I’ve always been a ladies’ man.  By that I mean, an easy mark, a sucker, a chump.   A chump-love-sucker.  Women have been able to manipulate me with the ease of a Mexican-made marionette.  From the sandbox to the strip clubs, these puppet mistresses would pull my strings, and I would be made to dance a jig or kiss my own ass.  It wasn’t always under duress.  I often complied voluntarily.  Stockholm Syndrome?  Perhaps.  I sure wanted to impress my captors.

In 1968, New York City was full of women.  Even as a young gremlin, I noticed their strange power over my happiness.  I was crushed when my kindergarten teacher, Miss Corchran, got married.  I attended the wedding, and sullenly watched some greasy Jerry Lewis type in horn rims take her away from me.  After the ceremony, I waited in line to kiss the bride, in my case, goodbye forever.  I walked to the train with my mom.  What was this feeling that made me want to pile my head through subway tile?  Will it ever go away?  Must all love die at the end of a stake?  Thank God, I didn’t know the truth.  No six-year-old deserves that.

For weeks afterwards, I moped around in a funk.  My Mom dragged me around the neighborhood while she did her shopping.  Every woman I saw at the A&P, or at the butcher’s shop, looked like a cheap replacement.  They were certainly do-able, but not Miss Corchran.  (I refused to refer to her by her married name, Mrs. Dipshit.)  I had resigned myself to a life alone.  I’d be one of those old guys at the Y.M.C.A. who eats catfood heated up on hot plate.  I didn’t know such a thing as hookers existed back then, but I’m sure it would’ve given me some solace.

I went through a period of one relationship after another.  There was Catwoman, Morticia Addams, Ginger, the black lady on Sesame Street.  I was trying to fill a hole.  There were a few babysitters here and there, but when you know they’re only there for the money, it leaves you hollow.  I treated them all like meaningless distractions, but today I can see I learned something from each one, especially the Sesame Street woman.

It was during this futile whirlwind of grasping that Dina showed up.  She was much older than me, maybe almost ten.  I was seven and a half and ready to spin the wheel again on this crazy game called Love.  Dina was exotic and intriguing.  She was Puerto Rican, which alone was a potent brew, but it was the long black hair and dark eyes that really killed me.  I found myself having trouble talking when she would show up on our street with her friends, and not just because I was a tongue-thruster, as the speech therapist at school had diagnosed.

They would come over from across Jamaica Avenue to play handball against the television repair shop wall two blocks from my house.  Their neighborhood was so poor it didn’t have any walls.  Dina had nice brown legs and didn’t wear socks with her sneakers.  I also remember that her Keds were so worn that her big toes started to peek through.  Seeing all that made me feel weird, but a good weird.

I would try to get her attention by riding by on my bike as fast as I could.  When she saw what little value I put on my life and safety, she would inexplicably be drawn to my self-destructive nature like a moth to a flame.  Together we would set ourselves on fire, and burn until there was nothing left.  Then we would get married and move to Long Island.

One day, while I was turned to see if she was watching, I ran into someone’s hanging laundry and was literally clothes-lined right off the bike.  A very cartoon moment, but to my young ego, more tragic than any Greek play.  Dina saw what happened and started to run over, but I quickly hopped up, embarrassed.  I got on my bike and disappeared.  I went up to my room and sat praying for an early death.  Typical me.  The only thing missing was a motel room stocked with beer, and some woman rolling  joints with a GPS cuffed around her ankle.

I decided my easiest in would be making friends with her younger brother, Tino.  He was a violent enough spaz to have something in common with.  I went over one afternoon and showed him how to burn stuff with a magnifying glass.  From that point on, he would have taken a bullet for me.  He was my pal.

We were smashing rolls of paper caps between bricks, when Dina came up and invited me to a house party at her place.  Oh shit.  She might as well have invited me to spend a week-end with her in Vegas.  The party was Saturday, and she said there was going to be a go-go dance contest with prizes.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had been practicing my go-go dance moves on the veranda of our house for some time now.  How fortuitously events were unfolding.

There used to be a kid’s show, Wonderama, with Bob McAllister.  It featured various games in which kids would compete for prizes.  They also had a go-go contest that I had set my sights on.  I used to play 45s of the Beatles and The Monkees, and practice dancing, on the off-chance that I might someday wind up on the show.  I had developed some secret new moves, and they were devastating.  Now I had a venue to showcase my efforts, and win the prize I had in mind.

I agreed to come to her party.  It was a golden opportunity to unleash my mating dance upon this Latin gypsy.  She would see this white boy’s dancing could match the torrid heat generated by her own hot-blooded rhythm.  I just had to get permission from my mom.

On the day of the party, Dina showed up with two of her younger sisters and Tino.  We crossed Jamaica into a more tired part of town.  The party wasn’t much.  Dina’s family was really poor.  There were no decorations and the place smelled like diapers.  Her mom had her hair in curlers with a scarf over them, and a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, but she smiled a lot, and tried to make it fun for us.

We did have cake, blew soap bubbles, and took turns throwing a balsa wood glider around in the street, but I wasn’t really present.  I was thinking about the contest.  Don’t try too hard or you’ll look wooden.  Just let it happen to you, and then happen right back.  Let it loose, then rein it slowly back in.  Don’t be afraid to smolder.

Her mom handed out popsicles and we ate them on the porch.  I sized up my competition.

It looked formidable.  Lots of Latinos and a few black kids.  They didn’t need to practice.  There were a few Irish and another Lithuanian.  I wasn’t worried about them.  I doubted there would be another sleeper hidden in this crowd.  Finally, Dina’s mom called us in to listen to records.  Here we go.  Time to burn it down.

She put on a record and all us kids started dancing.  Dina joined us and made her way over to me.  Okay, okay, don’t floor the pedal too early.  Steady old boy.  I kept to my basic moves, a Hully Gully here, a Shimmy there, a Shoulder Roll Full of Soul.  Just journeyman stuff.   Nothing too crazy, yet.  Dina was dancing along, but in a happy, innocent, jumpy way.  It wasn’t the way I had imagined.  Hmmm.

Finally, her mom announced the contest.  She would point at kids to come up to the front of the room to dance solo.  Afterwards, we would pick the winner with our applause.   That seemed like some pretty arbitrary judging, but I reminded myself that this wasn’t about winning the contest.   It was about Dina and I getting married and moving to Long Island.

Most of the dancers were pretty good.  The poor have always made good dancers.  It doesn’t cost anything to dance around.  I got the nod from her mom and stepped up.

The song was “These Boots are Made for Walking,” by Nancy Sinatra.  I started out with a strutting stroll but quickly shifted gears into my own creations: The Manic Monkey, The White Tornado, Jump and Flap, Jump and Flap with Karate Chops, Army Guy Covered in Napalm, and my version of The Zombie, which was based on the drunk renter that lived at my grandparents’ house.  The other kids were getting into it.  They were laughing and clapping, cheering me on.  I had them wrapped, now it was time to wring them dry, and make Dina’s toes pop right through her Keds.  Watch out now.

I finished with what I considered my signature move.  It was supposed to be me pretending to do the limbo, but I realize now that it looked like I was trying to hump the sky.  Anyway, it brought down the house.  I remember looking out and seeing these older black girls scream.  Dina had her hand over her mouth, no doubt stunned by the sublime measure of my art.  Tino wound up  joining in, then everybody else.  We were all bent back and bumping it.  Mrs. Rivera was doubled over.

I won.

They had to improvise a first prize.  It turned out to be a mangy stray neighborhood cat, but I took it.  Hell yeah.  Afterwards, everyone shook my hand, and girls were giggling and talking about me.  Double hell yeah.  I was talking to the two older girls when Dina tapped me on the shoulder.

“Whenever you want, I can walk home with you.”

“Sure Dina, but hold on, I’m talking right now.  As soon as I’m done. ”

“Okay, I’ll be over by the soda.”

“Be right there,” I turned back to the girls, “As I was saying, I go to PS 66 and my teacher is Mrs. Ammonds.  I like to play Army, ride my bike, and light things on fire.”

After the party, Dina walked me back to my house.  When she reached out and held my hand, I thought I would pass out.   I had been a line monitor and had held plenty of girls’ hands before, but this felt different.  It was extra sweaty.  Tino carried my trophy.  I tried to step extra slow, to make it last.  When we got to my front door, she let go off my hand.

“You’re a good dancer.”


We stood there for a while.  It was awkward.  I didn’t know how to take it to the next level, or if it was even the right time.

“I have to go pee,” I announced, scrunching the crotch of my pants.

“Okay bye,” she waved.  Her brother handed me the cat, and I went inside.

Holy shit, what a party!  I dropped the cat on the floor and ran to the bathroom.  My mom came out of the kitchen.  I knew the new pet wasn’t going to go over well.

“It’s my prize, Ma!” I yelled over my peeing.  “For dancing at Dina’s party!”

Dancing like a molten motherfucker.  A sky-humping love pumper.  I earned that pussy cat.  “Please Mom, can we keep it?”

No dice.  She took it outside and let it go.  That was okay.  I wasn’t interested in cats so much anymore, or even Catwoman for that matter.  I had just been given my first dose of a drug that would nearly kill me quicker than the drinking.

Trying to impress women wouldn’t have been so dangerous if I had stuck to dancing  go-go, but over the years I had expanded my catalogue.  It included stuff that I thought was impressive, but only caused concern.  If I couldn’t impress them, I’d settle for worrying them sick.  It seemed easier.  It turned out to be a good way of wearing out some pretty big hearts, and put me on the fast track to eating cat food alone.  That had to change.

I still get clotheslined off my bike now and then.  I’m just not pedaling as fast when I hit, and I’ve learned how to roll when I fall.  I’d like to think I’ve learned something since seven and a half.  I eat more vegetables and don’t play with matches.  I drink a lot less too.  I still dance like a molten motherfucker though.  Hell yeah.  Make you want to move to Long Island, baby.


The Sober Strip Club Manager; A Vanishing Breed

Hey Ma, look at me now!

I hated working at the strip club on Sundays.  Sundays are sad enough.  Strip clubs are even sadder.  A strip club on a Sunday is as sad as it gets.  The refuse that washes up on its shores is pretty ugly.  The level of sleaze that frequents a strip club on a Sunday night is lower than, say, a guy who just wants to pop in while his wife is in labor.

I was working as a shift manager in an old club by LAX.  “Nude Nudes” our sign redundantly declared.  It was run-down and dirty, like the clientele, and our featured entertainment.  I had started out as a bouncer, but because I could muster more cognitive ability than a Neanderthal, knew simple arithmetic, didn’t steal, and wasn’t drinking, I was singled out for promotion to management.   I really felt like sobriety was moving me up the food-chain.  Unfortunately, it was of a species that tended towards bottom-feeding.

On Sundays, we opened at 6pm.  I got there at five, to unlock the place and get things in order.  The strippers were supposed to come in at staggered times from 5:30 onwards.  Instead, they would start showing up around 6:30, but definitely staggered.  Some drunk, some hung-over, others poisoned by powders, but all late.  Meanwhile, I had guys who had just been stuck with a substantial cover charge, sitting around drinking skinny glasses of six-dollar soda, looking at an empty stage.  “Where are the girls?”  they’d ask me.  “Fuck if I know,” I’d tell them, and no they couldn’t get their money back.

I’d stand in the parking lot, pissed-off and stressed-out, waiting for the girls.  Eventually, they’d begin to arrive, by their new Lexus or Escalade, or by taxi, or boyfriend’s truck.  They were a sight to behold.  No make-up, stained sweat pants, ratty hair, sometimes red-eyed and bruised.  You wouldn’t think some guy would squander a large percentage of his paycheck to rub up against them, but you’d be wrong.  For me, the relief of seeing them finally show up diluted the anger.

Coco was notoriously late.  An ebony bombshell, with boobs like a bullet bumper from a ’55 Buick Century Riviera.  She had the body that let her get away with a lot of things in life.  She took advantage of this fact, along with a lot of suckers who fell under its spell.  We hated and liked each other in equal measure.

“Nice of you to grace us with your presence, Your Highness.  We have champagne and a eucalyptus body wrap waiting for you.”

“Shut the fuck up, I’ve had a hard day. Could you take my bag…please.”

I bent down to pick up her bag and noticed her new Louboutin shoes, then saw the polish on her toe nails was chipped and flaking.  Says it all.

“Having to tote around this duffel bag stuffed with dollar bills will take it out of a girl, or was it the Iron Worker’s convention?”

“Shut the fuck up.”

We walked to the back gate and had Tiny buzz us in.  We went down the hall to the dressing rooms.

“I’ve got a roomful of Japanese business men sitting in there angry because I have, as a poor host, disgraced their honor.  Anytime now they might realize they’ve been drinking non-alcoholic beer, and that alone is enough to restart the war.”

“Why is that my problem?  My back hurts, and I started my period.”

“Wow, that’s just great.  I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of guys out there breathing a sigh of relief.”

“Is Boogie here?”

“She got here ten minutes ago.”

“She’s got something of mine.”


“Shut the fuck up.”

We got to the dressing room.  It smelled like hairspray and weed.  Girls were putting on make up, getting dressed for getting undressed.  Some were laughing, others bitching and complaining, many drinking from paper cups.  I turned a blind eye to all the boozing and substance abuse.  I understood that getting naked in front of a bunch of strangers, and giving them a view usually reserved for the doctor, required a special sort of mind-set.  Being sober wasn’t it.  Besides, who was I to judge?  I would drink to fortify myself for a lot less daunting tasks, like going to the mailbox or to take a shower.  I dropped the bag by her locker.

She sat down, pulled out the massive coconuts from her lace bra, and just let them flop like tired seals.

“Nice.  Okay, please don’t peel it back here for too long.  The natives are getting restless.  And try not to get too drunk tonight, Howard might be showing up.”

“I need a tampon someone!” she yelled.

“Listen for your song…and don’t forget to cut the string.”

I went inside the lounge to check on things.  Willow was on stage.  Poor thing.  She was a lost little hillbilly, mercifully dim-witted enough not to realize how cruel her lot was.  Her boyfriend was some ass-hole that was basically pimping her out.  He took all her money at the end of the shift, and doled out a measly stipend for her to buy Cool Ranch Doritos and breath mints, which see seemed to live on.  I tried to look out for her as best as I could, but the predators were plenty.  Besides, she’d be going home to one, so it was a lost cause.  The place was full of those.

I looked at my floor guy, Armando.  He seemed fairly sober tonight.  He had the clipboard.  His job was to mark which lap dance booth the girls were privately dancing in.  The “dance” was usually some form of dry-humping and groping, and each one had to be accounted for.  It’s not landing a probe on Mars, but enough of a hassle for a drinking man.  He had to keep track of twenty-two different booths located in various parts of the club.  Every booth that had a girl with a customer inside, had to have a little light bulb lit up by the door.  That showed that the girl activated the light by running her card, which was basically a debt card she had been issued at the beginning of her shift.  She would pay for, or be given credit for, a number of song’s worth of dances.  That was how the house got it’s cut.  It cost her seventeen dollars for every two and half-minute song, but don’t worry, she’d get that back from her customer and plenty more.  Especially if she didn’t bother to run the card.

Armando had to make sure that didn’t happen.  He really had to have his hustle on checking each booth.  Some of our more scandalous scamps would dart into the darkened booths as soon as he turned his back, in order to grind one out rent-free.  Fortunately, Armando watched vigilantly.  It’s not that he cared about making Howard more money.  He just didn’t like the idea of some stripper outsmarting him.  I got that.

My bouncer was Danny, a gang member, ex-con, off-and-on drug user.  Good guy.  I was grateful to have him.   He could handle a fair share of shit, leaving less of it for me to deal with.  Regardless of the management title, I was still just a bouncer, but one that had to count a lot more.

The money from admissions, the bar, and the dances didn’t just have to add up, it had to add up high.  The owner had decided all of that depended on me.  If  guys didn’t come in, that was my fault.  If they didn’t want to drink more soda than the two drink minimum, or pay some creature forty dollars to sit on their lap, it was considered a failure on my part to motivate them.  I had to get them to fully participate in their own fleecing.

Every night I’d have to call in the final numbers, and would pray that Howard wouldn’t pick up from the answering machine.  By then, he’d had a few, and was prone to screaming tirades, even if the numbers were okay.  I stressed balls over the numbers, and looking back, I can see it was all for nothing.  Howard was going to rage whenever he felt like it.  Worrying about it was a futile waste of misery.  It didn’t make staying sober any easier, that’s for sure.

My DJ on Sunday was Dan.  Jesus.  How can I describe Dan?  He looked like some troll that just stepped off a fantasy game board.  No, troll is not right, more like an old garden gnome, but one who instead of wearing a pointy cap, had wiry hair pulled back into a Thomas Jefferson type of thing.  Just a strange-looking creature, but you forgot all about that when you got to know how weird he really was on the inside.

He was paranoid and saw Big Brother watching everywhere, so he had decided to watch back.  He would listen to a portable police scanner while in the booth.  Don’t get me wrong, the scanner is a valuable tool to keep a step or two ahead of the squad car’s arrival, but he wasn’t up to anything.  He’d monitor the calls coming in and make scary, cryptic announcements . “Somebody’s about to take a fall on a fifty-nine dash eleven, and nobody knows who’s going to be next!”

I was already jumpy from not drinking, and had recently had some trouble with the law, so I never knew if I should pay attention to him.  Every time his radio came on,  it sounded like cops had entered the building, and I’d have to fight the impulse to bolt.  Paranoia is highly contagious.

Dan was bizarre on the mike.  I’d have to do the voice for you to get it across right, but it was an over-the-top, greasy AM radio smooth, but with a pervy quality.  It was like audible leering.  This combined with his odd choice of patter to make everything sound sick and sinister.

“Yes yes gentlemen, the time has come for our two-for-one special!  Our ladies are waiting for you to take advantage.  Exercise your freedom of choice while you still can!  Grab one of our young ladies, before it’s too late, and allow her to entertain you.  Don’t feel the regret of lost opportunity the lost opportunity of not taking advantage…of our two-for-one special.  Be good to yourself, and do it now…”  He was clearly trying his hand at mind-control.  The girls were all creeped out by him, and they didn’t creep out easily.  I felt sorry for him.  I could tell he was a lonely soul, and he wasn’t doing anything to fix that anytime soon.

Carla Chronic was behind the bar, her eyes fighting to stay up at half-mast, selling sodas, juice, and non-alcoholic beers.  Because we were an all-nude place, the law said we couldn’t serve alcohol.  I guess the reasoning was that seeing a woman’s vagina while drinking was going to make men too crazy.  Two powerful intoxicants, when mixed together can have a dangerous synergistic effect.  I have to begrudgingly agree with our lawmakers on this one.  One or the other is trouble enough.

I looked around the room.  The crowd on Sundays was a depressing lot.  We had The Fiddler.  He was slunk down behind a table in a dark corner.  He would wear  flimsy nylon running shorts so he had easier access to massage himself.   In order to throw him out, I’d have to catch him in the act, which I was never enthusiastic about.  He would change into shorts from his work clothes, out in his car before he came in.  He was someone’s Dad, I thought, and that must really suck.

There was Lover Boy, a chubby guy who would bring gifts to a certain stripper.  Flowers, cards, candy, balloons, little trinkets, all brought with great anticipation of bequeathing to his lady-love.  He would then take her into a booth, sit harmlessly next to her for $400 worth of songs, and tell her about his day.  She was kind enough, but when his time was up, she’d have to leave to find another guy.  He would watch her go off into a booth with some dude, and then bring the balloons over to me for safe-keeping, and leave.  It was brutal to witness.  Like watching a duckling get flattened with a tennis racket.

Off to my right, was Pappy Parker.  I think his real name was Roy.  He was one of those guys with a big beard and a hanging gut that required both a belt and suspenders.  He sold custom-made knives at gun shows, and made bolo ties that had real scorpions embedded in amber-colored resin.  His big thing was taking part in Civil War reenactments, the ones in which Pickett’s Charge succeeds and the South wins.   He also liked to have strippers cradle his head in the lap dance booth while cooing baby talk.  There were rumors of a pacifier involved, but I never saw it.  I watched him pick his nose and wipe it off under the table.

Everywhere you looked there was something to feel bad about.  Someone was exploiting someone, often while being exploited themselves.  If it wasn’t the bad feelings and bullshit, it was the boredom.  By then, I had become desensitized to even the most alluring of dancers.  I’d watch some slutted-up slice of seduction, wantonly writhe around on the stage, and find myself  thinking about having to buy new socks or wiper blades.  “I need to mail in that rebate, it expires pretty soon.”  That would freak me out.  What’s happening to me?  When your favorite stuff starts to bore you, you know you’re in trouble.

I was in bigger trouble than I realized.  I was letting it all get to me, and that’s not good for somebody trying to recover.  The constant worrying about my earlier legal troubles, and the stress of trying to appease the unappeasable Howard, was making me thirsty, and not for a six-dollar soda.  I hadn’t learned to live without alcohol, and that meant I hadn’t learned how to live at all.  A strip club was probably not the best place to take those baby steps.  I would eventually start drinking again, and Sunday nights wouldn’t be so sad anymore.  They would be even sadder.

Honorary Irish

I love the Irish.  I love everything about them.  I love the music, the drinking, the fighting, the way they can sleep eight family members in a twin bed like a litter of puppies.  From The Book of Kells to Shane Macgowan, their art has lifted many earthbound souls to realms celestial.  Their service, both public and military, to this country is immeasurable.   Those hard-working, hard-drinking, lyrical lunatics have brightened my world and lightened my load.  They have picked me up (sometimes literally) when I was at my lowest.  No drunken regret, when confided to an Irishman, will seem as bad.

“Ah Marius, sorry tah here about yar troubles, but dere’s no need tah beat yourself up. I remember when I…”  From there he’ll launch into a tale of drunkenness that will magically make your shame lift.  “Pissed thah whole dance floor.”  “Wiped myself off on duh mudder-in-law’s curtains.”  “Barfed guts on dere wedding cake.”  “Crawled into thah casket and passed out blind.”   He’ll laugh and shrug, what can you do?  Indeed.

I am convinced that during the Dark Ages, the Irish saved Western civilization, just so they could kick it in the ass today.

My best bars were always Irish.  Guinness is the God of Beers, and when every third pint came free with a knock on the bar, it didn’t come closer to heaven for this thirsty lad.  I pounded my pints down a bit faster than the micks around me.   People would shake their heads and smile.  It’s actually considered bad form to glug one down quickly, unless you’ve gotten a call on your police radio, or the bar is on fire.  I was told to slow down, that a pint was meant to be enjoyed.  I figured I could enjoy it more once it was in my stomach.  I wasn’t using some trick like opening my throat, either.  It was more like opening my soul and pouring it in.  Now you see it, now you need to get me another.  I spent a lot of time standing around, drumming my fingers on the bar, waiting out the excruciatingly slow process required to pour another.

One of my proudest moments as a drinker came when I was visiting back home.  I had been drinking  at Biddy Mulligan’s, my old neighborhood bar in Queens.  One afternoon I walked in and ordered a Guinness, and they told me they were out.  What?

“How can you be out of Guinness?” I asked, incredulous at even the possibility.

“We weren’t expecting a certain visitor from New Mexico,” the bartender explained.  Apparently, I had single-handedly drank them two days short of the delivery.

“Next time send a postcard warnin’ us of yar arrival,” some guy said.  He held up his bottle of  Budweiser and looked at it.  “Please.”

That night, people would come in and order a Guinness, only to be told the bad news.  The bartender would answer their angry queries with a thumb over to me, The Lithuanian.  They called me The Baltic Black Hole.  I had earned the right to sit there.  I was okay by them.  I’ve been sober for a while now, and shouldn’t be proud of stuff like that.  So I won’t admit it.

The Irish make the best drinking buddies.  Great storytellers, sympathetic listeners, talented musicians, generous with their coin, drink, and fists.  They’ll fight someone for you just so you can finish your beer.  They’re useful, too.  Besides making good father confessors and bar room therapists, you can use them as crutches and leaning posts, or better yet, as battering rams.  They don’t mind being used as a weapon.  That hard head is more of a blessing than a curse.  They’d rather not be left out of any melee, whatever their contribution.  The only time you’ll see an Irishman on the sidelines is if he’s a cop doing crowd control, and that must just kill them.

I’ve watched old guys, frail as twigs, square off against much younger and stronger guys.  The crowd usually steps in to save them, but damn it, they were ready to throw down.  You’re just not going to find that kind of fire in some old fart WASP in golf pants.  I overheard this white-haired goat tell an upstart punk one night, “I’ve broken more men than cowards you’ve chased, Paddy.”  They’re all poets, I thought, they just can’t help it.  Sure like to kick ass, too.

Irish-Americans make for dangerous playmates, but when you get to tumble around with the mischief-makers straight from the Emerald Isle (the imported, pure, uncut shit) you’ve got to really step up your mayhem game.  You are now playing among some of the world’s elite.  Wear a loose shirt so so it will tear easier when you’re grabbed.  It’ll also give your liver room to grow.  As a drunken maniac, I always felt like a man without a country.  Then I discovered a country I felt I belonged in.  I met Dez.

He was a wiry, strong little elf, with a choke-hold that could black you out right quick.  (He put me to sleep a few times during our scraps together)  We’d throw each other around the room in full-on cage match savagery, and then stop to take a break and drink a beer.   We’d sit there drinking, he would console me over my problems, make me laugh, make me cry, wish me better days, then cuff me across the ear and we’d be on again.  It was the full Irish experience.  Strong stuff.  Not for the timid.

One morning, I was having breakfast with Dez and his family, who were visiting from Tipperary.  His father was talking about someone back home, a young guy that was helping him lay bricks.  When he went by in the morning to pick him up for work, “Sean’s fadder came out and gave me thah wave-on.”  Everyone nodded.  I asked what that was.  Dez explained that  if the person that’s supposed to be picked up is too poisoned to work, someone will come out and signal to the driver to go on without them.  In Ireland, it is so common to be too hung over to go to work, that the whole explanation has been abbreviated to a simple hand gesture.  They even have a term for it, The Wave-on.  How unbelievably fucking awesome.   I especially like how other family members will come out and perform The Wave-on for you.  That is so beautiful, so decent, it kind of chokes me up.

Later in the conversation, the mother recalled an anecdote about Dez’s younger brother, who got so drunk one night he came into their bedroom thinking it was the john.  He opened up his father’s closet and pissed into his boots.  “And it was me favorite pair!”  the Dad said, and everyone just laughed and laughed.  The whole family was teary with hilarity.  Okay, let me tell you, I’ve gotten my family fairly inoculated to my shenanigans, but that’s not how that story would have been retold.  It would be refered to, if at all, as “The Incident,” and maybe how it proceeded another rehab visit.  It would not be a happy ha-ha tale to regale your company with.  In Ireland, they laugh off things that would make you want to kill yourself in shame over here.  You can really cut loose over there.  You can be yourself.

I made a mental note, “Going to Ireland would mean my death.  Hold off, for now.”

I have yet to make that pilgrimage.  I’m still in a holding pattern.  I’m not sure I’m ready for Ireland sober.  I’m not sure Ireland is ready for a sober me.  I’m not as easy to choke out.

At the heart of the Irish is heart.  Bigger ones you won’t find.  They are fierce friends, loyal, brave, compassionate, cheerful, and funny as the devil.  I can’t think of a better brand of human.   These divine madmen, under all their craziness, pour out more love than you could ever drink.  As an outsider, I am eternally grateful for their taking me into their tribe, at least for that little while.  My life is richer because of it.  So in honor of your great snakecharmer, St. Patrick, I raise this phantom pint.  I salute your entire race.  You blessed sons and daughters of Eire.  Thank you for existing.  Cheers!


Guinness Is Good For You!

Stocking Up For Sunday

Hoping Nobody Shows Up

I was on a bicycle, loaded down like an NVA soldier hauling supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but instead of rockets and rice, I carried beer.  I, too, was on a mission.  I needed to get enough supplies to last through the week-end.  While this was not as daunting as an essentially agrarian country having to take on the military industrial complex of a major superpower, it was still a pain in the ass.  Back then, stores couldn’t sell alcohol on Sundays in New Mexico, so you really had to stock up.

I never understood why that law was still on the books.  If you want to get all archaic, why not bring back debtor’s prisons and public flogging?  At least those things made life more interesting.  Blue Laws serve only one purpose, to reassure the self-repressed that there isn’t anyone out there having more fun than them.  Fuck that.  Let them know what they’re missing.  I hope it eats them alive.  The Puritan should suffer from his lifestyle choice just as much as the Libertine for his.

For years this violation of the Separation of Church and State had been a weekly hurdle to clear.  Having enough to drink was already a difficult obstacle course to run, you didn’t need some meddling goody-two-shoes legislator rolling out marbles to trip you up.  Why make the already burdensome burden of alcoholism, more…burdensome?

I would start concerning myself with Sunday on Wednesday.  If it meant skipping a few meals to stock away the funds, so mote it be.  “Better to be hungry than thirsty” was my motto, so was “Dead by Saturday than Sober on Sunday.”  This was serious shit, not like Iwo Jima serious, but as close to it as I wanted to come.

The car had shit the bed again, so I was riding a sort-of-abandoned bicycle that had no seat.  I had to pedal standing up, which was developing very powerful quadriceps along with a bulging hernia.  I had a twelve pack strapped on to the rack in the back, and a backpack stuffed drum-tight with 40 ounce malt liquors.  There was another twelve pack bungee-corded to the handle bars, and a plastic bag with can of beans and a potato hanging from my wrist. It made for an unstable ride. The smallest pebble would set me swerving into heavy traffic, the bike twisting and bucking like a hooked Marlin.  My greatest concern was not for my own safety, but for the precious cargo on board.  Blood can replace itself.  That was another motto.

Making sure there was enough beer was a full-time job, which might explain why it was so difficult to hold one down,  My work as an “event planner” was constantly interfering with my time-line for world domination. The smallest journey required the logistical planning of Hannibal crossing the Alps. Overnight trip, you say?  I’m going to need street maps with all the surrounding liquor stores and bars indicated with pinned flags, two bandoleros of miniatures, and a suitcase filled with back-up bombers of malt liquor. That bag stays in my car, which I’m taking separately.

Just going to the movies was a big production.  God forbid I should have to sit there for ninety minutes and not have enough.  I once ran out during a movie some friends dragged me to.  It was “Michael” with John Travolta.  I would never make that mistake again.  I’d pack Tall Boy cans up and down the length of my sleeves and pant legs, then walk like the Tin Man into the show. The empties would invariably get knocked over and roll down the length of the theatre, annoyingly announcing an alcoholic in the house.  “Sorry everybody, but I can’t enjoy normal past-times without being thoroughly hammered to the cross of my addiction.  I’m nutty like that.”

This bike was worse than the last one.  That one had a slow leaking front tire that really made the quads burn, but at least you could sit down and coast for a while.  Either way, they were bikes that made the ride downhill seem as hard as going uphill.  A metaphor?  Just more shit to deal with.  I really didn’t care how I got there, as long as I got there. Sunday was looming.  I would walk on my knees like a pilgrim to Chimayo, if I had to.  Although it would have been nice not to have drivers try to graze me, throw shit at me, or pass by screaming “Party down! Motherfucker!” scaring me into a wild wobble that almost punctures my scrotum on the aluminum pole sticking up where a seat should be.

I rode past a Kelly’s Liquors that was about to open soon.  I was excited.  It was close by.  It would make my march to the grave that much shorter.  I would get to know the staff there like family, and they’d worry about me when I didn’t show up.  Kelly’s Liquors.  With the money I spent there, I could have bought a 17 foot sailboat, but what good are those without beer?  There was a cashier there that used to fill me with the most infernal desire.  I can’t remember her name, but she was kind of hot, in a weird way.

I put the bike in the garage, next to a case and a half of cheap canned beer.  I hated the brand, but would buy pallets of it when it went on sale.  It would sit in the garage, until I ran out of real beer. If the stores were closed, or I was out of money, or it was Sunday, I’d drink it.  Then, almost alchemically, it would turn from tasting like nervous sweat into amber ambrosia, grained goodness of the Gods.  Cheap beer is like fine wine. The time has to be right.

I made a note to get more when I had access to a truck.

As I took off my backpack, one of the 40 ounce beers fell out and smashed on the floor.  There’s no way I can describe what seeing something like that is like to my non-alcoholic friends. (I do have some)  Frankly, admitting the extent of the trauma is a little embarrassing.  It’s bad. I just stood there looking at it, jagged shards of dark glass sticking up like shark fins, the agitated foam coming to rest in a puddle of sadness and loss,  Even after eight years of sobriety it hurts to think about it.  I don’t think I ever fully grieved that beer.

I didn’t bother cleaning the mess up.  I just got on the bike and went back to the store.  We all suffer loss, the trick is to keep moving forward.  I got to the supermarket and got the same cashier that checked me out twenty minutes earlier, Michelle, who was kind of hot, in a weird way.

“You’re back already?”

“I dropped a forty on the floor,” I told her.  She went “Awww! I am so sorry!” very sincerely, like she knew how much that would hurt me.

“Yeah well, no big deal really. I’m just here to replace it.”

“With three more?”

“It only seems fair.”

She rang me up.  I put the beers in the backpack and zipped it up tight.  I went out and unlocked my bike.  Even though it didn’t have a seat, I knew some people would still steal it.  I had seen it done.  I stood up and started pedaling.  “This is also very good for the triceps,” I told myself, “And the lower pectorals. I think it’s also making my back stronger.”  It was good to be strong when you have to carry a lot of weight.  It may have been my imagination, but it seemed like the weight was getting heavier by the day.  I turned on to the street and flipped off a guy that drove by honking.

Who Needs A Bicycle Seat?

A Tale of Two Rehabs

My first rehab was in Laguna Beach.  My second one was in North Hollywood.  I could see the ocean from my window at the first one.  My view from the second featured a neon clown in front of a liquor store.  The first time was in July.  The second was in January.  I got a tan at the first one, and a flu at the other.  I could make out with chicks in my room at the first rehab.  I was written up for making “sustained eye-contact with the opposite sex” at the other.  You get it. Very different.  Different results, too.

At the second rehab, my roommate was a Russian gang-banger from Montebello, who had gotten accepted into a hispanic gang.  I’ll let you figure out how.  He was a young guy with a shaved head, baggy pants, and lots of homegrown ink.  His family moved from Russia when he was five, and he quickly adapted to his new environment.  Boris from The Black Sea was a bad-ass little fucker, and as far as I was concerned, an immigrant success story.

Back then, the second place was full of people being diverted from prison into rehab instead.  Most just did what they would’ve done if they were locked-up.  I looked out at the yard while I was still in detox.  There were guys in beanies and denim coats playing dominoes or walking the track, dropping now and then to do burpees or push-ups.  They wore work pants and flannel, either house shoes or white sox and shower sandals, all de rigueur for the perennially institutionalized.  I wasn’t in Laguna Beach anymore.

Boris and I became friends.  He was a funny dude, and we connected.  The laughs worked like Bondo on the more gaping fractures in my soul.  One night while he was sharpening a toothbrush handle into a shank, I told him about the first rehab.

The irony was that while at the second place, I was surrounded by some seriously sketchy characters, it was at the fun-filled, beach condo rehab in Orange County, where I really worried for my safety.  And, the danger came in the strangest guise.

It started with Granny.  They brought her in on my sixth day there.  She was a crazy, white-haired, 80-year-old woman, who the staff told us, stabbed her husband while she was drunk.  “She didn’t kill him, so…”  So what?  So now she get’s to come in here and live with us for a while?  Oh fuck that.  An 80-year-old man wouldn’t get that kind of slack.  His dentures would be soaking on a bunk in Corcoran.  What gives?

“Dude, that’s fucked up,” Boris said.  He took out his lighter and heated up the toothbrush.  After warming up the plastic, he began pulling and flattening it, then went back to sharpening.

“Why don’t you just go downstairs and get a knife from the cafeteria?”

“I don’t know, it’s just something to do. Go on.”

She wasn’t the cute and cuddly kind of old woman either.  She had mean eyes and sneered a lot.  A Madame Defarge.  She was cantankerous and crotchety, but she could put on her grandma mask when it served her.   I saw her smile at one of the counselors and “Yes dearie” him, but as soon as he turned away, her face soured into glaring hatred.  She was working the system, biding her time until…she could strike again.

I watched her carefully during meals.  Why does she need a steak knife for cutlet?  Give her a butter knife, or better yet, a wooden spoon.  If this old bitty decides to go wide-o with a blade, it’s going to be hard to take her down.  You can’t just run up and belt the old broad.  Clobber her with a fire extinguisher, and you’re going to do time, whether she came at you with a knife or not.  No, there’ll be a lot of dancing around, avoiding her swipes and pokes, while trying to grab for the shiv.  I hate to depend on finesse.  Things tend to get clumsy when the shit erupts.  I had decided I would use my food tray as a shield, protect the vital organ, and just play defence until SWAT got there.

“I’d just tip the table on her and bolt,” Boris said.  Crude, but effective.  I had to admit his idea was better.  That was a breakthrough for me, accepting the fact that somebody else might have a better idea.  Of course, this nugget of realization was nestled in some insane thinking, but any realization at that point was a victory.

It turned out Granny was the least of my worries.  I told Boris about Jimmy The Geek.  One day, one of the counselors brought up to my room a google-eyed, belt-above-the-naval, dorkenhoffer with a Vicodin problem.  I’ll call him “Jimmy.”  He was going to replace the snoring pharmacist that checked out that morning.  Good, I thought, maybe now I can get some sleep.  Strange thing was, that although this guy was a Class A, textbook version of nerdhood, my body reacted to him in primal fear.  I swear to you, the hair stood up on the back of my neck when I shook his hand.  I had no idea why.  It just did.

The first thing he did, after shaking my hand and introducing himself, was hand me a piece of paper.  It was a Xeroxed copy of an old Newsweek article.  “You need to read this,” he says.  “Yeah, sure,” I say. “No really, you NEED to read it!”  “Okay,” I tell him.  I didn’t feel like reading Newsweek right then.  It’s old news when it comes out fresh, so a Xerox from the 80’s was really going to be stale.  I glance down at the article.  It was something about a little kid who stabbed his parents while they were sleeping.  He didn’t kill them.  So what?  Who cares?  I folded it up and put it in my pocket.

There was something odd about this bug-eyed dweeb, something beyond his looks, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Something menacing about him.  Ah, I was tripping.

“Dude, that’s the guy!  He’s the one in the paper, as a little kid.  He’s the sleep stabber!”  Boris was excited.  He was now listening wide-eyed.  He had his knees up to his chin.

“Yeah okay, you’re fucking up my story, dude.” I told him, “I didn’t snap to this yet, alright?”

“Dense, bro.”

I continued to tell him about how during some of the meetings that day, Jimmy “shared” about some of the bad things he did.  I’d rather not say here what, but they were disturbing.  Even Boris was a little shocked.  Enough said.  The meetings took on a heavy vibe of disgust as Jimmy let us get to know him better.  So, this was my new roommate.  Jolly good.

During one of the breaks, I remembered the article and pulled it out.  It was about some parents suing the psychiatrist that prescribed their son’s psych meds.  The kid stabbed them while they slept, and they had to blame someone.  In the article, the shrink claimed that the kid didn’t show any danger signs before this incident.  In the margin, written in pencil, someone wrote “Oh yes HE DID!!!!!!!!”  Hmm.  There were other annotations, all made by someone with an apparent personal involvement with the events reported.

Okay, this was a little kid…but… the article was almost ten years old.  I wasn’t delighted in the way things were adding up.  I looked at the name of the kid.  It was “Jimmy.”  Interesting.  Same name as the sick psycho fuck who handed me this Xerox telling me I NEED to read it.  Could there be a connection?  Boris started howling.

“I fucking knew it!” he laughed, “No sleep tonight for you!  Your bunky might get stab-happy. Did you stick him first?”

“Dude. I’m in rehab, not Pelican Bay.  I can’t shank the dude because he creeps me out.  I was tempted to puss out and complain to staff, but how would that look?”  He nodded.  “So I tried to become his best buddy, that is, after I secured a huge cake knife under my mattress.”

Unfortunately, as Jimmy and I became buddies, he opened up more.  He shared more, and I got scared more.  Personally, I thought drugs were the least of his problems, although I’m sure they didn’t help.  At lights out, Jimmy informed me that he also had a condition that made him unable to sleep for days at a time, which he warned might make him crankier when he started to kick.  He said he would probably just spend the night sitting up, “trying to maintain.”  Great.

“I’ll be here for you, brother,” I said, my fingers tucked under my mattress.

Neither of us slept a wink that night.  Jimmy was sitting up cross-legged, talking to himself while listening to something over his headphones.  Recorded instructions from Satan, I imagined.  His Coke bottle glasses made him look like a mumbling locust.  Meanwhile, I kept one eye open the whole night.  I remember trying to get God to forgive me- for a lot of stuff.  I was really pleading my case.

“I even prayed,” I confessed, “Oh God, I’m so scared, please help me!”

“A classic.”

“Yeah, standard stuff, but fucking heartfelt. The next morning I was a wreck.  I was still detoxing and raw, and now hadn’t gotten any sleep.  I didn’t know how I was going to go another night with this ghoul sitting up next to me.  ‘Ok God,’ I finally said, ‘I can’t deal with this shit.  If you’re out there, and you’re not too busy, I’d love for you to take care of this thing.’  What the hell, right?  What do I have to lose?  I’m out of ideas at this point.  I give up.  I put back the cake knife, and go to my morning group session.  During that session, Jimmy gets pulled out of group, and I never see him again.  His insurance didn’t go through so they bounced his ass out.”

“Where did he go?”

“He got into a taxi and drove to Montebello.”

Boris laughed.  “Ah man, I would cap his geek ass.”

“How could you?  He only comes when you’re asleep.”

“Do you think it was the prayer? I mean, do you think that helped get rid of him?”

I couldn’t say for sure.  It seemed like a coincidence, but who says those don’t count?  I just know I felt better thinking that it was.  We were getting sleepy and decided to turn out the light.  Boris put away his crafts project.  We laid there in the dark for a while.

“Hey Boris, maybe there is something out there that we can tune into that will help us.”

“I fucking hope so, dude.  Buenas noches, carnal.”

“A ti.”

I turned over and went to sleep.  I slept well that night, the glow from a neon clown bathing us both in its protective light.

Happy, Joyous, and Free