Nine years ago this week, my fourth-and-soon-to-be-ex wife picked me up from Creative Care, the Malibu dual-diagnosis rehab that had been my home for the previous 35 days. I had resigned my teaching job. I was facing a jail sentence after a felony drunk-driving arrest. I had gone months without seeing my children. I was a disgrace, a punch line, a scandal to my family and my now-former colleagues.
Nine years ago this week, Eira deposited the man who had betrayed her in a sober-living house in Culver City. Sober livings always have names charged with hope; I’d stayed at places like “Starting Over” and “Phoenix House” before.
This sober living was called “New Start,” and in a little room on the second floor, I had a twin bed, a trunk, half a closet and a 62-year-old recovering crackhead lawyer named Stan as my roommate. Stan had an equally decrepit terrier named Chuchi as his companion.
I cried as Eira helped me unpack what little I had. I cried when she took me to the bicycle shop to buy me an old beach cruiser to get around. My license had been suspended, and I had no car even if I could legally drive. I cried when she told me that she was doing this because she needed the man who’d broken her heart to live for his children.
After Eira left, I sat on my tiny bed and stroked the blind and stinky gray dog who improbably carried my son’s nickname. I’d surrendered my smart phone when I entered rehab. Eira had procured me an ancient flip phone with which I could be trusted. I used it to call mama.
Mama knew I didn’t want hope. She recited poetry — Frost and Glück, I think — and told me about the neighbor’s endless construction project. She let me cry for a while.
I put away the phone. I was temporarily cried out. Stan sat on his bed and regarded me tenderly. “Chooch and I are going to the smoke shop. Can we buy you a cigar?”
We went, and as the sun went down, we sat in the backyard of New Start by the fire pit; Dean Martin on Stan’s boom box; the lights of the jets coming into LAX twinkling above us; me coughing my way through a cheap Rocky Patel.
Stan was a lawyer before he was disbarred, he told me. He was an English major at UCLA long before that. “Life’s a five-act drama,” he offered, puffing rings into the firelight.
“It’s a very strange fourth act,” I sighed.
“And overly long,” Stan observed. Chuchi, curled in Stan’s lap, farted loudly in his sleep.
I would stay at New Start three months. Chuchi died the week I moved out; Stan relapsed a few months later. Mutual acquaintances tell me he died a few years ago, but that he was sober at the end. His memory is a blessing.
On Monday of this week, exactly nine years after I first met Stan and Chuchi, I gave notice at Trader Joe’s. After just over five years at the store, I am leaving the grocery business to be a full-time ghostwriter. I currently have two books under contract, and a third deal to be signed very soon. None are under my own name; only a single sentence in the acknowledgements will even hint at my role. I cannot reveal anything about these books or those who have commissioned them; I who was once infamous for indiscretion must now be a tight-lipped servant of non-disclosure agreements.
What I can share is that these three books will pay enough for me to become a full-time writer for the first time in my life. I have no guarantee that there will be more books after these tasks are completed — but I also trust that if I do a good job, the same word-of-mouth that landed me these contracts will lead to more work. (And if you have someone you know who is interested in telling a story, please do give them my name. Though I have quite a workload at the moment, there is room for more!)
It is a rare blessing to be able to make a real living as a writer; many far more talented than I continue to labor in grocery stores and offices and bars, polishing their manuscripts at odd hours at kitchen tables and in the corner at Starbucks. It is a blessing, and it is also appropriate, if not downright penitential, that I, who spent so many years pouring overshares onto the web, now make my living telling other people’s stories. Write what you know, they say, but when you have a traumatic brain injury, a compulsive need for attention, and a colorful history of poor decisions, writing what you know means embarrassing and hurting the people who love you best. Ghostwriting pays the bills, satisfies the creative urge, and tempers the ego. It’s a “three-fer,” and a blessed one.
I fell, and fell publicly. My sins are not forgotten, as Wikipedia and Google will tell you. In my early years after my fall from grace, I dreamed regularly of sudden restoration, of a best-selling salacious memoir that would bring me riches, recognition, and absolution. That was always going to be a pipe dream. In the age of #metoo, the idea of a return to the classroom was and remains absurd. What mattered was finding a way forward, not back. For years, forward meant stocking shelves and bagging frozen peas. Forward meant delivering laundry late at night in Hollywood, and selling my plasma in Bellflower. The latter two gigs broke my body, but I kept at them both. I remembered what Eira had told me that day in December 2013, when she drove me from rehab to the sober living. “You need to live for the children. They need their father.”
I decided suicide was the privilege of the childless man. (I say that without directing aspersions towards those fathers who find it impossible to stay. I am willing to attribute my staying to luck and grace as much as courage or conviction. ) I did have relapses along the way, and 2013 did not see the end of all my bad decisions, but I stayed. I hustled. I sweat. And I wrote, or tried to. Eventually, friends who knew my story trusted me enough to introduce me to clients — and in recent months, those introductions have led to extraordinary opportunities.
My fifth — and final— wife Victoria and I moved into a larger apartment this week; the children will now have their own room when they come to stay. I have written a very large check to their mother, a partial payback for years of insufficient child support. These things feel good, and I am grateful, and I know well that these good feelings are contingent, as they say in AA, on maintaining my spiritual and emotional condition. I know that I can be tempted by recognition and praise, and I know that if I am not careful, another fall is only a single incomprehensible decision away.
I told the story of Stan and Chuchi to a friend recently, mentioning Stan’s observation that life was a five-act play. I wondered if I was still in the fourth act. My friend pointed out that Shakespeare wrote more than one play, and certain characters (like Falstaff) appear again and again. Shakespeare had part ones and part twos, and one might permit oneself to believe that one has begun an entirely new play, even if the “New Start” relies heavily on an understanding of what came before.
If I have learned one thing in my 55 years that I can pass on to my children, it is that there is always a Next Right Thing to Do. The Next Right Thing can come, as it has often in my case, after 37 Wrong Things in a row. Even if one is in the psych ward or in jail, or faced with a justly enraged spouse or colleague, there is a Next Right Thing. Where I am now is partly the consequence of luck, partly the consequence of the tremendous kindness of others, and partly the consequence of deciding that all the Wrong Things that came before did not mean that a Right Thing couldn’t be next.
There is always, always, always a way forward, even if there are no roads back. There is no Restoration, but there is always room for Redemption.
I leave Trader Joe’s with gratitude, with hope, and with the keen awareness that I am watched and sustained by a cloud of witnesses, living and dead. Among the latter are my father and my ancestors, but also Stan and countless fellow addicts and ne-er-do-wells who never got the chances I have been given. In their name, and in the name of my children, I stay, I give thanks, and, apparently, I write.
Many congrats, Hugo. Glad for you.
I am virtually standing and cheering this post! Such wonderful and welcome news, and, as always, a beautifully expressed testimony to the process and the pain, and the joy! Hurrah, Hugo!! I will continue to cheer you on in your *new* position. And to enjoy your writing.