I met Hank inside the glass double-doors on the side of a brick building near 31st St. He was white-haired and heavy set. The top of his hands had matching tattoos; each with a tiny devil and both with the words, “The hell you say,” written beneath the cupid-like demon.
And like the blonde in Hank’s hair, the color in the tattoos had faded with age. The inked blurred to the point where it was difficult to read the lettering, but when I asked him about this, Hank smiled.
It was hard to believe who he once was. Hank was so calm and seemingly gentle.
“I got them both when I was in Vietnam,” he explained. “And when someone told me I couldn’t do something, I told them, ‘The hell you say,’ and that’s why I tattooed them on the top of my fist.”
“That must have hurt.”
“Don’t know,” he told me. “I don’t remember it. I just know I woke up one morning and there they were….one on each hand.”
Hank had been drinking for years.
“I volunteered,” he said
“At first, I was going to join the army, but my father was a marine in Korea. And since I was only 17, he said the only way he would sign the permission slip was if I joined the marines. So I did.”
At this point in my life, I did not like 12 step meetings. I hated the people that said the same thing every day. I hated the sayings and the snide remarks. Mostly, I hated the know-it-all, old-timers, or the ones with long-term sobriety that swept through the meeting rooms, lost from their own humility, and eager to preach about how much they knew.
“You’re only a drink away,” I would tell them.
In other words, I said they were no different from me. In my experience, I had never met anyone that attended 12 step meetings for excessive acts of kindness. We were all perfectly scarred and perfectly imperfect, but people like Hank were hard to come by
Hank was my first real sponsor as well as the first person I knew that fell from a good line of sobriety.
“I smelled the vodka on your breath,” I told him. But old drunks never admit their wrongs.
“I wasn’t drinking,” he said. “That must have been something else you smelled.”
“Something else that smelled like vodka?”
Hank laughed and he kept his posture as if my cold, hard, facts were untrue.
It was early in the winter months. The sun was shining, but the winds were cold. I walked with Hank from 7th Avenue down to 34th Street and 8thAvenue. We came to the corner, standing across the street from The New Yorker Hotel, which was supposedly owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
Inside the tall Hotel poking into the sky above of New York City were the employed and housed following of Reverend Moon. They were called The Moonies, and though the hotel employed the cult-like following, most of them seemed awkward, or slightly removed from reality.
Hank expressed, “This job was supposed to save my company.” Emotion had changed the white surroundings of his light-blue eyes to a watery shine.
“I can’t believe it’s all gone.”
Hank took a renovation job to modernize several guest suites in The New Yorker, but due to change orders, as well as poor communication with The New Yorker’s management, construction went over budget, and Hank was about to lose his company.
He said, “I’ve been running construction jobs for as long as I can remember.”
Then he pointed to the hi-rise building. “But this job just killed me.”
“Are you going to be alright,” I asked.
“I’m tired, Ben. I’m tired of all this bullshit.”
Then he smiled and told me, “I want to go paint barns.”
Hank often told me he used to dream about leaving the city and opening a business, specifically, to paint and restore old barns. He said that was something he wanted to retire to.
We stood on the corner for nearly an hour. Hank spoke and I mostly listened. Manhattan’s Westside surrounded us with its usual terms of stop and go traffic. Horns honked and the below freezing wind passed us, lifting Hank’s white hair as he stood in a camel-colored overcoat.
The top of his white collar was unbuttoned, and a blue scarf with a white stripe wove around his thick, bully-sized neck.
“I guess I have to start over,” he said.
“It’s good that you’re young,” Hank told me. “Starting over is a lot easier when you’re young.”
I wondered what he meant when he said, “Starting over.”
I wondered if Hank meant his sobriety, or just the destruction of his company.
Hank looked at the hotel once more. He brought his large hand with manicured fingernails to his chin, slightly rubbing his face. The diamond on his gold pinky ring glimmered from the ray of afternoon sunlight and his gold Rolex watch slightly peeked from the top of his French cuff.
“It was good to see you, Ben. You’re a good kid…….. you always were.”
That was the last time I saw Hank. It was the first time, however, that I watched someone with all the knowledge that comes with long-term sobriety and all the tools, willingly trade his life for the bottle.
In any case, that was the last time Hank and I ever spoke.
This morning, I argued the question if 12 step programs work.
I say anything works if you want it to.
I wanted to stay sober….so I did.
Yes, I needed extra help. Yes, I needed therapy, and no, it was not always easy.
But it wasn’t always hard, either.
I needed to learn the square root of my equation is always me.
But mostly, I needed people like Hank. I needed people like me; I needed someone who dangled on the edge.
I needed someone who understood what it meant to feel as I did.
I needed someone who knew what the sting from a razor blade felt like as it cut the skin, or what it means to civilize the craziest thoughts by pacifying them with a deadly poison.
I saw a picture of The New Yorker this morning….
I thought about Hank with a warm heart and I smiled.