a lesson learned

Tucked in Upstate New York mountains and hidden in the quiet anonymity of a small town with only a few homes, few business and fewer people, I found myself in a short-stay rehabilitation center.
The center was not as I imagined it would be. The place was not hospital-like in any way. However, there was a basic nursing staff. There were no medical doctors or medications, only counselors, and ex-drunks that chose a therapeutic career after their own successful rehabilitation.

We were in the middle of nowhere. I was the youngest patient, and as it seemed, I was certainly not the only patient undergoing treatment as forced condition by an outside source. Most of the men in this place were like me. They were sent here by someone else. Many of the patients were sent to this facility by their employers; most of them were union men and staying their 28 day-stay on their union’s dime.

Like me, everyone had a story. Everyone had a reason for why they were there and everyone had an excuse as to why they did not need treatment. Like me, most of the patients used the rehabilitation facility as a means to save something.
They were either trying to save their job, or marriage, or like me, many of the population admitted themselves into treatment as a means to please the courts. This was the reason for many other patients as well. The minority, however, arrived through the front door, beaten from the life they lived, and with the willingness to surrender and completely abandoned their old ways.

Throughout my 28-day stay, I watched the fellowship change. As one or more patients completed their discharge, other patients walked through the doors for the first time. Many of the newcomers were drunk or still reeling from their last night out before heading to treatment. Their eyes red, halfway closed, and their body smelled from the bottle.
The drunks were more of an obvious kind. Then there were the wild-eyed, cocaine freaks and crackheads. These men were all thin. And so was I, for that matter.
They appeared twitchy—same as I did. Some came in with the common characteristic of burn marks on their lips from smoking a glass crack pipe.
Next were the slow-hand junkies; the dope-fiends, the heroin addicts, and fresh from their detox and methadone cleanups. This kind of junkie had already gone through the physical withdrawal symptoms. They spoke as if their mind was softened by the years of their drug use. Their speech was slower and their eyes had a withdrawn appeal to them—as if the drug had left its mark. Many of these patients had been on the needle for years or even decades. Their stories were remarkable. They were similar to me in many ways and different in others.

These people, as wild or as sick as they may have been were some of the best I have ever seen. Even the ones who were blinded by their own denial; even the junkies eager to head back to the corner, the beer drunks that missed the barstools, the whiskey drinkers who were thirsty for more, the scotch and soda crowd, the cocaine, and the emaciated crackheads, the pill-poppers and so on, were all amazing in their own way
There was something beautiful to the tragedies of the men I lived with. There was an understood connection between us, and while yes, we were all different cases with different reasons behind our arrival at this facility; we were all in for the same thing.

There were men like Cowboy.
Cowboy’s arms were filled with purple track-marks that lined along his veins. He was tall and thin. Cowboy’s methods with the syringe left his arm looking like terrible horror show. Cowboy wore a large belt buckle, tight jeans, and flannel shirts, and pointed cowboy boots. His black hair parted to the side. He was pale-skinned and his blue eyes were the crazy kind. Cowboy spoke with a southern twang, yet in reality, Cowboy came from a very wealthy section of northern New Jersey, which was not an accurate fit for Cowboy’s rhythm of speech.

Cowboy was racist. He was loud, offensive, and mostly unlikable. But Cowboy was an adult child. He grew up a spoiled rich kid, and like the rest of the inmates, Cowboy had his reasons for being who he was.
Eventually, Cowboy’s racist comments and attempts to bother me came to an end. He was closed in a room with myself and a few of the larger black members of treatment. At first, Cowboy postured. But his pose was broken when the other men cornered him and called Cowboy by his real, Christian name.

Racism was not new to me. I knew there was a division between man and race. I knew there was a difference between black and white, and I knew there was hatred between the two. Only, I never knew why.
In truth, I never spent much time with anyone from an opposite race before treatment. Other than the basic acquaintance of black or Spanish people from my neighborhood, I never hung around in groups of different ethnicity. I never ate dinner at “their” house, and “they” never ate at mine.

I came from a place where there was a certain, unspoken segregation. I lived in a humble to middle income town. Other than the section of military housing, which was the only influence of different ethnic backgrounds, the majority of my town was white, Irish-Catholic, or Roman-Catholic. There was a section of my neighborhood that was known as Jew-town, and then there was me, an Irish Jew with a Cherokee Indian mix, and parts of my background that traced to Austria.

I was never sure about the hatred between races or religion. I only knew it was so. I followed along because in my own ignorance—I listened to the lies. I listened to the inaccurate descriptions of different backgrounds and kept to my segregated group.
Unsure of the reasons and weak-minded, I subscribed to the lies and the rhetoric of racial hatred instead of questioning them. As it was, I felt different and awkward. I was too concerned with being accepted. So rather than face the ridicule of my peers and ask why; I simply acted alike.

I acted alike, but I never knew a man like Mathias.

Mathias arrived at the facility a few days before me. He was a corrections officer at Rikers Island. He was big in size and thick in muscle. He had little patience for punks like me. He saw the meanest and worst kind of men on a daily basis.

“They would eat you up inside that cage,” he told me.

“A longhaired little white boy like you wouldn’t last a minute.”

“You’re too light to fight and too thin to win,” Mathias said.

Mathias openly disliked me at first. Mathias disliked me until he learned about my suicide attempt that came one week after my arrival.
Other than my father at my grandmother’s funeral, before this time I had never seen a grown man cry. When Mathias visited my room to check on me, he closed the door behind him and wept.

“You can’t do that again, son.”

“You understand me?”

“You have too much to live for”

“If you EVER,” he emphasized in a loud emotional voice, “Feel like you’re going to do that again, I want you to run down to my room. I don’t care what time it is. I don’t care where I am, but you come and find me. You hear me talking to you, boy?”

We talked for a while. Then Mathias stood up. He made me give my word that I would find him if I needed anything before agreeing to leave my room. What I recall most about this time was his hug. This was not the hug a black man would give a white man. This was a hug a father would give his son or an older brother would give to his younger. The hug Mathias gave me had nothing to do with race. Instead, it had everything to do with humanity.

I could feel Mathias shake as he sobbed. His arms wrapped around me.
“You can’t ever do that shit again,” he said.
“You just can’t.”

Of all people, I would have never assumed someone like him would understand someone like me.

Afterwards, Mathias straightened up. He smiled and said,
“You’re going to be alright, son. I can promise you that.”

As he left the room, Mathias noticed Cowboy near my door. Mathias did not like Cowboy. No one did.
Quickly, Mathias moved in close. Mathias pointed in Cowboy’s face and warned, “If you go in that room and give that boy any shit, I’m telling you right now; your ass will get broken!”

“I just want to see if he’s okay,” said Cowboy with teary eyes.

Mathias looked Cowboy up and down.
He shook his head and agreed with Cowboy’s sincerity.
“Go on in then.

Addiction and depression have nothing to do with race or religion. I suppose Mathias knew all about this. Years after I left the facility, I learned that Mathias failed to listen to the same advice he gave me. As a final act of desperation, Mathias hung himself in his apartment.

I will never forget him.

I will never forget Willy either.
Willy was homeless before arriving at the facility. Upon arrival, Willy was given clothes from a nearby charity. Some of the clothes were brand new.
Willy was quiet and kept to himself. I suppose he was uncomfortable being around so many different people from different cultures.
On the day before I left treatment, Willy asked that I come visit his room.
“I have something for you,” he said

When I arrived, Willy was putting clothes in his drawers.
“Come in,” he said.
“It’s been a long time since I had any drawers,” he mentioned with a big and partially toothless smile.

Willy was an old wino with a thick southern accent. He had been homeless for a long time, but he had been financially poor his entire life. He spent time apple picking and worked the roughest jobs to feed his drinking habit. He drank anything he could find and anything that would keep him drunk. Willy had not seen his family in years. He was alone and poor, but for 28 days, Willy was guaranteed a comfortable place to sleep, three meals, a shower, and a place to get sober.

“Come on in,” Willy encouraged.
“I want to give you something.”
Willy walked over to his closet that was across from his bed and pulled down a pair of blue jeans. The jeans had yet to be worn. They were a dark shade of denim with the tags from the store still hanging from a white thread.

“This is the first new pair of jeans I ever had in my life,” he told me.

“I ain’t never had no pair of new blue jeans before,” Willy said.
“I never wore them yet.”
“They too special,” he said in his thick southern accent

Then Willy lifted them and presented the pair of folded blue jeans to me.

“I want you to have them.”

“I’m skinny like you,” Willy told me.

“So they should fit. But please son, don’t you never do nothing like what you did again. You got too much to live for.”
I was never homeless. I was never financially poor either. But I never had the kind of wealth like Willy had

Willy’s eyes were large and the whites were gleaming from his kind donation. Willy’s skin was perhaps the darkest of its kind. His hands were rough and his life was toughened by a poor upbringing, and an unwarranted hatred

Of all the things I was told about the black race, of all the lies, and all the stereotypes, I was never told about men like Willy.

I was never told about men like Mathias

They were the best kind of men I have ever seen . . .

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