I Was a Repatriation Case Worker

This is an old story, but I have seen my father a few times since. At a Bar Mitzvah I watched him carry the Torah around the room. He wore the look of an old dog. What they call a hangdog expression, I think. Once he came over to borrow some money. I was drinking a lot at that time, so I didn’t feel I could withhold cash from him just because he was going to use it for heroin. That’s the Catch 22. I won’t speak to him and then I get cast as this reactionary. Someone who thinks drugs are morally wrong and that all kids who sell pot should be in jail. This is entirely not the case. I think drugs should be legal. Because people will do them if they are legal or not. I also think that the world should be made a place where people are safer from each other. Those two thoughts are related, but I don’t feel like explaining how.

I was still working and still in college. I was a Repatriation Case Worker. That was my official title. But really I was the red tape. I was the go between at branches of government here and elsewhere. When an American didn’t have the funds to get home, I made calls between several agencies to set up the citizen’s safe return. About 10 people came in a 40-hour week, so I didn’t have too much to do except call Diane, the consular official for Trinidad in Washington, and then call Carl, who ran Travelers Aid at Newark. That sort of thing. Every arrangement, every conversation had to be reiterated in a fax written in office-ese, “Thank you for your prompt attention in this matter, Sincerely, Jane Goldberg, Repatriation Case Worker.” For the other thirty hours I did my homework. I wrote a paper about Mary Wollstonecraft, one about the evangelist Jonathan Edwards, one about the novel Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee. I didn’t like writing essays. I hated piecing them together into the form they have to be in order to get an A. Beginning, middle, end: I’m going to prove this, now I’m proving it, see how I proved it. I wrote fiction for my fiction classes, but of course it was never really fiction. It was like this. Maybe in my next life I will be ready to write fiction. Today I have too much to say.

Lots of the stories I wrote at the repatriation desk are lost because I didn’t save them. I printed them out and handed them into my independent study in writing teacher, who gave me A’s. He liked me, but sometimes I got the impression that he wasn’t even reading them.

I was recently married to Scott. We’d been married for a month and it was January. I still lived at my mother’s, and he lived with his parents. We were looking for a place to live. On the weekends we went all over town in the cold. We went out to Brooklyn to those wide, brownstone streets. Everyone out there has cars. In the winter the city streets are realer. Things are clearer. It’s the summer as I write this, and I know what I’m talking about. Yesterday I didn’t believe that West End Avenue, where I grew up, was who it said it was. It was overflowing with people. They were all wearing the same color shorts and pushing the same baby carriages. The buildings were asleep. They weren’t thinking like they do in the winter, looking down at you and almost smiling. In the winter they want you to come in and get warm. In the summer they hibernate. That’s what I hope at least. I hope that something hasn’t died since last winter.

My mother called me when I got to work to tell me that my father was very sick. He had called my grandmother who was very worried. Because my mother isn’t married to my father and hasn’t been in 25 years, she thinks of him as more my responsibility than hers. She also thinks that I ought to talk to my grandmother. My mother called me so that she wouldn’t have to do anything. She’s like that this time around. This life. She just likes to sit around and smoke pot. That’s all she likes to do. She goes to work. She comes home and eats food out of a can or the fridge and smokes pot. Sometimes she talks bullshit on the phone to her friends. “I think you should just call dad,” she said. She puts it in that familiar way, as if they were still married. As if she were saying, “Poor dad, he’s working so hard his blood pressure’s up again.” But instead it’s, “Poor dad, he’s involuntarily detoxing, you’d better go down there just to prove that we aren’t totally heartless. Prove that for me and your grandmother.”

My grandmother, as you might imagine, is no innocent herself. Why did she call my mother? She used to run a loony bin on Ward’s island; she’s no fool, so she must know that my mom is. My mother called an ambulance before she even talked to my dad. “Just to make sure.” He didn’t need an ambulance. He needed $10 for drugs. I called my grandmother and told her I was going down. She didn’t thank me. She thinks it’s only right that it should be my responsibility, too; I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because I’m the only one who will go. My grandfather died alone in the hospital because my grandma had gone home to bed. My mother, his daughter in law, went to visit him once in the three months he was in. But they get to think of themselves as upright people. There are people who think like them on TV. Sometimes on TV they see people whom they agree with.

I took a cab down to my dad’s house on Delancey street, down Park Avenue South, down Second Avenue, through the East Village. In the bright morning the bars were closed and the buildings were winking at me. The kids went by in platform boots and big bubbly shaped hats. They went by covering their hung-over eyes, carrying cold guitars in that silver light that comes off the buildings on cold clear mornings. I wished I was one of the hip-looking girls walking a dog. I wished I wasn’t married. And that I lived alone in a studio and ate pizza pretty often. I wished that I would be a bit edgy. But I can’t be. Because of this.

I had to get change from the head shop downstairs so I could call my dad and tell him to come down and let me in.

About eight years ago, before we broke up the first time, Scott and I lived right around the corner on Stanton Street. That was when I still did drugs myself, before I became a model. We’d lie around and drink Sambuca and then Scott would go out and get some coke or heroin. My dad used to come over and sit in the backyard, which was concrete, and talk to us about Marxism, about how things used to be, and how they were and how they would be. He was a junkie, too. But I thought it was sort of cool then. Who else has a dad who’ll buy dope for them? We didn’t get addicted though, Scott and I. Instead we took a long trip to Prague. I shaved my head and ate pots of cured meats. When I came back I developed a phobia of living. Then, it seemed a good time to try my hand at modeling. To try my hand at what I found most odious. I didn’t last long. I’m not very good at doing what feels bad. That’s why I never became a junkie myself, although I’ve been known to drink.

I called my dad from outside the shop, where he sometimes buys pot to come down off coke. He smokes coke, too. I think that’s called a snowflake when you stick the tip of an unlit cigarette on your tongue and then dip it in coke. It makes your mouth numb with a cottony feeling and it makes your throat tight. When you talk you’re in a rush to say everything before you aren’t high anymore, which is in about one minute. He came down the stairs in a crumpled ball. I followed him back up. In the old days we’d banter as we walked, happy to talk to someone of like mind. “Have you seen that new restaurant on Houston Street, FAAANCYYY,” he’d say as we dragged ourselves up the skinny steps of the back of the tenement. His building is behind another. A building built to be hidden. An old illegal tenement. His great-grandparents, Russian Jews, didn’t even live on the lower east side. We are the opposite of the American success story. They came with money. Now, generations later, we are poor and cloudy headed. And I used to say, “I know and that was like the only good pizza shop left.” To which he’d reply, truly incredulous, “You thought that place was good?” Then when we got upstairs we’d smoke cigarettes or maybe some coke. That day, though, we didn’t say anything. He walked the way he had for years, hunched over, gurgling and coughing and sucking his teeth so that his dentures stayed in place.

I had a friend, Jemma. A few days later I was at her new apartment in Nolita. She was living with a girl who she didn’t really like, an old friend of hers, in order to live in this apartment with a rent-stabilized lease. She had convinced her to throw her other roommate out. Jemma was painting. I sat in a bean bag chair, right after work, with my coat still on, sweating and inhaling the paint fumes. I was very hungry. Jemma asked me about everything with a serious twist to her mouth. “So, how are things with Scott?” She rolled her roller through the cream-colored paint. “Uh huh. Well, you guys were never exactly in love,” she answered with a sympathetic smile. I mention her because she is the middle-class voice. The voice of family values. The voice of those who say it’s bad to smoke coke with your dad. Which of course is true. But what she doesn’t realize is that it’s not bad just because it’s supposed to be. It’s not bad because it makes you an outcast. If anything it’s an advantage in that respect. After telling me that she thought I was “really plastered” at my wedding reception, which I surprisingly was not, she asked me if I wanted a beer. I declined. She kept painting. Out the window those pizza-eating, yoga-doing girls with little dogs strutted by in fuzzy-collared ’70s whore coats. I was dressed like a social worker. I was married. I lived uptown, with my mom. Jemma paused for effect. She was still standing on the ladder. “It must be really hard for you to see your father the way he is. How are you doing with that?” I started to tell her this story. “The other day I had to go down to his house because he called my mom and grandma and said he thought he was dying. He wasn’t dying. They called me and I had to go down there. Mostly I went to stop my grandmother from worrying …” “Um hmm,” Jemma said, moving the roller over discrete patches of wall, thoroughly engaged. Her cell phone rang. It was the paint store. They were in negotiations. They had promised her more of the same color and now they were out. It was their responsibility, what were they going to do about it? When she got off the phone she explained the whole saga about the paint color and Benjamin Moore. Could I believe it? She didn’t ask about my dad again. She wasn’t really interested in what was up with my dad, but she was brought up in that Jewish- liberal-upper-west-side kind of a way, to think that questions of that sort showed that you cared. The thing is you should actually have to care to get credit for questions like that.

My dad lay down on his foam rubber mat on the floor upstairs. His room is a little bigger than a bread box. When I used to come by he had the mat hung up on the wall. Today it lay across the width of the room, and he collapsed onto it. His ripped tweed coat was blanketed in crusts and cat hairs.

“What’s going on?” I said, sitting down on a fake leather chair, riddled with cigarette burns and curved like a cupped hand. I stared at the toilet, which was just opposite me. The sheet that used to divide it from the rest of the room was half-ripped down. I had to pee. On the walls there were my father’s artworks. Hundreds of cheap, multicolored lighters arranged in neat sequence and then a picture of a scary face torn from a book. French quotes written in duct tape. The head of an old straw broom surrounded with eraser tips and rubber stamps of faded shapes. The centerpiece hung behind my head, a sort of industrial wind chime made from heavy metal circles.

“Should you go to the doctor?”

“Hurgh.”

“Should I call the doctor.”

“Need phen waloops.”

“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Ten dollars.”

“I don’t think that’s what you should do. You’re already kicking. Why not just see it through.”

“No.”

I picked up the phone and called 411.

“I’d like the number for, you know like a free drug hotline number you can call.” This was simple.

I called.

I asked the woman if she knew of any rehabs in the vicinity. She did. She was at one. And today was check in day! What drug was I on?

“It’s for my father.” I sort-of started to cry. I felt incredibly embarrassed and humiliated.

“Does he want to come in today?”

“Dad,” I turned around to the sack shape on the mat, “Dad, you could go into this place today and then this wouldn’t happen again.”

“Stop torturing me,” he moaned with a fair amount of vigor, “Stop torturing me.”

The lady on the other end of the line was nice. She sounded like a round black lady who would smell good and who knew how to live. A clean house. A respectful husband or none at all, books she liked to read on the shelves.

“Listen, you can’t do anything about this. You understand?”

“But I don’t know what to do.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Yes, well, sorry to bother you,” I said.

“You could go to some Al-Anon meetings.”

“Yeah, maybe I will. Thanks.” I hung up. I thought she was the kindest person I had ever talked to. It’s sometimes hard for me to believe that there are people who believe in right and wrong. They’re nice when you meet them. Nourishing people.

The downstairs buzzer rang. I was afraid it might be this prostitute, Lenore, who my father claims he doesn’t like but who I’ve often met at his house. The last time I saw her she shot up in front of me. She asked me if I minded. I didn’t feel like I could say yes. I don’t want to be one of those people who dislikes drug addicts just because they’re drug-addicts. I dislike people because they’re assholes and liars. The question of whether all drug addicts are assholes and liars is still in the air. I’d hate to be guilty of making generalizations.

My father raised himself easily and walked out the door. I sat in the chair and thought about Scott and how when I saw him he wouldn’t make me feel better. About how he would say, “But this is what he wants to do.” When my dad came back in, he was smacking his lips, followed by Will, another friend of his. Will used to read scripts for Scorcese. His girlfriend is an actress who is in lots of movies by Jim Jarmusch’s wife. They’re cool I guess. But if they are, why can’t I be. Will is short and was wearing tight light blue rocker jeans and an MC. He had his hair in a long ponytail. Maybe they’re not cool. But I thought they were for a long time. I used to smoke the same brand of cigarettes as Vivienne, his actress girlfriend, Viceroys.

“What’s going on Gold?” He dragged out the first words like someone on a sitcom.

My father lay back down and propped himself up. Will stood in the corner. He was there to give my dad some dope.

“I’m not fucking torturing you. You fucking pieces of shit,” I slobbered. Will looked at me like a sitcom character caught in a funny mix-up, Jack Tripper found in the sack with his best friend’s girl. His shoulders were stuck in a high shrug. I walked past him, out and down the long, skinny stairs to the street. The living street, where the kids went by, on the way home from school, yelling at each other in happy groups, their backpacks hanging off their shoulders.

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