I met Danny at the Irish Eyes Pub on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Actually, I saw him before I met him. He was standing on top of the bar and reciting Dylan Thomas from memory. My friends George and Mel were egging him on. It was great theatre. He would take requests, from “Hamlet” to “The Man with the Golden Arm” to sections of “Ulysses.”
On Thursdays, “open mic dirty song night” at the bar, Danny would stand on stage and sing his one and only tasteless blues ditty: “I love my baby, though she’s only thirteen years old; she’s only thirteen but she’s got the body of a…twelve-year-old.” And the crowd would go crazy.
Danny was an ER doctor. He would line up bar patrons with medical issues and consult with them. I once saw him stitch up a guy’s hand and douse it with rum. Everybody loved him. No one thought for a minute that they were enablers.
He was two distinct people: a brilliant and skillful doctor… a tortured drunk. The drunk was outgoing, a would-be actor. Sober Danny would sit in a chair all day and read, his photographic memory soaking up knowledge. He was the smartest man I ever met. He was the sickest man I ever met.
Danny became a “circuit rider,” an ER for hire in small Illinois towns on weekends. He loved the job and the freedom it gave him to read, study Japanese, and (secretly) write. He rued the fact that he couldn’t write—come up with an original idea.
One Saturday night, Danny called me from an ER in southern Illinois. He often had stories for me, thinking, I suppose, I was his surrogate. A sheriff had been catting around his county. The sheriff’s mentally unstable wife wrote obsessive letters to her family members, every day. The sheriff had opened his Saturday note, only to learn his wife was in the local cemetery, sitting next to her dead grandmother’s grave. He drove to the cemetery and found her wearing her wedding dress, her head destroyed from a shotgun blast. Her body was brought to the ER, to Doctor Danny.
True love evaded him—until he met Helena, a nurse practitioner in, of all places, a remote hospital in Alaska. They worked with natives and read and drank, through courtship and marriage. They moved back to Chicago.
One night, Helena found Danny passed out in front of their apartment door. He had lost control of his bladder and bowels. Neighbors were understandably upset. There was a message from a local movie theater for her. Danny had heard a patron say the word “nigger.” Alcohol made him violent. He attacked the patron, a much younger man. He was lucky the kid didn’t kill him.
The following week, a bleeding pregnant woman was wheeled in to Danny’s ER. A nurse tried to wake Danny up. She smelled alcohol. Danny staggered into the ER and put his unwashed, ungloved hands between the woman’s legs. Another doctor intervened. Danny was fired.
Helena contacted a state agency run by a doctor who had had a leg amputated when, drunk, she had fallen asleep and pinned the leg underneath her. The leg couldn’t be saved. The doctor now devoted her life to expediting interventions with impaired physicians.
Danny got a letter from the state requesting a meeting. He didn’t know his friends and his brother from San Francisco had all gathered at the meeting place. We were instructed to write letters to Danny which we would read at the intervention. I remember being scared that I had somehow betrayed my friend.
Danny arrived for what he thought was an inquiry. He opened the door to the room where we had gathered, glanced in, spotted his brother…and began to laugh. Helena stood and tried to embrace him. He pulled away and turned toward the door. Police blocked his way. He had two choices: sit through the intervention and be hospitalized or be arrested and charged with reckless endangerment.
He sat and smoked and listened. He shook his head, glared at Helena, smiled at his brother. When told by his wife about him having lost control of his body functions, he spoke his one and only retort: “that didn’t happen.” The interventionist told him bluntly to shut up.
Several hours later, Danny was a patient in recovery in a hospital. Specialists would determine when he was fit to be released. This would be a huge blow to Danny’s ego, to have to accede to his peers.
Over several months, Danny served Helena with divorce papers. He wrote to the folks who had confronted him and informed them they were no longer his friends. We were told this was not uncommon—ridding oneself of one’s past.
He lost his medical license. He took up watercolor painting and absorbed himself in Japanese culture. Helena met and married a wonderful man and had babies. I never saw Danny again.