Or, perhaps, Fate is for losers.
Then again, maybe Fate just keeps on happening.
If not, then surely, Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.1
Though if you prefer, and most of us (I trust) do, you could simply conclude, with the great American Zen master Branch Rickey, that Luck is the residue of design.
Or as the bitter metaphysician Humphrey Bogart summed up the inescapable and capricious nature of coincidence and serendipity that had brought him once again face to face with Ilsa Lund: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
The father-mother had gone on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I had the apartment to myself. I also had an ounce of crystal meth. It was party time. People came over, brought reefer, booze, ’shrooms with them. One guy even brought a KLH 112 portable stereo in a suitcase so we could plug in, spin platters, dance till dawn.
Instead of dancing, I smoked reefer, chugged booze, snorted endless lines of crank… all night long.
Rosy-fingered dawn slapped me silly. The parental pad looked like a post-party cliché, debris everywhere: empty bottles, half-empty bottles, knocked-over bottles, butts, roaches, cups (some containing a muddy, primordial ooze). Plus there were a couple of kids totally conked out, one on the floor, one on the long, low-riding orange corduroy couch over by the big bay window.
I was burrowed into my favorite chair experiencing g-forces so intense I felt like I might get pushed through the springs, straight into hell. I was so wired I was emitting the kind of crackling noises usually associated with either downed power lines or perambulating giant crab monsters (see Attack of the Crab Monsters).3
I needed to get to a peaceful place, an Isla de Mujeres4 of the mind. But there was no escaping the scary, fucked-up, Warsaw Ghetto space I was in save riding it out, sleeping it off. My situation brought to mind Farewell, My Lovely the book. Marlowe’s been sapped and drugged. He wakes up in a strange place, looks at himself in the mirror, doesn’t like what he sees: I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
My version of a coat, hat, and gun — a few more lines of meth, a few more hits of reefer.
It took all my powers of concentration to set things up. I rescued a roach from the floor by my feet, laid down a couple of zig-zaggy lines of crank. I pulled out a single, rolled it up as best I could, snorted the lines al gusto, followed them up with a few good tokes on the roach.
Afterward I felt like I weighed a billion pounds yet somehow managed to stand. As soon as I was upright, the world began spinning, faster and faster. Objects dissolved into colors, got brighter and brighter, the room mimicking the entropic universe, expanding outwards, receding into the distance, until all that was left was a dark abyss. It felt like life as I knew it was about to fade to black.
And then it was like I didn’t exist.
When I came to, I found myself jammed in a space the width of a dumbwaiter between the sink and the stove, in a position only the dead or the double-jointed can achieve. The small sliver of sky I could see out the kitchen window was lit by a spectacular pollution sunset.
Though I knew who I was, had a good guess where I was, I had no idea what day it was. The only thing I was certain of—I had lost at least twelve hours.
The crackling of the fluorescent fixture, which had probably been on since the night before, whenever that was, was deafening, as was that conga player beating out a crazy supercharged rhythm somewhere. It took me who knows how long to realize the conga was my heart (Is that cannon fire or is my heart pounding?)5, the rhythm a runaway case of superventricular tachycardia.
While comatose I seemed to have developed a superpower — hallucinatory, time-lapse vision. Focusing on my left hand, I watched as my phalanges did a lifetime worth of rheumatoid arthritic disarticulation in a matter of seconds, at the end of which I possessed not a hand but a claw. I swiveled, looked at the other hand: it did the same.
I ferociously resisted acknowledging the obvious — I had snorted, smoked, swallowed way too much dope, had almost died, had somehow clawed my way back.
As I sat there trying to gather the strength to move a toe, a foot, perhaps even a leg, I imagined an episode of Dragnet NYC in which I was the punch line:
EXT. CITY — NIGHT
The street bustles with traffic, PEDESTRIANS.
A towering apartment complex all lit up.
INT. HALLWAY — SAME
BEN and SADIE, 60s, returning from a trip — happy, almost playful.
As Ben slips the key into the lock, Sadie’s mood suddenly changes, she becomes wary, perhaps even scared.
What’s that smell, Ben?
He turns the lock, opens the door.
INT. APARTMENT — CONTINUOUS
LIGHT from the hallway cuts a bright triangle in the dark apartment.
Ben and Sadie enter. Their faces contort.
Ben strides into the kitchen, turns on a light.
A decomposing body wedged between stove and sink.
A bloodcurdling SCREAM.
INT. FOYER — SOME TIME LATER
SGT. JOE FRIDAY, rage and empathy battling it out on his near affectless face, stands before Ben and Sadie, both mute, mournful, as morgue attendants wheel out a body bag.
I guess this is what they mean
when they say give me liberty
or give me meth.
I had dodged a bullet. I felt chastened, horrified. I swore I’d never take drugs again, thanked the universe for letting me survive, celebrated my good fortune. And then I whiffed of the incense of forgetfulness,7 got up, weaved and wobbled back to the living room. The conked-out kids were gone. I collapsed back into my favorite chair, looked down, saw the discarded single unfurled on the floor, half a joint next to it. All I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun… I picked the roach up, flicked my bic, toked hard, though it would be a while before I could put on my coat and walk out of that room.
1 Edgar G. Ulmer’s sixty-eight-minute epic, poverty-row noir Detour is a wackball road movie that chronicles the descent into hell of Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a low-rent piano player. He starts out with the best of intentions—to hitch out to LA and join his gal pal, out there chasing a star. But every step he takes brings him closer to his true destination, the intersection of Tragic and Inevitable. A guy named Haskell picks Al up, turns the wheel over to him, tells him to drive. As soon as Al does so, Haskell has a syncope. Al rushes to help but when he opens the passenger side door, Haskell tumbles out, hits his head on a rock, and dies. Convinced the police will never believe it was an accident, Al does the only logical thing: he steals Haskell’s car and identity and continues driving west. He gives a femme fatale (Ann Savage) a lift and intros himself as Haskell — another bad choice. It turns out this dame was nearly raped by the real Haskell, knows he’s not, blackmails him. At this point Al is all in. He has no choice but to keep on keeping on with her by his side, all the way to LA. They rent a pad, where they live together as Ma and Pa Haskell until they can sell the car and split the proceeds. They drink and they fight. One night, threatening to call the cops, she storms off, phone in hand, locks herself in the bedroom, and somehow wraps the telephone cord round her neck before passing out. Al, on the wrong side of the door, pulls on the trailing cord, trying to yank it from the wall in the next room but only managing to strangle her. Another accidental death. Another unbelievable story. Al now breaks into a full run. He stops at a roadside diner long enough to down a cup of joe before he steps outside and sticks out his thumb. He’s picked up by the cops, who give him a lift to the cross-bar hotel. And so indeed, Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.
2 At 13th-grade sleep-away camp My Friend the Miltonist and My Friend the Abogado shared their Johnson City pad with a guy whom they nicknamed the Mole. This sketchy dude, the scion to a chips fortune, was a music maven of the highest order. The Mole knew that ten-year-old Denardo Coleman played drums for his pops Ornette long before any of the rest of us had ever heard of the father of free jazz, or Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Charlie Haden, and had yet heard crazy avant-garde shit like New York Eye and Ear Control. The Mole spun his vinyl on his KLH 11, the first fully transistorized stereo system, which featured a Garrard turntable, a Stanton stylus, a built-in amp, and a pair of speakers which folded neatly into a “suitcase” for easy transportation and was by far the coolest thing any of us had ever seen.
3 A gang of Axis and Ally eggheads land on a nuked-out atoll in El Pacifico trying to discover the fate of the last gang of eggheads sent there, all of whom have disappeared without a trace. The group leader is Dr. Weigand, a reformed Nazi genius, the love interest a sexpot ichthyologist who seems way more comfortable modeling swimsuits than handling test tubes. One by one the lab rats disappear, and later their voices, now spooky and robotic, amplified as if through a tinny, echoey horn, are heard urging the others to join them. Dr. Weigand figures out that the nuke caused a mutation among the land crab population, which resulted in the birth of a Crab Monster that swallows the brains of its victims whole and incorporates each one into its collective consciousness. It can then ventriloquize any of the many voices at its disposal in order to help pick off its next victim. It is also an accomplished ammunition technician, using dynamite to slowly blow off chunks of the island, making it more difficult for any survivors to run and hide. Fortunately the crackling noise it emits as it crabs its way toward its victims serves as an alarm, though too late for some. When the last three people standing — sexy lady, her fellow-scientist squeeze, and the man of action — are huddled on the last remaining bit of rock, Icthy-Babe wonders aloud how the fuck this could be happening. Her beau explains: Preservation of the species—once they were men, now they are land crabs.
4 Before Cancun became a theme park for spring break, My Friend the Film Critic, My Friend His Old Lady, and I found ourselves at the very tip of Quintana Roo boarding a ferry for Isla de Mujeres, which, we had been told, was a muy cool place that had gotten its name because it’s where pirates stashed their womenfolk when they roamed the Caribbean for ships to loot and scuttle. It consisted at the time of a single main drag with an open air restaurant that served tortuga soup from atop a market that was replenished by ferry a couple of times a week. There was a store where you could buy frozen chocolate-covered bananas and seis-doce insect repellent, which was an absolute necessity since the only place for young gringos to crash on the serene turquoise-blue Caribbean beach was a place called Las Hamacas: for ten pesos a night you got to hang the rainbow-colored, super-comfortable hammock that you’d hondelled in the Merida mercado and sleep under the stars, of which there were plenty, oftentimes obscured by massive clouds of ravenous moscas. The place was a fucking paradise.
5 Ilse Lund to Rick as the Nazis are about to enter Paris during the backstory bit in Casablanca.
6 The TV series Dragnet, produced by Jack Webb, who also starred as Sgt. Joe Friday, Badge 714, had two incarnations — black-and-white in the 50s, color in the 60s. Each episode, in which only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, was a true crime story featuring Webb’s patented clipped narration and flat-affect acting as he led us through the sketchy underbelly of sunny La-La Land; in the two iterations of Dragnet there were at least three episodes about dope, each a cautionary tale, each ending with the death of a kid, each one more absurdly chilling than the last. In The Big Seventeen (1952) Friday and his partner Frank Smith head to a neighborhood movie theater where a riot had broken out: a bunch of hopped-up teens got rowdy, then violent, breaking the place up. Friday is given a cardboard pillbox with a couple of joints in it, setting him off on a crusade: busting kids, grilling them, getting them to give up the name of the dealer, who turns out to be a kid so depraved he beat his connection to death in order to steal the guy’s stash of heroin, shit so powerful its distribution was certain to leave the bodies of teens strewn throughout Gidgetville. This intel forces Friday into further acts of crusading, this time to forestall a potential drug holocaust. It leads him to the first victim of this smack scourge—the perp himself, OD’d on his own medicine, an object lesson to anyone considering trying the evil weed, a sure gateway onto a literal dead end. The Prophet (1967) starts with a space cadet, half his face painted blue, soliloquizing psychedelically: My hair’s green and I’m a tree… if your body dies your mind will live on… Brown, blue, yellow, green… I can hear them. I can hear them all. But in Dragnet-world being spaced is a sin, and sinners must pay with their lives. Blue Boy buys the farm. His death (a miraculous OD on acid) so infuriates Friday that he spits out this gateway drug formulary, the purest distillation of Friday-think: Marijuana was the flame, heroin was the fuse, and acid was the bomb. In The Big High a pair of phi beta kappa suburbanites with an upscale shack in Sherman Oaks and a toddler gurgling in its playpen prison initially engage Friday in a Platonic dialogue on the pros and cons of pot; after Friday and his partner split, Mr. and Mrs. Smart Ass get high, totally fucked up, forget about the baby, who, vo den, pays with its little infant life, drowned in the bathtub, leaving space mama a mental wreck, Friday’s sidekick Gannon hurling his breakfast burrito, and Friday literally holding the bag—a lid full of weed—close up to the camera, wacky womb weeping in the background, the heartbroken cop finally crushing the deadly herb in his helpless hands. (There was of course no NYC version of Dragnet. I made that shit up.)
7 In Chapter Ten of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, Flash, Happy, and Dale separate in the Forest Kingdom in order to explore both sides of a ridge in search of Prince Barin’s interstellar stratosled. Happy and Dale are set upon by caveman-like Forest People, who cold-cock Happy and carry Dale off, delivering her to the high priest of Kalu, who suspects Flash of having stolen Kalu’s sacred black sapphire and so sentences Dale to suffer the consequences — to stand in the Incense of Forgetfulness (hence the chapter’s title). Incense sprinkled into the fire produces a chemical transformation that releases somnambulizing smoke. When Dale tokes on the vapor, it suspends her animation, effectively zombifying her. Her consecration is made complete when she places her hand upon the sacred dagger and vows fealty to Kalu. Just as she does, Flash explodes into frame, taking on the gaggle of guards protecting the shrine, a scene choreographed so that Flash’s back is turned to the Aryan heartthrob who once was Dale Arden but is now an automaton in the service of an idol. She unsheathes the sacred dagger and, illustrating just how globally effective the Incense of Forgetfulness is in blanking the cognitive neural substrates, she turns on her special friend Flash and reflexively shoves the holy shiv into his back, up to the hilt, leaving the audience stunned, in disbelief, hanging off a cliff of concern, uncertain whether the space ranger will live or die, a fear that will lurk in the folds of their prefrontal lobe until the next installment of the serial hits a theater near them.