*Saturday, afternoon, fall, 1974. Piero, my new friend and community college classmate, figured since we were already hanging out in Hollywood near the home of his “favorite” uncle on his father’s side, we might as well swing by.
“You’ll dig unc,” he said, parking his off-white, rust-bitten ’62 Volkswagen bug in front of a tidy, small white stucco house off Fountain Avenue. “Really cool guy.”
If anyone would know cool, it would have been Piero. Easy-going and good-natured, he was a ringer for ‘70s/’80s TV sit-com star Scott Baio, only P’s dark Italian locks were curly and longer.
I could trust this white boy to comprehend the Ohio Players, Mandrill and Blaxploitation flicks. He insisted the love of his young 19 year-old life had been a black girl he dated on the down low in high school.
P rang the bell. Standing outside, I could hear strains of Herb Alpert & and The Tijuana Brass’ “Casino Royale”, and an insistent male voice speaking to somebody in Italian, the vocalization of which got closer and closer until the door finally opened.
Forty-something and barefoot, he wore a thin mustache, slicked-back dark hair and a gold medallion, his rotund body wrapped in a formidable white terry cloth robe whose knotted cotton belt took the place of a waist. P’s uncle reminded me of entertainer Jackie Gleason.
The two hugged and kissed cheeks, speaking enthusiastically in their native tongue. Piero introduced me. “Hi ya doin,” Uncle said warmly, submitting an extraordinarily hardy handshake. “Come in, come in!”
It was a little after two in the afternoon, but in his cozy abode Unc looked to be hosting a small party of sorts. There were five casually dressed people, four of them couples, and a tall, skinny guy. Another suspiciously thin mustache. All late 30s and early 40s, gathered on a black leather sectional before a coffee table of wine, beer and a platter of cheeses and cold cuts. From strategically-placed stereo floor speakers wafted a recorded compilation of pop, jazz and soft rock.
Peiro and I sat in chairs, attempting mature conversation with these grown ups when I noticed Uncle presenting the slim man an album cover, which he used as a tray. On it was a red and white plastic straw the length of my little finger and a business card, used to gingerly formulate the white powder into neat little lines.
I only heard about cocaine after migrating from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles after high school in ’73. Here’s how much I knew: once in L.A., at a record store I bought a chintzy piece of silver jewelry I considered unique and wore it proudly for a couple of blissfully ignorant weeks before being informed the cute little spoon dangling from my neck was coke paraphernalia.
The revelation promptly demystified both the wry smile and wink a Brother had given me one day on the street after glimpsing my neck, and a guy’s coy utterance while on the city bus headed to class: “Dude–where’s the party? Shit, I know YOU know….”
By that Saturday afternoon at Unc’s, I’d come to associate coke with a certain cool, as in jazz musicians and poets. I didn’t know how to use it, but observing what the slim guy did—he took the straw, put it to one of his nostrils, leaned down over the album cover he held and snorted up a line—I knew it couldn’t be difficult.
Good thing I’d been watching, though, because after he took a hit, he looked at me. “Would you like a hit, my friend?”
“Ah, my man, that sounds groovy.” I actually said that. My corny idea of some sort of mature hipness. He handed me the album—-Todd Rungren’s Something/Anything—-which I held with my right hand, as my left used the business card to get some of the powder lined up.
That achieved, I put down the card on the album cover, picked up the straw and, bringing it to my left nostril, shakily leaned in to snort my christening line of cocaine.
However, instead of inhaling, in the nano-second that the straw descended onto the drug, I EXHALED, blowing power everywhere.
The room stopped. Only thing breaking the horrific, deafening silence was music playing on the stereo, which, if it could, I’m sure would have stopped, too.
In my defense—-interesting; decades later I’m still defending this—there wasn’t THAT damn much on the album cover to begin with. But now there was practically nothing.
Piero looked mortified.
“Oh my god,” exclaimed a blonde school teacher-looking chick. The urgency and lilt of her words got the attention of dear Uncle, emerging from the kitchen. “What…what happened?”
He took a look at the album cover, now on the coffee table, then at his guests on the sectional. His eyes followed their gaze, which was on me. Without saying a word he headed out of the living room. But in a second, from a bedroom perhaps, he called out: “PIERO!”
P sprang from his chair and scurried in the direction of the voice. The rest of us sat saying nothing, desperately seeking solace in the music…until we heard a clearly angry Uncle rev up from in the back somewhere. To my ears, it sounded like: Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, the only English being “BIG MOTHERFUCKIN’NOSTRILS,” and then Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian, “FUCKING WIND BLOWER NOSE,” Italian, Italian, Italian….
I didn’t know what was being said, only that it was enough to embarrass, on my behalf, the people on the sectional, who either turned their eyes down to the floor or ANY where not to look at me. Finally, the blonde sympathetically offered, “Are…are you going to go?”
“I’ll wait for Piero.” I replied timidly.
Diplomatically, The Thin Man spoke up. “Son, you’re not hearing what we’re hearing,” referencing the Italian. “You probably want to leave. NOW.”
I stood, meekly walked to the door, opened it, went through it and tenderly pulled it to behind me. On the sidewalk, I headed south. Seeping through the building’s stucco structure I could hear muffled strains of Uncle’s rage. I picked up my gait.
Near the end of the block, I shook off what little pride I had left and progressed to a bell bottom-clad, fright-fueled trot, at which point the left heel on my cheap black platform boot broke. I stopped to pick it up and continued running, my left foot tip-toeing on the platform to compensate for the lost heel.
Reaching the corner, I made a left toward La Brea Avenue. Once out of sight of Uncle’s crib, I gunned it. An elderly woman tending her picket fenced garden paused to observe my form. Looked as if she didn’t know whether to laugh or call law enforcement.
I took anxious refuge in a florist shop–lest Uncle should come looking for me–where I pretended to shop for flowers while waiting for a bus headed in the direction of the ‘hood.
After that episode I would encounter cocaine again in my life. I figured out the technique of getting the powder from a surface into my nose. However, the drug never really did anything for me except make me nervous and talk fast. How the hell was I to know that is the desired effect?
Later that evening I sheepishly phoned Piero to apologize for his having to bear the weight of my sin. He insisted it wasn’t a big deal. Said his uncle told him he knew my “Negro nostrils” would be a problem, one way or another, the minute I bought them through the door.
“Really, Piero? You know, just fuck your uncle, man.” Laughter.
Coke is hard on dignity and cheap shoes.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]