When they came to Montreal in 1985, Seagram's distillery flew its flag at half-mast. When they came to Seattle in 1990, Starbucks Coffee employees worked around the clock to keep them satisfied. Now they are coming to San Diego June 30 through July 2. They have rented the 60,000-seat Jack Murphy Stadium for three events. It might not be big enough. If your Aunt Sadie's family has chosen that weekend to visit from Nebraska, tell her to forget it or buy her a tent.
The Tenth International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous will not only be the biggest convention in the history of San Diego, it will be the biggest AA meeting in the history of the United States. Members will be coming from 72 countries, including the United States and Canada. The Belgium members have chartered two big jets, one for smokers and one for nonsmokers.
Nearly every hotel room in the country has been tied up for several years: 692 rooms om the Hotel del Coronado, 875 rooms in the Hyatt Regency, 1355 rooms in the Marriott. Altogether AA has reserved 15,000 rooms in 100 hotels and motels as far north as Carlsbad, as far east as El Cajon, and south to National City. Three thousand dream rooms on three San Diego College campuses have been reserved as well.
Hotels have quadrupled their coffee and soft drink orders. Zenaida MacLin of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, who has been working on the convention since 1991, has made a special point of urging hotels and restaurants around the city to order more coffee.
"At the convention in Seattle in 1990," she told me i a hushed voice, "several restaurants and hotels ran out."
The training sessions consisted of an hour talk and half an hour of questions. At the end, all the volunteers received purple HELP booklets with 24 pages of information about transportation, the convention, how to deal with feelings, and San Diego history (Bill W. fave his first talk in San Diego in 1943). Booklets in hand, the volunteers headed for the exits.
Everything had gone well, too well. My cynicism felt a trifle starved of nourishment.
A security guard was leaning against a pillar.
"Any trouble?" I asked him, hopefully.
He yawned. "I nearly went to effing sleep. I thought drunks would be more fun."
"You should have known me five years ago," said a man in his 40s. "I kept a case of Johnny Walker Black Label in the trunk of my Buick and I'd drive around all day with a coffee cup of the stuff, drinking and driving. I don't even remember those years. I realized I had a problem when I kept waking up in front of stoplights and the Buick had run out of gas. Like, you know When I was born? Five years ago when I entered this program. Next week I'll be five years old. That's why I'm here. It's my birthday present."
Outside the sun was shining and the day had become warm. People lined up for the elevators to the parking garage.
Ahead of me on my out, I heard someone complaining. I hurried forward, hoping to get some dirt at last.
A man was slapping his yellow visor against his leg. "What I don't understand is why even the volunteer greeters have to pay the $70 registration fee for the registration fee for the convention. After all, we're doing the work."
His companion shrugged. "It takes a lot of bucks to rent a city," he said.
"I'll drink to that," said the other man. "Coffee, of course."
AA has 1.2 million members in the U.S. and Canada and about 2 million worldwide. Membership is open to anyone with a desire to stop drinking. The first of AA's Twelve Steps states, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable."
There or no dues or fees. Money is raised at the meetings by passing the hat. There are no rules, regulations, nor governing officers. The fellowship's 90,000 groups worldwide are kept in touch with one another by AA's General Service Office in New York City, which employs about 100 workers. A General Service conference with 91 delegates from the U.S. and Canada, as well as trustees, staff members, and directors from the General Service Offic, meets once a year.
The second of the Twelve Traditions reads, "Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern." The sixth tradition reads, "An A group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose."
This primary purpose — the recovery from alcoholic drinking — controls the fellowship's activities. One sees no personalities, no showmanship. Members are known publicly only by their first names and the initial of their last names. At the international convention no filming or photographing will be allowed.
The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions control AA. The former leads the committed member through a program of physical and spiritual recover. The latter protects the organization from the greed, drive for power and publicity that infect many other organizations. There will be no AA-brand coffee or soda pop, no AA-approved automobiles.
The second step reads, "We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." For many this Higher Power, or "God as we understand him," is the God of established religion. For others it's the idea of the group as a whole. For some it is anything bigger than themselves.
"When I first sobered up," one man told me, "my Higher Power was the kitchen sink. It didn't fall down and I did. After that, my Higher Power was a doorknob."
The first AA group in San Diego came together on November 7, 1940: 4 members in an apartment on Adams Avenue. The next year they had 75 members and moved to the East San Diego Women's Club. now about 750 groups int eh country hold nearly 1200 meetings a week.
Planning for the San Diego convention began five years ago with the close of the Seattle convention. The San Diego planners are all volunteers, although the fellowship also hired the Talley Corporation of southern New Jersey, which has had 1500 employees booking hotel rooms, getting Jack Murphy Stadium, and working with the city.
"Our job," Greg Talley told me, "is to create an environment to let what happens happen. The biggest issue is volume. It impacts every level of service within the convention facility. The big challenge with 70,000 people is crowd control. How do you get that many people moving through the downtown area without problems?"
It was the question of crowd control that led the San Diego AA to put out a call several months ago for host committee volunteers to work the convention.
On Sunday morning, May 21, more than 5000 volunteers showed up at the Community Concourse downtown for instruction. That was 2000 more than attended the very first international AA convention held in Cleveland in 1950.
As a professional cynic with 50 years of doubting under my belt, I came along to see what would cause so many people to give up their Sundays and quite a few days in the future there will be more training sessions in June) to help out a bunch of drunks.
It was a cool, foggy morning, and volunteers began to gather under the trees in the plaza outside the Concourse about 8:30. They seemed of all ages and were equally divided between men and woman. They drank coffee, chatted cheerfully with one another, and lined up for their uniforms.
I thought of other conventions. I had attended: writers' conventions. English professors' and journalists' conventions. At 8:30 in the morning at least half would be hung over and grouchy.
A woman handing out the greeters' uniforms described them to me. "They consist of a yellow visor, a big yellow button, a purple and teal vest, a smile and a hug, or a handshake, whichever you prefer."
Uniforms cost $10.
"I got to pay for it?" asked a man in line.
The woman grinned at him. "You wouldn't respect it if it were free."
Al-Anon volunteers will wear a teal-colored visor. Separate from AA, Al-Anon uses AA's general principles as a guide for husbands, wives, relatives, friends, and others close to alcoholics. Al-Anon includes Alateen, a program for the teenaged children of alcoholics.
A Russian woman who belongs to Al-Anon described the program by saying, "He drinks, but my hand shakes." Seventy-four Al-Anon groups have been started in Russia since 1989. More than 10,000 Al-Anon members will be coming to the convention from 36 countries.
Among the volunteer greeters 15 languages will be represented. Meetings will be held in English, Spanish, French, Finish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Farsi.
The Sunday morning gathering of volunteers began at 10:00, and huge Golden Hall was full. The chairperson of the 1995 convention was an attractive, middle-aged woman who introduced herself by saying, "I'm Bobbie C. and I'm an alcoholic."
The crowd responded by shouting, "Hi, Bobbie!"
Bobbie C. continued, "On June `0, 1935, Dr. Bob took his last drink." There was more clapping and some whistles.
The closest AA comes to a cult of personality center around Dr. Bob, an Akron surgeon, and Bill W., a New York stockbroker, who began AA in Akron in 1935. Both had been struggling with alcoholism for years and together they formed a group of alcoholics committed to not drinking. They are the pioneers of AA, and Bill W.'s book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the so-called Big Book, as opposed to the big Big Book (the Bible), is the fellowship's basic text. Many individual AA groups sponsor tours to Bill W.'s house in East Dorset, Vermont.
Dr. Bob died in 1950 and Bill W. in 1971, but one of the attractions of the San Diego convention will be talks by people who knew these men.
The play Bill W. & Dr. Bob, by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, will be presented at the San Diego Repertory Theater from June 16 through July 9. Presented by the Cambridge Theater Company, the play is not connected to the convention.
"'Let's not louse this thing up,'" Bobbie C. quoted Dr. Bob as saying to Bill W. at the end of his life. "'Let's keep it simple.""
Bobbie C. then led the volunteers in the serenity prayer, which is used to begin many AA meetings. "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I must say it didn't do my cynicism any good to hear this recited by 5000 people. Several people around me wept. I wondered if serenity was something to be cynical about.
"What's serenity?" I asked a man next to me. "Is it like being zoned out?"
It's living in the moment without stress," he said, "with some love and joy thrown in."
I wasn't sure that I had experienced it.
More speakers were introduced who told the volunteers what would be required of them: how to move 70,000 people from point A to point B with good cheer and courtesy.
I wandered around the hall to ask people why they had decided to volunteer.
"The biggest reason is that AA gave me back my life," a Mexican in white cowboy hat told me. "I don't sleep under bridges anymore."
"I'm here to pay back," said a young man who identified himself as Tom W.
The philosophy of AA is that one helps oneself by helping others. An article in the New Yorker magazine in March suggested this idea was in trouble since in the past two years AA has been swamped by people sent to the program by the courts: people arrested for drunk driving or other alcohol-related crimes.
"Spin0dries," Jimmy P. told me. "They go in and out, in and out. We don't need them."
"Paper people," said another. "They're only here because they got a piece of paper from the court that they need signed."
Most others disagreed.
"I was arrested 30 times when I was drinking," Roger R. told me, "for everything from drunk driving and bar fighting to pissing in the street. Now, I been in the program for eight years and I haven't been arrested once."
"I wouldn't have gotten in if it hadn't been for the courts," Chuck L. said. "Don't knock it."
On stage the Not Ready for Anything Players were presenting a series of comic skits on how to greet people at the airport and the importance of never leaving one's post. There was more clapping and whistling.
Then Eileen G., a representative from the service center in New York, described how the convention would begin Thursday night with a party along the waterfront and half a dozen dances with music ranging from swing and hip-hop to Latin and country. Starting at midnight Thursday will eb two marathon meetings in English and Spanish lasting until 7:30 Sunday morning.
"The reason I'm here," said Leslie S., who had driven down from Orange County, "is that I got sober in this town. AA is the largest organization in the world that no one wants to belong to, and it has the highest membership fee. I almost died before I got into AA."
Jane W. quoted the New York writer Jimmy Breslin, who called AA America's greatest gift to the world. "I'm here to make this my celebration," she continued. "The more you particiapte, the more it's yours."
"I don't have anything against drinking," said Don E., "and I don't tell anyone not to drink. A bottle of whiskey is like a .38, a Saturday-night special. It's not bad by itself. It's how it's used that hurts. I can't drink. If others can, I wish them well."
Up on the stage, Bob Schmidt of teh Staff/Pro Security Company was making a little speech. He looked like an ex-linebacker and he wore red cowboy boots. "You're the first line in defense in managing the crowd," he said. "But let our professional people be the bad people. You're there just to nod, smile, and pass the visitors on their way." He explained that their main concern would be medical emergencies. With 70,000 people they could statistically expect births, deaths, and anything in between.
During the lunch break I talked with Helen from the New York office and some others about the program. The opening meeting at Jack Murphy Stadium on Friday night will begin with a flag ceremony where all the nations represented at the convention will parade their flags.
"In Seattle in 1990 when the Russians matched in with their flags," one man told me, "we began to weep. The Berlin Wall had just come down. The whole world seemed to be changing."
During the three days there will be dozens of workshops, meetings, and panels with 85 meetings for Al-Anon alone. There will also be special-interest meetings for blacks, gays, hearing impaired, lawyers, doctors, and others. The big meeting on Saturday night will feature speakers who have been sober at least since 1955. The third and final meeting at Jack Murphy Stadium will be Sunday morning.
"Everyone will be sad it's over except the beer salesmen," said Michael R. "They'll be happy to see us go."
"The moment this is finished," said Helen, "we begin planning for the international convention in Minneapolis for the year 2000. Actually we've begun already."
They also talked about low-bottom and high-bottom drinkers. The former tend to be binge drinkers who get into the program early, often after having lost everything. The usually daily drinkers who grow progressively worse drinking messes up their lives.
Paul C. disagreed with these distinctions. "Skid row is a place between your ears," he said. "Each person hits his or her own bottom. They're all different."
"Each drunk who wants to quit drinking," said Toby R., "has his own moment when he lets go and lets God," meaning when he turns his life over to his Higher Power.
AA uses a lot of rhyming slogans and slang to describe their activities. "Fake it till you make it" means going to a lot of different meetings. "Yesterday's history, tomorrow's a mystery" stresses the idea of living one day at a time. "To go out" or "to picku up" means to start drinking again. "These rooms" is the term one hears most often, meaning the different AA groups and wher they meet.
"These rooms," said Frank L., "they're the one place I fell safe."
Sunday afternoon the volunteers broke up into ten training sessions, including one in Spanish. Each session was led by three trainers wearing bright yellow T-shirts.
"The mechanics of the convention, hotel rooms, and everything," said one trainer, "have already been arranged. We add the love."
"As greeters," said another trainer, "our goal is to be brief and efficient without being abrupt."
All through the day comic skits were used to present information that might otherwise seem bossy or too obvious. Be courteous. Don't get angry. Don't be vague.
I continued to ask men and women why they had volunteered.
"I can go to the beach any day," said Louis P. "I'm here to make this my party."
"This is going to be a huge crowd," said Franny G. "If I'm one of the people in charge, then I won't get lost."
"For growth," said John W. "We got the largest and most loving organization in the world, so I want to be a part of it."
"I'll never forget doing this," said Jack M., who had driven down from San Jose. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. When I walked in to Golden Hall this morning and saw all these people, I got goose bumps."