‘I can’t thread this needle anyway’

My plan when I left the bar where my friend was having a record release party was to come back to the Baltimore row house where I slept and guarded the dwelling for owner like Cerberus, looking after the gates of Hades, then shut the kitchen windows, close the doors, and turn on the gas on the stove, an unfussy handmade range that the French herbalist and perfumer Albert Dupuy’s company La Cornue made in the thirties under the model name CornuFé. The company’s engineers fashioned the mechanism

for controlling for igniting the flame in the oven with such precision that I imagined that I would zero in on the mark I wanted — shutting down the pilot light — right and true. Gas would flow like water from a shamefaced hydrant.

I met Mia on the afternoon of August 2, 2009. I stood at the plywood bar that served as a counter in the coffee shop I owned in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. A friend’s grandmother had donated the bar to the shop when she went into a nursing home. The rickety thing, from the sixties, was small and light — I could move it around the room by myself, as needed. Skimpy finishing nails that once held it together tight no longer did their job.

Green and black linoleum tiles covered the floor. Wide, heavy pine panels boarded up the walls. Ponderous ceiling joists loomed overhead. Around the room I tucked furniture from the woman who’d entered the nursing home: an arm chair, vinyl bucket chairs, a few ladder-back chairs, a coffee table, end tables, a coat rack. Before I had the makeshift plywood bar, I had no counter. So, except for the Bunn coffee machine and the espresso machine and the grinder, you’d figure, say, that you’d walked into your alcoholic uncle’s rumpus room in 1963. The front door opened and my friend Patrick Martin entered with a young woman. With the light behind them, they stood in silhouette.

The young woman, Mia. arrived in Baltimore the day before from New York City to start a doctoral program in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. While she knew no one, she did share a friend in New York City with Patrick, and the shared friend had given Patrick the job of helping Mia feel welcome. The coffee house, El Rancho Grande, served as a gathering place. Friends and the public came and went all day and all night. Friends brought other friends. Arriving with somebody new in town, as Patrick had. was not unusual.

I have no rational explanation, but Mia stood out from the moment I saw her in the shadow. She was sylphlike, with dark-brown eyes, dark-brown hair that she left messy. It hung, sinuous and wavy, halfway to her shoulders, with bangs trimmed high and straight across her forehead. When she was out of earshot, a customer approached me from behind and quietly asked if that was Audrey Tautou (I had never seen “Amélie”). I would forgive an onlooker for wondering if Mia’s pale, smooth olive skin might have served Chinese artisans as an inspiration for porcelain.

She wore a sunny shift splashed with bright daisies. Her voice sounded soft and her conversation smart, a mix of art and science and grace and poise, the result of studying at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts as well as at Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York.

I had never seen nor had I ever met anybody like her, and I’d seen and met a lot of people. She emerged from LaGuardia on a thread of tradition that included Ellen Barkin, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Eartha Kitt, Isaac Mizrahi, Hilton Als, and Erica Jong, among others. After LaGuradia, Mia moved along to study in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the Moscow Art Theatre. She could teach a rat to swim through a maze in a Hopkins lab and, with one performance, move a theater audience to consider whether she was idealistic or merely star-struck as the ingénue “Nina” in The Seagull.

P atrick didn’t hesitate to introduce us, and, between customers, Mia and I talked for hours. She grew up in Jackson Heights. For years I’d been running from my world, which too often rewarded the superficial and shunned the profound. I felt comfort that Mia sent out rectitude and veracity as naturally as exhaling. She wouldn’t know or care about the Midwinter Dinner Dance, or the International, or the Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball. I sense that she lived where her feet were, content. We exchanged phone numbers and later that day she surprised me with a text asking if there was anything going on at the Ranch that night. There was, I told her a band from Brooklyn was set to play at 9 o’clock — Sean Walsh and the National Reserve, a great, hulking, many-membered mass of loud, soulful alt-country.

It’s hard to say what I liked so much about her. What I liked I couldn’t hold in my hand. I could ask, Was it her face? Her eyes? Her hair? The dress? Her voice? Those physical characteristics seem banal compared to the epiphany I experienced when stepped in to the shop: When Mia entered, I realized, in a moment of clarity, that my plan to kill myself was shot, that I both needed and wanted to stay around. There was something about Mia I could not articulate. If a physical explanation sounded hollow and anything more than that tied my tongue mute, then I could only conclude that I liked a quality that was immaterial. I’ll call it her spirit, like a passage that takes off the top of my head, or like the spaces between notes in a song, between words in a poem, even between stars. I’m familiar with spirit and with soul and with Psyche. More than one teacher in boarding school drilled me on Greek Mythology. What’s more, like Cupid, I know sleep. And I know psychic awakening.

“Oh, shit,” I said to myself when I saw her. “I’ve got work to do.”

T he Ranch was failing, for all its popularity. The landlord had issued an eviction notice. Baltimore Gas & Electric was threatening to turn off power. I was living on $15 a day, $5.475 a year. Unable to afford a place of my own anymore, I was housesitting. My menu consisted of two-liter bottles of Coke and two packs of American Spirit menthol cigarettes, where once I enjoyed the enjoyed what my grandfather called a blue-blood lunch wagon a fixed trust could pay for (though the trust did contain a spendthrift clause because evidence of my habits preceded me). Eventually, with death as well as with the help of Robert Abplanalp and Bebe Rbozo’s lawyer. (Lawyers, accountants, writers, editors, doctors, hobos — it’s a secret within 12-Step programs, that a guy can find a wide variety of assistance he could never have found had he not been an ex-alkie.)

I had no health insurance and had been unable to afford medication. I provide a home in my brain for Bipolar II disorder and it’s demanding, like a toddler in a tantrum. But it doesn’t quiet down under the shock of a cold shower. BP II is the suck one. Bipolar I, you shop and fuck. Bipolar II, about two or three times a year, for a few days, you tell Santa, “Santa, that was the best Christmas ever. Thank you. It feels nice.” That’s hypomania. The rest of the time you’re on the floor, sometimes slipping down to the second sub-basement of the garage of your psyche, humbling asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to conjure with Her Son to give you a lift home; that is, if you’d been off meds for eight months and you believe in statues and iconography. From experience and hospitalizations, I knew I’d sunk low. My resilience was thinner than a yoga mat.

Drug dealers and pimps threatened me. The Ranch stood at a nasty intersection, busy with traffic in OxyContin, heroin, and meth, and women man and girls and boys needing money to score. I saw the activity through the shop’s big front window — about twenty feet high and fifteen feet across. On afternoon, I sat outside on the front step smoking a cigarette and talking with a friend. Two guys walked up and stood a few feet from us, speaking just loud enough for us to hear.

Keep in mind that in 1978 at the end of drinking and using, I grew sick — not just physically. (I crossed the invisible line between merely heavy use and full-blown addiction when I was twenty. I sped up this ride—a ride with no brakes—by joining a tight cadre of drug-pro friends who adopted crystal, methamphetamine, early. For seven years, I ran on alcohol and speed and coke and heroin, and at the end I couldn’t get drunk and I couldn’t get sober.) I was also sick mentally. My spirit held nothing. This meant I was vulnerable — in public, in bars, in after-hours clubs, with loan sharks, with pimps. In boarding school, I boxed. I loved to fight. In the late-fifties, a group of us kids met in a friend’s basement. we dragged a canvas mat to the

center of the concrete floor. We hated using gloves. We were seven, eight, nine, ten years old, all from families in the Social Register. This kid’s parents never bothered to poke their head past the basement door. His father was chairman of General Electric. We smoked between rounds and we smoked during a round. We smoked Kools because Sugar Ray Robinson smoked Kools and we all loved Sugar Ray Robinson. The point of the matches was for one kid to work on the other kid’s eyebrow. Stay with it and soon the skin spit. It was one of the easiest places to draw blood. Nobody back down until somebody couldn’t get up. We’d drag him off the mat, and the next two boys would step, knuckles bare. At the time of these fights, Chuck Palahniuk was about three years old sucking on his binky.

I still love to fight. I still step up on the street I see and imbalance of power, and one I’ll pay if I don’t change. Back there at the Ranch in 2009, these two knuckleheads stand two steps from my friend and me. Both are tall, both are scrawny, both wear their hair cut tight to their head, like mouthy bastards out of Trainspotting or flunkies straight from the never-ending variety of Aryan Nation spawn.

“I know who the motherfucker is who calls the cops,” the one said to the other. “It’s the motherfucker from the coffee shop, and he better watch his step.”

I got up to take the guy out and my friend yanked me back by the waist band of my jeans and I hit the step where were sitting.

“You’re out of you mind,” she said.

“He can suck my dick, the squalid little cunt,” I said loud enough so I know he hears me.

Another time, I returned to the Ranch with a slice of pizza from the shop next door. I saw a deal go down. A delivery guy for the pizza parlor came into the Ranch.

“Say, Pete,” he said. “You know here I could get a knife like this sharpened?” He drew the blade back and forth on the palm of his hand as if it were a strop.

I had a choice to give the guy a simple “No” for an answer, or to engage. I had a history of engaging, from the days and nights living on the street in Yorkville and in the stairwells of the Chelsea Hotel back when I was bottoming out.

I looked at him and said: “Joey, you know a little bit about me but you don’t know a lot about me. You see, Joey, I spent a few years making do this way and that way, you feel me, Joey?”

Adrenaline carried me across an invisible line that separates backing off from going hard, all in and reckless.

“Joey,” I went on, “the only guys I knew who’d ask a question like you just asked were either delivering a message or getting ready to do some work in close.”

Joey looked surprised. He held the knife still, on his palm.

“So, you see, Joey, you don’t strike me as the kind of guy who needs to ask where to get a knife like that sharpened, know what I mean?”

I could pull that off but afterward my psyche and emotional biology were a mess. Incidents like that happened about half a dozen times. I started to jump if somebody coughed or a track backfired. I was shaken and I was worn out and tired. I was trying to find a friend to take care of my dog and cat. Two years before, there were plenty of people to look after Clementine and Silky. I’d lived in a one-bedroom garden apartment in Roland Park, about a mile away. It was lovely there. Frederick Law Olmstead laid out the neighborhood, in his signature casual formality. Roland Park looked like a treasured, well-worn Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth button-down-collar shirt with a frayed collar.

I found a home for Clementine and Silky and closed the door on the Ranch. I sat on the back porch of the house I was caring for, and smoked and smoked and smoked, and waited for rest. I was not going to commit suicide to get back at anyone or as a cry for help. I was going to commit suicide to because I was tired. I felt very tired. That was my state of mind the Sunday Patrick Martin brought Mia to the Ranch. I knew from a sense deep down inside me I had to stay around.

I knew from past relationships and marriages gone bad that now was not time to bring somebody into my life. I knew I needed help. I knew I needed stabilization — maybe a city facility for those without insurance or money.

Mia came to the Sean Walsh show. People loved Sean and the Ranch was full. Nobody cared how hot and sweaty the place got. I looked over to where Mia sat on the couch, an avocado-gold faux-velvet couch from the early seventies. She shown in the low light, her face the exact nature of happy.

M ia and I occasionally stayed in touch by text. We saw each other a 12-Step meetings. We were both recovering alcoholics and addicts. She’d smiled at me. and we’d spoke as we stood in a group of other members after a meeting. She invited me to her birthday dinner. It rained that night, heavy rain, with flooded streets. My car was broken down, so I walked to the restaurant, but had to turn back because rushing water came to my knees and stopped my forward progress.

Baltimore Gas & Electric finally turned off the power at the Ranch. Some of us still hung out at the shop during the daytime. I had one more run-in with a dealer and as I sat with a friend recounting the turn of events I started to shake so badly she drove me home, and that’s where I stayed. Two weeks. No food. Just the Coke and cigarettes. I isolated myself. I didn’t answer the door. I didn’t answer my phone, which I kept operating by fraudulent tricks. I was not in touch with Mia.

After two weeks, on a Saturday night, I decided to go out. A friend’s band was having a CD release party and he had been good to me and I wanted to show my support. I returned home at about 1 AM. I had not been on Facebook that whole time, but decided to log on. There on my timeline were the words “Amy is gone.” A West Coast musician friend had posted it. Our mutual friend Amy Farris had killed herself. I had just seen her a month before. She had a new CD out that critics loved. She was wrapping up a successful tour. She was 20 years sober and worked a solid program, and she was bipolar. I walked outside to the backyard. I had a cigarette and looked at the sky. Lightning bugs glowed then dimmed in the grass around my boots. Amy was a fine fiddle player and singer and songwriter. She looked like Tinker Bell in red lipstick and heels. She’d been someone who’d grown tired, too. I was 31 years sober, worked a good program, and was bipolar. I knew she took her condition seriously and I thought I took mine seriously. As I stood out back, looking up, I spoke aloud to a dead person.

What I spoke to her was this: “OK.”

The next day, I made some phone calls. Clementine and Silky had places to stay. A friend took me to a city-run psychiatric unit and I received the care and medication I’d needed. When I left the unit after a couple weeks, I put the Ranch’s coffee equipment up for sale. I got $600 for the espresso machine and the brewer. I phoned my older brother in Cleveland to see if I could stay with him and his wife for aa couple months, to recuperate. I bought a plane ticket and had $300 left over.

When I returned to Baltimore, I stayed on a friend’s couch in Charles Village. She told me, “Lots of people missed you.” I felt happy to hear that. Then she added, “Especially, Mia Tarley,” and I couldn’t believe it.

Early in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I got a text from Mia, asking if I was going to see Patrick Martin’s band later. I said I was, and she asked if I wanted to take a taxi to the club together. About an hour later, she sent another text and said she was mending the dress she planned to wear and what did I think of her inviting herself over and while she worked on her sewing we could talk or watch a movie.

“What should we watch?” she asked.

I said I’ve just finished binging on Weeds and Dexter and Six Feet Under.

She saw Sabrina in the stack of DVDs under the TV set. She put it in the DVD player.

“Let’s leave the movie play, and we’ll just talk instead of watching, O.K.?” she said. “I can’t thread this needle anyway.”

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