On March 22, 2016, the most infamous mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, passed away at age 46 from pleomorphic liposarcoma, an extremely rare subtype of liposarcoma that killed him less than 18 months after his initial diagnosis.
The obituaries devoted to him from all over the world detailed his tumultuous political career, most of it stemming from his wildly unpredictable behavior that terrorized a city for almost two years. To recap: Rob Ford had become world-famous for being recorded on a cellphone video smoking crack. The video, an unsettling minute and 17 seconds of a conservative city mayor sitting in a shady residence shit-talking local politics with his drug dealer and their friends, was shocking in its authenticity. There was no doubt it was Rob Ford: rumpled, sweaty, and super, super high. Equally shocking was just how comfortable he looked recklessly smoking crack in front of his drug dealer’s friends and people, it turns out, he hardly knew. “I don’t know if that camera’s not on [inaudible]” he gurgled to the person obviously taking video of him on his cellphone. They assured him it was not, but it’s debatable if Rob Ford would have even cared because he was super, super high.
The story, initially broken by Gawker, a place where I was once employed, cannon-shot him from local political scourge to international buffoon. That buffoonery also made him a superstar. Some of the adjectives used to describe him in the various obits were “boorish,” “troubled,” “erratic,” and each trotted out their favorite ignominious lowlights including his numerous racist and homophobic comments.
There was also mention of the multiple incidents police were called to his house, including some domestic disturbance complaints by his wife and one by his mother-in-law, who reported to police in 2011 that she feared he would take her two grandchildren down to Florida. It was later revealed that he made that threat because he was very, very drunk. He was very drunk for a good portion of his life; the stories of his substance abuse were tied to his political career like a strings of old dog food cans. But in the very last paragraph of some of those obits, there was this: “Rob Ford was two years sober when he died.”
Bullshit, I thought.
Around the time I read this bullshit obit I was in the middle of my own scandal. On Friday, March 18, 2016, a Pinellas County Jury awarded Hulk Hogan, née Terry Bollea, a whopping $115 million for invasion of privacy stemming from a story I wrote and a video I posted on Gawker of *ahem* illegally taped footage of Mr. Bollea having consensual sex in a private home. (Due to the settlement terms, I believe I have to describe the video that way forever).
Throughout the entire three-week trial I was humiliated and demoralized on a huge, expansive public stage. I hated everyone and everyone hated me. For every single tidbit of information the defense presented, the jury and a worldwide audience painted a picture of a terribly despicable human being, so I can’t really blame anyone for feeling that way. I received a text from a friend who told me that Dr. Drew had declared on live television that in “his professional opinion” I sounded “depraved” during one of my taped depositions. Man. Dr. Drew.
I was also very, very newly sober so I hated myself the most.
I wanted to send that out in a press release, pass it along to all the reporters covering the trial, perhaps even the jury before it was too late, or maybe scream it so loud the sky would tremble. I AM CLEAN. I AM SOBER. I AM CLEAN. I AM SOBER.
The following Monday, March 21, Rob Ford went into palliative care, and the Pinellas County jury tacked on another $25 million in punitive damages, including $100,000 to me personally. I was deeply in debt at the time and unable to pay it. The jury asked if they could give me manual labor, like picking up trash on the side of the road. This did not feel great. One of the lawyers stopped by my room for a pep talk and a mental health check-in because he knew how newly sober I was. He told me he found my strength inspiring, but that my heart was dull and my head was buzzy. I knew he was just saying some things to be nice because I was not inspiring. I had absolutely zero strength. I was a dejected loser who had to go back to Brooklyn soon to try and find a media job which would be impossible, of course, because of how I was perceived during the trial. My mom and dad were not speaking to me, because people they knew were not speaking to them due to some of the stuff that was said about me on all the major news networks.
The next day, Rob Ford died. I tried to tell the lawyers about the eeriness of Rob Ford dying the day the trial ended, but they didn’t seem to get the weird connection between Gawker and Rob Ford. I mean, I’d argue that the Rob Ford story was the site’s finest moment, the perfect combination of newsworthiness and charming-asshole sensibility. The public agreed. When John Cook, the Gawker editor who broke the story, sarcastically tried to raise money to buy the video of Ford smoking crack–he called it a “Crackstarter“–he raised more than $200k. The story was a huge hit.
I purchased an autographed photo on eBay of Rob Ford arm wrestling Hulk Hogan as a congratulatory present for John. I was so happy for him and the site. Isn’t it funny that that moment exists, by the way? Both of these historic Gawker storylines hamming it up. The bit required Hogan to lose to Rob Ford. After Ford pinned Hogan, the fat mayor threw up his hands joyously, his triple-XL shirt untucked and blousey, completely soaked in sweat. It was all a big show.
I remembered this moment the day Rob Ford died and that’s why I thought his sobriety was bullshit. I was so full of self-pity and hate. I was just a dead soul in a live body.
I thought about what my obituary would look like if I died soon after him. It would be all about the Gawker trial. No one cared that I was getting sober. I would probably be called “troubled,” “controversial,” “a blogger.” If only people could know the truth about me, about how hard I’m trying here, the obit would be different. There’s a good part coming! Or it’s supposed to. Any minute now the 12-step voodoo will engage and I’ll be the man I’m supposed to be.
What else would be on my obit? “Depraved.” It didn’t matter. Fuck fucking Dr. Drew.
On November 14, 2013, I flew to Toronto with two other reporters to do a man-on-the-street thing where we asked local Torontonians where we could buy crack, just like their mayor. It was peak Rob Ford mania. The day we landed he had just told a group of reporters that he did not sexually harass anyone, that he did not say to the woman who accused him of sexual harassment that “he wanted to eat her pussy” because he was a married man and he has “more than enough to eat at home.” When we first got to town a friend messaged me: “Please don’t let anything happen to the Entertainer of the Year!”
I thought with the massive international coverage Rob Ford’s unraveling received, we’d have no shot at seeing him up close. Fortunately, Toronto maintained a poised, business-as-usual approach during what would be considered extremely heady times for any metropolitan city. More than 100 press people were there to attend the council meeting, an auspicious one, where the rest of the council would vote to (finally) strip the mayor of some of his power to do anything close to the public service he’d been elected to do. Mostly, though, they were there to rubberneck, just like I was, hoping the mayor would pop off and be more absurd, which was an extremely high bar for him to clear by that point: We’re talking a throwing-shit-in-his-own-hand-at-the-dissenting-council-members high. Anything less than that would be mundane.
There was no extra security to accommodate the increased media presence. You could waltz right into the Toronto City Council meeting without any super-fancy press lanyards or anything like that, but I was relegated to what would be considered the cheap seat section. I had enough of a sightline to really see Rob Ford Live Before The Fall, though, and, boy, he was just mesmerizing. He fidgeted and played with his phone, only lifting his head up to pay the slightest bit of attention when he heard someone actually say his name, “Mayor Ford.” Otherwise he’d rock back and forth and spin in his chair. When the meeting droned on about even the slightest bit of nonmayoral-related business, he daydreamed and sometimes wandered off the floor to a hallway to the left of the dais. He did this several times. If he were in third grade, his teacher would probably insist his parents put him on Ritalin.
On that day, the council pushed forward with the first set of motions stripping him of all his power. Each councilor had an electronic voting machine about the size of a desktop monitor in front of them, which displayed all the motions presented and the votes that were cast. They each are to press a button to cast their votes. Mayor Ford pressed down on his voting button multiple times in succession like the world’s most impatient person waiting for elevator doors to open. The council voted 41-2 in favor of no longer allowing Rob Ford to oversee emergency services in Toronto. He spun his chair quicker.
After the meeting, we witnessed the press scrum right in front of the mayor’s office on the second floor. About 50 or so media members settled into their usual outpost in front of the elevator and waited for Ford. When the elevator door opened, there he was. I was star-struck. Rob Ford’s big red head emerged all perspiration-soaked and his girth was swallowed up by the scrum. He had this squeaky voice, and he strained it as they shouted questions at him–“do you have a drug problem!,” “are you still drinking!”–but he bulldozed his way through them saying only “Not today, guys, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU,” desperate to be left alone. Please don’t let anything happen to the Entertainer of the Year.
The day after we left, Mayor Rob Ford accidentally knocked over a city council woman named Pam McConnell. Then he went out and publicly declared he’d run for mayor again in 2014. He said he hadn’t had a drop to drink in three months. He said he was working with “healthcare professionals” and a “personal trainer” to work on some of his issues.
We eventually scored crack for the story titled “48 Hours In Toronto Investigating Crack’s Rob Ford Problem.”
We had no idea how to smoke it, initially crumbling it up into a tin foil pipe, the kind suburban teenagers made in the 80s for dirty oregano weed. We put the rock in the foil and it pretty much disintegrated and stunk up the hotel something terrible, like a lightning bolt had just struck a horse in the head and split its skull wide open. That’s what crack smelled like to me. It smelled like sulfur and burning horse hair and evilness.
We eventually coerced two homeless people from George Street to come talk about the mayor on camera in exchange for some extra crack we bought. They smoked the crack in our hotel room for so long that the bathroom towels turned black .
So are you ready for this? When I started The Small Bow I wanted to do a full-on reported story about whether or not Rob Ford was sober when he died. You know, track down some of the witnesses, bother some of his family members, fact-check the dates. Finding out the Jesus-weeping, enervating TRUTH about Rob Ford’s sobriety was a good way to give this place an injection of that old tabloid sleaze I was pretty good at before I fucked it all up. Besides, I’m sure the people who read about Rob Ford during his Entertainer of the Year days probably didn’t know he died because, God, it was so many dystopian news cycles ago. And if they did? They probably thought it was an overdose. Or even if it was cancer, it still proved the odious karmic math of drug addiction. He was doomed, man.
I thought I was doomed, too. That’s why I thought Rob Ford’s sobriety was bullshit. The trial began on March 1, 2016. On my first day in the courtroom I was a little more than three months and some days abstinent by then, which was a significant number. All the lawyers knew I was working a program, some of the legal aids would even drive me to the meetings I needed, lest they have one of those Denzel-in-Flight situations to deal with which, in hindsight, would have probably been better for everybody.
Because here’s the *ish: I wasn’t actually sober yet. Sure, I didn’t have a sniff or a drink or even a shaved corner of a pill inside me, but I was still an abysmal, low-functioning human, the same old rotten little shit I’d always been, just wide awake and forced to re-swallow the broken pieces of me back down because a company was on the line and the First Amendment was on the line and my woeful career was on the line, and probably many other big, outsized things that I’ve since forgotten were on the line, because they never should have mattered more than whatever day-at-a-time it was. Because one of the things about being sober I’ve learned since then is that it actually does require some real self-honesty and humility to properly qualify. Do you know when you can’t be rigorously honest about yourself anymore? When you’re one of the most terrible defendants on earth in a gigantic jackass media trial. Well, you can, perhaps. I was not able to. Not then, not even close. And by the time March 22 rolled around and I got hit with the punitive damages, I was ready to say fuck-it-all. So reading that Rob Ford died “two years sober” was something about which I thought I had earned the right to be cynical.
After I left the trial, I prioritized changing the narrative of my sketchy public life more than I did my actual life: my bitching about gloomy job prospects and all the bad things that had happened to me like a typical self-pitying penis, and things slowly, predictably began to crumble.
I re-tried sobriety again on July 15, 2016, more earnestly this time around.
I still wanted to find out if Rob Ford was really sober. It mattered to me for different reasons now. I wanted that hope. I poked around a bit and finally tracked down one of his sober companions, a man we’ll call “Tom” because he was hesitant to go on the record. I asked him straight up, though: “Was he sober when he died? Did he do the work?” The companion said yes, then relayed this story. I’m paraphrasing, possibly mythologizing, so take this for what it is:
“After his last round of chemo didn’t take, I got in touch with him to check in, see how his spirits were. I watched this man go through so much public scrutiny while doing all the hard work to change his lifestyle and stay clean. I thought he earned a furlough–one for the road, really. I told him I would buy him a beer. I told him that he’d earned it. But he refused. He told me, ‘Tommy, I’m gonna do this the right way. I want my kids to know I died sober.’”
I don’t care if it’s bullshit or not anymore because that’s good enough for me. Because what is the point of truth if it destroys hope?
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