The Book of Gary
...when life gives you lemons.
On every street, in every neighborhood, of every city, children make up their own "Kinder Society" of a sort. Watching these children at play, one might notice attributes in each child which will follow them for the remainder of their lives. There may be, to name a few, the studious reader, the athlete, the joker, and of course the bully.
In the neighborhood where I grew up, on the north side of Chicago, Gary Lambendella, the biggest kid, might have been considered the bully. It would be said, in exaggeration of course, that it would take three of us to make one of him. Gary would never actually beat any of the other kids up; instead he used his size advantage as a way of intimidation unparalleled on other playgrounds in the neighborhood. For example, on a winter day, when all the kids would get together to build a snowman, the studious child would come up with the plan and easiest route to go about the task. The athletic child would roll the snow into the largest ball he could, and lift the great sphere atop the previous larger sphere. The joker would always find the most inappropriate spots to place the carrot… and so on. Gary would wait for the snowman to be built, and then approach the group and marvel at what a fine snowman they had assembled. He would subsequently explain the dangers that a snowman could face if left to fend for itself exposed to the elements when dinner hour came, and undesirables from down the street might happen by. He would, again, gloat over the creation adding the inevitable… “It would be a real shame if anything were to happen to it.” This was Gary’s intimidation tactic. With this approach, he would usually get what ever it was he wanted, or else we would ruin our dinner worried about the fate of our poor defenseless creation.
As we grow we tend to take on traits we deem as admirable, usually learned from peers on the playground, at home, or in school; Gary was no different. As he matured, he developed skills that no longer relied upon his wealth of size for means of acceptance, or methods of intimidation to be used as a social building block. He instead began to use his powers for the good of mankind, becoming champion for the underdog, and defender of the “little guy.” Gary and I became friends, and remained good friends throughout the years. Whenever one of us would change jobs, move away, get married, or happen upon any of life's other inconveniences, we always knew where the other could be found. We always managed to keep the most recent phone number and address, and, if available, money on hand to be wired, by way of Western Union, should either of us find ourselves broke and stranded in some god-forsaken part of the country.
Gary had always been prone to a natural aggression; in high school he released this by playing football and working out. After high school, he found other means of releasing his pressure valve, namely the sedating power of alcohol. For thirty plus years, Gary would make it to work Monday through Friday, drink through the weekend, and drag himself back to work the next Monday. He was married once, although he has no children. He divorced his wife after realizing she had given over half of his savings to God. "I wish she would have cheated on me, or ran off or something," says Gary laughing, "I just couldn't compete with God." His ex-wife’s family, for their own reasons, had her committed to a mental facility shortly afterwards, and Gary's drinking increased, along with his distain for theological fallacy.
Gary held his job for a number of years afterwards, but life’s disappointments were starting weigh on him. Mental blocks proved to be an obstruction to his pressure valve, not unlike the build up of plaque within an artery--the flow remains steady, but with impeded release an aneurysm is its only recourse. So it was with Gary’s vessels of emotion, with no release, the bubble grew.
It was in 2001 when things took a turn for the worse for Gary; he had quit his construction job, lost his house, and reached the point where he needed a drink first thing in the morning, "Just to get right." He moved from brothers' house to sisters' house, to another brother's house, until he had finally run out of family to put up with him. His massive frame no longer held its threatening air, his hair had grown gray, and his face began to show the wrinkles of time. Faced with the reality that he was in fact now homeless, Gary realized he had reached his bottom and sought help resulting in a month long stay in a detoxification center. He had been sober now for over six years and attended AA meetings on a regular basis. He has what AA calls a sponsor to help him maintain his sobriety and deal with the everyday trials abstinence tends to present for an alcoholic. Life improved for Gary; two years ago, in 2006, he was able to return to his old job of marble finisher, making a very good wage, with union benefits and health care. Sounds like a happy ending, right? Wrong.
Six months ago his apartment burned down and he lost almost all of the property he had worked so hard to replace. The month following that, his younger brother passed away, and the funeral was held on Gary's birthday. Last week, his older sister was diagnosed with as Gary put it, "Full blown ovarian cancer," and as much as he tries to stay on the straight and narrow, he now sees his life as a B movie remake of the story of Job.
"I don't know what to do anymore," he says fumbling through a collection of Bob Dylan recordings from his Serius radio show, "I just want to go out and hurt somebody, or at least run out in the back yard and scream my ass off at God,” he lights a cigarette and throws a disc in the CD player. "You're going to love this, it's totally whack." He says referring to the CD of Dylan playing a collection of his own favorite music ranging from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie. "I don't go to those meetings anymore," shaking his head left to right, with a sinister smile on his face betraying the fact that the “wagon” he was previously on, was now being chauffeured by a slightly impaired driver. "I can't even stand looking at those assholes anymore." Now almost in tears, he says, "Keep coming back, one day at a time, all that is bullshit! Those morons are like robots, or something. God grant me this, God grant me that, you see what God granted me: A psycho wife, a burnt out house, a dead brother, and now a sister with cancer. Boy, when the lord taketh away, he fuckin' taketh it all away, but he don’t fuck with me. He fucks with my head, but not me."
The rant was probably a good release for Gary. All the pent up anger inside that had built up needed to be let out. He went to the bathroom and knowing his old habits, I asked him to bring the bottle out with him when he returns. The sound of laughter could be heard coming from the john, accompanied by a couple of drawn out “You”s, ala Robert DeNiro from the movie Analyze That.
Gary returned from the bathroom with a half empty quart bottle of Early Times, a half full cup, and a half assed smile on his face. "I thought you don't drink anymore boy," he says handing me the bottle. "Only on occasion …" I reply, "… besides, if you're gonna not, not drink anymore, I can not, not drink anymore too!" We share a laugh as we realize that the problems solved by the bottle, are more often then not, the problems caused by the bottle. "Here's to Johnnie and to Susan too, lets hope they got all that cancer," I say raising my glass in toast to Gary's departed brother and his sister and her present state. To which Gary replies, "Yeah, here's to cancer, and cirrhosis, and your heart blowing up on you."
I had gone over there to console him and lend him a sympathetic ear if he needed it. We had a discussion as to the wisdom of drinking over a tragedy and expecting to have things turn out better when we sober up. He assured me that it was only a temporary thing, saying, "I'm like a nuclear reactor, I've got all this good energy coming out of me, but if I don't keep an eye out for myself, I'll meltdown. It's all about maintenance and upkeep, in a nuclear reactor, if the rods get to hot, they have to be cooled down by water. Today this is my water, my rods are overheating and it's not from bad maintenance. It's from outside forces sabotaging my works. I'll drink a little whiskey, howl at the moon, and maybe at the worst, crank the stereo as loud as it will go, but that's just cooling my rods. It'll blow over, I'm just glad I have a couple good friends left to talk to that can understand what's going on in my life."
I have no idea how a nuclear reactor functions (let alone the human psyche), and I also have no idea why his analogy made sense to me, but it did. The important thing is that it made sense to him. There's an old saying in his AA program: “There's nothing in life so bad, that a drink can't make even worse.” There's a lot of truth in that, as Gary has found out the hard way, and seems intent on not returning to “The bottom” any time soon.
After a couple of drinks with Gary, he seemed more focused. It was a good thing to see him vent and to be able to get a few things off his chest, and he says he won’t get stuck back in the rut he had just dug himself out of. It seems when tragedy strikes, it’s human nature for some people to take the guilt upon themselves. Gary related that he felt as if his brother dying and his sister coming down with cancer were somehow caused by all the things bad he had done in his lifetime. Every person he had wronged, every guy he bullied, and every girl he had led on, had banded together in his mind to lay a guilt trip on him which he believed could only be arrested through the process of getting hammered out of his skull.
When I left Gary I felt compelled to once again remind him of his heavy drinking days, and of how much better off he is now. He understood, he likened life to a greater, outside force, that’s going to do anything it pleases. “We’re just pawns in the sick game of, ‘the grand scheme of things.’” He mulled over how life can be unfair, and how one just has to accept it on its own terms. “It’s bigger than us! You can only take what you’re given, and be happy with that. It’s like the guy with one leg, he’s not happy about it, but he lives with it. He knows that if he complains, some guy with two legs will come along and kick the shit out of him, that’s just the way it is in this world.”
Heading home the reality of Gary’s words hit me. If in fact Gary felt better now, I was feeling worse. The truth in his words made me wonder as to why all of us are not hopeless alcoholics. His analogies had me marvel at the resiliency of humankind, its ability to get cold cocked, and bounce back, time after time, most times coming out the wiser. Life is a curious thing; it can be filled with wonder, awe, strength, and humor, or it can be a relentless brute. One minute it will have you riding high, on top of the world; the next minute it’ll come to your door and tell you, “It’s a nice little world you’ve built for yourself here; it would be a real shame if anything were to happen to it.”