Archive for July, 2007

I tried crack when I was 11-years-old. I don’t blame my experimentation on negligent parents, a need to self-medicate, or even growing up on the mean streets of Jersey City at the height of the crack epidemic. I blame TV.

I was walking home from school, where littered crack vials were a common sight, and I picked one up out of curiosity, carrying it all the way home. Thanks to DARE presentations, it had been ingrained in me that certain drugs could cause instantaneous addiction. One snort of cocaine and I’d be stealing from friends and family in an effort to support my expensive drug habit, eventually being imprisoned and/or dying. My favorite television show, Miami Vice, only reinforced this belief, albeit with a slightly more glamorous spin. My drug addiction might force me to become a police informant, meeting a grisly end in the back seat of a limousine, my shirt torn open to reveal a wiretap. Or maybe my Italian sports car and I would succumb to a car bomb, while a loved one watched on, screaming in slow motion, “Nooooooooooo!” Whatever the outcome, and no matter how stylishly-dressed I was, I would surely come to rue that first snort, injection, or toke.

But there was something else I learned from Miami Vice. Something a bit more procedural. That you can confirm the identity of a controlled substance by licking your pinky, dipping it in the substance in question, and tasting it. A wry facial expression while executing the maneuver was optional. It was no great leap for me to assume that drugs must have a taste – one that was easily recognizable by the likes of Detectives Sonny Crockett, Ricardo Tubbs, and the drug dealers they were trying to keep off of the streets. I wanted to know what that taste was.

And so, within the safe confines of my bedroom, I eyed the discarded crack vial, determined to taste the drug residue inside. I paused before readying my pinky, truly frightened by the prospect of a full-blown crack addiction. But I reassured myself that if Crockett and Tubbs could do it on a nearly weekly basis, it must be safe.

I licked my pinky and made a couple of stabs at the crack vial, but it became clear to me that my finger was never going to fit inside. Instead, I decided to go the direct route. I crammed as much of my tongue in there as I could, employing a swirl technique.

The minute I pulled the tip of my tongue out of the crack vial I was filled with regret. In a matter of seconds my entire tongue passed from painful burning to numbness. While I sat in my room, praying for it to go away, I contemplated the horrible fate that awaited me: I would become a crackhead, but not before making a trip to the emergency room. The worst was that I would have to explain to my mom, my words slurred by my thick and heavy tongue, why I had licked the inside of a crack vial. “I thaw it on Miami Fithe.”

Thankfully it never came to that, and I managed to pass through puberty sans crack habit or speech impediment, developing into a nerd instead. As a teenager I wore a uniform of pleated pants, a turtleneck, a head band, and large black glasses. In high school I was always first to raise my hand in class, and during our breaks, when I wasn’t spouting off obscure bits of trivia or playing African board games with my teachers, I had my head buried in a book. None of this helped with my social life, and because my high school was so small – there were only about 80 students – I didn’t even have the option of bonding with other nerds.

There were other students, though, who were able to form a misfit clique. They were the druggies. They would stand outside of school smoking cigarettes, playing hacky sack, and talking about the Grateful Dead; they were mostly guys, and they had long hair with bleached streaks, black leather jackets, and converse high tops; they had sub-par acoustic guitar skills, the desire to be in a band, and they would make “sensitive guy” statements like, “I don’t have a problem with gay guys as long as they don’t hit on me.”

By this point, I was over the glamour of drugs. My mom was a pothead, and she had become more and more bold about her use as I had gotten older. She grew marijuana plants in the front window of our house, somehow deluded into thinking that no one would notice, taught me and my brother how to roll joints, and blew smoke in our mouths, yelling “shotgun!” She had once even tricked me into drinking a tea made from marijuana stems and seeds, telling me that it was “PMS tea.” Unlike the famous television commercial, where the father confronts his son about his drug use and the son blurts out, “I learned it from watching you,” I did not want to follow in my mother’s footsteps, mostly because I thought my mom was so uncool.

This left me with a weird dilemma. How could I rebel against my mom when almost everyone at school was getting high? It was a mixed blessing that I was never invited to parties, missing offers of drugs. But the subject came up sometimes, in conversations between classes, and I wanted to fit in. Because of my shotgun and PMS tea experiences, I could truthfully say that I had tried marijuana, skimming over the details. But I had to be far more creative when other drugs came up.

For LSD I blamed something akin to a bad trip. I had already hallucinated a few times before, sick in bed with fever and convulsing. The convulsions made it seem as if the walls were throbbing and the hallucinations made me think that they were talking to me, too. Whatever it was that they were saying, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. The first time it happened, I managed to crawl to my mother’s bedroom. She put me in a cool bath and gave me Tylenol and the voices went away. The second time it happened, I was in the hospital fighting an infection, and a nurse told me, unhelpfully, “The walls aren’t moving.” It happened one more time, at home, and once again my mom helped me into a cool bath. It was truly terrifying. For years after, whenever it got quiet and I could hear a slight steady rhythm – even just a faucet dripping – I would be struck with that same feeling of terror. Whenever I heard about bad trips or LCD flashbacks, I felt that I knew exactly what those must be. The idea of hallucinating on purpose was unfathomable to me, and I wasn’t shy about sharing that.

But my masterstroke was my cocaine excuse. When asked if I had ever tried it, I would affect a mock-solemn tone, saying, “No, I have a heart murmur.” I never had to say anything more than that, because most people responded with an understanding nod. One classmate, the son of a television executive, once replied in an equally solemn voice, “You don’t want to mess with that.”

I had stolen the heart murmur excuse from Sweet Valley High, mining the tragic end of Regina Morrow. The Sweet Valley High books were like a young adult version of Dynasty; Regina Morrow was both rich and beautiful, but thanks to the vanity of her mother, a model who took diet pills throughout her pregnancy, Regina had been born partially deaf and with heart defects. After falling in with the wrong crowd, she tried cocaine at a party – the first time she had ever done drugs – and she died of heart failure.

My mother liked to brag that she had had a “natural” pregnancy with me, never taking so much as Tylenol. Once I was outside of her body, though, she felt that she could do what she wanted. I remember a time, before I had ever seen a DARE presentation or an episode of Miami Vice, when I watched my mom as she snorted a white powdery substance. I had never seen anything like that before, but it looked like so much fun! She told me it was cold medicine when I asked what it was, and when I asked if I could try it, she replied, “No. You don’t have a cold.” At the time, it seemed so unfair! But now I know that she was just looking out for me. In her own fucked-up, deluded way.


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A few years ago, I was reminded of just how out of touch I’ve become. My friend and I were on our way to a vacation house in the Outer Banks, and after a long drive, our conversation had wound down from making approving comments about our rented Chrysler minivan – so much passenger room! so low to the ground! – to discussing the latest trends in hip hop. My friend told me all about the St. Louis scene, citing the song “Hot In Herre”, by Nelly, as evidence of the unique St. Louis patois. I felt really clued in until she told me, slightly sheepishly, that she had read all about it in the New Yorker.

I returned the favor last year. After reading a favorable review of Beyonce’s “To The Left” in the New York Times, I downloaded a copy and sent it to her. We now know all of the words.

I was reminded again of my own cluelessness when I read about a new dance craze, the “Aunt Jackie”, in Slate. Somehow I’ve missed out on a trend that is “rapidly moving toward mainstream ubiquity – come December, drunken middle managers will be doing the “Aunt Jackie” at corporate Christmas parties.” Thanks to Slate, that drunken middle manager might be me!

It had already been a bad week. A few days earlier, after ordering a glass of white wine, I had been asked, “Are you 21?” Feeling flattered, and twirling my hair, I replied, “Gee, thanks – I’m gonna be 31 in a couple of weeks!” The barista could have left it at that, leaving my pride intact. Instead he told me that he had been making a joke.

And so, reading Slate, and feeling especially old, I came across something that cheered me considerably. There was a passing reference to the Roxanne Wars, linking to its Wikipedia entry. That’s right, if you are too young, or too old, to remember the Roxanne Wars, you can read a potentially unreliable account of it on Wikipedia! Though the Roxanne Wars might bring to mind great sacrifice, post-traumatic stress disorder, and peace accords, it really just refers to the song “Roxanne Roxanne”, by UTFO, and the dozens of songs that were released in response to it. Songs like “Roxanne’s Revenge” and “Do the Roxanne”, but mostly songs that hinted at Roxanne’s rich social network: “Roxanne’s Doctor – The Real Man” and “The Parents of Roxanne” and “Yo, My Little Sister (Roxanne’s Brothers)”.

I don’t remember the Roxanne Wars so much as I remember the song “Roxanne, Roxanne”, and even then, I just remember the chorus: “I wanna be your man!” But I read the Wikipedia entry with particular interest; I had already been compiling a list of what I had termed “response songs”: songs that were written in answer to popular songs. I got the idea after finding out that Carla Thomas had recorded an answer to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” called “I’ll Bring It On Home To You”. Her sentiment matched mine exactly; Sam Cooke was a babe.

Admittedly, my list of response songs was short; there were only six entries. But I did have a favorite: Sporty Thievz’s “No Pigeons”, about women who act fake, and a response to TLC’s “No Scrubs”. The song itself has lines like, “you ain’t worth the McDonalds,” plus I had once watched an entire episode of Ricki Lake devoted to the topic of pigeons.

I have friends who have compiled their own music-related lists, and, without batting an eyelash, they can rattle off things like bands that are comprised of married couples and songs that have Kentucky in the title. Perusing Wikipedia I saw how shameful my own list was. Linking from the Roxanne Wars, there was a whole page of response songs. Though I was sad that my idea for such a list was hardly original, I was relieved to see that the burden to compile one no longer rested on my shoulders alone. Instead, I am now free to explore Wikipedia, finding questionably accurate answers to questions like “is mango really in the poison ivy family?” and “what was Napolean’s deal anyway?” I can read Oscar Levant quips and find the connection between the Bee Gees and the Welsh mining disaster in Aberfan. I might even have more time now to catch up on the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Slate.

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Just this morning, as I was getting dressed, a large group of people walked past me, pointing and giggling. Generally speaking, this is something that you never ever want to happen to you while you’re naked. But I was in the locker room at the Y and other women, in various states of undress, were pointed at and giggled at, too. The eight-year-old girls who were responsible were there for their first day of YMCA Day Camp, and they seemed to be mildly scandalized by the sight of us.

I’m a veteran of YMCA Day Camp, and though I didn’t get a chance to test out this theory this morning, I’ve often thought that it should be called Children of Divorce Camp. I logged a couple of summers with my brother in the early-80s in Fontana, California, where the morning ritual usually involved single moms dropping off their kids before heading off to their pink collar jobs. While they were working, we drank a lot of McDonald’s orange drink, took orders from the counselors via bullhorn, and had important discussions in which we debated things like whether Michael Jackson was old enough to date our mothers. Every day there was at least one kid sporting a t-shirt that said “My grandparents visited Hawaii and all I got was this lousy t-shirt,” which provoked intense jealousy in me. My grandparents frequently visited Hawaii and they never got me a lousy t-shirt.

Though there were a lot of counselors, to us girls there was only one who mattered. Eddie was a dreamboat. He was sixteen, which we knew from watching teen movies was the perfect age for a boy to be, and he had black wavy hair. A lot of hearts were broken when we were divided into groups and Eddie was tapped to lead the younger boys, the Ewoks. My brother, an Ewok himself, had to explain to me that that was a Star Wars thing.

I was too young to realize that asking Eddie about that might be the perfect way for me to talk to him. Choosing the subtle approach instead, a friend of mine hatched a plan in which we would get his attention by pretending to be the Supremes. Pretending to be in a girl group was nothing new at the day camp. There already was a group of older girls who would impersonate the Go-Gos, staging choreographed, wardrobe-coordinated, lip-synched performances. As the Supremes, my friend and I planned to jump out in front of Eddie, palms out, singing, Stop in the Name of Love, but I chickened out at the last minute. It just seemed too forward to me. Besides, I was a little confused by the lyrics. I thought it must have been “stop in the name of the law,” because stopping in the name of love just made no sense to me.

During the school year, my brother and I made the exciting discovery that our babysitter, Cindy, knew Eddie from school. I was too shy to ask her anything about him, but my brother had no reservations. “Did you hump him?” He had just learned about the birds and the bees and “hump” was his favorite new word. I don’t know where he picked that up, because I was still using the phrase “making love,” usually in a whispered voice. Once, when I overheard one relative confiding to my mom that she and her husband were having trouble conceiving, I pulled her aside and whispered in her ear, “Have you tried… making love?”

I had one cousin, a few years older than me, who was partial to the word mating. One summer, while my brother and I were visiting him and his brother at their house in Pasadena, we watched an Afterschool Special while my aunt was out running errands. The female lead kept throwing the initials STD around, which everyone seemed to understand but me. “I have an STD.” “My boyfriend gave me an STD!” “STD! STD! STD!” At the end of the movie I turned to the babysitter and asked, “What’s an STD?” She was dumbfounded by my question, staring at me for a few seconds before my cousin finally spoke up, “It’s a disease you get from mating.”

His brother, my other cousin, was obsessed with his own phrase, nuclear winter, probably the result of watching the made-for-tv movie The Day After. His favorite question was, “Is it worse than nuclear winter?” I didn’t really understand what that was, but I knew it was bad. He once asked me if I was tough enough to survive nuclear winter, and not wanting to appear weak I told him yes. He replied, “That was a trick question. Nothing could survive nuclear winter.”

Even though I didn’t get to see The Day After until years later, I am a big fan of made for television movies and their ilk. Thanks to Malcolm-Jamal Warner and another Afterschool Special, it’s been impressed on me that people give away their prized possessions when they’re planning to commit suicide; The Starter Wife has taught me that I can be forty and fabulous; and Queenie, about a woman who is a quarter Indian, but mostly English, gave me a phrase with which I could annoy my ex-boyfriend, who is also a quarter Indian and mostly English, “I can’t help myself, it’s your black blood!” For the most part, the films have dark themes, but end in some sort of triumph for the main character. In Shattered Vows, Valerie Bertinelli plays a nun who, after a torrid crush on a priest, breaks free from the Catholic church. It’s a darker version of Change of Habit, in which Mary Tyler Moore must choose between the nunnery and Elvis Presley. While that seems like a completely unbelievable scenario, it did happen in real life; Dolores Hart, whose first ever kiss was with Elvis in Loving You, gave up her acting career to become a nun.

When I was seven my mom told me that my uncle’s wife and her identical twin had been in an Elvis film, Double Trouble. They played nightclub deejays in swinging London, and they spoke to Elvis in unison. Even more exciting, I was told that my aunt had dated Elvis. I couldn’t wait to confer with her daughters. “Do you think they ever… kissed?” Even though I was already familiar with the concept of “making love,” kissing was still pretty scandalous to me. Years later, I saw Cybill Shepherd on Oprah talking about her ex-boyfriend, Elvis Presley. She said, “He liked to get me up on the kitchen counter and…” I have no idea what she said after that because her words were blocked out by a very long series of beeps. Whatever it was, the audience seemed to be scandalized by it. In a good way.

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