A few years back I was having lunch with a friend, trying to lift her spirits after a breakup. The relationship hadn’t lasted long, maybe a couple months, but she was excited about it, certain it was headed for marriage. Then out of nowhere the guy stopped calling, and my friend was devastated. Were this an isolated incident she may have taken it in stride, but as she saw it, this was yet another in a string of doomed romances, once again proving that she would never find love. “He was perfect,” she said, wiping the corners of her eyes. “Now what am I going to do?”
She picked through her salad and shook her head. “I need a change. Maybe a new job.” She looked out at the Charles River. It glistened red in the autumn sunlight while a fleet of scullers rowed by. “You know what the problem is? This city. There’s nothing here. It’s time I move to New York.”
I asked what she intended to find in New York that was missing from Boston. Her response was thoughtful and precise: “Everything.” I pressed for at least one specific. “Gee, I don’t know. How about art?” she said, inferring that I must be a rube to ask such a thing. In the six years I’d known her she’d never once shown an interest in art, much less mention it in a sentence. Now it was a vital part of her personal growth.
This is a common sentiment among many of my friends. When life fails to satisfy them, they blame Boston, and then declare New York the answer to all of their troubles. In A.A. we call this a geographic, the idea that people can locate happiness on Google Maps and then just up and leave their worries behind, like an unpaid cable bill. “I figured if I moved somewhere warm I could quit drinking and start over,” said one alcoholic, “but in hindsight, maybe Miami wasn’t the best choice. I heard they had great A.A. down there. Guess what? They also have great cocaine.”
Of course, there’s no denying that New York is in a class entirely its own. I just don’t believe it’s capable of nourishing my soul in some extraordinary way. “You can get anything you want at any time of day,” proclaims one friend. Since I no longer indulge in drugs and alcohol, I’m forced to wonder what else besides mini blinds I could possibly need at four in the morning. A grilled cheese? A 24-hour poetry reading? Tickets to Hamilton?
Maybe I’m biased. And bitter. Between 2000 and 2010 I had three serious relationships, all of which ended with the woman moving to New York. In each one I saw similar behaviors: the restlessness, the dissatisfaction, the vacancy in their eyes as they stared out of restaurant windows, a look that said, Help. I’m trapped in an Ihop on route 128. Perhaps it was the type of partner I looked for: chic, sophisticated, unimpressed. More likely, though, it was my own hokey brand of entertainment. “Really, when was the last time you played shuffleboard?” I’d ask on our way inside the local American Legion hall. These girlfriends would spend an entire afternoon getting ready, penciling their eyebrows and pulling on knee-high boots, only to find themselves an hour later crammed into the back of a wagon, bumping along the dirt path of a haunted hayride, somewhere in rural Massachusetts.
My wife has a twin sister who lives in New York, and last year we went down for a visit. The trip wasn’t until mid-December, but since both Amanda and her sister are meticulous planners, the itinerary was drafted in late September. “Sarah wants to make a dinner reservation for Saturday night,” Amanda said, referring to ten Saturdays from now. “What will you be in the mood for?” I told her it was hard to guess my appetite a full season in advance, but steak was probably a safe bet.
For the next month I was inundated with possible things to do while in New York. Each morning Amanda would pass along ideas from her sister. Whenever I chose something it only led to a submenu. “Museum sounds great,” I’d say, and then the next day I was faced with a dozen types of museum, from industrial design to modern art to the science and history of cable news. After two weeks we finally arrived at a decision. There had been so much deliberation by that point I had forgotten where we started or how we ended up with an exhibit called “Lightrock: A Journey Through the Art of Soapstone.”
I thought it would be charming to take the train down, until I discovered the cheapest fare was $600 per person. Maybe New York is a magical place, I thought, considering that same amount could get me a round trip plane ticket to Ireland. We opted to drive instead. And rather than take my Jeep Wrangler, with its torn canvas roof and constant puddle of rainwater on the floor, I rented a mid-size sedan. “For comfort,” I reasoned. From the outside the Dodge Dart looked just that, but when I got behind the wheel my head pressed against the roof. “No big deal,” I said, pulling out of the lot. This positivity lasted until we reached the highway, at which point the car’s steady vibration began transmitting into my skull. Eventually my teeth started grinding and my vision blurred so I slouched down and drove the remaining distance with the wheel lodged between my knees. This was the comfortable option, steering a go-kart across a hundred and fifty miles of interstate.
At nine we arrived at Sarah’s apartment, a two-bedroom in lower Manhattan that she shared with her boyfriend, Tito. The décor was carefully curated, everything an original, from the antique cookie jars to the vintage circus poster to the collection of nude Frankart figurines positioned atop the Danish credenza. “Mid-century modern,” as Sarah put it, as opposed to my condo in Boston, a style that most interior decorators would call “big box”.
In their living room, a wall of shelves boasted an eclectic range of books and records. I scanned the titles and smelled the mildew scent of authenticity. The records were mostly old bluesmen, names like Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, artists I’d never heard of because my knowledge of music history only went as far back as Depeche Mode. I felt ashamed of my own wannabe record collection at home, all reissued classics I ordered from Amazon, shamelessly on display in the hopes I’d be mistaken for a serious music lover.
The four of us unwound in the living room, snacking on cheese and crackers and listening to Jackie Gleason’s Christmas on the record player. The soothing nostalgia, along with the merciless building-controlled heat, lulled me to sleep, and the next thing I knew Amanda was shaking me awake. “Get ready. We’re meeting some friends for a late dinner.”
“Now?” I said, checking my watch and brushing crumbs off my shirt.
In New York, late dinners start at midnight, so by the time our entrees arrived I was asleep on Amanda’s shoulder. When the check finally came I felt a boost of energy, the same tingle I experienced as a drug addict, whenever a dealer texted me that he was ten minutes away. That meant good things were coming, and in this case the good thing was unconsciousness. I imagined myself back at the apartment, stretched out on the sectional couch, plunging into a deep and rewarding sleep, the kind that comes after one has been folded into an economy-size car for five hours.
Tito suggested the group return to the apartment for a nightcap, a term I hadn’t heard since I Dream of Jeannie. In the traditional nightcap, booze is just a prop, something to occupy the hands while people trade vacation stories. As a former addict I’m used to the reverse dynamic, where people are the props and drugs are the occasion. I don’t mind partying late so long as I’m alone and properly fueled with substances.
At 2:30 the nightcap was still in full effect, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Each time I started to fade a burst of laughter woke me up. It was like being inside a TV sitcom and hearing the live studio audience every two minutes. Finally I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I thought if I splashed some cold water on my face, brushed my teeth and curled up in the bathtub for a quick power nap, I might make it all the way to the end of the party. Or sunrise, whichever came first.
Like much of Tito’s style, his bathroom was vintage and well maintained, a cross between an army latrine and an old-timey barbershop where politicians go for afternoon shaves. A far cry from my bathroom at home, where the trashcan overflows with toilet paper rolls and the floor is littered in yellowish Q-tips. Here all products were stashed away, except for a bar of black soap that looked like a piece of charcoal sitting in a porcelain dish, and three ambiguous bottles of men’s tonic that dated back to a time before labels were invented. I opened the medicine cabinet, expecting to find a tube of midcentury modern toothpaste, but something else caught my attention—a prescription bottle filled with oxycodone, at eye level on the middle shelf.
My heart raced. I closed the cabinet and backed away, feeling the wall behind me for support. It was as though I’d stumbled upon kryptonite; the very presence of the painkillers weakened me, and yet the only antidote would be to pop off the lid and swallow four of them. I’d then return to the party engaged and invigorated, delighting the room with my own vacation tales, like that one time, in 1986, when my family drove to Washington D.C. “But seriously, have you ever tried astronaut ice cream?” I’d say, offering my critique of the aeronautics museum while the group brayed with laughter.
In the old days I would have taken those pills without any pause or ethical consideration. It didn’t matter that they belonged to someone else, someone who had opened his home to me and was thoughtful enough to stock his fridge with those little glass bottles of Coke that I love. That the pills were prescribed to him, possibly for something serious, was irrelevant. He could have had an impacted tooth or a fractured vertebrae, but I was a junkie, therefore I needed them more. Broken bones and surgical procedures mend with time, but for a drug addict like myself, the pain of sobriety is unbearable and endless.
In recovery, the old days are never truly in the past. The demon always stirs somewhere below the surface. At that moment I was tired and cranky, ripe conditions for a relapse. There is an emergency protocol for situations like this. First, call your sponsor. If he or she doesn’t answer, call someone else. Keep calling. If you can’t get anyone on the phone, go to a meeting. If neither A or B are options because it’s three in the morning, drop to your knees and pray for a miracle.
But it was too late. I had made up my mind. I reached for the pill bottle and unscrewed the cap.
“God help me,” I said, staring into the bottle of Altoid-shaped pills, about to throw away two years of sobriety. I reached for a pill when I was stopped by a peculiar sensation, like I was being watched. I looked out the window above the bathtub and saw the adjacent apartment building. A light was on inside its window, and a silhouetted figure looked out at me. It was eerie and thrilling, like a Hitchcock film. I stepped into the bathtub for a better look, but the figure moved away. The rational part of my brain knew that the figure was just a voyeuristic neighbor, but the smaller part, the one that subscribed to divine interventions, knew it had to be something else.
With my shaking hands I screwed the cap back onto the bottle and returned it to the medicine cabinet. Then I took a deep breath, splashed water on my face and went back to the living room. The guests were saying goodbye. Fifteen minutes later I was on the couch, sinking into sleep.
The next morning I woke up at my usual time: three hours before anyone else. I tiptoed out the door to search for a coffee shop, someplace where I could chomp my Nicorette gum and slurp a hot beverage without waking anyone. Also, I feared Tito’s bathroom. I had survived the previous night’s encounter, true, but that unguarded bottle of painkillers tormented me like the telltale heart. I waited at the coffee shop until Amanda called, notifying me that everyone was up and discussing the plan for the day.
First on the agenda was brunch at a Moroccan restaurant. This seemed like an odd choice. I’ve always thought the first meal of the day should be lazy and comfortable, someplace where orange juice is served in plastic sippy cups and the patrons wear slippers and pajama bottoms. Morocco doesn’t seem like a place of comfort, but rather a place where spies hideout in underground casinos. I don’t picture French toast and Sunday newspapers; I picture tuxedos, filterless cigarettes and swords with curved blades. Still, Sarah spoke highly of it. “It has the most incredible avocado toast,” she raved. So we walked forty minutes there, passing two-dozen bagel shops along the way.
The avocado toast was delicious, but the table arrangement was unforgivable. In an effort to pack in as many people as possible and violate every known fire code, rows of tables were joined side by side, eliminating any privacy and instead forcing us to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. I couldn’t hear anything from our table but followed along clearly with the conversation next to me: two well-dressed socialite women engaged in a complaining match. Nothing was satisfactory—their eggs were too crisp, their husbands too meek, their literary agents too demanding. The instant they finished their meals they waved cash in the air and called out for the server. This was New York as I imagined it—a Mecca of criticism, cash, and constant disapproval.
Next on the itinerary was the Central Park Zoo. The walk there was short but arduous. We were swallowed by a crowd of tourists and forced to trudge along at the speed of a chain gang. Take out the taxis and the hot dog vendors and it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film, this herd of tired refugees in search of water. My claustrophobia grew and soon I heard the sound of the beating heart in Tito’s bathroom. If only I’d pocketed some of those pills, I thought, then everything would be euphoric. Instead of a walking zombie I’d be annoyingly chatty, making pointless comments about whatever crossed my mind. “Who actually invented the sidewalk?” “Is December usually this mild?” “Did you ever go through a jogging phase?”
As it were, I began to view the entire trip through a begrudging lens, an outlook that was validated once the four of us got lost in Central Park. “If the sun is over there, isn’t east that way?” Sarah said, her hand cupped over her eyes. It was 2015, in the most industrialized city in the western hemisphere, and somehow we’d been reduced to the same navigation technique used by Lawrence of Arabia. Tito and Sarah debated the directions while I drifted off to feel sorry for myself. This is why people shouldn’t leave their homes, I thought.
Sarah and Tito settled on the correct course, and we continued our journey. I lagged behind the group, head down, hands jammed into my coat pockets. It’s hard for me to notice when I’m visibly sulking, but the amount of embarrassment on Amanda’s face is usually a good indicator. She dropped back and took my elbow. “What is your problem?” she snarled. “Why do you have to act so miserable?” I kicked a pebble and pulled my elbow away. She grabbed it again. “Find a meeting. Please.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I don’t want to ruin everybody’s good time.”
“You already are. Find a meeting today or go back to Boston.” She sped up and rejoined the others, leaving me behind to scowl and stamp my feet along the concrete path.
It’s always awkward when Saturday night dinner plans need to change to accommodate an AA meeting, but Sarah understood, even though she had made our reservation two months ago. She called a few different restaurants and secured some new options, reopening a number of possible scenarios, each one contingent upon the time and location of my meeting: 5:00 PM in the East Village. “That rules out the steakhouse in Brooklyn,” she said, and though there wasn’t a hint of resentment in her voice, I still felt like an asshole, moseying through Central Park while my friends rescheduled their lives based around my drug problem.
I felt a little better once we got to the zoo. If anything can get me out of my own way it’s an exotic animal, especially one trapped in a cage for the rest of its unnatural life. Each exhibit brought a new emotion. First was joy at the sight of a sea lion playing patty cake with its trainer. Then tears as a mama bear led her cubs through a diorama of an Alaskan forest. Most impressive were the two snow leopards, lumbering over a mound of fabricated rock. One of the leopards sat proudly on a perch, chest puffed out as he glared down at us with eyes like ice blue marbles. It was a condescending look, but could you blame him? He’s a jungle cat living in midtown Manhattan, in an apartment that would easily go for twelve grand a month.
Afterward, Amanda, Sarah and Tito went home to get ready for dinner, and I set off for my meeting. I get nervous about new places, so I reminded myself to keep an open mind and walk through my fears. This came in handy once I got to the East Village, where thousands of raging Santa Clauses frolicked through the streets—an annual event known as “Santa-Con”. Normally I love Santa Claus, so long as he’s plump and rosy-cheeked. But when a young person wears the costume it makes Santa look skinny and unhealthy. It doesn’t say joy to the world. It says my fond childhood memories are riddled with disease. A malnourished Santa is a frightening sight, especially when a stampede of them chases you down the street, their beards twisting off their faces.
I was sweating and out of breath when I got to my AA meeting, which was held inside a converted storage closet on the top floor of a narrow brownstone. Had the building originally been a residence I imagined this was where the mutant son was kept, chained to the radiator and fed from a bucket of spoiled beef. Now the room was occupied by a handful of sad adults, sitting as far away as possible from each other, quietly chewing their fingernails, looking vaguely ashamed that at age forty they still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of life. I was about to turn around and leave when a man asked for my name.
“Danny?” I said, as though it was a wild guess.
“Hello Danny, I’m Luther,” the man said. He got up from behind a desk and handed me a binder. “Could you chair tonight’s meeting?”
“Of course,” I said. The chairperson sits at the head of the room, reads the group’s preamble, and then shares his or her own story for twenty minutes. It happened so quick I didn’t have time to think of an excuse, nor did I feel that spasm of fear that normally racks my body at the thought of public speaking. I accepted the binder and sat down behind Luther’s desk, feeling like the teacher of a poorly funded adult education class. When the clock hit 5:00 I said good evening and read the statement of intention. Then I moved the binder aside, clasped my hands together on the desk, took a deep breath and told my story, starting at age seven, with my incessant need for solitude, and ending with the prescription drugs in Tito’s medicine cabinet, that until that moment had cast a malignant spell over everything.
By the time I finished only three people remained in the room, one of which was snoring.
Even so, I felt lighter after the meeting, like I had just purged a full day’s worth of self-pity. What a bizarre and wonderful thing: walking into a strange place, baring your ugliest truths to a group of random people and then walking back out and rejoining life. The therapeutic value of an AA meeting has never failed me. Even when I sit in the back row, disengaged, so bored that I read financial news on my phone, I still leave humbled, no longer the center of my own world, but instead just a visitor. I don’t know how or why this works. The dynamic is too simple for the intellectual community. There is no psychoanalysis, no self-knowledge, no one to blame. You come and talk, or listen, and then you leave.
On my way to dinner I stopped inside a secondhand boutique called Search & Destroy. Well, this is one thing they don’t have in Boston, I thought as I passed a photo book propped next to the register, open to a spread of a woman giving a blowjob to a Rottweiler. I nodded and smiled at the girl behind the register. She stared back and said nothing, though her t-shirt reading FUCK OFF SLUT spoke volumes. I looked around for used CDs, or anything music-related, but the inventory consisted mainly of gasmasks, dildos and old military uniforms. Was this a specialty store? If so, then for what? Maybe the store itself was a token of postmodernism, and twenty-four hours in New York had cultured me enough to appreciate that. Ah yes, I nodded, browsing a display of dog collars with SS insignias stenciled on them. This was exactly what the art world had been lacking, the crossroads of Nazism and bestiality.
Dinner was at Jules, a subterranean French bistro on St. Mark’s Place. “I’ve been meaning to come here for the longest time,” Sarah said, eyeing the wine list. We started with a plate of mussels, a savory appetizer that was cut short when a cockroach crawled out of the white wine broth and ran across the table. “Oh my God it’s headed for my coat!” Sarah shrieked while Tito tried to capture it with his table linen. Amanda pleaded with us not to make a scene, for the sake of the other diners. This is challenging when four people are suddenly in the middle of the dining room brushing each other off.
The manager apologized profusely and moved us to a new table, on the other side of the restaurant, where cockroaches apparently weren’t allowed.
“Could we also get some new waters?” Tito asked. “I don’t mean to be difficult, but…” He held his glass up to the light and the water was indeed murky, so much floating debris it looked like a snow globe that had just been turned upside down.
From that point on the service was prompt and attentive, but the damage had already been done. The meal was tainted by insects and lead-infused drinking water. When the entrees arrived we all stared at them with our best poker faces, tepid and fearful of what might live inside the meat.
At first I saw it as poetic justice. Earlier I had suggested we get dinner at the burger joint down the street from their apartment, but that was dismissed as boring, evidently lacking the kind of joie de vivre a scampering cockroach provides. But to say “I told you so” would be gloating, and life isn’t about my personal victories or defeats. In fact, life isn’t about me at all. I’m just a visitor, grateful for the invitation. If AA has taught me anything it’s that selfishness is a heavy burden, while service to others provides a more immediate and liberating high. In my experience this has always proven to be true, yet still I forget it, every day.
“I’m freaked out, too,” I said to Sarah, angling to make eye contact. Her face was stony and pale, her eyes fixed on her plate of untouched food. “I hate bugs. Seriously, I’d rather see a rat run into the kitchen.” She nodded, though it was clear she was still disturbed. I smiled. “We’ll stop and get a pizza on the way home.”
The manager dropped off the check and told us the drinks were on the house. This might sound generous but we only had two glasses of wine, which amounted to twenty bucks—less than the cost of the roach-infested mussels, which somehow remained on the bill.
Our first inclination was to leave a poor tip, but we decided the server shouldn’t suffer, so we agreed on twenty percent. “Let’s just get out of here,” Sarah said. “I want to go home, get into my pajamas and forget any of this happened.”
That one sentence summed up my entire life, and an hour later we were sitting on the floor of Sarah and Tito’s living room, wrapped in blankets, eating pizza and watching Suits on the sixty-inch television. We laughed and talked about movies and music and other things, things that existed a million miles away, things we could comment freely on from the safety of a dark living room. Aside from the TV, the only light came from the Christmas tree, around which hung a string of 1950s bubble lights that Tito discovered in a SoHo antique store. They made a soft buzzing sound and smelled faintly of ozone, and probably emitted a toxic level of radiation, but their twinkling red and green glow was cozy and soothing and worth the potential health risk.
“Another Coke, Danny?” Tito said from the kitchen. I thought for a moment and said sure. There’s a ton of sugar in there, and God knows what other corrosive substances, but the bottles were only eight ounces, and technically I was on vacation. The building-controlled heat was putting me to sleep, and the caffeine would help counteract that. I wanted to stay up all night. This was the highlight of the trip, the four of us, lounging in our pajamas, laughing about the misadventures of the day. We could have been anywhere in the world. We just happened to be in New York.
I got up and opened a window, and poked my head out into the city. The cold air felt good. It made me appreciate the warmth from inside even more.
The Greater Fool
November 28, 2016
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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