Why Does Everything Remind Me of Taking Cocaine?
Playing a game of chess against my son, I was transported back 20 years, to a house where I'd go to score cocaine and sometimes smoke crack.
Photo by Al Overdrive
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE's website thought it would be amusing to employ a 47-year-old who can genuinely remember rock festivals before NOFX and Bowling For Soup were added to the bill.
In case you were wondering, or simply too lazy to use Urban Dictionary, "menk" is slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental.
MENK 69: Inna Me Eyes There Is Red Like Blood
And then, while pricing some energy saving light bulbs, a non-stick saucepan, and a new mop in Home And Bargain store, chance deals me a new hand. Across the aisle is a face I haven't seen for a while—it belongs to an old procurer acquaintance, Jimmy the Saint. He's wearing slightly more fashionable clothes than he used to, and he's facing a huge display of floor polish. He is doing what appears to be math under his breath, so I can tell he still has the gold tooth. I wonder if he still drives the same embellished Honda Civic?
There was a time when he was more than an acquaintance, really. My social circle constricted so much a few years back that I could count the friends I saw in real life regularly on the fingers on my left hand—and during that period, Jimmy was the thumb on the right hand. There he was, always near the top of recents, always near the top of messages, never more than an hour or two away by embellished Honda Civic. It was always a pleasure to see him—and not just on levels that revolved around my need for his product.
However, the mere sight of him sets off a chemical reaction in my brain—my heart rate increases, my mouth starts watering, and my head floods with an ungainly amount of dopamine. I involuntarily make a loud sniffing noise and it makes him look up.
I don't like cocaine. Unlike any other drug, I can't pretend that I can see anything positive about it. I'm glad I'm done with it. But I have to hand it this: It's incredible how successfully it attaches itself to your subconscious. There are vicious cocaine triggers lying dormant in my brain in places where I'm pretty sure alcohol will never plague me again.
A year or so ago I was in Cafe Z, a family-friendly Turkish restaurant in Hackney, and after our lunch was over, Maria asked if we could all play a game of chess—her and Little John versus me. As soon as we set the board up I could tell something was amiss. My heart started racing before I even moved my first pawn. The normal fug of my everyday thought process suddenly fell away, like an acid wash had been drizzled over my brain. I suddenly felt about 15 years younger. Whereas I'd been tired and barely in the room previously, I was now completely in the moment. I started seeing the game in potential moves, up to eight turns into the future. The length of time they were taking over their turn was starting to do my head in, and when John picked up a piece and put it down clumsily on the wrong square I began to grind my teeth in frustration. After all, I think to myself, I'm about to smash this game of chess! HA HA HA! And then, Where did that come from? Why am I thinking like this? I'm playing chess against a five-year-old.
As the game progressed… far too slowly for my liking… I was obviously getting hotter and hotter, so I took my jacket off but could still feel a thin rivulet of sweat snaking down my back under my T-shirt. My heart was pounding like a washing machine reaching the conclusion of its spin cycle. The normal instinct to play against my son in a way that was neither too hard nor too easy—so he had a chance to win and wouldn't have to undergo the embarrassment of being hammered into defeat, but would still learn from the experience—was suddenly hard to locate. In fact, the struggle not to finish him off in three moves before upending the board violently and running around the restaurant with my T-shirt pulled up and over my face like a famous soccer player was tantamount to the torment endured by Gollum when handling the one true ring en route to the Crack of Doom. After the painfully long game ended in a stalemate, I went to the men's bathroom and locked myself inside a cubicle with shaking hands. It was only after my breathing subsided and returned to normal that I realized what had happened.
The last time I played chess was about 20 years ago in a house in east London, where I used to go to score cocaine and sometimes smoke crack. Because I got into the habit of going to the house quite a lot I also got into the habit of playing a lot of chess. A lot of the people who hung out there had picked up a love for the game while serving prison sentences. Chess, cocaine, pornography, and music by Underworld were all that happened in the house. When I finally stopped going around there, I never lifted another pawn in anger.
It's amazing how, once you're in lockstep with cocaine, it becomes so consuming that nearly everything else gets pushed out of sight. On the ground floor of the house was a communal front room where everyone congregated after they were thrown out of the pub. There was a kitchen, a bathroom, and a toilet. There was also a second room. Someone had lived in it previously but he couldn't really cope with what was going on there—free rent or not—and moved out. And it ended up being a room where everything was thrown when it was broken or had outlived its usefulness. Newspapers, furniture, TVs, white goods. After a while, it was impossible to get into the room; you just had to shoulder barge the door, throw your detritus inside and then let it slam again. One day, the contents of the room got too much for the structural integrity of the space and a stud wall burst, creating a huge landslide of broken toasters, fucked up chairs, and pornographic magazines which half blocked the hallway. No one cleaned it up, though. You simply had to climb over it in order to get to the bathroom when you wanted a break from the never-ending rails of chang and the incredibly long and tense games of chess soundtracked by the song "Moaner."
The involuntary rush I get from seeing Jimmy the Saint is similar in many respects, but is quickly and mercilessly converted to anxiety. I consider trying to turn round silently in order to walk straight out of the shop but my loud sniff has given me away. There is a momentary lag before recognition, but he steps over to where I am, shakes my hand and says: "How's it going, John? Still keeping your nose clean?" Without waiting for a reply he says: "I'm just about to sand the floorboards in my front room, and I need to make sure I get the right polish."
I look at the tin he has in his hands and try and raise one eyebrow while giving my head a micro-shake.
"No?" he asks.
I say that, personally, I'd go for a light varnish sealant—two coats, of course; don't skimp on the brushes! Natural or synthetic… it's a minefield!—and a hard-wearing lacquer top coat. Or if I was feeling particularly brave, maybe even a tin of yacht varnish to really bring out the character of the grain, while adding an outrageous finish. He nods thoughtfully, before saying: "I see you've smartened your look up. Are you still writing about that shit music that no one likes? Blank metal?"
"It’s called black metal, Jimmy, and no, not really. Extreme metal—generally speaking—has lost a lot of the modernist, innovative verve it had about a decade ago, apart from certain outlier groups like Jute Gyte, The Body and Gnaw Their Tongues, but it's debatable to what extent these bands can even be described as heavy metal. In fact…"
He winces and holds up a hand to silence me: "How long has it been since I last saw you? Three years… and you're already giving me a migraine, fam."
Then he asks the million dollar question: "How are you doing?"
And, as always, through a rough mix of what might be mild autism, a lifelong failure or refusal to fully understand the idea of unspoken social contracts, and plain, old-fashioned rudeness, I answer his question literally and at some length.
An old lady trundles past us down the aisle as I start telling him about my road accident last November, and by the time I'm wrapping up she's done a complete circuit of the store and passes us again.
She picks up a large no-frills brand, multi-pack of low wattage lightbulbs from the shelf. Jimmy winces.
I tut: "False economy."
He concurs: "Innit."
He looks me dead on for a second and says: "I have something for what ails you."
He reaches into his pocket and presses something into my palm.
I immediately start shaking my head and protesting, but he cuts through me quickly: "It's not what you think it is."
His voice drops in volume: "Look, I've been through some lifestyle changes myself. I work in a different field now. I have a different client base. What I do is more nine to five. I need to be alert during meetings, but I can't be achieving that alertness the way I used to and I don’t like the taste of coffee.
"This is what I use. It's… Look, just google it."
He picks up a carton of shellac sanding sealant and two tins of clear satin Ronseal yacht varnish. I nod approvingly.
He waves one of the tins of Ronseal in my face: "In the States they call it Pro-Vigil. It does what it says on the tin." And then he's gone.
Outside of the store, I unclench my fist. In my palm is a white plastic and silver foil prescription medicine strip. There's nothing in it—all of the five pills it used to contain have been pressed out.
There is writing on the foil. Modafinil 200mg, it says.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow John Doran on Twitter.
This column was the inspiration for John Doran's acclaimed memoir Jolly Lad about the recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. A new expanded edition has just been published by Strange Attractor Press.
You can read all the previous editions of John's Menk column here.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.