S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Miles from Nowhere,” Park talks about cigarettes, Scientology, and substance use.
“Miles from nowhere
Guess I’ll take my time
Oh yeah, to reach there.”
Were you a smoker? If so, are you as embarrassed as I am when a new physician quizzes you about it?
“How long did you smoke cigarettes, Wilson?”
“And how many packs a day?”
“Three to four.”
“And how long since you quit?”
This is when (if they’ve actually been listening) they do the math.
“So, wait: you quit smoking at forty-two?”
“But that means you started at … twelve!?”
“Well, seven, actually. I was twelve before I could do it regularly.”
Packs were only a quarter in machines then. Filtered, unfiltered, menthol and regular … if it had tobacco in it I was game. I mostly smoked by myself in the beginning, because stealth was required and I was a solitary kid, anyway. Looking back, in fact, it’s hard to imagine a more natural born addict, or one more dedicated to taking advantage of his predilections. My brothers weren’t puffing Newports in second grade, any more than the other kids were. (Well, at least until they met me: classmates from the time often blame me for introducing them to cigarettes.)
Turns out they were on to something, as tobacco is the one drug I regret. (It was such a waste of time and body parts … I could use those lungs now.) I loved the whole ritual of cigarettes, and convinced myself they improved my focus generally, but so what? They didn’t get you high! I mean if a habit’s maiming you, the least you should expect is a good buzz.
Tobacco is the one drug I regret. … I mean if a habit’s maiming you, the least you should expect is a good buzz.
Like the kind my old friend Karl experienced. We were the heavy smokers on our high school basketball team, and he was one of those guys who’d take a draw on his cigarette … and nothing would come out, like he was storing the smoke in his toes.
By thirty his lungs were hash browns and he was forced to quit. After that he chewed tobacco for decades (married all the while, don’t ask me how that works), before the chemical breakthrough that changed the game for nicotine junkies everywhere, i.e. Nicorette gum.
Karl bought it by the case. Then a few years ago he gave me a call.
“Well, buddy,” he said, “I had to go to the emergency room this morning.”
“Really?” I said. “Why?”
“Severe arrhythmia. My heart was going a mile a minute and it scared the shit out of me.”
I paused for a moment to see if he was kidding; when I realized he wasn’t I burst out laughing.
“You think that’s funny, High?” he said.
“Oh, come on, Karl! A rapid heartbeat? You’re telling me you don’t know what that comes from?”
“No. Genetics maybe?”
“Jesus! It’s those fuckin’ Nicorette chiclets, man! What’s the suggested use a day?”
“I don’t know … six to eight?”
“Uh huh. And you? How many do you chew?”
He did the math. Cleared his throat as recognition dawned.
“Ehhh … about fifty-two,” he said.
Moments like that are why we’re lifelong friends; and if I got the rush from nicotine that he does … I’d still be after it, too.
Airplane glue was a far worthier addition to my childhood (even if I didn’t know it at the time). The hundreds of models I constructed? The boats and cars and planes that littered the corner of my childhood room? I didn’t care about their counterparts in the real world, much less those scaled down replicas. It was, instead, all about the process: once done I’d as soon toss them as look at them. (I know because my brother Joe hid a batch once, only to get pissed when I didn’t notice.)
No, what mattered, in retrospect, was that tube of glue beneath my nose. I was never big on fresh air to begin with, so I’d close all the doors and windows in my room, sit at my desk for six to eight hours at a time, bathing the right side of my brain in fumes.
And turpentine? There was the money shot. Few realized its lethality in the Fifties, so none of the oil painting classes I attended were ventilated. They were usually in the back of old women’s homes, dank little rooms that so reeked of solvent I still salivate thinking about them. I was supposed to meet my father outside afterwards but he claimed he often had to drag me out, that I’d be standing alone at my easel, brush poised in the air, long after the others had left.
Fortunately he was glassy-eyed himself, having done his waiting in bars. I was sixteen before my mother saw the light. She’d taken me to an oral surgeon to have my molars removed, and after drinking a sedative that knocked me cross-eyed I had to be carried to the car afterwards.
And all the way there (to hear her tell it), I’m slurring: “Take-out jug … get a take-out jug of that stuff.”
Sober was never better to me. I tried to ascribe to it in my A.A. days, of course, but even when an old timer would get up, swear his life was better without booze, I wasn’t buying it.
You did it wrong, I’d think.
I’ve had numerous girlfriends (and two wives) who didn’t drink or do drugs, wouldn’t, in fact, take more than a single aspirin at a time (as if their sobriety were more about vigilance than control).
But me? If I ran out of pot they’d find some for me, they knew Jekyll from Hyde, that a stoned Wilson was the only one worth knowing. When I was younger I’d get wistful about that, wish I could will or meditate or talk myself into a better mood, but when it comes to brain chemicals I know what’s coming the moment I wake. (It’s been like that since encephalitis and meningitis rewired my frontal lobe as a boy.)
The breakthrough came when I moved to Los Angeles in ’77. I tell people that I spent the next two years in Scientology and they look at me like I’m crazy, but it’s still a source of great pride to me. (Like jail, everyone should experience a cult at least once.)
The “church” prohibited intoxicants, but because their e-meters were basically lie detectors they didn’t have to trust your ass, they just tested you. You couldn’t hide the smallest puff on a joint from your “auditor,” and though I resented this Big Brother act initially I soon learned to take advantage of it, to leave the discipline of sobriety to them while I juggled the consequences.
Which means I spent those cult years (after a decade of hell-bent dissipation) totally clean. (Not even an aspirin, though cigarettes were okay because L. Ron Hubbard smoked them. We watched many reels of his lectures from the Fifties and, like Karl, he’d be sucking the Luckies and flashing brown teeth.)
Yet this is the period of my life I’m most grateful for, even as, day in and day out, it was easily the most torturous. I mean two marriages!? Really? By a guy who belonged in solitary confinement? One of them for six months, the other for nine, first to a woman who barely knew I was there, the second to a grim sociopath? I made better decisions in blackouts.
It’s rare, but Wife #2 (“Dark Donna”) came to mind last week. I’d wrenched my back and was lying on a heating pad (which along with stretches usually solves it) and remembered the first time I’d “thrown” my back out. I was thirty-one and living with her and her two-year-old daughter in a Hollywood apartment when, in the midst of bending over, I suddenly crumpled to the carpet in agony.
“Oh shit!” I gasped. “Jesus! There’s something wrong with my lower back … I can’t move my legs!”
I tried to sit up, even get an elbow beneath me, but fell back screaming both times.
Suddenly Donna was above me, sweet little Sherry at her side. We’d been arguing earlier, so I chalked up the sneer on her face to that.
“So, Wilson” she said, voice dripping with menace, “you say you’ve hurt your back and can’t move?”
“Yeah, Donna,” I moaned. “Help me, please, the pain is excruciating, it feels like I’ve been shot! We have to get me to the ER.”
What surprised me later is that I was surprised when she started kicking me instead. (This was the same woman who punched me in the face while I slept after all.)
“How’s that feel, Wilson!?” she cried, burying a toe in my shoulder. “And this!” Thud! “And this!?” Thud! Thud!
They were solid shots: she was backing up for a running start. As I curled into the fetal position, tried to limit her blows to my upper back (daughter Sherry, thinking it was a game, had joined in, too), I realized, This is sobriety for me. I walk around with no way to flip the switch, thinking I’m an interesting if vaguely distracted guy, and the first chance she gets … the bitch I’m married to kicks the shit out of me!
And those were the good times. Much, much worse was everything in-between, the ennui and tedium that came from posing as a regular guy. I took it head on for a while, even wallowed in it when I could manage the energy, just to tattoo the terror on my brain.
Because that’s the magic of those L.A. years, how they convinced me I could make it without booze or hallucinogenics but marijuana was a must: I had to be able to change the channel somehow, know the mood I woke in wasn’t my Fate.
So I’ve smoked and eaten pot ever since.
My only regret is bufo (the psychedelic slime on the back of certain toads). I wish I’d tried that back in the day.