Addicts in the Wall — Jay Deitcher

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My friend Todd died four years ago. He was 41 years old, elderly compared to many addicts. Most people who were friends with Todd still don’t know he is dead. No one went to his funeral. At least I doubt anyone went, but I wouldn’t know because I definitely wasn’t there. I have never found proof that one was even held, never found an obituary, never found documentation that he really died. Was his passing just another one of his lies? When he first disappeared, people in the recovery community asked about him, but, eventually, people stopped caring. Disappearing and dying is what addicts do.

You see, Todd enjoyed the cocaine. Todd adored the heroin. Todd savored the OxyContin. Todd made love to the Valium. Todd treasured it all. He treasured it in his nose, he treasured it in his mouth and he treasured it in his veins. Todd was what cats often referred to as a “garbage head,” but he was worse: his entire body was a dump. His life had included many long periods of sobriety. He was even sober once for three years. But every time, when he would finally get his life somewhat together, drugs would sneak their way back into his nose, his veins, and his mouth. The last time Todd accidentally used, he accidentally died. At least I think it was an accident.

Like half of Albany, Todd was a transplant. This cat grew up in Jersey, which is why he sounded like a stereotypical Italian. Todd was the spawn of a tall African American journalist and a teeny-tiny Pakistani houseworker who were deeply in love, until they were crushed by a drunk driver. An orphan at the age of two, Todd was brought up by his aunt and uncle on his mother’s side.

Todd’s aunt gave up her career to take care of him, and it paid off—he filled her mantle with his academic and athletic awards. Todd had a bright future, but various factors—bad luck, possible genetic predisposition, it doesn’t actually matter what—made him fall hard into the drink and the drugs. By the time he was in tenth grade, football scouts from several colleges already had their eye on him. Football grounded him, but, although he never missed a game, he also never missed a drink, a fuck or a fight. And he had plenty of opportunities to do all three.

Todd was a dark-skinned brother with long, straight hair. He constantly talked about his hair, which had magical powers in all his stories to attract bangin’ women of all backgrounds. But even with his self-described “good hair,” even with being a neighborhood football star, Todd had to deal with discrimination from all angles: whites prejudged him for his skin tone and blacks prejudged him for talking too white. Let me repeat that second half, because that was the part he enjoyed talking about most (with great pride): blacks prejudged him for talking too white. But it was the white folk who were specifically not too thrilled with his choice of ladies—he liked his girls Kosher, and the Jewish ladies enjoyed his brown sugar. When Todd told this portion of his tale, it resembled West Side Story—he was Tony and Becky Ravinowitzenburgenstein (or something equally Jewish) was his Maria. But in his version, he didn’t end up dead.

During his senior year, he was constantly in trouble for fighting. Even though he was the school’s star player, he was on the verge of being booted off the team due to suspensions. None of that mattered once a knee injury derailed his promising future. Doctors prescribed him numerous medications to help with the pain; he loved his tasty pharmaceutical treats, especially mixed with Bacardi. When Becky confronted him about his using, he left his Jew-boo. He then left town for the big city.

From 18-34, his life resembled a blaxploitation flick, complete with the drugs, corrupt cops, drama and all the bitches. In between scenes, there were periods he got out of the game, became a licensed chef, a certified barber, a community advocate, and/or a bodyguard. All this was either true, not true at all, quasi-true or somewhere in between. It didn’t matter; it was Todd’s story. When Todd told his tales, no one really cared. A lot of addicts tell tall tales; Todd’s were no more outlandish than the others, and he told them much more entertainingly.

During the periods he was sober, Todd helped a lot of people. I first met the dude when I was two-and-a-half years sober, two years before he died. By this point, he had made his way to Albany, NY and had been sampling our fine rehabilitation facilities for five years. I had just returned after living nine months in Jerusalem. I loved being in Israel and wanted to stay, but I lost my job and housing. Once I was back on American soil, I couldn’t get a job here either. Todd hardly knew me, but he helped me with my job search. Once I started getting interviews, my confidence was so low that I would talk employers out of hiring me. I spent many hours in Todd’s apartment. He listened to me complain and fed me corny motivational phrases. I wasn’t the only dude Todd was helping; he tried to help everyone. You could call him anytime and he would be there. Flat tire, he’d fix it. Wanna talk, he’d give you his ear. Need help writing a resume, Todd would give you his. I used to ask him to do favors just ‘cause he loved helping so much. I’m sure his love of service stemmed from his guilt over the shit he did while using, but who cared? Helping is helping, no matter why you do it. It didn’t matter why he helped when he would have huge sober barbeques at his apartment. It didn’t matter why he helped when he volunteered at the rehabs. It didn’t matter why he helped when he taught my girlfriend how to parallel park with his one foot (more on his lack of foot later). It didn’t matter at all. He was always the first cat to greet newcomers to sobriety. Anytime you were hungry, you could stop by Todd’s, and he would hook you up with a plate. For whatever reason, he helped. A lot.

I am the type of cat who prides himself on being a helper, too, but I do it in selfish ways. I do it to be seen. I do it for the credit. If I do a favor, I want a fucking award for it. If I help you get sober, you better say my name in your anniversary speech. Once I became a member of the recovery community, I wanted to be seen as the leader of it. And I kinda am a leader. I get respect for just being less fucked up than I was a few years back. I like to think that when I do good deeds I get spiritual credit with my higher power, but I normally do shit for the credit I get from schmucks in the real world. I want to be seen as the greatest helper ever, and if you are seen as a leader too, then I will hate you (more on Mark later). That is what made Todd special; for some reason, I didn’t hate him. If another cat talked as motivational as he did, I would call them lame and corny behind their back. But I gave Todd a pass; he could talk all the corny shit, and I still loved him.

I’m actually surprised Todd didn’t die sooner. This cat had every crazy disease you could think of. Of all of Todd’s many ailments, lupus was the most badass. I don’t know much about lupus except that it sucks, black folk get it, and J Dilla, the legendary Hip Hop producer, died of it. He also had a MRSA infection, but that was just gross, way less badass than lupus. Todd was always in-and-out of Albany hospitals. I loved visiting him in the hospital because it made me feel like I was a rabbi. Rabbis visit sick people in hospitals and spread holiness to them. When I visited Todd, I felt like I was spreading holiness to him. I could be a shithead all week, but when I visited Todd, I was a mensch. When I entered his hospital room, Todd would say, “What’s up, Rebbe.” I loved when he called me Rebbe. Because I had only a few years sober at that point, I was used to being called much worse terms. Todd even got to have his foot amputated; I saved him in my phone as No Foot Todd. I loved having a friend named No Foot Todd.

Todd’s best friend was Mark. Mark was seen as the man in recovery—he counted his years in double digits, rocked a necklace bragging about his sober time and spewed motivational quotes like he was Ghandi. (It should be noted that I also rock a necklace bragging about my sober time.) Mark was (and still is) a blonde douche that was (and still is) so positive that he made (makes) you puke, the kind that goes up your nose. Mark was the type of cat who thought he was so humble that you would thank him, and he would reply, “Don’t thank me. Thank God for me,” as if you should be thanking God he existed. Mark wanted to be the Great Negro Savior (he has since given up on the Negros and moved on to being the Poor, White-Schmuck Savior). He would give people stuff so that they would depend on him, and then, if they didn’t worship him, he would get resentful and stop talking to them. He liked Todd because Todd qualified as super-motivational, super-needy and Todd was a Negro. So when Mark decided to open a barber shop, he hired Todd as the manager. He was going to give Todd his big break.

Mark’s problem was that he never got who Todd was, a chronic liar. Everyone in Albany knew Todd was a chronic liar. No one really cared, but he wasn’t a dude whose stories you took literally or who you would lend money to. Everyone knew this, but Mark was in denial. When someone lies a lot, it is not out of the ordinary for them to be a crook, also. If you have every reason to know that someone is a massive liar, and you hire the liar and give him a position of power, with the freedom to do whatever he wants, you shouldn’t get mad when something goes missing and the liar lies to you. You should fire your own dumb ass. But instead, he fired Todd because Todd was a liar who happened to lie.

There was a big grand opening and the entire community showed up to support Mark and Todd. After two months, money started disappearing from the register. Todd had no clue what happened.

It must have sucked for Mark to fire Todd. Mark had to finally get what no one else was stupid enough to miss—that he hired a liar who was also a criminal. Mark was warned, but he wanted to prove everyone wrong and be the hero. So he had promised Todd the world, a barbershop. Less than a week after Mark fired Todd, we found out Todd was dead.

Or was he? Every day for months, I searched the obituaries and police reports, came up with nothing. The thing is—I cannot imagine Todd alive. He was almost dead when he was alive. The guy slept at the hospital more than his apartment. If he did relapse, he wouldn’t have lasted long in his worn body. I also doubt he would have gone into hiding because of the chump change he stole from Mark.

The story I heard was that the week after Todd had been fired, Todd’s tiny Pakistani Aunt and Uncle burst into Mark’s barber shop. They screamed that Todd was found dead in his apartment, that it was the recovery community’s fault. But if he did die, how the hell could it have been our fault? Sure, Todd relapsed tons, but he would have died way sooner without us. That said, I understood why they would blame us. They had to put the blame somewhere.

They stormed out. They didn’t tell us where Todd’s body ended up or if there was a funeral. No one knew where they lived or how to contact them.

Todd became another missing addict.

When I first got sober, I cared when people went missing or died. I cared when Leroy, my friend from before I got sober—the cat that motivated me to enter recovery—went round and round the revolving door of The Albany County Correctional Facility. I cared, and I wondered why he could help me get sober but I couldn’t help him. I cared when Francine, 24, didn’t show up one night to make coffee because she relapsed the night before. She was all over the news—she caused a ten car pileup. Francine was dead by the time she reached the hospital. I cared when one of my other friends, Jose, called to inform me he was smoking crack with a prostitute. He said it was my fault because he wanted to hang out the day he relapsed and I told him I couldn’t because I had a headache. Jose never called me again.

Many folks disappeared, some died, some went to jail, and some crawled back to the recovery community down the line, more beat up than before. Most of the time, I would finally memorize their names and they would go missing. From my circle of friends, the sobriety class of 2006 consists of me and one other person. When Todd died, I had four-and-a-half years sober. When Todd died, I had matured. When Todd died, I didn’t care. Todd was just being Todd; who was I to stand in his way?

I was visiting Israel the week Todd died. Prior to my trip, I was having the best summer ever. I was dating a beautiful, thick, dark-skinned sister who made all my friends jealous, but I was so used to being on my own that I had no idea how to be in a relationship. I knew I should appreciate her more, but I was a neurotic mess that was on the verge of ruining my first relationship in years. I was working a job that paid me decent money to hang out with kids, but I dreaded going into work each day because I tried to control the program and would snap at my coworkers if they didn’t follow my plans. I had my first apartment ever, a huge accomplishment for a schmuck who lived with his momma and poppa until he was 28, but that meant I had to pay rent and my mom wouldn’t do my laundry for me.

I rarely contemplate drinking anymore. I have seen too many hospital rooms to deny where using will take me. Instead, I threaten to run. I threaten to leave whatever country I live in and start over in a new land. I have done it before. I like to imagine that the country will crumble without me. I like to think that the recovery community will fall apart. In 2010, during the best summer of my life, I ran to Israel for a two-week vacation. Just like in Albany, I was very involved in the sober community in Jerusalem; I like to imagine I am a leader there also. When I feel low in America, my Israeli friends pick me up, and they did. They treated me like I was the man. That is why visiting is awesome, you only have to pretend to be sane for a few weeks; it is much harder during long term stays.

So that my parents could reach me, I rented a cheap mobile phone with an international number. I gave out my digits to a few people in America who I considered friends—in order to keep up my façade of being a great person, someone who was always available to help. The second day of my visit, I received the call. I dreaded picking up, not because I thought someone died, but because I knew it was one of my friends wasting my minutes. As much as I hate talking to people, I hate people who ignore phone calls more. When I heard my best friend Alex’s voice on the line, I grew depressed. I loved the dude but he talked entirely too much. He had juicy gossip, three people in the community died. One was Todd. My first emotion was shock. I didn’t even realize he had been fired; it was a swerve I didn’t see coming. My second emotion was annoyance; I still wanted to get the hell off the phone because my friend continued to talk too much.

Todd used to joke, “Rebbe, you only call me or visit when I am in the hospital.” That was essentially true unless I needed his help for something. Todd was not in the hospital and could no longer help me. I was on vacation, damn it; I had no time for this.

I hung up. It was time for my daily stroll. I love walking in Jerusalem. Everywhere you look there is interesting food, delicious women of all shades, fascinating but crappy graffiti, people praying, people yelling at each other, people with cool beards. I pulled out the same CD player I used to carry and listened to the same Maxwell album I used to jam to. I missed Jerusalem, but when I lived there I missed America. In the time I was gone, many of my Israeli friends in Jerusalem’s recovery community had disappeared or died. Soon after I left Jerusalem, my depressed, Christian, musical genius friend John was found dead in his apartment. We used to hang out every Saturday afternoon, watching TV and eating snacks from the corner stores, the only places opened in the slumbering city on its day of rest. He was one of the only dudes I knew who also did not keep Shabbos. John was found dead in his tiny apartment two months after I left. I still don’t understand what he died from. Depression? Just giving up? I used to wonder if I could have helped him. Would I have been able to do something? But I didn’t. He was just another Todd. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care.

After arriving at the Kotel, I rushed through security, passed the begging old ladies dressed in rags, narrowly avoided the Chabadniks, tried not to stare at the tacky, overly-emotional tourists and sat on a rock bench next to a group of hairy Haredi men.

I wrote a long prayer for Alex, Jose, Leroy and all my friends that I did not care for. I wrote a prayer for Francine, John and all the addicts who had disappeared or died. I wrote a prayer for Todd. After wrapping myself in tefillin, I pushed the note between the ancient stones that my ancestors prayed at. I was a pro at placing notes. I tested out numerous spots before I found the perfect one where I knew it would be safe. I pushed the note between the stones with all my might. I wanted it to become part of the wall. I didn’t care, but the prayers were worth a shot.

 

Jay Deitcher is a writer and licensed social worker from Albany, NY. Jay is engaged to be married this fall. He and his fiancé finally rented a two bedroom apartment together. It is nice; he wants it to be better. He would like to create a large portfolio of his work before his fiancée makes him have kids.

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