I started doing drugs when I was a baby. I picked up a nicotine habit when I was a zygote, then a few months after my birth, I started hitting the barbiturates. My mother tells the story like this: I cried a lot, more than most. It was a raw deal, swapping out warm, amniotic bliss for the sights and sounds of living. She took me to the doctor and explained what was wrong with me. I was a malcontent, easily disturbed. He gave her a script for Phenobarbital. She mushed it in with my Gerber’s and fed it to me with a spoon. It was the sixties, what are you gonna do? There are pictures, faded Kodak color prints, and there I am, a babe in the arms of this beautiful young woman, not a single burden on my mind. I have been trying to find that place again ever since.
I didn’t smoke pot for the first 17 years of my life because I was afraid of becoming one of those people who listens to Jethro Tull. It seemed like an all or nothing proposition, to become a stoner, a burnout. There’s that first bonghit, then you’re walking around the mall with Aqualung painted on the back of your denim jacket. This was a theory that was reinforced by my father, who, throughout the 70’s and 80’s, was a drug councilor at a high school in Long Island City, Queens. Pot killed brain cells, pot sapped ambition—that’s why those kids in the schoolyard cranking the first Boston album on a boombox talked slow and said, “like” and “man” a lot.
He had other horror stories about other drugs. Quaaludes were big in the late-70’s. Angel dust. Kids grew up fast in New York City back then. I remember when The Warriors opened there were gangfights in movie theaters because, beneath the thick layer of exploitation, that film depicted a life that a lot of kids wanted to live. Drugs, sex, and rock and roll with a healthy side-order of gratuitous violence. Can you dig it? Not that I experienced very much of that in my Long Island elementary school, but my dad would brief me on the incidents. The angel dust stories were my favorite. Like the time some kid at school freaked out on sherm and it took three cops to restrain him, and even then he pulled at the handcuffs so hard that his wrists were cut to the bone. I pictured a long-haired juvenile delinquent wearing one of those green Vietnam vet shirts favored by the garbagehead elite of the late-70’s, his wrists slashed open, bleeding like some schoolyard Christ. In the crowded mini-storage bin of memory, I still have space for that one.
Then there was a kid, Andrew, who used to call our house after his binges, begging for help. He was a heroin addict and my dad got him into a program and then helped him get a gig in construction. He was sober for a few years after high school, making bank, and then someone offered him a new drug called “crack.” He blew through all of his money, ruined his marriage, was homeless and back to calling our house after hours. I only heard one side of the conversation—my dad’s insistence that he needed to get back in a program. Eventually the calls stopped coming. I imagine today that Andrew is pretty well dead.
“Promise me, Chris,” my dad would say after relating one of his parables, “promise me you will never do drugs.”
It was an easy promise to keep. I had no time for drugs anyway. Anger, depression, panic, my homework, my gig mowing lawns in the neighborhood and the scoliosis that forced me to wear a backbrace through the first years of high school kept me busy enough. I dug Minor Threat at the time. It made sense to me, the straight edge life. “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead…” It’s hard to argue with Ian Mackaye’s rationale even now. Drugs are not something you need, like food or sex or shelter, and they can get you into a hundred different types of trouble.
That said, I listened to “In My Eyes” once when I was on acid and it was two minutes and forty-nine seconds of adrenal transcendence. Ian bawls that tune like Odin leading a Viking horde across Britannia, slaughtering the wicked, feeding blood to the earth underfoot and souls to the hell beneath that. I’m sorry, Ian, but the slag heap of regret that I pull through this life is too heavy to throw that one into the mix.
I first smelled the bitter, autumnal odor of burning marijuana at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park during the Puerto Rican Day Parade one afternoon in the late-70’s back when my years on this earth could still be numbered by a single digit. It was the era of afro picks and short-shorts, disco fever and the Son of Sam. There were no clouds that day, just white-hot June sunlight and the sticky feeling of a red, white and blue Bomb Pop melting in my right hand. My dad had no idea it was Puerto Rican Day, or he would have avoided the City altogether, and me and my brother would have been jumping back and fourth over the sprinkler in our backyard.
We were surrounded by people beating on congas and bongos while beside them smoldering barbecues reduced the color of meat to black. There was a teenager in shades and a tight, black tank-top standing next to us as the crowd cheered a man who was attempting to scale the winged angel statue at the center of the fountain and plant in her hands a long, draping pole flying the Puerto Rican flag. The angel seemed strangely detached from the reverie, standing august and still atop a raining fountain while four cherubs representing temperance, purity, health and peace danced a motionless a jig at her feet.
The teenager next to me was smoking a Hindenburg-shaped cigarette that smelled nothing like my dad’s True Blues. That’s weed, I thought. No one had to tell me. There was a roar of approval as the man climbing the statue succeeded in his mission, and the red, white and blue colors of America’s favorite commonwealth flowed defiantly from the angel’s hands. It was a great day for me. It was a great day for Puerto Rico.
A year or so later I smelled pot again when my dad took me and my brother to see a matinee of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at a theater in Uniondale. He didn’t want to do this, but I’d been forcing the issue for months. A friend had hipped me to the soundtrack in fifth grade. (It was the second album I ever bought, the first being Elvis Back In Memphis, which, by the time I got there, was the last Elvis album left on the shelves at Two Guys the day he died.) I’d been spending a lot of time singing, “I’m a sweet transvestite” in the family living room. No father wants to witness that. The Rocky Horror contingent that used to hit the midnight shows at the Sunnyside Cinema in Queens were the same kids he was trying to get beds for at the Covenant House, the infamous home for troubled boys on 9th Avenue that is now the site of the trendy Maritime Hotel. No way was I going to see that movie, he was adamant. But begging, if your target is a trapped presence, is a very effective bargaining tool. So he took me to see the movie, finally, and I remember there was some reefer-smoking going on there.
If you gave me a pen and paper and told me to write down everything I learned in college, I couldn’t fill three loose-leaf pages. My first few days at SUNY Albany, I slogged through a couple of rush parties sober and the revulsion that overcame me was crippling. There was nowhere to begin with that crowd, no in. They liked shitty music, had bad hair. My backbrace was better company. Downstate, I’d been catching shows at CBGB’s, hanging out in Alphabet City or Times Square. This scene at Albany was a turd rodeo.
One night I was sitting in my dorm room reading a Burroughs novel while a party raged in the hallway. The door was open and this Long Island heavy metal chick came in and said, “What are you doing… reading?” I felt embarrassed, but she was kind. She literally dragged me out and got me a beer. I didn’t drink, but at Albany, there was nothing else to do. I got pretty good at it.
The city of Albany comes alive after a forty of Olde English 800—not the people, they are only slightly more bearable—but the actual brick, glass, blacktop and stone from which it is built. I used to love walking through the black neighborhoods with their clapboard houses that reminded me of Queens Village where my grandmother used to live. There was that wacky-looking Egg, like a Super Bowl trophy three stories tall, and the Wellington Hotel with its red buzzing neon and crumbling elegance. When I walked passed the Wellington I would imagine that I was Nelson A. Rockefeller drinking expensive whiskey from highball glasses while my mistress slept next to me and Attica burned a couple hundred miles away. Some nights when I wanted to be alone I would sit on the grand staircase of the New York State Library with my forty and imagine it was an Egyptian temple. I’d look down at the State Capital Building and when the snow fell the glow from the sulfur-bulb streetlights made it look as though it were carved out of bone.
So I started to dig booze. My one friend Guy, he played bass, same as me. He hipped me to some fusion stuff—Mahavishnu and ‘70’s Jeff Beck—but we really both loved the Who. He would smoke pot and I wouldn’t, and we’d take turns at the stereo. Finally, he just couldn’t take it. It was not really a shared experience for him.
“C’mon Chris, try it. Come on…”
My friend Kupitz from high school was there too and we had already been through a lot together, so I said fuck it, gobbled up a few bonghits and then laid back comatose on Guy’s bed for two or three hours.
There were pictures exploding on the backs of my eyelids and they all looked like the cover of Disraeli Gears. I put on a Syd Barrett tape and imagined I was there in the studio with him. I could see his crushed velvet pants, his white, mirrored Telecaster. Then I recalled something I hadn’t thought about since I was a child, the waiting room of my old pediatrician, the first guy to ever give me drugs. I could see the fake plants, smell the dust on the window screens.
Towards the end of the year I remember trying to make it in my dorm room with a grad student from my James Joyce class. My roommate kept trying to get into the room and I kept telling him to wait and everyone on the floor seemed to know what was going on. I saw her a few days later on campus and she looked rough in the light. Albany might have been a hip town for Nelsen A. Rockefeller, but it blew chunks to be there and be me. I caught a bus back to New York one weekend and saw the Bad Brains for the first time. Soon after I closed the book on Albany and returned to my parents’ house, reborn as the beer-swilling, pot-smoking, punk rock-loving 18-year old that my father always feared I’d become.
To be continued… maybe… probably not.