Coming into Synanon
On June 2, 1965, my brother Marvin (aka “Newspapers”), who had come into Synanon in April 1964 and was now working in the Westport facility, was in Manhattan picking up donations to Synanon and came to see me. He said I should get in the car and go for a ride as he wanted to talk to me. So, our employee took over for me and I went.
He had a list of questions related to my drug use as well as my wife’s. I lied about everything. He started at the top and asked the same questions, and I complained that he had already asked me all that. He replied that I had lied, and he had the right info. So, when I started lying again, he stopped me and filled in that he had taken John Goldsmith into Synanon that week who I had beat for $70 a few days earlier. Then he took in Barbra “Cookie” Goodman, who had used with me and my wife the week before, plus Sydney Seingasser, who had been in detox with me in March, and Norman Garfinkle, who I had taken some money from about a month earlier. He had also talked to my mom and dad, and I no longer had a job at the newsstand if I didn’t go for a Synanon interview the next day. But I had to call and make an appointment. I said, “What about my wife and baby daughter?” He said, “If she goes, the family has it covered.”
Marvin and Bruce’s Father had a newsstand in Manhattan. Marvin worked there and got the nickname Newpapers. John Stallone, after he was thrown out of his interview for getting belligerent, remembers: “Marvin Newspapers comes up and says ‘Didn’t you get in?’ I said ‘fuck this place’. He said ‘it’s all a game John, call for another interview, and just say yeah to whatever they say. After you get in I’ll look out for you.” I said OK and came back and got in.” Marvin Newspapers saved my life, I would have never come back.John Stallone
So, the next morning, escorted by my mother, I went to Westport for my interview. When I got there, I saw people I knew. A staff member told me to sit on the bench and not talk to anyone. I was told that I would be interviewed by Bill Lane when he was ready. Two hours later, I was still sitting there. And every time I tried to ask when he was coming, I was told to sit down and shut up. Finally, Bill came down, and when I asked if he would do the interview now, he said sit down and shut up. Finally, he came and took me to the office. In the office were Bill Crawford, Bill Lane, Ray Acuna, and my brother. After a list of what would be expected of me, as well as some rules and guidelines, Crawford asked if I was ready to try. I said yes. He said was I ready to make a two-year commitment. I hesitated and said yes, while in my mind I said that two years was for the dummies, that I’d be out of there in 30 days since I knew we weren’t locked down. (Of course, I didn’t leave until 1976, 11 years later.) I was given a buzz cut and asked to make a bed. I went downstairs, and Lane told me I was going to the airport, that they were sending me to San Francisco, and that Ray Acuna was driving me to the airport, which put a hitch in my 30-day plan. Crawford had also told me that Synanon did take people back in, but for me it was a one-shot deal — that if I left, I could not come back. He also told me that they might offer me a drink on the plane, and I had to refuse it. He said if I drank on the plane they would know, and I would be kicked out.
So, Ray drove me to the newly named JFK airport. When we parked, he handed me a small attaché case and told me that it contained some Synanon literature that they wanted to go to the West Coast and that I should give it to the director or the facility manager when I got to the Seawall in San Francisco. Ray watched me go in the gate (back then no TSA line).
I went out to the tarmac and climbed the stairs to board the plane. I got on, found my seat, stashed the case in the overhead, and began waiting for takeoff. And we were waiting for takeoff. And we were waiting for takeoff. And people were getting antsy. Then the pilot came down the aisle and stopped in front of me and said, “Excuse me, sir, may I see your ticket.” I handed him my ticket, he scrutinized it, and said, “Mr. Tobman, may I see your ID.” Bill Lane had taken all my property as was the custom back then, so I had to tell the pilot that I did not have it with me. He then asked if I wouldn’t mind coming with him. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I bet one of the addicts in Westport screwed something up. We get to the door of the plane and on the top of the ramp are two NYPD detectives. They said that a bank had been robbed and that I fit the description on the all-points bulletin. I then tried to explain to them that I was going to a place called Synanon and that I didn’t rob a bank.
Picture it: I’m in Synanon for a hot minute, and I am trying to avoid saying that I am a heroin addict going for rehab. I tried to get them to call Westport, but I didn’t have the phone number (and of course they didn’t have cellphones because they didn’t exist in 1965). I gave them my family’s phone number. They had me cuffed, and somehow I hoped that they would either call Westport or my parents and it would get straightened out. At this point, we were standing on the tarmac, and then one detective came back and said, “It’s not him. They already caught the guy.” Phew.
Then the pilot came up to me and started apologizing because he had called it in to the police. So, he says, “I’d like to make this up to you and move you to first class.” I said that would be nice. We got back on the plane, and I got my little case and moved to first class. The stewardess handed me a pair of slippers and a footstool in case I wanted to take my shoes off, which I did. Once we were in the air, they started coming to me with champagne, about every 30 minutes. And I remembered Bill Crawford’s words, “We’ll know if you have a drink on the plane.” Alcohol was not my thing, so I didn’t have one. Finally we arrive at SFO and I get my little case and get off the plane. I was looking around for someone from Synanon with a sign or maybe an announcement for me to come to the counter, but for 30 minutes nothing. I thought to myself, Goddamn fiends can’t do anything right. I reached into my pocket for phone money but they took that with my property. So, it took about a minute of panhandling and I got phone money, called Information, got the number, called the Seawall, and explained my situation. They said stay in that area and they will find you. About 15 minutes later they found me. It was Don and Kathy Sura. They had been friends with my brother in Santa Monica and were looking for someone who looked like him. Marvin and I looked nothing like one another. Me, 5 foot 6 inches tall with blond hair, and Marvin 5 foot 11 inches with dark brown hair. Me, just off the street and kinda skinny, and Marvin in great shape at 16 months in Synanon.
Finally, we got to the Seawall, and this place didn’t look anything like the mansion in Westport. I climbed the stairs and got a peek at what was the living room/dining room, which looked like a giant crash pad. Then I was taken to see Jerry Brod, the facility manager, and he asked me how the flight was and did a lightweight reinterview. And while we were talking and I was telling him about the almost arrest, he opened up the case and took the literature out. Then he took out a large envelope that contained my property and ID. He had an expediter take me into another huge room with rows of bunk beds, and I was given a set of sheets and asked to make the bed. They brought me out to the dining room for coffee and cake and introduced me to several people. Then I was brought to something called the Wizard Room where several people were sitting around talking. They gave me a seat and I listened. The Wizard Oscar Camano was getting above the line a little while later Jack Hurst came in and introduced himself and had a more real conversation. Then I went to bed.
So that morning and evening were my interview and my first day at Synanon.
A special thank you to Frankie Lago who mentored me through some emotionally tough times in Synanon and the year after I left Synanon. I still don’t know how he got our phone number two days after we had gotten a phone. But we had left Synanon on a Thursday and that Sunday morning, Frankie invited us for brunch at a friend’s house. When I arrived and went to shake his hand, he pushed my hand away and grabbed me in a hug that I can feel to this day. We spent a lot of time together during that year until I moved back to NYC. For a couple of decades, we had virtually no contact. Some months before I moved back to LA, I found out that he had cancer. After returning to CA, I went to see him in the nursing facility. When I arrived, he was at lunch in the dining room. He had dozed off at the table. I walked over to the table, and the nurse woke him up. He looked up at me and said, “Bruce Tobman,” then got up and hugged me. We hadn’t seen each other for 25 years, and to this day, when I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes.
At the end of March 2012, my wife (Dot Reese) had been struggling with cancer for nearly a year, and I decided to resign from my program directorship at Phoenix House on Venice Beach so I could be there for her every day. Sadly, she died on July 12. It took me some time to deal with the grief.
In early 2013, I had a conversation with Rod Mullen and Naya and then started volunteering at Amity in LA. In early 2014, they hired me part-time to do clinical supervision. During 2014, I started getting to know Karen Fowler better as she and Dot had been good friends. Then Karen and I became good friends. So, I left LA in late 2014 and moved in with Karen in Sacramento.
The heat in Sacramento was unbearable. I was glad to be in Northern California, but I needed to move somewhere cooler. So, we started shopping around and found a house in the city of Benicia, where coincidentally Jady was living with her husband Gary, who was dying from cancer. I had never in my life owned a house and had never lived in a city of only 30,000 people.
I made some acquaintances at some of the shops in our little town and occasionally Jady and I met for breakfast. I also continued my daily walks, which I had started in LA and then Sacramento. But here we have hills, and I live at the top of one, which gives me a nice view of our bay, the Carquinez Strait. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I would fly to LA a few times a year to see my various doctors, and I would stay with Lena Lindsey, one of my oldest and dearest friends. I would also see some LA friends and former Phoenix House employees. And at least once a year I would fly back to New York to see my two daughters, three granddaughters, my great-grandson who will be 11, and my great-granddaughter who was just 6. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that schedule for now. I will be flying to Denver this year as will my daughter Alaina, her husband, and my great-grandson, and we will be seeing my oldest granddaughter there.
I do some reading every day and watch the news a lot and stream. I will be happy to see a movie in a theater in the not-too-distant future. Once a week, I enjoy and look forward to zooming with friends every Thursday afternoon. I have reconnected with my old friend Howie Tesser through the zoom call, and we may hook up in NY in September.
I get a little too much into politics, and I am terrified to see people trying to destroy our imperfect but wonderful democracy. It all sounds pretty boring when I play it back, but I turned 81 this year, and who knew I’d live this long.
Today is June 3, 2021. I am commemorating 56 years since I entered Synanon and have now amassed 20,454 clean-man days. I am thankful to all those who helped me along the way, from my brother Marvin who trapped me into going for the interview to those who became friends to those who mentored me and those I mentored. From CED, who got it all started, to those who gave light when all I could see was darkness. As a recovering addict, I could not have raised my daughter by myself, but Synanon gave her a school to grow up in, an extraordinary education, and several lifetime friends.
Special thanks to my dearest old friend Lena Lindsey, Wilbur Beckham, and Jack Hurst. There are many more people who touched my life in and out of Synanon. Please know that I thank you all and love you all.
Categories: Amity Foundation, drugs and alcohol, Storytellers, Synanon Stories, The Early Days, Uncategorized
My Dad was in Synanon in 1962. Shelly Stengel. We knew Marvin & he visited us in Jersey.
Thanks so much Bruce. What a story!
Thank you for sharing your story
It is nice to get to know you at least from a few of the Thursday zoom calls
Lovely. I got to know Marvin a little. He was extraordinary.
Thank you for writing your incredible story!
You have made a difference in so many people’s lives.
Giving them the tools that worked for your to crawl out of the pit of addiction and I applaud your efforts!
Thanks for the great ‘coming and going’ stories, Bruce. I had never heard your “on the bench” (and first class seat) story. A marvelous thread in our communal tapestry.
OMG!!!!! What a great story and great writing too! Congratulations on your clean man days. What a wonderful life you built for yourself. Write some more! ….Nanette
NiCE STORY BRINGS BACK OLD MEMORIES THANK YOU BRUCE. REST IN PEACE MARVIN. STAY SAFE
Thanks Bruce…and so very much more. What a life huh…lots more to do. It’s always good zoooooming. Love you man…still miss Dot (smiling).