Detour. When I was 14 I moved from Asheville North Carolina to Nairobi Kenya. Living in Kenya was a critical passage in my life. I took up recreational drugs. My life took a detour underground for more that fifty years.
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 addiction a huge boost; getting drunk and stoned was so easy there. Falling into an addicted life, like marriage, and writing as a career, was a mistake I needed to make. Kenya was more than happy to help me out with that. All through my boyhood my parents were teetotalers. Mom called booze bug juice; alcohol was never in our house. In Kenya they entered a European milieu: everyone drank. They went with the flow, god bless 'em. That made it easy for me to get boozed up too.
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 didn't even take 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. The background smell of Nairobi, I learned later, was a combination of frangipani in bloom and plastic being burned in cooking fires; an arrestingly sweet tropical stink.
Breathing room. Our first home in Nairobi was upstairs in a fourplex on Margaret Close. I learned close was how the British said dead end. There was a lovely clear creek probably 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 forgot to lock the door. Would that be OK now? An unannounced sound like that was 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.
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 helluva 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 downwhill, but the uphill equalized our speeds and I was stuck there in the right lane. Meanwhile another 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 as he went by a foot to my right. Nothing got hurt but my pride, but it scared the shit outta me.
USCS. The move to Ridgeways coincided with my transfer from the Duke of York to the US Community School. USCS was so new it didn't have teachers yet. We studied via supervised correspondence with the U of Nebraska Extension Division: independent study using a standard text plus a syllabus and 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 3rd grade, when I was crazy 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. Barbara was two or three years older, pretty, funloving, zaftig, and as sexually frustrated as I was. 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. I didn't think much of her singing, 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'd I know? I got a coke with some lemonade mixed in. It wasn't too bad, kinda like a nonalcoholic shandy. 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 so much sexier CD; it's a class difference. We got invited to this one for being newcomers. It was a garden party; everyone just strolled, ate and drank, and worked the room. I didn't know anybody there, and it was pretty much all adults. But I got to know the bar steward, a bored but very polite Kenyan in spotless white. This time I pronounced rum and coke correctly, and when I came back 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 started going to the movies 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."
Diana. Fun with Barbara ended when I fell in love with Diana, a Clairol redhead (my crushes on genetic redheads have never gone anywhere, at least so far). 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. But I was nuts about her, devastated when her family left Kenya. My first heartbreak. I heard one bird.
Drinking age: tall enough to see over the bar. Booze was dead easy: bartenders did not check ID. Parents would send kids to fetch another round; nobody was watching to see if there were actually parents there. Pot was easy too, tho' I didn't know it at first. I needed a close friend's help for that.
Muse. It was my prowess (ahem) on the E♭ alto saxophone that won me my first close friend, as opposed to girlfriend. None of my close friendships with men were a good idea. My wisdom steered me away. When that didn't work, wisdom 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 (Purcy), bass (Mumbles), and drums (Tom Behrendt; we jammed at his house); a horn player would be the feather in her muse's cap. My Tryp name was Kurly, because I had long curly hair. She wooed me a bit. We ended up getting kinda dreamy with each other over the course of regular 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. We sipped our coffee through sterling mint julep spoons. It had to cool down first. She 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 breathtaking 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. She took me over to meet the band. They all got stoned and jammed once or twice a week. Sign me up! I learned how to jam with those guys, and got introduced to the blues.
Trypping. Blues like Sonny Boy Williamson's Bring it on Home.
And Muddy Waters's Long Distance Call.
And OMG The Stones' Time is on my side.
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 what that was. All I saw was a crowded bar full of drunk people dancing to stoned hippies. My best guess is Tom Behrendt's parents were members. Their house where we jammed was the sort of spread you might imagine a Muthaiga Club member would have. I stupidly got too stoned. I had a big solo in 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 the 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.
Albums. Around that same time I fell in love with Françoise Hardy. How could I not? My second album ever was a compilation album of hers. This was the first song. Click full screen and watch a sorceress at work.
Françoise was my second celebrity crush after Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. My first album ever was The Latin Sound of Henry Mancini, back in Asheville. I won it as a prize on a radio call-in contest because my dad knew the name of the first woman to swim the English Channel. Gertrude Ederle, to save you the trouble.
Addicted life established. Living in Nairobi gave me a huge boost into the world of recreational drugs. Two years there did the work of 8 years in the US. That helped me get done with drugs early. I got done with alcohol in 2016, and clean of pot 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 most of my life. So many memories that make me cringe. Now I'm just my own kind of fool, neither a drunk nor stoned one. Not even a wee bit tipsy one. Drugs are drugs, and I'm profoundly grateful to be done with that mistake I needed to make.