S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Long and Winding Road,” Park talks about the realities of living a longer life than most, and attempting sobriety early on.
I had a birthday recently and I have to say: seventy-two is a troublesome number. I don’t notice my age ordinarily (twenty-one being the last time it mattered), yet I’ll be talking to someone now, tell them I’m seventy-two and think, Fuck, man! That’s OLD!
I use my centenarian mother to keep things in perspective. She called on my birthday. (She was much more agreeable than usual, as she considers her rest home a “lockup” and is eager to make those grievances known.)
But this was her son’s day so we kept things light. After a long conversation she ended with:
“Happy birthday, Wilson. May you not have too many more.”
Curious thing to say to your son, I suppose, but neither of us are old age proponents. Or really old, anyway, what I would call the eighty-five-to-a-hundred range. My mother may hate that rest home, for instance, but if my farmer brother weren’t footing the bill she’d be out on the street. (My older brother and I are lucky to feed ourselves.)
Which is why I regret having my telomeres checked last year. I don’t blame myself for it, as I was curious if I’d share my mother’s longevity, but when the results indicated I would (if I don’t get run over I should live another quarter century or so) I was pleased for all of five minutes.
Then I thought, Uh oh! I’ve spent my life prepping for a future I rarely expected to see; this was my version of “mindfulness” and it was imminently workable, i.e. impulsiveness is easy when you’ve no tomorrows in sight.
Then I get those telomere results and suddenly my world view is upended, not only is there a future but I’m likely to be part of it. You could even say, I suppose, that at seventy I finally grew up.
If so I’m glad I waited as long as I did. And surprised (when I mention preparation) that I didn’t employ more in this case. If I’d honestly weighed the consequences of that test, even posed it to myself as “Do you really want to know how long you’ll live?” I wouldn’t have submitted the DNA in the first place.
But it’s done now and the upside is it’s made me more circumspect about money. (Or my lack of it, anyway.) If I do live as long as my mother it’ll be beneath a bush somewhere.
My friend Sally reminded me recently that the forerunners of today’s rest homes were the “poorhouses” of old. I actually lived in one of those in the Fall of ’69. I’d just suffered my first and only DUI (steering my ’52 Cadillac up the sidewalk in Belmont, California) and had barely evaded thirty days in jail. The fine, however, along with the towing, storage fees and newsstands I’d crushed, wiped out the eight hundred I’d saved working in a box plant that summer. I had to sell the Caddie for fifty bucks just to afford the Longview, Washington, bus fare.
It was my annual return to college. I’d like to attribute it to a thirst for knowledge, but in truth I was hunting down tuition-and-fee waivers, work study jobs and Economic Opportunity Grants (the latter still available to white guys at the time). These were all easily obtainable at Lower Columbia Community College, where I’d gone on a basketball scholarship years before and my old mentor Dick Kent was the financial aid officer. By my count he saved my penurious ass four times between ’66 and ’70.
Even though he knew I was a drunk and would be lucky to last a quarter. So he was prepared this time. He told me that a halfway house was opening in Longview under the auspices of a group called ESARF (Evergreen State Alcohol Recovery Foundation), and that he’d spoken to the Director about me. They were still working on the place, but if I were willing to pitch in I’d be given a free room in return.
I feigned enthusiasm for Dick’s sake, but I was twenty-two years old and hoping (as I often did then, and always in vain) for a more “normal” life, one that didn’t highlight my alkie past.
The offer of free board, on the other hand, was very enticing, as much for the time and trouble it’d save me as the money. Plus I’d adapted too readily to my first mental ward that spring; I suspected I was easily institutionalized, so a halfway house would be a good test of that.
I had a birthday recently and I have to say: seventy-two is a troublesome number.
I swooped up my EOC check and directions to the ESARF house from Dick, then trudged on over there. Ken Donski was the Director’s name, an ex-junkie who looked and sounded like a lunger: he was six feet tall but badly stooped, and couldn’t have weighed 130 pounds soaking wet.
He also chain-smoked Viceroys. We hit it off immediately; my youth was as impressive to him as his age was to me, the fact he was still walking and talking after forty years of heroin. None of my past shrinks, social workers or administrators had been addicts, so I was grateful, at last, to have the real deal for company.
Ken told me my duties would consist of mowing the front lawn and painting the second-floor hallway. Seems the place had been the town poorhouse once but had been vacant for years before ESARF bought it. They’d remodeled the main floor and porch and replaced the roof, but the upstairs needed a layer of paint before they opened to the public.
There seemed to be no hurry about that and the lawn wouldn’t need more than a mowing or two before winter came. In the meanwhile the only furniture in the place was a rack of folding chairs and a couch in the front room.
Which is where Donski slept, so I walked upstairs and took possession of the first room I came to. (There were nine others off the hallway but I couldn’t imagine one being better than the others.) It was maybe ten by ten with a single bulb overhead and no windows or heat source. It also had a worn hardwood floor.
That was disappointing (I was partial to linoleum, as it was softer) but I’d slept on worse. I slumped down in a corner with my sole possession—the portable typer I’d been lugging around for years—and thought I’d look for carpet remainders in town later.
But I never did. It’s not like I slept much, anyway, and was okay that first night with my jean jacket beneath my head. When I told Donski the room was chilly he rummaged through a closet, found an old blanket with moth holes in it. (It could have been the poorhouse death shroud for all we knew.)
“It has these dark stains and feels pretty stiff,” said Ken, “but widen the center hole for your head and bingo! You’ve got yourself a serape.”
The guy was a fount of junkie wisdom. He told me I was free to use the kitchen for meals but I didn’t eat much either. Drinking and drugging were my game, but Donski was firm that I’d have to stay straight—on or off the premises—if I wished to remain. Another requisite to the free board, in fact, was having to attend the Thursday night AA meetings.
I was less enthusiastic about that part, but only because of my experiences with the group the year before. Dan X., the city editor of the newspaper, was one of the members and liked to bring his wife Katie Sue along. She was from Asheville, North Carolina, and swore I was the reincarnation of that odious over-writer Thomas Wolfe. There was no dissuading her of this; she’d grown up next to the Wolfe family and said I walked and talked (much less looked) just like him.
The longer she went on the more Dan’s drinking made sense. But harder than the past lives’ specter was my actual age: it seemed I carried the banner for young alkies everywhere, a group that consisted (apparently) of me alone. In ’69 no one had ever seen or heard of someone my age recognizing their alcohol problem, much less admitting to it. (Which is still puzzling. What was the big secret back then, and where was the merit in pretending you weren’t a drunk?)
But those A.A. characters were confusing moral fortitude with my “Git ’er done young” directive. So as they ogled me I stared back at them, wondering if they even qualified as alkies when they didn’t drink in the morning or suffer the d.t.’s. How did that work? How bad was it, post drunk, to wake up, swallow a couple aspirin, drink a cup of coffee, take a shit and head for work?
If you aren’t seeing things, in other words, what’s the problem?
Donski and I would muse about such things late into the night. It was strictly mental masturbation on my part, of course, because my issue was an enzyme I didn’t even know about then, but I enjoyed his company nonetheless. After decades of smack he was a withdrawal expert and had ridden the rails from Miami to Seattle.
His stories mesmerized me. Yeah, he should have been dead, and he was a bright guy who could have “made something of himself,” but he’d chased the dragon alone (not dragging others along) and he was—like me—a guy who preferred being high. We considered this the natural order of things, the way you’ll find rummies in the most remote jungle villages.
Or so we told ourselves, sitting on that lumpy couch in the dark, sipping iced tea and chain-smoking Viceroys. Occasionally Ken would remember who he was talking to, remind me how much better life was sober, but neither of us believed it.
I’d convinced myself, in fact (if only so I’d feel better later) that we both knew I wouldn’t make it. Because sobriety was the problem, wasn’t it? For me its only benefit was a respite from The Dread, and that fear receded as the memory of withdrawal did. There was plenty of ragweed on campus, and I could have smoked some of that, soothed the ennui a bit, but I was extreme by nature and didn’t like nibbling. It was full steam ahead or nothing, and I’d white knuckle it until I couldn’t anymore.
Which was generally six to eight weeks. I’d barely reached the latter when the A.A. Halloween party arrived. It was held in a barn across the river in Rainier, Boregon, and I rode over there with my forty-year-old sponsor, a shaky rummy named Frank. We were a pitiful pair really, a couple of fat, chain-smoking losers slugging back Cokes in his tiny Renault, and we weren’t halfway across the bridge when I knew the jig was up. I can’t speak for other addicts, but after weeks of overcast the storm always broke suddenly for me. It’s even a relief by then—a counterpoint to the endless obsessing over addiction—to know there’s action ahead. The Donski talks, the debt I owed Dick Kent for his kindnesses, the “Serenity Prayer” and “one day at a time” mantras? I didn’t bother to rationalize them, they simply blew out the window: it was time to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible.
Not that I gave up without a fight … I never did that. And I might have been fine if I’d had, say, a twenty-year-old hottie waiting for me in the barn. Instead it was the same old gang of mill workers and their wives (with the occasional sullen grandkid thrown in). There must have been a hundred of them in there, and I watched as they mingled in the flickering light of the jack-o-lanterns, sipping punch with their brave A.A. grins. I was, as always, moved by their courage and determination, even if it were just another reason they’d be better off without me.
This was underscored by one couple after another seeking me out, eager to shake my hand and express their admiration. I was still the young prince then, the kid who’d had the guts to tackle his problem early.
Even as I’m looking at them and thinking, Fuck that, pal! I want what you had, a good long run! You’ve that to look back on and what have I got? A few measly years!
Before long I’d excused myself for the two-mile slog back to town. It was cold and rainy but that seemed perfect under the circumstances. I stopped at the first grocery store I came to, bought a half gallon of Gallo Chablis Blanc. I preferred whiskey but only had two bucks to my name, so opted for rotgut instead. Found a covered porch in the back of a warehouse and sucked in the pulp stench while I drank. I didn’t finish the bottle, of course, but made a sizable dent before leaving it for the next guy.
Then I walked out to the road and thought, Now what? I hadn’t made a plan earlier, assuming that’d take care of itself when the wine kicked in, and unfortunately it did. Suddenly walking across the bridge to Longview seemed like way too much trouble; I’d return to the Halloween party instead.
The rain had stopped and I told myself I’d pass out in Ralph X.’s car, but once I was finally at the barn, saw everyone was still inside, I figured I’d hidden the d.t.’s from people before, so how hard could a little drunkenness be? This would be a great test of my “Frozen Man” persona.
I wrote about the farce that ensued in my first memoir, High & Dry. Suffice to say that with all the alkies in there, guzzling coffee and smoking cigarettes, I thought I could hide in the haze. The problem was an increasing need to piss; the line outside the restroom was way too long, so I crept to the back of the barn, found a likely spot in the dark.
I leaned against a post, waited for just the right moment, which was Dan X. accepting his “Three Years Sober” chip. I knew he was a long-winded bastard, so when he reached the podium and started blabbing I whipped down my zipper and let go a torrent, a hot stream that ran along the floorboards and under my boots.
Then I heard Dan mention my name: “And how about Wilson X.?” he said. “Only twenty-two years old and already confronting his addiction the way we should have!”
What the fuck!!!???
There was a roar of affirmation and I leaned into the piss even harder, trying to finish as quickly as possible.
“Where are you, Wilson?” roared Dan. “I thought I saw you in the back a while ago … come out and take a bow, son!”
I shut off the spigot, shoved my dick back in my pants and zipped up. Stepped out of the shadows with a sheepish grin on my face.
Unfortunately my boots were squishing and I had my thighs pressed tightly together, trying to stymie the bladder pressure.
It was a valiant effort but I was much too shitfaced. I took another jerky step or two before the dam burst, hot urine running down my leg and out the cuff of my jeans.
“Hey!” said some fat kid. “He’s peeing his pants!”
“And he’s drunk!” yelled someone else.
“Oh, Thomas!” wailed Katie Sue. “What have you done now?”
I was the proud young prince, and I’d pissed it all away.