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Joseph Eastburn

Finding My Policeman

I came from an alcoholic family. We also had physical abuse, mental illness, and theater. My parents met onstage in New York City in 1941, and after my father came back from overseas (I hadn't been born yet), they moved to a lake community in New Jersey, commuted to work, put on shows, and as the alcohol started flowing, the postwar floating cocktail party was on. Golf clubs were swinging -- and not just on the course.

My parents did the best they could. There were no personal growth workshops, no new-age religions, or 'significant other' groups they could attend. In the '50s and '60s, everyone, or at least all my parents' contemporaries, were "tight," to use the old expression, whenever I saw them. No one took alcoholism seriously. My parents just drank their way through every emotion. They used the tools they had within reach.

I coped with our family war zone by eating my way through feelings the same way my parents drank. I was a kid and couldn't drink or use drugs (yet), so I also used the tools at hand. It wasn't until years later -- deep in my starving actor phase (a metaphor if there ever was one) -- that I realized I had food issues and found myself in a twelve-step room in New York City. I showed up there because my eating felt out of control. At the time, I didn't understand what was going on with my food, and frankly didn't want to know. The lady I attended regular meetings with had a plaque in her kitchen that read, "Denial: it's not a river in Egypt."

Much later, after years in the program, I discovered the Joe and Charlie Tapes, a recorded weekend retreat, on CD, that would take listeners through the first 165 pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Listeners who had another addiction could simply substitute their drug of choice, whether it was drugs, gambling, food, or sex. Mine was still food. Joe and Charlie were from the Midwest, where AA began. They referred to themselves as "a couple of drunks," told funny stories, and talked very down-home, calling the italicized sections in the Big Book squiggly writing--which meant "pay attention, this is important." They used humor to crack people up, educate them, and suck them into the often painful process of recovery.

One of them made the remark that when he started drinking, it was only a matter of time before he "found his policeman." He told stories about how a single drink would lead to five drinks, or ten drinks, and how he usually ended up in jail for drunkenness. As supporting evidence, he compared drunks to compulsive eaters, and reasoned that, no matter how badly addicted a person was, he would probably never get thrown in jail for eating. I listened to this story countless times before I realized I had already gone to jail for eating--twice. As the Big Book says, denial can keep us in everlasting ignorance about ourselves. It's easier that way.

The first incident took place in 1972 in San Francisco during the Christmas season. I was a young actor working at an experimental theater company whose old-guard members terrified me. In rehearsals, there was no script per se; every actor used his or her own psychological makeup as the raw material for creating scenes. The work was confrontational. Veterans of this kind of acting created compelling theater out of the whole cloth of our own personal and group conflicts. For a young person who had grown up in a crazy, alcoholic family, the place felt familiar--it was another war zone. Every day, I went to the theater frightened. Still, I was proud to be earning a salary as an actor. It was my day off. Maybe I was blowing off steam. I remember I was at the corner of Powell and Market streets, where the San Francisco cable car still ends. In those days, there was a Woolworths on the corner.

I was wearing my big blue winter coat from a Haight-Ashbury thrift store, and was with my friend, Kate, a blunt, round-faced girl from New Jersey who, when she first met me, had said to a friend, "He's a shit." I could always count on Kate to be honest with me. Somehow we became lovers but remained friends. When we entered Woolworths that day, I noticed that by the door there were wicker baskets of penny candy around a festive display of holly and red Christmas bulbs. I simply stuck my hands into several of the baskets, "like a bear after honey," according to Kate, put handfuls of the chocolate stuff into both big side pockets, and proceeded to follow her around the store, eating the candy, oblivious to the store detectives following me.

Finally the detectives cornered me and took us back to the office, acting like I had committed a felony. They confiscated the stolen merchandise: about seven or eight candies that I hadn't eaten yet. With the evidence scattered on the gray metal desk, in a tiny room with no air, the detectives told me that now they were going to call the police. At the time, I thought the whole scene was hilarious. When they weren't looking, I managed to pass a joint to Kate, whose green eyes grew as large as half dollars, but she took it anyway.

The police came. As they put me in a patrol car, I smiled at Kate with a rakish holiday grin. In my mind, I was like Robin Hood--more specifically, Errol Flynn playing Robin Hood--stealing from the rich and giving to myself. What I didn't know yet was that once I started eating copious amounts of mini Reese's peanut butter cups, I was off on a serious sugar jag and would do crazy, unpredictable things. Looking back, I guess it was also some disturbed adolescent impulse to get attention, and I excelled at attention-getting of the negative variety. I also had a problem with authority, which didn't help.

When I got to the downtown police station, they took me into a holding room with a very low ceiling and four walls of bilious yellow bars. The room felt surreal, like I was in a German Expressionist film. The booking sergeant who sat behind one set of bars frowned at me as he read the police report. He told me in an exasperated tone to go over and sit down. Behind one wall of bars, there were windows set in wire mesh. It occurred to me, as I watched the afternoon light leak through the mesh, past the yellow bars, that if I was quiet and respectful, he might let me off with a warning.

I started singing antiwar songs. The Vietnam War was still going, after all. The sergeant told me to shut up several times, which only made me sing louder. Finally he booked me for petty theft, and I was taken up several flights of echoing cement stairs into a cavernous open cell block. When I walked into the cage, the first thing I noticed was the sound. There must have been a hundred or more men in the block, and there was a low rumble of voices, shuffling feet, clanking, singing, shouts, screams--all of it rising and falling, as unremitting as one's breath. I tried not to panic. I saw a few young guys with long hair. They'd probably gotten busted for drugs. I guessed most of the other men were drunks or vagrants or failed small-time criminals (like me). I tried not to make eye contact but accidently glanced at one guy, who yelled, "What're you looking at?!"

I was assigned a bottom bunk for the night, and as I lay there, the feral young man in the top bunk leaned over the top mattress, eyes wild, and told me his personal experiences with the Devil. He was scaring me. His stories had the power of lived experience, and I thought to myself, Is this what Hell looks like? It was enough to make me swear off peanut butter cups for eternity. Some hours later, a guard yelled my name and told me to follow him. As I was let out of the cell block, I turned and saw at least twenty or thirty irritated men staring at me. Someone yelled, "Why are you getting out?" I had no clue. But I was in luck. Kate had bailed me out, and we took a taxi safely back to our neighborhood.

Ten years later, while both of us were living in New York, I met Kate at the famous Automat on Third Ave at 42nd Street, which was like a penny-arcade fever dream for compulsive eaters. By this time, I was attending OA meetings, but the lemon meringue pie behind a certain glass door was emitting a frequency that went off in my head like a siren. I immediately fed my change into the slot beside the pie and ate dessert before the main course. Kate was silent the whole meal, and when I asked what was wrong, she finally blurted out that I had never paid her back for bailing me out of jail. It had never even occurred to me I should pay her back. I reasoned that she had paid my bail because I'd impersonated a raffish thief in a western city and given us both a memorable Christmas experience. I would find out after many more years that there's also a twelve-step program for a substance called money. And one for people. I qualify for all of these programs.

The second time I went to jail for eating was a year later. It happened on Soquel Drive near Aptos, California. I had left San Francisco in an old Dodge pickup and migrated to a small town south of Santa Cruz. Somehow, driving around looking at old trucks, I had bumped into two guys who were about to move to Hawaii. They told me that if I looked in occasionally on an old man name Bill, who lived in Watsonville and spent most of his time in his garden, they would leave me their cabin that had the astounding rent of five dollars a month! The owners, who lived in Berkeley, requested that tenants send $20 cash in an envelope for four months at a time. The cabin had a one-seater privy outside but running water in the kitchen. It had a large boat in the front yard that a crazy neighbor kept promising to make sea-worthy. It was on winding Buena Vista Drive where it crossed Harkins Slough, down inside a small valley where the road could take you up out the other side of the valley and into the village of Freedom, California. I had crash-landed in heaven. I wrote poetry, drove around in my truck, got mad crushes on local girls, and made whatever money I needed by hauling things, mostly brush, culled fruit--which I'll tell you about later--hay sometimes, and fresh apples during the fall picking season.

One time, however, I was dead broke and pulled into a gas station in a little shopping center off Soquel Drive and pulled that stunt where (in the '70s) you could fill up your truck's tank first, then act surprised when there was no money in your wallet. The manager of the station calmly said he would keep my wallet until I returned to pay for the gas. This was a predicament that was best solved by eating.

I walked across the parking lot into the A&P. I remember having long hair and wearing those striped overalls of the period that had that funny pouch pocket on the sternum just under the suspenders. My best thinking told me that if I shoplifted a large piece of cheese and snapped it into that secret chest pouch, no one would see it. While purchasing some gum, I went through the line without incident, but outside I was surrounded by men in green aprons.

The manager told me it was no big deal. They would call the police, who'd come down and give me a summons. It was basically like a parking ticket, they explained. Afterward, I could go on my merry way and pay it through the mail. The only problem was that, in yet another airless back room, when the actual cop arrived and asked to see my identification, I had to tell him I had left my wallet at the gas station. With further questioning, the circumstances under which that had happened came out. The cop said that, without identification, he would have no choice but to take me to the police station in downtown Santa Cruz.

When I got there and told my story to the policeman in charge, my desire for negative attention only made things worse. Anyone in authority deserved major attitude, to my way of thinking. I remember the policeman's complexion starting to get red. He finally said, "I don't like your face. You're going to jail." He said those exact words. Of course, it wasn't my face he didn't like. I had just stolen merchandise and behaved like I was a member of the aristocracy. I underwent an instant attitude change, however, when he threw me in the clink. The experience was likely responsible for my losing interest in ever going to jail again. I still remember my booking sheet. My possessions were listed as follows: 37 cents, a rubber hose (for the truck), and a book of metaphysical meditations. I have no memory of the rest of my second stay in jail, but this time nobody bailed me out.

My food sponsor likes to say that being in a twelve-step meeting full of food addicts is like being in a room of broken toys. And yet people can be raised in any culture, have any religious upbringing, come from any country, and all our stories sound the same. We use a substance--in this case, food--to help us deal with our emotions; then the substance fails us, and we keep eating more and more just to get back to zero. By then, we're in an addictive spiral.

By now I had joined a more structured program, CEA-HOW (the HOW stands for honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness), which requires us to abstain from simple carbohydrates like flour and sugar, those feel-good foods that quickly raise and crash our blood sugar, triggering what the Big Book calls the "the phenomenon of craving." Tests show that these foods light up the same receptors in the brain as heroin. But because they're restricted, these foods often seemed like the Holy Grail. I was always thinking about them. I've gotten in my car countless times and driven to the 7-Eleven and bought bear claws or peanut butter cookies and a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Because the ice cream would be frozen, I would also have a table spoon with me in the car so I could start eating in the parking lot, where no one could see me. Never underestimate the resourcefulness of an addict. There's a Pakistani man at my local 7-Eleven who works the night shift. His name is Winn. Whether I'm abstinent or not, he says, "Hello, Joe, it's a win-win situation!" My sponsor says it's not a good sign that I'm on a first name basis with the guy at 7-Eleven.

Some of us take more extreme measures than others. A guy who led a meeting once told us how he used to buy the most expensive dozen donuts he could find, put the box in the passenger seat as if it were his date, and drive to the beach. At a recent meeting, a woman told us she repeatedly spent all her money filling up her car with bags and boxes of food she wasn't supposed to eat. When eating and driving at the same time almost caused an accident, she started throwing the food out the window. Later, she drove back, parked on the side of the road and, with her cell phone flashlight, tried to find the food in the dark. My favorite story from the food rooms was about a woman who bought a big box of chocolate cookies wrapped in cellophane. When she realized the cookies would throw her into sugar shock and make her ill, she put them in the garbage. Later, she came back and took the cookies out of the garbage and put them in the garbage can outside. When that didn't work, she took the box of cookies, put them in the driveway, and drove her car back and forth over them until the cookies were smashed, the chocolate and cellophane embedded in the cement.

You might ask--where's God in all this?

That's the spiritual solution. Clearly, willpower would not help us stop using--even though the substance was just food. So we were encouraged to find a "God of our understanding," whatever that might be. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, suggested that if we had an issue with the Christian conception of God, we could use the idea of the Creative Intelligence, the Universe, our sponsor, even the fellowship itself. Compulsive overeating cut us off from that higher power we could turn to for help.

During my period of living in Freedom, California, my father lent me $500 to buy a twelve-foot flatbed truck for hauling. Someone had told me about culling fruit in the San Joaquin Valley. I had no idea what this was, but I thought I'd try it. Anything that dealt with food attracted me, so I drove the flatbed out into the central valley.

Culled fruit is already ripe--perfect, in fact--but too ripe to ship, so farmers give the fruit away for free or feed it to livestock. In Firebaugh, I culled many boxes of cantaloupes, and drove to Sanger late at night and culled nectarines. I stood beside a dumpster, after slipping the foreman some money, and culled twelve boxes of perfectly beautiful nectarines. He said it was okay as long as I didn't sell them. I lied and said I had a large family. After I got back to Santa Cruz, on a Sunday, I made a sign advertising cantaloupes for twenty-five cents and nectarines for a nickel and parked the truck on Cabrillo Highway. It became a roadside attraction. I sold every piece of fruit and made several hundred dollars, which in those days was a nice chunk of cash. Before I left Sanger the previous night, however, I found myself with nothing to do at about one o'clock in the morning. I drove to a park and sat on a child's swing set in the dark. Here I was sitting in the middle of nowhere in the dead of the night. I was in my early twenties, but I remember it was the loneliest I had ever felt in my life.

The last time I broke my abstinence, I bought a large sausage pizza with a thick doughy crust and decided to eat it all myself. I ended up sitting at a bus stop on a street corner beside a major artery in West Los Angeles, staring at a lighted gas station. I thought, Come on, if you're going to eat yourself into oblivion, why not do it someplace nice? So I walked to a park near my house and sat alone, eating the pizza, practically forcing it down, again late at night, and was struck by the memory of my desolate night in Sanger thirty years earlier. I never ate pizza again.

Back in 1973, I stayed in California through that fall season to haul apples, and finally sold my truck and bought a used sports car in San Jose to drive back east. My parents had divorced, and my father had relocated to the southern city of his youth, where he asked me to come and help him start a business. It was a way of enticing me back home. I ended up working construction and doing theater in North Carolina. Eventually I went to night school, and though I spent many years trying to be an actor in New York, I finally got all my college credits at a single institution that was willing to graduate me.

When I moved back to the West Coast many years later, I ended up in grad school at USC. Just as I was hired as a part-time lecturer, I got a letter from the Santa Cruz Municipal Court asking if I wanted to expunge the shoplifting arrests from my permanent record. I filled out the paperwork, paid the fee, and somehow my teaching career was allowed to continue without anyone knowing I'd done jail time.

For eating.

©2015 by Joseph Eastburn

Joseph Eastburn earned a master's degree in Professional Writing from USC, where he taught for ten years. He returned to the classroom last fall. His writing has appeared in Reed Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Crack the Spine, The Tower Journal, Sand Hill Review, The Sun Magazine and Hobo Pancakes. His first novel, Kiss Them Good-Bye, was published by Morrow. He is writing a full-length novel on Twitter, The Summer of Love and Death.

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