This post was originally published on July 24, 2015.
Whenever I hear people talk about having relapsed, I’ll hear them say that looking back, they could see how their behavior had become slippery. They will admit they’d stopped going to 12-step meetings consistently, if at all. They’ll say they were having resentments towards their sponsor or other people in the program or they’ll talk about how they were fed up with the 12-step routine. I can relate to all of these feelings, not to mention the sort of dangerous behavior I can engage in as a result. Getting disconnected from the work that goes into staying sober doesn’t just put me at risk of drinking or doing drugs. It can also not prevent me from doing some ridiculous and silly things. I do my best to try and stay connected but sometimes my life and my ego get the better of me and I suddenly find myself on the corner of Sunset and Curson, buying a jug of Sangria for a homeless man.
It started harmlessly enough. I was going to see a friend play jazz in a coffee shop and was doing the typical LA activity of endlessly circling the block looking for parking. Just as I began to consider the option of driving home and calling an Uber, I saw a jalopy-like pick up truck pull out of a metered space. Huge score.
On any other side street—just four spaces south of Sunset—this parking spot would be considered rock star level. But this was on a corner sometimes referred to as “hooker corner,” which was adjacent to a particularly sketchy 7-Eleven and always had a cast of characters soliciting out front. Today was a full house, with four people slumped on the ground, and at least three others meandering around the parking lot.
I was suddenly struck with upper-middle class guilt (although I am financially a lot closer to living on the streets than I am to upper-middle class) and became concerned about leaving my car in the privacy of their transient stomping grounds.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any attractive choices. I wasn’t going to not park there just because my gut told me I’d return to a broken window and an empty trunk. This was West Hollywood after 6 pm; my only other options were to be inexcusably late or blow off my plans entirely. I pulled into the spot, threw all of my perceived valuables into the back seat with a couple of reusable Trader Joes bags on top of them, and locked ‘er up.
I wasn’t more than five steps towards my destination when a gruff male voice requested my attention.
“Excuse me!” he said, and I turned around to see a man of an indeterminable age—maybe 65, probably 35—clad in dirty, oversized jeans and a black button down that appeared to have never seen the inside of a washing machine. But his most notable attribute was his right eye—which was watery and drooped so much that the inside membrane of his lower socket was exposed, as if an invisible mechanism was pulling it downward. I’ve spent some time searching for unwanted debris in my own eye but I had never seen anything like this before. It was obvious that this man had long forgotten or long stopped caring about the public perception of this oddity.
“Can you buy me a bottle of wine?” he asked, as if buying booze for strangers is something people do all the time.
At first I didn’t respond. I just stood there trying to make sense of my moral compass, my compassion compass, my sobriety boundaries and my fear of what this man and his vagabond peers may do to my car if I didn’t comply.
When I was new to LA from Boston, and my head was so full of horror stories about the crime-filled streets of Southern California, I would have been too scared to ignore a man like this out of fear that I would be assaulted, mugged, raped and left to die in a pool of my own bodily fluids. But after 16 years on the hard streets of Hollywood (okay, Hancock Park), I wasn’t above pretending like I was deaf or didn’t speak English. Still, with nothing to lose but my totally paid off (and about to be left unsupervised) Toyota Rav-4 in his eye line, I didn’t have the balls to not acknowledge that he was trying to communicate with me.
But then it hit me—I don’t give money to the homeless because I work for a living and give any spare dollar bills I have to my 12-step program. I can’t start accommodating homeless people’s drinking problems. I am not heartless, selfish or privileged, I am just kind of broke and this guy should understand that.
“I can’t, I’m sorry, I don’t have any money,” I told him with confidence and sincerity.
“I’ll give you the money,” he shot back, ”I just need you to go in and buy it for me. I can’t do it right now. I am on my lunch break and have other things I need to take care of.”
I don’t know what seemed more shocking, that he wasn’t looking for a handout or that he took a lunch break. I rarely take lunch breaks—perhaps I had more to learn from this droopy-eyed homeless man.
“Okay, I guess I can do that,” I said with some trepidation. Even though I didn’t feel right about it, I couldn’t really figure out at that moment why I couldn’t do what he was asking. Was it because I am sober and so it should be against my belief system to buy someone alcohol? Surely I wasn’t afraid that walking into a liquor store would cause me to relapse, was I?
The Big Book (the basic text for 12-step programs) is a wealth of valuable information for the alcoholic and addict and there’s much in it about how logic can be entirely derailed in a defenseless moment. There’s a well-known passage on page 36 which describes a man named Jim, who—after a brief stint of sobriety—relapses at a roadside dinner by slipping a shot of whiskey into a glass of milk, rationalizing that if whiskey is in milk, it won’t get him drunk and therefore won’t count. Not only is this disgusting but it’s also insane, and it perfectly depicts the nonsensical thinking of an alcoholic’s brain no matter how many years of sobriety he or she has.
Of course I was involved in a trifecta of weirdness—being in a liquor store, buying booze, holding a homeless man’s cash with my bare hands. But what I couldn’t decipher was if I was in fear of jeopardizing my recovery or in fear of interacting with a street person. So like any good non self-respecting, untreated Alanon with a poor sense of healthy boundaries, I took the money and asked him what he wanted.
“Livingston Sangria, it’s a fine red wine,” he said. And as I walked towards the entrance of the liquor store to do the deed, he added, “Much like yourself, fine indeed.” And then he laughed, already drunk with the anticipation of getting his fix and clearly pleased with himself for still having game. And while I guess I should have been flattered, there was something about that change in tone with me—from businessman to ladies man—that ruined the whole thing. Any shred of fantasy that I was being of service, albeit in an ass backwards way, was shattered when he sexualized me. I went from being an angel to just another woman he deluded himself into thinking he could probably fuck. It made me feel like a whore.
I entered the store, grabbed a bottle of their—I’m sure—less-than-finest sangria and saddled up to the counter with my new saggy-eyed admirer’s six dollars burning a whole in my pocket.
“This for the guy outside?” the Israeli clerk asked.
“No,” I lied, though I’m not entirely sure why. “What makes you ask?”
“I know what he drinks and I recognize the money.” Apparently, the question was merely a formality and he knew I was full of shit.
“Why wouldn’t he just come in here and buy it himself?” I asked, curious but still maintaining my innocence.
“I won’t sell to him. That is why he sent you in.” Clearly, I wasn’t the first “fine wine” he had lobbied to do his bidding. I felt cheap and humiliated. I took the change and grabbed the bottle in a paper bag and headed toward the exit. In that moment, I felt what it would be like if I had, in fact, relapsed and was shamefully smuggling oversized bottles of six-dollar, screw top wine out to my car in the brown sack of failure.
Thankfully, this wasn’t that. Though I’d lost perhaps a little of my mind and surely my dignity, I hadn’t lost my sobriety. And I received the gift of seeing how quickly something like that could happen. One minute I don’t know how to say no to buying wine for a homeless man, the next I don’t know how to say no to a joint being passed around a party. When it comes to my sobriety, I can’t mess around. I don’t need to be walking into liquor stores or passing joints—it’s just not the kind of seemingly harmless behavior I can afford.
I got lucky this time. I walked out of the liquor store and handed the bottle in a bag to Droop Eye with the same 11-and-a-half years of sobriety I had when I took his money just five minutes earlier. Would I be that lucky the next time? I really hope I don’t need to find out.