Current Issue :: –> Things we've agreed to out of desperation.

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All Non-Fiction

Interview with Steve Geng

I reviewed Steve Geng’s memoir when it came out and I liked it so much, I decided to interview him. We met in a Chelsea café near where he lived. The energy of the book and its subject matter made me expect –- I don’t know exactly, maybe some kind of louche, fast-talking wildman who would go through my wallet if left it on the table. I definitely wasn’t expecting the soft-spoken, thoughtful man who sat across from me eating a bowl of soup. That left me with a new question: how could this be the same guy who’d done so many outrageous things? It was only as we became friends that I realized Steve was both those people, and that writing had allowed him to direct the demons that had made the first forty-plus years of life such a (colorful) struggle. The man who’d had the energy to go on nation-wide shoplifting sprees was also the man who could evoke early-1960s Paris on the page with such gusto that you got a tactile sense of the place, from the jazz clubs to the whorehouses. — RA

1. In your long and checkered life, what are some other things you’ve agreed to out of desperation?

Once, desperate to win back a girl’s affection and make amends for smacking her, I agreed via phone to return a blanket she’d given me. When I showed up at her door and held out the blanket, she grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me thru the door, behind which lurked her brother who then caved my skull in with a claw hammer. I still have an egg-shell dent in my head and was lucky to have survived (pp 138-144 in Thick As Thieves: A Brother, a Sister–a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives).

Another time, I was an up-and-coming actor in Miami, desperate for work. I went to my agent and begged her for a gig. There’s not much, she said, except for one gig that I doubt you’d want because it only pays a hundred bucks. No, I said, I’ll take it, I’ll take it, whatever it is. Okay, she said, it’s a children’s birthday party and they want a guy to come as the Cookie Monster. She gave me an address downtown on calla ocho to pick up the costume. An hour later I showed up at a burbsville house on a Miami summer afternoon in this sweltering hot royal blue nylon-furred Cookie Monster outfit, full bodied, replete with headpiece with a little wire grille over the mouth to let air in. The living room was filled to bursting with small children in party hats running around like crazy, and I walked in growling like Tom Waits on a bad day—-Rrrrrrr, Coooooookie, rrrrrr. The kids were terrified of me. They all got very quiet and a few started sobbing, then they retreated to the kitchen. About fifteen minutes later I walked into a den where one of the parents was having a stiff-looking drink of something in a rocks glass. I was sober for about a year, and I could hear the ice clinking in the glass. Man I was thirsty. But in order to drink I’d have to take the headpiece of the costume off, in which case I wouldn’t get paid.

The guy looked at me woozy-eyed and said, Hey Cookie Monster, you ain’t drawing no big fucking crowds, are ya? Heh-heh.

I agreed to all kinds of shenanigans out of the desperation for drugs, scenarios that nearly got me killed or locked up and that I’d later regret. I don’t want to just rehash the memoir, but every time I copped smack from a stranger on the street was an agreement born of desperation, trusting that whatever he sold me wouldn’t stop my heart or freeze my brain when I cooked it up and geezed it. Sometimes the powder would bubble up and harden in the cooker—this was sadly called “a birthday cake.” One time there was a city-wide panic for heroin and we went down to Chinatown and copped little brownish crystals from a guy who told us it was “Chinese rocks.” When we shot it there was a loud buzzing in our ears, so we called it “the buzzer.” It smelled vaguely familiar when water was added to it but we couldn’t be sure if it got us high. So we went back and copped more of the buzzer. Turns out it was kitty litter. And of course there are all the times I was junk sick and gave my money to some character who’d say, “Okay, give me your money and wait here.The connection is leery of anybody he don’t know. I bring you up and he’ll cut me off.” I once caught up with one of these beat-artists, who I especially loathed because they preyed on fellow junkies. “Of course you got beat,” the guy tells me unapologetically. “I’ve been in the game ten years before you showed up like a shiny new penny. For all I know you’re a cop or a snitch. This is why everybody pays their dues in the beginning, brother. So what do you want to do—you want to fight? Or you want go make some money and go cop?” It made perfect sense. Having paid my dues, I felt a new sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.

The things I agreed to in order to get off drugs were equally desperate—six-day detoxes, twenty-eight day treatments and rehabs. Once I agreed to a year and a half commitment in a therapeutic community called Daytop in lieu of extradition to Florida where I owed five years state time. This was during the late sixties when TCs were old-school—shaved heads and sandwich board signs hung round your neck listing the negative behavior: “I’m a sleazy dope fiend and a thief–please confront me.” (That for getting caught stealing cookies or somebody’s toothpaste.) I lasted six months in Daytop and none of those treatment centers ever helped me stay off drugs. The only thing I agreed to that ever helped was when someone suggested, in a moment of desperation, that I try going to twelve-step meetings. And finally, beaten enough to try their technique of spiritual regeneration with total williingness, I was home free. It’s been over twelve years now drug and booze free, and the real change is my ability to be useful to others instead of obsessing about myself. Or as a friend of mine put it, “You substituted self-awareness for Why did I wear this?.” I’d never been useful to anybody—I was trying to seduce others and get them stoned or wrangle money out of them for a fix. To be helpful to others caused a radical change in my perspective.

2. When did you start writing? Why? Who are some of your influences?

I began writing in the late eighties toward the end of my brief acting career. I was reading scripts to audition, and complaining “Christ, I could write better than this!” Everybody said, “Well shut up and do it!’ So I wrote two screenplays, neither of which got picked up for production, although I got very positive feedback from some very famous people and one was optioned for a year. If I had any influence in writing those scripts it was probably David Mamet’s dialogue in “American Buffalo” after playing Donny Dubrow for several months in a Miami Equity production. That screenwriting effort gave me the experience and confidence that I could tell a good story in long form. A decade later in 1998, after relapsing into heroin for seven years, then getting clean and sober again, I was going to Gay Mens Health Crisis for free lunch. One of my lunch companians was a guy I was then helping get sober, and he told me to put my name into a lottery that GMHC held every semester. If your name came up you got to take a class at NYU or the New School or several other great schools around NYC that participated. I won for NYU and took a class called Make Your Novel Happen. By the end of that semester, after bringing in a scene every other week, I was a third of my way into a novel. I won that lottery three more times, and always took a workshop on novel writing. Then another guy came to me for help getting sober, and when he got his life back together he started working as an editor at a really good publishing house. So I showed him the novel I was working on. Turns out he knew of my sister, Veronica, and though he liked my writing, he kept asking me for anecdotes about her. Finally he confessed that he didn’t have enough juice at the publishing house to bring in a new writer. But he told me that if I wrote a brother-sister story about me and Veronica that it would be an easy sell. I didn’t want to write about her. It was too sad and the memories too painful. But out of desperation to get a book published, I agreed to try it anyway, and the memoir sold and got rave reviews. So in a way, I never really set out to be a writer. I was just helping other guys get sober and sort of following my nose and walking through doors that popped open.

3. What are you working on now?

I’m now working on the novel that I started writing in those workshops, a story that my sister had for years encouraged me to write. It takes place in Paris in 1961 during the Algerian Crisis, and the impetus for the story came from an image that remained in my head after living there as an army brat, a half-page photograph in the Paris Herald Tribune that showed Algerians marching down a boulevard and gendarmes battering them with truncheons—in the background of the shot a sign over a jazz club, Bop City, gives the scene dramatic irony. Algerians were terrorizing the city in an effort to win their independence from France, and my guys are GIs stationed there, black-marketeers selling US Army goods to the Algerians to finance their own jazz club in Pigalle. The hero is an army brat whose father is stationed nearby, and his dream is to play piano in a jazz band. When I was writing back in those NYU workshops I was really just having fun, trying to duplicate on paper the textures of the time in a coming of age story with the Café Wars as a backdrop. But after the experience of publishing that memoir I gained so much confidence that I found I could really get into the heads of Algerian terrorists and Pigalle pimps, research what I didn’t know or remember, and so the story went from slice-of-life to a real thriller with narrative drive. The title, “Bop City, is all that remains the same.

4. Where do you live?

I live in a residence in Chelsea half-a-block from the Hudson River.

5. How long have you lived there?

I’ve lived there for about thirteen years. At one point when I was dying of AIDS, barely subsisitng on minimum disability, unable to pay the rent, and still throwing money away on drugs, a lawyer at GMHC suggested I put in an application for “congregate housing.” At first I thought he’d said “conjugal” but it all worked out great anyway.

6. What do you like about your neighborhood?

Chelsea is safe, attractive, and over by the river people walk their dogs every morning on the way to a dog walk and the dogs all know me. It feels very much like a neighborhood this far West. There is a little park on the corner, across from the now defunct Empire Diner, where I practice tai chi. A man approached me the other day as I was “grasping sparrow’s tail” and said, “We love what you’re doing. Adds somethng aesthetic to the place. My kids are interested now in studying, uh, what is it—Chinese?” The form of tai chi I practice keeps me turning in a circle, and the little tots love trying to sneak up on me while my back is turned. When I catch them at it they squeal little strangled Bruce Lee sounds, “Heee-yahhh!” They call me the kung fu man.

7. What do you like about the changes in New York?

I like some of the changes in NY because I don’t see drugs for sale so much out on the street. It feels safer and less tempting. But then, I’m not looking for the junk scene anymore so maybe it’s just my perspective.

8. What do you dislike?

What I dislike are all the fast food chains and mega-stores and multiplexes that have driven neighborhood diners and Greenwich Village shops and art-movie houses like the Bleeker and the St Marks and the Waverly and the Thalia and really good inexpensive Italian restaurants like Emelios out of business and have changed Times Square into a sleazy version of Disney World. It’s all aesthetically deadening and tiresome to look at, never mind eating the processed junk they turn out, or shopping in sterile K-Mart type department stores where helpful clerks are scarcer than a good bag of Harlem doojie.

9. When and where were you happiest? Unhappiest? What woman made you happiest?

Tell you the truth, I am happiest at this very time in my life, and have been for the last five or ten years. I thought romance was over with, and was content with the fact—I’d wasted half my life chasing sex and romance, and two of the women I thought I was in love with tried to kill me—one had her brother cave my skull in and another slipped me a mickey in my coffee and when I passed out she torched me with lighter fluid. So I was a confirmed bachelor who writes books and helps guys get sober. But I have a woman in my life now who is not only a writer, but shares a similar checkered past, and I’ve never had so much fun with another human being as we’ve enjoyed for the past three years. I was also happy as a child in Philly, and running around Paris as a teenager, but the past is always seen through a scrim of selective memory, so that judging happiness or unhappiness of those times in unreliable at best.

10. What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’m always writing, even when I’m not sitting at my computer and cranking out text. Once I realized I could write a book that would not only get published but would get rave reviews, writing became another way of looking at life and the world around me. I read a lot, mostly novels, crime thrillers and sci fi, but also writers whose prose I admire like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy and recently Johathan Franzen. I also do a lot of research, and go to movies and hang out with my girlfriend who is now happy to be referred to as my fiancé. The rest of my time is spent attending twelve step meetings where my experience makes me useful to others in a way that is totally divorced from career or money or getting what I want. I remember a time when my sole purpose in life was in getting what I thought I wanted, and the hell with everybody else. Every relationship was quid pro quo, “this for that.” Thing about “this and that” is that they’re quantitative like money and heroin—the more “this or that” you get the more you want, a bottomless hole that circles downward and inward. My life today circles upward and outward. I can still get needy and selfish—just start obsessing why my book isn’t selling better—but not for long. It’s much more fun to think of others and stay out of my own way.


A Hole In One

by Steve Geng

I stood in the shade on the front porch of my father’s house on Clearwater Beach and watched the taxi drive away. My three-quarter-length boosting coat was totally inappropriate. Sweat dripped down the small of my back as a mailman in Bermuda shorts and a safari helmet went by on a tricycle and waved at me. I had nothing to show for my forty years on this planet, and as I reached out to ring the doorbell my arm felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Dad was in his mideighties by then. The last time I’d seen him was ten years before when Mom died.

The door opened a few inches and a shriveled old face peered out at me.

“Is that you, bud? I didn’t think you’d get here so fast. What’d you do, fly?”

“Yeah.”

He opened the door a little more and looked around for my suitcase.

“Where the hell are your things?”

I was wearing everything I owned, and I didn’t feel like explaining that I’d just gotten out of jail, and that when you get busted the cops don’t necessarily give you time to go back to your hotel, get your things, and put them in storage. So I did what I always did. I lied. “My bag got lost on the flight.”

The tainted aroma of mildew and a vague sense of paranoia emanated from the darkness behind my father as he peeked out at me.

“Jesus Christ, I told Ronnie not to let you fly. You could really get your tit in a wringer you get on a goddamn airplane these days. Why the hell can’t you kids listen to reason?”

“It’s okay, Dad. I had a good flight. I’m just tired.”

I was, in fact, entering the first shaky stages of withdrawal. Ronnie had put me on a plane so quick I hadn’t had time to shop either for clothes or for drugs and I popped the last valium I’d mooched off her back at Tampa airport.

Ronnie was the family nickname for my older sister, Veronica, and hearing my father say it I felt an irrational twinge of treachery at how she’d hooked into this deal in the first place.

It was the first time I’d ever visited Ron at the New Yorker, where she worked as an editor and humor writer, and unfortunately it was in the company of two federal cops. She was not happy to see me, or the suits. It was during William Shawn’s regime as editor in chief, the aloof old character who’d made the magazine famous for quirky writers like my sister, and Ronnie had worked her ass off her entire life to get there.

With gracious apblomb she dismissed the two feds, the same ones who’d picked me up a month ago, and led me back into her office. She sat down behind a huge desk and lit up a True Blue.

“So what the hell happened? I mean, what am I now—your legal guardian?”

All I wanted was to catch my breath, give the feds time to leave, and then get the hell out of there and get stoned.

“No, Ron. It’s nothing like that. The judge who cut me loose was covering his own ass by releasing me to you. I had warrants out for me from other states. Petty larceny pinches where I gave an alias and jumped bail. But those warrants were all vacated when they refused to extradite, so the feds had no choice but…”

“Extradite? Warrants from other states? Jesus Christ, Steve. What the hell have you been up to?”

I tried to give her the short version so I could get out of there, but somehow I got caught up in the details. After ten minutes of my tragic life of drugs and crime my sister spasmed with impatience and cut me off.

“Okay,” she said. “In spite of your efforts to hide it I’ve always known you were getting into trouble. I just didn’t know how bad. But what I want to know is this—what do you plan on doing about it now?”

“Jeez, Ron. I don’t know.” I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of her office and find a bar or one of my junk connections and get stoned. But all I said was, “The only thing I was ever any good at was boosting and getting high. Why—you got any suggestions?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve been getting a lot of strange calls from Daddy recently and…”

“What do you mean strange?”

“I don’t know. Crazy stuff about hurricanes. The point is he’s getting senile. One of us has to go down there and stay with him or else we’ll have to put him in a nursing home.”

“Let me get this straight. You want me to go down to Florida and take care of Daddy?”

“You don’t have to take care of him. Just go down there and be with him so he doesn’t freak out. For God’s sake, you can at least get away from your troubles here, and maybe it’ll be good for you.

“Let me guess—you can’t get away from your job, right?”

“Look, Steve. This is a perfect solution. Daddy lives right on the beach in this bungalow that his second wife left him when she died. I’ve been there and it’s beautiful.”

I was struck by a wave of regret. I was so out of touch with my family I had no idea my father had remarried and that his second wife had died. In fact, the remorse heightened my need to go get stoned.

“This sound great, Ron,” I said, stalling for time, trying to find some flaw in my sister’s proposition. “But I’ll need to get some new clothes. I mean, I was wearing this stuff a month ago when I got busted, so why don’t we meet up later at your place and…”

“Forget it. You’re not leaving my sight until you get on a plane.”

“Yeah, but…”

“No! No yeah buts. The feds released you into my custody. If you don’t like the deal then they can have you right back. So what’s it gonna be?”

So there I stood on my father’s front porch, the guy I’d had an antagonistic relationship with my entire life, and the prospect of living with him and putting up with his recriminations wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Riding the Beach Taxi from Tampa International Airport I thought of all the times I’d called him from New York to ask for a couple hundred bucks, supposedly to come home for a visit. I’d rarely bought a plane ticket with that money. I’d gone out and gotten stoned. When I’d call him again he’d complain and ask where the hell I was, but he often came through with the dough. It all came back to me as I stood there on his porch, totally defenseless.

“Well, what’re you standing out there for?” my father said. “C’mon in and take a load off.”

He turned in the doorway, stepped back, and watched me stumble across the threshold. A huge television just inside was tuned to a tennis match. The whispered comments of the play-by-play announcer were punctuated by the pok of the ball hitting the racket. A feisty young John McEnroe was giving Björn Borg fits.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” he said. “This is terrific. I was getting lonely as hell here all by myself.” Then he started banging the front door against the door frame half a dozen times until it finally stayed shut. “Goddamn salt air warps everything around here.”

An atmosphere of neglect struck me the minute I walked inside. Dentures rested on a metal TV table in front of a raggedy armchair, and there were greasy stains on the faded old carpet. The windows of the dining area at the back of the house were so smeared that I could barely discern the shiny expanse of the Gulf of Mexico stretching to the horizon. My father looked so small and fragile. I was glad that he turned just then and went into the kitchen to get me a soda. I didn’t want him to see the tears welling up in my eyes.

It broke my heart to see him this way, all withered and old, but he was happy to see me! It floored me. Here was this guy I thought I hated and vice versa, and in an instant I realized that I loved him. I couldn’t remember the last time he or anybody else had been glad to see me—except maybe when one of my street associates needed money, a drink, or some drugs. Usually whenever my father saw me he knew it was going to cost him money and heartache. Yet here he was, making me dinner, helping me fix up the spare bedroom, phoning the neighbors to brag about his son from New York who’d come down to stay with him.

“Don’t worry, bud,” he reassured me. “Just relax and take it easy. I got plenty of money and plenty of food.”

He proudly opened the kitchen cabinets to show me shelves stacked with cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, which we ate for dinner that night off of our fold-up TV tables while we watched Jeopardy and Password. We both had second helpings of the stew, which tasted like filet mignon to me.

“Tomorrow I’ll show you around the beach.”

When I finally went to bed that night I found a stack of detective novels that my sister had left behind, which made the next month of sleeplessness, my standard detox symptom, bearable. I took lots of hot baths and hiked up and down the surf along the Gulf of Mexico. Occasionally Dad would knock softly at my bedroom door and bring me a mug of hot chocolate. He instinctively knew that I was suffering in some way, although we never talked about it. During the day we strolled around Clearwater Beach, watched television, or went shopping at the supermarket over on Island Estates. Something deep down inside me began to shift, a tiny spark that I’d never quite been able to snuff out, a faint glimmer of possibility that maybe I wasn’t doomed.

The second night I was there, we walked up to the Pelican Grill on Mandalay Avenue, the main drag on Clearwater Beach. I was still shaky and weak as a kitten from withdrawal, squinting at the painfully bright colors cast by the setting sun, but my father’s frail, hesitant gait filled me with a protective strength. Our waitress knew the Colonel and was very solicitous. Dad bought me the biggest steak they had. At one point I caught him glancing around nervously and stuffing crackers into his pockets. He literally emptied the huge bread basket full of saltines and oyster crackers into the pockets of his jacket and pants, eyes darting around to make sure nobody was watching.

“Hey, Dad. What are you acting so sneaky for? These people don’t care if you steal the crackers. They put them on the table for free.”

“Awferchrissake,” he shot back at me. “What’re you talking? Nobody’s stealing anything here.”

Again I felt a huge wave of affection for him, a fellow thief. I scooped the breadbasket from a nearby table and helped myself to a few handfuls of oyster crackers, jamming them into the pockets of a warm-up jacket I’d borrowed from him. Dad looked over at me and winked. It was a good meal, sitting there like a couple of beach bums, thick as thieves.

Several weeks later I took my father to play golf at a par-three course he used to frequent back in the days when our mother was still alive. The last hole of the front nine was a ninety-yard chip shot over a lake onto the green, which was right in front of the clubhouse. Dad hit two balls into the lake before he made a shot with his six-iron that rolled past the clubhouse and onto the practice green where you practiced putting. I lofted a towering nine-iron shot that dribbled in for a hole in one. Pure luck.

Dad strutted into the clubhouse after we finished. “You see that hole-in-one?  That was my son,” he said, beaming.

When I checked our scorecard, I noticed that he didn’t count the balls that he’d hit into the lake. A few holes back I caught him kicking his ball up the freeway while I searched for my own ball in the rough, but I never mentioned that I caught him cheating, even though it burned my ass. When I couldn’t find my ball he charged me two strokes to lay one on the freeway.

“Christ, you’d a never got out of that mess in one.”

A couple old duffers pulled me aside in the clubhouse and asked me, “Was that the Colonel we saw you with out there?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m his son.”

“Well I’ll be damned. Never thought I’d see the Colonel out here again. If that don’t beat all!”

The first job I got in Clearwater was driving a cab for Beach Taxi. The other drivers knew the Colonel well. They’d been doing everything for him, picking him up to go shopping, or even going to the store for him if he only needed cigars and beer. They didn’t have time to go through a supermarket with a shopping list, but some of those cabdrivers, a guy named Pete in particular, were the closest thing to family and friends that my father enjoyed in that town. The only downside to the job was my father’s omnipresence. The radio in the cab would squawk to life.

“Base to ten. Base to ten.”

Calls for Beach Taxi were handled by a dispatcher and relayed to the drivers on the radios in their cabs. Ten was my call number.

“Ten here. What do you got, Al?”

“I got Mrs. Goldstein at Island Estates going to bingo at the Elks Club, then the Colonel wants you to pick up a six pack of beer, some beef stew, and a pack of cigarillos on the way home. You Roger that, ten?”

“Yo, on my way.”

“Yo is not proper radio procedure, ten. Roger is the correct response. And the Colonel says the Hava Tampa’s, not the Robert Burns. You copy?”

“Copy, Roger, over and out.” An hour later he’d call and tell me the Colonel wanted some ice cream and said to tell me there was a hurricane in Texas.

I accepted these troubles gladly, light stuff compared to those bigger problems in New York. Where to score drugs in Florida these days was a mystery, so the old yen seemed to have been lifted simply through lack of access. Nor had I forgotten my fear of getting busted again in Florida. But booze was everywhere. I tried hard to stay away from drinking. I felt like I’d caused my father enough trouble over the years and I didn’t want him to see me go off the deep end again, but I just couldn’t stop. I took the Beach Taxi across the causeway to Tampa one night with a fare to the airport and afterward went drinking in lap-dance joints on Dale Mabry. Then I drove home in a blackout, waking up at the first stoplight in Clearwater, the engine idling and my heart racing with terror, wondering how the hell I’d navigated that two-lane causeway with the surf licking at the rocks on either side.

When I wasn’t drinking and driving for Beach Taxi, I sat around with Dad, eating Dinty Moore Beef Stew and watching sit-coms.

“Hey, Dad,” I proposed one night. “You keep the air conditioner on full blast all day and the heat on all night. Why don’t you just open the windows? Then you’d be warm in the day, and cool at night, instead of vice versa, which is the way you have it?  Plus,” I added logically, “then you would get fresh air.”

“Aw, what’re you talking? The air conditioner’s on the roof.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That’s fresh air.”

“It’s conditioned air.”

“The hell you know about fresh air? Christ, you been living in New York for twenty years.”

Irritated, I went over to the windows and started to crank them open. “It’s suffocating in here and I’m opening these windows.”

Dad leaped out of his chair and hurled himself onto my back. “You stay away from those goddamned windows!”

When I felt how little my father weighed, all the steam went out of me. He was light as a child and slid off my back, banging his hands painfully when he hit the floor. I closed the window and held my hand out to help him up.

“Fine,” I said. “We’ll leave the windows shut.”

“Christ,” he said, disdaining the proffered hand and massaging his wrist. “You play rough.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. Hell, it’s your house.”

He sat there for a few moments, getting some mileage out of the injured wrist.  Finally he allowed me to help him up.

“Your mother never opened those windows. She knew better than to let the salt air in here.”

It threw me when he said that. Mom never lived in this house. She died years before he remarried and moved there, but I let it slide. The poor guy’s memory was deserting him and he didn’t need me to rub it in his face.  Besides, he was right—what did I know about fresh air?

Ron was supposed to come down for a visit and Dad was very excited. But then something came up at work and she cancelled. Dad suffered a bout of moodiness after that, mumbling to himself about how ungrateful kids are these days. I wanted to tell him, Hey, Dad, I’m here! But the only thing that snapped his despondency was spending a lot of time on the phone with his bookie, making complicated bets on the dog races at Tampa Greyhound Track. One morning the phone rang, and when Dad picked it up, his voice went low the way it always did when he made bets with his bookie.

When he got off the phone I asked him if that was his bookie.

“Yeah,” he said with a sly look. “He called to see do I want any action on today’s races.”

“What? You mean this guy don’t have enough action he’s gotta call you up?  What kind of a bookie is that? Sounds like he’s got you pegged for a sucker.”

“Aw, whatta you know about it?”

“Dad, look. Using a bookie is a sucker’s bet, cause if you win they take a percentage, so in the long run, even if you win you lose. Tell you what. Either I could drive you over to the dog track in the Beach Taxi, or I’ll take your bets myself.”

It was pretty dumb of me. I of all people should’ve recognized the Damon Runyonesque kick he got by using a bookie on the down low, but the idea that anybody was playing my father for a sucker riled the hell out of me. In the end he just laughed at me and went out to watch television and make notations on his scratch sheet.

I started going out with one of the lap-dance girls in Tampa who turned out to be a junky—my Achilles’ heel popping up at the worst possible time. One night I went to a wedding party on Indian Rocks Beach, where my new girlfriend had a little cottage.  I was in some kind of a jealous rage and drank a bottle of vodka before I got out of my car. Several hours later I woke up in a cage in the middle of a small-town police station, foaming at the mouth and hurling obscenities at the cops. I had no idea how I’d gotten there, or any recollection of what had happened at the wedding party. Then they read me the police report. I’d gone so violently out of control they’d had to call the cops to subdue me. Luckily nobody pressed charges. I knew that if I got locked up again in Florida they would throw the keys away. Things were getting scary.

One night I was sitting with Dad, watching television. He’d dozed off in his armchair and I was considering waking him so he could go to bed, when a public service announcement came on TV for some local rehab for drug addicts and alcoholics. It showed young men and women who looked like teenagers, washing cars in some carwash that was part of the rehab. They were all smiling and laughing while they sudsed the cars and sprayed them with water, the sun reflecting off the polished fenders. A telephone number appeared on the screen accompanied by a friendly voice-over.

“If you have a drug or alcohol problem, or know somebody who does, please call this number.”

I was desperate, so I jotted the number down, then went into the kitchen and dialed it. What did I have to lose? It was not something I would’ve normally done; normally I would’ve sneered at the idea. Hell, I’d already been to Daytop, though that was only at the urging of the courts. What could this rinky-dink rehab do for me? The woman who answered had a distinctly Brooklyn accent. She listened to me for a few moments, then briefly outlined her own drinking and drugging history. I could tell immediately that she was a thoroughbred, that she’d been out there like me.

“Listen,” she said.  “I don’t know if you need the kind of long-term treatment this place offers.” This rehab was one of those behavioral places for youngsters, very much like Daytop Village. “Why don’t you try going to a twelve-step meeting?”

I didn’t want to hang up the phone. In the space of a few moments I felt a strange connection with this woman. I decided to take her advice, if only to see her again.

The next day I found myself at a clubhouse in downtown Clearwater called “The Serenity Club,” an old wooden A-frame building with huge screened windows that ran around the entire main room. Comfortable armchairs were arranged horseshoe fashion around conference tables.  There was a small kitchen with those big commercial pots of hot coffee, and several smaller rooms, one with a pool table, and another for smaller, more intimate meetings.

The denizens, at least at the noon meeting I went to for the next year or so, were mostly old guys living on Social Security, a rough-looking crew with few teeth and more hair in their ears than on their heads. Most of them looked like they’d been drinking cleaning products and sleeping under bridges. The younger people in the local community called this place “The Senility Club.”

“Forty years ago,” some old guy growled as the meeting began, “I put the plug in the jug, goddamnit. And I never been s’damned happy!”

Whereupon an elderly lady raised her hand and said, “You fellas that say you’re happy, joyous, and free? I wish you would please notify your face.”

The entire room howled with laughter. These people were having a good time and they weren’t drinking!

I raised my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Steve and I’m an addict and an alcoholic.”

They all turned and looked at me. You could hear a pin drop in that place. A few smiled at me encouragingly so I went on a bit.

“This is my first time at a meeting, and so far I haven’t had a drink today.”

They all burst into applause. I felt this huge wave of empathy and attention. After the meeting, people gave me their phone numbers and I began to go out for coffee and lunch with them at the local diners. That night after my first meeting I was up all night thinking about what I was going to say to these guys the next day.

At the prompting of these old-timers, I started praying in the morning when I woke up and before I went to sleep at night. And though I had no idea who or what God was, the results were immediate—my day had a beginning and an end, a simple sense of order that I’d never known. I was used to passing out at night and coming to in the morning desperate for a drink and worrying about bail money. Some old guy named Henry, who’d been a merchant marine, took me to a Buddhist temple where a Vietnamese monk taught me the rudiments of meditation. Cool. I’d seen enough Bruce Lee flicks to delight in the posture, and I could sense the power inherent in stillness. I began to experience some small sense of well-being.

At one point I called my sister to ask her advice on what to do about our father’s growing health problems. I told her how I’d take Dad to see his doctor, but then he’d tell the doctor that he felt fine. When I insisted that he wasn’t fine, the doctor would slough it off as a pulmonary problem. Tell him to stop smoking, the doctor told me. I suspected it was something worse. My sister was amazed at my concern.

“I can’t believe,” she said to me, “that you’re so worried about this guy after what he did to us.”

Maybe she was talking about him calling me a bum, or the way he’d devastated her self-esteem as a child with his Archie Bunker-type kidding around. That all seemed like a lifetime ago, but I could still hear the resentment in her reaction, and it saddened me.  When I tried to press her about what she meant, she got evasive and finally hung up.

Since the taxi job was stressful and exposed me to temptation, I got a job in the sun doing grounds work at a local tennis club, resurfacing and maintaining the clay courts and helping the pro give lessons and clinics. He often had me fill in as a fourth in doubles, and after a few months of his patient instruction I began to rise up the competitive ladders at several other clubs. The physical labor and healthy exercise soon burned off my need for kinky sex joints in Tampa, and I settled down into an honest routine for the first time in my life.

But after a while of going to meetings, working all day in the hot sun, and then taking care of Dad in my spare time, life started to feel a little grim. I needed to have some fun, and I didn’t want to hang out in bars trying to pick up women.

I called my sister again for advice and she said, “I remember you always talking about wanting to be an actor. Why don’t you see if there’s an acting community around Clearwater.”

Sure enough, Clearwater Community Theater was casting for Romeo and Juliet. I went over the the community center in my Beach taxi and got cast as one of Capulate’s ruffians. Seems they were always hard up for men. The production was only for one performance to be held in the auditorium on the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg Junior College. My father insisted on coming to the show, although at the time he was eighty-seven years old and in a lot of physical discomfort. But he came and he sat there on one of those wooden fold-up chairs in that auditorium for almost four hours worth of one of the worst productions of Shakespeare that’s ever been staged. It was so bad that when the cast later watched a video version someone taped we were all convulsed in laughter.

But that night, when the production was finally over, I washed off my mascara, stripped off my purple tights and velvet knickers, tossed my sword into the prop box, pulled on my street clothes, walked out the back door of the auditorium and found my father waiting with not a trace of the four agonizing hours on that hard little auditorium chair.

“Hey, bud,” he said with a strange, soft reverence. “You were terrific.”

This from a guy who never approved of a single thing I ever tried to do. I’ve never been quite so disarmed. I decided at that moment that come hell or high water, I was going to pursue a career in acting.

Funny Girl with the same community theater company came next. (I had a nice little song and dance number with Fanny)  Then I got cast in a dinner theater production of The Music Man (I was getting paid to do this!) in which I did a broad caricature of Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman, tugging at my mustache and cackling through my lines like Snidely Whiplash.

During this time, I got cast as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, my all-time favorite musical comedy, at the same dinner theater where I’d done The Music Man. I would’ve paid them to do this one. As one of the leads I had to do some complicated song-and-dance routines, so I took modern dance lessons.

Doing Nathan in “Guys and Dolls” was the most fun I ever had as an actor and the highlight of my acting career. The crowds, half lit after dinner and drinks, howled with laughter eight shows a week at the way I did Nathan. The reviews in the local papers were raves. After the show all my twelve-step friends crowded outside the dressing rooms to congratulate me. If I’d died right then I’d have died content.

Dad never got a chance to see me in any plays after Romeo and Juliet. Several months after that first production, I came home from work and found him bent over in his armchair choking.

“Steve,” he managed to say through gasps for air. “I can’t breathe.”

I carried him in my arms into the car and into the hospital. I was afraid if I waited for the ambulance he would die, and I’d be damned if I’d let this guy die now that I had him back in my life. Turned out he had Lou Gherig’s disease. He had it in the muscles of his throat or esophagus, so food and liquid were getting into his lungs. That’s why he’d been having trouble breathing, and I was furious thinking of all the times I’d taken him to his doctors who’d never been able to diagnose the poor guy correctly—Tell him to stop smoking. The doctors at the hospital told me they could cut a hole in his stomach so he could feed himself with a plastic syringe like you baste a turkey with.

I tried to cheer him up. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “don’t worry, they can fix this.” But he just looked at me and shook his head. One thing he’d always asked me was to please not put him in a nursing home, to let him die in his own home with a little goddamned dignity.

I stayed with him that first day at the hospital, making sure the nurses were giving him what he needed. I found a huge television sitting unused in the hallway. With the instincts of a thief, I took advantage of the empty corridor to wheel it into Dad’s room and hooked it up. When the nurses looked askance at the television, I said my father had asked to have it put on his bill. Nobody argued. At one point Dad waved me over closer to his bedside. I bent down to hear what he was saying, and as I did so, he fumbled in his pockets for his wallet. Then he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to me.

“Don’t spend it all in one place,” he said. It was the last thing he ever said to me, doling out a twenty to the kid who’d never grown up. Even in his dying breath he could hit me where it hurt.

I woke up at home to the phone ringing. My father’s EEG had flatlined. I rushed back to the hospital. The horrific picture of my father lying on that gurney, his brittle old body lurching with each spasmodic gasp of air, has been burned into my memory for all time.

“He’s been brain-dead for quite a while now and his breathing is just reflex,” the doctor advised. “But we can keep him hooked up to these machines and keep him going.  We need your permission to pull the plug.”

It never occurred to me to call my sister. It was a decision I had to make right then and live with the rest of my life. But I knew what he would’ve wanted, and it wasn’t to live like a vegetable, brain-dead and hooked up to life support.

“Do it.” It was a no-brainer.

That night I went out and got roaring drunk. It didn’t help. I was lonelier than ever with Dad gone, so I went right back to meetings where all my new friends were, waiting to console me. I was whining to my friend Henry about Dad’s last, painful words—“Don’t spend it all in one place”—and Henry burst out laughing. Between spasms he managed to say, “Yeah, but you took the goddamned twenty, didn’t you?” That’s when it hit me, how perfect it was, how exactly like Dad to be “kidding around” right to the end.  In his last moments, with me at his side, he’d been completely himself. Pretty soon Henry and I had the whole meeting full of people laughing about it.