By: Jerry Metcalf
Somewhere back around 2006, a glaringly bright lightbulb burst to life inside my skull, and I realized that I needed Alcoholics Anonymous.
Actually, to be honest, I’d known that I’d needed A.A. long before that. But I’d never had the will to attend. That, or I just didn’t give a crap. Either way, I went, and that day changed my life forever.
* * *
“Do you feel you have a drinking problem, young man?” asked an older black gentleman sporting gold-rimmed glasses and a flashy gold wristwatch, as I stepped through the reinforced steel doorway leading into one of our prison’s only rooms designated for outside volunteers. The man was also decked out in several shades of green like some cool pimp from a 1970’s Black Exploitation film, but his eyes bored into me with determination, almost as if he really cared to hear my answer.
“I guess,” I replied with a shrug.
“What you mean, you guess?”
I shrugged again.
“Okay then.” He waved me past with a soft smile. “Have a seat. We’ll do our best to figure it out.”
Several semi-cushioned chairs formed a haphazard circle inside the triangular-shaped and antiseptic-scented room. Half of the florescent lights tucked up into the drooping ceiling tiles either flickered and hummed or refused to work at all, lending the place a dungeony feel. The air conditioning had been cut off by disgruntled staff members (the kind that think we are in prison to be repeatedly punished), which meant the room was sweltering.
I wandered over the chair boasting the least amount of stains on its fabric, then flopped down. Ten or so other convicts also sat in the gloomy room. We could all see one another, but nobody really looked at one another. A few guys oozed back in their chairs projecting an air of relaxation, reading their big blue A.A. books. A few others worked some form of puzzle, maybe a crosswords or a Sudoku. The rest of us just kind of squirmed from the heat or stared down at our hands and feet.
One convict opened the meeting with: “Welcome to Thumb Correctional Facility’s Saturday night ‘Thumb’s Up’ A.A. meeting. I’m Miles Bey, and I’ll be your Chairperson for today. I’m going to start by reading the Preamble. Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their….”
Some disinterested malevolent force in me refused to listen. The Chairperson’s voice morphed into the same droning teacher’s monotone that Charlie Brown had been forced to endure in the iconic cartoon: “Waa, waa, waa, waa.”
I kept wondering what the hell I was doing there in that odd-shaped, hospital-scented inferno, right up until introductions began, that is. Then something the old black guy said piqued my interest: “My name is Ernie, and I desire not to drink.”
What the hell did that mean, I wondered?
Please don’t misunderstand. I knew what his words meant in the literal sense, but everybody else in the circle of chairs had just stated their first name, then admitted they were an alcoholic. That’s certainly what I did when my turn came.
I began to pay more attention.
After that, another monotone voice read for a small grey book titled Daily Reflections. It basically offers you a snippet of advice designed to help keep you sober for that one single day of the year, which, at that time in my life, seemed really lame. Who wants to stay sober for only one day?
Finally, the Chairperson turned to the black old-timer and said: “Ernie, we’ve got a new person with us today.”
“Yep, I see him,” Ernie replied, eyes back on me. He then quickly, and with great precision, recited the history of A.A., how it had been started by a couple of fellows with a desire to stop drinking, who’d come up with the notion that talking to one another about their problems might help keep them sober. And it did. Dr. Bob and Bill W. stayed sober for the rest of their lives.
Ernie then spun me his tale. His first brush with alcohol had been way back in 1948. It had only been a sip, and he’d been standing in a humid Louisiana cotton field, with the scorching summer sun beating down on his ebony skin. His uncle had offered him some white lightning, promising (with a lopsided grin) how the clear liquid sloshing around inside the Mason jar he held would help quench Ernie’s thirst.
It seared Ernie’s throat and belly, instantly turning him green. Because of that, Ernie vowed to never drink alcohol again. Of course, his vow didn’t last. Back in those days everyone in the rural south drank. Ernie grew a little and began to experiment. By the age of 20, he’d blossomed into a steady drinker. By the age of 30, he’d migrated north to Michigan where he’d found work in the auto industry and slowly grew into a full-blown alcoholic. By the age of 50, he’d thrown in the towel and sought out his first A.A. meeting, which was held in the back room of a bar by a bunch of old white dudes whom Ernie jokingly suspected might have been Klan members.
I found Ernie’s story enthralling. I couldn’t help but listen. He was one of the best story tellers I’d ever heard.
At first, I’d wrongly perceived that there was nothing this 70-year-old black man and I could have in common. But that opinion quickly changed as I sat there in the sweltering heat listening to him. Ernie and I shared many of the same problems, regardless of our age or skin color. He’d started drinking at a young age, mostly pilfering sips from his older relatives’ glasses and bottles, and I too had launched my drinking career at a young age by stealing sips from my grandfather’s beer when he wasn’t looking–or at least pretending not to look. To this day I can still recall the fizzy, bitter taste I found so repulsive yet inviting.
(To be continued in Part 2)