Okay ya”ll, listen up, ’cause this one’ll make you think.
Today’s Guest Blogger is Elizabeth Zelvin. Elizabeth is a New York City psychotherapist whose debut mystery, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, will hit bookstores next week. Her story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. Liz ran an alcohol treatment program on the Bowery for six years. She currently practices psychotherapy online. Publications include two books of poetry and a book on gender and addictions. Liz’s author website is www.elizabethzelvin.com .
I’ll start with the one I usually tell. It was 1983. I had just walked down the Bowery for the first time, south from Astor Place past the invisible line that separated middle class New York from the most famous skid row of them all. The Bowery is just a New York street, but in those days it was also a community with a culture and rituals and an argot all its own. It was a destination for chronic alcoholics from all over the country, made up of bars and flophouses and stretches of gutter the way a small town would have houses and playgrounds and avenues of elms and oaks.
The fourth floor of the notorious Men’s Shelter had housed an alcohol detox unit since 1967. Four New York City cops were assigned to the agency that ran it. In the old days, their job had been to round up guys and throw them in the drunk tank in the nearest slammer. Now they were called the Rescue Team. The cop of the day and I drove slowly down the street. Ten-thirty in the morning. The streets were deserted. Nobody knocking back Thunderbird or Ripple from a flat pint bottle. No one passed out on the curbs or in the doorways. The cop said, “They’ll all be in the bars.”
The bartender knew his cue when we stepped through the doorway, the open door casting a shaft of sunlight in which dust motes danced and the row of men at the bar blinked bleary eyes. “Fourth floor, fourth floor! Who wants to go?”
In 1993, I came back to the Bowery to run the same agency’s outpatient program. I inherited a program in which some homeless alcoholics had managed to get clean and sober, but nobody ever moved on. Some of them, with two or three years of sobriety, were still attending treatment daily. Among other innovations, I instituted a graduation.
One of our first graduates was Isaiah. He was a tall, emaciated black man who was a natural leader. He had a gift for inspiring others, and he took no crap from anybody. Before getting sober, he’d been a drug dealer and a scam artist. To say he’d turned his life around was no platitude, but the truth about what addiction treatment professionals like to call a f***ing miracle.
Isaiah had AIDS. After graduating, he hung around the program as a volunteer, continuing to help and inspire other alcoholics and addicts. His health became increasingly fragile, and eventually he died. We all went to the memorial service at a dinky little mission church where he had volunteered several times a week at the soup kitchen that had kept him alive more than once while he was living on the street. Person after person got up and spoke eloquently about how much Isaiah’s friendship or his example had meant to them. The young white pastor gave the eulogy.
“I knew Isaiah for many years,” he said. “He’d stand on line and I’d hand him a bag of sandwiches, knowing with absolute certainty that he would go right around the corner and sell those sandwiches to buy drugs. I would ask myself, Why do I bother? Looking around today, seeing the tears in all your eyes, hearing the stories people have told about his struggle, his courage, and his generosity, I finally understand why.”
This is a story about recovery from alcoholism, a treatable illness. And that’s the kind of story I wanted to tell in DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER. Bruce, my protagonist, has plenty of intelligence and cynicism. He does his best to maintain an ironic distance. If he heard Isaiah’s story the way I’ve just told it, he’d probably start playing air violin. Hearts and flowers, he’d say. Thank you for sharing. But dammit, I’m the author; he’s just the character. Bruce does and will recover. DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER starts with Bruce waking up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day. He is not pleased. As he puts it, “My mouth tasted like a garbage scow, my memory was on lockdown, and I bitterly regretted not being dead by thirty the way I’d always thought I’d be.” But that’s just the beginning.
In my experience, readers tend to bring their own history and preconceptions to a book like DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER. What are your beliefs about alcoholism? Have you ever known anyone whose drinking bothered you? Have you ever known anyone in recovery? How much do you drink, now and in the past? Have you ever considered it a problem? Has anyone close to you considered it a problem? To what extent do you believe that people can change in any fundamental way?
Thanks, Elizabeth, for being our guest today.