Confessions of a Gasoline Huffer
How It Happened, Why I Did It, What It Felt Like
Fran Handford was a retired schoolteacher who sat in a rocking chair, smoking long white cigarettes with shaky hands and listening to public radio. She and her husband Dana lived in the woods on Bainbridge Island, just down the road from my parents. Dana was tall and thin and drank a glass of buttermilk every day at lunch to keep his weight up. He saved his pee in a bucket by the back door to pour onto his compost pile. He was a psychiatrist and had been associated, in the 1950s, with the first American psychiatrists to study psychedelics. The Handfords had an impressionist landscape over the fireplace, by a friend of theirs. Fran once pointed at it and said, in her quavering old-lady voice, "I think he painted that after he had taken El-Es-Dee."
I was their primary gardener and houseboy that summer. I got $8 an hour and a pair of surrogate grandparents. They sometimes hired additional help: an ex-con named Tony who lived in a halfway house, a 25-year-old stoner named Eric who still lived with his parents. As a teenager, I liked being around ex-cons and stoners and always fell for the racy girls who took drugs and skipped class. (At the time, I was dating a girl who lived in Seattle—even racier. Sex was still a pleasant mystery, but getting closer every day.) They made me feel tougher by association. On Saturdays, I came over to weed, prune, fix, paint, sweep, and mow. Burn days were the best, when I'd stand around all afternoon with a rake, watching a fire twice as tall as I was incinerate the detritus from the previous year's windstorms and yard projects.
The Handfords' house had peeling red paint and an old wisteria vine strangling the front porch. Inside, it was like a library where people happened to live. Books covered and sometimes tumbled off of shelves in every room—the kitchen, the bathroom, the hallways. There were books on the floor. They were good books, books Fran encouraged me to read: Slaughterhouse-Five, Mrs. Dalloway, Catch-22; nonfiction by Isaiah Berlin, Arthur Schlesinger, Winston Churchill; poetry by Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, and T. S. Eliot. I read on the job, stealing time from them—time I was supposed to be weeding, pruning, and fixing. They knew: They were saints that way. They thought that any time I spent with a book would be good for me.
I took more books from their house than anyone can remember, and dutifully returned them—with one exception. I was too embarrassed to ask to borrow it. The book: Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings, a 575-page collection of essays, written by psychologists and psychiatrists, published in 1969. It has a stained white dust jacket with a line drawing of a bald man meditating and some EKG scribbles in black, red, and green.
I crouched in the Handfords' basement, next to the box where I found it, flipping through its pages. Some passages were hypnotically opaque, about "autogenic training" and "psychophysiology" and other jargon I didn't understand. Some were druggy but erudite, like where William James explains how getting high on nitrous oxide helped him "understand better than ever before both the strength and weakness of Hegel's philosophy." Some were just druggy (I imagined this spoken in a soft man's voice, like something you'd hear from a groovy 1960s British movie): "Shortly after swallowing the pill, I began to feel the effects. I was looking at the green grass and green hills of the countryside. Slowly the green changed into a lavender... My body was deep purple. It was an extremely pleasant sensation. It resembled sleeping between covers of purple velvet, an experience which I had at one time in my life and which was very sensuously enjoyable."
I took the book home.
That night, sitting in bed, I read an essay by Dr. Frederick B. Glaser called "Inhalation Psychosis and Related States." Dr. Glaser studied people who huffed gasoline, glue, and other organic solvents. He was a writer whose subjects seemed like characters, entire lives evoked in details. The child who "used a dispersion principle, distributing gasoline over the surface of a large salad bowl and then inhaling, somewhat after the technique of the brandy snifter." The Swedish kids who "placed paint thinner in perfume sprayers and sold sniffs to their habituated classmates." The tenacious Texas kid whose parents chained him up to keep him from huffing, but who "broke free by dint of remarkable effort... the boy achieved newspaper notoriety as 'The Sniffer.'"
Dr. Glaser had me. I wondered and began to care, along with him, why research showed a high rate of huffing among Latinos but "in a Chicago study which found Negroes to be well represented among juvenile alcoholics and in the city population, there were no Negro inhalers." I was absorbed in the mystery of the weirdo who began huffing when he was 33. I wanted to know who these people were, what their lives were like. They were distant and foreign, people whose lives I couldn't imagine. What did they do every day? What did they know that I didn't? I wished I could talk to them. I wished I could join their society. Like any kid, I wanted secrets, wanted a life of my own. Now that I'm almost 30, I've got more secrets than I want.
One Saturday at the Handfords', I took a squat, silver canister of gas, used to fill the weed whacker, from the shed. I walked into the woods, sat on a soft bed of brown needles at the bottom of a cedar tree, and unscrewed the lid. I put my mouth to the aperture and inhaled. I felt the thick fumes reaching like tentacles down my throat and into my stomach. There was a strange sound, like the echoing call of a bird I'd never heard before. The bird I imagined was dark blue, almost black. The tree I was sitting beneath began to sway. The tree became sentient and uprooted itself, and then fell over, grew four legs, and invited me onto its back. I don't remember it walking the eight miles to town, but suddenly there we were, in the middle of the street, me straddling a tree. We were in a parade, like the one that happens on the island every Fourth of July, with vets in their jeeps and farmers on their tractors. I waved at all the people on the sidewalk, hoping they didn't realize I was high on gasoline.
When I came to and stumbled out of the woods, dazed, my legs weren't working properly. I lurched back into the garden of perennials I was supposed to be weeding, a garden at the edge of a bluff, and kneeled in the wet mud, hoping nobody would find me. A few hours later, I could almost walk and talk normally, and went home.
Gasoline was stronger than any drug I'd heard of—it took me out of the world altogether. It had to be bad for me. I remembered histrionic news stories and public-service-announcement language about the dangers of huffing. A contemporary sample, from www.drgreene.com: "About 22 percent of those who die from huffing do so on the first time they try it... When huffing doesn't kill quickly, it damages the body each time—especially the brain. Huffing can cause memory loss, impaired concentration, hearing loss, loss of coordination, and permanent brain damage... if you suspect or discover that your child is huffing, get professional help. Treating inhalant abuse is very difficult and requires expert intervention."
It didn't make sense for me to be a gas huffer. I wasn't desperate like the people in Davis Inlet, on the Labrador coast, who became famous for gas huffing in the early 1990s. The major pastimes in Davis Inlet were suicide, drinking moonshine, and not graduating from high school. Families froze inside one-room concrete shacks and domestic violence was common, but Canada didn't do anything about it until 1993, when a police officer released a videotape of six Davis Inlet children huffing gasoline and screaming that they wanted to die. The Canadian government's solution was to build a new town, Natuashish, 15 kilometers away, for residents of Davis Inlet who wanted to start over.
Huffing has been such a problem among Australian aboriginal kids that, in 2005, the oil company BP invented a new kind of "unsniffable" fuel called Opal. (The BP website quotes an e-mail from a social worker: "...as I write, I can see a 10-year-old girl outside the window with half a Coke bottle filled with unleaded petrol tied over her mouth and nose. She may well never reach her 12th birthday.") Consider that: So many people were huffing that a multinational oil company told its scientists to invent a new kind of gas.
I wasn't a poor kid, but I'd seen poor kids fucked up by huffing, during the spring before my gasoline summer, when I was an exchange student in Nicaragua. I visited a shelter for urchins, some of them little tiny kids, who wandered the markets of Managua, begging for pennies to spend on baby-food jars filled with rubber cement they bought from shoe repairmen. The glue made them feel warm, full, and happy—the opposite of how they normally felt. It also made them vicious. They had nasty fights over food, territory, and imagined slights, slashing at each other with shards of broken glass. The kids in the shelter were covered in scars and nicks. All of us—the urchins, the people who took care of them, some other exchange students—took a bus to Lake Nicaragua one afternoon. We ran around on the beach and splashed in the brown water. On the way back, I sat in the back of the bus, teaching the kids poker. They stole my wallet and passed it to the front, one of them waving it in the air and smiling before throwing it back to me.
I said I thought it was funny, but one of the social workers—a pretty, middle-aged woman—rebuked me. These kids learn to steal because they're addicts, she growled. And the goddamned shoe repairmen are goddamned pushers. There's nothing cute about children addicted to toxic solvents.
The next Saturday, I snuck back into the shed and sat next to the squat silver canister. I unscrewed the cap, leaned over the aperture, felt the vaporous tentacles reach into my stomach, and heard the call of the dark-blue bird. A small fairy girl, as tall as my forearm, appeared. She didn't make any real words, but communicated by telepathy and giggling and I admired her wings, all translucent and shiny. She lived in the rose bushes and let me know that these gardens and woods were a special place, a place I'd never been able to really see until now. There was another sound, in a minor key, and the air turned sinister. The toys and tools in the shed—tricycles, pruners, riding lawn mowers—were rumbling, rustling angrily, forming an army that could crush me with wheels, cut me with blades, bludgeon me with handles. I was an interloper, a spy in the secret, vengeful lives of toys and tools. I hoped they wouldn't hurt the Rosebush Fairy.
I came to, lying on the floor of the shed, thinking that we lived in a world in which objects conspired against people. I held onto the idea for a while.
It was the same every Saturday for three or four months: the rasp of the lid as I unscrewed it, the sloshing gasoline, the tentacles reaching into my stomach, the dark-blue bird. The Rosebush Fairy usually came to giggle and preen and communicate fairy-tale secrets about the forests and gardens. I wish I could remember the things she told me.
My breath stunk of gasoline for days at a time. I'd come back from the Handfords' and my mother would ask where that gasoline smell was coming from. I'd say I'd been using the weed whacker, quickly finish my glass of water, and hurry upstairs to shower. Later, at dinner, she'd mention I still smelled like gasoline. I'd shrug. The next day, I might see my girlfriend who lived in the city. When she kissed me, she'd say my mouth tasted like a gas station. Somehow, nobody figured it out.
One Saturday after work, I was at my parents' house listening to old records—I'd just learned how to work the phonograph and there were stacks of neglected vinyl in the Handfords' basement—when I distinctly heard the call of the dark-blue bird. It came out of the speakers. I checked the record. The call of the bird matched the first chord of Bach's second orchestral suite in B minor, when the violins begin to trill over the harpsichord. I wondered what that meant. I thought about the Rosebush Fairy. I realized I had a crush on her, which was both embarrassing and crazy. Even crazier, I wondered: What about my girlfriend? Was I cheating on her by liking this fairy? I wasn't doing anything with the fairy, just talking.
Upstairs, I re-reread Dr. Glaser's essay and stopped on this sentence, which I had barely noticed before: "On a rather impressionistic level it may be noted that a general feeling of eroticism pervades many reports of inhalation." Likewise, I stopped on the story of a 5-year-old boy who
had a pleasant hallucination of friendly, gnomelike men who were fond of him and spoke kindly to him. At this time, parental discord was intense. The patient felt like his father was abusive and severe with him. 'Father heckled me and gave my mother and me heck at everything I did.' Because of this, he began to plot with the men of his hallucinations to remove his father. He said, 'I want to make Father go away so I can go off someplace with Mom and we can make a living together and be happy on a farm.' His hallucinations promised to help him if he would never call again. Quite by coincidence, the father left on a three weeks' trip about this time.
Wish fulfillment. The kid had his gnomes. And I was having an affair with a fairy.
At some point that summer, I was at a typically druggy high-school party, with beer in the kitchen, cigarettes on the lawn, and a bunch of people sitting in a circle in the bedroom with a lava lamp, passing around a pot pipe. The house belonged to a waitress from Spokane and an aspiring acid dealer. These weren't really my friends, but I was happy to be included. Next to me on the couch was Jim, who had studs in his jacket and played guitar in a Bainbridge Island band and was on the high-school debate team. I wanted to say something to him, but I didn't know what, so I asked if he had ever huffed gasoline.
His laugh said: Oh yeah—gasoline. My old friend.
I told him about the secret walks into the woods, the hallucinations—everything except the Rosebush Fairy. That was too embarrassing.
"How could a drug be that powerful?" I asked. "Like I'm right out of my head?"
"Um," he said, "it makes cars go."
One Saturday, my racy girlfriend came from the city to visit me after I finished work. Like every Saturday when everyone else thought I was working, I'd been in the woods huffing. I'd unscrewed the lid, heard the call of the dark-blue bird, and seen the Rosebush Fairy. She'd giggled, showed me her wings, but seemed different somehow. She wasn't happy and ethereal—she was weirdly flirty and erotic. She batted her eyes, wiggled her ass, and leered. She was hungry and gross, a portent from the adult future of crude, selfish sex. She didn't want to communicate secrets or even kiss me—she wanted to fuck. I wasn't sure how to fuck. It was horrifying. Then she lifted her skirt over her head.
If I weren't in a stupor, I would've screamed.
I'd known what I was doing was dangerous—that inhaling gasoline, that thing that makes cars go, was probably giving me brain damage. But, until this moment, I'd almost hoped it would give me brain damage. Putting my mouth to the metal aperture and feeling the tentacles reaching down my throat was an attempt to stay innocent and dumb, to spare myself the sadness and disenchantment of growing up. Getting my first pubic hair fucked me up. Pubic hair meant puberty, puberty meant adulthood, and adulthood meant pain, suffering, and death. I was sentimental for childhood even while I was still a child. Gasoline was a way to dodge the flat, sterile doom of adulthood. I wanted to stay in the woods.
I stumbled out of the woods and saw my girlfriend. She was just standing there. She'd come early.
My legs wouldn't work, my tongue was too thick to form words, and I couldn't do anything but feel bad. She didn't know anything about my gasoline habit except having tasted it in my mouth. She watched me lurch around on the grass, gabbling, reeking of fumes. She panicked. She cried. I tried to explain, but she didn't understand and neither did I.
One night six months ago, I was sitting outdoors in Eastern Washington, in a circle with some friends, and the conversation failed. One drunk woman said, all in one breath: "Let'stellsecretsIstealthings." She paused. "I shoplift."
We went around the circle and people unloaded their secrets: eavesdropping on sex, reading other people's diaries. When it was my turn, I knew which secret I wanted to unload, the one I didn't want anymore—I'd never talked about gasoline huffing with anyone except that guy at that party years ago, never told anyone about Altered States of Consciousness or the Rosebush Fairy or how, to this day, the opening chord of Bach's second orchestral suite makes me woozy. But I didn't. I held onto it a little longer. I told another secret, one I wasn't genuinely embarrassed about.
The Handfords died a few years ago, but I still have Altered States of Consciousness. It sits on a lower shelf in a bookcase in my closet. That shelf is for embarrassments from my youth—forgotten magazines that published stories I'd written, notebooks full of childish poems and adolescent confessions, scrapbooks with pictures of ex-girlfriends. It's the shelf where I keep things I wish I could get rid of.