Stories curated by Elena and Cordelia
The Bench and stories of those who sat there.
The Bench was an icon, a symbol, and a tool and in the end, it was just a wooden bench. Every Synanon house had one. It was part of the culture. Those coming in or out of Synanon for help were asked to sit on the bench to await either an Entrance or Exit interview. Most interviews began with a question.
“What can we do for you?”
This was an opportunity for the supplicant to express why he wanted to be part of Synanon.
Below is a collection of BENCH STORIES. The experiences of different folk as they came in and out of Synanon.
The Bench was what the Catholic Church called Limbo — “the border place between heaven and hell where dwell those souls who, though not condemned to punishment, are deprived of the joy of eternal existence with God in heaven.” Sitting on the bench meant you were either waiting to be let in or waiting to leave. Sitting on the bench, you were Nowhere. As a psychological tool, it was pretty damn brilliant.
The Bench! You would see it at the entrance of every city facility – Santa Monica, Oakland, the Paint Factory, San Diego, Detroit, New York. In my life, it mainly was Santa Monica, at the Del Mar. It sat across from the Connect, directly next to the elevators, and was one of the first things you’d see after getting to the top of the stairs from the front doors. Three types of people frequented the Bench — (1) Newcomers, who sat there for a relatively short amount of time before being interviewed, generally taken in, given a shakedown, and sent to the couch to kick; (2) the General Meeting-Hit-The-Bench crowd. For these folks, the wait was likely to be long, embarrassing, and unpleasant, with lots of staring and sarcastic comments from friends and colleagues, and (3) the Returning Splittees – see #2 above. Sometimes, folks didn’t make it back in because the “Contract” they had to take on was too much. It was distressing to walk into the Club and see someone you considered a friend sitting on the Bench. For anyone NOT a Newcomer, it was a “reset” button and not a pleasant one.
At first glance gothic came to mind and then I realized what it was and then it came to me that it was a harbinger of another time and when you used it you were either coming or going – you couldn’t stay there. I used it twice traumatically and put a few on and escorted a few off too. The Synanon never-never-land where stories begin and end.
I sat on the bench in the Manhattan house sometime in 63 with my partner’s brother Sienna (R.I.P.) we were asked if we had any legal holds I said I didn’t and my partner was honest and told him he had a bench warrant for jumping bail this guy said I could get an interview but my partner couldn’t because of bench warrant I told him “fuck you” and we walked out.
I returned in March of 1965 to Westport with a condom full of Dilaudid, which I swallowed I got kicked out for reacting to a big-headed punk Mat Notkins. Bill Crawford threw me out, he said “we have enough Humphrey Bogarts in Synanon, goodbye”. I said fuck you and walked out and met up with Marvin Newspapers Tobman (R.I.P.) who saved my life…Long story told it before.
On my way out of Westport, Marvin had just come back from a hustling trip in the city he introduced himself and said he knew a lotta my friends and wanted to be in my interview. I told him what happened, and he said it was all game please come back and just say yes to whatever they say, and he would look out for me after I got in.
I came off the plane loaded and sat on the bench at the Seawall for hours until they took me upstairs for another interview trying to get me to cop out to being loaded, I didn’t. I copped out a month or so later and was kicked out, only to come right back and sit on the bench again to wait for my general meeting. I think that was the last time I sat on the bench. whew!!!
“John: I met you at the Seawall around ’67 or ’68 you were a tall clean-cut handsome role model who was my tribe leader and someone I looked up to and admired:))) Am I understanding correctly that you sat on the bench 3 times to come in and ‘get with the program?” The first time you said Fuck you cuz your buddy couldn’t come in, then you came back but got kicked out of Westport. When did you come back after that and how did you get to the Seawall? Am I getting this right??”Elena Broslovsky
Did we have a bench at Riverside Drive, New York? I don’t remember one, and the hallway was tiny. It widened out by the fireplace, staircase, and dining room door, so maybe there was a large chair there Allen remembers a built-in bench that was part of the woodwork. He remembers a mirror and says it was elegant.
On July 5, 1968, my probation officer picked me up from the Contra Costa Juvenile Hall and took me to the Seawall in San Francisco. Outside the glass doors was John Branch. He directed us inside. We walked up the steep narrow stairs to the Hub (or was it the Connect) and I saw Kathy Roerick, who scared the shit out of me. She said I would have to wait down the stairs on “the bench”, while my P.O. met with the powers that be. After a while, I was taken to the Olympian Tribe Room, where Bud Bancroft did my interview.
It was March of 1974. I was a troubled 16-year-old kid whose life was spiraling out of control. I decided I was going to run away from home so I had a friend drop me off at the freeway and I would hitchhike to Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. A stranger picked me up and warned me about Haight Ashbury and that the summer of love had deteriorated into an area for street thugs and hard times. He said he knew of a place in Oakland and he drove me there. I had never heard of Synanon when I walked through the doors and sat on that bench. Destiny or random chance?
I sat on the bench in Oakland on January 13, 1970, with a bald head as a returning splitee before heading to the couch to kick…seems like a lifetime ago, but I remember it well…I sat there for quite a while.
Jerry came to Synanon when he was sixteen years old in 1968. In Synanon he worked in food service and on Chuck’s homeplace staff until he left in 1974 to pursue an education. He became an attorney in 1981 specializing in corporate and real property law.
Forty years is such a long time. Why then does it seem like yesterday? The date was April 1, 1968. That was the day I walked up the 20 stairs at the entrance of Synanon. In those days it was located in the Club Del Mar, a prohibition-era hotel and health club on the beach in Santa Monica California. I wasn’t there for a weekend at the beach. It would be six long years before my visit to this beach club was over. This is how it started.
The stairs, each one of them, had the attention of my lowered eyes. They were strangely grand in their highly polished state like I was stepping into a palace. The brass rails on each side and down the middle of the stairs added to the splendor of the entrance. The walls on each side of the stairway were paneled in a high gloss mahogany that was inlaid with strips of walnut and birch in a rich art deco design. The place was meticulously clean like a brigade of fastidious hands had swept through moments before my arrival. As I climbed each step, one and then another, my lowered stare took them in. Studying them, focusing on the stairs, the railing, the walls, trying not to look at the gathering of people on the landing above. My mother walked with me to my left. My Father, carrying my suitcase, was slightly behind to my right.
As we approached the top of the stairs, I looked up into a beehive of activity. The crowd at the top of the stairs was a mix of whites, blacks, Latinos, men, and women of various ages. As I looked up at them I noticed they were looking at me in stolen but deliberate glances. I was the center of attention. A role I was anxious to dispense with as quickly as possible.
The Lobby area was so filled with cigarette smoke I should have been able to get lost within it. Ashtrays were present everywhere. As soon as a person put a cigarette out in an ashtray, a bald guy would empty the ashtray into a coffee can he was carrying.
At the top of the stairs, the activity continued to bustle around us. The front desk was immediately before us and a sign which rested on it bore the words ”The Wedge”. As we stood on the landing, the stolen glances turned into more direct eye contact and included an occasional smile. Two or three people nodded as if we were somehow familiar. The moments of this seemed long. The awkward self-consciousness I was feeling had suspended the passage of time. The thirty seconds or so since we had entered the building passed by in slow motion.
Then, a thick New York Accent said ”May I help you”?
“Hi. I am Ann Leahy. This is my husband Jack and our son Jerry. We are here to see Barbara Stern.”
“Oh yeah. We’ve been expecting ya. Jerry, my name is Russ Peligrino”.
I looked up into the face of an amateur boxer or street fighter that looked like he had lost as many fights as he had won. His hand was extended and I reached out as though by instinct and shook it. As we were greeting in this way, the people milling about continued glancing at me, some seeming to go out of their way to get a look It was all very strange.
Russ, without missing a beat, put an arm loosely around my shoulders as if to guide me saying ”Have a seat right over here.”
He directed me to a mustard-colored settee. The kind you might expect to sit on while waiting for your tires to be changed at a Goodyear service center.
After I had a Seat, Russ took my parents aside and had a brief conversation with them. They finished talking and then came up to me. My mother was crying. ”Jerry, we are going to go now. You stay here and do what they tell you. We love you and we will talk with you as soon as we can.” My Father shook my hand without saying a word. He looked at me and nodded and turned away. After he had descended two or three steps, he looked back and Said “I love you, son, this is very hard.” That was the first time I had ever seen him cry. He turned and they both walked away and out the door.
The sense of being all alone began to replace my painful self-consciousness. The fact that the lobby around me continued to be as crowded as a corner in Chinatown did little to relieve a profound sense of loneliness that had settled in on me. My presence on this waiting room couch seemed to intensify the curiosity of the people moving in and out of the lobby area. Some of them would smile knowingly, others would nod. Still, others would look and then, as if being caught at something, quickly look away. Strangely, no one spoke a single word to me. Not one word. It was as if I were on display. Like being the object of observance in a zoo.
The area around me would fill to an overflow capacity and every 15 Minutes or so, someone would announce Clump Jitney and read names from a list after which a group of people, laughing and talking would leave the building. The terminology, things like, you better use your game or he reacted all over me, and the dutiful exit from the building every time somebody said Clump Jitney had me feeling like I had stepped into the Twilight Zone. In my head, I could hear Judy Garland saying I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore Toto.
Even when the lobby area was crowded and all of the seats were taken, no one would sit on the couch I was sitting on. That made the display feature of my presence complete. For whatever reason, I was being displayed to these people who made little or no effort to conceal the gawking part of that arrangement.
After an hour or so a woman approached and said ”Jerry, I am Barbara Stern. I think you have been here on this bench long enough, please come with me.”
With that my first 60 minutes of inside contact with Synanon, fell into history. It was my only tour on the bench. Though it was relatively short, it was one of those experiences in suspended animation that is easy to remember and impossible to forget.
Jerry Leahy San Diego House 1972
More to come…
Categories: Food Service, History, Uncategorized
Thank you for posting this. Jerry Leahy was my father and seldom spoke of his time at Synanon with me. Finding these snippets of his writing, artifacts holding our family’s history, is such a strange and special gift.
Thanks for posting these Cory. They all are fascinating and memorable and a little slice of life that many of us have in common. What stories these symbolic portals have anchored. Little jewels in the lives of the wanted.