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Excerpt From "Drunken Angel"

Decision To Go To Rehab

by Alan Kaufman


The next morning, I stumbled back to Tom’s loft, drenched to the bone, with the inexplicable notion that I wanted to live, save myself, just because Jim Brodey, a poet I had heard of, thought that I deserved a chance. And I still don’t quite get what happened next. Weiss let me back in. That alone was a miracle. Left me there with all his booze and stash, but I told him I didn’t want it and somehow he believed me. For no reason that I will ever understand, I then phoned, out of the blue, a former classmate from Columbia University named Philip, who had last seen me with a published book, the departmental star in a London Fog, and now found myself telling him that I was a homeless drunk, near death and needing help.

Why had I not called sooner? he wanted to know, given his deep regard for me. “I’m going to put Jackie, my wife, on the phone. She wants to talk with you.”

In no uncertain terms, Jackie told me to get in a cab and come to their Brooklyn Heights brownstone right away. She’d pay the fare.

I did as told, though it took a few cabs passing before one stopped. After sleeping in gutters, I didn’t look so well.

They were out on their front steps, waiting. And from the shock in their eyes, I knew: I looked far worse than they’d imagined.

Jackie, pretty, blonde, in her early thirties, was very pregnant. Philip, a gifted screenwriter, tried to hide the pain in his eyes; smiled, shook my hand, and paid the cab as Jackie hugged me. I sort of cringed when she drew near, put her arms around me. Didn’t want her or the baby in proximity, had just passed the night in the streets with a junkie’s abscesses, drenched rats. But I let her. I was so tired.

Their mahogany-paneled home was tastefully furnished. In their kitchen, I sat down.

Jackie looked at Philip. “We’ll be all right. I’d like a word alone with Alan.”

“Of course,” he said, grinning shyly. Told me: “I’m so happy to see you!”

“How goes the screenwriting?” I asked.

He mentioned the name of a director, one of the most famous in Hollywood, for whom he was writing under contract a new screenplay to a film I’d heard about.

“That’s terrific, buddy! I’m glad one of us made it.”

He smiled and left the room.

Jackie said: “He’s so thrilled to see you. He admires you very much, you know.”

“Undeserved admiration can be quite painful.”

“It’s not up to us to choose who appreciates us,” she said.

“That’s true.”

She sat down, facing me. “Alan, I have something really important to say.”

I leaned forward to better position myself to receive her confidence. My eyes grew unfocused. She began to recede, grew smaller. My hands shook, my head filled with bat-winged demons. I glanced around the table, checking for knives or forks. A rising sense of panic lurked just beneath my ribs. A warning. She was coming close. I badly needed a drink to kill the echolalia of a screaming mother in my head. Her voice reverberated through the cavern walls of my dead soul.

“Yes, Jackie?”

“Alan, I’m an alcoholic.”

I sat back in my chair to get a better view of her. Wondered why she was telling me this. Wondered if I could yet get out, walk out of here with a few bucks of their goodwill in my pocket, acquire some vodka, just a little to kill the shakes.

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” my voice dropped, struck a soap-opera note of confidentiality. “Does Philip know?”

She laughed. “Of course he knows. I haven’t had a drink in five years. We’re both very proud of that.”

She looked gravely at me, all business. “Have you ever considered that you might be an alcoholic yourself?”

“Sure.” I nodded somberly. “I drink all the time.”

“That’s not what makes one an alcoholic,” she said. “Plenty of folks drink all the time but are not drunks. An alcoholic drinks because he or she can’t not drink. The alcoholic has to, even when they don’t want to.”

As she said this, I recalled what Jim Brodey had said, that so many times his brain had begged NO! as the needle slammed into his vein. Recalled times when my own mind had protested even as my hand tilted the bottle and poured the poison in—when another being seemed to possess me, drive me to drink, whether or not I wanted to.

“That’s me exactly. The weak man.”

“No. No, not weak, Alan! Have you ever considered what alcoholism really is? What you suffer from is not a moral failing but an actual disease. You have an illness, like diabetes or muscular dystrophy. You don’t stop because you can’t stop: it’s impossible for an alcoholic to stay stopped for any amount of time. The world is divided into normal people and us drunks. And you’re a drunk like me. you have a mental obsession combined with an allergy of the body. You’re allergic to alcohol and obsessed with it at the same time. The combination is fatal and unstoppable. Once booze hits your system, the jig’s up: you must drink. It’s not the normal drinkers who end up in the park, it’s not them who die in the gutter. It’s us, with a condition that is recognized by the American Medical Association as incurable, and Alan, it’s killing you.”

I swallowed hard. “I never thought of anything like that.”

She nodded. “Neither had I until I first came to recovery.” She told me drinking tales that made my hair quiver. Could not imagine that a pretty young woman could survive all that yet come out looking so well.

“There’s a solution,” she said. “I am proof.”

“But Jackie, not for a hopeless nut like me. I know me like nobody’s business. Trust me: don’t waste your time. Nothing works on this blockhead.” I tapped my skull with my forefinger. “It’s like a wall. Good ideas just don’t get through.”

“But that’s exactly the kind of case that recovery works best for. The more hopeless, the better. Since you have nothing to lose, you might be willing to gamble everything on getting free, which is exactly what’s needed for this to work.”

She repeated, in depth, things that Brodey had told me about 12-step meetings, where groups of drunks help each other stay sober one day at a time. How recovering drunks show up for you until you can show up for others. It all sounded very nice but it was flimsy stuff. The only thing that could stand between me and a drink would be handcuffing me to a bed and armed guards, 24/7. Besides, why would anyone invest more than a couple of hours’ time in my type? A day, perhaps, a week. But longer? How long was needed to get this thing? A month? Year? A lifetime? Who could bear me for that long? I could barely stand myself.

“Why would anyone help me?”

“Because that’s what keeps them sober.”

I didn’t quite grasp this. “And the twelve steps. What’s that? Some religious thing?”

“No! Not religion. Spirituality. A commonsense, concrete way that gutter drunks like us connect to our spirits and to a Higher Power, whether you call it God or the Universe or whatever you like. It’s what helps us to live comfortably in our own skin and stay sober.”

“That sounds like religion,” I said suspiciously. I was thinking “cult,” actually. Next she was going to ask me to join her on the street corner to sell fund-raising bouquets for the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

“Not religion: spirituality,” she repeated.

“What’s the difference?”

“Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there. Alan, you and me, we’ve been in hell.”

Tears started in my eyes. She took my hand, squeezed it. I flinched. Wondered what she was after.

And then I met the ugly truth of my desperation, that if selling street-corner flowers for the cult is what it took, I’d go. There was nothing left of my pride. Perhaps I’d never had any to begin with.

“Jackie, I don’t know you as well as I know Philip. But if he trusts you, then, Ok, I trust you. Maybe I just need some kind of help. I’ll do what it takes. What do you want me to do? I can’t believe that anything will work on a hardhead like me.” I pointed at my moist eyes. “But you see this? You’ve got me. I’m out of options—I can’t go back to the streets. So, okay. Tell me, this recovery deal. Where do I apply? When do I start? I’m done, Jackie. Believe me. I’m finished.”

Lightly she touched my shoulder, rose, and said very quietly and gently that I should go upstairs and shower if I wanted, while she washed and dried my clothes. and then I should nap while she made me some food. And after dinner, we’d go to a meeting together.

I nodded tiredly and said: “O.K.”

Alan Kaufman is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Jew Boy, the novel Matches, called "an extraordinary war novel," by David Mamet, and a book of poetry, Who Are We?. He is the award-winning editor of several anthologies, the most recent of which, The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, was reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Other volumes in Kaufman's Outlaw anthology series are The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and The Outlaw Bible of American Essays. His work has appeared in Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, Partisan Review, Tikkun and Tel Aviv Review, among other publications, as well as in many Web 'zines, including Tattoo Jew, of which he is the editor. A former editor of Jewish Frontier, he is the founder and editor of the controversial magazine Davka: Jewish Cultural Revolution and has performed extensively as a spoken-word poet in the United States and internationally. Kaufman has been widely anthologized, most recently in Nothing Makes You Free: Writings From Descendents of Holocaust Survivors (WW Norton). A member of PEN American Center, he is also profiled in the Europa Biographical Reference Series. He holds American, French and Israeli citizenship and lives in San Francisco. A lay ordained Zen practitioner, he is also one of the founders and Dean of the Free University of San Francisco, which The New York Times recently compared to the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Kaufman's papers and manuscripts are on deposit in the Special Collections Library of the University of Delaware. Well-established in his literary career, Kaufman is now gaining recognition as a painter of haunting portraits.

DRUNKEN ANGEL

by Alan Kaufman

November 2011

Hardcover, 5½” x 8¼”, 463 pages

Price: $25.00

ISBN: 978-1-935740-02-4


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