Imprisoned Primates Escape Into Addiction

gorilla

When I was a very young lad living in Edinburgh, I would go on perambulations with my mother. Edinburgh is a grand city for walking, and we explored it at length. (As a Dutch woman recently transplanted from Amsterdam I think she found it as exotic as I did.) Edinburgh Castle, with its steep, cobblestone ascent, was a regular haunt. I loved the expansive train station, spewing steam as if the arched glass roof concealed a nest of restless dragons. And then there was the zoo.

It was at the Edinburgh Zoo that I rode my first elephant; and one never forgets one’s first pachyderm; nor do they forget you for that matter. There was no shortage of star attractions, but by far the most popular was Charlie the Gorilla, so named in honor of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Charlie was a 400-pound, silverback gorilla from the Congo. Even as a small child I was moved by his soulful face, power, and imprisonment. But crowds did not gather to marvel at his size and strength; they came to see him smoke.

In post-war Scotland, cigarettes were a scarce and expensive luxury. Even so, working class types would toss lit cigarettes into the cage and Charlie would puff on them furtively, carefully secreting them behind his back when his keeper arrived. (This Heckle and Jeckle routine was as ancient as vaudeville itself. Charlie would exhale clouds flamboyantly, exhibiting satisfaction Bob Marley might have envied. Then, when his keeper looked over, the cigarette vanished into a large, furry hand. The act never got old, and when the keeper knitted his eyebrows in disapproval, the kids howled with delight.)

In those days my parents were barely scraping by, even so, cigarettes were a line item in the family budget. My dad bought them in packs of 5. Later, he smoked the way waitresses chew gum, obsessively, constantly, thoughtlessly. As a youth I quickly came to understand that smoking was something cool people did, and I was physically and psychologically addicted well before leaving high school. Cigarettes were my one, true friend through it all. I smoked in prison and in mental hospitals, on the desolate streets of North Philadelphia at midnight; I even smoked at The White House.

Education, mercilessly delivered at the business end of a Louisville Slugger, pushed vices away from my grasp, as a ship gradually drifts away from the dock. Alcohol and drugs, abandoned over a decade ago, now seem foreign and counter-productive. But smoking clung to me like a tick, it was the last to leave, just a little over two years ago.

I’d like to go back to Edinburgh and tell Charlie, “You’re a 400 pound silverback gorilla from the Congo. You’re fabulous. You don’t need cigarettes to be cool. You’re already pretty damn cool.”

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Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHarg was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved immediately to Edinburgh, and three years later moved to Amsterdam. At 6 he settled in Philadelphia and for 16 years was confused by Quaker education; Germanton Friends School and Haverford College. A Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Louisville nudged him even closer to unemployability. Convinced at an early age that fate had chosen writing as his calling, Alistair followed a characteristically slow and circuitous path. He has found work as deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter touring South America, Bureau of Land Management Emergency Fire Fighter in Alaska, guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp, truck driver crisscrossing Colorado's continental divide, and inner city cabbie. Alistair has been arranging words on paper for a living since 1983.