Tuesday, March 13, 2012

DEATH OF A SISTAH



I was working on Governors Island in New York Harbor in the mid-Eighties when I met Christine. A secretary for Coast Guard Intelligence, she was tall and shapely with a head full of beautifully beaded braids, and facial features that were a dead ringer for Whitney Houston. Besides the physical resemblance, they shared the same astrological sun sign, Leo, a similar soulful, fun-loving but regal personality, and tragically, the same personal demons.

Christine and I clicked immediately. We shared the same thoughts sometimes, lunched at the Officers Club, hung out in Brooklyn bars where she knew everybody, and loved the same songs, to which we sang along as we rode in her car. One singer who especially impressed us with the sheer power of her voice, was the lately departed Miss Whitney Houston.

We kicked it for about a year, and then we both left the island and basically went our separate ways. About two years after that, I was walking one night along Rockaway Boulevard in South Ozone Park, Queens where I lived, when someone called out to me. It was a woman I didn't recognize. She was fat, disheveled, and walking with a limp, like she had been shot in the leg or something. I was shocked when I saw that it was Christine. No way could this be the elegant, stylish, runway model-looking Christine from Coast Guard Intelligence. Christine, who had always been loaded with cash, practically begged me to buy a nickel bag of weed from her. Damn. What the hell happened to her, I asked myself. We didn't have the usual catch-up conversation that reunited friends have. I didn't ask what she had been doing with herself for two years or tell her what I had been up to. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and I just wanted to get the hell away from her. I walked on, but have never stopped wondering what happened, how she could have changed so much in just two years. And I thought of her every time I saw Whitney Houston's face on TV or in some magazine.

Subconciously I did know what happened to her. Though we had been really into each other physically, emotionally and sexually, something more powerful than our passion had come between us and robbed me of a woman I really liked, if not loved. That something was the same powdery white substance that heavily contributed to Whitney Houston's downward spiral from the heights of American popular culture, and ultimately her untimely departure from this earth.

The power of cocaine to destroy the lives of even the most gifted, talented, brilliant, and beautiful human beings cannot be overstated. But it is a duplicituous power, for as much as it can destroy, coke can also soothe, comfort, and banish both physical pain and the even more insiduous, emotional pain. The cocaine high is probably the most exquisite, sensual, and confidence-boosting experience one can have, and the crash that follows the soaring flight to Cloud Nine is conversely one of the most depressing experiences one can have. Whoever concocted the recipe for extracting blow from the coca plant should be exhumated, tarred, feathered, quartered, and then shot. Too late the addict realizes that the intense pleasure induced by sniffing or smoking Colombia and Mexico's biggest export is only bait to lure one into a terrible trap, much like the leopard that only notices the steel bars of the cage after he has feasted on the carcass placed in it to get him into a zoo someplace.

Life can be a bitch, to say the least. Worldwide recession, lay-offs, student loan defaults, prolonged unemployment, loss of loved ones, loneliness, despondency, hoplessness, all drive human beings to a need for escape from the harsh realities of life, which, just like cocaine, has the power to inspire, thrill and fill with joy sometimes, and to beat one down to the point where joy and happiness seem meant only for others. Everyone seeks escape in some form or other, whether they would admit it or not. Some seek escape in gambling or prostitutes, illicit affairs, dangerous extreme sports, sexual deviancy, religion, or American Idol. Most people who would condemn a Whitney Houston as a weak, self-indulgent coke head have a well stocked liquor cabinet at home, alcohol being even more insiduous than cocaine. But that's a whole different topic of course, as is the fact that it wasn't cocaine that killed Miss Houston, but prescription drugs, legal and socially acceptable, and far more deadly than any street drug, especially in combination with alcohol.

The power of cocaine to treat emotional pain, however temporaily, is especially relevant to gifted artists who are by necessity, unusually sensitive souls. Everyone deals with emotional trauma in one form or another, sometimes left over from early childhood and though symptom-less, a festering wound more dangerous than a physical one. One may not even be aware of these emotional wounds, or they could be buried deep in the subconscious, but it's still there, with real, lasting psychological effects, though one may not even be aware of how deeply they've been affected by some bad memory they've pushed to the back of their mind. It could be a traumatic childhood experience or simply an absentee parent, or perhaps parents who were physically present but emotionally absent, maybe an impossible-to-please father who heaped scorn and ridicule on everything his son (or daughter) did.

Most people cope successfully without the use of substances like coke and can't understand why someone with the world at their feet would need to indulge. Brilliant or gifted artists are however, not "most people." The average person simply can't understand that the very sensitivity that enables a person to produce great works of art, literature, music or architecture also makes them especially vulnerable to emotional trauma, or that it's emotional pain itself that produces such great works of art. They can't relate to the feeling of being in the world but not of it, that induces a Tupac Shakur to complain that he's "not happy here," despite his phenomenal success as an artist, the sense of frustration with being born with an aristocratic temperament but no money.

I've fought my own battles with my personal demons, and I don't know why I've been more fortunate than Whitney or Michael Jackson or Billie Holiday or Christine. I'm sure they all had somebody praying for them somewhere too, or perhaps deceased ancestors watching over them as well. But I'm quite convinced that the quality of the art that I produce is directly attributable to the emotional trauma that I self-medicated with certain illegal substances. The creative power is also destructive, as demonstrated in volcanic activity which can bring forth terrible death and catastrophe but also create astoundingly beautiful tropical islands.

Those awesome catclysmic forces latent within the very earth itself erupted terrifyingly millions of years ago to give shape and form to the most breathtakingly beautiful planet that we know of, in all the billions of galaxies. That duality is evident in everything around us, in the sun, the sea, the wind, the rivers and mountains, and within us. Who knows why and how creation and destruction, joy and pain are just two sides of the same doggone coin, or why the creative power within us can also destroy us? I'm more and more convinced that those who profess to know why, or to understand the mind of "God," or even if there is such a being as "God," are full of crap.

Goodbye, Whitney. And Michael and Marvin and Edsel, and most especially, Christine.

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