On our last night in Boston, my entire family sat in my parent’s comfy, haphazard living room (I mean that lovingly… mom) eating my favorite local, Greek-style, crusty, inexpensive pizza and discussing the life, loves and linguistics of Elizabeth Bishop and my father’s one-sided relationship with Vanilla Ensure. We were all coming down from a long, lovely few weeks of sharing a bathroom and jockeying for emotional space in their original 1909 kitchen, an odd room with 70’s green counter tops, back servant stairs now used as a cat cafeteria and an awesome, antique pot rack, of which the ghost of Tom Joad must have hammered together using old bones and a rusty cleaver. Their kitchen is not tiny, per se, but in my father’s house any kitchen is too cramped when he is in it. Granted, he is the height, weight and color of a small, un-ground coffee bean but his personality and rigid rules have always enveloped any room he happens to be in.
Growing up, we were never allowed to be in the kitchen when he was having breakfast, no matter fire, flood, famine or ferocious animal attack. It was his linoleum-lined sanctuary where he read The New York Times back to front and ate toasted, buttered French bread while slowly sipping his Brazilian coffee in a Cost Plus mustache mug given to him on a cold Christmas morning in 1973. He would painstakingly comb aside his huge, puffy mouth sweater, a football huddle of wild whiskers that covered a top lip no one had seen since long before Tony Orlando first mounted Dawn. Having a small child and an inherent inability to speak before breakfast I think I finally understand his POW camp commander commandeering of the little room that housed a sturdy stove and a quiet moment.
Strict, square and regimented, like an obsessive-compulsive German foot soldier on holiday in the Catskills, my father never colors outside the lines and never courts chaos. Just the fact that he was willing to sit with us that last night and lightly nibble on something that was, in fact, not pureed or poached, was a shock in itself. But as the conversation turned to his health, as it has every few minutes for the last fourteen years, the question of what drugs the doctors gave him during his recent hospital stay and their desired effect came up. We all compared our tales of medicated meltdowns and drug-induced paranoia after a myriad of surgeries and injuries. And knowing full well that my father and foreign substances get along about as well as a feral feline and a rabid Rottweiller, I decided to take a chance and ask him if he’d ever smoked pot. With a gift at knowing when to really turn it on and perform like Sarah Bernhardt on an absinthe afternoon, Joaquim, my little brown Brazil nut, smiled like a newly hardened denture mold and took us all back to one night in 1969.
My parents were living in a small rental house in Palo Alto, California and perhaps because of the down wind swirls from Haight-Ashbury or a dangerous desire to fully embrace the mammoth side burns that had recently sprouted up next to his ears, my father decided he wanted to try THE POT. He called up his colleague Bruce, a musicology professor at Stanford whose hobbies ranged from frequently ingesting psilocybin to wearing unwashed overalls without a hint of irony. As my father told it, in his Brazilian-accented English and wild, unruly hand gestures, Bruce came over that night dressed like a perky pig farmer and pulled out a beautiful silver box, lined with perfectly rolled joints ready for the smoking. He gave one to my mother, one to my father and lit them with what I’d like to think was the flair and professionalism of a Parisian grifter after a great con.
In a matter of minutes my mother was half asleep and my father had already smoked two full joints. Bruce, wanting to steer the ship out of the harbor, turned to him and said, “Now, go to your bookshelf and pick a book to read aloud.”
My father, claiming he felt nothing from THE POT rose up and walked over to his bookshelf lined with French literature and Latin reference material and stood there unable to decide. Wanting to help guide his charge, Bruce yelled, “Pick a book man, any book. The book itself doesn’t matter!”
When my father could not decide between Camus, Sarte or a French translation of The Joy of Sex in comic book form, Bruce changed his tact and instructed my father to put on a record instead. I am certain my father chose a heavy-handed, intense sonata by one of the great depressive composers, trying his tortured best to conjure up some sort of blue, bitter buzz. Standing in front of us last week, as he brilliantly reenacted his moment in the sun-scorched haze of a hallucination, he looked like a young man of thirty with his whole life in front of his cloudy, coke-bottle glasses.
After sitting back down on a turn-of-the-century settee my mother picked up at a dusty antique store, a piece of furniture as comfortable and cozy as a barnacle-covered boulder, my father continued his psychedelic story telling. He said that when he slipped the record onto the turntable, as Bruce had so confidently suggested, moving the arm across the vinyl with surgical precision, that suddenly, and without warning, a flock of birds flew out off the spinning LP and into his nest of super sixties hair.
I immediately pictured my father standing in our small, modest living room surround by macramé plant holders and paper lantern mood lighting as dozens of imaginary parakeets circled his little brown, horn-rimmed head like hungry buzzards above a bloody battlefield. For a man who was never out of control or under the influence of anything other than a naked woman or a Catholic nun with a spanking paddle, his first high must have been horrendous, at best.
To add Ginsbergian flair to an already loud and annoying howl, Bruce told my father to write some poetry or prose, anything that came to mind while the birds were still circling and chirping in morose minuets and malevolent movements. At this point during his tale of woe my father laughed like a sleepy hyena and insisted that what he had written that evening, a smoky night spent with his newly stoned child bride and a dressed-down and disappointing magical mystery tour guide, was total crap. He also insisted that any asshole that says drugs will awake their masterly muse is as crazy as their shit is brown.
The following morning he described his mood as sad and swollen with sorrow, an entire day spent carrying around a bag of depression as heavy and hampering as Mama Cass’s grocery cart. And with that heady hangover and the smell of regret emanating from his buttoned-down, short-sleeved shirt pocket he knew he would never again Bogart with Bruce or any other bong buddy as long as he lived.
Both his night of the Mary Jane master class and mine, an evening sitting cross-legged on the imitation oriental rug of my youth with my family getting along famously and me, laughing until I snorted out puffs of pizza dust, were clearly both nights to remember. But, when all is said and done and packed in bubble wrap, I think mine may just be the last man standing. I mean, how many kids get to see their reclusive, resplendent, rigorously difficult father re-enact the one and only time he took a walk on the wild side of weed and lived to laugh about it?