"Who?" asked Ben.
"Just a name I've been trying to remember for a few months," I replied.
[Your screen goes wavy-flashbacky. A lower-third announces "35 YEARS AGO." There is a yellowish-greenish filter over the film to denote the ’70s.]
Scott Sussman lived three houses down on our little cul-de-sac in suburban California. He was a grown-up—probably sixteen or seventeen. I was ten, and that was a generational gap.
He was a Bad Boy. Our little Planned Übercommunity didn't offer much in the way of surprises, so Scott Sussman was someone to be in awe of, even as I feared him and his renegade pack of bad-ass friends.
I guess they were bullies by today's nomenclature, though the term really wasn't used much then. if it were used, it didn't have our current criminal subtext. There were no support groups for the victims of bullies. Kid-life in the ’70s was more like animals sharing space in the wild fields of Africa. Certain species knew to avoid other animals. There was no bitching about how the preying animals were bullies; it was just the natural order of the food chain. Deal with it or get winnowed out.
Example: one day I was riding my bike around the neighborhood. I guess I looked like a wounded gazelle because Scott Sussman and his cackle of hyenas spotted me from their car and decided to lunch upon me. Perhaps I had scraped my knee that day and they smelled the blood. Or maybe they, like dogs, bees and common street thugs, smelled the fear that rolled off smaller creatures like me all the live-long day, exuding a perfume of irresistible I'm-weak-please-fuck-with-me pheromones.
Whatever the reason, as I biked across someone's driveway, Scott Sussman revved his car, squealed towards the driveway, and slammed on the brakes, nearly hitting me, and cornering me between the garage and some impenetrable shrubs.
I whinnied like a spooked pony and tried to back my bike up. Scott Sussman revved his engine angrily, still in drive, with a foot on the brake, making the car shake and lunge like Christine getting ready to attack.
The cackle cackled, and Scott as the pack leader howled with glee.
This went on for approximately EVER, and I'm fairly certain there were tears involved. My tears of terror. Theirs of laughter.
As is often the case with memories in excess of 30 years, I cannot recall how this episode ended. I might have maneuvered my way out of the corner and peddled down a small alley, or they might have grown weary with their game and zoomed off. The idea of telling mom about the incident wouldn't have occurred to me. Even at that age, it seemed fruitless to accuse the lion of acting like a lion. "Stay away from lions, stupid," would be the only logical response to my tattling.
Scott Sussman had peed on enough trees in the neighborhood that all the smaller critters knew this was his territory, whether he was immediately present or not.
While I was mortally afraid of Scott Sussman and his pack, I was also intrigued. As a young child, I looked at people older than I to gauge what I would be like when I reached their age. My grandparents were clearly never going to enjoy my Cheap Trick records, so I prematurely grieved the loss of my own interest in rock and roll. My father neither "got" nor approved of my Rocky Horror Picture Show fascination, so I knew when I reached his age, I would disapprove as well.
I did not want to be a sixteen or seventeen year old bully, though by my logic this fate was inescapable, and so I studied Scott Sussman and his cronies’ ways to prepare myself to be the kindliest bully I could be. If I had to be a bully. Which, apparently, all teenagers were.
And so it came to pass, one fine day, that I was happening past Scott Sussman's house. The garage door was open, and he and his friends were messing around inside doing mysterious teen-things and laughing.
"Hey kid!" called Scott as I passed. I cringed, readying myself for another lion attack. But I was simultaneously and equally intrigued by what was going on.
"Yah?" I piped.
Scott stayed seated (which put me a little at ease), eyed me disparagingly, then asked in a quieter, kinder tone, "Ya wanna get high?"
Scott Sussman's pack quieted down as if the teacher had walked into the rowdy classroom. School was about to begin their quietude and stares implied.
"Sure," I said, dizzy with the fact that we were having a peer-to-peer conversation, and thrilled at the potential insight into the mysterious rites of the Alpha-Teens. School was in session!
Scott eyed me for several unendurable moments. His gaze was an inscrutable poker face, but his concentration on me was terrifying and electric. One could almost hear the gears and cogs clanking and spinning as he devised how he mentally penned the plot.
"You ever get high before?" he asked me with the solemnity and gravity of a police interview.
My answer was the standard answer extracted from kids when asked about grown-up things of which they knew nothing: "Sure. Lots of times."
He could have asked me if I'd ever killed and chopped up squirrels, hijacked a car, calculated π to the 100th decimal place, or had sex. The answer could only be: "Sure. Lots of times."
Scott Sussman's gaze penetrated through my liar's face. He allowed himself one chuckle and a half smile—more of a tiny explosive sigh and a lip twitch.
"What'd ya get high on?" he quizzed.
I should probably mention that I had no idea what the fuck Scott Sussman meant by 'high'. In my sheltered world, coke was cola, drugs were Flintstones, and weed was a garden invasion. And goofballs were stupid kids like me, trying to figure out the complexities of a big, scary world.
I rifled through possible answers to his perplexing query. What did I get high on? My bike? Climbing a tree? Getting on the roof of the house? Ooo, that might be a good answer, because it was not only high, but forbidden, and whatever was going on in Scott Sussman's garage that day was clearly something my parents would forbid!
I went with the standard catch-all answer: "You know. The usual stuff." This rejoinder was the pepper to the previous salty answer of, "Sure. Lots of times." Where one went, the other was sure to follow.
Scott assessed me again, taking his time as I agonized like a beetle stuck on a pin.
"All right. You're cool," he proclaimed to my astonishment, and held out a little paper-wrapped square.
I approached with the same caution and terror the rabbit would feel approaching the lion. Scott Sussman's eyes at once mesmerized me, and made my stomach crawl up my throat.
I took the little rectangle and quickly backed away two steps, holding his gaze.
"TRIDENT," said the wrapper in red diagonal repetition.
GUM? Wait, maybe my answers hadn't been lies! I HAD chewed gum before. "Sure. Lots of times," as the saying went. But I failed to perceive how height may have entered into this somewhat pedestrian pastime. Did gum taste different in a tree or on the roof? I must look into this some time.
Why the hushed tones from Scott Sussman, and the conspiratorial silence from his goons? Gum wasn't even forbidden! I mean, okay, maybe mom would prefer I chewed sugar-free gum, but…
"You ever done [hooba-zooba]* before?" asked Scott.
—*I can't remember what he called this gum drug, but it was complicated and, in hindsight, completely fabricated on the fly.
"Sure, lots of times," I replied a little more confidently, knowing nothing bad would come from this encounter if a stick of Trident cinnamon gum was the worst culprit on the scene.
"Cool. Take it then. Let's get high."
I unwrapped the little pink rectangle and gave it a cursory glance, checking for broken glass or some other mean lion/hyena trick. It looked unaltered.
I popped the gum in my mouth and began chewing.
Nothing was happening.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably just 30 seconds, Scott Sussman checked on the verdict. "So? Do you feel high?"
I was still lost for an answer since I didn't know the verb "to be high." What could it possible mean? Should I start levitating? Can people do that? Does gum help? What answer was expected of me? I didn't want to seem ignorant now that Scott Sussman was treating me, comparatively speaking, as a peer and even initiating me into a secret teen rite. We were halfway to becoming best friends!
Then —POW!— it hit me. I knew what high meant! I felt a rush—a little dizzy, but in a good way. Everything was clear. I could get used to this feeling, I thought.
I smiled at Scott Sussman. I had figured it all out, and the pride I felt from my cleverly deducing the state of being high got me—well, a little high.
My eureka moment: height had nothing to do with it! Oh, you're a sneaky one, Scott Sussman, and no slouch. I'm onto you though. Because there are in fact two meanings of the adjective ‘high’. You think little kids like me are just too dumb to get it? I'll show you who's dumb!
"So? You high yet?" asked Scott again with grave eyes in which I could perceive a tiny sparkle of merry mischief.
I took a deep breath and squeaked in a tiny voice — as high as my voice would go: "SURE AM!"