The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Last Chance out of Jonestown
We huddled around a wrecked man, getting as close to him as we could. This was in men’s group, sometime during my first week in rehab. All of us—say eleven or twelve withdrawal machines—surrounded Mort as he whispered his syllables, straining to hear everything he said. Mort had crashed his car a couple weeks back without a seatbelt on and had crushed his larynx on the steering wheel. He could only speak in whispers now.
There was talk about a surgery in a few months to fix his throat, but Mort was thinking about not doing it, living like this forever, always whispering.
“I deserve this,” said Mort.
“Why do you think you deserve it?” the counselor said.
“Because it’s my birthday, and my kids won’t talk to me.”
Then he wept. No one knew what to say to Mort. Probably because there were no honest words to soothe him. Most likely his kids had good reasons for not speaking with him. Instead, we consoled Mort with our body heat, staying as close to him as we could.
For the first time since starting out-patient rehab, I was okay with being there. Okay with spending all day sitting in circles with other fuckups. Okay with spending all night sleeping next to the mouth-breathing dog on an air mattress at my stepmother’s place. Okay with being away from my Mission District life with Lelo, my girlfriend of four years. Despite the withdrawal and all the shame sweating out of me, despite the anxiety for what a life without substances might mean, I moved with the other men towards Mort, our whispering sun, understanding that this was it— a reckoning, my chance to do better. I wanted to grab it.
A few days later, we were told to take out our phones and delete every contact. People weren’t having it. “I need these numbers,” they said.
The counselor was prepared for our incredulity. Every new crop of addicts must have reacted the same way. He countered our protestations with “Most of those people in your phone don’t care about you. Delete everyone and make them earn their way back in. If they’re good to you, reprogram their numbers. Otherwise, never talk to them again.”
“Delete our parents?” someone said.
“What about the Chinese delivery guy?”
“He’ll understand,” said the counselor.
I had over 200 contacts in my phone. Maybe some cells allow you to bundle and delete a bunch at once; I had this crappy old phone, which would only delete numbers one at a time. A bunch of the numbers were people I didn’t even know, probably plugged in at last call, promises to drink together again. Others were restaurant and bartending buddies. Some belonged to old one-night stands from the days before I met Lelo, programmed not with their names but clues about their identities—Diner, Green Eyes, Platforms, Pig Tails, Vodka, Young.
I deleted all these people.
It was harder to erase my family—my mom, my step-mom, my sisters—but I wanted to get rid of everything that day. If it was possible I would have deleted myself, the number to the worst parts of me, those parts I hated, but they also formed most of my identity. I was experiencing some sort of grieving process in rehab, saying good-bye to the caveman who loved drugs and drinks and mayhem.
I even deleted Lelo, hoping she’d call back so I could add her again. I wasn’t confident, though. She was saying all the right things—I love you and want to support you through this and I’ll be here when you’re ready. But why would she wait? Why should she?
“Addition by subtraction by disaster,” I said to myself, nixing another number, Watch’s. Thinking about what we did that night, how we made the world a worse place. Too bad I’ll never be able to delete those memories like I did the phone numbers.
Watch and I always brought out the worst in each other. I smelled it on him. He smelled it on me. We were chaos junkies. Lots of things were broken in our wake.
The night I need to tell you about wasn’t what led me into rehab. I’d love to say that it did. That I learned a lesson, wised up, sobered up. That it made me want to be a better person. But this was years before my bottom, years before I found the air mattress, the mouth breathing dog. Years before I finally tried to get back up.
Watch and I popped pills and shot pool in North Beach. It was game seven of the NBA finals. A stranger walked up to us, saying, “Next round is on me. I just won $500 on the game.” He pointed to a TV behind the bar where one basketball team was hugging and pouring champagne on each other, while the other team hugged and cried with no champagne.
“Winner winner, chicken dinner,” I said to him.
“Huh?” he said, looking around the bar. He was white, in his thirties, dressed in ill-fitting and bland Costco clothes. “Chickens? Where?”
“It’s an expression,” I said.
“I don’t think chickens belong in pubs,” he said, pulling his cash from his front pocket. It was in his hand for a few seconds before thudding to the floor. The bills scattered down there. We could see a few hundreds and a wad of small stuff. He wobbled down to collect them. The guy was obviously annihilated, standing back up and staggering a bit as he checked his six for rogue chickens. Watch and I smiled at each other, seeing someone who might subsidize the next couple hours of our cocktailing with his winnings.
It seemed important to agree with his anti-chicken stance in order to form a friendship. Watch and I both tended bar and knew the importance of indulging alcoholics their preoccupation du jour.
“I concur that liquor and poultry should be kept separate at all times,” I said to him.
The guy nodded, then eyed Watch, awaiting confirmation of his allegiance as well. “Yeah, fuck chickens,” said Watch.
This guy erupted into applause. “Exactly, men. It’s not sanitary to have them flap about with open beverages around. Let’s spearhead a movement to make it illegal to harbor chickens in any establishment that serves alcohol. Agreed?”
We agreed, of course, uh huh, we’d never turn our backs on such an honorable cause.
He seemed satisfied: “Now what would you fellas like to drink?”
We ordered three whiskey shots with bottles of PBR. The bartender carried the whiskeys, balancing them in one palm. He carried our beers in his other hand, his fingers lodged in the necks of the bottles, bowling ball style. It was that kind of bar. You slipped your beer off the bartender’s fat fingers and thanked him for it. Hoping, simply hoping, that he washed his hands after pissing.
“To winning all our bets!” the guy said right before we took our shots. “To being huge fucking winners!”
Every session in rehab started with us going around the circle and introducing ourselves by our first names, saying what our drug of choice had been. Trevor always said, “I’m Trevor, and my drug of choice is MORE.”
We laughed and clapped after he choked his catch phrase out, so imagine our let-down the day Trevor was called out by one of the nurses before the introductions. I was called out too. Once in the hallway, she ushered us to a back corridor I’d never seen. “I need a urine sample,” she said.
“Why are we being singled out?” I said.
“Everybody does it during their second week. I’ll be right back with your cups.”
We sat down in the hallway. Trevor looked sort of worried, so I said, “What’s wrong?”
“Will wine show up?” Trevor whispered.
“You drank wine?”
“What about weed?”
“Of course weed shows up.”
“But weed stays in your system for like a month,” said Trevor. “I could have smoked it before I got here. How would they know when I got high, right?”
“Have you got stoned since we started?”
Trevor gave me a smile, a condescending one, and said, “My name’s Trevor, and my drug of choice is MORE.”
I was angry, almost felt betrayed. We were in this together. We were withdrawing together, opening up during group. We were prescribed Suboxone and Trazadone. We smoked cigarettes. We were friends. That’s what sticks out to me now—how much I liked Trevor after only knowing him a couple weeks. He was a good kid, and I was sort of jealous of him, wishing I’d gotten in treatment at twenty years old, avoiding all that aching.
But maybe he hadn’t lost enough yet. That was the problem of being young in rehab. He hadn’t sacrificed enough people. He hadn’t dismembered every promise he made. Hadn’t made a list of things he would never do and then systematically indulged in all of them. The rest of us had abandoned every promise, left no humiliation uninhabited.
“Why are you smoking?” I said. “We’re here to get clean.”
“I’m here for my parents.”
“What if they kick you out of the program?”
But all he did was shrug. I can see him doing that gesture so clearly even today. Shrugging like oh, well. Shrugging like, what can you do?
And if I could talk to him from here, I’d say this: We can do lots, Trevor. We can get our shit together. We can for the first time in our lives try and make things better, not worse. We can decide to live a good life, one with Lelo, instead of carousing with Watch.
A few hours later, Watch and me and this guy—call him Wasted Winner—had played five or six games of cutthroat. He could barely make contact with the cue ball. Watch and I were of the opinion that it might be simpler to cut out the middle man—I.E. the Wasted Winner—and absorb his funds.
Which is just a bullshit way of saying we were going to rob him.
Even years removed, thinking about what I did makes some bladder of shame swell in me. I can say it only happened because I was drunk. Because of the pills. I can say that with a clear head I would never have acted that way.
But do you really care about my reasons? And do I?
“Would you like to get stoned?” I said to the Wasted Winner, who didn’t even have to think about it, going ballistic like a dog seeing the leash in your hand, saying, “Should we smoke in the bathroom?”
“No, he lives around the corner,” I said, pointing at Watch.
The Wasted Winner’s tail kept wagging: “What are we waiting for?” Then he kept blathering about his luck, while we walked out front of the bar. “A lot of gamblers don’t touch the NBA, but I’ve plied my craft,” he said, “I’m an expert.”
It was about midnight. No one else was around. There are a bunch of trees surrounding Coit Tower, so it was the perfect place to do this. One thing you need to know about Watch and me: we’d soldered together the ugliest parts of ourselves, our hate and rage and regrets, the pulp of our broken hearts into one gigantic fist. And once our fist formed, there was nothing we could do to stop it. To stop us.
“We can take a short cut,” said Watch, pointing up toward the Tower.
“You live up there?”
“No, I live right on the other side. This is a quicker way.”
“Let’s take a taxi,” Wasted Winner said. “I am in no shape for cardiovascular activity.” He looked around for a cab, and even though none were around hoisted his arm and yelled taxi!
“There’s a nice view up at the Tower, too,” I said. “Winners should see this view.”
He put his arm down. He smiled. He had no idea.
Maybe an hour after our piss test, I looked for Trevor. He was with a few heads outside, smoking cigarettes. “Are they kicking you out?” I said.
He ushered me away from the group. “They saw the weed, but I had it in my system when I got here. My plan worked. I’m all good.”
“Why did you smoke last night?”
“I told you,” he said, “I’m only here for my parents.”
“Ask them yourself. They’ll be here for family day.”
“I’m not going to that,” I said, repulsed by the suggestion. Everyone in rehab had spent the past couple weeks splattering the walls with our secrets, telling all the shit we tried to keep from our families, and now these populations were going to mix? How? Why?
But that wasn’t what I was scared of, not really. My real fear was that I’d ask Lelo to come and she’d refuse, too busy boxing my stuff up and leaving it on Valencia Street. Too busy finding a guy who could moderate his intake, who could come home when he said he would, a partner who didn’t dismember every promise, who didn’t doctor and botch his own dreams, leaving them for dead. She’d find a gentleman and they’d share a normal life, and she deserved it, deserved him.
That was one of the things I hoped to discover in rehab: Was it possible for someone like me to turn into him? And would Lelo wait? Family day seemed too soon to find out.
“You have to go to it. They make you,” said Trevor. “Any of your people coming?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.”
I asked and she said yes, and then there we were: Lelo and I in the parking lot, out front of the rehab facility. One of the old timers, Paul, was out there too, all agitated, pacing around and kicking rocks and talking to himself. He’d been in about a week longer than me. My first day, he was withdrawing from oxy so bad that he was wrapped in a blanket, sweating and swearing and moaning.
“What’s the matter?” I said to him.
“My wife, that’s what,” he said.
“This is my girlfriend, Lelo,” pointing at her, both Paul and me forgetting about this thing called manners. He didn’t even look at Lelo, saying something about his wife skipping family day so she could go wine tasting in Napa.
“Wine tasting?” I said, all offended on his behalf.
“Well, she should hate me,” he said, all offended on her behalf. “I’m a shitty husband.”
We were all shitty in one way or another in rehab. Shitty spouses and lovers and friends and daughters and sons and siblings and fathers and mothers and drinking buddies, and like Mort, we’ll be whispering our whole lives, gruff forlorn voices saying, sorry, so sorry, I wish you’d never known me like this.
A bunch of trees surrounding Coit Tower. Midnight. No one around. Secluded. The perfect place. To hurt someone. To rob him. To unload the fist we packed. So it can run rampant. Rampaging. Releasing our fury. Watch and I walking up the hill. About ten feet ahead of Wasted Winner. He was out of breath. He was staggering. He was sweating. I was sweating. Watch was probably not sweating, thriving on violence. Conversation petering out. Just trudging, panting men. The promise of getting high motivating each new step. At least for one of them. The other two malevolently motivated. And I liked punishment. Punishing others. Punishing myself. Didn’t really need a reason back then. Punished myself because I was there. Wasn’t that reason enough?
Thinking about that TV back at the bar. The basketball players celebrating. Pouring champagne over one another’s heads. Guzzling the stuff. Spanking every ass in the room. Their huge smiles. The way they spoke in tongues. The whirling way they moved through the locker room. Hugging and frolicking and howling, “We won. World champs, baby!” I couldn’t stop thinking about the champagne. How that must feel. How it must feel to have someone celebrate you. Your accomplishments. Your role. Your hard work. Your being on the planet. What must it stir in you feeling champagne drizzle down your esteemed face?
My only stirring was adrenaline. Maybe a squeak from a run-down conscience. Some fear. Getting caught and going to jail. And for what? A couple hundred dollars? That’s the thing—we didn’t need the money. We weren’t doing this for that. No. Trudges and pants. Three men moving. Toward emergency. Toward an anger apex. There’s no such thing as divine intervention. No such thing as celestial protectors. Nobody intervenes. We are left to cripple ourselves. Mangle ourselves. Left to our own devices, we crumble to the occasion. Nearing Coit Tower.
I said to Watch, “Now?” and he looked around one last time and not seeing any witnesses out there, said, “Now,” and Watch turning and hitting the man, who tried to say something but these syllables were muffled and busted, and he didn’t fall down after the first blow so I hit him too and he went to the sidewalk with more muffled and busted syllables and we kicked him a few times and rifled his pockets for what was left of his winnings, ripping that cash away, and whatever we gained that night, say $200 split between us, doing all that damage for a hundred bucks each, what we took with us as we left that guy lying there had nothing to do with money. What we took was a stash of disgrace. Wounds only we could see. Ones that wouldn’t lighten with time. Ones remaining visceral and wicked and profound. Ones colorful and ornate and raw. Ones with fists of their own.
And there we were on family day, three weeks into the program. Us, the addicts. Them, the intruders. I don’t mean to make it sound adversarial. But I sort of do. Because that’s what it felt like: We’d been in a womb and now this was the first stirrings of labor, proof that we’d be birthed back into the world, and there was the chance that I could know life without being a caveman.
The worst part of having them there was how little they knew us now, assuming we stayed clean. They knew us as drunks, IV drug users, people who smoked speed using broken light bulbs as pipes, people who mangled promises, people who burned money like wicks, people who hit their loved ones, couldn’t hold down a job, couldn’t stay out of jail, couldn’t love their kids. They knew our crimes and our lows and because they’d seen us at our worst, how were they supposed to give us the benefit of the doubt? And how were we supposed to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt with them around?
When it was just us, trying to make sense of a future without drugs or booze that was one thing. But sitting amongst all the people whose hearts we’d gouged out—what gave us the right to expect better from ourselves, expect anything other than relapse?
We couldn’t feel empowered sitting with these eyewitnesses for all our sins. With them there, we were hopeless. Doomed. Preternaturally stupid. We’d never stay clean. Never amount to anything. We were swollen livers, shaking hands. We were DUIs. We were abscesses. We were violent nights with Watch.
Everybody sat in these neat little rows of seats set up in one of the conference rooms. If you didn’t know better, you’d think we were there for a real estate seminar. Trevor and his parents were in the front row. I pointed him out to Lelo and said, “That’s my friend.”
“What’s with that guy outside?” she said.
But I didn’t want to talk about Paul or his wine-tasting wife. “See that kid up front? That’s Trevor. Those are his parents.”
“They look so normal,” said Lelo.
She was right. If this was a real estate seminar, these responsible parents had taken their precocious kid here to learn the intricacies of flipping properties. They had no idea that he wasn’t listening. They had no idea he wasn’t interested in real estate or sobriety. He was only interested in MORE.
The guy running family day had a tragic ponytail running all the way to his ass. I’d never seen him before but he yanked on our attention spans like leashes. The first thing he said was “Does anyone know where the word ‘addiction’ actually comes from? It’s Latin. From the word Addictus. Meaning to devote yourself entirely. To worship.”
Think about that for a second. Think about this congregation of junkies and drunks falling to their knees and praying for their god’s love, knowing that their deity required more than mere prayer, and so if you wanted to belong here, with us, you needed to speak with actions, show your devotion to this contagious god through debauchery and debasement, needed to wreck everything you held dear, destroy everyone who had ever shown you kindness, and once you were alone and broken, only then would you be allowed to crawl in our coffin, our cathedral, and feel the thrill of worshiping pure despair.
To be a worshipper.
This was Jonestown. This was your savior handing you a poisoned cup of Kool Aid and calling it the blood of Christ. I looked to Trevor, sitting with his family, them having no idea that he still secretly worshipped MORE, them hoping that his presence here meant that he was ready for a better life, but he wasn’t. He’d be back in rehab, hopefully, sooner rather than later. I looked back at Paul standing by himself, his family too incensed to show up. Looked at lowly Mort, whispering to himself. I so badly craved a future that wouldn’t lead me back here.
I clutched Lelo’s hand, maybe too hard, but I could barely control my limbs. Here was my chance out of Jonestown, my chance to never hurt anyone again like I did that night in North Beach. I’d already lost one wife before meeting Lelo, lighting that marriage on fire by pouring whiskey on the whole thing, watching us burn. And I hoped I could get clean, could stay clean, for Lelo, for myself, for us. Maybe I’d fuck up again. I had no idea during family day, yet it was a conversion, fleeing that Jonestown faith for something that could lead to happiness, yes, actual happiness.
I leaned over and said to Lelo, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said.
“I can be a better person,” I said. “I’ll show you.”
“I believe you.”
And we listened to Ponytail talk for about an hour. Not me, the drunk, me, the addict. Not her, the family day intruder, her, the outsider. There were no divisions between us. I was wrong about that. No, if she was brave enough to walk in the room, then she was a part of this thing. And if Lelo was that strong, maybe I could be.
The two of us, the entire room of us, listening together.
All photos by Doyle Saylor and licensed under Creative Commons: featured image, image 1, image 2.