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Sunday Journal

The year of moving dangerously

By ALISON IGLEHART
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

I had moved into the two-story pink stucco house on East Park Avenue mainly because of the rent: $375 a month, including utilities. In 1981 that had been a steep price for me, but I liked the mobility of no deposits and no lease, and the place had amenities.

The four or five apartments the house had been divided into each consisted of at least two rooms. Mine included a small living room that opened into a huge solarium/bathroom. The room was octagonal, and the skylight in the center dome picked up the blues and greens of frescoed walls and thick aqua carpet. The step-down shower and the counter with two sinks and a row of globe lights above them made me feel like a movie star. Not many other things did that year.

When I had first looked at the place, the landlord mistakenly opened the front door on the previous renter: a brunette about my age, early 30s, drinking one of the biggest glasses of iced tea I'd seen. She said she liked the apartment because she could walk to work at a lawyer's office up the street. But she was moving on. Thinking back on it, those observations should have been enough to clue me in that we had a lot more in common than our address.

I had been on the move, too, that year. My ex-roommate, a sorority sister who owned a small brick house off East Park Avenue, had put me up and put up with me for six months, but then she told me that she was afraid I was going to burn the house down with my smoking in my room with the door closed all the time.

I kept a lot of bottles of booze in that room, so I was pretty much independent as far as companionship went, and if she had invited me to stay with her for company, she must have been disappointed. Then one day she handed me the classified section of the newspaper and showed me a couple of apartment possibilities she had circled. Sick as I was of seeing her pizza cartons and feminine napkins spilling out of the waste cans, I felt rejected at being sent away.

But I took her advice and quickly rented one of her suggestions, an apartment on the second floor of a house nearby. The only way you could get to the front door was by crossing a vacant lot. That didn't bother me.

The other tenants of the house always smiled and waved when they saw me, and it was some days before I found out they were all deaf clients of a halfway/therapy house up the street. One night I awoke to the rawest, most bone-chilling, eeriest cries I had ever heard, and I realized that deaf people aren't dumb and they do make sounds. But the sounds are of frustration and rage. The cries alone wouldn't have been enough to make me move, but when I got a rebate check from my car insurance company, I checked around and found East Park Avenue.

I'd gotten a DUI the past summer, and the only driving I could do was to and from work at a typesetting company a mile or so away, or to Sunland, an institution at which I'd chosen to do my community service hours. I had had it in my mind that if I worked with the retarded, the disfigured, that if I had children myself, God would spare them from the birth defects of those poor souls. I would have paid my dues.

So I helped them get dressed and brush their teeth, and I wheeled my favorite patients one at a time down the green, echoing halls to the elevators, and down and out into the fresh air, and we bumped around the perimeter of the asphalt parking lot until it was time for me to go home.

I was pretty comfortable at first in that two-room apartment, as comfortable as any I had been in. I had a little portable TV, and on it I watched Diana and Prince Charles get married in St. Paul's Cathedral. I watched golf on Sunday afternoons. I kept up with the news. I watched the beginnings of many shows. I would sit in the one chair, a modern black vinyl ergonomic affair with a separate ottoman for my legs, and smoke and drink until I passed out, although somehow by morning I had made it to my small single bed.

When I woke up, I would get a Miller Lite out of the small under-the-counter refrigerator and wash down a couple of Valium to stop the shaking in my hands. Then I was set for the morning.

A ramp went up to the front porch of the place; I ran up it when I came home from work quickly at noon to watch CNN, drink a couple of gin and tonics, and brush my teeth before I had to return to work for the afternoon.

One afternoon as soon as I got back to work, my boss asked me to take a test: read aloud a long passage out of a journal and then type it as quickly as I could on the old Mergenthaler Linotype machine that was our forerunner of the word processor. I was out of breath by the time I got through, but I knew I had passed because some things are second nature. Then he asked me if there was anything I wanted to tell him, anything at all that was on my mind that he should know. I told him I didn't know what he was talking about.

I often stopped by a liquor store on my way home from work in the afternoon, hoping I would have a case for driving without my license that way, and I'd buy a fifth of house-brand gin, some tonic water, a couple of bottles of Cella Lambrusco, Taylor Lake Country Pink, Andre Champagne, beer. I went to different stores on my way home so they wouldn't get suspicious. "Havin' a party?" the clerk would always ask, and I'd nod.

One evening I was driving home from across town on one of my jaunts, and I saw the former occupant of my room walking down the street carrying a paper bag. She was listing a little to one side, and her face was blotched and vacant. I started to slow to give her a lift, but then I decided that if it were I in that condition, I would prefer to be left alone, so I drove past.

Another evening when I was close to oblivion, there was a bang on the front door, and I opened it to find my landlord. He pushed in, looked up at the ceiling fan and told me not to use it, that the lady upstairs had let her bathtub overflow. "She has a drinking problem, is my guess," he said.

Just before Halloween, about the time I got my license back and finished my community service hours, I decided I had to do something. The house seemed to be getting the better of me. It was a house of spirits: Too many restless transients with different pasts but the same dismal future -- isolation, certain trouble with the law, early death -- hovered about my head.

I knew I was free to go. Mobility had taken me there, and the house was splendid, but I was going nowhere. The spirits confounded me from the moment I woke up until the moment I slipped off each night. There was no escaping them. I thought about trying AA again, but I knew I couldn't stay sober long enough to get to meetings every night. I needed to be locked up, guarded, away from the spirits.

I grabbed onto the only human hand I could find. At 6:15 Tuesday morning, I called my boss.

"Pete, this is Alison. I'm an alcoholic, and I need help."

"I know. Where are you going?"

"There's a good place in Lakeland I've heard about," I told him.

"I'll see if it's covered under our plan."

"I'm going anyway."

"All right. It's okay. You go."

"I have to go."

"It's okay. We all have habits we have to beat. You beat the drinking; I'll work on not biting my nails. Deal?"

"Deal."

-- Alison Iglehart is the coordinator of the Tallahassee Community College writing center.

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