A man (or a woman) on a mission to score drugs is never a tourist, and neither is one who is passing a pipe.
As you will read in the first essay in this collection, “When Should a Man Stop Smoking Weed?”, I have smoked pot with a variety of people over the years, including “gangbangers, actors, rap stars, construction workers, bankers, homeless guys and millionaires. I’ve smoked at 14,000 feet in the Nepalese Himalayas with a Sherpa guide; at 36,000 feet in a commercial airliner back in the days when they had smoking sections; at just below sea level on the beach of Marlon Brando’s private atoll with a topless Tahitian translator; in the ruins of a factory in North Philadelphia with a bunch of 13-year-olds while watching pit bulls fight to the death—hey, all of those kids worked shifts selling cocaine and had juvie records a mile long.”
You could probably substitute the words “drunk alcohol with” and come up with a pretty good story as well, though you might not remember as many of the details. But the point is this: As the ideologues of the Just Say No movement have been fond of trumpeting, marijuana has indeed been a gateway for me.
Smoking pot has opened the doors of my perception. It has led to meetings with new kinds of people outside my home community, ethnicity, religion or economic station, people of like minds from different places. It has led me to the understanding that a person can find communality with any other human, in any setting, no matter how scary or how different they might seem.
I haven’t smoked pot with all the people I’ve interviewed. I didn’t smoke with the white supremacists from the Aryan Nations, for instance, or with the high school boy from Orange County (until years later), or with Angelina Jolie—though I know a guy who used to sell pot to Brad Pitt a long time ago, when he was fond of Jennifer Anniston and delivery pizza.
But I have smoked with a good many people all over the world, and it has led to a simple conclusion that has informed every bit of the work I’ve done as a journalist: Deep down, people are just people. We are all the same and deserve to be treated with the same respect. Angelina, the six hundred pound man, the members of a crack gang from Venice, CA, even the Nazi-worshipping miscreants from the Aryan Nations.
Drugs have given me that insight.
And I even remembered it the next day.
And all the days that followed.
* * *
I smoked pot for the first time in 1968, when I was 12 years old and smoking pot was as much of a political act as a means of getting high—I didn’t even know what being high was about at the time, it was an abstract concept, kind of like sex.
I knew it would be good, but really, I had no idea.
I’d never been drunk, though I’d been allowed, liberally, to sip my parents’ wine or scotch or crème de menthe. My parents were sober people who worked anxiously to maintain control in every aspect of life. My dad’s big college drinking story involved a show-down with a rival frat member. My dad won by discreetly pouring his drinks into a potted plant.
For me, getting high that first time wasn’t about getting high in the negative sense that we think of it today. It wasn’t abuse. It was use. I wasn’t trying to escape my desperate circumstances. I wasn’t chasing sensual or thought-expanding experiences, though that may have become more of a goal at a later date. I wasn’t trying to forget my problems; I didn’t really have any. And I wasn’t particularly trying to rebel against my parents, who were very good to me, though rebellion was a big part of the youth culture that was reshaping the landscape all around me.
It was the time of the Tet offensive in Vietnam; it was clear the war was becoming a lost cause. The anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements had begun to roil; President Lyndon Johnson had already delivered his surrender speech to the counter culture and the coming new age, announcing that he wouldn’t run for a second term. Hey Hey LBJ. How many kids did you kill today? The status quo of the old white men was beginning to give way to the feelings and needs of the young, the female, and the disenfranchised.
At age 12, deciding to smoke pot—and going to some considerable effort to find some, and to figure out how to smoke it—was about two things. First, it signified I had joined the revolution my slightly older comrades, the baby boomers, had started. You grew your hair, starting with the forelock. You smoked pot. You bought your first pair of jeans, which weren’t even allowed in school; in junior high we had a vitriolic protest to force the administration to legalize dungarees.
I smoked for the first time with my friend Boots Friedman and this weird kid he knew named Milton, whose parents, I could swear, were acting like Soviet spies. We sat outside behind the garage. It was summer in Baltimore, hot and sticky, the night songs of the cicadas in full chorus. I remember the sense that my perspective had changed. And that my head was floating. I felt like my face was on a balloon floating above my body, tethered by a string.
All across the country, similar initiation ceremonies were being carried out in groups of two and three, at camp sites, in basements, in Volkswagen Beetles with all the windows closed so as not to waste any smoke. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” advised the acid guru Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 hippies in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967. Later it was learned that phrase had been coined for him by philosopher Marshall McLuhan, the same guy who said “the medium is the message.” Whoever was responsible, we young folk were hearing loud and clear. We were being urged to detach ourselves from existing conventions. To have sex, do drugs, be free. (Birth control pills were another wonderful new drug of this era.) You have to remember, the draft was hanging over every boy’s head. Each night on the news, the war came to everyone’s living room. Before it was over, in 1975, some 211,000 Americans were killed or wounded in Vietnam. They were all somebody’s brother, the kid from the down the street. My next-door neighbor, with whom I played catch, tried to flee to Canada.
Maybe more important, at least in my own case, smoking pot was about pushing the boundaries of my sheltered suburban upbringing. With a long history of diaspora and persecution, my people, the Jews, tend to huddle together and create golden ghettos for themselves, which has worked out well in some cases but not so well in others. Moving to Pikesville, Maryland, my parents hoped to escape the persecution of their Southern upbringings. Yet, we transplanted Sagers always felt a sense of otherness, forever outsiders in this community with its strange and boisterous ways. The first person I ever heard utter the word kike was my mother. She’d been raised in a world a little like the one depicted in the movie Driving Miss Daisy. I guess you could say she believed in certain standards and practices that were quite different from the ones in operation in our adopted home town—which left me with a keen feeling that there was a lot more waiting to be found somewhere, and which fostered in me apparently an appetite for certain brands of deviant adventure.
* * *
I never set out to be a drugs correspondent.
That was the terminology used by Hunter S. Thompson, with whom I worked, at times closely, and then later succeeded in that unofficial/official position at Rolling Stone, and who I often think of in my own story as a personal Ghost of Christmas Future.
As I came of age as a journalist, in the late seventies and early eighties, the War on Drugs became a defining plank in the platform of our society. In a way you could say that my professional skills and my recreational expertise kind of dovetailed. I had a niche expertise.
Unlike many of the older, Ivy League Pollyannas sent by most news organizations to cover crime and drug-related stories—they seemed to mostly rely on the cops for their points of view—I had a lot of experience and insider information from the other side. By the time I got through college, I knew all about dealers and buys and stepping on shit to make more product to sell. Long before the crack epidemic, I learned how to cook freebase. Like a Harvard guy who majored in Chinese and became a decorated foreign correspondent, I spoke the language and customs of drugs, the dialects of the different exotic tribes within our national borders who dwelt in that world. And I was unafraid—because I already knew that people were just people, no matter how the media tried to portray them as the years went by.
As it happens, some of my fondest memories involve the subjects of these stories. Sleeper from the Venice Gang—he protected me from harm like a personal pit bull for every moment of my six weeks with his homies. I once stayed up all night convincing him not to kill someone who had ripped me off. As a favor to me, he let the guy live. Sleeper is dead now from AIDS, shared needles. Sometimes I drive by his ole lady’s gramma’s house. It’s been redone and looks real fancy. I can still taste the hot tortillas slathered with butter that granny used to give us.
I’m an email or facebook message away from Mark, Don, and David, who separately helped me enter the world of Generation H, young and artistic heroin addicts during the years of Max Fish and The Hat and the nineties hipster scene on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Unfortunately, I find myself having to send David money every so often. He remains a genius, no matter how broken.
The Pope of Pot was a sweetheart, another mad genius—hmm, drugs seem to attract them. The Pope called everyone toots. A flamboyant gay man and amazing cockeyed optimist, he was fiercely unafraid to put his body on the line for the things he believed—and still have a good time doing it. He pissed off the cops and the New York City brass with his blatant protests and public sales of marijuana—he had the first delivery service in Manhattan, and said so openly. He called marijuana “the sacrament” and considered it a holy and healing plant. He even provided his crew of bicycle messengers with a dental plan. After radio’s “King of All Media” Howard Stern got wind of the Pope’s operation and called him live during a broadcast, the Pope eventually went to jail. Inside, he pissed blood for six months before he was allowed to see a doctor. With a fatal prognosis, the government let him go free. A few months later, he died of pancreatic cancer. He’s memorialized as a character in my first novel, Deviant Behavior. I wonder what he would say if he knew that New York has now passed medical marijuana legislation.
A more recent acquaintance was Rick Ross—the real one, not the rapper—who I met for a story for Esquire’s eightieth anniversary issue. Ross and I are near the same age with a similar look—aging athletic little guys, balding with a beard. Having reported on crack since the beginning, I’d crossed paths with Ross’ work many times. I knew all the places, I knew the story, I knew all about him. Finally meeting him was like spending time with a significant historical figure—his part is critical to the understanding of the crack epidemic in this country. The story of the first time he saw cocaine and discovered the power of crack . Or the fact that it was Rick who taught the leaders of the Bloods and the Crips how to cook cocaine powder into crack, which led to the spread of the drug all over the country.
The closest and longest lasting relationship to come out of these stories was my friendship with Rick James.
I suppose our affinity was partly due to the fact that when I met him, and began writing about him for Rolling Stone, he was still in Folsom Prison, which was old and dank and not at all as cool as its image suggests. He had a girlfriend on the outside and some kids, but no real friends. I visited and wrote letters. I became his Boswell. That I (as a rep of a magazine) was paying attention to him and giving him respect, even in his abject condition, was important to him.
On a personal level, Rick and I just clicked. I think it was mainly because we both loved freebase. First behind bars, and later over sushi, we would talk about smoking and swap stories. In unison, our jaws would begin to grind (it’s happening right now as I write this).
Later, when he fell off the wagon, I jumped off too and joined him for one turn around the track.
After he got out of jail, Rick would call or summon me at odd times. He phoned from his hospital bed after his hip replacement, and again after his stroke. At one point, we set out to do his autobiography together. The book never happened, mostly because of the greedy people who were managing each of us, and also because the contract called for me to guarantee that Rick would show up for all the interviews.
To prepare a proposal, we sat down during one long session and I debriefed him of his experience regarding his two favorite topics—sex and freebase. The shit he related was outrageous. There was this thing with an aquarium hose that still haunts me today. Much of it ended up going into my novel, Deviant Behavior, another character intended as a fond tribute.
And one last thing. For the record, Rick James never said “I’m Rick James, bitch.”
That was an invention that first aired on the euphonious show hosted by the comedian David Chappelle. After it became a catchphrase on television, however, I can report that Rick took great pleasure in mimicking it.
Of course, as any journalist knows, there is nothing stranger than truth. During the course of our work on the proposal, Rick took a big hit, exhaled, closed his eyes for a few long moments.
Then his lids sprung open.
“I killed a bitch with an orgasm,” he declared.
Like all of Rick’s stories, it was worth hearing.