By John L.
Thousands of people, now living all over the world, have found sobriety in a storefront room in New York City’s Greenwich Village: the Perry Street Workshop. For me Perry Street will always be Alcoholics Anonymous, my home base no matter where I am. In 2008, as Perry Street celebrated its 50th anniversary, members created a website and a brochure, The Perry Street 50th Year Anniversary Booklet.
When I revisited Perry Street last year, time stood still. I saw the exact spot where I had sat at my first A.A. meeting, 46 years ago. Almost nothing had changed. The podium; the chair arrangement; the hand-lettered Steps, Traditions and Serenity Prayer, were the same. The only thing missing was cigarette smoke.
I remember my first meeting very well, a Thursday beginners meeting in early January 1968. I was in bad shape, having almost died in terminal alcohol withdrawal. My friend Andy and another A.A. member helped me walk across town, from my apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. When I sat down, I was very weak and shaking violently, my teeth were chattering, and I was unable to focus my eyes. People said I should go immediately to a hospital, but I refused, saying that I was there for the meeting — so they covered me with overcoats and set an electric space heater in front of me. I identified completely with the speaker, a man in his thirties. Everything came together. I experienced hope and an intense desire to live. If the others in the room had survived, then so could I.
That weekend Andy had a relapse and disappeared, but I was not alone. I had a meeting list and phone numbers. Although Andy never did achieve lasting sobriety, he saved my life. He was the only sponsor I have ever had. In those days, at least at Perry Street, sponsors were regarded as optional, intended mainly to help the newcomer in early sobriety. They were not, as now, supposed to be long-term, all-purpose counsellors or therapists.
I’ll pass over the story of my physical recovery, since I’ve told that in another article, Physical Recovery, and concentrate on memories of my first year — what in AA has changed and what has remained the same.
In 1968, as now, almost all meetings at Perry Street (except beginners meetings) were closed — for alcoholics only. This lends them a sense of candor and intimacy that is lost when meetings are open to the general public. Anything a recovering alcoholic discusses, in the company of other alcoholics, can be relevant. I remember a small afternoon meeting at Perry Street — most of us newcomers — where one young man shared that, in the euphoria of his new sobriety, he had gotten a $15 haircut. We laughed and identified completely. (For perspective, that $15 haircut in 1968 would cost many times that much now.)
Sometimes discussions led into what I call “recreational arguments” — energetic, but good-natured. Some of the bones of contention were doctors, the Steps, and religion. Those who preened themselves on their piety, or even worse, “Higher Power, whom I choose to call [dramatic pause] God”, would likely be answered by someone who hated religion, especially the Catholic Church, which had blasted his life. At a meeting of the New Day group in Greenwich Village, my friend Bruce responded to an egregious display of piety by saying, “I’m in AA to be sober; I’m not here to be good.”
As pungently free as discussions could be, the Perry Street meetings were orderly. It was believed important to maintain a tone conducive to sobriety. Meetings never ran over the time allotted; if a meeting was supposed to end at 9 p.m., it did, even if someone was cut off in mid-sentence. “No souls saved after Midnight.” People did not interrupt each other, although people were tactfully prevented from speaking too long or running off the rails.
Active alcoholics were welcome at meetings, but only so long as they behaved themselves; if they created a disturbance, the chair would tell them that if they did it again, they would be escorted from the meeting. They usually remained silent. I remember one occasion when “escorting” was necessary; it was done, gently but firmly, by a man who had been a professional bouncer before sobriety.
I had been sober for perhaps two months when a thoroughly disreputable old man showed up. In those days people didn’t arrive from detox centers, but sometimes right from the Bowery. He was not only ragged and dirty and unshaven — he smelled bad, and people moved away from him. Vaguely believing that I could do a 12th Step, I spoke to him and did my best to carry the message of sobriety. Week after week he would show up, and I always spoke to him. Then one day he showed up: clean, shaven, well groomed, wearing a new suit, and looking many years younger. He looked so proud! I think I was never happier for the happiness of another human being.
It wasn’t always sweetness and light. Beginning in 1965, I was heavily involved in the antiwar movement, until my activism was curtailed by physical collapse in the final year of drinking. In August 1968 the Democratic Party convention was held in Chicago, with two peace candidates: Senators George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. The Chicago police, under the direction of Mayor Daley — violently hostile to the antiwar movement — rioted, attacking protesters, photographers, reporters, and bystanders. In the morning of 29 August 1968 the police invaded the campaign headquarters of Senator McCarthy, destroying equipment and brutally striking campaign workers with their nightsticks. Some of the workers were even dragged out of bed before being beaten. At this time I had been sober for half a year, and was horrified. At a meeting, with tears streaming down my face, I shared my distress — but for less than a minute. All hell broke loose, as soon as people realised that I was against the war in Vietnam. They furiously shouted me down, and some of them leaped from their seats to attack me. Two older women led me outside, and then to their apartment, which was nearby. Perhaps a half dozen others also left with us, and we held an alternate AA meeting there. They comforted me, and I realised that I had friends — but also realised that there are limits to AA discussion, politics being one of them.
Another newcomer in the Village groups was a retired army colonel. No matter what he started out talking about, he always concluded by saying that we had to have Victory In Vietnam. No one ever objected. I would remain silent, wishing that he and everyone else in the room would stay sober, but not sure I’d mind watching him walk in front of a truck. Live and Let Live!
Perry Street members were heterogeneous, although, as expected for Greenwich Village, there were writers, artists, intellectuals, gay men, lesbians, political radicals, and sundry nonconformists.
On the whole, there was an absence of religiosity. Some used the Steps, but others ignored them, and some actively hated them. On the wall were hand-lettered Steps and Traditions; the header of the former read: “12 Suggested Steps” — where the central and longest word is Suggested. The significance of this occurred to me only recently, when viewing the Perry Street brochure. All other versions of the Steps that I’ve seen on AA walls omit the most important word of all: Suggested. I would guess that most of the Perry Street members back in the 1960s and 1970s rejected the “suggestion” and simply ignored the Steps.
All meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer, which bothered me as I began to heal, physically and psychologically. In retrospect, I think that most members had no enthusiasm for the LP, but simply thought that AA meetings had to end that way. I and a handful of others defiantly remained seated when the others got up to recite the LP. Years later I wrote and circulated A Proposal to Eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from AA Meetings.
All Perry Street meetings, as well as the midnight meetings held on West 23rd Street, stressed the 24-Hour Plan, staying away from the First Drink. In my first year I must have heard thousands of times, “Stay away from the First Drink.” “It’s the First Drink that gets you drunk.” “Don’t drink, no matter what.” Most importantly, “You don’t have to drink!” These are what I needed to hear.
On weekend evenings, people from meetings all over Manhattan would go to a restaurant near Perry Street — Spiro’s, a large restaurant on 7th Avenue. Spiro’s would then be virtually all AA. There was a very long table that could seat perhaps 30 or more, and many smaller tables and booths. It was the custom that anyone could sit at the long table, as though already introduced to the others. The booths would be filled by those with common interests, including freethinkers, gay men, and those who qualified for Mensa.
A good friend during my first few months was Bob, a freethinker, gay man, and hemophiliac. We and like-minded guys spent many dozens of hours in booths at Spiro’s — talking about all kinds of things. We sometimes made fun of the Steps or Big Book religiosity, but always respected sobriety and the Fellowship. One day it was announced that Bob had begun bleeding uncontrollably and was in St. Vincent’s Hospital. In the next two days more than 80 AA members donated blood to help him. I did myself, although I was still so thin that the nurse wasn’t sure she could get a pint out of me. But it was too late: he bled to death. There was no Factor VIII then. Although Bob had despised religion, he was given a Roman Catholic funeral, well attended by AA members.
Death was a constant companion in recovery. I remember announcements of people who died in relapses, and others who died sober of old age. In my first year I frequently went to weekend midnight meetings, which I liked because the people there were fighting for sobriety, not dabbling in “spirituality”. A young man, who had been in for a few years, always talked to me, and we were getting to know each other. Then one night I was told that he had died — which hardly seemed possible, since he was strong and vigorously healthy. He was a classic periodic drunk, someone who can stay away from a drink for a long time, but for whom a First Drink means immediate disaster. The man who told me put it: “He drank until his heart stopped.” Less than three days.
The worst thing about the Perry Street meetings was the smoke, especially at crowded evening meetings. They were gas chambers. Just being in the room meant inhaling the equivalent of a half pack of cigarettes. Perhaps this is why I don’t recall going through nicotine withdrawal, even though I stopped smoking at the same time I stopped drinking. As my sobriety progressed, this bothered me, for a reason that is seldom discussed. We stay sober by not picking up the First Drink. But being in a smoky room is like puffing on the First Cigarette plus several more, thus triggering a craving for one of the most addictive substances known: nicotine. Although I didn’t entirely stop going to Perry Street meetings, I increasingly went to meetings where there was less smoke or none. According to the 50th Year Anniversary Booklet, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Perry Street finally banned smoking.
At Village meetings, an announcement was made: “If you have had a drink today, or a mood-changer, we ask that you not take part in discussion — but please stay around and talk to someone after the meeting.” I’m not sure those were the exact words, but they are the gist of it. On this issue, AA was far ahead of the medical establishment, which maintained that the new generation of tranquillizers (Valium and Librium) were not addictive, and had none of the terrible toxicities of the old tranquilizers (like Miltown). We knew better, because we had heard one person after another describe the harmful effects of Librium or Valium, and the sheer hell of breaking addiction to them. Obviously, this is an area of controversy. My own sobriety entails the avoidance of all mood-changing drugs, whether street or pharmaceutical, whether prescribed by a physician or not. I think it’s deplorable that many alcoholics are now put on psychiatric drugs before they even leave detox.
Some things change, and some remain the same. Perry Street and most AA groups no longer allow smoking and have replaced the Lord’s Prayer with the Serenity Prayer (or something else or nothing). That’s good. I personally think some of AA’s intimacy and intensity was lost when boisterous practices from California spread across the country in the 1970s: frequent applause and the shouting of greetings and various interjections. You can’t listen and applaud at the same time. To me, the emotional commitment of saying: “I’m John, and I am an alcoholic.” is lost when the rest of the room yells, “Hi-ya, John!”
I am no longer young, and no longer middle-aged, but I’m still in AA and still sober. Thank you, Perry Street!
John L. celebrates 46 years from his last drink in February 2014. He has a section in his website: Alcoholism: Recovery Without Religiosity.