You might have noticed: marijuana caused me problems. It led to my arrest in Yosemite. Before that, the summer camp banned me because of it.
The first time I smoked it, a friend shared a joint of Thai Stick he got from his brother. We toked behind a cinema, before walking in to watch Woody Allen’s ‘Bananas’. We annoyed the audience with outsized laughter, but that didn’t trouble me. I’d found relief!
Before writing this, I wasn’t sure of my age when pot took over my life. But looking up the movie’s release date tells me I was twelve.
My dad forbade my sister from introducing me to me drugs and alcohol, so my first high wasn’t with her. But once I’d smoked on my own, the rule ceased to apply. She became my main source for the first couple of years.
Jan would be graduating in a few months, but already she wasn’t home much. She’d run away countless times since we moved to California. Now that she was coming of age, my dad ceased trying to control her. He didn’t drive me to Venice Beach to find her anymore. He didn’t me send me into the shadowy apartments where she hung out. I no longer led her to his car for the sullen drive back to Pacific Palisades.
Jan had taken me to her hangouts many times. In those days, Venice looked worn out. The apartments fronting the sand were well-maintained, painted, and landscaped. But seedier places dotted the blocks further from the water. Though I loved spending time with my sister, those dark, crowded rooms unsettled me. Smoke hung in layers below the ceilings; bottles and ashtrays crowded the end tables. People wearing suede vests, halter tops, and head bands squeezed together on dingy sofas. They gazed vacantly or talked too loudly. Here and there couples groped each other. I’d call them kids now, but back then I thought them adults.
After I’d tried pot on my own, Jan gave her friends permission to offer me occasional puffs. The apartments grew less threatening. I withdrew into my transformed mind. One place had a wall of irregular chunks of sandstone mortared together. Even now I can picture how the rocks bulged and throbbed as I stared at them.
When Jan and her boyfriend rented a place in Santa Monica, I began spending most of my weekends with them. My pot smoking increased, and I began drinking with it. The first time I combined the two the room spun, like a carnival ride. That was fun until nausea took hold. I learned the lesson. After that, I stepped outside for walks whenever the floor began to sway.
For two years, pot smoking was something I did on weekends with Jan. At age fourteen, I began attending the local ‘high school’, which served students in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. I soon met Philip, a neighborhood kid who also attended Palisades High He was from New York, and his accent, slang, and Bob Dylan haircut struck me as strange. But invited me into his home, and soon I was spending my afternoons smoking pot with him while watching Star Trek reruns. From then on, marijuana was my daily relief. I started smoking it in the morning before school, during lunchtime, as soon as school let out, and before going to bed.
Pot slowed my thoughts, brightened my world, and soothed my heart. It also brought less happy consequences.
The first week of tenth grade, shortly before I met Philip, an English teacher handed out a list of 300 vocabulary words. We were to work through the words during the semester, with a quiz on twenty of them each week. I’d never been given such a long list before. I scanned it a few times and found the words and definitions stuck easily in memory. The quizzes would be a snap! But when the teacher handed out another three hundred words the next semester, they didn’t stick the same way. I’d have to study weekly, like most of the others. Memory loss was the first side effect of my new medication.
Other problems followed. I soon knew Marijuana was a poor solution, but it was the only one I had. I clung to it for the next ten years.
On the John Muir Trail, pot led to my second arrest, even though I didn’t have any in my possession. Rick and I hiked off the trail to Lake Thomas Edison, a reservoir with roads and high tension lines connecting it to Fresno and San Joaquin Valley. A large campground abutted the lake, with a store and post office at its center. We went there daily. I was awaiting a package I’d asked my sister to send. At our last resupply stop, at Devil’s Postpile National Monument, I’d called and persuaded her to send me a bag of weed.
While in Yosemite Valley I’d smoked every day. There was always someone willing to share, and it probably wouldn’t have been hard to find a seller, though I didn’t try. I’d set out on the JMT with the idea of kicking my habit. But the habit had other plans, and within a day or two the cravings grew fierce. I’d called Jan desperate for relief, and I looked forward to that package feeling something close to lust.
Day after day, the camp postmaster tole me there was no parcel with my name on it. Though I began to suspect Jan had let me down, I persisted. We stayed longer at Lake Edison than we’d planned as several days passed with the same disappointment.
Our supplies dwindled. I called Jan again. It took some doing, but I got her to admit she’d never sent me any weed. She said it was fear of the law, but consequences had never deterred her before. I now know that she—like me—struggled with so-called Attention Deficit Disorder. I didn’t know that term back then, but I knew she was unreliable. I should never have expected her to work out something as difficult as wrapping and mailing a package.
It was time to give up. I told Rick we should hit the trail after stocking up again at the market. But he’d spent all his money. I didn’t have much myself, but I wasn’t broke. A kinder kid would have bought food for two. A wiser kid would have realized it was time to split from Rick. But to the kid I was, it seemed logical to urge him to steal food from the local store. I’d been shoplifting for years and had never been caught. What could go wrong? I suggested he load a stuff sack with supplies, then duck out the door when no one was looking.
The plan might have worked, but we had a reputation. One night we’d raided campground coolers for booze. We’d also scored a couple of big steaks, which made a great meal but led to our downfall. They belonged to a policeman on vacation. He did some detective work, figured out who had stolen his goods and where we were camped, then spoke with the local ranger. So after the store owner reported a theft from his store, the authorities knew who was responsible. We returned to our tents and saw the ranger, the steak owner, and two uniformed cops waiting for us.
I knew the ranger. A pretty young woman, she’d been kind to me. I’d found her blond-haired, gun-toting image beguiling. But she was frowning now. The thefts weren’t her beef; what pissed her off was our smoldering fire pit. I tried to convince her we’d doused the fire, so a buried ember must have reignited it. She waved away the lie and let the others take over.
The retired cop took me aside. He was a big, stern guy with a brown mustache the size of a squirrel’s tail. I tried not to tremble as he confronted me. I felt mad at myself: why aren’t I tougher than this? The owner of the steaks seemed plenty angry about having been deprived of them, but he told me the other cops had decided not to arrest me for receiving stolen goods from the store. So he himself wasn’t going to press charges. Everyone knew I was guilty, but they weren’t going to pursue my role in the thefts. I’d be taken to Juvenile Hall as a ‘minor out of control’. I was getting off easy.
These days, we’d say this wasn’t a lucky break; it was privilege. I was a white teenaged boy from a wealthy neighborhood. As I learned about my relative good fortune, I glanced over at Rick, the young adult with no fixed address. Handcuffed and kneeling in the dirt, he wore a bleak expression. We were only in this mess because I’d insisted on waiting for package of pot from my sister, a package that never came. My behavior had contributed—in a big way—to his arrest. It was hard to avoid the parallel with the trouble I’d caused Brad back in Yosemite. I felt raw discomfort, which I’d later recognize as shame trying to get my attention.
The uniforms pulled Rick up and walked him down the trail. One led and one followed, gripping a cuffed arm from the back. The cop up front carried his pack, holding it by a shoulder strap, like an unbalanced suitcase. I was allowed to don my own. The ranger hiked ahead while the retired policeman followed me closely from behind. As we exited the site, I noticed Rick’s walking stick leaning against a tree. It looked more like a club than an aid for walking, but it was important to him. He’d carved it with abstract designs and often fondled it as we sat in camp. I asked the ranger to carry it down for him. She hesitated, recognizing it as a crude weapon, then picked it up and brought it along.