Hell in a Bucket, Life in a Cup
My friend Danny fell harder, faster, and farther than any man I have ever known.
When he wasn’t following the Grateful Dead, Danny was an attorney representing black lung-diseased coal miners. His father had been a vocal partisan of George Wallace (for whom a lot of those miners probably voted) but the son swung from the left side of the plate. The only politician I ever heard him extol was the Kentucky drug-legalization gadfly Gatewood Galbraith, who billed himself as the “last free man in America.” I think Danny’s ambition was to be what Cleavon Little hailed in the cult film Vanishing Point (1971) as “the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”
He didn’t quite make it.
As boys, our families spent every New Year’s Eve together. We kids would take one bite of a piece of candy seconds before midnight, and then finish it after the clock struck 12, so that we could say it had taken us two years to eat the thing. A (truncated) lifetime of kindred foolishness followed.
Booze and sports, sports and booze. Those two elements were part of our every infrequent meeting as adults. But I’m afraid the booze became Danny’s constant craving.
Reversing the Hemingwayesque “first gradually, and then suddenly” pattern, Danny died suddenly, and then gradually.
In his late 40s, and in astonishingly short order, it all collapsed. His wife left him. He had a stroke. He had a heart attack. He was convicted of felony drunk driving. He was sent to prison for a year. (I asked him what the inmates called prison. The joint? The rock? The Big House? “Just prison,” said Danny, whose nickname therein was Oldhead.)
He was disbarred. He lost his home. He returned to his natal Upstate New York and lived in an inner-city halfway house, where he was beaten senseless and robbed by two thugs. (I hope they enjoyed the buck-fifty or so they found in his threadbare wallet.)
And then things got really bad.
But first, Danny found God, or God found Danny.
He joined an urban church, which provided the peace, serenity, and fellowship that the liquor and the drugs never could. “If you had told me 20 or 30 years ago that I would become a member of a Baptist church I would have said you’re crazy,” he testified in one of the videos he made for his new refuge. He read the Bible, he edited the church newsletter, he gave legal advice to those in trouble, and he listened to and loved the addicted.
Hitting bottom, he ascended.
But as the luckless protagonist of Detour, one of those film noirs Danny so loved, dourly reflects, “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
Fate blinked; Danny lost his mind. The doctors diagnosed him with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, disorderly cousin to mad-cow disease. The prognosis was beyond grim: rapid onset dementia, hallucinations, psychosis, muscular rigidity, death.
In his right mind, Danny would have made a joke of it: “Mad cow disease? Are you f—— kidding me?”
He never knew what hit him, thank God. Committed to a hospital for the indigent, he wandered the hallways for many months, well beyond his projected date of death, a solitaire in a milling crowd of the brain-damaged.
“Hi, Bill,” he would greet me, and then the lights would dim. He knew that he was a lawyer, and that Roger Staubach and Craig Morton had split quarterbacking duties for the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, but beyond that all was murk and fog. The only thing Danny ever had and never lost was his great stertorous har-har-har laugh, which I could educe by recalling some escapade of the distant past. Whether he remembered any of it I’ve no idea.
His sweet mother, enduring serious medical problems of her own, as well as caring for her rapidly invaliding second husband, visited him regularly. Hers was the saddest love of all.
Danny died earlier this year. The minister at the church of his boyhood, an old high school classmate of his, departed from the Presbyterian Book of Order and sang the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”:
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.
I was never a Deadhead—punks hated those interminable jams and that whole languid hophead hippie trip—but if God is in the roses and the thorns then surely He is in the fountains of youthful indiscretion and Oldhead discernment.
Drink up, Danny. We’ll meet again.
Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.