It is a house like any other. Four walls and a roof. A lower-middle-class house in a middle-class neighborhood: this in itself is a clue, but a clue that you won’t understand until later on — it’s secret knowledge, HellKnowledge.
It’s a halfway house. …But halfway to what? Halfway to who? Don’t trouble yourself with metaphors, so early on. There’ll be metaphors a-plenty to come.
…Instead, get to know your new house. Test the accommodations; introduce yourself to your new housemates. Together, you will have HellConversations, eat HellMeals, take communal HellShowers, sleep your HellSleep. Sometimes you will leave the house, trudging off to your HellJob or HellMeeting. During your daily errands, you might stop in for a quick bite at the HellDiner, or to read a HellBook at the HellLibrary. But in the end you always come back to your HellHome.
Dante said that hell was circular, composed of circles — but did you ever think to ask why? Did he ever stop to explain why? Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable… …It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either. Another writer wrote that, an alcoholic, in a long-ago book. Now it is your turn to learn it.
Welcome to the New Hope Halfway House for Alcoholism, in the town of M__________, Pennsylvania.
An alcoholic writer. …Is that glamorous or is that not glamorous? You don’t have to answer all at once; it’s a tough question. It’s taken me most of my life to figure it out.
At whose feet must the blame be laid for this? Of course the fault is my own, but I prefer to blame someone else. I prefer to blame books. Books, books, books, books. …Goddamn, I read so many books. I read all the standard books that hipsters read. I read the books, but I idolized the authors, not the writing. Someday, I thought, I’d grow up to be an alcoholic writer just like them.
I read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Bukowski — how did I get the idea from these people that drinking was fun? The Sun Also Rises, On the Road, Women, Tender Is the Night — there are long, long passages in these books about how drinking can make you cry, about how it can leave you stranded and alone, about how it can plain wreck your life.
As a young, be-sweatered student, I read all these books, and ignored what I wanted to ignore. I did the DVR version of reading — fast-forwarding through the boring and unpleasant parts. As a young, be-sweatered student, I thought it all sounded very cool. …Cool to be an alcoholic, cool to be young and broke, cool to be a writer. But the thing about being broke is that you’re broke. The thing about being an alcoholic is that you’re an alcoholic. Kerouac talks about crying all the time. “I was so lonely, so sad, so tired, so quivering, so broken, so beat.” “…All I could see were smoky trees and dismal wilderness rising to the skies. ‘What the Hell am I doing up here?’ I cursed, I cried…” “‘…What were you doing?’ …‘Man, I was crying.'” Jesus. I skipped it all and saw what I wanted to see.
Now, I live at the New Hope Halfway House, at the intersection of B_____ and C__ Streets, in M__________, Pennsylvania. In addition to me, big men live here, big men with tattoos but without any visible sense of irony.
At New Hope, there are four men to a room. So I have roommates; the aforementioned big men without irony. If the men are black, then they’re black. If they’re white, then they’re the type of white guys who dress black, for lack of a better word. The white guys wear baggy clothes and baseball hats with the store stickers still on them. (…I made the mistake of asking about this at one point. “What’s the deal with the stickers?” I said. You don’t want to know; you really don’t want to know. The stickers are so that everyone on “the street” knows that your baseball cap is new. …I said that you wouldn’t want to know.)
The white guys are the type of white guys who go around constantly freestyling rap lyrics, to prove how down, how simpatico they are with the whole rap movement. After a while of listening to this, I started to get annoyed. I tried to come up with an equivalent annoying thing that I could do. All that I could come up with was freestyling Coldplay lyrics, or freestyling Death Cab for Cutie-style lyrics. (“Burn it down/ Till the embers smoke on the ground/ And start anew/ With walls of the deepest blue/ I hate this house and I hate you-uuuu…”)
“New Hope” is not the real name of this house, but it may as well be. New Hope, New Life, A Brighter Tomorrow — halfway houses all have highly aspirational names. But there’s a disconnect between the name and the reality of the lives inside it. There’s a disconnect going on with the big men, too — the tattoos on their shoulders are all of big cars, gorgeous naked women, dollar signs; everything that they don’t have in real life. One man, very large with a very shaved head, actually has a tattoo that says “Mom.” I don’t know if his mother is alive or dead or what, but I resisted the urge to make any jokes about this tattoo.
The thing is, I live here now. I didn’t before.
A halfway house is a place for alcoholics and addicts, run by former alcoholics and addicts. Before going to a halfway house, you go to rehab; there, they give you drugs so you can detox from the alcohol, and they put you on suicide watch. You’re in detox for five days, and then you’re in the clinic for another month. Then they kick you out, and if you have no place else to go, then you go to a halfway house, which is a free house run by the state.
It’s a long road to get here. The thing is, I kind of like it here. My internal alarm system isn’t quite what it should be, and so I like it here, or at least I thought I did, initially.
The first time that I entered the halfway house, I was hungover from my adventures of the night before. I had brought all my belongings along with me in a garbage bag. Ed, the assistant house manager, showed me around. “Welcome,” he said.
I was allowed to drop my garbage bag to the ground — it thumped with a pleasant thumping sound. God, what a sh-thole, I thought, but in a pleased way. The place looked like the interior of a thrift store, or a jumble sale, or — let’s be accurate — it looked like every apartment that I’ve ever owned. “Hey,” I said, while staring at the couch in the living room, “I had that couch.” I did, too, back in grad school. Off-white with splotches of off-blue and off-gray in a computer-generated pattern; 1980s-looking, jazzy, and horrible, the splotches like the patterns on Bill Cosby’s sweaters on the old Cosby Show. “I had that couch.” Ed shrugged. I was hungover, but one thing was clear: I had once owned that sofa, and now it was back. Hell is circular. I hoped that once you had gotten rid of an ugly piece of furniture, it didn’t end up following you around for the rest of your life.
The couch was the centerpiece of the living room; it pointed to the doorway that leads to the kitchen. Encircling the door frame, held in nooks that must have been expressly designed for this purpose, were a bunch of tchotchkes or objets d’art. I stared at them and briefly tried to memorize them, as a way of memorizing my new life. There was: A teacup with a pattern of lilies on it. A ceramic cowboy, sleeping beneath his ceramic cowboy hat. A golf ball inside a toy metal truck. A ceramic toilet (why?). A photograph of the (dead) former owner of the house, his face floating above gauzy superimposed clouds, with the caption “A Man Who Took His Dream and Made It A [sic] Reality.” A statuette of an angel. A miniature basket with fake flowers in it. A Japanese fan featuring the faces of the various Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. …And then, improbably, many many more objects were in the door frame as well. It was the Japanese fan that I found to be most curious. “Blue Power Ranger,” I said, pointing to the blue face. It was unclear if I was narrating or being ironic or what I was doing.
I immediately loved each and every object in the room; loved their dustiness, their aura of grime. …But then, if your sympathy is with the second-hand, the broken, then you will find a lot to sympathize with in this life. But then, this is part of the whole problem. It’s the alcoholic disease; I feel sympathetic to everything, and nostalgic for everything. I feel sympathy and nostalgia for myself too, and this is the real problem. I have a sense of affection for myself: “Oliver? Ol’ Oliver? Hell, Oliver’s all right. Yeah. Oliver’s… just fine.” It is this sense of nostalgic affection that allowed me to be an alcoholic, allowed me to ignore every awful thing that I ever did while drunk: the broken windows, the smashed cars.
I left the living room and went upstairs to my new bedroom. Benny was there. Oh good. Of course he was there. We’ll probably be together forever, Benny and me. I hate Benny, but around him, I feel medium-cool.
You’d hate Benny too. Benny in all ways resembles Vincent D’Onofrio’s character from Full Metal Jacket. He has the same terrible haircut, the same layers of flab, the same facial appearance, the same crooked smile and general sheen of psychopathy — for that is how insanity represents itself, as a half-smile and an overall sweaty sheen. The similarity between him and Vincent D’Onofrio’s character is startling, and yet I have religiously avoided bringing it up, even though other people make jokes about it. “PRIVATE PYLE! WHAT IS YOUR MAJOR MALFUNCTION, NUMB NUTS?” No — we won’t be doing that.
Benny has a lot of problems. He’s bipolar, learning disabled, dyslexic. His aura of retardation is what makes the “Private Pyle” comparison not so good. If you asked Benny to spell the word cat, he’d probably spell it “KAT.” And then he’d ask you if he could borrow some money. That’s the part that makes Benny not so great. He’s not the type of disabled person who’d be portrayed in a movie by, say, Daniel Day-Lewis. Benny is not so much about overcoming obstacles. He’s shiftless and lazy, constantly complaining and basically unpleasant to be around. I could probably write a novel about Benny at this point. Maybe I will someday.
I met Benny in rehab; I spent twenty-seven days in his presence. Now, we were reunited. …I swear to god, I entered the room, and Benny wasn’t at all surprised to see me. I guess I wasn’t surprised either. He stayed where he was, watching a fuzzy movie on his portable TV, with his buzz-cut, his horrible clothes, his ECKÔ sweatshirt and droopy sweatpants that showed a horrible pale chunk of his ass. And I swear to god, this is how he started the conversation–
Him: “Hey, man. Aaaah — I CAN’T eat burritos at night anymore. They give me gas.”
Then, he farted. I swear I am not making this up.
Conversation-wise, there weren’t a lot of places to go after that — and yet, unbelievably, it went on for much much longer. At a certain point, I thought, I am going to die if this goes on for any longer, and yet it continued. Detailed specifics of Benny’s whole gastrointestinal problem. I felt like crying. But then, I cry all the time now anyway. I cry when I’m missing a pair of socks, or if I can’t find my cellphone charger. When you’re this close to the edge, you just cry all the time.
Next, Benny asked me if he could borrow five dollars. I said Yes. Then he asked if he could borrow ten dollars. I said No. He asked again if he could borrow ten dollars. I said No. He asked for a third time if he could borrow ten dollars. I said, F-ck it, Fine. He asked if he could borrow fifteen dollars. I said No. …God, what simulating discussions that we had.
I stretched my legs and yawned. (I was trying not to cry, so I turned into a yawn, contorting my face dramatically.) …I handed him the money. Then I decided to leave the halfway house, temporarily, and go outside. Outside; where other people were.