These are the stories of our daughter Carrick's addiction to drugs and the impact it has had on our family.
Carrick Doesn't Come Home
I'd slept fitfully for an hour or two at most. At 6 a.m., I shook my wife, Deirdre.
“We've got to get rolling,” I said.
Deirdre asked what I intended to do. I said that I was going to New York City to look for Carrick, our seventeen-year-old daughter, who had not returned home the night before. About midnight, we had called Carrick's friend Vanessa and learned that they'd gone down to the East Village the previous afternoon, a Sunday, against our wishes. Vanessa had last seen Carrick about 9 P.M. at Grand Central Terminal, when she had boarded a train home to Bronxville. The small village where we'd lived for fourteen years, Hastings-on-Hudson, is on a different line than Bronxville and the train departs twenty minutes later.
“Carrick seemed fine,” Vanessa told us. “I thought she was getting the next train home.”
Deirdre said that she would call some of Carrick's other friends as I headed downtown. This was not the first time Carrick had disappeared. I tried to sound confident as I told Deirdre that wherever she was, I was sure nothing bad had happened to her. The words just hung in the air as I kissed her and walked out the door.
It was Nov. 5, 2001. At 10 a.m., Carrick was due at the headquarters for the Students for a Free Tibet on East Ninth St. between Avenues B and C in Manhattan, where she had been volunteering for the past month. Community service is a part of the curriculum at Walkabout Program, an alternative public high school for seniors who, like Carrick, have had difficulties in traditional settings. Since she was in eighth grade, Carrick had attended several programs for kids who have educational, emotional, psychological, or substance-abuse problems, all of which had afflicted our daughter.
I got the 7:49 express train that arrived at Grand Central terminal thirty-five minutes later. Positioning myself in front of the gate from which the next train to Hastings, the 9:20, would depart, I tried to convince myself that after a night of carousing, Carrick would stride up and say something blithe: “Hey, Pops, whazzup?” We'd board the train and return to Hastings, another misadventure navigated. We'd trudge up the steep hill from the station, I'd press the unlocked latch on the front door, and Deirdre and the dog and a cat or two would scurry to greet us. After some hugs and tears, we'd try to figure out, once more, what was going on in Carrick's life.
In my heart, I knew my wait at the gate was futile, but I really didn't know what else to do. Should we notify the police? File a missing person report? Call all the numbers she'd dialed on the cell phone we'd lent her a few days before?
I called Deirdre. She said she had talked to Megan, a girl who was interning with Carrick at Students for a Free Tibet. Carrick had become friendly with someone who called himself Chaos, Megan told Deirdre, and she might be with him. He hung out in Tompkins Square Park. She described him as pierced and heavily tattooed. Megan told Deirdre she would arrive at Students for a Free Tibet's offices a little after 10, and told her she'd meet me there.
“Tell your husband not to look for Carrick himself,” she said, “He might scare her away.”
I watched a few laggards trot toward the departing train, then headed to the IRT local subway to go downtown. The irony of Carrick becoming attached to someone who called himself Chaos was too perfect to contemplate.
I got off the subway at Astor Place and walked a few blocks east on Ninth St. which, at Avenue A, intersects with the entrance to Tompkins Square Park. The park, ten acres that had been the property of Daniel D. Tompkins, James Monroe's vice president, was first enclosed in a wrought-iron fence and opened to the public in 1834. It has been a locus of dissent and disaffection for a long time. In 1874, more than 7,000 workers demanding relief during an economic depression were routed by police wielding billy clubs. In 1967, as the center of the East Village hippie scene, it was the venue for The Grateful Dead's inaugural East Coast tour. Deirdre would go there in high school, hoping to see Allen Ginsberg or the Lovin' Spooonful's John Sebastian, who lived nearby. In August 1988, the supporters of squatters living in shacks in the park hurled firecrackers and bottles at the police, who swept through the park, again swinging nightsticks, to evict them.
Despite the gentrification of the neighborhood, it remained a popular hangout for drug dealers, users and the homeless. It also was a magnet for young people like my daughter who, bored by the suburbs, are drawn by its ability to absorb, without judgement, any predilection that comes its way. Stan Mack once drew a facetious map of the different groups that hung out in Tompkins Square Park for the Village Voice newspaper. Latino and black chess players had an area in the northeast; Ukrainians and Poles played in the southeast (“don't mess with 'em, may be ex-freedom fighters,” read a parenthetical aside). “ 'Burb brats in for thrills” congregated just inside the southern Avenue A entrance. Carrick recently had told Deirdre she had met some interesting characters in Tompkins, and that she wanted to move to the neighborhood some day.
Making fleeting eye contact with the few people I saw sitting on benches, I walked the paths that crisscross the park. Seeing no sign of Carrick, I eventually took the east exit at Avenue B and continued along Ninth St. to walk to Students for a Free Tibet. I had been on that block nearly nineteen years before, when I covered a fatal shooting in a social club as a reporter for the New York Daily News. I remembered the incident well because the residents of the block seemed so shocked that the social club manager had fired two shotgun blasts into the back of a patron despite the reality that, as I pointed out with a tabloid cliché, “random violence is no stranger to the Lower East Side.” A school custodian who lived there told me: “It's a beautiful block. Black and white, we all correspond together. I want to have it renamed E. Nice St.” Another resident said: “There's never any fights, no shootings, no drugs. It's just working folks.” That may have been so back then, and it may still be so today, but I didn't feel entirely comfortable there either time.
Students for a Free Tibet
Students for a Free Tibet headquarters were on the ground floor of a decrepit factory building on the north side of East Ninth St., closer to Avenue C. Inside, it looked like a time warp of '60s activism - cast-off furniture, posters on the wall, beer cans strewn about, squished chips on the floors, ashtrays overflowing. My first reaction was that it did not seem to be an ideal environment for a seventeen-year-old in recovery. The organization's soft-spoken executive director apologized for the mess when I arrived. He said there had been a staff party for Halloween. I told him why I had come. He had not heard from Carrick, he said.
Soon after, Carrick's direct supervisor arrived. I repeated my story; she was visibly upset. She told me Carrick had done a good job when she was around, but that she frequently had been absent, or often had not returned from lunch at Tompkins Square Park, where she had taken to hanging out. She also said that she thought she'd smelled alcohol one day when Carrick and Megan had returned from lunch and had challenged the girls. It turned out that Megan had just applied an alcohol-based perfume, she said, and she had apologized for questioning them. I thanked her for her diligence, and was reminded of the many times I'd thought I detected something suspicious but talked myself out of it, or let one of Carrick's convoluted explanations sway my common sense.
I sat down on a squishy couch, exhausted, as a couple of other staff members arrived. In a hushed voice, the supervisor filled them in on why I was there. Megan finally came through the door, later than I'd expected her. I introduced myself. She said she thought she knew where Carrick was, but she had to go to get her alone. About forty-five minutes later, she returned. She had not found Carrick, she said, but she told me there was someone who wanted to talk to me. He knew where Carrick was, but he was nervous. Would I meet him outside?
“Of course,” I said. “Is it Chaos?”
“No. His name is Champ,” she said.
Champ the Boxer
Champ was wearing a green army jacket. His curly, sandy hair was disheveled. His craggy face looked a good ten years older than the thirty-five he later claimed to be. He was about six feet tall, and stocky. He had a light touch as we shook hands, but I could sense that he held strength in reserve.
Inexplicably, he started by telling me he was a boxer. Trying to build a rapport, I told him my father had run the Golden Gloves boxing tournament in New York. He claimed he had an incredible record as an amateur - seventy-two and three, or something - and said he'd fought as a pro, too. Champ said that he'd met Carrick when he saw a group of men circle her in the park. He thought their teasing was going too far. He intervened, and had given Carrick lessons in basic self-defense.
“She confided in me,” he said. “She's upset about things.”
Sometime after midnight, he said, he had gotten word that Carrick was looking for him, and he went to her.
“I talked to her like a brother,” he said. “For hours, like a brother.”
Then he found a place for her and someone else, whom he would not identify, to crash until the morning, he said. There had been a dispute that he couldn't talk about, however, and they had to leave the apartment. He didn't know where Carrick was now, but he was sure he could find her. He just had one condition. Wary, I asked him what it was.
“You have to promise that you're not going to hurt her,” he said.
I assured Champ that I had never hit or hurt Carrick in my life.
“All I want to do is bring her back safely home,” I said.
'She's afraid you'll lock her up,” he said.
I said that I could not guarantee that we wouldn't seek treatment for Carrick that might result in her being sent to a drub rehab program. I said that it was not a given, just an option that we had to leave open, depending on Carrick's health.
How ridiculous is this? I was thinking to myself. Why am I justifying our decisions about our daughter to a guy on the street? But I felt that I had no choice if I wanted any help in finding Carrick. I knew from experience that the police have no legal authority to pick up a child older than sixteen unless she has broken the law, and the East Village streets were filled with runaways.
Champ changed the subject. He told me that he had been living on the streets since the terrorist attacks of September 11. He was from Pennsylvania, where he was a licensed plumber. He had gotten a job helping to renovate a building near the World Trade Center. He had been staying at a hotel in the neighborhood and was walking to work when he saw the first plane hit the tower. Not only did his job disappear, the plumbing company that employed him went out of business, he said. He'd been looking for a job ever since. We bantered a bit more, as if I was being coyly qualified by a social worker. Finally, Champ said he help me find Carrick. He'd walk the streets and ask questions. He asked for my cell phone number and promised to call me when he got a lead. I gave him my Sprint phone card to use.
I let Champ disappear down Ninth St. before heading in that direction myself. I didn't want him to think I was tailing him, but felt Carrick was somewhere around Tompkins Square Park. It was about 11:30. I spent the next hour and a half walking up and down the streets, in and out of the park. The cell phone finally rang about an hour later. Champ told me to meet him at the Odessa coffee shop on Avenue A. He knew where Carrick was, he said.
Holding an unlighted cigarette and looking like a beneficent padrone, Champ sat in a booth sipping coffee I later paid for. The word on the street, he said, was that Carrick and Chaos were hiding out in an abandoned theater. He asked me if I knew where that might be because he didn't really know the area. I said no, but it could be the huge abandoned building on the corner of Eighth St. that was covered with signs protesting an impending eviction. He said we'd have to get them out ourselves, and that he needed my word that I would not get the cops involved. I said okay, although I dreaded entering what I envisioned to be a nest of rooms filled with crackheads.
“I gotta tell you something you don't wanna hear,” he said.
I looked at him and nodded. Nothing he could say was worse than what I'd imagined.
“She's using heroin, Tommy,” he said.
“How much and for how long?” I'm sure my voice that sounded much calmer than I felt. “Is she shooting or snorting?”
“It's bad, Tommy,” he said. “She's hooked.”
He didn't know how long she'd been using, though, or whether she was shooting it or not. He told me that getting her back would be complicated by the fact that Chaos, the guy she was with, owed somebody some money for some dope they'd scored that morning. I was suspicious, which must have showed. I asked Champ if he meant that I'd have to pay somebody off, and he said we'd have to wait and see. He suggested we try to get more information from the people in the park. I gave him $60 for his help so far. I wanted him to know that I was prepared to reward him if we found Carrick, and that I'd pay others if I had to. We left the coffee shop.
“Tommy, I want to make sure we're clear on one thing,” Champ said as we crossed Avenue A. “No cops.”
I took a deep breath.
“I've heard a lot of stories and I think I've got a pretty good sense when somebody's conning me,” I replied. “I don't think you are.”
I said that partly because I wanted to hear in my own voice whether I believed it or not; I sounded like someone trying to convince himself that he's doing the right thing. It had reached the point where I was just reacting to circumstances. My only goal was to take Carrick home. And I knew that, in reality, I was easily conned. Carrick herself had proven that to me time and again.
Inside the park, Champ approached a group of people sitting on a bench. I kept walking on the path to the left. At best, I looked like a reporter, if not a cop. Champ came over and told me he would have to give them some money. He pulled out the $60 I'd given him. I thought he wanted to pay off the dealer that Chaos had supposedly beat that morning, and told him that I didn't think it was a good idea. Champ said that wasn't the case.
“Nobody gives up anything on the street for nothing,” he said. “Listen, they say that Chaos and your daughter are sleeping in the band shell near the bridge. Do you know where that is?”
Offhand, I didn't. He suggested that I walk back to the group with him. He took aside a wiry young man with closely cropped hair, handed him $20, and introduced me as someone who was looking for Chaos because I wanted to buy some crack. Sizing me up through squinting eyes, the guy asked how much I wanted and why I wanted to buy it from Chaos. I told him I didn't want any crack; I was a father looking for his 17-year-old daughter, who was with Chaos.
“That your daughter?” he said, with a slight Spanish accent. “She's a beautiful girl. Shit. I wished someone was looking for me.”
He said that Chaos and Carrick and another guy were in the old band shell in the park by the Williamsburg Bridge and told me how to get there. After I thanked him, he asked me if I was sure I didn't want some of his crack.
“Chaos isn't a good source, man. Not for crack. Dope, yes. Not crack.”
I shook my head.
A Walk in the Park
Champ and I walked through the park and across Ninth St. toward the river. I told him that I wanted to stop at Students for a Free Tibet to let them know what was going on. He was leery. He told me that he'd level with me. He had an outstanding violation for jumping a turnstile and that if the cops got involved, they'd take him in. As suspicious as I was that Champ had done more than beat the subway fare, I assured him again that I was not calling the cops. I did call Deirdre, though. I wanted her to know where we were heading. I wasn't sure it was the right decision, I said, but I saw no alternative.
Champ and I discussed a lot of things as we headed toward the river. He did most of the talking. He told me that he had been in the army. He said he'd come from a large family, and his father would beat the shit off out the boys when they did something wrong. His twin sister was a junkie who was always stealing from him until she had overdosed and died. He thought we should drop a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan to wipe out El Qaeda. What did I think?
We crossed the footbridge over the FDR Drive and walked south along the park path. Few people were out. It was a blustery day, the wind swooping in from the river. The longer we walked, the more I began to question what we were doing. I had played softball in the park ten years before, but my memory of a band shell was vague. I checked a pocket street atlas I'd brought from home, but it only showed swings, baseball diamonds and a tennis court. I told Champ that I hoped we weren't being set up. He resented this. I assured him that I wasn't suggesting that he was setting me up. Of course, I wasn't sure of that either.
I was walking even faster than my normal quick pace. Champ kept up, wheezing from the cigarettes he seemed to light continually. He talked more about his past. He had owned his own plumbing business in New Jersey, he said. His partner, who was a crack addict, had cheated him out of it by failing to keep appointments while Champ had been in prison. When he got out, there were no customers left. He also mentioned his wife, Maria, who was strung out on drugs, he said. They were divorced. They had two kids, an eight-year-old boy who looked just like him, and a younger girl. Champ said he had given Maria everything - a house in Pennsylvania, a good TV, and all the appliances she could ever want. When he'd come home after a full day of work trying to build his business, followed by a night of moonlighting, he expected her to at least serve him a cup of coffee. Even that simple task seemed to be too much for her, Champ said. Then she'd get out of bed in the middle of the night and start cleaning everything obsessively, he said, because of the drugs she took.
I asked him about his jail time. It was a bad rap, he said. He'd been minding his own business when he saw a guy beating up a woman outside a bar in New Jersey. He told the guy to stop. They got into a fight. He punched the guy in the ribs. The ribs cracked and punctured his lung and he died. Because he had been a boxer, Champ's hands were considered a lethal weapon, and he had been convicted of manslaughter. Then he almost got killed in jail when a black guy stabbed him in the neck with a shiv — he stopped to show me the wound — while he was playing poker. The motivation had something to do with cigarettes. He also told me that his partner had shot him several times. He wanted to show me these wounds, too, but I was beginning to feel numb to his tales of woe and just kept walking.
We passed two Latino youths who looked to be about twenty. One was pushing a stroller. I assumed a baby was in it but didn't look. As soon as they went by, Champ asked me if I had another $20. He wanted to ask them if they'd seen Chaos and Carrick. I pulled a bill out of my pocket. He called after them. At first, they were suspicious. Then Champ told them that I was the father of a seventeen-year-old girl who had run away from home and that I just wanted to get her back. This seemed to click with the one not pushing the stroller, a tall young man with smooth skin and a sweet face. He said that two guys and a girl who fit my description were sleeping in the back of the band shell. He'd seen Carrick around, he said. He had no idea how young she was, and said he understood why I was doing what I was. He said his name was Danny. He offered to come with us. We tried to figure out what to do about the $20. The guy with the stroller wanted a cut of it even though he wasn't accompanying us, but Danny didn't seem to trust him to split the money later. I was reluctant to pull my wallet out of a concealed pocket of my jacket, but I did. I gave the guy with the stroller $10, and Champ told Danny he'd get the other $10 after we were sure that Carrick really was where he said she was. That seemed to be okay with him.
We got to a wire fence on the north side of the band shell, which was in terrible shape. Champ suggested that he and Danny look inside the structure, and that I wait by the fence alone. They were afraid Carrick would take off if she saw me coming. They went through a rip on the river side of the fence, and stopped at the wall of the structure for a few seconds. As they walked back, I could not discern from their expressions what they'd seen.
“She's there,” Champ said, his voice trailing off, as if there was a hitch. My heart raced - part joy, part anxiety. Then, like a soldier who'd been behind the enemy lines, Champ described the scene. He said the three of them were asleep under some blankets on a raised platform.
“It's not stable, Tommy,” he said. “It could collapse at any time.”
Champ then turned to Danny and told him he could go, handing him a $10 bill from the money I'd given him earlier.
Danny shook his head.
“I want to make sure this man gets his daughter back,” he said.
Champ started to get agitated. He asked me what I wanted to do. I didn't really trust anybody at this point. But I figured having two people around was better than one, so I said Danny should stay.
“I think it's better if I go in alone, though,” I said. “I'm going to make it clear to everybody that I don't want any trouble. I just want Carrick to come home with me.”
I felt like I was in an outtake from the movie Traffic, which I'd seen recently. The protagonist, played by Michael Douglas, discovers his addicted teenage daughter turning tricks in a squalid hotel room to support her habit. I hoped that it would not come to a fight, as it had with Douglas's character, or that I'd face a weapon. But I also felt a foolish confidence, as if the righteousness of my mission would protect me.
"I Don't Want Any Trouble"
I slipped through the fence. Champ and Danny remained at the opening, presumably ready to back me up. I walked quickly across the vaulted chamber, which was filled with debris and trash. A makeshift ladder leaned against what looked like a sleeping loft about eight feet off the ground in the southwest corner. I climbed it. Carrick was in the middle of two lumps under blankets, cuddled against a figure in the far corner. I leaned across a completely submerged body and shook her. I wondered what to say. Should I be firm, or conciliatory? Should I ask, or demand?
“I'm here to take you home, Carrick,” I said. “I don't want any trouble.”
It took a couple of shakes before Carrick open her eyes and looked at me.
“I don't want any trouble,” I repeated.
She said nothing; closed her eyes. The young man in the foreground sat up and stretched, but seemed oblivious to me.
“C'mon, Carrick,” I said.
“Give me a couple of minutes,” she muttered, as if I was rousting her for school. Her face was dirty; her hair matted. She looked stoned. She shook the body in the corner, and started to whisper in his ear. I heard her say, “baby.” He lifted his head, which was swathed in a bandana. I saw a crescent tattoo on his temple. He glanced at me through dazed eyes, and looked away.
I climbed down from the ladder to allow them to, I hoped, say goodbye to each other. I walked to the middle of the bandshell so I ostensibly was out of earshot but could still see them. I worried they would take the opportunity to hatch some escape plan. Carrick lay down. I gave her a minute or so.
“C'mon, Carrick,” I said, “time to go,” again assuring everyone that I wanted no trouble.
She sat up, slowly gathered some loose gear, stuffed it into her leather backpack and pecked on the cheek the man who I assumed was Chaos. She said goodbye to the other figure, who was heavily pierced, and crawled over him. She would not take the hand I offered to assist her as she came down the ladder. At the bottom, I hugged her. She responded hollowly. She did not seem to be there. She greeted Champ warmly, though, and they immediately started talking.
Danny Believes in God
Danny and I led the way on the walk back up the park path. Carrick asked Champ for a cigarette. They stopped, so I did, too. Champ shook the pack until a few butts protruded, and silently offered them to Danny and me. Danny took one. I shook my head. The three of them shared a match that Champ cupped against the wind. Carrick told me later that she was sure I was going to take a cigarette. I had quit smoking, for the last time, about ten years before. I'd told Carrick several times that it was even harder for me to quit using nicotine than alcohol. For the last five years of my addiction, I smoked a pipe, but inhaled. On one of my birthdays, I gathered Carrick and her brother Duncan, who is five years younger, in front of our wood stove and ceremoniously tossed my half-dozen briars in the flames. I probably did entertain the idea of lighting up when Champ extended the pack to me. Maybe there was a tinge of hesitation in my voice that Carrick picked up on. My lungs often jump at a whiff of cigarette smoke. Carrick later told me that she was very relieved I said no.
“I would have lost my respect for you if you'd taken the cigarette,” she said.
Danny and I talked. He asked me if I believed in God. I said not in the sense that most people do, but that I respected many religions and thought that anything that helped people was good. I was spiritual, I said, but not religious. He said he couldn't imagine that there was not a God. He said he was in recovery himself, from drinking and drugging. He was going to meetings again after having slacked off. The streets were tough, he said. A popular kid in the neighborhood had died a few weeks before when he shot up some dope laced with rat poison. Everyone knew the pusher responsible, but he'd disappeared.
“When we find him,” Danny said, “he's dead.”
Danny told me that he'd seen Carrick snorting heroin in East River Park the night before with the girl she was with, whom he had not seen before. I was surprised - not by the fact that she had taken heroin, which I'd already become resigned to, but because it was evident that, like a small village, everybody seemed to know what was happening to everybody else in Losaida, as the neighborhood is known.
Danny said he'd had a tough life himself, but he wasn't complaining. His father had owned several nightclubs and was prosperous, but he got into drugs and lost everything. Danny used to fish with his father, he said, and they loved each other, but he died several years before. His mother drank, he said, and beat him. She had thrown him out of her apartment in the Jacob Riis public housing project, but he was on his way to see if she'd take him back because he couldn't stay with his girlfriend any longer. We shook hands at the corner of Ave. D and East Tenth St. I gave Danny a twenty and wished him luck. He said that if I ever wanted to know more about the neighborhood, just ask for Danny. Everybody knew where to find him.
"I'm Gonna Pay You Back"
After Danny left, I watched Champ and Carrick prattle like drinking buddies. I wasn't entirely sure that that they weren't in cahoots. Maybe Carrick had convinced Champ I was an evil dad and she'd tear down the street while he restrained me. I broke into their conversation, telling Champ that I'd seen a jogger that morning throwing jabs and repeating loudly, “keep dancing, keep dancing.” He agreed that boxing was all about where you put your feet, and started to give us a demonstration on the sidewalk. A woman with a stroller nervously swerved around us.
Carrick said she was hungry and suggested that we eat at an Indian restaurant. I asked Champ if that was okay with him, and he said that he'd never had Indian food. I saw a couple of other ethnic restaurants on the street; Champ said he was basically a meat and potatoes guy. We wound up at a Polish restaurant, where he ordered a hamburger. I devoured my kielbasa; Carrick didn't finish her meal. Neither, to my surprise, did Champ. Junkies don't seem to have much appetite, I learned later, except for crap like sugary cereal and ice cream.
Back on the sidewalk, Champ asked for directions to Tompkins Square Park, which was only a couple of blocks away. It struck me that, despite his swagger, he was a rube who had not ventured far from familiar quarters. He took me aside, whispering conspiratorially.
“Listen, would it be okay if I called Carrick to see how she's doing?” he asked. “Maybe I could even come and visit her sometime. She says she'd like to take some more boxing lessons.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why don't you keep the calling card.”
“Really? Hey, thanks, man. I could use it to find a job.”
I looked into his eyes and gripped his hand as firmly as I could.
“I want to thank you for saving Carrick's life,” I said. I did not think I was exaggerating. I slipped him another $20.
“I really mean that,” I said.
“It was nothing, man, nothing. Soon as I get on my feet, I'm gonna pay you back.”
Carrick and I headed to the station for the No. 5 train. When it came, she took a seat, and I stood over her. Her eyes closed and her head slumped.
I was reminded of a subway ride I had taken with Duncan to Yankee Stadium about six weeks earlier to see Cal Ripkin, Jr. in his final appearance there. We sat across from two black girls. They looked to be even younger than Carrick. I couldn't help but feel that their lives were destined for misery. Their eyelids seemed weighted down, their heads swayed lightly like one of those plaster bobbing-head dolls, their hands were suspended in front of their face, shielding them from anything external, fingers occasionally flicking. They were deeply stoned.
Carrick was not nodding, but she had the same look of detachment as I looked down at her.
We got off at Grand Central.
As soon as we boarded the Metro North train to return to Hastings-on-Hudson, Carrick slouched in the seat and shut her eyes. I told her she had to answer two questions before I'd let her sleep.
“I want honest answers because we can't help you to help yourself otherwise,” I said. “How long have you been using heroin? And are you shooting it as well as snorting?”
“I've never touched that shit,” she said. “Whoever told you otherwise doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about.”
I knew she was lying, but what could we do except wait for the results of a drug test? And then what? We'd have her tested for the HIV virus, too, for sure. And hepatitis. But what beyond that? Should we force her to go to another rehab? Using what reward as bait? What punishment as a threat?
I felt I'd accomplished nothing. On the surface, I had dragged my daughter out of the belly of the beast. But deep down I knew it was illusory. When I saw her lying between two scuzzy junkies in that crumbling band shell, I knew how low she was prepared to sink to in order to use drugs. Like a pipe to the head, it struck me that Deirdre and I had little, if any, control over our 17-year-old daughter's fate.
Retching in the Night
When we got home from the city, Deirdre and Carrick tearfully embraced. Then Carrick went to bed. Deirdre and I talked about our options. We agreed that unless Carrick wanted to get and stay clean, there was little hope that she would. We could make the offer to help in any way we could, but it would be fruitless unless she had the desire, herself, to stop using drugs. Since she had denied using heroin, and seemed to be tired and dirty but physically okay, we decided to have her tested before bringing up the subject of a detox program.
I heard Carrick retching during the night but did not get up. The bathroom smelled of vomit in the morning.
Carrick's relationship with Deirdre and me during the next few days was an emotional seesaw. We were never quite sure which way she would tip — contrite or demanding; demure or combative. After a few days, Deirdre took her to our family doctor for a drug test. Several weeks later, we were told the test was useless because there had been excessive water in her urine.
Carrick had gained two practical skills from WestPrep, one of the several drug rehabilitation programs she attended: She learned where to get more potent drugs, and she had become an expert at doctoring tests (although this particular job was so amateurish that it suggested she just didn't care).
Champ called a couple of times during the week. We'd discuss job possibilities for him, and then I'd put Carrick on the phone. She'd take the cordless and drift off to another room, where I'd hear her laugh from time to time. We tried to figure out a day when Champ could come up and visit. He said he'd give Carrick boxing lessons, as he had in Tompkins Square Park, and she seemed enthused. We finally settled on Sunday. It was Deirdre's and my twenty-fourth wedding anniversary but we didn't want to go out and leave Carrick alone anyway. I gave Champ explicit directions: Get the No. 6 train at Astor Place, transfer to the No. 4 at Grand Central Station, and get off at Bedford Park Blvd. in the Bronx, where I'd pick him up at 3 p.m. I told him to count on dinner, too.
Back To School
Carrick returned to the Walkabout School on Wednesday. The academic portion of her program was about to kick into gear. I'm sure this frightened her. She talked to the social worker at Walkabout, Jeannie. We had informed her of everything that had happened, even of our suspicion that Carrick had snorted heroin. Evidently Carrick and Jeannie had a good, open conversation. On Wednesday night about 10 p.m., Carrick finished up some homework that was overdue and asked me to help her attach it to an e-mail message to her teacher. I did not check her work that night — those days were long gone; I was just happy to see her so eager to finish something. I've looked at it since, though. It's titled “Journal: Finished Piece.” In it, Carrick wrote that she had found the perfect place to people watch on the Lower East Side, right above a subway station.
“Old men come here to drink beer while I come here to smoke weed, and we stay as far away as possible from each other on opposite benches, respecting each other's recreational boundaries,” she wrote.
The next morning, it became clear why Carrick had been so intent on e-mailing the assignment to her teacher. She cut school. We learned that she had posed as Deirdre and called both the bus company and the school office to report that she was sick.
In the early afternoon, we got a call from Jeannie asking how Carrick was feeling. It was then that we discovered she was absent. I was sure she'd taken off again, but Jeannie was sanguine. She suggested that we wait until the time Carrick was due home before worrying. Sure enough, Carrick sauntered in right on schedule. I trapped her with one of those ungratifying questions like, “So, how did school go today?” She concocted a story that revolved around how boring the day had been. When I told her that I knew she hadn't gone to class, she cooked up another tale about visiting her friend Vanessa in Bronxville. I believed that she'd really gone down to see Chaos, but she denied it. Our conversation was civil.
Later, Carrick told me that the day before she had bared her soul to Jeannie, who told Carrick that she should be as straightforward with us as she had been with her.
“So,” Carrick told me, “I'm going to be honest even if you don't like what I have to say.”
A Diatribe Against Suburbia
What followed was a diatribe against suburbia, phoniness, fashion, make-up, keeping up appearances and related Holden Caulfieldesque themes. I recalled delivering a very similar speech to my parents about 30 years before. I particularly remember keying in on Westchester County, where our home is situated, as the ground zero of everything that was plastic in American society. I swore I'd never live there.
Carrick then said some sweet things about us. She appreciated, in particular, that we were "open-minded."
“But,” she continued, “Monday [the day I'd gone downtown to find her] did something we could not ignore.”
She told me that the people she learned the most from didn't fit the status quo. She admitted that she was addicted to weed but said she did not want to change. She did not have any desire to use any other drug than marijuana. She did not agree with the precepts of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. She understood, however, that as long as she lived under our roof she would have to respect our rules about using drugs. A curfew, though, was something else. She simply was not going to be “grounded” anymore.
I pointed out that while we had been keeping very close tabs on whom she went out with and when she returned, we had not turned down any request to go anywhere or do anything since she'd come home from her last residential treatment program several months before. She had managed to do things within the parameters that we felt were safe for her, and that's the only concern we had.
Our conversation got heated. By the end, Carrick was yelling at me. I don't know if I was physically yelling back, but I'm sure I was psychically. She stormed off. Later, we reconciled when she came down from her room and agreed to the two things I insisted upon, even though she did not see anything wrong with smoking marijuana:
- that she stay sober
- that she get involved with a 12-step program of her choice
The change of heart had come all too easily, it seemed to me, but I was getting used to Carrick's running hot one minute, cold the next. I was also suspicious that she might have something up her sleeve. I asked her to write down what we agreed upon. I actually have a collection of similar “contracts,” which therapists suggest are a good way to clarify expectations and goals. They are no doubt correct. In our experience, though, they have literally not been worth the paper they are written on, however sincere the intent. On a piece of loose-leaf paper, with the holes on the right (a classic ADD mistake of hers), Carrick wrote:
“I promise that I will make time to go to meetings every day (at least for my first 90), get a sponsor I can work with, and work the program.
P.S. And I will not lie. I am definitely an addict and not feeling too honky dorie about getting sober.
That night at an AA meeting in Hastings, Carrick met two women in their twenties with whom she professed she felt a bond. Both were primarily drug users, liker her, and not drinkers. They told stories similar to Carrick's, she reported. They were closer in age than most of the other participants at the local meetings. One of them mentioned a NA meeting in White Plains, which was 20 minutes away by car, and offered to drive Carrick there the next night, Friday. When Carrick came back from that Friday meeting, she burst into tears in our living room. She had met yet another young woman whose story was very much like her own, she said. She had felt at home with the group. For the first time, she was among people who could understand what she was going through.
Saturday evening, Deirdre and I had a longstanding dinner engagement with a couple of friends at the Manhattan apartment of one of them. All week long we'd told Carrick that she had to come with us, and she'd not put up a fuss. Both women had known Carrick since she was an infant. The one whose apartment we were going to had been like an aunt to her, always giving her a well-considered gift at Christmas, always asking about her interests. On Saturday afternoon, Carrick threw a temper tantrum about accompanying us. It was if she were five years old. As had become usual, however, she calmed down and we all had a pleasant evening. When we returned home that night, there was a message on the answering machine that was indecipherable to us, although we later listened to it at least a dozen times. It was Chaos.
The next morning, I awoke about 9 to see Carrick standing in the doorway of our bedroom. She had a coat on. I asked her where she was going.
“Out for a walk,” she said, “I love you.”
She turned and left. When Deirdre and I got out of bed later than morning, we could feel Carrick's absence. Instinctively, we knew she'd taken off again.
"I'm Afraid of Champ"
Later that day, among the dirty clothes in a laundry basket that I guess she knew I'd look through, I found a note written on a page torn out from a stenographer's pad.
First of all, don't worry. I am not running away. I'll be home soon.
But - Champ isn't who you or I thought he was.
He is a con artist.
I first got concerned about him after Pops told me Champ's story about meeting me the other day.
Champ's story about his grand rescue while I was being harassed in the park is completely bogus.
After that I became suspicious & found more fabricated stories of his.
Then, my last straw, was when I found out today that his interest in me is not a Platonic one.
I know you guys want my safety more than anything.
But I'm scared. More scared than I ever have been. And something tells me in my gut that this is bad. I don't want him in my home or knowing where I live for that matter.
I don't trust him.
So I went somewhere where I can be alone & feel safe, because I'm afraid of anything getting serious - I don't trust him at all guys - please do what you can to keep him away.
I don't want him in our lives & I am sorry for bringing him into ours.
Down and Out in Philadelphia
Carrick had, in fact, run away with Chaos. We did not hear from her for more than a week, although she sent an e-mail to Vanessa asking her to let us know she was okay. Slowly, Deirdre built up an e-mail correspondence with Carrick, who used our AOL account at public libraries. Then Carrick started calling collect. We gave her a phone card number, and began to hear from her every few days.
She and Chaos were living in an abandoned veteran's facility in Philadelphia, panhandling and scrounging through garbage pails and dumpsters to eat. They also worked a scam at department stores where Carrick or accomplices would boost some items and then take it back to the returns department. After doing this a few times, they could only get store credit, which they'd sell at a steep discount to passers-by. We knew this only because we knew her password and were able to monitor her e-mails to Vanessa and other friends. She also e-mailed her brother from time to time, telling him that she had learned a lot about people.
People are afraid of me - now I am the kind of person that people cross the street to avoid,” she wrote to Duncan at the end of November. “Probably the kind of person that you are afraid to see when you go into the city, and it's not because I am mean or evil. I don't do drugs. I am always (still) polite to people but people look at me like I am less than they are - YOUR OWN SISTER! And you know why, Duncan? Because I don't have the money in my pocket - and bad people (the real Grinches) can smell that and they look down on me for it.”
I avoided talking to Carrick myself when she called home because I did not feel I could believe anything she told me. For one thing, I did not believe she was not using drugs. She, in turn, told Deirdre that she didn't trust me; she was afraid that I'd come looking for her if she gave us any more details about where she was staying. Indeed, there were times when my inclination was to have her arrested because I felt she'd be safer in jail, and perhaps would get some help. My cousin was a congressman at the time, and I considered calling him to intervene with federal authorities but I was reluctant to pull strings, particularly since I felt she'd just run again at the first opportunity.
Deirdre was more tolerant. She was firm about our expectations, but more flexible emotionally than I could be. If she said something that upset Carrick, she'd apologize. She kept a sense of humor, too, telling Carrick she had given her the earth name, “Running Daughter.” I admired Deirdre's capacity to bend, but could not do it myself. I was afraid that if Carrick said something provocative, I would answer harshly, and perhaps loose the connection Deirdre was forming.
One day in early December, I answered the phone when Carrick called. Our cautious greetings to each other soon degraded into a diatribe about how hard it was to make money on the street.
“I hate people. Everybody has a fucking attitude,” she said. “They don't understand how evil they are; how fucked up. They won't acknowledge me. They think I'm doing this for fun. I'm making nothing. They don't realize I don't have a choice?”
“But you do have a choice,” I said.
“I'm not coming home, if that's what you mean,” she said, and hung up.
In reaction to that call, I wrote a note to myself that I carried in my wallet for more than a year:
“You lie, steal, cheat and hurt other people without a thought. Why wouldn't people be smart to stay clear of you? I'd love to talk with you, but only when I'm reasonably certain I can believe what you say.”
On December 18, I talked to her again.
It was a dismal Christmas. Carrick didn't call. We ate in a deserted Turkish restaurant on the West Side and went to see the first Lord of the Rings movie.
Carrick did come home in the middle of January after two months on the streets. Chaos, who followed her to New York City, lived under the Williamsburg Bridge and visited her at our home a few times. We learned that his real name was Sean Courtney, that he was 30 years old, an ardent Irish republican, had been a guitarist and singer for a punk rock band, had grown up in Akron, and had two children with two different women. He also played the bagpipes and flute, we were told, and wanted to teach music to kids.
On the occasions that he came up to our home, Chaos seemed like a dark shadow, a ninja who skittered about and murmured gutterally more than spoke. His life story seemed unfathomable, filled with dangling aspirations and claims, and I didn't even attempt to nail it down.
Before long, Chaos was arrested in Jersey City, N.J., for possession of stolen property. There was a convoluted story about his accompanying a friend to Jersey under some other pretense and getting stuck on a sidewalk holding a TV that the guy boosted from an apartment.
I wanted to believe him. In fact, I always wanted to believe the best possible scenario in any given situation involving Carrick, despite the strong lunar pull of facts or common sense in the other direction.
Chaos called collect from the Hudson County Correctional Center for several weeks, but we cut his calls off after a $280 bill, at nearly $1.50 a minute, arrived. I thought it was outrageous that the New Jersey prision system did not allow convicts to use phone cards, and had contracted with a service provider that charged such an outrageous rate. Who, I wondered, was getting paid off? I contacted a friend of mine who edited a paper in Jersey, but the story didn't go anywhere. Of course it didn't. Who wants to read about convicts getting ripped off?
After I cut off the costly phone conversations, Chaos wrote Carrick several letters. She would read them and leave them open in places like the kitchen table, as if she wanted us to read them. I did, attracted by his childlike enthusiams, and his affection for Carrick.
"Carrick hey love," he started a letter in early March 2002. "So it's another day of nothing. i hope you can read this. i have been learning how to write in script. im getting better at it but it still needs a lot of work..."
Chaos said that he'd been doing a lot of writing in jail but he'd probably burn most of it when he got out. He asked if Carrick had gotten in touch with his dad to get pictures of his daughter. He talked about taking Carrick to San Francisco. Then he mused about going camping somewhere with her when he got out. He said he missed being able to built a fire whenever he felt like it. He claimed that a producer in Ireland had called his brother to see if Chaos' band, Rum Rebellion, would play in a Celtic music festival in homage to one Paddy West, evidently the deceased leader of the group. He wasn't sure if he should do it, and wanted Carrick's advice. He recommended that Carrick read Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow and Ayn Rand's Anthem. And in the most bizarre passage, he wrote about having nightmares about when he was "still a soldier back home." He said he knew he was fighting for the right things, but sometimes he felt that he was "little more than a glorified killer."
In a subsequent letter, Chaos told Carrick he would do anything for her, and talked about the two of them getting an apartment with puppies and opening a café/bookstore together. He also urged her to “be careful.”
“You know what I mean,” he wrote. “I've lost so much because of that shit. Most of my friends are dead, or close to it.”
These words prompted us to order a drug-testing kit over the Internet. Before it arrived at the end of March, Deirdre awoke one morning to find a cloth pouch on the kitchen counter. It contained a glass tube with screens, two hypodermic needles, an empty glassine envelope, a bottle cap and a clothespin.
"I will tell you what I would do with a second chance: I would never forget that alcoholism is a disease, that I should hate the disease but care for its victim — just as I would react if a loved one were suffering from cancer or diabetes. I tried to maintain these attitude with Terry, but frequently my anger at her behavior in the grip of alcoholism translated into resentment and disappointment directed at her instead of her illness."
For years, we struggled to find the right balance between being compassionate toward Carrick and not enabling her self-destructive behavior. Early on, we agreed that I would be the bad cop and Deirdre would be the good cop, but this sent a mixed message at times.
Chapter in Progress
I think Carrick has stolen $120 from me on Mother's Day. She denies it, and demands that I tell her where I'd hidden it. She says she only took $20. She accuses Vanessa (the girl from Bronxville), who stayed here the night before , of taking it. General mayhem. I later discover the $100 in my pocket. She's right. She only took $20 from me. My bad.
Carrick writes Chaos that she has a five-bag-a-day habit but swears to me that she's not using at all; she is just bullshitting Chaos because she wants to dump him and he doesn't want to go out with a junkie.
Like a true junkie, she's now lying about lying. Or is she lying about lying about lying? It still makes my head hurt trying to figure it out.
Meanwhile, Carrick has become friendly with Jason Tyler, a clean-cut, 34-year-old ex-junkie who has returned to Hastings to live in his mother's house after losing his job and getting divorced. He is engaging, and seems sincere. He takes Carrick to some twelve-step meetings, and our hopes soar.
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These are the stories of the addictions, primarily to alcohol, that run deep in my family, and that of my wife, Deirdre.
Mind of a Poet
The mind of a Poet, as I see it, is a mind that colors life with imagination based on necessarily bitter experience, a mind that has survived the squalor of small humiliations and the melancholy of great disillusions, and remains unerring in the perception of beauty in the human heart.
-Noel Coward's Preface to William Bolitho's Camera Obscura
When she was a little girl, long before I was aware that she'd experienced squalor and the melancholy of great disillusions, I would tell people that Carrick had the mind and soul of a poet. I cannot say that she always perceives beauty in the human heart, but I believe she is capable of seeing it more intensely than most of us. I believe she experiences many emotions more intensely than most of us.
It's simple to deduce that the union of Deirdre's and my gene pools would stand a very good chance of producing alcoholic progeny. In fact, though, our one child by birth (we adopted Duncan) has never been much of a drinker.
Carrick, who was born on August 4, 1984, doesn't like the taste of alcohol, nor is its high very satisfying to her. Since she was twelve, however, she has ingested marijuana, hashish, amphetamines, pseudoephedrine, ecstasy, LSD, cocaine, crack, heroin, speedballs and any other substance that promises a few moments relief from what undoubtedly has been a tormented psyche. At the same time, she usually refused to take the Ritalin and various antidepressants that medical doctors prescribed for her Attention Deficit Disorder and clinical depression (or, as the latest diagnosis would have it, bipolar disorder) because “I don't want to be dependent on them.”
If I pray for anything, I pray for this: I pray that Carrick will not only continually rediscover the beauty in the human heart that she is capable of seeing so well, but also reveal its radiance to others who are trapped in their own bitter experiences.
Music and Leverage
One time when Carrick misbehaved as an young adolescent, even before she was into drugs, I took away the boom box on which she incessantly listened to the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Marilyn Manson. She threw a fit.
“Music is my life,” she cried. “You can't do this to me. Music is my life. I have nothing else.'
I realized how important music was to her. That's why I'd taken it away. Nothing else did much matter to her at that time, and we seemed to have lost all other leverage over her behavior. I eventually broke down and gave the boom box back, however, fearful that she might harm herself if I didn't.
A few years later, I realized how far she had fallen into drug abuse when I noticed that a more expensive stereo system we had given her was missing. When I asked her about it, she told to me that the guy who had been supplying her heroin, who had been living in our attic, had hocked it to buy dope for the two of them.
Carrick doesn't listen to music much anymore. She seems to prefer Howard Stern. I think I'll give her an iPod for her 21st birthday.
In an episode in the second season of The Sopranos, godfather Tony is in bed with his wife Carmella. Their daughter Meadow has thrown a party at his mother Livia's vacant house, trashing it. On top of it all, she was drinking. Tony and Carmella are discussing how Meadow needs to be “held accountable.”
"Let's not overplay our hand," Tony says. "If she figures out we're powerless, we're fucked." Meadow suggests that they punish her by taking away her Discover card for two weeks. Playing tough, they say three weeks.
Carrick attended the RedCliff Ascent wilderness therapy program, which is located in the high desert of southwestern Utah, from November 2000 through March 2001.
Twilight Eagle Moon
A few days before they graduate from the RedCliff Ascent program, each student is given an "earth name" by one of the counselors. White Winds Singing gave Carrick the name "Twilight Eagle Moon" with the following explanation:
Twilight is for your
personality. You are like
that mystical magical
moment just as the
sun sets. The blue beads
represent that part of
Eagle is the most spititual
of all the birds. It flys
higher than any other
bird and has a strong
connection to Great
Spirit. This is a
representation of your
Moon is for the
You have a strong
connection to the moon.
When you have questions
the glow of the moon
can help you.
I don't think Deirdre put as much thought into the name "Running Daughter."
I don't have a drinking problem, except when I can't find a drink. —Tom Waits
I drink with impunity ... or anyone else who invites me. —W.C. Fields
Reformed hard-core addicts and drunks often tell stories about their multiple descents into an earthbound hell. These tales reek of depression and depravity. Touches of humor, like a morning bracer, take the edge off.
But most of us who have indulged in spirits or other drugs are oblivious about the profound affect they have on us because our lives seem so normal - filled with fear, joy, anxiety, doubt, illness, triumph, anger, love, cupidity, wonder, greed and all the other nouns of sentience. And if we don't want to see the problem, friends and acquaintances surely don't either, even if it's causing them grief.
No one looking in at my life from the outside during my drinking days would have told you that it was being defined, on all sides, by substance abuse. Even if they thought it was, they would not have said so. It would have been too awkward in several ways. Besides, those who saw me most often and thought they knew me best also shared my disease. But alcohol and drugs have been at the epicenter of my existence for as long as I can remember - and before.
My First Drugs
As I think back, I can't imagine what possessed me to smoke my first cigarette. I was eight or nine, a well-behaved baseball fanatic, living in a Long Island suburb.
“Cigarettes will stunt your growth,” said my mother, to whom I would smuggle cigarettes when she lay in a hospital bed dying of lung cancer in 1988.
“Cigarettes will take away your wind,” said my father, who smoked more than a pack of Parliaments a day until he developed incipient emphysema when he was in his 60s.
I believed them, though I sometimes wondered why there were so many smokers and so few midgets. Nor I was I entirely sure what “wind” was, though it was clear I needed it to excel. Still, I took a Kent cigarette and a book of matches from my mother's purse and headed out with my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chucky, to the middle of an empty lot a block and a half from our homes. We entered the high cattail reeds, looking over our shoulders like thieves slipping into a window to make sure no one who could report us to our parents had seen us. I lighted the cigarette with trepidation, feeling that I was about to do something that might have repercussions so awful that they were beyond my comprehension. I was rolling the dice with dwarfdom. Jeopardizing my chances to be a Major League shortstop. I took a drag anyway. The results were predictable. I gagged and quickly snubbed out the cigarette. I can't recall Chucky's reactions. His fear must have been less ethereal than mine though; his mother had a switch she was always threatening to take to his backside for misbehavior (although I never saw her actually do it).
Within a couple of years, though, I'd routinely take a few cigarettes from the opened packs my parents left around the house before heading outside. Social convention dictated that I share the wealth with friends who were picking up the habit. We'd moved to the Bronx by this time, and there was a vintage cigarette machine in the laundry room of our apartment building. I discovered that I could snake my arm up the dispenser slot at the bottom and pull out packs at will. I preferred the Camel and Lucky Strike brands because other kids, particularly girls who only took a few puffs anyway, were less likely to bum a filterless butt from me.
A Jar of Whiskey
I remember my first drink with the same fond clarity that I recall the first time I made love. I was eleven, sitting with a few friends from the sixth grade on a outcrop in steeply sloped Ewen Park, which separated the blue-collar, mostly Irish neighborhood of Kingsbridge from the mostly Jewish professionals who lived “up the hill” in Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil, as I did, although my classmates and I went to St. Gabriel's.
It was the spring of 1964, and the park delineated two ways of portraying my identity that were struggling for dominance in my pre-adolescent mind. One was the mushy world of the long-haired Beatles, who were becoming very popular with the girls, particularly Laurie, a public school girl I'd been making out with in the back seat of an abandoned car in the Food Fair supermarket parking lot. I, too, listened to Murray the K, the disk jockey on 1010 WINS radio who called himself “The Fifth Beatle,” and was captivated by wistful tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” I'd purchased the group's first two vinyl LPs with a combination of allowance and quarters diverted from the Sunday collection basket (which had heretofore gone toward the purchase of Superman and Batman comic books).
The other world view was that of the greaser - slicked-back hair, tight pants, and an attitude that it would be a badge of honor to be designated a “juvenile delinquent” for some unspecified crime. I used Vitalis to keep my hair swept back on the sides, with a little dip in the front like Dick Clark. I certainly didn't want to stand before a judge and be sentenced to time in a juvie hall, or even be lectured to, but I felt that I'd command a certain amount of respect if I carried a “J.D. Card.” Greaser music was personified by the Ventures and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and I liked them, too. Riverdale was Beatle country; Kingsbridge, greaser.
One area where these two worlds came together somewhat was in the pointy black shoes with high heels and metal taps I think we called “vespers” (though I can't find any reference to this use of the word online). Detractors called them “Puerto Rican cockroach killers." Anybody hanging out on street-corners in the Bronx wore them, and so, too, did John, Paul, George and Ringo in the picture on the back of “Meet the Beatles.”
I bought a cheap pair of vespers at a Thom McCann shoe store in the heart of Kingbridge, but they were banned at St. Gabe's, where I was forced to wear a uniform of white shirt and brown tie, scratchy wool pants, and shoes. I often felt self-conscious when I put them on anyplace else, but I was wearing them that afternoon when three or four of us gathered on that rock in Ewen Park where I had my first drink.
I can't remember my companion's names or faces, except for Michael, who went to his apartment on the edge of the park and returned with an empty peanut butter jar filled with an amber liquid, probably a cheap rye. His father was a bartender who kept a closet filled with cases of booze that we later dipped into several times. I was never particularly close to Michael. We just shared an interest in the way that liquor that made you feel different. He was, as I look back, my first drinking buddy, our friendship as solid as a cube of ice.
It was a nippy day. I unscrewed the lid, and took the first guzzle from the jar. It tasted bitter, but I loved the warm glow that flowed down my gullet and radiated in my stomach. As I think about it now, I can feel my spinal column tingle, as if my central nervous system is reliving that joyous feeling as palpably as my memory.
I passed the jar around. I desperately wanted to get high, but I had no way of knowing whether I was or not. I wanted to feel crazy, supercharged, braver than usual. I wanted to feel the camaraderie that I'd been looking for since I'd moved to the Bronx from Long Island a couple of years before and tried to fit in with a group of kids who liked basketball better than baseball, played boxball against the schoolyard wall not tag in suburban backyards , and thought my Cub Scout badges were corny. I wanted to cement the bond of danger and rebellion that had brought us together on that rock. I looked up the hill and saw an old man walking slowing down Johnson Ave.
“Let's mug him,” I said.
No one, thankfully, paid any attention to me.
My Last Smoke
I tried to stop smoking many times before I eventually did. The first time that I recall was in the spring of 1971. My buddy Mark and I took a two-week camping trip in New England and Canada. On the way back, we stopped at Baxter State Park, which is a huge green inset smack dab in the middle of any map of Maine. It contains the 5,200-foot-high Mount Katahdin, which is also the beginning (or end) of the Appalachian Trail, depending on where you're coming from.
Mark and I camped at the foot of North Traveler Mountain, a 3,174-foot peak. We did not know it at the time, but over the years, quite a few hikers have lost their lives climbing in Baxter. For one very long night, I thought I was destined to be one of them. I described what happened to me in a letter I wrote to Carrick a few days after she entered the Red Cliff Ascent Wilderness Therapy program in Utah.
I hope that things are beginning to seem better for you. I know it's difficult. I also know that you will be able to do it, physically, mentally and spiritually.
We miss you. I look at your empty room and feel a hollowness in my stomach. But you are in my mind constantly, and I know you're be coming back renewed.
Did I ever tell you about the time I spent a night lost on a mountain in Maine, thinking that I'd never see daylight again? I was thinking about it the other day because this is a time of year when I think about Mark (his birthday is this week), and I went to Maine with him. We were camping during Spring break. I was 18. It was still pretty cold up there at that time of year. We decided to climb a mountain in Baxter State Park called North Traveler. Mark was ahead of me for most of the way. He had better wind, not only because he always did but also because he only smoked a pipe at that time. I smoked cigarettes, but wanted to stop. My plan was to get to the top of the mountain, have one last smoke, bury my pack, and set my lungs free.
About three-quarters of the way up the mountain I found Mark waiting for me. He'd had enough and wanted to turn back. I told him I wanted to go on to the top to bury my cigarettes. So he turned back, and I continued on. When I got to a spot I thought was the top of the mountain - it was hard to tell because this wasn't a mountain with a perfect peak - I buried my cigarettes in the foot or so of snow on the ground and started to head back through the pine trees.
All of a sudden, I got the feeling that I was headed in a different direction than I came from. Then panic set in and I started running downhill, having absolutely no idea where I was going, just a vague feeling that I needed to get there fast. Well, that was obviously the exact wrong thing to do and by the time I came to a stop, wheezing and coughing and feeling sheer terror, I was utterly lost. I later found out that this sort of panic reaction is not uncommon, but even if I knew that at the time, it would not have done me any good. Of course the first thing I wanted to do in that situation was light up one of the cigarettes I'd just buried, but I couldn't find my way back to where I buried them. I probably also would have liked a good swig of whiskey, too. I hadn't brought any. What I wanted, of course, would not have helped me one bit, but that admittedly didn't stop me from wanting it.
I could go on about the things I saw on the mountain that day, and the emotions I felt that night as I huddled under a tree in the snow, shivering with a steady, hard drizzle falling all night. I'll save that for another time, though. Perhaps we can share our experiences of feeling that things couldn't get any worse, on the one hand, and realizing how good such simple pleasures as a warm bed can be on the other. I will say now that my one regret was that I didn't stop smoking, then and there. I had a couple of cigarettes the next day. Then a couple more the day after that. Before I knew it, I was back to a pack a day. Eventually, two packs a day. I don't know if you remember how violently I would cough in the middle of the night when you were a little girl. I tried to kid myself that it was primarily allergies. It wasn't. So I hope you are enjoying your smoke-free lungs, and, in general, beginning to feel the glory of your body as it repairs and strengthens itself.
The emotions that I did not write to Carrick about were sheer exhilaration and abject fear. At one point, I was climbing up a cliff. I reached a plateau and peeked over. My head panned up until I was looking straight into the eyes of a bull moose munching on grass just a few yards away. It seemed unreal, perhaps a hallucination. In any event, it was too much for me to handle, so I ducked down on the ledge I was standing on and waited a few minutes. When I looked again, the moose was gone. I think there's a metaphor for the way we sometimes lead our lives in that scene: I had a glimpse of absolute majesty but turned away out of fear and ignorance.
That evening, a plane circled overhead in the twilight. I tried to start a fire to signal my whereabouts, but my lighter was soaked from the rain showers that had punctuated the day, and the brush was wet, too. The plane took one last loop and disappeared. Dark descended, and an incessant drizzle began. I dug a cubbyhole in the snow at the base of a pine tree. The branches provided a flimsy canopy. As the night progressed, I felt like the rain was penetrating my marrow. I shivered mostly, but dozed off from time to time. Mostly, I lamented all the things I wanted to do but had not done. I don't remember what they were exactly, but I suspect that they were not much different from what they would be today. Yes, I have loved and I have been loved. But what have I done to truly make an impact on the world I'd leave behind? Back then, I probably would wished I'd written a searing piece of fiction, filled with inventive language and insights into the nature of adolescent existence. I'm not sure what I'd aspire to now, except to leave this work in readable form. I was twenty then, a year older than Carrick's age as I write. I am 53 now, three years older than the age George Morris Forbes, the great grandfather with whom I've always felt a particular bond, was when walked in front of a trolley car while on assignment for a newspaper in New Jersey. He was bitter, broke, ill, perhaps suicidal and, if not inebriated at the time of the fatal accident, an inebriate of long standing.
I'm not exactly sure when I finally stopped smoking cigarettes because I'd tried so many times and failed that I stopped keeping score. It was sometime in the late '80s. I smoked a pipe for several years after that. Again, I'm not sure what year I stopped but I do remember the moment because I made sure that it was dramatic in a way that would make me look foolish if I were to retreat.
It was around the holiday season. I gathered all five or six of my pipes, opened the door to the wood stove in the family room we had added onto the kitchen of our century-old house a few years before, gathered my two kids as witnesses, tossed in the whole heap, and watched the fire slowly eat away at the crooked stems and bulbous ends.
My lungs eventually got better. My hack dissolved. I didn't wake up in the middle of the night in a coughing fit. My asthma disappeared (except, for some strange reason, when I laugh a lot). I even took up running for a while — a sport I'd hated since boyhood in any distance over 220 yards — and would routinely jog 20 to 25 miles a week until it began to bother my knees. Nowadays, my aerobic exercise is mostly confined to racquetball — I've played up to ten games without feeling winded — and occasional runs. I still wonder, though, if someday all that crap I inhaled won't crystalize into a cancer.
Twenty years ago, when I first read some of the magazine exposes of the patent medicine industry that ran a century ago, I was struck by the similarities of those hucksters to the tobacco industry. But despite similar exposes, profits at tobacco companies are surging to record levels.
I watched my mother die from lung cancer. My father developed emphysema and, despite a few other ailments, in the end it was his lungs that failed him. Every time my daughter goes to the back porch and lights up, I cringe. I know how hard it is to stop smoking once you start. I know how easy it is to think that you've got plenty of time. All I have to say is know is what I saw on the deathbeds of my parents. Both of them would have liked a little more time.
My Last Drinks
I was born early in the morning after Christmas in 1952. From about 1968 to 1985, or ages 16 to 33, I often drank alcohol more than I should have, and occasionally took drugs that altered the way I felt in ways I regretted. My daughter, Carrick, was born at a time when I was using mind-altering substances more freely than ever. The night she was conceived in December 1983, I believe I was high on cocaine, which was a rare indulgence, and alcohol, which was not. I had probably smoked some pot, too. My wife, Deirdre, had no doubt taken what I had, though she would make the case that she was more out of control when she dropped acid for thirty straight days during college.
One evening when Carrick was fourteen months old, I made my usual stop in The Bailey, a bar on East 45th in Manhattan, for a few quick Jack Daniel's on the rocks, then drank a couple of sixteen-ounce cans of beer during the half-hour ride home on the commuter train. I'd probably had a few whiskeys at lunch, too. I was an editor at Adweek, a trade magazine, and drinking was very much a part of the cultures of both journalism and advertising. By the time I walked up the steep hill from the rail station and opened my door, I was looking forward to another night of low-key boozing. Deirdre was in the kitchen making dinner. Carrick was crying, as she so often seemed to be. I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of Popov vodka. I wasn't too fond of vodka, which didn't radiate inside me like a good sour mash. Deirdre felt the same way. That's precisely why we had been buying it. If we didn't like it, we figured we wouldn't drink so much of it. To my dismay, Deirdre had polished off the half-gallon bottle.
“How could you let the liquor run out?” I seethed.
“You were supposed to bring some home,” Deirdre fired back.
Carrick, tugging at my leg and hearing the anger in our voices, cried harder. She wanted to be held, played with. I picked her up and kissed her and told her to calm down.
“I have to go somewhere,” I said.
As I waited for the elevator on my way to the liquor store, I could hear Carrick wailing. I realized that I had inextricably crossed a line. Drinking had long been getting in the way of who I was and what I wanted to become. But how pathetic was it that I had to go buy a bottle of booze before I could properly comfort my daughter? It took a week to wean myself; I've not had a drink of alcohol since October 30, 1986. But substance abuse, as it always has and perhaps always will, still gets in the way of who I am and what I want to become.
My father, Thomas Harold Forbes, Jr. (Harry), was an alcoholic, too, although he was able to navigate a successful career as a sportswriter and newspaper executive without too many people suspecting it. He and my mother were separated for more than five years before I was born. He said he didn't remember the incident my mother once told me about that led to their separation. One night when my mother threatened to leave my father if he didn't stop drinking, he told her he'd kill her.
My parents got back together after my father took the pledge early in 1952, but they were divorced in 1978. My father married a lady he'd met on one of his frequent trips connected with amateur athletics. I'd long suspected that those trips were excuses to get drunk, but he managed to fall in love, too, on one of them. Besides his full-time job as the editorial promotion manager for the New York Daily News, he was a volunteer administrator for the Amatuer Athletic Union (he's in its Hall of Fame) and the U.S. Olympic Boxing team; Margaret was a pioneer teacher, coach and official for synchronized swimming. She is a social drinker. I never saw her drunk.
Pop's drinking picked up after the divorce from my mother and his retirement from the News. It got so that I'd dreaded calling him in the evening after his floating cocktail hour. It took only a few drinks for him to slur his words and get sappy.
After they were married for about a dozen years, Margaret came home a day early from an out-of-state swimming event to find their condo in San Antonio in disarray. Pop had been on a bender, and hadn't cleaned up yet. A prized lamp was shattered. My father, in fact, was out frantically looking for a replacement.
"That's it," Margaret told him when he returned home, lampless and hungover. "Either this stops or I'm leaving."
She also enlisted the aid of Pop's cardiologist, who told him that alcohol, combined with his medications, would kill him if he didn't stop. He did, cold turkey. To my knowledge, he never attended a 12-step meeting in his life. He seemed to think that AA was for "real" alcoholics like a sportwriting buddy of his from the '30s, Jack Mahon. AA had saved Jack's life he told me more than once, but he clearly did not see his own drinking as life threatening, or anything he couldn't turn on and off at will.
He could stop drinking. But as much as he loved us, he had a hard time expressing his thoughts and feelings, except on a superficial level, and his world, quite frankly, continued to revolve around what was best for Harry. Self-gratification is drugs is self-gratification. Until they turn on you.
W.C. Fields and Us
If one embodiment could represent the differences between my mother and father, it would be William Claude Dukenfield. (W.C. Fields' real name was almost as preposterous as some of his characters — Egbert Sousè, say, or Cuthbert J. Twillie.) My grandfather and grandmother, Thomas Harold Forbes, known as Harold or "Spider," and Carolyn "Carrie" Bohrman (though she used the stage name Bowman) supposedly knew Fields from their days as a song-and-dance team on the vaudeville circuit.
Pop reveled in Field's celebration of bonhomie in the character of an unabashed drunk who, due to circumstances that were always entirely not of his making, resorted to rascality to support himself and his dear ones (usually a fetching, devoted daughter). Mom hated him for the same reasons Pop loved him. If an image could reek of booze, it was Fields' visage.
Around Christmas 2001, a few weeks before Pop died, I was laughing at something, and I saw how much it pleased my son Duncan to see me roaring with abandon. It reminded me of the joy I felt when I saw Pop laughing at Fields' movies when I was a boy. A few days later, I brought home one of Fields' classics, My Little Chickadee, which co-stars Mae West. Duncan looked at the photo of the two stars on the package.
“I'm not going to like this, dad,” he said.
“Because it's old, and old movies aren't funny to me.”
“You know what?” I said. “That may be the case, but I guarantee you'll laugh.”
“Dad, you're not making any sense,” he said.
“You may not find the movie funny,” I said, “but I guarantee you'll laugh when you see me laughing at the movie, just as I did when I saw my father laughting.”
And he did.
I arrived in San Antonio on a Wednesday a few weeks later. Pop had an oxygen mask on, but was cracking jokes, and listening to everything that went on. He was fighting his pneumonia like crazy, still intent on visiting my sister in Florida a little less than a month away. I was going to come down and visit myself. I wanted to talk to him more about this project, to which he had given his blessing, and see if there was any more he cared to reveal about the drinking in his family.
I don't know why, but I neglected to tell him the story about Duncan and My Little Chickadee until Saturday, when all of his systems were failing and it had become apparent that he'd die. (“Every time we fill a hole," one of his doctors explained, "another one opens up.”) I ended the tale by relating how Duncan had taken to imitating the scene where a fresh-faced young man sits down at a table across from Fields, the joke of a town sheriff, who's shuffling a deck of cards. I imitated Duncan imitating the lad's voice.
“Is this a game of chance?”
An imitation of Fields' response sidled out of the right corner of my mouth.
“Not, the way I play it, noooooooooo.”
As I finished, Pop's eyebrows arched and his brow furrowed. It was as close to a laugh as he could muster. A machine was doing his breathing, whooshes that caused his chest to expand and contract in a steady motion that was diametrically different from the free-form gales he'd let loose when he was breathing on his own and truly amused.
That night, back at his condo, I saw Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of WC Fields on his bookshelf. I had inscribed the inside cover “July 20, 1998. With the expectation that your 86th year will be filled with much mirth and laughter.” It didn't appear to have been read. As I perused it, I knew that while the rest of the family went to church the next morning, I would read some of Fields' movie and vaudeville dialogue to Pop.
And so I did.
SECRETARY: You big hoddy-doddy! You smoke cigars all day and drink whiskey half the night! Someday you'll drown in a vat of whiskey.
FIELDS (to himself): Drown in a vat of whiskey ... death where is thy sting ...?
Then I flippled the pages, looking for another snippet to read. The opening scene of The Old Fashioned Way caught my eye. Fields, playing the henpecked Ambrose Wolfinger, is nipping from a flask in the bathroom as Mrs. Wolfinger awaits him in bed.
MRS. WOLFINGER: Ambrose!
AMBROSE: Yes my dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: What are you doing in the bathroom?
AMBROSE: Brushing my teeth dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: I don't know what's come over you. You're always in that bathroom brushing your teeth!
AMBROSE (hiding flask): Yes, dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: Are you sure you're brushing your teeth?
AMBROSE (gargle, gargle): Uh, yes dear — (comes into bedroom) Do you want anything dear?
MRS. WOLFINGER: Please come to bed and put that light out.
Meanwhile, the house is being burgled by two yeggs who discover Wolfinger's kegs of applejack in the celler. By the end of the scene, Wolfinger, a cop and the burglars are all thoroughly soused, caterwauling "On the Banks of the Wabash." In the middle of all this mayhem, though, there's a scene with Mrs. Nesselrode, Woflinger's mother-in-law, that must have hit home.
MRS. WOLFINGER: Ambrose Wolfinger, you know perfectly well my mother detests alcohol!
MRS. NESSELRODE: When I was a young and pretty girl, I always vowed to my parents that lips that touched liquor would never touch mine.
AMBROSE: Oh yes, pretty sentiment, very nice ...
Not all of the dialogue I read was about drinking, but a lot of it was. It defined Fields, after all, both as a great comic actor and as a man.
As my father lay dying, hooked to a respirator and morphine drip, able to respond only by twitching his eyelid to let me know that he was soaking it in, I acknowledged the bonhomie of spirits to the man who once told me on a camping trip that "nothing in life beats a can of beer for breakfast," knowing full well that alcohol was largely responsible for a divide that I'd felt all of my life, and which still remained between us.
We brought my father's body back to New Rochelle, N.Y., where he was born. His grandfather, George Morris Forbes, had immigrated to New York City from Great Britian with his widowed mother. In 1870, at 14, he took a job as a printer's devil in the shop of the weekly New Rochelle Pioneer. My grandfather, the first in the line of Thomas Harold Forbes of which I am the third, followed him into the newspaper business after his song-and dance career. In fact, he met my grandmother Carrie in the chorus of a George M. Cohan production called George Washington Jr. The dynamic turn-of-the-20th-century showman was a role model for my grandparents throughout their lives. Once the whiskey got flowing at one of their notorious parties, I imagine the air was thick with the likes of "You're A Grand Old Flag," "Mary," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Margaret and I were reminiscing late one night after my father's wake in San Antonio and she told me that she referred to Cohan's "Give My Regards to Broadway" as "The Drunk Song." It seems that Harry was prone to croaking it out after he'd had a few.
When we got to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery the blustery January morning that Pop was buried, I asked the piper to play "Give My Regards to Broadway" as we all tossed a handful of dirt on his casket. Where ever I am today, I understood where Pop was coming from.
The Family Trade
19th Century "Net"
I first started working in interactive media in 1982 as a newswriter for a small market test that later became Prodigy Interactive Services. I was on leave from the New York Daily News. I didn't go back to the News when my leave was over, and I've not written a walkup at a newspaper since then. I've worked for magazines, websites, newsletters, book publishers, and corporate clients.
But in my heart, I'm still a newspaperman. It's the family trade.
For roughly a century, from the 1830s (when the high-speed press was invented) to the 1930s (when multimedia conglomerates took root) newspapering was a bare-knuckle trade that just about anyone with an idea, gumption, and a willingness to fail could get into.
Just like the Internet today.
The locus of my family's newspapering was New Rochelle, N.Y., where my grandfather, my father, and I were born and the other two are buried, but it includes several other communities. Most of them are fairly close to New York City. Fittingly, New Rochelle was Norman Rockwell's hometown when he was in his prime as a magazine illustrator. Rockwell's appeal, even back in the Roaring Twenties, was rooted in his portrayal of values that people felt all the more attached to because they seemed to be slipping away. It was an idealization. It was not the way life really was, but the way Americans wished it to be, or pretended it had been.
Family-owned newspapers, for all their limits and deficiencies, often crystallized a community's ideals in much the same way. That's not a bad thing. And if a community was of any size at all, it had several newspapers doing so, speaking out for a number of constituencies and fanning debate over what those ideals should be. It was a large part of what made America America.
Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, stunned a panel of British Parliament in 1851 with a report on the nature of newspapers in the United States. He told them that there was no requirement for a publisher to register with authorities, and that a publisher was not held to any higher standard of libel than, say, a blacksmith. But what was most astonishing to the Members of Parliament, based on the questions they asked, was the multitude of papers that were published and the number of people who read them.
"A county containing 50,000 has five journals, which are generally weekly papers," Greeley told them. "And when a town grows to have as many as 15,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts, then it has a daily paper. . . At 20,000 they have two, and so on."
Because these papers were inexpensive and carried local news, they were widely read. Greeley estimated that seventy-five percent of families took in a daily paper in 1851. He told Parliament that even mechanics and field hands read them.
One incredulous MP asked: "After he has finished his breakfast or dinner, he may be found reading the daily newspaper, just as the people of the upper classes do in England?"
"Yes," Greeley answered.
Just like the Internet today, newspapers of the 19th century were the great equalizers of information. And, lord knows, you took what you read with a skeptical eye.
George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan was the theatrical equivalent of Norman Rockwell. Critics said that he was shallow, maudlin and jingoistic; the public found him rousing, entertaining and engaging. Cohan's musical comedy "Forty Five Minutes from Broadway" made its Broadway premiere on New Year's Day, 1906. The title song still has some currency, but the plot itself is a forgettable melodrama in which true love triumphs over greed. The setting was New Rochelle, a place presumably so backward that Kid Burns, a city sharpy, sings:
If you want to find a real hick delegation
The place where the real rubens dwell
Just hop on a train at the Grand Central Station
Get off when they shout "New Rochelle"
The burghers of New Rochelle were appalled over this dipiction of their city, according to a theatrical history I once read. On the morning of the premier, the book said, the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce called an emergency session. It purportedly passed resolutions to institute a boycott and to send out press releases denouncing the play as "libelous to their community and its inhabitants."
For starters, there was no Chamber of Commerce in New Rochelle at the time. And neither of the two (of four) newspapers that have survived on microfilm mention the alleged uproar.
A late January edition of the Pioneer does contain a short report that Cohan "says in last Saturday's edition of The Spot Light that the editor of the New Rochelle Bee is angry because he dramatized his town." The Spot Light was a theatrical newsletter that Cohan himself published, largely to promote his own plays. There never was a New Rochelle Bee. In all likelihood, Cohan was, in the spirit if P.T. Barnum, trying to drum up a little controversy to sell tickets. The Pioneer does mention that "some New Rochelle people are interested to know just what part of this 'ere 'town,' as he calls it, George Cohan has been visiting in."
If Cohan did visit New Rochelle, it was likely at the Forbes residence on Fairview Place, where all six children — four boys and two younger girls — still lived with their mother, Mary Connor Forbes. (Their father, newspaperman George Morris Forbes, had been booted out of the house for his drinking years before, and was run over by a trolley car in New Jersey in 1904.)
The fourth son was my grandfather, Thomas Harold. He was a member of Cohan's company. The reason the play was set in New Rochelle, according to two Cohan biographies, was because the young member of the chorus was constantly chirping about it.
For a year or so, Cohan had notions of a play with near-to-New York locale," Ward Morehouse wrote in George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater." Such a locale, say, as New Rochelle, N.Y., which, as of 1905, was a placid, uneventful, law-abiding, home-owning, God-fearing community of some 20,000 people. 'What would be the matter with New Rochelle?" Cohan asked, sounding out a young man of the "Little Johnny Jones" company, one T. Harold forbes, who lived there, and who returned home on the 11:40 every night. "Why-why nothing," spluttered T. Harold. "I think it would be great-great."
Yes, chuckled Cohan, and he wondered if he could convince Broadway that there really was such a place and that he hadn't just made it up. As he worked on his songs and story he went frequently to Forbes to check on details of suburban life and finally gave Forbes the chorus of a song he called "Forty Five Minutes From Broadway."
T. Harold, wide eyed and somewhat aghast, read it over and over again as Cohan watched him.
"Well?" said Cohan challengingly, "what's the matter with it?"
"Why nothing. It's fine-fine."
"Do you think any of the town boosters will get sore?"
"No-o, I don't think so." And quickly, "It will certainly put New Rochelle on the map."
"No doubt about that," said Cohan.
"And it's true, too," said T. Harold, warming up to the whole idea. "There are a lot of rubes there, particularly up North Ave. way, and they're still pitching a lot of hay."
"All right ,kid, but don't let them hear you say that; they might run you out of town."
When the new Cohan mucical play, "Forty-five Minutes from Broadway," went into rehearsal in the late summer of 1905 Cohan's local color authority, T. Harold Forbes, who was later to become a prosperous suburban newspaper publisher, was in the cast along with such famous folk as Fay Templeton, Victor Moore and Donald Brian. ..."
Before he got into newspapering full time, Harold, or "Spider," as he was known in theatrical circles, formed a song-and-dance duet with his wife-to-be, Carrie Bowman. They stayed on the vaudeville circuit until a respirtory problem forced him to retreat to the mountain air in 1914. He ran a local weekly in Livingstone Manor, N.Y., for a few years before returning to New Rochelle in 1919. He then bought the Paragraph and the Daily Star, which his brother Bert had launched in 1911. The Paragraph was shut down in June 1920; the Pioneer's 60-year run ended in October. The Press had died the year before.
"I started right out putting George M. Cohan methods into the old Star — not so much jazzing it up as making it really alive and up to date with what people in the community were doing and thinking," T. Harold told a reporter a few years later. Circulation grew. In 1923, he bought out the city's other daily, the Evening Standard. The Standard had begun publication as the Daily Times in 1908, superceding the weekly New Era.
New Rochelle had become a one-newspaper town.
The lead editorial of the merged Standard-Star — with the headline "New Rochelle, First and Forever" — left no doubt that local issues would be of paramount concern to T. Harold. After establishing his credentials as a native son, T. Harold wrote: "The Standard Star will be ready to serve that which is for the welfare of all; to support that which is right; unafraid to expose evil and jobbery and condemn that which is wrong. It will be an independent newspaper. It will be The People's Forum."
The paper's vision, however, did extend further than the arteries running off Main St. The second editorial — which observed that "there is too much talk on so-called popular subjects which at best are of minor moment" — was a plea for world peace.
T. Harold had formed a partnership with the owners of the nearby Mount Vernon Daily Argus in order to buy out the Evening Standard. A few years later, local tennis star Francis T. Hunter — whose doubles victory at Wimbleton was coincidentially the lead story in the first edition of the merged Standard-Star — bought out one of the Mount Vernon partners. Westchester Newspapers Securities Corp. became known as the Forbes-Hunter Group. In 1925, it launched a daily, the Times, in Mamaroneck. Harold's brother, George Plowden Forbes was publisher and 49 percent owner. Another brother, Charles Banks Forbes, ran the Building & Realty News in White Plains. The Mount Vernon paper, and the six other community weeklies that the group acquired, remained under the operational control of the previous owners.
In 1928, T. Harold explained what Frank Hunter and he had accomplished in Westchester County to the New York Sun's Edwin C. Hill, a newroom legend for his handling of the Titanic disaster story.
"We saw a pile of potentially good newspaper properties here in Westchester that were suffering from dry rot. . . ," T. Harold told Hill. "Some were doing well, but not nearly as well as they should have done because their plants were as antiquated as their journalism. We started out by borrowing a lot of money. That was Frank's job. They knew him on Wall Street. Then we picked and chose."
Hill commented: "Some veteran editors with mice in their whiskers, who had been sort of uprooted by the nervous energies of the youths, looked on while Westchester dailies and weeklies that hadn't changed a headline or put on a new comma since the days of President Arthur were suddenly and amazingly transformed into bright and sparkling newspapers radiating the very spirit of the new day. . . ."
The partner's success came from recognizing the changing economic ground rules. "Standardization has saved us a lot," T. Harold said. "One staff of reporters and photographers can operate for a string of papers." They merged, they acquired, they launched--and they went into hock with Wall St. money. But T. Harold was ever the local boy, even when he was directing the transformation of one of the sleepy weeklies.
"We made it a sixteen-page standard size instead of the old-fashioned, eight page country style. We put fine, glazed paper on the presses. We used plenty of cuts, almost all of local appeal and significance. We threw out all 'boiler plate' stuff — stale news and features — and used instead up-to-date live news of the locality about people and things — nothing too trivial. There wasn't a strawberry festival, a woman's club meeting or a local happening that we overlooked," said T. Harold.
Newspapers all over the country were discovering that an "independent" editorial stance was helpful in attracting and maintaining advertising accounts handed out by gentlemen of all political stripes. T. Harold was a Democrat in a county that had voted Republican since the election of 1896, when William McKinley defeated the Free Silver candidacy of Williams Jennings Bryan. His father had been a Republican in a Democratic county; his brothers had been Republicans who were often at odds with their party.
"We cut out politics," T. Harold said. "Our papers are not Democratic or Republican." Instead, he said, the papers were "solely devoted to the welfare and upbuilding of the communities that support them. We try to lead in all demands for local improvements and betterment."
The two partners owned all of the common stock of their newspaper group. In the Sun interview, T. Harold said that they would not accept less than a million dollars for the Mount Vernon paper alone. He had prospered to a degree that his father and brothers would have thought unimaginable. He built a mansion on Long Island Sound next door to the prestigious Larchmont Yacht Club, which was one of five club memberships that he held. He was also active in the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Knights of Columbus.
Within months of the Sun interview, the Forbes-Hunter Group announced that it was merging with the Macy newspapers, which published four other dailies in Westchester county. For all intents and purposes, though, the transaction was a sale to Macy. New Rochelle was now without a newspaper that was published by a resident of the city for the first time since the Civil War.
T. Harold's efforts then centered on launching a new daily in White Plains, the county seat, with his brother Charles as the editor. The Daily Press, which was launched a few months before Wall Street's Black Monday in 1929, lost its struggle against the established paper--the Reporter--in 1934. George Plowden Forbes continued as publisher of the Mamaroneck Times until 1943, when he sold his 49 percent stake to the Macy chain.
The location in my dream about Carrick drowning was Lake Uncas in Livingston Manor, New York. Part of a gorgeous property of more than 1,000 acres owned by the Archdiocese of New York, it is presently inhabited by a group of cloistered nuns. People from around the world go there for retreats in rustic sheds. From 1907 until 1986, however, Lake Uncas was the heart of Camp Acadia for Boys. Acadia and its sister camp, Our Lady of Lourdes for Girls, were advertised for years in the back of The New York Times Sunday Magazine as "The Catholic Camps in the Catskills."
On July 3, 1963, I jumped off the dock at Lake Uncas to take a swimming test. It was my first summer at Acadia. I was 10. I had taken swimming lessons in the frigid salt-water pool at Jones Beach for several years and felt confident that I'd be able to do the two laps to the float and back — probably 100 yards total — with no problem. I ran into trouble posthaste. That evening, I wrote home to Mom and Pop:
This morning I tried to pass the swimming test and guess what? I failed with flying colors — and that's not all. When I got to the middle using a freestyle stroke, I tried to turn to do the back float. I didn't make it and began to swim under water, but it was too much excitement in 2 seconds for me. I went up and down bobbling in the water gasping for air. I tried to scream and after what seemed an hour to me, the instructor came to the save.
The cooking is okay and so is everything else ...
The water at Jones Beach shriveled my testicles and raised swirls on my fingertips, but Lake Uncas afflicted my psyche. From that day forward, I avoided all waterfront activities, except canoeing, with every contrivance I could scheme. In 1969, when I was a 16-year-old "senior" camper, I talked the head counselor, Walt Bahr, into taking the annual, much-hated, camp-wide trek to the Bearverkill campgrounds, a few miles over hills and dales, on a scorching day when our group was scheduled for a swim across Lake Uncas and back.
Three times that year — the summer of Woodstock — I was caught drinking or sneaking over to the girl's camp, or both, with my good friend Rich and some other sinners. The first time we were caught, the punishment was a time-honored camp tradition for transgressions of all kinds. We stood at the end of the dock.
"Assume the position," Bahr barked, a burned-out stogie wedged between his right lips.
He whacked our butts with a canoe paddle. But Bahr was an inherently good-hearted man, and the impact was light. We dove into the water nonetheless, trudged up the rickety wood ladder, and took another couple of shots for good measure, the sting supposedly intensified by the water.
The second time we were caught coming back from Our Lady of Lourdes at dawn, our punishment was a bit more creative. Counselors roused us several times during the night and force-marched us to the girl's camp and back. It was probably worse punishment for the counselors than it was for us, but it certainly prevented us from sneaking over that night.
The third time we were busted for drinking and carousing at Grossinger's, the fabled Jewish resort, where the older campers were taken annually for a day trip. That time we were threatened with expulsion, and our parents were notified by phone while we stood by and hung our heads, but it was all a bluff (and we knew it). We had a little pot that summer and popped some diet pills, too, and once experimented with smoking the cut up slivers of a ping-pong ball (it does not get you high, kids) but blessedly we were never caught with these "hard" drugs, which surely would have resulted in our exit.
A couple of weeks after the last escapade, I won the camp-wide "Mr. Tracy Most Representative Camper" award, as well as "Best Camper" for the senior (13-16 years old) division. Rich was runner-up in both categories. We both agreed that he should have won the awards, but what's the difference among drinking buddies?
Looking at the larger picture, of course, it's a travesty to suggest that either of us were representative of the precepts that the Archdiocese of New York espoused. There are, too, clearly issues of enabling. Were we just "boys being boys" (and girls being girls)? Or should we have been booted after the second, or third, transgression to, as they used to say, teach us a lesson.
I don't know if expulsion would have had any effect on my drinking in subsequent years. There were no re-habs, or wilderness therapy programs, or boot camps in those days (although I vaguely recall a threat of military school). As for Richie, to this day he is happily married to Marjorie, the girl he was visiting that summer on the dew-laden grass of the girl's hockey field.
How do you get beer and booze and pot at a camp that's in the middle of nowhere run by the Archdiocese? The same way you get it at rehabs, jails and in dry counties. You smuggle some in, or pay off the authorities.
The night before we boarded the busses at the George Washington Bridge Bus terminal at 181st St. in Manhattan in late June 1969, I met my friend Rich nearby. It was a 10-minute subway ride from W. 231st St. in the Bronx for me; Rich took a bus in from Dumont, N.J. We found a nearby liquor store and bought four pint bottles of Three Feathers Whiskey, a not-so-smooth rye, which we then put in a locker in the terminal for the night.
How did we buy it? Everyone had fake IDs in those days, of course — ranging from draft cards to driver's licenses to — in my case — a photocopy of the French Canadian birth certificate of my good friend Mark's older brother. The legal drinking age was 18 at the time, but anyone 14 or over with a reasonable stubble and some form of paper could usually get served. In my case, the bartenders and shopkeeps had no idea what they were looking at since it was all in French.
After we stashed the Three Feathers, Rich went home and I met my buddy Mark at the Greenwood, a bar near the terminus of the No. 1 subway line at 242nd St. and Broadway, across from Van Cortlandt Park. It was a typical Irish shot-and-beer joint near Manhattan College. Mark and I had just finished our junior year at Manhattan Prep, the high school affiliated with the college. As I recall, the college had recently been named a prominent "party" school by Playboy magazine or some similar authority, a distinction that I suspect did not please the Christian Brothers who ran the institution. (And make no mistake, the Prep was an institution, but that's another story, perhaps for one of the Quinn brothers to tell.)
Because the college year was over, the crowd in the Greenwood that night was sparse. Mark asked for a Seven and Seven — Seagram's Seven rye mixed with a Seven-Up soda. His dad, a stern Spaniard who lost the use of one eye while fighting with the Canadian army during World War II, was the general export manager for Seagram's in New York City, and Mark was loyal to the family brand. I ordered a Manhattan, not out of any affinity to our school but just because I though it was cool to drink Manhattans. I don't think it's a very popular drink today — it's basically bourbon with a splash of vermouth and a cocktail cherry on top. Pretty potent. I had another. Then another. Somewhere along the line, a geezer at the rail got a kick out of this kid downing Manhattans and he started to pick up the tab.
Not one to look a gift drink in the mouth (St. Jerome), I downed a dozen Manhattans in all. I think there was a wager involved, but maybe it was just bragadoccio. You'll forgive me if I forget, right? After all, I had a lot to drink. You can't hold me responsible for remembering something I did when I was drunk, right?
Anyway, I do remember that I drank twelve Manhattans. An even dozen. And I do remember staggering out of the bar and up the hill on the mile-or-so walk home somewhere before midnight. And I remember telling Mark that I just wanted to sit for a bit on a bench in the vest-pocket park across from the college to gather my wits. The next thing I knew, I was staring at the sickly off-white of a misty morning sky, sprawled on the grass, my clothes wet with dew. Mark was nowhere to be found. That was not the first, or last, time that Mark left me high, if not dry.
So I staggered home just in time to get in the car with my parents for the trip to the bus terminal. I'm not sure why they hadn't called the cops. Maybe they were getting used to my shenanigans. Much to my surprise, there were no histrionics. I got the silent treatment instead. My mother was one of the world's premier practitioners of the silent treatment. Years later I learned that my father had come home slightly stewed himself the night before. He obviously was in no position to lecture me on temperance. And my mother was surely using every ounce of will to hold herself together long enough to ship me to the safe environs of Camp Acadia.
Rich and I met up at the terminal, and we transferred the whiskey from the locker to the gym bags, wrapping them in some T-shirts and gym shorts. We each had two bottles. Then we went up to the platform where the busses were loading. I'll never forget the look on Rich's face when he dropped his gym bag on the concrete loading platform and we both heard clink. There were dozens of parents milling about. Counselors. Even a priest or two. The smell of whiskey seemed to permeate the bus terminal. We look at each other in horror. Rich grabbed the bag and ran to the men's room. I felt like I was on death row, just waiting for Msgr. Ruvo to tap me on the shoulder and say, "It's time, son."
But nothing happened. Rich came back. The bag still reeked, despite his repeated washings. Nobody said anything. He slipped me the unbroken bottle in case anyone decided to search his bag. We got on the bus. We had some lunch at the famed Red Apple restaurant on Route 17 and then, two hours later, arrived at Lake Uncas in Livingston Manor, N.Y., with three intact bottles of rye that we used to take the chill off before our 4 a.m. strolls to the girl's camp.
How else did we get alcohol that summer? Friendly counselors bought it for us. One, John M., was just a couple of years older and liked to party himself. Another, John B., our division's head counselor, was fired on the last morning of camp when he was found, fully clothed but totally blacked-out, on the floor of a tent in the girl's camp.
These are not things you read about in the brochure for "The Catholic Camps in the Catskills."
In Deirdre's Words
I have been dually diagnosed with a mood disorder and a disease called alcoholism.
I grew up in an upper-middle-class family. My father was first-generation Irish on his father's side. He didn't explain his mother's side until I was an adult with children of my own. He then reluctantly, told me his mother's father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when his mother was a child. He hinted that her mother also had a fondness for drink. His father died of cirrhosis of the liver when I was about 12. I don't really remember my grandfather except for his laugh and his voice — the brogue.
My father told tales of teasing his father when he was going through the DTs. He and his brother they would sneak into my grandfather's darkened room and shout out things like “watch out for the spiders,” and “look out, dad, the bugs are crawling up the wall.”
Later the two brothers and the father all shared the disease. All three were what we call “functioning alcoholics.” This type of addiction is probably the most common. The image that is most recognizable is the one that finds addicts living on the streets or in homeless shelters, begging, conning or conniving their way through the next 24 hours and focused on acquiring and using the drug of their choice. The type of alcoholic my father, uncle, husband, friends and I fell into was the functional type — the ones who haven't lost everything.
You can't find “functional alcoholic,” in the DSM IV, the bible of psychiatric diagnoses, but maybe it should be there.Addiction is a chronic, progressive and fatal disease. But not everyone dies of it. Some live a long. miserable life never knowing that if they just stopped drinking or using they'd have a good one. And never believing they actually could stop.
I'm a member of the baby-boomer generation. As a child in the late '50s and early '60s, drinking alcohol seemed to be more popular than drinking water. My father was born in a “cold-water flat” in Harlem. He worked his way through Catholic high school, followed by law school at St. John's University. Practicing law was his way into politics. Drinking was most likely his courage. Entertaining or being entertained came with the job description of a politician. Alcohol came with the entertaining.
I remember sitting on the landing to the second floor in my house. Dressed in my night gown, I watched through the spindles of the banister as my mother and father — and seemingly all their friends — danced, laughed and spoke loudly about nothing I found of interest. But I was fascinated by how much fun they all seemed to be having. I was particularly intrigued by my mother and father who, when not arguing, screaming or yelling at each other, would go to their separate corners in our large Victorian home. My father found solitude in the den, comfortably laid out in his recliner with the HeraldTribune and Daily News in his hands and the console TV flickering images of the Dinah "Chevy" Shore Show or Andy Williams or Bonanza.
Mom would stay in the kitchen, where I later found a large bottle of vodka stashed under the sink.
Women all seemed dressed in brocade dresses and pearls. The popular fragrance of the day, “My Sin” by Lanvin of Paris, was part of the party uniform. The teased hairdos that only a professional could master during the women's weekly pilgrimage to the salon all remained stiff and glistening from layers of lacquer keeping them secure. And I sat on the top of the stairs imagining what it would be like when I was old enough to join them and receive the secret catechism, which would finally explain it all. Explain the secret to being a grown up, how to entertain, how to speak. What exactly to say in large groups, never spending more than a few minutes with any one person in order to be sure everyone felt equally special.
Of course I later learned the secret all these people shared came not in written form but rather in liquid libations.
I must have been 11 or 12 one afternoon when I decided to see for myself what was so special about these “cocktails” mixed, stirred, shaken and poured. Not that I hadn't had sips of some of the ingredients previously. My mother told me I had sips of beer as a toddler. The adults in the bar found this “so cute,” ahw said. Later, if my often-recurring stomachaches became more acute than usual, some blackberry brandy was sure to cure, according to my dad, as he tried not to spill the dark liquid traveling to my mouth by spoon.
So that day I went to our very Victorian dinning room lined in dark oak panels and red silk curtains. I stepped up to the buffet which served as a bar, with all its magical accoutrements laid out before me. The silver shaker, a tall stainless-steel stirrer with a red wooden ball affixed to the top. A strange hand-sized metal contraption, which was squeezable, but I didn't know why. There were bottles of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and names, all smelling different from each other yet with a common theme. The names were mysterious, ranging from Grenadine and Rye to Drambuie and Angostura bitters.
And then I mixed my first drink. I can't remember now what exactly I put in that glass, but I'm sure two ingredients did not satisfy my yearnings to become a mixologist. Easily it could have been all four of the aforementioned liquids. I didn't get “it “ that day. I didn't see the pleasure these “grown ups” derived from drinking that potion. That was some of the most god-awful-tasting stuff I could have imagined going down my throat. A few years later, when I learned to separate and mix with a bit more aplomb, the “getting it” came on like broadband.
Catholic High School
As a freshman in a small, all-girls Catholic high school coming out of a co-ed parish grammar school (grades one to eight), I wasn't tuned into who was or wasn't looking for the path I was headed for, so nicotine remained my drug of choice for the first half of my freshman year. Though at a local community dance that year, I remember being flattered that two different boys came over to me asking if I knew where they could get some pot. I wondered how I had gotten that reputation. I didn't even know who they were.
The following semester I latched onto a new girl. She'd been in the public high school and apparently her parents thought she could use a stricter, more structured environment to keep her on the right path. Well, as is usually the case, by the time the parents discover the situation, she just brought herself with her and I finally had a connection to the drug market.
Amphetamines, which we called speed in those days, were my first illicit drug of choice. What a wonderful, magic pill. It gave me energy, and helped me to focus for hours on some obscure obsession. They allowed me to stay up reading or writing well into the night and still function the next day.
A few months later, I met a boy in a record shop who introduced me to pot. I quickly learned boys were very good at supplying drugs. Often they didn't even charge you.
At the end of that school year, the principal, Sister Tall and Mighty, summoned my father. I never quite knew what transpired that day but the next thing I knew I was being taken from a strict, structured environment and was offered the freedom of the infamous local public high school or a private prep school in midtown Manhattan. While I thought I was cool and intelligent in an artistic way (I wanted to be a writer), I was smart enough to realize my sheltered Catholic school existence was no training ground for being dropped in the middle of an urban educational institution in 1968. I chose the prep school. At about this same time, my father became a judge. Part of his oath must have included the words “sober as a judge” because, as far as I could tell, he stopped drinking.
It turned out my prep school was the last stop for a lot of kids being removed from other educational institutions. I felt I'd reached nirvana. Here I was at 15 on Fifth Ave. and 54th St. across from the Museum of Modern Art, next door to Revlon's headquarters (where Cary Grant sometimes visited), and down the block from the Warwick Hotel, where many of the rock stars of the day stayed.
I quickly found and made all the right connections as far as drug acquisitions went. My eventual steady boyfriend was never without something stronger than nicotine to smoke, preferably hash. Any normal person would have stayed away from LSD if her first trip were so bad she thought she was dead and confined to an insane asylum along with a group of skeletons sitting around the dining room table. But I just figured the next time would be better. Speed was always available in the form of “diet pills” that someone always managed to find. $25 brought you an ounce of pot, a quarter ounce of hash, a hundred diet pills, or five hits of Windowpane or Orange Sunshine (LSD).
I remember finding a tiny Ziptop bag in my daughter's room early in her drugging career and was certain it once contained pills or coke. When I confronted her, she told me it was for pot. I wouldn't believe her. She told me it was a nickel bag. Apparently inflation had hit the drug market when I wasn't looking, as well as extra strength weed in small packages.
I got through high school. Barely. All types of drugs and alcohol became part of my repertoire, not only on weekends but also in between classes. Central Park was our back yard and it was a lovely place to get high. My high school English teacher often offered up her apartment to some stoned-out students looking for a place to crash.
A few years later, Central Park was where I managed to get arrested for possession of pot and spent a night in the jail known as “The Tombs.” I later toured the same jail with my father, the judge, while on a trip home from college. He never knew about the arrest until I was married with children. We were good at keeping secrets in my family. I didn't learn my mother had been married before she married my father until my father passed away five years ago. I might never have known if we weren't trying to find her marriage certificate so she could collect on my father's Social Security. This is certainly typical of a dysfunctional household with chemical dependency at its core.
I managed to get into college due to the City University of New York deciding everyone should be afforded a college education and no one would be denied a seat, including me. Most of my education there took place in the student lounge, where I dropped acid and smoked pot in the bathrooms. I decided I wasn't getting out of school what I should and since I wanted to be a writer, I agreed with an English Department counselor that the University of Missouri School of Journalism sounded like a good idea.
The plan was to finish up my sophomore year and work part time so I could save enough money to go to Europe on five dollars a day the following summer. By this time, I was hanging out with new “friends” who were even more into the drug scene. I dropped out of college the second semester of my sophomore year, though in reality I dropped out long before that. My father found someone who knew someone (a doctor on Park Ave.) to write a letter stating I had mononucleosis and could not complete the year. I guess we were all pretending I just wasn't having a successful year at school and better luck next time.
For some reason Mizzou thought I was worth having and accepted me. But first I went to Europe with my girlfriend and my junkie boyfriend after making promises to our parents that we would have nothing to do with drugs. That lasted until the following evening in our student hostel in Amsterdam. If we weren't doing drugs, we were getting drunk on cheap wine and my boyfriend was threatening suicide. Running out of money, the boyfriend and I came home. A few days later it was me who decided to commit suicide, taking 30 Seconals that I had found in my grandmother's closet.
I was found, and managed to survive. When I woke in the hospital with an IV in my arm, my first thought was “What am I tripping on now?”
My mother's first words were “How could you do this to us?”
I was released a few days later, avoiding hospitalization in a psychiatric ward. Instead, I was supposed to visit a psychiatrist on a weekly basis. My parents must have convinced everyone that I hadn't tried to kill myself but had accidentally overdosed instead. For a Catholic, suicide means eternal damnation. Drug use probably only gets you a few millennia in purgatory.
After that, I got a job in an addict's candy store - a pharmacy. By that time they were locking up amphetamines in difficult-to-get at places, but I worked in the basement where the pharmacy supplied local nursing homes with their medications, primarily ”downers,” as we called them. Percodan and Quaaludes became my drugs of choice, along with the booze. When my shrink informed me that I shouldn't drink and use Quaaludes at the same time because I might never know when I'd taken enough to kill me, I thought that sounded like a good game.
In the next few months I had two car accidents. In one accident, the car was totaled and no one ever got me for drunk driving. My best friend's mother, whose twin sons were both in separate rehabs, was trying to get me to join them. Instead I managed to get out to Missouri in January of ' 1972. I traveled with a pint of Southern Comfort, a handful of pills, and no idea what I was doing with my life. Arriving at the dorm, I was pleased to discover my room mate was 21 so I wouldn't have a problem acquiring booze. In New York the drinking age was 18, but it was 21 in Missouri. I quickly hooked up with an amphetamine and hallucinogenic salesman. I decided it was a good time to best my former English teacher's record of dropping acid for 3 weeks in a row. I did it for 30 days. While marijuana was always available in those days, it was alcohol that really attracted my attention. A friend I made from New Orleans introduced me to “po' boy” sandwiches and Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. Jack and I became best friends for the rest of my drinking career.
After graduating from Journalism School as a photo major (it seemed easier at the time than the magazine major I intended to be; besides, you could spend hours in the darkroom drinking), I got a job at the New York Daily News as a “copyboy.” I think they now call them editorial assistants. It was a great place to be an alcoholic. I met my husband there. He used to come down to the bar behind the building when a number of us were taking extended lunch hours and drag us back up. Eventually I kept my own bottle in my locker, as well as visit the bar. When we left the News, Thom was going to write the Great American Novel and I was going to watch him write it. I don't think our drinking got heavier at the time; I just think we had more leisure time to do it.
One thing led to another and I became pregnant. It wasn't accidental. We wanted a baby. Problem was our lifestyle was like 15-year-olds pretending to be grown ups. Yes, I drank during my pregnancy but back then we were told two drinks a day was OK and I tried to keep it to that. Carrick was born 6 weeks early and I remembered thinking, “Finally! Go get the champagne now; I can drink again” -in between breast feedings, anyway.
Unconsciously my days revolved around drinking. I would try to drink right after I nursed the baby, figuring 4 hours in between should be enough time to make the alcohol go away. I began hiding bottles. Not because I didn't want my husband to know how much I was drinking but because he was drinking more than me and I was afraid he'd drink what I wanted to drink. Then he quit drinking when our daughter was about 18 months old. It took me another 18 months to make the same decision. Somehow I began to recognize that something was wrong with my drinking. I was a member of the board of our co-op apartment and attended meetings with a coffee mug filled with liquor and coffee. Being cheap drunks, we'd switched from bourbon to vodka and lots of wine. After Thom quit, the only night I ever really got to drink the way I wanted to was Thursdays when he worked past midnight and almost always found me passed out on the sofa when he did get home.
The end came with a whimper, not a bang. Making tea one night instead of an alcoholic drink, I suddenly realized the tea water was boiling and I was staring at the stove with a vodka and orange juice in my hand. The light bulb went off, and I knew I no longer had any control over my drinking. When I asked Thom how he quit he told me it didn't matter what he did but I ought to go to AA. I'm pretty certain I never would have been able to stop without AA's help. It wasn't easy.
The first few years were pretty miserable. I wasn't an angry drunk but I was angry sober. My emotions were like raw nerves during root canal. It took me a good year before I stopped thinking about a drink on a daily basis. I was miserable to my daughter. It seemed like all I did was yell and scream at her, not unlike how my mother treated me. While I was learning new life skills such as acceptance, one day at a time I can do anything, patience, live and let live, etc. I was missing my medicine still. I no longer thought of a drink when situations became seemingly impossible. I thought of suicide. I didn't know there was anything wrong with this idea. I would share it at meetings that I would think a drink through - through to running away to a seedy hotel in Philadelphia with a neon sign flashing outside my window, a bottle of booze in one hand and a bunch of pills in the other. My first suicidal act had been at the age of 13 during a sleepover party at my house. I took a handful of aspirins. I got sick but never seemingly enough to tell anyone. Before Thom and I even became engaged, in between drinks, depression would make itself known. I'd battle it by drinking it away and if that didn't work I remember trying to cut myself and taking overdoses of Tylenol with codeine. But after my daughter was born I remember the anger. She does too. She says she forgives me because now she knows I was just sick.
After ten years of sobriety, the anger turned inward and sunk me like cement in a stream. Very early one morning I found myself unable to sleep. I went into my photographic darkroom and sat on the floor crying uncontrollably while rocking myself back and forth, my arms encircling my legs.
Later, I remember saying to Thom, “I don't feel well and I'm going to call a psychiatrist.” How I managed to be aware enough to say and do that I'll never know, but I did. I was ten years sober and went into a severe treatment resistant major depression. My psychiatrist continually tried different antidepressants, tinkering with doses and combinations. Some worked for a few weeks, but just as quickly they stopped working and back into the dark room of depression and suicide I would go. Eventually I had to be hospitalized. There, I underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy. I'm told it saved my life. Typical of that type of treatment, I lost much of my memory of that time and some of the time going back a year or so before it. But it gave the good doctor more time to try again to stop the pain, with different combinations and dosages of meds.
Today, seven years later, I'm symptom free and more productive than I've ever been in my entire life. I went back to school and became a certified chemical dependency counselor. I work as an intake coordinator and counselor in a co-occurring disorder inpatient unit at a major teaching hospital in NYC, where we recognize chemical dependency and mental illness are often intertwined. I plan to go back to school to get a degree in social work and have already taken a few courses toward that end. I founded a recovery group in Westchester County called Friends and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR). Our primary purpose is to put a face on recovery and advocate to remove barriers to treatment due to stigma and discrimination. I've been married almost 30 years, have two beautiful children, one in recovery herself; a kind, loving, supportive husband, five cats, two dogs, a wonderful job and support system. I'm no longer angry. I don't yell and scream every time something doesn't go my way. But I do wish I could “do over,” some of those first ten years of sobriety when only half my symptoms were put to rest -the drinking and drugging. I sometimes feel ashamed I couldn't be the wife and mother I hoped I would be back then. I still take a mixture of prescribed medications and may or may not for the rest of my life.
For the most part I'm proud of who I am today. I get sad now and then, and anxiety rules once in a while, but my supports get me through, rather than a drink. There was a time I wouldn't get out of the bed; now there are times I feel too busy to get there. Recovery is a lifelong journey, a path to be walked, and a life to be lived, deliberately. I also recognize I'm very lucky. Not everyone has the support system I've been blessed with. They have to work even harder at their recovery. But I see miracles happen every day, one person at a time.
In a Candy Store
After that, I got a job in an addict's candy store — a pharmacy. By that time they were locking up amphetamines in difficult-to-get at places, but I worked in the basement where the pharmacy supplied local nursing homes with their medications, primarily ”downers,” as we called them. Percodan and Quaaludes became my drugs of choice, along with the booze. When my shrink informed me that I shouldn't drink and use Quaaludes at the same time because I might never know when I'd taken enough to kill me, I thought that sounded like a good game.
During the next few months, I had two car accidents. In one accident, the car was totaled. No one ever got me for drunk driving. My best friend's mother, whose twin sons were both in separate rehabs, was trying to get me to join them.
Instead I managed to get out to Missouri in January of 1972. I traveled with a pint of Southern Comfort, a handful of pills, and no idea what I was doing with my life. Arriving at the dorm, I was pleased to discover my roommate was 21 so I wouldn't have a problem acquiring booze. In New York the drinking age was 18, but it was 21 in Missouri. I quickly hooked up with an amphetamine and hallucinogenic salesman. I decided it was a good time to beat my former English teacher's record of dropping acid for three weeks in a row. I did it for 30 days. While marijuana was always available in those days, it was alcohol that really attracted my attention. A friend I made from New Orleans introduced me to “po' boy” sandwiches and Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. Jack and I became best friends for the rest of my drinking career.
After graduating from Missouri's Journalism School as a photo major (it seemed easier at the time than the magazine major I intended to be; besides, you could spend hours in the darkroom drinking), I got a job at the New York Daily News as a “copyboy.” I think they now call them editorial assistants.
It was a great place to be an alcoholic. I met my husband there. He used to come down to the bar behind the building when a number of us took extended lunch hours and drag us back up. Eventually I'd keep a bottle in my locker, as well as visit the bar. When we left the News in 1982, Thom was going to write the Great American Novel and I was going to watch him write it. I don't think our drinking got heavier at the time; I just think we had more leisure time to do it.
One thing led to another, and I became pregnant. It wasn't accidental. We wanted a baby. Problem was our lifestyle was like 15-year-olds pretending to be grown ups. Yes, I drank during my pregnancy but back then we were told two drinks a day was okay and I tried to keep it to that. Carrick was born Six weeks early and I remembered thinking, “Finally! Go get the champagne now; I can drink again” - in between breast feedings, anyway.
Unconsciously my days revolved around drinking. I would try to drink right after I nursed the baby, figuring four hours in between should be enough time to make the alcohol go away. I began hiding bottles. Not because I didn't want my husband to know how much I was drinking but because he was drinking more than me and I was afraid he'd drink what I wanted to drink.
Thom quit drinking when our daughter was about 18 months old. It took me another 18 months to make the same decision. Somehow I began to recognize that something was wrong with my drinking. I was a member of the board of our co-op apartment building and attended meetings with a coffee mug filled with liquor and coffee. Being cheap drunks, we'd switched from bourbon to vodka and lots of wine. After Thom quit, the only night I ever really got to drink the way I wanted to was Thursdays when he worked past midnight and almost always found me passed out on the sofa when he got home.
The end came with a whimper, not a bang. Making tea one night instead of an alcoholic drink, I suddenly realized the water was boiling and I was staring at the stove with a vodka and orange juice in my hand. The proverbial light bulb went off, and I knew I no longer had any control over my drinking. When I asked Thom how he quit, he told me it didn't matter what he did but I ought to go to AA. I'm pretty certain I never would have been able to stop without AA's help. It wasn't easy.
The first few years were pretty miserable. I wasn't an angry drunk but I was angry sober. My emotions were like raw nerves during root canal. It took me a good year before I stopped thinking about a drink on a daily basis. I was miserable to my daughter. It seemed like all I did was yell and scream at her, not unlike how my mother treated me. While I was learning new life skills, such as acceptance, one day at a time I can do anything, patience, live and let live, etc., I was missing my medicine. Still, I no longer thought of a drink when situations became seemingly impossible. I thought of suicide.
I didn't know there was anything wrong with this idea. I would share it at AA meetings that I would think a drink through - through to running away to a seedy hotel in Philadelphia with a neon sign flashing outside my window, a bottle of booze in one hand and a bunch of pills in the other.
My first suicidal act had been at the age of 13 during a sleepover party at my house. I took a handful of aspirins. I got sick but never seemingly enough to tell anyone. Before Thom and I even became engaged, in between drinks, depression would make itself known. I'd battle it by drinking it away and if that didn't work I remember trying to cut myself and taking overdoses of Tylenol with codeine. But after my daughter was born, I remember the anger. She does too. She says she forgives me because now she knows I was just sick.
After ten years of sobriety, the anger turned inward and sunk me like cement in an ocean. Very early one morning I found myself unable to sleep. I went into my photographic darkroom and sat on the floor crying uncontrollably while rocking myself back and forth, my arms encircling my legs.
Later, I remember saying to Thom, “I don't feel well and I'm going to call a psychiatrist.” How I managed to be aware enough to say and do that I'll never know, but I did. I was ten years sober and went into a severe, treatment-resistant major depression. My psychiatrist continually tried different antidepressants, tinkering with doses and combinations. Some worked for a few weeks, but just as quickly they stopped working and back into the dark room of depression and suicide I would go.
Eventually I had to be hospitalized. There, I underwent Electroconvulsive Therapy. I'm told it saved my life. Typical of that type of treatment, I lost much of my memory of that time and some of the time going back a year or so before it. But it gave the good doctor more time to try again to stop the pain, with different combinations and dosages of meds.
Today, seven years later, I'm symptom-free and more productive than I've ever been in my entire life. I went back to school and became a certified chemical dependency counselor. I work as an intake coordinator and counselor in a co-occurring disorder inpatient unit at a major teaching hospital in NYC, where we recognize chemical dependency and mental illness are often intertwined. I plan to go back to school to get a master's degree in social work, and have already taken a few courses toward that end. I founded a recovery group in Westchester County called Friends and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR). Our primary purpose is to put a face on recovery and advocate to remove barriers to treatment due to stigma and discrimination. I've been married almost 30 years, have two beautiful children, one in recovery herself; a kind, loving, supportive husband; five cats; two dogs; a wonderful job and support system.
I'm no longer angry. I don't yell and scream every time something doesn't go my way. But I do wish I could “do over,” some of those first ten years of sobriety when only half my symptoms were put to rest — the drinking and drugging. I sometimes feel ashamed I couldn't be the wife and mother I hoped I would be back then.
I still take a mixture of prescribed medications, and may or may not for the rest of my life.
For the most part I'm proud of who I am today. I get sad now and then, and anxiety rules once in a while, but my supports get me through, rather than a drink. There was a time I wouldn't get out of the bed; now there are times I feel too busy to get there. Recovery is a lifelong journey, a path to be walked, and a life to be lived, deliberately. I also recognize I'm very lucky. Not everyone has the support system I've been blessed with. Other people have to work even harder at their recovery. But I see miracles happen every day, one person at a time.
Of Genes and Jamison's
About eighteen months after I stopped drinking with little moral support from friends (particularly my wife, who was losing her best drinking buddy), Deirdre asked me how I had done it on my own. I told her that I had no idea, and suggested that she go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She has attended meetings regularly ever since.
Deirdre didn't see her father much when she was growing up. He was a career politician who spent a lot of time bending elbows with the constituency while "running for exercise" as a Republican in the heavily Democratic Bronx County. His one business venture outside of the spoils of politics was part ownership of a bar. The trade ran in the family; Deirdre's great grandfather was a publican in the family's ancestral hometown, Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Ireland. The Clancy Brothers, whose music reeks of the fellowship of John Barleycorn, were cousins of his, and we'd visit them backstage when they came stateside. But Bill was not, as they say, behind the sticks in the Bronx. Predictably, the bar was a money loser. His drinking had tapered off considerably by the time I met him in 1975 — a beer or two now and then — but his older brother drank heavily all his life.
Deirdre's father's father came to live with her family for a while in the '60s but was asked to move out of concern that he would fall off the steep third-floor balcony while inebriated. He had been a motorman on the subway, and a Democratic ward leader.
Her father's mother's father, another boozer, left his wife and three kids and, in the Irish tradition, was never mentioned again.
Deirdre's mother, June, was questionable. Dry in her waning years, she would eat her dinner alone in the kitchen as Deirdre grew up, nipping from a bottle of vodka she kept under the sink. A classic narcissist, she was always in extreme denial. About everything.
When Deirdre was nineteen and gaining consciousness in the intensive care unit after ingesting a fistful of barbiturates, her mother's first question was: “How could you do this to us?”
Deirdre's father was, at the time, a judge known for his tough stance on murderers, rapists, and drug users. Pure luck separates his daughter from other men's daughters who wound up being sentenced to fifteen years in jail under New York's stiff Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were responsible for his appointment as an "Acting" Supreme Court Justice.
A Beer Line Proposal
I asked Deirdre to marry me while we were on the beer line (although nowadays I usually call it “the hot dog line”) at the Golden Gloves finals in Madison Square Garden in March, 1977. Actually, I think I said something somewhat suggestive that Deirdre construed as a proposal and, when pressed, I agreed that it had indeed been a formal request for her hand in matrimony. It was easier that way. Drunks and addicts often don't say what they mean because they don't know what they really feel, but they are loath to stir up any controversy that might get in the way of the next drink or fix.
We announced our engagement to our assembled family's at Reidy's, a restaurant tucked into a skyscaper in midtown Manhattan that was owned by Maurice Reidy, the erstwhile proprietor of Club Fordham, where Deirdre's father had played some saxophone in the '30s. I don't recall, but odds are that we got pretty soused.
We were both slightly drunk and very hung over when, in deference to our parents, we were wed on November 11, 1977, by a monsignor of the Roman Catholic Church, a faith we had both abandoned. Deirdre's father threw a hell of a party at the St. Regis Hotel; he arranged to have a quart of Jack Daniel's stashed behind the bar just for us as we danced to a second-tier society orchestra playing our theme song, Gato Barbieri's Last Tango in Paris.
Timothy's Law Testimony
On October 10, 2003, Deirdre appeared before a hearing in the New York State Senate chaired by Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) and delived the following testimony in support of Timothy's Law, which would require that insurance companies deliver mental health and substance abuse treatment in parity with their coverage for any other illness.
Thank you all for giving me this opportunity to tell you what Timothy's Law means to me and my family, who suffer the challenges of mental illness and chemical dependency.
My father struggled with alcoholism and my mother has suffered from untreated mental illness for most of her life. I, in turn, suffered both, and now so does my 19-year-old daughter. As is often the case, I found a husband much like my father — caring, loving, hard working and alcoholic. Fortunately my husband and I have been in recovery for more than 16 years. Unfortunately, our daughter remains in the throes of the disease and is addicted to heroin.
When I was 16, having already downed enough chemicals from alcohol and amphetamines to hallucinogens and barbiturates for my remaining sober friend to notice I had crossed some line, she suggested I see someone at a storefront clinic, which had just opened near to where I lived. Those in charge said they could not help me until I returned home and told my parents what was going on. I did as they said, and since my mother was the first parent I saw upon returning home, I told her about where I'd been that day and how I'd like to go back. Her eyes filled with panic as she slapped me hard across the face saying "Oh, my God, you can't go back there it will ruin your father's reputation." She suggested I go to confession instead.
The stigma of chemical dependency was too much for her to bear. Three years later I attempted suicide, which everyone around me seemed to deny. They were all convinced I had taken an unplanned overdose of 30 barbiturates. Now, it seemed, it was easier to accept my drug problem than a mental illness. Unfortunately I went on to suffer both afflictions for another 20 years before I was able to get sober. And 10 years after that, before my clinical depression was recognized, and treatment was started.
It's very unfortunate that stigma still keeps many people from receiving the treatment they need to get well. But even more disturbing is the inability for people to access that treatment because they cannot afford the tremendous costs to do so. And they are legion.
I hear there is a potential compromise to Timothy's Law being discussed. These include limiting coverage to children only, and excluding coverage for chemical dependency. Let's say that happened. Where exactly would my daughter or I go to get help? These two diseases are often as intertwined as poison ivy wrapped around a tree trunk. Treating my daughter's depression is pointless without her being able to participate fully in her recovery. While doing drugs there is no recovery, her depression worsens, the drug abuse worsens, and this disturbing cycle keeps her an unwanted and unproductive member of society.
Let's say the law passes and coverage for both chemical dependency and mental illness occurs but only for children. My daughter was 12 and my son was 8 when I had my breakdown. Suicide was a demon coursing through my brain, attempting to convince me it was the best solution. Without my husband, who made certain there was always someone around to keep an eye on me, and a psychiatrist who worked with me relentlessly, never knowing for certain if I'd make it to my designated appointment, and finally a hospitalization where I was treated with Electro-convulsive therapy, other wise known as shock therapy, as well as my dear friends in the mutual support group who helped me deal with my chemical dependency, I never would have recovered. Without insurance coverage my family would have been bankrupt from that hospital stay alone.
Without that support from the insurance coverage, my daughter would no doubt be without a mother to help her deal with her own demons, my husband without a wife, and my son also without a mom. And I would not be here before you pleading as a concerned, productive citizen. Compromise is not a solution. It is a death sentence for far too many.
The medications I take as part of my daily routine to keep my mental illness stabilized costs far more than many people pay in rent or mortgages in New York State. Again, I am grateful our insurance covers the costs with very small co-pay.
Over the years my family has had every type of health insurance coverage that is available. As costs continue to rise, we are always looking for ways to stretch our dollars. Neither my husband nor I work for a large business. Right now I am in school studying to become a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor with hopes of continuing on into a graduate school of social work. So perhaps someday we will have health insurance supplied by an employer.
My husband is a freelance editor and writer. He has been for most of his working life. This necessitates purchasing our own insurance. This past year we looked into N.Y. Healthy Choice insurance, which covers families like ours at less expensive rates than what is offered in the free market. We fit all the qualifications except one. You had to be without insurance at all for one year prior to application.
Those in our situation know we would beg, borrow and put off paying other bills before we were to let our health coverage lapse for fear of total bankruptcy. And besides, Healthy Choice does not offer mental health coverage. So instead we joined our first full-fledged HMO. It isn't the absolute cheapest insurance out there, but it is far from the most expensive also. And for our family we pay $1,212.00 a month for health care coverage.
We also pay an extra $600.00 a month in therapy bills because my psychiatrist takes no insurance. When I first saw him he happened to be on the insurance plan we had. When that expired, he had decided he would only accept patients able to pay their own way because insurance companies had such poor reimbursement — often less than one half the regular hourly rate — and he was wasting hours arguing with the clerks at the insurance companies for more sessions for his patients.
Could I have found another psychiatrist on my insurance company's network? Perhaps, but working with a psychiatrist is a process. It takes time to establish trust and a therapeutic relationship. I choose to continue with the doctor who knows me better than almost anyone, and who has guided me through years of trying different medications to find what works for me, rather than switching and starting all over again. That would not be in my best interest. It would not be good health care.
However, I have tried to find psychiatrists who are on our network for my daughter. This is always an anxiety-provoking exercise. Often, the psychiatrists listed as being in the providers network no longer are when I pick up the phone to make an appointment. One time I called the insurance company to give me another list of names because all the ones I'd been given before either were taking no more clients in general, or no more clients with my particular insurance. The clerk was very kind and commiserated with me on how difficult it can be with finding a psychiatrist in particular. Astonished, I replied "I don't know where you are right now but I'm in New York and if you can't find a shrink in New York then you can't find one anywhere!"
In the end I was able to find one psychiatrist who only saw people on Tuesday afternoons from 1 to 5 in a clinic setting. No wonder no one could see us. if all of them had such minimal time allocated to seeing patients, at least patients with our healthcare coverage.
But the worst is yet to come. I know long-term health care has its costs to society. But the absence of it is far more costly not only to the families who suffer from the disease of addiction, but also to all the other folks in our communities who pay the price in other ways. People with dual disorders do not get better on their own. Quite the opposite. They get sicker and sicker.
The first in-patient rehab my daughter went to, at the age of 15, kept her a total of 6 days. After the first three days, we had to plead for more time. Both the rehab and my husband spent time trying to get through to someone at the insurance company and make them understand that she needed to be away from her environment for a while. The last person my husband talked with asked him if she was using any drugs at that moment. My husband replied that she wasn?t. The person at the insurance company then said, to our utter astonishment, "Well, then she doesn't need to be there any longer." His temper beginning to take over, my husband loudly yelled, "The ONLY REASON SHE"S NOT USING DRUGS IS BECAUSE SHE'S IN A RE-HAB." We managed to get another 3 days.
Adolescents, more than any population, need time away from their environment to be able to have enough clean time under their belts to give them the confidence and learn the skills necessary to come back home and face the same situations that triggered their drug use in the first place. Ridding the body of addictive substances is one thing, ridding the mind of its compulsion to use, especially for kids who thinks they'll live eternally, is virtually impossible.
The only time my daughter had any clean time to speak of was when we scraped enough money together to send her to a therapeutic wilderness program in Utah. She spent four months there learning to survive in the high dessert in winter with little more than the clothes on her back, a sleeping bag and a weekly ration of food. The cost was over $25,000 dollars. Sure there were some wealthy people who sent their kids there, but the average family was middle class. They took out loans, used college funds, and got second mortgages, borrowed from relatives just to get the help their children needed.
We were told the next best thing to do was to get her into a therapeutic boarding school. Well, there was no money left for that but finally we got some real help from our school district. Since the district had placed her in a variety of special programs and schools since she was in first grade, they were prepared to increase the level of care when environment with lesser restrictions failed to meet our daughter?s need. She was placed out of state in a therapeutic school. She was there 9 months. She remained completely drug free for 3 months, and said she then occasionally smoked marijuana when she came home every other weekend.
From there, she returned home to another out of district placement, which at the time seemed a great choice. But part of their program was having the student do an internship. Our daughter chose one that would take her right around the corner from Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan --notorious for drugs. With pressure from the school to agree, we did. The first day there she made friends with the squatters and homeless heroin addicts in the park and decided this was the life she wanted to live.
It's almost impossible to describe the devastation we felt when she disappeared without a word. She spent that winter on the streets of Philadelphia and New York. Since then, the only time she has come home has been primarily to get some clothes, steal whatever money she could find and take a shower. She did a couple of detoxes after her boyfriend and street partner died of a methadone overdose, but always went back out after her brief stay. She quickly found another junkie boyfriend, with whom she now lives in the same Tompkins Square Park neighborhood she first made her connections. But he even threw her out about 6 months ago. She was too costly to keep. She went to a rehab and, having no where else to go, agreed to enter a long-term treatment placement run primarily by a faith-based organization. They generously used a sliding scale fee schedule and we managed to make it work. But our daughter didn't. She stayed just shy of 3 months and once again decided she could "do it on her own" because she couldn't take the rules and regulations at the rehab and she found the religious aspect overbearing.
Of course addicts will find any excuse to go back out there. That's how this disease operates. No rational human being picks a life of devastation over one of relative comfort, happiness, growth and family. But addicts and alcoholics are not rational. Throw in another mental disorder and things can really get bad. But like the O'Clairs, we couldn't finance the long-term treatment she needed. No middle class family alone can. We parents of addicts, however, don't think of giving our child up to foster care in order to get them the medical care they need and we can't afford. We hope they will get arrested for some minor possession of a drug, go through a drug court, and at long last be sent to long-term treatment. Some people even suggest that we should pray that they become homeless, strung out and unemployed so they can apply for Medicaid — the apparent Holy Grail of health care. Those are pretty odd ways to look for comprehensive health benefits.
My father must have walked some of the same paths I have today. He passed away just days before his granddaughter went to Utah to find some sobriety. In 1948, however, he served one term in the state Assembly, representing the Riverdale section of the Bronx. I still have his first campaign poster. On it he declares he will work for anti-bias legislation. He is even called a "progressive," not a term one normally associates with a conservative Republican who subsequently, as he put it, "ran for exercise" in the heavily Democratic Bronx. But he had a good heart, and believed in helping people when the deck was stacked against them.
That was over 50 years ago. I would ask you to remind your Republican colleagues who seem most reluctant to support this law, to go back to their roots and once again support anti-bias legislation. That hard-working Assemblyman knew the difficulties and hardships that drug addiction and alcoholism brought upon families. His own father died of cirrhosis, and his daughter almost died of addiction and mental illness. I hope he's watching over all of us today and somehow continuing his behind the scenes, politicking by enlightening the minds of those Senators who still believe addiction is not a disease.
Recovery happens. I'm living proof. Please make it possible for more people to become living proof by passing this vital legislation.
Tales from Main Street
These are the stories of the impact of substance abuse and misuse on our community, a quintessential American village founded by Peter Post, a Revolutionary war hero and tavern owner. After Independance, Post's establishment became notorious for its debauchery and cockfights.
I got word on Sunday, December 14, 2003, that Annemarie Schnibbe had died. She was 50, three months younger than me. She had Hepatitis C, and was waiting for a liver transplant. There were about a million other people on the liver transplant list her mother, Anne, had told me two months before, but she was hopeful about the prospects for her daughter, whom she fondly called Amber. When I checked, it turned out that there were about 18,500 on the waiting list for liver transplants, but what difference does it make? For Annemarie, it might well have been a billion. (Click here for information about organ and tissue donation.)
The next day, a lengthy paid obituary ran in the Journal News, Westchester's daily newspaper. I was glad to see that it did not leave you guessing as to the cause of death (“after a long illness”; “suddenly”). The lead graph stated Annemarie “died from complications of liver disease.” But liver disease was just the manifestation of the disease that really killed her. She had been clean and sober for 15 years. As I had e-mailed a friend the day before, she was “another Hastings victim of drugs that most people will never know about.”
Annemarie had devoted her sober life to helping others. Her obituary in the Journal News read in part:
On Monday afternoon, Deirdre suggested that I send a notice about her death to the Hastings Parents Network, an online discussion group we moderated. I scratched my head at first because Annemarie was not a member of the list, had not lived in Hastings in many years (even though the wake and funeral Mass were to be held here), and did not have any children. Eventually, I decided to do so because her family was well known in the community, and because I felt that Annemarie wanted her story known, although I wasn't about to turn my notice into a temperance screed. I wrote:
The characterization seemed a little presumptuous to me when the e-mail boomeranged back to my In box. Why? Well, for one thing, I was speaking in code: “liver disease” and “seen it all” suggested a seamy side without talking about Annemarie's recovery. But most of all because during my entire life, I'd talked to her for only a few hours. Still, although other people may have richer remembrances of Annemarie (and recovering drunks and addicts leave a trail of memories, both good and bad), I felt I'd captured her goodness in those words.
I was introduced to Annemarie a few years before at a block party that her mom cosponsored when Hastings had a July Fourth fireworks display on the Hudson River off MacEachron Park, which is directly down a steep embankment and across the railroad tracks at the end of our block. Anne lives on Edmarth Place, a mirror image of our street one block to the north. It has a much better view of the river, however. Anne's house is at the very end of the street on the south side. Many windows face the river, several of which she and her late husband Bob, who owned a service station around the corner from us, installed after they bought the house more than fifty years ago. Looking out on the river one day, Ann told me that she never takes the view for granted. The way she said it sounded like she had seen a lot in her life but presumed nothing.
Edmarth Place was a wonderful place to watch pyrotechnics that July Fourth. Everyone from the surrounding neighborhood brought a potluck dish. Anne's oldest son, Bob Jr., who lived catty-corner across the street, fired up hot dogs and hamburgers on several grills. Kids ran around with abandon. It was a real picture of Americana at its Norman Rockwell best. I remember Anne introducing me to Annemarie as if we had met before. She said something like, “And of course you know Annemarie.” I didn't. In our brief exchange of words, I remember being taken by her husky voice and rich Yonkers-area accent. She seemed liked someone I'd grown up with, though, and hadn't seen in a long time.
A few years later, someone I was interviewing for The Elephant on Main Street told me that I must talk to Annemarie. I was interested knowing more about in the nearly two dozen Hastings kids from the Sixties and Seventies I'd learned about who had died from drugs or alcohol, including several heroin ODs.
“Annemarie's a drug counselor upstate now,” I was told. “And she hung out with all the people you want to know about.”
The list of people I wanted to interview had grown exponentially over time. Many were survivors - kids who used pretty heavily but had finally kicked. Also parents, siblings and friends of the nonsurvivors - suicides, ODs, victims of accidents, the ones whose stories never got told. Then there were the cops, social workers, educators, concerned citizens, healthcare workers and others who were somehow connected to the story. Because I had no deadline or strict methodology, I generally let serendipity dictate who I'd interview. Inevitably, I'd run into someone in a social situation who someone else said I should talk to and I'd make a date. And so it was with Annemarie. It turned out that she was not a drug counselor, per se, although she did a lot of work with AIDS victims, some of whom were addicts. And she lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, not upstate, but that's a quibble as far as parochial metro New Yorkers are concerned.
A few years ago, the Hastings Historical Society started collecting oral histories with the idea of creating an exhibit about the saloons of Hastings. Before the factories on the waterfront closed down more than thirty years ago, there had been, by varying accounts, fourteen or more active gin mills in the two square miles that contained Hasting's eight thousand residents. It sounded like a juicy project to me, so I interviewed a few people who had grown up in Hastings, piggybacking on discussions about the drug and alcohol scene in general for my own information. Anne Schnibbe was one of those I interviewed. I set the session up for Columbus Day 2003, which turned out to be a brilliant, sunny Monday.
It had been a harrowing weekend for us. After several testy phone calls from Pete, Carrick's boyfriend, and Carrick herself, Deirdre and I had picked up her up at their apartment in the East Village and driven her to Yonkers General hospital on Sunday afternoon. She had agreed to enter a detox on the telephone, but she changed her mind during the car ride uptown and refused to go through the doors of the emergency room when we arrived. We drove away. Here's what I wrote in my journal:
Carrick had slipped the lock on one of our back doors so she could enter and leave at will, like a thief in the night. Deirdre spent the morning trying to find a detox that would take her. I videotaped her in all of her frustration; in fact, the scenes we shot around that time became some of the most poignant footage in "Saving Carrick."
I arrived at Anne's house in the late morning. Annemarie and Teo, who had come down from Connecticut, were puttering in the garden when Anne and I sat down at her kitchen table and talked about the days when saloons were the social nexus, along with the church, for adults in the village. It wasn't all about drinking for some of the habitues, like Anne, although it would certainly be naive to suggest that it wasn't for many.
After we finish the formal interview, Anne spoke a little about Amber, and the period she grew up in, with which, of course, I was intimately familiar. The defining leitmotif of the late Sixties and early Seventies, I would argue, was experimentation with drugs of all varieties. Protests, free love, being green, hippies, yippies, Woodstock, be-ins, Volkswagen vans, power to the people, cross-country trips, communes, dropping out, turning on, music, art, and every other movement or artifact of the time was wrapped up in getting high in one form or another, at least for most of the people I knew.
Anne mentioned that when she was putting together a list of potential attendees for her fortieth Hastings High School reunion, she was pleasantly surprised to find that only a handful of classmates had passed away. Amber was surprised, too. She surmised that, due to drug abuse, the percentage of living classmates would be far less for her own class of 1971.
Anne told me about Amber's struggles and detoxes during those years. When her daughter was "under the influence," she said, she always tried to keep in mind that the person in front of her was "not Annemarie."
I knew that it had been the drugs talking when Carrick yelled at us to go fuck ourselves the day before, but it was helpful to hear Anne reaffirm what is hard to fathom when you're in the thick of battle. Dealing with an addict can be mentally eviscerating. Anne's husband Bob, who was a very gentle and reserved man, one day ripped a telephone out of the wall socket from frustration while talking with Amber, Anne said. Anne said that when Amber realized how mad she'd made her father, she sat down and said, "Mom, I know I have a problem." That is, of course, the classic first step to recovery.
Amber walked into the kitchen at that moment. We talked a little about gardening. She got a lot of trees from the National Arbor Day Foundation, she said. She told me about some flowering hawthornes she'd been raising for six years that were ready for transplanting, and offered me one for my backyard. I warned her that my thumb was not very green. She said that her success rate was less than fifty percent, too.
"No biggie. If they die, it's not meant to be," she said.
I first felt mildly jolted by the statement, even though Amber was talking about trees, not people. As I've replayed it in my mind over the years, however, I've always found its simplicity and detachment to be strangely soothing. Death matters, of course. It is a biggie — at least to us survivors. But to think of death as what happens when life is simply not meant to be is very Zen. Very Amber, I'd bet, in that she seemed to be able break things down to their essential truth. No bullshit. What can be more true than the fact that to the dead, death is the realization of what is meant to be.
Anne mention that I was writing a book on the impact of substances on families and communities. Amber was intrigued.
"We've got, what, three friends left?" she said, turning to Teo. "What didn't get 'em in overdoses got 'em in AIDS. One friend got hit by a subway he was so high."
I asked her about Jimmy Reilly, a cousin of hers who in my mind had become emblematic of kids whose unlimited promise had been destroyed by drugs. Jimmy, a gifted guitar player, died of a heroin and alcohol overdose in the late Sixties. He had been clean for a while, I'd been told, and was working as a groundskeeper and getting his life together when he decided he could use a little smack on weekends.
I'd corresponded with Alan Merrill, a musician and songwriter who played with Jimmy in a local band called The Kaleidoscope. It was later renamed Watertower West after a secluded spot in Hastings where kids went to smoke grass. Watertower West became the house band at the Cafe Wha in Greenwich Village for a time (as well as at several of Timothy Leary's parties). Merrill had fired Riley from The Kaleidoscope, but later set him up with a guitar student of his, Soupy Sales' son Tony, who was forming Tony Sales and the Tigers with his brother, Hunt. Evidently Jimmy didn't last long with the Sales' band either. Jon Pousette-Dart, who was the bassist for Tony and the Tigers for a couple of years emailed me that he thought that tales about Jimmy playing with the Tigers were a "fabrication." In any event, Jimmy was not a member of the Tigers when the band appeared in Tiger Beat magazine or on the "Hulaballoo" TV show in 1966. Riley was evidently leading the tenuous existence of an addict whose habit gets in the way of success.
"He was soooo talented," Amber said. "It was almost like a gift-from-God type of thing."
One Follows Another
She brought up Peter, a friend of Jimmy's who had committed suicide (as had Jimmy's father), and the impact that may have had on his psyche.
She mentioned another high school friend of hers, Jack, who also had died of a heroin overdose. He wasn't an addict she said, he just used sporatically. I told her that I'd heard that myself, but that it seemed like the cause of Jack's death was kept quiet. Perhaps even more so than today, we agreed, no one wanted to talk about a drug problem — particularly if it was heroin, she said.
"All you used to hear was 'ON THE NEEDLE, OH MY GOD.' You could eat as many pills as you wanted and be in and out of emergency rooms, but if you were ON THE NEEDLE...."
She remembered Eddie, who stopped using drugs but then drank himself to death, and his sister Barbara, a beautiful woman whose home was a hangout for users before she suffered a fatal OD.
"Barbara's apartment was always a trip," Amber recalled. One day, [Mike W.] ODed. They put him in the elevator, pressed the lobby button, and said 'good luck.' " She laughed heartily. " 'Good luck,' that's all, but he was okay."
Then there was Greg.
"He was what in New England what they call 'clutchheads,' 'greasers.' He was more like that. But then he started hanging out with us because he didn't like the greasers, he liked the heads. But he'd sniff glue and other stuff that we didn't do."
Greg eventually died of a heroin overdose, too.
She remembered Celeste Crenshaw, a Hastings resident who in 1966 was found dead from a heroin overdose in the trunk of a car that belong to an Annenberg heir. Dick Schaap wrote a book about the case, Turned On, that holds up surprisingly well forty years later. The Schnibbies were friendly with Celeste's grandparents, who were her guardians.
"That's somebody who's family didn't recognize — and the school didn't help — that she was clinically depressed," Amber said. "No doubt about it."
That opened a discussion of Timothy's Law, insurance parity legislation that has been consitently blocked in New York state by the Republican-controlled Senate leadership despite widespread support in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly. Timothy O'Clair was a 12-year-old boy suffering from mental illness whose parents were forced to place him into the state's foster care system because their insurance coverage was inadequate to pay for appropriate care for his Depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. He hung himself in his bedroom closet on a visit home a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday. Deirdre had recently testified on behalf of passage of the law in Albany.
We touched on how recovery, as with any disease, often takes repeated treatments. When Amber first went into rehab in the early Eighties, she said, no one knew how to address an addiction to "powdered drugs." She was loaded up with pills, booze and methadone.
"They had me so high because they didn't know. They gave me too much methadone, then they gave me valiums, they gave me something to sleep at night. So it doesn't go; you get addicted to something else. And when you're dually addicted, you may kick one thing and seem fine but a week later, goombatz okay, the pills or something kicks in and you're right back where you started from and you don't know why you used again."
She mentioned one drug rehab she was in where patients earned drinking privileges after a certain period of clean time "until they realized you might just as well smoke crack."
Anne and Amber started discussing the stigma that family members of alcoholics and addicts feel.
"This is the part that gets me mad," Amber said. "It has nothing to do with the person who is trying to get better. It has to do with the other people because they're embarrassed. They're embarrassed because someone may say, 'Well, you raised them.' It goes back genetically."
They agreed that a person didn't have to be a "falling-down drunk" to be an alcoholic, and that there's a widespread misperception that people who just drink beer aren't alcoholics.
"It's not what you drink, it's how you drink," Amber said. "There are weekend alcoholics who have two cans of beer but the guy will crush the can on his wife's head when he's done with it. Alcoholics are people who can't have a couple of drinks and put it down. When they drink, they drink to get blasted."
We discussed how difficult it was, sometimes, to stay away from having "just one" beer.
"[Amber] said when grandma, my mother, died, 'You think I didn't want to have a beer with the guys?' " Anne said. "And then when dad, Bob, died ..."
"You know, to get over the grief and this and that," Amber said. "Once you pick up, kiss it goodby because it's all over."
Amber stopped drinking in 1986, and doing drugs in 1988.
"I don't take an aspirin now. I get a headache, I lay on the couch with a rag over my face or, like the old Italians do, with a potato on my head. It has something to do with the postassium, or the folic acid."
Teo was ready to leave; they wanted to beat the holiday traffic back to Connecticut. I asked Amber if we could talk some more. Sure, she said, she came down every Saturday. As she walked to their car, Anne called out instructions to do this and that, and to rest, when she got home.
“She's got a lot of problems but I feel very confident that she will get on a list, and will have a successful operation," Anne told me after Amber left. "I hope to God. She's a good woman. A good young woman. A good woman. When Bob died she came down here and spent two and a half months with me. She is one of my ... she is my best friend. And I admire her attitude."
She described some of the complicating factors of her condition.
"I don't consider her living on borrowed time,” Ann said. “I am optimistic she will get a liver, she will survive the surgery and she will do well.” She punctuated this with a resolute declaration: “That's what I say,” and I was reminded of Rita, my next door neighbor, who felt a similar conviction that her husband John would recover from the cancer that had spread to his liver. She had recently told me that she believed that it was in remission, that John wanted to live, had put his life in the hands of the Lord, and would beat it. What could I do but agree, saying something about the awesome power of the will to live, which I believe to be true. But that will obviously only takes us so far.
It was a busy fall, and I had a hard time setting up a date to talk to Amber. Her mom said she was looking forward to telling her story, but she didn't come down a few Saturdays because she was feeling weak. Finally, we settled on talking during the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Anne called me an hour before we were scheduled to get together and apologized. Amber was too tired, and was resting. She died two weeks later, on Dec. 13, before a liver became available.
We were at a low point in our tempestuous relationship with Carrick. In November, she had run away from New Hope Manor, an affordable long-term rehab that we felt was her best shot at sobriety, and was back living with Pete on the Lower East Side. We knew he had been supplying her with drugs; we didn't know at the time that he was a small-time dealer supporting his habit by selling heroin.
Realizing that we were only enabling Carrick by giving her access to a bed, warm shower, full fridge and money or possessions she could hock, we had barred her from our house. My last conversation with her was taut with fear and rage. She was in a car with a fellow named Chris, with whom she had run way from a detox that New Hope that sent her to. As Chris' car idled at the end of our block, I ran outside to make one last plea.
Carrick rolled down the window. I started to address Chris. Carrick said: “I'm going to die, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“I just want you to know what you're getting into," I said to Chris. "She's going to wind up in jail, dead or in a rehab. I want it to be a rehab.”
“Great vote of confidence,” Carrick said, as the car pulled away.
I tried not to let those words — mine and hers — haunt me, but they were in the back of my head for months. I never knew when a call was going to come from some stranger to tell me that Carrick had been arrested, or injured, or found dead.
One morning in early December, the phone rang.
"Is this Mr. Forbes?" the voice said.
I didn't recognize it, and I was filled with trepidation. It must be like what the parents of soldiers in Iraq feel. This time it was a solicitor for the American Heart Association.
A day before I got word of Amber's death, I finished Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, a novel about an alcoholic who, despite the best efforts of his family and his own attempts to quit drinking over the years, dies. One phrase, in particular, rang out as pathetically true.
"Billy succumbed to an illness we couldn't cure in time. It wasn't a failure of our affections," the parish monsignor tells the family. "It was a triumph of the disease."
An hour after I got word of Amber's death, a friend emailed to ask if I'd be interested in playing racquetball, one of the activities that was keeping me sane. "Sure," I replied. "I'm kind of bummed out this morning and could use a few games. First, Deirdre left a cancelled check on my chair. Carrick had forged one of her checks for $30 just before we took her up to rehab the last time. Four others are missing."
Then I told him about Amber.
"Ann must be devastated," I wrote. "I only met her a couple of times, and I know I am," I concluded.
"Did I mention that on Friday I got a bill for $1,600 from the ER of a hospital in Port Jervis that decided that it could not treat Carrick? No details except that it had billed my insurance and this is what I owed. I can't imagine what the bill would have been if they did treat her. And because of the patients rights bill, I'll bet you that I can't get any information about what they did (i.e., what they are billing me for).
"It's madness, I'm telling you, madness!!!!"
Annemarie's coffin was rolled down the center aisle of St. Matthew's. Teo held Anne's left elbow; her daughter-in-law, Jean, Bob Jr.s wife, was on the right. Deirdre and I were seated in a row near the back of the church. I heard her sniffling. As the priests took the altar, she asked me if I had a tissue. I did not. She dabbed at her nose with her suede gloves. I thought she had a runny nose.
The Mass was concelebrated. The pastor of the parish, a man who speaks with a brogue, was in a minor role. I assumed that the priest who officiated had known Annemarie, and had been invited to say the Mass. His sermon was, for the most part, a generic reflection on us all being reminded of our own mortality, but he did sprinkle in references to Annemarie's work with the Red Cross. He also made an allusion to our having seen the backside of the tapestry that was Annemarie's life - loose threads and “patchwork quilts” - that on the other side formed a beautiful picture. I thought this probably resonated as true with the people who knew Amber well. But wouldn't it resonate for any one of us? Perhaps that's the point.
Then there were more prayers. Deirdre leaned over and asked me when communion was going to be.
“No one needs to see me like this,” she said, her voice cracking. “I think I'll slip away when everyone gets on the line.”
She had pulled her hat low on her forehead. I tilted my head and looked up and could see that tears were streaming down her face. She swiped her face with her gloves again. I gave her the keys to the house. (We never used to lock the door, but we started to after Carrick skipped out of her last rehab. We were her easiest mark.) Deirdre did leave during communion. She said later that the funeral was like a kick in the gut; she felt like she was glimpsing the future.
After the service, Bob, Jr., delivered a very moving elegy in the form of a “Dear Amber” letter. It was about a typical, loving American family coming of age in the Fifties and Sixties. He spoke of Amber being the first girl in the family after three boys, and how she really didn't have to walk around with a six-shooter and call herself “Walter” to fit in with her siblings.
He remembered the time she cut off a chunk of her flowing red hair, making a joke about he wished he had it for his own balding pate. No one laughed though; levity could not penetrate the thick somberness we all felt.
He talked about how much the family had hoped for a medical breakthrough, “or a miracle,” during those last five days in the hospital.
I was reminded once again how hard we keep hoping against hope with Carrick, who we had learned had contracted Hepatitis C.
Finally, Bob concluded by relating how he'd dug up a line on the Internet that had haunted him since he first heard it, in that same church, several years before. It was from a Viewpoint column that John Cardinal O'Connor had written from the hospital, where he was undergoing tests, for Catholic New York. Before he got to the line he'd looked up, however, Bob read liberally from the piece.
“One reflects on one's failures, one's imperfections, one's hope of what one might have done and perhaps failed to do or should not have done and perhaps did,” was one line that caught my attention. Then the Cardinal quickly reflected on evil, goodness, life, death and faith in a way that only a fervent believer, with a massive body of doctine to bolster him, can pull off. Then came the line that had stuck in Bob's head:
“But God writes straight with crooked lines and only he knows what the next moment will bring.”
I wasn't sure what to make of the first half of the sentence, although I got the general drift. When I got home and Googled “God writes straight with crooked lines,” the first hit was for a hand-cast bronze plaque inscribed with the phrase. It cost $239. Text accompanying a picture said that the phrase is “a paradoxical Portuguese proverb, first attributed to a Sixteenth Century Portuguese bishop, that has appeared over the centuries in the writings of many spiritual thinkers and writers. It serves as a reminder of the role of faith in our lives. Out of evil, good can come... “
The phrase was also the title of a sermon by a Methodist minister, Dr. Michael B. Brown, about the New Testament Book of Philippians, which he called “St. Paul's Love Letter.” Brown interpreted the line thusly: “God has an amazing capacity for taking bad circumstances and creating blessings - or for taking imperfect people and creating ministry.”
I don't know how religious Annemarie was, but she immediately struck me as having the divine fire of a zealot who had been stuck from her horse by a lightening bolt. It will always be one of the regrets of my life that I didn't get to talk to her for many more hours.
If you knew Amber, I'd love to hear from you. Let me know how she touched your life.
These are stories about the journey.
The Wheel of Life
According to the medicine teaching, there is no bad person, no crazy person; each person's flaws are part of the wheel of life, which is itself flawless. Each person's struggles are a great mystery to be revealed, each struggle becomes a story, each story becomes teaching, each teaching becomes medicine, and medicine makes the people whole and well in spirit.
— Evan T. Pritchard, No Word for Time
Connections, Tendrils ...
The Rowley Winery
In the 1850s, the Rowley family established a winery on the bluff above a bridge and trail that is named in their honor on the south side of our village, Hastings-on-Hudson. Their product, made from the sugar-laden Isabella grape, was glowingly described in an 1869 newspaper article:
“Pure wine, such as the Rowley Brothers make, never did its drinkers any harm; it is only the adulterated stuff that passes for wine that injures one.”
Eventually the winery failed. (The alcoholic in me wants to ask: Was this because it never did its drinkers any "harm"?) Houses with stunning views of the Hudson River were built on the Rowley family's thirty-three acres. Today, wild summer grapes grow on the sides of the Rowley Bridge Trail. In late summer, they cling to trees and bushes, forming a verdant canopy. Spirally tendrils shoot from the stems, grabbing whatever is near, but sometimes they dangle in space.
I looked at these grapes one day while sitting on top of a boulder nicknamed "Forbes' Folly" and saw connections, tendrils, spirals, specters, and voids.
I was telling a friend of mine about the travails of a group of kids who grew up in Hastings in the late 1980s and had used drugs. Some were dead. Some were still wasted. Others had never grown emotionally past the years they had started using. Her own son was a few years younger than they, and she had heard some of the names before.
“Something's broken with those kids,” she said. “Something's really broken.”
The idea that something is broken spoke to me powerfully about what this website, this journey of ours, is about. Above all, it's about people making or breaking or missing connections, and the ways we are linked, often obliviously, to one another. We all want to embrace people, ideas or feelings that are larger and stronger and better than we are ourselves and, at the same time seem somehow rooted within our psyche, or our souls, or whatever we personally call the essence of our selves.
When we feel connected — whether it's because we are in love, or have read something that brilliantly rearranges how we perceive our perceptions — we seem to shimmer from the inside out.
It seems sacred and mysterious.
It is rapture.
It is getting high.
Some of our connections are tragic. An addict's connection is the source of both her ecstasy and her pain.
Vines grow tendrils to pull themselves up to the sunlight. Tendrils grow unruly in imperfect spirals. They latch on to anything that seems stronger - a tree trunk or piece of rusted metal - and wrap themselves around in a tender stranglehold, like a child clutching her daddy's neck while riding piggyback. Sometimes they grab onto their own branches. Many tendrils go nowhere. Groping, scrawny, out of place, and useless, they can become fascinating if you stare at them long enough. Or are stoned.
Most of us extend tendrils to other people. Sometimes we connect; sometimes we dangle. Our motives are good and bad and mixed. So, too, are the people to whom we reach out. We may want to help someone, or we may be manipulating them. They may be manipulating us with no truly nefarious motive.
“This round's on the house, pally.”
Wow, I'd say to myself, this bartender really likes me. And before I'd know it, I was blotto.
“Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore,” Dorothy says.
The spiral is a convenient cliché for a situation that has gotten out of control. Like the needle point of a tornado, an addict sucks up everything into her willy-nilly vortex, spins it around, chews it up, and deposits it miles from where it ought to have been.
Spirals are dizzying. They make our stomach flip-flop. We're lost in space, like Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey, tossing through the void, sucker punched, our severed tendril trailing behind.
Spirals are primordially powerful. DNA takes their form; so do galaxies. As unpredictable as the spinning seems, I think there must be an underlying mathematical logic, a Fibonacci sequence leading to an inevitable, violent implosion, like the universe someday contracting on itself.
A top-down look at a spiral is also helpful in looking at the forces that play on the addict. I think of each of these factors forms the funnel that is the spiral that is addiction.
A specter can be within or without. It is your craving for the first drink of the day, one more fix, another snort. It is your father, silently drunk and malevolent. It is the guilt of sex with someone who is not your spouse.
Specters are energies that act upon us that we can't see, or that we look away from because we because we do not want to deal with the consequences of acknowledging them. If we talk about specters that other people can't see, they say we are crazy. But specters are as real as love or fear or guilt, none of which are real unless you experience them. You may deny that they are there, but they are real if they affect you.
Voids are hollow and unconnected. A fix feels like it's filling a void. A hair of the dog feels like it's filling a void. But the void hisses with leaks.
We seek conviviality when we use, but in the end there is nobody there but the drug.
Drugs are slatterns. They seduce indiscriminately, and don't give a shit about anybody in particular.
The biggest fear of someone contemplating sobriety?
“How will I spend my time? Who will I hang out with?”
We fear the void. We fear dangling tendrils and haunting specters. We fear, most of all, spiraling willy-nilly through the universe.
The Rowley's Bridge Trail
The Rowley's Bridge Trail is an amazing and magical place to be, so close to New York City that you could see the skyline if it weren't for all the trees. A brook wends though the ravine in the heart of the property, burbling at several small waterfalls. It then takes a precipitous drop down a bank, disappears into a culvert that runs under the track bed built by the Hudson River Railroad Co. in the 1840s, and empties into the Hudson at a point directly across from the highest point of the Palisades of New Jersey.
The sounds of chirping birds, rustling leaves and foraging animals are continually punctuated by the grunts and groans of mechanization. Cars rumble by on the stone Rowley Bridge, which has traversed the ravine since 1898. Planes on an east/west path to and from LaGuardia Airport, or the north/south route to Westchester County Airport, roar dully overhead, their engines sometimes screeching as they gather momentum or slow down. Helicopters hug the shoreline, while small planes cruise the middle of the river, propellers clopping on the air. Trains travel through all day, from the swoosh of commuter expresses to the rhythmic clacks of the freight cars that rumble through every night about 12:30 a.m., gently shaking houses like mine that are close to the riverbank. The river bears its own traffic, of course, from kayaks to tugs pushing barges to huge tankers, which can slip by with less fuss than the Jet-skis that seem to rip apart the twilight on evenings in the summer. You have to decide to listen to hear most of these sounds, however, because they have blended so seamlessly into our lives.
It is a summer day, I am perched on top of a humpbacked boulder that's about twenty-five feet off the 1,600-foot-long Rowley's Bridge Trail trail. It is about the size of an Airsteam, those timeless camping trailers made of riveted aluminum. My legs are crossed yogi-style, with the corners of my Macintosh Powerbook embedded into my calves at an angle so it will not slide away. I am integrating thoughts that I have had here in the past, and in other spots nearby, as I've gazed out on the Hudson, a tidal estuary that the indigenous Lenni Lenape called “the river that runs both ways.”
I've built a footpath to this boulder on Saturday mornings over the course of a year or so. It's up a steep slope, so I've fashioned crude steps out of a combination of flat rocks and railroad ties. The ties are secured in the front by slivers of discarded slate I scavenged from a masonry job at the Hastings Library, or by locust limbs I've sawed to two-foot lengths and hammered into the loose soil. To actually get on top of the boulder, I have to grab the trunk of a young maple tree that grows at its prow, which faces the Hudson. I hoist myself, pivoting on one foot and swinging around until I can lean on the tree for support from the other side. Then I twist again and take a few careful steps on the slanted surface, which is usually made slicker by pebbles that have tumbled down from the loose dirt on the hill that the boulder nestles in. It flattens out enough at its peak to allow me to sit. At this point, I'm about forty feet above the trail, which is due south. To the west, framed by overhanging limbs of cottonwood and maple trees and the lush canopy of summer grape that covers everything by mid-summer, are the gray, striated cliffs of the Palisades.
I was smitten by the boulder as soon as I saw it in the winter of 2001. I imagined that many others have been drawn to it during the 10,000 years or so that men and women have inhabited the east bank of the Hudson. I have found oyster shells in the soil surrounding the boulder and imagined Indians feasting. Perhaps squaws stood here watching their husbands and sons paddle out to Henry Hudson's Half Moon, which moored off Yonkers, just south of here. One day, I had a strong feeling that there was something beneath a pile of rocks that sat at the base of dead tree a few feet east of the boulder. As I dug, there seemed to be an unusual number of fist-sized rocks in the sandy soil, and I became obsessed by the feeling that someone had buried something there. I eventually unearthed what I believe is an ancient scraping tool. My thumb and index finger fit perfectly into two notches on either side of the crescent-shaped stone.
The person who fashioned this tool would be totally mystified by the world that has emerged around this boulder over the centuries, or millennia. But if he or she were somehow brought back to life, how long would it take before he found himself eating Big Macs, watching Access Hollywood, and speeding on the interstate with the rest of us?
Our industry, in the archaic sense of the word, is dedicated to making things easy, superficial, fast. But I wonder what wisdom we've lost as we anesthetize our senses and surround ourselves with all sorts of objects that separate us from the struggle to survive. Over time, a resurrected native might find it much easier to comprehend our world than we would his. It requires less effort, thought, and cunning of the life-or-death variety.
You Are Where You Are Standing
I was encouraged to undertake the step-building project off the Rowley's Bridge Trail by Dr. Fred Hubbard, a retired environmental consultant who volunteers as the village's naturalist. He subsequently dubbed it “Forbes' Folly.” I don't think the boulder itself is “Forbes' Folly”; it's not designated as such in the map of the trail and its environs that another resident produced under Fred's direction. I think Fred was probably just describing the process of building access to this piece of rubble left behind by a retreating Ice Age glacier about 18,000 years ago.
One morning when I was clearing brush near the top of Forbes Folly, a village trustee walked by. Looking up from the main trail, which terminates at the arched Rowley Bridge that carries Broadway over a deep ravine a few feet away, he commented favorably on my progress.
“Will the path lead to anywhere when it's done?” he called up to me.
It was an odd question. Clearly there was no anywhere else to go. I chalked it up to his being a fledgling politician.
“It is done,” I replied. “It leads to this rock.”
A few weeks later I repeated that conversation to Carrick, whom I was seeing for the first time since she had entered New Hope Manor, a long-term drug rehabilitation facility in upstate New York. I tried to imbue the exchange that I'd had with the trustee some Zennish significance about destinations being exactly where your feet were standing at the moment. I also gave Carrick a palm-sized humpbacked rock. I told her that it had “found me” one day while I was sitting on the top of the boulder. It fit snugly into my palm. It was reminiscent of the boulder itself. I told her that everything she needed to know was in that rock. I said that Deirdre, Duncan and I had all held it, osmosing into it positive feelings about her recovery from heroin addiction.
Carrick had had some history with Forbes' Folly. One day the previous spring, she had worked with me on clearing the path to the summit. Mostly she dug at the edges of a 30-gallon drum filled with congealed gunk, oozing toxicity, that had been buried there years before. Because she was oblivious to any consequences — typically — I had to insist that she wear gloves and cover her arms as she worked. She used a spade to scrape at the outline of the barrel, picking deliberately as if she were extracting a dinosaur's mandible from the soil. I remember the sweat beading on her forehead. I admired her diligence. When she was younger, she would have given up in frustration after a few minutes.
As it turned out, she managed to get most of the job done before we had to leave. I'd hoped for months that she'd come back and finish the excavation, but she always had an excuse why she couldn't make it. Then she ran away. Eventually, with the sort of pang you get when you realize your daughter is wearing lip gloss and has forsaken her dolls forever, I took the barrel out myself.
Things that need to be explained.
The Impact of Addiction
Even when she was not with us in our home, Carrick's demands on our psyche dominated our lives. Multiply our experience by the anguish caused by the one in ten Americans who are dependant on or abuse alcohol, illicit drugs, and/or prescription drugs and it's clear that the emotional impact of addiction on our society is enormous.
The economic cost of substance abuse in 1995 — ten years ago — were pegged at $414 billion by the Schneider Institute for Health Policy, Brandeis University in its Substance Abuse: The Nation's Number One Health Problem report.
Well over half of Americans - sixty-three percent - say that addiction has had an impact on their lives, according to a survey conducted in April 2004 by Hart Research and Coldwater Corp., either because they are addicts themselves or a friend or family member is.
According to the government's most recent National Survey on Drug Use, more than twenty-two million people (9.3 percent of the total population) needed treatment for an alcohol or illicit drug problem in 2003, although only 1.2 million actually received it. There are no accurate estimates of the number of people in recovery, whether through formal treatment regimens, twelve-step programs, or on their own, but they logically number in the many millions.
Teen drug use is epidemic. More than one-fifth of eighth grade students report that they use alcohol, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse's Monitoring the Future survey. The figure rises steadily through high school to nearly fifty percent of twelve graders. Fifty-four percent of students have tried an illicit substance by the time they finish high school; twenty-nine percent of twelve graders have tried an illegal drug other than marijuana. The number of adolescents from twelve to seventeen admitted to substance-abuse treatment programs increased sixty-five percent between 1992 and 2002, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Substance abuse among adolescents is particularly insidious.
"More than ninety percent of adults with current substance use disorders started using before age eighteen; half of those began before age fifteen,” according to a position paper issued by Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy.
According to National Academy of Science figures quoted by the New York Times, thirty-two percent of people who try tobacco become dependent, as do twenty-three percent of those who try heroin, seventeen percent who try cocaine, fifteen percent who try alcohol and nine percent who try marijuana. Other ramifications of substance use - from fights to vandalism to rape to automobile accidents - are well known.
Still, some parents remain remarkably ambivalent about their children's drug and alcohol use, and this dichotomy has become front-page news. A Wall Street Journal feature proclaimed: “Uneasy Compromise: To Keep Teens Safe, Some Parents Allow Drinking at Home” (9/14/04, $$$).
We all know kids will be kids. The question is whether parents will be parents. I think that parents who condone, facilitate, encourage, or turn a blind eye toward underage drinking and drug use are putting their kids, and ours, in harm's way. They certainly are perpetuating a myth — drinking and drugging are requisite part of “growing up" — that unfortunately has become a social norm.
If a health inspector discovered that there were toxic substances behind the walls of your middle and high school that would, over time, result in chronic, debilitating diseases for anywhere from 9 to 32 percent of the students who came into contact with them — and lead to a premature death for some of them — can you imagine the public uproar that would ensue?
According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, 32 percent of people who try tobacco become dependent, as do 23 percent of those who try heroin, 17 percent who try cocaine, 15 percent who try alcohol and 9 percent who try marijuana.
Other ramifications of substance use - from brain damage to vandalism to fights to forced sex to automobile accidents - are well known. And other studies show that the earlier a person tries one of these substances, the more likely he or she will become addicted.
"The elephant in the room" is a term that refers to something that everybody sees but is afraid to talk about. We pretend that we are imagining it. Or that it will go away if we ignore it. Or we may be fearful that talking about the elephant will get it riled up. After all, no one wants to see an elephant stampede. That can be as fearsome as, well, as a druken, abusive parent. Or child. Or neighborhood bully.
"Denial" is a term that has come to epitomize our reluctance to admit that we are seeing what we think we are seeing or feeling what we would rather repress. Addicts usually deny that they have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Their loved ones often do, too. And whether it's a bottom up phenomena, or top down, society as a whole is throughly afflicted. Whatever dialogue exists, particularly between parents and kids, is obliterated by the incessant marketing for beer, liquor and alcopops that is targeted to the industry's best customers: kids and problem drinkers.
Enabling is apologizing for something that someone else did.
Enabling is looking the other way when your son comes home loaded.
Enabling is calling in sick for your hung-over husband.
Enabling is giving me the rope to hang myself.
Social drinkers are, to me, most mysterious creatures who are, by and large, unaware of their blessed state.
They do not believe that hot dogs and beer, wine and cheese, or sour mash and ice cubes go together like love and marriage.
They do no turn their glasses bottoms up to eke out the last molecule of C2H5OH.
They willingly stop imbibing after one or two.
They do not drink every day, or every week, or even every month.
They're entirely unself-conscious in saying, "Just water for me."
Slainte! if you're one of them!
Addiction is not something to be ashamed of, though I, and many addicts, have done shameful things under the influence of our addictions .
I have changed the names of many of the people in this story, however, generally because they were minors, or they asked me to, or I felt that mentioning them by name would hinder their recovery, or they are, in my opinion, ill, misguided or downright despicable. Some identifying details are also altered. There are no composites, or fictional characters. All of the anecdotes and characterizations are as true as I am capable of rendering them, and nothing is made up.
You will meet a character named Jason Tyler, for example. In 2002, when he was 34, his mother kicked him out of her house, which he had moved back into following a divorce. He and his dog, a pit bull mix named Sadie (real name; she's a heroine!), had befriended Carrick, then 17. He was clean-cut, and their relationship was clearly platonic. He, in fact, seemed sexless if a bit untrustworthy, like Eddie Haskell, the ingratiating teenager in the Leave It to Beaver.
Jason said he had been a heroin addict but had been straight for eleven years. He was a Jehovah's Witness, but not overbearing about it. He was a promising musician taking a course at Julliard. We let him live in our attic. In return for bed and board, he promised to drive Carrick to AA and NA meetings regularly. Instead, after picking up his heroin habit, he taught her to mainline and introduced her to his sources in Harlem and the Lower East Side.
Jason and I did, in fact, have two conversations that revolved around my using his name.
The first took place when I conducted two interviews with Jason while my daughter was in a re-hab. He told me he had introduced heroin to Hastings in 1988 (a revealing, if grandiose, pipedream) and gave me a rundown of the "posse" he ran with at the time, two of whom subsequently died from heroin overdoses. He asked me if I was using real names. I said I was. "I guess you know what you're doing," he said.
On the second occasion, another father in town asked me about Jason because his own daughter, who was a few months younger than Carrick, had started hanging around with him. I told him everything I knew. A few days later, Jason stopped me on the street, enraged that I had shared my impressions of him with another dad.
"Whatever happened to anonymity?" he asked, co-opting one of the guiding principles of 12-step support groups. Addiction goes a way toward explaining Jason's pathology but it does not excuse the harm he inflicted on other people. He has posted to a dicussion on this website that he is clean. As I have in the past when he's told me he was clean, I wish him the best in his recovery.
You will also meet a character named Pete Jackson. He is only a couple of years younger than Jason. He spent several years in state prison for selling heroin. A large marijuana leaf tattoo spreads across his left bicep and shoulder. When he was using and supplying Carrick, I had shouting matches with Pete in which we've both said things from our hearts that were hard and cold. The common ground, however, was that we both love my daughter. As I've gotten to know Pete, and watched him grow and struggle as a sober ex-con in a society that writes off men and women who have made mistakes in their youth, I've come to like him a lot. He is smart, loyal, witty, hard-working and well-intentioned. The dual stigma he faces as an ex-con and recovering drug addict dictates that I use a pseudonym for him, at least for now.