Detour. In 1965, when I was 14, I moved with my parents from Asheville to Nairobi via Rome. Living in Kenya was a critical passage in my life. Kenya introduced me to recreational drugs, booze and pot. Drug use was the most important of many mistakes I needed to make. My progress with love, which had been going well, took a detour underground that lasted more than fifty years. Drugs slowed my progress to an agonizing crawl. In the big picture, mistakes are crucial for progress.
Addicted life. I was an adolescent. Pheromones were beginning to boil. I had my first experiences with girls. More centrally, Kenya was where I started living an addicted life, relying on booze and pot to feel good. I would have done that wherever I was, but Kenya gave me a giant boost: getting drunk and stoned was so easy there. Falling into addicted living, like getting married and writing as a career, was something I needed to dive into and get through. Kenya was more than happy to help me get started with that. All through my boyhood my parents were teetotalers. Mom called booze bug juice; it was never in our house. In moving to Kenya they they left the churchgoing south, where drinking was mostly hidden, and entered a European milieu where people of all ages drank openly. They went with the flow, god bless 'em. That made it so easy for me to get boozed up too. Pot took a little more doing but not much.
Stink. I desperately didn't want to go. I wanted to stay with my nonexistent friends in Asheville. "But next year I'll be first chair sax! And I won't be a miserable freshman anymore!" So ambitious: to be a miserable sophomore playing first chair in, well, yeah. It took less than a day for me to get over all that once we were there, where the very air smells different, and the dirt's a color I'd never seen before. I later learned the background smell of Nairobi was a combination of frangipani blooms and plastic being burned in cooking fires; an arrestingly sweet tropical stink.
Breathing room. Our first home in Nairobi was the upper right flat in a fourplex in Margaret Close. I learned flat meant apartment, close meant dead end, and buildings were in streets, not on them. A lovely clear creek ran along the bottom of the garden. We assumed it was infested with bilharzia. Surface water generally was. Across the landing lived Candy, Tony and Mark, a charming rosy cheeked English family. Tony was a pilot, ex-RAF, friendly and gregarious but tightly wound. I went on several road trips with the three of them. At one point as we were driving across the Rift Valley to Lake Nakuru National Park Mark pipes up to tell his dad he's forgotten to lock his door and was about to do that now and waits for a nod from Tony. A sound like that, unannounced, would be enough to send Tony into shell shock. Tony was also extremely handsome, with his chiseled chin, eagle eye, and luxurious black mustache. In keeping with the stereotype, Candy was lovely, voluptuous, and a bit of a ditz, perhaps for self protection. She taught me to say "Taffy bye!" as a farewell. Eh, works better for girls. Mark was a studious lad a little younger than I. He was mild, more like his mum. Tony didn't leave a lot of breathing room.
They had us over to dinner right after we moved in, and after dinner Tony served after dinner drinks from his well-supplied liquor cabinet. With Dad's approval, I got to sip Cherry Heering. Brilliant marketing: make it like candy. Start 'em young and train 'em up right. Soon after that Tony and I established a ritual whereby I would come over on a regular basis to sample his extensive alcoholic candy collection, which included not only liqueurs but real candy: liqueur-filled chocolates. I suppose the rationalization was to teach me to be a responsible drinker. After all, everyone's bound to be some kinda drinker, right? And if not there, I woulda got it elsewhere; god knows alcohol was easy to come by. Booze was dead easy. The drinking age was tall enough to see over the bar. Parents would send kids to fetch another round; nobody was watching to see if there were actually parents there. Pot was easy too, though I didn't know it at first. I needed a close friend's help for that.
Ridgeways. My folks wanted to live out in the country. Margaret Close was just a place to stay while they looked around. At the end of 1966 we moved to Ridgeways, which at that time was way out of Nairobi. It was wide open countryside, just a few wind-sculpted thorn trees for shade. But southwest of us a coffee plantation began. I did my first running out in Ridgeways. Something about the countryside seemed to invite it. At that point I didn't even know about Kenyan runners. I loved running in the coffee. The rows of coffee trees were widely spaced and frequently disked to keep down the weeds: a giant maze.
Cobra. One day I was running in the coffee when suddenly a cobra reared up way too fucking close in front of me, letting out one hellacious hiss. It was a world-stopper. I froze, heart pounding, swamped with adrenaline, then very slowly started backing away. The cobra stayed where it was, thank god, just weaving a bit in the air. Once I felt safely out of striking range, I ran like a scared puppy. That was my only spontaneous meditation in Kenya.
Motorcycle. The move to Ridgeways made my father do something I could never have seen coming: buy me a motorcycle. Getting to school on my own would make his life much easier. My school and his work were at opposite ends of town, and his work schedule did not mesh well with my school hours. We went shopping for a bike (bike=motorcycle; a bicycle was a push-bike). I secretly wanted a Bonneville or better yet an Atlas, agitated for a sweet CZ I saw on the lot, and got a Honda 150. So when I laid it down in gravel I was only going 40, not 80, and I survived, albeit well-rashed. But my underpowered Honda still got me in trouble, and not just with gravel. There's a big dip in Thika Road near the Tusker Brewery. One day I started passing a slow-moving bus just before heading into that dip. I did great downhill, but the uphill equalized our speeds and I was stuck there in the right lane. Meanwhile a faster bus decided to overtake the one I'd been trying to overtake and there I was, limping up the hill between dueling buses. The driver of the faster bus gave me a big grin streamlining by a foot to my right. Nothing got hurt but my pride, but it scared the shit outta me.
US Community School. The move to Ridgeways coincided with my transfer from the Duke of York to the brand new US Community School. USCS was so new it didn't have teachers. We studied via supervised correspondence with the University of Nebraska High School: independent study using a standard high school text plus a workbook. Exams were supervised at the school and sent home for grading via diplomatic pouch. I had a great time there. I was the first chemistry student, so I got to set up a tiny chem lab, ordering glassware and reagents through the supervisor, reprising a couple of favorite experiments from Asheville days. I took wild courses, like Russian language. I made myself right at home in that little school, housed at the time in a ramshackle two-story colonial era great house. It was all so easy. My smarts finally paid off: I could do all my coursework for the day (it was that mapped out) in an hour or two, and then I just took off and spent the rest of the day bombing around Nairobi on my bike. I was mos def getting an education.
Barbara. A topic I was eager to get educated on was girls. I hadn't even had a crush on a girl since third grade, when I was moonstruck about Sue Fiveash, a flaming redhead who probably didn't even know I existed, much less adored her.
My first fling in Kenya was with Barbara, the daughter of my dad's boss. It was the first and only time the folks tried to set me up with a girl. It was pleasantly successful for all concerned as long as it lasted. Barbara was two or three years older, pretty, funloving, zaftig, down to earth. We got introduced by all four parents: our two families went to a concert together soon after the Cassadys arrived in Nairobi. Ever hear of Julie Felix? Me neither. But here I was freshly in Nairobi listening to an American folk singer. She had a pretty voice and gave a particularly fine rendition of the Phil Ochs song Changes. I don't like his album version much. His phrasing is affected, a common malady among sixities folk singers. Julie's was fresh and direct. So instead here's a classic of that genre, addressed to our 2016 Nobel laureate.
I was watching Barbara closely. She ordered a drink from the steward; I thought I heard her say lemon coke, so that's what I ordered. Of course she'd said rum and coke, duh. What did I know? I got a coke with some lemonade mixed in. It wasn't too bad, sort of a nonalcoholic shandy. Dad was partial to shandies.
Kilimanjaro. I corrected that mistake at my first and only embassy party. We didn't usually get invited to these; our license tags read CC, not the ever so much sexier CD, corps diplomatique. It's a class difference. I was learning about class. We got invited to this one for being newcomers. It was a garden party; everyone just drank, strolled, ate, drank, worked the room, and drank some more. I didn't know anyone there but my parents. It was pretty much all adults. But I got to know the bar steward, a friendly bored Kenyan in spotless white. This time I pronounced rum and coke correctly. When I came back for more I asked for more rum. He was only too happy to oblige; I think I made his day. I don't recall how many rounds I got through, but I do recall finding what I thought was a discreet spot behind a bush to puke. My parents must've known; I'm sure I stank. They never said a word, allowing me to suffer my consequences without adding humiliation. Barbara and I had movie dates on Saturday afternoons. We didn't waste much time watching movies; we were there to make out. She had no more experience than I did; she went to a girls' school. We made up for lost time. The best location was at the back, under the balcony. The usher was a genial older Kenyan gentleman. We were regulars. He knew us by sight. One day to save him the hike I just pointed. He beamed at us and winked. Then he nodded gravely and said "Kilimanjaro." We had a lot of fun.
Diana. Fun with Barbara ended when I fell in love with Diana, a Clairol redhead. Diana was from Akron; her dad did something for Goodyear. I met her at USCS. With Barbara it was lots of fun. I had a huge crush on Diana, but the fun department was kinda lacking; Diana was quite straight laced. We kissed when romance first bloomed, but it made her uncomfortable so we dialed it back to hugging and handholding. No matter. I was nuts about her, devastated when her family left Kenya. My first heartbreak, and possibly the worst as I had no inner resources or cynicism. I heard one bird.
Muse. It was my prowess (ahem) on the E♭ alto saxophone that won me my first close friendship with a girl, as opposed to girlfriend. Close friendships with guys don't work for me. Leela steers me away. The one time that didn't work, she resorted to sabotage. I had played my sax at a show us your hidden talents school social. She heard about that and invited me over for coffee. She was the muse for an aspiring blues band called Once Upon a Tryp. We always had to spell it out: tee are WYE pee. She already had guitar, bass, and drums; a horn player would be the feather in her muse's cap. We ended up getting a little dreamy with each other over the course of afternoon get togethers. She was really cute, too, though clearly out of my league. She made me what she said was Swiss coffee, brewed with milk instead of water. I've tried to recreate that but is just makes a mess. I think she used instant coffee. We sipped our coffee through sterling silver mint julep spoons once it had cooled down enough. Her father was a wealthy good old boy from Tennessee who did not approve of me. Her mother was Icelandic and we hit it off. She was the coolest adult I had ever met. My muse told me stories from her life. She was born in Reykjavik, grew up in Algiers. We traded poets: I gave her Cummings, she gave me Rilke. It was wonderful having a close friend. I had a crush on her for years. Nothing came of that, but we stayed friends. Years later when I was visiting I took her on our one-and-only date: a romantic picnic in the Ngong Hills. I drove an inadequate VW fastback on roads I wouldn't drive anything on today. Anyway, she took me over to meet the band. They all got stoned and jammed once or twice a week. Well OK then, sign me up!
Trypping. I learned how to jam with those guys, and they introduced me to the blues. This was my first real blues song:
Closely followed by this one:
Mustn't forget The Stones:
We didn't just get stoned and jam. We had a few real gigs. Our crowning success was a gig at the legendary Muthaiga Club, where Karen and Bror get married in Out of Africa. At the time I had no idea it was legendary. What I saw was a crowded bar full of drunk people dancing enthusiastically to four stoned hippies. I suspect we got the gig because our drummer's parents were members. We jammed at his house. It was the sort of spread you might imagine a Muthaiga Club member would have. I stupidly got way too stoned. I was supposed to play a big solo in our cover of People are strange.
It was a saxified version of Ray Manzarek's keyboard solo. When it came round I just started wailing on my sax instead. Purcy jumped in my face, singing the solo in la-la-la-la and I was able to salvage the second half. Nobody noticed but us. We knew that the gig would keep us out well past all our curfews. We'd all told our parents we'd be sleeping over with someone else in the band. That worked neatly but left us with nowhere to go once the club did close down. We and our instruments were all in Mumbles's tiny Morris station wagon. Mumbles had a little bit of street sense. He drove us out to a parking lot at the airport that was well lit and patrolled. We made it through the night without becoming crime victims. In the wee hours the air felt more mile high than equatorial. I was shivering in my cotton army jacket with the mink collar and my low-rise jeans with a three-inch-wide belt. The jeans were called hipsters. Not because they had a repellently ugly beard but because they rode low, on the hips. Wisdom came to my rescue in the form of a visualization. I visualized my whole body constructed of metal pipes with flames jetting through them. It worked. I got to sleep. It wasn't cold enough to damage me.
The magical devil. Smoking dope with my bandmates was a pleasant ritual that bordered on religious. We would all get high together and loll about in the lavish garden of the house where we met to practice. We had a little clubhouse of our own down in the garden where we smoked and then jammed, but we'd also hang out in the garden when the weather was lovely, which it was a great deal of the time. Nairobi has a fine climate. Smoking dope engendered a very silly genre of music that Purcy, the creative genius of the band called magical jazz. It was all about getting high, and the songs were populated with creatures of Purcy's dope-addled imagination, most notably a magical devil who urged us on to get stoned and stay that way. Magical jazz didn't dispace blues or the psychedelic rock we admired, just augmented it. We jammed endlessly. Dope easily eclipsed my budding interest in alcohol. Booze brought you down, made you sleepy, made you clumsy and sick. Smoking bangi elevated you, made you high and enlightened, not sloppy drunk. I became a nondrinking stoner and stayed that way until dope started messing with my powers of concentration in college. I was keenly interested in trying other psychedelic drugs but, for better or worse, none of them came my way until I moved back stateside in 1968.
Addicted life established. An addicted life is one in which I use drugs to feel good, rather than feeling good because I'm living well and making progress with love. It's any life that includes using recreational drugs like alcohol or pot at any level whatsoever. For me, that's wrongheaded living. Living in Kenya gave me a huge boost into that world. In two years there I did work that would have taken eight in the US. In the big picture that strong start helped me get done with drugs much earlier than I would have. I was done with pot and other psychedelics by 1971, except for my enforced march through cannabis in 2019. That was a very good thing for my mental health. I got done with alcohol in 2016, and came to grips with addicted living in late 2019. I started the year 2020 clean and sober at the tender age of 68, ready to live a full chapter of my life that way, not just a few days or weeks or months or years. Recreational drugs made a fool out of me for so much of my life. There are so many memories that make me cringe. Now I'm just my own kind of fool, not a drunk or stoned one. Or even a wee bit tipsy one. Drugs are drugs, and I'm profoundly grateful to be done with that mistake I needed to make.