Longtime readers know I’ve been hammering out an autobiography for some time now. I’ve enjoyed the process of filling pages and moving through the years, but I’m not going to publish any of it until I receive the first Nobel Prize for Jackassery. To date, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has not responded to any of my entreaties. If you are Norwegian, or are a major purchaser of dynamite, please put in a good word for me. Thanks.
Today’s piece is drawn from a draft of that autobiography.
One thing I know about addiction, or at least my addiction, is that it’s nearly impossible for the addicted to learn from the past. Or the present. Or even the almost-certain future. For example, the following four data points demonstrate that drug and alcohol use have a negative impact on my ability to hold a job. Before I left home at 17 to go to basic training, I’d been fired a number of times, including each of the following data points.
I was blind to the pattern they defined and would maintain that blindness until I was 48 years old.
Data Point Number One
I got my first job under a false name. Well, the name wasn’t false—there really was a David Katz—but it wasn’t mine. When I was 14, New Hampshire law required you to be 15 before working for non-farm wages. Growing up in a small college town, there was little agricultural employment. Oh, Durham, Lee and Madbury had farms, but they were small affairs, and didn’t offer after-school employment for a 14-year-old with a taste for the better things in life—drugs and music. Especially drugs.
David, a year older than I, worked part-time as a dishwasher at a Ramada Inn, about four miles from my house. Once, getting stoned in his bedroom on the good weed he could afford as a working man, we hatched the idea of David going full-time evenings, even days a week. I’d work three days a week and he four—shifts ran from 5-10 on weekdays and 5-midnight on weekends. I would simply clock in on his timecard and we’d split the money proportionally. None of the adults cooking or serving even looked at the dishwasher, so we could easily carry it out.
Except for one thing.
While I loved weed, in its place I was happy to drink booze, and not too picky about where it came from. By my second or third night on the job, I’d developed the habit of drinking whatever was left in the glasses brought back from the dining room or bar. On weekdays, this didn’t present a problem, but the first Friday I worked I was hammered by 10 o’clock. My theory was couples came out on Fridays, with the man having three or four drinks with dinner while their wives would have one or two, often leaving drinks half-drunk, a crime against insobriety. Regardless of how it got there, I was not going to let perfectly good, if backwashed in a lipsticked cup, booze go to waste. Luckily, at 14 I’d learned how to avoid being caught messed up. I focused on my dishes and tried to keep my mouth shut. Unfortunately, I still had a couple hours work left, along with a vow not to ever throw alcohol away. I kept drinking. And drinking. And drinking.
Then a change.
I started puking. Luckily, in addition to drinking drinks, I’d also been eating steak and lobster left on plates, so I had something to throw up. (Reading over the first word in that last sentence, I realize at how low an estate a 14-year-old must have reached if the word “luckily” is followed by vomiting.) No one seemed to notice.
That job was a great one, and might still be my employment but for the bartender who gave me a bottle of sloe gin at the end of a shift. When his gift was discovered, he claimed I’d stolen it. Since I’d drunk half the bottle already, my defense consisted of trying to focus on the manager while standing up straight.
I was fired.
Data Point Number Two
As a boy, I went to summer camp for a few years. I loved camp. Really. While in Durham I was one of, say, 100 boys within a two-year cohort, at Camp Mi-Te-Na I was one of 50 boys in my “village.” For gifted athletes, these odds wouldn’t change their lives much. After all, the cream always rises to the top. For me, barely whole milk and more often 2%, being at camp meant I was considered a catch for any sport—after all, at least some of those 50 other athletes were anti-athletic, injured or simply incapable of hand-eye coordination.
Mi-Te-Na also introduced me to sailing and canoeing, archery and riflery, and the pleasures of gathering around a campfire to hear ghost stories and sing the camp song, with its oath to be true to the camp even after death, a ghoulish proposition given the terrifying tales we’d just heard.
Much as I loved being seen as a for-real hotshot athlete, it was the camp dances with our sister camp, Camp Foss, that most transformed my image of myself. Girls in my upper elementary and junior high school knew me for what I was—a pompous clown who disrupted class and talked weird. I think it’s fair to say no girl in my hometown, from 1969-1973, looked at me as a potential boyfriend, and I don’t blame them.
I was the first boy in Camp Mi-Te-Na history to be named Most Improved Camper and be fired from the camp as a counselor a few years later. The Most Improved award came about because I went from being shy and nervous my first year at camp to loud and obnoxious my second. The firing was the result of bad breaks against me and misunderstandings of my behavior. There is an innocent explanation for why, on my first night off as a counselor, I led three other counselors to hitchhike into Alton Bay (the town, not the water), get big kids to buy us a case of beer, drink it and end up jumping off a ladder-less pier into Lake Winnipesaukee. The coup de firing was being picked up in a police boat and driven back to camp by the cops.
Although I don’t remember any of the rest of that evening, I do know the next morning I looked up into the ever-disappointed face of my father. Apparently, being the leader of the drunken shenanigans had led to a common result.
I was fired.
Point Number Three
I grew up in Durham, New Hampshire, a small town with little to distinguish it but the siting of the University of New Hampshire in the early part of last century. Because of its UNH DNA, Durham has quite an elevated view of itself, and those of us from the town share that feeling. College towns are by nature filled with transients—a quarter or more of the student population turns over every year, and no campus is complete without academic gypsies and hangers-on, adjuncts and instructors of various kinds. Still, Durham did have a core population of tenured professors, college administrators, farmers and descendants of the families that gave names to its streets.
My mother moved to Durham in 1939, when she was 10. My grandfather, Phil Barton, after running schools in Colebrook and Weare for 10 years, was invited to UNH to teach and start the Thompson School of Applied Science, an affiliated two-year degree program. Without wanting to besmirch his memory—something I’ve done enough of in other areas—I must point out UNH honored him in 1970 by building the ugliest building on campus and naming it after him. You could look it up.
My mother went to work when I was in fifth grade. Before that, she’d cooked a bit, cleaned a bit and mainly read novels. Oh, she was a fine mom—her patience in putting up with me earns her a spot in the Maternal Hall of Fame—but she was never meant to be a housewife.
Since my mother had grown up in Durham, at least from the age of 10, my roots in town were well-established. When she went to work for the Durham Trust Company (which became Durham Bank, which became part of Portsmouth Bank which became so watered-down I lost track), she significantly cut down her cooking and housework, maintaining her devotion to consuming literature.
Her job, I believe, was to be a familiar face to old Durham families who banked there. I mean, if Bev Barton Howard worked there, the bank must still be a reliable local institution. She was a bellwether of safety and stability, despite having me as a son. (As an aside, when she retired from the bank in the 1980s, she was an officer, yet still made less than the youngest and newest male bank employee.)
When I was 15 or so, the company that cleaned the Durham Trust Company needed part-time help. As always, I needed cash to satisfy my healthy appetite for drugs of various kinds, so I applied for the job, earning $1.65 per hour. My hours were to be 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. five nights a week.
My first night on the job, I was paired with a 20-year-old college student who’d had his job for more than a year. As we got to know each other, it was clear Jonathan had figured out how to be successful and was glad to share his secret: Black Beauties, which I’d previously only connected to Pam Grier and BernNadette Stanis. For those of you under the age of 50, Black Beauties (trade name Biphetamine 20) were a 20 mg. combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, sort of an Adderall precursor. In short, they were pharmaceutical speed. Jonathan gave me a fistful, which I immediately swallowed, an apparent mistake based on Jonathan’s shocked look.
“That’s way too much, man! You’ll be up for days,” he said.
“Cool,” I replied.
Within a couple hours, my heart was pounding like an unbalanced washing machine filled with sneakers. By 10 o’clock, I went to the overall supervisor and said I was afraid I was having a heart attack and needed to leave. He looked at my clenched jaw, bug-eyed stare and clenched fists, and shook his head.
“Freaking hophead,” he said, using a slang term for junkies. “I won’t say anything to your mother—she’s a sweet lady—but I can’t keep you on the job.”
I was fired.
And, over the next three days developed a love/hate relationship with speed.
Point Number Four
To spare you all the details of the previous points, I’ll outline this way in a series of steps.
- At 17, I got the job of night manager at an Orange Julius
- I took a hit of acid 30 minutes before my shift began
- Once I started to get off, I told the other employee to go home. She left.
- I took my apron off, stood behind the counter and simply laughed at anyone who came in the store.
- Word spread of the crazy kid at the Julius stand
- Mall security was notified. My manager was notified.
I was fired.
At 17, I’d been fired from four jobs while using drugs or alcohol. I believe that’s plenty of evidence, for the rationale that I had a problem that must be addressed. Any person with the sense God gave geese would know things had to change. I would have to change.
And I did!
It just took 47 more years to do so.