Monday, July 5, 2010

A Hundred Years

A hundred years ago I lived and worked in a funeral home on Chicago's north side. It was how I managed to get through the last two years of my undergraduate degree. The neighborhood was still down at the heel, soon-to-be gentrified, and was home to three transient hotels within spitting distance of each other and the funeral home. Prostitutes, drug dealers, the insane and solitary old men peopled the neighborhood and we buried them all. But the largest population that wound up in our morgue, set for a cheap cloth-covered casket and a quick burial paid for by the state were the drunks, the stumble-down, sterno-eating rummies whose faces were forever puffy with fresh wounds from the beatings they took on a regular basis from the other drunks fighting over a bottle.

They were my professors in The Fucked Life 101.

I knew them on sight, though never their name until they died. They all were skinny and weak from the booze, the cigarettes, the shit food they managed to eat from time to time and the simple hardness of living as they did.

There was one drunk, a guy somewhere in his fifties, who would disappear for three or four months at a time and then return to Belmont Avenue and all it had to offer a fucked-in-the-head drunk. One day the funeral director - a great, kind, tubby red-headed fellow named Karl - and I were standing at the front door having a cup of coffee, watching the parade of characters straight out of Hieronymous Bosch, when Karl says, "Looks like Bobby's back," and he pointed to a tall scrawny guy, drunk at 9 am, screaming at a fithy, overweight woman. Karl continued, "Bobby takes the cure once a year, heads back home to Tennessee, finds Jesus, a warm bed and three squares from his family, but always manages to find his way back here. Been like this for as long as I've been here. Going on 15 years. We'll be burying him soon enough."

* * *

Taking the cure, cleaning up your act, getting one's shit together, is useless unless you make it stick. I'd argue that getting yourself unfucked only to slip right back into the patterns and habits that fucked you in the first place is worse than never cleaning up because you now know better and turning your back on it (because you don't have the balls to stick with it) is soul-crushing. Unwashed decrepitude is at least ignorant, and so blessed.

Karl's comment on Bobby's cycle of sobriety and Belmont Avenue struck me like a two by four to the forehead - I'd seen it before; I'd grown up with it but didn't have a name for it. It wasn't drink that cycled through my family's life, it was the unending pattern of emotional abuse and abandonment to that abuse that I recognized in Bobby's gaunt frame, in Karl's comment, for we, too, as a family would take the cure after a blowup, and we'd sail quietly for a month or so until the next eruption came, followed by more unkept promises to change.

The fucked are toddlers who refuse to learn that climbing up bookcases causes those bookcases to fall on top of you no matter how many times those bookcases fall.

Among the worst by-products of such cycles is the arrival of hope. Hope, the promise of promises made, does more to keep you fucked than the original fucking because you hold to a vision of how things might be, rather than dealing with how things are. It is wishful, magical thinking that has no support, no ballast, no grounding to allow that vision to come to fruition. It is always Spring. It is always becoming. It never arrives.

Look at the patterns you've established. Do you take the cure from time to time when things run bad only to set it down and forget where you've been, or are you the one washing and feeding the drunk, hoping this time he'll get it right?

Here's how all this ends:

A month after Karl and I saw Bobby screaming at his greasy girlfriend we buried him in a cheap cloth casket. He'd been eating sterno for the alcohol in it and so poisoned himself unto death. His cycle complete.

* * *

If you think this is about boozehounds, you are wrong.


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