"My Accidental AA Meeting"
An Excerpt from
Anna Lisa McClelland
I knew when Eddie’s—my local homeless man’s—birthday was, and he didn’t even know my name. He had announced to me last year, “My birthday comes up April 15th, tax day.” As if he paid taxes. I hadn’t paid my taxes yet but I searched everywhere for Eddie on April 15th. Birthdays mean a lot to me.
I went by Eddie’s regular hangout outside a hair salon on West 4th and Perry Street, then I went to his favorite local deli. I did remind myself of my taxes I still needed to file, but then I realized I hadn’t bought Eddie a birthday present. I picked out the biggest chocolate bar I could find, the Lindt 85% cocoa that gets you high for three days—I love chocolate; I like Lindt chocolate, and Godiva and Cadbury’s milk chocolate with hazelnut. Anyway, Nabil, who works at the deli, said he thought Eddie was at an AA meeting across the street. I walked into it and began to realize that getting Eddie high even on chocolate was probably not appropriate.
The AA meeting place was dimly lit. There was a podium in the middle of the room, and lots of plastic chairs stacked one against the other. It looked almost like a courtroom, except there was no jury-box for a jury. Eddie was across the room next to a guy with a T-shirt on that said GOD HAS BEEN ANONYMOUS. I didn’t want to interrupt the meeting; everyone was sitting, so I sat. I started listening to the “shares” and although I don’t drink much, ever, I really related to them.
A woman with bright-orange hair that looked like it had just been spray-painted shared, “Hi, I’m Lynn. I’m really not a morning person.”
I related to that.
“So last night I ended up sitting on the counter of some guy’s bathroom brushing my teeth with Quino-something. I think that’s zit cream. The worst thing is I got all the way through brushing my tongue before I realized it wasn’t toothpaste. Worse than that, I vaguely remember that I may have done this all before. Not like it’s hocus-pocus déjà vu—no, I think I’ve really previously brushed my teeth with zit cream.”
She sat at the podium and pounded the wooden gavel for effect. “Insanity is when you keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.”
I related to that.
Lynn said, “Day one again,” and stepped away from the podium.
The whole room leaned in and said phrases like “One day is a lot.” A few people applauded. As she was finishing, Lynn had pointed to a young woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt who came up and sat at the podium—looking at her, she could have been anyone. “Keep coming back, Lynn,” she said. “Hi, I’m Shirley. I’m an alcoholic.”
Everyone, except the guy behind me snoring, said, “Hi Shirley.”
Shirley said, “I am not trying to cross-talk, but I just want to say, Lynn, that I am really impressed with your day. A day is something to celebrate. Really. I would bake you a cake or write you a sonnet, but I am trying not to do that. My husband who left me for another woman said I am too nice. He’s right. I apologized to him when I found out he was cheating on me. The other day I made an “amends” to someone I don’t even know—I went up to my dry-cleaning guy and said, ‘Hey if I’ve ever come in here in a bad mood, I apologize.’ Let go, let God!”
Well—I’ve done that myself! I now even preface dates by saying to the guy that I’m probably gonna have some resentments down the line.
“I think God stands for Global Operations Director,” Shirley continued. “I want to ask him for a job! The only problem is he knows I’m a terrible employee. You can’t fake it with God. I want God to see me sober when he greets me in heaven. I want him to say, how many fingers do I have, and I want to be able to answer him right. Sometimes I just feel like a tiny bug on a huge rock.”
“Shirley, you’re not a bug on a rock, you are an alcoholic,” a six-foot-tall red-cheeked guy shouted, with a voice that could probably knock you out just by reciting the alphabet.
“You are right, I’m sorry,” Shirley said, leaving the podium.
The red-cheeker took the podium and said, “Hi, I’m Christopher, I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi Christopher,” everyone, including me, responded.
“My boss calls me Chris. I want to attach a bomb to his head and watch the explosion.”
“Don’t do that,” I said out loud, when I’d only meant to think it.
“I was an asshole before I joined AA. I used to swear at babies in strollers. The 12 Formidable Steps say the welfare of others comes first. My sponsor says it means that the welfare of the community comes first—and of our nation, of our world. Sometimes I want a drink so bad, then I think to myself, nope, someone needs that Hurricane Malt Liquor much more than me. The welfare of New York City comes first. Progress, not perfection! I know I’ll be a hero the day I help a lady carry her stroller up the stairs instead of imagining kicking her baby carriage. That’s it.”
I didn’t relate so much to his resentment of small children, but I didn’t want him to think I was judging him, so I decided to share. “Hi, I’m Anna. Keep coming back, Chris!”
“Don’t fucking call me Chris!” He punched the air so hard with his consonants that he woke up the guy snoring behind me.
I didn’t feel comfortable going to the podium so I shared right there in my seat. “Sorry! Ah, yeah. I—I’m Anna—I have all these relationships with unavailable people. Like Igor, who broke up with me. Yeah. We only dated three weeks but it was one of the most meaningful relationships of my life! I started liking him when he told me had suffered from back spasms at exam time in college. He said I wasn’t Jewish enough for him, which bummed me out since my mother was Jewish before she converted to Catholicism. Then he told me he could never fall in love with me, and then—right then, as he finished saying that—I fell in love with him. In the two weeks we dated, I burned him a mix of favorite hits from the 70s, knit him a hoodie, and made him a home-video of all the places we had been together. There were, sadly, only three places, because it was essentially only three dates. Even our favorite song was ‘It Ain’t Me Babe.’”
The guy who had been asleep behind me said, “There’s a country song called ‘Thinkin Problem’—we’re here to talk about drinking problems!”
Another person shouted, “No cross-talking.”
I tried to think of something that related to alcohol. I finally blurted out, “I hardly ever drink, but Igor, he drank occasionally. Not so much, but he certainly liked drinking, whatever, more than he liked me....”
At the end of the meeting, the girl next to me asked, “Are you the ‘friend’ you are so worried about?”
“No, I’m really worried about my ex.”
“Would you like me to be your sponsor, Anna?”
I didn’t know what that meant, so I said, “Sure.”
“Are you counting days, Anna?”
I didn’t know what that meant. I finally blurted out, “Yes?”
“How many days?”
“I don’t know. One?”
“Day one is the hardest!”
Her name was Lindsay and she gave me her phone number, written in a kind of Girl-Scout-meets-high-school handwriting. I thanked her, but I knew that I’d never be able, in good conscience, to call her. Finally I got over to Eddie to give him his birthday present. His face was raw and worn, but he was wearing a really nice Karl Lagerfeld coat which I knew one of my neighbors had given him. “It’s my birthday, Anna.” He now knew my name—the whole AA meeting did.
“I know. Happy Birthday, Eddie!” I gave him the chocolate bar.
“Oh, I can’t eat that. I’m diabetic!”
He then asked if I had money. I told him I did not because I’d just put it in the meeting donation basket. I took the chocolate bar and left, and ate about half of it on the way home. Then I started wondering, was that compulsive behavior, me eating the chocolate bar, like an alcoholic might drink? I put the half chocolate bar by a trashcan so that another homeless man could eat it if he so wished. I then resented that—I worked hard for my chocolate! I went back to the trashcan to get the chocolate bar but there was a homeless man I didn’t even know eating it. “Can I have some of that chocolate?” I asked him.
“Ma’am, you don’t look like you need to eat from the garbage.”
“I don’t. But that’s my chocolate bar and I want it back.”
“Finders, keepers, losers, winkers.”
“The phrase is ‘weepers’.”
“Well, who’s crying now?”
It was true. I was almost in tears. I was debating whether it was worth fist-fighting a homeless man for half of a half-eaten chocolate bar, when I ran into Lucy the pug and her owner, Cedric. “Hello, Lucy!” I greeted her. Cedric lived in one of the townhouses on West 4th Street. He never seemed to work, he just walked around with two pugs while pushing his little boy in a stroller. “What happened to the other pug, Kung?
“We gave Kung away. He and my wife didn’t get along. Kung peed on her iPod. So it was either the dog goes or my wife, and I wasn’t gonna give up my wife.”
Lucy had grown up with Kung her whole life, so Lucy was probably missing her mate, just like me. Though I am not really sure that Igor was really my mate. Like I said, we had actually only dated fifteen days, and four of those days we didn’t speak. It had been over six months since our breakup but I was admittedly still devastated. But I surely couldn’t compare my plight to poor Lucy, who drank water from the same bowl as Kung every day of her life.
We all passed the playground across from Magnolia Bakery where some children were being pushed on the swings and others were playing in the sand with their nannies. Their world was a loving world—for now, anyway. Cedric pulled his own kid out of the stroller and said to me, “Now I think we’ve got to get rid of Lucy. Our child likes to knock Lucy off the top of the couch. So one day Lucy, in revenge, shits on the kitchen table and later on the kid’s bed. It’s either Lucy or the kid, and we aren’t giving up the kid.”
Suddenly I blurted out, “I’ll adopt Lucy. I love her!”
The word “love” was admittedly over the top. I didn’t really know Lucy that well. Lucy was a fawn pug with a beautiful, kind face and tiger-like markings on her forehead. I did kind of love her in that way that you can love a guy before the first date. I’d always wanted a dog. In my youth I had written in my diary:
Then a few days later when I went to write another entry I noticed the word SAD written in my brother Liam’s handwriting.
I was going to adopt Lucy. I was going to live the Monumental 12 Steps like my AA friends! Lucy might not be a person, but her welfare belonged to the welfare of our community! I was going to save Lucy from a life where she might die of TV boredom and iPod oblivion—if not from the fall off the top of the couch.
I’d always said I needed either a dog or a boyfriend, but I thought I’d been kidding whenever I said it. Now I had a vision then of Lucy and me running over a hedge at Tompkins Square Park. We’d visit Italy and its vineyards, Amsterdam and its mist-filled canals, and eat pain au chocolat at the top of the Eiffel Tower! I imagined there’d be AA meetings everywhere in my honor: Teetotalers can live the 12 Colossal Traditions too!
Then it occurred to me—my current gig as a copywriter could barely pay my rent. It wasn’t going to pay for a dog. I hadn’t paid my rent on time once since I’d lived in my two-bedroom share on Perry Street. But I had been given the good faith of my landlord, who was happy to own an apartment in Manhattan. He was a Staten Island plumber who had saved his poker winnings and twenty dollars from his paycheck every week. In the 1970’s he had partnered with three other plumbers and bought an apartment in Manhattan. The place hadn’t been renovated since it had been bought in the 70’s—except for the plumbing—and the cabinets in the kitchen were held up by duct tape. But I liked the place, and I liked my landlord. He had “bet” on me. He “lent” me the room, wagering on the hope that I would pay my rent-bill eventually.
Yes, I lived on Perry Street, one of the great streets of the West Village, tree-lined and empty most days, except for the people who didn’t have to work, and a few well-dressed homeless people. At least that had been the case until Sarah Jessica Parker decided to use the front of one of the townhouses on Perry Street as Carrie’s house in Sex and the City. I now lived on the Sex and the City tour-map. There were tour-buses that stopped by daily carrying girlies from the Midwest. Nothing creates more resentment for New Yorkers than tourists hanging out in front of their homes. And since I had lived in New York for five years, I was, technically, a New Yorker. Plus, I lived in what was obviously one of the most romantic parts of the city, even though I had been perpetually single (except for my two-and-not-a-half weeks with Igor) the whole time I had lived in Manhattan.
If I was going to save Lucy from townhouse family-living, I’d have to get another job. I loved helping people who I didn’t know—why not get paid for it? I decided to be a personal assistant. I interviewed with a woman who owned an entire wing of a building in Sutton Place. One of her domestics answered the door in a white uniform and directed me to the back office, without saying a word of greeting. I met with Mrs.Thorton, who was seated at a desk in the dining area of her home. She wore black heels, a black suit and even a black hat, like she was either going to a funeral or to the horse-races. She had a formal list of questions which she asked me, starting with “Do you have good handwriting?”
“I think so.”
“Please write the following sentence in your best cursive writing. ‘Thank you so much for your note with regards to getting the girls together. Perhaps Lydia might be available....’” She inspected the results. “Is that your best handwriting, Ashley?”
“My name is Anna. And I am sure I can do better. I haven’t used cursive since 5th grade! Who uses cursive anymore?”
“I do.” And she continued the dictation. “‘Perhaps Lydia might be available for a play-date on December 3rd, at 3 p.m.?’ Also, Angie, some of the work which I do at home, even though I consider this a home office, has to do with the children.”
“My name is Anna.”
“Right. They, the children I am speaking of, are, including the staff, under 20% of my household. Aside from my husband, the rest are on the payroll.”
Suddenly, a six-year-old boy ran into the room as if on cue, wearing a black blazer and matching trousers. “One moment, please,” Mrs. Thorton said in her almost-British accent, and rang a bell. A nanny in a white suit came in. Mrs. Thorton pointed at the child, and the nanny picked up the little boy and took him from the room. I was realizing that yes, I liked helping some people, but not people who already had too much help. Mrs. Thorton said, “You see why I need a personal assistant. Now I might have been on a conference call with the President of the Colony Club. That would have been a predicament. How would you have handled that situation, Angela?”
“My name is Anna. What is your child’s name?”
“Master Jeremy Richard Thorton.”
“Does he have a nickname?”
“His brother calls him Ducks.”
“I would have asked, ‘Dickie, would you like a lollipop?’ And I would have taken him to the kitchen to get one.”
“That’s too many words, and my son does not eat sugar.”
“A little sugar can be delicious.” I started to crave the half-eaten chocolate bar I never got back. Then little Sir Ducks came running back in. Mrs. Thorton rang a bell and a different woman, but also in a white uniform, came in, picked up the child, and took him from the room—he kicked and screamed all the way out.
“OK, thank you. I will have someone call you if we need any more information,” Mrs. Thorton said. Then she rang the bell and yet another woman in white led me out.
My second interview was in a loft in SoHo. The guy was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with cartoon fish on it. I was relieved; he seemed like a regular guy. He said, “I’m Stuart. Call me S. My sister got your resume online and she really liked it. She thinks you are pretty neat. Maybe overqualified, considering your Masters degree, but maybe a good catch.”
“Cool. So what are you needing the most help with?”
“I like that you just said ‘cool’. To be honest, I am a low-maintenance guy. I didn’t really want an assistant, but my sister thinks I should get one. My mom told my sister to mind her own business, but since my mom has never minded her own business, why should my sister. Right?”
“So what would the work entail?”
“Well, really I have it down to a list of three items—walk into my apartment every day and if things are out of order, put them back into order.”
“That seems easy enough.”
“I like that you said ‘easy’. I like to think of myself as full of ease. Ease is actually the opposite of dis-ease. My ex-wife dissed me or dis-eased me. Yep, she really made me feel bad about myself. I now keep the word ‘ease’ on my refrigerator.”
I looked over and there was indeed a note posted on the refrigerator in bad handwriting. “I AM EASY LIKE THE BREEZY.”
“Number two, the fish-tank needs cleaning. Make sure that tank is beautiful. These fish need ease.”
The water in the fish-tank looked worse than the Hudson River in the middle of the summer. In fact, it seemed to have some things floating in it. “I think there might be a dead fish in there,” I said.
“Exactly, manage it. Third, I met a woman at this bar. Her name was Roche. We had a really great connection and she gave me her number and I lost it. You can imagine my devastation. I lose a wife and then I lose the phone number of a woman in a bar. Roche, God I love that name! Roche works for ABC-TV, and I need you to find her for me.”
“OK, that seems reasonable enough.”
“I am going to give you as much data on this as I can because I think we should scientifically be able to find her. There are no limits to how much time you can put into this. Now what I know is that she lives somewhere in New York, probably Manhattan. She recently moved here from California, somewhere near Los Angeles. She could work for ABC News or any of their television shows sponsored or run by ABC. She was sporty so maybe she works in sports.”
“I’m jotting all this down. So what was her full name? It should be easy enough to find her in their directory.”
“That’s the problem, A. Can I call you A?”
“I prefer you call me by my name, Anna.”
“OK, that’s too bad. I like the name A. Her name is Roche—I am pretty sure that is not her full name. Now it could be a part of her first name, it could be a part of her last name. If she used an abbreviated name as her full name—hot! So you are going to really have to use your mind to get this one done. This is why I picked you out of 131 possible resumes. You are going to utilize that Masters degree and get on that phone to every television executive at ABC, and find her. Make it happen!”
“All right, I’ll do what I can.”
“And make sure that fish bowl gets moved around, revamped, get some new plastic trees in there. Don’t be stingy. Make it a nice home for those fish. I don’t feel easy about the current situ-eezy.”
“You know, I think my sister was right. I think what I really needed was someone to put the care with a capital C back into my world, and I mean that in an efficient, mean-machine, business kind of way.”
“Easy does it.”
“I like that phrase! Where did you get that?”
“I probably heard it in an AA meeting.”
“Oh, you’re an alcoholic?”
“Ah, no. I recently went to a meeting to give my homeless man a gift.”
“Cool. Well, I don’t keep much booze around anyway.”
I started working for S that afternoon, using every search-engine I could find to get me to a Roche at ABC. I contacted every New York-based television, sports, and news show on the network. This went on for three weeks, and I even also cleaned the fish-tank. While I reached my hands into the tank of still water to “catch” the dead fish, his cleaning lady made fun of me. “You clean fish bowl! Funny! I tell boss I don’t clean bowl. He who own fish must clean fish!” It was at that moment that I promised myself I would put down on my next resume, “Does not clean fish-tanks”. Not only did I find a dead fish in the tank, but I found a breakup note from his ex-wife hiding in the treasure chest in the bottom, in a little plastic baggy. It said, “I don’t clean fish tanks. Your ex-wife, R.” The cleaning lady told me her full name was actually Ra. Supposedly, her parents couldn’t decide what to name her—they were debating between the names Rainbow and Rain. So as not to have anyone lose the fight, they named her Ra.
I did the general looking-for-Roche thing that S had recommended. He had said to call ABC and say I was looking for Roche, that maybe everyone there knows her by that name. I cheerily said to the ABC operator, “Hi, I am looking for a R-o-c-h-e.”
“What’s her last name?” the woman responded.
“I don’t know. But she calls herself Roche.”
“Do you realize that in this office alone there are more than 5000 employees, and that’s just one office in Manhattan. Then there are the individual shows. Please stop calling here.”
So I started calling back with a British, French, and even a very bad Russian accent. One operator eventually said, “Match.com might be a good bet for you. No one by Roche here.”
I sent my daily updates to S. One of his responses was, “I don’t care if the fishes die, find me Roche!”
I called back in my own accent. “I am looking for ‘Roche’, but perhaps that’s not actually her first name. It could be a part of her name? Can you check your database and see if anyone has a name with Roche somewhere in it?”
I think this one operator felt sorry for me. She was kind enough to give me all the information she could possibly find from a database search engine which was the name of a Roch Yanksey, a man who worked for ABC in Hong Kong. So after a month of calling ABC and having the operators recognize my voice, I let S know that he had a Mission Impossible on his hands.
“Anna, I didn’t hire you to tell me that something is impossible. I hired you to make things easy. If you need to stand outside of ABC and ask each person there if they are Roche or know a Roche, that’s what you are going to be doing.”
So the following week I went to ABC, and after the security woman asked me why I had been in the lobby since 8 a.m. for three days straight, I confided in her. “I work for a guy who met a girl named Roche in a bar, and he lost her number, and supposedly she works here.”
“Are you that ‘guy’ looking for the girl?”
“Um, no! It is my job to find her.”
“Honey, I am hoping that you went to some cowgirl bar and had a great drink with a girl named Roche. I am sure you liked her very much. But don’t be a stalker.”
“This is actually my job to find this woman for a man. I am his personal assistant.”
“Honey, that is the worst job I’ve ever heard of. That’s worse than frying chicken for a living at a place called Tucky-Fried Chicks. It’s like Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they’re cheaper. You get no breaks, and you gotta wear skirts up to your ass. But you don’t gotta wear plastic gloves or shower caps when you cook. No one should have to wear shower caps outside the shower!”
That comment was coming from a security guard wearing a uniform that looked like thermal underwear, in a seventy-degree-temperature room. So, that was my last day working for S. The retired Tucky-Fried Chicks employee was right. I wasn’t following my personal goal of helping people, though I did clean a fish-tank and gave a few unnamed fish a better chance of living. I quit by leaving S a note in a small toy boat in his fish tank. “Sorry, I couldn’t find ROCHE. Maybe look for a girl with a full name next time? Signed, A.”
After that, I went back to ghost-writing articles that were published in small magazines read in second- and third-world countries, where English was not the first language. Clearly the money wasn’t pouring in, but I only sometimes filled my days pondering my own ex who I had dated those three dates—yes, I still occasionally thought of Igor (whose name I had actually never really liked) and sometimes I even went and sat at the bar of Bar and Books on Hudson Street, since that was where we’d had our first date. But I never stalked him—I am not courageous enough to be a stalker, except I did e-mail Igor occasionally and consistently, with suggestions of great movies to see. When Igor let me know that he had no interest in pursuing a friendship or even an e-mail correspondence, I finally accepted that. Besides, I had already traced our footsteps to all of the (two) other places we’d gone to together.
In any case, I was starting my life anew—because Lucy, the pug, needed me. Except I still had to find a better job if I was going to officially adopt her. So I made a list of everyone in my world who might show me a way that I could really be of help to someone—and also get paid for helping.
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