A sobering last call for alcoholic
The numbers are mind-boggling.
About 520 arrests in Newport Beach. At least 277 cases filed against him by prosecutors in Orange County. Plus an unknown amount in Hawaii, Los Angeles or any of the other places he landed after a stint in jail or rehab.
But the number that’s most important to those who knew Mark David Allen, or felt they knew him, is somewhere in the thousands.
That’s how many lives Allen touched through his documented story of a decades-long battle with alcoholism.
He died Wednesday at 50 years old. He was found lying face down in the street near 43rd Street and Seashore Drive about 5 a.m. His cause of death was inconclusive following an autopsy, so the county coroner will perform a toxicology screening. Results are expected in six to eight weeks.
His death was expected but surprising at the same time, said Newport Beach Police Custody Officer David J. Sperling. For more than 10 years, Sperling has recorded Allen’s frequent — sometimes twice-daily — visits into the city jail. He recorded Allen’s 500th arrest last summer.
Sperling got Allen’s permission to film him and create a movie out of it years ago, and has kept in touch with Allen ever since. “Drunk in Public” has won awards at film festivals across the country.
Allen’s death spread like wildfire across the recovery community, particularly those who were moved by his struggles shown in “Drunk in Public.”
“I was in my office when I heard,” said Kelly Borski, a chemical dependency counselor in Houston. “I had to take a couple of minutes. I could believe it because it was expected, but I couldn’t believe it. He’s gone. He’s lost to alcoholism.”
In Sperling’s film, Allen’s addiction to alcohol changes him from a tan, handsome Southern California surfer with sun-bleached hair in his 20s to a swollen, unshaven homeless man who speaks nonsensically between singing classic rock and reggae songs.
Alcohol poisoned his memory, and sometimes he couldn’t remember Sperling’s name even though the part-time filmmaker would occasionally find him, bring him food and take time to catch up.
Allen was arrested for various violations, from the obvious — drunk in public — to trespassing when he violated local businesses’ restraining orders.
He had stretches of sobriety in recent years, including when he was sentenced to six months in jail in March 2010.
But no matter how often Sperling, Allen’s family and others tried to help him, it never worked. Allen’s life was addiction personified.
“It impacts a lot of people. Obviously a lot of my clients got angry and go, ‘Why doesn’t he stop?’” Borski said. “What people can get out of it is it doesn’t have to be them. Every time I show that film, I say to my clients, ‘You’re here right now. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. But you want to quit and you’re here right now.’”
For a few months last year when Allen was sober, Sperling said, he seemed to have regained his memory and was cognizant. He said all the right things to make people believe he wanted to stay sober.
But Allen soon fell back into his old ways.
“I think everyone has a purpose and it may not be a glossy, Disneyfied version of someone that has a problem and everything gets better and is OK,” Sperling said. “You can still put merit and purpose out of things that really, from a standard point of view, are a failure.”
There are hundreds of comments on the documentary’s Facebook wall mourning Allen’s death and discussing the movie’s effect on them or others.
One commenter wrote: “I am greatfull [sic] for this film and will use it as a substance abuse counselor as a tool to reach clients and as a recoverying [sic] alcoholic I will use it to remind myself what is at stake because this could be me.”
Another person wrote: “RIP brother Mark. You lived and died so that others could live and learn. I see you getting out in Heaven’s line-up and finally getting a chance to ride God’s perfect waves.”
Sperling said Allen’s life is a cautionary tale.
“Mark brought it all to life, the whole concept of: ‘If you do this, this is what’s going to happen,’” he said. “With Mark you got to see the despair acted out. He’s living the rock bottom and showing people it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Sperling said he is working on updating “Drunk in Public” one last time, wrapping up about a year’s worth of interactions that he’ll put into a conclusive version of the film.
“That’s the thing,” Borski said. “He might have died, but that documentary is going to be shown to people, and so he’s still going to live.”