Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Alcoholism (again?!) 2001-present

Cleveland lays at the end of I-71, like a large gray concrete cloud, full of billowing smoke stacks spewing flames and pollution into the air as the highway arches over factories and ethnic neighborhood, in the short distance lays the Terminal Tower, which is also the name of Pere Ubu’s greatest hits package. Cleveland actually starts nearly forty or fifty miles down the freeway when exit signs begin more numerous upon passing Lodi, Ohio and soon Akron, from here on out one finds oneself in the vast suburbs of what was once the crown jewel of the Mid-West. Cleveland, city of lights, the proud blue-collar town that built the steel that first made the first steamships and later the cars and buildings that made America what it was. The suburbs are famous by themselves, Parma, University Heights, Euclid, Lakewood and Bedford Heights, these were much more romantic than the suburbs of Columbus which have always had a more rural feel to them, not only from the inhabitants but also in their names: Grove City, Whitehall (need anymore be said), Dublin, Hilliard and Plain City. The names speak for themselves, the suburbs of Columbus are as white bread and the names themselves, whereas Parma, Bedford Heights all had a connotation of ethnic blending and big-city drama. Jerry was from Parma, his last name was shortened from the Polish Wickowski, dropping the last five letters gave him the last name of Wick. His father worked in a factory, and Jerry would spend his weekends in Cleveland or in his bedroom dreaming of becoming a rock star while listening to Kiss records along with a mix of Cleveland greats such as My Dad is Dead, the Dead Boys, Death of Samantha (Jesus, there IS a death-thread here?!).

Jerry’s funeral was in Parma Heights, his gravesite just a stone’s throw from the exit ramp off of I-71 and a few miles from the Cleveland International airport, as a huddled mass of outcasts, musicians and his bewildered family gazed on as the priest said a final prayer over the muddy hole that would soon envelope his casket one could hear the hiss of car wheels spinning over the asphalt of I-71. Roll on Cleveland, indeed. I was drunk that week, and when I went into the funeral home for the first time and saw Jerry’s body laying in his casket, I hurried out of the wood-paneled room and out into the cold air of January. Moving across the busy street, I bustled into the perfect Parma dive bar that sat just catty-corner from the funeral home. This was perfect civil planning. The bar still had Christmas decorations up and the bartender was sympathetic, “you here from across the street, the funeral home?” she asked as she put my Jim Beam shot and beer in front of me. I nodded as I downed the shot and motioned for another one, “a friend of yours?” “Yeah, he was from Parma, but lived in Columbus for a while now.” “Ohhh, was he that musician? That was in the paper up here.” “Yup,” and I downed the second shot and ordered one more. “Such a pity, did they ever catch that man who hit him?” “Not yet” as I took a pull from my beer.
The next few months were restless, I was trying to maintain my relationship with my soon-to-be-wife , get a handle of my drinking, deal with the death of Jerry all the while living with one-foot in dishonesty and the other in righteous anger, much of it from what I perceived to be great injustice in the world. I was thirty-one at the beginning of 2001 and I felt like fifty-when it ended.
My wife had graduated from Ohio State with a Masters in Fine Arts a few years before and was working at Denison University, she had won a National prize given to an outstanding MFA graduate, and while she was committed to staying in the United States, she was worried that her visa may expire. We had been together for nearly five years and been engaged for two years but I was gun-shy to marry again, the commitment to personal responsibility frightened me, and besides, I had already proven to myself that I was awful at marriage once before. Merijn came home one day as I sat on our blue couch, “my parents are coming next month and we are getting married.” Looking up from my New York Review of Books, “um, ok, what do I need to do?” She shook her head, smiled and said, “nothing, just be there.” She had been applying for teaching jobs, traveling to several conferences and in a short while she interviewed with UC Davis, The Cleveland Art Institute, Columbus School of Art and Design and the University of Florida. On our wedding day she accepted a job at the University of Florida. Gainesville was in our horizon. Soon we were staying at a hotel on the campus of the University of Florida, the area had been hit hard by fires and the smoke of the fires shrouded the campus, as I peered from our room window I had the sensation of living in a dream while gray clouds of smoke crawled across the green carpet of Alachua County.

My drinking was limited to several times a week, I drank very little in the house, maybe a beer or two with dinner and we usually had at least three bottles of hard liquor in the house. Maker’s Mark, some vodka, and maybe a bottle of gin. Merijn liked to drink wine and we bought several bottles a week. I shied away from wine as the hangovers were too much and once I had a glass, we would finish off whatever wine we had left in the house. We went out to eat several times a week, usually on Friday or Saturday we would go to a more expensive restaurant, usually downtown and our bar-tab was as much as the dinner. On the way home, I would ask her to drop me off at Larry’s, Little Brothers or somewhere else to continue my drinking and making up little lies to have her drop me off, saying so-and-so’s in town or that I would have to meet somebody to talk about a record. Slivers of truth became towering trees of lies and I would let the night swallow me up.
Alcoholism is a malady of feelings, one where the reality of life is processed through a perception of reality that is always shifting, like solid ground melting into liquid as if the soil that once held tight to your feet had slowly turned into a pool of alcohol. Believing for years that the only truth that existed was the certainty of feelings, the hurt from personal relationships and perceived slights pushed against the sanguine nature of every other person who entered my circle of self. Clutching onto fixed beliefs that were only enhanced by the world that I swam in, the derision I felt (feel) towards anything outside my comfort zone, slowly, over years painted me into a corner. Addiction, to be sure is a motherfuck. One that can render the ability to navigate through an hour at a time difficult, at once tying up feelings and then moving towards the brain and finally, fitfully into action and behaviors.
I had my first drink as a child, probably four or five, my grandmother would serve us tiny glasses of port wine mixed with sugar and every grandchild who wanted a small kid’s serving of beer would get one at her dinner table. My brother and I would try to convince our sister to take one so we could have hers. This was natural, and it only goes to reckon that it was quite normal in the old country. Grandma Isabel’s house was a museum of the Gundel and Koe-Krompecher families, the walls stuffed with artifacts of our history, a veritable dare to any guest to question the greatness of the family names. The Krompecher family dates to the 14th Century, and she had the family coat-of-arms on the wall, just above the entrance way to her kitchen. Diagonally, there was a photograph of the Hungarian government, and there in the circle of leading politicians was our great-great somebody, who was Chief Justice. On the wall above the brown vinyl couch hung a picture of my great-grandfather Karloy Gundel, one of the great chefs and restaurateurs of Hungary. My grandmother could barely utter a sentence without extolling the greatness of her father, he was empathetic, a larger-than-life figure whose shadow lorded over her house as if he were the sun itself. This made an indelible mark on the grandchildren, whose trips to her house were adventures and yet, at the same time I felt a mark was etched into my being that, I too had to achieve greatness to even be in the same breath as this history.
Unspoken in these rooms was anything that had to do with mental illness, depression, isolation or substance abuse. The drunken stories of my dear uncles Pablo and Peter were propulsive in fueling a sense of adventure, the lives they lived were epic and even today some elderly grandfather or grandmother will approach me and ask, “Koe-Krompecher? Wow, I haven’t heard that name in a while, are you related..” It is here where I cut them off, “Peter and Pablo?”. “Yes, how did you know?” their eyes sparkle and a mischievous smile crawls across their face, as if they can recall the first taste of adventure. “Oh, I know. Trust me.” “Man, they were some crazy guys, so much fun, I’d tell you but you probably shouldn’t know.” Oh, I know. Trust me. These yarns were slyly dug into my conscious as we ate egg and chicken soup, Hungarian paprikash, mashed potatoes with sour cream and a dessert made with copious amounts of rum. I got drunk the first time around the age of nine at my Uncle Peter’s house at Christmas, there is a wonderful picture of my brother Zoltan, tipsy as fuck holding a glass of champagne. He is eleven. That party was crazy and perhaps was the first inkling that there were some anger and mental health issues in my family, my father got into a fist fight with his younger brother outside in the winter cold and I remember vividly the spots of blood in the snow. My father left hastily that night and we stayed at my uncle’s. A few years later my father would exit my life, pretty much for good, leaving a void that years later had me contemplating having my children having my wife’s last name as if this would prevent the misery of depression, rage and substance abuse from their lives.
When I was 14, a goofy, nerdy smartass stuck in the middle of cornfields, pick-up trucks, John Deere hats and coveralls, a veritable intense scary version of Hee-Haw to my adolescent mind I got wasted for the first time in Jeanette George’s barn party. All of a sudden the farm boys who didn’t understand the dopey kid with the weird name was kinda cool as one-liners poured out of my mouth as if directed by God himself, and those girls who had been conditioned to fall for the stereotypical macho country boy smiled slyly at me. I had had several girlfriends when I lived in Athens, but the move to rural Ohio, burst whatever yearning hope I may have had in those budding teenage years. I was lonely. The cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon went down slowly and soon I found some good friends who were much like me, Chris Biester, Jon Baird, Mark Geiger and Jeff Entler were boys who loved music as I did and liked to drink beer on the weekend as we mocked everybody in our school, trying in vain to shake the awkwardness we all must have collectively felt.
It was brisk that night, one where the soft wind pulled the weakening hold of the leaves on the chilly trees, the breeze would blow up into the branches and slowly tug at one leaf and suddenly, like an invisible trap door a flutter of leaves would empty towards the ground. The changing fall season crept into our adolescence psyches, enveloping up with the social anxiety that dwells within children who are budding adults and fueling late night hopes of kisses, heavy petting and the wonderment of sexuality. I wore large wire-frame glasses, they were new to me as I was fitted with them upon complaining that I couldn’t see the blackboard in Mr. Chamberlin’s oh-so-boring Freshman English class, I suppose Mr. Chamberlin just thought I was another over-active dumb kid but I just couldn’t see his shitty sentence diagrams on the board. Sometime during my sophomore year, I got contacts which I wore until my alcoholism told me glasses were easier when you passed out. Glasses didn’t tend to stick to someone’s eyeballs.
The didn’t unfold as much as it burst forth as if rocketed from the barrel of a shotgun, the minutes flicked past as if they were motorized and as stars twinkled and winked from the deepest of space, I had collected a small audience as I bellowed jokes and asides. The warmth of smiles is something I cannot forget, while the thirty years that have passed since then have swept whatever funny words that tumbled forth from my lips, I realized then and there that a tiny bit of beer carried me a long way. Drinking happened on the weekends, mostly in the back seat of a car or at Mark’s house as his mother and stepfather went on trips to ride horses. It was sporadic, alcohol was easy to procure and the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I spent in Athens. It was there that drinking became easier, I looked old enough to get into bars and the hurried energy of bars excited me. Besides there were a lot of college women in Athens and this fueled my feelings of being older and a part of something much grander than a fifteen year old boy lost in the Ohio wilderness.
When I was child I would sit upon my grandfather’s knee in his cracked leather chair, he would hang his left leg over the side with a small wooden knob at the end of the arm chair being the last guard of his leg slipping off onto the floor, his foot dangling, pants leg pulled tight revealing his black socks collapsing around his ankles. He would welcome me up as he watched the news, rocking me on his knee and I could smell the Jim Beam in a glass that worked more like an extension of his hands as he nursed the smooth bourbon from late morning, to mid-afternoon to early evening before rising from the comfy chair and lumber off to bed. The smell of water and Jim Beam dug deep into my brain and when I started drinking liquor, I soon lost interest with the intense and feverish buzz that Jack Daniels gave for the smooth comfort of Jim Beam, somewhere buried into my essence was the memory of my grandfather holding me, murmuring in my ear and letting me eat salty Lay’s Potato Chips right from the bag as Walter Cronkite spoke from a black-and-white universe and for moments the world was safe. I would order a beer and a Beam and water and soon learned the fine are of cultivating a buzz. Giving up on shots after I smashed my ribs into the floor of Staches one night and after several summers of puking into an old brown bucket the lure of shots no longer enticed me, the art of drinking was about establishing a pace that could hold off the desperation of loneliness until deep into the night, and when cruising one did not want to get to sloppy as it would be easy to scare off any suitors who could take away the pangs of desperation.

Towards the end of my drinking I would loathe the night, a farce compared to just a few years prior when the twisting inside of me burned as if there were simmering coals alighting the innards of my body during the day while I pined for the night. For the comfort of cigarette smoke, music wafting overhead and through my body and the twinkle of a pretty woman, all to soothe an unsettled fragment of me. Conditioning takes years, whether it is the body or the mind, with alcoholism it is a combination of both, one feeds the other while the circumstances that compels a person may shift the symbiotic relationship remains strong. Desperation came in bursts, emotional upheavals the unraveled as the moon rose high above, pining for affirmation was a sick exercise one that still urges me to this day.

Undercurrents of discourse percolated through my mind and veins, as the excuses to drink piled on one another my behavior became dishonest, selfish and in the end extremely risky. Jerry had this at times during our friendship, where the haunting of his depression could sink him to tears or to futile anger at anyone around him. His look of utter frustration with his obsession of drinking stunned me, “Bela, I can’t fucking stop” he would utter as I clutched a handful of Black Label’s to disperse around the chunky wooden booths at Larry’s. “Aw Jerry, relax, come on. Everybody is having a good time.” He would then slide away, camping in his upstairs apartment surrounded by his best friends, that is his record collection. Jenny, on the other end approached her alcoholism with glee at that time, “I’m a fucking alcoholic, so fucking what” she would blurt out as she downed a whiskey, her life by then had not yet unraveled a horrific pace that would have her living in a mansion in Miami to the streets of Columbus in a matter of months. “Shit, I know what my problem is, and I frankly I don’t care” she would say, as we sat around her glass tabletop playing a game of quarters. Later, as a resident of Jackson County Hospital in Miami, when the apparitions that would sporadically spring from her mind grew too dangerous and the alcoholic tremors would grind her to the floor, she confessed, “I’m so fucking scared of being alone BELA,” her intensity almost breaking solid heavy plastic of my phone, “I don’t know how not to drink, it’s the ONLY THING THAT HAS EVER WORKED.” By then, I had gone through my own treatment for alcoholism and was sober. I believed her only answer was the same path I had chosen, which was twelve-step groups although I had little knowledge of the severity of her mental illness.

Sadness has cloaked me since childhood, at times burying me deep into my mind as is the sky were trying to shake the clouds free, I tore myself loose through alcohol, as a means to find companionship. At times, depression is a salve, especially when young as emotions are so strong, so immediate and encompassing, the uniqueness of heartbreak is by itself a shelter from the rest of world. Later, I would discover meditation and other acts of non-acts, so to speak but depression still pokes its head out, a goblin of sorts to trip up my day. Music has always been the consistent, more than the booze, and certainly more than the women. It was there when I was twelve and around still as I turn the page into middle age. Headphones yank me back from the precipice of the dark gloominess of my mind, of emotions that lie to me, over and over. Today, I don’t pick up a drink but many of the reasons for drinking are still there. Inside of me.

and I love THIS song now.

and THIS!!!


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