S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In this column “The Last Laugh,” Park provides insights on how to grow old well.
One of the things I tell young people is to eat bacon, drink heavily, do psychedelics and smoke. Then at forty shit-can the cigarettes and switch to pot. This is not what they’re used to hearing, of course, so at first they think I’m kidding. But if the objective is a ripe old age (much less having a good time en route) then dissipation is the secret sauce.
Because I know dozens of old reprobates like myself, boomers who’ve devoted their adult lives to booze, drugs, indolence and hamburgers … and virtually all of them are still alive. A couple are hanging on by their fingernails, of course, but in general they’re doing remarkably well. Even as the clean livers I’ve known, who eschewed opiates for marathons and red meat for vegetables, are dead and gone. I got a call about the last of them yesterday, a woman who’d been a friend since junior high. Head cheerleader, Phi Beta Kappa, nurse, do-gooder, wife and mother who never drank or smoked and Bam! they find her face down in her soup bowl. (Likely a kale and ginger broth with a smattering of seaweed.)
This “good die young” stuff surprised me at first. It began at fifty when my buddy Toby passed away. He spent his adult life hoping exercise would save him from his father’s fate—dying young of a heart attack—only to keel over himself at forty-eight. The memorial took place at his Marin County home. A hundred of us stood around the pool while his young, hot, bikini clad Swedish widow guided his ashes (inside a burning Viking ship) across the shallow end. We’d all gotten plenty high beforehand and looking around I realized I hadn’t seen that many addicts in one place since my mental ward days. I imagined they were thinking the same thing I was, i.e. I couldn’t believe I’d made it to forty, much less hung around long enough to bury Toby.
Surely his early death was an aberration, a one-off. Instead I watched the self-righteous drop like flies in the years ahead. Did I experience some smug satisfaction as a consequence, a bit of ne’er do well gloating? Absolutely, but Fate offing the wrong guys tempered my glee. Take my Bay Area buddies, for instance: they should all be dead from alcohol poisoning by now. Great booze rivers have coursed through their livers for half a century; toss in the opiates, sun, cigarettes and donuts—and it’s a miracle they’re still around.
Much less walking and talking. Hell, if it weren’t for mirrors there’d be no justice at all. Unfortunately, we’ve gotta look in those occasionally, and no amount of squinting or plastic surgery will alter that verdict. But again: you’re old, you’ve taken the hits, you’re supposed to look like shit. It reminds me of something George Carlin said: “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally used up and worn out, shouting … ‘Man, what a ride!’”
I did a reading and meet ‘n’ greet at a peninsula book club recently. Ten women, all of them local teachers, and me. Hardly my usual crowd, so I tried bribing them with marijuana brownies first. They each in turn declined—“Oh no, no … I really couldn’t”—then the moment my back was turned it was Zip! straight into a purse or pocket. Turns out this is their M.O. They’re the same teachers who don disguises, then drive to a pot store thirty miles away so they won’t be recognized.
“Good golly, Miss Molly … what are you doin’ with that bag of Cherry Gorilla?”
When they told me that I was proud of them; I was also glad I’d brought the brownies along. In the meanwhile only one of them had actually read High & Dry, so the rest were there to hear me yak about pot. And I can do that ’til the sun goes down.
Young growers come up to me now, thank me for my service as a cultivation pioneer, a guy who was willing to risk his neck for weed during the dark, repressive years. I’m grateful, believe me, so I don’t remind them I only did it because I was sick of working for a living. (Well, that and the highs.) Or how—worse yet—that’s the part I’m proudest of. I mean I don’t like to brag or anything, but during my quarter century as an indoor grower I had a phony job as a security guard. I knew a guy who owned a warehouse and he’d keep me on the books, issue me checks and health insurance (he even enrolled me in the union) while I repaid him with pot. So for twenty years I never once showed up for work. Hell, I barely knew where the place was. This is classic, heartwarming Americana. Even the ending, where instead of a gold watch or a retirement party, where I could have met my coworkers for the first time, we were blackmailed by the office secretary: either pay her hush money or she was going to tell someone who cared.
One of the things I tell young people is to eat bacon, drink heavily, do psychedelics and smoke.
How can you not be grateful for a life like that? At the book club that evening the woman who’d read High & Dry asked me the same question a doctor would a week later. I was there to see him about the “essential tremor” I’m developing in my hands. I was afraid it might be Parkinson’s, but he said that was usually inherited.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “What about Muhammad Ali? He got it from too many punches.”
“Well, Wilson,” said this young internist, “have you ever had any insults to your brain?”
Five minutes later he held up his hand. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re saying you’ve spent your life in a … Jackass movie!?”
“Think of it as Nightshade,” I said. “A good high if you live.”
And that’s my point: we do. On and on and on. My degenerate buddies and I are like that old yarn about the same crowd showing up at accidents. Has a good man died? Has a loving mother been found face down in the tulips? Call the Old Rummies: they’ll fill the pews and buy you a drunk afterwards.
Because that’s the other part of the story: not only have most of my addict pals survived … they’ve thrived. Big cars, big houses, big lives. (With a few tormented families thrown in, of course, but that’s like the skin tone, you don’t get everything.)
So when you’re staring down at that kale smoothie or squeezing into the Spandex for a rainy winter run, maybe you should do a line and drink a pint of tequila instead. Seriously. The people around you will grumble at first, but what do they know? They’re a bunch of goners.