So picture this: You just arrived in Denver last night, and here you are at, like, seven o'clock the next morning, sprawled back in your cargo pants and espadrilles, smoking some very cool brown cigarettes, drinking tequila out of the bottle, and listening to some upbeat tunes on the radio. So far, so good, right?
What's funny about it is that you're hunkered down in this great big walk-in closet with the door closed, because "The Heart of Denver Home for Christian Girls," where you've rented a room until you can find an apartment, forbids the sinful pleasures of which you are presently partaking.
The more I drink, the funnier it becomes.
But there's a dread thing happening in my stomach at the same time. I moved out here hoping to start a "new life" after 10 years in New York that had spiraled out of control there at the end -- and already I seem to be kind of screwing up.
Even so, I never would have predicted that by noon, I would be in jail.
I had left New York yesterday with pathetically naïve dreams of suddenly being aswirl in a healthier, more stable existence. I'd received an offer to be the editor of a new magazine in Denver, and I thought the change in locale and job description would provide a helpful template for "starting over." In retrospect, I can't imagine how I thought this magical transformation was going to happen. And my having reached for the tequila as my first order of business on my first morning in my new city didn't seem auspicious.
SOBRIETY -- WHAT A BORE
I was going to be having dinner that evening with the publisher of the magazine and his two chief investors, so I was going to have to get sobered up and cleaned up at some point. What a drag! Let's put that off as long as possible, please. At least there would be more booze to look forward to during our get-together at the Brown Palace hotel bar.
Don't you think it would be OK for me to give myself a couple of days to say farewell to my Lord and Savior, alcohol, and then I could do some sort of detox thing (carrot juice, coffee enemas, whatever) before starting my new job next Monday? Because right now, I really do need a little more time to get used to the idea.
For years, I had awakened absolutely devastated that it was morning again. "I can't do this!" I would say to myself.
But then I'd pour a little shot or two of something into my coffee, and pretty soon I was all dolled up and on my way to the office (with a little bottle in my purse).
HIGH AND MIGHTY
I was what is known as a "functional alcoholic." I did some very good work with some very great people.
But even though I now realized I was no longer functional, I couldn't stop, just like that. I needed a teensy goodbye phase, and then I would get myself ready to be the best darned editor in chief I could possibly be. So I was getting happy and pink-cheeked just thinking about getting myself sober in the very near future. Let's drink to that!
Back in New York, I had reached that point where booze was my poison as well as my medicine. I felt I had to quit my job at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I loved and admired those people so much, and I wasn't giving them their money's worth any longer. I wasn't focusing very well. By late every afternoon, I was a goner. I was having blackouts. I think my friends weren't finding me all that amusing anymore.
I wound up in a locked ward at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. I was furious and terrified. They had me on suicide watch, and they put two of the kindest black ladies on 12-hour shifts to watch my every move, even in the bathroom. I was very humiliated that these lovely women had to do such a boring job because of me, this privileged, stupid white girl. One of them sat by my bed all night, with a tiny reading light attached to her glasses, embroidering. Sometimes when she thought I was sleeping, she stroked my hair. My god, it touches me to this day to think about her. I said, "I'm so sorry, I wish you were home with your babies," and she said, "I don't mind, honey. You need some loving care, too."
The third night I was there, I sneaked into an empty office and called an old pal -- who just happened to be William F. Buckley's lawyer. He was at a party at the Rainbow Room, but his service paged him, and he called right back. I begged him to get me out of there. I said I swear to god I will tear this place apart and tear myself apart if I have to. I will have a screaming, bloody fit, Peter, please!
He came to the rescue, and within an hour I was back on the street, walking home with a bottle of whiskey to keep me company. I know you were ambivalent, Peter, about removing me from a treatment program that you probably felt I needed, but you understand why I cannot ever, ever be held against my will. You know my history.
CHRISTIAN GIRLISHNESS - REALLY NOT MY THING
When I had landed in Denver the previous night, the Eastern European cab driver -- a delicate, bearded gentleman who had taught philosophy in his native country -- insisted that I stay not at a cheap motel, as I'd planned, but rather at "The Heart of Denver Home for Christian Girls." This to me was totally depressing and totally hilarious at the same time. It sounded like a residence for unwed mothers. I expected that it would be very drab and have a sort of punitive, penitent aura to it.
"No, it is the perfect place for you until you find an apartment. It's a beautiful old mansion from the 1800s," he told me. "It's on the Historic Register. In the owner's will, he ordered that it be maintained as a residence for young ladies new to the city so that their chastity could be protected. A safe place at a good price and very elegant, with a chaperone. I will take you there -- it is where you belong."
All I could think was, "Well, at least it will be something to write about some day." That thought has gotten me through quite a few bizarre, disturbing and scary situations.
As he'd promised, it was a beautiful old mansion in an elegant, tree-shrouded neighborhood just outside of the city's center. I was greeted by the "house parents," Jeb and Marian Duggins, a couple from Texas. They appeared to be in their mid-60s and seemed like they might once have been ranchers. They were kindly, but they had that fire-and-brimstone edge to them that made me realize I'd better censor both my language and my opinions during what I hoped would be a very brief stay. They sat me down in the big dining room, which had a huge chandelier and a table that seated at least 12, and went through the list of strict house rules.
JESUS, ELVIS AND ME
The only prohibition that I was going to have to find a way to violate was the ban on smoking and drinking. I would be required to attend a 30-minute Bible study lecture each night before dinner, but I thought that might be pretty interesting, since I knew virtually nothing about the Bible. Tomorrow would be a particularly special lesson, they told me, because it was the anniversary of the day Elvis had been "Born Again." So it would be about the values and virtues shared by Jesus and Elvis. I told them I was already committed to a business dinner, and asked to be excused this one time, which they said they would allow.
A SMORGASBORD FOR THE BORED
They added that a big, all-you-can-eat breakfast and dinner were provided seven days a week. If you wanted anything in between, there was a "snack cupboard" and a big fruit bowl in the huge, sunny old kitchen.
I had lived alone since leaving home a decade ago, and the thought of living in a "household" with a bunch of other people made me very anxious, even if it was just for a few days.
"Unfortunately, we don't have a roommate for you," Mr. Duggins said. "Maybe we'll get somebody in there real soon, but for the time being, you're going to be all by your lonesome."
Thank god! It had never occurred to me that I would be sharing a bedroom. Actually, I wouldn't have done it. I would have gone back to Plan A: cheap motel.
A ROOM BEFITTING POLLYANNA
We walked up the grand, burnished wooden staircase to the third floor, where they showed me my room, which was one of the most adorable, storybook rooms I had ever seen. It had charming yellow-flowered wallpaper and white wood wainscoting. The beds had yellow-flowered quilts with lots of pillows, and there was a large bay window with a yellow-cushioned window seat. Massive trees and flower gardens were visible from this cozy spot.
The best part -- and this was my joy and my salvation -- was the closet. It was huge. I could quite easily have lived in there. The moment the Duggins said goodnight, it became my glorious den of sin: demon booze, dissolute smokes and carnal music.
The bedsheets smelled like Clorox and sunshine, just as if my own mama had washed them.
THAT GOOD OLD PERFUME OF SIZZLING PORK
The next morning, after my exquisite influx of tequila, I didn't want breakfast, but I did want coffee, even though it would undoubtedly entail meeting all those "Christian girls."
As I walked down the stairs, I could hear the sizzling. Not of Christian girls, but of ham, bacon and sausage.
There was much clattering of utensils and general commotion in the kitchen as eggs, pancakes, grits and hash browns were also prepared. The coffee smelled excellent. What was occurring was an heroic effort, it seemed to me, to give those girls the fortitude to stick to their moral principles while they were out there in the wicked world all day. I tried to pour myself some coffee without being noticed, but Mrs. Duggins literally grabbed me by the back of the neck and took me into the dining room to meet my fellow residents.
She insisted that I sit down beneath the chandelier and "visit with them" while I had my coffee. Maybe I was already so high on tequila that I was in a bit of a blackout mode, but the only thing I remember about the brief time I spent with them is that one particularly unhealthy-looking girl was describing how she had been raped by the devil twice in her sleep, and that when she woke up, "his seed was all over my thigh."
A BOOZY SHOPPING SPREE
There was just one thing I needed to do before tonight, besides getting drunker and then sobering up. I wanted to get a new sleeveless black blouse. The one I had was just past the point of looking fresh and crisp enough for a dinner meeting.
So, without showering or even putting on any makeup, I wrapped a scarf around my hair, put a straw hat on top of that, and headed into midtown, carrying my straw handbag with the tequila inside.
I went into The Denver department store (which was incorporated into the May chain about 10 years later) and began browsing through their rather middle-brow merchandise. It seemed that I was virtually the only customer on the floor, and I didn't see any employees either. When I'm on the road to being drunk, I like to wander around department stores just looking at things. It's all a nice blur, and it smells good, and I bebop a little bit to the music.
Pretty soon, I did what I always do in any shopping episode: I sent up my periscope in search of "CLEARANCE!" signs. It took me quite awhile, but I found just what I was looking for: a smartly tailored, very stylish sleeveless black blouse. It had been marked down twice, and now it was only seven dollars. But it had a stain on it, and -- penny pincher that I am -- I wanted to get it marked down even more, since I'd have to wash it before I could wear it.
I asked the girl at the cash register if she could take a couple of dollars off, and she agreed that it should be marked down further but said I'd have to ask Miss Withers, the department manager.
"She's around here somewhere," the girl said.
AN INNOCENT VICTIM OF RETAIL INCOMPETENCE
I roamed and roamed, and threw back another shot of tequila and roamed some more, but nobody knew where Miss Withers had gone. I was feeling kind of hot and upset, pissed, exasperated and claustrophobic. I believe I was even perspiring.
I had invested quite a bit of time in finding the blouse, and I really liked it. Obviously, I should have just bought it and left or not bought it and left. All the roaming around was making me feel disoriented. It wasn't my fault Miss Withers wasn't where she belonged! It wasn't my fault the blouse was stained!
So I just put the damn thing into my big purse and walked out the door.
Obviously, I didn't think about what I was doing. If I had intended to steal that blouse, I would have done so 40 minutes ago, when I decided I wanted it. If I were really a thief, I would have stolen something much nicer than a seven-dollar cotton blouse that needed to be washed, and I wouldn't have shoved it into my purse in the middle of a wide-open aisle in plain view.
JUST AN HONORABLE GIRL WHO GOT A LITTLE AGITATED
I wasn't a thief. I was arrogant, maybe. I was impatient and impulsive. I was most certainly drunk and stupid. But I wasn't a criminal!
That was not the opinion of two superbly trained female security people, each of whom firmly took me by an arm and led me back into the store, after quietly informing me that they had reason to believe I had just committed a crime. We had to walk the entire length of the store -- three young women, arm in arm like college chums ready to shop till they dropped -- until we reached the door that led into the basement. This was done in a way that spared me any embarrassment whatsoever -- there's no way anyone would have realized that I had been taken into custody. Perhaps their motive was to protect the store, in case I hadn't taken anything, but I am still grateful to them for doing their jobs so well.
IT WASN'T SEXUAL, AND IT DIDN'T HEAL ANYTHING
They took me to a security office, where a serious-faced black gentleman with a shaved head sat. He wore a uniform, and he didn't return my smile, although he nodded at me in a way that seemed designed to compensate for the fact that he wasn't supposed to smile at evil people. Believe it or not, the Marvin Gaye song "Sexual Healing" was playing on the radio, and I wondered how it might influence what was going to happen to me. That tune sure does turn me into jelly, so maybe it would soften him up as well.
I actually believed we would have a chat about how and why this little, totally minor lapse in judgment had occurred, and then he would give me a standard lecture -- pretending to be angry with me even though he really thought I was quite an interesting and appealing person -- maybe he'd ban me for life from the store, and I would be excused.
Dream on, Miss Tequila!
GET THIS IMPERTINENT HUSSY BEHIND BARS!
He called the Denver City Police Department and said he wanted me arrested. They said they'd be there in 15 minutes.
This was the first time since pre-adolescence that I had left home without bathing and putting on makeup. The last time I had a shower, I was in New York! With makeup, I can fool people into thinking I'm not bad-looking. Without it, I am truly homely. I look like a malnourished, inbred psychiatric refugee from some very brutal, spirit-killing country that doesn't even have any trees or butterflies or laser hair-removal salons.
So this is the day I pick to get arrested.
Come to think of it, I'm afraid I hadn't brushed my teeth, either. Better have a swish of tequila.
"What you got there?" the security officer asked.
"It's my medicine," I said. "It's tequila, but I really do need it for medicinal purposes."
He reached out his hand and said, "Now."
"Can't I just keep drinking until the police get here?" I asked.
He got up from behind his desk, walked over and yanked the bottle from my hands, and threw it in the trash.
ONE CALL -- THAT'S ALL
As you might imagine, things didn't get any better after that. I was booked and fingerprinted, and when they photographed me, they made me take off my hat and scarf.
"But I haven't washed my hair today -- can't I leave the scarf on?" I asked.
The answer was NO.
My bail was set at $60. I told them I had the money in my purse, if they would just give me access to it.
They wouldn't. They would give me one phone call.
The only person I knew in Denver was the man who had hired me to be editor of his magazine. If I didn't call him to bail me out, I could be in jail for days.
Luckily, this guy was an old friend of mine. I'd known him in college, and then he had lived in New York for awhile. But it was still going to be horribly demeaning.
The new magazine's office wasn't up and running yet, so I called him at home. No answer. I said, "Can I call him back later?" and they said, "Nope, that was your one phone call."
I DON'T WANT A LESSER CHARGE -- I WANT A GREATER ONE
Now I really, really needed a drink. Oh, that beautiful golden balm of tequila: How I love thee! Being arrested for shoplifting was about as embarrassing as it gets. I would have been way less humiliated if I'd been in there for armed robbery or homicide.
They took me to a big holding cell that had a toilet sitting right there, out in the open, and a bunch of metal bunks in two tiers. There was just one girl in there, sprawled out and sleeping. Metallic gold miniskirt, gold high heels, black halter top. She was really pretty, and she had gold glitter on her eyelids. It looked like she had some Asian in her, some black and something else, too, like Middle Eastern.
I sat down on one of the bunks, just totally hopeless. I had no options, except maybe I could start acting mentally ill and they'd have to take me somewhere else for evaluation.
A PATHETIC POUT MIGHT GET ME OUT
There were no bars around this cell. It was basically a big concrete room, but the door had a narrow rectangular opening that the guards could look through to keep tabs on us. I noticed that some black guy was looking in quite often and giving me the once-over. I thought maybe if I looked back at him in the right way, he'd do something to help me. I'd gotten a lot of "special treatment" in the past by taking advantage of men, and I didn't see any reason to stop now. So I did a thing -- I'm not sure what it was -- some vague combination of sultry, crestfallen and helpless, perhaps on the verge of tears, I don't remember. I was desperate, OK? I wanted his "coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress" instinct to kick in.
So when he looked in, I looked right back. I tried to convey volumes with my saintly face and yearning eyes. I was saying, "Please!"
I was saying, "PLEASE!"
I know this sounds creepy, but what else could I do?
He stopped coming by, so I guessed his shift must have ended and he'd gone home.
I lay down on one of the bunks and closed my eyes.
UH OH -- NOW WHAT?
A short time later, the door screeched open, and the black guard walked in. Only it wasn't a man after all. It was a tall, athletically built woman with a short Afro. I was very taken aback.
"Let's go," she said to me.
I sat up. "Where?" I asked.
"Let's go," she repeated roughly. "You're outta here."
I didn't get it. I didn't really believe it. But I walked out of the cell with her, down the hall to an office at which I signed a paper testifying that nothing was missing from my purse, and before I knew it, we were outside.
"Who bailed me out?" I asked the woman.
"That don't matter -- it's done," she said. "Let's go -- my car's over there."
I thanked her but told her I'd rather walk home. It wasn't very far and I needed some air.
"You are coming home with me, and I think you know what I'm talkin' about," she said, holding up the handcuffs that dangled from her belt.
It was one of those "blood runs cold" moments of panic and dread. I would have just turned around and walked or run away, but I was afraid she might shoot me. That sounds crazy, but this whole situation was crazy.
ME AND MY SORRY ASS
My memory is that I just stood there paralyzed, probably with my mouth hanging open and my eyes filled with terror.
And then she burst out laughing.
"Go on home, you stupid girl," she said to me. "Get out of here."
She lit a cigarette, and said, "Go on!"
"Why did you help me?" I asked, as I began moving away from her.
"Because I knew you and your sorry ass didn't belong in there. You ain't no crook -- you're just pathetic," she said. "I better never see you again."
As I headed away, she called out, "And get some meat on them bones before your court date!"
Thus ended the most humiliating day of my life.