Chapter Four: Milestones and Mercy
“…we dare not look at one another for fear of some incalculable thing.” — Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
I woke up at Mercy Hospital on State Street, in a room. It was seven o’clock in the morning and I had no idea how I’d gotten there or even why I was there. I’d been there long enough to be suffering alcohol withdrawal, but that only meant it had been more than four hours.
I was sick and shaking, weak. I felt like I was turning inside out. When I tried to get up from the bed I discovered I was also injured — my knee, my ankle, my foot. I couldn’t stand. Nothing was broken (at least nothing they’d discovered), but it was all sprained. The nurse advised I remain lying down.
“Are you admitting me?” I asked.
“You’re already admitted,” she replied.
“But are you going to keep me? Because I have a serious problem. I’m sick.” I needed booze — gin, to be precise. And I needed money. I’d already checked the pockets of my clothes: I was broke, not a penny.
“Actually,” she began, “I was sent in here to try to get you up and out. So, no.”
“I can’t even walk,” I explained. “And I’m seriously sick, detoxing.” Mercy Hospital had been a major detoxification center for years, but that seemed like ancient history.
“Let me talk to someone for you,” she said.
I could tell she was a very nice person. The people who work for hospitals usually are. The hospitals themselves are like corporations — faceless, senseless entities.
In a capitalist society you find dollars are all that make sense. Even individuals begin to only value money. When a person hears one of my songs and is touched by its beauty, 99 out of 100 usually respond with disconsolate comments meant to be encouraging. “You should be famous,” they say, or, “You could be rich.”
That’s a disease, a sickness of the soul of society. Certain things shouldn’t be sold; not because they’re harmful, but because they’re helpful. If we provide healthcare and housing, education, food and clothes; if we share Art, Poetry and Music, even information and technology; if we help each other and are kind to everyone, then real progress may be realized. People would become good people, better citizens. And if you have better citizens, you have a better society.
Instead we’ve become the snake swallowing its tail. A dog chasing its tail is going nowhere, but a snake swallowing its tail is devouring itself. That’s what capitalism and consumerism do. If you think about what these words mean, it isn’t even concealed: money-ism, devour-ism. It doesn’t sound so pretty that way.
The nurse came back with a booty for my ankle and said she really had to get me “up and out” now. I was discouraged and could plainly see that she was, too — she wanted to help me, but her hands were tied, bound by bureaucracy.
“I really can’t walk,” I reiterated, trying to stress my dilemma while not coming off as if I felt she was to blame. “Can you call Milestone for me?”
“Yes,” she said. “I can do that.”
“But I want a bed upstairs,” I specified, where they provide detox services, not one of the mats downstairs where they let you spend the night. Her eyes had drifted downward — either in thought or because she was unable to meet mine — and when she lifted her gaze I added, “That’s important. I’m not just trying to get somewhere to sleep it off. I already slept it off and I’m sick.”
She went to make the call. When she returned to the room she told me Milestone said they’d take me. “Upstairs?” I asked, quite surprised. “You were specific with them?”
“Yes, very,” the nurse confirmed.
“But how will I get there?” I asked, gently. “That’s miles away and I can’t walk, even with the booty.”
“I’m one step ahead of you this time,” she said with confidence. “I secured a voucher for you and called you a taxi. All you have to do is give the voucher to the cab driver … and take care of yourself. You don’t deserve to live like this.”
Take care of yourself. She said this not as the usual salutation but as a command. I thanked her and hobbled off to get the cab, guitar in tow. The cabby was another guitar player and had the brotherly attitude common among musicians. There’s a lot of fighting within bands, but overall, music unites more than it divides.
When I got to Milestone they brought me downstairs. That’s where they’d admitted me before, during earlier attempts to get sober, so I was still feeling optimistic. There was going to be some hard work to do, after a few days of feeling very ill, but I was in the door.
I spotted a tie-dye across the room, a Grateful Dead t-shirt. It was a guy I knew named Vance, a casual friend and OK guy, as far as I could tell.
“Are you upstairs?” I asked him. He wasn’t dressed in scrubs, so I couldn’t be certain.
“Yeah,” Vance said with a smile. He had a nice smile, friendly, hopeful. “You checking in?”
I told him I was. “There’s a half a dozen empty beds,” he informed me. “So don’t let ’em bullshit you.”
While I was waiting I saw a kid I’d met the day before. He had just gotten out of jail, and Joe Blaze and I had gotten him drunk. I remembered that part of the previous day. It had been early on, daylight hours.
Once the kid — and he was a kid, maybe 22 or 23 — got intoxicated, he’d also gotten crude, making comments to random passersby in Monument Square, and some of his remarks were plain vulgar. We don’t like that sort of thing, and the Crew never allowed anyone to be disrespectful to anybody.
“Kenny,” Joe had said, “you might wanna get him to move on. He doesn’t want me to make him leave. It wouldn’t be healthy for him.”
I understood. Blaze was right, and he was serious. I got rid of the kid.
Now here he was, out of jail less than 30 hours after 30 days in, probably a little hungover but certainly not sick, and they brought him upstairs to the detox. There must have been beds, just like Vance said.
A nurse came down to interview me for intake. I was shaking so badly it was hard to sign my name. When the paperwork was done and the interview over, she informed me there were no beds available. “Try back tomorrow,” she said.
“Tomorrow?” I exclaimed. “Let me clarify something for you. If I walk out that door right there” — I pointed — “Commercial Street is right around the corner. By the time I get to the liquor store I’ll have made enough money to get a bottle, and tomorrow I just won’t feel the same about all this.”
My words seemed not to affect her at all, so out the door I went. And by the time I got to the liquor store I’d made more than enough to ease my pain.