A Few Good Blows: Aaron Sorkin Takes the Stand

When I was 18, I decided to do coke. Nobody pressured me. Nobody put their arm around me and led me down a hallway filled with mumbling bums, making dark promises of eternal life or other Faustian-like bargains. I was 18, I was in college, and I thought, hey, why not give it the old eponymous try?

Which I did. 

Climbing up the stairs of my fraternity, I knocked on the door at the top of the landing, where I was greeted to about three or four brothers in various states of socialization: one was lounging torpidly on the couch; another was laying horizontal on the bed, his feet still touching the ground as he tossed balled up socks into the air; and the other was brandishing a credit card beneath the harsh fluorescents of an IKEA desk lamp, studiously cutting a little mound of fresh Peruvian snowflake. 

“I want to do some coke,” I said.

“Gurian says he wants to do some coke,” said the brother tossing the socks.

The desk lamp brother looked over at me.

“You want to do some coke?”

I nodded.

“Alright.”


And like a retired chef called in for one last hurray, he got to work. It was like that scene in The Lord of the Rings, where Elrond has the sword of Elendil reforged by a couple of master blacksmiths, hammering away into the night with tong and anvil, sparks flying, fire glowing. You knew something important was going on. The way everything was slowing down. The deliberateness of it all. It felt gravely momentous. Except instead of having some ancient blood oath revived for the sake of coercing the Army of the Dead, or making a nice bearnaise sauce for the cockled King of Sweden, elaborately rigged in a concentric gilded collar, who in all likelihood didn’t really care for your bearnaise sauce (but how often does an opportunity like this come along–fuck him–you’re doing this for you), I had my buddy cutting me my first line of coke, EVER. And I was nervous. Like anyone with their first time with anything, I was nervous. But I was determined to do it anyway.

 

                                                                                         ***

 

“Try cocaine and you’ll become addicted to it. Become addicted to cocaine and you’ll either be dead or you will wish you were dead, but it will only be one or the other.”

This sounds like something you might hear in AA, or in that federally funded failure of drug-bust-sized proportions: the D.A.R.E. program. I had to take the D.A.R.E. program back in middle school (it was nonvolitional, although I suspect that’s the same excuse the guy pounding a dollhouse of beer five times a day would say, except I was twelve, and obligated to go to school, and he was fifty, and just couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t president). They would show you a progression of photos, mugshots presumably, of some low-life in Texas, where his first offense was just a bad haircut, but five photos and a trailer park of meth consumption later, you could blindly thread the needle through the hole in his tooth, his only remaining tooth, a tooth that said, “Look at what these drugs have done to me…Look at me…” 

They don’t tell you–they being the police officer admonishing you on this bullshit, someone about as qualified to hold forth on drug use as a closeted Church Father is on the effectiveness of the Kama Sutra–that meth doesn’t cause tooth loss: an inattention to brushing does. In fact, most of you assholes are probably on meth right now. It’s called Adderall. But who am I kidding? They’re obviously different. Amphetamines. Methamphetamines. Cops. Criminals. Now pay attention or I’ll taser you in the face. 

They tell you addicts are losers, that drugs are like pitch, and that if you try them, you’ll become irrevocably lost and addicted. Drink a beer and operate a motor vehicle? The outcome is worse than the Challenger. Heroin? It’ll consume you like Kronos. Cocaine? It always comes up, like a twelve-year-old’s dick when his teacher bends over to pick up her pencil: Len Bias. Had his whole life ahead of him. Good kid. Until he did coke. Now no more Bias. No more basketball. Don’t do it, kids. Don’t do it. 

Of course, there’s still bias out there. And basketball. But with drugs, everything is literal, especially when it’s completely metaphorical and made-up.

 

                                                                                             ***

 

Remember that quote I gave earlier? About drugs making you wish you were dead and whatnot. You know who said that? No, it wasn’t the policewoman who held my classmates and I captive for nearly three weeks (though I’m sure she said something like it). It wasn’t Nancy Reagan either, smiling luminously while doped to the tits on tranquilizers.  

It was Aaron Sorkin. 

That first line I took? Well, apparently I didn’t take it. After leaving confused but weirdly energized (I had rubbed the coke on my gums after nearly being tackled to the ground for wiping it onto the floor like bread crumbs–I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that), the brother at the desk, having prepared another line, grabbed the bill and perfunctorily banged it out on the mirror: the entire line fell out

After all the brothers had a laugh (and then an extra line of coke to share amongst themselves), I went off on a brisk February stroll to the Jewish fraternity, where I proceeded to get shitfaced, dance like a maniac to Avicii, hit on one of my friend’s hometown girlfriends who was visiting, get politely rejected, and then watch my best friend scoop her up like softly melted ice cream as I watched vacantly from the sticky staircase their little make-out sesh on the jismed dance floor. Like a responsible college student, I drank about five cups more of punch, waited in the bathroom line for about five minutes, realized the line was ten people deep and going nowhere, and stupidly settled on the pile of garbage and pizza boxes neglectfully discarded and climbing up the wall like ivy. About seven seconds into my piss, I learned it wasn’t a wall, but a bedroom door all the crap was piled against as I made unsteady eye contact with the fraternity brother who was trying to figure out just what exactly was going on–and then I did the impossible: I stopped midstream, tucked the fella away, and beat a hasty retreat down the stairs as I was succinctly cursed out and chased into the frigid alleyway. I managed to sneak back into the party about five minutes later, but by then it wasn’t worth it. 

I turned this failed sexual experience into a screenplay à la Sorkin, and I pray to the gods on Olympus that someone burned that bush league abomination or drowned it in a bathtub. 

I was enamored with Sorkin at the time, and in ways I still am. For a while there, I had a copy of The Social Network on my nightstand like it was the Gideon Bible, and I read it with as much passion as I commensurably ignored the articles in Playboy. The first time I ever heard the name “Aaron Sorkin” was sometime in middle school when my dad would unwind on the couch after a pot sesh in the driveway (“Just walking the dog…” he’d say), telling me about this wonderful program called The West Wing. Apparently, there was this guy, as my father explained it to me, who would shut himself in a room all Howard Hughes-like and do massive amounts of cocaine as he wrote splendid dialogue. To this day, I still imagine a spectacled thirty-something year old Aaron Sorkin, wearing a mustard-stained shirt, no pants, banging away at his typewriter in a frenzy of finger-poking keystrokes. No clocks. No windows. Just a desk, a typewriter, and an exploded kilo of cocaine sitting like an oversized anthill or a science fair volcano next to him. Occasionally, he would bend over, inhale psychotically, and then exhale manically, as he got back to hammering the keys.

I’m not sure what happened, whether it was public embarrassment, having been caught with an eightball by the TSA (along with some reefer and hallucinogenic mushrooms), or some girlfriend who couldn’t take it anymore. Whatever it was, Sorkin decided to stop. 

“My biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to be able to write without it,” he said. “There was no way I was going to be able to write without it. Last month, I celebrated my eleven year anniversary of not using coke.” Big applause from the people at The Dome. Sorkin was giving the commencement address for the Class of 2012. (If one does the math real quick, one begins to wonder if two jetliners crashing into some very famous skyscrapers had something to do with it. But then one does the math again and realizes it was six months prior, so the theory is discarded). He continued: “In that eleven years…I’ve written three television series, three movies, a Broadway play, won the Academy Award, and taught my daughter all the lyrics to Pirates of Penzance. I have good friends.”

He wrote other stuff before that, too: A Few Good Men, Malice, The American President, the entire series Sports Night, and if we’re to be trusted on Sorkin’s sobriety record, at least two solid seasons of The West Wing, all accomplished while under the influence and thrall of not your grandmother’s baking soda. 

 

                                                                                         ***

 

My opinion on coke, on drugs in general, is that if you can’t handle it, don’t do it. But don’t tell people that because you fucked up they’re going to fuck up. If you drove your car into the highway median because you didn’t know that pedal next to your right foot, if pressed down accordingly, would make you fly faster than a cheetah, who’s at fault? Ford? Your parents? That guy at the grocery store that rang up your Red Bull that has you fucking wired, naturally inducing your leg to cram the accelerator? Everyone is to blame, it seems, but the person who did it. 

Sorkin can do coke, not do coke. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. But come on, man: for someone who can deliver an excellent exegesis over pigskins and the Bible, who writes a fucking screenplay about a Texas politician who does coke, doesn’t lose his marbles, but does win the support of Congress to assemble a covert coalition against the Soviets–this guy, I mean, it’s not black and white, and yet somehow on the subject of coke it is. 

Funny enough, what characterizes an Aaron Sorkin screenplay is the characters all speaking implicitly as if they’re on coke. Watch the first scene of The Social Network and tell me Zuckerberg and Albright didn’t make a quick pit stop in the bathroom at Grendel’s to do a key bump or five or six lines off the toilet seat. You know when you’re holding a Sorkin screenplay and you know when you’re watching one because it reads like that dream conversation you wish you had with your nemesis, or how you hope the president talks when confronted with a wartime decision, whipping up Socratic questions like, “What’s the virtue of a proportional response?”, or watching a beleaguered primetime newsman say what he’s thinking, and not just what he thinks his audience members want to hear, or what makes for good television ratings. 

I love Sorkin. I really do. I used to think he could only write one character (and I’m loathe to say he still can’t), but after rereading a couple of his scripts, I might have to eat my words, because after analyzing his, despite the unrealistic tirades teeming with a wealth of Wikipedia-like knowledge that no sentient primate could confidently utter without having some guy in a chair feeding him simultaneously through an earpiece, I noticed some significant differences. In some of his characters, though not in all of them. I have this idea that Josh and Donna, and Jim and Maggie, are all basically the same people. Sort of different sides of the same coin, owing to a commonly repeated, and somewhat superfluous, exchange (“Donna.” “What?” “Donna.” “What!” “Donna!” “WHAT?!?!”–switch out “Donna” with “Maggie” and that’s somewhere in season two of The Newsroom). 

But of all the characters that, in my opinion, sound least like the usual Sorkin line-up (Lt. Daniel Kaffe, Josh Lyman, Will McAvoy, Matt Albie–really shaking it up with the white guys here, all sounding like they grew up in Maryland, drank at Harvard, and fucked your sister at Brandeis), you have Abbie Hoffman, and let me just say, Mr. Sorkin, if you’re reading this, let me tip my hat to you, sir. Seriously. I’m sure you read Steal This Book and Revolution for the Hell of It, so you were familiar with the genius of Hoffman, but it was almost like you created a new instrument, with a new sound I’d never heard of, that rose above the others and hovered with grace. Thank you. It wasn’t the Fool in Lear, but thank you. You proved me wrong, and despite what people think, it’s nice to be wrong once in a while, because then you get to be surprised.

He doesn’t handle love very well, Sorkin, or significant moments of dramatic silence, but we forgive him, because you can get your love elsewhere and stare moodily at a lake somewhere else. I would brazenly cross four lanes of traffic to see one of his films, and if I thought it wouldn’t be overly self-serving, I would tell you about the time I did (it involved three vomit-covered couches, an unreasonably expensive cab, a cheap cheeseburger, and seven miles of active New York interstate), but that’s for another time. Catch me in a bar sometime and I’ll be happy to tell you about it. It’ll all be true, I assure you. You just might not be able to handle it. 

 

 

 

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