Jake shows how it’s done

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.”

Eileen Gates Brilliant
Jake Smotherman

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?”

4 responses to “Jake shows how it’s done”

  1. Jake left Synanon and remained clean & sober and married to Priscilla. He died in 2001 and this epitaph was written on the Synanon.org site by the Mulkey Family
    “Whereas, Jake Smotherman was an individual who rose above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity – unselfishly sharing his person, wit, and laughter throughout the years of his professional life; and

    Whereas, his life embraced the understanding that
    Bitterness imprisons life; love releases it
    Bitterness paralyzes life; Love empowers it,
    Bitterness sickens life; Love heals it
    Bitterness blinds life, Love anoints its eyes, and

    Whereas, Jake conceptualized the ideal that :
    It is not our position, but our disposition that makes us happy and
    It is not just live and let live, but live and help live; and

    Whereas, Jake left a legacy of LOVE, GENEROSITY and RESPECT

    Walden House, his beloved workplace; Mt. Tabor Baptist Church, his beloved church and the place where he received spiritual fulfillment, and his neighborhood where he was highly respected; and

    Whereas, his warmth and concern for the Mulkey family earned a place as a cherished friend and an extended family member. This family does recognize that death is separation, but it is not an end to joy and laughter – nothing would less honor a life than to make our lives drab in response to the ending of what was good; and

    Whereas, we resolve that the Mulkey family bow in humble submission to the will of our Heavenly Father who does know best. We extend to Andy, Mimi, Meredith, Gregory, Melvin, grandchildren, and of course to our precious son, brother, uncle, and cousin, Duane our profound love and heartfelt sympathy at their loss and commend them to HIM who is able and willing to heal all sorrow.

    Farewell Jake, we will surely miss you.
    Respectfully submitted,
    The Mulkey Family

  2. I’m getting ready to turn 80, and I remember spending some of the best times of my life in Synanon! I have been clean ever since 1963! I am curious about Jake the Snake though! I knew him in many of the facilities, including Jake Smotherman! I just started wondering, if he made it, or gave in to the world of drugs again.
    Just would like to know, if he made it,and if so where he is?
    Thanks, Bud Bancroft.

  3. Jake was one of the best human beings I ever met, in or out of Synanon. I loved working for him.

  4. Margo Macartney Avatar

    Nobody could summarize Jake’s life more accurately.

Leave a Reply