The Negress heard about Whitney Houston’s death when she was working the auction floor at the Equality Illinois gala. There were some murmurs of sadness, but very few expressions of surprise. The public Whitney had walked the same road a lot of addicts do, and their families no doubt now are recalling similar turns on their own roads. Think of all the family gatherings with knotted stomachs, awaiting the first slurred argument followed by the broken dishes. Review the whispered, tentative approval of a post-rehab appearance without drama. “She looks good, doesn’t she?” Yes she did, but we still checked on the jewelry drawer afterwards. Russell Brand and others momentarily safe in recovery have talked about the exhaustive lying that comes with addictions and how addicts are never fully present in whatever they’re doing. Family members know that all too well as they hear promises repeated, see contracts signed and wait for the better times to come.
But those times don’t come usually. The Negress had an uncle whose heroin addiction lasted until he was near 60 when he died of an overdose. His third wife, she of the blond Afro and infantilizing nicknames, buried him in his Christian Dior pajamas because they were designer duds. My uncle used to drop by our house to pick up his disability check (addiction was a disability at that time. Not sure how that goes now.) He worked as a treatment counselor, which sounds like a macabre joke, but junkies were all over the Narcotics Treatment Administration in Marion Barry’s DC. The Negress remembers getting a lecture from said uncle about staying away from drugs, especially cocaine. His life was the best warning she could have gotten. His children split the difference. One is a successful entrepreneur; another a neurosurgeon. The third was an addict, gifted at illegal computer scams who bounced in and out of recovery like a Super Ball of unfulfilled promise. As far as the Negress knows, he is incarcerated still. There are other kids from other wives, but the Negress has lost them somehow. She hopes they are well, but doesn’t know for sure.
As for Whitney, our paths crossed when the Negress was working in New Jersey. The singer was beginning her long free fall of shoddy performances and tentative albums. It was hard to watch and, after a point, the Negress thought of her uncle and cousin and turned away. When Whitney was at her best, you could feel God in her voice even if you didn’t believe. The Negress regrets that many of her successors and emulators embraced her bag of vocal tricks and not the spiritual truth of her best performances (feel me, Miss Aguilera?). Whitney will be missed, but we hope she’s free from pain now.
Postscript: Frank Bruni wrote a column about alcohol that also has a connection to a cousin, who would go on benders, be retrieved by his fellow cousins, dry out and then do it all over again with a few drunken, spittle-flinging rants offered at family gatherings. Since the Negress loves fine wine and spirits, she also thinks she has some responsibility to show that it’s not all upside.