By most odds, Jimmy S. should have been long dead, or in prison.
Born into a wealthy Pittsburgh real estate family, Jimmy became a hard drug user in his teens, graduating from Seconal to cocaine and heroin while still in 10th grade. Syringes and burnt spoons were regular leftovers at the parties he attended – four of his friends suffered fatal overdoses. Jimmy rifled his mother’s purse to pay for his habit, sometimes fencing her jewelry. He was expelled from one private school for selling stolen ID cards – “the headmaster was not happy seeing FBI agents show up,” he says.
At wits’ end, Jimmy’s parents sent him to a “scared straight” narcotics facility in Lexington, Kentucky, where he provoked a mess hall fight over pork chops and was beaten by fellow inmates. “A guy named Smokey and his pals clobbered me in the shower with mop handles,” he recalls. “Even though it was only a 30-day stint, it was still a federal penitentiary and I was fresh meat.”
After repeated relapses, Jimmy’s parents shipped him to Synanon in San Francisco – only he never showed up, falling in with a partying crowd straight off the plane and experimenting with bisexuality before the first AIDS wave wiped out a new group of friends in the 1980s. And still the drug use continued, even as he found work as a restaurant supply salesman and became an accomplished photographer drawn to abandoned houses and empty swimming pools.
I knew Jimmy growing up but he was a few years ahead of me and we didn’t travel in the same circles. His father Joe was my dad’s longtime boss. He and his older brother Bobby were well-known rich-kid bad boys – I once came home from school to discover a blue Corvette Sting-Ray parked in our garage, sporting the license plate “RU469?” Joe had confiscated it for some infraction of Bobby’s and asked my dad to keep it for a few weeks. I spent hours in the contoured driver’s seat, gripping the steering wheel and pretending to vroom it up to racing speeds. My sister and I found a strip of condoms in the glove department.
When I was around 11 my dad brought home a pair of caged hamsters – Wimpy and Wilma. They were Jimmy’s but he’d grown bored with them and we suddenly had rodents for pets rather than the dog I longed for. Always a stickler for decorum, my dad drove me to the S.’s house to say a personal thanks – I felt I was heading to my execution inching up their stone walkway and was relieved no one answered the door, though I sensed someone staring down from a second-floor window. One of the hamsters – I think it was Wilma – escaped and lodged herself in a mini crawl space under the kitchen sink. We set out a dish of lettuce and Purina pellets to coax her out but she never emerged, eventually died and stunk up our house for weeks – curse you, Jimmy S.
Although it had been decades, I had an urge recently to reconnect with Jimmy. There were mythic stories in our family about my dad rescuing him from drug dens and other outlaw scrapes back in the day. I wanted to see if they were true. Plus, I had a score to settle apart from the hamsters: Joe S. had fired my dad in 1982 as his principal deputy to make room for brother Bobby to run the business, leaving my dad to scramble for work at age 64. He wasn’t even given severance, just the remaining lease on the company’s Olds. I felt an overdue right to grill one of the sons, since Joe died in 2006 and my dad in 2010.
Jimmy wasn’t hard to find. Living mostly in California for years, he cycled through detox and methadone programs until finally cleaning up with help from AA and a renowned rehab psychiatrist – he’s been sober since 2004. He also moved back to Pittsburgh and took over the family’s development company in 2014 after his brother was accused of financial improprieties and forced out by their mother, a turn of events I found satisfying.
“I never thought I’d hear from anyone in your family again,” Jimmy said when I reached him by phone on the first try, but he quickly opened up when I told him why I was calling.
“Your dad Milt – how confidently he handled himself and had structure in his life and took on all comers. It took me a long time to appreciate those qualities,” Jimmy said. When his parents had no idea where he was during his darker days, Jimmy said my dad was the one who found him shacked up with a girlfriend in a seedier part of town and drove him to a construction job at 6:30 in the morning, usually in a total fog.
“My father admired Milt’s military background,” Jimmy said, referring to my dad’s extended stint as an Army officer during World War II. “He was hoping some of that discipline might rub off on me – I was a lost cause at the time but you couldn’t not respect your dad. He had a way of commanding your attention.
“Milt leveled with me, told me I had a silver spoon in my mouth and needed to learn the value of work and routine,” he recounted. “‘Always show up, be on time, know what you have to do and do it’ – that was his mantra.” I knew those words well, having received my own share of Milt’s front-seat lectures to “get with the program,” which in my case, meant maintaining a solid GPA and not getting off smack.
At one point, Jimmy overextended himself with his dealers. “I was stone broke,” he told me. “All my money was going to my next score. I couldn’t get a penny out of my folks, I’d alienated and disappointed them so much. One supplier had gotten rough with me and made it clear if I didn’t pay up, he’d come after me in a bad way. These were not good guys and Milt was the only one I could turn to – he fronted me the funds so I could make things square with these thugs. He came through a few times for me when I wasn’t deserving, no one ever knew.”
Now 69, Jimmy is rightly amazed at how his life has turned out. “I’m running the business myself, with a staff of 37 people and a runway of new projects and the rebranding of our company,” he said. “I’m here, frankly, because of some angels who kept me from totally self-destructing. Milt was one of those. I hated our car rides and the straighten-up-and-fly-right talks, but I’m fortunate to have his advice with me all these years later. My own dad preferred to stay in his office with the door shut but Milt always kept his eyes open and looked after people. I owe him a lot and regret not having had made amends while he was alive.”
There was shared embarrassment in our family when my dad was booted from his executive perch on the verge of retirement - it’s probably why I’ve spent most of my professional life working for myself. My mom was unforgiving and refused to acknowledge Joe and his wife at social functions, even though my dad found a new position with another real estate firm, free from the craziness he’d endured for 20 years. He worked until he was 75.
But hearing Jimmy’s gratitude for Milt’s tough love and bail-out support instantly dissolved the grudge I’d been nursing against him and his family for 36 years. The idea that my straight-arrow dad advanced money for the boss’s wayward son to cover his drug debt – now, that’s rich. I can finally say Jimmy and I are square.
Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.
Allan Ripp © 2018