Cocaine’s Kid

Gerald Itzkoff with his 7-year-old son at a lake in upstate New York in 1983.

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.

The primary reason for this, she told me, was my father’s lengthy cocaine habit, one whose time line outstripped my own existence, and which had likely been in the background—if not the foreground—of every interaction he and I had ever shared. None of the remedies my family had attempted to impose upon my father—the private counseling sessions, group therapies, and forced hospitalizations that had all been hidden from me—had worked, and now my mother was leaving him. At a time when every bit of media I consumed was bombarding me with simplistic “Just Say No” messages, I had no capacity to be shocked by these revelations; I sincerely believed that some honest, thoughtful conversation would sort out the problem. “Why does he take drugs?” I asked my mother.

“How should I know?” she snapped back. “If I knew that, maybe I’d be on drugs myself.” It was not an especially reassuring answer.

To this point, I had always thought of my mother as a perpetually put-upon, slightly worn-out woman, who came to life only to clean up other people’s messes and had no particular tolerance for my father’s personality quirks. I began to realize that day how wrong I was and how strong and patient she had been—and that even she had her limits. But it was no small measure of my father’s enduring influence over me that at the end of our conversation, I asked my mother, “Can I still live with Dad?”

Father and son at home together in 2005.

In the ensuing years, my parents did not divorce, and my affection for my father diminished, to be gradually replaced by suspicion and then hostility. I still hadn’t learned to properly recognize the symptoms that indicated when my father was using—sometimes I’d be several minutes into a face-to-face conversation before I noticed he was high. But now, whenever I realized I’d been tricked into hearing another of his cocaine-induced confessionals, I would refuse to speak or listen to him. This would enrage him, and though my father never abused me or even threatened me with violence, he had other means of retaliation at his disposal: He would threaten to throw me out and cut me off. The same man who loved fly-fishing and introduced me to the joys of Mad magazine would raise his voice until it rattled the walls, pound the tables, kick the furniture, and point his finger at the door with unambiguous instructions: Get out.

It was the most severe punishment he could imagine, but I never abided by it; I’d just go to my bedroom and wait for him to come down. It was his own fear that he was driven by, his worst childhood anxieties of being set adrift in an incomprehensible world with no emotional support and especially with no money—but in time, his fears became my own.

In his ongoing quest for the kind of security that is best measured in square footage, my father moved the family out of our midtown Manhattan apartment and into a two-story house in Rockland County in 1991. Though this transition unfortunately occurred between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, the uncertainty that nibbled away at my stomach lining in that first summer of exile was tempered with relief: The farther we were from New York, I figured, the more difficult it would be for my father to feed his habit. Indeed, after we moved, he began to enjoy a sobriety as fragile and unfamiliar as the suburban silence that now enveloped us.

This lasted until the following spring. After months of struggling to make friends at my new school, I had finally been invited to the birthday party of a social-studies classmate, a nice Jewish girl with straight auburn hair and a bump in her nose, who was probably just taking pity on me, but whom I thought I had a genuine shot at. All I needed was a ride to that party, and everything would fall into place.

While I spent that afternoon staring at myself in the mirror and brushing my hair until it was just right, my father was behind his bedroom door, sometimes watching TV and sometimes talking on the phone. But when it was time for him to take me to the party, he was snoring loudly. In my excitement, I hurriedly roused him out of bed, into his pants, and into the car. And though his breathing was heavy, and his waking movements were comically sluggish, I never thought to wonder why he had been home, asleep, so early on a weekday.

But there was something unmistakably wrong about the way he was driving—the way he’d let the car coast too far to one side of the lane before jerking it back on course, the entire vehicle shuddering like a horse that just took a spur in its side. Then, as he maneuvered off a quiet access road and onto a two-way highway, he turned so wide that we ended up in the oncoming lane of traffic. We skidded to a stop, parked backward on the shoulder. I could now see that my father’s eyes were barely open, and his hands were trembling on the steering wheel.

“Are you high?” I demanded.

Deep in his narcotic fog, he was sufficiently alert to know he should be embarrassed. “Yes,” he stuttered.

With some effort, I helped him out of his safety belt and into the rear of the car, where he promptly passed out. Then I took his place in the driver’s seat. I was just 15 years old, without even a learner’s permit, and legs barely long enough to reach the pedals, and I was now in control of the car and the destinies of both its passengers. If I wanted to, I could have dropped off my father at a hospital, or delivered him to a police station; I could have floored it, and driven straight into the city, or into a guardrail. I even considered the idea of continuing on to the party, to chase after my unrequited crush and sneak sips of shoplifted beer while my father slept soundly in the back seat.

Instead, I drove home and put him back in bed. My father had done more than enough screwing up for the both of us. Somebody had to be the adult here.

When I went off to college a few years later, my time away coincided with what seemed to be one of the longest continuously clean periods in my father’s life, though I may just be confusing it with the lengthiest era of sustained silence between us. On those sporadic occasions when I’d make the 90-mile drive home to visit him, he looked sober, in the most brutal, broken-down sense of the word: He was gaining weight, rarely leaving the house, rarely dressing in anything more than his undershirts and underwear, and watching obscene amounts of cable news and war documentaries. But at least he was sober.

I, meanwhile, was pursuing my own betterment with the same single-minded intensity I had seen my father exhibit in his prime. Some portions of this education occurred in lecture halls and libraries, while others took place in the private taprooms and semi-secret back rooms of an Ivy League campus where pot was plentiful, and cocaine wasn’t hard to come by if you knew where to look for it. It would be too convenient to say my father’s addiction made me more curious to try drugs, and a lie to say I worried that I might have an addictive personality of my own. Drugs were simply a part of the college experience, as integral and inevitable as final exams, and for once, I wanted to know what it felt like to be a normal, relaxed, acceptably disobedient kid.

Dave and his dad on a trip to Rome in 1977.

But with each milestone, a first joint smoked or a first line snorted, I invariably thought of my father—never with a pang of guilt, but with a smug sense of superiority, that I was succeeding where he had failed. I could sample all the stimuli that life had to offer, enjoying their instantaneous benefits without ever suffering their long-term repercussions. I never loved the taste of any one vice so much that I could imagine throwing my whole life away just to get another helping.

During the years that followed my graduation, my father’s idle ultimatums actually came to pass, and I was indeed cut off—but by my own choice. I obstinately refused assistance or interference from anyone who might come between me and my ability to single-handedly shape my postcollege destiny with nothing more than my diploma and my bar-mitzvah savings. I severed ties to anyone who mattered to me before they, too, could threaten to kick me out.

All that remained in the room were a few rolled-up dollar bills, a glossy porno mag, and a frightened old man shivering on the bed.

Then came August 2001. While the rest of the city was enjoying its final blissful weeks of normalcy, my mother was frantically trying to reach me on my cell phone. It had once again fallen to her to shatter my illusions of stability. “Your father’s in the hospital,” she said. “He had an overdose.”

That morning, she had walked into my father’s den and discovered him slumped in a chair, half-awake and breathing erratically. While I was going about my day unaware, she was arguing on the phone with my sister, who was then in her second year of medical school at NYU, about whether she should call 911 and suffer the embarrassment of having the neighbors see an ambulance take my father away. She was finally persuaded to let him live.

That was at 10 A.M.—now it was nearly 9 P.M. It was only after my father had had his stomach flushed with charcoal, and lapsed into a coma, and been declared stable and likely to survive the night, that my mother was comfortable enough to tell me what had happened. There was nothing to worry about, she said, adding that he had aspirated some of the charcoal and would likely be laid up in the hospital with pneumonia for another month or so. Only one aspect of the day’s events still confused her: “I searched the house,” she said, “and I couldn’t find any of his coke. There were no straws lying around, no empty plastic bags, nothing.”

As I walked aimlessly along the streets of the Upper East Side, in the approximate direction of my apartment, a sense of displacement came over me, one that would be eerily familiar to me a month later. A tragedy had transpired, but having learned of it secondhand and hours after the fact, I had no time to feel saddened by it. My father had very nearly lost his life to drugs, just as I’d spent the last fifteen years anticipating that he would—only now that he hadn’t, there was no opportunity to grieve at the thought of life without him, and no chance to feel relief in the instant that dreadful image was dispelled. Having been cut off completely from the experience, I felt only hot, molten anger.

I tried to cling to these feelings when I confronted my father for the first time, several weeks later, while he recuperated in his hospital bed, but the emotions eluded my grasp the same way that plastic eating utensils now slipped through his. He was still so fragile that he could not feed or clean himself without the aid of my mother or a nurse, and all that stood between him and total, abject nakedness was a thin, paperlike blanket that kept peeling off his body at inopportune moments. His hair was unkempt and his eyes were sallow, and he was just too pathetic to hate. But I still tried.

“You’re going to kill yourself if you keep doing this,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?”

“David,” he said, genuinely taken aback, “do you think this happened because I was using cocaine?” My father told me that he had recently begun taking Dalmane, a prescription sleeping aid given to insomniacs and manic-depressives; the hypnotic side effects of the drug caused him to believe that with his second, third, fourth, and even fifth ingestion, he was still taking his first dose. My mother and sister never doubted for a moment that cocaine had somehow been involved, and my father seemed to understand that I wasn’t immediately sold on his interpretation of events. “You have to believe me,” he said, his eyes so wide I could see every blood vessel in them. “Do you believe me?”

The scene was like a sad parody of so many moments when he’d been high—a declaration of sincere intent, a demand for understanding and acceptance—only now that he was sober, his desperation was even more palpable. If I rejected his defense, I would be endorsing the possibility that, for the first time in almost a decade, he was taking cocaine again—maybe even the outside chance that he had done this to himself on purpose. But if I embraced his account, that it had all been an accident, caused by prescription pills, everything could go back to normal. So I believed him. If I didn’t, who would?

Though my father did eventually get out of that bed and return home, our family continued to slumber. The event—whether cocaine-related or not—was treated as a singular aberration in my father’s life, rather than part of a larger pattern of behavior; no lifestyle changes were suggested and no strategies were implemented to keep it from happening again. We never so much as sat down as a family and discussed what had happened; it became, simply, “The Incident,” as if the word overdose had been expunged from our collective vocabulary. My father was now focused on relocating his furrier business to the Catskills, and the rest of us simply assumed that his mind was too preoccupied with other matters to even think about taking drugs.

Beyond the traumatic events and the lexicon of sardonic shorthand that bind us together, my family is sometimes more happily reminded of our union by the fact that my mother’s and father’s birthdays both occur within ten days of my own. As these dates arrived in the early spring of 2003, my sister and I persuaded our parents to travel to Manhattan one Saturday for a celebratory lunch. But when she and I arrived at the appointed restaurant, we discovered only our mother waiting for us. We asked where our father was, and she answered, “He’s gone crazy.” Another family euphemism: What she meant was, He was already somewhere in the city, and he was getting high. We silently ate our lunch and kissed our mother good-bye.

The next day, before I had even risen for my usual Sunday-morning routine of half a joint and The McLaughlin Group, I was awakened by the ringing of my telephone. With some concentration, I was able to recognize the jittery, ethereal voice on the other end as my father’s. “I need your help,” he said. “I need you to get me home.” I briefly thought about hanging up, then reconsidered. “Just tell me where you are, Dad,” I said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He told me the street name, and to look for a red door, and then his voice faded into silence.

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.

I could practically hear her shudder on the other end. “I don’t know what he said to you,” she said, “but it must have been awful.”

I proved my own estimable capacity for awfulness over the course of the next month, refusing to acknowledge any effort my father made to apologize or explain his behavior—the calls to every phone number of mine that he knew; the frantic, incoherent e-mails that read like ransom notes, littered with jagged, staccato punctuation and randomly capitalized words. Just once, I accidentally answered one of his calls and he broke down in tears. “David,” he asked, “are you going to stop loving me?” I hung up on him.

Before the situation could get any bleaker, my mother suggested my father and I go into therapy, together. At first I thought she was joking: Having spent a sizable portion of her own life shuttling my father to hospitals, private shrinks, and group sessions, because he was too synthetically oblivious to realize for himself how his addiction was harming his family, was she now suggesting that I commit myself to the same hopeless path? Or perhaps she was paying me a subtle insult: All those self-destructive personality flaws that my family knew me best for—my short temper, my narcissism, those moments when I’m so overwhelmed with anxiety that I want to leap off a fire escape—were not just the results of my father’s drug habit, but potentially devastating problems in their own right that needed to be treated alongside it.

Then I realized that she was putting an incredible opportunity in front of me. It was a chance to take charge of my life, and to finally do something—anything—to help a man who’d repeatedly proved that he could not help himself. And if that barely articulated accolade my wasted father had bestowed on me in the back of that cab were to have any meaning at all—and if I was really worthy of being called a good son—I’d at least have to allow him the same shot at redemption.

A few days later, he and I were civilly shaking hands in the midtown high-rise office of a $600-an-hour psychiatrist whom my father had consulted years earlier, in a failed attempted to kick his habit. Within minutes, we were back at each other’s throats: I accused my father of being high, even at that very moment, and he demanded to take a drug test immediately—he’d piss in his own hands if he had to—to prove his innocence. The $600-an-hour shrink just sat there. My father and I left the session feeling worse than ever; I went back to my apartment to contemplate changing my name and getting an unlisted phone number, and he totaled his car on his long drive back to the Catskills.

Still, we decided to try again—with a different therapist. On a Saturday morning a few weeks later, my father and I convened in the Upper East Side townhouse of an institute that specializes in family conflict. With the help of a postgrad student, a woman too small and soft-spoken to hold any authority over me, let alone my father, we were made to sit down on a couch next to each other and actually hear what the other person was saying. I explained to my father that all along, I’d been paying attention to the things he told me when he got high—the sexual hang-ups he could never really protect me from, the age-old family squabbles I might not want to know about—but that he didn’t need to be high to talk to me about them, and, by the way, I was still deathly afraid that he was going to suffer a final, fatal overdose. My father told me that I was the one person in his life whose trust he couldn’t afford to lose.

For nearly a year, we continued this routine of meeting every Saturday morning to engage in an hour of what the psychiatric industry calls “active listening” and then eat lunch at Odessa. We had a few breakthroughs, suffered a couple of setbacks, and learned that despite the divergent paths our lives had taken, my father and I had ended up as strikingly similar men. Behind the resentment (mine) and the illicit substances (his), we were just two people desperate to connect with each other, who didn’t need drugs or even therapy to find excuses to be together. That spring, my father and I installed a ceiling fan in my apartment, and in the summer, we made our first pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Then our sessions took a turn for the worse. With the issue of drugs reduced to background noise, my father and I could only seem to pick at each other’s old scabs until they drew fresh blood; every argument, over my father’s tendency to dominate conversations or the way I used to reprogram the stations on his car radio when I was a kid, became an outrage, and everything outraged us to the fullest possible degree. I’d leave some meetings in tears, and storm out of others after just five or ten minutes. Without ever really discussing it between us, we stopped attending the therapy all together. We weren’t cured, but we were done.

My father is 65 years old now, fully extricated from the city and mere weeks away from collecting his first Social Security check. His office is just five miles from his home, and in the past year, he has lost more than 100 pounds through a steady regimen of swimming, dieting, and Fox News–induced tirades. When he and I talk, sometimes as frequently as once a week and sometimes as little as once a month, he tells me that he’s never felt more content in his life and that our relationship has never been stronger (he even gave me his blessing to write this story). Still, he’d be the first person to say that he cannot promise he will never use cocaine again.

He used drugs when times were bad and he used them when times were good, and it was no more devastating for me to witness him in the throes of the ceaseless binges at the height of his addiction than to see him brought low by the isolated lapses of his later years. So what am I supposed to wish for now? What fate should I most want to befall him in what will surely be—let’s not kid ourselves here—his last years? Is it better that they should be tedious but free of temptation, or that they should be satisfying and riddled with risk? Should I continue to fantasize about what my own life might have been like if my father never acquired his drug habit, and thus never came to depend on me, or should I be thankful for the bond it established between us, even if it came at a cost no reasonable human being would ever agree to pay?

Even now, when my father calls to tell me about the new satellite radio he just installed in his car, the great John McCain biopic he saw on TV, or some accidental fragment of poetry that popped into his head, and maybe he forgets whether I’m at work or at home, even though he’s the one who dialed the number, there is a sophisticated and well-trained part of my brain that immediately goes to work, scanning the content of his speech, the cadence and inflection of his voice, and at every possible juncture tries to gather enough empirical evidence to answer the question, Am I talking to a sober man right now?

And pretty much every time, that part of my brain eventually sends up the all-clear signal, and another, less-developed portion of my consciousness, one ruled not by science but by superstition, goes to work. In spite of everything that has transpired between us, I start to think that I am free, finally and for all time: that if my father can make it to age 65 with his health, most of his sanity, and at least the intent to keep himself clean, he can easily keep this streak—and himself—alive just one more day, and the day after that, and the day after that. But then I thought the same thing when he was 60, when he was 55, when he was 50. Even as I pin all my hopes to this thin sliver of a belief, I have no idea what I predicate it on; it’s just a helpful fiction.

This is the part of the story where I run out of events to relate, but I don’t know that I can honestly call it the end.

Cocaine’s Kid