I am nosing my car into a parking space in a mini–strip mall, as directed by the text message I’d received earlier, when a car pulls up behind me, blocking my retreat.
I’d taken the specified exit off the 55 Freeway in Santa Ana, California, the second-most populous city in Orange County. Erase from your internal screen for a moment the glamorous O.C. you see on television. This part of the province is known as the Inland Empire—landlocked, sunbaked, graffitied and nearly 80 percent Hispanic; the annual per capita income is about $12,000. It is high noon. There is plenty of traffic but strangely nobody on foot. I’ve been here only once before, to check out the hook spot where football’s fallen Robo Quarterback, Todd Marinovich, liked to score his black tar heroin, known in these parts as chiva, Spanish for goat.
The car behind me is low-slung and midnight blue. It idles with a throaty purr, an expensive toy that has seen better days and could certainly use a wash. I open the passenger door. Inside is a sandy-haired 30-something; he looks like a typical marketing guy in a white dress shirt. He thanks me for driving all this way.
I get inside. He hands me a chilled bottle of Smartwater and a blindfold.
“It isn’t far,” he says, pulling away.
I bought my first dime bag of marijuana at the age of 12, inside a wooden stall decorated with predictable penknife etchings in the boys’ bathroom on the second floor of my Hebrew school in Baltimore.
My parents sent me to the school three times a week in order to learn my heritage, to give me a sense of place as a Jew in a post-Holocaust world. What they probably hadn’t considered was the fact that their coddled suburban child would be rubbing elbows for all those hours every week with a more worldly urban variety of adolescent that lived across the city line. These were kids from a lower socioeconomic environment, you might say, who rode public buses solo and attended scary schools with black majorities—remember the middle school in the HBO series The Wire? These kids smoked and drank and had a lot more sex (allegedly) than the naive little county mice from Pikesville. Some of their parents worked at night and left them alone in the house. Like Jimi Hendrix was singing around that time, they were experienced.
And I was there to learn.
The point is, any serious smoker will tell you that marijuana—besides making doughnuts taste better, movies seem cooler and sex more intense—opens certain doors of perception. After you’ve smoked the first time (or five), you start seeing yourself a little differently, and this in turn makes you see the world a little differently. Maybe it makes you a little more open to things, a gateway in a positive sense.
Over the past 45 years, in the course of my travels as a person and as a journalist, marijuana has served as a great equalizer, a safe and easy common denominator that has put me on the same sofa, log or grassy knoll as people I would never have sat down with otherwise.
I’ve smoked pot with gangbangers, actors, rap stars, construction workers, bankers, homeless guys and millionaires. I’ve smoked at 14,000 feet in the Nepalese Himalayas with a Sherpa guide; at 36,000 feet in a commercial airliner back in the days when they had smoking sections; at just below sea level on the beach of Marlon Brando’s private atoll with a topless Tahitian translator; in the ruins of a factory in North Philadelphia with a bunch of 13-year-olds while watching pit bulls fight to the death—hey, all of those kids worked shifts selling crack and had juvie records a mile long.
I’ve smoked with a Bedouin and a couple of PLO operatives in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (we used a pipe made out of irrigation tubing); a captain of a 60-foot catamaran in the British Virgin Islands; a dwarf in Queensland, Australia, who was once famous for being tossed; a television beauty in her Santa Monica apartment; and a pimp in a Lincoln Continental and a hooker on a dark street corner (of course, you never smoke under the lamp).
I’ve smoked pot (and other things) with Gil Scott-Heron and Rick James. I once made Snoop Dogg cough with my own preferred strain, which I go to a lot of trouble to get. I smoked with Woody Harrelson in an underground parking lot using a health-conscientious vaporizer (plugged into a USB port in a hybrid car); as we were finishing, his friend David Blaine showed up and started doing card tricks. (Would you believe that Blaine, on regular outings, carries not just cards in his pockets but also a Sharpie to aid with tricks?) I’ve even smoked with my son—but only after he turned 18 and got his own medical marijuana card.
A number of years ago, I was doing bong hits with the comedian Roseanne after an interview at her house in Lake Arrowhead, California. At one point, after staring for some time into the roaring fire in the big fireplace, she said reflectively: “All hate is just fear. All fear is insecurity.”
This statement floored me, stoned or not. It seemed to sum up all the problems of humanity, the reason for wars since the dawn of time. Ethnic groups, nations, members of the various religious flocks—it is our differing forms and contents that bedevil us. What’s different is always considered bad, scary or threatening. (Unless, it suddenly becomes the thing to do.)
Sharing a bowl with someone, you take the opportunity to share a part of yourself. Some of it is physical—you’re actually sitting together with this person or persons, handing something back and forth. Some of it is neurochemistry. It’s called disinhibition, one of the effects of THC. Given this time together with someone else, engaged in a mutual pursuit, we unconsciously suspend our disbelief. Suddenly our differences don’t seem as important as our communalities. If you can share your spit on a joint, the possibilities seem limitless, wouldn’t you agree?