I remember the moment when my roommate Nigel asked me to try cocaine for the first time. It was in 1996 and we were living in Tokyo in a vaguely multicultural apartment with roommates from Northern England, Queensland Australia and myself from Midwest America.
Nigel had been asked the same question a week earlier by our other Australian roommate and apparently had been having a good time since then.
“You should try it,'' Nigel said.
“But I’ve heard so many warning about it.” I said. In my mind I pictured a hundred film scenes of Al Pacino type characters stuffing mounds of white powder up their nose and dancing wildly on screen for about 10 seconds before ending face down in oblivion.
“It’s not at all like what they tell you. I felt completely normal but fully awake. I wasn’t high at all, and I could talk to people so deeply. It was a lot better than getting drunk..”
“Hmm.. really? That actually doesn’t sound so bad.” I said.
Lately I had been spending more than a few nights drunkenly holding onto the bar not being very communicative.
Nigel kept shaking his head in the affirmative about it not being bad.
Drinking at the same bar every weekend had become repetitive and I did want some type of change. The prospects of finding a girlfriend were not high either doing the same thing over and over. I pondered Nigel’s suggestion and came up with a compromise.
“I have an idea.” I said.
“What is it? Do you want to try now?”
Usually I put my foot in my mouth under pressure and say the exact opposite of what I mean, or unintentionally insult someone and then spend weeks apologizing. I thought over my words carefully.
“You seem to be doing well and it does sound better than alcohol. How about I watch how it goes for you for 1 month, and if you say it’s still good, I will give it a try.”
A rare, well elocuted proclamation that appeared to appease my new potential in-house cocaine supplier.
Up until now we had been friends and roommates for around half a year. Our social life was focused around spending most Wednesday and Friday nights at Magambo’s bar in the Roppongi part of central Tokyo.
In a foreign country, the bar was an oasis of familiar English speaking faces. At steady intervals people on a big night out would ring a bell on the ceiling and buy shots for the bar. It was also different from most bars in that the bartenders drank with the customers. The servers high energy level was part of the entertainment.
Nigel's magnetic personality would draw all sorts of people in. When in a good mood he would talk in manic rants filled with amusing anecdotes and funny one liners and keep going and going as if he was a TV show host. Groups of people would sometimes stop their conversations just to listen to his riffing, storytelling and bursts of song. I never fully understood what drove his high energy level.
A few months earlier, one night after going out to buy cigarettes, Nigel came back to Magambo’s bar, and announced we needed to pack up and leave immediately. He told me not to ask any questions and not to tell anyone. He looked agitated and kept looking at the door urging me to get moving. I wondered if violent thugs were heading our way and I left my half finished drink on the bar and pushed my way out through the crowd.
Outside we took a few sidestreets and went up a flight of stairs to a 2nd floor bar. A group of people was inside. Nigel opened his arms like a showman and smiled.
“This is Supergrass, they’ve invited us to have a drink with them.”. I saw four very young British rockers surrounded by young Japanese corporate types wearing flashy clothes.
“Whoa cool, but who are they exactly?” I said.
Nigel sang the opening lyrics of “Alright” and I immediately recognized it, it was at the top of the charts.
Two members of the band were smiling and waving at Nigel. He moved in and started his usual manic banter focused on British pop culture. The others introduced themselves to me as Supergrass’s Japanese record label, I mingled as best as I could knowing little about music or the art scene in general. Everyone there kept the lead singer Gaz, the one with the sideburns, safe in the corner. They said he was moody and best left alone. There was always one or two people around him giving him pep talks.
One of the older, more mature band members came over and filled me.
“Can you believe this is his 18 year old birthday party? A year ago, all of us were playing music and living in a council (public) estate and nobody in the world cared about us at all. I don’t think we would have gotten a birthday present from anyone. And now a year later all these people we don’t know are giving us gifts. It’s unbelievable”
He pointed toward unwrapped boxes of expensive looking things on the table.
“That’s great, you guys did it! A great song you made.” I said.
“We’ve been writing songs for years mate. I never would have guessed that one would be the one.”
He asked me quite a bit about life in Japan. After about an hour, the record company people started giving us strong hints that we should leave.
“What happened?” I asked Nigel.
“Ah..the record company figured out who we were and didn’t want to be responsible.”
“What do you mean, who we are?”
“We are here because the band was out on the street looking to buy weed. with all the people out there, they came straight up to me and asked me if I knew where to find a few spliffs.”
With Nigel’s style of dress, vintage pants and a hipster coat with fur collar, if I was on the street, I might also think he would be the one most likely to know where to buy drugs. Or in any case the one least likely to have anything to do with the police. Regardless of the fact he had never showed any interest in drugs until then. H asked around and located some spliffs for the band.
I laughed when I realized the entire time I was at the party, the Japanese company types thought I was a Western drug dealer they had to tolerate for the sake of the band.
That’s not to say I was a complete puritan about such things. A few months before, another group of friends had me try ectasy/mdma at a small rave party. It looked like a yellow aspirin so I went ahead.
Nothing happened for an hour, then I felt a wave of warmth and a mood of extreme empathy switch on. Suddenly I understood every customer at the bar down to their soul. I decided to approach a few people and let them know how great I thought they were.
“I understand you.” I said to a couple at the bar talking and smiled.
“Are you good?” the guy said.
“I’m good, you are even better.”
I wandered around complimenting people there as if they were paintings at an art gallery. My friends spotted my odd behavior and quickly pulled me in, and kept an eye on me until it started to wear off. It was an interesting experience.
The 2nd, 3rd and 4th time I tried ecstasy I felt dizzy and nauseous and nothing at all like the first time. To test the “every batch is different” hypothesis and longer wasn’t worth 12 hours of anxiety about possible hospitalization. I decided to go back to normal drinking.
A week after Nigel told me about the new cocaine hobby he was involved in, we were back having a drink in Magumbos bar.
“Did you see those two gents go to the backroom?” Nigel asked.
I looked toward the back of the bar, and saw a bartender and a customer reappear from behind a curtain.
“Those two?” I said.
“They did coke back there.” Nigel said with a grin.
I had been to this bar twice a week for more than a year and never noticed. Sort of like how you suddenly notice baby strollers everywhere when you have a baby. But of course, a bit different.
Nigel had a Japanese girlfriend Yuuko that he spent Saturdays and Sundays with. She was a woman of almost angelic beauty and charm. Yuuko seemed to be very tolerant of Nigel’s nights out. For work, he had also charmed his way into a job at a prestigious top London law firm Clifford & Price working as an assistant. Things were going very well for Nigel.
Our other roommate, Colin from Australia, wasn’t as fast talking as Nigel but he wad young and good looking so easily obtained a job as a bartender in a high end nightclub. The drinking district of Roppongi was divided into two halves. A foreign half that liked their drinks cheap and music loud on the South side, and a more Japanese half with quiet music and expensive Scotch on the North side. Coln’s bar was on that side. But Colin, he was always up for anything anytime on either side.
Most of us living overseas say we are ‘looking for adventure’ but when you scratch the surface you see the signs of wanting to escape something back home. I’m not sure what that was exactly for Nigel and Colin. None of us ever talked much about our families or lives back home.
One day at home Colin was bragging about how much money he was making.
“The guys that come into my bar get wasted and throw 10,000 yen bills at me all night for their drinks. When the bar gets busy, cash is moving in and out of my hands and is everywhere all over the bar. I just slip a few of those notes into my pocket.” Colin smiled and then demonstrated slipping bills into his pocket. “There’s no way anyone can notice. The customers are so drunk.”
“But are you sure that’s a good idea Colin? Aren’t those bars run by the Yakuza (mafia)?”
Nigel interrupted. “Scott, be cool man. Colin is in Roppongi living the high life.”
I had never worked at a bar. Being on the other side of the counter, what he said did make sense.
Colin often bought food for our apartment. He’d pick up huge amounts of KFC to share. While eating he would toss the bones toward the empty box in the corner. In the morning, I’d pick bits of the chicken and breading out of the carpet and scrub it down with dish soap and water.
In the afternoons before he went to the bar in Roppongi, I’d hear him playing guitar in his room, singing lyrics he had written down while high the night before. He had a good looking beach girl type of Australian girlfriend, who was also from Queensland and into partying, She would go straight to his room and avoided talking to me or Nigel. It was clear she wanted Colin to leave Japan and move back with her to Brisbane.
Onr day the next week he gave us an update about the bar.
“The owner called a meeting and lined up all the serving staff up yesterday. He looked us all in the eyes, then said someone was stealing cash from the bar and he will find who is doing it. And it would be better if we admitted it now.”
“Did he see something, how did the owner know?” I asked.
“No worries mate. The other bartenders are pocketing cash too. There’s no way he can know it’s me, I never lose my cool.” Colin said.
Another week passed. The cocaine use in the apartment had been slowly ratcheting higher. Colin came back home at 7pm on a night that he was normally working.
“You wouldn’t believe the bullshit. The dickhead owner lined us up at the bar again. Said he trusted everyone.” Colin crunched his face in disgust. “Then pointed at me and said I must be the one stealing money. And he fired me.”
“But, you were the one stealing?” I stupidly added.
“He didn’t know that.” Colin shouted back. He was staring me down. “What does he have against me, why does he think it was me? Oh man, how am I going to pay scary Rob back now. I need to get him 50,000 yen.” (about $500 USD).
Scary Rob was his cocaine dealer.
“Can you give me 50,000 yen? I’ll pay you back soon I promise. I’ve started selling (coke) too and am making a lot of cash.” Colin pleaded.
“Sorry I’m totally out of money” I shuffled nervously, waited for Nigel to take over the conversation and then found an opportunity to slide out of the room.
An hour or two later, Nigel came to my room and asked me if I wanted to go out with them. I declined and said I was burnt out. They went out to party and came back home at 7am the next day. On Saturday night they went out again and kept going until around 8pm on Sunday. Nigel slept in Monday morning and didn’t go to work until 2pm.
Things alternated between seeing them going out and coming home at odd hours, and the darkness of all the curtains being closed and them sleeping in for stretches of 15 hours at a time. New additions to their drug vocab pointed toward Meth being added to the diet of cocaine.
The next week Yuuko, Nigel’s girlfriend, called my mobile..
“This is Yuuko, where is Nigel, is he there? He hasn’t picked up my calls for 2 days, he needs to talk to me “. This was the first time she had called me. She was screaming and crying at the same time.
“Tell her I’m not here.” Nigel shouted from the other room.
A few days later another guy who worked at Clifford and Price, the law firm Nigel was employed at, said the team there was worried about him. He hadn’t been to the office for a week and they hadn’t heard anything at all from him.
They wondered if he had come down with cancer or had a medical crisis. I made allusions to hard partying without saying anything about drugs.
The next day, I came home and Nigel was waving a piece of white paper.
“Look at this!” Nigel said.
Colin had left a note.
“Sorry to leave you guys, it’s been a blast. I’ve gone back to Australia. If Rob asks where I am, say you don’t know me.”
Colin and Nigel had both described cocaine dealer Scary Rob as being very muscly, living on the edge, erratic, and definitely capable of violence.
“Say you don’t know me? How is that going to work? He’s seen me with Colin in Roppongi. Colin has lost his mind”.
That week Nigel locked and relocked the front door multiple times and peered out the windows frequently. Telemarketing calls on his mobile worried him greatly. He lost his job. This also triggered visa issues.
A week later Nigel used the severance pay he received to buy an airplane ticket and return to Northern England to start a new life. It had been three weeks since he had asked me the question.