Getting to Jackie Cochran's apartment took three attempts. When I pulled into Saranac Lake, I discovered that his address was in a hilly section of the town, atop — according to GPS — a sharply inclined road. It had snowed the night before his scheduled 9 a.m. pickup, and the road was still unplowed. Welcome to springtime in New York's North Country.
My first attempt got me halfway up before the tires began to spin. Exhortations of "C'mon baby, c'mon baby" were ineffective because anthropomorphism. If my minivan were a Land Rover, this would be cake, I thought, before hearing the disembodied retort of a long-dead uncle: Sure, Jernigan — and if the queen had balls, she'd be the king. Thank you for that, Uncle Charlie. Now, please rest in peace.
I gingerly backed down to the bottom and pondered my options. Two contradictory strategies came to mind: Ease up ever so gently in low gear, or bomb up the hill like a four-wheeled Usain Bolt on steroids.
I chose the more exciting second option. Looking both ways, I backed into the cross street to maximize my runway and — vroom, vroom — hit the slope at about 25 mph. This second attempt got me close, but, as writer/director Dave Mamet once told me (I transported him regularly in the '80s), close only counts in hand grenades, horseshoes and poetry.
Stymied and frustrated, I was sitting glumly at the base of the hill when a friendly postman turned onto the street. Gaining his attention, I shared with him my dilemma, and he suggested another, less-steep route. It worked, and soon I was parked in front of my customer's apartment. The place looked like a tenement building: old, shabby and crying out for a new coat of paint, if not a major rehabilitation. I phoned to check in with Jackie, and he quickly emerged from a basement-level door.
Shuffling to the car, he appeared in need of a major rehab, too. He looked fairly young, maybe 35, but, as with a vehicle, it's not so much the age as the miles and maintenance. His right arm was in a sling, and something was clearly amiss with one of his legs. But, as he settled into the seat next to me and began to speak, I sensed that this person was actually on the mend. And not just his body.
"Thanks for this ride, man," he said. "They tell me I have just this one more treatment at the Burlington hospital, and then I can get follow-up care at the Adirondack Medical Center right here in Saranac."
"If you don't mind my asking, what are they treating you for?" I inquired as I followed Route 3 north out of town, retracing my steps back to the Plattsburgh ferry.
"I don't mind telling you, but it's a hairy story. I have a kid brother who's a heroin addict, and he OD'd shooting up at his dealer's apartment. So, the guy doesn't call an ambulance for, like, three hours. By the time they finally get my brother to the hospital, the doctors said he was literally minutes from death. So, the next day, I go to this dealer's place to confront him.
"Things went just as well as you would expect. Just before we came to blows, his Ecuadorian uncle — who was cooking in the kitchen — rushes in and hurls this vat of hot grease at me. I ended up with third-degree burns over my leg, my groin, but especially my arm. I've had to undergo a series of skin grafts. I can't begin to describe the pain of this procedure."
Oh, my Lord, a vat of burning oil, I thought. We rode in silence for a few minutes as I absorbed Jackie's tale of nearly medieval reckoning. Beyond the shocking substance of the story, what struck me more was his tone: It was utterly devoid of anger or self-pity.
"That's sounds horrific, man," I sympathized. "What a thing to live through."
"True, but it served a purpose. For years, I had been using, too. This incident got me into rehab and probably saved my life. So, aside from all this medical stuff, I'm all about attending meetings and one day at a time."
As we motored through the Adirondack Park, the snow-frosted trees and fields glistened in morning sunlight. All my life, I reflected, I've been moved and inspired by people "in recovery," as it's referred to in AA literature. When I meet someone who has committed to this arduous healing journey, I feel as if I'm in the presence of a holy person. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it's my genuine experience.
For those of us who have managed to avoid addiction, it's easy to believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, that our will and ego are what define our lives. Our brothers and sisters ensnared in the mire of substance abuse no longer have the luxury of this comforting illusion, because they see where it's landed them.
The only way out, as I've heard it explained, lies in dropping the engine of willpower as the driving force in one's life and tapping into something deeper and, ultimately, vastly more powerful. What's recovered in recovery, it seems to me, is connection to the soul, and I feel this palpably whenever I'm with a friend of Bill W. I guess, to quote singer-songwriter Huey Lewis, that's the power of love.
"One day at a time, huh?" I said, turning to smile at my customer. "So, how's today going?"
Jackie chuckled, smiling back at me. "Today?" he replied. "So far, so good."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.