My First Drugs
As I think back, I can't imagine what possessed me to smoke my first cigarette. I was eight or nine, a well-behaved baseball fanatic, living in a Long Island suburb.
“Cigarettes will stunt your growth,” said my mother, to whom I would smuggle cigarettes when she lay in a hospital bed dying of lung cancer in 1988.
“Cigarettes will take away your wind,” said my father, who smoked more than a pack of Parliaments a day until he developed incipient emphysema when he was in his 60s.
I believed them, though I sometimes wondered why there were so many smokers and so few midgets. Nor I was I entirely sure what “wind” was, though it was clear I needed it to excel. Still, I took a Kent cigarette and a book of matches from my mother's purse and headed out with my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chucky, to the middle of an empty lot a block and a half from our homes. We entered the high cattail reeds, looking over our shoulders like thieves slipping into a window to make sure no one who could report us to our parents had seen us. I lighted the cigarette with trepidation, feeling that I was about to do something that might have repercussions so awful that they were beyond my comprehension. I was rolling the dice with dwarfdom. Jeopardizing my chances to be a Major League shortstop. I took a drag anyway. The results were predictable. I gagged and quickly snubbed out the cigarette. I can't recall Chucky's reactions. His fear must have been less ethereal than mine though; his mother had a switch she was always threatening to take to his backside for misbehavior (although I never saw her actually do it).
Within a couple of years, though, I'd routinely take a few cigarettes from the opened packs my parents left around the house before heading outside. Social convention dictated that I share the wealth with friends who were picking up the habit. We'd moved to the Bronx by this time, and there was a vintage cigarette machine in the laundry room of our apartment building. I discovered that I could snake my arm up the dispenser slot at the bottom and pull out packs at will. I preferred the Camel and Lucky Strike brands because other kids, particularly girls who only took a few puffs anyway, were less likely to bum a filterless butt from me.
A Jar of Whiskey
I remember my first drink with the same fond clarity that I recall the first time I made love. I was eleven, sitting with a few friends from the sixth grade on a outcrop in steeply sloped Ewen Park, which separated the blue-collar, mostly Irish neighborhood of Kingsbridge from the mostly Jewish professionals who lived “up the hill” in Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil, as I did, although my classmates and I went to St. Gabriel's.
It was the spring of 1964, and the park delineated two ways of portraying my identity that were struggling for dominance in my pre-adolescent mind. One was the mushy world of the long-haired Beatles, who were becoming very popular with the girls, particularly Laurie, a public school girl I'd been making out with in the back seat of an abandoned car in the Food Fair supermarket parking lot. I, too, listened to Murray the K, the disk jockey on 1010 WINS radio who called himself “The Fifth Beatle,” and was captivated by wistful tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” I'd purchased the group's first two vinyl LPs with a combination of allowance and quarters diverted from the Sunday collection basket (which had heretofore gone toward the purchase of Superman and Batman comic books).
The other world view was that of the greaser - slicked-back hair, tight pants, and an attitude that it would be a badge of honor to be designated a “juvenile delinquent” for some unspecified crime. I used Vitalis to keep my hair swept back on the sides, with a little dip in the front like Dick Clark. I certainly didn't want to stand before a judge and be sentenced to time in a juvie hall, or even be lectured to, but I felt that I'd command a certain amount of respect if I carried a “J.D. Card.” Greaser music was personified by the Ventures and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and I liked them, too. Riverdale was Beatle country; Kingsbridge, greaser.
One area where these two worlds came together somewhat was in the pointy black shoes with high heels and metal taps I think we called “vespers” (though I can't find any reference to this use of the word online). Detractors called them “Puerto Rican cockroach killers." Anybody hanging out on street-corners in the Bronx wore them, and so, too, did John, Paul, George and Ringo in the picture on the back of “Meet the Beatles.”
I bought a cheap pair of vespers at a Thom McCann shoe store in the heart of Kingbridge, but they were banned at St. Gabe's, where I was forced to wear a uniform of white shirt and brown tie, scratchy wool pants, and shoes. I often felt self-conscious when I put them on anyplace else, but I was wearing them that afternoon when three or four of us gathered on that rock in Ewen Park where I had my first drink.
I can't remember my companion's names or faces, except for Michael, who went to his apartment on the edge of the park and returned with an empty peanut butter jar filled with an amber liquid, probably a cheap rye. His father was a bartender who kept a closet filled with cases of booze that we later dipped into several times. I was never particularly close to Michael. We just shared an interest in the way that liquor that made you feel different. He was, as I look back, my first drinking buddy, our friendship as solid as a cube of ice.
It was a nippy day. I unscrewed the lid, and took the first guzzle from the jar. It tasted bitter, but I loved the warm glow that flowed down my gullet and radiated in my stomach. As I think about it now, I can feel my spinal column tingle, as if my central nervous system is reliving that joyous feeling as palpably as my memory.
I passed the jar around. I desperately wanted to get high, but I had no way of knowing whether I was or not. I wanted to feel crazy, supercharged, braver than usual. I wanted to feel the camaraderie that I'd been looking for since I'd moved to the Bronx from Long Island a couple of years before and tried to fit in with a group of kids who liked basketball better than baseball, played boxball against the schoolyard wall not tag in suburban backyards , and thought my Cub Scout badges were corny. I wanted to cement the bond of danger and rebellion that had brought us together on that rock. I looked up the hill and saw an old man walking slowing down Johnson Ave.
“Let's mug him,” I said.
No one, thankfully, paid any attention to me.