Rock bottom for Richie Stein, a nice Jewish boy from Beachwood, was when he was living in a house with no heat, he hadn't eaten for days, and he was wearing the same clothes that he'd had on for weeks.
"I looked like shit, I felt like shit, and I was contemplating what tree I was going to hang myself from," Stein recalls. "I thought, 'How the hell did it come to this?'"
It came from 35 years of hard partying, starting with weed in his pre-teens, blow by the age of 15, and pretty much everything else since. He tried to get clean by moving out to San Diego — what he calls a "geographical cure" — but that was about as effective as putting scotch tape over the cap of the booze bottle.
"I thought that if I moved someplace else my problems would go away," he says. "But I took myself with me."
Back in Cleveland, Stein was hopping from couch to couch, using up what was left of the good will he had accumulated from decades in the hospitality biz. This was what rock bottom feels like, he thought. And this was how it was going to end. But then it didn't.
"A guy knocked on my door and said, 'We need to get you some help. Come on, let's go for a ride.'"
The other end of that car ride was an in-patient rehab facility. "I signed up for a 90-day program and I stayed for seven and a half months. That was my choice; that's how long I needed to get my shit together."
That was April 27, 2010 – some 1,170 days ago – and by all accounts, Stein indeed has his shit together. He looks good, feels good, and even has a nice girl in his life. His present condition is the product of that in-patient rehab, a 12-step program and plenty of hard work.
It all started going south for Stein at the tender age of 15. That's when he took a job bussing tables at Laparo's Pizza in Woodmere. "The older servers would give you a blast of coke, and the next thing you know you're snorting lines and drinking for the next 35 years of your life!"
Stein says that while addiction favors no profession, the restaurant business is particularly blessed with abuse. Sure, you're surrounded by bottles of beer, wine and booze, but that's not the half of it. "Working in restaurants is a stressful fucking job. You leave with a couple hundred dollars in your pocket. You say, let's go grab a drink. The next thing you know you're getting plowed until closing — and even after. I can't tell you how many times the bar closed but we stayed, doing lines of coke on the bar until morning."
You sleep until 1 in the afternoon, you grab a shower, drag your hung-over ass back to work and do it all over again. "It gets to be like Groundhog Day," he says.
That's why Stein's current job is so incomprehensible. He's bartending, a job he's held on and off since 1984. For the past two-and-a-half years, he's been holding down the bar at Bistro 185 in North Collinwood. Asked if it's wise for a recovering alcoholic to work within arm's reach of all that tempting booze, he says probably not, but it's what he does.
"To me, it's just a job, like if I were a mechanic. I just use different tools," he says. And besides, booze is never out of reach. "Even if I worked at a barbershop, I could walk across the street to the 7-Eleven and get a case of beer."
Stein even creates new cocktails for the restaurant, working off long-ingrained taste memories and with a little help from his co-workers. "I'll have some of the staff taste it and — boom! — we're selling cocktails I made but never tasted in my life."
Working behind the rail also puts Stein in good position to be sympathetic, a newly discovered but steadfastly embraced component of his sobriety. "I'm not that anonymous," he says. "People know what I've gone through and will say to me, 'I have a friend who's going through something.'"
Stein says the biggest enemy to sobriety is complacency. With relapse rates as high as 90 percent, he needs to be vigilant about his recovery. It's a risk he knows too well. "I cleaned up my act for eight or nine years back in the 90s, but I was the guy who just sat there in the back of the meetings."
How does he know he's succeeding? "I was asked to participate in my niece's Bat Mitzvah, which is a real honor for me. My sister and I had a big falling out over the years. I was too busy destroying my fucking life to care."
These days, Stein and his lady have their eyes pointed West. "I gotta go where the money is. Plus, we hate the cold weather. I need a place where I can hang my hat for a while. One day at a time, you know?"