My final stop was the city of Akron and the house where Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, two drunken Vermonters, met and where on June 10, 1935, Dr. Bob Smith took his last drink. From that date, Alcoholics Anonymous marks its beginning. The little house was built in 1915 and Bob Smith was its first owner, living there until he died in 1950.
I am sober since 1985. For me and many, the story of how Bill W. met Dr. Bob carries the resonance of a creation myth. The principles and history of AA all depend on the simple practice of two alcoholics sharing an honest conversation. Only that kind of intimacy can keep us from drinking. I believe this in the very center of my being.
Swooping over the dips and swells and dips of the red brick streets of the old suburban neighborhood, a fluttery excitement tussled with anxiety. I might get lost, really lost, hopelessly lost. My directions had me peering at each passing street sign and slowing down to make a turn every three or four blocks. The house would shut for the day at three o’clock. It was going to take hours to find 855 Ardmore Avenue. And then, there I was, parked at the leafy curb of a street like any other. The house sat high on a corner lot, white with yellow trim and a wide front porch with brick pillars.
I couldn’t help feeling just a little self-conscious, climbing the twelve steps (yes, the twelve steps) to the front door. Once inside, that sensation dropped away: the building enveloped me. From the vantage of the front hall, one could see, or certainly sense, the house’s four exterior walls; it was that small. This also meant it was full of light. A half dozen people milled around in the entry and living room; coming or going, it was impossible to tell. Signing the guestbook seemed like a good place for me to start.
A stocky, open-faced guy in blue coveralls approached and asked if it was my first time. I chuckled and he chuckled back. The name embroidered above his pocket read ‘TJ’.
“My name is TJ. I can give you a tour, if you want. We’re all volunteers here,” he said.
“I’d like that,” I said. “This is my last stop in Ohio. I’m here on purpose. Uh, I guess we all are. On purpose, I mean, Dr. Bob and all… TJ.”
“Uh-huh. Yeah. Let’s start upstairs, then.”
I poked my head into the bedrooms that had provided respite for countless drunks, often forcing the two Smith kids to bunk in the third floor attic. This must have been a lively place; both before and after Bob Smith stopped drinking.
On the ground floor was the kitchen table, around which Bob and Bill had their life-changing conversation. In addition to two half-full cups of coffee, on the table sat a plate of windmill cookies, the kind I see all the time at meetings in New York. The only other spot where I have felt the presence of such quietly turbulent spirits was Delphi in Greece in the early morning. Maybe that’s a metaphysical reach, but the restorative legacy of 855 Ardmore Avenue is unquestionable.
Eventually, we made our way down to the cellar, a whitewashed room remarkable for nothing in particular. Being so high up on the corner lot allowed the basement to have a set of double doors that permitted off-street parking. Even in 1915, being a doctor necessitated having a car. Photographs of Dr. Bob’s automobiles lined the walls.
“How much time do you have, TJ?”
“Seven years clean and dry in a month.”
“That’s pretty impressive. It sorta rolls along after a while, the not drinking and going to meetings,” I said. “This commitment must help. How often do you take people around?”
“Only once a week.”
“Only? How come?”
“There’s a demand. Some people say it’s the best job in Akron.”
“And you’ve got the Tuesday afternoon slot. Lucky me.”
We continued in this good-natured way – simple questions, simple answers, pauses, fencing, more pauses, sideways admissions, laughter – just gabbing on and on. His eyes welled up. I felt abashed. And then a big hug.
It’s all in the eyes. ‘AA eyes’, as my friend, Brigid, says: what Dr. Bob called ‘the language of the heart.’ TJ and I fell into an easy rapport in the course of a half an hour. We didn’t have much in common in the specifics of our lives, but we weren’t drinking and that took care of everything. I have never been happier, more at ease, more in my skin, than that moment in the basement of that little Akron house.
The pleasures of Ohio were unanticipated and unforgettable. But crossing Pennsylvania took forever.