Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Health Food and Heroin - Acquiring Culinary Skills Part One

WARNING TO PEOPLE IN RECOVERY: This post is about acquiring skills I use as a sober coach - in this case diet/nutrition/holistic practices. I always include recovery topics with my real life story blogs but because part one heavily drug using-centric, it may not be suitable for newcomers until part 2 is posted later this week.

Unconventional training. Acquiring skills I use as a sober coach - Culinary Skills : PART ONE of TWO

Alphabet City 1979. Operation Pressure Point was in full force in New York's East Village. For heroin addicts this meant waiting in dark buildings to get frisked for a wire tap and showing satisfactory track marks in order to get served. It also meant endlessly circling the block trying to look inconspicuous while local news camera rolled down the street and police were everywhere. Of course, in a neighborhood consisting of dilapidated vacant buildings, it was obvious why anyone was there.

You couldn't get a cab to take you in and you definitely couldn't find one to take you out of Alphabet City. Although Debbie and I lived at 14th and 3rd, anything could happen on the way back from Avenue D. Taxi Driver had been filmed outside of our building a few years earlier and pimps and underage hookers still prowled 3rd Avenue from the parking lots at 9th Street to the Peep Show at 15th. In our punk rock attire of spandex pants and 5" stiletto heels, who knows what the cabbies thought we were when we flagged them down but we never had trouble getting them to take us deep into the heart of the action day or night. To sweeten the deal, I'd leave Debbie in the car as eye candy. A six foot tall blond beauty, she could have been as successful a model as Jerry Hall or Patti Hansen had she the ambition. Instead, Debbie was satisfied with the simple life: shopping, TV, heroin and a fiance in the Clash. We'd pull onto the dope block and I'd jump out of the car spewing my well-rehearsed "She's going to wait in the car while I run up and borrow some records. be right back." We thought we were so slick - until a driver turned around and handed me forty bucks "Get some records for me too." This is how I met Marty.

One afternoon, I was waiting in the front seat of Marty's taxi while he scored for us on Eldridge Street. Suddenly, all the parked panel vans surrounding me burst open and dozens of armed men wearing Swat Team vests ran around the cab, heading in Marty's direction. The next month, that bust appeared in Life Magazine complete with glossy photos. Soon after, I moved back to Canada, enrolled at the University of Toronto and started driving a cab.

I drove before crack. Had I waited a few more years, I probably wouldn't have done it. With crack came a new level of violence. As it was, in 1980, I was the only woman of any age driving a taxi in Toronto. I truly believed my street smarts from two years in the lower east side drug culture made me invincible. Really, I was just lucky that the shock factor of seeing a cute 20 year old in the driver's seat unnerved everyone - including would-be bad guys. No one could sit down without engaging me in conversation.

People love tipping cab drivers with drugs. Mostly weed. And every joint was prefaced with "Don't smoke this until you get home cuz it will fuck you up." but we're talking Toronto Home-Grown (before hydroponics) so I'd usually light up as soon as they got out. One slow Sunday afternoon, I pulled the car onto a deserted street and smoked a joint someone had just given me. My skin immediately felt like it was covered in a thin coating of rubber cement or cold smooth wax. I became afraid to look in the mirror and started to hyperventilate. The radio dispatcher started calling out car numbers and locations. It was getting busy. I practiced saying my number out loud but my voice sounded distorted and monotone. I didn't even know if I could hold the microphone. I shut off the radio and sat in eerie silence.

At that very moment, the rear door opened and an elderly man stuck his head in.

"Are you available?"

Speaking was out of the question so I nodded and started the engine. It took a few minutes for them to get seated. I began driving. This couple didn't speak and didn't move. I was sure they could smell the weed and were memorizing my name and license to report me. When I finally pulled myself together, I didn't know where I was. Nothing looked familiar. My head started up, "Where am I? Fuck - what street is this? Those people know I'm high and lost! They think I'm running the meter up on them. That's why they're so fucking quiet. They're probably terrified." I glanced in the rear-view mirror. Hand in hand, heads bobbing, they were hard to read. I was in nervous breakdown mode until I saw a street sign at an intersection in the distance.

"Excuse me - what's the address again?" My voice reverberated in a sort of made-for-TV drug scene distortion. I hoped they didn't notice but at this point I didn't care. I just wanted them out of my car. When I finally got to their destination, I almost wept. After that, I saved all my tips until I got home.

After work, I'd unwind with a joint and television. At 4am my choices were limited to religious programming or anti-drug public service announcements. Some times they were ironic and other times all they did was fuel existential despair. Stoned with the munchies and no food at home, I became engrossed in a Better Homes and Gardens cook book offer. "Order now and receive your first book for free and we will send you a new book every month. If you're not completely satisfied, cancel your subscription and keep the book." It was a win-win book deal so I made the call. A few days later when my first cookbook arrived, I'd forgotten I'd ordered it. A month later a large box arrived with the other 49 books and a bill for close to two hundred dollars. I'd meant to cancel the subscription. The box remained unopened for another year.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Blog

I was in Toronto for my summer family visit, awake early for my first ever mammogram.  Outside was a perfect day: cloudless sky, slight breeze, and no humidity. The procedure was curious and oddly amusing as I was hoisted onto my toes by a machine vise-gripping my breast tissue.  Welcome to the world of middle age, I thought. I was still wearing wraparound glasses from the Lasik surgery I’d had two days prior. It wasn’t even 9am when my mother and I returned home.  I called my writing partner to see if we could meet earlier. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center” he said when he picked up the phone. ”Turn on the television.” 

Despite protests from my mom, I drove home the following night.  She couldn’t comprehend why I would leave the safety of Canada. My relationship to New York City has always been too profound to put into words.  In 1977 after a long night of driving, the trees parted on the Palisades Parkway revealing the George Washington Bridge. Manhattan came into view and my life changed forever. I knew I had to get home.

I waited behind long lines of trucks at the Rainbow Bridge border crossing, the only car going into New York at 9pm.  On the other side of the line, hundreds were fleeing for Canada.

It was around 4am when I got back to the city. The FDR had lanes set up for emergency vehicles. Other than fire trucks and ambulances, I was the only car on the road. My exit, 15th street, was closed because of the power plant. Security had tightened.

The East Village appeared untouched. I found a parking spot on Avenue B next to the park. When I stepped out of the car, I was hit by a smell unlike anything I’d ever encountered. It went beyond chemical and my body was repulsed by it. What had been shock and disbelief quickly turned to darkness in my soul.

I threw my bags in the house and jumped on my bicycle to head downtown.  Every post was covered with paper flyers for the lost and the missing. As more signs appeared in store windows, what had been a news broadcast became real for me. Small clusters of people gathered in front of fire stations acknowledging the alters of candles, flowers and photographs. Exhausted firemen, eyes still vacant with disbelief, nodded to the cheering bystanders as their trucks returned once again to ground zero.

At Canal and 6th Avenue I was turned away because of restricted access.  I stood with the others whose voyage had met a similar fate and that’s when I noticed it – everyone’s eyes were hollow.   

The next day I wandered streets aimlessly.  People walked past carrying shopping bags from designer stores, sat in cafes, entered movie theaters. I wondered how they did it – carried on with life.  Everything felt meaningless to me. I scrutinized my own life and all I could see was self-indulgence. I’d spent the past year reworking the Oedipus myth for a screenplay. It had consumed me. In the scope of the current events, my project seemed trite.  Was art even relevant?  If not, I was fucked because writing was the only thing I aspired to do.

This line of thinking cast me further inside myself and I started slipping into an existential void that would have normally frightened me but I was numb. Everything around me became pointless. Friends would want to get together, to act as if their lives hadn’t been impacted by the tragedy. I didn’t want to play.

On the third day I rode my bike across the Brooklyn Bridge and signed up as a Red Cross volunteer.  My only qualifications were that I was a recovering addict and had survived many traumatic events. I said my life had been full and if it was to end that minute I wouldn’t feel like I ‘d been cheated. What I didn’t mention were my years in strip clubs making men laugh and forget their misery. I knew this was something I could handle.

I reported for duty at 1030pm and was taken to a room where I was told that there would be therapists waiting to de-brief me when I returned. “These men have suffered a great loss and have been working around the clock. Do not speak to them unless they speak to you, and do not ask them anything about their work or about any personal loss.”

I boarded the van with the other volunteers. We passed through a half dozen security checkpoints along roads that were unrecognizable. As we approached Ground Zero, entire city streets were eclipsed by debris rising seven stories high.  Finally, we entered the FBI security check and were lead into a building next to the river.

Once we made FBI clearance, a National Guard lead us along a tarp enclosed path to a respite which had been set up in a high school. I was stationed in the supply room. “Hi guys, come on in.” I smiled and waved to anyone who would peek into the room. I joked and made frivolous small talk with everyone who entered, and handed out donated items. Soon the room was packed. These men needed a break from the heaviness in their heart and I knew all it would take was a smiling face and a playful attitude.

When I returned to the Red Cross, I skipped the debriefing and biked home. My own heart had lost its heaviness.

A few nights into it, guys would stop by just to say hello, not in need of any supplies. By now, even secret service agents dropped by the respite while making the rounds. One night I came across a fireman who seemed more withdrawn than the others. I asked where he worked. When he said the Bronx, I made a joke about how the crack fires must keep them busy. He stared at me expressionless. This line always got laughs from fireman in the bars but this time I felt I’d overreached. When he asked if he knew me, I thought, “There goes my Red Cross gig.” 

Later that night, he came back and asked why I’d said the thing about crack fires.  I explained that I was a recovering addict and, to me, it was a no-brainer that there would be a lot of fires in abandon buildings in a heavy drug area. A look of relief swept over his face.  “I’m new in the program and when you said that it freaked me out. I thought you knew I smoked crack.”  He had 90 days clean, had lost a lot of friends in the department, had been functioning on little sleep, and of course, had not been going to meetings.

They held numerous religious services at Ground Zero but no Twelve-Step programs were represented. Before my shift was over, I left a letter for the person in charge. When I returned the next night, there was an AA room upstairs. The blackboard was covered with the signatures and home groups of at least a hundred firemen. I sat at a desk and wept.

I’d originally come to Ground Zero because I’d felt lost. That night, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  Within days, I believed again in the value of art.  Once again being of service had put me back together.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Finding One Day at a Time

Snapshot_2011-09-03_10-17-07My mind has a way of illuminating certain moments in time and elevating them above others. Usually it takes years for me to realize why.  These memories replay in my head like scenes in a movie. They are my “act breaks”, where the direction of everything changes.
I remember standing at 14th and First Avenue with my ex-husband and my dog Soprano in the mid-80s. I was saying something about wishing we could afford two apartments so I’d have somewhere to go to write (which he heard as “I don’t want to live with you anymore”). Years later when this footage rolled before my eyes, I realized that it was at this very moment he emotionally exited the marriage. He left for real a few months later.

We’d been living on Ludlow Street when I learned our $700 apartment had been $170 before we moved in. I was outraged and indignant.  The fact that we were illegal aliens with no rights, had an extension chord running into our apartment off our neighbor’s electricity, and all our collective money going into my arm, didn’t matter.  I wanted to fuck the landlord by banning the tenants together. When human shadows began appearing at our fire escape window in the middle of the night and death threats came by way of the phone, we did a midnight move.

A cab driver sublet us his uncle’s apartment in the projects below Grand Street by the river. We arrived with our stuff and discovered the uncle hadn’t begun to pack. In silence, we watched the cab driver throw every object inside that apartment into a dumpster before handing us keys. For the next month, we would wake up with a very drunk seventy-year-old Puerto Rican man crying in our kitchen.

A call came in offering my husband his first art show in Europe. As he packed, I knew we would never live together again. Another call came in. It was my friend Cindy in Toronto. She was saying something about trying to hang herself in the shower and how the curtain fell. She joked that she couldn’t even kill herself right and asked what was new with me. My marriage was crumbling, I had a crying old man banging on the door all day long,  our former landlord continued to threaten me on our new number, my heroin habit was out of control, and Area, the nightclub we’d worked at, had closed. I was too fucked to take her suicide attempt seriously. Besides, I had a ticket to visit Christmas day and wanted to surprise her.

Frenchie had been a poet during the ‘68 Paris riots, a Krishna in India, and played in the No Wave band The Contortions before dealing dope on East 2nd Street. On his way home from jail, he swung by the new apartment and found me living alone. “Patty, when you are caught in the gusts of the tornado it's exciting but once you get sucked into its eye all you can do is watch everything disappear”.  I didn’t know it then, but I was about to get sucked in.

In 1980, after a couple strung out years, I’d returned to Toronto to get my shit together and go to school. I found 3 very cute young Yugoslavian coke dealers to get my mind off heroin. Without thinking, I hurt the one I was dating by going to Montreal with his brother. When I ran into him at a club, he tried to make me jealous by introducing me to Cindy. An hour later we left him at the bar and she moved in with me. We were now six years older, both of our marriages had failed but we still had each other.
I arrived in Toronto Christmas morning. After Cindy left her husband, she moved in with a rich yuppie coke dealer. “Patty, I wish you’d told her you were coming” he said as he took my number.  “I don’t know when they are letting visitors in.” The previous evening they’d had a party. Cindy calmly rose from the sofa, walked to the balcony, and jumped six floors. She was in a coma. 

The hospital floor was filled with people who thought they would get free coke by supporting the grieving boyfriend. I stepped off the elevator and saw someone doing lines in the waiting room.  I was disgusted. Cindy was twenty-four and beautiful. She could have been sleeping if it hadn’t been for all the tubes and machines surrounding the bed.    The scene was too surreal and numbing.  I was withdrawing from dope as I always did when I went home for a visit but even that didn’t seem to have any effect on me. I couldn’t cry.

Cindy died in February. My husband had never returned to New York.

In the early spring I was walking up Avenue B next to the park.  It was sunny and birds were chirping. The season seemed to renew my optimism. I carried a notebook and was trying to write something other than bad slit-your-wrist poetry. I wanted to write a novel. I had plans to move to LA. Surely a new city would make anything possible.

I was standing between 7th and 8th street when one of those illuminated moments struck me.  All my plans for the future, how everything was going to be alright one day, how I would do this and that and get my shit together, I suddenly understood these things were not real. I thought of Cindy and had this realization: the only thing that mattered was what we share of ourselves with one another human being. What I shared with Cindy was real and all of this – the birds, the baby leaves opening, the blue sky, this was real. The noise in my head, the endless fantasizing and planning about the life I will have one day only stops me from living in the moment.

 I jotted into my notebook  “Life is made up of moments like this and the people who touch me. Everything else is bullshit.”

Little did I know that two years later I would get clean striving to live “one day at a time," a concept that I'd discovered through Cindy's death yet had never been able to implement into my own life.

When I'd gotten the news that she'd jumped that morning, I'd understood how she felt; high on coke believing there was no way out except through death. We’d never heard of recovery. We didn’t know anyone who'd ever gotten clean. 

People have asked why I blew my anonymity by being on television calling myself a recovering addict.