I have often said the true determination of friendship comes only at the moment you are facedown in a parking lot at two in the morning: a true friend answers the phone. By that standard, I am a terrible friend. When my moment came, I turned off my phone.
Everyone saw the signs. My friend Oscar had a drinking problem. At nineteen he entertained himself by drunk joyriding in the middle of the night. This ended abruptly one evening when a half mile from his home, he swerved off the road to save a cat’s life. The car stopped, immobilized in a ditch; the cat escaped. Oscar ended up handcuffed to a water pipe in the local police station. We always said his love of cats would get him in the end.
The penalties for Oscar’s drunk driving excursion included three sessions of group counseling. As college sophomores binge drinking on a regular basis, everyone had a nice laugh when Oscar described the counseling sessions. The other attendees seemed much worse off than Oscar. One guy had driven his car into a swimming pool, another had shown up at the counseling session drunk with a pint of gin falling out of his pocket. These amusing anecdotes only assuaged our concerns over our own alcohol consumption. None of us were driving a car into a swimming pool anytime soon.
The first phone call came on a Friday night a little after two in the morning. I was asleep alongside my then-girlfriend. Oscar was missing. The call was from our mutual friend Bill, living in Manhattan at the time: “I just spoke to Oscar’s fiancée. He went missing an hour ago. Have you seen him?” Oscar had last been seen at a bar in Hoboken, New Jersey, not far from my apartment in Jersey City. He and his fiancée had been at her friend’s birthday party.
“No,” I respond.
“Wait, he’s calling me,” Bill says.
I hang up the phone. A few minutes later the fiancée rings: had Oscar he called me?
She says she’ll call back.
Bill calls again: “I spoke to Oscar and he said he was in the city. I told him to come meet me, but then he said he wasn’t in the city. Then he told me he was in a parking lot.”
“Did he say where?”
“No. I think he’s still in Hoboken. He said he’s by the A&P.”
“The A&P is in Jersey City.” I was the expert. I lived here.
There was a pause and then: “Do you think you could go find him?”
And in this moment, at two o’clock in the morning, a little bit drunk, but not really drunk enough, I decided wandering out into the cold winter night was the very last thing I wanted to do. This was when I proved myself a terrible friend. I look at the girl asleep in the warm bed, and I make an excuse.
A few minutes later Oscar’s fiancée calls. She asks where the A&P is. I live here, after all. I should be offering to help her more than I am. Instead, I describe its location and helpfully suggest she take a cab. Afterward, I set my phone to silent, in effect turning it off for the night. I don’t hear it ring again and I eventually fall asleep.
A week later I learn the events transpiring while I slept. Oscar had left the bar for an unknown reason (though presumably to furtively smoke a cigarette). He wandered away, and even though the city of Hoboken is only a mile wide and a mile long — with streets set in a near perfect grid — Oscar lost himself. He often did when he was drunk.
He stumbled underneath the train track overpass dividing Hoboken and Jersey City, headed the direction of the Holland tunnel. He passed by a number of the housing projects often cited in the police blotter before finding the A&P parking lot. From there, after convincing Bill that he was headed to the Lower East Side, he walked another mile to the ShopRite six blocks from my apartment.
Eventually, while I slept, Oscar’s fiancée found the A&P, but not Oscar. She called me, but I never heard the phone ring. Bill called me, to ask about the ShopRite, because Oscar eventually described it to him. But I never heard the phone ring. Oscar’s fiancée called me three more times over the next hour before she found him. As I slept, Oscar argued with a pair of drunken homeless men in the parking lot of the ShopRite all the while his fiancée and a better friend than I attempted to locate him.
Two years later, Oscar called Bill and I. He wanted to check into a detoxification facility in western New Jersey. He wanted me to drive him there.
Alcohol detoxification is far more involved than the simple act of putting down the bottle. Detoxing from alcohol is not at all like the opening scene in Trainspotting when Renton, looking to kick his heroin habit, simply locks himself away while he goes through withdrawal. It’s worse. Alcohol is the one drug where immediate cessation might be worse even than the drug abuse itself. The most basic symptoms involve involuntary tremors, the shakes. But in heavy drinkers, like Oscar, withdrawal can include heart palpations, heart attack and death. The detoxification program would provide a drug to replace the effects of alcohol on his body, reducing the risk of death, and allowing Oscar to safely be weaned from chemical dependence.
I hate driving in Manhattan. Bill hates riding with me when I drive in Manhattan. He fears for his life and the lives of pedestrians. We’re traversing the city on a Saturday morning about an hour after Oscar has called us. We circle his block, just off Times Square. Just the place I want to be driving.
Bill calls Oscar on his phone, but the call goes to voicemail. We circle the block and call again and again until Bill finally gets out to ring the apartment’s buzzer. I search for parking. I find a space a few blocks away and text Bill the location. Minutes pass. I watch the clock. I’m afraid of a parking ticket. I buy a sports drink from a bodega. More time passes. Finally I see Bill with Oscar ambling down 9th Avenue. Oscar is drunk.
In the hour between calling us and our arrival, Oscar finished off the last of the gin in his apartment and promptly fell asleep. His wife had moved back to her parents’ house.
We drive west on the freeway. The hospital on Oscar’s insurance is deep in the suburbs. We arrive in the late afternoon as the sun is setting. The labyrinthine hospital complex sprawls out before us. Oscar directs us to the emergency room entrance. He reveals that he has done this before.
Detoxification is a process, a medical procedure covered by his wife’s insurance plan. Rehabilitation is not. The difference between detoxification and rehabilitation is the difference between buying a car and learning how to drive. A relapse after detox is an almost certainty without rehab. But healthcare is expensive.
The nurse behind the counter has Oscar fill out admissions paperwork. We wait.
After the insurance checks out, they take him into the back to see the doctor. We wait.
I buy a pizza. Bill and I eat. We wait.
Bill checks on Oscar. Gin can cause colitis, the doctor explains to them both. Gin has been Oscar’s favorite medium. The doctors add colitis to the list of possible ailments.
Nothing gives you a craving for a drink like sitting in the emergency room lounge waiting for a friend’s admission to the detox center.
Finally, with Oscar admitted to the facility, eight hours after he called us, we start back to the city. Bill and I decide we both need a drink.
The hospital will keep Oscar for two days while they administer detoxification drugs. During his brief stay, he will be offered counseling. When the insurance provider dictates, his father will come to pick up. Only then will Oscar face the most challenging component of this ordeal: not drinking.