by Margo Macartney
The guy who started Synanon was stocky, cocky, had a big gut, a crew cut, and a crooked face—from an old ear infection, he said. He was Chuck. People called him the “Old Man.” He was in his late forties then, an AA dropout who saw alcoholism and drug addiction as the same. The chemical didn’t matter. What mattered was the character disorder underneath. The character disorder was what he addressed.
He said our work in Synanon came from an old Lao Tsu line, “Enabling man to go right, disabling him from going wrong,” a phrase that ran along the bottom of the Synanon letterhead, the stationary used in correspondence. That was the underpinning of what Synanon taught. It joined the other quotes in the concept box that provided topics for our daily noon seminars.
In those early days, in the sixties, Chuck was frequently evident in the Synanon House. He never held classes but did teach lessons.
Zev P told the story about Chuck sending him to the bank to make a deposit when Zev had been in Synanon only a few weeks. Zev recognized how untrustworthy he had been before moving into Synanon. Chuck wanted to put Zev in a position to begin to feel good about himself. Chuck gave him this bag of money — hundreds of dollars in donations from people all over the country — and sent him to deposit the funds in the bank. Zev had every opportunity to run off with the money or to take some out and use some of it. He did neither of those things. He deposited the money into the bank account and brought the receipt back. Afterward, he talked about how good he felt about Chuck trusting him, and about his own behavior. “I couldn’t believe it!” He told me, later.
Lessons like that — small private lessons, were common. Sending someone to the store for something without an escort and bringing back the change.
Sometimes Chuck would show up at morning meetings and try to raise awareness. Most often they were in his own ” harangue style comedy,” delivered in his gravelly voice. It became almost an art form, woven in words gauged to grab attention and entertain. I remember one, drawing attention to something, I think it was a box, that had been left on the floor in the same place for several days. He had picked up the box and was waving it around, like Exhibit A, with his cigarette dangling from his lips. In those days everyone smoked.
“This box sat on the floor just inside the kitchen for two days, and I watched to see who would pick it up and move it. Obviously, it doesn’t belong in the middle of the floor. It belongs in the trash if it’s empty, and it appears to be empty. For two days I watched. The box just sat there. No one touched it. You monkeys all stepped over it, jumped over it; it was almost a dance. It’s not a concrete wall in your way! It’s not heavy! Look how light it is! It’s a box! It’s in your way! Pick the damned thing up and put it in the trash! What’s the matter with you people? Wake up!!!”
His delivery was clownish. Everyone laughed. Not his exact words, but to this day, when I see something on the floor, I hear the echo, I laugh to myself and pick it up.
Reid Kimball, a director, had a different style. Reid was a former addict, clean for several years, brilliant, articulate, and funny with a sense of humor and a giant vocabulary. He was said to have come from a prominent Mormon family. He had also been connected with the Nevada gambling scene — to the point where Harrah was allegedly going to put Reid in charge of Harrah’s Casino at Tahoe, but Reid had moved into Synanon and was out of that life.
Reid wasn’t tall, was neither fat nor thin, a bit stocky, an enormous presence. He would wave his arms around as he talked. In this instance, two or three guys had gotten under Reid’s skin. He had given them a lesson in manners and gratitude the day it happened, now he was extending it to the whole house.
He delivered a lesson in manners one morning. One of our residents’ fathers worked for a milk company and had arranged for us to have the leftover milk every day. It was a huge donation. Reid had watched Ron’s dad carry one of those crates with a dozen gallons of milk upstairs the previous afternoon, and noticed some guys lolling around, watching. Reid pulled them out of their torpor and ordered them to carry the crates — there were several — of milk.
Reid turned the incident into a Morning Meeting lesson. He stood in the back, behind everyone. He wasn’t yelling, as he described these guys standing around while Ron’s father was carrying heavy milk crates up the stairs.
“The next time I see that I will break the knees of anyone I see sitting around or standing around and not. snatching them out of his arms to carry the crates up the stairs. We are so fucking lucky to have milk donated! Do you have any idea of how lucky we are?! I will, I swear, break the knees of any guy I see in the area, who doesn’t stop what he’s doing and jump up to carry those crates.”
I whispered to someone, “I thought there was no physical violence or threats of physical violence here.” I was brand new in Synanon.
“Ah, no, that’s just Reid. Don’t worry. He’s making a point.”
Well, he got my attention.