DANCING WITH THE SNAKES AND BUGS: INTERVIEWS WITH
A special report for Soma magazine
by Griffith Wilson
Editor’s note: Soma magazine’s special correspondent, Griffith Wilson, was recently charged with gathering interviews with people who are recovering from addiction. Mr. Wilson is a recovering alcoholic himself. What follows are lightly edited interviews with four people whose last names are not used, according to traditions of anonymity among many recovering people.
Griffith Wilson note: None of views expressed by my respondents reflect the views of any 12-Step organization, treatment facility, government entity, religious faction, political party, Kiwanis Club, extra-terrestrial civilization, or me.
One: Class with No Ass
Martha H. agreed to meet me at a Starbucks in Near North Chicago. She arrived on time and ordered an Americano with an extra shot and drank it black. She appeared somewhat younger than 72, which is the age she claimed when I talked to her on the phone. She was wearing a tan cashmere coat over a red cable-knit sweater, a grey tweed skirt that came to her knees and mid-calf black leather boots. She wore reading glasses on a cord that hung from her neck. Her hair was a slate grey and hung to her shoulders. Her eyes were a startling color — blue and green flecks across a grey background– that contained a light one seldom sees in the eyes of Golden Mile matrons such as her. Her voice betrayed just a hint of a “Da Bey-ehrs” Chicago accent.
GW: Thanks for agreeing to talk to me. Our mutual friend said you would be interested in helping put a different face on addiction for my magazine.
MH: Certainly. I’m glad to do it.
GW: So where did all this start for you?
MH: It’s not lost on me that some people think my life before I got sober was one they might like to have, and I understand that. I came from a wealthy family right here in Chicago, and I married into even more wealth. Can’t buy me love, though. [She laughs in a raspy sort of way that betrays having smoked a large number of cigarettes in her life.] My husband was in foreign service, and we spent times in places like London and Paris and Buenos Aires. I drank gin in London and fine red wine in Paris and anything I could get my hands on in Buenos Aires. At first it was maybe a bit too much at a dinner, but I was charming and funny and maybe a little bit quirky and that was OK in that world. And then I hit the maintenance phase of my drinking, and I could drink all the wine and cocktails I pleased at dinners and at home and still be in control of myself and my temper, which was something I didn’t begin to lose control of until we were in Argentina, where my husband began to comment on my behavior, and I had to watch myself and count drinks and not start too early in the day unless I was sick and needed to be in bed, which of course happened more and more. Being sick in bed that is.
GW: You mentioned your temper. What was making you angry then?
MH: Mostly that I had to control the drinking. Any alcoholic will tell you that it is better to have no drinks for three hours than to have one drink and then no more for the next three hours. Right? Being like that made me really, really mad, and I took it out on whoever was around.
GW: So the alcoholism was a gradual thing then?
MH: Yeah. I didn’t touch a drop until I was in college. I was very idealistic back then and wanted to be a psychologist who worked with young children. I know now that this came from the fact that my own mother was not around much. She had headaches, you see, and the nannies and cooks and maids took care of me and my three sisters. My father was off on business all the time, but when he was home, he was kind and gentle and supportive. That is, except when my mother was up and about, and then he got this kind of tense quiet about him. [She pauses here and twists a napkin. Just as the silence begins to get awkward, she starts speaking again.]
I went to prep schools in New England and then to Wellesley College and met my husband, who was a year ahead of me at Harvard. The girls at Wellesley were mostly well-behaved, and they taught the younger ones how to drink properly, but there were a few who liked to drink outside of social settings and play cards and sneak cigarettes. I fell in with them when I could, and right from the beginning, I could drink more than any of them. I could drink more than a lot of the boys I dated in college, for that matter. I thought this was a wonderful gift to me then, but I realize now that it was a bad sign. You get that? [I nod. Yes, I do.]
When I got married and had the children, the drinking slowed down, and I was so busy that I didn’t really notice it too much. But every now and then I would get off by myself, and I would read magazines and drink wine all day. What’s that old commercial? You deserve a break today? You deserve to get wasted today! [Again, the raspy laugh.] The wine made it OK to be alone with myself. From my earliest memories, I never liked being alone with just me and my thoughts and this persistent feeling that I had done something wrong and people would find out that I did it or that I was about to do something wrong.
GW: So at some point, you realized you couldn’t go on like this?
MH: It was more like people were tired of me going on like that.
GW: How so?
I was 45 when I first went to treatment, the first of five. My husband went through coaxing me to not drink before we went out to some function and then being very angry and yelling at me about embarrassing him and the State Department and then just not taking me with him anymore and making excuses for me. So finally he insisted I needed to be in treatment. This first one out in California was extremely expensive and exclusive and had great food and wonderful sheets on the beds and horseback riding and attentive staff that were firm in teaching me about what alcoholism is and exactly nothing about what to do about it. So I got out of there thinking that if I don’t drink anymore, I’m not an alcoholic anymore. My mind still tells me this. It says Martha a couple of Vicodin would really help your sore back or Martha you know how right a glass of Pinot Grigio would go with that nice sea bass for lunch. My mind does not bring up on its own what about the five treatment centers? And just why was it necessary to go to five treatment centers in the first place? I need other alcoholics to remind me of these things.
GW: So what happened after this first treatment?
I think I made it about 30 days after the first treatment. I certainly wasn’t going to any AA meetings because what if someone recognized me there? My husband was supportive but distant when I got home. I realize now he was happy I was gone. The children were busy teenagers then and wanted nothing to do with me anyway. All through treatment I kept saying I had to get home to my family but the truth was that my family was better off without me there. [She pauses again and says she wants to get another coffee and make a phone call. She is gone awhile, and when she comes back, I can smell cigarette smoke on her.]
The subsequent treatment centers declined in, shall we say, “exclusiveness” as they piled up. I did it all. Extended residential and sober living and massive amounts of therapy and returns to primary treatment and back through the cycle all over again. I even went to a place where they had me dress up like a baby and sit in a high chair and drink wine out of a bowl. They videotaped this and then showed it to me with the idea that I would associate this humiliation with drinking wine. Actually, the videotape just made me want some more wine! [She explodes in that raspy laughter, and several nearby customers look over at us. She doesn’t appear to notice or care.]
GW: God, I can relate.
I kept making it OK to have one drink here and there or go on a binge just one weekend or take a few of the Percocets my husband got after oral surgery. And I would go right back to where I left off except it would get worse. And so would the problems I was having. My husband finally just left me in a small house in Deerfield with a small monthly income that I would drink up by the 15th every month. I managed to get a job in a bookstore and maintain around that for quite awhile because the nasty little demon in my head knew I needed money to sustain the flow of alcohol, so it let me work. I was 55 when I finally ran all the way down and ended up in a detox facility for eight days and then in a small treatment center up in Wisconsin. I had already been to the big treatment center over in Minnesota. They didn’t understand me there. [A wry smile crosses her face, and she blows out some air through pursed lips.]
GW: I get the joke. I think you’re saying they understood you perfectly well but you didn’t understand yourself and what was really wrong with you?
MH: Yes, exactly. I jumped off, as they say, in that little treatment center when I finally heard that alcohol was not my problem, it was a solution to my problems, and it quit working, and I was the last person to know it. My roommate there was a woman named Charlotte from some God-forsaken town in northern Wisconsin. One day I was getting dressed in our room, and she says, “Martha, you got things I ain’t got, but I got something you ain’t got and that’s an ass. You ain’t got no ass! Have you looked in the fuckin’ mirror for Chrissake? You ain’t got no ass!” [The Starbucks patrons at the next table get up and leave. Martha is laughing very loud now.]
No ass. I had these little stick legs holding up a bloated belly and no butt. Even if I do say so myself, I had a fine figure once. A nice ass, if you will. [The blue-and-green-flecked eyes are glowing again.] And now I looked like some grotesque parody of a woman. I went into the bathroom and took off all my clothes and stood with my back to a full length mirror and looked over my shoulder. I looked like a little boy from behind. And I started to cry. I hadn’t cried in a long time. I have no idea how long. I hadn’t laughed in a long time, either. And when I got done crying, I went and hugged Charlotte. I looked everywhere for the answer but Charlotte had looked right at me and saw it and had no problem saying it because I was still acting like I was different from everyone else, and she said you’re different all right, you ain’t got no ass! And then we began to laugh and we laughed and laughed for weeks, and today Charlotte works over at that big treatment center in Minnesota, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
GW: So you have been sober since then?
MH: Yeah. Seventeen years. When I got back home from there I went all over Chicago looking for meetings. Sometimes I went to four a day. I had nothing else to do, and every time I left a meeting, I felt better than I did when I went in there. People told me to make coffee at early morning meetings because that’s a way to get involved and also a good way to make yourself noticed. All you have to do is make a lot of bad coffee and then sit in the meeting and listen. I had nothing to say for months. But I made coffee and then I volunteered to be the secretary of a meeting in Evanston that became my home group. Being of service was something I was raised to do, and as the wife of a diplomat I had many chances, but I drank them all away. I drank the diplomat away, too, although I got some of his money when he died. Strange that I would outlive him, huh?
[Martha begins to stare out the window again, as if looking for a thought that had gone outside.] Look, I have to say here that this is just my experience. This is what worked for me. A lot of people, like the ones who read your magazine, think that AA members are always trying to recruit new members, and that’s not true at all. When someone new shows up, we tell them what happened to us, and then the new ones decide whether they want what he have or not.
GW: Is there anything you want to add before we wrap this us?
MH: My own parents died somewhere in the middle of all the treatment centers, and I hardly even noticed. They left my sisters all the money and me a cabin in northern Maine. I didn’t even know that they couldn’t trust me anymore, that they didn’t even know who I was anymore. The Martha they sent off to Wellesley had disappeared a long time ago. The fact that I couldn’t make direct amends to my parents was something that bothered me for a long time. Finally I went up to that cabin in Maine, got it fixed up and gave it away to a couple with four kids I met at an AA meeting there. I wondered if maybe my parents thought that would be a good place for me to go and die. Out of the way but out of the weather, so to speak. So all I could think to do to make amends was get rid of a good place to die and make it a good place to live. I felt like not wanting to die anymore was amends enough to the people who brought me into the world.
BO: Thanks very much for this. I have to say it is not what I expected given the way you look today.
MH: I get that a lot.
Two: Honky Tonk Angel
I was able to interview Crystal S. as a result of mentioning this project to a friend named Bruce who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration. My friend said he put this woman named Crystal S. in prison down in Florida and was astonished to see her some years later when she was on a panel about parolee issues. Crystal was working highway crews throughout the Midwest and South, he said.
I met Crystal at a Holiday Inn near Richmond, Indiana, right on the Ohio border. It was a hot, muggy day, and we sat outside on a patio for the interview. She was short, maybe five-foot-two. I guessed her age at around 35. She had on a blue Tennessee Titans football jersey and jean shorts. She was wearing yellow flip flops, and her toenails were painted a fluorescent green. Her hair, dyed blonde and showing dark roots, was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore rimless glasses that sat low on her crooked nose. Her front teeth appeared to have been capped. Her skin was a deep brown from all the days out in the sun guiding traffic around the interminable fixes to the nation’s interstate highway system. Her voice was disconcertingly deep, with a thick accent and a waver in it as if her throat had been badly injured once.
GW: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I guess you see the irony in the DEA playing a part in me getting this interview with you?
CS: Oh, yeah. Bruce was doin’ his job, and I was doin’ mine, so to speak. Say, look. I tend to cuss a lot when I get riled up like I always do when I talk about my life, so I guess I’m askin’ if that’s OK with this magazine you work for. Can you like clean it up?
GW: No problem. The point of this piece is to just show recovering addicts the way they are, not how people think they are.
CS: Well, you done asked for it. [She pulls out a can of Skoal out of the back pocket of her shorts and sticks a dip in her lower lip. This surprises me. I can’t remember ever seeing a woman dip Skoal. I notice that she she doesn’t spit out the tobacco juice.] So here I am about to talk about my incredibly fucked up life again, which it still seems like it still is sometimes even though don’t get me wrong I’m really grateful to be clean and sober today and my life really is different. Not better always but different. And there ain’t nothin’ but good about being different from what I used to be. [Aside from the deep voice and the Skoal, another disconcerting thing about Crystal is she rarely breaks eye contact. The effect is like interviewing an intense wild animal.]
I come from this shithole town in Tennessee. My momma Sherry was a drunk even though she liked to say she was a honky tonk angel like as if that singer what’s her name Tammy something was thinking about Sherry when she sang that song. She was a fuckin’ bar fly is all, and it killed her one night finally or more like Davy Wayne Phillips killed her when he hit her too hard finally and it got him executed by the state of Tennessee thank God, but I know now that booze killed my momma along with the coke that guys like Davy Wayne Phillips was always too glad to bring along for one more ride down What The Fuck Happened Street. [I look down at the tape recorder to break the eye contact. My hands are trembling slightly.]
My daddy was named Earl, and he worked all over the place. Railroads, coal mines, meat packing. He left six months after I was born, and momma never even talked about him again. Like he went down in a mine one day and turned into coal dust. Earl sent money when he could I gotta give him that but I never saw him again. Now that I have some 24 hours behind me I’m thinkin’ about tryin’ to track him down if he’s still alive which given my family ain’t likely. [She stops and seems to be tearing up. She shakes her head slowly from side to side.]
GW: Go on …
CS: So anyway, Earl got replaced by Junior Henry. I was about six when Junior decides he would do something useful for a change and give me a bath and get me ready for church and Sunday school. I’m told I was probably thinkin’ right then and there that there was somethin’ not right about this — this is after going through a couple a thousand hours of therapy over this shit — but around there it wasn’t easy to know if somethin’ wasn’t right because everything wasn’t right but then I didn’t know that because it was all I knew so it seemed normal. So anyway he’s scrubbing me up and he starts rubbin’ on my crotch with the washcloth, and he says in this broken mouth drawl that all those shithead crackers had don’t that feel nice? Well more’n likely it did feel nice. So Junior is rubbin’ up his stepdaughter’s twat and then taking the family off to church and praising the Lord for all His blessings and when I think about that now I still get pissed at God like He oughta have struck them all down on the spot those lyin’ hypocritical sons of bitches. [The words are coming faster when she stops and finally spits out some tobacco juice into an empty coffee cup.]
GW: You’re angry that God would let a little girl get abused like that?
CS: Yeah. But then I get reminded that God may have had His mind on other shit like war and hurricanes and stuff at the time. And the thing is God came back around and took me up. Later.
So anyway I think you can see where this is goin’ and by the time I’m 10 Junior is bangin’ me regular and he says if I tell Sherry she will kick me out of the house for being a whore and a sinner. And anyway I get some clothes and shit out of this I wouldn’t a got otherwise and my older brothers don’t give a shit and you don’t have to guess where momma is in all this which is nowhere. Then awhile later he starts giving me some beer before the party starts and one thing about that is it knocked the edge offa the fear and the more I drank of that Budweiser the more the fear kinda went outside for awhile and then when I could get a can or two down I might as well a been Barbie with old Ken havin’ a nice talk before the motherfucking prom or something. [She smiles at this and breaks eye contact. Her eyes seems to go someplace else for a moment.]
GW: How did this end?
CS: It ended when Junior walked out of a bar one night and a semi bound for Knoxville come over the hill and hit ole Junior as the stupid motherfucker was taking a piss in the middle of the road.
So anyway by now I’m twelve and I got my period and I have snapped to the fact that I can have a baby one a these days and for awhile there I thought about how that is not a bad ticket outta this shithole like so many of those older girls thought but except most of them ain’t gone nowhere and the whole thing goes ‘round and ‘round again as some other cracker comes on the scene and … Tammy Wynette! … I remember the name now. Tammy Wynette is tellin’ them to stand by her man which maybe she could do if the drunk motherfucker could even stand up. Not for ole Crystal. I wanted somethin’ and it wasn’t no baby. The high school boys I gave it up for at 13 or 14 couldn’t believe that a girl with really nice tits for such a young one would bring her own supply of rubbers so like you didn’t even need to worry about that not that they did all that much anyway which was my point. I was like this fantasy girl, and I lived offa that for quite awhile because it got me food at restaurants instead a slop from Sherry and rides when the other girls were walkin’ or taking the fuckin’ bus or somethin’ and it got me clothes and bracelets and better than that it got me weed and Oxys. Oxys was the greatest thing on earth to me because they made it all go away into this warm like fog and nothin’ … nothin’! … mattered inside that fog. [If she really does have “nice tits,” the football jersey hides them. I admit I looked. I hate myself sometimes.]
GW: So it was the OxyContin that got you on the path where you ended up in prison?
CS: Hillbilly heroin! The law cares about it more now cuz it’s the suburb kids getttin’ strung out. When it’s just some fuckin’ hillbillies who cares?
So anyway I got sent to the juvie for a year cuz Sherry finally managed to snag another live-in dickhead named Frank who tried to pull the same shit on me as Junior, and I cut him with this switchblade I had started carryin’ around in case one a them football players decided to like run a reverse on me if you know what I mean and Frank near bled to death which I didn’t mean to do but the judge acted like I had burnt the Confederate flag instead a nearly done the world a favor. This wasn’t like real-deal jail just the juvie but I started shooting dope in there because we couldn’t get no Oxys. You can get heroin but not pills. Fuck me! That was when I got Hep C from dirty needles. This was also where I ran into dykes for the first time, and that don’t really matter except it was major later on and really why I ain’t dead like the rest of my pitiful family.
GW: What happened to them?
My older brothers who was twins was all hot to trot for the Army and they let them go through basic together. Don’t give two stupid crackers a live land mine to play with is the lesson the Army learnt I guess. Never even got a chance to let them get killed by some A-rab. I never cried for either one a them. Not once to this day. My sponsor Becca says I will do that sometime but she says all sorts of crazy shit and some of it actually turns out to be true. It don’t make no sense though like crying for two assholes who let their stepfather fuck their sister. [Crystal stares right at me saying all this. The dip moves around her lower lip occasionally. I make an excuse that I have to make a phone call and will be right back. I notice that I feel cold despite the muggy heat.]
GW: So, where were we? We were talking about how you ended up in federal prison.
CS: I mighta done OK coming out of juvie but I got greedy and begun to figure that the people I bought dope from had way more money than the people they sold it to and what is wrong with this picture Crystal? What’s wrong with this picture to make a long story short is my career as a drug dealer ended right down I-70 there with six ounces of heroin in my car and the DEA and FBI right up my ass and this guy I was mulin’ dope for, Hector, which wasn’t his lyin’ Mexican name nowhere around. Let’s just say that my record in juvie wasn’t all that great and first I near kill this cracker and I’m only 14 and now I’m 17 and I got six ounces of heroin on me that can’t be for my own use no matter how bad a junkie I am and no one to blame it on because I woulda rolled over on the people who deal in ounces who get it from the people who deal in kilos but only this so-called Hector knew who they was and I couldn’t roll over on him as I just said. So I get tried as an adult and get 25 years at FCI Tallahassee because this is a federal beef. Twenty-five motherfucking years! You tell that Bruce dude I was gonna cut his balls off if I ever saw him again after that. [She smiles at this, but there is still something icy in her eyes.]
Now obviously I didn’t do all of them 25 years because Hector turned out to be Ernesto Something and gets busted later on and now there’s someone to roll over on about where those six ounces of heroin come from and I rolled over on that dirty spic [Crystal hits herself on the forehead] … Damn! I’m sorry about that. I gotta cut out words like spic and nigger cuz we’re all brothers and sisters in this but those words was part of everything in Shithole, Tennessee and anyway I am sorry for the slip. So anyway I rolled over on Ernesto and got paroled outta FCI Tallahassee.
GW: Our mutual friend at the DEA says you got clean in prison.
CS: Ain’t that the craziest thing? Instead a cuttin’ his balls off I gave him a big hug when I saw him that time.
Before I mentioned dykes and FCI Tallahassee was Dykeville with a capital D and D stood for Do It or me and Clarice here is gonna stab you where you stand. Most of them dykes was blacks which was not what I called them then but as I said I gotta get all that nigger and spic and kike stuff out of my heart and here I was this fine young white girl on a long, long ride and it felt just like Junior Henry all over again except it was dykes this time. I tried shaving my head once just to look ugly and got put in the hole for that cuz like where did I get scissors and a razor and this was just to keep them dykes offa me but it didn’t help. And never mind the guards who are s’posed to protect me but all just wanted to fuck me so I finally figured that belongin’ to the black dykes would help keep them white guards offa me at least. Except once in awhile you could get stuff like scissors and razors off them in exchange for a blow job if you follow my drift. [I am incredibly uncomfortable at this point. Crystal relates all this like she is talking about a day at the mall. I stop to order Pepsi’s for both of us from a waitress who ambles by.]
So anyway there was this one dyke, a white one named Sue, who seemed to stay apart from all the other dykes but not just cuz she was white. She was sometimes goin’ off with this straight chick named Latoya who I know was straight because we ended up in the laundry room together an’ I asked her was she straight and where was she going with Sue and she said to meetings which I didn’t know what that meant and it sounded really lame whatever it was anyway. One day in the chow line Sue come up behind me and says hey you should sign up to go to the NA meeting. I said the what and she says NA. Narcotics Anonymous. You a junkie, ain’t ya? NA is about how to live without needin’ junk no more. She might as well as said you oughta sign up for this class about how to take a fuckin’ rocket to the moon. But like anyway Sue goes on to say how these NA women “bring a meeting inside.” So I’m thinkin’ I gotta see someone who comes into FCI Tallahassee on purpose!
Even though I was a ornery bitch at the time which I know might surprise y’all I heard Sue and some other inmates talkin’ about their sorry-ass lives at that first meeting and I’m thinkin’ that’s just like me! They ain’t from Shithole, Tennessee, but everything else is the exact fuckin’ same. It was like they was all following me around and I didn’t know it and they took all this shit and pain from my life and wrote it down somewheres and talked about it in this meeting like it was no big deal. Sue was from Tennessee, just another part and another thing different about her is she didn’t have no right foot, which is too long a story for now. And the women from outside! One a them had been clean for like 19 years, goddamn near as long as I been alive. So I come outta there like it really was a class on how to fly to the moon because I sure as hell didn’t feel like I was on the earth that I had been scrapin’ around on. I am here to tell you God’s honest truth that the other thing was I felt like I belonged in that meeting and I never felt like that before — ever! I went back to my cell and cried for six hours. That was when I jumped off, when I took the First Step from junkie whore dope dealer almost Frank killer Crystal to Crystal the recovering addict. [She pumps a fist, and I notice for the first time the faded dragon tattooed on the back of her right hand. I feel like the intense eyes are looking right through me.]
So anyway now I got me some real clean time and I go to meetings in all these places where the work is takin’ me, and during the winter I go every day back home in Gainesville and I got me a boyfriend named AJ there who my sponsor Becca wouldn’t even let me fuckin’ talk to for a year. AJ did time and got raped by his step-daddy, too. We made this deal we don’t have sex but once a week and it feels like it’s just about that you know? [She still is not breaking eye contact, and I need to get up and stretch just to break free. The cold, clammy feeling is back.]
So where was I? … oh yeah … mosta my life sex was always about somethin’ else, see?. I work my ass off on the steps and am workin’ on some amends. Next winter I start treatment for the Hep C which everyone says is gonna be a real motherfucker but I don’t care cuz it’s worth it and I don’t wanna die from somethin’ I did in the juvie. I ain’t got no insurance but Becca is pretty fixed for cash cuz she got divorced from this rich doctor dude which is how she got be an addict in the first place eatin’ his leftover pills and she’s gonna pay for it. I’m gonna pay her back if it takes me ‘til the day I die and she don’t know this and don’t expect it but I’m gonna do it anyway. That don’t sound like the Crystal I was talkin’ about awhile ago, does it?
GW: And now you are giving it away to keep it, as they say?
CS: Yup. One day this tiny beat to shit chick named Mary Beth starts comin’ to my home group in Gainesville and says not much and listens to me who as you can tell by now can’t shut up for nothin’. And one day after a meeting she asks me in this scratchy crackhead voice if I’d be her sponsor. Me! So I say yeah I guess. I was scared out of my fuckin’ mind. I like fly over to Becca’s house sayin’ what do I do? what do I do? and she says tell her what happened to you. So I say that’s it? She says yeah. She says real serious, you’re ready for this Crystal and it’s gonna take you to a whole new place. And it did.
Sometimes after I work with Mary Beth and point out shit about Steps she can’t see I cry my ass off cuz I can’t believe that anyone would trust me like that. So you can trust Crystal S. from Shithole, Tennessee now. Ain’t that a kick in the ass?
Three: The Monster Cradles a Flower
From another project involving Vietnam veterans, I got the contact information for Ralph H. I interviewed him at the Portland, Oregon airport. I flew in from Chicago. He was waiting for an international flight to London. He told me to meet him at a restaurant across from the Powell’s Books. I asked how I would recognize him. He said, “My nickname is Hammerhead. Look for a bad-ass hippie wearing a leather jacket.” He was, indeed, easy to find. He was wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt under a black leather jacket that was worn and cracked in many places. He had on scuffed work boots. He wore his long, grey hair in a braid that fell to the middle of his back. He also had a scruffy grey beard, from which emerged a pink scar on his right cheek that ended by his right eye. His voice was surprisingly high for such a large man — barrel chest, thick thighs, weightlifter arms. Unlike Crystal S., he studiously avoided using the words “fuck” and “shit,” saying it was part of his program. He said on the phone that he is retired from a chain of tire stores. We drink coffee and don’t order any food.
GW: Thanks for meeting me. You were right. I picked you right out.
RH: I’m pretty nervous about this, man. It seems strange that driving a Mustang 90 miles an hour down a narrow road at night didn’t scare me and the NVA and Viet Cong didn’t scare me and neither did the Blood Brothers Motorcycle Club but talking to some reporter? Damn. I wish you could smoke in here.
GW: There’s lots of time for smoke breaks. So generally, we talk about what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now, right?
RH: The really short version of what it was like for me is it was great, then it was OK, then it was a hassle, and then it was a nightmare.
I was born here in Portland. Actually, I was born in Troutdale, which is like saying if you were born in Long Beach that you’re from LA. Close but not the same thing at all. I actually had a righteous ball as a kid. My parents really loved each other, man, and they did right by me and my three brothers. Four boys all born close to each other fight all the time and hog food meant for company and blow up stuff, and my dad Ed he would whup us good when we did stuff like that, but it wasn’t like what people call abuse now. More like you went out of bounds goddamn it and now you’re gonna get whupped. Stay in bounds you won’t get whupped. It’s that simple, stupid. My dad was a logger down in Vernonia for awhile and then bought a truck stop out in Troutdale. You could tell he was a logger because he was missing fingers and couldn’t hear worth a damn because of those huge chain saws they used and back then you didn’t have OSHA telling you you had to wear ear protection. My mom, Meredith, was pretty religious and you better not cuss around her. She and Ed were married for 60 years. You just don’t hear that anymore, man. Ed liked his Olys, and Meredith was known to down a few herself, but they weren’t anything like alcoholics. Nothing like me.
Everybody always says to me, “So, you played football, right?” and the answer is no I didn’t. Man, that made the high school coach crazy. I ran about 220 then. Way more than that now. My brothers all played. One went to Oregon State on a scholarship but blew out his knee the first year. I didn’t have any interest in sports because hot rods and girls and Olympia beer were all I needed. I got through high school because my mom would have killed me if I didn’t, but basically once I was 16 it was muscle cars and sweet chicks from Gresham and Oly beer and see ya later on down the road. I only smoked weed now and then back then. You could get sent to OSP for a long time if you got caught with it on you in those days and that made it not worth it. I was one popular dude back then. People would sell me beer because I looked way older than 16 or 17. I would get this look on my face like go ahead and card me, dude, and they almost never did. I also fished the Columbia all the time and hunted mule deer with my dad and brothers in the Coast Range. Typical Oregon butthead.
My brother Seth and me were the gearheads in the family, and we used the garage at the truck stop to bore out Ford 289s and put dual quads on Chevy 396s and change out headers and put on glass pacs and such. We’d tear those cars up and down the Gorge and all over Oregon and Washington. Got a passel of speeding tickets but not one DUI. The cops were really different about that back then. And most of the time even a dumb kid like me knew not to mix the beer with drag racing too much. But I didn’t really begin to pound the booze and dope big time until I was 18. When I … [there is a long, uncomfortable pause here] … went to ‘Nam. [Ralph takes a pack of Marlboro Reds out of a pocket and says he’ll be back soon. I turn and notice that as he makes his way to the front of the terminal, people step aside and look at the ground, as if making eye contact with him would be dangerous and foolish.]
GW: OK. So you ended up in Vietnam.
That was 1968, when I got drafted. Somehow I thought that wouldn’t happen. By the way, I got the name Hammerhead when I was in the Gypsy Demons, not in the Army or in Troutdale growing up. I was just Pfc. Ralph H. then.
GW: I’ve heard of the Gypsy Demons.
I’ll get into that later.
I was in the Army for two years, and I was drunk or stoned or both the whole time, man. I could drink one helluva lot and not be staggering around, and weed didn’t make me act stupid or laugh at unfunny stuff or anything. It just made me fearless. That’s the only word for it — fearless. Everybody else who smoked a lot of dope got super paranoid. When rockets are coming over the wire in the middle of the night, paranoid is not a good way to be. It all started in boot camp and it just never stopped, it seemed like. My mind sort of froze up, I guess. When I got out in the bush, I just kept at it. I was a big target so I was always kind of hunched over. But I volunteered for everything. I didn’t care. People in the VA have kept trying to tell me that I had a death wish or something, but that wasn’t it, man. It was more just not giving a damn one way or the other.
That’s not the same as saying you want to die. I got several medals out of this attitude, all for somehow not getting my ass blown off while I killed other people, and that includes at least one woman in there that I know of. [This revelation was something I was prepared for as a result of the assignment on Vietnam vets. One had this joke: People ask how can you kill women and children from a helicopter gunship? Well, you lead them a little less.]
GW: So what did you do when you discharged?
I found my way into the Gypsy Demons after I got back to Oregon, and that became my family. It was brothers forever and forever brothers. There were a lot of vets already there and others came in. It felt to me like more of the same thing I got so used to in ‘Nam except there weren’t near as many people shooting at me anymore. A guy from the Blood Brothers put a .357 slug through my leg one day, and I got stabbed a few times, but that was about it. I had fun, I guess, but also I did a lot of really bad …uh …crap… when I was in the Demons, man. I gave crank to a 10-year-old kid. How in the world can someone do something like that? That kid had a seizure. [Ralph begins to cry. The tears from his right eye roll down the scar and disappear into his beard. I remain sickly silent.]
Sorry. This stuff sounds completely wrong now, and it is, man. When the booze and dope were gone, my brain like woke up again after being frozen for 15 years. In my dreams, I saw the eyes of a woman I shot before she could pull the pin on a grenade she had in a blanket she was holding so it looked like she was carrying a baby. I shot her right between those eyes. At the time I joked it was a lucky shot — can you believe that? — because I was not used to shooting a .45 and missed high. Was aiming at the grenade. When I was in the Demons, we duct-taped a guy up and hung him from an overpass by his ankles. I started hearing his voice when the booze and dope were gone. This happened around midnight one night. No one got him down from there until 7 the next morning. I thought it was a righteous thing to do, man, because a brother told me this dude we hung off the overpass was messing with his old lady, and that was what we did to people who messed with our old ladies. You didn’t have some like big debate about it.
GW: Experiences like that sound like it takes more than the program to fix.
Oh, yeah. Lots of shrinks. They ask me all the time was I mad at something, and the honest answer is not really. It was more like I got good at taking orders, and I didn’t give a …. care about … what happened. I wasn’t angry, I just didn’t care, man. It wasn’t ‘til I got sober that I got angry. Some people have a story where the anger is all back there and driving the using, and they are way more calm and serene after they get sober but not me. I was way worse to be around when I quit drinking and doing dope. That’s why my wife from then took off with my two kids. I can’t say I blame her.
This voice in my head was saying Hammerhead, you don’t deserve any of this, not after killing women and giving crank to children. Not after what you did to that guy on the overpass. Not after you caused your mom and dad to say they never want to see you again. I got angry at the traffic. I got angry at clerks in stores who didn’t check me out fast enough. I got angry at the college kids drinking and smoking weed and then just moving onto some job I would never have. And I was really, really pissed at AA even though I went to a meeting every day. I refused to get a sponsor or work steps. I just sat around the tables or in the back of some room and just shut my trap and listened and looked rough, tough and hard to bluff. I kept going because I told myself I would. The thing that bothered me more than anything was when some guy or gal would say I’m grateful to be an alcoholic in recovery today. How could you be grateful to be such a pitiful nobody? So one day after about three years of this another Vietnam vet named Tony shows up at my home group. He had six years sober and talked about how when he made his Eighth Step list he had to put himself at the top of it because there was no one he hurt more in his using career than himself. That was when I really bought in, man. What a concept! It seemed like a con, but I really dug it and held onto it.
Tony ended up being my sponsor for the next 15 years until he died from the cancer he got from Agent Orange. And when that happened, I went all the way back to my first year and could not get out of my head that that should have happened to me, not him, and I came really close to picking up again.
GW: So what happened? How did you get clean and sober?
RH: What happened was one day I left Klamath Falls on my bike all cranked up on methedrine and vodka, and I came to in Missoula. I had no idea how I got there. I must’ve been driving back roads and up the Lolo Pass because that’s how I always went from Oregon to Montana back in the day. That was my last black out. It was like all the scared saved up in me came puking out of me right then. The weird thing was I was scared out of my mind that I had run over a dog and didn’t know it. Not a little kid or someone’s grandmother, but a dog. Jesus! And this voice says to me man, this has to stop. It was Meredith’s voice. My mom. That’s what people call Step Zero I found out. I drove out of town and found a campground and went inside my tent and shook like a jackhammer for three days. I know now I’m lucky I didn’t die in there. This guy I know calls it dancing with the snakes and bugs, and that’s right on. Why is it always bugs? When that was all done, I drove back to Missoula and ate enough breakfast for three men and called up the VA in Black Butte, Wyoming, and they took me into a 14-day program. That was a really … crappy … program, and I was already detoxed unlike most of the other guys there. But I made my first AA meeting in Black Butte. I thought the happy people were lying about being stoned and the screwed up people were a bunch of sissies. But somehow I hadn’t had a drink or drug for 11 days, and that meant I earned my seat as they said. It made no sense at all and like I said I ended up hating the whole thing but I was out of options, man. There was nowhere else for old Hammerhead to go. So I kept coming back like they said. Banker-type guys in suits and crack whores and cowboys and housewives all saying keep coming back Ralph… thanks for sharing, Ralph … I can identify with that, Ralph.
GW: Did they say we’ll love you until you can love yourself? I always hated that.
RH: Yeah, they said that. To the most unlovable person on the planet. [His gaze wanders off to an unfixed point somewhere down toward Gates C & D.] I gotta go smoke again, man.
GW (resuming): I guess we’re at what it’s like now.
If I keep doing what I’ve been doing, I’ll have 24 years sober next week. I got 24 years mostly by repeating what I learned in the first five years and I got five years by doing today what I did yesterday and the one big thing I did yesterday was not get loaded.
Because I got sober I got to be involved with Ed and Meredith before they died and the son they got back was way better than the son they had before he went off into the madness. They never understood it but that didn’t matter because they could tell I was a righteous stand-up guy and I would do what I said. On my best day as a kid that was never me, man.
A couple of the Demons got sober ahead of me, and one of them turned me onto the Acceptance Motorcycle Club in Portland. So I ride with those dudes now and we still scare old ladies in SUVs, but that’s about all the trouble we cause except we still drive too fast sometimes but you know I haven’t driven down the road in a total blackout in 24 years, and that is a major Step Nine thing, man. My sponsor today is a guy everyone calls Dragon but his name is really Clarence. Honest to God. Anyway, old Clarence told me one day that it’s an absolute sure bet that once in the past I was riding loaded past someone I ride by today clean and sober. That’s living amends, dude. If you drove loaded and you don’t do that anymore then right there is a Step Nine thing you get for free.
GW: I never thought of that before. I like it. What about working with newcomers?
RH: I lost track of the number of guys I have sponsored. Most of ‘em disappeared into whatever misery they left behind and went back to and that used to bother me a lot, man. Like I was failing. But as I learned from Clarence, if you want this thing bad enough we’ll go to hell and back with you but if you don’t want it then you can go to hell by yourself. Better them than me I say. It’s like if the Big Guy would call down right now and say one of us right here now has to go out and get loaded tonight I’ll say I love you man so be careful out there. Hope you make it back. I’m not going back out there for nobody. [Ralph pushes back from the table and begins to stir a spoon around in his empty coffee cup. He stares into the cup for a long moment and then looks up at me.]
You know why I’m waiting for that plane to London? Because from there I’m going to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m gonna make peace with the people there and with the ghosts of all those people we killed and all the GIs they killed. This vet group I know about sets up these trips. I been over this ‘til blood was coming out of my eyes, man, and what it comes down to is people are people and that’s what I never cared about. And anyway, that woman I shot was trying to kill me because she believed in something, man. She wanted people like me out of her country. I didn’t give a damn about my country or her country or the Red Menace or any of that other jive. I cared about Pfc. Ralph H. and his squad. So the people putting this trip together think maybe they can hook me up with some people who lived in that ‘vil, and I gotta go do a Ninth Step with them. I can’t say I’m sorry I killed mama-san because I’m not really. She was gonna kill me. What I can say is some really evil people put me and mama-san in the same place at the same time and they are the ones who gotta get right with themselves. Even two or three years ago I would not have considered doing something like this. But now?
GW: That’s the kind of change that people outside the program don’t understand.
RH: Here’s something else. I have this really good friend named Little John in AA who is a vice president of this like mega corporation and flies all over the world and stuff and he always calls me just to check in. I’ll go where are you now, dude? And he’ll say Zimbabwe and I’ll go where the hell is that and he’ll say well it used to be called Rhodesia does that help and I’ll go no and he’ll go it doesn’t matter they got AA in Zimbabwe. So this guy comes to the Sunlight of the Spirit meeting when he’s home and goes out and drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes with the rest of us lowlifes. Little John got sent to some treatment center in Malibu by his company because he was drinking $40 bottles of wine from morning ‘til night and that is not my story but Little John was one unhappy alcoholic there at the end. The expensive wine wasn’t working anymore. And the righteous truth for all of us is it wasn’t working anymore whatever it was and if it was we’d still be doing it.
So life is good, but hey, I still have problems. My second wife left me when I was 10 years sober. Said she found me “boring.” Boring! I coulda showed her not boring back in the day. I still don’t see my kids from my first marriage much even though they are all grown now and one even lives down in Salem. My health sucks, and I still smoke tons of Marlboro Reds even though I know I shouldn’t. But I don’t have problems like the dude who crawled into that tent outside MIssoula had.
Four: The Angry Clown
A guy I know in recovery where I live used to be in the movie business, and sometimes he would tell stories about Jerry W., the comic actor and standup comedian with a cult following, mostly among heavy-duty stoners. Jerry called my friend one day, and he mentioned to Jerry that I was working on this assignment. Jerry immediately volunteered to be interviewed. I rented a room at the Ramada Inn out by O’Hare Airport, and we met there. He was shorter than he appeared in the movies, maybe five-foot-five. He couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds. He had a prominent nose and black, piercing eyes under bushy eyebrows. His greying hair was cut short, and he was clean-shaven. Traces of the old spider angiomas criss-crossed his cheeks. He was wearing black jeans, a blue Western-style shirt and silver cowboy boots. He was wearing sunglasses, which he pushed up on top of his head when he came in the room.
GW: Thanks for coming, Jerry. One thing we need to talk about before we get started is the whole anonymity thing. A lot of people will recognize you from this.
JW: Not that many, and anyway I don’t give a shit. [He laughs in an odd huh-huh-huh breathy way.]
GW: OK. My buddy you used to work with says you are from Montana originally. Still like those kind of clothes, I see.
JW: Stick with the winners. Isn’t that what they say? So anyway, yeah, I grew up in Montana on a big-ass ranch near a town called East Fork. I was the runt of the litter. My father Clyde and my mother Sarah were big people. They grew up on ranches, too. My mother could beat the shit out of a lot of men. There is nothing more embarrassing to a cowboy than to have some woman break his teeth. So anyway everyone in my family was big. My three brothers. Huge. My two sisters. Huge. The fucking dog. Huge. The fucking hamster one of my sisters had was big as a woodchuck it seemed like. Big people. Big Sky. And runt-ass Jerry.
I used to wonder if my mother banged this stringy little dude who worked on the fence lines from time to time and that’s how I came into being. Who knows? Or cares?
So anyway, being a runt on a ranch in Montana is seriously no fun, and since I couldn’t be a useful ranch hand or rodeo rider or barroom brawler, I just tried to be as funny as I could. I learned to do impressions of my brothers and sisters when I was like five, and Clyde and Sarah and my aunts and uncles would laugh their asses off when I went into that at family gatherings where everyone was pounding down major amounts of Grain Belt and we were cooking up some fucking elk or antelope or whatever poor dumb animal happened to walk into the sights of someone’s 30.30. Now of course my brothers and sisters would give me major grief about these impressions when the adults were out of sight, at least until I started doing impressions of Clyde and Sarah and Aunt Vivian and Uncle Sty. By the way, no one could ever explain to me what Uncle Sty’s real name was or why he was called that except it seemed to be short for Pig Sty. So anyway, I would never think of doing an impression of Clyde while Clyde was around. That fucking guy hit me with a belt enough as it was. But my brothers and sisters loved it. So that was like my first audience. [The pace of Jerry’s speech is getting faster and faster. I wonder a little bit if he’s not doing some kind of speed. I realize I will have to slow him down from time to time.]
GW: So the comedy was an early thing, a way to cope?
Didn’t I just say that?
Well anyway, as I got older, I got funnier. I had to. I also learned something early on and that was if you are worried about getting harassed and beat up at school by the tough Montana kids, you had to figure out who the tough Montana kids were most afraid of and then make friends with him. Like in eighth grade, there was this giant Indian kid with a reservation-school name like Michael or something but he wanted to be called Black Wolf, and he never said anything it seemed like except a few words to someone who was stupid enough to talk to his girlfriend or throw an elbow at him on the basketball court. And if the stupid kid was so seriously fucking stupid as to keep on talking to his girlfriend or keep on throwing elbows, then this giant Indian kid would knock the stupid kid down with one punch to the face and you wouldn’t see the stupid kid around school for awhile and after that the stupid kid seemed to lose interest in any girl, even an ugly one, and he certainly had no taste for mixing it up under the old hoop anymore.
So anyway, I would hang around the edges of Black Wolf like a dog around a campfire, and I would try to make him laugh. At first, he ignored me. Then he would like glare at me. But he tolerated me being around. And one day I got a grin out of him. Something like how can you tell the difference between a cowboy outside your teepee and a pile of dog shit outside your teepee? Answer: you can’t. Classic 8th grade humor, and I was on my way in terms of no one at East Fork Middle School was going to fuck with little ole Jerry anymore because he was Black Wolf’s friend.
My life changed at the end of that year when I first got hold of some weed. A little loco weed and everything was funny. And since I was already funny, I got way funnier to the people I was smoking that weed with, especially Black Wolf. He would laugh until he could hardly breathe. And then he would hug me with these giant-ass arms, and then I could hardly breathe. Man, when he was stoned that fucking Indian kid was super into hugging people. Black Wolf went to some high school in Helena to be a basketball star, but I doubt that happened. He liked weed too much. I have no idea what happened to him. Great friend to have in middle school, though.
GW: So this was all just weed at first?
Apparently. Do you go to school to learn how to ask obvious questions? [I let this pass. Jerry is like a passive-aggressive machine.]
But anyway by the time I was in high school I didn’t need a giant Indian kid to protect me because I was the guy everyone bought weed from. I got a connection with some Mexican dude who was always driving between Rapid City and Spokane. I told Sarah and Clyde I got a job in town, and since I was no fucking help on the ranch, they didn’t ask me any more about it. They both got a little proud of me for once when I took a sudden interest in the guns that were all over the place on that ranch. I started out on some .22 rifle they used to shoot gophers with, and I got pretty good on it. Then I moved up to pistols. That was harder because the monster revolvers they liked were so fucking heavy. One day a friend of one of my older brothers dropped by, and he had this girlie .25 mm with him, and that was more like it. I offered him four hundred bucks for it, and he looked at me like where did this fucking skinny kid get four hundred bucks but what the hell, he got it for free out of a guy’s garage he just happened to find himself in one night if you know what I mean. So now I was an officially strapped drug dealer in East Fork, Montana, and I was able to keep other dudes with the same idea out of my turf just by flashing that gun once in awhile.
That gun also got me on the road out of East Fork because one day my senior year the fucking thing went off when I dropped my backpack by accident and of course the vice principal is like standing right there. Fortunately, the bullet missed him, but he took the backpack and found not only the loaded .25 mm but the 10 eighths of weed I had in there to sell to guys on the football team later that day. To say that Clyde and Sarah were not amused is to put it lightly. I still have scars from the beating Clyde gave me after the cops dropped me off back at home.
I got put in some reform school thing way up by Havre and ended up there until I was 21 because I was always getting caught with weed on me, but when I was 21 they had to let me go. That was when I decided the weed and guns were too much fucking trouble. The Grain Belt and Jim Beam were there all along, and I could get all I wanted of that and if I was 21 not get arrested for it even if I had an open beer between my legs while I was driving down the road because there was no open container law in Montana then. It was like everyone knew that you can’t drive a zillion miles through some country with not a fucking thing on it but dirt and sky without having a beer or twelve, you know?
GW: I heard somewhere that you ended up in Minnesota. What was that like?
JW: I bummed around all over the place and started drifting east, to Rapid City and then to Bismarck and then to St. Cloud, Minnesota. That was where I ran into my first open mic thing. I learned how to do this Minnesota voice. Ya need ta watch out on the row-uhd there, yah?. Ah, we’re catchin’ some walleyes over here to Lake Mil de Lac for sher. I got drunk on my ass and went up to the microphone and started talking like that except I pretended to be President Bush like he was some Swedish redneck from Minnesota instead of a huge fucking asshole from Texas. [I start to laugh here. I can picture this event clearly. Jerry really is a very funny guy.]
They loved it. So that was where the standup stuff started happening for me. I do that for awhile and then I get a call from this guy down in the Cities wants me to open for touring comics so I did. That was when I started drinking Absolut vodka, a lot of it, mostly for free. I also found out that some pretty girls like tiny, drunk comedians, and that paid off big time. Macalester College seemed to have the most girls like that. Really smart and really sick. Maybe they needed me to feel sorry for or something. I wasn’t going to debate them about it, though. Jokes and Absolut and blonde, round-headed girls named Greta were all right with me. I won’t go into all the things I did with or maybe to the Gretas. Let’s just say those weren’t my shining moments.
GW: So how did the movies stuff happen?
JW: I got to the B minus level on the standup circuit and some geezer movie producer saw me while he was hiding out from some mob dudes in Escanaba, Michigan, of all places. Guy thought I was hysterical. So that led me going to LA and being in some of these hideous stoner movies where I played the weasel friend of the good-looking stoner who ends up fucking over the system and driving off with the sheriff’s daughter. So anyway, because millions of fucking idiots actually paid to watch these movies, I make some pretty major coin out of this and figure I will move up to something a little more like substantive … like say, Scream Nine or something and also get on at the major LA clubs and get on Letterman and maybe have an HBO special.
Except one day I woke up and went in the bathroom to brush my teeth and shave and this dude with yellow eyes is looking out of the mirror. Fuck! That was hard to ignore, but I did. Wore shades everywhere I went, even at night, which was not an odd thing in LA anyway. But man I started getting sicker and sicker and thinner and thinner and yellower and yellower. I finally drag my ass to a doctor, who tells me a strange thing. I have to quit drinking because I’m gonna die real soon if I don’t. Woah! I got some thing called hemochromatosis that means my liver is all full of iron and the Absolut I’ve been dropping on Mr. Liver — a fifth a day easy by now — is tearing it up, and when your liver gets tore up this shit called bilirubin — sounds like a Jewish cowboy — gets in your bloodstream and turns you yellow. And yellow means you are in some serious trouble, staying-alive-wise. I probably could have made those yellow eyes work in like a zombie movie or something, but I could hardly get out of bed, let alone show up on the set of a movie. [Jerry is beginning to speed way up again. I notice his right leg has been twitching ever since he sat down in the chair across for me. The toe of his left silver cowboy boot taps out an erratic beat. I sit back for awhile.]
GW: Did you go treatment then or get involved in the program?
Not at first. I just stopped drinking. Just like that. You ever do that?
GW: Never did but I heard it’s a bad idea. Another guy I interviewed described it as dancing with the snakes and bugs.
JW: It is a bad idea, and snakes and bugs is exactly right. Right before I lose track of everything these spiders are all over my arms, and a snake is crawling up my pants leg. I managed to crawl out to the balcony of my apartment I guess, and someone saw me shaking like a leaf out there and called the EMTs, and they took me to the hospital. This really intense social worker chick got me into a treatment center where other dipshit LA entertainment people went. I spent a month in there and didn’t hear much except lectures about why I’m an alcoholic and why we all have a disease and why so and so drank so fucking much and why so and so is so traumatized by her past. I heard about the problem, but I didn’t hear anything about the solution. I quit drinking for a month. Isn’t that the solution?
So anyway, I get out of there and start to hit meetings in LA because that’s what I got told to do. I never did what I was told to do one fucking time my entire life, but I did here. No idea why. I guess I figured that’s the solution because I have a serious fucking problem that needs solving. But it seemed like everywhere I went, I heard these people complaining about how unfair and shitty everything was or about how wonderful and happy everything was because they just scored a great deal on a new Mercedes. [His voice goes into a Valley Girl falsetto] My name is Tiffany and I’m an alcoholic and I just have to check in that I’m so bummed that my boyfriend Keith is like not coming around like at all and on top of that I keep having to wait for my new hair extensions to come in and I’m just like I want a drink so bad. [He goes back to his normal voice.] Fuck! And then there’s these guys who share all about what hideous fucking degenerates they were and they ended up shooting coke into their eyeballs or they once spent 27 days in a blackout and drank 45 fifths of Everclear during that time. Great. So what happened, man? I don’t need somebody to teach me how to be a degenerate. I’m really good at that all by myself. I am a yellow scuzbag wanna be manipulative shitfaced runt! Goddamn! I get it! [Jerry is beginning to hyperventilate. I offer him a glass of water that he waves away with the back of his hand.]
GW: For what it’s worth, it took me four years before I started hearing the solution instead of the problem.
JW: Right on. So here we are again with the problem. So this fucking guy shooting coke into his eyeball, what I’m getting from him is that somehow him sitting there clean and sober makes him better than me sitting there clean and sober because he crawled out of a slimier swamp than I did. And what’s her name with her pitiful problems and even worse these goddamn people talking about how God is working in their lives because they are closing on their new condo tomorrow… and this is when there’s fucking homeless people in the room … well I couldn’t take it anymore. That kind of AA failed me completely. You know why? Because it says in real clear in English that a fucking fourth-grader can understand that our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety. There’s no other purpose, man! If there was someone there whose purpose it was to help me to achieve sobriety, I didn’t hear it. Just I was this and I was that and I have this and I don’ t have that and a whole lot of people going on about why, why, why. Why me? Why me? Why not you, goddamnit!
GW: But …
Don’t interrupt me! I’m on a roll here. [His left toe is tapping furiously now.]
So anyway, I got a few things together and threw them in this Mustang I had at the time and just started driving back to Montana. I grabbed a couple fifths of Absolut and hit the road. I realize now I wanted to go back to the ole Big Sky country because that’s where all this started and I might as well die there. I had a serious case of the fuck-its.
So anyway, I guess you know that when you pick up again, it gets worse seriously fucking fast than it was when you left off. After the Absolut ran out, I kept on driving because I didn’t learn a goddamn thing from the snakes and bugs deal, and I had another seizure on I-5 in my Mustang but this was while I was still driving it. Not good. So this time I’m in the hospital for a long time and they are sticking me full of Ativan so I don’t have another seizure while they are putting me back together and this goes on so long, now I have an Ativan habit. So once I get put back together, now I have to go through detox for the Ativan.
This was in Hendricks, California. The money from the stoner movies is running out, and I need a job even though I can barely fucking walk. I don’t have anything else to do in the meantime, so I decide I might as well go to an AA meeting and hear what kinds of pitiful problems the drunks in Hendricks, California, have. Except that’s not what I heard. The meeting I went to was chaired by this fat old lady with really bad red hair, and after it was over she grabbed me and said boy, you ever read this book? Meaning the Big Book she was holding. So I tell her sure. I’m not illiterate. Rarely have we seen a person fail and all that. And she says have you ever read the black part of the book? Hah, hah. Very droll, you fat old hag. So she gives me a copy of the book and tells me to read something in it and come back to the meeting early the next day and read back just one thing to her. Just one little thing. Well, this kind of pissed me off, and I think I’m going to read the whole goddamn book just to show her … but a funny thing happened and I didn’t get past page 30. [I notice that his anger is subsiding now. His pace has slowed and a faint smile in on his lips.]
JW: “The idea that somehow, someday, he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.” That’s where I stopped. The solution appeared to me for the first time. I can control it or I can enjoy it, I can’t do both. Yet I tried for fucking ever to do both. When I took that first slug of Absolut on the way out of LA, I had no booze in my system. It wasn’t vodka that made me do that, it was my own mind. The solution is in my mind. The solution is to change my mind. Do you hear that Jerry? The solution is to change your goddamn mind!
Now this old hag, whose name was Bernice, she kept this up and listened to me read back a part of the book before each meeting. And then I found out that the way to change my mind is to get in touch with a Higher Power and the way to do that is change the way I act. And you do that by working Steps. That’s what those people in Hendricks talked about. They’re all talking about how they keep doing all this stupid shit or someone screws them over but they aren’t getting loaded over it because they will do anything to avoid copping a resentment, which it says plain as day is the number one offender in terms of getting you loaded again. They talked about being at this or that meeting even though every cell in their alcoholic brain was screaming at them why don’t you take a fucking day off for chrissake? And they would say you can’t save your ass and your face at the same time. You see the action in there? The doing something? Can you see how talking about the problem in terms of your pitiful fucking other problems only makes the alcohol problem worse?
GW: So it sounds like Bernice and the Big Book found you instead of the other way around.
JW: Yup. Now people call me a Big Book thumper. Now there’s an idiotic term. I got taught that the Big Book is like a textbook on how to change the way you act in order to change the way you think in order to keep your mind from telling you that it really is OK to pick up a drink even though you’ve been going around for months or years saying it is seriously fucking not OK to pick up a drink. So if you go into say a physics class in college and the professor hammers on what is in the textbook, do you call him a textbook thumper? Do you call the guy who actually reads the instructions before he assembles his new barbeque grill so he doesn’t blow himself to smithereens — do you call him an instruction booklet thumper? So why do you call someone who refers to a textbook on how to solve your problems without booze and dope a Big Book thumper?
All I can say is the answer is in that book, and the book says we need each other and when all else fails, help another alcoholic. The primary purpose, man. The pri-fucking-mary purpose.
GW: Helluva story, Jerry. So what are you doing for work these days?
JW: I know you won’t believe it but I’m writing childrens’ books. Under another name that I won’t tell you what it is. And that’s it for this interview. [A broad smile crosses his face. He stands up, smooths out the creases in his black jeans and shakes my hand.] Keep coming back, man.