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Merriewold: odd little community in upstate New York. Not an intentional community; more a private enclave. Lake, woods, houses. Lots of theater people—at the center, George Abbott, who had a house there. Theater producer/director/writer/all-around champion who lived to be a vigorous 107. Directed the original Broadway productions of Pal Joey and On The Town, back in the ‘40s. And Damn Yankees and Pajama Game, for both of which he also wrote the book. And Where’s Charley, which had starred Allyn Ann Mclerie, Matt Gaynes’s Mom.
Years later George Abbott’s second wife, Mary Sinclair, painted my mother. After she found him cheating, after she left him, after she fell in love with another woman. The painting is a definitive picture of my mother in her prime in the ‘70s. But that was yet to come.
George Abbott’s house was big, as I remember it the biggest around, and just up the road from the lake. Our house—the house we had rented from friends—was further along that road and then another road off, small, considerably distant from the lake. After us, the asphalt ended, the road turned to tire ruts cutting through bushes.
This was where Matt Gaynes and I spent the summer of 1967—I turned 9, dreamy, introverted, overweight. He was three months younger than I, but taller, more present, less awkward, and he never had a weight problem.
Sam and Grayson—my Mom and Dad—had rented the house for the summer from friends to debate (and perhaps postpone) a decision they didn’t want to make: whether or not they could continue to attempt lives as a writer and actress in New York City, or whether the economics had so turned against them that they had to give up their dreams and all the work they had done—my mother both off-Broadway and on, my father writing for television and garnering interest in his plays—and go back to my father’s one-stoplight town in Ohio to take a job in his father’s rubber glove factory.
I was aware we were poor. We lived cheaply; we were not extravagant. Money was always an issue, a subject of conversation, an insurmountable truth. One reason we were in Merriewold was that it was cheaper to be there than in New York City. Another reason was to be in the orbit of George Abbott and his retinue. What was once called social climbing is now called networking, and Mom, as an actress, and Dad, as a playwright, had put themselves into proximity of one of the American theater’s great powerhouses. And then Mom blew it all by getting cast in a soap opera with vampires.
Famously, Grayson was in New York one Manhattan summer temperature-inversion heatwave day in June; she had just come in from errands, stripped off her clothes and had one foot in a cool shower when the phone rang. She stood perched for a second, her foot wet, debated not answering it, but she wasn’t bodily in the shower yet so she pulled out and went to get the phone. It was her agent offering her a short role on Dark Shadows. The show’s lead was a vampire; Mom was to be a famous hematologist investigating the vampire’s victims; she would threaten the vampire’s identity and be killed off in a couple of weeks. We needed the money. She took the job.
Thereafter, Mom commuted to Merriewold as the production schedule allowed, taking the bus to Monticello, the closest town, us all rattling back and forth to pick her up in one of her father’s used-car-lot cars, Dad setting up his typewriter to write on the wooden porch, Mom studying her scripts on the couch in the living room. She brought foods from New York—black raisin bread, I remember, and soap, and no doubt wine for the two of them.
A potato chip can—Sam would say tin, the Ohio word—large enough for a child to embrace. After the chips were gone, I caught a catfish in the lake, a big monster, green and whiskered, and filled the can with hose water to contain him. He was an object of fascination, a species utterly alien, and when he died Matt Gaynes and I buried him in an inappropriate grave amidst the roots of pines.
We ate catfish; just not him.
Mom and Dad went to parties. One night after dinner at George Abbott’s, Mom, lubricated if not pixilated, tripped in the dark heading back to the car, cut her ankle on the rough bark of a tree, and woke up with blood poisoning. Took a couple of days to manifest, but it didn’t get better, and it made her ill, and eventually it necessitated a trip to the emergency room in Monticello, the nearest town, antibiotics and a bandage. The irony was not lost: blood poisoning, hematologist, Dark Shadows. The wound healed over into a quiet scar that she had for the rest of her life.
George Abbott never cast her in anything; he never entertained the notion of doing one of my father’s plays. But Dark Shadows turned out to be a revolution in our family, the beginning of solidity, and George Abbott did not, as it happened, matter.
Mom got the job by bravura, but she kept it by technique. She decided early on that every scene she would be in would be inhabited by a subtext only she knew: she was in love with the vampire. She never said it, she never explained it to anyone, she just kept that thought in her heart and let it guide every choice she made whenever she was on camera. That was the work she did that summer, and beyond, to help our family survive.
For Matt and me the days were hot, and still, and sometimes the wind would sheen through the trees, and sometimes it rained. There were crickets in the dry fields and fireflies at dusk and owls in the woods and rubber-band-powered balsa wood airplanes that flew too far to ever be found, and stray cats, and skinny orange salamanders three inches long hugging the skirts of trees on the mornings after rain.
Merriewold in 1967 was the only place I’ve ever seen salamanders like that; I’ve never been back and I’ve never seen lizards emerge after every rain to cling to tree bark anywhere else.
Lake swimming in summer: a wooden raft docked ten yards off the beach, a rope swing dangling from a fat healthy tree, swimming out through the goose-pimple cool water to the oddly permanent spot in which warm water welled up from unknown depths, and then treading water and hanging out, talking and talking, never wanting to leave the charmed warm circle, knowing that eventually you’d have to make your way back, the cool water now insultingly cold.
And then: lunch. The Snack Bar across the road from the short sandy beach, the waddle of flip flops on hot asphalt. The snack bar was tiny, a counter and some stools and a diner menu on the wall, black letters slotted into white plastic. I had, as a rule, .50 cents for the day. I remember Matt having more. A hot dog was .30 cents, cheapest thing on the menu; with cheese .35; my one luxury. With a soda, .15, that was my .50 cents, and after that I was broke. There were hamburgers on the menu, but I couldn’t afford them. A cheese dog: every day, unchanging, that was what my money could buy.
And now we get to the heart of this memory: the guy behind the grill who made my cheese dog had a record player perched on a shelf. And it was always on. And it was the summer of 1967.
Some days it was Sgt Pepper. Some days it was The Doors first album (which I actually knew—my parents had bought it off of reviews because of the Brecht/Weill song Whiskey Bar and the luridly Freudian The End, which had momentarily intrigued my father. After a while they had grown bored of it—it wasn’t show tunes—and had given it to me). Some days Surrealistic Pillow.
Sgt Pepper. The sheer liberational sweep of that album, the gently pointed modernity, the way it moved from height to height.
Every moment of music was of paramount importance, at once palpably present and infuriatingly ephemeral, transmissions from a half-glimpsed distant world. Lunch over, no money left, no reason to stay, the music swirling through the little room, I’d wait for the song to end—Matt Gaynes impatient to be up, doing something, on to the next adventure—and then I’d force myself up before the next one started, push myself step by step back out into the summer day. I was mildly aware that I looked like a fat kid, nowhere to go, loitering around a lunch counter.
But it wasn’t the food. It was the music. It made me never want to leave.
When I was in fifth grade, I found my parents’ pot.
My parents were products of the ‘50s New York Professional Artist Drinking Culture, which I contend may well have been something of a golden age in the history of drinking cultures, right up there with the Roaring ‘20s except with much more routine access. And my parents were very, very good at every aspect of drinking: Wolfshmidt’s vodka with the green label, wineglasses on the dinner table, Chateau de la Chaize, the rise of California wineries, Almaden in the enormous green glass bottle, Dos Hermanos, a decent red marketed the same way…sparkling witticisms, roaring with laughter, heartfelt deep truths, vodka stinger nightcaps, harsh words, overreactions, overemotions, self destructive behavior, hangovers, guilt, starting up again a few days later.
You know, drinking.
I understood alcohol from a very early age. Had Mom and Dad been smoking pot with anything like the alacrity with which they drank, I would have understood that as well. But I didn’t know the smell until much later.
But the fact remains: in 1969 they had pot. And I found it.
There was a round wooden table in the living room with a “secret compartment” I had never not known about. One weekend morning before my parents were up, bored and just checking, I looked in and found a baggie full of green/brown oregano-like leaf flakes mixed with seeds and skinny twigs. This, of course, is what pot was actually like, in the ‘60s. Now it’s fat green-red-gold seedless buds that render you tectonically useless after one hit (or “toke,” as we quaintly put it back in the day). Anyway, my parents were theater people, mom was spending all her time doing a TV show with a bunch of young actors, it was, quite literally, the ‘60s, a bag of pot hidden in the obvious secret compartment in the living room should not have come as much of a surprise. And indeed it didn’t.
I was delighted and excited to find it. I did three memorable things with it. The first was, I ate a little of it—probably about a teaspoonful. Gagged it down and waited nervously for hours as literally nothing whatsoever happened. (As we all now know, you have to cook it, and you have to eat rather a lot of it, and then it hits you all at once two hours later.)
The second thing I did: I brought it to school, as I remember it on a Wednesday, and showed it to my friends, the group of perhaps two people with whom I actually socialized, and all my sort-of friends, the larger group of people that held social power in my class, and who I wanted to include and respect and like me.
In doing this, however, I knew my motives were mixed, and further muddied by an indisputable fact: I was relying on my parents, who they were, what they had done, decisions they had made, to claim coolness for myself. And I knew enough to know this was amoral, an unpleasant aspect of my personality that, if analyzed too deeply, was unsupportable and actually kind of loathsome. But that argument got tamped down by my excitement at the thought that being able to present actual marijuana would break my social logjam in new and permanent ways.
And so I took it in. And showed it to the class leaders—Kenny and Peter and Eugene and Paul and the others—in the locker room before gym class. And there was interest, but there was also an undercurrent of skepticism: Wow, really? Is it real? Is it illegal? Is this a good idea? Why did you bring it? Are we going to get arrested?
For 5 minutes there was an open market in reactions, culminating in: had I tried it?
I remember telling them: yes I have. I remember embellishing its effect, from Zero to Something.
In other words, I lied. In my own quest to go from Zero to Something.
And then the time came for us all to go out to gym class, and I put the pot in my bag, shut my locker, spent gym class worrying that marijuana sniffing dogs were going to come through the locker room and find it and I would get pulled out of gym and sent to jail, but that didn’t happen and I brought the pot home and that was, in near-entirety, the moment. Other than one enterprising fellow asking me if I still had it, a few days later, which I did not, no mention of it was ever made again.
It had not been the easy ticket of entry into the coterie of cool kids. It had done nothing to redefine me as possessed of interesting knowledge. It didn’t change any aspect of my place in the ecosystem of 5th grade. (A couple of years later that ecosystem shifted, a story not worth entering here, except to say it had nothing to do with drugs.)
So: not very successful. But there was a third thing that happened, and it actually went splendidly: when I found the pot, I sent some to Matt Gaynes in California.
Through the mail. In an envelope. Addressed in my dreadful 5th-grade block handwriting. With a stamp on it. And no tape over the envelope’s open sides.
I called him and told him to watch the mail, though I was too paranoid to adequately explain why—phone taps, you know, scary stuff in 5th grade. But he got the message that Something was coming, and watched the mails. And it got to him, too—delivered, I learned later, by a Los Angeles mailcarrier with a ponytail who knew exactly what it was, dropped it and ran.
And Matt, more enterprising than I, managed to figure out how to smoke it (the technology of which had eluded me, though there were rolling papers in the Secret Compartment, but I couldn’t decipher how to use them). And though he didn’t feel much—you never do, your first time—he was grateful and appreciative that our deep childhood friendship had taken this new and interesting turn.
The next Saturday morning, a week after finding the pot, having utterly freaked myself out by bringing it to school and sending it to California and then staying up nights thinking postal authorities were going to smash through our door and ruin my life, my parents’ careers, Matt Gaynes’s life, his sister’s life, his parents George and Allyn Ann’s theater and film careers, I indignantly told my mother I had found her marijuana, that this was Bad, and that Really, Something Must Be Done.
And together we flushed it down the toilet. And it made my guilt go away, if not my moral quandary.
But I got Matt Gaynes high, from all the way across the country. And it would be, in time, a favor he would repay.
Which, actually, brings us back around to Nantucket, 1973.