Jazz and heroin: my father's two loves: New York, the Fifties, clubs, music, drugs. One man's best years were his daughter's worst, Susan J Miller recalls in an extract from the new Granta issue, 'Losers'

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One night, at an hour that was normally my bedtime, I got all dressed up, and my mother and father and I drove into New York, to the Half Note, the jazz club on Hudson Street.

I was 13, maybe 14, just beginning teenagehood, and had never gone anywhere that was 'night-life'. I had heard jazz all my life, on records or the radio, my father beating out time on the kitchen table, the steering wheel, letting out a breathy 'yeah' when the music soared. When they were cooking, when they really swung, it transported him; he was gone, inside the music. It was my father's music, though he himself never played a note.

I knew the players, for about the only friends my parents had were musicians and their wives. When I was a little kid, I'd lie in bed listening to them talk their hip talk in the next room. I knew I was the only kid in Washington Heights to be overhearing words like 'man' and 'cat' and 'groove', and jokes that were this irreverent and black. I knew they were cool and I loved it.

At the Half Note that night the three of us walked through the door and the owner appeared, all excited to see my father, and, in the middle of this smoky night-life room, he kissed my hand.

We sat down. In front of us, on a little stage, were Jimmy Rushing, a powerful singer, and two sax players, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, whom I'd known all my life. And there was a whole roomful of people slapping the tables, beating out time, now and then bursting out with 'Play it, man,' or 'Sing it.'

And there was my dad: these men were his friends, his buddies. They liked the things about my father that I could like - how funny he was, uncorny, unsentimental, unafraid to be different from anyone else.

As a child, I didn't know that my father and many of the musicians who sat with their wives in our living room, eating nuts and raisins out of cut-glass candy dishes, were junkies. It wasn't until I was 21, a college senior, that my father told me that he had been a heroin addict, casually slipping it into some otherwise unremarkable conversation.

The next day, my mother filled in the story. My father had begun shooting up in 1946, when she was pregnant with my brother. I never suspected a thing. Nor did my brother. We never saw any drug paraphernalia. In the Fifties, in the white, middle- and working-class communities where we lived, no one discussed drugs, which were synonymous with the utmost degradation and depravity. My parents succeeded in hiding my father's addiction from us, but as a result we could never make sense of the strained atmosphere, our lack of money, our many moves. The addiction was the thread that tied everything together. We didn't know that such a thread existed, and so decisions seemed insanely arbitrary, my mother's emotions frighteningly hysterical.

My father was often away, staying out late or not coming home at all. My brother and I fought often and violently. My mother was terribly depressed, sometimes desperate. I regularly found her sitting, eyes unfocused, collapsed amid the disorder of a household she was too overwhelmed to manage. She would beg my father not to go out at night.

As I got older, I tried to figure out what was going on. An affair? A logical explanation, but it didn't fit.

My father was a man of socially unacceptable habits. He was fat, he picked his teeth, he burped, he farted, he blew his nose into the sink in the morning, he bit his nails until he had no nails and then chewed his fingers, eating himself up. He was a self-taught high-school dropout who constantly read, thought and talked politics and culture, gobbling up ideas, stuffing himself as fast as he could - with everything.

One day when I was home from college on vacation, my father and I went into New York together. He was going to retrieve his car from a garage. We took the bus across the bridge, then got on the subway. After the doors shut, my father edged close to me, putting his mouth up to my ear to make himself heard over the screech of the train. I took acid before we left the house this morning and I'm just starting to get off, he said. He was smiling, a naughty kid out in the big grown-up world.

My heart sank. At any moment, the subway car might turn into a sealed tomb on an endless nightmare ride. Acid makes you vulnerable, a sponge. It would take only seconds and he would be gripping my arm and saying, 'Susan, I've got to get out of here. Now, right now.'

We reached our stop, and I stayed close, following him through the smelly, crowded station where at every turn I saw something I feared might set him off. But at the garage my father understood the Puerto Rican mechanic's broken English better than I did. He checked the bill and counted out cash and coins the right way the first time.

How did a bright Jewish boy from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, become a junkie in the late Forties? It was partly the crowd he hung out with: white musicians deeply under the influence of Charlie Parker, and Parker's drug, heroin. Stan Getz, Al Cohn, George Handy - all were junkies and all were my father's friends.

My father began with marijuana, aged 15. By his late twenties he was a heroin addict. Ten years later he was taking amphetamines as well. When he was about 50 he was taking LSD, mescaline, peyote, whatever he could get.

At college, I received long letters from him, written when he was coming down from an acid or mescaline trip. I read pages of his blocky, slanted printing, about how the world is a boat and we are all sinking. Usually I threw them away without finishing them, picturing him in the living-room with the sun rising, wired up, filling up the page, wanting me to know all the exciting things he had discovered.

Part of me wanted to hear them and love him - and indeed did love him for taking the acid, for taking the chance.

Never marry a musician, my mother said when I was growing up. I suspected she had a point; life married to a man always on the road would be no picnic. I also knew she meant something more complex; that these men were not to be trusted. What she didn't say, and what I didn't know, was that so many were junkies. Because I didn't know what lay behind her warnings, they seemed mysteriously exaggerated.

The musicians who came to our house fascinated me: their pants with black satin stripes down the sides, their hip talk, their battered horn cases. I don't know what went on between my father and these men. All I know is that for my father, his junkie years were the greatest of his life. He wanted to tell me about them, so I would understand why he wasn't sorry about what he did. He needed to explain that, while being a junkie sounded bad to other people, it had been really wonderful for him.

But I couldn't listen. For me, those years had been a time of fearful poverty, violence at the hands of my brother and terror that my mother would cease to function. No, I said, I don't want to hear. Each of us was furious: my worst times were his best.

My mother told me about my grandmother, Esther, the wicked witch of Brighton Beach. According to my mother, my grandmother despised men. She lavished attention on her daughter. She dealt in machinations, lies and deceptions, feeding the fires of hate between father and son, sister and brother. When my father did well in school, his mother scorned him. She never kissed him, except on the day he went off to boot camp. Seeing the other mothers tearfully embracing their sons, his mother was shamed into touching hers: she pecked his cheek.

My father only once told me a story about himself and his mother. The two of us were driving on the highway on a beautiful, clear, cold winter day. My father was behind the wheel.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1956, when he was 38, his father, who had been very sick, died in the hospital while my father and Esther were visiting him. My father took Esther home to Brooklyn, where she asked him for a favour. There were some terms in her will she wanted to review. Would he read it out loud to her? (Even in Yiddish, my grandmother was illiterate.) My father was tired and upset and puzzled that his mother wished to go over her will on the night of her husband's death, but he agreed.

The will turned out to be simple: Esther's house and savings were to go to Sarah, her daughter. Then he heard himself, the fly in the web, reading: 'And to my son, Sidney, I leave nothing, because he is no good.'

Why, I cried, would she have you read that to her? What did you do?

My father's voice was tired and bitter. She wanted to see what I would do, he said; she wanted to watch my reaction. Ma, I said, I gotta go home now. I'm tired and it's late. I didn't want to show her how bad I felt, I didn't want to give her the satisfaction. It wasn't the money. I didn't care about that. Let my fucking sister have the money. But why did she have to write that sentence? Why did she have me read it?

In 1973, two years after my father told me about his addiction, he stopped in at my apartment. He was distraught. Damaged merchandise, he said, are the words that I see in front of me when things get bad, and when I see those words I know it's all over. Do you understand that? He fixed me with his wild, wide-open hazel eyes. Do you understand what I am trying to say?

Yes, I said, over and over. Yes, I understand what you are trying to say, but I knew he could scarcely see or hear me through the haze and buzz of electric cloud around his head.

Damaged merchandise. He was a window-dresser; he spent hours making signs on thick, white rectangular cards, writing them out in front of the television the night before the job. SALE, they said, HANES HOSIERY, dollars 1.99 A PAIR, or whatever, seeing in his mind's eye himself on sale, marked down, damaged merchandise.

And he told me this, he spelt it out for me, and I listened, even though I didn't want to. I hadn't yet learnt how to tell him 'no'. He paced around my living room, his voice ranting, echoing in the big empty room that was his sad and lonely and frightened heart. It scared me to listen, because I knew that I had been damaged, too.

In August 1988, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer, the result of chronic hepatitis, a disease associated with heroin addiction. The doctors correctly predicted he would live for five months.

Al Cohn had died of liver cancer as well - that year. Zoot Sims had been done in by alcohol in 1985. In the weeks before my father died, he played their records, and only theirs, as if they were calling to him and he could hear them.

My mother, who had stuck by him through everything, was still by his side. He was eager to share his latest revelation. A social worker had asked him what he would miss most when he died. He said: 'I told her that, yeah, sure, I'll miss my wife and my kids, but what I'll miss most is the music. The music is the only thing that's never let me down.'

That the revelation would hurt us - my mother especially - never occurred to him. He never kept his thoughts to himself, even if it was cruel to express them. Neither my mother nor I said a word. The statement was the truth of him - not only what he said, but also the fact that he would say it to us, and say it without guilt, without apology, without regret.

Taken from 'Never Let Me Down', in 'Granta' 47, 'Losers', published this week ( pounds 7.99).

(Photographs omitted)

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