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The Post-Drunkalogue: part 1

I’ve come to believe (mostly through observation) that just about everyone comes to a place in their lives where they do what’s called “taking stock.”  That time for me was in May of 1994, where, like a postwar resident of Berlin, I emerged from my (virtual) bunker and said, “what….the….fuck?!”  But unlike the urban German of another May in 1945, I knew that in my case all the damage was literally self-inflicted.  You could say I’d bombed myself back to the “Stoned Age.”

That May I got sober, but only because I had to.  I’d run out of money and/or the ability to make more, and that includes borrowing.  The last days of my personal war were spent on the phone trying to make deals with creditors and family members who’d all had enough. I also spent a lot of time on the phone trying to drum up nostalgia for a better age, calling up old school friends from California and Oklahoma out of the blue; and even making several drunken calls to a poor woman who worked at the Tulsa Speedway – where I tried to get my hands on old copies of the Speedway News (I’ve often thought about how much more efficient all this could have been if there was Facebook in the mid-nineties).

I tried to stoke not only my memories of Hollywood, but of all the places I lived where I was happier.  By the time I’d had not only had my own phone turned off, but also run up a mammoth bill on my roommate’s telephone, I knew I’d exhausted my last options.  I like to say that I had to quit because I drank it all, but really, there were just no more reserves to call up.

Some veterans love to talk about their wartime exploits, right?  In my line of ‘work’ those talks are called “drunkalogues.”  You’d stop drinking, then head to an AA meeting and regale everyone with stories of how much you could drink and about all the messed up stuff you did.  Well, mostly it’s how much you could drink.  Savvy AA’ers are bored by such talk, but I have to admit I still get pissed when someone relates to me a more impressive “stat sheet.”

Because I could put away some serious booze, yeah I could!

But what comes after?  To most people the postwar period tends to not be as interesting as the war itself.  What would I do?  When I was the actual guy looking around at all of my life’s metaphorical rubble (not to keep beating a dead war-horse here), I had to take stock.  And it was really pretty easy.  Let’s see if I can remember….

Let’s see, I had no home, no job, no money; and my long-suffering girlfriend had left me for good.  Okay, that was easy!  As my mom might say, “I had a whole lotta nuthin.”  But my immediate concerns were just staying sober.  My first day without a drink, May 5th (don’t worry, this isn’t a day to day diary, I’ll try to keep it snappy); I walked with my friend Crazy Eddie all the way from my former apartment (that I somehow still managed to live in, for another few days anyway) to Luna Park in Coney Island.

It was about seven miles and it was largely agonizing.  In between listening to Eddie tell me what a bad idea it was to get sober (“I don’t know man, why do you want to mess with a good thing?”), I was real shaky and suffered from very sharp chest pains that left me, on 3 occasions, just sitting on the sidewalk (I neither cared enough yet, nor could afford to find out what that was all about).  And Eddie, watching me, “See?  That’s what happens man.”  But we made it to the beach, and we sat there – it was windy that afternoon – and I again took stock.

How would I get by in the world without my buzzed, jokey persona?  Would I now be so boring I’d never make friends?  What about the ones I had now, where would they fit in?  And what about a job?  What do I want to do for a living?  And what the hell do I actually care about anyway?

I had no answer for any of these, and wouldn’t for quite awhile.

There was one thing I did know that afternoon, that I was getting hungry, like for a real meal.  I’d already suspected that without booze I’d make myself demand more than just a hastily boiled package of Maruchan Ramen with a can of kidney beans dumped on top, sometimes with a little 4G Parmesan sprinkled on top, you know, if I was feeling splurgy.  Early that evening we took the train back and ate at Eddie’s Dad’s place on Flatbush.

That night, as the last holdout in my former 4-roommate railroad apartment share, and with ConEd in an unforgiving mood; I sat in the dark and thought my thoughts.  It was the only thing I could afford to do.  But I didn’t drink and I didn’t really want to.

A few days later, after I was forcibly evicted, I gathered my few belongings in a shopping cart and headed two blocks over from 11th Street to 9th Street, where I crashed on the living room floor of a friend of a friend.  I lingered there for months.  I made my first sober friend (he was the boyfriend of my FOF – friend of a friend) and went to bars with him on nights I wasn’t at AA meetings.  While at the bar I watched he and her sing karaoke as I pounded seltzers, reveling in my status as a newly minted sober badass.

But I got a job.  It was my first sober job and it was right across the street from my last drunken one.  I made food money at Back To the Land Natural Foods.  I felt better about myself, like I could almost justify being a luggage-y spot on my FOF’s floor.

But deep inside I kept everything on the surface; it was all I knew how to do.  I couldn’t talk about my feelings; I was a regular Marcel Marceau in meetings at “Pass It On” in Park Slope’s Church of Gethsemane. But I tried to listen closely and soak everything in.  I got a sponsor and tried to learn, spending long afternoons with him at Ozzie’s Coffee (Where Park Slopers Sober Up!) on Lincoln Place and 7th.  Thank goodness it was kinda making sense to me.

As for my older brother, a fellow Brooklynite, I kind of laid low these early months.  I felt bad, like I’d failed in life.  But he was nothing but understanding.  There were so many things I still couldn’t talk about as I never knew what to say.  He respected it all and gave me my space.

Emotional surface skimmer that I’d become, I didn’t notice my erstwhile landlady was getting pretty miffed about my semi-permanent residency on her living room floor.  She erupted and told me one day at the end of September that I had to get out.

So I scrounged enough money from my even-longer-suffering mother for an Amtrak ticket from NY to Miami.  But I couldn’t travel without some rudimentary documents, and my old Driver’s License had expired years ago.  I headed back to Coney Island, this time to the DMV, and, armed with an unpaid ConEd bill and an old video store pay stub, managed to get a state ID Card.  That night I headed to Two Boots Bar (a place I hadn’t yet learned to NOT hang out in) and waved it in the face of my bartender friend Steve.

“I’ve got ID!!” I bragged.

I guess victories, however small, were really hard to come by in those days.  Steve still remembers that joyous exclamation as, well…. pathetic.  In early October Eddie saw me off at Penn Station, still ruing my faddish sobriety.

It was so good to get home and see my mom and my sisters.  From the second I saw them I was emotionally nourished.  I fed off of them and the nearly constant sunshine (and Cuban food) that winter of ’94-’95.  I was thin of frame but getting healthier day by day.  Not everyone was getting stronger though; for nobody (including her) knew how sick my mom was, or even that she was sick at all.

Emotionally I was still a little shallow, but could get real around my family.  For I felt love for them and was so glad that I was alive again to talk to them; could remember and care about their stories.  But it was quite hard to do; I automatically covered my inadvertently expressed feelings with self-deprecating jokes.  It was just the habits of a life.  It seems that those grooves, once repeatedly worn in, are awfully hard to climb out of.

I got a job as a night clerk at a South Beach Hotel that catered to models, and I settled in.  I made a new friend named Maurizio, who introduced me to Vipassana Buddhism, and I started to get a bit of a handle on who this person dwelling within me was.  I lived with my mom; I was very grateful for that and a lot more grateful for it in the following years, looking back.  She and I got to know each other after years of my one-sided mooching estrangement.  She, just like a mom, never held that against me, and from that example of acceptance I learned to feel remorse for my past abuses.

I went to meetings at “Sober on South Beach” (meetings all have titled names) on Washington Avenue and got a new sponsor, a professor at the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute.  He took me through the steps of the twelve step program.  It was really hard, I didn’t want to deal with this crap; and honestly, around the middle steps I largely balked.  But still I listened, now occasionally speaking at meetings, and just “took care of my bidness.”

I took the bus and MetroRail back and forth between Coconut Grove and Miami Beach and just hung out with my siblings, my family.  They were people that I increasingly realized I needed in my life, and not for money.  I was getting used to not being in a state of war with myself.

But I had more business to take care of, I may have started to patch things up with the fems in my family but I really missed my brother back in Brooklyn.  While drinking, I didn’t ever mooch off of him, I just avoided him, he and his wonderful girlfriend Kathleen.  I felt guilty for the way I was living back then, I didn’t want him to see it; but it turns out he always knew what was going on.

I learned that the people who matter always know.

In the fall of ’94, finally confronted with a “shit or get off the pot” ultimatum, my brother proposed to Kathleen and, luckily for all of us, she accepted.   It looked like I was headed back to New York after all, to be an usher at the wedding planned for August of ’95 in the Waldorf-Astoria.  I could patch things up with my big bro.

I saved up my money, put the finishing touches on a tan (I’d recently learned that I was quite vain), and got ready to Amtrak it back up the Seaboard.  But I had a few months to go, and still only vague plans for what to do when I got there.  I really thought after all the suffering I’d been (put myself) through, that the world still owed me a little sumtin’ sumtin.’

But as the hot spring turned into the even hotter summer, I fretted about making a good impression on my brother and his fiancé. Worried that I might embarrass myself at the wedding or the rehearsal dinner (what if they asked me to talk!?); I was finding out about some things I cared about, stuff I would have jauntily stated but not really believed.  And that is that I deeply cared about my family.  Also that I was really excited to get back to New York, a city I loved and could now enjoy as a more stable person.

END OF PART ONE  What happened in New York?  Check out Part two in a few days……

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