Christmas has always been a tough season for me. My ex-wife Lynlee, daughter Lauryn and son Dan called me “The Grinch”—and that was before my drunken 10 years on the streets, which ended in Las Vegas a few years ago. My age out there? I was in my 50s.
What did I do with an entire decade of debauchery? I was in a blackout much of the time. Alcohol is a good painkiller, but the consequences are murder. For a one-time overachiever with college degrees, I lived in the underworld. Once I became a chronic alcoholic—one pint is too many, 100 is not enough—I had written my own funeral dirge and was slowly heading to the grave.
In 2011 I had a near-lethal medical emergency, the consequences of the bottle. Sunrise Hospital became my convalescent home.
Once the doctors and nurses stabilized me, and the physical therapists taught me how to walk again, I was sent to Catholic Charities. CC is located on Las Vegas Boulevard near Owens Avenue. I call this area the “Homeless Gulch,” where few come out alive. I lived at CC for six months and hated it. I couldn’t drink beer and I was not ready to give up this toxic tonic. This Grinch loved his pilsner.
Two more years on the street, a half dozen trips to Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital, then a series of visits to WestCare drug and alcohol detox. You’d think I would learn to stop this insanity before it destroyed me.
We alcoholics are notorious for being able to survive—even thrive—in horrendous situations. I found it easy to make money panhandling at Las Vegas Boulevard and U.S. 95 and I quenched my thirst daily. I lived in a cardboard condominium at the end of a gravel alley that borders the highway. I had real estate. 329 Las Vegas Blvd. N. I slept in the dirt.
One dawn (I’ve always been an early riser), while guzzling Mad Dog, I received a cosmic message: “Quit!”
“How?” I asked, throwing up my hands. “Help me.”
A few weeks later, I was sitting outside of my condo, sipping my elixir, and up walked Merideth Spriggs, then of the Downtown Rangers and now of Caridad and Downtown ZEN. We became friends. This was the beginning of a long intervention, involving Metro Police officers and Lawanna Calhoun of WestCare—all in cahoots to get me housed and dried out.
On April 1, 2014—no joke—at 4 a.m., Merideth came and swooped me up. WestCare became my salvation. I left my street subculture behind and started a new way of life.
Merideth’s office was near WestCare and I visited all summer and fall. She had co-workers who played ukuleles. I would pick up a uke and strum chords. These notes were so therapeutic that one day I decided to write Kala Brand Music Co. and see if it would donate a melody maker to me, a sick person trying to heal.
The customer-service rep shot back an email, “We’d love to send you a ukulele! Your worst day sober is so much better than your best day drunk.”
Actually, in 10 years on the street, I don’t recall a memorable drinking session. They were all bah humbug. Especially in the winter.
When did the ukulele arrive? Right around Christmas. It was the best Xmas gift of my life!
I am now in tune. No more Grinch. Two and a half years sober and living at a recovery home. I’m retired, collecting Social Security. I hope to start work as an intake counselor at WestCare soon. My kids love me again. Even my ex-wife likes me. I passed the uke down to my daughter Lauryn last Christmas. She said, “I’m going to be a badass uke player!” I bought myself another uke, soprano size. Made in Honolulu. I’ve got a good uke teacher, too.
And a lifetime of riffs to learn.
David Sweetland has always been a good student. He has A.A., B.A. and M.A. degrees in social sciences and botany. While spending 10 years on the streets of San Luis Obispo, Calif., Kingman, Ariz., and Las Vegas, he was doing research for his Ph.D.—poor, hungry and diseased.