Muggs Saved My Life

By Harry Healy 11/04/15

I wasn’t afraid I would die, and I didn’t want to, but I was terrified I would live long enough to be making comebacks into my sixties.

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We called him Muggs and he was known as Satch, but his given name was Michael. 

After my bust-out from Miami Beach was complete, I landed in a railroad flat he paid the rent on, if he had the money, in the gentrifying East Village of Manhattan. The calendar said it was 1993.

I got the small room. My clothes were bundled in cardboard boxes. The window opened on an airshaft that little air drifted through. On the floor sat a box spring that once belonged to Muggs’s mother. I stretched a sheet over the box spring, and I covered myself with a checked comforter, cast off from some other household. The room was rank with the sweat and tears of that summer’s perpetual heroin withdrawal. When I wasn’t high, I was trying to score, and until I could make that happen, I drowned the dope-sickness in scotch. The whiskey helped. A little.  

Many Christmases before, somebody gave me a clock-radio, the radio half of which had long since quit, but the clock survived to stubbornly render its red digital display. Although accurate, the numbers always seemed to claim it was six o’clock.

I had a lone responsibility, bartending the odd night at one of a string of dives operated by a guy named Jerry. A different Jerry, not to be confused with the pugnacious Jerry of Miami Beach infamy, who figures into this story at an earlier point. This was Jerry Too.  

I came-to during some lapse of a day that was no different than a thousand other days. Piecing together the hours before I passed out, I was satisfied that nothing too horrible had happened. I glanced over at the red digits. Sure enough, six o’clock. Could have been morning, could have been evening. Should I be somewhere? Was I supposed to materialize at one of Jerry Too’s alcoholic caverns? I took note of my cardboard boxes, gagged on the stink of that comforter, and thought, how did I get here? How did I get here? What happened? It seemed as if I opened my eyes, and 10 years were gone. 

What I needed was to make a comeback. I was good at those. Fired from a job, dumped by a girlfriend, kicked out of a crash pad (I never had a home) I’d scrape, rally, and start fresh. Except my Miami excursion was supposed to be a comeback, and the box spring and the clock radio were what I had to show for it.

I wasn’t afraid I would die, and I didn’t want to, but I was terrified I would live long enough to be making comebacks into my sixties. And if I gave them a good hard look, the comebacks that came before this looked eerily similar, with me dependent on people like Muggs. The Mighty Mugwort. God bless his half-mad, coke-fiend ass. Where would I have been without him?

And at that moment on that day, I arrived at a critical conclusion: it was me who put me there, on that box spring. I was an anxious kid who needed a lot of attention, and maybe that was part of my make-up. But I strived to impress the mediocre (and sometimes malign) people that surrounded me. A gang of sinister influences pulled at my core, that was true too, but if I responded to those, the choice was mine.

Jerry, Jerry Too, my worried mother, my rambling, gambling father, the Australian girlfriend, the ex-con that ran the dope spot on 2nd street, not one of them had anything to do with where I was at that moment.

The phone in that apartment could still summon a dial tone. I picked it up and called a friend who’d been attending meetings for a few weeks. I told her I wanted to go to one with her. 

A few hours later, I was walking into a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, where I heard a loud piece of discouraging news. Not only did they expect you to quit using drugs—reminding everybody that alcohol was a drug—a line from some windy reading frowned on substituting one drug for another. I always did that!  

Once the last molecule of oxygen had been sucked from the room, I was set-upon by do-gooders, and some guy tried to give me his phone number.

Why? I wasn’t going to call him. I told him I already had a lot of friends. 

His name was Mark and he died young a few years hence, clean and sober as far as I know. I trust that wherever he is, he has forgiven me for being such an asshole. I had a date that night, I guess it was a date, with a young lady who was making the transition from out-of-work-model to out-of-work-photographer. She was Norwegian and polite. I drank three glasses of scotch. I went back to my box spring. That was 22 years ago this season, the end of summer. I haven’t had a drink since. 

Although I dipped in-and-out of NA and held sterling credentials for their organization, the eruptions of drama, and I had plenty of my own, wore on my nerves. I started making my way across town to a storefront clubhouse that hosted meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Plenty of member-generated drama there too, it turned out. I knew nothing about the problem and less about the solution, but I did catch on to one thing: alcoholism was the umbrella under which I took my drugs.

Too arrogant to ask questions, I cobbled meaning from the bites of sound that captured my limited attention. Except this wasn’t public speaking. Few points were being made, although I did observe the bobbing of solemn chins. Pets took up a lot of airtime, pets and landlords. Healing energies. Girlfriends, boyfriends, crystals buried in backyards. This AA stuff was kooky. Koo-kee. I was a little too smart for it. 

But every story’s about an education, right? This one’s about mine. 

It would be just like me to reach out to a girl I had a crush on, but besides shepherding me to that one meeting, she wasn’t going to do much for me, and honestly, I wouldn’t have let her. I liked her—a lot—but I didn’t have any respect for her. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t know men who had been in and around AA.

A guy I hung around with was rehabilitated many years before, and although he didn’t drink, I wouldn’t call him sober, downing a bottle of Nyquil before a flight we both boarded. He was sharp and self-educated, and didn’t have to work for a living, which gave him the freedom to cultivate all kinds of interests. His outlook on life was dour. My kind of guy.

He rejected the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. He told me that he was his own Higher Power. But he also said to let him know when I found something that worked as well as AA did. He’d been trying to find it for years. Go, he said, just go. Go, and don’t get freaked out by the God stuff.

I wasn’t freaked out by the God stuff. I was freaked out by the not-drinking stuff. 

And he warned me that I was going to need more help than I thought I did. A great deal more. He was right.

I’d known another man for many years, used to come and check up on me when I was bartending, and I was loaded. I knew he didn’t drink, but he never mentioned AA. 

He was a native of Hell’s Kitchen when it was Hell’s Kitchen, although the people who lived there didn’t call it by that name. They said they were from the West Side. He spoke in an accent straight out of a 1940s Warner Brothers cartoon, actually said toity-toid and toid (Thirty-third and Third). Ruddy and burly in his bespoke suits, a genuine tough guy, he shut up a section of Yankee Stadium drunks because he got mad about the language they were using. There were families there. With little kids. He might even have said, "Don’t make me have to come up there," and then glared at the rowdies until they found some other point to rest their eyes. The game, maybe.  

I loved him, or I loved the idea of him, this man who belonged to a world that no longer existed. When I reported that I was going to meetings, he appeared everywhere I was for about a month. He gave me money and he bought me food. We tooled around Manhattan in his car, me smoking, him chomping nicotine gum, while he chattered at me with his coffee-breath. He had a lot to say. The meetings I was going to, they sucked. Go to a meeting where the people are getting better. Stick with the winners. “Listen,” he said, “if you meet somebody in the rooms and you fall in love and youse two decide you wanna be together, that’s one thing. But these women are lonely and vulnerable, and you’re not here to take advantage of them. Get a whore (pronounced hoo-er) jerk off, do whatever you gotta do, but don’t fuck around in AA.”

No bubble baths, no candles. Oh, and no feeling sorry for myself, either. I had a lot of work to do.

I didn’t need to be reminded. Those 10 lost years were becoming less and less theoretical. I was a decade behind where I might have been in my career, 10 years off on working and earning money, and I was never going to regain that time. The anxiety, the constant gnawing which I’ve come to understand was the way I felt when I wasn’t drinking, was with me all the time. Because I wasn’t drinking. 

In what might’ve been the swan song of that particular account, I let the answering machine (remember those?) pick up a call that was coming through. Jerry Too informed me, in his Patchogue patois, that I was finished as a bartender at all of his shitholes. Perfect. I quit drinking and doing drugs and my life didn’t get better, it got worse. It happens that way for a lot of us, the cherry on top.

“Burn this idea into your consciousness,” my friend from the West Side told me, “you never have to feel this way again.”

The truth is, I had no designs on getting sober. I wanted to dry out, briefly. I was angling for a rehab, which everybody else seemed to be washing out of, get the government to pay for it, but according to the state of New York, mine didn’t qualify as a hard enough case. I detoxed at AA meetings.

Like a fan that’s been unplugged but whose blades continue to spin, I was still smoking weed. A puff here, a toke there, a hit once in a while. The hip, in-the-know nature of the drug culture was such a thrill when I was 14, the clandestine aspects of copping and using, I was as addicted to that vision of myself as much as I was to any substance. I know that now. I couldn’t possibly have known it then. I hated being high on pot. So I smoked it every day for 20 years.

Then one night at a meeting after I passed the mythical and magical mark of 90 days, or so I claimed, I was listening to this guy relate the usual tale of woe, nothing out of the ordinary. Kind of boring until he got to the part that hauled me up by the collar and shoved me back down into the chair: when he was first getting sober, he said, he had been secretly smoking pot. It had nothing to do with alcohol, or Alcoholics Anonymous. That was his business, and nobody was going to tell him what to do. And then somebody pointed out that you can’t be high and sober at the same time. There was an undeniable logic to that. He was forced to let go of the last thread tying him to his old life. He started over. And so did I.

They appear like phantoms, these people, in the vanishing point of my rearview mirror, but I do think of them from time-to-time, like now, approaching the anniversary of my first AA meeting.

Muggs retreated to the southern reaches of New Jersey. I’m going to assume he’s okay. I haven’t heard otherwise. Jerry Too sold out of the bar business that maintained improbable profits all that time, but his main line was real estate, and that was never more of a can’t-miss proposition than it has been in the intervening years. Good for Jerry Too. The would-be girlfriend moved across the country and has a messy personal life that money and circumstance have provided a buffer against. Her coal black hair has silvered.

As I mentioned, Mark died. Eternal rest grant to him O' Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. 

That guy who was his own Higher Power, well, he wasn’t. He got banged up pretty well in a couple of accidents, got on some oxycodone, chased his prescriptions with beer, then whiskey, then dope. My last face-to-face encounter with him was at a gathering of rough trade homosexuals and doped-up teenagers he was hosting. I felt as if I were peering over the rim of hell. That was 15 years ago. But a recent peek at his Facebook page revealed a mention of gratitude, truly grateful for the last four years. Uh huh.

The secret pot-smoker disappeared into the neon ether of New York City.  

My tough guy pal from the West Side attended a birthday party I had, and brought a classy and practical gift. Of course he did. Writing about him, I feel like I owe him a call.

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