By Richard Hoffman
Now, in the dark years of Trump, when photos of neo-Nazis, of White Nationalists, appear again and again in the news, on social media, on TV, I find myself looking for a certain face, looking again and again at the twisted pixelated faces of hatred in a kind of angry and fearful version of “Where’s Waldo?” I am looking for Andrei.
A dozen years ago, Andrei, whose name is not Andrei, had approached me at a 12-step meeting after I’d raised my hand to signal I was willing to help any newly sober people in the room. He was hollow-eyed, dirty, biting at his cuticles, his face and nose scraped bloody. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and talk. For whatever reason, this seemed to throw him into a panic, “No, no, I mean thank you, but could I just have your phone number so I can call you?”
We spoke regularly for about six months, Andrei getting visibly better, sometimes even smiling. We were both attending a “Step Meeting” where the group works through one of the 12 steps each week. Often we talked on the sidewalk outside the meeting, where he would hang out with the other smokers. I learned from him that he had been hospitalized for depression, that he’d been kicked out of a group home for drinking, that he was angry at the state mental health system. Once he’d reestablished his abstinence, and agreed to take his medications, he was allowed to return.
It was months before we shared a laugh, when, at the mid-meeting break, an avalanche of snow came down off the roof on a guy trying to light a cigarette. I remember because as I laughed, I touched my hand to his shoulder a moment and he recoiled almost violently. I made a mental note not to touch him again.
Andrei was estranged from his parents, and told me that he could now see how badly he had let them down. He was especially remorseful about the way he had treated his father the last time he’d seen him. “Richard, I really abused the man. I mean, he’s a guy doing his best. He came here from Russia, hardly speaks any English even now. When I was growing up the other kids made fun of him and I would get my ass kicked trying to stick up for him. Sticking up for myself, I guess. Richard, I rejected him. I told him he was a fucking loser. What kind of a son does that? What kind of a person? I broke his heart.”
We were coming to Step 9: Made direct amends to such people except when to do so would injure others, and soon after that, Andrei the prodigal son paid his father a visit in Florida. He wept when he told me about it. “We were bawling our eyes out. He was so happy to see me! Why was he happy to see me? Why? After all I’d said and done, all the hurt I caused him? “
Andrei wanted to go to art school, or to study art history. After his second year of continuous sobriety, he made me a book in which he mounted reproductions of his favorite Rembrandt paintings on colored paper, hand lettering information from art history texts on each page, sewing it together with colored thread and ribbon. It was a beautiful one-of-a-kind gift I still have.
Andrei continued to put his life back together. He moved into his own place. He found a job he liked, with people he enjoyed. Our conversations changed. I told him something of my life. I showed him pictures of my beloved grandson, my daughter’s boy, whose Jamaican father was just then in prison. I talked about my father, who was dying. We were becoming friends. He was working full-time, and now that he had a little money, he began to invite me for lunch, always insistent that he would pay.
At one point, when I had not seen him for a couple of months, I arrived to meet him in a cafe and hardly recognized him. He had lost a good deal of weight; he was in great shape, smartly dressed, and with a vitality I had never seen in him before. I told him he looked great. He told me he had gone off his medications.
“It’s dope is what it is. I’ve been so doped up for so long I haven’t been able to feel a thing. To stay in the group home I had to take the meds they gave me. Turned me into a fucking zombie. I’m done with all that.” He’d met a woman he called his girlfriend. “You want anything else? No, no, sit. I’ll get it. Ice tea? A napkin? Remember this is on me.”
Then, about two weeks later I came home late to a message. “Richard. Yeah. This is Andrei. Listen, I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to get drunk tonight. I decided… you know what just fuck it. I just figured I owe it to you to let you know, man. That’s all. That’s it.” I called him. No answer. First thing in the morning I called again.
“Nah. I changed my mind,” he said. “I just went to sleep. Finally.” It turned out his girlfriend, a co-worker, had thought he just wanted to be friends, and she’d rejected him as anything more than that. She was a college student. Andrei was in his forties. Their romance had been largely in his head.
“Listen, I think you need some help, Andrei. You know what I mean? Not just a friend or a 12-step sponsor. A trained counselor.”
“So they can dope me up again? No fucking way, man.”
“No, no. Not the state system. I’m not talking about that. What if I found you a referral? You have insurance now, right? Somebody who could just sit with you and help you sort things out. You wouldn’t have to take any meds. Not like that.”
“I guess. Yeah.”
So I made some calls to therapist friends, came up with a name. We’ll call him David Silver. Andrei thanked me and said he would continue to let me know how he was doing. A month later, having heard nothing from him, and not having seen him at a meeting, I came home from teaching an evening class to a voicemail from him:
Richard. Andrei. OK. Here goes— I’m not going to sit in a small airless room and talk about my miserable emasculated white male life and what a fucking loser I am while all the fucking castrated feminized males like you with all your liberal bullshit are getting laid because you sold out to the feminazi bitches who have your balls in a vice, man. So as for your so-called help, no fucking thank you, OK? I’m a Eurocentric white man and proud of it. I know you went to Latin America last summer, and man they pulled the wool over your eyes good. They showed you just what they wanted you to see so you’d look the other way while they go on to n . . . rize the world and stupid liberals like you think they’re so primitive and cute. You need to wake the fuck up, man. The n . . . s already got your daughter, man, and knocked her up and took your money and betrayed you. I know you think that n . . . ’s gone, in prison for a long time, but you just wait: some Radcliffe
c . . . who’s already sucking his dick will get him out and then he’ll be back to fuck you over again. And another thing: that guy you sent me to is a Jew. Oh boo fucking hoo for the poor victims of the phony holocaust. Poor poor Jews who are the ones committing genocide and I don’t care if that’s politically incorrect. You tell me I should try to meet a woman my own age but they’re all emasculating c . . . s, man, and if you don’t have any money they’re not interested. They only want to fuck if they get paid. A bunch of whores. When are you going to wake the fuck up, man, and be white and quit bending over begging for that black n . . . cock up your ass? BEEP. To hear this message again press 1, to save it press 2, to erase it press 3. To forward this message press 4.
I stood there next to my desk shaking as rage coursed through me: wordless, white-hot, I-will-kill-you rage. I remember the smell of me then: fear, metallic and rank, so much so that after I put down the phone and took a long hot shower, I still smelled it when I returned to that room. Although it was January, I opened all the windows.
But the tears pouring down my cheeks were grief, too: I had just a heard a man crying out from hell. He desired nothing more than to share his agony with all those he believed had cheated him and injured him. I wanted to call him back, rage back at him, put all that ugliness I wasn’t able to wash off back on him. I picked up the phone. But not only did I not want to hear his voicemail again, I wanted it gone. I pressed 3. As it has turned out, the voicemail would have been redundant: every syllable of that utterance is seared in my memory.
It’s true, of course, that Andrei was deeply, severely mentally ill, and in the midst of some kind of episode. But that’s also a dodge. Our culture offers the menu of perennial scapegoats he chose; he didn’t invent them. And his message could not have been more articulate; there was no stammering, no searching for the right word. His monologue was rapid and efficient. It sounded practiced, as if he had written it out ahead of time. (“Here goes—”?) Had he? Had he rehearsed his message? Read it aloud to himself before he called? Is racism a pathology? Is misogyny a sickness? Anti-semitism a disease? Is hate? What is evil?