Out of respect for anonymity, names and situations have been slightly changed to protect the not-so-innocent . . .
Billy was a tall, soft-spoken man with a curly bowl of salt and peppered hair. He wore a mustache, which was grayer than the hair on his head. He wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and he always dressed casual. He was gentle and bear-like. I never saw him lose his temper and I never heard him speak aggressively about anyone. Billy was content to be exactly who he was—a kind, middle-aged photographer who lived on 28th Street in Manhattan’s Flower District.
No one would ever know by looking at him. No one would ever think he was once a drunk and no one would ever know about the twenty years he drank or why he chose to live that way.
Billy invited me over to his studio after the meeting on 8th Avenue. This was rare for him. Although Billy spoke to nearly everyone in the group, he never said more than the basic greeting unless he truly liked you. And even then, Billy never said much. He kept to himself and he never shared his story or raised his hand in the meetings.
“I just come here to listen,” Billy would explain. “Besides, I don’t like speaking in large crowds of people.”
Billy and I got along very well. At the time, I was a salesman in the garment industry—but I rarely made any sales and I was always angry about something.
I saw the lunchtime meeting on the Westside as a good way to kill a few hours of my day and it was a good place to shout and scream or complain about life on life’s terms. The meeting was based on the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was no different from other meetings, I suppose; however, this meeting did have its share of its mentally distant and wild, which was always good for a surprising laugh.
There was Frank and Frank hated everyone. Everyone hated him as well, but he was short and old. Frank was an old queen, but he was quick tempered and always impatient.
Frank took on the commitment of chairing the meeting, which meant he came in early, set out the literature, put up the signs and a list of the twelve steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. I never really spoke to Frank—at least, not in the beginning.
He somehow grew on me though. I saw him as a small, white-haired man with nothing nice to say.
“I don’t have patience,” he admitted. “I’m too old for nonsense and I get pissed off too easily. . . and the last thing you want to do is piss off an old Fag,” he would tell me.
Dorothy was another regular. She was always very kind and one of the few people in the group that admitted to liking me. Very similar to Frank—I was angry, if not the angriest in the room. I was young and pissed off. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. I had a sales job, which I hated. I hated a lot of the people I worked with and I hated the people I sold to. I hated the fact that I had to remain polite while being degraded by my customers. They would shout and complain about my prices and delivery. In some cases, they would curse and in all cases, I could only apologize and thank them for their business.
Dorothy would always say hello to me. She was elderly with soft hands and a grandma’s smile. She was motherly to many of us in the room. She never used foul language, but she laughed whenever I did.
“You are the best Ben I have ever met,” she would tell me.
“I’m really glad you decided to show up today.”
Whether Dorothy was being honest to me was irrelevant. Her words were nice enough to hear—and even if she never meant what she said—she still made my day.
There were more in the room, like Amy.
Amy and I hated each other. She never said hello to me and I never said hello to her. On a few occasions, I heard her speaking about me. But being as I was, I made sure to ask her to, “Speak up,” only . . . she never did. Instead, she just rolled her eyes or said something like, “Whatever, Ben.”
Neil was another friend I would see on a regular basis. I liked him, but he was too serious. Everything he said was program related. Everything he said was from the books and literature. I liked him, but he was never able to relax and have a regular conversation. It was always about A.A. and since my sobriety was not exactly a prime example, Neil would always try to direct me.
The others who made this meeting interesting were the local homeless. One of them was sober. If anyone complained about their life; the homeless man would tell them, “At least you have someplace to live.”
Then he would lace the sarcasm with, “I think someone needs to put some gratitude in their attitude.”
There was an old woman that came in with a laundry cart. She spoke loudly with an English accent and a raspy, smoker’s voice. The old woman demanded her space and she cursed anyone that seat close by.
Then, of course, there was a woman who claimed to be saving her body for Jesus. She told everyone that she was an alcoholic and a sex addict. She would offer to prove her sexual addiction; except, she was elderly, overweight, and she often smelled from urine, so no one ever took her up on the offer.
Billy often sat on the same side of the room as I did. Like me, Billy had his opinion on some of the far-off characters in the room. And like me, there was a list of people who Billy never liked.
But unlike me, Billy never voiced his opinion out loud, whereas, in my case, I voiced my opinion loudly and very often.
On one occasion, Billy laughed from the back of the room when I threw a chair at someone else at the noontime meeting. I threw the chair (in my opinion) because I was being mocked. However, when the chair left my grip and flew across the small room in the basement of a Church, the man who laughed at me had somehow lost his smile.
I can only assume that I looked as if I were possessed. My eyes were wide-opened and electrified. My teeth grinded and I screamed, “Go fuck yourself,” while launching a blue, plastic chair with shiny steel legs across a the small, cinderblock room, which was painted in a pale shade of gray.
This happened during the winter months. I remember because it was only weeks after an arrest, which again, I thought was not my fault. I was arrested for assault; however, I claimed my actions were in self-defense—and they were—in some small way.
What began as a verbal altercation in the elevator corridor at the lobby level of an office building had quickly turned into something physical. It was early in the work day. I had just left my office after an hour long rant that was given by my boss. He tore into me about my paperwork. He tore into me about my sales and follow-up skills. He tore into me about the way I dressed, and the way I spoke. He literally tore into me about everything I did or said.
“You better clean up your act!” he told me.
Then he shouted, “Now get the fuck out of my office and go sell something!”
I decided to go downstairs to grab some coffee. The idea was to start my day over and begin it with a cup of coffee. But my trip did not go as planned. As I walked out from the elevator, I was stood–up by a man refusing to let me walk through. He was not an overly tall man, but he was taller than me. He was not a large man, by any means. He was thin—just like I was—and he refused to give way—just like I did.
“Excuse me,” I said. But the man refused to move.
“Excuse me,” I said once more. But the man stood straight and leaned forward, as if he were going to fall against me. I walked through and pushed my way passed him.
“Oh, just push through me,” he shouted as I walked towards the lobby door. I decided to show humility and I continued to walk. But when he screamed out, “Asshole,” the humility left, and I swung around and charged back to the elevator before the doors could close.
I was not physically strong. I was not tough either. I was just tougher than the man in the elevator . . .
As the elevator doors began to close; I ran back in and charged the man. Before he could react, I reached for his throat with my left hand, synching my thumb and pointer finger around his neck, below the jawline, and squeezing him tight..
Squeezing his windpipe, I screamed, “Say you’re sorry.”
His eyes opened wide. I assume he thought I was just a young, punk kid, and that I would be afraid of him. I assume he felt comfortable in hiding behind this idea until he learned that his idea was wrong.
“Say you’re sorry,” I screamed.
“I’m sorry,” he pleaded.
After letting the man go, he went up one flight on the elevator, only to come back down to the lobby and call the police. They never came for me that day. They came months later when I saw that same man in the lobby again.
This time, there just so happened to be a police car in front of the building and there was no place I could go. I was arrested in the lobby of the building where I worked. And to add perfection to the timing; two of my bosses walked into the lobby at the same time as the officers placed handcuffs on my wrists.
Billy knew about this and he wanted to help.
“What are you doing after the meeting,” he asked.
“I’m going to head over to the coffee shop on 7th and 40th Street. I like it there. I sit near the window and write letters to my mother.”
Billy offered, “You should come back to my studio.” I agreed.
We headed over to Billy’s studio after the meeting. He spoke more on this day than I had ever heard him speak before.
“I like you,” he said. “You’re not afraid to tell someone to go fuck themselves. I like that . . . but I think you’re going about this all wrong.”
Billy’s studio was near the meeting so the walk was quick. We headed up the steps and through a large sliding door. Inside, the studio was beautiful. There was a brief minute before the door opened when I wondered what I would see. I wondered what his furniture looked like, or if his place were neatly kept—or if it was slovenly, like the way Billy dressed.
The wood flooring was a pale white and the furniture was antique-like. His walls were filled with artwork and photographs. Billy extended his arm outward. “Come on in,” he said. “Look around.”
You would never know this was his place by looking at him.
There was photographs everywhere—pictures on the wall, on the coffee table in front of the couch. There were color photographs and black and white pictures—the black and whites were perhaps his most impressive. I walked around and came to a few smaller pictures of Billy by his desk.
One of them was a picture of him without his shirt. He wore dog tags and green, military issued pants. He was fit and lean. Billy noticed what I was looking at.
“That was a very long time ago.”
“Where was this taken,” I asked.
“That was in Nam.”
“I never knew you were there.”
“No one knows really,” said Billy.
“I never talk about it. To tell you the truth, that’s the only thing I still have from that time.”
I thanked Billy for his service and shook his hand. Studying the picture, I noticed Billy was standing next to a wooden post with his helmet resting cockeyed on its top. His hair was short, but not shaved. It was windswept and messy and his chest was dirty with streaks of mud. He was smiling in the photograph—but his smile was not the same smile that I knew. It was far off and different than what I was used to.
“What does that say on your helmet?”
“Kill a Commie for Mommy.” replied Billy
“I was a different person,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I never really heard of Viet Nam before I went there. I never even knew where it was. I knew what a communist was, but I had never seen one before. All I knew was I wanted to do something different, so I volunteered.”
“I was like a machine,” Billy said.
“I was the kind of monster you heard about. After a while, I didn’t really feel like I was there, fighting for my country.The way I saw it is they killed my friends . . . . so I killed as many of their friends as I could.”
You would never know by looking at him
As he spoke, the kindness and his usual gentle-like manner had left Billy’s face. His soft blue eyes seemed to relive his rage. They nearly glared as he described who he once was.
“I saw things that no one should ever see,” he told me.
“And I did things that no one should ever do.”
“I remember sitting in the dark. It was nighttime and shit was flying passed my face. Hell, I was just a kid. To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember getting into a fistfight before I went over there. It’s crazy, right? Never got into a fistfight, and the next thing I knew I was walking through a jungle with a gun”
He told me, “I drank every day when I came home. I drank all the time. And nobody cared. I mean it . . . NO ONE cared. Eventually, I grew tired of feeling alone. It took a little more than 20 years, but I grew tired of feeling sick and angry. Eventually, I had to let go of who I was—just like you do.”
The kindness returned to Billy’s face. “I see a lot of myself in you. I see a lot of struggle.”
“You’re holding on too tight, kid. It’s time to let go.”
Suddenly, the things I held onto—the crimes and the sins, as well as the wrongs and secrets I kept buried seemed unremarkable when I compared them to Billy’s.
“Benny, you’re a good kid and I like you. But you’re going about this all wrong. No one is looking to take anything from you anymore. No one here is gonna pick on you. And hell, you know I wouldn’t let anyone fuck with you. If you need anything, then you come to me.”
“I will help you,” Billy said.
He told me, “I will never allow myself to be turned into the person I once was. That person is gone and he has to be.”
“It is okay not to be angry, Ben. That anger of yours doesn’t protect you as much as you think.”
Of all my conversations in sobriety, I would say this was one of the most meaningful and inspiring.
I would have never known by looking at him, but this small story became a big part of my sobriety
Anyway . . . Billy and I lost touch.
I switched jobs and the noontime meeting was not option anymore. If I had to guess, I would guess this was 18 years ago.
Wherever you are Billy, I hope you’re still smiling