Trouble In Paradise
Echoing screams drip into my head like molten lead dripping into water, sizzling, steaming, then hardening and taking shape, morphing into distinct sounds and words. The different voices meld into a harmony straight outta hell. The institutional odor of piss and disinfectant mixed with the smell of adrenaline-loaded, fear-inspired sweat hits my nose, then fills my lungs, and I know that if I open my eyes this particular dream might not go away. That the chances are this is not going to be a real good day.
My head is all fucked up, swollen like a goddamn balloon, and when the body it's attached to swings its legs off the bunk and gets its bare feet planted on the concrete, everything hurts, from my fuckin' toes to my broken nose. My left eye will open, barely, the right is swollen all the way shut. The bunk I'm on is bolted to the floor in the middle of an isolation cell. The screams of certified madmen are echoing through the block. But here's what's really scary - see, I know I'm in jail one more time, I know I got my ass beat one more time, nothing new and no big deal, right? Wrong.
Two facts: The last thing I remember is trying to kill myself. Took a bottle full of a nasty prescription sleeping pill called Restoril, another full of Xanax and a third of Dalmane to insure that the job got done. Chased all the pills with a quart of vodka. Lights out, right?
Guess the fuck not, 'cause not only am I still breathin' and hurtin', I'm locked down and can feel that my brain is broken. Thoughts won't form. I got a gift for gab, but trying to describe what it feels like when you know that your mind has crashed and burned is tough to do. I'm unsure not just of my name but of my identity, I'm having trouble with object identification, images are swimming around behind these baby blues that have no frame of reference in reality, and voices and sounds are twisting through my head like demented banshees.
I realize I'm wearing a yellow pajama-type uniform. What ya gotta understand is that in L.A. County Jail regular inmates wear dark-blue jump suits, they got other color uniforms for trustees, gay guys, etc. The yellow pj's are for fuckin' dings, the lowest rung on the ladder. A ding is a guy who is so whacked out that mentally he's past Pluto, all the way gone, Jack. And I'm in yellows. My broken brain is trying to tell me there's gotta be some mistake. Maybe I caught a case, but I know what's up. I couldn't be a ding. Could I?
The next thing that filters through what's left of my brain is that I got a weird wristband, not the gray-white band that you normally get, but a fucked-up off-color purple band that means you're on your third strike.
I'm wearing stylish Easter-egg colors in an isolation cell with the screams of the mad echoing from the cells around me. And it hits home, I'm a ding who just struck out.
I'm writing this in my little teeny bachelor pad, where I got my own kitchen and shower, where I lock the door when I leave. Not my cell, where the door locks when I enter it.
The word grace is defined as undeserved favor, and for this minute and day my existence is a state of grace. I'm getting by all right - a long, long way from high-rolling but also a long, long way from where I was a little over a year ago. I see my daughter on weekends, we go to the gym and kickbox. I got wheels and a gig at the Weekly, doing Outlaw L.A. columns. A book I wrote back when I was in jail came out last month, and Larry Clark is shooting a movie of it - it's called Another Day in Paradise. They say write what you know.
Undeserved fucking favor.
I come from a long line of people who were all the way wrong, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Starting with Irish revolutionaries and Scottish cattle rustlers from the Liddell River Valley, my ancestors were driven out for making poor political decisions and having sticky fingers.
Both sides of the family migrated to the land of the free and the home of the brave, where they went on to become heroes of the Confederacy and, in the family tradition, died fighting forces that outnumbered them by almost 4-to-1. Their homes were burned to the ground by the good General Grant, who went on to become president after applying the torch to everything standing in his way and after his soldiers gang-raped my great-great-grandmother and all other available females of all colors from ages 8 to 80. A few failed entrepreneurs and drunkards later, and a long line of bad choices, have resulted in yours truly.
I was not what you would call a well-adjusted child. Back then I was considered a juvenile delinquent, now they call it anti-social personality disorder with sociopathic tendencies. The real question is who gives a shit and what difference it makes anyhow. Why I felt the way I did is a moot point - fear and rage defined me and my actions. Drugs made life bearable. The first time I got loaded I was 8 or 9 - me and some of my little partners sniffed glue, and for me it was like coming home. For a few moments the emotional earthquakes and spiritual hurricanes that made up my inner universe slowed, then stopped. I took to drugs like John the Baptist took to water. I thought they were my salvation.
I was a kid who refused to learn how to read, write or do anything except act like an asshole. A kid whose dad taught him how to read in one night once they discovered I wasn't retarded. Pops threw me on the ground, bent both my arms behind my back and put a book in front of me. I learned to read phonetically. When I couldn't sound the word out my arms got shoved up a little bit higher between my shoulders. When we reached the end of the book my arms weren't good for much, but I could read. Once I learned how I read compulsively, starting with L'Amour and Heinlein and working my way through Sartre and Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, hoping to learn something about my twisted psyche. I still read whatever I can lay my hands on. But back then reading was something I kept to myself. I perceived myself as stupid, and was comfortable with that image. The fact that I liked to read was my deep dark secret.
Moms was the first one who encouraged me to write. In sixth grade my muse was disturbingly bleak, and what attention it got me in school was beyond negative - they thought I was sick, mentally ill. An essay I wrote in sixth grade that extolled the benefits of immediate gratification, a blend of nihilism and hedonism, damn near got me thrown out. I quit writing when I quit school, seventh grade. Later I picked up the pen for my own amusement and to try to preserve my sanity. I wrote for 25 years, though, before I had the courage to let anybody read any of it.
I was 12 years old the first time I got picked up for a felony. The charge was strong-arm robbery. That was my first experience with getting locked up, as opposed to picked up by the police and then released to my parents. That was also my first real experience with heroin withdrawal. By the following morning I was introduced to that particular flavor of hell, one I've tasted over and over through the rest of my life. The full-on insanity of righteous withdrawal, nerves and brain screaming, flesh crawling, guts twisted into knots. Praying with all my heart just to get through it and swearing to myself and on everything that's holy that I'd never use again. And deep, deep inside me knowing that at the first opportunity I'd be loaded.
Hopped a train and ended up in Boston. Life got interesting.
Making dough hand over fist. Armed robberies, burglaries, shooting smack 24-seven, stopping only when I had pharmaceuticals to slam instead. Dilaudid, pharmaceutical coke in that brown glass bottle that had a skull and crossbones on it below the words Cocaine Hydrochloride Flaky Crystals, Pantapon, Neu-morphine, regular morphine, all that good shit. Hit a drugstore and come out with bags full of dope. Back there and back then the heroin was white with a quinine cut, way good. Too good. Live hard, die young and leave a good-looking corpse, right? Wrong, pal. Whoever the idiot was who came up with that expression didn't see my friends' corpses.
It was the mid-'70s, and the punk rock thing was starting to happen. The rage that consumed me had found a home. I've heard people describe rock & roll as good-time music, but for me it was always about anger and outrage and sex, Chantilly lace and a pretty face . . . motherfucker. Us and the disco kids used to roll and tumble on a regular basis. Kenmore Square was the scene of multiple Punker vs. Disco Dweeb riots, as were most of the smaller clubs around town - we'd crash their gigs and they'd do the same. I loved it. Mohawked down, with steel-toe boots and a pistol in my back pocket, I thought I was Billy the Kid on smack and rock & roll.
One night me and my girl were drinking boilermakers and taking reds, and a locally famous sometime pro wrestler and all-the-time asshole came strolling into the joint we were frequenting at the time. A bar that had generous shots, cheap hot dogs and a good jukebox.
One thing led to another, and both being loaded and so on, the second or third time the young lady I was with told the maniac to buzz off I felt like I had to get involved, whether it was a stupid move or not. This guy scared the shit outta me. He was huge and way aggressive, had a big mean mouth to go with his oversize and mean everything else, and was rawjawing the whole bar before zeroing in on me and my girl. All 140 pounds of my poorly groomed leather-jacketed ass got in his face. His first shot took out my front teeth, I don't know if it was the second or third that broke my nose, and sometime after that he kicked me in the face good enough to split the skin from my eye to my temple. I remember rolling into a ball so he couldn't kick my head all the way off.
When he tired of putting the boots to me I was coughing up blood and looking up at him from the beer- and blood-soaked floor just in time to catch his mouthful of spit in my face.
There was a Budweiser longneck lying on the floor, a and whether I grabbed it or it teleported into my hand I got no idea, but I do know that one second I was on the floor and the next I had his shirt bunched in one hand and the bottle in my other. When it hit him in the forehead the bottle broke off, leaving the neck and long slivers of razor-sharp glass in my hand. It felt like something ripped in my brain, like lightning was dancing behind my eyes, like my whole nervous system shorted out. I shoved the broken bottle into his face, and we both started screaming as my hand and the bottle went to work. The pain and fear and humiliation had combined to send me all the way over the edge. The guy's face before and after the amateur plastic surgery still haunts me.
The cops came and ambulanced us both to Mass. General for our injuries. I got charged with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, etc., and cuffed to my hospital bed. After my arraignment I ended up in Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane for observation. It was not a nice place. I'd spent some time at and finally escaped the Indiana Youth Center, one of the last juvenile facilities in this great nation of ours to use corporal punishment, but Bridgewater was something else. The huge brick-and-granite wall that surrounded it seemed older than time.
My first day in population, a guy was sitting and rocking back and forth in the day room, mumbling to himself and struggling to rip off the football helmet that had been tied to his head. I had my back to the wall, just watching my fellow nuts. Some were dangerous guys, killers. Some were alkies and dope fiends. Some of 'em were just motherfuckin' crazy, looney tunes. I was trying to figure out who was who when the guy that was rockin' and mumblin' succeeded in getting the football helmet off. Stood up and howled triumphantly, spiked the helmet into the floor, then lowered his head and ran full tilt into the brick wall. Boo-ya, just like goddamn Humpty Dumpty. Brains and blood all over the place.
Nobody even broke stride - card games continued, chess pieces were moved, sentences finished. I kept my back to the wall and watched the body twitch.
The lights of L.A. were like magic - I fell in love before the plane landed. It was Oz waiting to fall into the sea, the Sunset Strip, dope and broads and exotic cars, a land of limitless fucking opportunity.
They said go west young man, and I did. Hitting the Whisky and the Rainbow, slippin' and slidin', trippin' and glidin', life was a ball and a gas, livin' in free fall right up to the crash. Ate it on my Harley, crushed my right leg from the knee down.
Life became a drag. I had no dough and no way to make any. If you can't spell or count too well it's tough to get employment other than of the manual type. Sadly, not many people want to hire a crippled guy to carry shit or dig holes. And if you can't run, stealing is not a good idea. I was full-on homeless, crashing where I could, shoplifting when I got so hungry I didn't care if I got busted or not. And lonely like a motherfucker - for some reason when you're on the bottom people feel no need to socialize with you. One day I picked up a newspaper. Read the Help Wanteds to pass time, not because I thought I'd find anything. Saw an ad. It said: "If you can talk on the phone you can make big bucks."
Went to Santa Fe Freight Salvage Co. Met the owner, a little old Jewish guy I'll never forget, tellin' me a way to survive. "Oy, who gives a fuck if ya know from drill presses and hand tools, sell 'em. Sell drill bits and tape, shove it down their throat. Nem di gelt, get the fuckin' money, schmuck. If dey answer da phone they're alive, if they're alive they need whatcha sellin'. Whatever it is! Close da deal! It's all dat counts, kid. You starve or they starve. What's it gonna be?"
I hopped on my trusty crutches to the nearest phone and started dialing for dollars. Didn't know shit about tools or sales, had an East Coast accent so thick ya could cut it with a knife, talking to rednecks about floor jacks and band saws, lathes and milling machines, drill bits and tape by the fucking pallet load, slamming terrible Taiwanese trash all over the country. If Elmer answered the phone, he had tools on the way, period.
They had free bagels at this place. I lived on the phone and in the parking lot, surviving on bagels and coffee till I got my first paycheck. This was a brand-new way of life for me, and I dug it, earning an honest buck, paying for my $50- to $100-a-day habit without stealing, causing no damage to anybody but myself. This place had insurance too, and three years after I broke the leg a doctor at Cedars put it back together. I still limp, but it works just fine. So I had a new Beemer, a nice pad in West L.A., a couple girls I liked who liked me back, I was walking without crutches and as proud as a guy can be. Thought I was the American Dream in person.
Habits progress all by themselves. One day everything is fine, you got it under control. Then like lightning the monkey on your back turns into King Kong, and all the obsession and madness that's been in check for so long comes back with a vengeance. Now I need $400 to $500 a day just to get right. I still had veins back then, and if I didn't have a wake-up big enough to put me on the edge of a coma, just getting out of bed was a nightmare. The job went fast. Acquiring dope and doing it was my whole life. I don't care if you're the pope, if you got a decent-size heroin habit you will do whatever you got to to stay well. The pride I was taking in being my version of legit was absurd, but when the day came that I ran out of dough it was back to rippin' and runnin'.
Had a close call, a dope rip-off that went bad. The dealer I'd relieved of his product shot a gang of holes in my car as I was leaving. Realizing that maybe I should look for other options before someone with better aim decided to stop my clock, I thought methadone might be the answer. Stupid. Now it's 80 mg of methadone and a fistful of Valium to start the day, shoot as much smack as I can get, and if I got enough dough add some coke so that I can experience something besides being a zombie.
When they finally busted me it was almost a relief. I was tore up from the floor up, dead on my feet, just too stupid to lie down and quit breathing. I was in County for most of '82 fighting multiple burglary charges, finally got a six-year lid, state time. L.A. County is such bogus time I was grateful when they called me to catch the chain. Got to the pen and kept as low a profile as possible, read, gambled, lifted weights, got loaded every chance I got, which was damn near every day, and decided that I didn't like jail a bit.
I also started writing my first book. Developed a new habit, burning through pencils and ballpoint pens and reams of legal pads, butcher paper, colored stationery, any fucking thing I could get my hands on. Playing it off like I was writing letters so I wouldn't have to take the chance of one of my peers wanting to read the stuff I was writing. Nothing - nothing - is as scary as putting your guts on a piece of paper for any weasel to take cheap shots at. Doing an armed robbery, fist-fighting a gorilla, whatever. It don't compare to letting other people read your stuff.
Got out and found a new line of endeavor that I feel no urge to go into detail on for now, because some people have long memories and no sense of humor. I was rolling so hard that I thought I was bulletproof, driving a new Porsche, blah blah. Get the picture? Met a gorgeous little Cuban chick, fell in love like ya read about. Managed to keep her and the habit going, had a lifestyle that I'd a only dreamed about, moved into a penthouse apartment in Marina del Rey. Then I discover the stork is on the way. I'm gonna be a dad. Could have been happily ever after except for one small detail, I was hooked like a laboratory monkey.
No matter how good the drugs you're taking are, eventually they stop working the way you want them to. I reached the point where I was either unconscious or walking around in hell. No amount of narcotics would shut my brain off, and the brain I got is a real active one. It put everything it had into killing me.
Checked into a rehab, put it all back together, tore it apart again. Lost my old lady, my daughter, a new Jag, and somewhere along the way I gave away the rights to the book I'd written, a pile of hand-numbered mismatched sheets of scratched-out overwritten insane prose that looked like a tower built by a madman. Losing all the goodies was old news by now, they come and they go. Knowing I threw my little family away rocked me all the way to the bone.
Kicked again in '90 and thought everything was gonna be okay. I had given up on living large and was doing manual labor, bouncing, moving furniture, making deliveries. Whatever it took to feed myself and stay legal. Finally got to the point where I had an old Chevy truck and a small pad, a few pair of blue jeans and enough to eat. I was doing volunteer work at We Care, a corny name but a great organization. I was making up for lost time with my daughter. I was living with a girlfriend. And every night I was scribbling away, attempting to put words on paper that people might want to read. I actually had a goal. Life was good.
Boo-ya! Wake up, motherfucker. It feels like there's broken glass inside me and I'm screaming, in as much pain as I've ever felt, and I'm a guy that's familiar with pain. Kidney stones. I'm in the hospital puking from the burning in my guts and I tell 'em I'm an ex-dope fiend, I can't take no narcotics. The medical protocol for kidney stones is morphine sulfate and Toradol IV, they did what they were supposed to, what the fuck did I know, I was only the stupid fucking patient.
When the morphine hit it was all over. I knew I was fucked. It was like I'd never stopped using. About a year later I'm skin and bones, I'm lonely like a motherfucker, strung to the gills on prescription painkillers and drinking on top of them. It's August 25, my birthday, I'm 42 and the biggest loser in the universe, not the good dad I want to be, don't have the balls to show anybody the stuff I write, too scared to steal and way too fucked up to work. I don't got what it takes to rebound one more time, I know kicking will kill me, and my kidneys are shot. I'm in and out of the hospital like a yo-yo.
You play the hand you're dealt, and I knew that. I was just too fucking tired to play anymore. So I downed the pills, chased them with vodka and lay down to take a nap of the permanent variety.
They tell me I was like a raving lunatic, got into an argument with one of my neighbors and the cops were called. When everything was said and done I was charged with assault on a cop, assault with a weapon, etc. I was also beaten into a coma. I'm still getting the life-support bills. The LAPD did such a thorough job of kicking my ass that it got all my attention, and that's no bullshit. They did a good enough job that when my P.D. took photos of my battered mug and started negotiating, the charges got reduced.
If I hadn't acted like a fool and gone after them I wouldn't have woken up in the ding tank or started the journey I'm now on. I'd have never cleaned up or would have died before I found out the book I gave away was picked up by a publisher. This is where I caught a major break. The world-famous North Hollywood rehab I'd been through before took one look at me and knew I had no dough. Ya got cash, ya get all the help ya could ever want. Otherwise . . . God bless the child who's got his own, know what I mean? So a friend of mine who works there got on the phone and called all over town till he found a place that would take me. He told me it was the end of the line, the bottom of the barrel, where there was nothing but bust-out junkies and street winos with a sprinkling of crack addicts - but they'd let me in quick in a hurry-up.
People In Progress, out there in lovely Sun Valley, gave me love, fed me the unbelievably bad food they're famous for and let me heal inside and out without asking me for a dime. The guy who runs the place used to laugh at me and my delusions of being a writer, but he let me have the stone-age computer I use and gave me an hour a day to tap away on my second book and honestly wished me luck. Three months into my stay at PIP a guy named Larry Clark contacted me, said he thought Another Day in Paradise would make a good flick.
Since then I'm almost done with my second book, Steel Toes, and got an outline on the third. I'm doing interviews and readings. And here's what's really a kick in the ass: The same guy that hid his writing, that was ashamed of reading and writing at all, gets a bigger thrill out of reading his stuff to people than he did from shooting speedballs. When I can see people digging what I'm doing it makes me high as a motherfucker, and puts me where I always wanted to be - all the way out of myself.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.