S.M. Park

Risen Apes: Comfort Zone

S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Comfort Zone,” Park talks about how best to inhale pot, and stints at state institutions over the years.


When they get to this age most people are worrying about cancer, a bad ticker, Alzheimer’s disease (or all three at once). Me? I dread Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, the severe and repeated vomiting that strikes many longtime pot users.

The only remedy is abstinence and my smoking days will end soon enough, anyway. (If you’re a young stoner don’t make the mistake boomers did and hold pot down when you inhale; it’s air sac suicide and totally unnecessary.) To keep puffing I’ve developed a kind of shorthand (taking quick, shallow hits where the smoke barely brushes my lungs before expulsion), and only then to set off my edibles.


To keep puffing I’ve developed a kind of shorthand (taking quick, shallow hits where the smoke barely brushes my lungs before expulsion), and only then to set off my edibles.


I was explaining this to a friend recently, and she asked, “Do you hear yourself when you talk like that?”

I do. I guess the need to be high bothered me some in my twenties, but it’s been a fait accompli since. And to my credit I was straight for two-and-a-half years in Scientology. (Well, they made me be, but that was more or less the point.)

I was terrible at it, of course, laying the foundation for the guiltless indolence I enjoy now, a life where the biggest question every day is how high to get.

It makes me wish I could reach back, tell the young me a pot of gold awaits, but the poor bastard’s gotta figure it out for himself.

I know my mental ward commitments were a big help: when you’re on the streets, living the life of a rummy three times your age, a nuthouse is an upgrade.

After I’d dried out and shed the straitjacket, in fact, I’d slip into the stream of nut jobs (pacing back and forth in the hallways) and think, I really like it here. I balked at the notion at first, passed it off as the cozy, hotel atmosphere my first commitment offered (a hideout for wealthy wackos in Berkeley, California).

But then I landed at The Agnews State Hospital the following Spring, a grim medieval tomb with bars on the windows, and liked it even better.

It mirrored my casino jobs later, i.e. you’re surrounded by madness, desperation and drugs … so what’s not to like? No one on the outside listened to me, anyway, and I’d never answered to anyone but myself, so when you threw in the free room and board, weird shrinks, exotic drugs and eighty-five a week in disability money (for being a drunk) … well, I was living large.

You’d hardly know it from the friends who visited, though—with the exception of Ned Gumbo (who belonged in there himself)—being in a nuthouse made them nervous. I was taken aback by this initially, as I figured Bay Area characters were conditioned to craziness.

Instead they did more twitching and blinking than the junkies. I’d watch them squirm, take a certain sick pleasure in it, sure, but would lighten the mood by pointing out the lunatics, perverts and failed suicides, too.

The “zoo tour” I called it; even believed it scored my male buddies some points at home later:

“I visited Wilson at the madhouse today, Katie.”

“Really? That’s so thoughtful of you, Joe. How’d it go?”

“Some guy tried to jack off on me.”

“It wasn’t High, was it?”

“No, but he likes it there. Asked me to bring him a pint and a joint next time.”

“Oh, what a horrible person!”

I joke about it now, but my ease with my circumstances taught me a lot. For openers it meant I was easily institutionalized, which seemed like a real advantage to a guy in my shoes. (I’d first suspected it in drunk tanks, when I’d wake in the morning, think they wouldn’t be bad if it weren’t for the d.t.’s and vomit.)

Also at play, though, was my utter lack of ambition. A patient who believes group therapy is funny, hits on occupational therapy nurses and volunteers for every drug trial possible? He wasn’t going anywhere, inside or out. This should have been obvious to me by then but the “need to achieve” was a birthright in my family and I guess I figured it must have rubbed off on me.

Instead it seemed my give-a-shit attitude was genuine; that I could play in the all-day poker games and upper/downer ping pong tournaments without a trace of guilt. Toss in the youth angle (how I was the youngest drunk those shrinks had ever treated), and I had to be kicked out of the first two nuthouses when my commitments ended.

At which point the real issue—the horror of sobriety—reared its ugly head. So after leaving Agnews I went from a five-week LSD/whiskey bender in L.A.’s Sierra Madre to my third and final commitment at the Crystal Springs Rehabilitation Center in San Mateo.

Mental wards were rest stops by then; I’d dismissed the notion of psychiatry or pharmaceuticals making sobriety easier and was simply looking for a place to dry out, enjoy some square meals and exercise, collect a few disability checks before heading to my next blunder.

Except it was a little trickier this time, because California wasn’t footing the bill anymore. (Crystal Springs only still existed because it was a County operation; Reagan had shut down the State looney bins months before.)


Also on The Big Smoke


So when I was laying on the spacious veranda, oiled up with tanning lotion and sipping iced teas, or playing poker or dice with the other rummies in the rec room, I knew the meter was running, that when this commitment ended I’d owe some serious cash.

This was a daunting prospect for a guy who was looking to milk a college for financial aid next. All I had going for me was that whole “Young Prince” thing, the notion I’d confronted my addictions early.

Now your neighbor’s sixteen-year-old is drying out somewhere but as a twenty-three-old drunk in 1970? I walked on water in those nuthouses, I was the loser with a future.

So when it was time for my exit interview with Director Reston I laid it on thick. Admitted, for instance, that their tests suggested I was a destructive manic-depressive (with an attitude to match), but what about Dr. Nancy? She’d been a shrink on staff and handed me a poem before jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Surely that counted for something.

“You really going to play that card, High?” sighed Reston. “Her funeral’s tomorrow.”

“Sorry,” I said, “just throwing stuff out there, seeing what sticks. You handed me a bill for two thousand bucks, after all, and repaying it will put a serious dent in my recovery plans.”

“Which are?”

“Returning to college.”

“To study what?”

“Why uhhhh … alcoholism, of course. I want to help other drunks someday.”

“Try again, Wilson,” he scoffed. (He’d been bullshitted by alkies for years.)

“Okay, okay,” I said, “that’s a bit of a stretch. But I am gonna keep writing, so why not a book about rummies? ‘Write what you know’ and all that.”

We batted it back and forth for a while but we both knew my chances of writing a book, much less surviving, were slim to none.

So I was relieved when Reston opted to gamble on me, anyway, made me one of his 1970 “Scholarship” recipients, thereby waiving every dime I owed.

Hope he got his money’s worth.


S.M. Park is the author and illustrator of his memoirs High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.


S.M. Park

S.M. Park lives two blocks from the Salish Sea in Port Townsend, Washington. His passions include walking, wondering and weed. Park, in his guise as Wilson High, has written and illustrated two memoirs, High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

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