S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Stirring the Ashes,” Park talks about pot growing and cartooning, and his friend Mungo Jerry.
I have lots of friends with nicknames (many of which I gave them), but my favorite is Mungo Jerry. That was an early Seventies rock band (“In the Summertime” was their big hit), but also what I call my buddy Dan. He moved here from California three years ago on my recommendation. He’s grown pot for forty years and is something of a legend in the business; I once went to a hemp show with him and he was mobbed like a rock star.
It’s been great having him nearby; not only are he and his wife loving, generous people, but Mungo appreciates marijuana as much as I do.
Which is rare in my experience. I began growing in Bolinas, California in 1981; I’d moved in with a woman named Karen, inheriting her garden in the process. Three friends had planted it for her, and it featured a dozen different varieties.
I was thirty-five at the time and had never grown anything in my life. Yet I immediately sought those three hippies out, grilled them on the provenance of the plants. If they’d found a seed in the bottom of a bag, what had the bud been like? If a friend had given it to them, what did he say about the lineage of the parents? Had the effects been “eyes up” or “couch lock,” and how long did they last, etc.?
Their eyes glazed over and they shook their heads in confusion.
“Hey, man … it’s fuckin’ pot!”
This surprised me at the time but proved to be a common theme in the years ahead. Marijuana was a money tree to most of the growers I met; they judged their crops by how much loot they generated. This was perfectly understandable (even admirable), given that they faced two to five years in prison and the loss of their home if busted.
Me? Staying (barely) afloat financially was great, but it was the highs I cared about. It harkens back to the old No money is better than no dope maxim, because if I’d done my job a hit of primo would ease all money concerns.
I was like that before I realized it, walking the halls of my ’65 high school with Terry Southern’s Red Dirt Marihuana in my pocket. I’d never seen or smoked the plant, and didn’t know shit about it, but the notion of alternate states of consciousness intrigued me.
And why wouldn’t it? I was a cartoonist, I walked around in one. My mother has often described me as a giant, noisy newborn who cried all day long. The doctors blamed it on migraines but I think I was just confused. (My parents finally built a soundproof room in the back of the house and stashed me there.)
Then one day, when I was nearly two, I picked up a pencil and paper in a doctor’s office and that was the end of it: between cartooning and books they were lucky to hear anything from me again.
It reminds me of a story about Albert King, the younger brother of Bernard King (who starred for the Knicks in the Eighties). He was a playground legend in New York City, and after he’d won a game with a left-handed hook a reporter asked him where it came from.
“Well,” he replied, “I just tried it one day … and it was there!”
It’s the same for cartoonists: your twisted outlook enters the world with you. Like writing it’s something you have to learn but can’t be taught.
Even the drawing aspect is simply hard work and repetition … there’s no “right” way to do it. My sole advice to young cartoonists, in fact, is to copy an artist they admire (Mort Drucker and Jim Davis of Mad Magazine in my case), while their own styles evolve.
My sole advice to young cartoonists, in fact, is to copy an artist they admire, while their own styles evolve.
Not that any of them are asking, of course, or that I’ve ever even met another cartoonist, much less used the talent to attract women.
If there were anything to the latter I wouldn’t have quit drawing in the first place. Even my ex-wife, when she visited with her sister a couple years ago, made her interest in the matter clear. We chatted for a while here in my studio, then I pointed to the dozens of drawings on the wall behind her.
“That’s my latest work,” I said.
Her sister had the grace to at least glance at them. Patti? My ex? Not only did she not turn around, she seemed irked that I’d mentioned it.
I was good with that: she never cooked for me, either.
What’s odd, though, is as I was doing all that art for other people as a kid (never saying no to anyone), everyone assumed I’d make a career of cartooning.
Even as it never once occurred to me. Seriously. (I still can’t get my head around it.) Being a writer on the other hand? That was possible (particularly if I could drink and carouse like one). Marrying a girl with money? That was up there. Earning a degree in philosophy, maybe even teaching it? That was a stretch, but I could pull it off if I had to.
But I missed the same thing everyone else did, that I possessed little or no ambition and would be lucky to feed myself, much less nurse aspirations. I should have guessed this at fifteen, when I had my first job. I sensed right away that—though it wasn’t a particularly bad one—there was no such thing as a good one, so where did that leave me?
An ambitious kid would have risen above that. Me? I fantasized about living in Holland, where you could sign up for lifetime unemployment benefits at eighteen.
So “writing” would have to do, at least until drugs and alcohol came along. Plus when you’re living in a seedy motel and eating off a hot plate (in between hallucinations) there’s no more comforting notion than: “Oh, I’m a writer.”
Though now that I think about it, “I’m a cartoonist” would have been better. I know I deeply admire the artists who produce comic strips or panels. I’ve tried both over the years, along with graphic novels and children’s books, and not only are they difficult but they aren’t my bailiwick.
So where did that leave me career wise? A factotum with no ambition or prospects?
Pot growing. I suffered fifty jobs in twenty years to get there, but it’s amazing how many boxes that profession checked for me. It validated my withdrawal from the larger world, provided maximum cash for minimal effort, nurtured my outlaw Jones, challenged my creativity, afforded me plenty of time to read, write and draw … all while keeping me stoned!
This was the best life had to offer. I could even bill my quest for bigger and better highs as “work.”
Mungo Jerry was much the same, so we can chat for hours about different lineages and their effects. He’s retired from commercial growing but still raises plants in a 10’ x 10’ room he built in his garage.
He used a 4’ x 4’ tent his first couple years, and he offered it to me the other day. I jumped at the idea initially, figured I could put it in a corner of my studio, grow enough to offset what I spend at pot stores.
Then I thought about it some more and passed. I’m not sure it’d be financially plausible for openers, as I figure my startup costs—between the seeds, bulb, hood, fan, electricity, soil and amenities, etc.—would be a thousand dollars, which is six months of recreational weed. Plus as careful a horticulturist as Mungo is he still suffers mites (as does the so-called “Redneck Gook” up the street), and I spent the best years of my life fighting those bastards. (I used dozens of different insecticides and the most I ever managed was a truce.)
There was also the odor to consider. Unlike my Portland grow room, where I cut into a furnace pipe to exhaust the smell, I’d have to vent it out a window here. That would create all sorts of problems for Tidy Ted and Tina next door (they’d wear a rut around their pottery barn, searching for the skunk), not to mention me. I do all my writing and drawing down here and I was allergic to mature trichomes (the resin bearing part of the plant) long before I stopped cultivating.
But I’ve dealt with those issues before. Which is the point I guess, because the main reason I declined Mungo’s offer is that I am totally, unequivocally burnt out on pot growing. Maybe he can still handle it forty years later, but my hard thirty (being responsible all day every day for a hundred plants at a time) finished me.
A lot of that is my all-or-nothing nature, of course: when I’ve exhausted a passion or habit I don’t revisit it. The sole exception has been the cartooning. It burned me out more than the growing ever did, but I needed it to supplement the writing later (my sole remaining passion).
Plus it’s just like being a drunk: there’s no “ex-cartoonists,” you don’t shed an absurdist state of mind. The last time I tried, in the late Seventies, I took up oil painting again.
But there were always rats in the palm trees.