I was 37 and a half years old, raised in the Bronx, penniless, prideful, a paranoid schizophrenic, overeducated transplanted New Yorker, with 22 years of severe alcoholism under my belt, newly arrived in San Francisco off a Greyhound Bus with $67 in my pocket.
Carl Little Crow was half African-American, half Native American; a former back-alley drunk from Chicago with 18 years of sobriety to his name. He was half my size and had a face like an alert animal. He wore an embroidered West African shaman's cap, a cowskin vest, baggy corduroys and scuffed black shoes, and he carried a befeathered Native American tom-tom drum, which he beat as he walked down Haight Street.
The things we did
1. Healing ceremonies atop Buena Vista Park in Haight Ashbury. Carl claimed that a satanic sacrificial cult was operating in the area, abducting and murdering people, and that as spiritual human beings we must "cleanse" the area with our souls. For this ceremony, Carl's mentor, Rolland, drove in from Arizona in a rusted brown station wagon. Also in attendance was Mike, sober 10 years, known thereabouts as the Captain of Haight Street.
With only two months booze-free, I was the novice and appointed to carry the healing plant. The healing plant: a ratty-looking lobby shrub with withered leaves that Carl had salvaged from the trash outside a Tenderloin hotel. Carl took the plant home and fed it plant food, sunshine, Native American chants, water and whispers of love until it was able to lift its head again. It still looked like a shitty plant from a flop hotel but vibrantly alive. And as I carried it, huffing, Carl led the way, chanting in a trance, beating the drum, walking in a slow procession up the slope to the top of the hill.
Deadheads and crack dealers watched us with interest. According to Carl, the devil worshippers were spying on us but chances were excellent that we wouldn't see them. It was strange, I thought, I'd shown up in S.F. paranoid and delusional, clinging to my sobriety by bloody fingernails, gibbering about being pursued across the continent by devil worshippers, and suddenly Carl, who'd been 18 years without booze, was declaring that yes, they do exist, are a definite danger and now once and for all we will rid the world of them. I felt both terrified and reassured.
Bringing up the rear was Mike, the Captain of Haight Street -- tall, bone-lean, with a mean-looking handlebar mustache and a combative black beret set at a jaunty angle on his old gray skull. He had cold blue eyes and a big key ring jangled from his belt. He was scanning the turf with sweeping looks, warning off anyone with the wrong idea. There's lots of such people around and they know Mike. While he may not beat you one-on-one the first time around, Mike will make it his religion to get even, even if it takes 20 years, and will not cease until you are effaced from the earth. His other hobbies are amateur photography, of which he is a very fine practitioner, and archiving local historical information and artifacts. For instance, he can show you, hidden near a drainage ditch covered over with dead leaves, a row of little white tombstones embedded like teeth into the cement that belong to a party of gold miner 49ers killed in a drunken brawl "'round these parts nigh a hunnert and fifty years ago," as Mike would say. Only the accent was an affectation, he was really a marvelously bright and well-educated man whom alcohol had laid low, like the rest of us.
Behind him, at a remove of 10 paces, Rolland, Carl's mentor, walked and I was surprised at how average-looking he seemed. Like any road dog you might come across in the Arizona desert. That hermit smile and blue eyes bleached kind by extreme loneliness. He wore just a plain old black T-shirt, stone-scrubbed blue jeans and embossed leather cowboy boots. He was more a dude than a hierarchically royal medicine man of the Black Foot tribe. But I figured what the hell do I know about it anyway.
My job was to carry and I did. My arms grew heavy. I wanted to drop the damned plant. But I held on as we inched our way up led by Carl's mournful voice and the boom-boom-boom of the tom-tom, and soon we were at the top, where we proceeded briskly to a ravine and slid down the slope to a wide shelf, which Carl declared to be our healing ground.
It was a godforsaken place of dead trees and amputated branches. We sat in a circle and Carl Little Crow said something in Native American tongue, and Rolland nodded and smiled. Then they all looked at me. "What's your spirit animal?" Carl asked. Surprised, I shrugged. "I dunno," I said. Carl's eyes burned into mine. "Name it!" I couldn't think of any. We don't have animals in the Bronx. What should I say: cockroach? Rat? This is how I knew that I was really in California now. Someone named Carl Little Crow asking me to name my spirit animal. "I dunno," I said again. Once more he burned into me with his eyes and said: "Name it! Name it now!" Suddenly the word "hawk" popped into my brain, so I blurted out, "Hawk!" and Carl hissed: "Look up!" and I looked up and O, my God, O my ever loving fucking God, right there, over us, circling, two of them, enormous, right here in Haight Ashbury, what are hawks doing here anyhow? And right at this moment no less?! Now I felt the presence of what he called the Great Spirit, others call God, or whatever they call it. I felt it. And it freaked the living daylights out of me. In a good way.
2. Walking down Haight Street together, Carl beating his drum, me holding onto his shirt, afraid to let go, that if I did I'd go drink. He led me up to trees and stood there talking to them, waving his hands with this ecstatic look on his animal-like face, and nodding his head vigorously with a look of delight, as though answering questions. "What're they saying, Carl?" I'd ask. "They're saying: 'Don't drink!'" he'd reply.
3. Take astral projection trips around the world. Actually, Carl took them while I sat there and watched. Usually, we did this in the Café International on Haight and Fillmore. We sat at one of the scratched-up wooden tables embedded with hand-painted tiles, surrounded by electric paintings by young unknown geniuses, world beat music playing, and Carl would close his eyes and begin to sway from side to side. It would seem as though the colors in the room were running together with acidlike intensity. You know how a GIF looks on your computer if the server crashes, like a kind of graphic ghost? Carl turned into that. If you'd clicked on him, nothing would have happened. He was elsewhere, transported by a spiritual metasearch engine into the hard drive of the Amazon jungle, or appearing on the interactive screen of the Himalaya Mountains. He was rapping with the Dalai Lama. He was reading poetry to the king of Sweden. Once he opened his eyes and I saw two white ghost buffaloes galloping in his eyeballs. When he did this it scared me but I preferred to stay by him than take my chances with my own mind, which was detoxing with dt's and hallucinations that were trying to kill me. Each cell of my brain, my body, Carl had explained, has been perforated after years of drinking by a little hole that once I'd filled with alcohol but that now was empty, yearning, yawning, craving, desperate to be filled, an almost sexual need and that I must fill it with something else now. I must fill it with my soul. I must fill it with the Great Spirit of the Universe. I must learn to know my spirit. That we were like two calling to each other across a great gulf. But soon, we would be reunited. So I sat and watched Carl Little Crow cavort with Dakota sandpainters and Ludwig van Beethoven. Ludwig, Carl informed me, was an abused child, like me.
4. Eat barbecue chicken wings. Carl had a shameless love of barbecue chicken wings. It surprised and disappointed me. I thought someone so spiritual would want to eat, say, a bowl of brown rice and a cup of green tea. Instead he'd take me over to Chicken Charlie's on Divisadero and order up big buckets of greasy, orange barbecue chicken wings and get all messed with juices and greases and bone smatterings on his grinning mouth, ecstatically cooing, "YESSSS! OH, YESSSSSSS!" I'd take a nibble off one and smile happily despite myself. It just didn't fit the picture, him tearing at those chicken wings and slurping up a 32-ounce cherry coke. He had a bit of a belly too. But worse still, he had this ugly weal of a scar worming down the center of his chest where'd he'd had open-heart surgery during which he'd died twice and been revived.
During the time he was dead, he had floated above the table smiling down at everyone and then left for a few seconds to take an astral projection trip to New York City, where he danced, he said, with a señorita in Spanish Harlem. That too shocked me. I mean, that's all one can think to do at the moment of one's death? Dance with a woman? "Not just any woman," said Carl Little Crow, "a Puerto Rican woman." He jumped up and down in his seat laughing like a happy kid with the grease all over him and I said very gravely: "That shit's real bad for your heart, Carl, and seems like you already had one heart attack ..."
Carl grew still and I fought back tears but lost and sobbed out: "And what if you die, Man! What am I gonna do? How am I gonna stay sober!?" Carl's eyes grew moist and he said: "By helping another," he said. "Remember! It's always by helping another that we are healed ourselves."
And I am crying even now, seven and a half years later, to remember those words.
5. Eat a whole half-gallon of peach melba ice cream. Another of Carl's peculiar weaknesses. He'd have me at night seated on the floor of my tiny room near the Hayes Street projects in the Mo', as we called the Fillmore District, with the guns of battling crack gangs going pop-pop-pop outside our windows, and squealing tires and screaming voices, and a bundle of burning sage smoking in a bowl as we sat and breathed in and out, in and out, watching our breath, calming our bodies. Then we chanted a mantra: "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference," and then he'd have me up on my feet dancing a slow spirit dance around the room, waving my hands, moving the energy fields around, as he put it. And when we were done we then adjourned to the communal kitchen that I shared with a bunch of potheads and grunge maniacs, and took out a huge half-gallon of peach melba ice cream and two spoons!
The sugar wacked Carl out for sure. His eyes would get all red and he'd feel giddy and sway and stagger as he walked and for a moment I could see 18 years ago to the back-alley drunk he must have been, a little lethal menace. And it amazed me that he could have gone so long without a drink and I'd feel hope. Then he'd leave and I'd sometimes find a 10-spot on the bed, maybe his last since he was always short of money and mostly unconcerned about it. I stretched out on the bed with my boots on, head pillowed on my hands, listening to the gunfire and the shouts and watching the fog roll over the last vestige of the San Francisco moon. I was flat broke, my Welfare General Assistance due to expire, and all that I had been, a father, a soldier, a lover, a boss, a highly touted this and a well-regarded that, all lay behind me now. I remembered the park bench where I had laid down to die in Tompkins Square on Avenue A in Alphabet City and from which I rose to live -- damned if I understand to this day how or why -- when every blood vessel in my flesh demanded booze and booze and more booze and when this disease I have, this disease of alcoholism, believed that it would continue to drink even after I had died. I found help in the rooms of recovery and, against the advice of the recovered drunks I met, boarded a bus with $67 in my pocket and a California sun rising in my addled, sleep-deprived, detoxing brain.
And this is what it means to be happy: to want nothing and to sit listening to the calm beating of your own heart as big wheels carry you off into a Mystery lined with fast-food concession stands.
6. We got a man to detox. We happened upon him sitting on the steps of a Haight Ashbury Victorian recovery home that had once been the residence of Janis Joplin, and just a few doors down from where novelist Kathy Acker once lived. (We'd see Kathy in her leather jacket hand-painted with skulls and roses and she, being a real dear woman under that tough exterior, always had a kind word.) He was dressed for business in a tie. He wore spectacles, his hair was thinning and his hands were trembling violently. An overflowing suitcase lay open on the sidewalk and he was staring at its contents and moaning, "Uhhhhhhhhhh, God, uuuuuhhhhhhhhh, oh, God." And Carl said, "What is it my brother?" and he said, "You God?" and Carl Little Crow breathed out meditatively and said, "No. I am a drunk like you." And the man looked at him angrily, then at me, and snapped, "I'm no drunk!" and burst into tears. "I AM A DRUNK! OH, I AM A TERRIBLE DRUNK!" he whined. "What happened?" I asked softly.
"My friend lent me his apartment for three days so I got permission to leave the recovery house on a pass and went there and dropped all his acid and drank all his brandy and smashed up the house and I ran back here and they saw that I'd gone out and they threw me into the street! Now I have no place to go! My friend's back by now. He's probably looking to kill me. What'll I do? What'll I do?"
"Go to detox," said Carl. The man looked at him, astonished.
"Detox? I can't go to detox!! I'm middle-class!" How well I understood that pretense. But booze strips us down to our essentials.
"It's your only option," said Carl. And the man nodded his head and sobbed and I went up the street to the phone booth to call the Mobile Assistance Patrol van to take him in. For hours we sat with the man, waiting. And I told him the story of my last run. There I was, I said, living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Had a $60,000-a-year job. Married to an English actress and had a 1-year-old daughter, a little blond and blue-eyed angel named Isadora who would say, "Da'ddy, Da'ddy," over and over to herself as though I were ambrosia to her little soul. Had a garden out back where I'd sit at night in a lawn chair under a tree of heaven counting stars. Had sworn off the liquor for good, figuring that nothing, nothing, must ever spoil my chance for a beautiful life with this little girl, nothing on this earth! Belonged to a gym too. Got into peak physical condition. Was up for a raise at work; bringing in a lot of new accounts and money. Inside I felt miserable but I thought: "What the hell, I've always been miserable, it's just the way it is for me."
One day on my way home from work, passing through the twilit streets of my little neighborhood, I passed a local tavern, a real nice place for a respectable clientele, and I thought: "Why not? Why the hell not? Don't I deserve it? Look at how beautiful my life is. It'll be the proverbial cherry on the pudding." A bartender dressed in a red Eisenhower jacket was toweling a tumbler dry by candlelight. "Good evening, sir," he said as I settled onto a plush red leather bar stool and rested my elbows on the polished mahogany counter. "Evenin'." I smiled with a terse nod. "And what will you be having this evening?" I lifted a finger into the air: "Chivas Regal," I said and as he turned I lifted a second finger: "Make it a double." When he brought it I held it up to the candlelight and swished it around in the brandy snifter, its golden elegance proclaiming the vigor and achievement of my adulthood. I slammed it down with a gasp and said: "Gimme another," and that came and no candlelit reflection now, just down the hatch, and another and another, the bulkhead filling fast. I don't remember anything after the sixth.
I experienced a black roaring pain in my head and my eyes winced open to the vague chilly paleness of a Manhattan dawn sky. I was still dressed in my London Fog raincoat, still clutching my attaché. And I was lying in bushes in projects on 23rd Street in Chelsea, covered with vomit, urine and blood. I staggered to my feet to stumble off to work.
And now I tore through my little daughter's life with cyclonic ferocity; took to sleeping at the office on an inflatable Boy Scout mattress and spent the nights in Billy's Topless on Sixth Avenue and 24th Street, one of whose dancing girls was found decapitated and dismembered, her body parts boiled for soup and served up to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park. It was front page in all the papers. They found the killer too, a local nutcase version of Charles Manson. I remember the girl, a sweet Swedish dancer. I had stuffed a few bills myself into her G-string. It was that kind of place, and those sorts of people. I'd go home only to stuff some of my cashed paycheck into a measuring cup in the cupboard and then leave again to ride the subway back into Manhattan to Billy's. Once, late at night, I came home to leave some money. My wife didn't even bother to rise from bed. I put the money into the measuring cup and was heading for the door when I heard behind me the patter of little feet and turning saw Isadora, all of a year and a half, rush up and clasp my leg with her tiny arms and press her cheek to my shin and cling there, as if to say: "Please, Daddy, don't go." Never in my life had I ever loved anyone or anything as much as I loved her. I lifted her up, pressed her to me, kissed her cheeks with tears in my eyes, cradled her in my arms and returned her to her place beside her mother, who lay there in the dark staring wordlessly at the ceiling. Then I turned and left. I went back to Billy's.
When I need to drink, nothing, no one, can stand in my way, I told the drunk on the stairs as we waited for the MAP van. It's not a thing that normies fathom. Nor should they have to. I am living proof that life is not fair, because if life were fair, I'd be dead, slaughtered by the way I drank. Yet here I was, sober, and here was my friend and mentor Carl Little Crow with 18 years. If we can do it, I told our middle-class friend, then so can you. And I knew that he believed me, as only one drunk can believe another who has been down the same road and lived to tell the tale.
7. From across the street a man with glowing eyes leered at me. Farther on a pair of tattooed and toothless motorcycle freaks eyeballed me, plotting my murder, as I hurried down Haight Street. Like the man with glowing eyes, they had been following me for days and were all part of the same conspiracy. So too was a tall black man with a shaved head and wire-rim spectacles who received a signal from them and registered my presence as I passed his Mercedes-Benz. I knew that he thought I was an FDA agent sent to spy on his cocaine-smuggling operation: His eyes promised me a slow, painful death. By the time I reached the corner of Church and Market, I was faint with fear. I looked around for shelter, spotted a shop called Aztec Taqueria and made for it. But as I crossed the threshold of the steamy little shop I realized that this was the headquarters of an Aztec sacrificial cult who knew that I knew what they were: I had tricked myself into the lion's lair. Now I was really doomed. I couldn't leave, though. Paralyzed with terror, I stood at the counter. "What'll you have?" asked the counter help, a Mexican with tired eyes. My eyes shifted nervously to the open door of an office near the kitchen. Someone in there was staring at me. There was a video screen monitoring traffic. So that's how they did it! I watched to see if someone would emerge to close the store's front door, trapping me. But the counterman's voice was adamant: "What's it gonna be, man?" "Burrito," I stuttered. "Refried or whole beans?" I didn't know what to answer to this obvious test. The wrong response would unleash hidden minions in white uniforms rushing out from every corner to throw me onto the counter and hold me down for the high priest with the butcher knife. "For here or to go?" the counterman asked as he wrapped the burrito. He was looking at me strangely. Another test. "Here," I said. It was obviously the right answer. Only I had a plan. With shaking hands I received the burrito and paid him. A cauldron of white-hot panic boiled in my solar plexus as I made my way on wobbly legs to a table and sat down. I stared at the burrito without appetite, sure that a hundred eyes watched to see what I'd do. I must have looked white as a sheet. I just sat there. Had run out of steam. Felt ready to give up, stand, shout: "O.K. THEN, MURDER ME! MURDER ME!" It is what people who have completely snapped do in public with violent abruptness. Stand up on a bus or on a line, begin to shout about their crossover into the fifth dimension of insanity. Their way of saying that they hereby renounce their residency on Planet Normie. My plan was to sit thus until they tired of my surveillance, looked away.
I waited enveloped in sickening fear. I jumped up, suddenly, burrito in hand, and ran out the door. I hurried down the street sure they were on my heels and halfway down the block my legs wobbled and lost all feeling and I sprawled over the sidewalk. I lay there, 37 years old, paralyzed with terror, unable to walk, rise or speak, certain of imminent execution, not wanting to die, and so alone, so very alone. "Carl," I whispered, "where are you Carl Little Crow? Help me. Help me." And I saw Carl Little Crow's face before my eyes. He said pray for help to whatever you call your Great Spirit: Ask for protection. And so I did. I called upon the name of God in Hebrew, Elohim, remembered from my Bar Mitzvah, without a clue about what it named or meant. I called out that name in sorrow, anguish and defeat. And my legs regained sensation. And I stood up. And I began to walk normally. I did not feel the need to hurry. I still felt threatened by death, but walked in the valley of its shadow without fear. This was on Church Street in San Francisco, where later I bought a Jewish prayer shawl for a buck off a junkie selling stolen goods.
8. Carl Little Crow, where are you? Often I think of those times we spent together. It's been over seven years and can you believe it, I have gone that long without a drink and I have become a poet. It happened because you said to me one day as we walked down Haight Street: "What do you want to do with this great gift that you have been given?"
"You mean, sobriety?" I said.
"Yes. How will you use this miracle for the benefit of others?"
I didn't know. I said: "Maybe I should get a good job and set myself up, you know, more comfortably."
And you stopped and looked hard at me. "What were you doing when you went on your last run?"
"Earning 60 grand," I said.
"And was this true to your real nature?"
"Nah," I said. "It wasn't. I knew it. I hated it. And I hated myself."
"And haven't you learned here, 'To thine own self be true?!' Is this not the motto of our recovery? To thine own self be true!"
"Yah," I replied.
"So what is it you would do with the gift that is true to your being? Because sobriety is the Great Spirit's gift to you, but what you do with it is your gift to the Great Spirit."
And I said: "Well ... I've always had this fantasy to be a poet, ya know?"
And you jumped in the air, literally, finger pointing at my eyes and howled: "HO! Then that is what you must do! And never waver until the last breath of your life! And remember, the hawk is your spirit, in your work! Call upon him when you most need help!" And I have done as you advised. Since then, I have performed my work before audiences around the world. I live in a beautiful apartment with a woman named Diane, who is a kindergarten teacher. Last year, forgiven by her mother, I flew out to see Isadora, my daughter, so as not to be a phantom in her life: We got along like a house on fire.
Where are you Carl? Last I heard you were crossing the Southwest on foot. I want you to know how I am. My life is so beautiful now that sometimes I sit in a chair in my study just listening to the sound of my heart. There's a garden outside my window where birds sing. Doves and hummingbirds and sparrows and blue jays and robins. And there's a garden inside of me. There is a pond in which a great blue carp rests at ease in the shadows, unmoving for days.
I miss you, Carl Little Crow. I want to show you this place that I have found within, because it is you who first led me to it and helped me to plant the first seed. I see you laughing with glee, slapping your sides, rolling on the ground. I see you whacking at a coffee can with an oar, trying to get it open because we couldn't find a can opener. I remember you as though you were in this room with me now, strolling like a warrior down Haight Street, the proudest man I have ever known. I remember how your head bobbed like a mongoose and your eyes fixed on me with unflinching compassion when I told you that my mother had been in the Holocaust and had beaten me as a child. You said: "She was wounded and passed her wound to you. But that wound is the flower from which all will grow, if only you don't drink, and instead turn your thoughts to love and service for others." I am crying now as I write this, Carl Little Crow, unashamed of my feelings, another gift you gave to me. How your face, like a bust carved out of rock by a Mayan, would suddenly bear bright ribbons of tears caused by another's expression of pain.
Do you remember the trees you introduced me to in Golden Gate Park? There was the short black tree with white and yellow blossoms that you asked me to hug and I did, in front of a group of Japanese tourists. There was the immense redwood that you slapped on the trunk with a shout "HO! MY BROTHER!" and danced around while I stood by, bewildered by your energy and ignorant of your purpose. There was the eucalyptus whose leaves you snapped open under my nose to inhale and later brewed me tea from and told me of its healing properties. I remember how the little black birds that crowd the sidewalk outside the McDonald's on Haight Street would swarm over the sidewalk and sometimes land on your shoulder. Everyone around was too oblivious, consumed with their hamburgers, maybe consumed by them, to notice this extraordinary thing. "Yessssss, little brother," you sighed to the birds. "Ohhhhhhh, how are you, my friends? How is the food gathering?" And you'd listen. I swear it seemed like they chirped back.