Crash Course: A Reporter’s Journey into Prison (excerpt)
“Don’t even try to get yourself out of the mess you got yourself into.”
– Probation Officer Dumas-
Cattle call, morning District Court where, on most days, a pile of people pack the benches and hallways, waiting to be arraigned on a mishmash of mess-ups. Waiting, and more waiting. Finally my name is called, and I find myself standing before Judge McElroy, hoping we share some genetic, clannish affinity with the verdant heathlands where Scotch whiskey was born.
‘Ms. Ross, how do you plead to a third offense of operating under the influence?’ “Not guilty, your honor.”
For the first time ever I really mean it. I wasn’t drunk, but driving to the gym to fight off a hangover from a nasty five day ‘relapse’. This is how the Beast works. Once it suspects it’s being shut-off for good, as in attempted sobriety, it exercises vengeance like a rabid dog announcing: ‘I was once your loving, loyal pet, now all I want is to kill you!’
This one interrupted my longest stint of chemical abstinence and clarity since declaring I was an official alcoholic. It was a flash of forgetting that all of my sadly addiction insanity had already ended my marriage, broken my child’s heart, put my career on a defibrillator, and me into rehab and prison. But, any drunk will tell you—-we’re always the last to know and the slowest to own it.
I was driving an ancient Volvo with a lethargic clutch, sick from a toxic hangover. On a mission to speed the evaporation of the lingering alcohol basting my cells with a good shot of gym-triggered dopamine, I popped the clutch. The car lurched forward, stalling at an uphill stop forced by road construction. As I struggled to restart the old car, a cop car pulled up behind me. I’d been recently granted a ‘hardship’ license that allows twelve hours a day to exercise survival skills like getting to work and picking up kids, a small mercy for a convicted drunk driver trying to hold the fractured pieces of her life together. In my rearview, one of the cops flags me over to the shoulder. Either bored, or genuinely concerned, he asks me to perform a field sobriety test.
‘Goddammit, won’t you guys ever leave me alone?” I growl.
“Go ahead,’ he says, “stand up right now and take ten steps heel-to-toe without losing your balance. Then, stand with one leg held straight out in front of you without wobbling.”
Try those two poses right now, without wobbling. I can’t even touch my nose with my index finger with my eyes closed sober without missing my nose two out of three tries. A cop once asked me to say the alphabet backwards. Backwards? (Turns out, that’s illegal.) Another told me to say it ‘without the song, honey’. I wasn’t singing the song, I was honoring the rhythm by which almost all of us Americans learned the alphabet: ABC (emphasis on) D…EFG (pause) HIJK-elimeno P! (pause) QRST (pause) UVW (pause) XYZ, now I’ve said my ABC’s, Tell me what you think of me.
“You’re under arrest, that’s what I think of you,” Was his laconic response. OUI number three.
This time is different, though. I’m not drunk, not technically anyway. Just hung-over and needing to sweat the booze out on the stationary bike. Pissed, and impatient, I just want to go. I do the ten steps backward and the stork dance. I’m not drunk. The cop will see that, and wave me on, vindicated like a patient finding out his carcinoma is really just a bad zit. Right?
Wrong. The rules of engagement change when you’re on probation, from slightly negotiable to zero tolerance. One millionth of a millimeter is enough to set the Breathalyzer on apoplectic mode. An expert at being a drunk, I know the beast’s physiognomy. A hangover is the unpleasant sensation of vestigial alcohol still doing the rounds. Not enough to maintain the buzz, but more than enough to swear-off alcohol forever, at least until the next drink begins the cycle again.
Still, I did what every drunk driver is advised to do and every probationer knows is complete surrender to the system―I refuse the Breathalyzer.
‘Not guilty, your honor.’ I say in the wearily resigned voice the punitive echo chamber of court fosters. I am standing alone. If you’re wondering why I went into this round without a lawyer at my side, I do too. All the lawyers I’d called simply said, ‘No problem. Just go to the arraignment. Plead not guilty and call me when you get home with the next court date.’
What I don’t know, yet, is that my alleged ‘lawyer buddies’ are intentionally keeping their distance. Nobody wants to witness the equivalent of my entering the Coliseum to be ripped apart by lions. I’d just ripped through three OUI’s in nine months without ‘doing real time’, thanks to their legal ‘nit-slickery’. They were communicating to me, soto voce, the grim sidebar of lawyer-speak, reciting the classic definition of an addict’s insanity, ‘You’re fucked. I’m not interested in getting involved with someone who just had her ass saved and went out and did it all over again.’
Similar to mandatory drug sentencing laws, the statutes on drunk driving don’t leave much room for judges to be judges. At the moment, a 1st is sixteen weeks of drunk school; A 2nd is ninety days in prison, or a two week residential drunk program; A 3rd is six months; A 4th is one year. Killing someone drunk driving is five years minimum mandatory. Lives would have been saved for a lot of people if our country had imposed zero tolerance for drunk driving around the time cars were invented. That’s when every other country on the planet deployed zero tolerance to wisely wipe-out the death and sadness brought by the American drunk’s mantra: ‘Hmmm, am I too drunk to drive? Naw!’
Things are going…uh…sort of well, when suddenly, from the front row, Probation officer Dumas jumps up. A Napoleonic squirt of a probation officer, Dumas is smitten by an ailment common to entry-level authoritarians: a deep and unsatisfied desire to be a cop or a lawyer. When a probationer is in trouble, Dumas gets to play prosecutor.
‘Your Honor!’ He squeaks, more Jimmy Olsen than Perry Mason, ‘This is her 6th OUI, not her 3rd!’
‘But the police report …’ McElroy begins flipping through the inches of legal documents my alcoholic wilding has generated.
Dumas shakes his head. ‘The police report is wrong!’
The judge rolls his eyes and sighs, ‘Take her downstairs until this afternoon so I can have some time to figure this out.’ A court officer moves in on me with handcuffs. When I pass, Dumas gives me a smug grin. Joel, sitting in the back row of the gallery, tilts his head. A strange glint of pity and relief crosses his face. As he stands to leave, like a guilt-absolved Catholic after Mass, he tosses a supportive little wave my way as I disappear down into the caged catacombs.
Lock-down. I have a fashion suggestion to those Vogue magazine photo spreads of emaciated, exhausted crack-whore waifs in smeared eye shadow and torn fishnet stockings: A professional woman in a Liz Claiborne suit mournfully sitting next to a metal toilet in handcuffs.
A pro bono lawyer (for ‘pro bono publico, Latin, ‘for the public good’; or basic American for ‘free legal service when in deep shit’) sidles up to the grate in the court basement holding tank. Pro bonos are either fresh out of law school pups, or old, beat hacks. All lawyers are ethically required to be in rotation to provide their services for the down and out, but the well-established wriggle out of it with well-connected excuses. The only time an upper- echelon lawyer will take on a case for free is when it’s a high-enough profile case with juicy media exposure. Law school pups are still inspired enough to believe that justice exists. Judges are typically sensitive and accommodating to their virginity. The elders generally suffer from profound burn-out, like the alcoholic ambulance chaser Paul Newman plays in the movie, Malice.
“Welcome to another $70 an hour gig,’ I say to my Birkenstock-shuffling variation on Paul Newman. He blinks at me, startled out of his paper-shuffling torpor, ‘How do you know that?’
I’m too exhausted to tell him I’d just done a story on a protest to increase pro bono pay in Massachusetts to match forty eight other state’s wages.
‘I don’t know.’ I nod toward the thick pile of paper he’s holding. ‘Whaddya think?’
‘Hmmmm,’ he says, then pauses, “So… a Joel O’Brien called the police on you? “
My mouth falls open. “That’s not right! Is he here? If he says he didn’t call the police on you, the police report is wrong and they can’t really carry a case against you.”
He nods. “I think he left. But, he’ll probably come back.” He pauses to shuffle through my thick deck of crime and punishment. I’m still reeling from the thought—-Joel called the cops?
He stops reading, looks up. “Woah. This all began in 1982?!”
I stare past him. “Umm, it actually began in 1973.”
Grimly, he does what all rule-bound men do in times of great confusion, he reshuffles the stack of papers on his lap. Laboriously, page by page he dissects my rap sheet, until the resolve of his official examination becomes as unmoored as a toy balloon caught in an updraft.
“Don’t bother.” I say, nodding toward the file. “It’s not in there.”
What I don’t say: it’s here. In my heart, where the pain still lives.
“Want a beer?”- The rapist-
Prep school. Everyone in my socio-economic stratosphere was shipped out of our blue collar town after 9th grade, the last grade available in Fitchburg’s only private day school. To me, and most of my fourteen and fifteen-year-old, socio-economic peers, it’s the developmental equivalent of teaching a kid how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool. Even though New England’s prep schools are like adolescent daycare, going meant leaving home for good—an unspoken truth of growing up in New England’s ruling class. Everyone went—smart, dumb, pretty, plain—–it didn’t matter; there was a prep school waiting for you and your parent’s tuition check. Like a cultured variation of juvenile detention, preppies found ways to make it have the fun adolescent chaos is supposed to have, but no one I know in my family will deny it basically sucked. I now see being packed-off to prep school as the ruling class version of ‘going street’.
I was shipped out to Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Wellesley,Massachusetts, located on an exorbitant and languid piece of suburban real estate about fifteen minutes out of Boston. My sister Sally had just graduated. To me, she has always been a role model of enviable normalcy. She does her work, affablely. Not brilliant, in the Beautiful Mind kind of way; but far from dumb. That was the clientele Dana Hall was designed for, women far more willing than I was, or ever will be, to live happily normal lives with a successful man and raise great children. Sally seemed authentically happy being there.
I signed up.
The only class I really remember was called: Math 3 Slow, before the politically correct manners rolled in. For the record: I smoked pot. I dropped acid twice in Dana Hall’s comfortably worn dormitories. File it under youthful experimentation. I’m very sure if what happened in my seventeenth summer hadn’t happened, the alcoholism Beast would have remained a well-behaved old mutt, and all my toking and tripping and tipsying would have remained stuck in time, a prep school girl’s pleasantly distractive rite of passage, not a viciously destructive addiction.
Cigarettes, alcohol, and heroin excluded, under the right circumstances, ‘experimenting’ with drugs for us baby boomers was about transitional readjustment, our privileged imitation of the Native American practice of a vision quest, sending adolescent boys off into the woods or desert to eat psilocybin and become men through a spiritual epiphany. When I got stoned, I giggled at the macro-world, unfettered in my micro-universe. My thoughts became circular, eccentric, and lucidly Technocolored. I hallucinated, and experienced hyper-realization. I drew, wrote, danced, and listened to music. I’m not suggesting that piling on mind and mood altering drugs is a sure path to wisdom and insight, but I do think a phase of dabbling can enhance our epiphanies. Long afternoons riding bikes, sitting in tree limbs, exploring ponds, inventing goofy games, studying library shelves—-stoned—helped me peel back the onion, drop the neurotic cacophony of learned self-image and simply be myself. Stoned was also an escape; at the core of things Dana Hall wasn’t much more than an expensive, but monochromatically bland high school. Much of what it taught me I’ve discarded.
I do, however, vividly remember the weekend that changed everything.
‘So, like, come to my house on Nantucket for the weekend …. ‘
Maggie stuck her head into my little dormitory single. Living roommate-free is a prep school perk as rare as it is in prison. In prep school, it’s by lottery. In prison, no fucking way.
I glance up, probably from drawing, or reading. Definitely not from studying for a Math 3 Slow quiz.
‘Really?” I grin. ‘Nantucket? Cool.’
Weekends were a controlled substance in my prep school era. You received a limited amount that expanded with seniority. Therefore, they weren’t to be wasted on minor impulses. Nantucket, her rich parents’ summer house, a small collection of my buddies? That was definitely worth spending a weekend on.
We boarded the Nobska, the quaintly anachronistic Nantucket ferry. It had once actually run on steam, and had traveler-scarred, mahogany benches, and an earsplitting brass foghorn that ricocheted off the placid harbor waters as we churned away from the Woods Hole dock. My Dana girls hung together. As usual, I wandered alone, and explored, like a cat discovering a new house.
‘Hi.’ A deep voice behind me. I turned, fell into the deep azure eyes of a black-haired man’s youthful, ruddy face. He was grinning, as if just beyond the edges of small-talk lurked a rollicking, mysterious punch-line.
‘Hi?’ I said back, in that shyly lilting, questioning way young girls have always responded.
I don’t remember the details of our conversation. The random encounter that irreparably scarred my life no doubt began with casual banter. A flirt. A joke. His dancing eyes. At second glance, he was older. But I was charmed, and unafraid. ‘Want a beer?’ He asked.
Said the spider to the fly…
Looking back at the face that will forever live vividly in my brain, I’d guess he was barely thirty. Even a seventeen year old in 1973, long before we had the gift of any cautionary hindsight, knew a thirty year old doesn’t…shouldn’t…offer her alcohol.
My next question was practical, a gift of my dormant Scottish thrift, but also titillated by forbidden fruit. These were the days before teenagers grew brazen enough to flash Photoshopped ID cards.
‘Do you have to buy it?’ I asked.
“I do.” He grinned, and walked over to the lunch counter.
I wandered to a nearby table, a kind of nautical breakfast nook with wooden bench seats, and sat down, watching the man rummage around in his pockets for a few bills. He returned carrying two large plastic cups, brimmed with sudsy foam and icy sweat. He was smiling. The cups had blue lettering, and a jolly doodle of the ship taking us to sea. Freeze frame. A stranger is carrying drinks. A girl is waiting. Beyond the thick glass window, a warm, moonless night hangs like black velvet over the gentle surge of a silent sea.
I was unafraid, and the beer tickled my tongue. The night was a song only I knew the words to. Somewhere, across the narrow breadth of the plodding, iron ship, the Dana girls were probably wondering where I’d disappeared.
I wasn’t raped because of the beer. I wasn’t drunk, but I could have been. I’ve certainly had sex with many people I wouldn’t have had sex with sober. No, I was born with a damaged fight or flight instinct. I followed the blue-eyed monster to see what a private stateroom looked like. I believed he appreciated my curiosity and was happy to show me his ship. I didn’t walk to that tiny sitting room, with its rickety set of table, chairs, and sagging divan, feeling sexy or ready for physical intimacy with a stranger. I was a virgin. I had a completely differently dream that the first time would be making love, without a knife to my throat. He hadn’t made any sort of overt suggestion of a sexual motive. His looming rape was carefully orchestrated. Why ruin his chances by intimidating a seventeen year old? Even one born with a smaller-than-average brain quadrant to control defiance, mischievousness and reckless abandon. When I was a child, I ran with the wolves and suckled on tiger’s milk. What harm could a blue-eyed rogue offering gifts and gab possibly do? Why hesitate when he says, ‘Hey, want to see one of the boat’s staterooms?’ when the rest of the story is so brutally commonplace it seems barely worth mentioning. What was so special about me, a girl at seventeen, footloose and attractive, well-heeled, smart, and fearlessly curious? Who’s really to blame? I chatted with a stranger, accepted an underage drink, flirted, and felt the warm blush of coy sexuality high on my cheeks. And worst of all, I told no one. About the man, his knife at my throat, or the rape. The next day, someone took my picture. I am running at full speed on a pristine Nantucket beach, entirely airborne. Half of me is facing the ocean. Half is running away from it. Always my damned duality. I am running and flying, barefoot in blue jeans and a loose, long sleeved shirt. I can still taste what still hasn’t coalesced into the cool file cabinets of distant memory. It’s as if the blood hasn’t yet dried, yet no one can see it. The old Nantucket steamer is now scrap-ironed into the dust of maritime history. If only my memory could be scrap-ironed that easily, by muscled men with sledgehammers and cutting torches. If only my pain was like a piece of rusted steel, something that could be ground down, melted, painted over. My friend took the picture to capture what she assumed was frothy, springtime glee. I didn’t, couldn’t, tell her. Denial, a river in Egypt. It’s part of my training. My mother’s daughter holds her exquisite agony inside for as long as possible, like a deep diver swimming down, down, holding her breath as long as she can without actually drowning.
“Ego is nothing but dangerous”- Richard Dreyfuss-
My court-appointed counsel, Attorney ‘Birkenstock’, dangles the documents in front of my face. I peer at them and notice a date, 1982, and those now familiar words, Operating Under The Influence.
“Judges don’t like it when they see this as something that has lasted for years.” He cautions. “Is there anything about this that can make it seem part of a traumatic event?” I wonder if Attorney Birkenstock has been talking to my previous lawyer, or if they just hold the dream that finally, a judge will call what I’ve done a ‘justifiable act of madness’.
“Will it help that 1982 was a huge wake-up call that inspired one of my life’s most productive stages ever?” He blinks at me, uncomprehending. Nobody ever said you have to be people-smart to get through law school, or possess a working appreciation for the comic absurdity of the human condition.
“If Joel shows up to say he called the police on you, you’ll be alright. For now. I’ve got to go make some calls.” Lawyer-talk for ‘You’re up shit’s creek. I’m going to lunch.’
“C’mon Ross, we’ve got to put you back in lock up” court officer Gary gestures for me to follow. We pass an unlocked door.
“God, I’d love to just step outside for a minute,” I say, convinced I’m about to emotionally rupture under this brash, fluorescent lighting. He glances furtively over his shoulder. “C’mon.” Shoving the heavy door open, he leads me out onto the back steps overlooking the parking lot, launches into his judicial forecast.
“You don’t have the best lawyer or the easiest judge, but you’re going to be alright. This court is getting really sick of that little bastard Dumas tossing everyone in jail for anything he can come up with, and the cops are always screwing up arrests.”
I listen intently. This is good material. It doesn’t take long to learn that the omnipresent sages of the court system are clerks and court officers. They know everything and everybody. I am standing with my eyes closed and my face tilted to the weak, November sun, trying not to want a cigarette.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Gary asks, “How old are you?”
My eyes still shut, I tell him, “My soon to be lost forever driver’s license says I’m forty eight. At the moment? I’m stuck on seventeen.”
“C’mon Ross, I have to lock you up.” Gary has clearly had his fill of watching women lose it in the courthouse bowels.
During my seventeenth summer, and for decades after, I never told a soul about my rape. But I was privately processing the trauma, terror, and shame attached to what so many young girls accept as a normal rite of sexual passage. I went from being an openly smart and happy ADD teenager to a subliminally fearful and insecure PTSD teenager. Dropping out of prep school, I got my General Equivalency Diploma and moved to Martha’s Vineyard. I was on a high octane trajectory to forget and move on. Every bit of what happened went into the psychic bin labeled-BAD SHIT, HEALING FROM. It seemed to be working. I moved into an apartment on top of the Edgartown post office with three boys roughly my own age, all members of the same Peter Pan/Dharma Bum club who were New Jersey pals aspiring to be jazz musicians.
Our life together was jovial, supportive, and sweetly kindred. There was no sex—except when one of their girlfriends showed up for an occasional overnight. We drank beer to quench a summer’s thirst, not to self medicate, and rarely set the dinner table. In our various ways, we were all slightly addled. We began a game to see if we could read every book of every author we collectively chose. We went from Jack Kerouac to Anthony Burgess, to Berthold Brecht to James Joyce (well, we made it through Ulysses), to Dylan Thomas to Kurt Vonnegut.
At winter’s end, I went looking for a job. A fresh notice tacked onto a bulletin board announced, House Cleaner Wanted Immediately. I called a number, (remember pay phones?) and was summoned to a modest, clapboarded bungalow perched atop a modest island hillock. It looked nothing like the upper income, grey-shingled island home I’d mentally constructed. Wandering into the murky gloom, I called out. ‘Hello…?’ The vestibule opened up into a modest ski-lodge style great room, with a stone fireplace and knotty pine paneling. A voice from the kitchen called back, ‘We’re in here…’
Three men were sitting around a table in a kitchen lifted from a time capsule. I could imagine Lucille Ball bending to slide a devil’s food cake out of the retro shit-brown oven before Ricky Ricardo came home late from the Copacabana. I smiled at the trio, assumed they were golfers or sailors or off-season visitors briefly liberated from their out-shopping wives.
Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider smiled back at me.
Could I start tomorrow? Steven asked. He was in town that summer to direct his first ‘big time’ film, a fish-bites-man horror flick called Jaws. He’d cast Richard Dreyfuss as the nebish marine biologist. Roy Scheider was, well, Roy Scheider, and of course played the tourist town chief of police bucking the small town myopia of ‘Shark? What shark? Shhh…don’t tell the tourists’. All three were poised on the dizzying precipice of superstardom and none of us knew it.
For now, they simply needed someone to make the beds and clean the toilets.
Richard says I was hired because I looked a little and acted a lot like a young version of Katherine Hepburn. We were all young. I was in recovery for the first time and didn’t know that either. Richard was a young Jewish actor on the verge of being confounded by fame, easy sex, and large amounts of adult substances. Roy Scheider was an actor’s actor; an unflappable, career-steady, nice guy who taught me the Canadian Mounties work-out and never once seemed any different than the character he played in the film: A good-hearted guy who says things like: ‘Then why don’t we have one more drink and go down and cut that shark open?’
I’d start my work day by first raiding the refrigerator. Their other domestic hire was a great New England-style cook who was fond of making things like cheesecake, potato salad, cranberry-pumpkin muffins with a side-stash of unsalted butter, and roast turkey. The stuff any all-American teenager who had been living on salted peanuts and coffee could easily consume in large quantity at any time of day. In the living room Steven had installed a large, futuristic device, the size and shape of a phone booth, with a miniature television screen. It was called Pong, the world’s first video game, which kept me enthralled for hours, instead of dusting and vacuuming. In the age of Iphones and wafer-thin computers, I would love to see my son’s response to this quaint, Rube Goldberg toy. It would likely be the equivalent of how us baby boomers reacted when our parents’ generation gleefully showed us how to make ice cream with a bucket and a crank—stupid!
Spielberg loved gadgets. Some days, when it was classic New England spring seacoast weather—foggy, wet and chilly, I’d take advantage of his traveling whirlpool bath. It was a lawnmower-engine-sized machine that you plopped into the tub, and seemed vaguely dangerous to use, but I did. Doing so motivated me to clean out his bathtub with the fervor that comes from hiding the evidence. Then I’d clean the rest of the house. Sort of.
My laissez faire job commitment exemplified a bumper sticker I once saw: Artists make lousy slaves. In my case it could have been Traumatized Rape Victims Make Lousy Cleaning Women.
But there was a higher power in play. Within about two weeks, Richard and I became lovers. Despite the fact that his motivation was boredom, not love, he taught me that the term ‘making love’ has a lot to do with putting in the time and attention to your lover’s satisfaction. He is also a smart, sweet man who was ultimately more interested in brain, not the legions of buttocks and boobs that began throwing themselves at him.
My dog Bill had a habit of jumping up onto the low roof over the restaurant of the hotel where Richard spent the next four months. He liked his privacy, eschewing the boy’s bunkroom atmosphere of Steven’s rented bungalow. The hotel had a no-pets policy, so Bill crawled into the window of the room, while I came up the stairs. One day, I found Richard and some chick on their knees looking for her….something…wallet? undies?….that had clearly been kicked away during some amorous flailing. It was a classic sit-com moment, with no laugh track. I stared down at them. The bed was a tousled mess. Richard leap to his feet with awkward apologies…’uh…hi Pip….’ ricocheting off my stunned silence. There was nothing left to say; just another version of another long-ago Joel saying “I can’t be your boyfriend; you’re in sixth grade, I’m in ninth.”
I closed the door behind me and walked slowly down the stairs.
It was a time and a place where a young woman with a dog could safely wander. I steered us, dented heart and faithful dog, towards the ocean. To hell with libidinous, self-centered actors. I was learning fast how to keep my own peace.
We hitchhiked, Bill and I, on down the yellow brick road. Martha’s Vineyard in the seventies was a paradise embraced by casual, hippy-tainted conviviality. Within minutes we were picked up by a guy named Peter. Seeing my obvious distress, within a few more minutes he asked ‘Do you want to stay at my house for a while?’
‘Okay,’ I said. Somehow, I knew he was safe. Unlike the Nobska rapist, I recognized him as one of my tribe. Of course, the inevitable, gently persuasive proposition for coital congress emerged, but I wasn’t ready. ‘No thanks,’ I told him.
‘Okay.’ He shrugged, ‘Want to help me make a cassette?’
Peter Simon was another kid, like me, born of the once ruling, but now dead or destitute, class. His father was the curmudgeonly Simon of the Simon and Schuster empire, his mother a smart, no-nonsense doyenne. His sister Carly was an emerging superstar songbird. He disc-jockeyed, photographed, and networked. Another thing we both shared: a crash course with the sleeping beast of genetically assisted alcoholism.
One day, Peter and I went over to Carly and James’s house to do what we do a lot of when young and dreaming—- ‘hang-out’. I instantly nicknamed Carly the ‘Stallionorita’. Her long legs, giant mouth and testy domination made me think, ‘no, actually—you’re so vain…’ To my eighteen-year-old impoverished delight, she generously dumped a huge load of her clothes onto her bed for me to ‘take what you want…’ As I began to plow and harvest the fine crop of the famous rich ‘n tall, she popped her head through the bedroom door and breezily announced: “Know what? I really should keep this stuff. I love to give things away, but I’ve got to learn to stop. Some of these things I’ve barely worn.”
I wandered outside to sit by their swimming pool. A tall, lean man with dark hair and a mustache wandering out of the woods, who I recognized instantly as James Taylor. I’d memorized pretty much every lyric he’d ever written, but knew nothing about him. The first rock concert I ever went to was to see him and Carole King play at the Fitchburg Massachusetts Civic Center. I was thirteen and the joint was only about half full.
I watch, fascinated, as James walked to the side of the pool and, fully clothed, lowered himself in up to his neck. After a while he put his face down into the water, as if he was snorkeling. A minute, then two, ticked by. I begin to seriously worry; my internal clock is gasping for the air he hadn’t come up for. ‘Fuck it’, I thought. ‘I don’t care if I come across like an obsessed fan, I’m going in to check on that guy.’ Hopping in the pool I say to his floating, soggy back, “Uh…James?’ Just as I reach for his arm, he pops out of the water, coughing, and stares at his scared-looking, teenage lifeguard. The drowned man speaks: ‘Whoa…..uh, thanks. I’m a little, uh, y’know…’ He gives me a goofy, conspiratorial smile. ‘Don’t mention this to Carly and Peter, okay?’ I quickly nod. Even before I become a member of the vast keep-getting-high-a-secret club, I immediately understand his request. The real irony: Decades later, when I was a card-carrying drunk, a clean and sober James Taylor lived a couple of miles away from me in the Berkshires where I had ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go on the journey my alcoholism took me.
Back to tony Edgartown, Bill and I bump into Richard. “Oh my God—I was so worried about you…” He gushes. He apologizes. I listen. Our talk wanders from bruised hearts to popular culture, meaning, naturally, the movies. ‘American Graffitti just changed everything. It’s like I’m being edified over doing something that’s not altering significant, cultural events—it’s a damn goofy movie.’
I shook my head. “It makes people happy, idiot. It glorifies the fifties, an era that’s been eviscerated by the arrival of make-love-not-war, civil rights, and hippies like me who aren’t really doing much of anything.”
The subject turns to fame. He offers his lovable crooked smile with an avuncular nod that says, ‘Are you done being funny? I mean this, so listen….’
“I’m a short, sometimes fat, Jewish boy. I’ve been laid, but it’s never been like this―with women, all kinds of women, handing themselves over.”
“Is it, you know, fun with those real, live grown-up women?” I ask.
“It’s interesting. It’s not bad….but I’ll tell you what, when you grow up a little more and I don’t feel inappropriate with you and your little girl body…you are going to be one amazing woman. You are already are an amazing woman. These other women who have to be somebody by fucking someone they consider a life altering prize…that’s a person of very low self-esteem.”
I shrug. “Can I have some money to buy dinner?” He hands me a ten-dollar bill. In 1974, that was enough for me to buy a large bag of Kibble and two blue plate specials at the Oak Bluffs Diner.
Watching the making of Jaws taught me the 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration equation of creativity.
“He’s a goddamn idiot.” I heard Spielberg mutter one day, referring to the location scout who’d picked Martha’s Vineyard to shoot a potential blockbuster. Anyone who has lived, or visited longer than a day, knows the New England coast gets a pea soup, sock ‘n lock more days per year than just about anywhere on the planet. Shooting was waylaid, delayed, and resulted in hours of poker played with the $125 a day ‘expense money’ by the unionized film crew who had nothing to do but wait. It offered another life lesson: I’m too dyslexic for cards, especially Five Card Stud, the Texas Hold ‘Em of the 70’s.
The movie groaned under monumental technical glitches. Whoever designed the three hydraulic sharks for the role of the Great White, Bruce, was another ‘goddamn idiot’. Watching from the beach as an extra, along with scores of per diem hired islanders, I witness the sharks pop upright out of water like flipper, roll over, belly-up, and smash into things like underwater camera men, again and again, forcing everything to be put on hold until the mechanical choreography was resolved.
Somehow Spielberg survived his cinematic trial by fish with brains, artistry, and plucky determination, a fledgling career nearly torpedoed by bad weather, bad sharks, and a bad case of over-budget. Richard had his own share of rogue sharks, as ego attacks bolstered by a hit film and idol-worshipping women pea soup his sunny disposition. But it was filmmaking, the awesome social power of high-tech story-telling, that most amazed me. I saw the completed movie and was scared witless, along with everyone else in a crowded New York theater when a dog named Pippin wanders into the surf and gets eaten, in a salty roil of crimson gore, by the indefatigable killing machine.
My fifteen seconds of fame, I guess.
By fall I’d had enough of the Vineyard’s eternal battle between blue collar and blue blood.
“Ready to join the world, kiddo?” asks my avuncular paramour, Ricky D. when I announce, “I’m off this rock.” We hug. Little does he know how much he’d rescued me with love from rape.
How I spent my summer vacation.
“You got great talent, Hon. Now stick out your bum a bit more.”
-The hairstylist of Lexington Avenue-
“I stole a bike fer chrissakes! I have to go to jail for stealing a fucking bike!?”
CO Gary is locking a twenty-something guy into the men’s holding pen beside me. We’re segregated inside, even though men and women can all see, smell, and hear each other. I have my standards; I don’t like people who steal bikes; hurt women, children or animals; pollute; or steal from someone poorer than they are. Criminals have the same social systems as everyone else. Judgments are made; friends and enemies are picked; Tribes and sects form based on a sense of superiority and purpose.
“Have you dumped your teenage years?” CO Gary says, handing me a sandwich and a bag of chips from the local sub shop. In this moment, it’s one of the most wonderful feasts I’ve ever eaten.
“I’m thinking about how pissed I was when someone stole my bike when I was about eighteen living in Manhattan.”
C.O. Gary shakes his head and walks away.
At eighteen, after the summer of Jaws, my dreams are impressive. Artist, filmmaker, writer, dancer, editor, animator. Moving from the Vineyard to Manhattan, my urban life begins. I take care of a wonderful elder four nights a week for pay and a big bedroom. I stay on the floors and couches of various friends and acquaintances in between. I take dance and movement classes at the Alvin Ailey School and The American Mime Theater. A nod to my three Hollywood musketeers leads me to The Actors Studio, where Brando and Marilyn Monroe studied Stanislavsky method acting. I draw and model at the Art Students’ League. I learn how to edit video from an independent producer. My boyfriend’s grandmother, an IBM heiress, doles out rehearsal passes to the Metropolitan Opera and The New York City Ballet. A friend works at the Paris Review, a dense literary quarterly launched by George Plimpton, a journalistic everyman who wrote fantasy bestsellers about throwing major league fastballs and getting clobbered by NFL linemen. I receive invites to George’s famously eclectic salon parties. At one of them, the iconic novelist Norman Mailer gets drunk and ornery and tries to pick a fight with Mohammed Ali. Ali, an amused gentle giant, played along, then suddenly grabs Mailer, bends him over backwards and kisses him on the lips, with the visual passion of the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square. It’s a priceless New York moment. My best friend Olga is dating Arnold Schwarzenegger, another not-yet-fully-famous I get to sleep with. I mean sleep. One night, we all get extremely drunk and conk-out on Olga’s bed. Waking up in the morning I discover that one of the future governor of Cally-fawn-ey-uh’s pectoral muscles is nearly twice as large as one of my ass cheeks.
Life was fun, funny, and full.
Then my bike got stolen.
It was a great job: Bike messenger for Manhattan’s independent movie industry, delivering film canisters all over town. Except for the noxious symptom of ‘diesel lung’, my days were filled with the excitement of negotiating Manhattan traffic and the promise of meeting creative people who inevitably ask, ‘Want to come in and see how we do it?’
The theft was a cruel epiphany. It was my autonomy, my mobility, and my only possession of real value. Its loss no doubt helped pulled the scab off my seventeen year old rape wound.
Not rich enough to replace my work wheels, I found a new job at an upscale, upper East Side hair salon. I was hired to do what quickly seemed comparable to wiping a grown man’s bottom. Men in spotless three-piece suits wearing dirty toupees would arrive for their appointment looking sheepish and dour. My job was to comfort them as I snipped off the toupees sewn to tufts of their remaining hair. After handing over their grungy human-hair pad to the person who dry-cleans the furry yarmulke, I wash their heads. Having worn the toupee for a month, their scalps look and smell like they’d dipped into a vat of rotten cottage cheese. When their freshly laundered wig returns fresh and shiny, I carefully sew it, tuft by laborious tuft, back onto their heads. Needless to say, taking these men through the removal of what is to them, their youth and beauty; cleaning-up their Gouda- cheese-scented scalp-skank; and returning them to a refreshed self-image generates mighty good tips. Helpful, but not good enough.
“Are you going to pay me?” I kept asking the upscale, grease-ball shop-owner. “I’ve been here for a month. I need to be paid.”
“Oh sure Hon. But first, do me and my friend a favor. We need to get some pictures for a hair, make-up, and clothes line we’re trying to develop. Will you be our model?”
The proposal seemed like an opportunity. I could recycle the pictures as head shots that I’d need for auditions.
“Here Hon, put on this outfit,” He hands me a yellow silk, button-down blouse and a pair of patent leather black stilettos. I pause, waiting for the pants or skirt before heading to the bathroom when I get the sign I ignore. “Hon, just put it on here. We have to set up the camera.”
“No skirt? Pants?”
“Naw, it’s a, um, head shot, but take your jeans off so they don’t bunch up your shirt.”
Once again, the behavioral void where normal people’s fight or flight instinct lives took over. I took off my clothes and put on his costumes. It seemed real. Studio style lighting, a good camera, directorial prompts. It’s fun. I get to exercise my fledgling actress.
“Pull off your underwear, Hon…”
“No bra and panties and we can really show your dancer’s muscles. It’s art, Hon, don’t worry about it.”
Eager to display my professional ability to take direction, I slide out of my underwear. A wine bottle is popped. All inhibitions are out the window, so, at their urging, I offer up more risqué poses. Not Penthouse crass, more like vintage Playboy innocent, my mind groggily justifies.
The next day, I walk into the office to ask, one more time, when I’ll be paid. Nobody home. On his desk are a stack of photographs; graphic close-ups of my ass and pussy. Not a single shot of my face, a shirt, or a leg. On the desk is a night deposit bag. Furious, I scoop up my pictures and the bag, hustle out the door and sprint down the stairwell to avoid the elevator. Hitting Lexington Ave., expecting the accusing scream of sirens over my shoulder, I run and run and run, finally stopping to tear up the pictures and throw them in a trash can. He knows nothing about me beyond my name! He tricked me! It took me hours of attacking the bag with knives and scissors to find the $1, 638.00 inside. Nearly forty years later, I’ll never walk down Lexington Avenue again.
My Paris Review friend tells me I can go talk to Mr. Plimpton about maybe doing some work there. I am invited to stop by his apartment in the evening. His wife greets me and shows me into what I assume is his office. She leaves and shuts the door behind me in what feels more like a bedroom suite of deep oriental rugs and book shelves. Out of the bathroom emerges Mr. Plimpton wearing a silk bathrobe. I don’t remember anything that was said. We talk for not much more than a minute when he unties his robe, exposes his chest and penis and coyly inquires, ‘Are you interested?’
I get up and leave with the incredible urge to ask his wife, ‘Do you know you’re pimping for a letch?’ Out on the street, with about sixty blocks to hoof home, a standard, Manhattan style nutcase approaches me and launches into his mad, soapbox diatribe: ‘You wanna know what the fuck is wrong with you and everyone running this country right now? You’re all Satan’s fucking allies….’ I look at him and trump him with raging, contorting, screaming lunatic rant as pure as my inner madwoman can be. He stops his hysterical screed, mid-drool, freezes, turns, and runs.
The next night, I go to a party, get drunk and go upstairs to have sex with a stranger, breaking my poor boyfriend’s heart. I don’t really care.
And the beat goes on.
Within a week, I get another job as a live-in housekeeper-kid sitter in a swank upper West Side apartment of a forty-something man and his teenage daughter. The first night, awakened by the powerful scent of roses, I see my employer, standing over my bed, naked, clutching a huge bouquet of roses, his erect penis within inches of my face. The next morning, I leave Manhattan for good.
“This is a felony, but we’ll ignore it this time…”
-Registrar of Hampshire County Department of Motor Vehicles-
“Hey! Officer Gary! What time is it?” I bark like a caged mutt. In a few minutes he wanders to my pen with some verbal kibble.
“You’ve got another hour until the judge goes back in session.” He says. “You’ll get out. You can get a good lawyer. Then you can tell the story that your asshole boyfriend dropped a dime because he was pissed off at you.”
“Being an alcoholic is like carrying a genetic time-bomb that needs only an emotional trigger to blow,” I tell him. “Only problem is that my ego keeps blocking the view.”
“Jesus Ross, you’re coming across like you’re high right now. Don’t pull this shit in the courtroom—you’ll definitely be looked at as a threat to public safety.” I watch him walk away with another ‘welcome to the monkey house’ head shake.
After Manhattan, I move to what’s known as the ‘Happy Valley’, the Western Massachusetts flatlands where the Connecticut river flows, softly corseted by green undulating hills. It’s deeply agrarian roots are wonderfully jazzed by the intellectual fuel of Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke colleges, and the University of Massachusetts. To satisfy my creative wanderlust, I stumble upon radio, which is really theater without makeup or costumes. I become a disc jockey in the wonderful days when you could actually create a musical ‘set’, segueing one song to another with few commercial interruptions. I especially adored the part where I could talk to a lot of people, say almost anything I wanted excluding the seven deadly words made famous by George Carlin—-shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits—with virtual impunity. I quickly graduate to the world of on-air news at WMAS, in Springfield, a two-hour commute for a two-hour gig. I attend the cheap, pay-as-you-go University of Massachusetts, and try out another variation on sobriety—anorexia.
Adopting an eating disorder was door number two on my quest to achieve sobriety. Just like early sobriety, the act of not eating requires a lot of discipline and determination. It gave me back the power and control I’d annexed over to the destructive wiles of men. Like being drunk, or on the ‘pink cloud’ of early sobriety, there’s a physical high attached to not eating. Like being drunk, or sober, my obsessively fasting body survived and adjusted fast. I learned that when I denied my stomach’s food-anticipating growl, it eventually shut-up and satisfied its yearning by gorging on its own fat stash. There’s a light-headed bliss and pride attached to the liberation not needing food brings. I got myself down to ninety seven pounds, living on a couple of rice cakes with a spoonful of peanut butter a day. I didn’t need to lose weight, (I was a normal, healthy 125 pounds); what I needed was the feeling I got: I am in control!
Then, along came cocaine, a drug that prioritizes food lower than cleaning the toilet. You will, it promises. Eventually, but not now.
I want to create a bumper sticker that reads: ‘Hey, don’t blame me, it was the eighties’ After the disco decade whimpered away, cocaine arrived on the scene depicted as innocuous, pharmacological jellybeans passed around in bowls with straws at parties, or the tiny glass vials used as sexual barter trinkets by men. For me, the Pavlovian response to the proffered powder was always, ‘Sure, why not?’
Almost everyone in my age camp—including a district attorney and several cops I regularly tooted with—walked the Alice in Wonderland tightrope of mixing alcohol and cocaine. One pill makes you smaller, one pill makes you tall. Cokeheads who moonlight as drunks, and vice versa, have to develop the skill of an anesthesiologist to keep the patient alive. Too much of this, too little of that, and the trouble begins. Impotence and OUIs are the most insidious side-effects.
I left a disco in 1982, buzzed, not quite ready for prime time, and popped out onto Rt. 9, the shopping center strip that rips a traffic-packed scar through beautiful valley farmland insulated by vibrant stands of maple trees. Within yards of exiting the parking lot, I first swerve to the left to avoid two hitchhikers, and then back to the right to pick them up. A cop, like a shark in the shallows, tracks my moves. The hitchhikers bolt. I am arrested. OUI #1.
In the state police barracks, I’m booked and miraculously allowed to use a private bathroom. Studying the ounce of cocaine I’ve stuffed into my underwear, my addled brain ponders this incredible gift: to destroy the evidence. Want to know just how relentless addiction is? If I had the answer, I’d make millions marketing it to every drunk and druggie who has pulled a comparable act of dim-wittery.
Incredibly, I put the full baggie back into my underwear.
New rules, things change: After bail is paid, I’m told, ‘Ross! you need to have a strip search before you leave. Go in there.’ In a small anteroom, a uniformed female watches intently. I do a strip show just for her. Shirt, bra, shoes, socks. Somehow I manage to politely chit-chat with the matron. Talk local politics. Make her laugh. Anything to delay reaching for my belt. Last ploy—-shyness: “Wow. This is embarrassing.” I tell her.
“Don’t worry about it.” she says, studying my body, “There’s no way anything is stuffed inside pants that tight. Just pull out your pockets, we’ll call it a search.”
Cocaine blues. I sold and snorted the ounce. Moving to Boston, I wind up homeless and repeatedly beaten by a drug-dealing Chilean ‘boyfriend’. All this within a year of my first regrettable inhalation of the potent powder. A drug for which I’ll give one tiny credit with which most addicts concur, it’s easier to give up than any of the others, which I did. But, in reality, drugs are a dalliance, like cheating on your husband; a serious side trip having little to do with the destination. My sweetheart wasn’t the coke. My true love came in a bottle.
As a first offender, I was sent to a sixteen week, two-hour-a-week drunk school. Don’t know what it’s like now, but back then it was as if Rod Serling was narrating a 1950’s public service movie on ‘The Evils of Driving While Intoxicated!!!’ It was the next step up from the cautionary movie all graduating seniors were once shown called The Last Prom. Cracked-up jalopies and dead kids on the highway.
At drunk school, ‘students’ were locked into a worn-out ‘classroom’, shown a grainy, 16 mm reel depicting drunks as lost and evil as nocturnally-driven werewolves. The ‘instructor’ left the room for a cigarette and a jawbone with staff down the hall. Returning just as the take-up reel began clattering, he loudly demoed his weary disgust by saying things like, ‘So, obviously, driving while intoxicated means you don’t care much about anything, do you?” We all nod our heads in agreement, thinking of catching a ride with those still driving to the nearest bar or liquor store.
Rocky Mountain, without the high. Halfway through drunk school, my Colorado big brother sends me an airplane ticket to Denver for a recovery time-out, and to rescue me from my psycho-dealer boyfriend. I leave without telling court. This was the early eighties, when my intoxicated, but driving, mother was still regularly chaperoned home by the police, before Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, (M.A.D.D.) took the lead to force us to see the prolific danger of letting numb, dumb, and chemically unhinged people operate three thousand pound missiles.
Denver is…fine, but not an easily walkable city. I needed a driver’s license. So what to do? Fill out the paperwork saying I’ve never had a license. Take the driver’s test. Get a license. Easy. Colorado’s crystalline sky and more physical then intellectual populace makes me return to the moody climate and intellect of Massachusetts. As my Colorado license expiration looms, I ask my law student boyfriend. ‘What should I do, counselor?’
His advice is dangerously simple. “Keep the lie going. If they catch you, say, ‘Oops! Gee, I thought Colorado was telling me everything on my record was all clear. Doesn’t that make this their fault?’”
I get a Massachusetts license, but when I leave him after falling in love with my future husband, hurt boyfriend calls the Department of Motor Vehicles, forcing me to pay a lawyer $500. We go and have a ‘talk’ with the DMV Registrar. Miraculously, again, the whole thing is shoved under the rug, or into the glove box, or whatever it is they do at registries to look the other way. Are you beginning to see my learning curve? Lie; use lawyers; ignore what makes the messes—–and everything is going to be alright.
“God respects being lawless when needed”
-Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley-
Her little alabaster face, no taller than Sister Theresa’s, calmly gazes up at me.
“I want to get baptized.”
She smiles. “That’s interesting. The class starts tomorrow.” Her porcelain bird’s face grows radiant. “It’s twelve weeks. If you make it, you’ll get baptized by Cardinal O’Malley who’s coming for his annual visit.”
I have no real interest in Catholicism, but can’t help but notice that everything happens for a reason. Not an easy concept to grasp when tossed in prison for a few reasons that go far beyond my need to get sober.
All five of us baptism/confirmation aspirants gather in the ‘little chapel’, a room at the end of one of the ‘Old Admin’s’ long, haunted hallways packed with the lost souls stuffed into America’s first women’s prison. Lizzie Borden, by the way, is not among them. The story that Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41’, is grossly inaccurate. She was exonerated. It was allegedly a pissed off nephew who did it. She never did time in the country’s first women’s prison. I’d love to hear the little rhyme about me circulating newsrooms: ‘Pippin Ross took a pen, and gave a mittimus to her friend. He scanned and altered and redesigned, ’cause of that, she’s doing time.’
Forgive me Father, I sinned in the very first step of the process—I lied. I’ve already been baptized. I’ve played for the other team, as a Fitchburg WASP. The Catholic forbid encore performances in the salvation department. My first baptism had an odd origin. I was ten. My sister Sally ‘got religion’ and wanted to be confirmed along with all of her thirteen year old anglo-buddies. Problem was, she’d never been baptized. You can’t spiritually evolve until the Adam and Eve slate gets completely cleaned with the spiritual dip. I remember it well. The aptly named Father Goodness did it. He was also the first person to ever pick me up hitchhiking. I can’t help but wonder—was that an act of Christian charity or a dormant pedophile? My favorite part of getting baptized at ten was that I was allowed to pick my godparent’s. The gender-based rule I was told to follow was two women, one man. I picked my Aunt Nancy, my official namesake of the legal name I was given that got snuffed when my oldest brother, Jeff, glanced into my bassinet, took one look at my premature-birth, reddish-purple tone and made his Pippin pronouncement.
Thus began the genesis of my name. Despite the fact he got his arboreal facts skewed–Pippin apples aren’t little and red, but big and green—the name stuck. Because it was a good radio name, I finally had it legally changed. Aunt Nancy took it well, and has diligently written illegible, but loving, one-line scrawls to me since I entered jail. I also pick two people who have forever and always been my favored elders. Liz Courtney is the mother of my childhood buddies, her three daughters and one son. She was a free spirit before hippies morphed from beatniks, who floored me with such radical acts as having a music room in her house with nothing but gigantic KLH speakers and a grand piano. I secretly adored the way she was fed breakfast in bed every morning by her loving—not subjugated—-husband, and how she took me to see the double feature of Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant. My godfather choice was Mac McVikar, a prodigal son of New England’s paper industry before it crashed and burned in the 70’s due to cheap out-sourcing from which the six states have still not recovered. He was an avid sailor of yachts, and ultimately, a remarkable artist. I thought he was unbearably handsome. Fact? He looks like you. Good features with fascinating flaws. Eyes that cast nets and pull me into a trawler of wit and wisdom. Both of you are unintimidating studs to whom I want to give every ounce of exactly who I am. Smoothly witty and captivating, while still soft and available. I once told him, ‘If you weren’t so much older, I’d want you as my husband, not my godfather.” Mac lost two consecutive wives to alcoholism. Having dedicated forty seven years to women who dedicated themselves to our drug, my godfather, now with the angels, paid for my first rehab with a loving caveat. ‘Don’t be the 3rd woman I love who dies from this.”
It’s a promise I will never break.
Once I passed God’s lie detector test, which I suspect good sister Maureen knows I flunked due to her heavenly radar, we got down to work on learning the Seven Sacraments. A tutorial in why we are how we are, and how to manage the fights between the devil and angel that we all know reside on our left and right shoulder because we learned that growing up on Loonie Tunes cartoons. Our instructors in the religion quiz were Carlos and Tom, two seminarians from the nearby priest boot camp. Carlos is a spunky little Hispanic probably born, like me, too early. Tom is tall and angelic, a central casting priest with a warm, godly familiarity. It took me about ten minutes to commit to the fact that I was doing this, therefore I had to do it right, which for a reporter, requires many questions. They didn’t sugarcoat their answers. No mushy ga-ga. No authoritarian mandate. The reason I don’t like Catholicism is that it’s got far too much guilt-imposing power over gullible believers. Then, of course, there’s the pedophilia thing. Out of all the religious events I’ve ever attended, it is also seemed to be nothing but white men with upside down trash baskets on their heads saying things to me to which I’m expected to say ‘Amen’ despite the fact I’ve not a clue what they’re talking about, or I completely disagree.
‘Why does Catholicism put a heavy emphasis on guilt?”
Carlos leaps onto that one like he’s Ricky Ricardo and I’m the ditzy Lucy: ‘I think you’re missing the point, Pippin. The point is to not have guilt. The truth is that as hard as we try, we’re always guilty of doing something wrong. The really cool part? Divine exoneration. You get to confess. The point of confessing is that you get to walk away—guilt free!’
Wait a minute. Is this why A.A. meetings are always in church basements? Confess and that’s that? Free and clear? Does this suggest then, that confession and forgiveness is what getting to heaven really is about? No wonder court is hell! Confess and you go to jail.
The twelve week course lays out a simple narrative: life (often and in unexpected ways) sucks, then you die. Therefore, the best way to live it is exactly how Jesus or Buddha, or Jehovah, or Jihad, or whomever you want to deploy as your mentor, do it: Be nice, ask for forgiveness, share, turn your Glock 9s into ploughshares and yes, Dorothy, there is heaven on earth, except in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Makes sense based upon the fact that here I sit in jail over, basically, a hangover, and I’ve never been more focused and accepting. Go figure. Alright, I did chicken out on two questions: What on earth is the rational of celibacy? And, do you see the possible connection between sexual repression and doing altar boys–or is that just something provoked by wearing robes instead of pants? I did ask about the DaVinci Code. They hadn’t seen the movie nor did they plan to read the book, or the next ten sequels. I thought for sure it would be a book being smuggled in and circulated around the seminary, the same way the Framingham profile called A World Apart is smuggled and circulated here.
On baptism day, I am officially nervous. Nervous in my favorite way: Graduation day nervous, opening night nervous, radio deadline nervous. Not the kind of life or death agitation going to court or before the parole board brings. Cardinal Sean O’Malley passes me with his contingent in the hallway. “I know you …. ” He says. That one stops me in my atheist-waning tracks. His Eminence looks like a thinner version of Friar Tuck, who was modeled after John the Baptist. He’s Franciscan, a ‘meek shall inherit the earth’ ascetic who dresses down in earth tones; rope-belted robes, no over the top Vatican-bling. He’s dedicated his career to his flock of jailbirds and homeless shelter habitués. I’m in my whitest, cleanest t-shirt and my best—and only—blue jeans. I picked my official confirmation and baptism name to be Augustine, in honor of your middle name, August, and my grandfather, Augustus. Saint Augustine is a good choice. He stumbled into divine illumination after being a wild drunk.
I am asked to read from the Book of Isaiah, Verse 42. ‘To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house… I have long time held my peace; I have been still, and refrained myself: now will I cry out like a travailing woman.’
There is definitely something going on. First, Cardinal O’Malley has a strange glint. There are a lot of us here, but his eyes kept landing on me. His sermon began with, ‘When I was a kid, I loved radio. I still do, but back then, I was obsessed with listening to the radio.’ He then plunged into the moral of O’Henry’s famous short story, Gift of The Magi, which embodies our struggle with duality: Be ready to give each other whatever it takes to make each other happy, but not quite able to achieve, under the current circumstances, what we want to give each other on a daily basis. Still, frustration notwithstanding, there’s a whole lotta love.
I am then summoned up to the big water bowl. Just when I bend over to be dipped, the sun suddenly pops and pours through a large window to stage left. It is a burst so powerful, a soft gasp goes through the chapel prompting the Cardinal to say softly, “Now there’s a definite sign from God!”
A camera clicked. Next time I go before parole, I think, I’m going to bring the snapshot.
There are several Ross and O’Malley photos from that day. As we pose side by side, I say to him, soto voce, ‘I’m writing a story about all of this. I’d like to come talk to you when I get out.’
He smiles. ‘I know you are. I can tell. Come see me anytime. It’s a good story.’
And so I was baptized. I suppose technically this makes me a Catholic. We’ll see. I can always file an appeal.
Dorothy: [singing] The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch / And suddenly the hinges started to unhitch / Just then the Witch / To satisfy an itch / Went flying on her broomstick, thumbing for a hitch!
-The Wizard of Oz-
Andrea, my prison therapist, says, ‘You seem good’.
Being described as ‘good’ in this place offers a rush probably on par with learning your cancer is in remission. The odds are tough, the prognosis promising. She leans forward. ‘Am I right? Are you good? If I’m wrong, describe, please…’
“I hate to admit it, active system-trasher that I am,” I begin slowly, “but I’m feeling a strong hit of recovery and redemption. I hereby feel corrected.’
Andrea isn’t surprised, despite my authentic lack of usual cynicism. In fact, my eyes well-up with a gush of emotional relief so genuine she bursts into a big smile and lays aside her western psychiatric script to quote Buddha, “Before enlightenment: Chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment: chopping wood and carrying water.”
Framingham’s mental health department is the epicenter of the conflict over how to right us wrong-doers. Do we drug them, or get them to finally feel the edge of prison’s sword? Do we spend money on therapy or let them pound rocks? There is a famous sheriff in Texas who does just that—his inmates live in sweltering army tents and wear pink underwear, like an old Jim Crow chain gang played by the Village People. A growing philosophical fissure exists: How best to handle societal fuck-ups, even if most of them are merely crazy, desperate, or wrongly accused? A hundred years ago, women bunked with their babies. Five hundred years ago they were burned at the stake, because God gave the executioner special dispensation. The undeniable truth is that at Framingham, Howard Street, and Berkshire County House of Corrections, I experienced the most productive soul-searching with in-house therapists than I have anywhere else—-a $20 thousand rehab, and seventy five bucks an hour on a soft couch included.
The help ‘em or hurt ‘em civil war is played out with therapists locking horns with the suits in the front office, or in Framingham’s case, with petty bureaucratic myopia.
‘Let us spend the time to make the women really work on what’s wrong. Lay down the law to stop so many psychotropic drugs being doled out!’ cries the contingent of therapists who invented the nickname ‘chemical restraint’ for all the brain suppressing drugs available to almost anyone who asks. But Framingham’s Bissonette’s comfort zone is budgetary; time and money. Drugs are cheaper than staff, and benzo’s keep the tin cup rattling to a minimum. Attrition among saviors is high. About every six months, I lose another good therapist who’s either walked in frustration or ‘walked-off’ as part of DOC’s ‘down-size’ mandate.
America’s drug war doesn’t end in prison. In the seven thousand degree ‘waiting room’ women in the agitated throes of emotional and physical detox whisper, ‘Just ask for Kolonopin and Seroquill for now, they’ll jack it up to sumpin’ better when you start saying, “Ooooooo,oooooo, it’s not working….”
The benzo-doling psychiatrists are the drug lords, not the therapists. I was repeatedly offered drugs to remedy my jittery, but highly creative oppositional disorder. “You really don’t seem safe….” They’d mutter, in response to my explanation that my angst was no longer due to alcoholism, it was mostly from the system in charge of my punishment for the escape that never crossed my mind.
“You’re a bit more than depressed.”
Speaking of shit, the unexpected high of happiness I’ve achieved while being here reminds me of something Nick did while in his early-stages as a toddler. Many mornings, I’d go into his room to collect him from his crib. The olfactory factory wafting from his doorway made me know exactly what I was about to encounter. He’d be standing in his crib, yakking gobbledy-goop, covered in poop. His hand-eye coordination had matured sufficiently to rip off his shit-stuffed pamper. This evolution could be measured in weeks, like time-lapse photography of a flower blooming. For fun and function, he’d have shit smeared everywhere—body, face, wall, bed. The shit didn’t bother or interest him. His thrill of the moment was to see his mommy. The poop was what it is―a part of life easily washed off.
“What do you think of as central to your sense of what you call ‘redemption and recovery?’” Andrea leans forward.
I stare to a distant corner of the room, my introspective look. It only buys me time, and first choices are rarely the right ones. “It’s like this…I pay very little attention to how and why I feel the way I do. I just do. It’s all about getting very comfortable with how often things don’t go the way I want them to. The more often I think, ‘Oh well’, the more I notice what does go well. It’s acceptance. Case in point: I feel good to be sitting alone in a room with someone who wants to do nothing else but talk about me. What I like best of all is that I’m doing what would easily cost a hundred dollars once a week in the real world. That, and the free calcium prison gives me, make me feel pampered by your tax dollar!”
Andrea stays on point. “What are you accepting?”
Do you ever get that urge with therapists to say, ‘Can you stop asking me these endless fucking questions about how I feel and why?!’
I cradle my forehead in my hands. “Gawd! … Alright, here’s the absolute bottom line of everything that went wrong to get me here.” She looks up expectantly. The patient’s self-revelation, Christmas morning for therapists. So, of course, I milk it.
“Drum roll, please….
I pulled a Dorothy.”
“A Dorothy, y’know, the Wizard of Oz. Her plot line is exactly mine. What Dorothy experienced is how I went in and came back out again.”
Andrea, slightly bemused, adjusts in her chair as though settling in for a bedtime story. “Please….explain.”
When I was about ten, we had a black Labrador named Jenny. She was loving, likable and unbelievably fertile. Three summers in a row, she pumped out a litter of at least ten pure bred pups. Jenny taught the basics of how sex and procreation works. One day, while waiting for her to be impregnated by her stud of the month, my mother and I walked in a field. In response to my question of how exactly this mad humping creates puppies, mom gave me the finest sex talk probably ever delivered. The memorable punch line being: If you love, or at least really like someone, sex is a wonderful and fun experience that includes all sorts of great feelings. In response to my ‘what feelings?’ She explained, in your heart, in your head, and all over your body. Sex has one very special feeling that is all its own called an orgasm. Here she stops and turns to me to say something that clearly comes across as the most important thing she’ll ever tell me: Don’t have sex because you feel like you have to, only have it because you want to. Also, think really carefully about having a baby. My ten-year-old response: ‘Why? Don’t you like having us?’
With Jenny, I watched close-up, birth-pain, dog style. I watched as Jenny ate and licked the placenta detritus from each puppy before getting the next one out. One night, during a wild summer storm, Jenny went missing. I experienced my first spiritual connection, my first real empathetic ‘feeling’. I knew she was giving birth, and had gone away for some privacy. After searching outdoors in the driving rain, I heard the tiny squealing of brand-new puppies. Jenny had gotten herself deeply tangled in the ten foot high, ten foot wide Forsythia bush that girdled our long, country driveway. Two puppies had been squished to death in the stormy birth. How Jenny and eight others survived offered an awesome lesson in nature’s power, including my fierce determination to be their caregiver, to find and transport everyone safely back inside. Jenny also taught me independence. During warm months, when not pregnant or maternally-bound, she’d split. She’d clearly get the urge for going—and strike off down the road. As a preventative measure to ensure her return, she wore a highly detailed I.D. tag. Once we got a call from a guy in New Hampshire, seventy miles away from Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I rarely worried. I was born with the faith that after a good wander, there’s no place like home.
Andrea nods, relieved that I’ve finally made a reference to my promised plot.
“Jenny was killed by a lumber truck.” I explain.
Andrea nods again. In my file, I’m sure she’s profiled me out as a trauma survivor. The death of a cherished family pet is probably a textbook example of a child’s first exposure to the psychic gut-grip of grief.
Therapists love dreams. I tell her one I’ve had recently: Growing up, I lived on a road that peaked at a place called Bingham Lumber, a sawmill that made all sorts of building supplies out of the giant trees lugged up Pearl Hill Road. I’m tied down to a conveyer belt, like a heroine in an old-time silent cliffhanger. I’m headed for one of the mill’s giant saws. Ahead of me on the belt are champagne glasses that shatter upon contact with the massive blade. Around me are sweaty men wearing lumber jackets nonchalantly working. Nobody notices my predicament.
Andrea is bent over her pad, quickly scribbling, like a reporter at a press conference.
“I’m not even close to the finale.” I tell her.
We kept one of Jen’s pups. Because her official name was Lady Guinevere, his official name was Sir Lancelot—I was born in raised in the Camelot era of the Kennedy presidency. Lance was a great dog who was also killed by a lumber truck. What I remember well about that day is that it was the first time I publically snapped. I walked into a 9th grade math class, late from processing my trauma of the morning. The math teacher, who was also the headmaster of my private day school challenged me, “Who do you think you are wandering into school whenever you want?”
“Fuck off !” I screamed back. then burst into tears, “My dog was just killed by a fucking lumber truck!”
Fast forward. 1973. At seventeen I’ve been raped on the ancient Nantucket ferry, the steamship Nobska, which leads to dropping out of prep school. I don’t graduate. In my world, unthinkable. A puppy I name Bill wanders in, stage left. No dog has ever been more extraordinary in his brilliance and allegiance than Bill. His level of wisdom involved skills such as knowing the scent of the dog officer on Martha’s Vineyard, which meant to hide to avoid being impounded. As the companion to a nineteen year old girl who brazenly hitchhiked everywhere, with his size and demeanor he presented an excellent combo of friendly and accessible, but brutally dangerous in a pinch. After having left him behind at my parent’s house for several months in my lackluster and troubled attempt to ‘become something’ at film or theater in New York City, I scoop him up and start a new life as a student at the comfortably rural campus of the University of Massachusetts. One day, I leave Bill with my sister to hitchhike to the campus to sign-up and pay for classes. Yes, there was a time when sign-up and pay for college were both easy and standard operating procedure. Where’s Bill? Was my first question upon my return.
He was gone. For good. I spent hours, days, weeks, months, years looking for him, but sure he was hit by a lumber truck and wandered off to die in the surrounding forest. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a child disappear. I’m sure the only thing that stops you from killing yourself is the chance that they’ll miraculously reappear.
Andrea looks up. Her pen is no longer moving. She’s waiting for the Oz-factor.
“Okay,” I explain, “I call it the Toto syndrome. Dorothy doesn’t lose her dog, but he’s definitely being threatened by a variation of a lumber truck—a witch covering as a librarian. Now there’s a parallel.”
She smiles. “Go on.”
Remember, Oz opens with Dorothy’s dilemma. No one in her family has the time or interest to deal with her harassment by the wicked librarian because Toto ran through, and trampled, part of her garden. To make things worse, Elvira, the ugly witch in library costume, delivers a sheriff’s order to destroy Toto.
These are cinematic versions of my own secrets. I didn’t tell anybody about my Nantucket and Miami rapes—so how could anyone possibly show their care or interest? Like me, Dorothy flips and bolts, and who does she run into? Professor Marvel. What a perfect name for the prototypical drug dealer/liquor store. He makes her feel better. He makes her inspired to try harder, which is what drugs and alcohol do for any true addict in the beginning. It’s inspirational, not remotely destructive. And what does the wizard do? What every drug dealer does; he offers her a first ‘reading’ for free.
The visual of Dorothy passing out in her bedroom while her house spins up into the tornado’s funnel is a brilliant visual display of the rush and escape the first high offers. The rush settles in, the storm is irrelevant, and where is she? A beautiful utopia where she is the tallest, prettiest, smartest, most loved and beautiful witch. Reminds me of the dozens of 2-5 a.m. cocaine and alcohol fueled conversations and sexual forays I’ve had. Who does she ‘hook up’ with? Three perfect examples of the sort of men all women addicts end up with—one with no heart, one with no brain, and one with no courage. En route to the ultimate high allegedly available in ‘Emerald City’ run by the ‘wizard’ kingpin come obvious warnings regularly ignored or shooed away. The wicked witch and her monkeys are another perfect visual of the characters of both addiction and the law. “I’m going to get you and your dog, little pretty!’ She hisses. Damn! There’s even a scene where they all get so high from poppies (duh!) they collapse and get scooped by addiction and cops, I mean, the witch and her monkeys—the most perfect image of what addiction and cops are like—sneaky, determined, scary, and a whole lot of trouble when you finally wake up sober in a cell.
I pause and bring to mind the infamous image of Toto, who, like Bill with the dog catcher, is a sage of a pup to yank back the curtain to expose that the wizard is all show, zero content. He’s the burnt-out district court judge, a pro-bono alcoholic lawyer, a counselor at a detox who gave-up a long time ago, but stays for the state-funded insurance plan. The witch is addiction and the aggressive bad-cop. It’s the moment when Dorothy and her pals all realize this isn’t fun, it’s not the answer, and all they want is for her to go home. The tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion take the role of the addicts who know they won’t quit. They don’t want to—ever. But, they appreciate the fact that she’s actually going to try. The wizard’s acquiescence is visualized by the grand and public offering of the balloon. The Oz version of a judge opting for rehab, not prison; the rare event when the jury finds the drunk driver ‘not guilty’ because of some exceptional lawyering. In Dorothy’s case, like mine, it doesn’t work out. That’s when the ultimate maternal influence, the image of the ‘good’ witch whispering into Dorothy’s ear, ‘click your heels together three times….’ steps forward as the final solution. It’s my dead-from-alcohol mother whispering to me from her death bed—‘please don’t end up like I have.’ Her heel-clicking and repeating ‘there’s no place like home’ is Dorothy’s version of my routines and exercise with the mantra: ‘There’s no place like sober, there’s no place like sober…’
I’ve already given the characters that surround her Kansas bed when she ‘comes to’ the names of my brothers and sisters. When Dorothy spews her dramatic tale, just like my sibs, they nod with a look that says, ‘Uh-huh. Right. Whatever, we still love you and we’re so glad you’re back.”
I look at Andrea. We both start to cry.
“That’s an amazing way to look at it,” she finally says.
There’s more: It’s the Oz plot, along with the drugged, imprisoned, and abused women in Disney stories that are what all women in my age range grew up on as a life philosophy: Escape and wizardry are available. School marms and step- parents are evil. Aspire to Emerald city. Then, there’s the realty behind the fiction. MGM put Judy Garland on amphetamines and barbiturates to keep her going on long days of filming, the 40’s version of prison’s Kolonopin-Seraquil diet. Women of my mother’s generation never spoke about it much when Garland died from drugs and alcohol and left behind a genetic inheritance for her daughter Liza Minnelli to battle. Dorothy wakes up to what I qualify as life’s three options for how to react to anything and everything: If it’s sweet and inspiring, it’s a blessing. If it’s a hard knock, it’s a lesson. If it’s neither, as MGM said, “That’s Entertainment!” It’s material. Nick gave me the visuals seventeen years ago: Though we’re smeared with, and surrounded by shit on a daily basis—that’s life. Smile, be happy. Mommy loves you.
Andrea’s eyes are still moist.
“That’s powerful stuff Pippin. Add the threat against your son’s life and it all makes sense.”
The ceiling speaker blats.
“Ten Minute Movement! Ten Minute Movement!”
I stand to leave.
“Yeah,” I say, “too bad prison doesn’t.”