A NEW LEAF
“I wanted to sit there forever, drinking in bitter satisfaction, using someone else as a license.”
—Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life
Throughout our many decades of horsing around, Dad and I always found ideal outlets for our ribaldry. When I was ten years old, we often went to the bathroom and made X’s together in the toilet bowl in a one-sided competition to see who could keep the stream going longest. We were both circumcised similarly and shared happy, gleeful-looking penises.
In my twenties, I learned to sip pre-dinner cocktails at the Columbus Club and roam around the place, marveling at the antique harpsichords. Three long courses would be served in the ornate, sconce-lit basement dining room, where an abundance of specials kept things interesting. My father and I would take turns dominating the family conversation until we were well baked. I’d head out of the club at a trot to kick the tires of the FBI van before he could catch and throttle me. We’d put my sisters and mother in a northbound cab on Madison and walk home.
In my thirties, we’d stand in the Bridgehampton drizzle in our parkas, martinis in hand, stoking marinated meats and whole fish on the Weber Cooker, or we would take turns chasing my young children around the big house until they fell into bed. Dad never let me retire without the proverbial “nightcap.”
In my early forties, we shared season tickets for home Knicks and Giants games and became regulars at the Garden of my childhood. When he had a free night, I’d invite Jimmy to one of the ritzy “cigar clubs” that were all the rage in New York City. I rented a humidor, where I kept our favorite robustos.
Truth be told, neither Dad nor I were ever that keen about cigars, so the smallish robusto-size cigars were perfect for us. One night I was feeling particularly perky and informed Jimmy that if he was “nicer to me, I’d place his ashes in one of the deluxe cedarlined humidors in the club.” At that point, there were few secrets left between us, so he let my arrogance slide. If I had known then the noxious taste and unbridled grief of death as I know it now, I would have kept my big mouth shut.
My father was not one to sit around and brainlessly watch the tube (unless he was on it, of course). No matter which decade, we shared a love of nostalgic films, many of them Italian classics like Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, and Three Brothers. In hindsight, Three Brothers could be a metaphor for the many lives Dad and I survived in our five-plus decades together. The film begins with the haunting, familiar echo of Camus: Three blood brothers receive the message to “come home; your mother is dead.”
To grieve, the brothers retreat to separate corners of the large palazzo of their childhood. In a series of criss-crossing flashbacks, we learn little of the dead mother, but everything about the complex stories and difficult personal problems that have brought each brother to this moment of reckoning.
My father and I were careful to sit out of eyesight of one another during screenings of Cinema Paradiso, a stunning and beautiful tale of Italian life in a small Sicilian village that never failed to make us emotional. This film hit home for reasons that were readily appar- ent, at least to us. A dark, quick-witted boy, Toto, befriends Alfredo, the old man who runs the projector at Cinema Paradiso(New Paradise Cinema), the town’s lone form of entertainment. Through grit, determination, and an obvious love of movies, Toto becomes Alfredo’s “assistant.” Prior to the public screening of each new film, the local priest “edits” each scene by ringing a bell at the moment when the screen characters kiss. Toto dutifully marks the celluloid film at the bell. Alfredo cuts out the kisses from each scene “flagged” by the stickup-his-bum priest.
The friendship blossoms over the years until Toto is a handsome young man ready for university. He sadly leaves behind Alfredo, the only father he has ever known. Certain in his heart that the boy has limitless potential, Alfredo, in his last words to Toto, says: “Never come back here—NEVER. There is nothing here for you.” The boy reluctantly agrees.
Fast-forward thirty years. A beautiful young woman answers a phone in the vaulted Rome apartment of her middle-aged boyfriend, the famous Italian director, Salvatore Di Vita. A strange voice on the line asks her to relay a cryptic message: “Alfredo is dead.” The famous silver-haired director is quiet after absorbing the news. The grown man, the director, is actually Toto. Just as my father had escaped from the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, Toto had escaped Sicily to achieve unrivaled success.
An Alitalia jet touches down in Sicily, and Toto, now known by his proper name, stands before his ancient mother. She greets her son as if he’s come from the other side of the world. When Toto corrects his mother with the news that the flight was under an hour, she subtly scolds him for his absence the last thirty years. The townspeople are incredulous to see the famous moviemaker in their midst. Toto stands as one of Alfredo’s pallbearers. As he is about to depart, he receives a reel of film from Alfredo’s wife—the old man’s final gift to the boy he helped raise.
The director returns to Rome and immediately goes to his private screening room. “Play it from the beginning,” he tells the projectionist, who spools the ancient film on a reel. The lights go down. As the haunting Ennio Morricone soundtrack swells, every kiss and embrace ever cut by the priest from a Cinema Paradiso film appears on the screen, one after another after another. Alfredo had kept every bit of “censored” film and spliced it together as a final “goodbye.” The director is visibly moved (as were Dad and I).
For me, Toto, the little street urchin, is my father, Jimmy La Rossa, a small, quick-witted, dark-haired boy from Flatbush, Brooklyn, without a pot to piss in, who somehow surpassed everyone in the place from which he hailed.
After a film afternoon in California, I would often give Dad a nebulizer for his lungs and put him to bed for a quick nap before retreating to our Manhattan Beach kitchen to start an elaborate dinner. I would catch myself thinking about Toto and Alfredo while I pulled the necessary provisions from the cupboard and refrigerator to chop and marinate. On those nights, more often than not, we would eat too much and overindulge on vodka, as if we were trying to reset our overloaded emotional neurotransmitters from the day.
After Dad passed and we celebrated his life at the New York memorial, I returned to Manhattan Beach with a weariness that felt as if I was walking in quicksand. I would not have survived as long as I had without knowing those dangerous pre-manic “signposts” that signaled an oncoming mental tornado. Age helped but did not necessarily bring “wellness.” That would always take work. But my many years of “watching myself” gave me a detached intelligence about how I was acting. For someone like me, monitoring my “feelings” could only get me so far. How I was behaving is where the pedal met the metal. Was I sleeping? Could I read and write for a prolonged period? Was I avoiding phone and other human contact? Were my fantasies the result of hours of pacing? And above all else, was I exercising?
At my ten-year mark in California, it was obvious I needed a major tune-up, simple as that. I was fortunate to find a clever psychiatrist with a natural feel for psychopharmacology. We sent a mouth swab to the Mayo Clinic and pondered the results.
Somewhat reluctantly, I was falling in love again with medicine. I dug in and began to renew my passion as an editor/publisher who could influence the field. I poured over the newest treatises on psychopharmacology and began to get my publications back on track. Slowly, we swapped out four components of my “cocktail,” which had gone unchanged for more than a decade, with four of the newest agents on the market.
For the most part, I tend to be a mule. I often respond to higher medication dosages, so these newer drugs with fewer side effects were easy to handle. Still, for the eighteen months it took to ramp up the new cocktail, any further quest to improve my mental well-being went unnoticed. I knew from experience what “wellness” would look like; I hadn’t seen that in the mirror in quite a while.
There was a complicating factor to my malaise. I had no other choice but to face the fact that I was drinking far too much every night in order to “commune” with Jimmy, and the liquor was preventing me from reaching some sort of baseline. Taking powerful psychotropic drugs while drinking heavily is like hoping a tire’s slow leak will get better by itself. No leaking tire in the history of tires ever got better without intervention. The slow leak becomes a medium leak, and just keeps getting worse, until you find yourself trying to push fifty pounds per square inch of compressed air into a deflated tire while fifty-one psi leaks out the other side. I’d be better off put- ting the high-pressure hose up my la-de-da and blow a neat hole through the top of my melon.
I asked my doctor if we could put into the mix an opioids-agonist developed many years prior for heroin addiction that I had some knowledge of. The drug was shown to be of modest benefit for drug addicts, but could work well to ease alcohol cravings. So I added it to my morning cocktail and settled in for the months-long wait it would take to activate in my stubborn, war-weary mule of a body. “What do I do while I wait?” asked the sick mind to the body. “What else can I do?” I kept drinking harder and harder, day in and day out. As night fell, I somehow convinced myself that I couldn’t begin to prepare for dinner without a cocktail. Drinking and cooking and pacing and talking to myself left me a sweaty, spent mess by the time Sonya drifted in from her day.
Still, how could I not drink the night away? Isn’t that what the La Rossa Boys did decade after decade? If it was good enough for Dad, it was good enough for me. After all, who did I think I was? Somebody special? “NO, I DON’T DRINK.” That’s what I’m going to say to the bartender? Really? Dad had introduced me many years earlier to an often-forgotten comic film written by, directed by, and starring a young Elaine May. From the first to the last moment of A New Leaf, we would howl with laughter. Like many great comedies, unpredictable twists and turns belie an ingeniously simple plot.
Walter Matthau plays a millionaire playboy who has run through his inheritance and is ill-equipped to provide for himself. If he does not marry a rich bride and repay a loan to his uncle within six weeks, he will forfeit all his property. One of Dad and my favorite gags involved Matthau’s Ferrari. Every morning he screeches out of his Park Avenue garage in the shining red rocket; every night he is towed back to the garage, only to have the mechanic confirm time and again the Ferrari’s Achilles heel: “carbon on the valves.”
In order to keep his property from his greedy uncle, Matthau agrees to marry an introverted botanist with thick glasses, who happens to be an heiress from a wealthier family than his own. It’s a sham—Matthau intends to marry and then kill her on their honeymoon while they forage for new botanic discoveries. Before he can hatch his plan, however, she finds an entirely new species of plant life, which she names after him. Finally, when the moment to do away with the heiress arrives, Matthau, unable to kill this kind but hapless woman, saves her from drowning. Her innocence causes him to abandon his murderous plot and to accept his fate as her husband. Thus, he turns over a new leaf.
After the day’s last flight was canceled, Dad and I were once stuck in Puerto Rico. We both desperately needed to get to our offices. Dad had an important court appearance and I was shipping a new journal. We were able to buy the last two seats on a small twin turbo prop that would land in Miami at sunrise. Dad and I were drinking vodkas without a care in the world, when, midway through the trip, we began to hit heavy turbulence. As other passengers began to scream and pray, Dad and I looked at one another and, without missing a beat, uttered almost simultaneously, “Carbon on the valves.”
The days with my father were not always wine, women, and song, though that was a good start. Our lives were, as well, chock full of obligations, which we tackled with little complaint. Still, when the witching hour arrived, I could not pass the freezer without salivating. Bottles of Kettle One, Grey Goose, and Tito’s were waiting for me in frosty suspension; the nectar that Dad and I had shared so many times was calling to me. At the very least, I wanted to feel in my bones that my father somehow roamed the same Earth that I did. Alas, no amount of drinking could provide such false equivalents.
Life without my father was a crappy bargain any way you sliced it. Trust me, I tried. What I was yet to realize is that I had everything ass-backwards. Of course Dad would have wanted me to find my baseline and to get well. Instead, I used my father’s favorite vodka tumbler like a thimble, all the while in denial that I was committing slow suicide, like my dear mother before me.
If Dad had taught me just one thing, it would have been that living is not for the faint of heart. So, after a fit of pure self-loathing, I stopped. I just stopped drinking. I turned the page and found my new leaf.
Knowing him as well as I do, I am quite sure that Dad would have been proud. Somehow, even in his thundering, permanent absence, and the ensuing grief that washed over me day in and day out, I got my life back.