I am thinking now of how it was, a long, long time ago in a different life, a different place and we were young of course. I am thinking about the mountains that were new to me. I am thinking about the farm and the way of life, the early mornings and the barn crews, the cleaning crews, kitchen details and the grogginess, which was me at this time. I was still foggy and still stuck in a strange pattern of thinking.
Nothing made sense to me. Not my life or my charges, the courts or the conditions of my sentence. I was living in a totally different world and almost speaking in a different language. Everything was painfully foreign to me. My choices were unattractive at best. The only other option to the farm was jail for one year, plus 90 days.
The farm was unlike anything I expected or experienced. People prayed before the meals. They sang a song before each meal. I still remember the words.
Key the piano played the intro:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures, here below. Praise Him above ye, Heavenly Host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
I didn’t know much about this song. This didn’t come from a familiar background. As it was, I was only one of three other Jewish kids in the facility at the time. Then again, this is back before I said goodbye to man-made and organized religions. These days, I look for truth, which is literally all around us.
My days were organized for me. If we weren’t working, we were cleaning. If we weren’t cleaning, we were studying or sitting in a group or working in the kitchen. There was no idle time here.
I was trying to coast. I was trying to get by and fly under the radar but this was difficult to say the least. There was always someone watching and there was always someone noticing. There was no real privacy, even in the bathrooms.
There was a system here, in which everyone checked each other. Some of the residents checked people wholeheartedly because they cared. Some did this to be spiteful to carry some favor and “look good” as if the program was working for them.
I was still a newcomer. Not even a month had gone by and they already cut all of my hair off. They took away my leather jacket because it was explained to me that my jacket was part of my old image. So were my concert t-shirts and my music, which were all taken from me and thrown into a fire. I thought this was a tad unnecessary but then again, I thought this whole place was a complete and total joke.
I was stripped of my image but resisted the efforts to strip me from my behavior. They were looking to break me down so they could build me back up. I say they did this to me because to me, everything was seen as an “us against them” or, “me against them.” And by them, I mean the facility. By them, I mean the establishment. More accurately to me, by they or them, I mean my opposition. I mean anyone or anything that was trying to take me away from my usual sources of comfort.
I fought back but they sat me in a corner. I argued but they cut my hair off. They took away my usual clothes and made me dress a certain way. I had to work a certain way and behave a certain way; otherwise, I was confronted and sometimes scolded. I was screamed at and shouted at until I’d break into submission.
There were rules. Anyone not adhering to the rules was brought up to the table and addressed publicly. For example, say that I was being belligerent or say that I was not listening or caught conspiring with another newcomer; say that I was talking about something considered to be negative, which meant that I had a negative contract – if this happened or if I was caught in a dishonesty, or if I were caught flirting with a female, or, God forbid, if I were caught with anything sexual or it was assumed that I was caught in the act of something “sexually personal,” after the meal, someone would raise their hand and bring me up to the table. Let’s give this someone a name. Let’s use John.
John raises his hand. The owner of the home, a man named Tony, would call on John and John would stand up from his seat at the dinner table. Mind you, there was a houseful of people in the room. Let’s say the number of residents was approximately 35-40 people. We all sat at certain tables in the dining room on the second floor of a big farmhouse.
Once the hand went up, we all sat quietly enough so that everyone could hear the sound of John’s chair as it slid back from the table.
John would say, “I would like to speak to Ben,” which is me, and then John openly confronted me about something that I did. John would then confront me about whatever it was, and without discretion. The topics of confrontation could be about anything from personal cleanliness, work, laziness, masturbation, negative contracts or negative behavior.
In fact, if a member of the house knew about another’s dishonesty and did not confront them, that member was in trouble as well.
We were all a family is what we were told. And this is how this family worked. No one is allowed to slide backwards. Laziness was forbidden. Singing negative songs was prohibited. Talking about “the good old days,” and reminiscing about the romance of crime, drug use or drinking was not allowed, and, if caught, this was brought up to the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
This is what we called “being brought up to the table.” And this happened to me a lot. I was yelled at, screamed at, broken down, shoved into a pot sink to do dishes until there were no more dishes to wash. I mopped floors and then waxed them with a cloth on my hands and knees. The worst resulted in what we called “a stupid man.”
This is when Tony’s anger hit the boiling point. This was like living in a home with a father that didn’t spare the rod to spoil the child. And when Tony’s face went red, he would yell out. “YOU STUPID MAN!!”
Those were the worst.
This meant the table topic and the confrontation was going to go on for a while. Safe to say that yes, I was called a stupid man. I was called a masturbating idiot too. And I laugh as I type this because in a million years, I never thought I would regard my time on this farm as wonderfully as I do now.
This was not the life I was ready for. It was only a few months before this that I was in a room, nodding with my chin to my chest, the heroin gods were flooding my bloodstream and meanwhile, I had visions of falling angels, dying and descending, upside down, as if to mean that pieces of me were dying as well. I had visions of dreams inside long nods about the absorption of the powder through my bloodstream and the submission of my life, characterized by the falling angels that died as a representation of my innocence and my kamikaze brain cells.
It was just a few short months ago that I was on the streets of East New York, Brooklyn and The Bronx, Queens, Harlem, and splayed out on the ground beneath a bridge with my pants soaked from my own piss.
And there I was, playing goodie-boy on a farm. My long hair was cut short. I was checked about the language I used.
I was walking the line and doing as I was told, but yet, I held my secret intentions and kept this to myself. There was absolutely no way that I was going to give in.
There was nothing about clean living that seemed attractive to me. Besides, why wouldn’t people drink or at minimum, why wouldn’t people get high? The world sucks. Life sucks. People suck. Nothing ever goes the way we want it; so, at least let me take a drink. At least give me a moment to just say “Ahhh” and enjoy the weightless command of something that allows my brain to disconnect.
This is just a way of saying, “shhh,” and shutting the lights that burn from every tension and every stressor in my head.
And sure, I looked bad. I looked sick. I was dying and offering to be one of the statistics and become another tragedy. I risked this each time I went to cop or pick up a bag. But hey, this was me, right?
This was all I was meant to be. This is all I could ever be because this is what I was told. I was told I was a loser, a bum, a junkie, a burnout and crazy. I was labelled emotionally disturbed, stupid, learning disabled and hopeless. But yet, no one ever asked me about the things that happened in my life. No one ever talked about the trauma. No one ever asked about the details that went on before my downfall. No one asked about anything before I became the spiral, like the water as it loses to a drain.
In all honesty, I never knew what I looked like. I never saw myself in the mirror. I never liked the sight of my reflection, so why would I even look?
I didn’t want to face that I was withering away. I did not want to face the consequences. I was on a run, which stopped against my will. I was removed and taken out of my environment. I was removed from my immediate circles of influence. I was sent away, which is where (as I saw it) they were trying to break me down.
They were trying to take me away from me and have me forfeit my lifestyle. I didn’t want to give in. I figured I would buy my time. I figured I would clean up, look pretty for my probation officer, and when allowed, I would go back home and find a new drug that worked so that I could get by without the hassles of everyday tensions.
It was Thanksgiving day in 1989. The sky was gray and snow had fallen. The mountains is a pretty place to live. I was gaining weight. My skin wasn’t green or pasty anymore. My speech improved and I was able to lift my feet when I walked.
I say this because this was important to The Old Man. He would complain that I could hardly lift my feet when I walked. He hated that I hardly opened my mouth when I talked. I was burning myself out and killing my brain cells. And The Old Man would remind me of this all the time.
I could hardly read or make sense of what I was reading. I could hardly think or do much of anything. The last he saw me, The Old Man took me to court before they mandated me to long-term treatment. He wasn’t mad anymore. I know this because he told me so.
On Thanksgiving, the farm opened up to the families. We set the tables with fancy tablecloths. We cooked the meal and served our loved ones. Before the meal, our families and parents were able to see the way we were living. They saw how we conducted ourselves on a daily basis. We were all dressed nicely. No long hair or me, saying the word, “man” after every sentence. I didn’t sound as burnt out or high. I know this because The Old Man told me.
We stood at the windows near the dining room. The Old Man and I were standing next to each other and admiring the view of the distant mountains and how they wove together.
He said to me, “You look good!”
He told me “Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.”
I never forgot this.
This was the last time I stood next to my Old Man. I never saw him standing again.
“You look good,” are words to be thankful for.
“I’m proud of you, son,” are the words I am most thankful for. I heard this before The Old Man passed away.
So, am I grateful this year?
I am always grateful. I survived a great deal of things. I have survived myself. I survived the farm. I survived my thoughts that punished. I survived my depression. I survived my anxiety disorders. I went from believing that I was only learning disabled to someone who gives lectures in college classrooms.
More than anything, with regard to my Old Man, I will forever be thankful that before he left, The Old Man saw me clean. I was not in a jail cell but at a Thanksgiving meal.
I live in the mountains now. I’ve decided to find my history and utilize my past as a lesson to help others move forward. The way I see it, I have been paying into a certain way of living for a long time. I figure, hey, now it’s time to have this pay me back. And by the way, I’ve seen kids like I was and fathers like you were. I’ve seen them at odds and as a result of help and intervention, I’ve been able to see them reunite and on nights like this, they’ll sit together on Thanksgiving day.
See Pop, I owe. I have a debt to pay. It’s not like I owe money or anything. It’s not like that at all.
I owe for the time we were allowed to sit together like father and son. I was given the chance to have you see me clean before you made your trip. And I can’t just be grateful for this, Pop. No, it’s too valuable to me. So I have to pay it forward.
Happy Thanksgiving, Pop.
I don’t remember too many of them from when we were together, but thankfully, I will always remember our last one back in 1989.
I love you