Friendship Hall was a large two story building at the end of Seventh street in Piscataway. It was a big old brick building that had 12 step recovery meetings all the time and every day. I always said this place saved my life because someone gave me directions to it just when I was unemployed and correctly thought I needed a lot of meetings.
“Just take Seventh street in Plainfield all the way down and make a left. It’s right there.”
“That’s it?” I said. I thought it would be more complicated than that.
“Yes. That’s it.” then added
“Those are the directions but you have to show up for it to work”
“Oh, of course.” I said. My sponsor at the time had too much sarcasm. Everything wasn’t funny for me at this time. I was dead serious on not going back to jail and losing another job.
This is where I first met Bill. I had almost two years sobriety and he stumbled into a noon meeting one hot afternoon. He was in his late sixties, tall and very quiet. For weeks he never shared, helped clean up, or read from the books. He was just there.
Bill came over to me after another lunch meeting one day when I was cleaning up. I had a coffee commitment which meant coming an hour early to set up and make a big pot of coffee. It kept me busy and sober. He started talking about the Giants to me. After a few minutes of chit-chat I looked down and realized my deep blue Giants Jersey was the reason that this conversation was born. I was just glad to finally see Bill talking with someone and not running out the door at the end of the meeting like he normally did.
“Yeah, this kid out of Georgia looks like he might be a winner.”
“Oh by the way, my name is George” and I held out my hand and found out he was Bill.
His voice was faint and scratchy and kind of hard to understand but I stopped what I was doing, leaned in and had a conversation with him. This could actually be crucial to whether Bill keeps coming back or not. I was proud of myself to understand that and even more so when I realized I was helping another alcoholic just by talking football with him.
He saw that I was struggling to understand him over the after meeting conversations and clean up.
“I’m sorry George” he said, “I’m getting over some chemo therapy I had for throat cancer.”
“Oh wow, yeah, hey, that’s awful” it suddenly became even hotter in room.
To make it even more awkward for me he pulled open his shirt collar and showed me the baby smooth skin burned by radiation.
“Oh. Oh. Hey wow. I’m sorry. Is everything ok now?”
“That was a lethal combination for me. Fifty years of alcohol and cigarettes.” he said with a smile.
“Yeah, shit. Sorry man.” I stammered, still trying to be cool.
“I’m the one who is sorry, George. Don’t worry about it, Ok?”
“Yeah sure. Ummm, hey good meeting huh?”
“Yeah,” he said after clearing his throat, “they are all good meetings but I think I started going too late.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. It’s never too late to get your life together, is it? I thought to myself.
So Bill and I hooked up. We sat together at meetings and he still never participated and actually seemed bored at points. It was 1990 and the public assault on smokers really hadn’t started yet. There was a lot of smoking in AA meetings and one day I asked Bill if it bothered him being that he was apparently an ex smoker. “Well, yeah, actually I haven’t totally quit yet, but I have cut down. Nicotine is a tough monster George.”
“Hey,” he continued “The Giants are having Summer camp in New Jersey this year. Madison. Not that far away. We should go check it out”
His blue eyes lit up and I realized that saying no was out of the question.
“Great!” he said and took a pen from the coffee table scratched down his address on a stray phone list and told me to meet him at his house tomorrow at “eight am sharp!”.
As much as the program of AA is to reach out and be social with other recovering people, it was the part of the program I mostly hated and dreaded. Besides, I was beginning to wonder just how much “recovery” Bill really had.
The sun began it’s annual baking sessions in August in the north east on a hot muggy morning when I set out to Bills house. He was close to Friendship Hall in a typical middle class neighborhood. All the houses were lined up in a row with the same design just different colors. I was hoping he would be waiting outside but he wasn’t. So I got out of the deep freeze in my car and stumbled into the nagging heat and up the crooked concrete path to his front door. The grass was up to my knees and cradled several old rusty bikes and other odds and ends that I couldn’t make out. Ok, this guy is slob I summarized to myself but he’s still a nice old man. As I got closer it really hit me how neglected the house was. I mean years of neglect. Shingles were hanging by a nail and empty garbage cans were turned over and captured in a sea of weeds. I tried to stop staring and looking around in disbelief as I approached his home.
I knocked and patiently waited. When the big wooden door creaked open he quickly came out and shut the door behind him. I admit I wanted to get a glance inside and to see if the chaos outside continued in there but he didn’t give me a chance I was engulfed in his aura of aqua velvet as he looked down at me with those sparkling blue eyes and barked. “Ready!” to which I replied. “Lets go Giants!” We hopped into his powder blue pick up truck in the crumbling asphalt of the drive way and took off down the road to see the New York Giants practice for the upcoming season.
I tried to get a personal conversation going on our drive to the university where they held the practice sessions. Since seeing his home and his quick exit and swift slam of the front door I suddenly had become quite interested in his life. Wife? Kids? Job? Retirement? I realized I knew nothing of this guy and had suddenly found myself trucking down the road in his pick up truck. That compounded by his total lack of interest in the AA meetings had suddenly ignited my imagination. MAN FOUND FLOATING IN RARITAN RIVER WITH THROAT SLASHED the headlines would say. My obituary would read what a nice guy I was, a big Giant fan that had found sobriety in the last two years of his life but was stupid enough to out on a “day trip” with a strange old man.
My nervous imagination decided that this would be a good time to find things out but he dodged every personal question and managed to change the subject to football. My frustration with finding out about this guy ended up with a long look at him while he was driving. All I saw was that pushed up collar on his shirt attempting to hide his chemo smoothed skin.
“So Bill, are you completely cancer free now? I took a shot and asked
“We’re here!” he answered.
Our arrival had given him another escape route to who he is.
This guy is slick I thought but I know I can run faster than him if he tries to kill me.
I decided to myself that I was going to tell him on the way home that it’s never too late to come to AA and get sober.
I’ve been to several Giant practice sessions in my life and have always enjoyed them. Very laid back with no “win or lose” tension. It can get tedious without the clock and structure of a real game but you feel like a real fan following your team from the depths of practice in the long hot Summer. The crowd will cheer and yell for a great catch or tackle and better than all of that you are at field level with all the players. After spending a lifetime in the upper section it’s a breath of fresh air to actually see a players face through his face mask.
I’m standing next to Bill and we’re having a good time and I suddenly lost that dark mysterious feeling I had on the way up here. It’s rare when I’m with someone who is taller than me but there me and Bill are mingling by the gate leading to the locker rooms watching the players jog by. Most of the players had blinders on and quickly ignored any request for autographs. “Look, here comes Hampton, their number one pick”, Bill says. He was the only one walking and it seemed like he came right up to me. He was in a white away Jersey with a big blue number 27 that came right up to my face. I was lost in the moment but somehow managed to hold out my hand and I was surprised when he grabbed it! “Have a great season Rodney. Welcome to the Giants” I was impressed with what had come out. Almost as if I rehearsed it. I surely wasn’t expecting to meet any players today so I was totally unprepared and the look on my face must have announced that because I heard Bill chuckle as he stood aside me. He firmly shook my hand and said, “Thank you young man” and then this incredible smile by him followed by, “I think we have a good team this year.” he said with that humble southern accent.
And then just like that he was gone. I was still stunned when Bill tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Wow! What a nice guy!”
And I was like yeah, what a nice guy. Yes, a NICE guy. The ride home was a blur. Bill kept laughing at me because he knew I was a little shell shocked. Rodney had never yet played a down for the Giants but in football terms a first round draft pick is a big deal. But technically he was a nobody, he might even get cut or injured and never play but I didn’t care, he was a nice guy that came to ME.. I had never had a first hand encounter with a celebrity or professional sport star and I never understood the hoopla. But now I did. I was like on a cloud. I felt like a little boy again acting all crazy about something that was just downright silly. I remembered my sponsor telling me once, “Don’t ever put anybody up on a pedestal.”
But that was all nonsense now because Rodney Hampton was the greatest football player EVER in my mind at that moment.
The day ended like that, I had forgotten about the mysteries of Bill. He dropped me off by my car, gave me a big sparkling blue-eyed smile and said “See ya George”
I never saw Bill again. He never came back to meetings. We never exchanged phone numbers and he was just gone. I really thought nothing of it until like about a month later and I was thinking about him and actually hoping that everything was ok. I had no way to really contact him but I did know where he lived. One day after cleaning up after a meeting I got in my car to go home and I made a quick turn down the street where his house was. It felt creepy driving by his house real slow. His truck was there so I drove by again and this time I stopped and parked. I got out and once again made my up to his unkempt home. The doorbell was covered with a strip of electric tape and there was a hole in the screen door big enough to put my hand thru where I reluctantly gave a few knocks on the weathered front door. Knock knock knock. Silence. Once again knock knock knock. Silence.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I opened the creaky screen door and put my hand on the door knob to get in. I slowly turned the knob. Oh my God, I thought it was open. Almost acting like I was hypnotized I opened the door and took one step in. What the hell am I doing I thought. “Bill!” I called out.
There was a stunning silence except maybe a dripping faucet from somewhere. “Hey Bill, it’s George”
More silence and dripping faucet and suddenly all those imaginative fears of Bill came rushing back yet I took some more steps towards what looked like the kitchen. Maybe he IS a freaky murderer or pedophile! My heart was pounding as I approached the kitchen opening. “Bill, you there?”
I stopped and it felt like my heart was still walking ahead as it was pounding in my chest. I stood motionless and looked around. The house was totally trashed. There was a musky smell of nicotine and old alcohol . Over flowing ashtrays and empty beer cans everywhere. The walls which should have probably been white were a dull yellow from years of cigarettes, so was the refrigerator and windows. There were no curtains but broken yellow blinds shut tight. There were some crooked pictures hanging on the wall. The walls also had scuff marks and holes from possibly something being thrown at them.
If Bill just suddenly shows up I’ll just say I’m sorry but I was worried about you. Yeah right, and then he slices my throat with a rusty kitchen knife.
I slowly tip toed over to the photos on the wall. It was a professional shot of a happy family on the beach. There was mom and dad had has his arm around her and big smile on his face. Wow, I recognize that smile. I suddenly realized, that was Bill in the photo. In much happier times. And two kids! A boy and a girl standing in front of them both wearing big smiles and braces.
So, he is or was married AND he had kids. But where is everybody … including him? My imagination went off at warp speed again. Perhaps he murdered them and put their bodies under the house. Or maybe, I thought, the family just left him. This is the saga of the alcoholic family gone very bad. I’m standing right in the middle of the last chapter of Bills life. I snapped out of it and looked down at myself. I’m standing in a strange mans house alone looking around. Really creepy I thought and suddenly headed for the door. It was still open so I peeked outside first to see if there was anybody before I took off shut the door, jumped in my car and headed home.
My head was spinning as I drove home. What the hell is wrong with me? You don’t just walk into peoples houses. What if he was home? Where is his family?
I moved on from that day and hoped Bill would walk through Friendship Hall doors one day. We had a lot to talk about. The Giants were first in the NFC east and were playing very well. But Bill never showed up. About a year later I drove by his house again and slowed to a crawl as his tattered old home no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. That’s because the lawn was beautiful, the house was painted and fixed up. His truck was gone too. I stopped my car and just stared. At that moment the front door and brand new screen door flew open and a man holding a young child appeared with apparently his pregnant wife. I accelerated as to not attract any attention and went home. Wow, I thought. Bill is gone.
As for Rodney Hampton he went on to have a fabulous career with the Giants for which I lived and died every time he touched the ball only because at one time, his hand had touched mine. I never forgot that smile Rodney gave me that very hot afternoon in 1990 even after he retired. And Bills smile remains with me too. I thought of what his life had become and how he ended up alone dying of cancer. I think of his bright-blue-sparkly-eyed smile when he said, “George I think I came here a little too late”.