William J. Lannigan
In the early eighties, I was a fairly new counselor in an outpatient addiction treatment program in Staten Island when Frankie G. was assigned to me. When I first saw him in the waiting room, my eyes were drawn to his thick black hair . It grew unusually low on his brow and was greased and combed straight back. He reminded me of a photograph I had once seen of an Italian immigrant from the pushcart era. His dark eyes, strong nose and jaw were classically Sicilian, but his black shirt and pants emphasized the uncharacteristic paleness of his skin. He looked as if he didn’t go outside much.
While I was meeting with him and writing down his psychosocial history, he told me that, eight years before, he had been a construction worker working the high steel in Manhattan when he fell several stories down a shaft and badly injured his back. There had been multiple surgeries, long periods of painful recovery and large doses of painkillers to make life bearable. Frankie admitted that, from his early teens on, he had drunk his share of beer, wine and whiskey, smoked marijuana and sampled the pills that were passed around at parties in his blue collar neighborhood, but he didn’t think he’d crossed the line into addiction until after his accident. He had a history of painkiller addiction including morphine, Delaudids and IV heroin use. A methadone maintenance program hadn’t been able to keep him away from heroin.
He hadn’t gone back to work since the accident and hadn’t been able to accumulate much clean time. Although he readily told me his story and it seemed that his wife and family were supportive, I didn’t pick up anything hopeful in his words or his affect. The best I could say was that, rather than seeming beaten down, he just seemed resigned. Frankie was someone whose drug history, while more common today, stood out back then from the classic, male alcoholics I was used to in my caseload.
I knew the city pretty well and usually asked new people where they had grown up to make our first meeting more of a conversation than an interview.
Brooklyn, Frankie told me.
--- Where in Brooklyn?
--- By McDonald Avenue?
I had lived near there until I was seven. When I heard him say, “Dahill Road, “ I remembered my mother and I walking past Dahill to the trolley car on McDonald back in 1952. Usually, we would walk the half mile or so to kindergarten and first grade at Saint Simon and Jude, but, in rainy weather, I would be helped into my yellow raincoat and black rubber rain boots and we would walk to the trolley and take it down to Avenue T, a short block from the school. Sometimes, in good weather, we would walk over by McDonald to the triangular lot with a house owned by an old Italian man “to see the goats.” The old man had a large garden of tomatoes and peppers and several goats who roamed down the large yard to the point of the triangle where I could push grass and weeds through the chain link fence for them.
--- Do you remember the goats?
YOU KNOW ABOUT THE GOATS!!! HOLY CHRIST! MY GRANFADDUH HAD THOSE GOATS!!
--- I lived near there when I was little. I remember the goats and the tomato plants. The old man was your grandfather?
Yeah. That was my granfadduh. He had a little baby goat. I loved that little goat. They was goin’ to kill that little goat. They was savin’ it for Eastuh. I hid it away in the basement and fed it. My fadduh found it and took it away. Then he beat the living shit out of me…. That’s when all my problems stahtid.
I was stunned, I was really stunned. I felt Freud-like. Through a previously unknown genius or magic within me I had uncovered in an instant the deepest, darkest secret of this man’s soul. ….Well, it was certainly uncovered, but my grandiosity quickly faded as I realized, in the next instant, that I didn’t know what the hell to do with it nor how to match the force of his expression.
It was a long time ago and other details of the encounter have faded from my memory. My hazy recollection is that Frankie came once after this to a group session and then never came back. I know that I never did re-visit with him his experience caring for the baby goat and being beaten by his father.
I didn’t help him with his experience, but hearing his experience helped me. The memory of the force and power of Frankie’s response stayed with me. I began to pay special attention to both my own and my clients’ associations and, in supervision, I focused more and more on how to respond to traumatic pain. I’m back doing individual counseling these days and now I’m ready to be present and helpful whatever comes up.
I’m wistful now when I think about those trolley cars. There have been none in Brooklyn for generations. There were horse drawn vegetable wagons and junk wagons then also. Soon we will have self-driving cars on the asphalt that covers the trolley tracks. In the new culture rising from the old neighborhoods, there are no goats, fewer gardens and pizza is sold for $5 a slice.
But I well know that some things are as they always have been. Even as the best of things grow, the worst of things is always nearby, waiting to happen.
That is why there are currently 9200 children in protective services in NYC.