Monthly Archives: June 2014

5 – The Big Geographic

Despite the many benefits of not drinking, my marriage felt precarious. One way I knew to distract from core unhappiness was to make big, expensive, logistically complex decisions. So, Tru and I, we consolidated our real estate, sold the weekend house at a depressing loss, and then sold the co-op, too. No loss there: we were fortunate to capitalize on New York’s first outbreak of gentrification. ‘The March of the Italian Shoe Stores’ up Columbus Avenue in the mid-’80s transformed a down-at-the-heels thoroughfare into a trendy boulevard more or less overnight. All of a sudden, my favorite saloon – the Tap-A-Keg bar, subtitled in neon, One Hell of a Joint – vanished. This was something even a sober person would notice. Especially a sober person would notice. Gone, replaced by some store, and then in mere weeks I forgot where it had been.

Truly, time to go.

We doubled our money and did the yuppie thing. We packed the minivan, drove an hour north, and pulled into the driveway of a spacious old farmhouse on an acre in Westchester County. Plenty of yard for Trudi to cultivate and Claire to frolic in. But for me, being a homeowner and a commuter felt like playing PacMan with a lawnmower, a series of noisy, repetitive ninety degree turns pursued by ravenous phantoms. Nevertheless, the novelty and the space were soothing. I tried going to AA meetings in neighboring towns after I got home from work, but getting back into the car and driving all over creation after the hour and a half on the train was for hardier souls. The lunchtime meeting suited me fine. It let me to stay connected to life in the city and keep my sobriety separate from my suburban existence.

One structural challenge for the newly sober is what to do with all that time, that ramshackle, creaking edifice that had been occupied with either drinking, recovering from drinking, plotting the next drink, or dealing with obstreperous reality. Those hours I filled with my delightful new hobby – genealogy. I fell under the spell of Trudi’s ancestors, whose lineage stretched back to 1635 in Gloucester, Mass. My own relations held no fascination. They were late 19th century immigrants, new arrivals whose paper trails disappeared beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. I obsessed about arcane tidbits and harvested them with gusto. In practice, genealogy is truly a trivial pursuit; what the word ‘factoid’ was invented for.

With each new day not drinking, I fell more and more in love with stories, ones that bubbled up from the past, as well as the ones I heard spun every day at AA, and I began to believe there could be stories in the making. When I drank, I was always jumping out from behind a tree and scaring the bejesus out of myself. I never knew what the minutes or hours would bring. One could easily wake up fired or married or with blood on the fender and not know why. I plodded along, trying to pay attention, trying not to be an asshole. My life was an encyclopedia of unresolved issues, yet somehow they didn’t oppress the way they did when I was drunk all the time.

My attempt at sober living had thus far been brief, but to some people I would always and forever be ‘that fucking asshole.’ The memories of family, friends, and institutions were long. For the past ten years I had been a selfish bastard – unreliable, unkind, underwrought, and, all too often, unsanitary. That was historical fact, but it soon became apparent to those close in that I wasn’t making the same old mistakes. Honesty came easier to me. Well, maybe not actual honesty, but factual congruence. Through the miracle of speech, I could participate in homely conversation. I became a better husband and father. I became a better son to my parents, which in turn caused them to seem less creepy and controlling.

And there was Claire.

4 – You Are Not Holding Sword

At home, life resumed. Trudi and I persevered and compromised. We got off the coffee table. We bought an expensive gizmo, an IBM PC, and upgraded from Atari to Zork. For an exorbitant amount of dollars, what you got turned out to be sort of a downgrade; instead of a joystick and colorful mayhem, silent green phrases scrolled down a twelve-inch screen you manipulated from a keyboard. Running programs required multiple insertions of 5¼-inch floppy disks, the technological equivalent of a handloom. We would put Claire to bed and sit exploring Zork’s Great Underground Empire, confronting mutant peril with exchanges like ‘Stab troll’, What do you want to stab the troll with? ‘Stab troll with sword’, You are not holding sword.

A ways down Columbus Avenue from our apartment, my college friend, Ray, tended bar at a new, upscale Mexican restaurant. He covered alternate Sundays. Stowing Claire in the stroller, I could catch the beginning of his shift before the dinner crowd poured in. The little one was usually asleep by the time I got there. Eight stools, all empty. Ray would crack a Heineken, slide it across the bar, and I’d pull on it as we speculated on the issues of the day.

This Sunday, I showed up and requested a Perrier. He reached for the usual green bottle and the double take nearly dislocated his neck.

“Perrier, V?” said Ray, “Perrier? What the fuck?”

“Yeah, adios cerveza. I’m not drinking. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to fuckin’ work anymore. Like it ever really did. It’s just now I sort of feel better.”

“You are the last person I could ever imagine without a drink in his hand.”

“I’m full of fucking surprises, man,” I said.

“Does Trudi know?”

“Oh, go fuck yourself, Ray.”

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said.

“Yup,” I said with a snort, “It’s come to this.”

Ray loves to tell this story. Not soon after, he stopped drinking. We are the lucky sons-of-bitches.


It is typically delusional to assert that sobriety is a virtue, that it ennobles all behavior and every motive. In truth, sobriety simply is an end in itself. It offers no Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, no absolution. Blaming alcohol, or more academically, alcoholism, for all assholic behavior may seem like a justifiable conclusion, but you stop drinking and the big surprise is you’re still you. The rediscovery of meanness or duplicity in one’s sober life is but a flicker of the human condition and not an excuse to find fault in the act of not drinking. Neurotic baggage is neurotic baggage. Even assholes can stay sober; this becomes apparent almost from the get-go. One must strive not to be one. Without my sense of humor, I would be doomed. I would be unable to appreciate my own personal absurdity. This inkling of absurdity allows for the wiggle room to develop the perspective to seek forgiveness and ask for help.

I was getting the ‘don’t drink and go to meetings’ thing down pretty good. Changing my behavior and my thinking, well, that would be a long slog down another muddy thoroughfare. I had glimmers, moments of clarity, which laid bare the absolute necessity for me to remain sober. It was a good thing, but it didn’t confer goodness upon me. Growing up was slow and complicated. What I really wanted in my heart was to be happy.


3 – A Flush and a Full House

Trudi called from the country all upset. The tree surgeon she’d become involved with had gone psycho on her, she said. “I won’t let him come over, so then all he does is cry on the phone. He has a gun.”

“A gun. Jesus, Tru.”

“He says he’s going to use it.”

“Get the fuck out of there. Put Claire in the car seat and get the fuck out of there.”

“On himself, V. On himself.”

“Pack now. Go.”

So, five months after she abandoned New York, Trudi returned. A day or two later, I emptied the tin of marijuana into the bowl and flushed. With a shudder of self-preservation, I acted. Dealing with problems impulsively and unilaterally was my m.o., when I dealt with them at all. I just shut the bathroom door and flushed. Discussion and planning were luxuries or distractions, presupposing a level of intimacy incomprehensible to me. It was Tru’s pot too, I suppose, but, really, I was the one who bought it. I could chuck it down the sewer if I wanted. I’m sure we discussed it after the fact. Always, the discussion after the fact.

I never told my Smithers group, either that I had been smoking pot all along or that I stopped. I never told them I didn’t go to AA, but I kept exhorting my fellow patients to go – go take sobriety seriously.

Finally, I took my own advice. With the wife home and without weed, things were getting a little balled up. The meeting room buzzed with rec room/church basement glare and thrummed with self-pity. The bullshit made me squirm, all these unhappy people, cokeheads and actors mostly, with teeny tiny axes to grind. The experience went unrepeated until a few months later, as the Smithers program was winding down.


I straggled into a lunchtime meeting around the corner from my Wall Street office. It met weekdays on the third floor of the building directly behind Trinity Church. I found a seat in the middle, a suit among suits, and adapted my ‘hide-in-plain-sight’ tactic of social interaction to the dynamic of the AA meeting. I went back the next day and the next. I relaxed. Who were these good-looking, articulate, cranky people? They were just like me – people too good for this sorry planet brought low by booze and bad acting.

Promptly at 12:15, some seemingly self-selected person would sit facing the room and spend twenty minutes recounting the misery that liquor had subjected them to. A five-minute break for coffee followed, and then the floor opened to a show-of-hands, enabling others to relate their own boozy experiences or wax dramatic on their messy sober lives. These tales were alternately captivating and tedious. Women gaily recalled blowjobs in backseats for cocaine or rent money or whatnot and men sheepishly mentioned waking up in other boroughs dressed in unusual clothing or missing significant articles of same. Then there were the strenuously dull folks who could, as my friend Brigid would say, “…bore you to death while fuckin’ you.” Or those chirpy, little creatures who just sprang from tulip to daisy to daffodil, thanking the Lord and thinking only good thoughts. You wanted to smack them.

Not drinking was a good thing and, if all I had to do to not drink were sit still for an hour and listen to these clowns, well, I’d do it. Slowly I let myself be known. I raised my hand and complained about my brother-in-law backhandedly dissing me when I informed him that I no longer engaged in casual pot-dealing. “What do you mean?” he said. “I get it: What you mean is you just won’t sell to me.” Few things suck as uncomfortably as those first few acts of resistance to alcoholism and its slutty handmaiden, drug addiction. ‘The hell with you, Mac,’ felt delicious, actually. After it sucked.

Trinity Church, which owned the building, relegated our meeting to the basement. We took it as a demotion, but it was just one of those things. The new room was a yellowy, fluorescent space where rows of spindly chairs faced a table behind which that day’s speaker would sit. I always sat in the smoking section, on the right, puffing away on Merits. My first job in Alcoholics Anonymous was to distribute, and then collect and empty the crusty, pressed-metal ashtrays. Brigid told me to and Brigid was to be obeyed. Either obeyed, ignored, or told to go screw.

Brigid was formidable. She stood almost six foot. The other feature you noticed right away, besides her height, was those deep-set, intense black eyes. Her ferocity was arbitrary. She intimidated everyone, but had managed to earn the respect of most of the group with her singular ability to cut through bullshit. Once during a meeting, a middle-aged banker confessed to smacking his wife around and at the coffee break Brigid cornered him and told him to get “a fucking psychiatrist before you do something really fucking stupid you won’t live to regret.” She got his attention. He got a shrink.

She had the dazzling capacity to juggle as many as four trains of thought at the same time. A simple conversation might devolve into a breathtaking scramble up one side of the space/time continuum and down the other. You could find yourself entangled in an elaborate discussion of James Joyce (she called him ‘Jimmy’), Asian women’s alleged propensity for bossiness, and coleslaw, ingredients of. Some people couldn’t handle it, but those who could had access to her rough compassion, as well as a good laugh.

Ashtray distribution was the most exhilarating job I’d ever done. I glowed with gratitude. I showed up before the meeting to do my thing and to watch Brigid badger the people making the coffee. The laissez-faire sense of fellowship that filled the room helped me reattach myself to the planet. The obsession to drink went away; it simply backed out of the room. I don’t know how else to explain it. I don’t know where it went. I didn’t see it go. My sour, preemptive enthusiasm for alcohol dissolved. Existential fretting remained ever-present, but I didn’t miss the drink, a miracle considering the universal appeal of feeling deprived. Daily meetings, sixty minutes a day: that’s all. I took my seat and listened, keeping my mouth shut for the most part.

Here was a new way of living, but definitely not one of hands-folded-in-your-lap, teetotaling virtue. A new pageant unfolded every day at 12:15. One noon, a strapping fellow perched on the table in front of the group, spread his knees, and told his story as his testicles tumbled like putti out of his running shorts. We were riveted; the usual fidgeting, whispering, and wandering back and forth to the coffee ceased. “Thank you,” he said, grinned, and jumped up, the curtain falling on his baroque display. An audible exhalation and – thunderous applause.

A month or two later, we were all waiting on the speaker to take his seat; it was 12:16, for God’s sake. A rustle came from the back of the room prompting a flurry of turning heads, as a soft-spoken black man named Terrell swept out of the men’s room in a great, red taffeta dress and matching opera-length gloves. Lipstick, lashes, no wig, huge pumps. He had to celebrate the anniversary of his sobriety with every stitch of style at his command.

“My name … is Ms. Teri. And I am an Alcoholic … for Life!”

“Hi, Ms. Teri!” roared the room.

Joe P., a sharp-dressing money manager, complained endlessly about his wife. He’d been sober a long time, but at every meeting he had something brutal to say – She talks to her mother all the time; She’s a shitty parent; She fucks around; I know she’s drinking again. We cut him some slack because he would co-opt the meanness with self-deprecating humor. Then, all of sudden, he stopped showing up at 12:15. It turned out he had strangled the wife and stuffed her body in the trunk of the BMW. Then he settled the kids into the backseat, drove to some woods upstate, and buried her. A week later, he was wearing a bra and panties when the police arrested him. He went to trial and was convicted. Right before the sentencing hearing, he collapsed and died, evidently of AIDS. If a person judged guilty of a crime dies prior to being sentenced, his record is expunged. This tabloid saga kept the room in lively, if whispered, conversation for months.

Oh, and Bernie, poor thing. A day didn’t go by, Bernie didn’t threw his hand up. He would then cheerfully announce how many days it had been since his last drink, which was usually yesterday. We would mutter and clap and mutter some more.

There was no soap opera better – the boozy narratives, the sloganeering, the old jokes, the weepy admissions of recurrent drunkenness, the endless prattle, and the fury, the incandescent frustration inherent in learning from one’s mistakes. This circus offered a buffer from the daily vicissitudes, a place of consistency and connection. It was a terrible relief that my personal psychodrama could stay in the basement. The unspoken refrain to almost every anecdote or admission was “Me, too.” All the while, angry, deluded, and infuriating unfortunates came and went, lasting for a meeting or three. Settling into sobriety was not easy, that I could see. I wanted what those AA people had, the ability to withstand all the complex nonsense of life without pulling the blanket of alcoholic dependency back over my head.

2 – Tongues of Fire

After a fine weekend in the country sipping sheepishly, I bid Trudi and Claire, our three-year-old daughter, adieu at the Poughkeepsie station and boarded the evening train to Manhattan. In the snack bar car, I ordered a Miller Lite. It was warm, lukewarm. I lit a cigarette and jounced along as tongues of fire caromed off the Hudson River and set the train ablaze. That was Sunday. When I showed up at Smithers on Tuesday, I hadn’t had a drink since that lukewarm beer, a first for me. Beerlessness was something I never did, certainly not deliberately, not if I could help it.

I recall these circumstances as vivid and momentous, yet somehow weightless – a semi-distracted recollection. There I was, just me and my own devices, getting up every morning, going to work, coming home, watching TV, all the while not drinking. With no one around to interact with, no one to marvel or scoff, nothing happened. If I felt transformed or did any deep reflecting or had a revelation of some kind, it’s long forgotten. If a man gets sober in an empty apartment, does it make a noise?

Smithers was a semi-legendary alcoholism treatment center in New York City, part of boozy folklore, a last resort, like Chit Chat Farms in Pennsylvania. It had been established by a wealthy New Yorker, grateful for his sobriety and eager to return the favor. For years, its residential facility had been located in Billy Rose’s mansion on the Upper East Side. I’m told it was very grand, marble everything, but by the time I found myself backing into sobriety the chateau had been sold and the facility moved to a terribly ordinary building near Roosevelt Hospital on the West Side.

My fellow Smithers outpatients represented a motley cross section of alcoholics. The people I remember were the middle-aged, white professionals – a lawyer, a nurse, a bond trader – people like me with middle-class lives in place, for whom sobriety was new and uncomfortable, not exactly what they had planned. Trudi and Rhoda Schroeder were off my back. I was doing something indisputably right that got righter every day. The omnipresent crappy feeling, like my head was an ash pit filled with eels, dissipated. My body stopped resisting. It felt good not to drink.

Coaxing us into early sobriety must not have been easy. We were all willfully clueless, without the wherewithal to cast the net of self-awareness further than eighteen inches. Our primary concerns were superficial and our paranoia boundless. In group, it was easiest to talk about perceived threats to one’s job, because that’s where the last shreds of self-esteem lay. One confounding dilemma, for example: how does one contain the horrible alcoholic truth at the Human Resources level? The boss must never know, not the real circumstances behind your sabbatical.

The nurse was middle management, a supervisor, and so skittish at the prospect of being outted as an alcoholic that her conspiracy theories often held the group hostage. What if one of her colleagues found out and went to her director with the information? What if someone she knew saw her at a meeting or within a hundred feet of a church basement? What if some ‘sober’ person identified themselves as such at the hospital switchboard? On top of these persecution fantasies, she complained bitterly about the fascist overlords of AA, particularly at the special meeting for medical professionals, where the confidentiality of recovering alcoholics was strictly enforced. She would not countenance the idea that everyone at meetings applied the Golden Rule to the issue of personal privacy. The lengths she went to complicate the situation spooked everyone. Encouraging her to lighten up, to consider going to other meetings, any other meetings, became part of our routine. Go. Just go.

Did I go? No. I was still smoking reefer. The nonsense about alcohol being a drug and sobriety being incumbent on abstinence from the entire universe of intoxicants did not apply to me.