It was the last winter of my former self. I was in the basement of a corner bar in a little strip mall next to the 7-11 store at the corner of Front Street and Merrick. It was late and somewhere after 1:00am during a cold, mid-winter rainstorm. I was not too far from my home where my mother and father slept. My brother, the hall of fame athlete, the rock star, the hero, and a name that was amongst the most popular of my town was elsewhere in the world. He was scoring goals on college lacrosse fields and touring the grounds of prestigious places. But me, I was hiding in a small dark cellar of a town bar with a nosebleed and vomit on my breath.
On usual nights, the town bar was busy and loud enough with conversation and music from the jukebox. I could hear them but they could not hear me. Noise like this was a perfect distraction. This way, I could sneak around back. This way, no one could hear the sound of the rear cellar door opening. No one would hear me creep in, and with all the business and commotion upstairs, with all the cheer and happiness, the clinking of glasses, and with all the happy friendships and bonding going on in the bar above me, no one would come down to the small basement below and interrupt or get in the way of me and my rituals.
This was one of my hiding places. I had a few spots to hide but this is where I would go when I couldn’t go home or when I needed to get away from everyone. The cellar was dark and the floor was covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt. I came here when I needed to get away (or hide) from the problems I created in my town.
No one knew about this spot —well, at least not really. No one else knew about this place except for one other person, but his name will be removed to protect the less than innocent.
There was a series of boxes and crates in the room. To the left was a creaky set of wooden steps, splintering and ugly, which led up to a door that led into the rear side of the bar. Overhead were the support beams that stretched across the low ceiling and supported the floorboards from upstairs. The walls were dull and gray and the dust was thick enough to coat my tongue.
I used to climb in from the outside hatch doors around back and set up the boxes so that I could hide behind them and protect me from view. This way, I could hide if someone came in. But no one ever did.
I used small birthday candles for a source of light, which flickered across the walls in my small dark surroundings. I also used the candles to cook up my small batches in a bent-up spoon. There were old cobwebs hanging and swaying from the low, overhead beams. There were mice too, which I could hear them squeaking on occasion. But I never saw the mice. I only saw their shadows scampering along the wall in the dull glimmer from my muted candlelight.
The walls were concrete, the air was murky at best, and with no place else to get away from the wind or the elements; this place was a warmer improvement over the sewer tunnels at the sump over on Glenn Curtis Boulevard.
I was alone here and hiding from the world. I was closed off and hiding from the paranoid whispers that consumed the mind on nights like this. I was high as could be and stuck with the terrible anxiousness that comes at the end of a long terrible cocaine binge. I was young and paranoid. I was empty. I was sick too, and frightened of literally everything, and wishing I could take back my several moves.
I say it this way in relation to the time when I was trying to learn how to play a game of chess. I wanted play well and I wanted to have a good plan with a good strategy —the only problem is I never truly understood the fundamentals of the game.
I never could play very well. Therefore, I would always lose because in most cases, I would quit before the game even started.
I doubted myself. I never knew the benefits of the chess pieces or understood how to use the different movements. It seemed though, however, that everyone else knew how to play. The problem here was me. It seemed as though I could never get the right strategy.
I remembered when The Old Man tried to teach me how to play. My Old Man was not the kind of father to let me win. He would say, “If I let you win then you didn’t win anything.”
He would say, “If you win, I want you to earn it.”
But me, I was fine if the win was fake. As far as I saw it, I would have rather a fake win to losing all the time. At least this way I could pretend for a while.
The Old Man would tell me, “This is not just about how to play chess. This is about how to live your life.”
the Old Man was tough in this regard.
“No one is gonna let you win, kid. Remember that!”
I remember playing chess across from The Old Man and I could tell he was frustrated by my moves. This would frustrate me and as the game moved, I swear, it was harder and harder for me to think clearly.
I could tell The Old Man disagreed with the moves I was making because he shook his head in disbelief. We were sitting at a table in our home. The room was quiet, which added to my anxiety because I wanted to perform well. I really did want to perform well but I couldn’t. The harder I tried to improve, the more nervous I became, and the more nervous I became, the more I second guess myself, and the more I second guessed myself, the worse I moved on the chess board.
The Old Man was right . . . this wasn’t just about how to play a game. This was about my life. This was about my life.
“Take back that last move,” said The Old Man.
I could tell he was frustrated.
“Take back all of them,” he told me.
He wasn’t being mean.
At least, The Old Man didn’t think he was. Or at least, according to The Old Man, his intention was not mean. He was just being honest.
The same would happen when we played cards together. If I threw down the wrong card in a game of gin rummy, The Old Man would get frustrated and say, “What are you thinking,” and then he would throw down his cards and beat me by saying, “Gin”
When I would lose, The Old Man would show me where I went wrong. We would play for a while but he would never let me win. It was hard to play with The Old Man. I was tired of losing. I was always tired of losing.
I was tired of The Old Man’s lessons and the way he would preach to me. In truth, I was tired of believing I was a disappointment to him. Again though, this was more than just about a game of chess. This was about my life.
I told The Old Man that I didn’t like playing games with him.
I told him, “I don’t want to play anymore,” and then I told him why but The Old Man was not easy on me about this.
He told me, “Be careful because quitting can become a habit.”
“Life is the same as a game,” said The Old Man after I started gathering the chess pieces to put the game away. He told me, “The only difference is life doesn’t give you the chance to take back your last few moves so you can try again.”
And yet there I was, years later, crouched in a filthy basement and hiding behind a series of boxes beneath the floor of a neighborhood bar and wishing I could take back all of my last several moves.
But I couldn’t . . .
I can remember hearing the sound of my heart beating in my chest. I remember the particles of dust falling from the overhead floorboards in the ceiling and then filtering through the air before vanishing in the sad orange candlelight.
I can remember the idea that this was me now, scattered and sick. There was an entire world out there, but yet, I was nowhere near any of it.
Most of the people I knew were about to undergo their college experience or the were entering happily into their next chapter of life. But not me.
Most of my friends had their own cars now. But not me. Most of the people I knew had their lives together. But not me. No, not me at all.
I was hiding behind boxes and sitting paranoid in the candlelight. I was hiding and hearing paranoid sounds, which caused me to blow out the candle, to sit and pause in the darkness, wait for a second, and then light the candle once more to maintain and repeat this process over, and over, and over again.
I had turned the page and found myself on a new journey with a new substance, which I used to end my night. I found something to help me come down from the crazy uptight highs and settle me like the shimmering dust that filtered through the candlelight. Back then I used to know someone that picked up bags for me from a spot near 134th street. The packages were small wax paper folds of tiny envelopes with the word, “King” imprinted upon it in purple ink. This as heroin. This is what I used to keep me from the fiendish downfall after the cocaine blitz. This is what I used to weigh my body down while my mind escaped gravity.
I was somewhere in the middle of it all. And what I mean by this is the ideas I had seemed to have lost their genius. I wasn’t really high anymore. This certainly wasn’t fun anymore. I was just maintaining. It was a job to me.
Most of the time, I was just trying to beat the boredom and melancholy. Most of the time, I was just trying to find a way to not feel uncomfortable.
The high itself had turned on me and the answers I used to find were somehow too far from my reach. My life was more like a chore of need. This was something I had to do in order to keep my head straight. Otherwise, I couldn’t function. This was like my tiny secret weapon; it was my little chemical sense of balance, which, without this balance; I would otherwise seem off-kilter.
And again, I just wished I could take back my last several moves. I was alone in a dark dingy place. I had no real friends because I pushed my real friends away because they were an interruption between me and my routine. The friends I did have were self-serving and sick just like me. So they were no help.
My family was ashamed of me. My life was sinking deep and I was sinking deeper into the emotional quicksand and stepping one step closer to the fine line of total and final despair. I thought I was going to die but in the same thought; I welcomed my death because I saw no possibilities in the ability for me to have a better or normal life.
I wished I could have taken back my last several moves. I wished I could take them all back. I remember swearing how this would be the last time. But the idea of anything being the last time was too much of concept for me to comprehend. I
never thought I could play the game straight and more, I never thought I would ever win unless someone would let me win. But it was exactly like The Old Man said. When it comes to life, “Nobody is ever gonna let you win.”
Once I opened the King packages, I took in the contents to settle me down. Once the powder took to bloodstream, I found myself wrapped in my warm cocoon. I was protected here. The fears and concerns were temporarily suspended. The problems in my mind were gently euthanized and I was resigned here to quit playing, to stop trying, and to render myself as okay at being useless.
I see this true story as a perfect metaphor of how I felt and how I saw my life. It was hard for me to compete. I was hard for me to take another loss and it was hard for me to learn the strategies of which pieces in life could move in which direction.
Thank God I got out of that basement . . .