I sat on the worn bar stool that afternoon, full of despair. It was 1985, I was 25 years old and I wanted to die. My plan that morning had been to drink enough to go up to the train tracks and jump in front of a train.
But even that I screwed up by drinking too much and passing out. I came to right before my mother was due home from work. I looked at the clock and panic set in. Not having time to shower, I still smelled like stale beer and cigarettes from the night before. I grabbed my hoodie, jeans and money and left the house. I had no place to go but the bar.
As I gulped down my third beer, I reached into my pocket to get a dime for the phone. I sat there staring at the coin, debating whether I had the courage to make that one phone call that might just save me from myself. I ordered a shot of whiskey. Staring at the amber-colored liquor in the shot glass, I took a deep breath. I drank the shot and walked over to the phone, taking my little black phone book out of my wallet.
I was anxious. I hadn’t spoken to Lester in a year. He always had the answer for me. If anyone would be willing to help me now, it would be him.
As I dialed his number, I was torn between hoping I could leave a message for him on his machine…or hoping he’d answer. But on the third ring, he picked up. This was back when there were no cell phones and no caller ID. I told him I needed help. I don’t know where those words came from. He must have heard my voice cracking with emotion. I said I had nowhere to go and didn’t know what else to do but call him.
He told me he could help, adding that this was a one-time deal. If I changed my mind, he said, do not call again. I knew he meant it. He told me to call him back on Saturday at noon to let him know whether I was serious, and he hung up.
It was Wednesday afternoon. I sat at the bar for the rest of the night thinking about what he said. For the next two nights, I went from bar to bar looking for what I would miss if I left. In one dimly lit, smoke-filled bar, the juke box played and the quarters were lined up on the pool table for the next player. Looking around, I couldn’t come up with one reason not to quit.
And yet, I felt split in two. On one hand, I couldn’t stop drinking. On the other hand, I wanted to. No matter how much I drank at the bar that night, I couldn’t get drunk.
Saturday morning came. I sat on my bed staring at the clock as it got closer to noon. I was feeling better and had a list of excuses in my head to tell Lester when I called. At noon, I dialed his number, hoping he wouldn’t answer. On the first ring, he picked up. Before I could rattle off my excuses the words “I’m ready” flew out of my mouth. He told me to meet him at a mutual friend’s house in 20 minutes.
I got dressed and walked out of my house. I noticed someone coming down the street on a bicycle. It was a blue 10-speed and the rider was smiling. I had never seen Lester on a bicycle before. I didn’t even know he owned one.
He stopped and I realized it was good to see him. His chestnut-brown eyes were clear. I could see specks of gold in them, glistening in the sunlight. He had an energy about him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He had something I wanted. I didn’t know what that was exactly, but it made me willing to follow him anywhere. We sat in his friend’s living room for two hours, just talking.
Lester told me he had joined AA. I didn’t know anything about AA. I had called them once when I was a kid, hoping they could help me with my parents’ drinking, but that was it.
Lester and I had partied together for years. For him to be sober and happy intrigued me. He told me to commit to taking his suggestions for 90 days. If AA wasn’t for me, I could go back to drinking. I agreed. I also agreed to meet him the next day at noon to talk again.
I went to the bars that night to say goodbye to everyone, since I was going to change my life. I realized these people were drinking buddies, not friends. There wasn’t anyone I was going to miss. Whether I stayed or left, they were still going to drink. So I left.
That Sunday, while we were talking, Lester mentioned that we were going to a meeting that night. I froze with fear. “I thought we were going to a meeting tomorrow night,” I said. “We are going to meetings both nights,” he replied. My mind started racing. Two nights? What was I getting myself into? I was planning on a meeting maybe once a week. Then I remembered what Lester had said. This was a one-time deal. I looked up and said, “I should go home and change my shirt if we are going to a meeting.”
“If you need a drink, fine,” he replied, “but if you don’t come back, the deal is off.” I was afraid to go get a drink because I knew, once I started, I couldn’t guarantee I would return, so I stayed.
Lester then told me a former drinking buddy of ours, Denis, was picking us up. “Denis, who we drank with?” I asked. He laughed, saying, “Yes, that Denis.”
Later, we walked outside and our friend Denis pulled up in a sedan. I got in the front seat. Denis smiled as he said hello. He looked good and he had that same gleam in his eye that Lester had. I was quiet until Denis turned toward me. “Are you nervous?” he asked. “Yes,” I responded. “Good,” he said with a giggle. I didn’t think this was funny, but AA had piqued my interest, since two people I drank with for so long were now sober.
We pulled into a parking lot across from a church and walked across the street into the school gymnasium. I could hear the coffee urns percolating and saw the cookies displayed neatly on a folding table. There were chairs set up facing the stage. Lester introduced me to a few people. I could barely make eye contact with anyone; I was so scared.
Then we walked down a dimly lit hallway lined with green and white linoleum tiles. We entered a room with folding chairs facing the front of the room. There was an old wooden desk and a blackboard. Every few chairs, there was an ashtray. The casement windows were open. I could see the sunset reflecting through the stained-glass panels. There were a few young people sitting on the wide oak windowsills, smoking and laughing. Lester introduced me to them. He directed me to a seat in the second row. He gave me a handful of pamphlets and a big, blue book. More people started to enter the room and I pretended to be reading the pamphlets in order to avoid talking to anyone.
I looked up when I heard a gavel banging on the desk. Everyone took their seats and got quiet. I was relieved to have someone sit in front of me, which blocked the view between the speaker and me. I folded my arms and slumped down in the chair, hiding behind my barroom attitude. The speaker told his story about when he started drinking, the things that happened to him while drinking, and his life now as a sober person.
At the break, Lester asked me what I thought about the meeting so far. I didn’t have an answer for him. I was uncomfortable. I had not had a drink the entire day and I didn’t know how to feel without one.
The meeting started again. The speaker asked me if I wanted to say anything, but I said no. People raised their hands to speak and I just wanted to crawl under the chair. They were saying their names and that they were alcoholics. I felt scared and confused. I couldn’t think of myself as an alcoholic yet.
At the end of the meeting, someone handed me a list with names and numbers. I shoved it in my back pocket and walked out with Lester. Before Denis and Lester dropped me off that night, Denis popped open his glove compartment. I looked down to see a pile of books neatly stacked inside. “These are for you,” he told me. I took them and before I got out Lester looked at me with a smile and said, “I will pick you up tomorrow at 7, OK?” I had always trusted Lester. He was the one person I could always count on in my life, so I agreed. I took the books in my arms and headed into my house.
Lester passed away in 2006 at 54 years old. He knew me better than anyone ever will. He could tell my life story and get it just right. That’s how well he knew me. I will always be grateful for him being there for me when I needed him the most. I believe he watches over me now, from wherever he is. The look that Lester had on his face that first day on the bicycle—I now know what that was. He saw something inside of me I was too sick to see. I see it now. It was the look of hope.
One of the gifts I received from Lester and Denis was to know them as drinkers and then to see them sober. I saw for myself that AA did something for them. And I wanted it. If you stay in meetings long enough, you get to see miracles happen. People walk in completely broken, with no faith that sobriety can work for them. If they keep coming back, you get to witness the change in them. Eventually, you see the change in yourself.
My life didn’t turn out the way I planned it. It’s so much better than that. How I cope with life today is healthy, for the most part. I am not perfect, just a work in progress. Today I try to be the best version of me I can be.
For a while, I have wanted to do something in memory of Lester. I thought about dedicating a bench in my neighborhood and sitting there whenever I felt like talking to him. Then I thought of planting a tree in a nearby park. I could watch it grow, like he watched me grow. Nothing felt right or enough for what he did for me. I finally decided to write this story for the whole world to know what a gift he was. I hope and pray that if you ever need help, you have a person in your life like Lester.