Through A Glass, Darkly

By Harry Healy 09/15/15

Crack was the order of the day. Crack and welfare checks. 


I’d gotten myself ash-canned from a cash-money bartending job, and then, not to be outdone, walked away from a freelance writing gig that could have put me on a career path. The guy signing the checks expected me to be at the office in the morning, and perform actual work functions after I dragged myself there.  

I landed in a Broadway bar that had been conceived as a prop in a pricey flop (all Broadway flops are expensive) where as a cue to intermission, a character would declare, “I could really go for a drink right now! How 'bout you?” The audience roared in agreement, the character led a conga line into the bar, and it was then my opportunity to uncap bottles of diet soda for tourists, and grandmothers from Westchester County. 

The bulk of my income, and there wasn’t much of that, was budgeted for drugs, with little left for inconveniences like rent. I was living in a loft in an area that today would consider itself Chelsea, the tony Manhattan locale; then it occupied the gritty reaches of Midtown South. But it was a terrific spot, and I got kicked out of it.

My dope habit had me down. I kept waiting for my life to get better, and when it didn’t, I decided that what I needed was a break.

Reams of hype celebrated the revival of Miami Beach, which was rebranded with German investment deutsche marks as South Beach or, since then as now, every salivating gentrification requires a cutesy two-syllable nickname, “SoBe.” Sold! I headed for the tropics.

I’d run on the beach in the morning and train at the 5th Street Gym in the afternoon. I was “boxing” in those days, and figured I’d fashion myself into a latter-day Sonny Liston. Sonny loved to get high, too. I had a decent right hand, nothing else, and a real boxer would have killed me. What I was, was deranged. And Liston was found dead in a Las Vegas motel room in 1971—he’d been there a while—of “unknown causes,” likely an OD.

I touched down hollowed-out and dope sick at Miami International Airport the first week of January. The year, hipsters, was 1993. 

The weather was out of a Chamber of Commerce, come on, balmy, sunny, palm trees swaying in the breeze. The Beach was in the process of becoming: no longer what it was, a decayed resort that all saved criminals abandoned, not yet what it was to be, a fabulous warm-weather landing-strip for the international money set. The action was concentrated on Ocean Drive, whose packed cafés spilled clientele into the street. Every worldwide modeling agency that hadn’t opened a local outpost was about to get into the game. Young (teenage!) cutie pies lolled on the sand. The bars stayed open till five. 

I carpet-bagged with some pals who arranged accommodations, but they flew home after the weekend, and I was on my own. My thin bankroll afforded me a room in a hotel whose lobby was littered with cigarette butts. Marooned down-and-outers dozed in front of a television bolted to a sad shelf.

Crack was the order of the day. Crack and welfare checks. I threw my duffel bags on the concave mattress, wedged a chair under the doorknob, and moved in.

You know when you’re really feeling it? When you’re hungry and you don’t have money for food.

I ventured into the sunshine on the dead-nuts end of Collins Avenue. White light illuminated a figure, 87 pounds of octogenarian, toddling on the otherwise deserted sidewalk. I drew a bead on her. With a running start, her stupid purse would be mine. No trouble at all, and I’d be on my way. And then I thought, this is the best I’ve been able to come up with.

Revulsion stopped me, and shame. I slumped back to the hotel, musing not for the first time and not for the last, I’m sorry to say, about the easiest ways to end my life. But I couldn’t reconcile myself to having served my final days among the crackheads and the crackbabies and the winos and the whores who quarreled over which soap opera to watch while they played out the string of their lives. I was too proud to die in that rathole. 

That evening, I found a full pack of cigarettes and a few dollars on the sidewalk, and I bought grapefruits and Cuban bread and coffee. I made it through the night.

And then the next day, a squat loudmouth and degenerate horse player named Jerry left word for me at the front desk. Transplanted from New York, Jerry was staffing an Ocean Drive café. After you flunked New York in those days, you made a stale go of it in South Beach. Jerry and I were two of the flunkies.

He let me know that he had all the bartenders he needed. He never liked the looks of me, or me, and I can’t blame him, but he was in as much of a bind as I was, and needed bodies to plug into waiter shifts. 

Providence continued to smile on me. A nightclub where I had gone inquiring was all bartendered-up too, but they did have use for busboys. So I waited tables for Jerry, and into the wee hours I washed glasses and emptied ashtrays. 

I sent a dispatch to New York for a suit, and one arrived in the mail, an '80s affair with shoulder pads and pant-legs so tapered the wearer’s silhouette resembled an inverted pyramid. The suit was a few sizes too big, but I discovered a tailor who altered it the best he could. With the initial monies from both jobs, I moved to a quieter dump up the beach, operated since at least the 1950s by a couple named Sam and Esther. Oh, I was back on top.

This seems as good a point as any to interrupt the story with a pair of observations. First, the downward slope of alcoholism sometimes pitches at an obtuse grade. The descent is very real, but it takes a long time to reach the bottom.

And secondly, in one of his more poetic departures, St. Paul said that in the present tense, he could perceive this world and himself only partially, as through a glass, darkly. In the here and now, he struggled to make sense of circumstances and conditions, but he believed that by faith, one day all would be made clear. 

Thanks for your patience. Back to the beach.

I blew my wages faster than I could earn them, and fell into the habit of borrowing money. I was always a few dollars short. There was that 5am closing after all, and I was obligated to take advantage.

The operators of some bar were giving up the ghost, and cemented their failed run with a collegiate-style, drink and drown party: Ten bucks, all you could drink. Good news, right? I polished off their scotch, chased it with tequila, and made a pantomime of listening to some stranger, but only because I was rendered mute. As the star-spattered sky tilted, it generated a keening that reached my ears alone. 

I came-to scant hours later, and in the full-flower of alcoholic mania, started in on martinis. “Breakfast of champions,” quipped some wise-ass bartender, and although I honestly cared what he thought (I don’t know why) I was in no position to do anything about it. I was drinking 'round the clock. Naturally, that included the morning, something I used to see those last-chancers doing in the dives that once lined 8th Ave, when I clicked my tongue out of pity. Now that I was one of them, I couldn’t understand what I was making such a big deal about. 

Any night might usher in some ridiculous drama. During an idiotic bar brawl, a New York hood handed me a pistol that, with an angel on my shoulder, I refused, and breezed past the velvet ropes out front, while my would be-opponents shoved through the crowd to the back door.

Sure, there was violence. There’s always violence in this kind of street life. But my days and nights were a kaleidoscope of humiliation as much as they were tough-guy face-offs. Sonny Liston delusions to the contrary, I’m not tough. I never was.

I befriended a girl from Queens who liked to get high the way I liked to get high, and she had a steady Chi-town connect who was Fed-Exing her black tar heroin, some of the best dope I ever laid my hands on. I smoked a pile of it and put on my suit and slicked back my hair and crashed some fashion party, scene-sters packed in tight, waifish German girls with big flat feet decorating the four corners of the room. 

I had a scotch in my hand. Through the revelry I spotted a sophisticated “older” woman—she was my age—checking me out and commenting to her friends with no attempt at discretion. She was the right tone of tan, soft hair, sharp accessories. An adult. I sidled into range. She smelled good, too.

“Honey,” she said, “you look like shit. Go take a look at yourself in the men’s room and come back here and tell me what you see.”

So I did. I was pallid in spite of my sunburnt finish. My pomade beaded and combined with sweat to form an oily moat at my hairline. Ashes smudged one lapel. My left eye was enormous, my right eye a slit; its pinprick pupil spun in the iris to focus on my reflection. There’s your dark glass.   

I looked like a Ralph Steadman sketch, but I wasn’t quick-witted enough to have that reference handy when I emerged. My deflation was complete. All that was left to do was bask a moment more in the elegance of that woman before I skulked back to Sam and Esther’s. For parting words of wisdom, she said I should take better care of myself. I wanted to tell her I would, if only I knew how.

Jerry fired me for drinking out of a bottle I pulled off his bar. Security walked me out of the nightclub, when in a rage one night I threatened the manager. Do I need to mention that was the end of that job, too?

Speaking of bouncers, they had to wake me up in the after-hours clubs where I passed out. Staggering into the blinding sunshine, I knew not where I was, except miles from Sam and Esther’s, and penniless. 

Easter Sunday came, and the town contracted. Everybody went home. I was a known liability, unemployable, even in the tourist dumps that dotted Ocean Drive. I had officially busted out. 

And then an acquaintance asked me what might be a good time for us to sit down and talk. I got the sense he wanted to help me, having glimpsed peculiar and heretofore unexhibited qualities in the youngish man in question (me) and was poised to offer some position that would improve my status, or better yet, just give me money. 

A cold front had moved over South Florida, the day was grey and the clouds were low. The beach, which I could see from where I sat, was deserted, and the usual bustle was missing from the café. My espresso was thin and tepid. An uneasy quiet fell all around us. 

No job was offered. No cash was forked over. This kind and patient man, whom I would not know today if he were sitting in my lap, this success story who owned at least two homes and was enjoying his grandchildren and his life told me only this: the most important thing for guys like us.

Right, I thought. Guys like us.

The most important thing for guys like us is peace of mind. He repeated it. Peace of mind. 

I left the table feeling cheated. That’s what he had for me? Peace of mind? Thanks, pal. Thanks a lot. 

Like any writer, or maybe any adult of my years, I am trying to draw meaning from experience. But none of the anecdotes I’ve related held a whit of significance for me at the time. All they added up to was more bad luck.

A buddy fixed up my ticket, and I got airdropped back in New York. I’d like to say that any one of these events convinced me to turn my life around, but that was not yet to be. I did not get better, I got immediately worse, with many months of rough-riding ahead of me.

Twenty-some years after the fact, the low grade of my inexorable drift to the bottom isn’t entirely clear. St Paul’s dark glass is a dirty mirror; what he meant was that knowledge has its limits. And self-knowledge is even more constrained. Not all the answers are available to us when we want them, and the meaning of many things is never fully transparent. Life is swirl, and mystery. 

I packed some of the details here into a novel that’s still in print, and I repeat some of the others as part of my general AA qualification. The stories might help somebody, and they might not. But what I possess is something resembling truth, and that’s more than I’ve ever had. 

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a newspaper columnist, author and a regular contributor to The Fix. He recently wrote about being a sober bartender, as well as a sober Catholic, and about the reason AA is anonymous.

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