S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Kismet,” Park illustrates a proud life of worst decisions, bad habits, and pet peeves.
I received a greeting card recently that asked: Ever notice how our worst decisions lead to our best stories?
Well, yeah, I write memoirs about it, actually, except in them I bill those as the right decisions. You’d think an alkie cinched in a straitjacket at twenty-two would have looked around his padded cell, thought, Okay, okay, I obviously fucked up somewhere.
Instead I just felt cheated. There I was, the only person I’d ever met or heard of who was grateful to be a drunk, who treated alcoholism as a career path … and I couldn’t pull it off, I had the disease but not the enzymes, so the longer I drank the less it took to plunge me into withdrawal.
What kind of deal was that? I was outraged at my body betraying me that way; drank another eight years out of spite, as if practice made perfect, or every rummy deserved a decade of drunkenness at least!
What I couldn’t have lived with, though (then or now), is taking a half-assed approach to alcoholism; marvel instead that my nineteen-year-old self accepted the challenge so readily. I knew it wouldn’t turn out well, that given my appetite for excess I’d likely die, but I was playing the hand I was dealt. (Not only had I blacked out every time I drank by then, but hearing about the crazy shit I did in those occlusions was the best part.)
So there was no social drinker in my psyche, any more than there was a moderate drug user. I got after it as long as my mind and body allowed and, instead of being ashamed of it at seventy-four … it’s one of the things I’m proudest of.
* * * * *
Of course the more you indulge and the longer you live the more quitting you’ll have to do later, which is how I earned my Ph.D. in Abstinence. A partial list of habits I’ve broken would include: lemons, coffee, tea, cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, downers, cocaine, psilocybin, chocolate, chai and, most recently, Yerba Mate.
I thought I’d finally found my elixir, a source of caffeine with no side effects. I drank two cans of it every afternoon (300mg of caffeine) for the last five years, and there wasn’t one of those days when I wouldn’t pause, sit back and savor the tangy taste and smooth, subtle buzz, knowing full well it was finite.
Because my stomach’s rejected “sour” since I ate all those lemons as a kid. (As many as a dozen a day, peels and all.) It might allow me seconds before cramping up (as it does with a Gummy Bear), or even a decade (as it did with black tea), but sooner or later the gate slams shut.
A partial list of habits I’ve broken would include: lemons, coffee, tea, cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, downers, cocaine, psilocybin, chocolate, chai and, most recently, Yerba Mate.
So I rode that Yerba Mate train as long as I could, even as three years into it I developed the first gastric symptoms. Endoscopies revealed an inflamed stomach lining and the specialists attributed it to an auto-immune disease (origins and solutions unknown). It was pretty much a death sentence but hey! at least the Yerba Mate wasn’t to blame.
I told myself that because: (1) the cramps were different than my previous reactions to acidity and took way longer to come on, and (2) I’d do damn near anything to keep drinking it. All those years of caffeine hypersensitivity and now, in my dotage, when I needed it most (particularly after smoking pot all day), here was a ready solution. (I stocked an entire fridge with it, my sole Earthquake Preparedness.)
Then last week, after being up all night with another lava gut episode, and having eliminated everything else I could think of at least twice … I finally quit the Yerba Mate.
The gastritis? It’s rarely bothered me since (even after eating pizza last night). It’s likely, in fact, that most of the inflammation I experienced was the Mate, that in Brazil (where it hails from) I’d be just another loser with a gut ache.
Which circles back to what I wrote earlier about “wrong decisions.” You could say that’s what ignoring the obvious that long was, that enduring all the discomfort, sleepless nights and surgical insults for the sake of a daily buzz was absurd.
But it’s like the booze: I was determined to leave nothing on the table.
* * * * *
As you age, and find yourself less tolerant generally, pet peeves assume a sharper focus. Some of my most enduring include (in no particular order): greedy people, poor listeners, obsessive compulsives, slow drivers and, maybe most aggravating of all … *$%&@! paranoids.
Am I a fool for never believing anyone’s out to get me? I’m still surprised, for instance, that some of the worst paranoids I’ve known had the lowest self-esteem. How’s that work? What makes them think, when they suspect someone or something means them harm … that they’re suddenly worth the trouble?
A few months back, in my column entitled “Cooties,” I pointed out that a knob in the hippocampus is the source of obsessive/compulsive behavior. (Maybe suspicion emanates from the same place, as the most anal pot growers I knew were also the most paranoid.) They attributed their freedom to this hyper vigilance, of course, while I, on the other hand, assumed the opposite approach, i.e. hiding in plain sight. (Look at that clown … he couldn’t be a pot grower.)
I remember, for instance, going to a Portland grow store in the early Nineties, when surveillance of those establishments was at its peak. (The local Indoor Marijuana Task Force busted over 700 growers a year.) Narcs admitted to sitting outside the stores in their cars, photographing patrons and their license plates, because not only didn’t they care if we knew, they enjoyed frightening us. There was no Internet at the time and we all needed supplies (particularly indoor cultivators), so we were pretty much sitting ducks, as sure a collar as waiting outside bars for drunks.
I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse aspect. (Hell, I liked most of the dangers attendant to cultivation; not only did they justify the three-hundred-an-ounce I charged, but they kept the edge on.)
So though I appeared “cool under pressure” I was mostly just oblivious. Even at home, with a pungent crop in the basement beneath me, I had a hard time remembering it was there. Oh sure, the highs and rewards of growing were better than my prior employment (a low bar in any case), but a job was a job and who wanted to think about those?
As you age, and find yourself less tolerant generally, pet peeves assume a sharper focus.
So when I was out in the world it was “out of sight/out of mind”: I didn’t look or act like a criminal because I’d forgotten I was one. Add to this my take on police generally (I’d had plenty of experience with them by then, and found them to be ineffectual bunglers), and you had a character who’d park directly in front of the grow stores (often the only vehicle there, no matter how many customers were inside), while his fellow cultivators stashed their vehicles blocks away, wore hoodies and disguises, even paid surrogates to do their shopping for them.
What a sideshow! Who wouldn’t want to step into a halide store at the time, with males of all ages up and down the aisles, hoods and hats low, heads on a swivel, while tomato plants scaled the walls behind them?
Because that was the conceit back then, the notion that—not only were all of us growing tomatoes indoors, not weed—but it was so lucrative we could throw cash around in those stores (no credit cards allowed … too traceable).
This was what the paranoids failed to appreciate, the pure theater the War on Drugs provided. On the day I’m speaking of I’d brought my skittish buddy Jake along to help me (I bought halide bulbs in bulk, and the boxes were so large I could only carry one at a time). He’d heard the newscasts and read the same articles I had about narcs outside the stores and insisted we park blocks away. Even wore a hoodie himself (with no prompting from me), so—being the merciful fellow I am—I went straight to the front counter inside, made my purchase quickly.
As we started back to the car, arms around the tall wide crates, Jake was so busy glancing around that he kept bumping into me.
“Hey!” I said finally, “What’s your problem?”
“Sorry, man,” he muttered, “just keeping an eye out.”
“Cops, of course.”
“Yeah? And what would you do if you saw one?”
“I don’t know … run?”
“With a giant box of bulbs? You don’t think that’d be suspicious?”
“Jesus, High, you act like you enjoy this shit!”
“Of course I do, man. Think about it: what I do for a living is so absurd that I risk everything, my very freedom … on trips to the store! What could be crazier than that?”
Well, the next moment came pretty close actually, because we turned the corner and there, flush against the curb, sat a Portland Police car.
There were two officers slouched in the front. Wait for it, I thought, wait for it …
“Holy shit!” gasped Jake, fumbling to hide the foot high “HALIDE LAMPS” printed on his box. “It’s the cops! What do we do now, man!? We’re fucked!”
“Act like you’ve been here before,” I said. “And don’t drop that box! Not only is there four hundred bucks worth of bulbs in there, but when you crack a halide the gas can blind you.”
“WHAT!? YOU’RE TELLIN’ ME THAT NOW!?”
It was petty, of course, but paranoids and OCD’s have tortured me since childhood … I’d be years catching up.
Because not only were those regular patrol officers in that car (narcs would be in an unmarked Crown Vic or the like), but they were eating a Burger King lunch. I’d venture, in fact, that they barely knew that grow store was there.
But Jake was paranoid so none of that mattered, it had to be a ruse inside a ruse, so while he was wishing he could disappear I, ever the reckless one, had to push the envelope.
I came abreast of the police car, bent over, looked through the open window at the cop nearest me.
“Hey, Sarge!” I said. “Where’s the beef?”
“Huh?” he grunted, mouth full of Whopper.
I laughed, straightened up, continued down the street.
Jake rushed past me, eyes wide with terror.
“Goddam you, High, you asshole!” he gasped. “Are they coming? Are they after us?”
“Oh yeah,” I said.