Life as a civic project


July 14, 2002


            Timmy is near death.

            Even though I haven't seen the man since the mid 1980s, I find myself grieving for him. His life seems such a waste, caught in the hamster wheel of compulsion.

            I told Ruth during our call last night that he had touched my life in an important way, and perhaps for that reason, defied the stereotypical perception we have of junkies.

            Whereas I cannot quite escape thinking of Ruth and Timmy as a single romantic unit, in truth they had parted ways years ago, each struggling to define their own lives after their attempt failed to define themselves as a couple.

            I knew Ruth far longer than Timmy. She is without doubt by oldest friend, part of my life from the day I entered St. Brendan's school to attend kindergarten in September 1956. Timmy arrived in my life as a rumor in early 1981 when I reconnected with Ruth after a long break. She, working for the Essex County Public Defender, had fallen in love with him while he was still in jail.

            He had an incredible talent for schmoozing, a man who had made his way in the world for almost a decade as a junkie and confidence man. People had warned her against this love, claiming he was using her. But she used him, too, seeking meaning for a decade of decadence in the fast lane of the 1970s. Whereas she never did heroin, the way he had, she had dipped deep into the social risk-taking that left her feeling a bit empty on the other side.

            She clearly took him on as a project, and became trapped in her own good will.

            Never able to resist temptation, Timmy fell into evil ways while a grunt in Vietnam, using the easily available heroin to kill off his fear. He carried the habit home after the war and couldn't shake it, falling into dark ways to feed his habit. Perhaps, he saw Ruth as a salvation as she passed through the jail on her mission of mercy with someone else, and latched on as a means to get back into the circuit.

            He could not have foreseen the consequences of his action, how embroiled he would become in his own salvation, and how he and Ruth would make a single baby together, before their partnership dissolved.

            He could not give up dope, going back to it again and again, even as Ruth scolded him against it.

            To save him and protect their child, Ruth forced a move west, where she got into the music business, and for a time, Timmy thrived, keeping out of harms way through Christian endeavors. But the old habit lured him back, as he took up work as road manager for bands like Pink Floyd and Metalica. His trips around the globe produced temptations he could not resist.

            He hid his drug use and infidelity for a long as possible, but by 1990, the cheating and heroin use became all too obvious. And Ruth's parting from him became more or less permanent, she supporting him from a distance, until his descent into one skanky relationship after another caused her to despair, at which point she gave up on him altogether.

            "I just couldn't do anything more for him," she told me at the time.

            Last night, she told me he had reached death's door.

            "He has AIDS," she said. "He's already lived two months longer than the doctors said he would. But he can go any time."

            The man -- whose photograph from 1981 showed as a wiry, yet muscular figure at 140 pounds -- had fallen under 90 pounds and looked much like the emaciated figures from Nazi concentration camps at the end.

            "You wouldn't recognize him," Ruth said, noting that she and he had made peace over the last few months. But she resisted taking him in.

            She also noted that she had maintained physical distance for well over a decade so was sure she had not contracted his disease.

            The signs of his ailment had been obvious in the early 1990s as he suffered mysterious disease after mysterious disease. The final disease was a South Asia variety of cancer, an inoperable tumor to the brain.

            "He apparently had picked up the cancer while in Vietnam," she said. "But it didn't show itself until his immune system failed."


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