One interminable cab ride later, I arrived in a West Side slum darkened by the long shadows of Madison Square Garden, not far from where my father had run his office for more than 30 years. On a forgotten block lined with the dusty display windows of import-export schlock shops, I found a heavy steel door with chipping red paint, and behind it, the flophouse where my father had traveled 100 miles for the privilege of paying twenty bucks an hour to snort cocaine in private. I asked a desk clerk behind bulletproof glass where I could find Gerald Itzkoff, and without asking me who I was or why I was looking for him, he directed me to my father’s room.
I had never actually seen my father getting high before, and on this day, I still wouldn’t catch him in the act: His supply was exhausted, and all that remained in the room were a few rolled-up dollar bills on a nightstand, a glossy porno magazine on the floor, and a frightened old man shivering on the bed, his nostrils cemented shut with a mixture of blood and mucus, his eyelids sealed closed by some bodily fluid whose origins I couldn’t even guess at. I had no idea how much coke he’d done or how long he’d been doing it, but now he was coming down, and he was coming down hard. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Though he could barely see me and I didn’t want to touch him, I was able to lead my father out of the flophouse and onto the street by having him follow the sound of my voice, the way a parent might teach an infant to take his first steps. He wanted me to take him back to his car and drive him home, but he couldn’t remember where he had parked, and the thought of hauling this lumbering, stumbling, snotty, bloody beast into every garage in the neighborhood to ask if they had his SUV was simply too much for me to bear. Instead I hailed a taxi driver who, for a not unreasonable sum, was willing to drive us all the way back to Rockland and forget everything he’d seen.
When I answered the phone, my father broke down in tears. “David, are you going to stop loving me?” I hung up on him.
Before my father fell asleep in the back seat, he let a final utterance dribble from his lips: “You saved my life.” From the front seat, our driver, who understood exactly what was going on, agreed: “You’re a good kid, to do this for your father.” But I wasn’t buying it. If I were a genuinely good son, I might have taken some corrective action the first time my father and I found ourselves in this position—him, passed out in the back of a car; me, in charge of a situation I had no idea how to handle. Or maybe after his overdose, I could have actually taken the time to ensure that he was receiving the proper treatment for his chemical dependencies before he was released back into the world. All I was doing today was sitting with him in a cab, and as soon as it reached its destination, I’d have my mother drive me straight home. When you got right down to it, I was a pretty lousy kid.
Here is how a house of cards built upon a foundation of three decades’ worth of neglect and apathy came crashing down in a single summer: It began with a late-night phone call in July 2003, when I was alone in my apartment, and probably just a little bit stoned. The caller was my father, of course, who launched into the tale of a recent visit from his older sister, my aunt, to the glorified retirement community in the Catskills where he and my mother now lived; he wanted her to buy a bungalow of her own, next to his, but thought she was too afraid to ask her husband, my uncle, for the money. As usual, it was only after listening intently to my father’s diaphanous half-whispers for several minutes that I realized he, too, was high. Soon he was asking me to persuade my aunt to buy herself a retirement home. “I’m sorry, Dad,” I told him, “but I don’t see what any of this has to do with me. I can’t help you.”
His whisper turned to a roar. “Then you are a coward,” he said, “and you are a failure.”
I put the phone down and cried until what seemed like the next morning, when I located my mother on her cell phone. Summoning the steely detachment I could never quite call upon in my father’s presence, I told her that he had said something to me, and as a result, I didn’t ever want him to speak to me again.