BY MADONNA HAMEL
I can’t sleep. I’m too tired to get up. So I stare at the moon and mourn my friend, ‘the octoroon’. He didn’t even make it to fifty. He was a force of nature, an inquisitive, tormented, sardonic, wise young man, creative to the core. I met him in Memphis. I’d just turned thirty-three and he was turning twenty. We played pool, walked along the shores of the Mississippi at night, stayed late at art school- me downstairs pouring molten metals into plaster castings, him upstairs weaving on a loom, carving wood. He made wood-cuts and inked them, at that time a series of fists raised to the air, a tribute to Kathe Kolwitz. His precision with fine-tipped tools prepared him for a life of tattooing. When I met him his body was a blank canvas; when he died his skin revealed his life in inky chapters. When I met him he was already drinking heavily. I couldn’t keep up with the booze but I managed a pack a day smoking habit within two months.
One night we stayed late at the school and when we headed out around midnight he was deep into a story about riding the rails back from Detroit to make it home in time to be a pallbearer at a funeral “for a man I did NOT like”. He never used contractions. “I will NOT let you go there alone”. “I can NOT forget you.” “ The revolution will NOT be televised.” He was a one-man revolution who was either just starting a new fire or smouldering after one. I saw, via social media, he grew to be a dedicated dad. A steady friend.
When we were friends his hair was long and he wore a feather in it, owning his “octoroon” status. I invited him to be part of performance piece involving a newscaster, a preacher and him, in between, holding space, performing a ritual chant he learned from ‘a shaman out west’. We didn’t practice protocol back then. We were flying by the seat of our pants. But he managed to hold the space in a poncho he made and then bequeathed to me the day I boarded the train to Chicago. The last pictures I saw of him he wore his hair short and slicked back and wore suits that made him look like a cross between Jimmy Stewart, James Dean and Tom Waits. The octoroon still beating strong in tattoo and bone choker.
The trees that midnight, walking home, were in full sub-tropical bloom, the magnolia were already beginning to open. We passed two men having a heated discussion. My friend had his eye on them and decided we should move faster and grabbed my elbow and rushed me along. Within minutes there were gunshots. Even then I didn’t quite understand what was happening because they sounded like firecrackers. We began running. He told me not to look back. When we finally made it to the end of Elvis Presley Blvd we ran into a 7-11. He bought a couple of Slurpees and we went back outside and sat on the curb and drank them in one gulp. “ This is crazy, living like this – getting used to living like this!” I said. He, like so many young people I knew in Memphis, flirted with danger, got an obvious hit from it. He became the kind of person who always showed up when there was trouble- to help out, to rescue, to calm people down with his brand of intense self-assuredness and coyote wisdom. But he was, in those days, anyway, less able to hang in there when the going got normal.
Over the years since then, I’ve encountered many more gifted, sensitive, wise, people like my friend who found refuge in the bottle. A lot of them live in rural places like this one, where folks work hard and play hard and throw their beer cans out the truck window. Some recover, others succumbed. One of the lucky ones who got-and stayed -sober likes to say: “Alcoholism is like dancing with a gorilla. You’re done when the gorilla says so.” At first, you think you’ll be fine, it’s a cute little critter, it’ll be fun. But then “the gorilla says you’re going to tango and you don’t know how to tango and the gorilla doesn’t care. If you get lucky enough to get out of the cage, stay out. Do NOT go back in the cage. One sip is stepping into the cage for a drunk. One sip’ll get you killed. ”
My addiction is to the addict. I’m the idiot who will step into the cage and try and save the man dancing with the gorilla and get my arms ripped off. My job is to stay out of the cage, too. But we all think we’re different, we can handle it, we’re special. We are “terminally unique”. But we are NOT that special. It’s not about ‘control’ or ‘willpower’. It is NOT about good or bad. It IS about crazy or sane behaviour. It’s like my relationship with certain foods: if I don’t start I don’t have to stop. I let go calibrating, moderating, dosing, parcelling, tasting certain substances because the nature of craving is that you are never satisfied and so you ‘dose’ yourself to death. I know this now. It’s taken me a long time, but I realize I don’t need to torture myself with a small taste on my tongue driving me insane with a constant desire for more. Eventually, if I stop ‘tasting’, the beastly craving fades, at least wanes, as it eventually leaves my bloodstream. I doubt I’ve ‘kicked’ the habit. But at least the craving is gone. The ‘beast’ is, I believe, out there, in the parking lot, doing push-ups, waiting for a slip-up.
But the minute I get a taste- that’s like that danger ‘hit’ and we are off and running down the boulevard again.
I do NOT want to lose one more sweet soul to addiction. I will co-sign any drunk’s death warrant with ‘one drink won’t hurt’. It hurts. It hurts good, sweet, kind people to the point of death.