In the summer of 1995 I’d gone to San Diego for the world convention of a well-known recovery community. I won’t say exactly what community this is, but you know what it is. At the time, I’d been deeply involved in it for five, going on six, years, and had attended the previous world convention in my own home town, at that time less than a year out of the chute, so to speak. That earlier conference had proven such a positive experience, and with the pressure of my current peer group to participate at every level, I had little choice but to go, though my arrangements to do so by necessity came at the last minute, and the only room I could find available was some distance from my peers, at an expensive hotel on Coronado Island that I could scarcely afford. Once I got there and installed my sorry self into the overpriced room, I immediately realized this experience was not going to be any duplicate of the last. I was on my own, feeling already, chronically, quite low, and outclassed by far in this expensive, luxury hotel. The Hotel del Coronado was around to the other side of this small island, but already I’d been told that it was someplace I absolutely had to get to for Sunday buffet brunch, and Sunday was to be my last day in town.
The three days I spent at the conference turned out to be a bit of a wash. Unable or unwilling to keep to the schedule of events, I often found myself locked out of rooms in the vast, gleaming conference center across the bay, and spent my days mostly walking aimlessly about in the sun. My home group, who were there in numbers all about, were yet unreachable in these days before the ubiquitous cell phone, either by my sorry fate, thick-headedness, or simple lack of planning. It was my own fault, but still. Finally, come Sunday morning, the conference had wound itself to a finish. I’d at least made it by bus to the large, final closing event, but here I was alone as well, unable to find anyone from my group. My flight back home wasn’t until later in the afternoon, and I was determined to do at least one good thing successfully: eat brunch.
If I felt outclassed by the hotel were I stayed, the del Coronado was just stupid. Huge, elegant, dark, seemingly ancient – at least by West Coast standards – it stood a massive wooden thing made a queen on the beach by the ocean, and people far, far better than me knew it well. I would’ve just turned around then, but I’d walked all this way across the island and was determined. I went inside.
Alone in the crowded dining room, washed in daylight through the large, paned windows, it seemed my best option was a small table where I was soon joined by a stranger, an older man who was also here for the convention, who’d himself been sober for some 20 or more years – I forget exactly. I don’t remember either the circumstances that found us together at this particular table, though I imagine he saw how terribly sorry I looked, sitting there alone, and took pity. There was something vaguely abrasive about his manner and the way he spoke, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and he was never unpleasant enough to make me want to leave. I was actually glad to have the company. But he was thorny, to be sure.
“You think,” he said abruptly, after we’d been at table and making small talk for some span of time, “that because I’ve been sober for twenty years, that makes me a good person.” He wasn’t asking me, he was telling me what I hadn’t said myself, yet had – he was right – assumed all along. It was probably obvious enough in my manner and my speech. Though my five years of sobriety was a span of time respectable enough, his twenty years must’ve meant – at least I’d imagined – that he’d found a level of peace with himself, and the way I’d been taught to find this peace was through self-honesty and selfless work. Twenty years of this would have to make someone, at the very least, “good”.
“Well, yes,” I said. “I suppose so. You seem nice enough.” It was half a lie.
“You don’t know a thing about me.”
I looked up from my plate heaped with rich food. This was the first time that I really looked closely at him. A man at the younger side of middle age, balding, with a thin ring of hair remaining around his scalp and a dour look on his thin face, I could not have said he was a happy man. And he was here, as alone as myself. It occurred to me then, this man might not have approached me out of pity alone, or some vague sense of courtesy. Perhaps he’d felt just as cut off from the others – all 60,000 of them – as myself. Perhaps I was helping him.
“No, you’re right. I don’t know anything about you,” I said, or maybe wish that I’d said.
“Sobriety is no guarantee of anything. I could be a horrible person. I might’ve done terrible things. You don’t know me.”
Looking into his neutral, plain features, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. I saw a darkness, what I took as a potential for cruelty. But this I perhaps only imagined as well, because I was so vulnerable. Now, nearly twenty years later, it seems it may be that what I really saw there was just the loneliness, disappointment, and capacity for self-hatred that I felt for myself then, magnified and sustained over time and endured, and the hard aridity resulting from this. But whatever this man’s sorrows or shadows had actually been, he’d weathered them. Was he truly so unhappy? I don’t know, but he’d accepted something about himself, some deep pain. He was still alive. And still sober. We finished our meals and made our curt goodbyes, and immediately as he left my presence, I felt the rich food I’d overindulged myself in suddenly turn to sludge in my bowels, and made for the nearest toilet. Chances are I was probably also dehydrated, unfamiliar with and unprepared for the dry climate. But whatever the cause, I could scarcely leave the bathroom for near half an hour, and I still had to walk the mile or so back to my hotel and get to the airport for my flight. I was a miserable, sorry mess by the time I got back to my room, and I stank, sweating a horrible, rank sweat like rotting fruit. I took a shower and changed my clothes, then checked out and waited for the shuttle.