A Time For Firsts

I'm feeling good
I'm feeling oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but thats just some other time

- "I'm Waiting For My Man" Velvet Underground

Growing up with a constant fear of the rug being pulled out from underneath transformed me into a control freak, albeit a "laid back" one. A "planner" my father would remark, misses out on "spontaneity." In general, I stayed out of serious trouble. I was never caught for curfew or brought in for police questioning.
"What squares I have as children" my father would tell his friends.
Growing up a "pool hustler's daughter" I always had more than one "emergency" exit.

The first month or so of freshman year at university, you can usually identify those that will return home with a degree, and those who will be sent back home to attend community college. Not all, but many kids growing up in strict or conservative households, once their parents drive away from the dorm, become the first in line for a beer bong at a frat party, deflowered, or cheating on their sweethearts back home. Who wants to inhale this unidentified substance? I do! If they are truly rebellious, having stewed deep dark family secrets for the past seventeen or eighteen years(emotional abuse, anti-psychotics, adoption, abandonment, Al-Anon membership, a pregnancy or worst yet incest), distance from home can be both a tremendous relief and also a time for expressive rage, for all past wrongs, as this is the first time in life, each young person is forced to deal and get to know his or her true self. In hindsight, college is far more about survival then it is about academics. Yes, we all know the economic value of that degree, may even actually LIKE anthropology, but there is tremendous value to be found in successfully completing four years surrounded by every imaginable danger and vice without the guilt and discipline of living under an adults roof. And these vices are ten fold in New Orleans. To put it in perspective, even Dub-ya had to graduate Yale, and don't think that was easy.

At an early age, I was counseling my mother on her marriage and promising her that she was "not" fat. My father I would have to beg to "change your spaghetti sauce stained shirt" and "get a haircut." I was a master storyteller. If my parents were screaming or breaking dishes, I would take my young brother for a long walk around the block. "They're in therapy" I would tell my nosy Lincoln Park neighbors "they are supposed to let it all out." Thank goodness for the dime store psychology I learned on the Phil Donahue show.

I had thought of myself as "metropolitan" when I began my freshman year at Tulane. I had been a social drinker since the eighth grade, using a fake id to get into nightclubs at fourteen. I was always chosen to answer the door when we ordered in beer from the local pizza place. I would put my hair up in a towel and throw on a robe, somehow thinking I looked older this way(I was tall) and told the driver it was my apartment and I was getting ready for a party. The driver could have cared less, but I needed a "back story." There were so many go-rounds to acquiring alcohol in a big city like Chicago, that I knew them all - eating at an ethnic restaurant #1(girls are already pregnant and married at thirteen in some cultures, how bad can a margarita be?), have it delivered by a pizza parlor or liquor store(nobody wants to carry a case of beer up three flights of stairs only to have to carry it all back down), or the old faithful: pay a homeless person to buy it for you. Heck, I had been buying beer in my PAJAMAS with Clearasil on my face and a scrunchy in my hair at the White Hen Pantry at the bottom of my father's apartment building since I was thirteen. Although the eighteen year old drinking age in New Orleans intrigued me, free vat at the frat house was not going to make me go all Clockwork Orange - yet.

I had no desire to do drugs when I got to Tulane. The only time I had really smoked pot was when I was thirteen, at a party at a condo just off north Lakeshore Drive. It was the summer before freshman year in high school, and whatever I did smoke was laced with something(or I was just a wuss). It was hot that night, and I was sitting on the window ledge of the second story apartment. I took a sip of Tsing Tao beer and a few seconds later, I got this head rush and almost fell out of the window. Had it not been for an older, stronger, Israeli teen from Lincolnwood, I might not be writing today.

I shared a taxi with my girlfriend who was living with me at the time and another girlfriend who would later become a silicon lipped, weight obsessed television and film actress. I don't know how, but I think I got caught in the plastic seat covers. The street lights as we zipped down the expressway were so blurry and making me nauseous. My girlfriend who was staying with us brought me down to my King Size bed in the basement of our apartment, knocked on my mother's door and said "Catherine needs to talk to you" and ran down into her own bed and hid under the covers.

My Mom came down the stairs and I told her exactly what had happened. Everything sounded like the "Bionic Woman" or "Six Million Dollar man" - you know that noise when they fight in slow motion and use their super powers? Oh, yeah, and I was hallucinating. My Mom, sitting up in my bed, asked me what I was seeing, stroked my hair and smoked a cigarette in the dark.

I eventually fell asleep and when I awoke late the next day, I felt fine. My Mom made me one of her famous home made breakfasts and took me clothes shopping for high school, which I would be starting shortly. She did not punish me, nor tell my father and we never spoke of it again.

Did I mention my parents were a bit unorthodox? Not many parents say "You will NEVER be as cool as we are." They also never felt it was their job to "rat" on their children's friends. Growing up was hard enough without having a few adults you could be honest with and trust to keep you safe. They wanted to be those parents. Drugs were around our home and social circles growing up, so in order for me to rebel, I didn't do any. In fact, when I smelled the wacky tabaky outside our front door only to find my hippie mother dancing to John Lennon, I was mortified.

Upon leaving my father's Streeterville apartment with my high school girlfriends on a Saturday night he would hand me a key, a twenty, and request a kiss on the cheek. If he asked me if I would be drinking I would say "Champagne, maybe." Champagne always sounded so much more acceptable than "Southern Comfort" and my parents always snuck me a little champagne on New Years or if we went out to a fancy restaurant, like the famous "Bakery" on Lincoln Avenue, for dinner. When the girls and I would be half way exited out the front door, my father would yell from the living room "Oh yeah, and, don't do any drugs" and howl with laughter.

I learned about early twentieth century anti-immigration sentiment in college American History class. Yes, these immigrants could learn the English language and even dress like Americans, but were they TRULY Americans on the inside? Conservative America feared(still fears) their ascension in society. Although I am a Daughter of the American Revolution(DAR) on one side and a third generation Italian American on the other, I could kind of relate to these early immigrants. I always felt like I had to make sure I was an intriguing mystery as I mixed among different socio-economic classes, different geographies of America, the world. I could dress the same and talk the same - luckily my Mom spoke perfect English - as my father was south side "neighborhood" spewing colorful "dems, does, ders and aint's" with rapidity and an occasional "cocksucker" thrown in for good measure. That first week of college, an ex-communicated Mormon girl from our floor came back from a "rush" party and told us how a future sorority "sister" blatantly asked what her father did for a living and how much money he made. Any desire for acceptance into the Tulane Greek system was squashed right there and then for me. I would remain an outsider. "Oh, your father is a pool hustler? How exotic!"

So, for some amazing reason, I managed to last four years of high school and four and a half years of college without doing any hard drugs. All of my friends respected my choice and I could avoid participation very easily. I had put cold rags on the foreheads of my girlfriends freaking out on acid in high school, wiped up vomit from the face of a friend sitting on the ground outside Molly's on the Market on Decatur in New Orleans post-shrooming, found tissues for bloody noses, been the recipient of back rubs or found ice cubes for xers, even ridden in the cab of a pick up truck transporting a six foot long water bong, but I had somehow kept clean.

With only a week or two left of my Tulane University experience, I found myself in a chilly December in New Orleans, about to say goodbye to all I had loved. Many of my friends I began school with had left for home, although I was lucky to still have a few around. Some were younger, or fifth year Architecture students or just fifth year like myself. I lived in a barren side apartment of an old Victorian mansion on the South Carrolton streetcar line near Oak Street. My living room had a single chair and a small TV I had owned since I was ten which only carried a few channels - Fox being the best. This was great as I had to watch "Melrose" and "90210."

I had a gigantic bedroom with floor to ceiling windows and an unusable fireplace. I only had one lamp in the bedroom and the whole house was extremely dark. The kitchen was as long and narrow as a matchbox. I rarely entered it as I was deathly afraid of finding a giant palmetto bug or cockroach in there. I was broke as can be, as this extra semester was not covered on my scholarship and my father limited my allowance. The only food I could buy was instant white rice and soy sauce which I ate for both lunch and dinner. If I was really living it up, I would spring for a green pepper, which I would fry up in olive oil and eat on top of the rice. All extra money went toward ice coffees, occasional partying and cigarettes.

I can't emphasize how depressing it can be that fifth year of college. Yes, you are so happy to still be in college, in a beautiful town, in beautiful blue sky warm weather, but you feel like, regardless of friends still there, as if an era has ended, like in my recurring dreams where I go back to Tulane in my thirties and I feel melancholy as my friends are all gone and I don't feel like I belong.

Any way, I had some regrets about college, and living alone in that dark apartment, starving to death, metaphorically and literally, I decided I needed to accomplish a few "college" experiences so I could leave college feeling like everybody else. One of these experiences was doing drugs. I had been offered every substance on the planet, been the only person not on drugs among a hundred at a party, I had said "no" to drugs. This was my time to say "yes."

I gathered my best girlfriends who were also still in school with me and we went down my list of options. We created a pros and cons list of each drug, their cost and any side effect. I knew I did not want to hallucinate, as I never forgot that thirteen year old scare, so magic mushrooms, acid and the magnanimously popular ecstasy were out. Marijuana, I had tried a few times, but was just not as much of a risk, and I was always afraid of lacing or hallucinating. As far as we knew, no one hallucinated on cocaine, but they did have heart attacks - as recently as Sam Kinison so I was wary. Okay guys, I said to my pals, sucking up my mortal fear - lets do some Blow! I cannot tell you how excited people who love drugs are to see someone do their favorite drugs with them. All the girls told me what to expect and went ahead and made the purchase. We were going to take the streetcar all the way down to the French Quarter and par-tay!

One of the girlfriends brought the "package" over to my apartment so we could all partake. Since I had no furniture, no one "hung out" at my place for very long. We found a mirror and laid out the "lines." All the girls tried to teach me the proper way to inhale the powder through my nose. It felt quite intimate actually, I mean I am sticking a dirty dollar bill up my nose - yuck! I remember the salty taste in my mouth but started smiling and laughing a bit. I knew I needed a cigarette. All the girls told me that I wouldn't really get drunk tonight, so watch out as I might suck down twenty drinks without noticing. When we arrived at the beginning of Bourbon Street, four young hotties sashaying down the middle, they all asked me "Do you feel it?" "Yes! I feel like a million bucks!" I exhalted. The Quarter and my big ass had never looked better. I barely felt the cold and was grinning from ear to ear. The best part was that I was not hallucinating - my biggest fear not realized. My heart was indeed racing but I managed to keep Sam Kinison's face out of my head. I was too happy. We headed to OZ, the gay dance Club on Bourbon which had the best DJs in town. It wasn't too crowded, but the Gays were not pleased with more heteros taking up floor space. The girls kept pulling me into the bathroom for more "bumps" but I didn't feel like I needed them as often as they did. They had told me I would never be as high as I was those first two hours, but I was still having fun all the same. It was the middle of the week and I stopped dancing on the floor of Oz, among glow in the dark, muscular, hairless, speedoed men on the top of the bar watch a drag queen belt out "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in a black robe, blond wig and platform go-go boots. Not to sound cliche, but it was a religous experience. All my insecure thoughts were zapped from my head that joyous eve. It was amateur night at OZ and you could tell the performer was a bit nervous. So was I.

The rest of the night went by so quickly, I am sure we hit Cafe Brasil on Frenchman in the Marigny and some how back to campus around dawn. I remember walking home on empty South Carrolton that morning, people walking to work or out for a cup of coffee, and me all dressed up, still smiling, still awake(a rarity if you know me), stopping at the Italian bakery on Oak Street. I bought two glazed doughnuts and ate them on the street enroute to my house, looking up into the sunny, and slightly less melancholy blue New Orleans sky.

I remember an eighth grade field trip to a forest preserve a few hours outside of Chicago. Late in the day, 90 kids met at this beautiful, grand canyon like rock formation with an algae filled waterfall at the end of it with crystal clear water at the bottom. Eighty-nine thirteen and fourteen year-olds - one guy who looked like Prince and rode a purple banana seat bike was thought to be seventeen - climbed up the slimy rock and jumped down the six foot waterfall, getting soaking wet. And I just stood there - as if my skinny Guess jean wearing, thirteen year old self was a chaperon WATCHING. I remember my classmates calling me to join them and then quickly forgetting me as they easily got caught up in the group euphoria of non-thinking time and just plain old messy fun. I can remember the argument in my head - the battle actually - should I stay or should I go? My heart wanting to go,but my feet cemented into the muddy rock below. I just watched, "too cool" everyone guessed.

On the long ride back on the school bus, I tried to block the giggles and screams of the wet mess of adolescence rocking all around me. I turned the volume up on my water-proof yellow Sony Walkman to blast Yaz's "Only You." I leaned my head against the glass window watching the farm houses pass until I could see the famous Sears Tower skyscraper in the distance, knowing I had missed out on something special. I felt incredibly guilty, but I also felt safe.

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