Friday, March 31, 2006

Youth's Idyll, V

Part I ; Part II ; Part III ; Part IV

“So you’re going to tell it?”
“Yeah.”
“And why the hell would you do that? What do you hope to accomplish? Are you one of these exhibitionist types who thinks his experience is so remarkable?”
“No. My experience is unexceptional.”
“Then why tell it? Are you special? You think you’re gonna go on Oprah?”
“I just started talking, that’s all. Maybe I don’t know how to shut up. No, I’m not special”
“I’ll say.”
“I’m indulging myself.”
“I’ll say that too.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to tell your story?”
“Asshole, I don’t have a story. You don’t have a story. You want stories? Go read a book. I got reality. Don’t kid yourself. Nobody cares. Get a life.”
“Everyone has a story.”
“Bullshit. You’re a narcissist. And worse, you’re a boring narcissist. Shame on you.”
“Yes, that’s it. Shame. And ego.”

It’s all an unraveling; layers of pretense, experience, bluster, hypocrisy, self delusion, all fall away eventually. In the end one is left looking at himself, stripped to his humble origins. The little that is left explains everything, to no satisfaction whatsoever.

Drugs

I was in the back of a car, loaded on something, I don’t remember what, looking down at my scrawny arms. I was curious that they seemed alien, as if they weren’t my own. I couldn’t feel them. I was sure I couldn’t move them if I tried, though I couldn’t bring myself to try. I could feel the weight of them in my lap; but I couldn’t find them sensately, wracking my brain for their background signal. I took this all in with dull amusement.
Outside my window Interstate Five existed as a red and white blur of motion and smeared electric light as we passed streetlamps of crystalline light blooms suspended on giant concrete stalks. The cars left trails of red, stretched, as if squeezing themselves through a constricting atmosphere. If I could see them as elongated by movement, weren’t they in fact? Were we moving? I couldn’t tell. It seemed the whole world was in motion, swirling around us, its axis. We were heading north to Azusa Canyon.

It was the drugs that defined my youth; they were our currency and culture. There were the base elements: marijuana, alcohol, tobacco; hardly drugs at all. One advanced through the harder stuff, as far as his sense of adventure took him: cocaine, amphetamines, acid; PCP in its various forms: angel dust, cannebinol, sherm; an occasional specialty item like psilocybin mushrooms; free basing and crack would come later. And all the while heroin was lurking in the background, like an old pervert waiting in the shadows for the kids to get just wasted enough to have no inhibitions left.

But I wouldn’t be around for that; I had already made my own circuit through the drug culture and arrived, mostly unscathed, at something like late adolescence with nothing more than a residual affinity for smoking pot. No great tale of addiction and redemption here. I lived a certain way for a time; I stopped after a while, a rational decision, or more like a series of rational decisions becoming a new way of life, a new strategy. There was no crescendo, no plot point, no realization and triumphant march into the light of day; just eventual exhaustion and a gradual drifting away. It was boredom that drew me in, and it was boredom, as much as anything else, that delivered me from it.
We weren’t looking to escape reality, or the hopelessness of our lives. It wasn’t self destructive behavior; it was merely reckless. We were bored; rebelling against tedium. We went in for the experience. As for me, I remember being very keen on any sort of derangement of perception. “Tripping.” Drugs were the means, novelty was the end.

I first started smoking marijuana when I was about twelve. I soon realized that I could pay for my indulgence by selling joints. Back then you could buy an ounce of cheap Mexican pot for ten dollars, roll as many as forty joints and sell them for fifty cents a piece to your fellow junior high school students; leaving you ten dollars for your next bag, some pocket change for yourself, and whatever was left you smoked. I started saving up, and worked my way up to buying by the pound, selling ounces. I would eventually branch out into other product lines, all on a very small scale. I never got far. The idea that people get rich selling drugs on the street is a myth perpetuated by phony street-tough rappers.
I took pride in my business, such as it was. From the start I was known for carrying a superior product than my main rival at Corvallis Junior High. Rob, a friend of mine, was something of a freeloader, earning the nickname “Radar” because he always seemed to show up whenever there was someone else’s stash to smoke. We competed for the individual joint retail in the eighth grade. He couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, compete with me for quality, rolling smaller joints with more stems and seeds. I cleaned my stash, rolling mine a little fatter; I became expert at rolling a tight, even burning cigarette. Aside from a means of income selling for me was a way of achieving a level of social status, not high but higher than a shy and timid kid would manage otherwise.
In the early days it was a communal experience. Much of the appeal was in the event; in the conspiracy of it and in the ritual of the circle, passing a joint around. Marijuana is the ultimate adolescent high; its appeal has roots in childhood memories of the warm maternal embrace, in its tendency to enhance music and humor, the camaraderie of shared experience. If it’s good stuff and doesn’t promote paranoia, it has the effect of pushing to the margins whatever concerns a user has. For this reason it persists as a popular, less demanding alternative to alcohol for many young to middle aged adults. I certainly don’t promote it; as a parent I engage in the same hypocrisy of many of my generation, living in perpetual dread, lecturing on the evils of all drugs. In reality, I know too many potheads who hold down good jobs, pay their taxes, and support families to feel that its continuing criminalization is anything other than a costly and unnecessary prohibition.
In the first few years it was all innocent enough. The Southern California summers were carpeted with dried out golden brown grass and steaming heat softened asphalt swept repeatedly by an ever present sun; girls were starting to appear, as if emerging from the landscape, wearing cut off shorts and halter tops, their soft scent and smooth skin leaving us helpless, all of it hinting that a bottomless mystery was opening up before us. The days were endless, we lived in flip flops and ragged clothes, baked and bleached by the sun; half wild and semi-socialized. Not a care in the world. We didn’t know we lived in a brief respite anticipating an endless grind. The eighties were right around the corner.

The nights were different. The nights were sinister. The nights swept you up in a maelstrom and left you wherever you happened to be when the momentum stopped. One evening Dave, the wannabe con man who was always seeking alliances and connections, and I found ourselves in a strange apartment. Two older guys sat at a table covered with a pile of ground mint leaves they were rolling into very thin joints, “pinners.” The scent of the mint leaves mingled with a heavy chemical odor. This was my introduction to angel dust.
We took to calling the high “gumby” because of the overall numbing effect it had. Phencyclidine (PCP) was originally developed as an anesthetic, but was abandoned because of a high incidence of psychotic reactions. It would later surface as an animal tranquilizer. Three things happen to you when under the influence: you become more or less impervious to pain; you feel physical euphoria that makes you think you’re capable of great athletic feats; and you feel an increased confidence as nervousness and inhibition fade away. It is both a stimulant and a depressant at once, somehow. Legends of “dusters” experiencing violent psychotic episodes were everywhere in the early days of the “epidemic” that would sweep L.A. County in the late seventies. The stories were overblown. I personally never saw anyone have a violent reaction.
I hate to say it, but as I remember it, a PCP high is glorious. I always felt as if I was walking on six inches of air; taller, stronger, lighter. I was supremely confident. Perhaps the best part was that all fear of girls vanished. An awkward kid became Mr. Seduction. This was all an illusion, of course. PCP has a numbing effect, relaxing the facial muscles, giving one a sleepy, drooling look. Gumby.
It was true that one felt invincible when under the influence. Once a large group of us indulged in one long dust induced night of recreational fighting; we flew through the air attempting leaping kung fu kicks; we wrestled and punched each other laughing like idiots; walking along the riverbed, we pushed one another down the tall concrete bank on one side or the short dirt and gravel hill on the other. I awoke the next morning a mass of bruises, scrapes, and pains.

We started selling it, buying ounces and retailing grams at ten dollars a go. After dust had been on the market for a while some started showing signs of repeated use: slurred speech, vacuous stares, slack jaws. We took to calling them “mummies.”

Geezing

“Tighter.” My brother said, leaning in toward me, through a peculiar sort of bad breath. I noticed that all the geezers had the same type of sour breath, which seemed to come out of them once they had shot up. Was it possible that the drug was leaching out of the blood vessels in their lungs, that quickly?
“Tighter.” He said again. With both hands I was choking his upper arm, between what was left of his bicep and a bony shoulder. I was serving as a tourniquet, restricting the blood flow to the vein he was injecting with heroin, or maybe a cocaine/heroin mixture, a “speedball.” I don’t recall exactly.
My friend Pete and I had stumbled into the gathering, taking place in the garage of my mother’s house in Norwalk. Years before I had converted the garage into my room, lining it with mismatched wood paneling I had stripped out of vacant houses in the wastelands. After I started spending most of my time at a girlfriend’s it would be taken over and trashed by my brother and his companions. When blackened spoons started showing up in the garage I at first didn’t know what it meant. This was new; the opening of the sinister final chapter of the volume that was our pointless, failed adolescence. Those spoons were like the early indications of a terminal illness.
The one thing I never allowed myself to consider was injecting anything. Heroin was offered to me, but there was never any question; I knew I wouldn’t go that far. We had our own local vernacular for intravenous drug use: geezing, junkies were geezers. Pete and I jokingly referred to my brother’s crew of nascent junkies as the “Geezinslaw Brothers”, after a country & western band.

Pete and I stumbled out of the dank, gloomy garage, disoriented and squinting in the harsh light of day. Pete insisted he had somehow acquired a contact high just from being in there. It can’t be true, but Pete isn’t known for getting crazy ideas.
I had withdrawn from it all by that point; whether by dumb luck or intuition, it was just as things were getting ugly. People started overdosing.

Bub

Bub was, in the words of one of his fellow slack-jawed types, the “craziest white boy I ever met.” It was apt. Growing up in a mixed Latino/white neighborhood one learns early on that Hispanics, generally, possess a higher degree of physical bravery. A few of them appear to be naturally fearless. Bub was the only white kid I remember from the neighborhood to have that kind of courage. He was as noble and brave in his way as he was vulgar, dim, and incurious. He had a sense of honor; he also had distaste for all things intellectual, seeing them as effete. He lived with his mother, a scatter-brained prescription junkie herself. Shortly after I stopped hanging around, he started geezing. He died of an overdose one night, a speedball. He was probably about twenty one years old, leaving behind an infant. He was the first to go. He’s been gone now about as long as he was alive.

Even before it all began there was one incredibly stupid thing that kids were doing: sniffing paint, which was popular with some of the cholos for some reason, most comically it seemed because they already had the paint cans handy for graffitti. You would occasionally see an ese breathing through a balled up sock saturated with paint, sometimes sniffing with one hand and tagging with the other. Glue and paint sniffing might be the single most idiotic example of human behavior, and seems a natural concomitant of graffitti.

Years later in Okinawa my friend Harry and I were sitting on the seawall down the hill from our base in Futenma, polishing off a bottle of something and lying to each other about all we would accomplish when we got out of the service. Some Okinawans showed up; kids, friendly and curious with a little English at their command. We started talking. Another group of Okinawans appeared; more kids, carrying large, clear plastic bags containing some sort of colorless liquid. They were inhaling from the bags, and were obviously very high. Our new friends exchanged words with them, things got heated, and before we knew it we were standing in the middle of what resembled a Hong Kong action film. All about us five foot tall Okinawan adolescents were throwing roundhouse kicks and precision blows. Our kung fu friends vanquished the glue sniffers.

I was a couple of years and half the circumference of the earth removed from the neighborhood. It was a fitting, belated denouement.

Monday, March 27, 2006

...

Trudging through white-out conditions against stinging needles of snow slashing at a horizontal angle, feeling as if they are cutting right through you, you make out in the faded distance a dark speck. You determinedly put your head down and make for it, your upper body at a forty five degree angle as if you were dragging a plow behind you. You are moving in an incremental start-stop fashion, heaving yourself forward with each labored thrust. You lift your head periodically like a swimmer raising up to breathe so you can sight back in on the spot in the distance; you are relieved it grows larger the closer you get. As it gradually takes form you are heartened to see that it is a shack. You draw close and it is revealed as a ramshackle, poorly designed structure. A fading sign above a door ajar says:

UNTETHERED

You go inside...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Gee Annie, Cruel

I haven’t read E. Anne Proulx but for a single short story. I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain. It therefore remains possible, to my mind, that the author is as eloquent as her reputation suggests and that the film is a veritable gay cowboy Godfather; making her remarkably sophomoric rant in The Guardian only righteous indignation and excusing the bilious pettiness of it all. She begins:

The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that, having been nominated for eight Academy awards, it would get Best Picture as it had at the funny, lively Independent Spirit awards the day before. (If you are looking for smart judging based on merit, skip the Academy Awards next year and pay attention to the Independent Spirit choices.) We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture.

I found myself mouthing the word soundlessly to an imaginary companion: heffalump? Looking it up I discovered it is a character from Winnie the Pooh, a figment of his paranoid imagination that he is forever trying to capture, never successfully, in order to protect his honey stores. The term is sometimes used to convey a creature of the imagination. Your guess is as good as mine, as to how this applies to academy voters. It must be very apt, she uses it twice. Proulx continues:

Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumor has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver.

I was suddenly sympathetic to Hollywood’s elite, hammered from one side for being too liberal, pressed against an anvil on the other for not being liberal enough. And here I thought cinema was diluted by its overreaching, leftist activist conscience. No, it seems there’s no gay element in Hollywood whatsoever; in fact, all the homosexuals are out riding the range, muttering sweet nothings in one another’s ears with husky John Wayne baritones. Those flamboyant creative types all over the film industry? Secret NASCAR fans and strip club whoremongers, no doubt.
The author is shocked, shocked that studios engage in lobbying. How dare they throw themselves before our media stampede? Having just proclaimed the issue of race and segregation passé before the exigency of seventies era closeted cowboys, she still sees fit to chide the stuffy academy for its gated segregation, and sees no bigotry in declaring them a bunch of old farts. Age? Everyone gets old. Where’s the cache in that? So fire away, and heads up you wrinkly old coots.

But oh, that "yeasty ferment." As I reflect that this is a wealthy and respected author and I have to get up in the morning to go to a regular job, I'm relieved there are no guns or sturdy rope in the house.

Proulx can’t distance herself enough from the proceedings she’s so upset about attending and being forced to attach so much importance to:


From the first there was an atmosphere of insufferable self-importance emanating from "the show" which, as the audience was reminded several times, was televised and being watched by billions of people all over the world

No self-importance from her quarter. But of course, cliché isn’t out of bounds either:

There were montages, artfully meshed clips of films of yesteryear, live acts by Famous Talent, smart-ass jokes by Jon Stewart who was witty and quick, too witty, too quick, too eastern perhaps for the somewhat dim LA crowd.

Because we all know that the people who make movies must be a bunch of idiots. Not as if there’s any draw to the immense wealth and fame of Hollywood that might attract intelligence and talent.
The problem Stewart had, just as Chris Rock and David Letterman before him, is that he is too irreverent for the event. These are a group of people, both important and self-important, who have the nerve to put on a show celebrating themselves; an event that also happens to have immense financial repercussions for many of them. They aren’t in the mood. Their best hosts are not the best, and definitely not the more controversial, stand-up comedians; best suited to the task are insiders: Billy Crystal, raised in and on show business, or Johnny Carson, who made a career out of making movie stars appear witty.

Perhaps it’s easy to see the reality of it from this remove, and Ms. Proulx can’t discern the hype for her own understandable vanity; but from here it appears that her little film got an incredible boost from a very sympathetic Hollywood, the critics, and the media at large. Combine the political impulse and in such cases a critical mass is reached, with everyone seeking to hitch a ride on the momentum; indeed, it becomes perilous to stand in the way as a voice of dissent. The cacophony of voices declares the very praise itself virtuous. Before long it's a competition to see who can distinguish themselves with the most effusive praise; proving that they understand more completely the revelation, and feel more deeply its import. Like an audience of Soviet functionaries applauding one of Stalin's speeches, no one dares stop first.

When commerce or some other force intrudes and breaks the reverie,the celebrants, having worked themselves up for a grand climactic rapture, feel a profound sense of betrayal. How dare they insult our worship?
And it has become a type of worship, transitory as it may be. Hype has become truth. For some, politics has become a way of brandishing one's moral purity. Defying the emotional, unifying piety of those in the thrall of this combination produces some very odd behavior.

But it's never a bad thing when self righteousness on such a grand scale is humbled. Maybe I'll even get around to renting Crash before it makes it to television, in appreciation.