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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.
Because she had been nominated for Best Supporting in 1964 for The Night of The Iguana, Mom was a member of the Academy. This only affected us for a two-month period every winter, when our mail awakened from its usual rut and became considerably more interesting.
I’m in the Writer’s Guild, thus all these years later I still get courted for various awards-season campaigns, which has allowed me to track the progression. Only the screening invitations have remained consistent over time: flat white bulk-mail business envelopes with the logo of Paramount or Universal or Warner Bros (or Coralco! Or Orion! Or Fine Line!) in the upper left corner. Open it up, and a single sheet of paper touts a single movie “for your consideration,” gives a paragraph of not-always-penetrable précis, and lists a handful of screening times in New York and Los Angeles, usually in an office building screening room. Show your Academy card, and you and a guest will be admitted.
That was, and remains, the barebones minimum, the skimpiest, most meager studio marketing campaign. In the pre-DVD/VCR/Betamax era, back in the days when you needed a 35-mm projector to actually see a movie, the more aggressively hyped films would also send soundtrack albums, and these illuminated my childhood.
Thus: the soundtrack to Easy Rider, way before I was old enough to see the movie. Steppenwolf, The Byrds, the Holy Modal Rounders, the version of The Weight by a band called Smith because The Band’s label wouldn’t let their version be on a soundtrack; the soundtrack to Costa Gavras’ excellent true-story Greek political thriller “Z”—Mikis Theodrakis, kickass high-powered bouzouki drama-pop, with home-recorded versions banged out at the piano by Theodrakis himself after the Greek junta imprisoned him and declared all public performance of his music illegal. I played the fuck out of that record when I was a kid, home on school afternoons and weekends, and occasionally I hear To Yelasto Pedi still and yet in my perambulations, and it thrills me now just as it did then.
The soundtrack to Shaft. Yeah, got that from the Academy.
Plus of course a whole lot of junk. Soundtracks to Places From The Heart and The Natural and a zillion more movies like that. Stuff you wouldn’t play front and back unless you were an actual blood relation of the composer, and then only once, so you could say you had.
The soundtracks were routinely released commercially, so it didn’t really cost much of anything to send them to the Academy list. Next up were printed booklets such as you used to get during the first run of “premier” pictures—magazine-sized glossy 8-pagers with lots of color stills. These had been designed specifically for the Academy list, and were fancy. You would open the legal-sized envelope, flip through the booklet for maybe fifteen seconds, and then never think of it again.
The Godfather did a beautiful one of these. I don’t have it anymore, but I remember them merchandising that movie wall to wall and every corner at awards time, whatever year that was.
Next up, and we still get them: skinny horizontal (“landscape”) booklets with stills from the movie. Or: packets of postcards of stills. Like we’re going to use them to actually write people: Dear Grandma, how are you? I am fine. Camp Glenbrook is great! Please ignore the picture of Al Pacino on the other side.
Back in the pre-VCR days, the holy grail, of course, was being sent a script. It happened rarely, but we were always energized when they came, and I read a number of movies I was too young to see. Sneaky, yeah, the way all the hipsters in my eighth grade class read Burgess’s Clockwork Orange when the movie came out rated X. There was a period for about a month there when we all spoke Nadsat. These days, the scripts come published in trade paperback editions with introductions by famous people and stills of actors and director engaged in important-looking work. I’ve even received flash drives with screenplays on them, sometimes as many as four to a drive. But back in the day they sent working shooting scripts, 3-hole punched with gussets. Reading them was different than reading a TV script; for one thing, they had more work to do to introduce characters. For another, all the scenes were numbered, and the numbers were sometimes out of sequence, which struck me as weird.
And then came the ballots. In politics, the primaries are when you vote for who you want to vote for; the election is when you vote for who you have to vote for.* First the nomination ballot would come in—actors voting for actors, plus best pic. This was the only time we took the process seriously, or as seriously as we ever took it. We’d actually debate, or at least discuss, who should be nominated, who deserved it based on current performance or previous performances that had been ignored; who should get it but they weren’t going to because of some issue or other, which actors we hated and were going to vote against in an effort to keep them from winning, which performances would divide the votes, cancel each other out, and who would be left to get the award in the event that happened. We voted for friends when we had the opportunity. The nominating process was where the strategic thinking played out, in our family; even with whatever strategic thinking we did, the entire process took less time than it took to walk the dog.
And then some weeks later the award ballots would come in, with their 5 nominations in every category. I remember them being long and narrow; to be honest, at this point the whole thing was a goof. These final ballots didn’t get the same sustained attention as the nominating ballots, or should I say they got even less sustained attention. Some years we would sit around the kitchen table filling it out, me, Mom and Dad. Some years Mom would just throw it at me and say “you do it—you saw more movies than I did, this year.” When I went to college, I took the ballots up and filled them out with my friends.
It didn’t immediately end after Mom died—the ballots stopped coming, but the freebies continued for two or three years before gradually petering out.
Nowadays, of course, at least from the Writer’s Guild perspective, there’s a plethora of splendidness at awards time. Now they give you DVDs with different “for your consideration” packaging than the commercial release, at once simpler and more fussily “prestigious.” When you play the films, the aspect ratios change somewhat randomly, and text kicks onto the screen every fifteen minutes or so telling you all the Draconian consequences of putting the damn thing on the Internet. Were I them, I would have the DVD coated with some chemical designed to degrade the plastic over three days on exposure to light and air, vacuum-foil-wrap the disk with a warning that it had to be viewed within 72 hours after opening, and be done with it. If they can make shaving cream in a can that heats up on contact with air, this should be a breeze.
But I don’t have a dog in that fight. And to be honest, other than the sheer giddy goofiness of it, nobody else in my family ever really did, either.
*Thanx and a tip o’ Hatlo’s hat to Bruce Hunt for that nugget of fundamental wisdom.