Friday, November 26, 2010


Professions, dates, names, roles and locations are scrambled; the rest is as sic as it can be.

It's odd what returns to you. I'm watching The Trip, a Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon series where two gentlemen named Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (allegedly no relation) travel through the north of England reviewing restaurants and playing passive aggressive games about which one is funnier or more successful. Coogan books a session with a photographer (Marta Barrio) who offers him a line of coke in a quiet, casual fashion, with just a trace of you're-cool-with-this, right? snobbery. I'd been offered coke in that very same tone of voice a long time ago by somebody emanating the same passive-aggressive vibe that Coogan and Brydon based their comedy-drama on.

Michael Winterbottom
is a good enough director to frame The Scary Coke Scene as a slice of life rather than a message of great portent. It doesn't telegraph bad vibes, just a character quirk. There's Barrio and Coogan and the coke, each with equal standing in a very short scene. It's that equality that brought it back to me. She might as well say Here we are; just the three of us matter-of-factly.

I never traveled in druggy circles. I knew a few musicians who dabbled when it was either fun, part of doing business, or simply available at whatever bar they were in at the time, but few others. I wasn't present for the best example of this, reported by a buddy who was sitting at a club between sets when somebody stood up and said "I'm going to the bathroom now and I really think that Stan and Lou and Sarah and Dierdre should come with me." I knew that one of those usual suspects shot himself in the foot at a live gig since doing the coke in his car was more important than actually showing up on stage on time at that engagement. Another two of them either grew out of the habit or simply re-diverted their surplus cash towards their mortgage.

I also knew a few dedicated potheads. 95% of them were self-righteous about it and insisted that it was neither unhealthy nor self-indulgent, usually after their fourth hit. 3% were occasional users (most likely referred to as 'mooches' from the previously mentioned 95%) and the remaining 2% is represented by Paul who kindly offered me access to weed when I had family in chemotherapy (which I never needed to take advantage of, but the offer was supportive and well received).

The cocaine contingent in my life were mostly friends-of-friends with the exception of Gary, who was dating a woman with questionable contacts (including a ringleader who kept a series of elaborate, expensive lighters in a special holster on his belt) who was convinced that his girlfriend's friends "...just give her cocaine sometimes. They don't sell it to her, they just give it. Really." His dabbling dropped off when he stopped seeing the woman and stopped being a short-order cook. Company you keep, and all.

Hettie was an exception. She'd landed a fairly significant role in Vancouver in a miniseries that was shot simultaneously in two or three different languages. Her mother tongue was Spanish and her French and Portuguese were good enough to get by. She was a rising star by Toronto standards, but I still thought of her as the girl I'd met in a 9th grade music class and she was still approachable in that way to those who'd known her back in the day. I'd dated her friend Amanda on and off and while we'd been off for a long time, I still warranted the occasional dinner invitation.

I was 22 or so when I was sitting with Hettie at Amanda's place, both of us early arrivals to the party. Amanda was cutting bread and vegetables in the kitchen and Hettie and I were in the living room drinking tea and talking about film when she pulled four small pockets of coke (not 'packets' but 'pockets' in her words) out of her purse. Miniseries notwithstanding, Hettie was still a Canadian actress so the rest of the purse had subway tokens, a pack of Trident and a conspicuous absence of cabfare.

I'd not seen off-the-rack coke before. These pockets looked like they'd been wrapped by some kind of machine and were taped together. She separated one, offered a slightly guilty smile and said "You don't...?"

I shook my head. "All yours."

She looked relieved for a moment and said "Amanda I love, but I don't want to explain this again. So, shhh." She held a finger in front of her lips and batted her eyes towards the kitchen. "I'd do this in the bathroom, but this isn't a movie. It's not pretty so you can look away if you want."

She rolled the pocket between her palms for a few seconds, pulled the end off and snorted half into one nostil. Then she coughed. Then she did most of the other side, smiled, shrugged, and handed me the bag. "It won't kill you."

"I can't afford it," I said, shaking my head. "All yours."

She kept looking at me, then towards the kitchen for Amanda, then back at me. "It's fine, Michael," she said coldly, lowering her eyes and suddenly, impossibly, being impatient and patronizing in my direction. I remember a nurse convincing me to take a spoonful of cough medicine with the same look when I was seven years old. Hettie, the cute part-time model, musician and fado enthusiast was making her case for the coke in her purse and what the hell was wrong with me for not taking any?

I offered a none-of-my-business shrug. She gave me a careful stare, put the remaining pockets in her purse and our conversation, relatively lively a few minutes before, was over. "I can smoke, right?" she said brusquely, taking a loose cigarette out of her coat. "Smoking's still okay?" and headed for the balcony.

Amanda said something in bad Spanish, Hettie answered her in proper Spanish and I was no longer part of Hettie's social circle for that evening. C'est la vie.


This was over twenty years ago; Hettie now has a CD that you hear sometimes in coffee shops. She lives in Nova Scotia and shows up in Toronto sometimes for film work and friended me on Facebook and still knows and loves Amanda and is, by all accounts, a lovely person. Everyone grows up.

Her conduct over a hit at that party never left me because it was the first time I'd seen somebody look so disappointed at the lack of participation. After all, she wasn't hoarding it; she'd offered to share something that was very important to her and she felt she deserved a little respect, or understanding. As self-righteous as a pothead in the middle of an 'Alcohol's a crutch' speech. I didn't need to be at the receiving end of a don't be boring and don't look down on me riff.

Decades later, 18 seconds of TV made my skin crawl in exactly the same fashion. As stated previously, it's odd what comes back to you.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Setting it up

Continued from Letting it settle

More on writing (not a lot more). This quote's perfect for anyone who's paid to do it in any capacity, from Joseph Epstein's essay Blood, Sweat and Words.

"H.L. Mencken used to say that any scribbler who found writing too arduous ought to take a week off to work on an assembly line, where he will discover what work is really like. The old boy, as they say, got that right. To be able to put words together in what one hopes are charming or otherwise striking sentences is, no matter how much tussle may be involved, lucky work, a privileged job. The only true grit connected with it ought to arrive when, thinking to complain about how hard it is to write, one is smart enough to shut up and silently grit one’s teeth. "

Mencken had issues (including some deeply unpleasant ones) but summed up the process quite nicely. I've had this printed and posted over my desk for the last six years. It follows me from job to job, a dose of perspective when letters aren't falling in line.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Letting it settle

Why do you keep a blog?

It forces me to write.

Uh-huh. How's that working out for you?

...mixed results at best, of late.

One of those 'thoughts that lie too deep for tears' situations, or just otherwise engaged?

The latter's closer than the former.

Just closer.

Only closer.

What's it like to learn, earlier rather than later, that your words have forked no lightning, good-nighter?

Commonplace, really. But things to those who wait.

Good things?

Can't promise that.

Truth in advertising, at the least.

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