The Food Brick

The following essay was read verbatim at Fray Café in Austin, Texas on Sunday, March 11. 2001. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty. Mine is not one of them.

I was raised by my mom to be self-sufficient, independent
and open-minded. She never put a lot of rules on me about who I should be, what
I should do, how I should think. She certainly never put up with whining or
talking back, but she had an outlook on life that was, in a word, realistic.

She hung out at bars, and even had a collection of bar
glassware mostly ripped off from those bars and smuggled out in her voluminous
purse. Which wasn’t exactly stealing, she said, because they put the missing
glasses in their budget anyway. ‘That’s why,’ she would explain, ‘drinks are so
expensive.’ She displayed them proudly and my brother and I drank our Shasta,
which is a cheap soda pop in various fruit flavors, out of beer steins. She
admitted to me when I was a sophomore in high school that she’d smoked dope and
liked it. She smoked cigarettes and obviously liked them. I was raised in an
environment where it was a given that I would be smoking, drinking and cursing
before I left high school. ‘Boys,’ she often said, ‘will be boys.’ Which I took
to mean that it was okay of I was smoking and drinking and screwing around.

Therefore, I never smoke, drank or did drugs until I was 23
years old. What peer pressure couldn’t do, an eviction, a car accident and a
lost job all on the same day could.

Earlier, that winter, I’d moved to L.A. to chase a dream. I
was going to be an actor. My best friend, Larry, was attending Cal State
University Northridge, or CSUN. He, therefore, was already living in L.A., or
at least he was closer to it than I was. Northridge would become famous later
for being almost totally demolished in an earthquake. Based on my experiences
there, it totally earned it.

One does not just jump into the acting profession. Rather,
one sucks one’s way into it. There is a saying that goes “It’s not what you
know, it’s who you know.” There’s a similar saying about Hollywood: “It’s not
who you know, it’s who you blow.” I wasn’t blowing anyone, and that was only
the start of my problems. I had dropped out of college, I had no career ahead
of me, I had no idea what I wanted to do other than act, and I had no money at
all.

Food Run

Consequently, I got a job working at a record store, I moved
in with Larry in possibly the worst neighborhood in the valley – and yes, this
was The Valley, as in Valley Girls, as in Oh My God! – and spent six months
being depressed about my life, worried about making rent, subsisting on Kraft
Macaroni and Cheese Dinners every night and watching my best friend discovering
his sexuality with his new best friend, Kyle.

If I wasn’t sucking in L.A., the city was certainly doing a
fine job of it all on its own. Our apartment had no air conditioning, not that
we could have afforded it even if it had, and that summer was hot and dry and
miserable. The hot and dry and miserable winds, called the Santa Anas, weren’t
helping matters, nor was the hive of bees building a home outside our bathroom
window, meaning we couldn’t open the only portal on that side of the apartment,
meaning that even the hot and dry and miserable winds – which were winds
nonetheless – were not moving through our apartment.

On this particular day, I had gone to work as usual, totally
oblivious to the impending disaster of epic proportions (at least as far as I
was concerned) about to strike in the form of a triple threat.

How it happened was this: I had volunteered to get everyone
at Music Plus some Mexican fast food from Naugles, a place with a food item
they called the Macho Meat burrito, but which was known in the local vernacular
as The Food Brick. This was more than a meal in itself. This was Thanksgiving
Dinner wrapped in a tortilla.

It had three pounds of ground beef, an entire container of
sour cream, a head of iceberg lettuce, two tomatoes, a jar of salsa and a wheel
of hard cheddar. It retailed for $2.50. It was, to a man turning yellow from
too much powdered cheese sauce mix, heaven wrapped up in orange wax paper.

Traffic

Normally, I would simply have walked over, but the order was
too big to carry so I hopped in my Mercury Comet, which was a Ford Maverick
with uglier plastic, and set out to drive literally across the street. It was
about 5:30 in the evening and the rush hour was in full swing. All six lanes of
traffic were filled with anxious, hot, angry Los Angeles drivers trying hard as
hell to get home and wishing everyone would just get the fuck out of the way.

I’m sure we’ve all been there.

This particular intersection had no turn light. It had a
turn lane, but no arrow with which to turn. This being rush hour, cars filled
the intersection, so all I could do was nudge the nose of my ugly faux-Maverick
through on-coming traffic. As it happened, there were train tracks not far
away, and elevated enough so that drivers could not see anything on the other
side of them except whether the light was green or red. At this point, their
light was green.

As I entered the third lane over, a car suddenly barreled
over the train tracks going 100 mile per hour and broadsided me, turning me and
my car completely around until I landed on the sidewalk. That was how fast she
was going, and that was how hard she hit me. It would later turn out that she
worked for an insurance company, and it didn’t matter in the least by
California law how fucking fast she was going. I was turning left into
on-coming traffic. The accident was therefore my fault. My car was totaled. I
never made it to Naugles. A friend at work drove me home.

When I got home, more good news awaited me. My roommate and
best friend, Larry, had decided that he could no longer put up with me being
late with rent, which I always was, that was true. Maybe the Kraft dinners was
doing something to my memory. Maybe it was because I never had any money. Maybe
it was because Larry had fallen in love with Kyle and wanted him to be the new
roommate. (nod here vigorously)

Regardless of the reason, I was being asked to move out by
the end of the week. This was before he found out my car had been totaled. So
now I had no mode of transportation in Los Angeles, no place to live, no money,
and when I put those facts together it dawned on me that keeping my job was going
to be awfully challenging if I had no way to get there on time, and nowhere to
go when I left. Plus I’d have to figure out how to find a place to live while I
was figuring out how to get to work. I was 23, an emotional wreck, dead broke,
homeless and contemplating suicide.

What better time was there to start experimenting with
drugs?

Grandstand

Larry wasn’t completely insensitive to my predicament. Not
that it made him reconsider his request that I get out, you understand. I mean,
let’s face it, I was competing with readily available sex and all I had to
offer was a complete collection of Thompson Twin dance remix singles and a 19?
color TV. And those weren’t the sort of inches that mattered to Larry at the
moment.

He took one look at me moping on the couch, all yellow and
sad, and knew exactly what I needed. “Want to do some weed with me and Kyle?”
he asked.

I’ll just pause here a minute and explain my Puritan ethic
at the time regarding the use of drugs and alcohol. To me, people who used
mind-altering substances were stupid. They acted stupid at parties, they threw
up a lot, they smelled bad, they couldn’t talk. These were signs of mental
retardation, not “having a good time.” I didn’t understand the attraction at
all, plus the person I saw imbibing alcohol on a daily basis, my mother’s boyfriend
Skip, was a mean drunk. Without alcohol, he was merely an asshole. With a few cans
of Coors in his system, he became an abusive asshole. There was absolutely
nothing in the least attractive about any of it.

But I was at the bottom. I was sunk into a pit of darkness
from which I could see no escape. Every attempt to find something positive
about the day’s situation lead right back to: “I’m going to have to move back
in with my mother.”

A truer hell at the time, I could not imagine.

We had no bong, no pipe, not even any rolling papers. What
we had was a little sandwich bag filled with stinkweed, mostly stems and buds,
and a Pepsi can Larry dented and poked holes into with a fork.

I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

He had to show me how to smoke it. I’d never smoked anything
in my life. He reached into the baggy and pinched a gob of the dried green
stuff and piled it onto the fork holes. He had a Bic disposable lighter and we
sat in the kitchen around the table in the hot and dry and miserable atmosphere
of Southern California in July inhaling illegal drugs. My eyes watered, my
lungs hurt, I kept coughing because the ash was being sucked through the holes
into my mouth. I was worried I was going to go insane or paranoid or ballistic
or any combination thereof. I burned the hair off my fingers trying to hold the
lighter upside down over the weed while simultaneously sucking the harsh smoke
into my virginal lungs.

I never felt so wonderful in my life.

It was like floating. It was like being untied, like being
lifted, like I was filled with helium and weighed nothing at all. I became
giddy and everything was so fucking hilarious. The refrigerator was fucking
hilarious. The design on the formica on the kitchen table was fucking
hilarious. The fact that I had been in a bad traffic accident, that my car was
totaled, that it was my fault, that I was being tossed out of my home, and that
I had no foreseeable future other than to give up on everything and crawl back
to live with my mother… that was fucking hilarious!

We went through the whole bag of weed, getting higher and
higher, and then the munchies hit, and they hit hard. My mouth was full of wool
and my eyes felt like lead balls and I was floating near the ceiling and all I
wanted to do was stick things in my mouth and swallow them. We ate the Nilla
Wafers. We ate the Oreos. We ate the Saltines. We ate all the boxed things we
could find and then an idea of such perfection and clarity and beautiful circular
conclusion struck my liberated brain that I stopped laughing at how fucking
hilarious everything was and uttered the two most wonderful words in the English
language when one is high as a kite on really cheap dope:

Food. Brick.

Oh my fucking God it all made such perfect sense! I wasn’t
meant to get to Naugles earlier! I was meant to have the accident, and get kicked
out, and have my life fall apart! This was all fashioned by the cosmic forces
of ultimate retribution to force me to fucking take drugs and drink beer and
discover how fucking hilarious the curtains were!

Giddy Up

Next up was the question of who could possibly drive the
three of us over to Naugles. Me, I had no car and didn’t feel like driving, in
my elevated state of mind. Larry volunteered to drive, but not to drive his own
car, which sort of proved he wasn’t nearly as high as I was. Kyle said Larry
could drive his car, which meant he was higher than either of us.

It was a dark three-block drive to Naugles. Yes, three
blocks. But they were very long blocks. Anyway, as we pulled into the parking lot
and fell out of the car, for some reason it never occurred to us that the
reason there was a police cruiser parked in the lot was because there were
police officers inside enjoying their own Food Bricks. At least, it never
occurred to us until we walked through the door and spotted two huge men in
dark blue uniforms sitting in two plastic chairs watching three young men enter
laughing uproariously at how fucking hilarious the word Naugle’s is.

Naugles. Naaaauuuugles. Nauguuuuuullllllzzzzzz.

NNNNNNNnnnnaaaaaaauuuuuuugggglllllllleeeeezzzzzz….

See, it’s pretty fucking funny. So we were all saying it
over and over all the way through the doors until we spotted, almost in the
same instant, the two policemen who had turned to spot us, almost at the same
instant, making Naugle noises.

I would now like to demonstrate how I act nonchalant around
police officers when I am so high I can hardly see straight. (Pick someone from
the audience to act as the cop, then stare at them as you wander across the
stage, bumping into things.)

The thought going through my head, apart from “Jesus Christ
I want a Food Brick” was “Jesus Christ, I reek from marijuana smoke. I smell
like… like… like I’ve been smoking marijuana!”

The thing about police officers eating their burritos at 11
o’clock at night in the middle of the worst neighborhood in Northridge is that
they mostly don’t want to be bothered by anything. They are there to enjoy
their food, to not sit in their dark vehicles, to not answer the radio and not
worry about some dumb punk kids high on weed coming in to satisfy their
munchies. Mostly, what they want is for those kids to come in, get their food,
leave, and drive away. So what if they hit a pedestrian or two on the way home?
It’s fucking 11 o’clock at night in the worst neighborhood in Northridge!
Anyone walking around these streets at this hour was either selling dope or sex
or both and deserved to be fucking mowed down by the result of their
merchandising.

But what I was thinking was: “Help me God, oh help me, keep
it straight, help me God, help me keep things together, oh God help me, Jesus
God, help me, help me, help me, man the carpet is fucking hilarious!”

Counter Intuitive

Paranoia is pretty interesting. You may think you’re
paranoid, but if you only think you’re paranoid, you’re not paranoid. Being
paranoid is being absolutely, positively, 100% sure that you’re being watched
because you are being watched. You can feel the eyes on you as you attempt not
to drool when saying, “macho meat burrito with sour cream please.” And then you’re
so happy you managed to say that without screaming “I’m so fucking high!” that
you forget to answer the “hot or mild sauce?” question until you notice that the
58-year-old grandma manning (or grandma-ing) the counter at 11PM on a Tuesday (or
whatever the hell day it is, what the hell is happening with time, anyway? What
is time? Time, you suddenly realize, is fucking hilarious.) is staring at you
with her pad of paper, pencil paused above the column for burrito fillings,
awaiting your answer because you’re a dumb punk kid high on weed coming in to
her spit-polished restaurant where Ed and Pete, her two favorite police officer
customers, are sitting 20 feet away inhaling the overwhelming stench of pot
that hangs around you like a fog.

“Hot sauce,” I said, and smiled. Hot sauce is so fucking
hilarious!

Then Larry and Kyle also managed to order their burritos and
we stood there as time had its way with us, slowing down so that each second
took an hour and each hour took a day and why are those cops staring at me? I’m
behaving perfectly rational. I’m not drooling or laughing or… why am I staring
at those cops? I should stop staring at them. I’m staring at them and I should
stop. But then they’d know that I knew I was staring at them and they’d think
it wasn’t just an accident, that I actually had a reason to be staring at them,
that I was guilty of something, that there was a reason they should get up and
come over and ask me why I was staring at them and then not staring at them so
suddenly, so I should leisurely turn my head away from them like I’m not high
and I’ll do that as soon as I stop staring at them.

Suddenly, the oven timer goes off which sounds exactly like
the old, gray-haired matronly fast-food worker woman calling my order number
out and the scent of a deep-cooked, high-fat, 100% beef (except for the part
that is all-sour-cream) burrito drifts across my nostrils and settles into the
pleasure centers of my brain, only recently populated by an overabundance of dopamine
which has now been joined by sensory overload and a sudden reminder of insatiable
hunger and I begin to drool – really, physically drool – before grabbing my
fucking hilarious food brick and not dashing but rather leasurely strolling
toward the door marked EXIT on the other side of which is the vehicle none of
us should be driving and I can’t remember, did we leave the engine running? Why
don’t they have drive-thru service after 11 o’clock? What am I doing in here
with this… this…

Food brick!

The following summer, having lost my job, my car, my life in
Los Angeles and pretty much everything else I had built up and relied upon, was
spent in my mother’s backyard by the pool getting tanned by day, and with old
friends I had previously disdained because of their lack of will and nearly
constant alcohol consumption, consuming alcohol nearly constantly. That summer,
having lost lots of weight from eating nothing but Mac and Cheese, having spent
every unemployed day poolside soaking up the sun’s rays, having spent my days
lazing and my nights drinking, tanned, lean, poor and of drinking age, I never
looked so fucking great in my entire life.

March 28, 2001

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