Unlucky at Cards

by Mark Hahn


It was maybe five years ago when I called my sister and told her that I no longer thought I was lucky. At that moment, I really questioned why I had ever felt lucky in the first place, other than when bad stuff happened, I always thought, “Wow, I’m really lucky this didn’t end up worse.” When I looked back at my life though, I saw so much stuff from my past dragging me down that I either had to chalk it up to bad luck or just take the blame myself for all the bad decisions I had made along the way. There is no escape from some things you do. Life can also just be really hard. I haven’t let it break me though. Mostly, I have to take the blame for most things that I have gotten myself into – if not directly, at least, from lack of trying.

I was always a troubled kid, but when my dad died, I more or less lost all my grounding. I was just a teenage. Looking back, I think I had to try and become my own father for myself somehow. There was just no one else to step in and take his place. I made years of bad decisions. Maybe I wished there was someone out there that would have materialized to rescue me from myself. Maybe it was just a cry for help. Who knows how kids think about things — especially when they’re not thinking. Maybe I just had to prove to myself that there was no one that would come to my rescue. It doesn’t really matter what the reasons are anymore.

Between drugs and the early AIDS epidemic, I knew a lot of people who died when I was young. A friend that I had gone though this time period with once told me, when we met up later in life, that he used to feel lucky that he wasn’t one of the ones who died, but now, in our fifties, he questioned whether they were really the lucky ones. Maybe it would have been better to have just died young — that was the punk attitude we both shared in our youth. Somehow we both made it out though. In spite of all the difficulties, there are plenty of good things I’m glad I stuck around for.

In a desperate relationship with a suicidal girl, I used to have to talk her through all her fits by saying, “Yeah, we can kill ourselves any day, but who knows, there might be something tomorrow that makes it worthwhile to stick around for.” You really never know, no matter how bad things are, there is always something that can make tomorrow worth living for. I’ve had many great tomorrows mixed in with all the other stuff, now perhaps more than ever.

The relationship ended badly. I asked her once after it was all over why she hated me so much. She replied, “If it wasn’t for you, I would have killed myself already. Now it’s too late.” I didn’t know how to respond to this. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was unlucky that she met me. Maybe it was unfair of me to try so hard to help her get through. Maybe I was just doing for her what I had hoped someone would do for me. Everyone has to make their own decisions in life.

My sister told me that the way she saw it, by getting this girl through her own hell, that it is also what got me through my own. That was an interesting thought. Did I subconsciously know this? Who knows. I certainly couldn’t save her without getting myself though. Maybe I don’t have to think about this anymore. It’s been over for a long time. Maybe it’s just part of who I am.

When I was twenty, there was a period where I was perpetually strung out on speed. I almost never slept. I was trying to amass a meaningful body of artwork to leave behind if I somehow didn’t make it — speed jive. I was pretty much alone and throwing myself into my art and writing to keep me going. For some reason, I felt like I had something to offer, even if no one else recognized it. In the end, I probably just wanted to feel like I mattered.

There was a liquor store somewhere near Woodward and McNichols in Detroit. Two gay friends had an apartment on Moss near Woodward, just down the street. This had always been a bad neighborhood. Really bad. I showed up at my friends’ apartment trying to come down off a lot of speed and said, “Let’s get drunk tonight.” I hadn’t slept in days. I figured if I drank enough booze and smoked enough weed, I might be able to get to sleep.

After walking into the liquor store with them, I started counting out the money in my pocket. I was pretty poor — living off Social Security checks from my father’s death benefits. When I saw how broke I was, I had to figure out what was going to get us more drunk. My friends were both on Welfare and didn’t have any cash to pitch in at all — they did have weed though.

While I was trying to do the math and figure out which was a better deal, the pint of 190 proof Everclear or the fifth of 80 proof no name vodka, a fortune teller interrupted me. I couldn’t tell if she was Gypsy or Mexican, but her English was no good. She had an intimidating presence as she demanded, “Let me read your cards.” I smiled and tried to tell her politely that I didn’t want my cards read. Then she tried to bully me into getting my cards read. I guess she needed the money. I still tried to be nice.

I was trying to get her to understand that I couldn’t pay her to read my cards and I looked her in the eyes to make some personal connection, but she seemed to take this as a challenge or an act of mockery. She started telling me all kinds of crazy horrible stuff. Then she started talking in tongues and chanting. It made me feel really anxious. I just wanted to get out of there. I bought a pack of cigarettes and the Everclear.

The cashier told me that the fortune teller had put a really bad curse on me. I asked her what, but she looked over at the fortune teller and seemed afraid to tell me anymore. I tried to tell myself that somehow I could shake it off. Somehow my luck would cancel out the curse, but in my heart I felt like I would never be able to shake it. Who knows. Maybe I never did.

It might have been the bad speed or the lack of sleep, but I instantly felt like I was going out of my mind. My friends were mad at me that I got the Everclear – it tastes like poison no matter what you mix it with. But it was cheap. We all started fighting about petty things. We went back to their apartment and drank the Everclear and smoked some of their weed. It didn’t make any of us feel any better. Tim said there were going to be people at Bookies later that he wanted to see and that we should go too. I said I’d drive. Anything to get out of there.

After we got in the car, I turned down some alley so we could swing back around to Woodward. Someone in the car gasped as my headlights lit up an object in a wheel barrel behind the abandoned building across from my friend’s apartment. I stopped briefly to see what it was. It was a dead guy. He had been shot in the face and his brains had all splattered out the back of his head. He was laying face down in the wheelbarrow. Someone left him like this in the dark alley. Somehow, what sticks in my mind most was how his pants leg had fallen back and exposed his white leg. It shown in the headlights. I shuddered.

Given the neighborhood, it shouldn’t have surprised any of us that much, but you never expect to stumble on a dead guy no matter where you’re at. Also, given our level of shock, it was hard to know if the sounds we heard behind us were gunshots or a car backfiring, but we didn’t stick around to find out. I gunned my Impala and took off through the alley. A large car was instantly chasing us. He flashed his lights at us and was in hot pursuit. He tried to ram us repeatedly. I drove like a maniac through the streets of Detroit.

Detroit was already a dying city. Half the houses in the neighborhood were abandoned. Police were scarce, but I was hoping we found one. I ran every red light and ignored every stop sign. We raced through the ghettos for almost a half hour. Who knows how long. I don’t know how I didn’t crash my car. My driving and the Chevy’s 327 engine somehow got us out of this danger. Maybe we were just lucky. Somehow we had lost the car behind us and were suddenly right in front of Bookies. I don’t know how we got there. When we got out of the car I was shaking. The whole thing felt like it was a dream, only I knew it wasn’t. This was no longer a party. Maybe it was how the first day of a curse feels. Maybe it was just a hint of things to come. The drinks at Bookies also tasted like more poison.

I told a friend at Bookies what had happened and he bought me a few more drinks. Then I got blackout drunk. I don’t remember how I got home, but I did — I guess I was just lucky.

Junkies, drunks and addicts are often the most superstitious people of all. It’s like they have to ascribe all their bad luck on everything outside themselves — as if everything is beyond their control. Also, it puts the junkie in a position to think that if they can just uncover the underlying logic of hex avoidance techniques that they can remain junkies without suffering any of the bad consequences of their choices.

Drugstore Cowboy shows a great example of this junkie logic in Bob’s (played by Matt Dillon) fear of a hat on the bed and bad luck associated with dogs. Was it really the dog or the hat on the bed that did Bob and his friends in or was it just their reckless and lawless junkie lifestyle? I’d say the latter, but as a movie viewer, I choose to suspend belief and think, “If it only hadn’t been for the hat on the bed and all the other superstitious screw-ups, everything would have worked out just fine!” Everyone want to hang their hat on luck and superstition!

Random numbers provide more endless opportunities for superstitious speculation as well — as if everything of importance could be divined from the numbers we stumble across everyday. The amount of change we get back when we buy cigarettes and gum, the final cost when we fill up our car. So many numbers — if only we could correlate them all to our own reality!

But what happens when we get a bad omen in the numbers that come up? A superstitious optimist tries to find alternate combinations that can be derived from the base numbers. If you’re assigned a locker at the train station with the unlucky number of 146 for instance, by adding up the digits you can find the lucky number 11 within it (etc.) — then all is good. Or is it? We have to get by somehow. In the case of the fortune teller’s curse on me, I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t even know the nature of the curse, just that it was supposed to be really bad. There were no tricks to turning this around.

A few years later, the suicidal girl took me for a surprise Tarot reading on my birthday. I didn’t about the plan until I was sitting across from the card reader. I instantly remembered the Detroit fortune teller and got really uncomfortable. It was a tense reading and not very positive. Basically it boiled down to me being told that I had to survive until I was thirty and that things would get better then. I was turning twenty three when the reading was done. What do you do with information like? It was almost like a second curse — even if it was somewhat accurate in describing how things worked out.

I had just gotten gallery representation in Chicago and had high hopes of where this would go — now I had a reading that told me that my real life wasn’t going to even begin for at least six years no matter what I did. Nothing mattered. Why try? I could try to buck the cards just like I tried to ignore the Gypsy’s curse, but the words were said, they were somewhere inside me. I did try at some level, but wondered if the subconsciously if I worked to shoot myself in the foot so the curse and reading would come true.

From Aristotle’s causality to Newton’s clockwork world — with Christianity sandwiched in the middle — Western thought has always been dominated by the drive to figure out what makes things tick. Superstitions (and religion no doubt as well) are just an attempt to put order onto  the seeming disorder of our lives when in reality, the bulk of this comes from the places we put ourselves in. There was no reason I had to be strung out on speed, buying cheap booze in an inner city liquor store in Detroit. I shouldn’t have even crossed paths with that Gypsy fortune teller. I shouldn’t have been driving down that dark alley and I never should have gotten involved with that suicidal girl. These are just a few examples of the thousands and thousands of other things that I did to put myself at risk and luck had nothing to do with the bad outcomes.

Sure, there was nothing I could have done to have changed the fact that my dad was killed by a drunk driver, but the drunk driver could have changed that! Most bad things that happen are a direct result of the choices we all make or the situations we put ourselves into.

I was amazed at how the simple act of getting sober changed things for the better. Life was still hard, but it no longer seemed to be based on luck unless you consider bad choices leading to bad luck. Now I have a pretty clear understanding about what goes wrong and why. Waiting for my luck to change is not where I put my hopes.

A lot of things just aren’t in the cards, they come from the choices we make everyday. Bad choices we’ve made in the past may follow us even into today, but the choices we make today are what take us into tomorrow. I may not feel lucky anymore, but in a sense, I’m happy I don’t feel I need to rely on luck.