure of this that when Julio and his wife came to visit a week later, and Julio offered me a job working for him, I refused. I loved this man and felt a debt of gratitude, but I still said no. That’s how strong the fantasy reflected the conception I had of myself. I wanted to carve out my own life on my own terms. I felt it was time to take that step. And I did.
Diane’s steps were anything but sure, and God forbid someone should be unsure when I thought I was so right, especially if I loved them and wanted, needed, them to agree with me. She had always said that she wanted, needed a “resting place,” but I had no intentions of providing one. I was speeding in the other direction. I was an adolescent searching for whatever identity felt right at the moment. She fed on betrayal yet raged against it. She didn’t want defeat but fueled it. Her regalness and her indignation at life’s absurdities was slightly askew. It begged the question, “Why did I do that for?”
I did what I always did when I felt threatened. I got a back-up, an alternative, an ace in the hole, an “ya see I don’t need you” kind of fuck you, and a righteous (because it was I who was sinned against) fuck you at that. I found Nina, a dark-haired, interesting young woman who, conveniently, lived in Seagate, grew-up with my brother, ran in similar circles and who was a photographer studying at Pratt. Yeah, I was being real grown-up about the whole thing.
pgs 106-111, From Chapter VII: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015