Archives for the month of: September, 2022

I had been thinking since I was in France in June that I would wait to have a conversation with Johnny about his drinking until he and I could see each other in a public place, have lunch, have a cup of coffee. One night in late July 2013 Johnny told me he wanted to talk to me “about people.”

When he called me the next afternoon to ask about my day I mentioned renting a room at the Kensington Community Center “where I go to an Al-Anon meeting.”

“You went to a 12-step meeting?”
“I told you in June I was going to Al-Anon.”
“How many meetings a week do you go to?”
“I used to go to five. Now I go to three.”
“Five!”
“Johnny, I don’t love going to meetings. But sometimes someone says something I find helpful.”
“I’ve got to go now.”
“I thought you wanted to talk about people.”
“Now is not the time.”
“Okay. Call me when you want to.”
“I will call you,” he said. “In the morning, if not tonight.”

* * *

When Johnny called the next morning he told me it upset him that I mentioned going to Al-Anon. He said, “I thought I’d get better and that we could see each other and I could have a few drinks if I wanted.”

“Did you think your drinking was not a problem?” I asked. “Johnny, I love you. Whatever you do, I can continue to be your friend. You can call me and I’ll be there for you, but if you continue to drink I can’t be in a relationship with you. Your drinking is hurting you. I think you need help.”

“What would that look like?”

I waded into uncertain waters. In retrospect I wish I had turned the question on him and asked him what he thought he needed, but instead I told him I thought he needed to detox under medical supervision and then to get some kind of ongoing support for sobriety. I told him it didn’t have to be AA if he hated AA.

“I’m not abandoning you, Johnny. You can always reach me by phone. You can take time to think about what I’ve said.”

After a long silence, he said “Thank you for sharing. I’ll be calling you sometime.” Then he hung up on me.

After Johnny hung up I notified his brother and a few friends of our conversation and then I went to an Al-Anon meeting.

When I got back, the phone calls started. In one he said I had “dynamited the trust between us.” He called me “arrogant.” Then he called again to call me “an amateur,” presumably because he knew more about drinking and sobering up than I did. He also said I was “judging him” and “laying trips on him.” In still another call he forbade me to talk to his friends and family.

“Johnny, if people call me and want to talk to me it’s my decision whether to talk to them.”
“Now you’re fucking with me. If you do that, you’re out of my life.”
“Johnny, you’re going to do what you are going to do, but if people call me I get to decide how to respond.”
“If people call you, refer them to me.”

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to say, “Maybe they want to talk to someone who will talk to them.” But I didn’t laugh or say that aloud.

The last thing that Johnny said to me was that talking to me made him feel like him feel like dying and he didn’t want to feel like that so he wasn’t going to talk to me. Then he hung up again.

I understood in the moment that Johnny was hurt and angry, that my decision was threatening his drinking, that he was wounded and lashing out. I initially felt lighter to have had the conversation about his drinking at last. Then I felt relieved briefly when the angry phone calls stopped. By the next day I was crying in meditation and asking to be given a heart of love, to be freed from my own anger. The day after that the internal jukebox tormented me during meditation by playing the line “White Lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all” from “Okie from Muskogee” over and over. I missed Johnny and I worried about him and I still daydreamed about a future with him, but I didn’t know how things were going to go.

Johnny called me again two days after our conversation, but my phone was off the hook and I missed the call. I got the message the next morning. His voice sounded stronger, more like it used to. He didn’t sound angry and said, “Call me, please. Thanks, Johnny.”


On July 22, 2013, eleven days after Eric and I go to San Leandro to check on him, Johnny calls me in the morning at the time I would normally be leaving for my busking shift: I decide to talk with him and take a later bus. When I ask him how he is, he characterizes his life as “moment-to-moment survival.” He says he is watching T.V. around the clock to keep his pain away, filling his waking hours with cowboy and crime films.

Johnny cries often during our conversation. He says he feels bad that he has let people down.

“Johnny, lots of people love you and care about you, even when they are pissed at you. People are meditating and praying for you.”

“Thank you for saying that.”

He bursts into tears again.

“I miss David,” he says. “David always knew what to say to me.”

His brother David died in February.

“Maybe you could repeat to yourself some of the things David used to say.”

“It’s not the same,” he says.

“No. It isn’t.”

Johnny says he is talking to his friend and former therapist Deborah. He says he can’t afford to get other help. I do not confront Johnny on this point, but I know it is not true: what Johnny can’t afford to do is use the money from David’s estate to fund all of the projects he would like to fund and also hire a therapist. Besides, a good therapist might confront his drinking or require him to make agreements about it.

In the mean time, Johnny is taking a few actions. He has made the effort to call me. He tells me he plans to call his brother Peter later in the day, calling it “one of my projects.”

“I’ve been in touch with Peter,” I tell him.

“Good,” he says.

“I’ve been in touch with a few other people.”

“Good,” he says again.

“Honey, are you playing your guitar?”

“No. I haven’t touched a guitar since Les’s memorial. I’ve lost all my callouses.”

Guitar players build up callouses on the fingertips of each hand from repeatedly pressing their fingertips to metal strings, holding the strings down on wooden fretboards. The callouses extend both over and under the surface of the skin. If you stop playing for a few weeks you lose your callouses and your fingers become those of a tender beginner: it hurts to play. The only remedy is to play frequently for short but increasing periods of time until you develop calloused tissue again. Johnny has not played for more than five weeks.

Johnny normally keeps his guitars on stands within easy reach in his office or living room, amplifiers adjacent. All he has to do to begin playing is pick up a guitar, plug in a cord and flip a switch. He tells me that his guitars are still in their cases.

Johnny is punishing himself big time. Music is his chief solace, joy and inspiration.

“I dream about music though. Wild dreams.”

“Your unconscious is giving you music. It’s such a big part of your life.”

“You know, Johnny, when I have stopped playing I make it a practice to take my guitar out of its case. I don’t have to play it, I just have to get it out. Maybe you could take a tiny step, like just listening to music for a few minutes, or putting a guitar on a stand.”

I don’t remember if he replies to my suggestion.

I think now, in 2022, that perhaps Johnny was protecting his guitars from the effects of his drinking (he wouldn’t want to knock one over as he stumbled through the living room) as well as avoiding the pain that playing music might unleash: music often opens us to our emotions.

I asked Johnny if there was anything I could do for him. He asked me to call sometimes. He said it helped to get calls, even if he did not pick up the phone. He thanked me for my call about Bob Chrisman’s death and for coming out to see him earlier in the month.

For the most part our conversation is devoid of anger and defensiveness. Johnny even laughs at one point.

“There’s that laugh,” I say.

He does tell me, however, that the difficulties we were having in June (our differences of opinion over particular pieces of music) contributed to his slide into depression. Note the subtle placement of blame and the omission of the role of his favorite depressant drug.

Before I went off to work I told Johnny I loved him and he said he loved me and cared about me. We ended the phone call with our characteristic sign off:

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

I feel relieved and grateful to know that Johnny is alive, happy to hear his voice on the telephone. Later I email his brother Peter to say that we had spoken and I speak to Patrick and Eric about our call.

* * *

That evening I call Johnny to say good night as I used to do. I do not reach him directly, but he calls me back about half an hour after I phone him. He tells me he called Peter and that it a wasn’t warm and fuzzy experience. He breaks off his conversation with me because he wants to check in with his friend Deborah, but says he wants to talk with me again tomorrow.

I am not raising issues with Johnny when I talk with him, but focusing on listening to what he says and giving him support and encouragement when I can. I guess I have learned a thing or two from all of those Al-Anon meetings after all.

Before I go to bed that night I am thinking about what to say when Johnny and I have our next “O.R. talk” (Johnny-speak for “our relationship”). I do not know yet when that talk will be: it depends on when he reduces his drinking and can leave his house. I envision us talking in person.

The next day Johnny doesn’t call and I am back on the roller coaster again, worrying about him. The day after that he calls in the afternoon in a panic. He says his phone battery is low and his charger isn’t working and he is afraid he will be cut off from the phone calls that are his current lifeline.

“What do you want me to do, Johnny?” I ask.

“Could you call a few people and ask if they can help me get a charger?”

“Okay.”

Before I make the calls I check in with my brother, who is in recovery from his own addiction. He tells me I am “enabling” Johnny, that Johnny needs to deal with his own problem, get his own charger. But I have promised Johnny I will call some people, so I do.

I call Johnny’s old faithful friends Eric and Patrick. I leave a message for one. The other is en route to a dentist appointment.

I call Johnny back to tell him I have been unable to secure help for him.

“Maybe I could call a cab, go to the AT&T store and get a new charger.”

“That sounds like a good plan, honey.”

I go off to my afternoon busking shift. By the time I get home Johnny has left me a message telling me he has gotten a new phone charger and that I can call him “anytime.”

When I call him later that afternoon, Johnny answers. “How was your shift?,” he asks, as he used to ask every day.

I give him a rundown of the latest day in the busking trade. Then I tell him I am looking at renting a room in the Kensington Community Center to teach writing practice classes.

Johnny responds by giving me unasked-for advice on how I could advertise my writing classes more effectively. Although this breaks our ancient rule of not telling each other what to do, I listen carefully, and let him know he has a couple of valid points. I do not, however, commit to doing anything he suggests — I merely avoid getting into a fight about advice-giving or the particulars of his suggestions.

Johnny signs off, saying he has to go, but he will call me later. I tell him I am home for the afternoon and evening and he is welcome to call when he likes.

After we hang up I reflect that I do not know what normal behavior is and I do not know how I am going to find out what normal behavior is. Am I going to learn it at Al-Anon meetings? I hadn’t known how to respond appropriately to Johnny’s phone charger crisis or to his drinking and depression. I want to be a good girlfriend, a loving and supportive partner, and I do not know what “the rules” are. Johnny’s drinking and isolating are far outside the norms of conventional behavior, far outside Johnny’s former functioning, although his ability to acquire the phone charger, to make and answer phone calls and to take some interest in what I am doing signals an upswing.

[A note to readers: this is the original version of the piece called “A touching gesture.” I wrote it. It disappeared in an internet fluke. I rewrote it from memory and published it last week. Today it inexplicably resurfaced in my WordPress drafts so I have replaced the old version with this one. There will also be a new Johnny and Sharyn story tonight 9-18-22.]

Today, in the aftermath of a multi-day heat wave, I was sitting in our upstairs library with my mother. We had just finished lunch. She had been talking about various issues with the house (roof, floors, etc.) when she said, “You have a personal letter.”

Personal letters are rare these days. I carry on much of my correspondence by email and Facebook message. She handed me a large envelope.

I did not recognize the name or the writing on the envelope. The address was in Berkeley, headed The ____ Family. “The writing looks like a child’s,” I commented, looking at the outsize letters, sprawling “r”s in “Sharyn” and “Oberlin,” the uneven spacing and the way the “i” and “a” of “California” went almost to the edge of the paper.

Slipping my fingers under the flap I tore through the bottom petals of a yellow and white rose to reach a large gold-bordered print of the same rose above the dark green inscription “With Deepest Sympathy.”

Before I became a busker in the Berkeley BART station, before I became a writing practice teacher on Zoom, I worked for eleven years in the City of Berkeley’s Inclusion Program in the Department of Recreation. The inclusion program was an after school and vacation program for able-bodied neurotypical children and children with various disabilities to learn and play together.

Two of my favorite children in the program were a Filipino brother and sister. Both were smart, lively, engaging, curious. The boy became a special pal of mine — I often took him swimming, worked with him in the garden or the kitchen at James Kenney Recreation Center, had conversations with him. I watched him pass from elementary school into middle school and, after I left the program, I would see him traveling on BART with groups of kids or going to appointments by himself after he graduated from Berkeley High.

When I began busking in the fall of 2012 this boy began to stop by to have brief conversations with me. We talked about his grandparents and I asked after his sister. He came from a close, loving family. One day I told him I would be moving to San Leandro.

“Why?” he asked.

I explained that I had met a man named Johnny Harper who lived there and was moving there to live with him.

My pal asked how I got there and I said I took BART to Bay Fair station and walked, took a bus, or took a cab. Thereafter, he asked me when he saw me if I was going to San Leandro to see Johnny Harper, always using his full name.

When I opened the card, turquoise ink spelled out “Dear Sharyn” above the printed message “May you find comfort in the knowledge that the memory of your loved one will live forever in your heart.” My old friend had written below this “I’m so sorry to hear about Johnny Harper. May he rest in peace Amen With Much Love from ___ (He signed his name).

The left side of the card informed me that “my departed loved one” and my family had been enrolled in the Seraphic Mass Association and will share perpetually in Special Novenas and also be remembered in the prayers, Masses, and good works of Capuchin Friars throughout the world. And, on the back, the card displayed The Blessing of St. Francis of Assisi:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord show His face to you and have mercy on you.
May the Lord smile upon you
and give you His peace.

I have had no contact with my old James Kenney pal since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when I stopped busking in March 2020. I did not have his address and wouldn’t have thought to notify him of Johnny’s death. But my old friend is a whiz with the internet on his cell phone and, for all I know, has tracked me and Johnny quietly through the years. He is a sweet and shy young man and I feel protective of his privacy and that of his family, which is why I do not name him here, but I am touched beyond words that he has followed the story of Johnny Harper and was thoughtful enough to send me a condolence card and to make a donation for friars to say masses. Johnny, although he was not Catholic, or even Christian, would be touched that his memory and our love for each other rippled out into the world in this unexpected way. I thank my old friend and the friars who keep Johnny in remembrance and I write this to remind us all that you never know the effects of a kind word or a sympathy between people. In case he is reading this some day I tell my old friend I have never forgotten him or his family, that I was blessed to know him, that I wish for him the happiness he bestows on others and that he is always welcome to keep up with me online here at The Kale Chronicles or elsewhere.

The day after Eric and I go to Johnny’s house to see him, one of my old friends, Bob Chrisman, dies in Kansas City. I learn of his death via email two days later and decide that I will honor him in the Buddhist way, sitting zazen and reciting the Heart Sutra for forty-nine days. To do this I will get up in time to be on my meditation cushion by 5:30 AM, which will allow me to sit, chant, write, have breakfast and get out the door to my busking day job by 7:15 AM.

Because Johnny has asked me to call him occasionally I call to leave him the message that Bob has died and that I will be sitting for him every morning. I understand this as Bob’s gift to me in a dark time because his death assures my daily return to meditation.

The day before I learn of Bob’s death, I note in my morning writing that “my life without Johnny has opened up a hole of time. Al-Anon fills some of it.”

Five days after I see Johnny at his house I miss him terribly. I cry on my zafu, for him and for me, and the whole time I meditate “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which they play at New Orleans funerals, plays in my head. I think about having a big party for Johnny while he can still appreciate it, drafting his friend Mike Goodwin to cook vats of red beans and rice, hiring the Savoy family and a second-line band Johnny has recently discovered. I fantasize about inviting all of his friends and family and combining the party with an intervention, telling him “This is what you are going to lose if you keep drinking.”

One minute later I think that it will never work. Johnny will wonder where the booze is, will send out for it, or nip from a pint flask.

I still go to Al-Anon meetings three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I do not like them, but sometimes someone says something useful. In my spare time I read passages from AA’s Big Book and memoirs about addiction. My motivation for this reading is to try to understand alcoholism so that I do not blame Johnny for his choices or his denial: denial is a symptom or feature of alcohol addiction — it comes with the territory. Johnny will be telling himself that he can drink if he wants to, that he can control his drinking, that his drinking is not a problem, whatever he needs to tell himself that allows him to drink whenever he feels the need. Unfortunately for me, the more I read about alcoholism the more hopeless I feel. This reminds me of a nun I knew who liked to say, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” Eight days after Eric and I have gone to see Johnny I feel angry.

I am angry at the intractable disease of alcoholism. I am angry that it is hurting someone I love and I am powerless to do anything about it. I am angry that there are no guarantees, no fool-proof intervention. I am angry that reading about alcoholism, as Al-Anon instructs me to do, fills me not with hope, but with horror, as the hopelessness of my situation and Johnny’s seeps into my pores. I have dreams where things are out of control at Johnny’s house, water pouring from first one, then two, faucets, as I try to turn them off, but can only reduce the flow, twist and turn though I might. Dream Johnny says, “Leave it alone.” Dream Sharyn says, “I am going to slip in the water and fall, I need to clean it up.”

I am angry to realize that I would not want to follow AA’s solution to the problem of alcoholism with it’s “God this” and “God that.” If I would not want to do it, how can I expect Johnny to embrace a 12-step recovery program? I meditate. I go to 12-step meetings. I read spiritual literature and the Big Book and I feel like nothing is getting better. I post an oblique message on Facebook, telling my friends I feel angry and hopeless.

Some of them answer me. A friend in recovery calls me and I feel better hearing her voice. Then I go to see a movie I have run across, a documentary about back-up singers. I buy myself a dollar ice cream cone before paying for my ticket and settling into a cushy seat at the Landmark Shattuck.

Johnny would have loved the movie, would have known every singer and every band, would have followed each frame avidly, would have told me stories about the singers and bands later. He would have lapped up the interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Sting. Even without Johnny’s presence I feel lighter for having taken a break from my troubles.

The next morning the jukebox in my head plays “The First Nowell.” WTF? It follows that with “Puff the Magic Dragon.” There is usually a message for me in the song selections, but I cannot decipher today’s bulletins from the unconscious. I learned both songs way back in childhood, around the piano at Christmas, and from the Magic Drawing Board on “Captain Kangaroo.” I do not understand what they are saying to me now. I am still shaking, crying and thinking about Johnny as I meditate.

I get up from my cushion and go downstairs for breakfast. Just as I am about to leave for my busking shift, at the time when I used to call him each morning, Johnny calls me.