S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Higher Power,” Park talks about A.A. and a cross-country RV trip with his buddies Tank and Brad.
I never got the A.A. thing. It was fun, even hilarious to hear the yarns, many of which had been honed to perfection over the years, and I certainly enjoyed the company of other rummies. But the rigidity you hear about now, having to perform The Twelve Steps or read that tiresome “Big Book” out loud (much less to yourself), was more relaxed back in the day.
Or maybe that was just the mill town meetings I attended. It was all older guys (forty-five and up) and they were desperate bastards: their wives, families, friends, homes and jobs were in jeopardy if they didn’t sober up.
I had none of those problems (well, except friends, and many of mine were young addicts themselves), and didn’t much value them anyway. Oh sure, I’d put a quarter in the jukebox like the next guy, fantasize about picket fences while drinking, but that’s as far as it went … when the sun rose I was still alone in the game and that’s where I belonged. I only gave A.A. a try because: (1) bad checks and halfway houses forced me to; and (2) it was like Christianity as a kid: no harm in checking it out, seeing if there was anything to it.
I was clearly as desperate as the other guys, I just had a different motivation (i.e. avoiding the terror of withdrawal). So them reaching out to me, or thinking my plight tracked their own, was touching but not particularly helpful. I felt, in fact, that they were in far worse straits than I was, as they didn’t have madness as a deterrent.
This came to mind when I met a friend’s brother the other day and, in the course of our conversation, he asked: “So how long have you been sober, Wilson?”
I had to think about it. “Jesus!” I said finally. “Forty-four years, I guess.”
How ridiculous is that? One year is impressive … forty-four is somebody else’s life. I’m surprised, in fact, that I can still remember how different liquors tasted.
I only gave A.A. a try because: (1) bad checks and halfway houses forced me to; and (2) it was like Christianity as a kid: no harm in checking it out, seeing if there was anything to it.
When I need a reminder there’s moments like the one at Mungo Jerry’s last February. It was the day of the Super Bowl and I was downstairs with he and his wife, vaping some Beast Mode O.G. on their Volcano, when the neighbors showed up. The husband hoisted a jug of blackberry cider they’d made and poured some for each of us.
I offered a toast to the Niners, took a gulp from my glass and Shit! it was hard cider, of course, probably six or seven percent alcohol.
I set the glass aside, didn’t think any more about it. Went with Mungo to another friend’s place for the game, then drove to the “Indian Pot Palace” in Sequim the next morning. I experienced some disorientation while in there but—given the environment—ignored it. Then drove home and, the farther I went, the more my unease increased.
The “soul shrivel” as I used to call it. Jesus, I thought, how can this be? Is my old sparring mate, Dread, really gonna appear unbidden like this?
We had a deal: I’d stay off the booze, he’d stay out of my head. It was only a minor intrusion this time, and I squelched it with bud and edibles later, but it was two days before I remembered that cider. That’s what triggered everything, I thought (it still took just a hint of poison to make my brain react).
Which means my decades-without-booze (“sobriety” is a bit of a stretch, given my drug habits) stands for what? The moment I did what survival demanded? (The real meaning of “scared straight.”) I take little pride in that. The other guys in those meetings (all of them dead by now) had a much harder row to hoe. I hope they made it but in the meanwhile an RV drove up the street the other day and it made me think, as it often does, of my old buddies Tank Buehler and Brad Berman.
They were longtime A.A. candidates themselves. They’d grown up together and were (as I liked to call them) our high school’s “affable bullies.” If you were stuffed in a locker, or held underwater, or given a wedgie at McKinley High, there’s a good chance Tank and Brad were in on it.
Buehler was the larger of the two (earning the “Baby Huey” moniker as a kid), but Berman, in the decades since, has proven to have the stronger constitution. He was adopted as a boy and, given his ability to drink and drug like an animal, likely came from a litter: I’ve known some legendary alkies and addicts in my time, and none of them had a hollower leg than Brad’s.
I hadn’t seen him in twenty years when, in 1987, I moved back to Portland from the Bay Area. I was staying at my friend Karl Franklin’s place in the mountains, and when I came downstairs the morning of my fortieth birthday I was thinking of the muffins I’d baked the night before. They were stuffed with pot and I’d just drawn a cartoon sign for them, warning friends due later to begin with a half only.
To my surprise one of them, Brad Berman, had already arrived. He was sitting at the kitchen table and, though I couldn’t be positive it was him (he had an open newspaper in front of his face), the fact the paper was upside down made me think it was.
Then I realized what that meant. Looked over at the tin of muffins.
Of the twelve I’d made only seven remained.
“Jesus, Berman!” I said. “Is that you?”
He lowered the paper. “High!” he exclaimed. “Good to see you again, amigo!”
He jumped up and embraced me. After some small talk (his eyes were like pinwheels), I walked over to the plate of muffins.
“Now, Brad,” I said, lifting it up, “did you eat five of these!?”
He squinted. “The muffins you mean? Yeah, I ate a few. I mean, I wasn’t counting or anything, and the fact they were green gave me pause … but damn! they were pretty good! Thanks!”
“Uh huh. That green you saw? It was marijuana. I made them for the party later and believe me, buddy … they’re strong!”
Berman thought about that for a moment, shook his head.
“Damn!” he said. “I thought I was finally having a flashback!”
Anyone else would be in the ER, getting their stomach pumped. Brad? If he was any different than usual that day nobody noticed.
But I digress. In October of ’90 Buehler called me, said his aunt’s RV had broken down the summer before while she was driving cross country. She’d left it in eastern Pennsylvania to have the engine replaced and he and Berman were going to fly back there, pick it up, then return it to his aunt in Los Angeles. Was I interested in coming?
I’m not saying Tank had an ulterior motive or anything, but I’d never heard of him or Brad turning down a joint (much less putting one out early), and I was Scud Man, purveyor of the finest pot in Portland: they were as interested in my bud as my company.
Which spoke well of them: I’d do the same in their shoes. It was their best feature, in fact, how they were genuine give-a-shits who didn’t take themselves or others too seriously. Buehler estimated we’d be gone ten days and I told him to count me in.
A week later (after finding someone to watch my crop) I was sitting in the biggest RV money could buy. Tank and Brad liked cars so they enjoyed sitting in the captain’s chairs up front, goosing the knobs on the console while I rolled joints or parceled out grams of ’shrooms (which I also grew at the time) in the back. This was our routine for the balance of the trip, with them driving during the day and me at night. It didn’t matter that my night vision was poor, or that I was generally stoned senseless by then, because I was still of sounder mind than they were. (They pounded shots of whiskey from late afternoon until bedtime.)
Tank and Brad liked cars so they enjoyed sitting in the captain’s chairs up front, goosing the knobs on the console while I rolled joints or parceled out grams of ’shrooms.
That first night we drove straight to the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I remember that, for some reason, we wanted to visit Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino. (Maybe it had just opened, or we’d seen him on the news, hyping its splendor.)
I was definitely curious; I didn’t gamble anymore, but I’d been fascinated by casinos since childhood. (I’d worked in a couple in my twenties, and still love wandering around Vegas, seeing what billionaires did with their money.) Tank was driving and parked as far from the other cars as possible. We freshened up, crossed the lot to the Taj Mahal entrance and stepped inside.
Now, being a wino at heart, I consider myself something of an expert on garishness … and here was my Shangri-La. Trump’s casino was the tackiest, most tasteless place I’d ever seen (like a discount heaven for hillbillies). Every possible note was wrong: not only were the carpet and chandeliers cheesy, and all the “gold” edging everywhere straight from a spray can, but the uniforms the employees wore were so ill-fitting, cheap and clownish that I burst out laughing.
And it wasn’t just me: even Buehler and Berman were offended.
“What the fuck is this?” stammered Tank. “Is it some kinda weird New Jersey deal?”
“Just think of it!” I marveled. “We live on the same planet as the guy who thought this looked good!”
“But it’s the tackiest place ever!” scoffed Brad. (A guy who lived in a windowless shack at the time). “It’s downright embarrassing!”
Berman’s a Trumper now, and I remind him of that moment every chance I get. (Not that it does any good, of course.) In the meanwhile we turned as one that night, marched back out to the boardwalk.
We sampled a few other casinos, then crashed in the RV. (They took the beds in back, I curled up on the couch.) We were wakened the next morning by the RV rocking.
“What the fuck!” I exclaimed. “There’s no earthquakes in New Jersey!”
“Listen!” said Tank. “I hear voices outside!”
I put my ear to the wall. There were lots of voices out there, most of them screaming things like: “Fuck you, whitey!” “Wake up, rich pricks!” “Move this piece of shit, you honky cocksuckers!”, etc.
I reached up, drew the curtain aside, was stunned to see dozens of pissed off black guys shoving the RV back and forth.
Tank and Brad looked out the rear, deduced (based on the debris and insults) that we’d missed the Taj Mahal lot the night before, parked smack in the middle of a homeless soup line.
“Looks like we ran over some card tables, too,” said Tank.
“Hey!” prompted Brad, firing up a roach, “you think they’d feed us?”
Berman had seen the worst of it in ’Nam but he never spoke of it, maybe because he hadn’t noticed. I proposed opening the window and tossing out some cash, but Tank thought that’d just make things worse and he was worried about the RV. He ran up front, started the engine, moved back and forth to knock stragglers from the bumpers and finally pulled away.
It was the sendoff that trip deserved. (I’ve more memories of it than those two, but that’s not saying much.) Vet hospitals were still drug clearing houses then and Brad (claiming knee pain) had taken full advantage. He swallowed ten to fifteen Vicodin a day and shared them and his bottle of Dilaudid with Tank, all while blasting Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes through the speakers.
Trump’s casino was the tackiest, most tasteless place I’d ever seen (like a discount heaven for hillbillies).
I’d never been in an RV before but the ride seemed smooth enough. I carved out a nest in back, spent my mornings and afternoons doing more drawing and reading than sightseeing. I’d brought along three ounces of bud and ate pot brownies one day and ’shrooms the next, so the three of us were real M.A.D.D. poster boys.
And that was all before the cocktail hour. We’d stop around four every day, have dinner at a roadside restaurant, then switch places in the RV, with me at the wheel and those two drinking whiskey and chain-smoking joints and cigarettes in the back.
I’d ridden plenty of Greyhounds in my time and had often speculated about driving one. This was kind of like that (well, except for the psilocybin rushes, and seeing and hearing things that I hoped weren’t there).
Unfortunately I was something of a lead foot and a rig that long wasn’t conducive to sudden moves: my buddies were as angry as the other drivers when I’d swerve suddenly or brake for imaginary objects.
The first place I remember stopping is New Orleans (we’d planned on doing Bourbon Street, but ended up in a seedy Hyatt on the outskirts of town instead), and the next was Houston, where we dropped in on my older brother Ray and his family.
None of my friends had met him and (like Bud and Tank) suspected he didn’t really exist. This was true in a way, as we’d grown up barely acknowledging each other. Some of it was him being five years older than my younger brothers and I, and thus part of the “Cheney Generation,” but mostly it was him treating me like an alien.
I can sum up our relationship in a single anecdote, in fact: when Ray graduated from high school my parents gave him a portable typewriter as a gift. He tore off the wrapping, saw what it was and passed it to me without a word.
Which made him the perfect older brother in my book, the kind that left me alone. Now he was Vice President of a tobacco company and living with his second wife and step kids in a Houston condominium. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years and—from the look on his face when he spotted me and my huge stoned buddies on his doorstop—I could have waited twenty more.
But it would have been like that if we lived next door to each other and hey! it was December twenty-third … surely we could cloak the awkwardness with holiday cheer.
Unfortunately Ray and his family were God-fearing Texans, and guys like us were the reason why. Judging by his wife and kids’ faces, in fact, we should have kept driving, so I told myself that—by validating every horrible thing Ray had told them about me—I was doing him a favor.
Plus he was as rabidly ambitious as my younger brothers, and like them he was quick to sniff out the stragglers.
Not that our driving cross country in the dead of winter at our age (while smelling like a grow room) wouldn’t have alerted him, anyway. We stayed for an hour, then returned to the highway. I felt vaguely melancholic for a while but, when I thought about it, Ray’s life had as little merit to me as mine did to him.
We reached the Grand Canyon on Christmas Day. It was viciously cold and bitter outside but being the only ones there (and knowing the whole world had better things to do) made it kind of special.
From there we drove straight to Tank’s aunt’s place in Los Angeles. After we dropped off the RV (she was a smoker, too, so didn’t seem to notice the smell), she took us to a Drive-Away car lot. (Dealers who need vehicles delivered to distant locations.) I thought later that the low rent cretins who worked there must have looked out the window, said: “Hey! Let’s give that tiny Toyota truck to these gorillas! See how far they get!”
It was definitely a tight fit: we’re talking seven hundred fifty pounds here. Even that was preferable to the sound of the engine, as it struggled mightily before blowing up in Auburn, California. Fortunately we were on a downward slope and coasted into a Safeway parking lot. Tank phoned the dealer in Los Angeles, hoping for a replacement, but the guy laughed and wished us luck.
We’d need some: between us we had thirty bucks and Tank’s 76 card. (It was nothing new for guys like us, of course, but we were younger when we’d made it a habit.) I hemmed and hawed as long as I could, finally conceded I’d have to ask my brother Ben for help. He lived a couple hours west and when I explained our plight he not only came and picked us up but rented us a Lincoln Town Car for the drive home.
Tank and Brad lit a joint and clamored into the front as I shook Ben’s hand.
“Thanks, little brother,” I said. “It was great seeing you again.”
He looked in at my buddies, who’d broken out the bottle of Dilaudid by then.
“Why does it always feel like the last time, Wilson?” he sighed.
Now it’s thirty years later. Tank and Brad are living the good life in Mexico, Trump traded the Taj Mahal for the White House and I’m “sheltering-in-place” in Port Townsend, Washington with a bag of Zombie Death Fuck.
Tom Petty? He’s still getting it right:
“Even the losers
get lucky sometimes.”