city · mental health · neighborhood · people

Harder as Anything Else

Supplement Tablets Have Started to Crumble & Break |

I’m up early by nature though sometimes I burn the midnight oil. Come 6am, I’m awake, maybe hit a snooz or two, then answer the call the morning briskness provides and make my way down beneath the extinguished cold-cathode lamps of Park Blvd. toward Twiggs’ coffee house. Park is my new beat—it cuts through University Heights and south toward Balboa Park proper; it is dicier than the pastoral-by-comparison Thorn St. where I was Honorary Mayor for fifteen years. There are fewer dog-walkers than the North Park T-32–decidedly more homeless—and it can best be described as exurban. I have a good rapport with the enclave of homeless who have set up a makeshift camp north of my residence, always wishing them a fantastic day as I pass. They spend the night beneath the covered patio at Rare Society, which—during the day—is a steakhouse catering to the carnivorous well-to-do.

This morning, on my way back from Twiggs, I ran into a man swathed in patchwork quilts. His hair was plastered which, by the smell of it, was not the only part of him plastered; he held a beer bottle, and a contemptuous sneer. I greeted him regardless and he stopped me with an outstretched hand. I paused, cocked my head, and he slurred something unintelligible. I said, ‘Come again’ three times over while patiently waiting him out. When his words failed to register, he sighed and reached for my headphones that I had slung round my neck.

“Whoa—no thank you, Sir!” I said, backing away. I turned and retreated toward the Rare Society encampment where a number of jacketed and similarly quilt-swathed people were watching the exchange. Out of nowhere, the beer bottle came flying my way, narrowly missing my head; it shattered in an explosion of shards on the sidewalk in front of me and like a pharmaceutical pinata, out poured a cornucopia of pills, about a hundred amber capsules.

“What the fuck, Man?” I turned back toward him and threw up my hands. The addict in me briefly remarked the ill-spent pills as an incredible waste of a high. “What the fuck, Man—you just blew your stash.” He barked an angry, “What?” and mirrored my tossed hands. I quickly returned to a more placative posture, spun on my heel, and walked on. The troupe over at the encampment regarded my passing—“Shit, Man—he be breaking everything.” There was another broken bottle on the sidewalk in front of ‘Rare Society’, another confetti of pharmaceuticals, maybe two hundred amber capsules sum total. I just shook my head and walked on, not without wishing my (non-violent) homeless friends a ‘fantastic day.’

So, happy Monday. I wish the man well, regardless. I strap on my headphones, which he so greedily pawed, and mutter a mantra calm myself down. “It’s hard to be a human being; it’s harder as anything else.”

favorites · mental health · prisons · Uncategorized · writing

The Guilt We Harbor (pts. 1&2)

News | SDSU | In Memoriam: Maxine "Maggie" Jaffe


It’s been a long while since I contacted you.

“Where are you?” you may ask, though you have my mailing address and I have yours.

I ask the same question most every day. Not out of geographic curiosity.  I know where you are and I’ve an idea of what your walls may look like: the beds, the barracks. The sea of prison blue. I know you’re situated in the middle of King’s County with a sky that must be devastatingly incredible.

I’ve driven the 5 a few times over in the time you’ve been gone and have seen the tired pistoning of oil pumps; the ruminative cattle; and the white, white haze which seems to jump senses into whiter noise.

“It’s my family.” I sat on the stoop, shoulders with Maggie, attempting to tell her, exactly, why life had, through the course of one phone call, suddenly changed.

“Family? When is it NOT family,” Mags said in return, shaking back her sleeves and lighting a cigarette.

Twenty hours prior, we had exchanged surprise at the fifth of Amsterdam Maggie had secreted in a potted ficus, yet somehow forgotten during the course of a mutually attended wedding reception. Like goldfish we had disremembered our aqueous surroundings: our friend David’s wedding was on the water, and Maggie and I were aquarium drinking.  There was a photo of us taken on a short pier, me and Mags seemingly in deep philosophical discussion, but most likely discussing the particular economy involved in sharing a surprise fifth, we smoking with abandon, our last cigarettes.

Maggie wore black to David’s wedding because although David remained one of her favorite ‘Goys’, to Maggie weddings were on par with Shiva calls. She always wore Onassis sunglasses, especially when ‘I do’s’ were said, a widower’s affect despite not being a widow. She drug around her ex-husband’s last name, though, as if holding on to the dead like an odious and ill-expired pet, taxidermied and talismanic in the corner.

This is not chosen.

Maggie was herself seemingly always sitting Shiva, her own divorce something of funereal gloom and requiring shrouded wedding photos; since the divorce, funerals and weddings were all the same to her, attended with equal distaste and with equal aperitif of vodka. All vows were requiems; all requiems were ‘Well, thank God that’s over’; life was just the something in-between.

She was the first person I called upon receiving the news.

I’m writing this letter. I need for you to hear me, or at least the story of the past three years–those you spent within labyrinthine corridors of concrete. Consider me a conduit. When lightning strikes a tree, its fires are shot through a thousand tissues and limbs fall in beautiful wreckage and the ground crackles a hundred feet around. In the end, the tree bears a scar and it continues wrapping rings of growth around its most blackened parts. The tree keeps growing but it will always have, coiled in its history, proof of its damage.

‘Hang in there’ was something Mags would never have said to me, and God help me were I to ever say as much to her.

‘Hang in there with what—a fucking noose?’

 Maggie reserved her gallows humor for any day the executioner’s hood threatened a particular and existential menace. By this metric, her bed may as well been built over two trapdoor flaps, headboard at their join. Every day she wore black in presage of a coffin and the billowier her shroud the better—like Death, just pret a porter and without the scythe.

 “My brother was arrested.”


Maggie smoothed out her dress, a Guatemalan print still wrinkled and maybe half-dry.

“Ok,” she said again, her Sag Harbor accent more prominent this time, and she leveled out the lap of her dress until it was in a neat triangle across her knees.

“Does he have a lawyer.” Maggie had placed her cigarette to the side, needing two hands to fix her skirt; she recollected her American Spirit from its perch on the stairs. We were sitting outside, the same stairs she had mounted just minutes earlier with crossed-arms and ever-present dark glasses.

It may have been the odd first question, not a query into the nature of the arrest, or an inquiry into my wellbeing. Was I upset? Else perversely vindicated of any criminal excess I had participated in over the weekend?  Mags and I were both still riding vapors of the night prior, the effluvium of surfeit vodka seemingly present and, back inside, my bedsheets were colored by a night’s worth of near malarial sweat. Maggie had more to drink than I did at the wedding, but by contrast was already properly coifed and perfumed, tight curls dried to her forehead like a magisterial wig.   

The last time I sped through King’s County was with Bradley in a U-Haul truck. A trailer shimmied behind us bearing a vintage car and three bristling, sleep-deprived cats. The cab smelled of Kamel Reds and spent coffee cups. By mid-morning, just beyond the King’s County HP Station and directly beyond the rutted half-roads which finger out into the farmers’ fields, I felt I couldn’t concentrate any longer on the highway lines. We pulled over and slept on the grass beneath these wispy clouds that promised an unerringly still, cricket-shivering night. Brad slept on the trailer rig and, when he awoke, pointed out that I had slept in the grass beneath a sign reading: ‘Dog Lawn.’

“Does he have a lawyer,” she said matter-of-factly, and not as question.

Maggie and I both knew, contrary to American judicial practice that we were all—and without need for trial—guilty of something. Innocence was reserved for children and cats. Maggie’s Talmudic learnings plead otherwise, (and she herself was a social-justice warrior—her collected poems speaking to that end) but Maggie was wizened, jaded, fresh off a nasty divorce. To her, life had become unfair and only explicable if everyone shared in a free-floating and collective blame. You couldn’t exactly call Maggie a nihilist; still she wore black to weddings.

And she knew that what everyone needed sometimes was just a really good fucking lawyer.    

“I don’t know,” I said rubbing my eyes. “I just found out. He was probably in the back of a police car when Dave was cutting the cake.” I borrowed Maggie’s cigarette and took a draw.

“My mom called,” I said exhaling, “Which means my brother’s already past his jailhouse phone call.” I handed the cigarette back. I still hadn’t showered.

“I mean, I’m sure Mom wasn’t the first one he called upon being brought in. Probably the last person he wanted to talk to.” I crossed my arms while waving away the smoke. “I’m guessing he’s out on bail.”

I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.

Maggie finally asked: “What’d he do?” She looked straight ahead, having worked backwards from her initial question. Mags was the barrister in reverse and, with her black robes, presumed judge, too. I stopped my hand from stupidly waving and inserted it into an armpit.  I turned to her with one eye squinted.

“Mom said he thought I’d have known.”

“Known what?” Mags wasn’t impatient, but rather soft in her questioning, dissolving me of complicity before I could place my own self in manacles.

I didn’t answer, not directly. Instead, I turned again to look straight ahead, parallel to Maggie’s’ gaze. I changed the subject.

 “You know, I finished ‘American Psycho’ this morning. Ain’t that some fucked up timing,” I snorted. We stared at the street while Mags extinguished her cigarette. A jogger labored past, out of breath.

“Is your brother a psycho?” Maggie deadpanned, still working backwards with her line of questioning.

“Naw. But he is American, so there’s that.”

We’ve both ushered that fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.

Maggie allowed a half-smile. In her less sober moments, which were many, she’d throw on a Clash record and shout along with Joe Strummer: ‘I’m so bo-ooored with the USA!’, just replacing ‘bored’ with ‘scared’. These words she’d shout with expatriate gusto as if her garden gate was border enough to keep out the America she sometimes forswore.

Mags was a raucous rabble-rouser, yet still privately scared of her own rebellion. She was convinced her phone was tapped and that the FBI had a file on her six inches thick. “Fuck the police!” was one of her war cries. “Fuck the Man! Fuck a duck!”

“My brother hit a woman over the head with a rock, Maggie. On a greenbelt. He wanted to drag her into the bushes and—” I couldn’t finish.  I scratched my head and blanched at the words. I widened my eyes to rid them of disbelief.

I borrowed Mags’ smoke again. She had lit a second one already.

“Then again, Maggie, I dunno. Maybe he is psycho. On top of being American.”

I’m damaged. You are damaged.

Maggie simply nodded and placed her hand reassuringly on my knee as I blew smoke.


Maggie and I lived in North Park, perhaps a mile apart, and though San Diego spans a 100-mile stretch of shoreline, there are islands in the median, one of which Mags and I inhabited. We were just shy of Balboa Park’s arcaded museums. and regardless of our proximity, we drove cars to see each other. It was like living in Los Angeles, this automobile existence of ours, but without the accompanying road rage.

The first and last prisons built in California reside on the US-Mexico border. If the federal penal system could extend its reach into the Tijuana pleasure-lands, it would, depositing prisons like unwanted cargo just past the border checkpoints. As it stands, San Diego is where Father Junipero Serra built the first Presidio before heading North, waving judicial crucifixes at ‘savages’ and proselytizing others.

Since Serra days, the penal state has extended a thousand miles north, then back, so that at journeyed loop, there lies the last presidio, Donovan Correctional Facility. It is a concrete structure, Class III-IV, parked above CA on one face, MX the other. It can’t go further either way, and bulldozers scape the face of the hill where Donovan perches tenuously. There’s a watershed amphitheater down the canyon to one side and a landfill on the other. A mile distant is an amusement park.

Donovan holds Sirhan Sirhan, a Menendez Brother, also one of the Toolbox Killers—all Los Angelenos with varying and gruesome psychopathy, all somehow housed in the same penitential block. The lot are three hundred miles away from their respective crime scenes–the Toolbox Killers’ gore-theater in the Cleveland Forest being in my opinion the worst—and now all are granted concertina views of Mexico here in California’s fairest climate, an imperfect justice at the end of the Golden State Penal Road.  My brother almost wound up there.

Maggie’s boyfriend Christopher—her ostensible boyfriend as the two had only pressed palms against bulletproof glass, else talked on jailhouse phones—resided meanwhile in Corcoran State Prison.

Christopher had been serving time in the Hole—an extended stay—for having too many postage stamps on his person (!). This in a facility where, across the yard, Charles Manson lived in a lush solitary all his own, free to write as many lettered manifestos as he pleased, relative to his notoriety.

Maggie’s boyfriend, Christopher, meekly ran a poetry press from his cell. He was made medicinally servile by the lithium he was prescribed, weakened as well by years of meth abuse up and down the Southwest Sudafed Highway. He was a three-time loser, owlish in his spectacles and with jaundiced eyes; slight of frame; and pompadoured like a jailbird Elvis.  When the volume of Christopher’s correspondence became suddenly suspect, he was kicked to the Hole—this somewhere roundabout the time that Mansons’ third—fourth? —parole hearing was being televised.

In the Hole, precious bodily fluid can’t be wasted on postage stamps, so Maggie—by default—ran Christopher’s press en absentia, dutifully licking envelopes and resuming correspondence where Christopher had left off (Christopher’s Rolodex certainly less impressive, less shambolic than Manson’s). It was never talked about that Christopher may also have been dealing drugs during his Corcoran stay. It was easier to just imagine his crime involved going postal, so to speak.

Maggie poured the scotch and we’re sitting on the back porch, which a friend of hers had fenced in with cheap lattice-work lumber, all to hem in the cat and otherwise give the ipoema a place to root, violet flowers sinking into wood, providing cover, but reducing everything to splinters in the meanwhile.

“What is this?” I jogged a pill in my hand, white and nondescript.

Maggie rearranged her limbs to approximate queenliness. She had a crack in her glasses.

“A downer, I think?”


“I dunno. Let’s try.”

I shrugged. Mags had a boom-box playing a bluegrass version of Pink Floyd. I swallowed the pill with a hit of Dewar’s.

“Why—Mags—are your glasses cracked?” The Prayer Flags behind her were aged, evaporated with either over- or underuse, and there were two Guatemalan dresses left to dry in the evening air. Big purple blossoms broke the lattice-work balcony, blue in the evening-set, and ‘Comfortably Numb’ played, uncomfortably, on fiddle.

“I was so depressed today; and I got a second psychiatrist. I was prescribed something new and I literally hit the wall.” She shook the rocks in her drink. “I mean, I fucking fell down.”

“Do your psychiatrists know about each other?”

“By name—shu-ure.”

“You really shouldn’t be mixing your meds,” I said, irony train neatly docking into station. The downer coursed my system, leaving behind a shivery wake. I fingered one of Maggie’s poetry books, which lay discarded on the patio table.

“Mayakovsky clutched a rivet, only the rivet metamorphosed into a gun pointing straight at his heart: Art”.

Maggie literally wrote poetry to save her life when life was an otherwise confusion of conflicting meds and medicated conflict.

During Maggie’s divorce, when existence was the figurative wall she crashed into, and not the literal one that cracked her glasses, she wrote a book called ‘7th Circle’. It is a slim-spined collection of poems about suicides; she had sublimated her pain into researching and writing various pieces on Mayakovsky, Jean Seberg, George Trakl, Diane Arbus. It won the San Diego Book Award for poetry.

Despite having narrowly avoided the Seventh Circle herself, she still says: “I can’t fucking take it anymoire.”

“I know Mags, I know.” On cue, ‘Comfortably Numb’ stopped playing.

Maggie slept with a gun in her handbasket next to the bed, paranoid, anxious; she had a confusion of prescriptions, but always a neat handle of scotch in the pantry. I knew because I unpacked it for her when I helped her move. Also, we hit it often when communally writing poetry, else editing other poets’ work. She was a mess and I was fast becoming one, all this speed and slowness, the cigarettes and pills; the walking into walls.

Maggie called life ‘Continuous Performance’, and that’s what it is, that’s what it was.


Sometimes I spent the night at Mags’ when the gun was too present in the handbasket, when she was drunk and scared; when I would sleep chastely in her bed, wrapping my arms around her, she the Maude to my Harold, the tobacco present on her dressing gown. I’d lie awake and smell her lavender and love her to sleep.

She had a boyfriend in prison; I had a brother in prison, and we’d fall asleep lotus-eaters, shot through with pathos, rocks settling in the bedside scotch.


I remember when Christopher was released for a brief time and how he held forum at Maggie’s house in front of an ashtray. He was smoking a long and almost effeminately thin joint. Which was “safe” he confided, because “California only looks for uppers in my system.” His hands were strange deep-sea jellyfish, fingers not unlike wavering tentacles. “California is a river of blue, ” he said tapping out an ash, “It is punctuated by a braking of bus wheels and penitentiary-blue lights.”

A wave of the hand, a drag on the tightly-rolled cigarette. “California is blue.” He looked pleased because, above all, he was a poet.

This all happened before and after 9/11. On 9/11, Maggie and I traded a bottle of wine back and forth on her bed and watched the news, saw the Trade Centers fall in occasional time-elapse, like films of flowers speeding to the ground.

“I always hated those buildings,” Mags said, handing me back the bottle of wine, but with tears in her eyes. She was a true New Yorker. Christopher had yet to emerge from the Hole and my brother was just skulking the greenbelts in practice-walks for his later crime. Maggie had vases of yarrow on her bedside, and rosebuds. We were both fiercely against the New Cold War and fiercely into drink.

I don’t know who said: “We deserve this, don’t we?”

And it may have been a personal revelation, on a duvet, in a house with a TV and with buildings falling down, or it may have been a revolutionary statement.

As Maggie wrote:

‘A Gestapo agent pointed to Guernica and asked:/ Did you do this? /No—you did’

We may have had Mexican food that night. I vaguely remember. I just remember falling down in the restaurant and saying, “It’s all my fault” like a building crumpling, like a spent flower.


Christopher was released from the Hole before my brother rode the sea of penitentiary blue. Christopher attended my wedding even—eight months following Tower One’s collapse—as Maggie’s date. And my brother was there, too, hands folded in lap in some premonitory idea of manacles, while my wife and I released butterflies into the June malaise.  Both Christopher and my brother would soon ride buses to penitentiary—in Christopher’s case, for the fourth go-round—near the same time.

Anyways, I thought of Christopher there on that dog-piss grass: I saw him last in the SD Jail. Maggie sobbed in the periphery of the visiting room and I took up the phone that lay unceremoniously on the steel-grey table. I picked up the receiver and looked at Christopher behind the glass–he was all slicked-back hair and waxed moustache; he wore a tight-lipped expression. By his admission, he was on a diet of heavy metals and liver medication. He wore thick glasses, which made his eyes look disproportionately huge and wallowy in the otherwise context of grey brick and cold, cold light. Maggie sobbed, and she sobbed. I held the phone to my ear and didn’t know a goddamn thing to say. “Take care of Maggie,” Christopher had a habit of saying during his brief foray out of penitentiary, which I should have taken as premonition.

Christopher was picked up outside a house in La Jolla Farms, high on meth, having attempted to break into a house with clearly lit home burglary system alarms. He was seated calmly on the sidewalk in front of the estate smoking a cigarette in laconic fashion while flashing lights and a waiting pair of handcuffs coursed his way.

My brother, meanwhile, was found with blood on his shoes, walking in a daze after his victim had successfully fought him off. He had an unworn ski mask and a pair of scissors. He wielded other accouterments, too, he later told me, but he never revealed what. The full inventory must be recorded in some police ledger or stenographic receipt somewhere but I don’t have a transcript of his trial: I just don’t know, and some details are superfluous anyway.

To wit: I wore a black suit with a red shirt the only time I visited my brother at Avenal. I had IHOP for breakfast: buttermilk pancakes, black coffee, and two Vicodin Maggie had lent me for the occasion. Everywhere there were oil pumps in various stages of deterioration, piston heads slumped in mechanical inebriation, disused, rusted, their heyday sup of premium crude having long since been polluted with brackish transudation, a great and rusted machinery stopped. The fields were fallow and run through with weed-choked irrigation ditches. The suit which I caught sight of in the IHOP plate glass was the same I had been married in. My shirt was an otherwise feint at insouciance, a vintage find with a large collar worn unbuttoned at the neck.

I was being an asshole. My visit was not so much out of compassion, and I hedged on it even being an obligation. No: I had come for my brother’s birthright. He was the eldest, the forever good son, and I had always been the black sheep—as evidenced even by my choice of black gabardine that day. I wanted to prove that after years in second place, my mere existence outside prison walls won me the favorite son pelt: I was Jacob, and my brother in his stupid penitentiary orange was Esau. Maybe he wore penitentiary green. Again, some details are superfluous. I just remember my brother ate from the vending machines in the visiting room, fingers childishly stained with orange Cheeto dust, and I felt a snarling superiority. My fingers were clean, my shoes unbloodied. “Free, white, and 21,” as Maggie would always say, free in the sense I had virgin wrists, unlike my brother and Christopher whose wrists had been defiled by the snapping of cuffs, their hands literally tied courtesy of the penal system in the great and golden state of Californ-i-a. 

I first met Christopher on the phone 3(?) years ago when he corrected my pronunciation of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. And here we were again–on the phone, but face-to-face. “Thom, take care,” he said. “Take care of M.” I took care of Maggie by kissing her in some hopeless manner on the cheek, and leading her out of the Piranesi-inspired civic building, phone hung-up and Christopher disappeared.

In jail as in prison everything watches you. Elevators only open up to narrow corridors, there are mirrors everywhere. In penitentiary, there are gates upon gates, like steel sentinels, and guards finger their clubs. It’s a matter of guilt by association. Like Maggie said: ‘Everyone needs a good fucking lawyer,” even if there’s no blood on your shoes or if your system is clean of what the system says you can’t have. You’re just guilty for living, guilty by association, even if you haven’t been tried and accused of anything. We’re all guilty, and sometimes we sit on a curb waiting for the guillotine of justice to drop while waiting outside a burgled house, high on Sudafed, or wandering a greenbelt with spatters of Type O negative on our boot-tip.

We’re all guilty. We’re all guilty.

At the Poetry Awards, Mags gripped my arm with nervous strength. A crooked arm flexed.

“I doin’t know,” she said, unsure if she should be here, there.

I kissed her cheek.

“Of course you should be here.”

We drank white wine and hid behind the junipers. When she was in her married house, citrus hedges hemmed in the home, and the wood was dark. Maggie always hid. Her current house was of a strange snail-shell design, her bed in the middle of a coil with an incongruent sunroof, briars out front. She decorated her windows with velvet draperies to hide in midday dark. She hid behind damask and dark sunglasses and drink.

“You ok?”

“Just noivous.”

She shouldn’t have been. She won. Maggie Jaffe for ‘7th Circle.’

I run too fast

I fly too high

I hit too hard

Too wide my eyes

Too full my heart.

Too deep the pain.

In the bathroom of the SD Jail I held her. She was in front of a mirror, red-eyed and cursing. There were so many cameras and squinched-in seats and phones and iron-greys; so many cramped elevators and narrow corridors and convex watching glasses; so many forms and disparaging looks; so much free-floating guilt.

She hunched over the counter with red-rimmed eyes, hands trembling, and her shoulder blades were butterfly-like when racked with sobs, pumping like wings.

“I just can’t take it anymoire,” she cried, jaggedly, and it was about being watched while simultaneously watching over, this curious opticon of prison existence where everyone is assumed guilty and no one is innocent.

“I just can’t take it.”

“I just. Can’t take it.”

“It’s alright, Mags. Let’s go home. I’ll drive.”

I’ve not seen Christopher in a long time—he’s above the law, I think—but while traversing King’s County, a short drive away from the tired city you’ve called home for the past few years–I thought of you arriving at Avenal, looking up from your handcuff-fisted lap, and seeing stark blue lights against a long-ignored landscape.

Maggie–she once told told me about Mayakovsky: how he left his wife because an admirer had, at an intellectual’s party, recited–word for word–the full extent of his 900 line opus. Mayakovsky left his wife to embrace this young admirer. Still–a few years later, he took a gun to his head and left the girl with 900 lines of regret.

As I mentioned, Maggie wrote ‘7th Circle’—a poetry cycle on famous suicides—to stave off her own ideation. I never knew how she planned to do it, whether her ideation was of the passive variety—wanting to just never wake up—or something of greater tenacity: a ravaging of the ulnar, a bullet to the corpus.  It’s said a book is more satisfying if one knows its end before its beginning, in which case Mags may have found the thought of a premeditated death preferable to the sturm und drang of life’s opening chapters.  Regardless she persisted, never mind her self-annihilative bent. The scotch was always quick to empty, the ice cubes retaining right angles in depleted tumblers. Following Christopher’s departure into the seeming ether—a skipped bail, an assumed return to his home state of Arkansas—Maggie grew more despondent. Then her mother died.

“And now my sister wants to fucking sit Shiva!” Maggie said, slamming her tumbler down on the counter, the amber having been drained.

“My fucking sister!” Maggie pulled on yellow latex gloves to scrub the dishes, which looked ridiculous relative to the pima of her Peruvian dress.

Maggie balled these dresses up in lingerie wash bags, then hung them up still wrinkled to dry off on the back porch. The back porch, despite Maggie’s best efforts, was overrun with morning glory and brugmansia. Poison blossoms, she remarked— “Like a fun tea!” (She was at Woodstock after all).

“Shiva! My goy sister!”

And Maggie furiously scrubbed a dish, which was barely tainted by her lunch. A faux scampi, and sesame-crumbed seitan. Clean food, clean plates.

I held her cat while across the room and glanced at a bulletin board Maggie had constructed. It detailed what birds she’d seen, and where. That sapsucker in Slovakia, the ravens in DC.

“The fucking nerve!”

Maggie scrubbed her ashtray, even after two cigarettes, and placed every clean plate in the dish holder beneath the kitchen window.

“My mutha never worried about me, goddammit. And now I’m supposed to sit in a goddamn room with towels over the fucking mirrors, because now my goddamn sister—my fucked up oldah sister wants Shiva for the mom…for my mom…” She slumped at the kitchen counter.

Despite everything, the cat purred. He was a Norwegian Forest Tabby and preferred clutching your shoulder versus remaining curled in your lap.

“It’s ok, Mags.”

“I’m just tired of being the responsible one, Thawm,” she cried, “Look what happens when you’re the one who was supposed to be ok.”

“’S’alright Mags. I love you. Want me to water your plants?”

I put the cat down, his padded feet thudding on the hardwood floor. He walked away pretendingly nonplussed, the way cats do with ears still held back.

Watering the plants would only encourage the morning glory, but the offer stood. Maggie sobbed, not for the first time or last, while I unraveled the hose from beneath the back stoop and made sure the door was closed so that only I—not the cat nor anything else got out.

Brother–we’ve both ushered fire into the ground in different ways, but both bear darkened rings. We’ve both been conduits and have had the lawn throw up sparks beneath our feet. We’ve both had fire run through us, and wait for the ground to speak its response.

Fire begets earth as everything fire touches is reduced to ash, ash which in turn becomes dirt. Maggie was fiery, but never a phoenix. She was too splenetic, earth her resting spot. She was to never resurrect, never fly away in a theater of flame. Like my brother in his cold expanse of cinder block, her humor was of a bilious nature, black, and she was forever trapped in between a particular melancholy and an autumnal light, a sun eternally setting in its low arc. Leaves crisped around her; the handles of Dewar’s seemingly disappeared themselves. I never knew Maggie not in a prison, whether by tumbler or tumble. Occasionally she’d pretend free, laughing with her head back, making a coyote howl at the ceiling: A-Wooooooo! Then she’d sigh her customary refrain: “Well, fuck a duck,” this her version of ‘and so it goes.’

And so it went. Mags and I eventually parted ways. I had a box of our small press poetry stolen out of my car and scattered to the four winds; some of the poems were returned by a Good Samaritan who collected them from gutters and crosswalks, irreparably marked with tire marks and asphalt grime. Maggie was displeased.

“Why the fuck were they in your CAR in the first place?”

(We had been behind in our correspondences and my apartment couldn’t house all the boxes of manuscript—my trunk doubled as a portable attic).

I was contrite—to a point. Maggie hadn’t done much of the editing work and, having succumbed to a melancholia and alcoholism rivaling Maggie’s, I followed her implied stage direction: <exeunt>. My exit corresponded with my brother’s exit from the penitentiary, surely a swinging wide of gates beneath the glare of cold cathodes and a winking sun; I imagine him a blinking thing, stock still—bovine in repose—staring incredulously at the blue sky. Free. Free save for the guilt, that pernicious guilt we all harbor.


“It’s weirdly beautiful,” Maggie remarked, hand clutched around the bottle of Alexander Valley chardonnay. “Never did like those buildings,” she sighed handing the bottle to me. The TV flickered its reports, the World Trade Center towers at first whole, then leveled upon next report.

Maggie was sad. I lifted the bottle to my lips without wiping the neck. We were side by side on the bed, linens bundled at our feet. The cat was a study in indifference.


“Hmm?” She was falling inside of herself, I could tell. I just rest my head on her shoulder.

We resumed watching the buildings go down in a wreck of dust and concrete, the papery aftermath of dossiers and fax sheets floating light despite the heaviness of everything—this stupid stupid detritus, which caught the sun when you wished to God, you wished to God, things didn’t look so beautiful in their descent.

Maxine “Maggie” Jaffe made her last descent on March 5, 2011, succumbing to a tenacious form of cancer. She was 62. She is the author of ‘Continuous Performance’, ‘How the West Was Won’, ‘7th Circle’, ‘The Prisons’, and ‘Flick(s): Poetic Interrogations of American Cinema She is missed.

My brother is alive and well, living in the Midwest with his wife and daughter. He is fully reformed and dedicated to his current line of work helping others.

city · home · Uncategorized

New Home

Kairoa Rooftop Bar at University Heights - Kairoa Brewing Company

The Children’s Moon disappears and is replaced by an itinerant blue, temperature leveling out in the low San Diego 70’s. Regardless, I’m wearing my sartorial coat and tie in some nod to Sundays past, feet bedecked in blue suede shoes. 20,000 steps in the new neighborhood (and perhaps the shoes could’ve been reconsidered, Carl Perkins be damned). I now live in University Heights, North Park’s westerly neighbor. It’s a short two blocks to University Avenue, one block west of Park Blvd. Essentially I’m in the city middle and can alligator around (h/t Berninger) past the myriad bars and storefronts; the shrouded Alano Club; numerous coffeeshops and  urban churches, which are incongruously gothic amid the cold-cathode streetlamps and stainless steel bus stops. I choose a direction. Magnetism has me going south toward the Boulevard’s beginning. A neon sign denotes where the Boulevard begins its leisurely sprawl into the East County nether lands a good twenty miles or so In this part of town, phosphorescent beacons demarcate the neighborhoods: The Boulevard, University Heights (the sign shaped like a trolley), Hillcrest, Normal Heights and North Park. This is my range, my hood, my urban respite. I pass Lestat’s–my caffeine and lemon bar dispensary—then Twiggs Café where serendipitously I run into my friends Leah and Rick, Leah being my best friend from SeaWorld days. Leah is buying a skull ring from a silversmith outside the storefront (but of course ‘sklllls’, as Leah would say) and Rick is half-hidden by his mask. Leah, I notice has dyed a streak of her hair purple, which I dig, and Rick is sporting a Duchenne smile above his covering. Good to see them, and it ferries my mood as I turn left on Adams Avenue. Adams is the outlying thoroughfare on the mesa, Mission Valley thrumming below in all its Big Box vainglory. Adams is more humble than either University or the Boulevard, characterized by petit restaurants, consignment stores, and antique shops. It’s a mile or two to 30th Avenue, due east, which is portal to my Old World: North Park. This is where my circumambient and daily wanderings have earned me the title of Honorary Mayor. I turn right, now headed south, to check on my constituents. It’s been a month since I’ve haunted the avenues, North Park a veritable borough in its own right, restaurant capitol of San Diego. You can’t throw a rock on 30th without hitting a good eatery, let alone one of the seemingly infinite brewhouses with their chattershot curbside patios. By this time, the blue suede shoes have me singing a tune defiantly un-Elvis, but I push on into North Park proper, past the thermionic emissions of the North Park sign, and into the T-32 district (Thorn and 32nd). This was my daily for sixteen years, the district home to a brewhouse, a barbecue pit, a liquour store, a mom-and-pop grocery store, a ceramic collective, an art expressive studio, a barber and a stylist, a pizza joint and Santos coffeeshop—all within a two block stretch. I end my meander at the coffeeshop, happy to see my favorite baristas Lis and Maya closing up shop for the day. I was touched to learn they had noticed my month-long absence, missed me even, so I ended my urban safari there. I had to call a Lyft due to my pained feet, and cruised past Balboa Park (now closer to me than ever, maybe a mile trek) with its sculptural eucalyptus and sprinkler spoilt lawns. This altogether, all the various communities in concrete glory is Home now, a Home just redefined and with different and sprawling parameters. Home is where I want to be. I guess I’m already there.

alcohol · favorites · mental health · sobriety

Sponsor (Simon, but no Simony full version)

How Much Drinking Is Too Much During a Pandemic? | SELF

A WORD TO THE SPONSOR who is putting his first newcomer into a hospital or otherwise introducing him to this new way of life: You must assume full responsibility for this man. He trusts you, otherwise he would not submit to hospitalization. You must fulfill all pledges you make to him, either tangible or intangible. If you cannot fulfill a promise, do not make it.

–Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1938

Hannah leans over the counter and, proffering a demitasse, whispers conspiratorially: “Do you want an extra shot?” And not one to pass up on an opportunity for café collusion, the barista after all being a sweetheart and why not four shots of espresso in my Americano, I raise an eyebrow and say, “Certainly.” I drink coffee alcoholically these days as is, so Hannah is unknowingly being an enabler, but we enjoy a harmless relationship, me and the barista, and the coffeeshop is better a Friday hang than what could be a hangover. Hannah winks and places a finger to her lips while she pours the espresso. My sponsor waits outside.

The café still smells of Christmas, a sparsely decorated pine in the corner, and the gathered patrons are either stuck on 52 across or deleting e-mails. No music plays—this is not Starbucks—and music shouldn’t be played at a coffeeshop anyway.

I’m in a good mood, which a quadruple mathematically compounds, and my sponsor has picked a table in the sun because he, despite twenty years expatriated from Seattle, still chooses to wear shorts in forty-degree weather. Chris is my sponsor’s name, either short for Christopher or Christian, I don’t know; but were it the latter, it would be ironic, seeing as Chris has made a Jefferson’s Bible out of the Big Book, striking all miracles from its pages and replacing words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘God’ with agnostic lexis more appropriate to his skeptical bent. He has twenty-one years, so his sobriety is of drinking age, long enough, he professes, that were science to one day accomplish a cure for alcoholism, say some magic pabulum or pill, he’d forego the cure and stick to his monastic ways. He even uses the word ‘monastic’, which, again, is ironic, as deism is something he finds of nuisance—blah blah blah, he’ll say, with a dismissive flip of the hand—but monastic it is, fitting as he lives a caustral life with his cats in a studio apartment, as long without a lover near as long as he’s been without a drink. But ‘we are not a glum lot’ the saying goes, and Chris always exudes the air of a man at ease with himself, down to the ever-crossed arms behind the head and a chin tipped upward just enough to reveal when he’s been lazy with the razor. I don’t get the sense that he is lonely; regardless, I know I’m good company for him. We’re both happy with the red pens as evidenced by our respective Big Books, and both examine rhetoric as through a jeweler’s loupe, happy sometimes with a particular turn of phrase, other times not, this discernment necessary when wading through a text that less than coquettishly flirts with dogma. Bill W., after all, was not exactly a shrinking violet in the grand posy of things.

Despite similarities, Chris and I differ in one marked way: we are very dissimilar drinkers, and it shows in the manner that I veritably osmose my Americano while he takes his cup like a gentleman–he could very well extend a pinkie—and you wouldn’t have guessed that he’s the binger of our lot, whereas I’m the marathon imbiber; you also wouldn’t have guessed, though, by our disparate ages, that I’ve got ten years residence on him when it comes to dwelling at the bottom of a glass (albeit with occasional changes of address). This accounts for his impressive lack of relapses, also the fact that his disease never had the chance to graduate with honors to the so-called middle stages.

“I quit after only four months of nightly drinking,” he informs me, “So I never experienced withdrawals,” and he says this last part with a hint of reckoning, as if remarking, ‘can’t say that I have’ in response to a casual query. Withdrawals, of course, are as casual as a cotillion, which is to say they’re not: they’re what happens when alcohol stops making you sick, but the lack of it does.

“I’ve had a bit of PAWS the past few days,” I offer, “Sucks.” Except for today, I’m sure to add, because it’s a refreshingly crisp day even with the sun shining, the coffee is strong, and the sidewalk-goers outside the café are like Christmas ornaments on the tree inside, wrapped in Yule-colored sweaters and still merry despite the holiday passed.

“You know, I never heard of that until recently,” Chris confesses, “Came up in a meeting the other week. Like I said, I never had anything resembling withdrawals. What’re they like?”

PAWS is post-acute withdrawal syndrome, which is essentially the body collecting its dues for past and injurious behavior. Symptoms can show up in Whack-a-Mole fashion, a carnival of ugly heads playing popcorn in the body, ping-pong: hypoglycemia, malnutritive disorder, cortical atrophy, autonomic nervous system dysfunction, brain amine depletion—the laundry list which, though syllables long, and originating in the corpus, can best be described in simple emotive terms.

“Ennui, Chris. I get irritable. Depressed.” It’s a serotonin thing. My blood chemistries are within normal limits—it’s testament to how well the body heals–and I am fresh-faced just two months abstinent. But my head still resides in Purgatory, and there’s no indulgence for that–not even the errant dollar bills in the meeting collection plates impress the angel who guards entrance to Limbo.

“Ah.” Chris nods and looks at me sympathetically from behind wire-rimmed glasses. He never has to adjust his spectacles, they seem soldered in place, while I’m constantly punching at my nose bridge as if tapping out Morse code to some unseen—or unseeing—third eye.

“At least I know what it is I’m going through,” I concede. “I mean, if I didn’t…” and I trail off, because this is where physiology and psychology get confused, there being the intermittent phenomena of craving; what if this means there’s an insufficient adaptation on my part, on a symbolic level, to an otherwise alcohol-free life. The mind despairs while meantime the body repairs. Suddenly all the needlepoint samplers on the walls of the Alano clubs make sense: ‘Easy Does It. First Things First.’ I take a swig of coffee, in the abstainer’s version of a heady quaff and—“Excuse me, Chris—you’ll get used to this”—I excuse myself to the restroom for what’s probably the first of many times. I mean, four shots of espresso.

Hannah’s still at work behind the counter and, being a Friday, the gran turismo that is the espresso machine is at an idle, Hannah instead tending to the accumulated utensils her work necessitates, the portofilters and compressore tamps, whisks and muddlers, and it occurs to me how alike her job is to that of a mixologist’s, the Torani syrups with their quick pour spouts the virgin equivalent of varied liqueurs, espresso being the antemeridian workhorse spirit. How it is we begin every morning already under the influence. Hannah is party to this, she looking very much like a cocktail herself, with hair dyed a curious shade of curacao, and tattoos like vintner stamps. She smiles again, my caffeine conspirator, and the café with its distressed wood is instantly less distressed as I pass through the back hallway toward the restrooms.

Billie Holiday: the highs and lows of Lady Day | Jazzwise

A picture of Billie Holiday hangs just inside the door above a small decorative stool. It’s an old photograph, when Lady Day was still young and singing in nightclubs, this before the state of New York took away her cabaret card for heroin possession in 1947. Ms. Holiday was an alcoholic, too, hers a painful life which, many have remarked, is obvious in her voice, disillusioned yet still childlike in its intonation. Sad as her life was—and it included rape and prostitution, needles, drink, and the slammer–the saddest thing, and I think about this every time I see the coffeeshop photograph, is that she had her record player taken away from her when she died. Billie Holiday, singer of arguably the most important song of the twentieth century—‘Strange Fruit’—died in a hospital room cleared of all flowers and all well-wishes cards, her record player too, because when she was admitted to Metropolitan for liver and heart problems, she had heroin on her person. Authorities placed her under arrest on her death bed, drug possession charges, and she left this world by way of empty room, with empty veins, most likely in withdrawal, with no music to guide her home. She had forty-four cents in the bank, and another 750 dollars strapped to her leg.

The photograph at the coffeeshop shows her smiling, famous magnolia blossom pinned to her hair, when she was alive and vital in the nightclubs. It was said that when Billie sang, men stopped drinking, something she herself never did. Her addictions sadly, robbed her of her freedoms: when her cabaret card got taken away, she was disallowed from singing at the NY jazz joints and, although she was to later grace Carnegie Hall, it was the club scene that was her life blood, not the lavish venues. When her literal life blood was coursing its last, Billie victim to the ascites and edemas of late-stage cirrhosis, her liver a diseased orange from years of acetaldehyde abuse, there was an armed guard posted outside of her hospital room—an armed guard!—to insure her arrest was lawfully overseen and that every last iota of freedom Billie had belonged to the state of New York.

“It’s freeing,” I tell Chris upon returning outside, this time to a table in the shade where the glare is less and the traffic more subdued, “Despite.”

“What is?”

“Well there are a few words that show up from time to time in literature. One, ironically, is ‘arrest.’”

“Opposite of freeing.”

“Right, but it comes up in two manners.” Chris readjusts himself, interested, which always entails readjusting his Big Book too, turning it sideways, else flipping it upside down. Rubber-banded to his book—always—is the recent copy of the NYT crossword. He, to my satisfaction does the puzzle correctly, by which I mean in pen.

“Listen,” and I point to me and him. “We got this shit.” And I pause for a second, because that’s actually hard to admit.

“We got this shit, right?” I dip my finger in my drink and it’s tepid. Fuck, I want it hot; fuck I want it alcoholic.

People walk by on the sidewalk and there’s the sudden sense that we are not in a safe space, but that, really, any place can be one.

“We got this shit, Chris. And it’s arresting for one.”

This cannot be exactly new to Chris, were we to play with words, or review criminal files from one score and a month ago; Chris had a DUI, and through the magic of deferment came to realize he was arrested before the handcuffs had even been slapped on his wrists. A few months in the Program is what it what it takes, sometimes, to see that images in the rear view are truer than they appear.

“We’re arrested. Done-zo. Ka-fucking-put. It’s the most maddening disease on the planet: our livers can’t process what we deliver, the body likes the side effect, and our brain—oh our brains,” and I talk out of mine in defiance of my own—“Says wrist-cuff me, please.

“Just, dammit.”

My coffee is cold.

I look up. “I’m arrested, Chris. Even when I’m not drunk, I’ll always be under the influence.”



“What’s the second definition?”


“The second definition?”

“Oh. Um. 61 Across is ‘sortie’ by the way,” I tap his crossword, pausing.

Chris smirks. “Smart ass.”

“Would you rather me dumb? That’s what people already think. Allow me to quote: “If hundreds of experiences have shown him that one drink means another debacle with all its attendant suffering blah de blah blah” I floof the air in fake nonplus.

“You bothered by that, Cowboy?”

“Who fucking wouldn’t be?”

“What’s your second definition? You were saying.”

I draw my coat in, and can’t imagine Chris is not cold, but he’s not, and Christ he actually left his apartment today which had a minor fire leaving him without heat and he still wears shorts.

“Restare,” and I say it with all the vowels.

“What’s that mean?”

“One thing you’re gonna learn about me—besides the fact that I go to the bathroom like every five minutes,” I say, “Is that I look up every word in the dictionary to see where it comes from. Restare. Rearrange the letters. It’s ‘arrest.’ Means either ‘to remain’ or ‘to stop’.


“Not OK, perse. We’ve already acknowledged we have exactly 100% retention with regard to this disease and–yea!” I tap Chris on his shirt-sleeved shouder, “We win! We retained everything we learned!”

“So that’s ‘remain’…”

“Yeah. And the second definition is ‘to stop.’”

I sit back in my chair and fiddle with my scarf. “Yea,” I pretend cheer, “We stop.” I twirl the end of my scarf like a wet rally flag.

“We stop.”


My coffee cup is empty, but I lift it to my lips out of habit anyway.

“We stop,” I say superfluously, “We stop we stop we stop.”

“Cheers,” I salud, “Aaaaand fuck this shit.”

61 across is ‘sortie’. 52 down is ‘sari’. ’Sari’ appears on most crosswords and so do other words that don’t have their fit in everyday life, as if life weren’t a puzzle already. ‘Fuck this shit,’ by the way, does not satisfy 4 down nor 14 across.

What's All This Talk about the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book?

It’ll get better,” Chris says, and he rearranges his Book again. “Listen, you could go home, be by yourself,” he passes his hands over an exaggeratedly sad face, signing rain with his fingers, “Or. There are alternatives. I mean,” and he scratches his throat–he missed a patch with the razor again—“This Higher Power thing: me engaging with this book, me talking to you. Oh, people say God all the time, blah blah blah, and I have to say, ‘Listen, ‘God’ can’t be used as a placeholder term, because it’s pretty specific. But engage with something—anything—outside yourself—by definition, it’s a higher power because it’s ‘one plus whatever’ equaling something greater than—” and Chris passes his hand over his face again—“Just this.”

“What if I’m a negative number?” I counter.

“I don’t think you believe that.”

“I was just testing your math.”

“Nihilism doesn’t become you.”

I flick my coffee cup. “And here I was, being so clever.”

“You ok?”

“Oh, nothing. Pink cloud is gone.”

The door to the café opens and the smell of the Christmas tree drafts outward; where we are sitting, it is in view of a liquor store and a beer bar under construction. I could so easily seed my cloud, were I normal, but—no—I flick my coffee cup again. Hannah comes out to sweep.

“There’s this quote,” I clear my throat.

Chris has cats to tend to; he has pictures he’s sent me, and they are white little slips of things that like his feet, the fact of which entertains him, even today when he threw his laptop against the wall because an electrical fire scorched his kitchen and fucked up half his studio; and he’s at odds with his landlord about it, he could seed his cloud too, but he’s got twenty-one years and somehow—somehow—he’s found one+one all these lonely days.

“There’s this quote, Chris. ‘Grass grows by the inch, dies by the foot.’

I pause when packing my bag.

“There’s no reason I actually said that, Chris,” reconsidering. “Sorry.”

I scratch my head.

He says: “Sure there wasn’t”, smiling.

This is a very critical time in his life. He looks to you for courage, hope, comfort and guidance. He fears the past. He is uncertain of the future. And he is in a frame of mind that the least neglect on your part will fill him with resentment and self-pity. You have in your hands the most valuable property in the world — the future of a fellow man. Treat his life as carefully as you would your own. You are literally responsible for his life.

–Dr. Bob, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1938

Hannah pours the coffee again, and I’m not telling Chris, but I’ve relapsed. I’ve ordered a sandwich—I always hold the lettuce, count the avocado as my greens—and the awning is dripping in that just post-rain way, and I’m not telling him. Which is anathemic to having a sponsor, a therapist, too, actually, this fact of not telling. But I couldn’t.

At the meeting, I lead, and offer up my sort of truth.

“My name is Thom. I’m your alcoholic leader for today,” in case you wanted to know how meetings start, and they end with the Serenity Prayer, which is better than the Lords’ one, really, and I begin.

I have a book with me, it is not AA-approved but what if that book were my Higher
Power I can sneak it in: “It’s called ‘A Trip to Echo Spring.’ Echo Spring is reference to Tennessee Williams, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and it means taking a trip to the liquor cabinet to ‘get the click.’ All my heroes were alcoholics or suicides, or both. I continue:

“My story is unremarkable. I’m a writer, I should have a fascinating drunkalogue.” A drunkalogue is that amusing term AA has come up with to replace a fisherman’s ‘Big Fish’ story. As in, “I started drinking in Florida; I came to in a Chicago hotel room—luggage intact, thankfully—but,” cue David Byrne, “How did I get here?”

“Yet I don’t,” I admit, to my lack of drunkalogue, “I don’t have one. I drank after-hours, on the couch, and bloody hell confessed everything on paper, my ambivalences about life. Depression: yes. Anxiety: yes. A child with special needs: check. It was REAL. And people responded to that.

 So that fueled my trips to Echo Spring, inevitably. Click, click, this is real. Click, click again to Echo Spring. Except I never confessed to my drinking, which was the unreal part. Alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful; and within its clutches, for those with the disease, one is grandiose, wings fucking out. Baby, we’ll be fine; I’ll charge my pockets with quarters, get a swig, and confess without having to thumb a Christ. Truth, Baby, truth! En vino fucking veritas!

Except what was once ‘En vino veritas’ now has to be ‘En veritas veritas’, no ABV allowed.

Thing is, in these Rooms, I DO confess my drinking now. I confess: it’s a goddamn bitch to be anhedonic, that you can’t feel when you stop and the click doesn’t happen and you can’t take a trip to Echo Spring and that you’re stuck, you’re fucking stuck in the morass of an incurable disease, this Styxian River, and all you’ve got to get to the other side is the 100% step, the first step: I’m an alcoholic. I’m an alcoholic I’m unmanageable but need to be.

I wrote about the last time I stopped and how I took a hike with my son: I said “You’re the love of my life.” I also wrote how I didn’t feel a God. Damn. Thing.

Berryman felt the wind in his beard the last time and threw himself off a bridge.

Hemingway went for a last fateful pigeon-shoot. Said he knew he would go like his father.

Let’s not talk about Zooey Fitzgerald and how she went, or F. Scott’s wet brain letters about the madness of insomnia.

Tennessee Williams choked on the cap of an eye-dropper, paranoid till the day he died.

Lady Day died veritably bankrupt sans music.

“I had a rough day yesterday,” I venture, “Maybe we can talk about ambivalence or something, or PAWS or just getting through.”

 You should be able to judge if a man is sincere in his desire to quit drinking. Use this judgment. Otherwise you will find yourself needlessly bumping your head into a stone wall and wondering why your “babies” don’t stay sober. Remember your own experience. You can remember many times when you would have done anything to get over that awful alcoholic sickness, although you had no desire in the world to give up drinking for good. It doesn’t take much good health to inspire an alcoholic to go back and repeat the acts that made him sick. Men who have had pneumonia don’t often wittingly expose themselves a second time. But an alcoholic will deliberately get sick over and over again with brief interludes of good health.

–Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1938

“Well,” Chris says, “First of all my name is Chris and I’m an alcoholic.” Chris is shaven today and, because the Alano club provides it, is eating popcorn. He has his ever-present Coca-Cola to complete this illusion that we are somehow in a movie theater, when in fact we are in The Rooms. I get a preemptory stirring that he is certainly dry, but not necessarily sober. The glasses soldered on his face suddenly seem plastered on, in the way that we are not plastered.

“I’m Chris and I’m an alcoholic and well WELL.”

DFW hanged himself; Sylvia Plath toasted her head; Bukowski, Amy Winehouse, Mickey Mantle, Ginsy, Kerouac, Veronica Lake.

“So,” Chris begins, and he outlays a palm as if he were he suddenly Episcopalian. He’s annoyingly eating popcorn.

“What if,” he pontificates, “Your cousin, perse, were to drown in two inches of water—drunk, I might add—“Chris shuffles his bag of kernels—“While deciding to be sober.” He smashes a few corns. “Let’s have a pizza.”

“What if,” he furthers, mouth full, “Your BROTHER stabs his girlfriend in the neck with a pencil while high. Let’s,” he flourishes, “Have a pizza.”

“What if your car breaks down, or gets wrecked, or let’s say you have an apartment fire. Pizza. Let’s have a pizza, Thom.”

And he says my name like an epithet and I’m taken aback and want to say ‘sorry’ when really ‘fuck you’ should pass my lips freely, like an exorcised spirit, but I get quiet and instead look at the clock. Rules are, there is no ‘crosstalk.’ I have been violated, and I have forty more minutes to lead. I adjust my jeans, tug at the unfilled crotch of my pants. People are rolling their eyes and cell-phones have surreptitiously been drawn. I black out, as if were still on substance; forty minutes later, after shares, Chris texts. I’m still at the table’s head, but sneak a look at my phone: “I’ve left,” Chris snorts, “I’m so over people misinterpreting what I had to say.” I look back to where Chris was sitting; he’s still there, eating popcorn.

The awning water is dripping on my sandwich, and there is the truth of my relapse, the truth of rain water on my sourdough. The weather is still crisp, like the absent lettuce on my sandwich, and Chris naturally wears shorts that expose his knees to the cold; we have coffee, which is the prescribed drug of AA. I smoke, he does not. The chairs are of the utilitarian variety, wire, and the simulacra of café seats from Rue de Montmarte, or that VanGogh painting of a coffeeshop. AA prescribes coffee and sweets because it was written in 1939, and doesn’t understand hypoglycemia. I didn’t relapse bad, so I’m avocado instead of agua dulce.

I don’t want to be by myself; I believe in Chris’ higher power, that to ‘restare’ one must not, essentially, be alone. One must not deal with these things by themselves. But we’re not having pizza. Fuck that.

NOW YOU ARE ALONE. When you go to the hospital with typhoid fever your one thought is to be cured. When you go to the hospital as a chronic alcoholic your only thought should be to conquer a disease that is just as deadly if not so quick to kill. And rest assured that the disease is deadly. The mental hospitals are filled with chronic alcoholics. The vital statistics files in every community are filled with deaths due to acute alcoholism.

–Dr. Bob Smith, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1938



“I’ve been thinking of ‘The Doctor’s Opinion’, I say. “We doctors have realized for a long time that some form of moral psychology was of urgent importance to alcoholics—but its application presented difficulties beyond our comprehension.”

Chris has a copy of the Big Book wherein he has scratched out ‘moral’ and replaced the word with ‘ethical’. Tomato, to-mah-to. He leans back in his seat and touches two hands to either side of his chest. He scratches his nose.

“The appendix to the Big Book talks about this being an educational experience, and not—blah blah blah—God-conscious whatever.

I flip to the appendix. “Educative, Chris. It says: ‘educative’.

‘Educational’ and ‘educative’ are different, though incredibly similar. Fools even the thesaurus.

I decide to not tell him.

Fresh start: the Vatican has been framing confession less in terms of sin and more in terms of reconciliation. Photograph: Christopher Capozziello/New York Times

There are confessional booths and they are dark, with veiled screens, slatted doors, etc. The priests have robes which are black, I guess, because they absorb the sins like sun-rays and are warmed by the attention.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“Go ahead.”

“I was really mad, Father, and depressed. I’m not sure what’s going on. I mean, I got my 60-day chip.”

“Go on.”

“I drank. I felt something again.”


“I wanted to feel.”


“Even though I know the grass dies by the foot, I know.”

“What…did your sponsor say?”

“He recommended pizza.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t fucking either, Father. Excuse my language.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Not entirely.”


“Thank you, Father. Hey Father?—

“Simon was the listener in the Bible and then there’s all that simony shit. What happens when Simon just doesn’t help with the cross?”

“My son…”

“Sorry—just angry, Father. He did, though, just have one job.”

Lady Day has this song called ‘Riffin the Scotch’ about jumping the frying pan into the fire, oh Lady, and your scotch; what pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization that you leapt into the fire, and what must have it been like on that hospital bed slipping immortal asking for a listen please, both to your absent turntable and to the person who never, properly, said, “I’m right here, baby. I’m right here.