By Richard Sherbaniuk
I wanted to respond to your recent post, Billy Graham’s Shadow, about Charles Templeton. I’m like Charles — I want to believe, but I just know too much about theology and the history of religion to swallow shit like talking snakes and contraband fruit. And the current Vatican bitch-fest between ‘dueling popes’ just reinforces what I read at fourteen or so, Thomas Paine’s ’The Age Of Reason’, and as a result I cannot take organized religion seriously at all.
I’m still not a Christian but I learned a lot about humility and empathy at 1835 House.
In 2002, I was in rehab for alcoholism at Recovery Acres, aka 1835 House, in Calgary. I was in terrible shape and the place was excellent. All the men were struggling. I got to know some of the fellows at 1835 House pretty well, and their stories would just break your heart, the hopelessness and the need to fill the emptiness with drugs. Alcohol addiction was actually in the minority, most guys were on coke or meth, and most of the guys were blue collar laborers or construction workers. You can always spot a meth addict because the tips of their fingers are bright yellow and their teeth are twisted and discolored and they are antic.
One kid, named Michael, in his early twenties I would guess, glommed on to me and we chatted (I’m a good listener). He was a meth addict and told me that he smoked meth with his father. “That’s how I know he loves me,” he said, “He doesn’t want me high on the streets. He protects me.”
Michael had a huge scar on his chest — I spotted this as he was leaving one of the communal showers — and he said, “Deal went bad. I didn’t know the guy had a machete.”
He was eager to give me his ‘recipe’ for making meth, which he wrote out and I still have. Turpentine, hydrogen peroxide, all sorts of ghastly stuff, including red phosphorous. I asked what that was, he said, ‘Matchbooks. The red strip? You scrap that off, add it to the mix.” He asked me what car I drove. I said a red Toyota Corolla. “Guy like you shouldn’t be driving shit like that,” he said. “I can get you a real car!” It took me a moment to realize that because he liked me he was willing to steal a car for me.
Michael wasn’t an idiot, not yet, anyway. He said that end-stage meth addicts break out in horrible sores and scabs, because the human body cannot process these chemicals and they have to come out somehow, so they ‘present’ as skin lesions. He said that when you are out of money and so horrible looking that you can’t even prostitute yourself, you peel off your scabs and smoke them.
At one of the early group meetings there was a guy named Jay — in these places everyone is first name only — who got really aggressive when I said I was not a Christian. He was not there for the rehab, he had been through the program, but lived in the neighborhood and just dropped by in case he could help. He was so hostile to me that I took him aside, and said something like, ‘You and I may disagree, but don’t you think as a Christian you could extend me charity, as Jesus always did?”
And he did. He didn’t like it, I could tell he didn’t like it, but he did – because of Jesus.
We talked about the Bible and such, and one day he gave me a book, The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel, and asked my opinion of it. Of course it’s about Billy Graham and Charles Templeton. I gave him my opinion — it’s teleological and tautological, both of which are false, I explained it to Jay but I don’t think he really got it, especially why I thought Lee Strobel was so despicable for taking advantage of a senile Charles Templeton.
I was trying to get through to him, over coffee, and it was really interesting, because we sort of took over the boardroom, which was always empty, and guys would filter in to listen to us talk religion and movies and all sorts of stuff, so we ended up with an audience. I mentioned Tolstoy, and in particular his short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need”, which is a work of sheer genius, basically a parable, which I was able to recite from memory. Especially the killer ending. James Joyce wrote to his daughter that it is “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows” and Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an admirer.
Anyway, Jay was impressed. I confessed that I have never been able to fight my way through ‘War and Peace’ (all those patronymics), which got a big laugh. So maybe I turned a bunch of guys into Tolstoy fans, I don’t know.
One day towards the end of my two-month stay at 1835 House, I was chatting with a bunch of guys when there was a tap on my shoulder. It was Jay, looming, and he said, “Parking lot. I want to talk to you.” Filled with foreboding, I ended up standing on gravel surrounded by cars, and Jay jabbed his forefinger into my chest and said, “You are getting way too friendly with these guys and giving out personal information. Never forget, these guys are here for a reason and you are seeing them sober. You have no idea what they are like when they are high. You don’t want them showing up at your home at three in the morning with some of their friends, looking for money, and intent on fucking your wife. Never forget — these guys are not your friends.”
I have never forgotten this advice. I have Jay’s phone number but I have never contacted him. Maybe I should. Maybe today. But it’s been almost 18 years, I can’t believe it.
Jay and I became good friends. I didn’t have any money, but he did. He’d take me out for lunch, and we’d talk. His Christian commitment was very intense. He had read the Bible, but very selectively, and I told him I had read the whole thing (which is true) and that I had been to Israel and even toured the Valley of Armageddon, which just blew him away.
Eventually I got Jay to talk about why and how he became a Christian. Now, this is a huge man, 6’3, shoulders like an airplane, 34 inch waist, obviously a bodybuilder. He opened up. He had been an enforcer for the Montreal Mafia, his job was to make sure that no union workers were at construction sites. I said, “Enforcer, like in the movies, like, with a baseball bat?” He said “No, baseball bats break, I preferred rebar, it’s resilient, bounces back.” He said this with such calm, it was so creepy. That was him, before he found Jesus.
“There I was, in my expensive Montreal condo,” he said, “I was drunk and high and I raped my best friend’s wife. She fled sobbing, and I took out one of my guns and put it in my mouth, but something stopped me. I left, went down the street, there was a church, it was a hot day, the doors were open, the music, the pastor called for people to come forward, and I did, fell to my knees, and surrendered myself to the Lord.”
Anyway, Jay found Jesus and he is now a generous man instead of a killer. It’s like one of my favorite movies, Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle”, where his idiot character, given the chance to kill, looks at the gun by which he can do it, and mutters, “Thou shall not kill.” And thus he doesn’t.
1835 House had discipline, which included doing chores. One Saturday evening (this was the day of the week when the guys could ignore the curfew, play cards, roust about and order food — basically a safety valve) and there was a leak in the boiler room and I was ordered to mop it up, which I was doing when there was a knock at the back door, which I answered. It was an Asian fellow balancing a stack of pizza boxes. I directed him to the rec room, he came back and said, “So, how’s it goin’?”
And we chatted, me a guy with a mop, him a pizza delivery guy, and it was the first time in my privileged life that I had a one-on-one conversation with a working stiff who assumed I was a janitor. In my various career incarnations I have always been polite with janitorial, parking lot and secretarial staff, but I was always wearing a suit, so the ‘control-deferential’ factor was in play and I never realized it until that moment. The guy said business was good, was concerned about me and asked how long it was going to take me to mop up the mess. He went to the rec room to tell the guys to save some pizza for me.
This gave new meaning to one of my favorite stories about one of my favorite Christian-moralist-philosophers, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Every day he would fill his pockets with loose coins before he went about his perambulations in the neighborhood, dispensing money to the needy. Boswell asked him why he did it, and Johnson replied, “Sir, if I do not do it, who will?”
There are homeless people here in my neighborhood, I assume most are real indigents although it gave me a turn when I saw one of them talking on a cell phone, but you never know, so I fill my pockets with loose loonies and distribute them to those that ask.
Being an alcoholic was the best thing that ever happened to me. It humbled me immensely. I was an arrogant pseudo-intellectual prick, and being on the verge of death was a huge thing. My doctor, R.J. Bailey, told me I was eight times the legal limit. At 64, I should have been dead. I think my experience as an athlete, my training, saved me.
I am not a Christian, I know too much about how organized religion is done, but I struggle every day. In A.A., they say you can turn a turn a cucumber into a pickle, but you can’t turn a pickle back into a cucumber — when you are pickled, that’s it. As a drunk, you are at best a non-practicing drunk, i.e. a drunk who doesn’t drink. And that’s me. I am the best at what I do, as a writer/editor. But that terror beast is always there, lurking, waiting to pounce.
Richard Sherbaniuk is a writer/editor who lives in Edmonton, Alberta. He is Alan Bean’s oldest friend.