Three Encounters: number three – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 27, 2011 at 11:56 pm


I’ve been trying to decide between an encounter with one of the men who sleeps on my street, on the synagogue steps, and one of the men I met in the soup kitchen tonight. In the end the soup kitchen encounter wins, because it is a story of recovery and slipping and recovery. 


Jamaal grew up in the Bronx, “NYC born and bred.” He went through the public school system and attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice – a liberal arts college with a focus of criminal justice and forensics, part of the City University of New York system. All through college he didn’t touch alcohol. “I was so set on getting through the program and getting my degree,” he tells me as we scoop big spoonfuls of the pasta dish that’s tonight’s dinner. White wheat pasta, tuna, and collard greens mixed together with oil and something else.

“That’s funny,” I say, “it seems to me like most people at college here go haywire when it comes to alcohol.”
“Hay-what?”  My strange kiwi-isms are the cause of a lot of amusement in the soup kitchen. And so are the southern accents of some residents – anything for a laugh, they say – although I notice the heavier, edgier sadness that lies beneath some of the laughter now. People will turn away after chatting animatedly and stare at the ground; or go completely silent during what seems like an uplifting conversation.

“It’s like going to college is an excuse for just partying and drinking – a first taste of freedom,” I explain.
“It wasn’t like that for me. I wasn’t into drinking. I got my paralegal bachelor’s degree and began work right away. I had a good life, a great salary, and an apartment. I’m so lucky, you know, because they didn’t take my job away from me. They’re holding it for me, for when I… recover.”
“Yeah. See when I was about 31, that’s when I started drinking. I’m 36 now, so it’s been five years. Five years since I fell in with the wrong people, and messed my  life up.”
“Wow. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, I mean I just got in with the wrong crowd. Not like, low-life types, but people who drink too much. I started to drink all the time, I couldn’t stop. I was drunk during the day at work.”
“Really? Did they notice?”
“Yeah, I started to leave affidavits behind at the court-house, and give legal files over to the wrong people – big mistakes, obvious ones. I can’t believe they didn’t fire me. But my job, it’s still waiting for me when I get out of here. My wife – she stuck by me, she tried to help me out. But there’s nothing anyone can do until you want to help yourself. I had to make the decision to change.” There it is, again – that taking of responsibility. I wonder what number it is in the 12 step recovery process? Two? Three?
“Are you still in contact with her?”
“Yeah. Yes.” He’s emphatic with the second yes. “We broke up after she tried to help me four or five times, she couldn’t take it anymore. We talk regularly.”

Later on, after the rush of dinner guests is over, we chat about movies with the other kitchen staff. Jamaal says there’s another Star Wars coming out, something about the severed hand of Darth Vader living on, but no one believes him. “‘Lost in Translation’ was the most disappointing movie I ever saw,” says one person. “You know, ‘Knocked Up’ wasn’t so bad though. You seen that?”
“Aww, man one time I snuck into a movie theater and I fell asleep in there,” says Jamaal.
“Yeah? Was it Harry Potter?” I ask. “‘Cause that I would understand.”
“Ha – no, I don’t even remember what it was. I just passed out. My head was lying back on the chair like this -” he demonstrates – “and my mouth was all open and shit. The theater staff came and hit me on the shoulder at the end: Wake Up! What a waste. I was so out of it during that period. I’d paid for my ticket and everything.” I notice, quite often, that parts of the stories people tell me about their pasts don’t quite line up. Usually it’s little pieces like this, but sometimes it’s big pieces. There was the guy who told me he wasn’t actually a resident at the shelter (when he was), and that his father was a famous academic, his mother a famous artist. I’ve seen him a few times since then, and I get the feeling his life story is something different to that. I know what it’s like, though, I think – to not be able to claim your own life story.

A fussing, older white couple enters the kitchen. They have bags and bags of apple pies – small, nasty, long-life pies filled with hydrogenated soybean oil, enriched white flour, corn syrup and artificial flavors. But their gesture is welcomed, the pies are exclaimed over and quickly divided among the residents. We fill up a Tupperware container of tuna pasta for the older couple to take away with them, for their dinner. After they leave I’m told this couple is very generous. “They have a farm out on long island and they often bring us vegetables. They’re wonderful.”

A regular comes in and asks for a small portion. “What is it tonight,” he muses, “the Chervell-special?!,” referring to the Chef by his first name. He comes into the kitchen and begins to douse his plate with salt from a shaker he finds. I can’t blame him, the meal does not look appetizing and I think it mustn’t keep anyone full for very long. White pasta and tuna… a pretty quick fix. I am dreaming about making nutrient-dense whole grain dishes with fresh cheese and organic vegetables, fresh egg and spinach omelettes, bean and root vegetable casseroles, fresh squeezed fruit juices… when another resident comes up to the serving counter to chat. He announces that he’s going to be leaving the shelter in a few weeks. He’s nearly finished the nine month program to recovery, and he’s heading back out into the world. I congratulate him, and he seems genuinely proud. Nine months is a long time of rigorous, disciplined living. I turn to Jamaal.

“When do you graduate?” I ask him. He looks down at his hands. “Next year.” I calculate that he has seven more months in the program.
“But… didn’t you come here last year?” I say confusedly, not meaning to be insensitive.
“Yeah, I did. But I had some set backs. Some set backs.” I make a sound that – I hope – sounds like a murmur of understanding. “But, you know, now I’m recovering. I’m on my way back up.” He looks at me, and his eyes – although it’s clichéd – they do sparkle. They are open and wide and not flinching. “I’ve learned to be humble this time, and to have patience. I’ve learned to have faith.”

As I’m walking back to the subway station – late evening, fading light – I pass, with surprise, the older pie-giving couple walking gingerly to their parked car. It is a beat-up sedan from the 90s, with a dent in the boot and the model number twisting off – one of the older cars I’ve seen in this image-conscious city.  They get in, the old man on the driver’s side, the old woman on the passenger side with the Tupperware container – their dinner – still in hand like something valued, something anticipated.


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