Wednesday, September 2, 2015


In 1991, while managing Astor Place Books in Greenwich Village, one evening I found love, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was standing by one of the computer terminals and cash registers when a voice said, “Excuse me.” Since the register was on an elevated platform, I had to look down to see who spoke. There was a young, pretty, Asian woman.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Do you have Being and Time, Zein and Zeit by Heideggar?”
“I might, but I only sell that if I know the person is on medication.” I responded.
She smiled and said, “I’d prefer that in German but would take it translated too.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Katsuho,” she replied.
I left the platform and brought her to the back of the store to the Philosophy Section and talked to her while we walked. She had an easy laugh. I walked her outside and we smoked a cigarette together. I found out she’d come over from Japan to study film and knew no one in the city. I liked her moxie and asked if she wanted to go out for a cup of coffee sometime, and she said she would. As I said, I’d not been with any woman since Jean had left, and that was the first time I’d been without a woman in the picture for many, many years. What was even stranger was that Katsuho was twenty years my junior, and even though I know that it is quite the male trophy to have a younger woman, it had never really been my thing. I’d joke to friends that the last time I was with a twenty year old was when I was sixteen.
Slowly, I began to fall in love with her, and that was strange. Usually, the chemical reaction with women was swift, instantaneous and, if it wasn’t and, if I wasn’t desperate or mood altered, I would not hang around for too long. This time it was a slow burn and a long simmer. Though our age difference was large, we were close in temperament, desire, values, likes, and neuroses. I was struck with how much she knew and dug so many of the same things I did: jazz of a certain period, a love of the jazz divas, literature, basketball and baseball and boxing, and, of course, me. I don’t say that lightly. And even though she came from a fractured home, she was much more emotionally balanced and certainly smarter than me. Her art was more nuanced than mine, and she taught me a great many things about subtlety. With Katsuho the years of my childhood, which I couldn’t quite remember, were being lived for the first time.
Needing more money, I found a gig in Williamsburg as an assistant to someone I never liked much, Carlos Pagan. He had started his own program there after being bounced from the program he founded with Martinez, Project Return. Martinez, who was then the Commissioner of Substance Abuse Services for New York State, had awarded Pagan with the funds to begin a small program in Brooklyn. I tried to work with him for a time, but the same issues we had over twenty years before that got in the way. It was not time wasted though, I was back in the drug field and had made many contacts. One of them, the “Drug Czar” for Mayor David Dinkens, introduced me to the point person for The Hazelden Foundation, who was opening up a facility in New York City. I was hired to be the Coordinator for their Physicians-in-Residence Program. This was an initiative, funded by The Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, to educate junior and senior residents in primary care medicine from all the major teaching hospitals in the metropolitan area about the disease of alcoholism and chemical dependency. It was my job to coordinate this, serve on the academic and public relations committees, and secure lecturers for the many facets and issues that affected medicine, disease, and treatment. I worked my ass off, and was very good at getting this program up and running. I was on a year grant and after the year was over, and the program established and well-oiled, my services were no longer needed.
My right knee had been giving me trouble and I went to see my orthopedic surgeon and friend, Dr. John Waller, who referred me to a knee specialist at Lenox Hill. He told me that I would need a little orthoscopic surgery and I had to go to Bernstein for the pre-op physical. After my blood work and an EKG he called me into his office.
“The operation is off,” he informed me. “I don’t like what I see on your EKG. I want to run you through some more tests at the hospital. Go home, I’ll schedule them, and I’ll call you.”
Later that night, after I told Katsuho about the operation, I felt a weight, like someone standing on my chest. I tried to shrug it off, but the next morning it was still there. I called Bernstein. It was July 3. He told me to get over to Lenox Hill as soon as I could. He’d be waiting for me. I smoked a cigarette while waiting downstairs with Katsuho for a cab.
When I got to the emergency room at Lenox Hill, I was ushered into the examining room. There I found a friendly face, one of the residents who I helped educate at Hazelden. He asked how I was feeling and hooked me up to some machines. He came back a short time later and said I’d had at least one heart attack, maybe two. He saw my expression. He went away for a minute and came back with a syringe. “I’m going to give you a shot of morphine; it’ll take away some of the dread.”
On July 4, the head of the cardiovascular department had come back from vacation on Bernstein’s request and performed a quadruple by-pass.
When I woke up I felt like I was on the tundra; the ICU was that cold. The next thing I felt was pain. A lot of it, even though the morphine was coming with regularity. I don’t remember how long I was in the ICU, but when they moved me into a private room Katsuho was there. I looked at her face and for a second felt more frightened for her than I was for myself. I could see the fear and uncertainty in her eyes and then we both adjusted. Neither of us had ever faced that kind of mortality, though I, because of my diabetes, lifestyle, hospitalizations and amputations of years past, certainly came close.
The next few days were difficult as anyone who ever had their chest cracked like a chicken, rewired and strung back together could attest.
My parents flew up from Florida. They all but ignored Katsuho, even when they took her out to eat. But, like I said, she is very smart and very insightful. She did her best to not take their behavior personally.
There was nothing much for me to do upon my discharge except to pick up a prescription for pain medication and go home. Katsuho, who had given up drinking soon after we met, knowing I couldn’t because of my past history, now began to educate herself on preparing different foods that would make a difference in my health. I, not having a clue when I could go back to work, went back on welfare and food stamps to make ends meet. And they just met.
Katsuho and I grew closer, and except for going to AA meetings and enjoying the company of the few and selected friends I’d made there (as well as Joey from The Cedar), we were a very self-sufficient couple. Our tastes were simple; our expenditures modest, while our love and our dependency on each other grew.
Almost a year after the heart attack, now free of pain and pain medication, I went looking for a gig. I called up some people I knew in the substance abuse field and the field of medicine and landed a job with Dr. Mack Lipkin, the head of the primary care division at NYU Medical Center. He had a position for an administrator for a grant that got funded for a year. I grabbed it.
One day, shortly after I began working again, Katsuho told me that her student and work visa was running out and the only way she could stay in America was to get married. I had not thought about marriage. Certainly I’d never thought about it recently. But I told her to pick a date. On July 3, a year to the day I was told that I needed further testing for a likely heart condition, we got married in a civil ceremony at City Hall. I didn’t bother to tell my family.
And it was wonderful. I never thought I’d ever enjoy being married. Because of her love of Breakfast At Tiffany’s we bought our wedding bands there. I never thought I’d ever love her so much as I did. And I loved looking at and touching my wedding ring. That plain gold ring that I wore was comforting, a kind of hedge against the madness that I felt outside of the marriage.
“Success” can fuck with an addict, too. I’d taken note of that all through my travels and travails: just before an addict was ready to graduate from a program it wasn’t unusual for him to shoot dope. He’d be venturing, or was about to venture, out of his element. Perhaps, the addict was “noticed,” treated too well. If I knew that was happening to me, I didn’t notice it. However, I did know that the year was almost up at NYU and I’d have to get another job. That alone was enough to unnerve me. What an addict also doesn’t like very much is change. Any change. Even the slightest change is enough to throw him into a tailspin. That I knew.
I sent out a bunch of resumes to private schools, thinking that with my background and credentials I’d be a good candidate for certain schools. I believed that not only could I teach many subjects, but I could counsel some students as well.
Finally, I landed a job on the upper west side, near the famed Dakota, in a private high school. It had a student population that, for the most part, had been bounced out of the traditional public and private schools in the tri-state area. I was hired to teach academic courses and counsel those who were thought to have a substance abuse problem. I noticed very early on that most of those kids had also been diagnosed with ADD and ADHD, a very difficult psychobiological constellation. I convinced the headmaster that what was needed, as well, was to bring an AA meeting into the school and he agreed. Initially I liked my job, and Katsuho and I were getting on with our lives. She, after not being able to secure a job in film, which she was passionate about, worked for a Japanese production company that did shows about New York City, which were shown in Japan. Around 1999, I began to experience trouble with my teeth and gums, which had plagued me most of my life. Diabetics are prone to that, too.
What I was also “prone to” were all the old tapes, voices that circulated in my head. Teaching these youngsters in the private school was frustrating for me because I needed some kind of validation for what I was doing. I didn’t receive enough back from the students intellectually or emotionally to feel I was on solid footing; I didn’t receive enough accolades or “pats on the back” that I thought I deserved. And now that I had a “legitimate” reason to seek pain medication for my abscessed mouth and inflamed gums, I embraced the opportunity.
It was always easier for me to “show” love toward someone when there was a barrier, in this case Percocets, between me and the other person. I thought I was demonstrating affection, Katsuho felt my artificially prescribed distance. I tried, the best I could, to modulate my use of Percocets, but some days were worse than others, psychologically. After months of being on them, my upper teeth had to be pulled and a denture put in place. I felt embarrassed, humiliated, and old. How could Katsuho, or anyone else, want to make love with me without my teeth, having diabetes and amputations were bad enough? Jesus Christ. Who the fuck would want to kiss a half a mouth?
But she did. And we hung on and went on in much the same way we had when we first met, except she was now getting upset by two things: my constant complaints about my job and my emotional ties to my parents. Katsuho had tried, like so many other significant friends and lovers from my past, to pry me away from my parents and brother. I resisted tooth and nail. Each time Katsuho and others would point to my misery while being around them, the walls would appear and the screw tightened. I’d nod my head in agreement, but I’d resist with all my might. She never got demonstrably angry. She had a hard time with anger, both her own and somebody else's. But she did make her feelings known to me. Unfortunately, although she had my attention, what she said never truly registered in this defensive brain of mine. I thought that after two years of working in the school, a change of venue was needed. What was really needed was a change of attitude and insight, but I always choose to fix the outside first.
I left the job at the school for a job that paid much more, but I was ill suited for it. And so a few months after I took the gig, I was looking for another. And “another” wasn’t easy for me to come by. It took awhile before I landed something that involved counseling high school students. By this time Katsuho had changed jobs as well: she was now translating Japanese into English for two anime concerns.
My new job was working for a program that was an offshoot of the Board of Education and involved, once again, substance-abusing students. During my orientation, I decided that this program was a joke, a Mickey Mouse attempt at getting kids off of drugs. I was placed in a hip-hop high school, located underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, adjacent to One Police Plaza. Very quickly I began to think to myself, “Just go in every day, do the very least amount of work and take the money and the benefits and go.” I had developed what would be diagnosed as a diabetic ulceration in my amputation site, which was painful. Not excruciating, but painful. However, I used this newfound alibi to once again obtain every and any pain medication from doctors and podiatrists that I was playing at the same time. Very often I was able to obtain multiple prescriptions and fill one with my insurance and pay cash for the others, claiming I had no insurance. Each visit to a doctor was another “score.” I was now taking pills to work and taking more when I got home. Katsuho would look at me sitting on the couch and wonder what world I was in and what she could do about it. Our lovemaking drifted off as I floated out. Finally, she confronted me and I reluctantly went to see my orthopedic surgeon, who was a strict no pain medication guy.
He had known me since my original amputation operation and thought that he could operate and fuse together the part of my foot, which had never healed in order to ward off further ulceration. That summer, I had to stay in bed for six weeks and crutch around for the next two. But it was successful. If only one’s mind could be fused that way.
What we were unsuccessful in addressing was the twists and turns our marriage and our lives were taking. I hung onto the job for the next year and was in my office when the first plane hit The World Trade Center on 9/11. We didn’t know what the hell had happened, but went out back, directly under The Brooklyn Bridge to see the fire and the cloud of black smoke coming out of the first tower. We watched as the second plane made a slow turn and preceded, slowly it seemed, into the second one. The concussion and resulting explosion was enough to knock us back against the doors. We watched, transfixed, as this orange ball exploded. It seemed the sky was rinsed of reason. We hurried back into the school and got the kids out. By that time the police had cordoned off all pedestrian traffic going south and we walked, thousands of us, back to our homes. We were eerily silent. It reminded me of Goya’s pilgrimage paintings. A man walking beside me who had either a cell phone or transistor radio of some kind turned his head to me and in a voice entirely devoid of inflection, informed me that the first tower fell. We turned our heads back and continued walking.
Katsuho, who had been following this on T.V. that morning, was anxiously outside waiting for me. The next weeks were hard on us all, but Katsuho was especially devastated by what had happened. She’d been born in Nagasaki and almost coded in her DNA was what took place there; 9/11 awakened in her something, which was lying dormant. In the weeks after 9/11 she could not go out of our apartment without taking three different kinds of documentation lest she should not be recognized should she be incinerated. She tried to give blood that day and the day after, but there was no one really to give blood to, and the lines with people waiting to do exactly that were filled to capacity.
The opened wound that was festering in New York City, the country, and indeed in parts of the world, would slowly scar over, but the wound that was inside me and bore inside Katsuho as well was growing wider. We tried to pretend for awhile that things would get better; we tried to do the same things that we had loved to do together, but it didn’t have the same balming effect on us. I’d begun to feel that she was drifting away and that was enough to set my defensive gears in motion.
At the end of that school year my supervisor that the program would be cut the following semester informed me. Since I was one of the last to be hired, I was the first to be cut. I protested, but to no avail. Desperately trying to hang on to what had been pulled away from me I did what any self-serving lunatic would do: I went down to see my parents.
Katsuho, trying to keep our financial lives afloat had glued herself to her computer working on translations. Sometimes I’d find her staring into the screen unable to find the next word. Her senses and being were becoming burnt out. But I could only think of myself.
Down I went into the belly of the beast. The first day I was there and the first night I was alone in my motel room, I picked up a cigarette and a drink. I’d been slowly prepping Katsuho for months in advance, discussing the possibility of drinking again. I interpreted her quiet fatigue to mean she entertained the possibility. And the truth was that it was she who could have really used a drink.
Katsuho was lying on the couch trying to work a script she was translating and barely acknowledged my arrival back home. I was incensed and told her so. There was no immediate response from her. I slept on the couch that night and remained angry with her for days. I acted like a “terrible” two year old. And while we got through that storm, our relationship was just about over.
One evening, soon after, we went out for a walk to talk about our marriage and how we could begin again. When I took out a cigarette she asked me for one. She hadn’t had a cigarette in many years, since my heart attack. She took a couple of drags, turned, ran a few steps, and vomited. Unbeknownst, to either one of us, her body had decided to reject me.
I began classes to get my hack license and drive a cab. After class each day I’d come home, go to The Cedar, drink, and wait for Katsuho to come home from work. She’d decided to go into a new career, woodworking, and was now apprenticing with a private craftsman. I was the other side of just having a few drinks, and sitting on the front stoop of The Cedar. She took one look at me and rushed past. I felt the inside of my body quiver. I purposely waited a beat, not to appear too frazzled, and went after her. Inside of my apartment she was already packing. I made some attempts at asking her to stop, to tell me what was going on, all the usual stupid things one says to a person who you really know needs to get away from you. She closed her bag and flew out of my apartment like it was on fire. And it was.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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