On the 20th of June 1983, I was headed out of Napa, CA in a 1966 Chrystler New Yorker headed to San Francisco prepared to continue my near-death experience of the previous year when I grudgingly, yet not fully, accepted help to get me off the streets of The City, where I was sleeping and drinking myself to death. I ended up in a Salvation Army program out on Army Street and then a half-way house on 9th Street & Mission from which I used the wall phone to arrange for a job interview at Silverado Country Club in Napa. After three trips out there (driven by an old friend who had found me at that half-way house by contacting my mother back in DC), I was hired as a manager in their Food and Beverage Department and given a Condo to live in which was cleaned daily by maids and I became the supervisor of about forty people in the Restaurant at the club. That night I slept on good linen; the night before, at the half-way house on well-washed and worn cotton sheets. There. Everything was going to be fine! Stolen clothes, lies and fear.
The clothes I’d stolen from the Salvation Army when I worked on their collection truck, and my last GA check from the City of San Francisco for $124.00. I couldn’t cash it at The Club because that truth was nowhere near what I told them about me in order to get the job. Once again living a lie, as I had done for many years.
In retrospect the time of living on the streets, in shelters and at half-way houses was the closest I’d been to my actual reality. No amount of lying can cover up that you’ve got soiled pants and are asking people for money on Geary Street for an $.85 bottle of Thunderbird.
Welcome to Silverado Country Club, Mr. Schatz.
One day having lunch at one of the restaurants there, the waiter asked if I wanted some wine. I said, “Sure, how about a half-bottle of the Far Niente Chardonnay”…Whoops!
A month later I was let go for being intoxicated at work and I was no longer living there. So, with a used Chrystler and my pilfered Salvation Army clothes I found a room to rent and another month later I was headed back to SF to finish my sure return to the hellish and presumably short life of a street drunk.
On the way out of town on Hwy 29, I was drunk at 11:00 a.m., and heading to S.F. I glanced at a small shopping center and saw a sign for a Sewing Machine/Vacuum Cleaner store. Something made me turn in and pull-up in front of the store in a tiny strip mall with plenty of parking and leaving my car running (It had an electrical problem that I couldn’t fix, so to avoid a jump-start I left it idling), I walked into the shop, reeking of booze and desperation, and asked an uncomfortable lady there if I could look at their phone book. She gave it to me and I looked up Alcohol Recovery in the Yellow pages and found the name and address for the Napa County program on Old Sonoma Road. The lady wrote out directions for me (we rarely see the Bodhisattvas we encounter continually), and I drove there.
I pulled up at the front door of the Program offices, left my car running and went inside and was taken to the office of the Director, whose window looked out on my New Yorker idling untended and was invited to sit down. I’d been through this routine a few times when I finally began asking for help to get off the streets and I knew what to expect and the twists and turns my story should take.
The director, Jack Malin (Thank you Jack, a saint in casual work wear:), got the picture and told me that I could stay there for the 90 day recovery program and that it was an experimental “Social Model” that left the clients at leisure during the day but that there were daily meetings with counselors and in groups, and I would have to go to one AA meeting each day. I countered and said the most AA I would do was three meeting each week.
He said, among the most life changing words I ever encountered, “Helmut, you don’t understand, if you want to stay here you Have To Go TO At Least One AA Meeting Every Day! if you want to stay here.”
I got itI I would have to follow directions in order to get the free and compassionate help I was asking for and I agreed, and then he said, “You can go out and turn off your car. You are safe here.”
In retrospect, after several years of sobriety and following the path of Buddhist meditation in concert with my 12th Step, I became able to see that I had been living in fear all my life and had really never felt safe and that explained so much of my karma and the choices I make. Here, I was being being offered refuge.
Refuge. As in Three Refuges. A place out of the storm. Shelter. Safety. Time. And, help. Help that I had to act on. Help that I could act on, not merely ‘accept’ and then wait for things to change. I could begin see my active role in changing me. And there was more, a lot more and it continues.
So, I slept that night on a thick plastic sheet in their “intake” bed and woke up on the 21st of June1983 and have been sober ever since.
Allowing change (Inevitable reality)
and asking for help (taking refuge)
from something beyond me
yet within. Doing the best I can.
Hope for the best,
Do the possible.