BEN TANZER

Welcome.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you about my new essay collection Be Cool—a memoir (sort of) from Dock Street press.

 

Well, great, congratulations, truly, should we get right into the questions?

Yes, of course, soft ball questions, right, I hope.

 

Yeah, sure, anyway, so, navel-gazing…?

What?

patrick_oneil_b&w

 

My memoir: Gun Needle Spoon begins with the last years of my heroin addiction, my consequent descent into crime, primarily armed bank robbery, and my eventual incarceration. My final arrest was June 25, 1997, and I look back at the person that I was then and wonder who that person was. He certainly is not who I am today. Over the last 18 years I have worked hard to instigate such an internal psychological change. If you had told me then that I’d become a recovering drug addict, a published author and a college instructor, I would have laughed and told you, “no fuckin’ way, dude!” Heroin addiction’s mental and physical stranglehold combined with the junkie tunnel vision of procuring the drug at all costs, mentally altered me from the person I was meant to be and the direction I was heading. In 1977 I was an artistic kid at art school right as punk rock hit the radar and the music world exploded, flash-forward twenty years later, I was a semi-illiterate career-criminal facing a 25 to Life Sentence under California’s Three Strike Law, and wondering how the hell it had all turned out so wrong. Patti Smith said, “I never thought I was gonna make 30.” Well, I never thought I was going to make 21. It has been a long road to get to who and where I am now, and it makes me wonder what the “1997 Patrick” would have to say to the Patrick of today. 

PrintLast Day

San Francisco, June 25, 1997

Chunks of the doorframe fly through the air and fall on either side of me. I stand there, immobile. A hundred cops outside, some in uniform, some not, guns drawn, faces and bodies tense. A tall, heavyset blonde police officer steps forward through the doorway and smacks me in the face with the butt of her shotgun as more cops push past her and into the apartment. I lie on the floor, a foot across my throat, a knee in my groin, a shotgun and a 9mm leveled at my head.

Erin Marie Daly-26Researching and writing about drug addiction and personal loss sounds not only challenging, but very depressing. What kept you going as you were developing the book?

Guilt. When my brother died, I was shell-shocked. I felt a strong sense that I had failed him. Pat was 10 years younger than me, and our dad was sick with cancer for most of Pat’s life (he died when I was 19 and Pat was nine), so I spent a lot of time babysitting Pat when we were younger, and there was a maternal aspect to our relationship. But I also tried to foster openness and honesty between us, which is why I didn’t understand the secrecy of his addiction. Hiding is a part of addiction; no one wants those who love them to know the depths of their darkness. I didn’t know that at the time, so I felt that Pat was either making stupid choices or actively trying to hurt me—sometimes both. And because of that misperception, I was angry with him. I had no experience with addiction and I certainly didn’t know about the link between painkillers and heroin. I ended up saying things to him like “just stop doing drugs,” as if it were something he was doing for fun. He wasn’t. His downfall was hard and fast, and shocking in the context of our family. Of course we’d had tragedy with the loss of our dad, we weren’t perfect, but we loved each other and lived in a great community where this type of thing didn’t happen.

Generation RX_FINALJust Let Me Forget

 Luke tells me it is the rush that draws you in. It makes you forget the darkness.

He flicks a lighter under a spoonful of syrupy brown liquid and says he is ready to die. Fumes rise from the potion, filling the room with the scent of vinegar. It is sickly and sweet at the same time.

We are sitting side by side, Luke and I, on his unmade bed in a sober living house in San Juan Capistrano, a seaside town in southern California where I am reporting a story on the epidemic of pill and heroin abuse. We have just met, but he lets me in, lets me close to the poison that has taken over his life since he became hooked on prescription painkillers eleven years ago, at age fourteen. And he’s right: there is a rush. There is something exhilarating about the poison in his hands, just in its presence, the way that it swirls and bubbles in the spoon. I wonder about the strange seduction of these little bits of crystallized black tar swimming around in circles. I wonder what my brother felt like as he stared down at them three years ago.

R2Sunset1

When you communicate with your dead brother, you have to do it on the down-low. Communicate with him around other people, but be cool about it. Turn up “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band when it’s on the radio. Sing along loudly, hitting every note and brrrehr-breh-ehr!  The best people will sing along with you. Most people will just sit quietly and listen to you, looking out the window. Some people will try to talk to you while you sing. Don’t answer them. Just keep singing. Play air guitar at the right spot, even though you’ll have to take your hands off the wheel.

Rob Roberge is the guest. His new novel, The Cost of Living, is now available from Other Voices Books. It is the April selection of The TNB Book Club.


 
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donnybrook

If your best chance of securing a future is to fight in a “Donnybrook,” a three day fighting match where ponying up $1,000 gets you in, and your chances of getting out in one piece are slim, then maybe you need to reconsider the path you have chosen. Frank Bill’s gritty, violent, and grim debut novel, Donnybrook (FSG Originals) is not for the faint of heart, as the body count is high, and the actions desperate and brutal. But buried in the bruised flesh are the stories of Jarhead, a desperate fighter, Angus, a drug dealer, and Fu, a martial arts enforcer—men with a strange sense of honor that lurks beneath their questionable actions, doing what they have to do in order to survive, to protect their own, and to please their employers. Meth cookers and dealers, drunks and addicts, whores and hustlers, they all scrounge for a meager existence, one that inevitably leads them to the Donnybrook.

PART I/July 2010.

 

I see him, but I hope no one else does. The guy leaning over between the train tracks and the station bar has a guitar in one hand and a plastic baggie in the other. I am stopped at the tracks waiting for the gates to rise, watching him on the platform, hoping no one else sees him because it’s the kind of thing that makes everyone involved uncomfortable.

Taylor is sitting next to me in the passenger seat, and she is not watching him. She is going through her purse looking for her checkbook so she can pay for the hour-long session with Lisa she is about to attend.

I. Posting a Flyer

If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me (347) 469-3173.

—Jeff, one lonely guy

570-231-XXXX

So how did everyone get your number in the first place?

 

516-859-XXXX

Wow, I just saw your sign on a pole a couple days ago.

 

478-213-XXXX

Flyer guy?

 

347-441-XXXX

Jeff, can I call you?

I just finished writing a book filled with suicide, psychosis and the elusive meaning of life.  I turned it in and spent three solid weeks lying on my living floor, watching old metal videos and trying to untangle my brain.

My writer sort-of-mentor friend called while Judas Priest was ripping through “Diamonds & Rust”.

“Did you know that for at least one night in Memphis, K.K. Downing was the King of Rock and Roll?” I said when I picked up the phone.

“What?” she said.

“Never mind,” I told her, stabbing the TV mute.

All cultures have their own particular concept of “limbo,” purgatory, or some other form of antechamber to paradise. The word “limbo” itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an “edge or boundary.” Used as proper nouns, Limbus describes the edge of Hell, and Limbo is a place for the souls of unbaptized infants and patriarchs who died before the coming of Christ, to wait for Christ to be born and pardon them. Once pardoned, they are in effect “saved” and become de facto Christians, and are finally granted access to eternal paradise. But the Messiah doesn’t seem to come around very often, so they sit around like millions of undocumented immigrants, waiting for the next mass amnesty.

Purgatory, by comparison, is like the express line at the US-Mexican Border, the one for people with spotless backgrounds, or diplomatic cover.

Prologue: Something for the Mouth

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are nighttime tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust—

Campus sits west of the Chicago river, at the circle interchange of the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways.  In the 60s UIC wedged its way into and consumed Chicago’s Little Italy, grew tentacles into the near west and south sides.  At one time called Circle Campus after the knot of concrete ramps where the two arteries bisect, it was built similarly of concrete in a style called Brutalism, emulating Soviet public housing, “riot proof,” with double-layer covered walkways akin to parking garages, an open-air amphitheater and massive concrete wheelchair ramps to 2nd floor entries reiterating the circle motif.  A miniature replica of an Eastern Bloc city, and likewise now with crumbling concrete, permanent scaffolding erected to protect students and faculty milling on (and off) grass lined footpaths under trees that replaced the severe web of covered walkways in the 90s.  The circular quad in front of 24-story University Hall underwent a decade-long project (that should’ve taken about a year) to add grassy knolls, flowered borders, and (perhaps a reminder of Brutalism) tile-lined fountains that rarely run because they’re broken.  But I walk campus without envy for Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul, or Loyola.  They have tradition, bigger trees, a vine-covered brick building probably called “Old Main.”  We have Brutalism.  It’s where part of me –  a native Californian – lives, has lived for almost 20 years.

To be fair, we abused each other. It was not–as one might use the cliche–a one-way street. The first time we had a big a fight I threw a desklamp against a wall where it shattered and the sparks sifted like fireworks falling in a heated sky till they faded and disappeared. We had just moved in together, into this one bedroom Victorian house on Ralston Street in Reno, Nevada, two houses down from the pizza joint/pub where we worked. My friend from school had left a message on our answering machine, inviting me to her birthday party. My girlfriend insisted that I had fucked this friend, that I was still fucking her. Why else would she invite me to the party, and not explicitly also invite my girlfriend? I was running around, I couldn’t keep my dick in my pants, she should have known I was that kind of guy, why does she always do this, getting herself involved with people like me? My girlfriend wouldn’t let me say anything. In frustration the lamp flew.