It was October 4th, 1990. I was fifteen. It was an atypical blustery, rainsqually early autumn day in Washington. About 10am, the vice-principal of my little bohemian high school in Dupont Circle came in to interrupt geometry class. She called me into the hall. I knew I was not in trouble: I was literally one of two students in the entire student body who was not using drugs.
I had always thought the sixty-something vice-principal was a bit batty, what with one or both or her false eyelashes always on the cusp of falling off, and her haughty manner of speech. She once described the biology teacher as “crème de la crème.” He was anything but. Thus, when she began to open her mouth to tell me why I was pulled out of class, I could not believe it: Whitney Houston was now in my father’s office at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, and he had called the school to get me to come meet her. At first, I thought the vice-principal lady had just gone completely batty. It would have hardly been unexpected. But then she gave me a twenty dollar bill and told me to hail the next cab to take me to the Rayburn horseshoe.
I had been in love with Whitney Houston for the previous five years, ever since her debut album in 1985. A white boy from the suburbs, surrounded by other boys in the neighborhood who had a steady musical diet of 80’s heavy metal, our next door neighbors would complain that they could hear from the sidewalk the songs blaring from my bedroom window: Saving All My Love For You, You Give Good Love, Greatest Love of All, Didn’t We Almost Have It All, plus all the other greats from Whitney’s first two albums. To me, from age nine to that point in 1990, Whitney plus Anita Baker were queens of the universe, albeit vastly different in style.
I arrived that October morning in 1990 at the Rayburn Building full of nerves. I was in a state of shock, not really believing that this would happen – that I would actually get to meet Whitney Houston. I went to my father’s office, where he worked for a House subcommittee, only to find my father and the other regular Hill staffers. Whitney, they said, had not yet arrived. She was due to give testimony before a congressional committee as part of National Children’s Day. I waited for less than an hour in my father’s office in the back of subcommittee room. Then, hearing a bunch of commotion, that something was happening, I peered out the door.
I immediately recognized Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother. There were others in her entourage as well. The first glimpse I had of Whitney was with her back to me. Her hair style was new – the short, cropped look that she sported for her then-upcoming third album, the same style she had four months later when sang the Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl. But then she turned around, and I saw her face: it was Whitney.
At that moment, I experienced what I had never felt before or since: a literal loss of control of my legs. My father, also a bit nervous as everyone was, said, “Miss Whitney, my son would like to me meet you.” As I moved forward the ten feet or so to where Whitney was standing, I had to hold on to the desks just to keep from falling down. The knees were gone.
Whitney smiled, extended her hand and said, “Very nice to meet you.” I can’t even remember the garbled words that came out of my mouth, probably for the better. Moments later we stepped aside for a picture. (In the photo, Whitney looks dazzling. I look like I had no idea what hit me.)
And that was it. Whitney went on to give her Capitol Hill testimony on behalf of children that October day in 1990. For the rest of the day, I was in a daze.
When news broke of Whitney’s death on the evening of February 11th, I was in a polar opposite state of expectation on the day that I met her as a young teenager. On that October day in 1990, I was not at all expecting to meet Whitney Houston, or remotely prepared for it. Yet for the last ten years or so, I have indeed been preparing myself for that “CNN Breaking News moment” announcing Whitney’s death. Sadly, it came to pass.
In the wake of Whitney’s tragic passing, Tony Bennett caught some flak for publicly saying drugs should be legalized. I am by no means a drug policy expert, but what I do know is that most of those teenagers I went to school with who were using drugs were in terrible emotional pain. All these years later, despite reaching the pinnacle of artistic success and being one of the most glamorous women in the world, we know Whitney Houston lived much of her life in a world of hurt.
Those of us who abstain from drugs, yet who still shudder at the thought of nonviolent drug users being locked-up in our nation’s prisons, or who rightly question when federal authorities are stepping on the rights of states to adopt their own medical marijuana policies, should nonetheless never bite our tongues on the larger issue: drugs are, and always will be, damaging to the human person, save for legitimate medical imperatives.
In one of her great number one hits, Whitney sang, “Where do broken hearts go, can they find their way home?” It will be some time before I can listen to that song again and not think about the cocaine that the coroner found inside Whitney’s broken heart.
The “War on Drugs” is going nowhere, and it has only exacerbated the suffering of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Perhaps the best those of us who wish to see a truly drug-liberated society can do – including, by the way, liberation from the scandalous over-prescription of anti-depressants and other medications – but without the heavy hand of government, is to simply try our best to save the world’s broken-hearted souls, before they ever turn to the drugs that will likely ravage them. The same drugs that deprive the rest of us of the love and talent they are meant to generate.
Rest in peace, Whitney.