John Guare was building a house on Nantucket in 1973. He had a girlfriend named Page—spirited, smart, kind. Hippychick. I was 14, as was Matt Gaynes, my best friend, three months younger than me, though his charismatic panache made him seem slightly older.
Matt and I had a room together in a house full of actors working for the Nantucket Stage Company, which was presenting the world premier of Guare’s play Marco Polo Sings a Solo. My mother, Grayson Hall, played a character who had been born a man, had himself surgically altered to be a woman, and then impregnated herself with his own sperm to give birth to the play’s hero.
In John Guare’s world, people do stuff like this all the time.
Our room was in the front of the house, facing the street, next to the kitchen which we shared in communal fashion with a bunch of young actors, Jimmy Woods and Paul Benedict and Kevin O’Connor and Joe Grifasi among them, and every night after rehearsals and performances the beer and wine and vodka and whisky would come out. For Matt and me, beer was the international currency; wine was tougher and more variable and the higher alcohol content made it mix badly with whatever else one had in one’s system, though a good glass of wine was on its own an excellent thing. I didn’t know how to drink hard alcohol yet, though not for want of trying. But what Matt and I dearly wanted, above everything else, was pot.
As I remember it, there was a dearth of pot on Nantucket in the early summer of 1973. Or more likely there was a dearth of pot for us—grown ups had some; I know this because I once handed a joint to my mother at a party in the actor’s house living room, and she took a hit, held it in, passed it on, exhaled and continued our conversation. Thus, there were actors in the house who had some, but none of them were going to supply Grayson’s kid and his friend George Gaynes’ and Allyn Ann McLerie’s kid with a bag of pot; that simply wasn’t going to happen. Eventually, though, Matt and I made the necessary connection with someone unconnected to the theater. The source we found could not have been more ideal in any possible way, except perhaps if they’d been female.
Two brothers, teenage sons of a wealthy divorcee who had taken one of the three identical Captain’s houses on the main cobblestoned street of the town of Nantucket. The older brother had his bedroom in the glassed-in widow’s walk turret at the top of the house—big glass windows on four sides of a small room reachable by tight wooden stairs. An impressively cool place to live. He was a strident young man who played guitar and had brown hair down to the middle of his back. His younger brother, blond, shoulder-length hair, lived in the house as well and was an absolutely brilliant harmonica player. Played all the time, carried it with him everywhere he went. I took music more seriously than any other art form (though my tastes, while defensible, were fairly base at that juncture), and the harmonica-playing younger brother was a revelation to me. All my years of piano lessons, all my love for and near-obsessive intellectualization of the sociomythic meaning of every song that came on the radio and every record I bought for $5.99 at Sam Goody or unwrapped on Christmas morning in my father’s parent’s home in small-town Ohio, and this young man had a relationship with his harmonica that made it all fall away like melting snow. I had never seen anything like it. I was—strong word—in awe.
Nice guy, too. But it was from the guitarist brother that the pot came, so we spent more time with him.
I had first smoked pot at Matt Gaynes’ house in Studio City, California. Obligatorily, it hadn’t affected me the first time, as often happens. I remember standing over a train set, a miniature world in Matt’s room, trying to decide if the funny I was feeling was the pot or was me imagining what the pot must feel like. I remember being witty, minorly; getting off a few good lines, getting a laugh.
That right there: that was success. Being able to skewer the moment, hold it up, investigate it. I was preoccupied with the truth: finding it, telling it, knowing it. That was the goal. that was the sublime culmination, the bloom of the flower. That was the life I wanted to live: to walk in truth at all times in all ways.
Pot and the rest of the mind-enhancement pharmacopoeia was, for a time, the means to that end. Then, as always, it became an end to itself, and had to be overthrown like any other debased belief system. But that came later.
When finally Matt and I made the connection with the two brothers, I remember leaving the brick house with a head full of stone, being in awe of the weird radical timelessness of Nantucket, the fact that it is a functioning, living place that looks exactly as it did a hundred-odd years ago—the cobblestone streets, the gray shingle houses—coupled with the fact that the entire place is, of course, a lie. The world is not like this, the world is crashing violently ever into the new, and no amount of cobblestones from whaling boat ballasts will ever anchor it.
Which made me hate it. But it was so damn beautiful. Which made me confused. Which in turn made me want to smoke more, and drink more, and just keep talking way into the night until I collapsed into a heap of hungover pubescence as sunlight scratched me awake and into another day.
Matt had a simple solution for this: wake up. Step into the walk-in closet in our room. Take a hit off a pipe. Go back to sleep. Wake up an hour later, stoned, and ready to take on the challenges as they came.
So that’s what we did. We cadged beer, when we could get it. We cadged wine, when we could get it. We had pot. We had bikes. Matt was fearless about smoking in public. I was not, but I got used to it. We were set.
Two stories: As a kid, I was a terrible student. At some point, several years before Nantucket, I was diagnosed with some kind of visual acuity dilemma, and went through a year of visual training in a doctor’s office on 34th street in Manhattan. I always thought it was a crock of shit—once a week I would spend an hour trying to put golf tees into holes in rotating disks and reading things through various complicated lenses. I never saw any change in my visual acuity from any of this. My grades certainly didn’t change. None of this affected me in any way.
So, years later on Nantucket, walking home late one night with Matt, seriously and prodigiously loaded on our pot and God knew what combination of alcoholic beverages, I turned the corner to the actor’s house’s little back yard and stopped abruptly.
I could see in depth. There was a telephone pole on my right, to the side of the gate, a heavy old tree to my left and the house was beyond, and there were flies around the lights, and a little round grill, and bikes and before me was the door to the house and the kitchen through the window, and things were in front of each other, and behind each other, and I had never seen this before. Not this way, not with this clarity.
I had never seen in depth. It was as if something had shifted in my brain, and suddenly I was allowed to see the reality that everybody else took for granted.
A cascade of revelations permanently altered my mind. I was aware of myself in space—in air, three dimensions, four if you include time and you really should, standing in the back yard of the house on Union Street, with the telephone pole on my right and the bikes up ahead on my left—and I felt fearless in that awareness, even as I recognized my basic human vulnerability. But that didn’t matter, because every step I took resonated with this new discovery, and I felt strong, stronger than I’d ever felt before as I walked forward, footstep after footstep, through the door and into the house.
Second story: My birthday is in late August. To celebrate it, Matt and I were able to acquire an absurdly large chunk of hashish.
For those who don’t know, hash is a relatively primitive refinement of the resin of marijuana into a brownish-blondish solid as crumbly as hard-dried mud. It’s been around for thousands of years. When I still cared about all this stuff, which I haven’t for a while, it was pretty routinely available. I have no idea if it still is.
In any event, the day before my birthday, we managed to score a big chunk of it. We proceeded to smoke it, and be high off it, every waking moment for three days.
The second day of which was my birthday. A party was thrown in my honor—well, a party was thrown, and I was one of a number of reasons for it—at the unfinished house that John Guare and his girlfriend Page were building out in the wilds of Nantucket. Thinking back on it, I am delighted to realize that Matt and I had not managed to completely alienate the Nantucket Stage Company, the actors we lived with, or the brilliant and vivacious Guare, because if we had the party on my birthday would have no doubt flowed merrily on without me. I suspect we were sort of mascots, tolerated as imbeciles, mildly amusing but basically harmless.
Or maybe more. Because at some point, in this wood-framed but as-yet unwalled house, the entire party assembled, and sang Happy Birthday, and Guare presented me with a beautiful white signed and becandled birthday cake.
And to cut it, an evil glimmer behind his wireframe glasses: a hammer.
And me, on day 2 of nonstop hashish. As the song crescendoed, I lifted the hammer high over my head and smashed it down into the center of the cake.
Splat. Cake on my glasses. Laughter, applause, hoots, transcendence.
And that’s how I turned 15.