Midnight on Times Square

By Eddie Walker 10/27/16

Clean and sober, I raised my hand there, in the church's smoky kitchen. “Sixty-seven days,” I told the people who had the doors open for me.

Black and white image of Times Square at night.
I can get sober here. Stuart Monk / Shutterstock.com

They recommend that I stay in Minnesota. At a halfway house. I understood the deal. The halfway house would, at a certain point, suggest a three-quarter-way house. I think I’d even come to suspect that they had 7/8ths houses out there—so when I told them I was going back home to get sober on Times Square, their incredulity didn’t surprise me. I knew a really good midnight meeting there, I told them. Besides, I'd asked for the 30 days in the "mini-apple" when nearing completion of the 28 days at the Smithers mansion. I could easily enroll in that aftercare program. Both the psychiatrist and the psychologist at Smithers had agreed to see me in their private practices (some are sicker than others!), so…  

Times Square is the bow-tie shaped intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue. The "Midnight" meeting, at that time, was on the top floor of the I. Miller shoe building at 46th Street, right in the center. Now, 46th Street and I go way back. At 11 years old, I was in show business and regularly getting a post-show buzz on at Jimmy Ray’s on 8th. Huey, the bartender, knew me. He didn't serve me, but he looked the other way when I sipped on other people’s Scotch and beer. By age 16 and already a daily drinker I was, on weekends, making the rounds of the strip joints in that area with my older friend Dave and during breaks in some dismal attempts at university matriculation, my 46th Street connection continued at a messenger service on the block. I remember coming out of blackouts on that job and rolling the half-joints I found necessary to break the tedium of the constant walking. 

42nd Street in those days was populated with nuts, hustlers, sailors and some pretty big guys who seemed like they had just stepped out of the Port Authority bus station down the block from somewhere "upstate." The scariest place of all was an arcade I’d heard called the "black hole of Calcutta." It gained the name because it was down in the darkest recess of the (northeast) 8th Avenue subway entrance. No amount of drugs or alcohol could sufficiently fortify me to comfortably descend those stairs. Things occurred in the bazaar down there, well into the 1980s, that I was pretty sure I could live without being privy to. It was as if the models for that old series of black-light posters, the ones that had the Afrocentric couples executing a different sex position for each sign of the zodiac, dwelled there. 

On "the Deuce" you could buy swords, nunchucks, porno, all sorts of drug paraphernalia, get a fake ID made at Playland and, through a sliding window in a booth in the former Hubert’s Flea Circus, touch the top of a live naked woman for one dollar; the bottom cost $2.00. And this is just the legal stuff! To my eternal amusement, there was also the August emporium called Richard’s Aqualung down near the lunch counter at the Selwyn Theatre entrance. It was years before I realized that this shop’s moniker had nothing to do with the Jethro Tull song; though I don't recall seeing too many scuba pros on the block, which might have hipped me, either. No wonder those nice people in Minnesota rolled their eyes at me.

I had been to the Midnight meeting. About two years prior to surrendering on Roosevelt Hospital’s detox unit, I’d come-to in the ground floor emergency room there. On that occasion, upon locating my shoes under the gurney and finding that I was still in possession of my wallet, I traipsed straight across the street to a deli where two Budweiser tall-boys helped me take stock. Coming-to in strange, and often, like this day, bloody circumstances was looking more like a pattern rather than a sad quirk of fate. 

I’d seen enough emergency rooms to become reasonably accustomed to taking out my own stitches. I knew that liberal amounts of hydrogen peroxide, followed by direct application of vitamin E could speed the healing to the areas of my face that I seemed to fall on with increasing regularity. I’d faced guns and dodged death; had even entertained myself by ripping off drug dealers in the Bronx. I knew few other kids that had begun their evenings in the Bronx and then woken up in police custody in Philadelphia, a Negro boarding house in Jersey, or in the gutters of Upper Manhattan between parked cars. Few people snorted Jack Daniels or drank raw ether like I did; or stood in front of judges in possession of the very substances that had put them there in the first place. Neither did I know anyone who had crawled away from flipped cars, to be charged with crazy stuff like “allowing an underage lesbian to operate a motor vehicle” or some such nonsense. (Of that one, I must plead: guilty as charged.) Alcohol was a problem. I was just past 22.

I attended my first AA meeting across the Harlem River in the Bronx, near my house. There were still patches of dry blood on my face. I soon found myself downtown, mounting the long narrow stairs that led up to the Midnight meeting. There was a certain dim glow to the room, but I can't exactly say that it felt like home yet. I was still smoking pot. I didn't stay a full 90 days largely because I drew a distinction between lying to myself and lying to the room. I saw how they clapped for people who announced “90 days.” I couldn't bear the sham. About 20 months later, after more drugs, a colorful but sad South American bender (that left me a shaky, sweaty mess) and a Mets World Series crown, I was blacked out once again on Times Square. Soon, on an upper floor of the Roosevelt, I experienced a horrible but transcendent “deflation at depth.” Ominously, I could see the neon deli sign, where I had grabbed the tall-boys, from my hospital bed. I was shattered that my best thinking had landed me there and broken when I perceived that the steps were the only thing that might keep me above ground for any considerable period of time. 

The people in Minnesota gave a coin to “graduates” of that rehab. Mine, they told me, I could send for if I lasted 90 days in New York. “Didn’t they know who I was?” I thought each evening at Midnight. I had also joined another group a little further down 46th Street. That one met at noontime and had “coincidentally” just started a beginners' meeting in the church’s smoky kitchen. I could go there before work and make Midnight afterwards. Clean and sober, I raised my hand there. “Sixty-seven days,” I told the people who had the doors open for me.

I have already described Times Square of the mid-80s. One hundred feet above the famous "crossroads of the world," the picture varied only slightly.

We kept a baseball bat near the door of Midnight, the chairperson was an S&M transvestite. Bikers from New Jersey attended. I used to sit next to a 6-foot-6-inch black man named Freddy who sported the opposite of a mohawk, meaning that he carefully shaved a stripe down the middle of his head. Another giant of a guy was the gentle Shelly, whose face was so horribly scarred from years of self-mutilation that he, sadly but accurately, resembled Freddy Kruger. On the more diminutive side there was Father Frank, a Catholic priest who was barely over four feet tall. There was Jean-Ann, a man with breasts, the tubercular "Stan the Hat," "Jersey Jerry" who in one moment of pique barreled her pink Cadillac onto the sidewalk outside. Midnight had no rules. You could sleep, the scripted opening remarks revealed, but it was "suggested" that snoring might disturb newcomers.

A woman named (mad) Maxine actually scared me a bit. She would intermittently and seemingly unprovoked, pop out of her seat during the meeting and hex the surrounding members with evil hand gestures, hissing unintelligible oaths and such. (None of us would bat an eye.) I remember "Cowboy Joe" once, in lieu of the Serenity Prayer I guess, closed the meeting with a rousing version of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Some of our members were go-go boys/girls, or were otherwise engaged in the skin trade. Others were professionals in show business, and of course, some members were living with AIDS. This lawyer, who once owned a bar called The Dive, had a crush on me. My biggest crush was on a Warhol Superstar. I wore a leather jacket, m/c boots, a long ponytail and stayed mostly quiet until this gorgeous vampire named Cindy asked me to speak on my 90th day.

Midnight had another three years in that location before splitting between another 46th Street room and a former after-hours joint down in the Village. Both of them still exist. As for that meeting down the block, where I raised my hand and said “sixty-seven days,” I’ve managed to stay and keep the doors open for others. If provenance sees fit, I hope to celebrate 30 years sober in that group on December 8, 2016.

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