Who Knew Chester Was Drinking?

Hugh Kenny

Chuck would often date the true beginning of Synanon with the dramatic night of the Big Cop Out. It was at this event that Jesse Pratt confessed to having used in Synanon. The truth of that confession acted as a catalyst, suffusing the group and causing others to talk about their shit. So, now, it seemed practically a ritual, that whenever a major beef had been discovered the tree would be shaken a bit to see what else fell out. This protocol would usually include a reference to Kahill Gibran’s observation that no leaf could fall from a non-complicit tree.

Building surrounded by shrubs
The Powerhouse

“Who knew that Chester was drinking?”, Betty D. demanded again from the group of old timers that had been summoned to the Power House’s game circle. Chuck had just finished beating on Chester for the last two hours because he, Chester, had at last, swilled down so much mouthwash, that even his glib badger-like evasions failed him. Now that Chester had been dusted off, it was time to see who else might be dirty. We dreaded the beacon of scrutiny we knew would soon be turned on each of us in turn.

Betty in the Stew
Hugh Kenny
Chester in the Stew

“ Somebody here knows that Chester has been drinking, Betty continued. It’s not possible that not one of you old timers noticed that this has been going on and on for so long.”

We stewed in the long, tense silence. We avoided Betty’s interrogating eyes and each other’s.

I had participated in this ritual innumerable times and this time it felt equal parts threatening to boring. My quirky compulsion to say the unsayable got the best of me.

I responded, “Well I certainly knew Chester was drinking, in fact, just the other day I said to myself, “ Look, there goes Chester…drunk again. I wonder when someone is going to do something about him.”

I reminded them that Margo, his wife, had been telling people for months that she thought he was drinking. She had called games on him. But no one would believe her. I believed her. I held that I had better things to do with my time. “What do you want me to do make a lifestyle out of proving that Chester is drinking?”

There was a long stunned silence. Then a shifting of the swiveling chairs of my peers to adjust their attack angles in my direction. Their keen senses appreciated that I was essentially dead meat. I braced myself for the ensuing onslaught.

Then CED gruffly cleared his throat and ruled: “ You know, I think I agree with old Hugh over there, what do you when someone lies to you as Chester did? You can’t keep trying to prove…etc….etc..”

I don’t know what else Chuck said after that. I was so happy at that point. I had jumped and the parachute opened. Just like it was supposed to.

You can’t “think” you remember Chester. If you met him, you remember. He was one of a kind, and I loved him dearly. The most negative and lovable old dope fiend who ever walked in the door. In his case, carried in the door the second time. — Jon Lamb

I remember when Chester copped out to drinking mouthwash, he sat on the bench for days in Oakland. People would go by and stare at him on the bench. Whoa look at Chester. Man, he provided great jokes and humor for a long time… along with his fresh breath. I think it was Scope Blue [all his peers will remember this]. even chuck came for a visit and a game —
Susann Bushen Meyer Thomas

12 replies »

  1. Margo,

    I appreciated your no bullshit, no sentimentality answer.
    Your “character is completely unrelated to rank” — that’s an axiom for the ages.”
    I hardly knew Chester in Synanon.
    After leaving I ran into him at a Warriors game. He was sitting right behind me. He tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that he did not think much of my book, that it was — notwithstanding that some hundred other people had contributed their stories and perspectives — just my “personal view” (That’s often a comment from people who don’t want to take a hard look at our former community, how it became what it became, and our own roles in getting it there).
    I was irritated but refrained from asking him whether he had been sober or in the cups when he read the book.
    Poor Chester.
    I never quite understood how he made it into the executive ranks. Whether or not they had integrity, they — Dibble, Hurst, Garrett, etc. — were largely quite capable folks. I could never discern much talent in Chester. Maybe that’s why he drank — to relieve the anxiety generated by trying to swim in a pond bigger than he could handle???

  2. Thanks, Hugh, for this story and the spark in your writing.

    In late 1969 Roger Woody and I met with Chester, who was then Director in Oakland. We wanted to join our life-styler friends who were moving in. Roger would continue to “work out” and I would work in the school. Graham was an infant, and unlike our friends, we had no money to offer. Plus, I had a student loan debt of about $600.00. We were paying it off bit by bit. I brought this up with Chester, realizing that it could prevent our great move forward.

    Chester’s response surprised me. Easy, matter of fact, and without a pretense of guru or power play, he said that of course Roger should just pay this debt with the money that would ordinarily go to our first contribution. I can still call up the sense of relief in my elbows.

    I feel eternal gratitude to Chester and for what he represented. May whatever scents of mouthwash and whatever grunge clings to his clothes from his time on earth, come clean in the great wash machine in the sky.

  3. I’ve always thought people’s surprise was pure bullshit. It was not weeks or months but at least a year that I screamed he was
    Drinking hair tonic or mouthwash.
    What happened to me during the time he was drinking was that I was vilified as a crazy bitch trying to break her husbands balls. That’s what flew at me during those years.
    And when it was over did people suddenly see me in a different light? Not that I noticed. Maybe some did.
    That’s about the time I began to realize that character was completely unrelated to rank. All the naked public figures strutted around posturing and I l began seeing right through them.
    Chester was a pitiful man and received no help from Synanon.

  4. I was assistant Diro to Chesterin 71-72. There was a managers game one evening in the SM stew room Margo his wife joined the game. She accused him of drinking aftershave. I’m sorry to say no one in the game including myself did not back her play. Not too long after that, maybe a couple of months, he was was found out on the street drunk, by Art Warfield. Perhaps someone in supply should have noticed that he was getting a case of aftershave quite often. But we were all contracted up because he was the Director who was at the top of the Pyramid. I have always fwlt bad about not backing Margo.
    It was late December. I had spent most of the year as his assistant. he always smelled like the donated aftershave of the month. After he was busted, he was sent up to The Bay to be confronted in the stew. I don’t remember how long it was before he split. But I remember going out to work around the 24th of January 1972.

  5. I remember when Chester got exposed and eventually copped out. I was a newcomer in Santa Monica at the time and it never even had occurred to me that mouthwash did contain a rather minimal percentage of alcohol. Poor Chester I thought. I had never met him at that point but I had heard him in a few Games that I had had occasion to listen to around the spool table in the living room that constituted the tape library in 1972. No matter – he was gone within days and I was left to imagine who else was nipping on the Lavoris in the Santa Monica house. I vaguely remember all of the mouthwash being removed in the facility and probably throughout the Foundation. It baffled me that anyone could even think of drinking that stuff as a refreshing swill to get tipsy. I think my mind had finally drifted over to the notion that some of the people running this place were actually bat-shit crazy…but with standards.

  6. My comment is on the ineluctable elegance of Mr. Kenny’s prose. Observant, to the point, and funny. Thanks.

  7. Chester and Margo were in New York, briefly known by me when I joined the Game Club, and he always smelled of Aqua Velva aftershave, which I later understood to be his cocktail of choice.

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