There’s no basement at Comet Ping Pong.
Comet Ping Pong is a hip, family-friendly little restaurant in a comfy neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. There, you can nosh on wings and wood-fired pizzas while playing ping pong (surprise!) and listening to local indie bands. In a lovely alternate reality, this is all there is to say about the place.
However, in this distressing timeline, its undeniable and observable lack of cellar did nothing to faze a rising tide of reality-challenged conspiracy theorists, who, inspired by viral fake news stories pasted together from the Clinton campaign’s hacked emails, insisted that children were being trafficked from that non-existent space, by its owner in cahoots with the Democratic Party.
Basement or no, the fake story gained traction on social media, and a trickle of threats to Comet Ping Pong’s owner, staff, and musical performers became a flood as the 2016 election loomed.
“We’re onto you.”
“This place should be burned to the ground!”
“I will kill you personally…”
Not long after we’d realized that the results of that election weren’t a nightmare to be awoken from, but a reality to be endured in ways we were still too naive to imagine, a young man with an AR-15 drove three hundred miles from North Carolina to the nation’s capital with one purpose: to free the kids trapped in the basement at Comet Ping Pong.
When the dust had settled and the young man had surrendered himself to police having shot a lock off a computer-room door in search of the subterranean pedophilic dungeon of lore, remarkably having shot nothing and no-one else, everyone in the Northwest environs breathed a sigh of relief. Yet, because it’s the District of Columbia, and we’re professionally wonks of snark (seriously, we all have that on our CVs), we collectively took a contrarian delight in the young man’s post-hoc assessment of that situation: “It looks like the intel on this wasn’t 100%.”
(Please understand, in December of 2016, we were beyond desperate for a laugh.)
The gunman would eventually be sentenced to four years in prison, and would serve three, and be released with little fanfare.
This, dear friends, is the origin of #Pizzagate (in case anyone’s worried that humanity might be getting too smart for its own good).
And it’s the seed for something even worse.
John tells me he knows I cheated on him. More than that, worse than that, he tells me he knows because he looked at my underwear in the laundry after I got undressed and went to bed that one night, and he saw some other guy’s semen there.
Gentle reader, please let me assure you, that never happened.
What, pray tell, is the point of these two entirely too-true tales?
I want to draw an analogy.
It would be lovely if the story of Comet Ping Pong were relegated to a bizarre and isolated past surrounding the election of 2016, and that life had returned to normal, with an anomalous single delusional gunman serving his time, and all the gears of a functional and sane democracy operating, perhaps not optimally, perhaps not quickly, but operating nonetheless.
However, the stories about a fictional pedophilia ring operating out of a non-existent basement in Northwest D.C. sparked a political movement dedicated to the fraudulent idea that the capital didn’t just harbor a cabal of child-trafficking Satanists, but that those same folks stole a national election.
And for the next D.C. rescue mission, it wasn’t just one guy with an AR-15 driving up from North Carolina.
It would be lovely too, if I could have somehow shown my husband a pair of underwear to ease his mistaken mind. I know the night he’s talking about: I’d gone to a goodbye dinner for a friend who was leaving the lab I was working for. There were at least ten other people at the dinner, and when dinner was finished, everyone else went on to a club, and I went home to go to bed with my husband.
But that’s not the world he lives in. And because it’s a wrong thought from fifteen years ago, filtered through a haze of alcoholic brain damage, I can’t even take him to a place and show him, “There’s no fucking basement, John,” because fifteen years ago, I did laundry the next day.
And that wrong thought remains intact. And I am an entirely different person to him in his world than I am in mine; in, dare I say it, reality.
There isn’t a single partner of an alcoholic who doesn’t understand the futility of the struggle to bridge the gap between entirely separate worlds. The alternative-facts-addled national non-dialogue is like an alcoholic household on a brutally expanded scale. Our country’s schism is our personal schism, writ large.
It’s unfairly familiar, watching in dire fascination and dread as it plays out in families, and across the country, all at once, watching it tearing relationships apart right in front of our faces. Couples breaking up, children testifying against fathers in court, an expanding fault line between two worlds that we’re trying not to fall into while reaching out to someone we love, or used to love, on the other side. Someone who has stopped hearing us. Someone who is unreachable.
It’s unfairly familiar.
We don’t want to, we mustn’t, sacrifice ourselves to save someone who won’t be saved. What, then, can we do?
There is a difference, certainly, one of scale, between a basement that isn’t there, and a pair of relatively clean underwear in the laundry. In that intimately-witnessed break with reality, it isn’t hundreds (or thousands) of people visiting one provably wrong thought, surrounding it, propping it up and taking it on, its ultimate weight stemming from the sheer numbers of people holding onto it. It’s instead one person, that key person, that partner, visiting one no-longer provably wrong thought hundreds (or thousands) of times. Its weight is measured in the sheer shock of not trying not to succumb to the gravity of such a distorted neural pathway, of being not just unknown, but mis-known by the person who is supposed to be closest.
I can see how the second would seem a smaller deal. At least if you’re not me.
The first person thirsty enough to drink water tainted with rotten barley in it had a moment in which they transcended their rough station. And how amazing that the by-product of the death of brain cells is euphoria. Human agrarian society, post-hunter-gatherer, grew up beside booze. And the lie stuck.
Consider: during the pandemic, one of the never-contested essential businesses was liquor stores. And the many urgent, desperate jokes about needing booze during an acute, then chronic, crisis don’t really get the meat of why.
There’s of course an excellent practical reason for this. In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the last thing a strained-to-breaking hospital system needs is an influx of alcoholics going into withdrawal, or requiring the emergency room after drinking isopropyl or hand sanitizer in a fractured bid to avoid reality.
There’s no basement at Comet Ping Pong, and liquor stores are essential.
The number of people who believe children are being trafficked out of a pizza joint in Northwest D.C. is fortunately still smaller than the number of people with a slightly tighter grip on reality. However, if those numbers were reversed, it wouldn’t suddenly make a basement appear under Comet Ping Pong.
Sometimes reality is lonely.
If your reality is lonely, we hope you’ll consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery – our group for the loved ones of alcoholics.