by Barry Michael Cooper
On a cab ride to Harlem last May I thought I was having an authentic angel dust flashback as I passed 123rd and Lenox Avenue.
Looking down the vista of renovated million dollar brownstones and condos, I remembered something Marshall McLuhan once said: “We look at the present through a rear view mirror: we march backwards into the future.”
The past begins to reboot as a muffled procession of memories. On a cool August night in 1977, I was being questioned by a police officer regarding the attempted robbery of the Eighth Street Playhouse. Trying to pull focus through dilated pupils I attempted to describe the one guy I did remember seeing through the peephole of the theater’s cash office door — a midget in his twenties sporting a Caesar cut, a brown leather attache’ at his feet and a sawed off shotgun pointed at the lock. As the cop’s bad breath began to ignite my eyebrows, it was at that moment that I had an epiphany: I promised myself that I would never smoke another $3 — “Trey Bag” — of angel dust again.
However, that particular epiphany button was stuck on repeat. I said the same thing a few weeks earlier on July 13th, the evening of the infamous NYC Blackout. Before Esplanade Gardens — a honeycomb of middle-class high rise co-ops in Harlem — neighborhood dimmed, I was preparing to jump from the terrace of my girlfriend Mona’s apartment.
My girlfriend Mona’s apartment on the 23rd floor.
Mona and I had smoked the mint-scented contents of horror contained in a manila coin envelope and embossed with the image of a grinning red devil. We rolled with hysteria as her younger sister Sophie passed out from the ferocious high. “That bitch is dead!,” we screamed.
I then began crying and apologizing to Mona for laughing at the “dead” Sophie (who revived and stumbled off to her room) before going out on her terrace and hoisting one foot over the railing. Before somersaulting into the rippling cobalt-blue waters of the courtyard pool, Mona quickly grabbed my hand and said, “Nah, that’s too fast. Let’s take the elevator.” When Mona opened her apartment door, the hallway went black.
That would not be my last puff of the “zoo-bang”. I was quite partial to the allure of the peppermint scented flakes of parsley laced with animal tranquilizer. At 18, I was jobless, clueless, and angry. I had issues:
1. My family was unraveling.
2. I was two months home from my disastrous freshman semester at North Carolina Central University after failing all 14 credits while dropping tabs of “Purple Haze” in my Econ 101 class.
3. I didn’t know how to do The Freak dance at the Hip Hop parties at Harlem’s Smalls Paradise and the Grand Ballroom in the Hotel Diplomat.
4. I heard rumors while I was at university, that Mona let some 14-year old B.A.B (Bum Ass Bum) hit it doggy-style in the fire exit in her building. When confronted, she smiled strangely and said the dude raped her.
Those were the flimsy excuses — of a misguided eighteen-year-old — for smoking angel dust.
With Ephesus Church on its southeastern corner, the strip of 123rd Street between Seventh and Lenox resembled an open-air cathedral of narcotics. I became a member of a multi-racial congregation of the bewitched who made their pilgrimage there.
We were enchanted by the brain-spinning effects of PCP. In the middle of the street the young barkers screamed, “Dust! Dust! Make ya head bust!,” as they served the drive-through customers curbside or redirected pedestrians to a brownstone basement apartment to score dust or the ‘Chunky Doo Doo Black’ ganja. At the ‘whooop-whooop’ of the NYPD cruisers, the barkers would alert the other dealers and then seemingly diffuse like smoke: “Ness! Raaaaaaaise Up!”
Known by grotesque names like “Rev. Ike,” “Improve,” “Busy Bee,” and “Red Devil,” angel dust was a profane chrism that fractured already-fissured souls. The evening news was rife with nightly accounts of young boys and girls decapitating grandparents, pirouetting from rooftops, snapping handcuff locks and beating down cops, until straight-jacketed with G-shots of Thorazine which literally fried their brains in the psych wards of Bellevue Hospital on Welfare Island.
Sometimes, the “zooty” was my pharm-fueled metronome as I danced dementedly through a gauzy awareness in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Diplomat.
The legendary DJ Hollywood spun MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” and chanted hypnotically to the spellbound crowds that packed the dance floor.
Being the youngest and most insecure manager in the Cinema 5 theater chain, I was hoping angel dust was the glue for my disconnected reality. It wasn’t. I routinely bungled my box office cash count. I failed to comprehend that the usher and the camera operator in the projection booth who got high with me had set this robbery in motion.
By GOD’s Grace, I was too frightened to open the door to the cash office of the Eighth Street Playhouse. Despite the dwarf banging on the door and yelling for me to come out and call an ambulance for his fictional “sick girlfriend”, the sawed-off shotgun in his hand was not a hallucination. After the last screening of Dario Argento’s horror classic, Suspiria, I was truly spooked out of my wits on that cool August night in 1977 when the cop asked me to describe the perpetrators.
As if on cue, the dwarf walked out of the 8th Street Playhouse — the amputated Mossberg neatly tucked away in his leather attaché — with the conspiring usher and two other guys. Flashing an ominous smile at me, he tapped the cop on the shoulder and said, “I think I saw them running towards Sixth Avenue.”
Back to the McLuhan payoff, a.k.a. The Here and Wow. Almost 30 years drug free, and in that yellow cab gliding past that corner of 123rd and Lenox, I observed a sea of black, white, and Asian faces happily leaving their luxe town homes. As for the flashback: a chilly, 2009 May rain drenched all five boroughs that night, and pushed all of the Red Devils, Rev. Ikes, Improves and the other ghosts of a trey bag-past into a wet gutter marked back in the day.