(Author’s Note: What follows is an expansion upon a column of the same name I’d already written in my ‘Buffalogeddon‘ series. A close friend thought this would make for an excellent Thirtyist piece, and I agree – it would be hard to imagine a complete documentation of my life without it. However, in the spirit of trying to keep the material new, this has been remixed and remastered and deleted scenes have been re-added. The other one was PG, this one’s rated R for language, adult themes and graphic depictions of substance abuse. So, mom, you’ll want to cleanse the palette.)
All I wanted was a milkshake.
I popped up the trunk of the 1991 Pontiac Bonneville, a DOA car-corpse in the vast, empty expanse of a vacant lot at the University at Buffalo. I aggressively pried a ramshackle 15-speed out of the formerly beastly and bright hunk of rotting metal.
The formerly beautiful vehicle had been undone and unhinged by leaks, busts, cracks, scratches, rust and wrecks. Age, really. Does that to cars just like people. After 11 years, 176,000 miles, two roadtrips down the East Coast, countless journeys across the Northeastern United States and a few sojourns across the border into Canada, the transmission finally caved. She needed a nap. All that remained was an empty-soul shell of a 3800 V6 with a pile of clothes, some empty pizza boxes, various tools and assorted eccentri scattered across the front passenger seats. Debris from the tornado that was my life at the time.
This was my home. How did I get here?
Dead Buffalonian “Superfreak” Rick James once famously confessed, “Cocaine’s a helluva drug.” Indeed, Richard. Indeed.
I don’t remember the first time I tried cocaine, because 95% of the time I did it, I only did it because I was already in a whiskey-stupor. One local legend puts me at the scene of a crime where I was dared to chug a fifth of Jack, then I asked my next-door neighbor with whom I’d never hung out before for blow on a whim – AND HE JUST HAPPENED TO HAVE SOME – and then he set out five lines on the table and I was so drunk I BLEW THEM ALL, and then I spent the rest of the night foaming at the mouth on a bathroom floor while they paid for the pizza delivery I had ordered just an hour earlier and I was by now too far-gone to eat.
No, I only remember the first time I remember trying cocaine, which was in the office of the Bennigan’s at which I worked, on a snowy winter night over 7 years ago. There were two managers there, a brother and a sister, with whom I was friendly, and the brother happened to be working that night. I was closing server, he was closing manager, we were the last two in the building.
“Hey buddddddy,” he always called me Buddy, whether he was asking me to take an extra table or do a spot-on DMX impression complete with gratuitous barking. “Got a surprise for ya.”
And he plopped a little clear plastic baggy of white powder onto the desk. Cocaine’s fucking weird, man, for a number of reasons, but specifically for the way everything you do that surrounds the drug becomes hushed and reverential like you’re Jim Nantz at Augusta National. For example:
1. These quantities, for practical purposes to the reseller, of course, are sold in these fragile, thin plastic bag vessels which are subject to spills, rips and careless re-sealing, so to guard against this, extracting the drug from the bag turns into a game of operation being played by someone suffering from hypothermia. That’s way too much work.
2. Of course, cocaine is almost as big a rip-off as that time I spent $10 to see ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’ in theaters, so you carefully craft the longest, straightest line you possibly can and you roll the crispest bill in your wallet up as tight as you can – and you run your fingers down the edge of the credit card and numb your gums and inhale through one nostril with the force of a shop-vac just to make sure no cocaine crumblet goes to waste, and maybe even swallow the sputum that forms between your nose and throat just because it might have precious powder in there(!) … no child left behind! And then of course when it’s all gone, you suck on the plastic bag – who knows where it’s been or how many hands have touched it – IN YOUR MOUTH, and of course the “Keeper” of the Coke, you know, the one who actually fronted the money for it, was always the one who saved the biggest bumps for themselves and they were treated like a Zen preacher and may or may not have had mystical powers.
3. Rule #1 about cocaine is never talk about cocaine in public because either A.) your friends will become concerned (Even Though NEWSFLASH They Totally Already Know What You’re Doing), B.) strangers will become interested and possibly preposition you to do some with you, buy some off you or invite you back to their house till 7am while bowls are passed around and bad house music blasts, C.) or, you know, cops man.
4. Lastly, during the comedown, you’re completely frozen. You don’t speak. Don’t make sudden movements. You close all doors as quietly and carefully as you possibly can because, shit, you don’t want to wake the neighbors on the other side of your duplex or cause any alarm to onlookers headed to work that morning who might just be doing something productive with their lives and you’re just a druggie riff-raff who meekly just wants to get home and OMG WHAT IF MY PARENTS CALL? I NEED TO TURN MY PHONE OFF BECAUSE THE THOUGHT OF EVEN HEARING A RINGTONE RIGHT NOW IS CAVING IN MY SKULL AND …
Where was I? Right.
So, whatever, we carefully unloaded the bag, tightly wound our bills, artfully crafted our lines, licked the cards, inhaled, swallowed, carefully re-loaded the bag, closed it up, closed up shop, quietly left the building, triple-checked the locks, plowed through three cigarettes during the 10-minute car ride to the neighborhood bar and met our other friends there (who were totally in our devious plan but again, never discuss in public), downed 7 shots of whiskey, did a couple key-bumps in the car and OMG it’s just me and my manager (the sister, now, not the brother) in my car, and it’s her birthday and she looks sexy and WTF we are making out right now we cannot do this, MAYDAY NAPALM APOCALYPSE
“That was amazing.” Shut up, infidel! Your boyfriend’s in the bar! We are totally going to die right n– okay, you can kiss me again, fine …
I don’t know, she had some kind of magic spell over me or something like I was a cobra coming out of a basket and she was blowing into a bamboo flute that looked like bamboobs.
Then I invited everyone back to my place after 4am for more beers and more blow because, “Hey buddddddddy, sick mirror table, bro” (It’s true, I had a 18″x48″ coffee table, the top of which was a full-length mirror. HEY EVERYBODY! I CAN WATCH MYSELF KILL MYSELF!)
Cocaine’s also weird because once the coke’s gone, everyone leaves. Like, nobody stays to chill and chop it up and drink some brews or play Mario Kart or listen to your stupid fucking song about being lost in an abyss of infinite choice anxiety even though you think it’s totally fucking rad, nah, bro. Bag’s cashed. Night’s cashed. By the way, that bright orb haunting you while you watch an Erectile Dysfunction Infomercial? That’s the sun. GOOD FUCKING MORNING.
Those were my nights. Up until this one.
Some time a couple months before this moment in the parking lot, I’d lost my driving privileges because I thought I’d be able to cure my whiskey-induced nausea by popping a couple oxycotin, then later decided to drive an even drunker friend home so the idiot wouldn’t get arrested. An hour later, I needed a nap, and the fingerprint machine was quite warm. And they laughed at me because I blew just a .07 but they HAD to charge me anyway, because I was using all three lanes on Main Street at 4:30am and failed every field sobriety test because … well … it was 4:30am. And also I had done coke, oxy and may have smoked a bowl or two to take the edge off.
That kick-started what was to be quite the productive spring of spiraling disorder: losing health care, a phone number, Internet, a driver’s license, car insurance, and a job. It was a sad time. A lonely time. It’s amazing how far your friends will run away once you’ve been undone by the demons you always kept closer to your heart than the friends who led you to them.
I scuttled around the Northeast, alone, breaking the law by driving to gigs and festivals where I’d earn money for gas and an occasional bite to eat.
Until the car gave out. Until the transmission died. And I was alone. Very, very alone. And hungry. Very, very hungry.
On this night I was able throw dignity to into the wind to craft and hone my eye for finding shiny change upon the streets. A nickel here, a quarter there. Enough for something. Anything.
But I never asked for change. I never panhandled. That face is too forlorn. The eyes of disapproving strangers too piercing. That’s pathological pride for you. I accumulated $3.80. Time to treat myself.
All I wanted was a milkshake.
I dragged the 15-speed and stuffed the change inside a plastic bag. I rode on a cool, breezy Buffalo evening the 3.4 miles to Anderson’s, (for those outside the 716, think Dairy Queen), and put the kick-stand up. I strolled inside. I confidently, as if I was just stopping in after a long, treacherous bike trek, walked to the counter.
“Strawberry milkshake. Large.”
I could taste it now. There’s something delectable about strawberries, sugar and cream. It’s a rapturous sensory assault on the tongue, a sweet release, a sour bite and a cool, velvet breeze meandering down your throat. It’s refreshing, sweet and satisfying. The perfect almost-food.
I waited seven minutes, but I received my holy grail. I took a sip at near-orgasm: my first taste in 80 hours. Quest complete. Let Jah be Praised.
I took another sip. Good lord, this is nirvana.
I jumped back on my bike and journeyed back from whence I came. Cars at night aren’t too friendly and don’t often go around mozying bikers, so I peddle on the sidewalk to be sure I won’t be harmed. Anxious to return to my ghetto-fab (see, now I’m using slang from the time) four walls on wheels, I raced myself, invigorated by fresh glucose in my bloodstream.
Then, a “thump.” The front tire plunged downward. I grabbed a handle to hold on, but lost my 32-oz cup. If you’ve ever seen a wedding cake drop from a 35th-floor balcony in slow-motion (and, really, who hasn’t?), you understand how long it took for that shake to hit the asphalt.
Down … down … down …
Downnnnnnnnnn … downnnnnnnnnnnn …. downnnnnnnnnnnn …
I reached my hand in futility, only grazing the lid with my finger.
CRASH! Open. The shake bled to death all over the road. R.I.P., creamy crusader.
I just sat there. On the sidewalk. Crinkled next to the bike and the shake. I surveyed the scene as if I’d just run over a kitten … and I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.
And I spilled an ocean of cry. Like a lost six year-old alone in Midtown Manhattan at 4am. I want my mommy. I want to go home. I want a hot meal and a warm hug. I want a friend to talk to. I want a soft bed and a place to call my own.
I stirred what was left in the cup and sucked the straw till it was dry. Then I sucked some more … but I was still starving, and the salt-water running down my face wasn’t filling me up. I want this all to end. I want to fall asleep and wake up next year, or never at all.
But all I really wanted was a milkshake.
When I made it back to the parking lot, I opened the center console of my Pontiac Bonneville. Underneath some receipts and probably a couple old parking tickets, there was a little baggy. And with proper reverence, caution and ritualism, I emptied the remains of what was once a gram. Using the recessed filter of a parliament butt, I unearthed the treasure slowly from it’s modest receptacle, cocked my head back and fired away.
And when it was all gone, you’re damn right I put that bag in my mouth. And I let it marinate in there, and I took a look around at this beautiful world I’d created for myself. And I imagined slow-motion quick-cuts of my predicament being broadcast to 140 countries worldwide and every member of my family and every person I used to know.
The ex-honor roll student, teen all-star, child music prodigy, class clown, geography bee champion, avid runner and vibrant, social butterfly who enjoyed bonfires on the lake, arena rock concerts, inspirational dramas, or a leisurely 18 holes. That guy. That shell of a man. Now at a 125 pounds with panda bear eyes. With an old, dirty, coke-laced plastic bag in his cheek.
I was furious. I had become an unhealthy letdown of the highest order. But I wasn’t even most upset about that.
I was livid because I had become a cliche. All of the above, all of the winsome yearning for halcyon days of yore, all the self-loathing and self-aggrandizing and self-destructive behavior of the current time. It was all so expected. It was all too easy to place myself in a big dusty bin of disappointment in the basement of society’s brain, never to see the light of day again. MAN, THIS IS MY STRUGGLE! HELLO?! CAN YOU HEAR ME? WAKE UP!
Nobody cares. I think part of the reason I did cocaine, even long after it stopped being fun, was because I thought it made me interesting. I was never challenged in school. I was never challenged in making friends or meeting women. I was never challenged in finding work or excelling at it. Flaws define your beauty. Overcoming obstacles. Playing through pain. Only the broken can be put back together, the rest of us just exist. Everyone needs a back-story, a set-point, a bar that can be raised, for people to rally behind you. This is what I thought, and, as I slowly realize, the older I get, probably a little bit of what I still feel today no matter how twisted, backwards and ridiculous it sounds – that desire to somehow do more than succeed wildly … and go about doing so by overcoming despair, despondence, disarray and disappointment and to triumphantly return to being merely average.
I always wanted to be the guy running the race when he clearly shouldn’t be, or questioning my faith when I had no reason to, or scouring the rugged terrain of Maple Road for spare change instead of asking friends, family or total strangers for a buck or 20.
So of course I’d take the SATs drunk, take up smoking a pack-a-day only to celebrate how successful I was at quitting, drop out of the most prestigious communications school in the country and get a psych degree from a state school, only to end back up in the communications field, or every year buy my family birthday and christmas cards and fill them out yet never quite make it out the mailbox to mail them, and instead they just build up in my apartment like lost souls in Hallmark Hell and then I have to lie about sending them and then I can build their trust back up. Of course I’d sell off all my stuff and say goodbyes to all my friends and move to Texas with just my clothes, my cat and whatever would fit in my car to accompany me.
And of course, I’d embark upon a series of 30 columns from an average person’s first 30 years of life diving into vivid detail and exploring the fringes of success, failure, happy, sad, clarity and madness despite there being absolutely no reason, no tangible benefit and no one clamoring for any of this. Because the struggle’s the story. The ruminating over the next move causing me to ruin the next move. Causing more rumination and more ruination until one day I stare up into the sky, cry, ask “Why?” and resolve to work tirelessly and diligently to show enough sparks of superhuman brilliance to just be AVERAGE again.
Average, yet interesting. Working class ethos meets creative class pathos. The perfect equilibrium of low expectations and high thrills. I think some days, we’d all settle for that. Wouldn’t you? Right? Or is it just me?
Hello? Is anybody there?
C’mon. If you’re still reading, and still interested, I’ve got more work to do and stories to tell. Let’s go out and grab a milkshake … my treat. I’ll even pay in change.
POST-SCRIPT: Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you if that’s the night I quit using cocaine, so in the interest of truthfulness and at the expense of resolution, I didn’t say that it was. The story above takes place July 2005, and I quit that same month. I still drink whiskey.
Thirtyist is a series of 30 tales of the 30 people, places, ideas and events that shaped the last 30 years of the life of someone of no particular importance – told in no particular order. To read them all, click on the post tag, “Thirtyist” or on the links below.*