Updated: Nov 25, 2022
“To find your way, you must become lost. Generously so.” - Bayo Akomolafe
Dennis Chan is angry with me. Rightfully so. He won’t openly express it, but I can feel it.
I was supposed to meet him at 8:30 this morning at our Bell Labs office in Holmdel, New Jersey to test the software changes I made to the protocol handler we are working on. I am finally on my way at 10:05. I haven’t called him.
As a result of bad planning, or more likely because l drank up every bit of alcohol I had in the apartment last night, I woke up (came to) at 9:30 AM and there’s no booze to be found anywhere. There’s not even cooking wine, which I hate but will drink in just such an emergency. I dare to catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and it’s not pretty. My eyes are heavy and dull, my face the color of chalk on a dirty eraser. Hastily throwing on my clothes and hoping I don’t run into any other residents on my way out, I head for my car. Thankfully, this morning it’s parked in my assigned spot, unlike other mornings when I have to search for it. I know the Portside Bar in Leonardo, NJ opens at 9:00 AM and it’s only a ten-minute drive. I stop at the intersection of Route 36 and First Avenue, open the door and puke onto the road. I have the dry heaves. I have had them since I woke up and I desperately need a drink. On my way to the Portside, I pull over two more times to retch.
I arrive and Jenny, who knows me but won’t sleep with me (she is all too familiar with my type), sets up a beer and I gulp it down. I then discreetly, if that’s possible when you’re the only patron in the bar, head to the bathroom to puke. Feeling considerably better, I return to the bar where another beer is waiting for me, thank God and thank Jenny.
As my stomach begins to settle down and my hands stop shaking, I start to feel bad about stiffing Dennis again this morning. Dennis is a very smart fellow from Hong Kong whose software programming skills are impressive. His cultural demeanor makes it impossible for him to express his anger at me, no matter how many times I screw up. It makes it worse that he doesn’t say anything and I sometimes just wish he would yell. I almost wish he were more like Wendy, who called me a “complete asshole” in the middle of a project meeting where I was obnoxiously drunk. Her pronouncement stung and got my attention for a moment, but I quickly dismissed her observation as an incorrect diagnosis. I am not always an asshole, only when I am drunk.
Dennis and I are a team of two, assigned to design and code a protocol handler that is an essential element in the BOS-11 Operating System our group is developing. Protocol handlers enable computers to exchange information with other computers or a network and to communicate with Input/Output devices (printers, modems, terminals, etc.). In another department, development continues on the UNIX Operating System and it has become a bit of a competition as to which system is better, meaning more efficient. In those early heady days of machine level coding, measuring software efficiency was an intriguing area of investigation and concepts of CPU utilization, I/O counts, and total program disk space required were parameters we measured. Personally, I first looked to get the program running without errors and then went back, with Dennis’s help, to make it more efficient.
In June, 1976 I was offered an opportunity to transfer to Bell Labs from my job as a programmer in AT&T’s Cleveland Data Center. I was to be part of a team developing an Operating System for Digital Equipment Corporation’s new series of 16-bit minicomputers (PDP-11) that were sold from 1970 to 1990, some of which are still in use today. The Cleveland Data Center had purchased two PDP-11’s and I had access to them. I quickly became enamored with these new computers and the Assembler Language that granted access to the entire programable space. Unlike JCL (Job Control Language) and COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), which seemed archaic and cumbersome, with Assembler you wrote code at the register level where binary 1’s and 0’s made up the instructions you used. I spent countless hours learning the new language and playing with the computers, sometimes sending reams of computer paper shooting from the printers just for fun. I learned to translate core dumps comprised of strings of 1’s and 0’s back into command prompts. It was like learning hieroglyphics.
The assignment was to be a six-month stint but in the end I remained for five years. In those five years I did considerable damage to my body, and my overall ability to function and self-esteem. This is on top of extensive collateral damage to anyone who worked with me, came in contact with me, or tried to have a relationship with me. Besides amassing a heavy emotional and mental debt load, I also managed to accumulate considerable financial debt. This wasn’t easy considering the company paid the rent for my furnished apartment, provided a rental car (a 1975 Chrysler Cordoba with fine Corinthian Leather upholstery), a weekly meal allowance, and a generous salary. I was also provided a ticket to fly back to Cleveland every other week to see my ex-wife and two sons. It was a very sweet deal, which I burnt to the ground.
The accumulating burdens became rocks in my personal Ishikozume, a style of ritual execution in ancient Japan. A hole is dug in the ground, the victim is placed in the hole and then stones are piled on or thrown at the victim and they are left to die. The execution site becomes the burial site. I had dug a good size hole, climbed in of my own volition, and the stones were piling up. I sought to dissolve the stones with alcohol, never considering that I should try to get out of the hole. I was just hoping the rocks would simply melt away like ice in a glass of whisky. Although drinking can do that kind of magic, it only works if you stay drunk. When you sober up, you find that the drinking has added a whole new load to the pile.
For the first few months, I worked to find my way around. I began an affair with Sue, an attractive young secretary at the Labs. More importantly (which should have been a warning sign), I established a second watering hole near work at the Red Roof Bar in Holmdel, NJ and claimed Joey Miles Bar in Atlantic Highlands, NJ as my primary drinking home. Joey Miles was a five-minute walk from my apartment and a twenty-minute stumble back. Subtracting the sleeping/passed out hours from my day, I would spend more time at these bars than in my apartment or work.
But back to the Portside where I am trying to figure out my day and what to do about Dennis and the coding I did late last night. I am now on beer four and it’s just past 11:00 AM. As I gaze around the bar, I wonder where everyone else is. Jenny and I are the only ones here. I am drinking alone, in a dark bar, in the morning. I briefly consider that this is a bit odd and could be a mild symptom of an issue I may have. I quickly banish the thought and tell myself that the bar opens at 9:00 AM for a reason and that I do not have a drinking problem. I just need to settle my nerves and calm down a bit.
As I sit there pondering if I will be going to work and what to tell Dennis should I go in, Curly saunters in. I am a bit relieved; I am not the only fellow looking for a quench in the morning. Curly also works at the Labs but in a different department. Curly is from Boise City, Oklahoma, the county seat of Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Curly, whose real name is Hank, is the smartest fellow I know from Oklahoma. He is also the only person I ever met from Oklahoma. It seems you never meet people who are from Oklahoma or they won’t admit to it. If I were a betting man, and I was but no longer, I would wager that you, too have never met anyone from Oklahoma. It may be that it’s so beautiful, (“We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!”), that nobody ever leaves. Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” gives some credence to this theory.
I like Curly but I am wary of him. He’s got an impish look, with beady little eyes set close together and a shock of tight corkscrew brown hair, which is where I assume he got his nickname or perhaps it was from Curly McLain, the hero of “Oklahoma”. Curly is intelligent but reckless and sometimes nasty when he drinks. Jenny learned early on not to put up with his shit and has threatened to toss him from the bar on a number of occasions. That always shuts him up, he needs to be here.
Curly sits down next to me and orders up a shot and a beer. I order a shot as well. It’s now clear that I won’t be going to work today. I should call in but I don’t. Already at this early point in my assignment, people have learned not to count on me, knowing that I will eventually show up and generally without offering an explanation.
Curly is in a good mood. He had a jam session last night at another Jersey Shore bar. He fancies himself a musician and plays the guitar with considerable talent. He recently purchased a harmonica holder in the style of Bob Dylan to accompany his guitar playing. I have seen this addition to his act and it doesn’t work. He should stick to the solo guitar. Curly tells me that he is not going to work today. He’s too hungover and his girlfriend, Mary, who also works at the Labs, is pissed at him. I can easily guess why but I don’t bother to ask. As noon passes with another shot and beer for both of us, Curly looks at me with a special intensity that comes after about the fifth beer and says; “Let’s go to New York.” I’m in. Let the game begin.
We order a six-pack and leaving Curly’s car at the bar we hop into my Cordoba with the fine Corinthian Leather seats. The company pays for the gas so this is the logical choice. After exiting the Holland Tunnel in NYC, we stop at Washington Square Park to purchase a few joints and then head to midtown where I park the car on a side street.
We aim for 42nd street and the skin-flick theaters that are the mainstay attractions. Sneaking a beer in our pockets, we take in a show. Entering, we assume the standard ‘men-at-porno-theater’ seating arrangement with four chairs between us and coats stacked on the seat next to us. The movie is grim and slimy, some sort of science fiction porn that makes no sense and we leave unsatisfied. By now we are hungry and need to find something to eat. We stop at a nearby Chinese take-out, get dinner and find a spot on the 42nd street curb to scarf down our food. A cop comes up to us a short while later and tells us we can’t sit there. We toss the remaining food in the trash and start walking with no place in mind.
Now Curly is getting on my nerves. He’s getting a bit nasty, commenting on everything I say. He wants to keep walking about NYC, stopping at every fancy store that catches his eye. I actually prefer to drink alone and would be glad to be rid of his company. Then Curly, perhaps sensing that I want him gone, does what impulsive Curly sometimes does. He stops, looks at me and says: “Thanks, I’m leaving, see ya!” and walks away. I have no idea where he is going or how he will get back to New Jersey but I do know that he won’t be dissuaded and I have no mind to try. Curly will repeat a similar scenario at work seven months later. Called to a meeting with his Department Head, Curly is asked to estimate the time required to design and code an enhancement to the System Controller program he is responsible for. Curly tells him that it would take at least two months for design and implementation. The Department Head responds by telling him he has one month. Curly stands up, says “I quit!”, cleans out his office and moves to California with Mary, never to be heard from again.
After Curly leaves, I somehow find my way to Greenwich Village and the 3 Roses Bar, a dive on Canal Street across from the Post Office. It’s the kind of place where you could walk in, barf on the bar and the bartender will toss you a towel to clean it up and then pour you a drink. The bathroom looks and smells like an open sewer. I feel comfortable there. For a while.
After a few beers, I become increasingly uncomfortable with the dinginess and the clientele and decide I need to find a nicer place to drink. It’s getting dark so I hail a cab to take me uptown looking to rub shoulders with a higher class of people. I have standards, flexible as they are. I stop at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel and soon realize I am hammered. The bartender is slow to serve me and I am quite familiar with the look he gives me, just after I have Hoovered up all the bar snacks, which says, ‘just get out’. I leave and in a rare moment of awareness decide it’s best if I don’t drive home and should find a place to stay.
Stumbling down 59th Street, I enter the Park Lane Hotel lobby and inquire if they have any rooms. They are booked and I get the sense they want me gone. Next stop is the Park Hyatt on 57th, same results. I am getting desperate. Outside the Hyatt, I lean against the wall and try to pull myself together. I straighten out my clothes to make myself more presentable and say a few sentences aloud trying not to slur my words.
“Do you gots a room abailable?”
I try a faux German accent, ‘Haf ya got a vroom?’
I cross the street and step into the lobby of the Le Méridien Hotel with all the dignity of a drunken bum and make an inquiry using well practiced European accent. The gentleman behind the concierge’s desk takes one look at me and, in a moment that is clearly divinely inspired, tersely says to the clerk behind the front counter, “give him a room”. I pull out my American Express Card and slide it along the counter and onto the floor. When asked if I have any luggage, I almost shout, “no baggage!”.
The next morning I wake up naked on the floor in a beautiful suite and the sun is shining. Life is good once again.
I should call Dennis. I don’t.
I have to find my car.