The Four ‘N 20 restaurant in North Hollywood is a small popular eatery known for their pies. It’s one of those places that is better known by the locals than by the millions of tourists that visit Los Angeles each year. Other than the pies, the other menu offerings such as burgers, chicken-fried steak, and the rest of the usual fare you would find at a simple diner is not bad, but nothing to write home about. The charm and attraction to the place is not so much the menu but the history. It’s been there for decades and has become a connecting place for old friends, striving actors, and a gathering spot after the various recovery meetings in the area. I know, because for years I had drifted in-and-out of those meetings in what the program refers to as countless vain attempts to gain a foothold in recovery. It’s also located on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in the North Hollywood section San Fernando Valley where I hustled dope and roamed the streets during the last seven years of my life in active addiction before I was able to get sober and allow myself to be rescued by God and the program of recovery. My darkest times were here in this land of oblivion between 1991 and 1998.
I had been sleeping behind the wall of a small run-down office building on a large-box piece of cardboard for a couple of weeks. It was hard and cold, but it was relatively safe. It was one of many spots where I hid away for the night in the area. I woke up – or should I say that I came to – one morning with the usual hungry stomach and sick with craving for alcohol and dope. So I did what I have done a hundred times before. I searched out a supermarket to target to lift some booze and maybe food. I decided on Gelson’s Supermarket on Laurel Canyon Boulevard across the street from the Four ‘N 20. I had my routine. I knew what to do and I was pretty good at it. I would go in, grab a basket as if I was a legitimate shopper walking the isles tossing a few things in the basket and along the way, stuff a couple of tall boys (16 ounce cans of beer) into the lining of my jacket along with some packaged sliced ham and small tortillas. As I casually left the basket abandoned and headed for the door, my heart rate quickened, partly from the risk of being caught, but also in anticipation of being able to pop those tall boys and get my morning medicine.
Just as the automatic doors opened and I was stepping out, there was a rush of activity and two security guards tackled me to the ground and began searching for the goods. They found them. I was busted. They led me back to the security room of the store and began the process of interrogation and humiliation. What was my name? Where was I from? Why did I steal? To my surprise, they didn’t call the police. Maybe they just felt sorry for me because I was so pathetic. Instead, they had me sit with the tall boys, ham, and tortillas in my lap and they took a picture of me sitting there dirty, with my stolen goods. This is the exile of shame. They told me to never come into their store again and they let me go. I walked out into the street, still sick and needing something – anything – to qualm the craving. I walked across the street and past the Four ‘N 20.
There is a row of tables and chairs inside the restaurant right next to the street side of Laurel Canyon Blvd., only about six feet from the sidewalk. I had sat at those same tables before my life went totally into the toilet. Now, I was standing outside looking at a man and woman sitting comfortably eating, laughing, and enjoying their slice of life. They seemed so happy and so content. Standing there on the sidewalk just a few feet away watching them, I longed for their life, my heart ached because I was just so very lost. Even though it was just a thin piece of window glass that separated us from one another, I felt a million miles away. So close yet so far away. Then suddenly, the couple turned and looked at me, clearly uneasy that I was staring at them from the other side of the glass. I looked away. I walked away. More shame. This is life in exile of addiction.In over twenty years of recovery, I have stopped in at the Four ‘N 20 many times. I always try to sit at one of those tables next to the glass and I drink my coffee and eat my sandwich, sometimes with my friends in recovery. I remember that day all those years ago when I felt so lost and buried in shame. The supermarket is still there across the street. Keeping my promise, I have never been back inside. Sometimes this is what God’s grace looks like.