Our landlord lives in an apartment situated between our house and the street. Since his apartment was originally the garage, we share a wall with him and his front door opens onto the same walkway as ours. We all live just a block away from the worst part of Santa Cruz. For months the neighborhood has been trying to drive away a drug dealer who hangs out on the corner, but the police haven't been able to catch him in the act.
Despite this, we almost never lock our doors - front or back. The opaque wooden fence keeps most passer-by from wandering in, and when the occasional salesman or traveler comes around, the landlord usually hears them through his open door and pounces on them. In fact, the role he plays is a lot like that of a guard dog. He knows all the neighbors, including the owners of any property being rented. When their parties get too loud he calls in a noise complaint, and when they park oversize trailers or RVs on our block, he threatens to have the vehicles towed off.
It's a different renting situation than I'm used to ... usually the landlord keeps as far away from his or her ramshackle tenement as possible, hiring managers to police it, repair it, and drive renters in and out like cattle. Perhaps owning rental property embarrasses them - like owning slaves embarrassed the more scrupulous plantation owners of the old South - but positive cash-flow for sitting on your ass is the American Dream, and any of us would leap to take their places.
Our landlord disposes with some of his income by going on vacations to South America for weeks at a time. A few months ago he returned from one of these trips with big plans to buy an apartment building down there and leave the country permanently. He's good enough at wheeling and dealing to pull it off, but it's a huge move, and he'll probably decide that it's too risky. In the meantime he arranged another vacation, to investigate the idea some more. He informed us that he'd be gone for a week, and asked us to feed Kitty while he was away.
The day after he left, I glanced out of the kitchen window and saw a scruffy looking man standing on the porch in our backyard, dragging on a cigarette and scrutinizing our garden. I was alarmed, since the only way for a stranger to get there is to walk up the driveway, around the fence, and along the length of the house. Before I could walk out to meet him, he flicked his cigarette onto a floorboard, ground it with the toe of his shoe, and stepped off the porch. Since he had to pass by the front door in order to get anywhere else, I strode over to the front door and flung it open. There he was, halfway across the front yard. He stopped and looked up at me.
Feeling tense and annoyed, I asked, "Who are you?"
"Oh, uh, hi," he mumbled, and walked over and offered me a limp handshake. "I'm Colleen's boyfriend."
Just then a woman showed up in the doorway of our landlord's apartment - our garage - and introduced herself as Colleen. I'd seen her around a few times before, when the landlord had hired her to cut the grass in the yard. (At the time, I got the impression he was finding some honorable way to help her make a little money.) Colleen declared that while the landlord was gone, she would be "watching his place for him". She and her boyfriend, that is.
"I see," I said. "Okay then." We made some small talk, and I shut the front door.
A while later I heard a knock at the door, and when I opened it, Colleen was there, wearing a pink bikini bathing suit. Some time in the past she must have been a very attractive young woman, but years of hard living had left unhealed bruises and meandering blue veins up and down her body. Her eyes were half-open and she was swaying slightly. It was the middle of the afternoon, and she was head-over-heels drunk.
She told me that she was speaking on behalf of her boyfriend, who apparently felt dishonored because I gave him such a nasty look when I met him in the front yard. I told her that I had reacted naturally to the presence of a stranger on our property, but now that I knew who he was, things were okay, and I wasn't angry at him at all.
Colleen restated her case as though she didn't believe me, then her speech became muttering and she trailed off. She looked down at herself, and appeared to realize that she was dressed strangely for the weather - which wasn't very hot - and shrugged her shoulders as though she'd forgotten why she was there. She turned around, stepped down from the stoop, and disappeared into the apartment. I closed the front door.
The week passed on - Colleen and her boyfriend stayed out of our way, and stayed out of the back yard. I occasionally met them as I was walking back from work. They used the supplies in the laundry room indiscriminately, which forced us to take ours inside the house. Their cigarette smoke drifted in the front windows, so we shut them.
Then, six days later at about midnight, I was sitting in the living room hacking when I heard a terrific shouting match erupt in the apartment. It was the landlord. He had come home from the trip, and boy was he angry. "GET OUT!" he was shouting. "Get your things and get out of here, right now!"
The shouting continued for several minutes. I considered calling the police in case things got ugly, but as soon as I had the thought, the landlord yelled that the police were already enroute. A few minutes later I heard a car starting, and a minute after that the landlord knocked on our door. I walked over and opened it.
"Have those guys been there this whole time?" he asked.
I sighed. "Damn it, I should have known they were there without permission. I should have contacted you. Yeah, they've been there for the whole week."
He was furious. "I'm gonna go find them. I'm gonna go kick their asses." He jumped down from the doorway and lunged into his apartment, then continued on down the walkway, clutching the keys to his truck in one fist. As I closed the front door, I heard the truck start, then roar down the block and turn the corner.
The next day I left the house to walk to work, and passed by the garbage can. It was overflowing with trash bags, stuffed full of empty bottles, pizza boxes, cigarettes, and litter. While I was at work, my housemates got the full story, which they repeated to me over dinner.
Colleen and her boyfriend had ransacked and trashed the apartment, gathering up about six hundred dollars in cash. They spent most of that money on booze, covering the tables, the floor, and even the bed, with empty bottles. The smell of all these bottles airing out was toxic, and combined with the flat sting of dozens of smoked cigarettes into a one-two punch capable of triggering an instant migraine headache. Over the course of the week they had mixed other things casually into the mess, including old food containers, soiled laundry, and prophylactics. Of course, they had no permission to be there.
When the landlord returned home, they were asleep in his bed. He shouted them awake, and while they all argued, Colleen and friend gathered their possessions and most of their clothes and ran outside in their underwear. They dove into the boyfriend's car and disappeared, leaving the landlord to clean up the mess. He went driving around downtown, too angry to stay at home, thinking that at least he could get the plate number of their car. He couldn't find them. Later on he called a detective, and discussed the odds of tracking them down.
"Well," we all thought. "That's the last we'll see of those two."
But apparently the landlord made peace with the girl, weeks later. She got back on speaking terms with him. Then something new happened, involving her and one of his friends. As I was sitting in my living room scanning papers, he stood outside his apartment door and called her on the phone, and I overheard the following:
"Don't call me any more. Don't come around my house. Your game doesn't work anymore. When you're drunk, you lie, and manipulate. ... Listen, girl. Nobody wants what you got. ... No, my friend doesn't want to talk to you either, you robbed his house. You charged a hotel room on his card."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, you were drunk at the time. ... 30 days? You haven't had 30 days in a year. If you were to check in to rehab, I'd be the first to call you, but instead you're hanging around with this loser, not doing anyone any good. You need to ditch that guy. ... Hey, you have a life in Felton, remember? You have a guy there who would take you in, and a nice house, and a nice dog. But you don't feel good about yourself, so you don't go."
"Oh, yeah. You're too cool, you're better than everyone else, you're don't need to play by the rules. Hey, so go ahead. Drink and die. ... Your mom's moving away, your sister's moving away, you're going to be all by yourself with that guy. ... Well you show up drunk and you make them uncomfortable! ... Instead of getting better you're getting worse. ... You might as well be dead. I'm done with this conversation, but I just thought you should know how I feel. If I was you, I'd get your ass back into rehab. You're gonna end up fucking killing yourself."
He walked back into his apartment.
For most of my life, I remained blissfully ignorant of just how hard life is for alcoholics - the drinking kind, and the non-drinking kind. Now it seems I have a front-row seat to the action. My landlord is the non-drinking kind, and he's part of a support group that tried to help Colleen. I carry a genetic predisposition for addictive behavior, but I've never been drunk in my life ... so I don't know how to relate to most of what I see. I can only rummage around in my brain for similar feelings.
There's a saying that goes, "The rich will do anything for the poor except get off their backs." That's how my living situation feels. I'm on good terms with the guard-dog landlord stationed out front, but if a month comes when I fail to pony up my share of the rent, my ass will be out on the curb a couple of days later. That's the bottom line.
I wonder if there should be a similar saying for alcoholics. "An alcoholic will do anything to be functional except stop drinking." I wonder how many of them spend their sober time - self-imposed or involuntary - eagerly counting the days before they can try to ease alcohol back into their lives, one drink at a time. "All I need to do," they reason, "is keep the habit small, so I can remain functional. This time," they lie to themselves, "It will work, because I'm strong. If it doesn't work, it's a relapse - but if it works, then I've conquered my habit. I can live, and drink, at the same time."
But it always becomes a relapse. You don't conquer a habit by learning to live with it. You conquer a habit by STOPPING. Colleen's apparent solution to this little logic error is to run away from anyone who knows it, and instead hang out with people who share her dream: Having a life that includes the pleasure of being drunk. As often as possible, come what may.
What can you do, what can anyone do, about a person who has decided - beyond rationality, inside their emotions - that the one thing they must have, more than anything else in life, more than any relationship, or thing, or accomplishment, ... is intoxication? What if being sober makes them angry, terrifying, and depressed, and they're deathly afraid of showing that weakness, because it makes them "unattractive", or makes them a burden to someone else? "We'd be happier if you stop drinking!" people declare, and they want to reply, "Yeah but if I was sober right now, I'd carve out your intestines with a butcher knife and throttle you with them. Then where would we be?"
Or maybe it's failure. Maybe they live each day saddled with a crushing feeling of inadequacy, that even their best efforts will fall short of some distant victory where all their repressed self-esteem magically awaits. And a quick blast of alcohol turns the pain from a 10 down to a 5.
Ultimately, I guess I just don't know what's inside their heads. How can I understand what it's like to live in desire of intoxication, when sober is all I've been my whole life? I sit and think, and try to puzzle out my role. How can I possibly help? I don't want to waste everyone's time being an "enabler". At the same time, I don't want to add emotional pressure. But I don't want to sit and do nothing.
What can I do?