It’s about 7 p.m. on a balmy evening in Berkeley, the summer between junior high and high school. I skulk out of the house to meet Danny by the glowing hamburger sign outside Bongo Burger, the Persian fast food joint next to People’s Park. We’re due at Kojo’s birthday party in about an hour. Movies and pizza are on the menu. Typical eighth-grade stuff. But first we have an assignment. In our social circle Danny and I are known as the guys who have the weed. Tonight we’re supposed to bring some. Even Berkeley has its special brand of social etiquette.
We may be dead-end kids but we’re reliable in our dereliction. We fire up on the benches adjacent to the junior high tennis courts every day, watching bright-eyed preppies knock balls back and forth as we puff away to the heavy metal crunch of Metallica and Iron Maiden. Now and then the preppies glance over as we suck on the aqua pipe and exhale billows of pungent smoke into their game. Some of them might even partake on occasion. The line between a preppie and a pothead can be surprisingly fine.
On this night in the park, in the summer of 1984, an eighth of an ounce will do, especially if it’s that tasty green, crystalline California bud. We call it the one-hit, because after one hit you’re done. I always seem to have a lot of friends when I’m holding. Sometimes I even get invited to birthday parties. Stoners may linger on the edges of most social occasions, but they can also come in handy when the good kids can’t buy a thrill.
Danny is a sullen, spiky-haired kid of Malaysian descent, raised by wealthy adoptive parents in the Berkeley hills. One day soon his cardiologist father will forbid me from entering their home after we smoke out the basement. He was among my constant companions, brothers in debased self-esteem, and tonight he’s in his usual state of isolated bemusement, brought on by a combination of too many drugs and a surplus of directionless anger. He’s a pain in the ass to be around but so am I. And tonight he’s got cash, a must tonight since I wasn’t able to pinch any smoke from the bottom drawer of my dad’s dresser.
It’s just after dusk when Danny approaches his dealer, a skinny, scraggly, speedy white guy who seems right at home amid the benches, blankets and stink of rarely bathed bodies. People’s Park once stood as a potent symbol of a city’s noble struggles for genuine causes. The free speech movement was launched just a few blocks to the south. Vietnam protests hummed along steadily. But by the ’80s the park had slouched into its current identity as a squalid makeshift village for the city’s ample homeless population. It was a scary place, a perfect spot for persuading a bum to buy you wine coolers or Mickey’s Big Mouths, getting mugged, or, in this case, scoring drugs. Danny pulls out his cash. It’s on. Just one snag: no weed tonight. What are the odds in Berkeley? The same drought that left Dad’s dresser barren has apparently dried up the always-fertile turf of People’s Park.
But the guy has something else, something we haven’t tried yet. Acid.
I watch Danny shrug, smirk, hand over his bills and pocket a cellophane wrapper from a cigarette pack. He shows me the score within, a row of small white paper squares emblazoned with green print. “Do we smoke it?” he murmurs, a little like the girls in Easy Rider who don’t know what to make of the LSD offered in that New Orleans graveyard. “I don’t think so,” I reply, remembering something my dad once told me. Father knows best. “I think we put it under our tongues.” And so we do.
Ten minutes pass. Then twenty. No giggling. No comfortable numbness. No nothing. Unaware that the stuff takes at least a half hour to kick in, we figure we got ripped off.
Or maybe we didn’t take enough. Yes. That must be it.
Danny takes the cellophane from his jeans pocket and hands me a second tab. He tears one off for himself. I start to suck on another hit of highly potent LSD.
How did I get here? My father smoked the stickiest, smelliest weed morning to night, in front of anyone who happened to be around. Marijuana was a constant in my childhood household, as omnipresent as my parents’ violent mood swings. I can still smell the wretched blended aroma of pot and shit that enveloped the bathroom after my dad’s epic morning bowel movements.
Eventually I felt the need to see what was behind the smell. I hit my first joint when I was 12, in line to see The Return of the Jedi with my parents and sister. We were at the Coronet in San Francisco, on whose majestic wide screen we saw all of our Star Wars movies (including the first one, when I was six, at which my dad dropped acid and really enjoyed the show). Six years later, same place, I asked to try some, and father complied with son’s request. He may have been irresponsible but he was no hypocrite. I had always felt a son’s impulse to bond with his father. I imagine he felt something similar, a need to be loved that would haunt him throughout his life.
I took hold of the roach clip as we milled in the movie line. I inhaled. It didn’t work. (Does it ever work the very first time?) If Jabba the Hutt inspired terror that night, or the Ewoks made me realize I was getting too old for stuffed animals, the sensations weren’t chemically enhanced. But I had acquired the taste, and soon enough I learned to love getting high.
More to the point, I loved the mental escape from what I faced everyday at home. My mom and dad met in an Illinois state mental hospital in 1965. Dad, the recent recipient of a mathematics degree, punched his ticket to the nuthouse by punching a cop. Mom, who had an MA in literature, heard voices that told her to kill herself. (Over the years she tried multiple times, without success). One of my childhood friends used to get a kick out of telling our buddies where my parents became a couple. He actually seemed impressed. I was not.
I felt a deep stain of shame, even though I didn’t know exactly what it all meant. Was there a big Indian pushing a broom in the hospital, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Were there black orderlies who did the bidding of an evil head nurse? When I was a teenager I visited my mother on the psychiatric ward at a mental ward in Berkeley, where she decided to commit herself for a few days after a psychotic break that my dad pronounced a plea for attention. As I remember it she called me during final exams and told me she was going to kill herself. That was her style.
Dad got out of the Illinois hospital first, then snuck Mom out in the trunk of his car. They left their native Chicago and drove out to the land of California sunshine in 1969, a few months after Mayor Daley unleashed goon squad hell on protesters at the Democratic National Convention. They arrived in the Bay Area two years late for the Summer of Love. Timing was never their thing.
My parents established their new lives in ’70s Berkeley, a city in the fog of a bad ’60s hangover. I’m a native son of a town with high ideals, which don’t mean much to a kid trying to dodge homeless people yelling at voices that exist only in their heads. I grew up in a part of the world that offers an endless supply of natural beauty, from the waves lapping at the Berkeley Marina to the redwood-spiked peak of Mount Tamalpais. I was surrounded by an absurd amount of beauty that I barely ever saw. You could say I lived in God’s country, if Berkeley could be bothered to believe in an entity as banal and bourgeois as God. Besides, as I would soon discover, acid could help you see things that God would be hard pressed to match.
Danny and I arrive at Kojo’s house tripping hard and trying to disguise our LSD panic. This a preppie birthday party for kids who see pot as an exotic treat. It’s not a gathering of wastoids, except for the two that just walked in. I enter a room full of 13-year-olds in Izod shirts and my stomach flutters violently. I’ve been jerking my leg up and down so fast on the bus ride over that my shins ache, which makes me worried my leg might detach and float away at any moment. I feel like a stranger to myself, and if the goofy grin on my face is any indication I’m in love with this newfound isolation.
Fortunately the lights go out soon enough to mask our dramatically dilated pupils. It’s time for the movie portion of the party. First up: Flashdance.
Flashdance, as I have discovered since, is an odd experience even if you’re not tripping on your very first hits of acid. On the one hand it’s your typical Reagan-era dose of can-do Gipperness, mixed with just enough flesh to keep an adolescent boy’s pulse racing. You might recall that it started an early-’80s fashion trend. Listen up, girls: you too can cut off the collar of your sweatshirt, sling one side beneath your shoulder, work as a welder by day and exotic dancer by night, and end up with the man of your dreams. It truly is morning in America.
But what about all…those…flashing…lights? See, our heroine works in your typical Pittsburgh greasy spoon/strip club that specializes in modern avant-garde dance numbers, complete with Fosse-esque outfits, checkered walls, blinding strobes and what appears to be a shower head above a stage. Pull a chain and whoosh – soaking babe.
Now take all that and put it in a dark room full of snickering adolescent boys, at least one of whom is pretty sure his skin is melting. Not melting in a bad way, mind you, just not all there where it belongs. Danny is sitting in a corner giggling; who knows what his skin is up to. And those lights…that water…Am I ever going to have sex?...Where are Kojo’s parents?...I never realized how much my hands felt like rubber…When did the movie end?
I didn’t realize it then, but I was indulging in the two great escapes that would define me for years. Drugs and cinema. They can both take you somewhere else, away from whatever happens to be bothering you at any particular time. They’re both addictive, in their own ways. They both get in your blood and leave you wanting just a little more.
If my dad got me hooked on drugs, my mom infected me with a love of movies. She would read particularly ripe Pauline Kael quotes out loud from The New Yorker. Our house overflowed with books and records. My mom and dad were highly cultured misfits. Such are life’s ironies: The same parents whose neglect damaged me also provided me with the passions that would save me many years later.
Mom dragged my sister and me to all manner of inappropriate fare. One day when I was 11 she decided to take us to see Blow Out, Brian De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s ennui extravaganza Blow Up. Siskel and Ebert liked it; we figured it must be good. John Travolta plays a sound technician who witnesses a murder and ends up in the killer’s crosshairs. We took the bus up to the theater, ran to a local deli to grab contraband snacks (my mom taught me everything I know about sneaking food into the movies) and showed up a few minutes late for the main attraction.
The first scene of Blow Out unfolds during the dubbing of a porno movie: lots of panting, lots of flesh, lots of stuff an 11-year-old hasn’t yet encountered even with overly permissive parents. My mom looked chagrined, a little confused, and wondered out loud if we were in the right theater. I sort of heard her through the sound of my eyes popping out of their sockets. Soon Travolta’s reassuring mug replaced the tits and we settled in for an afternoon of suspenseful sleaze. We were home free.
Other times the movie outings didn’t end so well, especially when Dad came along. My parents were dying to see The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s ultraviolent 1980 Western. The movie didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time. I remember a lot of shooting and slow motion death, what I would later identify as wannabe Sam Peckinpah stuff. Nothing too shocking. But for some reason my dad was furious with the movie’s graphic violence. As we left the theater I could see the doom in his eyes. This is always how I see my father in my memory: eyes bugging out with rage, even when glazed over from all-day pot smoking sessions and all-night cocaine binges. I would later get to know this mood well. I even found a name for it: his “That’s the last time” mood, as in “That’s the last time I ever go to the movies again,” words I heard him mumble as we drove back home.
But I could still rely on him in a pinch if drugs were involved.
Drugs were clearly involved at Kojo’s birthday party, but only two guests had ingested them. It seems the two acidheads were so far gone they forgot they were supposed to bring the dope.
“Hey, where is it?” grins Ben, one of those alligator shirts who dabble in pot. “Where’s what?” I ask, checking for skin melt. Then I snap to. “Oh yeah. We couldn’t get any.”
“Can’t you call your parents and get some?” My dad’s pothead status is the stuff of schoolyard lore.
I nod, figuring the evening can’t get any stranger.
I am wrong.
Soon I’m calling home. “Uh, hi Mom. Do you think you could ask Dad to bring us a joint?” She asks him. He says his stock is kind of low right now, which, of course, is why we’re in this jam to begin with. But he agrees to twist me up a little something from his private stash. Even the most inept parents are hardwired to show love however they can.
About twenty minutes later a lime green Datsun B210 pulls up outside Kojo’s house. Two middle-aged adults sit inside, each sporting a red vinyl jacket adorned with a gazillion zippers. I think they were going for a communal Michael Jackson thing. Thriller was hot then. I tell Kojo’s folks I forgot my toothbrush and walk outside to meet the parents.
Mom smiles a nod-and-wink smile through the passenger window. She hands me a small plastic baggy. I unroll it to find a moist, skinny joint. Something about the entire transaction doesn’t feel right, but I’m too high to give it much thought. I smile sheepishly, say thanks and head back inside.
The preppies are happy. We head out to shoot some hoops at a nearby park. Not every 13-year-old can toke up in the house.
Only the lucky ones.