It was a hazy night in 1983 when a newspaper writer built like a bear descended upon a Minneapolis comedy club to do a story on a fast-rising comedian. At first glance, they were different. One was fresh out of the University of Iowa, where he had made a misguided run at business administration and was now giving comedy a go. The other was an Irish Catholic who had landed at a Minneapolis alt-weekly. But they had one important similarity: They loved jokes, parties and drugs — ideally, all at the same time.
This was the night actor Tom Arnold first met New York Times journalist David Carr, sparking a lifelong friendship. Even decades later, Arnold told The Washington Post in a phone interview, he was “95 percent, 100 percent sure” of the details. “It was the same night I met Rosanne” Barr, with whom he would launch the show “Roseanne” and ultimately marry. “David liked her a lot, and he liked me a lot, and we did a lot of drugs and we drank…. We had a lot in common. A lot of craziness in common.”
But they also had something else in common: balancing that craziness with the discipline required to excel at their chosen professions. “I can think of this time in the ’80s when Carr was with the Twin Cities Reader and he was interviewing a crack addict,” Arnold continued. “Then all of sudden we were smoking crack with this crack addict. Here was a reporter, smoking crack with a crack addict” for a story about crack addiction.
That uneasy equilibrium — fast drugs, fast writing, fast living — was the defining conflict in the life of David Carr, who died on Thursday night after collapsing at the New York Times newsroom. Carr, who went from Midwestern alt-weekly writer to author of some of the most transcendent media criticism of his generation, could never quiet the demons of addiction rapping at his door. His was a life torn between the dueling forces of ambition and addiction.
“We were going to smoke crack or something, but first you had to interview some kid that was living off the streets and write a poignant story, hard story, like a poignant, sweet story,” Arnold said in Carr’s memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” a probing investigation to determine a self-truth. “Then after that, your dealer showed up.” Arnold then told Carr that while everyone else pins his sobriety on fatherhood — his twin daughters who gave him the willpower to beat away the crack and cocaine — he thought it was really ambition.
“I think your career means more to you than you would admit,” Arnold told him. “I think you’re like me. I pretend like I would be happy to be nowhere, but I don’t want to f— it up and go backward and go back down that far.”
Can ambition vanquish addiction? It can, but as Carr learned time and again, it’s a war of many battles, each of which can go either way. One of those clashes came in the mid-1980s, when Carr and Arnold were running around Minneapolis getting into who knows what. At the time, Carr was composing a newspaper piece on a man who had accidentally been killed while in police custody. Then one day, his phone lit up. It was one of the cops he was investigating.
“You know, I’ve been asking around, and your life is not without blemish,” Carr said he was told. “You better watch your step.”
Carr didn’t heed the warning. He became a small-time dealer in Minneapolis, evincing what he often called a pathological need for narcotics, graduating from coke to crack, from jail to halfway houses. “In retrospection, I’ve always thought of my career, both as a journalist and an addict, as a series of rapid ascents and declines,” Carr wrote in his book. “But after a year of investigating my past, it became clear that I had been chugging along pretty nicely until 1986, and then dropped off the face of the earth in 1987 when I started smoking cocaine.”
But even at his depths, there was his craft. “Regardless of what happened to me, I rarely stopped typing,” he wrote. “Perhaps I was worried I would disappear altogether if I did.”
That doesn’t mean that addiction was the one to disappear. Never that. Carr put back together his life piece by piece — kids, job, marriage — but he knew full well that an addict was always an addict. This was true even after Carr clawed his way to the top of the profession — and began drinking again. “Somewhere in the late nineties and into 2000, I stopped identifying myself as an alcoholic and an addict and began thinking of myself as someone who just didn’t drink or do drugs,” he wrote. From that point on, “it took about four years to make that nasty drink in my kitchen.”
The best way to fight addiction, he said, is acceptance. It’s always a part of you. And it was undoubtedly a part of Carr’s life right until the end. Though not necessarily a big part. “I could be drunk tomorrow or shooting dope even as you read this, but the chances of that are low as long as I make a daily decision to embrace who I really am and then be satisfied with that at the end of the day,” he wrote.