A story from Eileen Gates as told to Andre James
Winter 1972. The first snows had just chilled the streets of Detroit and New York City. There were billboards located near downtown methadone clinics that announced in bold white print: “Go to Synanon or go to hell.” With the threat of methadone clinics closing down, hundreds of drug addicts were hustling up money to buy a one-way plane ticket to this Synanon self-help program in sunny California.
Synanon had acquired unwanted real estate in both Northern and Southern California. The Del Mar Club was a distressed, white elephant left dying on the Santa Monica beach. After a few months of repairing, cleaning, and painting, she was up and running as the jewel of this first therapeutic community. With new arrivals on the way, her in-door Olympic size pool was covered to convert the space into the newcomer intake center.
In the north, the former Oakland Athletic Club living room was now lined with kicking couches. Every couch was equipped with a blanket, pillow, and a barf bucket.
Once prepared, East Coast satellite offices began shipping newcomers west. There was an ongoing stream of jitneys between both LAX and OAK to the respective Synanon locations. Dozens of eastern U.S. immigrants arrived each day.
Self-Help Nation — located between the epicenters of the long-haired hippie movement throughout California and the black Afro-crowned revolutionaries in Oakland — Synanon held ground in two urban centers. The guardians at the doors of this self-help nation could be easily identified by their crew cuts. On these islands for the recovering dregs of society, veteran ex-addicts maintained order in their urban recovery centers with a firm hand and a smile. You could visit. You might apply for residence. But, no drugs allowed.
The art of the interview: It was the job of veterans to teach journeymen how to interview prospective new residents. Anyone in trouble willing to kick their habit and go to work was welcome. But not everyone was welcome just because they showed up for a meal and a cot. This was no halfway house. Synanon was not for the weak-willed.
But how could you separate the bums from the willing? This was the question Eileen, a recent interview draftee was asking.
The answer: Just watch Jake.
Jake was a vet you will never forget. He stood 6 feet 6 inches tall when wearing his white chef’s toque. A big man with a big laugh who filled the entire doorway when entering the interview room. “Make no mistake, it was Jake the Snake.”
Jake invited Eileen to sit in on one of his sessions. Because no two interviews are the same, he wanted her to feel, to capture the spirit of the interview interchange. Just watch, listen, and learn.
The first prospect enters the interview room. Jake towers over the kid as he looks him over. Then he commands, “Son, empty your pockets onto the table.” The young man clumsily digs through his pockets to reveal a bottle cap, matches, and 35 cents.
Jake smiles and begins his standard introduction. “You know, most people don’t make it here. Most people go running down the road, searching for that next fix. Quitters. But son, if you can kick cold turkey, shave your head, and get to work on time every day for the next two years … maybe, just maybe, you can do something about your worthless life … like I did years ago when I was just like you. Now I have a job, a clean bed to sleep in, self-respect, and a new family.”
Two years? Hard work? Shaved head? Like electric shocks, these words get the kid to sit up violently, but always staring at his shoes.
“So what are you going to bet on? Getting your act together or what you’ve got in your pocket?”
Jake is waxing eloquent as he walks about the room not even looking at the prospect.
The kid looks at the table. He nervously gathers up his change then rushes out the door into the street.
“Well, that’s the way you do it, Eileen. Ready to get started?”
Eileen sits there stunned, with her mouth hanging open. “Excuse me, Jake. The kid left?”