S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Back Pages,” Park looks through photos and recalls a few characters from his life.
I’m always surprised to see yard sales in Port Townsend. The average age here is sixty-five, so who’s buying the stuff? Shouldn’t we be getting rid of junk at this age? Isn’t it selfish to leave more crap for friends or heirs to dispose of?
I shit-canned most of my possessions when I left Portland seven years ago. It proved to be a far bigger task than I imagined, as (along with a mountain of pot-growing equipment) I filled four dumpsters with the detritus of an old artist’s life. There were canvases, journals, manuscripts, art supplies, sketch pads and dozens of the pocketbooks I’ve carried around for years. I scrutinized them first, to be sure I wasn’t throwing away something valuable or profound (I wasn’t), and the little attachment I had to any of it disappeared when it did.
My photo albums, though … they’re a different matter. There’s two dozen of them and I’ve written of ridding myself of them before (“End of the Line”). They mostly cover the period from 1985 to 2010 and feel like the only proof I was here at all.
Which is a strange thing for a memoir writer to say, much less a guy whose cartoons will outlive him. Plus it’s not like I’ve opened them since I moved here, or that anyone will want to after I’m gone, either.
So they’ve definitely gotta go, even as I need to peruse them first. They’re mostly snapshots friends gave me; I had my own camera for awhile, but only used it for experiences—like pot-smoking contests and trips to Amsterdam—where my memories would be occluded later.
The first two albums I opened, in fact, were both devoted to Tokers Bowls. The Tokers Bowl took place in Vancouver, British Columbia between 2002 and 2004 (only ceasing when Marc Emery, their organizer, was indicted for selling marijuana seeds in the U.S.), and I went to all three.
Though I’m not sure why. I probably rationalized it as “Prime Directive” stuff at the time (i.e. getting as high as possible as often as possible), and as a grower I was always interested in new and better genetics, but the Tokers Bowl was no place to find them. The elite cultivators remained at home (shunning the exposure), and this meant the contest weed was pretty standard fare.
Which wouldn’t have been so bad if—in order to test the two dozen varieties—you didn’t have to smoke an ounce in three days. I shudder to think of that now: it was a job for young lungs, and I was in my mid-fifties at the time (easily the oldest loser there). When I returned to Portland I’d be hacking up phlegm for a week.
Not to mention the mental fog attendant to an event like that. Most of us were doing edibles or ’shrooms, too, so intelligent conversations were both rare and forgettable. I was surprised, in fact, as I looked through those contest photos, that I hadn’t caught more “droolers” on film, as most of the judges were fully catatonic by nightfall.
The Bowls began on Thursdays and ended Sunday morning. Two hundred of us attended, and when the votes were tallied our bud rankings were strikingly similar.
This baffled me from the first Bowl to the last. There I was, the only guy taking prodigious notes and describing the entries in detail, while the rest of the judges kept everything in their heads. The idea they could compare (much less remember) that many highs later seemed impossible to me.
Yet at the end we drew nearly identical conclusions. I finally had to concede that, when it comes to stoners, practice does make perfect.
Those Bowl photos were rife with strangers, but otherwise my albums are stuffed with pictures of old friends, many of whom have passed. Prominent among those was my pal Mama Roux. I came across a Polaroid of her that I took at the Olympia Brewery in ’72. She rarely drank herself, but when she visited me in Olympia I’d always drag her to the brewery for “lunch.” (Which meant we’d do the tour, then at the end—when they gave away two free drafts per person—I’d chug hers.)
She was a “big gal” and just seeing her again warmed my heart. I met her at Humboldt State in the Sixties, where she was a buddy of Tony DeBola. (She got her “Mama Roux” handle from the Dr. John song of the same name.) I weighed over two hundred fifty pounds myself at the time, so the two of us could clear a dance floor doing the “hippo mashed potatoes.” (Fortunately there’s no photos of that.) We became fast friends and during my Evergreen State years, when Acid Mac was attending the University of Washington, we’d often drive to Portland to see her.
She was living with an older guy named Dez. He reminded me of a character from a Fifties sitcom: pencil thin mustache, fedora hat, cheesy black suit and cigarette. He was a professional thief and—instead of a stereo system—he had police scanners throughout the house. We might be eating breakfast, for instance (or, in the case of Mac and me, drinking it), and Dez would motion for silence as he listened to a burglary alert.
Afterwards he’d nod his head. “Sounds like Lenny’s work to me,” he’d say. Or: “I hit that place in ’68. Got our living room lamps there.”
This was gold to Mac and me. We were Bay Area guys, so we thought we’d seen everything (and were still involved in illegal drug activity ourselves), but neither of us had known a real crook before. As Roux’s friends we might have worried about her safety, or even questioned her starting a family with the guy, but she took better care of herself than we did.
“Besides,” she’d say. “Dez is a keeper … he loves fuckin’ fat chicks.”
She ended up having two sons with him. He’d drag Mac and I to his favorite bar when we visited, and we liked to take psychedelics first, double our appreciation for the seedy characters we’d meet. (We’d sit in booths drinking whiskey sodas and bet how long it’d take hookers to finish their Johns out back.)
Then in ’75 Dez left his last heist in a body bag and Roux and the boys moved to Mississippi (she had family there.) We had intermittent correspondence over the years, but her rheumatoid arthritis finally killed her in 1990.
She promised her second son she’d hang on until he graduated from high school and just made it, passing the following day. Later a friend forwarded the letter she’d written me on her death bed. Her hands were twisted claws by then, so the handwriting was barely legible, but I remember the last line because she’d scrawled it in bold caps:
“WHAT KIND OF UNIVERSE IS IT, HIGH, WHERE A GUY LIKE YOU OUTLIVES ME!?”
I loved her dearly, as I did my Granny Alice, who has a single photo in the albums, too. She was a kindly woman from Kansas who’d married my father’s father late in life, a cheap, humorless bastard despised by all (even my brothers and I), so when our parents dropped us at their house it was Granny who made us welcome.
But try as we might we couldn’t wheedle any money out of her. Our favorite store was two blocks away, a smoke shop that sold baseball cards, but we needed cash and she wouldn’t cough up.
Then one day, when I was six or seven, I walked through her bedroom and saw her purse open on the bureau. Being a curious lad I stepped closer, spotted three five dollar bills protruding from the wallet inside.
And I mean fanned out, so the number and denominations were obvious. This was a crucial moment in my young life and I remember it like it was yesterday, as it required a quick moral calculation on my part. Was this: (1) loot Granny intended for my brothers and me; (2) some kind of honesty test; or (3) just money in her wallet, that I’d be stealing if I took it?
The latter was a big Rubicon to cross in the High family, where honesty and integrity were treated as birthrights. Yet even as I stood there, running possible outcomes through my head, it felt like a perfunctory, pro forma exercise to me, as if I’d known I’d snatch that cash the moment I saw it.
And if so why take one bill? I’d get in just as much trouble for three. So I reached down and scooped them up. (Later in life I’d blame episodes like this on “my basic nature,” a.k.a. a total lack of impulse control.)
As I walked to the smoke shop with my brothers afterwards I explained what I’d done.
“You stole fifteen dollars from Granny!? You’re in big, big trouble, Wilson!” exclaimed Joe.
“No no,” I said, “I’m sure it’s just a game she’s playing with us. I mean three fives? Spread out and protruding from her wallet like that? I think she wanted me to grab ’em.”
“What!?” gasped Ben. “That’s insane!”
“Okay,” I said, “check it out.” I drew the fives from my pocket, waved them in front of their faces. “You each get one of these—which’ll buy a whole box of baseball cards—if you tell granny it was money that mom and dad gave us.”
“But … what about when they ask where it came from?” said Joe.
“We tell ’em it was from Granny. And if you guys get in trouble, you just blame me. You can’t lose.”
Decades later, just before he died, Joe told me that what he remembered most about me as a kid was how confident I was in my bad judgment. I know I was plenty nervous when we returned to Granny’s house (boxes of cards under our arms), but not only didn’t she say anything … I took the twinkle in her eye as proof I’d guessed right.
Decades later, just before he died, Joe told me that what he remembered most about me as a kid was how confident I was in my bad judgment.
And I suppose I did, as we played the same game for years afterwards: always the open purse, always the three fives (which was a lot of money in those days), always me the one taking it … without Granny or I ever mentioning it later. I’ve no idea why she didn’t just hand us the cash, or how she guessed I’d be the kid audacious enough to snatch it.
There are some things better left unknown (given that it was probably a dishonesty test). I’d never visited the grave of a family member before, but when I drove through Kansas in the mid-Nineties on my way to an emu show, I searched for hers. She was buried in the little town of Alta Vista and I wanted to stand in front of her tombstone, tell her I didn’t have a single bad memory of her.
You can’t do better than that in life, but I got lost on a back road and never found the cemetery. Years after my brothers and I left home my mother threw out an entire closet full of baseball cards (worth a fortune now), and most of them were courtesy of Granny’s little pickpocket.
I mentioned Acid Mac earlier, and when he got married in 1981 I was one of his groomsmen. I have a single photo of that, too, one I took at a precipitous moment as the reception wound down. My girlfriend Karen was off doing something and I was sitting at a table with Tom Canby’s wife, Janet, and a friend named Sal Dominci. He was a colorful character whose family had moved from Detroit to Burlingame in the late Fifties. The legend was that he and his sister, both of whom hated mussels, would collect them during algae blooms to poison their parents. (They weren’t too fond of them either, apparently.) They’d bring home a couple buckets, watch as mom and dad wolfed them down.
Unfortunately they were as old school as their kids and barely belched afterwards. (Sal was the one guy who, all through the Sixties and Seventies, still slicked his hair back with Brylcreem, hence his “Greaser” nickname.)
He and I had a few spats over the years, the last coming when I spilled wine in his Mustang on a trip to Humboldt County. He seemed to finally be over it, so we chatted for awhile before he turned to Janet.
“Good to see you again, Janet,” he said. “Where’s Tom?”
“He went to check on the dogs,” she sighed. This was code for, He’s hiding in a bathroom stall, shooting coke.
Janet embodied that old Tammy Wynette song, “Stand by Your Man.” She was easily the most incongruous junkie spouse I’d met, as she’d never done drugs herself and barely even drank. Yet she stuck by Tom for decades while he did little else (blowing the fortune he’d inherited from his grandparents in the process).
Plus he was as hard to kill as the Greaser’s parents. I felt bad for Janet (as most people who knew the couple did). It was easy to pass her off as naive or enabling, but she loved Tom and was bravely honoring her marital vows, a real rarity in the Bay Area.
Not that any of that mattered to the Greaser.
“Well,” he asked her, “what are you doing about Tom’s coke problem?”
“Well,” she said, “he’s been in and out of rehab several times now.”
“And how’d that work out?”
“He’s trying, Sal. It’s a terrible struggle for him.”
“Yeah yeah, sure. Lucky for you I’m an expert on addiction … I’ll tell you exactly what to do.”
Janet eyed him quizzically as I lit a cigarette and shook my head. Greaser was like my old buddy Nearly Normal Jimmy: all his ideas were bad.
“So,” he said. “First you gotta knock him out … crush Valium or Xanax in his Wheaties, something like that. Then you tie him to a chair, drag him into a closet and leave him there. A week, two weeks … even a month if that’s what it takes.”
“He’ll scream and carry on,” continued Greaser, “but you and the kids need to turn up the TV and ignore him. Think of it as a game you’re playing.”
Janet looked at me, as if to make sure I was hearing this, too, but I was as incredulous as she was.
“He’ll be constipated from the coke so don’t worry about that part,” added Greaser. “And when it comes to food just spoon feed him some mush. The kids can help with that, but don’t let ’em get too close.”
I sensed what was coming and remembered the camera in my pocket; drew it out as the color rose in Janet’s face.
“That’s … that’s just outrageous!” she sputtered finally. “What do you know about Tom’s cocaine problem, anyway!?”
Greaser beamed. “Hell,” he said, “I’m his dealer! What’s more you should be grateful it’s my stuff he’s shootin’! It’s the fuckin’ best!”