“Ran out of Carbona, Mom threw out the glue, ran out of paint and roach spray, too”
This list of inhalants, courtesy of The Ramones, is from the song “Carbona, Not Glue,” from their second album Ramones Leave Home, released in early 1977. As benefiting their image as cartoon juvenile delinquents from Queens, the Ramones had already sung about sniffing household products on their first LP, but in this case they used an actual brand name. Despite the maxim that “any publicity is good publicity,” the good people at Carbona cleaning products were not honored or flattered by the mention. So, as to avoid legal action the song was removed from all but very early pressings of Ramones Leave Home.
It’s a bit of shame as it’s a great song, and one of my favorites. It was only available on those early pressings, and thus an out of print and hard to find collector’s item, until the song reappeared on the CD compilation Hey Ho, Let’s Goin 1999. Interestingly enough, the Carbona company was sold to a German chemical company in 1994, and perhaps this merger somehow led to laxer legal defending of the company’s reputation.
I had heard of Carbona products before I heard the Ramones song, but it was, again, not in their cleaning context. Carbona is mentioned in the first few pages of Jim Carroll’s memoir of growing up in New York City, The Basketball Diaries. The book begins with Carroll at age 13 in 1963, and coincidentally I was 13 as well when I first read it. At age 13, I was still playing with action figures. Carroll was shooting heroin, doing robberies, and, yes, sniffing Carbona on the Staten Island Ferry:
Just as the boat is pulling out of the dock, Tony takes out a bottle of Carbona cleaning fluid and a few rags and suggests that we do a little sniffing to get high. I was up for this idea because Carbona is one of the finest cheap highs you can get, even stronger than model glue. We slipped up to the top deck of the ship and wet our rags and raised them to our faces. After four deep whiffs we were sailing someplace else, bells ringing through my ears and little lights flashing through my eyes.
Carbona was first manufactured and marketed in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century as a cleaning product for fabrics. According to the Carbona website, it was sold in New York City from vendors in horse-drawn carriages. The brand name “Carbona” comes from its original chemical ingredient, carbon tetrachloride. Before carbon tetrachloride began to be imported into the US in the late 1890’s, the main household solvents were all incredibly flammable things like gasoline and naphtha. As this early Carbona ad notes, unlike the others, it “cannot explode.”
A 1909 US Tariff handbook describes Carbona as the “unburnable and non-explosive cleaning fluid, manufactured by the Carbona Products Company, of Newark, N. J.” If you want a reminder that things really were tougher back in the good old days, this is as good of one as any (“How did grandma die?” “She blew up half the block trying to get a soup stain out of her bloomers”).
I do not know when people realized the same product that removed spots from their coat could also remove brain cells from their heads, but it seems like by the mid- 1960’s, it was a trend in New York City. The first mention I could find was a gruesome article from the New York Times on June 19, 1965 with the headline “Sniffing Of Fluid Is Fatal to Boy; 4 Others Made Ill.” The article continues:
A 15 year boy died and four children between 11 and 15 were hospitalized (in New York City) last week after sniffing Carbona, a cleaning fluid, Dr. John R Philp, Deputy Commissioner of Health, said yesterday… Dr Philp said that seven other poisonings from sniffing Carbona had been reported to the Poison Control Center of the Department of Health since Jan 1. He warned parents to prevent their children from sniffing or playing with any cleaning fluid. ‘Apparently these youngsters sniff this cleaning fluid for kicks,’ he said.
Interestingly, this article identifies the main ingredient in Carbona not as carbon tetrachloride, but trichloroethylene, which was the active ingredient in Trimar, a widely used anaesthetic in the 1940’s and 50’s. After it was supplanted as an anasthetic by the safer Halohane in the late 50’s, trichloroethylene began to be used by NASA to clean rocket engines. No shit. Talk about a rich man’s high. It turns out trichloroethylene is a carcinogen and may also cause birth defects. Better living through chemistry, indeed.
As the 60’s went on and drug use became more common, the use of Carbona continued. A Journal of Internal Medicine article from 1970 notes, “Carbona ‘sniffing’ seems to be increasingly popular among adolescents, and its use in a group that has abused other drugs complicates an already difficult situation.”
Carbona use pops up in all sorts of writing from this period (like in this book about the Irish Bronx street gang the Ducky Boys) but the most entertaining and vivid description of the effects of Carbona I have read is from the book Fuzz One: A Bronx Childhood, a memoir of the graffiti writer Vincent Fedorchak set in the early 1970’s. He refers to the Carbona users as “zombies”, due to the stupefying effects of the high. It lends a touch of apocalyptic horror to his description. Fedorchak must have learned from the legal mistakes of the Ramones, because he refers to Carbona as “Cabona,” but in the interests of readability I will replace it with the proper spelling:
Sometimes, when they were fiending they would all run into Olinsky’s (supermarket) together. They would be grabbing the Carbona like crazy. They’d stuff it into their shirts, drop bottles on the floor and just start flipping. The old butcher would blank out. He used to scream at them, “Bums, hey what are you doing over there? Stop thief, put that back! I’m going to call the cops!”
But, the manager seemed to get slicker and slicker each day. He used to stand in the front of the doorway and give each one of them an old rag or towel. All the other shoppers would stand there in amazement. But he did it so they wouldn’t steal his kitchen towels from the store. The zombies would sit across the street and just blast off.
One day the guy who delivered the Carbona was running a little late and they bum-rushed him unloading his supplies out of his box truck. The guy tried to put up a fight but once the first zombie clubbed him, it was over. The manager just looked out the window and stared at the zombies and shook his head in amazement at their actions. He had let it go on for so long, I guess, that he was no match for the zombies…