A Walk Down Misery Street

My nostalgic memories were interrupted by screams into the walkie-talkie:

“First floor! Wake up! What is the situation there?” It was the shift supervisor returning me to reality, and in the blink of an eye, I was mentally transported from the record store in Russia to the first-floor supermarket in the Time Warner skyscraper in New York.

“Everything is ok here. Calm and quiet.”

Upon finishing my evening shift, I got into the subway and got home around 1:30 at night. The next morning, having slept for five hours, I traveled to Queens, to the Institute for Substance Abuse Counseling for my first class.



When I first crossed the threshold of the auditorium and quietly took a seat, I felt baffled. There was a lecture going on. I was expecting to see a room full of thoughtful, enlightened individuals brought here, like me, by a noble desire to do good and save the lost.

Instead, I was met with a lot of noisy commotion. I was overwhelmed by the sight and sounds, and I didn’t get a good look at my classmates. I was secretly hoping I had entered the wrong auditorium. I decided at the first break to go and find my noble and refined classmates.

A somewhat nondescript teacher was giving the lecture. Students were constantly joking, and the auditorium frequently erupted into laughter. My English was poor at the time. I knew little slang, so I didn’t get most of the jokes. The only words I could make out through the flood of chaotic speech were “fuck” and “shit”—the two swear words resounded throughout the auditorium. Even when everyone was silent, including the professor, the words “fuck” and “shit” kept ringing in my ears. Most of the male students wore beards and mustaches and were covered in tattoos. Their smiles seemed predatory. Many of the women looked disheveled and roughed up. What was wrong with them? Are these my classmates? Why did they look like they just been released from jail?

My hunch about them wasn’t too far from the truth, as I learned later. The hope that I’d mistakenly entered the wrong auditorium was dashed. I had come to the right place, where yesterday’s drug addicts are metamorphosed into tomorrow’s substance abuse counselors.