I was hidden in the dark basement of a corner bar in a small strip of stores that ran next to the 7-11 by the corner of Front Street and Merrick. My town was as normal as any other small suburban place. There was a tall water tower in the heart of the town with a flashing red light at its top to warn off low-flying airplanes. We had one high school, one junior high, and two elementary schools.
Like most towns, ours had different sections that signified where we were from. And there was no hatred towards either side —it was more of a geographical statement, which connected a level of understanding of where we lived, what stores we went to, and where we hung out.
Ours was neither an exceptionally rich or poor town. We were the middle income. We were the working class, and the normal, average, and everyday town that was no less or more dysfunctional than anyplace else. We lived in homes with front yards and backyards. We had side streets and main streets, but the town was usually and mainly quiet.
It was a late night and somewhere after midnight during a cold mid-winter rainstorm. The streetlamps glowed and the traffic lights swayed above the mainly empty streets with their colors of red, yellow, or green glowing like circles halos on the blacktop pavement along the slick wet streets.
The bar I hid beneath was a town bar, which was not too far from my home. On weekend nights like this one, the place was busy and loud enough with regular customers, drinking happily while singing to the jukebox or playing darts or doing whatever it is they did up above. The jukebox played music from a generation just previous to mine and all who came were there to drink, laugh, and have a good time. But me, I was in the low ceiling basement beneath them.
The noise from the bar was a perfect distraction. This way, no one ever heard the sound of the in-ground cellar door opening around back at the base of the undressed gray façade of the concrete building. No one heard me creep in and no one that looked for me would ever think to find me here.
This was one of my hiding places. This is where I would go after one of my runs, or after I was beat for my money, or at the tail end of my binges, twitching and crazed, with my eyes beamed and electrified, and the look of serious desperation in my face. This is where I would go when I couldn’t or didn’t want to go home and this is where I hid when I needed to get away from everyone.
The cellar was dark and the floor was covered with a layer of dust and dirt. There was a series of brown boxes and empty liquor cases, which I used as a barrier to hide behind and protect me from view. This way I could hide if someone from the upstairs decided to come down —but no, no one ever did.
There were old cobwebs hanging from the low-ceiling in between overhead concrete beams. There were mice, which I saw on a few occasions. But I only saw their shadows scampering along the wall in the flicker of my dull candlelight. And I heard the mice squeaking on occasion too, but they never came close to me.
I was alone here, hiding from the world and high as could be in the sad brownish yellow glow of a small candlelight. I was paranoid, fidgeting, and grinding my jaw while stuck with the terrible anxiousness that comes at the end of the cocaine blitz. I was young. I was frightened of everything and frightened of everyone and wishing I could be someone or something else.
No matter how I tried, there was no way for me to outrun the elements or the images and thoughts in my mind. Although I tried, there was no such thing as escape. No matter where I went or where I hid —there was nowhere I could hide that my brain wouldn’t follow.
All of my secrets turned on me. I felt like pieces of me were being taken away, one at a time, as if I were losing to a game of chess. I forfeited all of my pawns and I lost all of my stronger pieces with fancy moves and the knight, which I pretended to be had been surrendered, leaving me defenseless, and leading me to a places like this in a dark, damp basement of a local neighborhood bar.
I felt alone and unwanted, and I was one step short of the terrible decision to finalize my fate and either take my life slowly by getting high, one binge at a time, or end it quicker with something a bit more deliberate like a blade through the wrist or a bullet through the brain.
Sitting in the dimness of my self-induced reality, my every nerve on edge during the pre-heroin days of my addiction; all I had to settle me down was a little bit of cough syrup that never really helped very much. My stomach was empty and the last of my packets were cocked up into freebase and smoked in my pipe—I was desperate but empty and smoking the resin (or at least trying to) from my tubular glass pipe, which was known to me as a stem. I tried with all my heart to resume my head in the clouds but I was too deep in my own hell to get out now. It was too late. The demons had me now and I couldn’t get away from them. All I could taste was the remnants on tongue, which was numb and all I could feel was the empty hollowness in my chest which pounded with a heavy heartbeat.
Otherwise, all I could think about was my unthinkable level of lonesomeness and regret. Meanwhile in my despair, up above, people drank amongst friends. I could hear their laughter and the clanking of glasses as it mixed with the music. I heard this sound, mocking me, and all I could think about was my last series of moves and the pieces of me, which I lost to a game I had no understanding of.
I wished I could take back my last moves . . .
I say it this way in relation to the time when I was trying to learn how to play chess. I wanted play well and I wanted to have a good plan with a good strategy —only, I never understood the fundamentals of the game. I never knew how to play very well and I would always lose. I knew which way the pieces moved. But I always left a backdoor open, and surprise, there was nowhere left for me to move. It was checkmate and to me, this is how I saw my life, powerless, paranoid, weak and always vulnerable.
I remembered being much younger and The Old Man was trying to teach me how to play chess. The Old Man was not the kind of father to let me win. He would say, “If I just let you win, then you didn’t win anything.”
He would say, “If you win, I want you to earn it.”
Then he would tell me, “This is not just about a game. This is life.”
As I saw it, life wouldn’t let me win either.
I remember playing chess across from The Old Man and I could tell he was frustrated by my moves. I could tell he disagreed with the moves I was making. We were sitting at a table in our home. The room was quiet, which added to my anxiousness because I wanted to perform well —however, the harder I tried to move the right way, the more nervous I became, and the more nervous I became the moves I made became worse and worse.
“Take back that last move,” said The Old Man.
“Take back all of them,” he told me.
He wasn’t being mean. No, The Old Man was just being honest. But honesty can be mean sometimes. And years after this childhood lesson, there I was, crouched in the filthy basement of a neighborhood bar, wishing I could take back all of my previous moves, but I couldn’t.
There is no glory here. There is nothing sensational about drug life or what this brings. I was alone and at my worst. My list of motivation was limited down to one: I was to feed my addiction before feeding anything else. And the reason for this is because I was always trying to feel better. I always felt detached from everyone else. I never laughed like other people laughed. I always felt differently from anyone else. I had no understanding about the fundamentals of this game we call life and above all, I was always so painfully afraid that inevitably and eventually, someone would come along and sneak around my back door —and then just like that, checkmate, the game is over.
I hid down in the basement and wished I could take back my last several moves. At minimum, I wished I could start the game over but I couldn’t and I couldn’t pump the poison out of my system. My bloodstream was tainted and my mind was poisoned by a cheap trick that created a temporary high that never lasted long enough and in the end, it landed me in basements or in places worse than this. My hands were filthy and my lips were burned with blisters from smoking a glass pipe. My stomach growled and my heartbeat echoed.
It’s funny though, when I was introduced to the idea of getting high, I was asked, “Do you party?” This was always funny because this was no party to me. People show up to parties. And me, I was alone, by myself, and wishing I could take back my last several moves.
God, I was just a 15 year-old kid and it already felt like I lived more than 100 years. Maybe things could have been different for me if I had someone that understood where I was and was able to teach me the better fundamentals of the game I was playing. Maybe then I would have understood the value of my pieces and I wouldn’t have sacrificed them all away,
But The Old Man was right. A victory needs to be earned. One of my biggest victories was finding my way out of places like that basement. And now it’s my turn to teach someone how to play the game . . . .