Here’s a story that my father has told me at least a hundred times, so allow me to repeat it just once more: In the fifties, when my old man was still a young man, he was arrested for trying to smoke a joint on the streets of Pelham Parkway. At just 16 years old, he’d rarely attempted anything so rebellious in a life otherwise occupied by math homework and not getting laid. And in his endearingly inept manner, he was busted before he could fully savor the act.
But when he appeared before the draft board a few years later, all that the Army knew of him was his name, his age, and his drug bust, so they naturally assumed the worst. “We employ some of the best doctors in the nation,” my father was told. “We could help you kick your drug habit for good.”
“I’m sorry,” he answered, probably stifling a grin, “but I’m a hopeless addict.”
Thus he was spared from conscription, and from any war zones where that same charming clumsiness would surely have gotten him killed. He’d never have come back to meet my mother at a bowling alley in the Bronx, would never have gotten married, would never have had kids. In a sense, I owe my life to his drug use.
Of course, the joke is funnier if you know its true punch line: Two decades later, my father really did become a drug addict, hooked on nothing so mild as marijuana, but on cocaine.
Somehow, this bespectacled, nebbishy, slightly overweight Jew got turned on to coke at the same moment in the seventies when the drug was insinuating itself into the sinuses of every nouveau-riche financier, nightlife scenester, and experimentally minded ex-hippie in the city. My father wasn’t even on the fringes of those cliques. He earned his living selling raw fur—a turn-of-the-last-century trade that should have died out with Woolworth’s and the Automat—and he got high with his middle-class pals every couple of weeks, sometimes at his office, sometimes at theirs, any place where they wouldn’t be caught by their wives. Before long, his coke schedule became morning, afternoon, night, and well into the next morning, with binges that would last for days or even weeks. He ran a reasonably successful business and had a fairly happy marriage, but now he had found something he could devote himself to completely and love with all his heart.
And then I was born.
For the first few years of my life, cloistered behind the massive ramparts of the Manhattan skyline, I had no ability to know that anything was wrong with my father. When he came home well past midnight; when he didn’t come home; when he shouted at all hours into the phone at his business partners; when he slept in on weekends, and woke up irritable, and lost his temper over mild inconveniences like a late elevator or slow-moving traffic—these were merely the by-products of urban existence, the price a man pays for being all that stands between his family and the infinitely perverse cruelties of the streets.
But on those nights when he did come home, when he snuck into my bedroom and curled up next to me, and just wanted to talk and talk and talk—usually about the deep-seated sexual frustrations he had never gotten over in his youth, and how I, at 7 years old, should never feel ashamed to proposition a woman sexually, because sex was the most beautiful and natural act in the world—I somehow knew this scene was unique to our household, unique even to me. I had a younger sister by now, but she wasn’t privy to the conversations that went on between the men in the family. I concluded that my father must have trusted me like no other father had ever trusted his son, to have taken me into his confidence and revealed all the deepest, darkest secrets of adulthood while I was still a child. Though we were more than 35 years apart, I felt he saw me as his equal. I thought I had a special friend.
This fantasy came unraveled in the course of a single day, when I returned home from the third grade, expecting to spend the afternoon sitting inches away from the TV, watching cartoons and eating Chef Boyardee. Instead I found my mother on the couch, trembling and mute. In the days immediately preceding this one, she had been skulking around the apartment, chain-smoking furiously and sneaking into the bathroom to talk in secret on the telephone, its curlicued cord stretched taut across the living room. Today, her makeup was smeared by tears, and she was clinging to a notepad on which she had scribbled a message she did not trust herself to recite without cue cards: She and my father were getting divorced.