S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In this column “Basic Training,” Park looks at his alcoholism since an early age and Jud “Ashtray” LeFay, his boss at Bank of America.
Readers (usually old-timers, as the event is commonplace today) often ask how I knew I was alcoholic at nineteen. My response never varies:
“How could I not?”
Judging from those sixties A.A. meetings I attended it might have been easy for other alkies to deny their addiction. But me? I’m an assume-the-worst guy … a half-dozen blackouts were all the proof I needed. Particularly at nineteen, when I fancied myself in headlong pursuit of truths. Chief among those was me being a shiftless, irreverent factotum with a hobo mentality, whose sole ambition was to write a book someday … if I lived. As I indicated in an earlier blog: what hope was there for a clown like that? I was staring down the barrel whether I drank or not.
So I decided to take advantage of my affliction, to wring everything I could from it, even as Fate provided the platform. There I was, coming out as an alkie, and what are the first two jobs I get? Delta Airlines and the Bank of America. Where Lonesome Louie—a bat shit crazy guy with a suicide sack—is my first boss, and then Jud LeFay. Talk about a running start. My good friend Canby was a young drunk, too, and the Bank of America assigned him to a cushy branch at the San Francisco airport. Me? I got South City and Jud.
He was old school, which is a charitable way of saying he was such a fuckup at fifty-five that he was an operations manager instead of a branch president. I couldn’t figure it out at first; he’d certainly impressed me with how quickly he sloughed me off on a teller. I was standing at her window when I first leaned against the silent alarm, forcing the local cops to race to the bank for nothing. They were pissed: by the third time it happened LeFay sat me behind a desk for my own safety. He gave me menial tasks to perform but I soon realized the only thing he did all day was smoke. You hear about “chain smokers,” but how many have you ever actually met (particularly in this day and age, when you’d have to be a millionaire). I considered my father to be one, for instance, because he went through three packs of Camels a day. But that was nothing compared to Jud. He came to work with a Pall Mall in his mouth and lit one off another the rest of the day (even when he was eating) without ever using a match. I know because I smoked, too, and once in a while I’d ask if he had a light (other than the butt in his hand) just to test him. He never did.
So I was intrigued right away by his excess. In the meanwhile he was sizing me up, too, and the moment when (instead of firing me, as he should have) he took me to the bank vault, demonstrated how he stole vodka from the bottles there by refilling them with water, still ranks in my Top Five All-Time. It meant he’d accepted me as both a confidant and a rummy.
Every young alkie needs a role model, someone to show him the ropes, and Jud was mine. He’d married late in life, to an older woman with money, and would have quit working except he couldn’t stand her company. Instead he shared noontime cocktails with a nineteen-year-old. When I’d thank him for it he’d brush me off.
“I do have a conscience, kid” he’d rumble. “I only let you drink with me because you’re a goner anyway. Hell … I’d be surprised if you make it to thirty.”
“But you’re still around, Ashtray.” (That was my nickname for him; unfortunately he liked it.)
“Sure, but I worked up to it, son, I didn’t start drinking at lunch until I was forty. You? You know what you look like in the morning?”
“Like an ambulance dropped you off.”
Longevity cracks from the human chimney: I couldn’t get enough of the guy, particularly when he was pouring. In the meanwhile we’re sitting in the employee lunch room with tellers and officers all around. Who knows what they were thinking? Did they believe that was just orange juice in our thermoses, or simply not care? Because LeFay could hold his liquor way better than I could. When I became too obviously drunk or exuberant he’d hold out his hand, palm up, as if training a dog.
“Down, Wilson, down.”
This was the signal to “put a sock in it,” my introduction to what would consume much of my adult life, i.e. acting like a regular guy even as reality slid down my throat. The “frozen man” persona I used in psychedelic and d.t. episodes later. In that regard Jud was my alkie master: we’d return from lunch half crocked but he was such a slick act (and did so little work) that no one seemed to notice. Pay attention, I’d tell myself. This is how a pro operates.
So I considered myself a pretty good trainee (learning something while doing nothing). I might have liked boarding the commuter train in the morning the best. That was the fantasy part, me sitting there amongst all those men in suits. They read the “Green Sheet” (the San Francisco Chronicle sports page), while I pondered how many of the previous night’s drugs remained in my system. (There were usually a few swimming around in there). Often I’d look around and think, Even if I make it, I won’t be one of these guys. It was hardly an idle boast, not with Louie Houston for a roommate. It was fine he wanted to kill himself, that was his business, but I figured there was a fifty/fifty chance he’d take me with him.
Next thing I know I’m waking in a pay toilet at the L.A. airport. Twenty bucks in my pocket, no wallet and not the slightest idea how I got there.
Plus there was the whole “suit” thing itself. Mine was the one I wore to my high school graduation, and I’d put on forty pounds since. I was afraid to walk fast for fear it’d split open, and I had this nagging certainty that it’d be the last suit I ever owned.
I got that part right, anyway. I lasted at the bank until just before Christmas. Since the silent alarm episodes I’d been careful not to embarrass my mentor with importune behavior. Then he sent me to that bar to get a signature and, instead of returning by noon, as he bet the branch president I would, I didn’t straggle back until seven. When he found me lying on the sidewalk afterwards, moments before the local cops beat me up and tossed me in the drunk tank, you could tell he was disappointed.
“Jesus, kid” he said. “You’re a worse drunk than I thought.”
I never saw LeFay again, but he’d be surprised at how many times I’ve thought of him over the years. In the meanwhile that jail overnighter was my first and I went to San Francisco the next day with Louie, where—after a strip show and a few drinks—he threw himself under a Greyhound bus. Next thing I know I’m waking in a pay toilet at the L.A. airport. Twenty bucks in my pocket, no wallet and not the slightest idea how I got there.
It took me two days to find a job washing tires in a Pasadena car wash. A buck-twenty-five an hour and no breaks. At night I slept under a bush in a kiddie park, wearing my work overalls for warmth. It was a hard life but no less than I deserved (I spent each day’s draw on alcohol), and there were many times, bent in two over another set of Firestones, when I’d hear Jud’s voice in my ear:
“Remember, High” he’d tell me. “There’s no such thing as a good job.”