Open When I Get There (Tenth Sobriety Anniversary entry, part two)

What does that mean? I asked him.  He says he’ll show me.  He led me down a short hallway and into a large, open space that had obviously once been used for worship.  It had a high, vaulted cieling, stained glass windows, and an unmistakable altar at the other end.  But now, dozens of filthy-looking, paper-thin mattresses lined each wall, and tinkling, calming recovery music was piped in from unseen speakers.  About a dozen haggard and hungry looking men shuffled about the open space, looking at me, sizing me up.

At night, we put the mattresses on the floor.  You’re welcome to one, once you pass the piss test.

Suddenly, I wondered just how much free will I really had.

For months, I knew I had fallen far in life, far from the promise I had been born with, far from the opportunities my parents had handed me.  I knew that I wasn’t winning at life.  But I couldn’t imagine I was quite yet ready to sleep on the chapel floor.  And yet, there it was.  How many options did I have?

I consented to begin being “processed” by the Bethesda Mission.  I peed in a cup and took a breathalyzer test (routines I was quite accustomed to by that point), signed my name to a few documents, and finally, helped the squat man behind the desk put plastic labels on my two bags and lug them up two flights of stairs and wedge them into a tight spot in what was essentially a attic crawl space, amongst the bags that belonged, I assumed, to the men currently wandering around to light tinkling music in the chapel below.

Once back downstairs, the man behind the desk informed me that dinner was at such-and-such a time, and worship was at such-and-such a time, but I was required to do nothing other than show up at 8pm, claim my mattress, and sleep.  I thanked him, and walked out into the April 2nd air in the largest city I’d ever been alone in.  It was still morning time.

I had been to Harrisburg before in my life, obviously, but never extensively, or on an exploratory basis.  From where I stood in front of the Mission, I had no idea how to get anywhere.  I put a cigarette in my mouth (thank goodness I still had some of those!), lit up, and started walking.  I had my uncashed paycheck in my front pants pocket, along with the “recovery medallion” that Roxbury had given me when I left.  I knew that I wanted to cash that paycheck, although I wasn’t sure yet what I would do with the money, which was somewhere around $400.  I would try to find a bank to cash my check.

I was immediately keenly aware of the danger that money would bring me.  Alone in a city where I knew nobody, with a newfound kind of freedom and $400, and bars on every block.  No sooner did I start walking than I snaked my hand in my pocket and tightly clasped the recovery medallion (which all of my fellow rehab patients had taken a turn holding and thinking good thoughts or praying on right before I left, wishing me good luck out in the big bad world) for strength, and silently repeated the Serenity Prayer to myself, over and over:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

I allowed myself the supposition that, for now, I could not change the fact that I was in Harrisburg alone with no transportation.  But I was in control of my state of sobriety.  I could drink or not drink, use the paycheck in my pocket to move forward or backward, good or ill, new life or old life.  I repeated the prayer over and over, squeezed the medallion, and looked for a bank.

I walked in circles around the foreign city for awhile.  So many people, cars, hustle and bustle.  I couldn’t for the life of me find a branch of my bank, but after awhile I remembered if you looked on a payroll check and saw which bank the check was drawn from, that bank would also cash your check, and voila, there happened to be a branch of that bank I had passed half a dozen times.  After wandering a little while trying to find it again, I suddenly had lots of money in my pocket, and the world was a new place.

Without the need to find a bank, suddenly, I was just…walking.  I had no aim.  Every bar that I passed felt like poison smoke reaching out onto the sidewalk.  I made a note of every single drinking establishment.  I must have eaten at some point but I have no idea what, or where.  I wandered and wandered.  I walked over just about every block of “downtown” Harrisburg multiple times.  The windbreaker I was wearing had been with me in the hotel, and throughout the second rehab, and often

A few months post-sobriety, a picture taken while visiting friends back in Pennsylvania shows the last time I remember having my "recovery windbreaker".

A few months post-sobriety, a picture taken while visiting friends back in Pennsylvania shows the last time I remember having my “recovery windbreaker”.

the wind would gust up and I would smell the curry and sanitizer and coffee of the past weeks wafting off my windbreaker and I would be reminded I was not normal, I was not walking these streets with a reason like these people in the laundered suits and Spring skirts and Gap jeans, I was not enjoying the weather or on my lunch break, I was not looking for crab legs to eat or a train schedule or a perfect shoeshine, I was in the blankness of life, moments unfelt and untested except by only the hardiest of fools, the biggest mess-ups, the winos, druggies, and prostitutes that we all think of as almost not people, there I was, in that space, in those moments.  At first as I walked in these moments thinking only the most direct thoughts: cross at this light, smoke another cigarette, don’t drink, don’t look anyone in the eye, cross at the crosswalk, don’t drink.  But slowly, block-by-block, step-by-step, the immediacy of these blank moments was replaced by the collapse of time and space around me.  I was now confronted by the delicate sound of book pages turning in a brightly lit room ten years ago, and the smell of those book pages.  I saw before me a beautiful Cocker Spaniel, named Cocoa—our dog in Newville, and I heard the jingle of her collar, and I was happy.  I felt the sun of a Florida beach with a woman I used to love, I saw her bikini top, I felt its slick fabric between my fingers.  A merry-go-round, smoke rising from an outdoor barbecue pit, the moment that a plane takes off, a white crane standing on one leg in the middle distance.  I found myself inside poems by Robert Creeley which I had memorized, with lines about cats drinking from too-big bowls, and women crying in rain, and people breathing in unison.  There were sheets with high thread counts, a woman moaning my name, my young friends and I trying to build a dam out of stones in the Big Spring, hot summer days with buzzing cicadas, ice cream splattered on a basement wall.  Suddenly, time and space uncollapsed, and glancing down curiously to my hands, I was saddened but not surprised to see I was holding a beer bottle, with two empty ones already on the bar beside me, and I was working on a pretty good buzz.

I had failed.  I didn’t know how, but I had failed.  I had allowed some force to carry me into a bar—a sports-themed place with cute flashing neons that I’d passed a few times already–and I’d drank two Yeunglings and was working on my third before I noticed.  And of course, then it was too late, so I just kept going.  And, I now had a plan.

I got a phone book from the bartender and wrote down as many phone numbers of cab companies as I could fit on the napkin, or the small piece of paper, or whatever I wrote them on.  I wish I still had that, whatever it was.  After about 6 or 7 beers, I paid my tab and left, and headed back toward the Bethesda Mission with a purpose.

I went right in to the squat man behind the counter—who surely smelled my plan before I even opened my mouth–and told him I couldn’t stay there, I just needed my bags back and I’d be on my way.  I am sure I was far from the first person to arrive there, leave for five hours, come back stinking of booze, and ask for their bags back.  He was very nonplussed.  Going back into the attic with him felt strange, though.  Like it had been five years ago that I’d wedged those bags in there, and literally lifetimes ago that I’d packed them at my dad’s house and then lived out of them in the wretched hotel.  I’d only left the bags there hours before, but they felt foreign, like passing a gallstone without any pain, or finding a silent daddy-longlegs in your bathtub before turning the water on.  Harmlessly other. 

Outside now with my bags, I used the payphone in front of the mission to call cab companies.  It took awhile to find one that would take me all the way to Carlisle.  When it finally arrived, it was a big white van with a kid no older than 18 driving it.  I don’t remember much about the ride from Harrisburg to Carlisle, but I know I was buzzed and you could smoke in the van, so I was a pretty happy camper.

I was having the cab driver take me to the Motel 6 in Carlisle, a place I had done plenty of drinking throughout my illustrious alcoholic career.  Very close to the Motel 6 is a dive bar called the Bar-B-Q, where I had him stop first so I could buy two six packs of Busch “pounders”, and then I had him stop at a nearby convenience store so I could buy a phone card to call my parents and tell them I was alive (this is slightly before the “everybody has cell phones” era).  Then I was dropped off at Motel 6, and I was off to the races.

During the phone calls with my parents, it was decided my father would pick me up early the next day and take me to his house in Newville, where my car was currently sitting (a 1983 Ford Escort which I had named Earl Grey, on which I had put a bumper sticker that said Honk If You’re Driving), and I would drive my car to where my mother currently lived in New Jersey, with her husband John, so I could try staying sober somewhere totally new.  Plans decided, I hunkered down for a long night of beer drinking.

Truth be told, I didn’t drink very much of that beer.  I was so tired.  Tired physically, and just tired.  And lonely.  Terribly, terribly lonely.  I had two or three of the Busch pounders, set the alarm and called the front desk to set up a wake-up call, and I fell asleep with the TV on.

I woke up with a start.  I hadn’t been too drunk the night before, and I was oddly alert.  I was not optimistic for what this day, April 3rd, 2003 held for me, nor was I pessimistic.  I just knew I had to go on living.  I have found this to be the only thing I am sure is true: until the day you die, life just keeps happening to you, all the damned time, no matter how you feel about it.  So I got dressed and showered and ready for my dad to arrive.  For reasons I don’t understand and via mechanisms that are beyond my ability to convey, I never even considered, on that morning, popping open and drinking one of the beers on the bedside table.  When dad came and picked me up, I left them sitting there, warm and innocent, for some housekeeper to throw out, or enjoy on their lunch break.

I had never done something like drive by myself for two hours from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.  An act I perform almost without thinking today was monumental then (although, remember: no cell phone, no GPS, although my dad had printed out the MapQuest directions, bless his heart).  The drive and subsequent arrival at my mother’s home in Flemington, New Jersey could fill up an entire book, but suffice it

Mom in the dining room in the Flemington house, spring 2003

Mom in the dining room in the Flemington house, spring 2003

to say: I arrived, and I can’t remember ever having been so glad to have arrived somewhere.

And so it was that I started this new version of my life that day.  I spent that Spring in New Jersey gradually exercising my newfound freedom over alcohol, as well as forming the basis for the interests and habits that would eventually define me in the years to come.  I read and wrote like a maniac.  I went places and walked around in the warm sunshine with no real destination.  I listened to music in the 1983 Ford Escort from a boombox that I sat on the passenger seat floor. I tried not to worry about too much.  My mother and John created a safe, warm environment for me to get well in.  It was a splendid time in my life.

Just a few days after getting sober, petting my favorite cat ever, Angel, in the Flemington house

Just a few days after getting sober, petting my favorite cat ever, Angel, in the Flemington house

Very early on, I wrote this poem, “In Flemington”, shortly after walking around downtown Flemington and just having a grand time (the kind of aimless exploration that would come to be a hallmark of my new life) but also while experiencing some bittersweet lovesickness for a woman who was back in Pennsylvania and I was missing very much. It is her I am talking to in the last few lines:

In Flemington

On the corner at a small shop I buy a coffee
and take it outside with me.
In the air it steams to cool,
in communion with the breeze.
Strolling east, the cars and bicycles
are sparse today, even birds are few,
this close to downtown.  Passing the laundromat,
sweet, pungent softener assaults the nostrils
and the rumble of coin-op dryers is melancholy and promising.
Turning left onto Reaville Avenue a small boy
eight years old if a day
sits on the curb just sitting there
drying his hair in the sun like the sidewalk
and I almost say hi to him.
The coffee cools quickly in the chill afternoon,
I almost turn back to buy another,
but think better of the three dollars I have left.
I sidle into a quaint bookstore to gape at magazines,
the lives of others and kitchen equipment
glossy and flaxen, and the portly
latina by the register eyes me
and she is beautiful in that way
only latinas and llamas can be beautiful:
using solely the eyes.
Asking her if there is a restroom, she grudgingly gives me a key
knotted to a large wooden block
as if this were an interstate filling station,
and points me to the back corner,
but the door is open when I get there.
Safely locked inside, my pants stay buttoned
and I use only the mirror, studying my lines,
the old souvenir red blotches, reminding me
of lives and moments, other bookstores
or towns; some oversize pores poke peskily
into view begging for me to wash my face more often,
but not right now, not now, a time and place for everything.
Giving the key back to the girl, I emerge onto Main Street
and suck deep the stunningly new air,
amazed by the realization that you are somewhere far away
occupying real space
breathing just like me
and smiling right this instant,
your eyes gleaming like little coins.

And so it came to pass that, even after Flemington, and then Carlisle again, and Erie and who knows what else, that life just keeps on going, no matter how I feel about it.  The early elation of new recovery slowly gave way to simple contentedness, and sometimes even less than that.  That’s life, I guess.  But I have very little to complain about, if you still care, after reading all this.  I fart around and look at things and watch silly little movies and pet some cats, now and then, and generally am very happy and take myself pretty seriously, in a harmless kind of way.  Today, it’s been ten years since I drank, ten years since my dad picked me up and I left warm beers sitting on a hotel end table and I drove all by myself to my mom’s house in New Jersey.  And although the luster, like everything tends to do, has faded, I still poke around little towns on sunny Spring days, just to see what I can find, and the doors are usually open when I get there.

Ten years later, with Dad.  April 3, 2013

Ten years later, with Dad. April 3, 2013

Ten years later, with Mom.  April 3, 2013

Ten years later, with Mom. April 3, 2013

22 Responses to “Open When I Get There (Tenth Sobriety Anniversary entry, part two)”

  1. Adrienne McGuire Says:

    Loved. It.

  2. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    Equally as compelling. My questions still remain though :).

  3. George ann Says:

    Congratulations. On ur ten year sobriety keep up the great job. Take care

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Thanks George! Hey I stopped in at the old Carlisle Eat ‘n Park yesterday, and Marie is still working there! If you’re ever in the area, I’m sure she’d love to see you!

  4. Love you, my wonderful son.

  5. LOVE this. Your writing is as good as ever, especially the section where time collapses on you, just brilliantly written! And congrats on the accomplishment!

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Thanks! I am especially proud of that part. I actually saw that section coming a mile away, I was actually kind of salivating to get to it—that’s the kind of writing I love doing. In point of fact, when I read the entry, I think that section is too short, but I know most people don’t love reading that type of writing. But I’m glad you like it. And thanks!

  6. This was fantastic. Every day, you prove that you’re better than you were at that low point.

  7. Congrats on another year, and an entire decade well-lived. I wish you many more, though the real joy is in the time spent and life experienced in getting to each milestone, no?

  8. I love you so much Noodle. I’m so proud of you. You continue to blow my mind even after 18 years of knowing you.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    I was glad to read this and learn more about you, Pistachio, and congratulations on 10 years of sobriety! My ex-fiancé (and still my best friend!) was 10 years sober last year, I am proud of both of you! : 3

  10. […] Anyway, I usually have some fancy blog written up for the occasion, but I may finally be out of good “anniversary” blogs—maybe until another major milestone year (although I’m sure I’ll still randomly write about the topic, despite the fact that I’ve now been sober more than twice as long as I drank…it’s still a damn interesting topic).  But I did want to take this opportunity to link those who may have missed them to last year’s anniversary entries; it was a two-parter in which I recounted, for the first time, the days surrounding April 3rd, 2003—the day I got and stayed sober.  Part one can be read by clicking here, and part two can be read by clicking here. […]

    • ShipGurl Says:

      I actually think you’ve hit another milestone by not having it in your heart to write an entry for this year’s anniversary. Thanks for sharing this glimpse of your life. I can remember the days when you were “that guy” only from what your sister told me, she would always be so worried about you. But I never had any idea how extreme it was… Your story amazes me. And your family amazes me even more. Always have.

  11. […] sober for good the next day.  I wrote detailed posts about it.  Part one is here and part two is here.) Karla and I now live just a few blocks away from the Bethesda Mission, the homeless shelter I […]

  12. […] and interested, I detailed the days I got sober in a two-part blog, part one here and part two here .   There’s a dandy of an entry on the topic here.  Here is a good one about when I was […]

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