Sunday, May 27, 2012

The White Port Chronicles Part I

New Year’s Eve 1996, I kicked Pyle down a flight of stairs. It was a clean ride: he soared from top to bottom, without touching one step. When he hit bottom, someone gasped. He was crumpled, maybe dead. It was not yet midnight. About fifteen of our friends had driven two hours to Jennifer's college house in Bloomsburg. We had already suffered a few explosive dramas.

‘96 was the Year of King’s White Port. Karen, my girlfriend, was seventeen. I was nineteen. My friends were all nineteen. Life was simple. We drank beer, out of cans. We slugged vodka from red plastic cups. We smoked water bongs. It was good because we were young. No one ever had a hangover. No one ever cried. Then we discovered White Port.

Matt Prince, actually, discovered White Port, in the summer of 1996--the summer after my first year at college. I was living at my dad’s house, working a summer job. I spent most of my free time in the garage, detached from the house. My dad had never used the garage, so my friends and I converted it into a hangout. We scoured the floors with bleach. We scrubbed the dirty windows. For privacy, we nailed thick wood planks to the windows. Somehow, we acquired a hideous golden sofa, a refrigerator. For decor, we hung a JAWS poster on the wall. There was that girl, swimming carelessly along. And there was JAWS, emerging from the depths, sixteen times her size. How could she be so unconcerned, so oblivious, so about-to-be ambushed by her own proximate terrors?

The garage was our hang-out. Every night, people came. It was a hot, dirty place. There was a large plastic bag full of hundreds of beer cans. The tables were littered with empty bottles, cigarette butts floating in the last sip. The only rug, an old Persian, was a riot of burn holes.

One night, Prince came striding in with a gallon jug swinging on his finger. His expression bore the same fearless snarl that later served him so well as the world-famous wrestler, The Wifebeater. A few years later, Prince would be beaten with metal folding chairs. He would be punched with boxing gloves covered with tacks. He would been thrown from the ring onto a burning table. Today, his back is covered with welts and scars. His hulking, angular, shoulders ache from the damage of being thrown through so many plate glass windows. Yet, in the days of the White Port, Prince’s skin was smooth, his shoulders rounded. He was a gentle bull.

"What is that?" someone had asked him that first night.

"King's White Port," he said, triumphantly drunk.

"Isn't that cooking wine?" someone asked.

In response, Prince simply poured the White Port straight from the jug down his throat.

The garage was bordered on the one side by a dense tangle of trees. On the other side, a grassy yard. One hour later, Prince vomited in the yard. Then he fell to the grass, his arms raised in the air, fighting oblivion for one final moment.

Meanwhile, Brad Kramer and Charlie Stewart shadowboxed above his body. Brad is extraordinarily tall. At college, he had grown his curly hair out in an Afro. The hair and the height made him a target at college parties. Rowdy students challenged him to fights. He developed a mean left hook. Charlie, however, imagined himself a vampire kung-fu artist. He was not so tall as Brad, so he compensated with guile. He held his right arm out into the air. Brad watched as the arm moved slowly toward his head. Charlie maneuvered his right arm into Brad’s stomach. Brad put his hands down to block the blow. But it was too late: Charlie had slapped him in the face with his left hand and quickly bit his shoulder. Brad stood back and felt the teeth marks through his t-shirt. He bided his time. He would get Charlie later. It was an endless battle with no true winner.

No one was safe from these games. No one, but Prince. You couldn’t play with Prince because he could accidentally hurt you in a serious way. Instead, he just let you hit him freely. That night, before he had succumbed to his fate in the grass, I had smashed twenty-four beer cans on top of his head.

"More," he said after each can.

Friends cheered. Finally, Prince stood up and walked to the garage door. He threw the door open with a violent jerk and rushed out onto the grass. He vomited, repeatedly. The vomit was pure liquid; it smelled sweet, like the White Port.

"It's dangerous to leave him here," someone said.

"That White Port is bad," Charlie said.

"Won’t he die?" someone asked.

Nobody answered. Slats of light poured through the cracks in the boarded windows. The light fell on the grass, on Prince. Fireflies rose like electric vapors from his body. The White Port had made Prince glow.

We left him in the grass.

Back in the garage, the usual crowd continued the night's celebration.

Foley was there, in the corner, drinking a can of soda. He didn’t drink alcohol back then. Instead, he brooded. He wore long flannel shirts and blue jeans with holes in the knees. He rarely spoke. He paced around worrying about his girlfriend, Jennifer. She was young and blond and beautifully energetic. She smiled hopefully and touched you when she spoke to you. Henry was somewhat jealous. He was still writing his first songs back then. "Sunny Day." "Moony Night." They were all about Jennifer. He wrote the songs in his head while he watched his friends.

His friends? Chris Cogan was drinking a red plastic cup full of vodka and cranberry. His lips were stained red. His blond hair fell forward over his eyes. This was before he had shaved his head to ward off the danger of bad haircuts. It was the constant theme in his life: bad haircuts. He grew his hair out just to the point when it started to look good and natural, then in a sudden sadomasochistic urge, he rushed to the same barber and got the exact same bad haircut. Just awful. Cogan had no luck.

Cogan & Genevieve

Cogan was sitting next to the half emptied bottle of White Port.

"Try it," someone said.

Cogan poured the White Port into his red plastic cup and sipped from the top slowly.

"It’s sweet," he said. He took another sip. "Not bad."

He lit a cigarette and sat down on the couch. He drank more. Then he finished the glass. He held the bottle of White Port in his hand and studied the label.

"What the hell," he said. He poured more.

The White Port was in his stomach and then is it was in his head. Merely a few weeks later, under the influence of White Port, he would smash his car into Tom Wynn's fence. But just now he wanted to smash something in the garage. He looked at me. I was wearing blue jeans and a grey long sleeve shirt. My hair was long. I brushed it back from my forehead with my hand. I was thin but had not yet acquired my habit of abstinence. I still ate ice cream in the morning. I was drinking a can of beer and reading from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.

I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed.

I stopped reading. Looking up, I noticed Cogan was watching me scornfully. He looked at me and then he looked at the vase of flowers on the table.

Then I heard the BOOM.

It was loud and clear and everyone stopped talking. We heard it again. BOOM.

It sounded like a hammer hitting wood.

"Holy shit!" Cogan cried.

He was pointing at the boarded window. The wood planks were cracking in places. The sound was hollow, painful. The boards were breaking up now and a moaning followed the hollow sound. Then the middle board shattered in half. Either side hung lopsided, dangling from the spot where the boards had been nailed to the wall. There was silence then a blow to the top board. The blow uprooted the board from the nails and sent it crashing to the ground. Then Prince was looking into the garage through the space where the top board had been. There was a large welt on his forehead and spots of blood where splinters had jabbed into his face. He stood there for a frozen moment. No one moved. Then he disappeared and we heard a soft thud as his body hit the ground on the other side of the garage.

I went to the window and looked below. Prince was there, writhing in the grass, as an epileptic does during a seizure. I was frightened. We ran outside.

It took three of us to roll him on his back. Then we saw the blood on his face, the strange smile, the vomit on his clothes. Karen rushed into the house for rubbing alcohol and tweezers. Charlie started laughing at Prince. It was his drunken laugh, a loud and distinct cackle. It came from the same place as his opera voice: deep down in his stomach. It needed liquor to truly set it free.

When I write about drugs and alcohol, I do so only to express my experience. I realize that, searching my name, a potential employer might come across this blog and...what? I'm not sure. When I write about my friends, about Karen, I try to write with the compassion and love I feel in my heart: the compassion and love inspired by our shared experiences. A lot of my friends have been addicted to various substances. I have written before about my own experience, how I feel that my early adventures possibly led to my later health struggles. Of course, I do not advocate substance abuse. What I do advocate, however, is recovery, friendship. Most of my friends have experienced some form of rehab or another. With the help of my father, we have staged various successful interventions. Through it all, the same group of guys have remained steadfast friends: 18 years and counting. Through it all, too, The Year of King's White Port seems to stand out as a true season of horror.

It was a mythical drink—one you’d here about, like Mad Dog 20/20, Cisco, or absinthe. These drinks didn’t just get you drunk. Cisco, I had heard, was LSD. Mad Dog 20/20, I knew from experience, was an amphetamine. And King’s White Port, cheap, awful, and effective, was crack.

By New Year’s ‘96, most of us had at least tried the White Port.

There was the night, in late July, when a few friends mixed the White Port with dog Valium. (Names left out here). That night ended with one friend stripping naked and throwing on another friend’s mother’s lingerie; the two then wrestled in a small room jammed with family heirlooms and antiques.

There was Thanksgiving—the night before Thanksgiving. Prince had been working at a ham shop. For the holiday, they sent him home with a free ham. He brought the ham to my house—the ham and two bottles of White Port. There was 17 people and two bottles of White Port. Two bottles of White Port is enough for 17 people. I will not say what happened to the ham.

Then there was New Years. I kicked Pyle down an entire flight of steps. He rushed out into an ice storm. Prince followed. They hopped in Pyle’s car and drove away. Our last image was Pyle’s car zooming away, a beer-ball frozen to the trunk. Only later did we learn that Pyle was questioned by the cops at the local Sheetz. Only later did we learn, shockingly, that the cops let him go.

He drove all the way to my Dad’s house in Gwynedd. He made it home, alive, and then, at the last turn, he crashed into a tree. A week later, the ice had melted and the beer-ball had toppled to the ground. The car remained, like a relic. By then, Pyle had gone back to Brown for the Spring semester. Prince and I polished off the beer-ball. The car stayed in the grass for a month.

New Year’s ‘96 was also the night of Ted: Ted, the pot-bellied fiftysomething Vietnam vet; Ted the recovering alcoholic; Ted, fresh of a successful semester at Bloomsburg. I had befriended Ted during my summer session. He had come to Bloomsburg on the G.I. Bill. That fall, I had introduced him to Karen. Karen and I visited him, again, in his dorm room New Year’s Eve. His walls were covered, from floor to ceiling, with torn-out pictures from Hustler.

"I’m lonely," he said.

"I’m sorry," I said.

"What are you doing tonight?"

"There’s a party."

"I’m lonely."

I invited him. I warned him, too.

When I returned to Bloomsburg for the spring semester, he was conspicuously absent from the scene. Reports suggested he had left the New Year’s party and passed out in a gutter. Ted confirmed the latter when he returned to Bloomsburg late that March. The weather that day was unseasonably warm. A light rain shower had commenced around ten in the morning. At three, I left my British Literature class at the Bakeless Center for the Humanities and walked across the west lawn and then the macadam parking lot under a slight drizzle, to the Harvey A. Andruss Library. Ted was standing there at the entrance. He look ravaged.

"You ruined my life," he accused.

Apparently, Ted had spent the night in an actual gutter. As one might assume, it was the sort of event that complicated things. He had contracted pneumonia. He was too sick to return for the spring semester. He had dropped out of school.

"Your friends gave me that hideous drink!"

He was talking about the White Port.

"Ted," I said. "You’re an adult."

"You ignored me!" he cried.


You spent the whole night talking to your fucking fiancé!

It was the first time anyone had referred to Karen as anything other than my girlfriend. She was not my fiancé. She had not graduated high school. I was finishing my freshman year at Bloomsburg. I had not yet lived in Italy and learned to cook. She had not yet lived in Chile and learned to speak Spanish fluently. We were merely beginning.

I hope to continue this story soon...