What a Long, Strange, Sober Trip It's Been

By Daniel Isanov 10/15/14

There’s something that’s both desperate and hopeful about walking to an AA meeting. And then it gets weird and wonderful.


The place had an interesting name – Teriyaki Boy – and as much as I resisted it, the sign itself began to pull at me. For all I knew this was a nationwide franchise, but the only place I’ve ever seen it was on 10th Street near Second Avenue in New York City.

It could have been a franchise because of the great goofy logo: a wide-eyed cartoon boy dressed up like a sushi chef. In design and attitude he seemed like a wayward Asian brother to Bob’s Big Boy. Maybe that’s what the artist had in mind. I didn’t think about it until I began to think about it all the time.

It was at this point, a point where I might have felt worried about my emotional stability, when strange things started to happen. 

The year I’m remembering, I got stomped. It doesn’t matter that I myself was the primary stomper because I didn’t know that at the time. The mission of my life, which had once seemed so brave, so wonderful, was failing. I was a half-decade out of grad school with no book to show for myself, unmarried, and lonely in the peculiar way of a man who had many friends. My friends, good people all of them, weren’t of any use. With them, I just marked time. My real life was taking long baths and going to the movies. I slept less and more fitfully than before or since. I watched reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation as though my life depended on them.

I walked the same direction a few times every day for lots of reasons, but the walks toward AA meetings were always the most poignant. There’s something that’s both desperate and hopeful about walking to an AA meeting. I went to meetings in Tribeca. 

Which means that I was walking toward the World Trade Center. Does anyone remember how truly ugly those buildings were? To me, they never stopped looking like a billion dollar bad idea.

The proximate cause of my despair was the death of a good friend. Actually, he was my sponsor, which is to say that he was both more and less than a friend. He’d shot a big wacky dose of heroin somewhere in California, and I’d flown back to attend his funeral, and it just fucking wrecked me.

In order to fully understand – and I’m not saying you should – you have to understand how much I loved AA. My life started when I went to my first meeting. People say that kind of thing all the time, but for me it was sharp and true and very simple. It was the first time that I felt like I really had a family. It was the first true discipline that my life had ever known. And then, at eight years sober, for about three months, that feeling of home was gone. Like the vacuum of space. Like death.

Around that time, Teriyaki Boy became a daily, vexing presence. When I walked down Second Avenue, I would turn my head west toward that sign – more like Bob’s Big Boy filtered through bad Japanese animation – and I would say, “Go ahead and laugh, Teriyaki Boy.” I don’t know where this came from, but it always cracked me up. I can say, with great certainty, that it was the only time I laughed all day.

I just said that I didn’t know where this refrain came from, but I think I do. During college, I hung out with a guy named Tim who said the most amazing things when he was drunk.  I don’t guess that he’s an alcoholic, but that’s only because I, egocentrically, equate alcoholism with complete stasis in my life: when I was drinking, I could barely get out of the house. Tim, I’ve been told, became a millionaire computer engineer. He married a doctor. I can’t even imagine.

Anyway: Tim often went to an entirely different universe when he was drunk. One time, watching Hearts and Minds at a nearby theater, he started laughing maniacally because he remembered that his father had helped invent one of the more cruel weapons systems described in that movie. It was a ball that exploded into lots of smaller balls at ground level. It was designed to hurt people horribly. Tim, however, couldn’t stop laughing. I admired him for that. It spoke for mysterious familial pain that I would never understand. “My dad designed that!” he shouted. “My fucking dad!”

Later that same night, another friend and I were supporting Tim as he puked his guts out in one of the dormitory showers. We wanted to make sure he didn’t choke to death, but Tim got it into his head that we were taunting him. He turned up from his strenuous work and said, “That’s right, go ahead and laugh, guys. Go ahead and laugh.” We hadn’t been laughing, but there was something so strange about the way he said it. And his response to us was so deeply grooved that it came out the same exact way each time he said it. And he said it four or five times. Pretty soon, we were laughing. His fierce and unwavering conviction that he was an object of ridicule was a wonder to us.

I was remembering Tim, I guess, because of the glorious absurdity of my personal pain. What made me think that anyone should care whether I published a book? What made me think it was important whether or not my friends died of heroin overdoses? What made me think it mattered whether I was walking to an AA meeting, trying to get better, trying to help other people get better, when all around me there were millions who didn’t care whether any of us lived or died? My own absurdity was sort of magnificent. 

Go ahead and laugh, Teriyaki Boy. Go ahead and laugh.

It was at this point, a point where I might have felt worried about my emotional stability, when strange things started to happen. A rich, but bipolar young man started to stalk me at AA meetings. That was the first sign. He was one of those guys I told myself I could stay away from. I was so clearly unqualified to deal with his madness, and I asked him once if he had a drinking problem, and he told me he didn’t. He scared a lot of women by asking them out. The other thing that made him easy to ignore was his obvious affluence. He had a trust fund or something that made all this complex insanity work for him.

One day, though, he started “sharing” about me. I remember the first time with absolute clarity: he had been complaining about how difficult it was for him to get a date – a kind of predictable lament among the downtown meetings, something that you could listen to without really listening. That was, until he started to explain the reason for his difficulties: me. And that’s the way he said it, too. He said, “There’s a reason that no one will go out with me. It’s Daniel!” Then he pointed at me: j’accuse. The meeting roused itself, as I did, to wonder if he had really just said what we thought he had said.

So then he teased it out a bit. It turned out that I was taking more than my share. There was a limited amount of women in AA to date, and I was hogging them all. A few people chuckled, and I listened with the weird fascination of someone whose name has been called for an award and he didn’t even know that he’d been nominated.

A tall woman with the sharp face of a model – she worked for MoMA – came up to me afterward. I’d dated her and kissed her and then decided that she needed more “seasoning.” I’m sure I don’t know what I meant by that, but I know I was an asshole to even think it.

“How does that make you feel?” she asked. She had this way of smirking that you couldn’t really tell unless you had kissed her. I had kissed her so I could tell.

“Weirdly honored,” I said.

A few minutes later, though – probably as a direct result of my conversation with MoMA girl – he walked over to me and started pointing his finger in my face. We were outside the meeting by then and we were standing, I shit you not, underneath the Twin Towers. I had this weird idea that I would not resist him, the way a true Christian might not resist him, even as his finger came so close to my face that I could feel the air it displaced. I didn’t walk away. I didn’t ask someone to call the cops. I’m not a Christian, never wanted to be a Christian, although once in a while, during potentially violent confrontations, I get this weird desire to imitate Christ.

At a certain point, though, it became too much for me, and I grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to the ground where I could sit on him for a while. At that moment, a friend of mine, Ronnie, threw me up against a car, and a few other guys restrained Mr. Bipolar. Ronnie is about 6’ 6” and probably the only guy at the meeting who could restrain me without any complaint from me whatsoever. I looked up at him like a child in his father’s arms. For a moment, I felt safe from the world: Ronnie wasn’t going to let me hurt anyone. Or myself.    

After that, the weird rich bipolar guy called the police on me. It was over the holidays, I think, and I was spending time in California with my family, so I wasn’t there when he showed up at my regular AA meetings with two cops. Often, this would be during the meeting. Someone would be sharing their story of alcoholism and recovery, and he would stand up there with these cops and look for me.

I heard about this while I was in California, and, frankly, it amused me. Not only because it made me feel like some sort of dangerous outlaw hiding in another state, but because the folks in AA were in such an uproar about it. You would think they would be angry at weird rich bipolar guy, but that wasn’t the case: they were angry at me. They wanted me to do something about it. Turn yourself in, one guy actually said on my message machine. We’re sick of this shit.

Eventually, I did call the cops, mostly out of curiosity about how this fellow had been able to command their attention. I had strained my brain over it, and I couldn’t figure out what I had done that had been illegal, except for dating too many lovely and available women, which is not illegal but some days I think it should be. It turned out that he had been trying to invite me into private arbitration – he had some kind of horseshit subpoena – and he’d convinced the cops to come because he’d told them I was violent. By the time I contacted the precinct in question, their only response to me was, “Oh, that asshole? We’re not helping him anymore.”

After a while, though, the bipolar guy stopped recognizing me. I saw him at a meeting about six months later, and this seemed like the case so I tested it: walked right up to him. I think I might have even greeted him. Not a flicker of recognition. What did I expect? The guy was fucking crazy.

And then, one morning after my grief over my sponsor had passed, I was walking to the deli when I met another crazy person. After Joe died, I started working very hard for a while. I got it into my mind that I could write another novel, and I wanted to get to it as soon as possible. Buying my coffee in the morning was like firing a starting gun. Walking between those six-story tenements, their paint beautifully blistering, I was revving myself up for the day. It wasn’t a pleasant moment – I was anxious and driven and chomping at the bit of my novel —but it also wasn’t an unpleasant moment, either. At a certain age – probably any age – the desperation to get your work done can be beautiful because it’s so painful. 

Anyway, there was another one of these borderline personalities walking the same direction as me on the other side of 10th Street. No matter how many Giulianis the world sics on them, they will never entirely disappear from downtown Manhattan. She was a small woman, about my age, her hair a bird’s nest, her skin burnished from, I guessed, sleeping outdoors. She was shouting. Here’s what she said: “This is America, Goddamnit. You got to work hard. You’ve gotta get things done. It’s not enough to just get by. You have to excel! You have to make the world a safe place to live for everybody, not just yourself. You have to EXCEL! You have to EXCEL! You have to FUCKING EXCEL!” 

Like that, except it was a loop that seemed to perfectly repeat itself every minute or so. I think I may have added the word “fucking.”

I stopped walking and let her stride ahead of me. Here’s the thing: I was thinking the same exact thoughts at the exactly the same moment she was saying them.

The same week as that happened, I picked up a beautiful woman in a burrito restaurant. When she asked me why I was smiling, I said, “Because God loves me.” I got her phone number, and she introduced me to a Frank Sinatra song that I had never heard before, and we made out for hours but never slept together, which I think was very good.

Go ahead and laugh, Teriyaki Boy. Laugh, Teriyaki Boy. Laugh.

Daniel Isanov is a pseudonym for a novelist and regular contributor to The Fix.

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