Thursday, February 11, 2016

My Highness (Categories)

Note: I wrote this to read on stage at the Short Attention Span Hour - a monthly event organized by the Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts. When I began, it was supposed to be just a story about smoking pot. It turned into something resembling an early portion of my unplanned memoir.

I was high once... for three years. It's not that difficult to do. In the morning, you perform the proverbial wake and bake. And you stay high until you go to bed. 

One might wonder how this happens...

I lived just outside of Boston until I was thirteen, then moved to Florida in time for high school. I had already smoked marijuana in Massachusetts – I was a precocious child – but, in the late 70’s, in Florida, it was everywhere. 

My parents chose to live in the Stuart – Jensen Beach area, on the east coast, a hundred miles north of Miami. Where the Indian River ends at the tip of Hutchinson Island, the St. Lucie Inlet forms the St. Lucie River, which then splits into two wide branches and many tributaries.  The small city of Stuart is surrounded by water on three sides. The breeze was constant. We never used air conditioning. But, for a restless teenage kid, there wasn’t much to do besides play sports… surf… and get high.  So… I did.

Stuart, Florida
High school can be very cliquish, but I was fortunate in that I straddled the usual social boundaries. I played football, so I was ok with the ra-ra crowd. I surfed, so I carried a bit of that sun-drenched mystique. I could hold my own in the classroom - some people respected that. And the reliable drug connections I developed meant I always had weed, which made me acceptable to… almost everyone else.  

While the many waterways around Stuart made for a truly scenic area, they also made it an ideal location…  for smugglers. During Prohibition, it was rum from the Caribbean. During the 70’s, it was drugs from Columbia and Mexico. Obviously, there were many successful trips, but it wasn’t unusual for small vessels to approach the coast, and, if they detected danger, they would toss their illicit cargo overboard and haul ass. It was common for bales of ocean-soaked marijuana to float up on shore to be discovered by some early morning surfer or fisherman. And, of course, we called it… seaweed.

You could dry it out, and it gave you a nice, mellow buzz. But you had to smoke a lot of it.That's where Helen came in handy.

"Helen" was a pipe that belonged to my friend Mark. The bowl on this thing was about the size of a small coffee mug - perfect for cheap seaweed. This stuff was usually loaded with stems and seeds, and it wasn't worth the effort it took to clean it. You would just stuff a whole fistful of it into the bowl, fire it up, and be on your way.

The problem was , sometimes, when seeds got hot enough... they'd burst... kind of like popcorn.

We christened her "Helen" after the most destructive volcanic event in the modern history of the United States.  It killed 57 people, destroyed 250 homes, 185 miles of highway, 47 bridges, and 15 miles of railway. This was, of course, Mt. St. Helens.

Smoking seaweed out of this ginormous bowl... was kind of like our own little Mt. St. Helens. Every now and then, a seed would explode and shower you with cheap weed in various stages of incineration.

We were always driving around in my friend's car, listening to music and getting high. So, a typical experience with Helen might sound like this...

*lighter flicks*  *inhale*   *POP*  *screams*  *pat flames on your lap*

This would be followed by the hysterical laughter of those in the car who weren't currently on fire.

Eventually,we had little burn holes all over the front of our entire wardrobe. It was around this time we began playing a game we called “Categories.” This was a way to challenge ourselves mentally, even when we were getting high.

We picked two categories that were entirely unrelated, and came up with a term or name that included both categories – usually by slightly bastardizing one of the words. Frequently, one of the categories was music or movies, and the other involved body parts or fluids… because… you know… it was more fun that way.

I’ll give you an example. I don’t recall how it started, but one of our first attempts involved movie titles and… excrement. I was pretty happy with my effort - Logan’s Runs. But the winner was - Two Stools for Sister Sara.

We would keep throwing out ideas until somebody had one that left us laughing too hard to continue.

I applied to the state’s two major universities – the one in Tallahassee and the one in Gainesville - and was accepted to both, so I had an important choice to make. I had no idea where to go until one day I saw an article in Playboy magazine – we only read it for the articles.

This was their very first ranking of top party schools. I remember looking at the list, and not seeing any that interested me. Then I saw a giant footnote at the bottom. It said, “You will notice that the University of Florida is not on this list. That’s because we feel it would be unfair to compare amateurs with professionals.”

The next day, I enrolled at the University of Florida.

If you know me at all, or have heard me read before, you know that music has played an important part in my life. Let me give you some background on the music scene I stumbled into upon arrival in Gainesville…

Bernie Leaden and Don Felder met when they were in Gainesville High School. Felder started a band called the Continentals. Also in this band was a guy named Stephen Stills, who was attending the University of Florida at the time. Stills left, and moved to Los Angeles where he helped form a band called Buffalo Springfield, and later, partnered with David Crosby, Graham Nash and, sometimes, former band mate Neil Young. Does this ring a bell?

Meanwhile, Bernie Leaden replaced Stills in the Continentals. But, then, Leadon left for L.A. as well, where he met Don Henley and Glenn Frey and formed a band called… the Eagles. When the Eagles went looking to add a slide guitar player in 1974, they called Don Felder, who was back in Gainesville. Duane Allman had taught Felder how to play the slide.

Flier - Mudcrutch with Skynyrd
There was a seedy but fabulous rock and roll club named Dubs - a short drive north of town – out on 441. The house band in the mid-Seventies was called Mudcrutch – which originally included Tom Leadon – Bernie’s brother. Tom Leaden left the band, but, in the meantime, they had acquired a quirky, but talented singer-guitarist, and, when they, too, reconvened in L.A., they became Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The area of Northeast Florida between Gainesville and Jacksonville was a Southern rock hotspot that spawned Blackfoot, Molly Hatchett, .38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and several members of the Allman Brothers.

By the time I arrived, a famous old blues musician had settled on the town’s outskirts. His real name was Ellas McDaniel. You might know him as… Bo Diddley.

Gainesville’s downtown music plaza is named after him.

During the time I was discovering all this, I remember another game of Categories. In this case, the categories were classic music artists and body parts. The winner was… Urethra Franklin.

Now, in case you weren’t aware… marijuana enhances your music listening experience. I guess it’s not surprising that the music scene in Gainesville was also the marijuana scene. Or maybe it was the other way around. I don’t know. But I found myself immersed in this amazing music culture – with weed being a common bond that brought us together.

Mudcrutch Poster That Mentions Sub Circus
 I remember going to a jam session in the upstairs loft of the Subterranean Circus – a well-known head shop and hippie hang-out. In the corner was this guy everyone called “Gainesville Bob.” He was homeless. He didn’t bathe or change his clothes, so the sight of him was a bit disturbing. He frequently lingered by the dumpster behind Leonardo’s Pizza – living on discarded crusts. But he kept to himself. He never begged or bothered anyone. He rarely spoke.

I wondered what he was doing in this gathering of musicians. And then someone handed him a little Casio keyboard, and he started playing. And he was good. Really good. It turns out his name was Robert Peterson. He had played in the Candymen – Roy Orbison’s backing band. Then he played in the McCoys – who are best known for their hit “Hang on Sloopy” – which went to number one in 1965. Their guitar player was Rick Derringer. Somewhere, somehow, Bob’s brain short-circuited. He ended up living on the streets of Gainesville. And I remember thinking, holy crap. What a town. Even the vagrants have talent!

Gainesville Bob (photographer unknown)
That was an important lesson for me though, and I still try to keep it in the back of my mind. Because we tend to put people into categories - sometimes without even realizing it. But all of us have a story – every one of us. Even those who are different… or don’t have a place to live. I admit, my natural inclination would have been to avoid Gainesville Bob. But someone invited him to the Sub Circus sessions. And I was glad they did.

The star of some of these jam sessions was a multi-talented, young kid with a funny hippie name. He was about 17 then, but he had charisma. You could see it. He could draw people in without even trying. His family had moved to a small ranch south of town, and he was making his way into the music scene. Eventually, he formed a band called Aleka’s Attic with his sister, Rain. They played at some of the small, alternative clubs. I still have some pictures somewhere. His name was River Phoenix.

Aleka's Attic in Gainesville (photographer unknown)
 After a few years, my marijuana use declined somewhat. I smoked daily, but not continuously. This was probably at least partly due to an exponential increase in alcohol consumption. I mean… it was Gainesville…

If there is a hell, there are a number of reasons it is likely to be my eventual destination, not the least of which is the winner I had in the game of Categories we played one night while walking back from the Sub Circus. We stuck with the excrement category, because… why wouldn’t you? But the other category was famous book titles. And my offering was… the Diarrhea of Anne Frank.

At some point, I went to dinner with several people at a Gainesville restaurant. The group included a friend of my roommate named Jack Mason. He played and sang in N’Dolphin and the Space Masons – two bands that are remembered fondly. For some reason, his parents were there. And I recall one of the usual, brief conversations when you meet someone and ask what they do for a living. Even though I was high, I could sense some discomfort from Jack’s father, but he said, “I’m a writer.” Over the years, I’ve seen that same discomfort many times – when “I’m a writer” meant “I like to write, but I do something else for a living.”

But, back then, I thought it was cool. I’m pretty sure my reaction was something like, “Right on, man.”

I think I kind of knew he had been an assault helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and was suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and had been working… delivering newspapers.

What I didn’t know was that he had been arrested a couple of years before that for attempting to smuggle a load of Columbian marijuana on a sailboat. And it turned out, he had been writing. While awaiting an appeal and sentencing, he found an agent. And that agent found a publisher. Several months after this dinner, in the summer of 1983, Robert Mason appeared on the Today Show. His book had received positive reviews. The week after his TV appearance, he reported to federal prison. His book – Chickenhawk – became a hardcover and paperback best-seller while he spent two years in jail.

After this dinner, there was a game of Categories. The categories were musical artists and bodily fluids. The winner was – Semen and Garfunkel.

Ten years passed. I lost contact with many people. I tried to fit myself into the proper category – as our culture demands. I had done what most people do – the things we are programmed to do… Graduated from college. Got a job that required a coat and tie. Got married. Bought cars. Bought houses.

I stopped getting high.

But, by the mid-90’s, I began to realize I had sold my soul in return for a stable life.

And I wanted my soul back.

By then, the Subterranean Circus had been plowed under to make room for a parking lot. In July of 1993, Robert Peterson - - Gainesville Bob - died when he was hit by a car while crossing a street late at night. And, in October that same year, River Phoenix died from a drug overdose in Los Angeles.

As I learned of these events, how could I not think of those old days – and the pleasant haze of my highness?

I didn’t know exactly how it had happened, but I knew I had followed a path that wasn’t right for me.

I wanted to be the person who thought it was perfectly reasonable when someone said they wanted to write a best seller, or be in a rock band. I wanted to have friends who didn’t think it was impractical or crazy if you wanted to do something creative. They’d just say, “Right on, man.”

I didn’t need bigger and better things. I didn’t really need things at all. Experiences were what kept me alive. Those were the things that stayed in my mind. Those will be the things I enjoy doing as long as I can, and will enjoy remembering as long as I’m able.

Of course, everything in my life had to come apart before I could rebuild it.

It took a while. I’m still in the rebuilding phase.

I may always be… rebuilding. There was one last game of Categories I recall from my highness. And I should add that the more we played the game, the more we narrowed the categories – to make it more difficult. In this case, the categories were bodily secretions and figure skaters. The winner – Peggy Phlegming (Fleming).