Monday, April 27, 2009


A couple of decades ago I lived in downtown Washington, DC, in a grand old apartment building on Connecticut Avenue. The Devonshire Towers was right near the National Zoo and at night during the summer months I could hear the lions roar. I owned a car but seldom drove it. Mostly, I walked. Two miles to work, half a mile to the grocery store, about the same distance to my favorite bars and restaurants. I took the bus or Metro in inclement weather. Cabs were affordable so I'd hail one if I was in a real hurry.

Since that time, I've noticed that I--and many of my friends--have given up most forms of physical exertion, including the mildest. In a completely unofficial survey, I've asked them: When was the last time you manually rolled up the window of a car? Opened a door at a store? Swept instead of vacuumed? Climbed stairs? When did you walk a mile, with a purpose other than seasonal tourism? Change the tires of your own car? And I've asked: Do you own an electric toothbrush or shaver, a mixer, an electric drill or screwdriver, a power mower? Do you blow leaves instead of raking them? Do you have a manual hedge clipper, a gas barbecue? Does your car have a manual or automatic transmission?

Almost every appliance available today is not so much designed to work better or longer as it is to reduce the amount of effort it takes to do a simple chore. The result, of course, is something that costs more, breaks, requires repairs or regular replacement. It is not something you can fix because you have neither the tools nor the knowledge to do so. So what it comes down to is this: we have become a nation of slugs.

Somehow, thanks to science, nutrition and the demise of predators and jobs that kill, we have come to live very much longer than our parents even as, physically, we do far less. And, in fact, I think most of us do nothing with those extra years. Nirvana may be a double-wide, a giant screen high-def TV and an open account with Domino's Pizza. But then again, who's to say that's wrong? Maybe the gods have a sense of humor and we are meant to take up as much space, time and energy as can possibly fit into one extended lifetime and to hell with everything--and everyone---else.

Oh, wait! Isn't that pretty close to the definition of capitalism?

OK, so now I'm going to get a lot of you-god-damned-socialist mail. Worth it, I guess. Here's installment 83 of Wasted Miracles.

So it was all about drugs. Colin whipped the old Porsche onto the Rte. 66 access, drifted into the left lane, took the Arlington exit. A get-rich-quick rip-off that had gone wrong and cost the lives of four people. No, five. Herbie was gone too. Small loss.
And Josie hadn’t remembered him. There’d been nothing in her eyes save exhaustion; the hour or so she and Colin had spent that one-and-only time long ago had been washed away. Colin wondered whether he should feel mildly insulted, decided his relief far overshadowed any bruise that Josie’s negligent memory might inflict to his pride. And, if he were truthful, he had to admit that the encounter had become vague in his mind as well, the commotion of the moment left little save a hazy recollection of blonde hair and pale skin. He wondered whether Catherine would ask, how he would respond. Maybe she’d laugh. Probably not.
It would be easy enough to track the ship’s whereabouts. Two phone calls, three at most. Various authorities kept track of such things, and any travel agent would be more than happy to supply a potential customer with information on the Royal Scottish Line.
Colin parked the Porsche, rode the elevator to his apartment, checked his voicemail. Two messages from Orin, one from Ed Kuminsky. “Colin? Ed. Joe was my sponsor, you remember? I talked to you a couple of days ago. I guess you must have heard by now, about Joe, I mean.” There was a silence, a long sigh. “Jesus, I can’t believe it. I don’t know what he was doing out there. It’s insane. Some people are saying he was into it, you know, that he was scoring but I know that’s not true. So, you know, if you hear anything like that...” The words trailed off, picked up again. “Anyway. I know you were his sponsor, he respected you a lot, he told me so. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Unloading, I guess. But I thought you should know. I guess what really gets me is that he could have been saved, you know? Whoever he was with, they just left him there to bleed to death. He coulda been saved. Bastards just ran away, left him to die in the street like some sort of animal. Jesus.” Pause, sharp intake of breath. “Well, look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be telling you all this stuff, it’s part of the investigation. I needed someone to talk to, and you’re my grand-sponsor, even though we never met, and I was wondering, maybe we could get together sometime? Joe’d been wanting us to, he thought it might be good for me. Maybe he mentioned it? So if you’d like to, get together, that is, give me a call, OK? Jesus. Just fuckin’ left him out there in the night. Jesus. I’m sorry. I’m really out of control about this, makes me want to find the cocksuckers myself and watch them die real slow. Shit. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t burden you with this. Call me, OK? Here’s the number, in case you lost it.”

Friday, April 24, 2009

So Legalize It, Already Part II

What if...
...the moneys spent by the government on farm subsidies--approximately $20 billion annually--were instead given to US farmers willing to grow marijuana, poppies and coca? a few years the United States could produce all the now-illicit drugs the country presently consumes?
...the North American drug clientele found a better deal at home, available legally and safely and because of this the Mexican drug cartels went out of business?
...the production of drugs in the US was taxed at several levels, as are the production and sales of tobacco products?
...the Afghans had no buyers for their opium and our war there ended?

And what if all the money saved in...
...our futile effort to control drugs
...our war in Afghanistan
...our interdiction programs
...the war in our streets financed largely by guns and drugs
...our expenditures to house thousand upon thousands of prisoners guilty of drug-related infractions
...the legal costs involved in putting them there...

What if all that money was spent on more highly esteemed programs like education, better treatment of our vets and elderly, more low-cost housing, a national health insurance system, music and arts programs for kids, and repairs to the country's infrastructure--our roads and highways, bridges, public transportation and hospital.

As the Beach Boys once sang, wouldn't it be nice?

It's time to legalize drugs, to free ourselves of a yoke that has already broken the back of nations to our south and now threatens ours. The bad guys are winning the war, folks. It has already cost us more more in dollars and lives than World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined and there's no end in sight.
It's time to stop it and make better use of the vast riches such a peace might produce.

Here's installment 82 of Wasted Miracles.
Mollie Catfish squared the pile of bills in front of her. It wasn’t as tall as she’d hoped. She had closed her checking account, maxed out both her credit cards and sold the stuff she’d bought with them for twenty-five cents on the dollar to another girl at the club. She’d borrowed $500 from Bennie the bouncer. There was $3,472.32 and it was all she could come up with. She remembered the Rolex she’d lifted from a trucker, found it, rushed from her apartment. An hour later she was back, seething. The pawnshop owner had offered her a tenner for it. “It’s a fake, honey. Twenty bucks on K Street.” She’d taken the ten, balled the ticket in her hand and tossed it angrily into the gutter.
Three-thousand four-hundred and eighty-two dollars would have to do. There was no time to plan a scam, no time even to turn a few tricks. In spite of herself, she felt vaguely thankful for that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


When I was a kid in Paris, my family was fairly poor and in the post-war years, very little decent food was available. The major cities of France--and indeed of all Europe--were devastated and what little sustenance could be found was prohibitively expensive. I was raised on mare's milk, which is strangely blue, horse meat, leeks and cabbage, and a horrible concoction called bouillie.

Bouillie was yesterday's bread boiled in water, with a dash of red wine added and salted to taste. It resembled porridge or perhaps mucousy oatmeal, and there is not a Frenchman my age who, to this day, does not shudder in remembrance. Foods like bouillie--and there were many--lacked vitamin, protein, and even carbohydrate value. They were unsatisfactory and unsatisfying. As a result, most French people my age who were raised in the metropolitan centers have terrible teeth and very poor eyesight. And we're always hungry. Or at least, I am.

So it has been a revelation, recently, to attend 12-step meetings dedicated to accepting my addiction to food.

One of the very first facts I came to terms with is that I often cannot recognize when I am hungry. At some time between childhood and now, hunger transcended being a sensation for me; it became a feeling, and over the years I have assigned hunger to a number of other emotions that have nothing to do with my need for food. Anger, boredom, fear, frustration, loneliness, all become reasons to eat, reasons to avoid dealing with reality, reasons to instead rely on that good physical feeling of a full belly and a desire to sleep. Avoidance, denial, a yearn to control, all very familiar feelings to someone who spent many, many years dependent on alcohol and drugs.

With food dependence, the principles remain the same: spirituality, an acceptance of powerlessness, a willingness to ask for help. But if a program for alcoholics must stress total abstinence from all alcohols and psychoactive drugs, one for overeaters cannot blandly proscribe all foods. The problem is not black and white anymore--I may be able to avoid drinking alcohol, but I can't forswear eating. There's a level of complexity here that I have not faced before. I have choice, an uneasy word for an addict.

The meetings I have attended so far are low-key affairs, quieter than AA, somewhat more restrained, free of swearing and overdone familiarity. I like them. I like the quiet dignity of the people there. I came in with years of sobriety and a feeling that this new arena would be a snap. At my initial meeting, I was told by one young attendee that there's no credit given for memberships in other programs. Busted, on the very first day...

But I'll keep coming back.

Here's installment 81 of Wasted Miracles.

They sat on the front steps of the building housing the ARC. Josie shook her head, nodded, looked confused. “Yes, I mean no, I didn’t even know Herbie was a dealer, not really. I kind of suspected it, he always had money and didn’t seem to have a job, but it’s not like I really knew, you know?”
She lit a cigarette and Colin saw her inhale exactly as Catherine did. She held the smoke in, let it out slowly. He said, “OK, so a friend took you to their place, and the Zulu fixed you up.”
She inhaled, nodded.
“But you didn’t know about the missing drugs? Herbie had never told you anything about that?”
She looked at the cigarette, fixed her eyes on the glowing ember for a moment, flipped the butt into the parking lot. “No. Herbie was always kinda secretive about almost everything. I mean, he liked to show off, liked to flash money, pay for things, but it wasn’t that kind of a relationship, you know? Like, we didn’t talk a lot about stuff, real stuff. Mostly we went out. Took cabs, ate at restaurants, clubs, places like that. I think he liked to show me off.” She held up her hands, looked at her nails, smiled crookedly. “I looked kind of better than this a few days ago...”
Colin took her elbow. “Josie, listen, this is important. I know it’s not pleasant to think about, but you’ve got to. He thought you knew, the Zulu. That’s why they took you. That’s why they gave you the drugs, right?”
She nodded.
“But you didn’t know?”
She nodded again.
Colin rubbed his forehead. “So why would he keep you alive, Josie? It doesn’t make sense.”
She opened her mouth, said, “I...” Fell quiet. Colin watched her watching cars moving in the parking lot. She took a cigarette from a pack rolled in the sleeve of her tee shirt, stuck it between her lips but didn’t light it. She said, “Comfort.”
“The other black guy, the nicer one. His name was Comfort. You know, like ‘calm’; like ‘serenity.’ He was the taller one. He came into the room where they were keeping me, came in and told me what to say.”
“I’m not getting this, Josie. There’s something missing here.”
Her voice became annoyed. “He told me what to say! Like he knew. He knew where--Oh, Jesus!”
Colin leaned close to her. “What did he tell you, Josie. Word for word. Try to remember. Try real hard.”

Friday, April 17, 2009

The End of Journalism

I was working in the newsroom of the Washington Post during Watergate and if Watergate is not a familiar term, please stop reading now; you'll only get confused. I did nothing to contribute to the adventure save, once or twice, field three a.m. phone calls from Martha Mitchell, the deranged wife of the equally deranged Attorney General, John Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell believed her husband was trying to poison her because she knew too much about Nixon's misbehaviors in the White House. The newsroom operators had no patience for Martha and would switch her call to the lowest person on the totem poll, me. I would listen, take notes, and thank her for the information. Then I would type a memo on my IBM Selectric and pass it on to the night editor of the national desk, who would glance at it and put it in the circular file, also known as the wastebasket.

Watergate was the beginning of an interesting era in American reporting. Investigative journalism soon became the preferred field of study for hundreds of would-be Bernsteins and Woodwards and blanketyblank-gate stories proliferated. Some were important, others not. The Pentagon papers, Contra-gate, Iran-gate, NAFTA-gate, all were events of significant historical import. Others were minor, but all served a purpose.

Now, we seem to have abandoned investigative reporting. It is overly expensive, makes enemies among advertisers at a time when papers are barely surviving, and it lacks a public following. Dedicating a team of reporters, editors, checkers and support staff to the pursuit of a single story is hopelessly dated. The media's main job nowadays is to rewrite press releases and entertain, rather than inform. Readers, by an large, are not really interested in news. A none-too-subtle indicator that investigative journalism is dead is hammering us today. Not one single mainstream newspaper--not the Times, Globe, Post, WSJ or Chronicle unearthed Bernard Madoff's pyramid schemes. No one questioned his profits, investigated his background. No one in the media blew the whistle until it was far too late. Rather, financial--and other--reporters were writing puff pieces about the future of China's finances, the future of GM, and the economy's rosy outlook for the coming decade.

“News," said England's Lord Norfthcliffe in 1896, "is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, was a powerful British newspaper and publishing magnate. During his lifetime, he exercised vast influence over British popular opinion, buying stolid, unprofitable newspapers and transforming them to make them lively and entertaining for the mass market. His interest in news was marginal, except when it entertained the reader. He would feel right at home today.

Here's installment 80 of Wasted Miracles.

Shortly before noon Catherine came back to the ARC to pick Colin up but he told her he was going to be staying around until after Josie ate lunch with the rest of the patients, he’d catch a bus home, it wasn’t that far. Catherine gave him a long questioning look which he chose to disregard. She thought he was strangely cheery and that surprised her, but she had dictated the rules of the day and chose to abide by them. She drove home, took a long bath, made a sandwich out of ham, Camembert and sourdough bread.
She wondered whether anything would come of that evil night, whether this time her daughter would be able to shake off the chains and not merely rattle them. It didn’t look good, not really, and all her experience, strength and hope were feeling pretty puny. She recited program mantras to herself but couldn’t shake the thought of Josie maybe not making it and it frightened her, left a dreadful empty feeling in her stomach.
She shoveled the sandwich into the garbage can beneath the kitchen sink, looked at her watch. Almost one-thirty. She walked to mirror, inspected herself, peered at her own face. Still attractive, she thought, still capable of attracting people, men. A face capable of starting over again. She decided that with Josie back and safe, she would make an appointment with a lawyer next week. She didn’t know exactly who to call but there were plenty of women friends who’d gone through divorces and come out better for it. She wondered if Lars would be shocked, incredulous. Probably not. Surely he too must have come to realize that his lack of concern, even of sympathy, proved beyond a doubt there was nothing left in their union worth salvaging. Who knows, she thought, he might even be grateful. The bastard.
The counselor was peeved. His name tag read Lester Shakey and he was a generally nice man, the only professional staff at the ARC who was not in recovery. This shortcoming had long ago ceased to irk him--he had been dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts for years and come to the conclusion that it was not necessary for the inmates to run the asylum--but today he was in a bad mood not made better by the man seated before him.
Lester Shakey’s office was uncluttered and sunny, his desk nicely proportioned and arranged to be in the exact center of the small room. He wore pressed blue jeans, a messageless sweatshirt and white boat shoes with no socks. His face was round with very light blue eyes that now focused on Colin’s mouth.
“It’s important that you understand, Mr. Marsh, how very crucial a time this is in Josie’s treatment.” He smiled, showing evenly gapped teeth. “Crucial. Josie has to get familiar with her new environment. This is all very different for her, it’s--”
“Her fourth rehab.”
Shakey frowned, annoyed at the interruption. “Fourth? I thought it was the third.” He shuffled papers, found a blue folder, opened it, read something slowly, lips moving. The fingertip of his right index traced a line. “Right you are. Fourth. Says so right here in her records.” He smiled again, paused as if to make a point, continued. “Josie is very confused, she--”
Colin cut in again. “She knows exactly where she is and why. This is not a new dance, Mr. Shakey. Josie has been through this before. She probably knows some aspects of this treatment better than you do. And I think there are some things she should know, things I can tell her that I truly believe will be helpful. All I need is another fifteen minutes or so with her. After that, she’s yours.”
Shakey shook his head, lips pursed. This was highly irregular and he didn’t like it. “I wish you had consulted me before talking to her, Mr. Marsh. You know the rules, no contacts with outsiders unless it’s supervised. It’s for their own good, you know.”
Colin wore his friendliest face. “I apologize. I should have checked in with you. Fifteen minutes. Please.”
Shakey decided this had gone far enough. He rose from behind his desk, motioned for the door. His visitor, however, did not rise, which forced Les Shakey to pretend he was actually going to do something else and resume his seat. He sighed, glanced at the full inbox on his left. He said, “Now I really must get back to work, Mr. Marsh.” And tried to rising trick again. Marsh didn’t move. Shakey sighed a second time, more loudly.
“Fifteen minutes, Mr. Marsh. I’ll be looking at the clock.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Making Money

I do not have a head for business. I buy high and sell low, and the one time I ventured into a public offering, I bought into the worst IPO in the history of IPOs. I put $3000 into Vonage, the computer phone company--a sure thing, all advised me. My three grand is now worth $187. I took Econ 101 while at Georgetown University and even I can tell this is not a good return on my investment.

I have purchased land upon which I could not build, apartments that could not be rented without thousands of dollars of work, and vintage motorcycles that could not pass even the undemanding Virginia state inspection. The signed and limited Salvador Dali editions I own Dali were limited only by the fact that the printing presses broke down after putting out several million prints and papering the landscape with them. When I was better off, I splurged on what was once a very expensive Italian sport scar. It's gorgeous, red with a tan leather interior, boasts 12 cylinders and a top speed of almost 200 mph. It is perhaps the only model in the company's history that has gone down in value in the past 10 years.

Most recently, I closed out an account with a broker who, I came to realize, never had my best interest at heart. When I decided to transfer my funds to another brokerage house, there was a glitch and for three weeks I had no money. That all worked itself out and I got a large number of airline miles by paying my mortgages with my credit card, but then the airline that issued the credit card went out of business. Such is life among the financially inept.

I am awed by the young entrepreneurs who are billionaires by the time they're thirty--awed and somewhat afraid. I do not know where the gene that allows some to take chances--and win--comes from. I'm pretty sure my parents didn't have it. Family lore tells of a maternal great-grandfather who bankrupted his upper bourgeoisie family by buying his mistress a candy store. The young woman--in her 20s, I was told--was a dancer with the Follie Bergere and had about as much business acumen as I do. She ran the confectionery into the ground, then sold it and moved to the Cote d'Azure with a Portuguese playboy. Together, using the candy funds, they opened a charcuterie (the girl came from peasant stock) which did quite well until a shipment of tainted ham gave trichinosis to half the guests staying at the tony Negresco hotel in Nice. The erstwhile dancer and her paramour left town in the middle of the night, one step ahead of killers from the Corsican mafia. So obviously, they couldn't quite get the hang of it either.

Ah well, enough with the family tales.

Here's installment 79 of Wasted Miracles.

Catherine picked him up in front of his apartment building and her first words were, “I know what you’re thinking.”
Colin smiled. “That’s what Orin said yesterday.”
She shook her head, “No. Yesterday, that’s something else. What you’re thinking now, this morning, is whether Josie will remember your... encounter with her. And if she does, how are you going to handle it. That’s what you’re thinking right now. And you’re also wondering how I’m going to handle it, I know you are.” She took a breath, lit a cigarette, continued. “So let me give you some relief, ‘cause I’ve thought of this most of the night.” She swerved to avoid a dump truck, pumped the horn. “Asshole! Here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll go in first, stay a few minutes to see how she’s feeling and I’ll tell her you’re here. Then I’m going to leave the two of you alone, get in the car, go to the nearest coffee bar and have a quintuple espresso which I’ll nurse for a half-an-hour or so. That should give you enough time to get through whatever it is you’ve got to get through.” She nodded her head, as if agreeing with herself.
“After that, I’ll come back to the hospital and pick you up and we’ll talk about the weather, about the program, about anything except you and Josie, ‘cause the truth is, I don’t want know. Really, I don’t. If Josie chooses to talk about it in the future, that’s something else, that’s her choice and I’ll listen and deal with it then. Today, I’m feeling grateful that she’s alive, and grateful to you for being the one that got her back. I still feel horrible, terrible, about Joe. That’s gonna take a while to get over, even if I didn’t know him well. But you and Josie, what you did years ago? I don’t want to hear about it. Fair enough?”
“Fair enough. And thank you. But you know--”
She cut him off. “But nothing. I meant it. I don’t want to know. Nice day, isn’t it?”
Someone had washed and cut her hair, that was the first thing Colin noticed. It had been sheared at shoulder level and hung straight like a sheet on a drying line.
She was seated on her single bed in the small ARC room she shared with another woman patient. The walls were totally bare and Colin knew there were no locks on the door and that the windows were sealed. There’d been a couple of suicides at the ARC, people who knew their stay there was pointless and decided to take the hard way out. And in the beginning, when the ARC opened it doors, three patients had died of alcohol withdrawal.So now it was policy for a nurse to check on the patients hourly and make sure they didn’t hoard or refuse their medications, or ingest drugs smuggled in by friends and family.
The floor was highly polished linoleum--the patients swept it everyday and a service waxed it once a week--and above each bed was a reading lamp bolted to the wall. She had on new jeans and a tee shirt that read ‘Powerless Over People, Places & Things.’ Colin smiled when he saw it. She smiled back.
“A friend gave it to me when I got my first one-month chip, but I’ve never worn it.”
He nodded, sat on the opposite bed. “How are you feeling?”
She made a face. “Horrible. Shitty. Massive cravings. I kinda hurt all over and I have a headache. Half the time I want to puke, the other half I get the shakes. And since they have me on lithium, my head’s all spacey, my legs feel wobbly. I almost fell down the stairs on the way to breakfast. So, all in all, about normal for what I’m going through...”
Colin searched her face, tried to see recognition in her eyes, was both relieved and saddened to see none. He said, “Yeah. I remember all that. I was here too, seven years ago.”
“With my mother.” It wasn’t a question.
He looked at the girl, nodded.
Josie laughed, a bright sound, clapped her hands together like child. “I knew it! You’re the mystery man! You’re the one!”
She gave him a long, frank stare. “I’ve always wondered who it was. I knew it had to be someone in the program. Had to be, that’s the only people Mom sees anymore. I used to sit in meeting and look at the men and wonder, ‘OK, which one of you is it?’ Now I know.” She laughed again. “This is cool!”
Colin didn’t say anything, let the moment wash over him.
Josie stood, came to sit next to him. “And you pulled me out of that place, so I guess the entire female side of the family owes you. Mom asked you to do it, didn’t she?”
“She asked me to help, nothing more. It really wasn’t that much.”
She stood again, bent down, planted a feather kiss on his lips. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Humble Notion Based on a Really, Really Bad Idea

OOh! Here's a cool notion! Need a few bucks for a night on the town? A brief vacation or new X-Box console? Take your car to one of those places where nice folks give loans on your car title. Within weeks, after the money is spent and the loan still owing, said nice folks will send a tow truck to your home, pick up your car and eventually sell it, most likely out of state to a used car dealer. Now you'll have no money and no car, thereby making you largely unemployable and a good prospect for the welfare system. Of course, you'll still have the X-Box 360...

I have a better idea, based on Jonathan Swift's famous Modest Proposal of 1729. Swift, you'll remember, suggested the Irish eat their children during the famine, or sell them as foodstuff to wealthy families. Relax. I am endorsing neither cannibalism nor infanticide. I merely suggest you get a loan on your children.

Here's how it would work. Bucks for Babies and Kids for Kash, sister organizations chartered in all 50 states and Canada, open franchises in urban neighborhoods and launch a saturation television ad campaign promising quick cash for children. A potential loanee, armed with the child's birth certificate, is advanced a sum of cash based on the child's age, gender, educational level and health. In the interest of equal opportunity, neither race nor religion will be a factor, though Asian children--compliant and quick to learn--will unofficially fetch a premium. Female Jewish children will not.

Infants and toddlers whose parents renege on their loans will be put up for adoption, thereby satisfying the demand by African media stars for babies from developed nation. Children aged five to eight will be sent to India, where they will be taught to weave rugs while suspended from the ceiling of their workplace. Children above eight will be taught field hand skills by migrant farmers or hired by New York sweatshops to assemble fashion label shirts, jeans and blouses.

The long-term advantages of such programs are many. We will make friends with rich Africans (think oil); enhance the textile industry in the Third World; and get cheaper name labels, thereby freeing us from shopping at TJ Max. We will solve the education/school crisis by making classes smaller, enabling teacher to do what they were originally hired to do--teach--instead of being glorified babysitters. With any amount of luck, Disney Films will realize that its customer base has shrunk and will decide not to produce High School Musical 18. With fewer teen age drivers, the roads will be safer ands our insurance premiums will go down. The trickle effect of this will be the purchase of more American-made automobiles and GM will re-introduce the Hummer. All Chuck E. Cheese restaurants will close.

The last is reason enough to implement this plan.

Here's installment 78 of Wasted Miracles.

Colin lowered the dumbbells slowly, counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four. It was night and he hadn’t had a drink though he desperately wanted one. Earlier he had eaten a bad meal at a fast food place, come home and drawn the drapes, then methodically attacked the weights, starting with the biggest ones and working his way down. The veins of his arms and chest stood out like bootlaces and he was covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
He had skipped the meeting he and Orin were supposed to attend together and he could imagine his sponsor’s anger, but right now that didn’t seem to matter much. He closed his eyes, rubbed his face hard, felt stubbles scratch his palms. Outside the traffic had died down to the whisper of a car now and again. He glanced at the clock in the kitchen, saw it was well past ten, which meant the only meetings available would be downtown. A perfect excuse not to go.
He had spent the better part of the evening trying not to think of Josie and Catherine. A futile exercise. He remembered someone once saying that trying to not face up to a lie was more demanding than coming clean, and he knew it was true. He thought of seven years trying to work the steps, one night not, and how the one night had won. Incredible.
When the phone rang he looked at it for a long time before answering. The voice on the other end wasn’t familiar. “Colin Marsh? My name’s Ed Kuminsky. I’m a friend of Joe. You know, the cop?”
Colin muttered, “Yes?” Held his breath.
“I’m a friend of Bill W. Like Joe. The reason I’m calling is, Joe and me were supposed to get together and he never showed. I tried his apartment, tried the station. No one’s seen him.” The man had a high reedy voice, almost breathless. “I thought maybe--he told me you were his sponsor, that’s how I have your number, in case of emergencies I’m supposed to call you--maybe you’d seen him?”
Colin held his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece, thought furiously. “Not since yesterday.” That wasn’t a lie.
The man said, “Ah. Well. It’s just, it’s unusual, you know? We always drive to the Thursday meeting together, a step meeting at Fairfax Hospital, and afterwards we have dinner. He picks me up, usually, and this time he didn’t so I waited around because sometimes he’s late, being a cop and all, but now it’s almost a quarter of eleven and I’ve been waiting since eight...” He let the sentence hang.
Colin closed his eyes. He knew the caller indirectly. Joe the Cop had spoken of him. Dumb as a post, in Joe’s own words, but strong sobriety. Someone to hang around with and talk about the Redskins. “No. I haven’t heard from him today.” He added, “But if I see him I’ll give him the message.” And felt self-loathing wash over him.
“He said you and him were doing something together yesterday, so I thought maybe--”
“Sorry, Ed, I can’t help you. Haven’t seen him. But I’ll tell him you called.” Colin hung up, his hands shaking.
That night he slept without dreams, without rest.
In the morning, the news channel reported a new development on the fire and related deaths in Anacostia. One body, that of a white male apparently shot in the head several times, had been identified as that of a Falls Church policeman. The name of the officer was yet to be released.
The commentators, an overweight white man and a young black woman who looked like a pop singer, made much of the report and ventured unsupported opinions, guesses and rumors of police officers on the take. Colin watched until the coverage segued to a feature on a successful graffiti-eradication program in Southeast Washington.
He dressed slowly, put on and took off a tie, brewed a pot of coffee and drank three cups in quick succession.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Want to know how most kids get into drugs? No, it's not the dark character lurking around your playground, nor is it the stupefying collection of pills in your medicine cabinet. And though it's probable that your kids stole a beer or two from the fridge when you weren't looking, the real culprit is nicotine, as in tobacco, as in cigarettes, as in snuff.

Nicotine is an amazing drug, a depressant and a stimulant operating at the same time, with a half-life of roughly two hours. (The half-life of a drug--any drug, legal or not--is the time it takes for a substance to lose half of its pharmacological or physiologic presence in the bloodstream.) For a smoker, this means that he or she will begin to "detox" within minutes from the nicotine just absorbed by smoking and will very soon want another cigarette. This is what eventually leads to a two-pack-a-day habit. By comparison, the THC found in marijuana, has a half-life of is 4.3 days on average.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs known to man, and some former smokers and heroin addicts will tell you it was harder to ditch tobacco than to stop heroin. And of course, though tolerance for smoking is eroding, cigarettes are tacitly endorsed by society. Additionally, cigarettes are readily available, and the punishment for purchasing them if you are underage is non-existent. This in itself is an interesting psychological phenomenon: a kid illegally purchasing and smoking cigarettes will not get reprimanded. Instead, he'll get the message that his actions were benign, tolerated and perhaps even vaguely amusing. This will reinforce the immature belief that the purchase and use of other drugs--marijuana and cocaine, for example, will not be punished either.

Since the Civil War, tobacco products have been subject to federal, state and occasionally local sin taxes, and such taxes have proven themselves over the years as being excellent deterrents to purchasing cigarettes. When your habit begins to cost several dollars a day, you start thinking about all the nice things you could buy with the money spent to poison your lungs. The sin tax applied by the feds on each pack of cigarettes has just risen from 39 cents to $1.01 and authorities hope this will save an estimated 900,000 lives and stop 2 million kids from lighting up. States taxes vary--$2.025 a pack in Washington states and 17 cents in Missouri. Care to guess which state has the most smokers?

We will not make cigarettes illegal, but we can limit their use by taxation. The same is true of alcohol. What if all drugs were legalized and taxed? Think of the windfall...

Here's installment 77 of Wasted Miracles.

He thought she looked haggard, her eyes were old and her lips made one thin line. She was wearing jeans and a short leather jacket and her hair was disarrayed. Marsha smiled, said, “You two have got a lot to talk about,” and left the room.
Catherine lit a cigarette, sank into a large armchair that Colin knew was Orin’s favorite piece of indoor furniture. “Thank you.”
Colin shook his head. “Not necessary.”
There was a long moment empty of words during which they avoided each others’ gaze
“I’m sorry about Joe. I can’t tell you how much.” She drew deeply on the cigarette, exhaled. “I wish I’d known him better.”
Colin saw she was near tears, couldn’t move.
“And I know about... you. Marsha told me. I guess I can understand it, but I’m not sure. I can’t tell what was in your mind.” She exhaled again. “But I wish you’d called me.”
“I didn’t really think that was a wise idea, and you had other things to worry about. Anyway, I wanted to be by myself. I figured if I was going to relapse, I’d be my own best company.”
She nodded. “Yeah. That, I can understand. I don’t imagine I’d want to take a drink with AA friends around.”
The conversation wavered, stopped. Finally, Colin asked, “Josie?”
Catherine sighed. “Hooked. Angry. Cries a lot. Wants a fix. Doesn’t want a fix. Can’t figure out why it happened to her. Right now she’s really pissed off at God, but that’ll pass. She’ll be OK. Marsha and I put her in the ARC yesterday. Funny, isn’t it, how things turn out? She’s where you and I were when we rehabed. Orin knows some people there, he pulled strings. She looking at 28 days at a minimum, maybe more.” Catherine looked up, met Colin’s eyes.
“She’s not too clear on what happened. Doesn’t remember most of it, though she says she’s been having nightmares about gunshots, like people are shooting at her. I told her you’d gotten her out but she doesn’t know who you are. I didn’t tell her about Joe. I figured that was news she could live without.” She paused, canted her head. “She wants to see you, to thank you, I guess.”
“How’s Lars handling it?”
She smiled without humor. “It’s be hard to tell he’s her father. He’s relieved, of course, but not for the right reasons. Mostly he wanted to know if the police had been involved; I told him no, that it was all your doing. That made him happy. Or relatively happy... It was the best of two bad choices, you or the police. He doesn’t like you much, you know that, but now he’s indebted. He doesn’t like that much either.”
She found an ashtray, ground the cigarette out. “Jesus, he’s such a freak of nature. I don’t think there’s ever been a man born with less parental feelings. He’s kind of hinted that when Josie gets out of the ARC, he wants her out of the house too.” She fumbled in her purse for another cigarette, for a lighter. “I’m seriously thinking of filing for divorce, Colin. I can’t take him anymore, and me and Josie would better off living by ourselves. I could take care of her more than I have been.”
Colin suddenly felt the conversation was taking a dangerous curve, getting away from him. He pictured Catherine, Josie and himself in a small apartment, saw himself fleetingly as if in a mirror. “You don’t have a job, Catherine. Making ends meet, it’s tough.”
She shook her head. “I don’t care. That house, it’s a mausoleum. I never liked it, ever. I’d get money out of him, I know I could. And I’m not that dumb, you know. I can work. Do something at the mall; real estate. I could take courses and get trained. Pretty much anything would be better than staying there with him. This last thing with Josie... You know, he hasn’t even gone to see her yet.”
Colin remembered that when he and Catherine had first found each other, when they’d lain naked and embarrassed on his futon, he’d wondered if there might be anything long-lasting, perhaps even permanent. The notion had scared him. He said, “I’ll do anything I can to help.”
She nodded but a frown remained on her face. “So. Visiting hours at the ARC are over for today. I’ll pick you up at your place tomorrow. Ten in the morning. You be sober, hear me? One person in my life falling out is all I can handle at a time.”

Thursday, April 2, 2009

So Legalize It, Already

Illegal drugs are paralyzing the US and Mexico. The former is already swamped with users, dealers, traffickers, addicts and their families whose demands on society cost billions annually. The latter, Mexico, is fast becoming a narconation that has lost the power to govern itself.

In the US, the social services, hospitals, jails and prisons, federal, state and local police authorities are overwhelmed by the direct and ripple effects caused by the flood of illegal substances--heroin, cocaine, marijuana, crack, meth. In Mexico, the drug cartels' war for supremacy have forced the country to mobilize its military in a futile effort to stem the tide of violence and resulted in thousands of murder. The illegal arms trade in both countries is a booming, multi-million dollar business that encourages home break-ins and the the looting of armories and gun stores.

Interdiction does not work. It's believed that for every pound of substance seized by the law, another nine pounds is brought in. Prison sentences for those caught and prosecuted do nothing but fill the prisons to overflowing, turning out thousands of hardened criminals. The fact is, no matter what is done in either country, the flow of drugs across the border will continue. Like water, it will seek its own way and find its own level.

The reason for this is simple. There will always be a demand, because drug addicts will stop at nothing to get their supply. Addiction is an unrelenting force. Ask anyone involved with an addict and the tales will amaze a listener. Husbands and fathers sell their wives and daughters for crack. Women sell themselves for heroine or cocaine. A boozer will drink away the rent and sink to using Listerine or vanilla extracts. If his esophagus and stomach have already been destroyed by alcohol, he will ingest alcohol through enemas. No amount of fear, education, 12-step programs, jail or rehabilitation will ever persuade a drug user to stop unless that individual is ready to do so. This is why addicts are willing to gamble their lives away by using dirty needles or buying poisoned drugs. It's why the fabled war on drugs has been a failure of epic proportions that has left a landscape littered with corpses and misery. This is why we have reached a crisis point, and why the only feasible solution at present is to legalize drugs.

Legalization will not solve all the problems, but it will diminish many of them and free up billions of dollars that can be used to develop a workable distribution and tax system. It will radically lower the number of inmates serving time for non-violent drug-related crimes. It will end the cycle of violence intimately associated with the trade. It will lower the incidence of AIDS, diminish prostitution in large and small cities, and put out of business the hordes of criminals who deal in human misery.

Is it an ideal solution? No, of course not. We don't live in an ideal world. But less than a century ago, Prohibition was launched to rid the country of alcohol. It failed miserably and created a greater demand than had existed before, and that's food for thought. You cannot deny what is wanted, and that includes drugs. But you can legislate and control its use.

We've lost the war; lets work out a peace that will benefit the people and not the criminals.

Here's installment 76 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 20

Later that day, Orin said, “Well, Colin, you make a great alcoholic but a piss-poor human.”
Marsha was pouring tea. She looked up. “Hush, Orin. He feels bad enough. You don’t have to make it worse.”
Orin threw her a menacing look. “You stay out of this, Marsha, it’s between me and him. Just ‘cause you married an alcoholic doesn’t mean you know everything about ‘em. Colin’s smart enough to know that even on your best day, you don’t fry bacon naked.” Orin lit his pipe, spit a piece of tobacco out. Marsha’s eyebrows knit. She opened her mouth, thought better of it, shook her head, walked out of the kitchen.
“Now she’s mad at me too.” Orin puffed furiously, his tomato-red face enveloped in a blue cloud of smoke. Colin sat on a chair and stared out the kitchen window. It was raining, mist covered the tree tops in Orin’s back yard. The last two days’ events seemed very far away but by concentrating he could still feel the tingle of the nightstick in his hand.
“You listening to me, Colin? Or am I just flappin’ my gums.”
Colin turned to face his sponsor. “Sorry, Orin.”
Orin rocked back and forth in his wheelchair. “I used to boast to the other old farts about you. I’d tell ‘em that after sponsoring god knows how many losers, people that went out after a week, or a month or a year, I’d finally been asked by somebody who looked like he had his shit together. And you did, in your own fashion. So maybe that’s why I’m taking all this kinda personally. I shouldn’t, I know that.” He paused, spat out more tobacco. “Now I’m gonna have to tell these guys you went out, and they’ll all give me a bunch of program crap tryin’ to make me feel better, and I just hate that, people tryin’ to make me feel better...” His voice drifted off.
Colin watched a crow being chased by a blue jay. The smaller bird harassed the bigger one’s tail feathers. The jay’s wings beat furiously as it dove and swooped but the crow seemed unconcerned, unwilling to evade the attack. It struck Colin that there was an analogy to be drawn somewhere in there but he didn’t pursue it. What he wanted was a drink.
He wasn’t surprised by the urge, by the fact that it had resurfaced full blown after seven years of abstinence. He had expected that. What did amaze him was his own reactions. Even as he sat in Orin’s house, as Orin’s voice droned rising and falling in the background, Colin felt a liberating sense of normalcy come with the unwanted desire, a sentiment of things being as they should be. He had expected a war of emotions, but there was nothing more demanding than a minute unease he could attribute to an overdose of sugar and spirits. The dull headache, the heaviness he felt in his shoulders and legs, the vague sourness that flashed in his gut, all were old friends.
Orin said, “I know what you’re thinking.”
Colin nodded. “I’m sure you do.”
Orin closed his eyes. “I was in and out for years before I got tired of it. For you, though, it’s new. You’ve never had a relapse. There’s a big part of your mind that’s saying that you can do this until all this crap is laid to rest, and then you’ll be able to stop. And there’s a little part--the sane part--that’s saying it’s bullshit. That little part, deep down, it knows how good you are at foolin’ yourself.” He touched a match to his pipe. “Truth is, a man like you, in great health, exercises all the time, you’ll be able to last awhile. You’ll be able to pace yourself better than some other asshole whose idea of exercise is pumping the old lady once a month. You’ve got a lot of willpower and it’ll kick in, and that’ll be self-defeating too ‘cause you’ll think maybe you don’t have a problem, maybe you never had a problem. But that little voice is gonna stay there, Colin, you’ll never quite kill it off.” He paused, turned his chair around, added, “But shit, Colin, you’re welcome to try, you know. I ain’t gonna stop you, wouldn’t even if I could. Ain’t my job.”
Colin found his jacket, draped it across his shoulders. He looked out the window again and saw Orin wheeling his chair on the ramp that led to the backyard. The quarter-acre lot was criss-crossed with concrete walks so Orin could get around and check on his tomatoes, his fishpond, his three apple trees that never seemed to bear fruit larger than cherries. Bolted to the back of his sponsor’s chair was a bright yellow golf umbrella.
The clock on the kitchen wall said it was just past noon. From the living room the television set put out bouncy, muted music, Colin guessed it might be a game show. He wanted to leave the house quickly, quietly, but the front door was across the living room and Marsha was there, while the kitchen door led directly to the backyard and to Orin. He had selected the kitchen as the safer exit when Marsha called, “Colin? Catherine’s here.”