I live in a more run down part of New York. Maybe back in the 1940’s it was a captain of industry and commerce, but now it is more of a run-down neighborhood bordering “slum” status. The largest buildings in the area are all condemned, the houses could all use a fresh coat of paint, and about every eighth building has been vacated and boarded up. Albany has its rich spots and its poor spots, and the YMCA that I go swimming at is in one of the poor spots. It’s smashed together up against a school, library, and municipal building of some sort. It’s across the street from a fenced in garage/shipping complex and a house that I simply refer to as “The Dispensary”. The Dispensary is a large yellow house that reeks of pot. It has a drive-thru of sorts, as folks will pull up, walk onto the porch, do a series of high-fives and then they’ll walk away stuffing something suspiciously into their pockets. Not my business, so I leave it alone.
I generally don’t like the people in the area of my YMCA. I come here to use the pool, and more people means that there are less swimming lanes available. While driving in, there were three kids spread out evenly across the road so I couldn’t get passed them. They were shuffling along to the YMCA, and after ten seconds I honked so they’d get out of the road like a normal person. They turned around, gave me nasty looks that were supposed to be nasty, but I interpreted it more as a clueless idiocy. Pre-teens with attitudes don’t scare me, but god are they stupid. It’s common around here for kids to be biking/skateboarding/walking down the middle of the street and blocking traffic when they have two perfectly good sidewalks on either side. Again, I didn’t say anything. If it doesn’t bother me, I leave it alone.
In the parking lot I saw my second exhibition of hopeless humanity. There was some guy shout/talking with some lady. The guy was wearing blue shorts, a blue shirt, and a baseball cap probably three sizes too big for his head cocked off to the left. His shoes looked to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 dollars, but the rest of the outfit could be purchased with a $20. I wasn’t sure if this is how he normally dressed or if this was his workout outfit, it’s how the kids in this neighborhood usually dress. I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation as I crossed the parking lot.
“Come on Misha! It’s been 3 months!”
“I don’t care if it’s been 3 years! You ain’t getting any time with those kids!”
“Come on! I got a part-time at the station.”
“Ain’t none of mine.”
“They are my kids too!”
“Yo kids?” Misha launched into a very lengthy list of reasons why Misha’s kids were not the same thing as What’s-His-Face’s kids.
He stood there looking tough and frustrated as the conversation progressed. What struck me is his left hand kept reaching forward at belt level, palm up. It was an unconscious tick he did whenever he was trying to make a point to “Misha”. It looked like he was giving a handout, maybe offering an invisible olive branch. Maybe he was offering his hand for his small children to hold. I don’t know. It looked silly. Misha turned in a huff towards the door, which I was by at the time. She said some things designed to dig into What’s-His-Face’s soul and burrow there. I opened the door and held it for her, taking a look at What’s-His-Face to see what he would do next. I didn’t trust him. He had one prominent cheap tattoo on his outstretched forearm, his facial hair was patchy and unkempt, he smelled something like the homeless men at the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at, and he was way too young to be a father of multiple kids. Misha power walked into the YMCA, leaving me there holding the door, watching What’s-His-Face. He swore once, looked at me uncaring, and then stormed off in the direction of The Dispensary. Figures. But again, it didn’t bother me, so I left it alone.
I did have a good swim. It was a glorious swim. I had the pool to myself, mostly. The lifeguard kept changing the music on the radio whenever a bad song came on, and life was grand in that pool. That pool is what makes this place glorious. I did a full half hour in there, free-style the whole time. I was refreshed, a new man, heading back into the locker room. The only worry on my mind was that there are windows from the pool to the lobby where folks can see me parade my plus-sized self along the edge of the pool to the locker room.
In the locker room I rinsed off. While in the shower, I heard someone trying really hard not to cry. Another example of hopeless humanity, probably. I ignored it and did my best to get the chlorine scent out of my beard, because it’s awful smelling that for the rest of the day. The crying was still going on when I finished. Not my business, so I tried to ignore it while I walked over to my locker, but I snuck a glance that I shouldn’t have.
There he was, What’s-His-Face. The tough looking punk kid I saw a half hour ago had melted. His hat was on backwards, now looking six sizes too big. His eyes were red and tear stained. His power-stance earlier had devolved into a heap of a person barely maintaining balance on a changing bench. Everything noble, if there was anything noble about him, had gone out completely. His spirit had left him. Except his right hand. His right hand was clutching something in front of his face. Fiercely. His arm was red from the strain of clutching it, shaking in front of his face. His eyes stared into his fist at the object he was holding.
It’s something I haven’t seen for a long time.
A series of colored poker chips dangled from a chain he was holding. He probably had a dozen silver chips and two red chips hanging from that chain, spinning in the air, their plastic ‘ticking’ against each other. The chain hung from the chip he was clutching with all of his desperation, a single solitary green chip. His eyes glued to it with unbelieving shame as tears unacknowledged trickled down his cheeks.
I wasn’t sure who had spoken, until I realized I was the only other person in the locker room. It was the green chip. That worthless piece of plastic bought him membership into a very expansive and resolute club.
“Hey. Guy. I know it’s none of my business, but from where I’m standing, it looks like that green chip is the only thing you’ve got going for you in the entire world.” I took a few steps toward the corner he was hiding in, well aware that I was going way out of my comfort zone in nothing but a towel and flip-flops. The guy turned his blood-shot eyes over to me. I wasn’t sure if he was hearing me or not, his eyes looked so dead.
I recalled an old and dusty memory off of the shelves. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That seemed to get his attention, one line of poetry that let him know that he was dealing with alumni from his personal school of hard knocks. It’s our school fight song.
“I know that this also isn’t any of my business, but you’re holding onto that coin as if you’re about to lose it, and I think I know how you’re about to lose that. Kid, this is one of those low points. It’s one of those things you cannot change. But I’ve got the suspicion that you gave into your darker demons and did something foolish that you regret. More than that, I’m pretty sure that you’ve got that darker demon in your pocket right or your gym bag right now. That’s something, that if you really want to, you can change.”
The kid was frozen. Other than his thumb absently rubbing against the back of his green coin, he sat stock-still. The golden lettering had rubbed off the front of his coin and coated his thumb instead. I’m not sure how long he’d been in this locker room.
“This moment right here…” I said, pointing at the floor as if to pin his rock bottom to the floor so that it couldn’t get him again, “…is step one. ‘We admit we are powerless over our addictions’. I’m seeing that right now, kid. So how about we do something about it. How about you give whatever it is you’ve got over to me. I’ll carry this burden for you, because it looks like you aren’t going to get very far with it. Let’s beat step one.”
What’s-His-Face broke down then, sobbing into the crook of his right arm, still clutching the green chip. I wasn’t sure what to do. He cried for a while, and I just stood there dripping dry. I felt exposed. I don’t like giving speeches. I don’t fancy myself as a motivational speaker. Monologue-ing to a stranger about their innermost demons while naked is a nightmare scenario most people only dream of. I wanted to leave, but this moment right here was critical for What’s-His-Face, and my own personal key-ring of plastic chips demanded I see this through. Besides, I wanted to see if he could succeed
What’s-His-Face continued to sob there, until finally his left hand thrust into his pocket and pulled out a plastic bag. Rock bottom could be a painting of that moment. His head hung in deepest shame, his hands both held above his head to me in complete surrender. In his right hand was his collection of silver chips, evidence of at least a dozen attempts to restart sobriety, along with his greatest success of 90 days sober, the green chip. In his left hand was a bag of drugs so illegal that I didn’t even know what they were, or the delivery systems that were also included.
I couldn’t see into his mind then, but I wish I could. I wanted to dive in there and pull him back from whatever despair he’d covered himself in. Here were both offerings. I could take the green chip away from him, or I could take his demons. Both hands were outstretched, palm up. It’d looked pathetic before, but now, during the bravest moment of his past three months, he was truly offering something that’d make him a better person.
I grabbed the bag from his left hand and went straight to my locker with it. I didn’t want him to try and take it back, and I didn’t want to be caught holding it in case someone came in. I went straight back to him, though. He was pressing the green coin against his head. I crouched down with careful towel placement next to him. “You get to keep this. Alright? You keep this going. A month from now, you’re going to show me that purple chip and I’m going to be proud of you. Okay?”
And What’s-His-Face finally broke. We talked. We talked for a long time. When I was confident he was off the dark path, I went and got dressed. As I left the locker room I just said “it works if you work it. I want to see that purple chip.” He smiled, and I left. One unspecified trip to a garbage dumpster, well out of the reach of What’s-His-Face, and the demons were gone.