Across the Bridge Into Oblivion
I remember a New York City fireman I’d befriended who once told me, “Danny, I love my little daughter with every bone, hair, and fiber of muscle in my being. She is everything to me." His eyes were wide and wet. Not crying wet. Honest wet. This was real.
"Then when I put my mouth on that glass stem and suck in just one draw of crack smoke into my lungs. . . . . she disappears off the face of the earth. Nothing else in the universe matters anymore except for me and that feeling I get from smoking that crack."
I fixated to his every word. They were so amazing to me. "She may as well not even exist then,” he said.
His eyes were the bluest I've ever seen on a man. They were also the saddest I've ever seen on any human being. It also was the most honesty I had ever heard one human being utter before another.
This soul, this valiant man who runs into burning buildings in the Bronx while others run out, was a frightened little boy unburdening, baring terrible thoughts to me, a complete stranger.
It’s hard for a man infected with a dishonest nature to speak with honesty, but when it happens it is remarkable.
He said he was a year without a drink or a drug. But I knew that despite this outbreak of apparent uprightness, he was still not a whole person, that something was very wrong inside. I could see it in him. It oozed from his pores and dripped off his tongue like a vile, sour syrup.
There was an anxiety, an insecurity. Every word out of his mouth seemed some kind of sales pitch, not only to convince me and everyone else, but to validate himself, that what he was saying was important and true.
They were the right words, but they came from a wrong man.
He was overemotional, wrapped up in feelings, living visions running through his head that had been set from a terrible past—reruns of a horror movie, with him playing the lead role in each ghastly scene, as if they were really happening.
“I don’t ever want to forget where I come from, because if I forget my past then my past becomes my future,” he said.
He spoke as if this were some great wisdom. But it is was jargon, just psychiatric narrative passed onto him by clinically therapized alcohol and drug abusers in recovery meetings. He picked it up as mantra.
But now the fireman’s real-time had become a past-time, and the experience was terrorizing him.
He manufactured a smile. It was surreal grin that concealed . . . what? Maybe he was numbed by chemical antidepressants. I couldn’t say for sure. But something certainly was wrong, and despite the eerie countenance, his explanations, and endless unsolicited confessing of why he was this way, it was apparent that the fighter of fires, rescuer of the helpless, the real-live Superhero really had no idea of the reason he suffered so, why he was so awkward, and mentally itchy in his own skin.
This little boy who wore bunker pants hated his life and himself.
Yes, he’d been a terrible father––could do it again at any time too, and he knew it. Living on the edge of sanity, not quite crazy but not sane either, the exitance of the unsane is like that.
There’s a voice inside everyone like him. It’s an accuser, constantly condemning, making sure the sins of the past are always remembered, continually relived. The fireman’s accuser told him that a fear of repeating the past would be sufficient to save him. And so he lived in dread, voluntary.
And yet fear is what drove him to drugs in the first place.
So now, the firefighter stood, making full allocution before the court. A criminal defendant answering to me, Judge Nobody, in hopes of receiving a lessened sentence––a man who’d done things he never wanted to do and could not stop, no matter what, not even for the wellbeing of his daughter, pleaded the court for leniency.
The admission. The remorse. The abject guilt. It came, as though something might change within him if I would hear him perfectly. Perhaps my understanding had the magical power to heal the bleeding wounds inside. To silence the chattering thing. To show mercy.
I heard him all right. My belly heard him. My bones vibrated with the terror that rattled his. I thought of my son, not yet one year old. Could I do what this man has done? Is there anything on earth, a single substance or idea that could erase my caring for him . . . that could remove the existence of little Danny from my mind?
This was one of the most horrifying ideas I had ever heard before or since.
After telling me this, he left and headed home to his wife and daughter in Queens. Thank God, I thought.
On the way, a thought entered the fireman’s head. It directed him to take a detour over the Throggs Neck Bridge and to head into the South Bronx. He stopped at the corner of Gilbert and Hunts Point Avenue and walked into the Bodega and bought up a package of chore boy and a for a dollar, one glass stem. Then walked out of the store, then halfway down the block and into a tenement building, up three flights of stairs and there bought 20 vials of rock.
It wasn't even his idea. He was just following orders. My new friend with the daughter he loved so much had no control over himself because he wasn’t himself. Someone else had gotten into him, contaminating his psyche with emotional energy. With resentment.
A dark force had turned him into a repressed and somnambulant automaton, compelled by past and current fiasco to well meet the harsh realities of human existence. When he got back to his car he immediately accessed his find and as he sucked on that piece of glass and the white smoke filled his lungs, blood and brain, he felt better. Much.
The fireman’s daughter faded into greyness. In seconds she was completely gone.
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