S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “High Hopes,” Park remembers how he found his calling: marijuana cultivation.
The only thing I ever wanted to be was me. Through all the jobs and opportunities and misadventures there was never a moment—however fleeting—when the light bulb went on and I thought, Oh yeah, this looks interesting … I’ll spend the rest of my life doing this! (There was always the writing, of course, but we’re talking about earning a living here.)
So I just did whatever came along. It’s an approach I wouldn’t recommend to others, any more than I would being age forty before you have a thousand in the bank. It was a factotum’s lot that I framed as life’s “shit sandwich,” the insults you have to endure in order to feed yourself. When I couldn’t stand it anymore I’d go back to college, make a vague stab at respectability, but then word processors appeared in the late Seventies. Here, at last, was a job I could do on remote control. Ever since those brain diseases as a boy (when my hippocampus, apparently, rewired itself) I’d performed all mental activities at hyper speed. To get me out of the house my mother enrolled me in a summer typing class at fourteen.
I was the youngest student by a couple years and I’d also been hunting-and-pecking on my older brother’s typer since I was twelve, so I had both anxiety and bad habits to overcome. Once I did, however, I never looked back. By the end of the summer I was doing eighty words a minute; when I enrolled in college four years later that number had crept past a hundred and when I finally worked on computer keyboards it was, what? One hundred fifty? One hundred sixty?
It was a blur to behold (I’m told) and I mostly mailed it in. It’s why I became a legal specialist and, as long as the boilerplate the attorney gave me was legible, I was able to input and edit with a minimum of attention. Leaving the rest of me to enjoy whatever pot I’d smoked or eaten that day (usually both). I had plenty to ponder at the time—including a near-death experience with hepatitis—but most of my reveries surrounded the one great quandary of my youth, i.e. how to survive without jobs.
It was only mental masturbation until 1981: then I was offered the chance to grow pot. While it’s true I never experienced the career light bulb it’s also a fact that, since my teens—before I ever planted anything, and didn’t know a marigold from a daisy—I’d been fascinated with marijuana horticulture. What was that about? Were the THC receptors in my brain beckoning before I ever smoked the stuff? Did I have yawning craters up there? Because none of the other kids in my ’65 preppie high school were reading, talking and fantasizing about this mysterious weed from Mexico.
It was all pure happenstance and, looking back on my days, it seems that (in both life and art) the best parts are the accidents.
Even as the horticultural itch never left me. I was living in Seattle in 1981 when—one rainy day in February—fortune knocked on my door.
It was Bittermonk, my rancorous old friend from Evergreen State, and I hadn’t seen him in a decade. Mostly because he told me he’d shoot me if our paths crossed again, a barbarous fallout from an evening in Bellingham, Washington when—under the influence of malt liquor and multiple hits of mescaline—I committed heinous acts in a blackout.
Or so he claimed and who was I to argue? I didn’t remember a second of it and, given his penchant for gunplay, saw no reason to press the point.
I’d certainly missed him, though, as he was one-of-a-kind and, unlike most poets I’d known, a good man for trouble. When I saw him at my door, that sneaky grin inching across his face, my inclination was to reach out and hug him.
Then I remembered his threat. I did a quick visual search, noticed he was holding a paper bag.
“Eh, Bittermonk … you aren’t packing, are you?” I asked.
“Well yes, I am,” he said, drawing out a long, sparkling Sativa icicle. “I’m packing a bud from my latest grow. A peace offering to an old friend.”
He could shoot me later: I hadn’t seen weed like that since I left L.A. I dragged him inside and we smoked a bomber while filling each other in on the ways we’d disgraced our alma mater since our last meeting. Turns out he was a Humboldt County grower and, when I evidenced interest in the subject, he offered to let me help him and his partner. They’d just leased a site near Blocksburg, California, a property called “Hope Ranch.”
The place where hope went to die for me. I found myself on the four-hundred-acre spread that May and it was the ideal Humboldt layout, with miles of roads, large water storage tanks and two creeks, one considerable in size. Unfortunately Bittermonk’s partner, “Laredo” (the guy watched way too much TV as a kid), was a simmering psycho who snuck around the property with a bow, thunking arrows into trees and small animals. We despised each other on sight, which was nothing new for him but unsettled the weaponless me. I was down the road a few days later (with a gracious bag of buds from Bittermonk in hand), but I’d had my pot appetite whetted just by being close to a grow.
I drifted south to the Bay Area and was staying with friends and working temporary word processing jobs when fortune shone on me again. I drove to San Francisco one afternoon (which I almost never did) and was perusing the shelves in a bookstore when I ran into Pete Gervais, a photographer buddy I hadn’t seen since the summer of ’67. (We’d been roommates in a New York City studio.) We went back to his place to smoke one and before long he told me he had a woman he wanted me to meet.
I was careful not to let my shock show: none of my friends had offered to set me up before. I considered this good taste on their part, so was immediately suspicious of Pete’s offer. (If this woman were right for me, how weird could she be?) Then he dragged me to Bolinas, introduced me to Karen and changed the course of my life. Not only was she a beautiful, sensitive soul, but we had a strong mutual attraction and it was, as the song goes, “a double shot of my baby’s love”: she owned an ocean-side cottage with a lush pot garden out back.
I moved in soon thereafter and thus began my thirty years in the marijuana trade. It was all pure happenstance and, looking back on my days, it seems that (in both life and art) the best parts are the accidents.
And this one was a doozy. Karen would have been reward enough, given my wastrel youth, but I also felt I’d been clawing at imaginary walls for years, looking for a passion to consume me.
And what better than pot growing? I was gazing out at Karen’s crop for the first time, in fact (it was early June and the twenty-odd plants were three feet tall), when one of the great truths of my life struck me: Jesus, I thought, I’m here for the highs. They’re not just medicine, or a channel changer, or even a means to an end … they’re the main menu and the rest is bullshit. I was thirty-four at the time: you’d think that would have been obvious to me by then. But even I couldn’t staunch the Puritan stain overnight. It took a lot of de-conditioning to prove to myself that—not only were ambition and a regular life nowhere down the road—they’d never been.
Every time I sparked a bomber, in other words, I was doing exactly what I should be. What a relief … there was my light bulb! I can’t tell you how that certainty improved the rest of my life. In the meanwhile I’d need every bit of my cultivation enthusiasm, because my pot apprenticeship was a cruel and difficult one. For openers little was known about marijuana growing in ’81. Now you go on the Internet and there’s dozens of YouTube videos about every nuance imaginable, but then there was only hearsay and worse, hippie chapbooks that implored you to bury dead snakes in the dirt beneath a full moon.
With the exception of Rosenthal and Frank’s Marijuana Grower’s Guide. This was my bible, a book I essentially memorized. (I unearthed my copy years later and—besides the illegible scribbling in the margins—the few sentences I hadn’t highlighted were underlined.) And that was all in preparation for the next year’s crop; in the short term I had to steward Karen’s readymade grow to completion. I overdid everything and made one naive error after another but, dead snakes or otherwise, the friends who’d planted her garden did a great job. We harvested three pounds of bud from the first two rows, which were then (ostensibly) stolen from the middleman who fronted them, and I left the dozen plants in back too long (trying to ensure they were just a little bit stonier), only to have them ripped off, too.
As were two of the next three crops I grew, even after I built a greenhouse around them. Given the hundreds of hours and manifold dreams I invested in those plants (much less the fact they were hybrids of my own making) it was akin to a series of rapes. And instead of defeating me it only doubled my defiance … nothing was going to stand between me and a jobless future.
So I held the hard lessons close and three years later I was in Portland, where I grew indoors for a quarter century without losing a gram to thieves. I managed to ruin plenty of plants on my own, of course, because for all my horticultural study and (eventual) decades of experience, I was lousy with growing things. I even think my defiance extended to the plants (I’m sure my impatience did). If I were to assess my thirty years of cultivation in a single sentence, in fact, I’d say that the most important thing I learned is: Green thumbs do exist.
Hard to say whose hands they land on, though in my experience it was usually neat people. Which was more aggravating yet, of course … not only were they my natural enemies, but I couldn’t fathom why a weed grown in dirt would give a shit about a sterile environment.
But pot had always outsmarted me. In Portland I spent a quarter century trying to grow the vibrant, high-yielding crops those neat freaks did without coming close. (The conditions in my basement were too dank and primitive, even as I was too stubborn to change them.)
Still this was all just a nuisance; in the long run I smoked hundreds of great varieties over the years and hadn’t had a real job since Reagan was President. Plus I tried to remember—at least once a day—the pledge I made to my younger, factotum self, i.e. if good fortune ever strikes … don’t take it for granted.
So you young, ne’er-do-well readers out there? Keep an eye out … your own Pete Gervais could be right around the corner. Mine is raising asparagus in Chile now, but back in the Eighties he dragged a photo booth from one San Francisco gay bar to another, taking pictures of customers’ cocks.
He compiled the results in a book called Dicks. I hear it did pretty well.