I Met the Rabbi Shlomo for lunch at Yang Chow. He had driven here from Williamsburg, Brooklyn out of fear of his life. Now he was in Los Angeles. He had come to see me for solutions, answers, and a job. I tracked down Shlomo for a man named Avi. He was Shlomo’s brother in law, who by the way is an air conditioning salesman in Tarzana. Avi was deeply concerned about Shlomo’s crack riddled high jinx in Brooklyn. Months after leaving voice messages and unanswered calls, Shlomo finally called me back and was willing to try to stop doing drugs as long as he could come out to Los Angeles.
Now he sat in front of me. Dirty-faced, rotting yellow teeth, and blistered burnt lips. He was rocking back and forth as though there was an invisible wailing wall that he was silently praying against.
He smelled bad and his habit smelled and looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. His beard had little bald spots in it. And with his thumb and forefinger, he was creating more of these tiny patches of light. I had no doubt this tic was keeping him… somehow… sane?
“Oh Hymie, the problems.” His lips and cheeks and eyes moved in many directions, like a character from the film Scanners. I imagined his head exploding very suddenly, and the staff just nonchalantly cleaning it up. I knew this place well. The staff was indifferent. It was always packed with guys that worked in the shmata district. Screaming and yelling, cell phones ringing and nickel and diming for fabrics, buttons, cutting and sewing and the micro minutia that make up a cheap suit, a button up, or a dress. So there Shlomo sat, nervously twirling his Payots curls with his right hand, picking small chunks of hair from his beard with his left and rocking back and forth.
I was patient. I know that he was probably high or coming down. I stopped using ten years ago but sometimes it feels like it was yesterday, I too freebased cocaine and shot heroine to come down. I’m not an alcoholic, but I don’t drink because a little Manischewitz might take me down to funky town. I’m clear as a bell ringing 5-0 double up on that one.
The funny thing is most Jews aren’t alcoholics. Not in my experience anyway, and I’ve played the rehab circuit for years, Jewish rehabs too, from Beit T’Shuva to Chabad.
Kicking heroin and benzos were the hardest thing ever. Eppes with the cramps, the constant pain and the pins and needles really stabbing from inside out just physically devastating. The cocaine was purely psychological. Still, I don’t downplay the addiction to crack. Professionals I’ve spoken to have all come to the same conclusion, that smoking cocaine leaves a blueprint on your endorphins much the way an orgasm, sugar, or gambling, just increase that to the tenth power. Coke really opens the floodgates of those endorphins the recovery rate is about 1 in 10 for crack addicts
“What problems Shlomo?”
The waitress brought our order, broccoli beef, lettuce cups, and orange chicken. “Sh, sh.” Shlomo motioned with his right hand. Then he seemed to be in deep thought, I knew a little bit about the situation, the problems. He was stealing money from the temple, and Jewish community programs. This was not such a big deal. Some Rabbis did this. Stealing it for crack, hookers, and hotels (oh my) that is a different story. “Hymie, it’s killing me! The money. What do I do? How do I return it?” I listened but was distracted by the orange chicken, it was real white meat chicken, not the grey mystery meat you find at most Chinese eateries. I managed to catch his remarks. “Don’t worry so much about the money,” I looked up at him earnestly. “The crack, the crack is the problem.”
“Oh but the crack.” I watched the Rabbi’s eyes light up. “The crack helps me, it takes away the pain, the guilt, and thoughts of a life of my lying bullshit while in the temple”
“I thought you liked the temple?”
“I do, but when I have a little bit of crack, some girls, it helps. My therapy, my own private Purim.” Now he was digging into the chicken.
“Stop, you are diseased by the thoughts. That’s the crack talking.” I was growing impatient.
“Crack talking, come, my friend, the crack does not talk. Disease? My friend, this is no disease, it is the cure for my problems,” he continued, “It makes me feel good, when I’m done, I drink a bottle of Manischewitz and sleep like a little baby.” He was so convincing.
“Sounds like you have it all figured out.” I didn’t know what else to say, he’s a tough case. Most addicts are. They have all the answers, but not a single clue. I’m a member of Cocaine Anonymous. I hear all the justifications.
“Don’t get smart with me, you know I need to make more money, clean up and figure out what I’m going to do.” Still twirling his curls, Shlomo picked up his soda. I noticed the burns on his fingers. The thumb and index finger were yellow and burnt from all the use and abuse. Hot pipes, screens, chore boy, a burning stem, all the trappings that come with being a slave to rock cocaine.
“What are you staring at?” Shlomo’s hands were shaking. “Nothing, your fingers.” I quickly changed the subject.
“Tell me a little more about what happened out there in Williamsburg, what went wrong?” He let it all out. He told me about how he would drive around in his Station Wagon. His coat and hat had secret hiding places for the pipe, the chore boy, and spare king lighters. King lighters, they worked best. They had a big flame and you could get three for a dollar.
So there he was, in the Town and Country parading around Brooklyn. Donning habit, complete with Tzitzit, a small rocks tangled in his Payots, and pipes stuffed in his Yarmulke. He kept other pipes and chore boy stashed around the wagon for emergencies.
“Shlomo, slow down.” I pleaded.
“Oh God, I just remembered something.” His eyes were darting back and forth quickly. “Every time I took the first hit of the crack, I thought crazy things! like the car, that it would explode Hymie!”
“No, Hymie, I thought the radio would burst into flames. I thought I would melt into the seat of the car!”
“Shlomo it’s called…” Shlomo interrupted, “But so every time I would hit the pipe, I’d run. Hit and run! Hit and run!”
“Shlomo it’s called cocaine psychosis. It’s common with crack smokers.” Shlomo kept rambling on. He was on a roll.
“Then I would find these girls, these hookers.’ He stopped for a minute, his face growing red with humiliation.
“I’d meet them at crack houses, burned out tenements in East New York, Bed-Sty, or a place I’d purchase the crack near Fort Green.” We both sat for a moment in silence.
“They loved me the Schwartzes.” Shlomo suddenly looked so full of himself, almost bragging.
“I always had cash and they never tried to rob me. They thought since I was a Rabbi, I was okay. Good as gold. A good Jew boy. Even the police, Hymie. When they pulled me over, I would use the same excuses over and over.” Shlomo gestured confidently.
‘What would you say?’ I was really interested now.
“Hymie, on the crack I would drive so erratically. I told them I was late to a Briss, a Bar Mitzvah, wedding, on and on. You know these police they’re so mean, but thank God they’re stupid Hymie, nonetheless, they do respect the Rabbi.” Shlomo continued “There were so many other problems in the neighborhoods I was in, they had more important things to worry about.”
“That’s amazing Shlomo, because your car is such a mess.”
“What mess, what are you saying Hymie?”
“Oh c’mon. The newspapers the posters, the clothes, the laundry, the grape juice, the Borscht, the Matzo, and all that Hazara.”
Shlomo quickly butted in, “Oh, that’s because I’m so busy.”
“Busy smoking rock?”
Once again the Shlomo was reminiscing about the past. He told me the really shocking stories. He continued to fulfill his obligations as a Rabbi in the temple while smoking crack. The most significant and unfortunate situation was the circumcision of little Lenny Lehroff. The Rabbi and Eli Lipshutz, the Moil performing the Briss (and also a crackhead) made a terrible mistake during the ceremony and 911 was called. There was a lot of blood and a botched circumcision, but Shlomo claimed it was fine. The Lehrhoff’s beg to differ and filed suit against the temple. It was even on the news. The Lehrhoffs also filed individual suits against Eli and Shlomo.
“Neither one of us has been served. Thank God.” The Rabbi was thinking out loud. The Rabbi and Eli left town, and had not seen each other since. So now I was harboring Shlomo, a Rabbi on the run.
“I will let you work with me downtown Shlomo, but no crack. No smoking crack.”
“I know I can do it.”
“I know you can do it too, but do we have an agreement Shlomo?”
I studied the Rabbi’s eyes closely and felt I was making a mistake.
“Yes, we have an agreement.”
I own a silk screening factory downtown near fifth and San Pedro. My biggest account was “Manny First”, a popular line of clothing in Japan. Shlomo worked in shipping and receiving. He mostly handled big outgoing orders for completed items. Shlomo had to look at hundreds and hundreds of Jeans and T-shirts printed with the ‘Manny First’ smiley face with a bandana on its head.
“It’s amazing what these Shmucks will pay for,” Shlomo said to me.
He did well there for 3 weeks, he really held up. He stayed off the drugs, went to the Cocaine Anonymous meetings, and still everyday was a test. Inside the factory was safe. The area around the building, that was a different story. The area was called Nickel Town for two rasons, the $5.00 rock and the location of it off 5th street. The building was totally surrounded by hookers, winos, hustlers, junkies, pimps, and crack dealers.
One day while Shlomo was sitting in his car eating a sandwich he lowered the visor to block the sun. He felt something bounce off his forehead and land in his lap.
‘Oh, what is this?’ He looked down in his lap and saw it, a crack pipe. He studied the pipe. It was a golden brown color packed with resin. There was a fresh piece of chore boy in the pipe as well. All at once, he was short of breath. Then he gagged, he farted, and his head raced. The thought of that one hit, the one hit wonder as Eli called it, really opened the floodgates of his endorphins. He put the pipe in his pocket, along with the King lighter he kept for sentimental purposes. “What should I do? Oh God, give me the answer.”
He snuck off to the bathroom in the warehouse. He pulled his pants down and sat down in the stall. He farted again in anticipation, and then he shit. He took the pipe out of his pocket. He studied it. Spoke to it.
“Oh, how I missed you.”
He took a small screwdriver out of his shirt pocket. He kept it for repairs around the factory, but now it was paraphernalia, a pipe pusher. He slowly pushed the chore boy through the pipe, getting every crumb of resin. The chore boy was now almost even with the other side of the pipe. His hands started shaking, he gagged. He farted and shit again.
“Oh, God this is too much.”
He held the pipe at an angle so none of the resin would spill out. He held the pipe to his lips, pulled the lighter out, and lit it. Nice flame he thought, king lighters, the best. He drew out all his breath. Then he did it, He took the hit slow and long. He held it deep in his lungs. Next, he squeezed his nostrils together and rocked back and forth while he sat on the toilet. This was a ritual he had learned since the very first time he smoked crack.
“Make every hit count, Rab. It may be your last.” Said one of the many prostitutes he had sex with. Then he let it out slowly through his nose, so slowly. It was good. There was a heavy buzzing sound. Familiar. There was an internal numbness. Familiar, and good. He flushed the toilet, he heard a deep bubbling below him. This, not familiar. Paranoia set in quick.
“What is that? Oh no!” He thought about the explosions, the bubbling got louder. “Please God, No.”
The toilet water suddenly shot upwards, like a volcano. His shit, along with everybody else’s showered his lap and splashed all around. His chest and lap was covered in excrement and pieces of toilet paper.
“My god an explosion, it really happened. What have I done?”
He ran out of the bathroom, pants down and mortifed. He was still clutching the pipe like it was the only thread left to his sanity. This is where I stepped into the situation.
“Hymie! Hymie! Help me, the toilet, it really exploded!”
He ran through the factory tripping twice on his pants. He was peppered in sewage, smelling like a port a pottie tipped over on him. His stench permeated the air everywhere in the factory.
‘Shlomo, pull up your pants!’ I noticed the pipe that somehow stuck out, even behind the blanket of excrement.
“What is that in your hand?” The factory was so quiet.
The pipe dropped from Shlomo’s hand with an innocent-sounding clink on the concrete. “Forget about my hand, my pants, Christ Hymie the toilet exploded!’” The workers couldn’t hold their laughter. Ink mixers gagged from the stench.
“You can’t smoke crack here Shlomo. What’s wrong with you, what about our agreement?” I was pissed off, at myself, at Shlomo, at the disease of addiction in general.
“Agreement, Shmeement. Look at me, covered in crap! Like I’m some Bellview meshugga mental patient.”
Now I was livid. “Get out, get out Shlomo!”
“But Hymie, the toilet, please.” Shlomo pleaded. I had my fist balled.
“Shlomo, fuck the toilet. Get out of my warehouse.”
Shlomo walked out of the warehouse, pants still down around his ankles. Then he stopped in his tracks and had a startling revelation. It was the first time he only took one hit and didn’t so desperately crave another. Maybe there was a chance.