Compared to some, I’ve lived an exciting life. At least parts of it were. However, compared to others, my life has been humdrum. The only thing I’m satisfied about is that all the drama took place when I was young and able to handle it. That would not be the reality today for I have grown old.
It’s confession time. I’m not looking for absolution. My only intent is to show some of you out there that there is hope. Nothing is forever. Perhaps my story might help you get to the next stage of your life. Maybe not, but I had help getting there, and I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First, a little background. And please, feel free to judge me. You cannot condemn me any more than I have already condemned myself.
When I was kid, I always had a wanderlust. I would see a freight train sitting on a siding, waiting to go on its way, and I would try to imagine its ultimate destination. Those open boxcars called to me. If I could only get into one of those cars, then I would be transported into a new life. Finally, I would see where the rails ended—that magical place. Then, and only then, would I know the secrets of the road. The secrets of the universe.
But, at the age of twelve or thereabouts, I wasn’t going anywhere. It would be a few more years before I broke with the bounds of conformitality (a word I just made up).
I was seventeen years old. It was summertime. I was between my junior year in high school and my senior year, and I was restless. On the spur of the moment, I decided I was going to hitchhike to California—a three-thousand-mile journey. At the time, I was living in Miami, Florida.
I went to my mother and told her of my plans. She was horrified. So I set out to con her. I told her no one was going to pick me up, and I would be back in a few hours. Just the trying would get it out of my system. I don’t know if she fully bought it, but after I packed a few things in an old-fashioned suitcase, she drove me to the beginning of the Florida Turnpike. My last words to her were, “I’ll see you in time for dinner.” It would be a while before I saw her again. But see her again, I would.
I was given a ride within the first few minutes. I had no map and no idea how to get to California. I took whatever rides were offered, and like a leaf in a strong wind, I went where the currents took me. These particular currents landed me in Peoria, Illinois.
It was a dismal town. Or maybe it was me. I hit it right after the sun went down. As I walked the empty streets, seeing the blue lights radiating from the family television sets through the front windows, I imagined those families sitting around the TV—with full bellies—watching Walter Cronkite. I was mighty hungry. Then it started to drizzle.
Wet, tired, hungry, and alone, I stuck out my thumb.
The next guy to pick me up dropped me off on the fabled Route 66 and I rode it all the way into 2017. It seems that I’ve been on Route 66 for the last fifty years of my life.
First I’ll tell you a few of the highlights of my journey. Then we’ll talk about my addiction.
When you’re hitching, you meet all sorts of people. Some of them are good, some of them are evil. But most of ’em just want someone to talk to as the miles roll on. I became a good talker, but I became a better listener as those miles rolled on. And believe me, there were a lot of miles—more than 100,000.
As I write this, I’m listening to Mose Allison, if that means anything to anyone.
I killed my first man in the swamps of Florida. I was seventeen and it was in self-defense. You can read about it here. The next time I had to kill a fellow human being was two years later in San Francisco. Here is how that went down.
I went there to see my good friend Michael. He and his girl were living in the Haight-Asbury district with this guy named Bobby. It was my first night in town and we were sitting in Bobby’s pad smoking a joint when Michael told me he was going to be a father. I looked over at his girl, Linda. She was radiant, and she was also blushing. I was just about to say something appropriate when the door crashed open, and two guys burst through the entrance. It turned out that Bobby was supposed to buy a pound of pot from these assholes.
Only one of them held a gun, but that was enough for us. When told to lie down on the floor, we did so without protest. They then said to Bobby, “Where’s the cash?”
He answered, “In my pocket.” The guy covering us with the gun told the other guy to get the money. Bobby, trying to be helpful, reached into his jeans and pulled out a wad of cash. As soon as the money was in the asshole’s hand, the other one with the gun walked over to Bobby, placed the gun to the back of his head, and killed him. Upon hearing the shot, Michael and I looked at each other and we knew we were to be next.
Before I could think of anything to do, Michael bounded to his feet and rushed the guy with the gun. When I saw Michael go into action, it released me from my paralysis, but not soon enough to help him. He took a bullet to the chest. As Michael was falling to the floor, I picked up a lamp from a table and smashed it over the gunman’s head while his partner stood frozen in place.
The man with the gun went down hard and the gun fell from his hand. All this went down fast, in a blur. I did not have time to think. I picked up the gun while the other guy still stood frozen. I aimed it at him and shot him dead with two shots. Then I turned to the one on the floor; he was moving and about to get up when I put a bullet into his head.
May God have mercy on my soul.
With Michael and Bobby dead and the other two not in much better condition, I grabbed an hysterical Linda and told her we had to get out of there. The cops would see the whole thing as a drug deal gone bad. If we got involved with the cops, she would be having her baby in prison.
I took Michael’s wallet holding his ID. He had never been arrested, so they couldn’t get any info from his fingerprints. It wasn’t Michael we were leaving behind, just his body. I wiped down the gun and then vomited all over Bobby’s blue shag carpet.
Linda’s folks lived in New Jersey, so I hitchhiked with her to the east coast. She was in a state of shock the whole way. After getting her to her parents, I stayed in the northeast for the next seven months. I kept moving, but would drop in to see her every few weeks. Seven months later, when the baby was born, I was there. I was there for my friend Michael. It was a boy and I was asked to be his godfather.
There were other adventures I had while I was on the road. But those I do not want to talk about at the moment. However, there is one thing that still makes me smile even after all these years. I was once kidnapped.
Yes, at twenty years of age, I was kidnapped. I was somewhere outside of Macon, Georgia, on Highway 301, heading south to visit my mother. It was about ten in the morning, and I was on the side of the road with my thumb extended—the usual—when this old station wagon pulled up. There was a lone woman of about thirty years of age behind the wheel and, through the open passenger side window, she told me to jump in. Normally that would not be a problem. But she had everything she owned stuffed in that car. However, I managed to squeeze in.
As we rode south, we talked and talked and talked. We talked of this and we talked of that. We covered baseball. We covered politics. We covered metaphysical shit. We covered everything under the sun. But there was still one thing left to discuss—what species would inherit and rule the earth once man had destroyed himself. That was easy. According to her, it would be dogs. “Okay,” said I. “Sounds good to me.”
By then we were somewhere in Florida and the sun was sinking fast in the west. She wanted to get a motel room for the night and I wanted to keep hitching. I was anxious to get home to Momma. She asked me to stay with her until she secured a room, then she would drive me back to the highway. Sure, why not?
She got off the highway and drove down a desolate country road that then turned into a gravel road. I don’t know how she found it or why it was there, but after about five miles, before us stood a broken down, third-rate motel.
I stayed in the car while she checked in. Then we went to her room. It wasn’t bad. Bigger than I expected and nice and airy. Plenty of windows. No air conditioner, but plenty of windows.
I stood by the door while she got her stuff situated. She then sat on the bed and asked me, “What do you want to do now?”
“I thought you might give me a ride back to the highway.”
“I don’t think so. I’m tired of being lonely. I want you to stay with me tonight.”
I was twenty and had virtually no experience with women. If I had had any experiences with women, I would have dropped my pants right then and there and enjoyed a wonderful evening. Earlier she had even offered to buy dinner. And just so you don’t get the wrong idea, she was no Dorothy Lamour, but she was good-looking (and a little crazy).
Of course, I had to get up on my high horse and remind her that she had promised to get me back to the highway.
“If you want to go, you can go, but I’m not driving ya,” she said with her jaw jutted in a northerly direction and her eyes starting to get moist.
Being the idiot that I was at the time, I grabbed my bag and walked the five miles back to the highway. A decision I have regretted ever since.
Okay, enough with my hitching adventures. I came off the road at the tender age of twenty-two. Actually, four months before my twenty-second birthday.
My uncle took me into his business and let me run with it. Not bragging, but I doubled it within three years. I had opened three branch offices around the state by 1975. Then I got bored. So I opened my own business. I manufactured rolling papers. I had read where the two leading brands were raking in almost $20,000,000.00 a year between them, and I thought I’d like a little of that action.
I did my research and found out Spain was the place to go if you wanted someone to make your papers for you. I went there, signed a contract, and came home. Then I got a designer to work up the packaging and it was off to the races.
I only tell you this because without the rolling paper business, I might not have become a junkie. I say, might not, but truth be told, it was in the cards I was dealt.
It was a few days before Christmas. I don’t know what year, but I was about twenty-seven and I was at one of my accounts, a “head shop.” You know, where “drug” paraphernalia was sold. I walked into the shop thinking I’d just shoot the shit with the owner, let him know I was thinkin’ of him, and if he had a little dope (cocaine or pot) and offered me some, so much the better.
Well, I hadn’t been through the door for more than a second before I fell in love. There she was, looking into a display case of hash pipes. Red hair, petite, a figure a woman half her age would kill for. She was fortyish, but to me she was the sexiest woman I had ever seen.
I walked right up to her, gave her my killer smile that never failed and said, “Howdy, may I help you?” I figured if she thought I worked there, she’d be more likely to talk to me.
She told me she was looking for a hash pipe for her son, for a Christmas present. Well, to make a long, embarrassing story short, I came on to her with everything I had. But this woman wouldn’t give me the time of day. I tried everything, and she just blew me off. The best I got that day was her name and where she worked.
I remember walking out of that shop, getting into my car, and just sitting there waiting for her to come out. She came out alright and gave me a half smile, then turned her back on me. FUCK! “I’m gonna get the broad if it’s the last fuckin’ thing I ever do,” were my thoughts as I started the engine.
Anyway, I knew where she worked.
Okay, I’ll tell you what I didn’t know at the time. Her name was Terry; she had just gotten out of prison after having done five years of an eleven-year rap. She had been a member of the infamous “Murph the Surf” gang, named after Jack Murphy, the leader. Jack got all the press. They even made a movie about him. But there were two leaders of that gang. The other was Bobby Greenwood, Terry’s old man. You older folks might remember the “Star of India” heist from the New York Museum of Natural History. It was one of the biggest jewel thefts in history. Well, my little love was in on that. The gang all got light sentences because everyone loves a jewel thief. But when they got out and reassembled, they went crazy. No need to go into the details here, but it involved murder, and all the men are still in prison. The women received lighter sentences, as women did in those days. Which was only fair; they had nothing to do with the killings. They just spent the money from those endeavors on furniture.
So anyway, after a lot of effort, I won Terry’s love. That’s when I fell in with the “boys.” They were second-tier members of the gang. At the time all the shit went down, they were young, but when I met them, they were her age and just getting out of prison.
Back then, almost everyone was smuggling marijuana into South Florida, even the “good old boys” on the west coast: shrimpers, fishermen, and the like. They referred to the bales of pot as “square grouper.” That is where Sonny, an old friend of Terry’s, was based out of. He had done eight years of a twenty-year sentence. So, Sonny and the other guys fell right into the smuggling thing. And they were making money hand over fist with nowhere to put it. That’s where I came in. They thought my business was just the place to invest some of their ill-gotten gains.
Now I’ve got these wise guys as partners. And I have to admit; as far as partners went, they weren’t too bad. Every Saturday, another briefcase of cash was flung onto my desk. It got so I told them, “Enough already.” I remember one Saturday I was on my boat because I was trying to avoid that week’s stipend. Well, ol’ Butch tracks me down and says, “What’s wrong with me? Why won’t you take my money?”
I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I said, “Okay, Butch. Just this one time.”
And with that, he tosses me a brown paper bag and says, “Here’s fifty large ($50,000.00). Thanks for taking it.”
“Don’t worry about it; maybe someday you can do me a favor.”
They never asked for stock, or for anything to prove they had invested their money with me. They never even asked what percentage of the company they were getting for their investment. Actually, they bought the damn thing three times over.
Anyway, back to my story. They were bringing pot in every week. They had a squadron of boats that would go out and pick the stuff up from the “beaner” boats. A beaner boat was what brought the stuff up from Columbia. It was a square-hulled thing with a wheelhouse big enough for only one man.
The thing is, more pot was coming up from Columbia than could be brought in. Anything not off-loaded to a boat for the run into Miami was tossed overboard. Millions of dollars’ worth of pot was thrown into the Atlantic. The beaners only brought the pot one way. There were no round-trip tickets for the bales of marijuana.
One day Sonny comes up to me and says, “I just found out you know how to sail. Want to make a run for me and pick up a load? I’ll give you $50,000.00, and you can be the foreman of the off-loading crew for another twenty-five large. You won’t have to do any work, just watch the boys and keep ’em working.”
I sure as hell didn’t need the money, but I was a junkie for adventure, so I said, “Sure, why not?”
I had some adventures doing that. Outran the Coast Guard one time. Got arrested five minutes after I handed over a load. Two associates were murdered by modern-day pirates. And I made a ton of money. All cash. You know, the usual.
Don’t worry. My karma was just around the corner, waiting for me.
After I got arrested and beat the rap, I retired from my smuggling career. By then, Terry and I had gone our separate ways. But I was still friends with all her friends. Rose in particular. Rose was Terry’s best friend. They had known each other forever. Rose was an ex-Playboy Bunny. Rose turned me into a junkie.
I was just twenty-nine years old. I had $630,000.00 in brown paper bags ensconced in my bedroom closet and I was getting laid at least fifteen times a day from fifteen different women. Okay, that was a bit of a stretch. But not by much. Remember, I was twenty-nine and I was rich. I also had a good front—fancy cars, fancy digs, and a killer smile.
So after Terry was out of the picture, Rose and I got tight. Nothing sexual. We just dug each other. That one time we had a three-way with one of my girlfriends doesn’t count.
I would go over to her pad to hang out to get away from my life. In those days, there was a party taking place on my boat twenty-four hours a day. When I needed a little peace and quiet, I’d crawl into Rose’s bed, and together we’d watch game shows on her TV. I really liked Rose. I still do, even though she turned me into a junkie.
This is how it went down.
One night I went over there to see if she wanted to hit a few clubs with me. Maybe she could get lucky, maybe I could get lucky, but at the very least we would have a blast.
She told me she had something different in mind.
I woke up thirty years later and I still wonder what the hell happened. Here’s the deal. She brought out the shit: the baggie, the spoon, the lighter, the tie-off, the syringe. She cooked the shit up and offered me the needle. “What! Are you crazy?” I said.
“This is great!” she responded. “There isn’t a person in the world who would share their shit, but I like you.” Long story short: After ten minutes of her chasing me around the apartment with the goddamn syringe in her hand, I held out my arm and let her inject me in the vein. It was love at first sight. Or whatever.
That’s it, gentle folks. I became a junkie. I loved it. For the next thirty years, I did not miss one day getting high. Except that time I shot up some bad shit and lay comatose in my boat for three days. When I came out of it, I saw that I had soiled the sheets (if you know what I mean) and vomited all over myself. The first thing I did was go out and cop some more, but from a different source——hoping it would not kill me.
Twelve years later, I woke up one morning and decided I didn’t want to get high anymore. That surprised the shit outta me. I figured I’d be a junkie forever. I knew that after thirty years I couldn’t just go cold turkey. I needed a plan. But before I go into that, I’d like to tell you about two people who were a big help to me: Jamie Lee Curtis and Herman Goering.
First, Jamie Lee. She wrote about how she beat her addiction and that inspired me. I forget what she said, but I’m clean today, in part, because of whatever she said. Herman was something else. He was a big junkie, and when they caught up with him after the war, he had a suitcase filled with his shit. He was doing about ten times my daily dosage. (I read a lot of history.) When the Allies discovered he was a junkie, they put him on a ten-day detox regimen. My first thought (as a junkie) was, “What the fuck!” But then I thought if that asshole could do it and live, then so could I. However, I’m a sissy. I gave myself seven months. Every day, I took less and less. I figured when I got down to next to nothing, I’d just walk away clean. I thought I was so smart.
I did my seven months and then stopped. At first, I felt fine. But I didn’t know that opiates stayed in your body for seventy-two hours. On hour seventy-three, I dropped to the floor and into the fetal position. I stayed that way for six months. My mind was clean, but my body went through a hell that I cannot describe. I mean, I really cannot describe it. Even with all my acquired writing skills.
In closing, know this: I destroyed my body in ways that I might be able to describe, but I won’t. I’ll never be right again. But hey, I did it to myself. I got no bitch.
This is my take-away from all that shit. When it’s your time to get clean, you’ll get clean. All the interventions in the world won’t do it. All the rehabs in the world won’t do it. Only you can do it.
I got clean at sixty years of age, and while I was in that fetal position and in indescribable torment, I wrote my first book. I am now working on my fifth. I’m no Stephen King, but I’m making money from my writing and my books are well received.
There is always hope. But better than that … there is always you.
Remember the Hermosa Beach story when I got arrested in San Diego? Well, this is what happened right after Pete and I split up.
I wanted out of California. But I had a court date and was not supposed to leave the state. Also, I was afraid that if I got stopped while hitchin’ on my way out, I’d be hauled back as a “flight risk.” Cops were always checking me out in those days and running my ID to see if I was wanted anywhere. I now realize it was unlikely that I’d have had any trouble, given the charge was only a misdemeanor. However, I was young and it was my first arrest, but unfortunately not my last.
So, I called my uncle who wired me money for a bus ticket to Miami. And in a few hours, I had the money, bought my ticket, and was on the bus heading for home sweet home. When we pulled out of San Diego, the bus driver announced that we would arrive in Miami at approximately 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, which meant that the trip would take three and a half days.
After two hours on the damn bus, I was ready to climb the walls, if indeed buses have walls.
To make this more palatable, which means shorter, I’ll get to the point.
I got off the bus at the first stop after we crossed into Arizona. The hell with the ticket, the hell with a refund; just let me off this damn torture machine. I then walked a block from the bus depot and stuck out my thumb.
On this particular journey, I had only one minor adventure, but it was still better than being a prisoner on that friggin’ bus! It happened outside a small town located in the panhandle of Texas at one o’clock in the morning.
I was in my usual position, which meant I was standing by the side of the road, thumb extended, with a shit-eatin’ grin on my puss. Even though it was dark, I was hoping my pearly whites would show in the glare of the oncoming headlights, which, at that time of night, were few in number.
I had left California straight from jail; I did not have my bedroll, or anything else for that matter. And I was not about to lie down in the wet grass on the side of the highway no matter how tired I was. No, I would sleep in the cars as they sped across this big country of ours. That is, if the driver hadn’t picked me up for the express purpose of conversation. If that were the case, then I’d be nodding in agreement with whatever he said, instead of nodding off. Because when they picked you up for talk, then you better damn well talk or you’d soon find yourself on the side of the road once again.
As I stood there in the cold desert air, shivering in my light California attire, a car approached. It had come out of nowhere. I could see headlights coming at me from miles away and this guy wasn’t there a minute ago. I learned later that he had been driving with his lights off.
It turned out to be a station wagon. (I know some of you younger cats are sayin’, “What the hell is a station wagon?” Ask your grandparents.) The car stopped and within it was not the solitary, lonely traveler that I had expected. Instead there were five people, three men and two women. I say men and women because I was only eighteen. They were all, in reality, about twenty-five years of age. The girls may have been a little younger. But to me, on that night, they seemed much older. There were two men in the front seat with a woman between them, and a man and a woman in the back seat.
Without any one of them saying a word, the left back door flew open, which in hitchhiking parlance means, “Get your ass in here.” And as I happened to have been fluent in Hitchhikese, I jumped in as the girl by the door slid over to make room for me. And without a word, but with many giggles and sideway glances at Yours Truly, we were off in a cloud of dust and a squeal of tires.
After a moment or two to let the female members of the troupe get over their giggles, the male passenger in the front seat turned to me and said, “Where ya headed?”
I answered as the honest person I was back then. “Miami.” At that point, I was informed that I was riding in a stolen car.
About that time, we entered the town proper. That’s when the driver swung a wicked right onto a side street. He went down every back alleyway and small side street that the town afforded. It was then that I started to think maybe they were a bunch of crazy loons, and, as I soon learned, I was right.
I should have asked to be let out the moment I was told I was riding in a stolen car, but instinctively, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So, instead, I practiced in my mind what I would say to the local law when we were stopped. “Sir, I am only a poor hitchhiker who is trying to get home to his dying mother. These criminals picked me up back there outside of town. You can see by my ID that I don’t live in these parts.” I thought, “Yeah, that oughta work.” But as it turned out, I never had the chance to use my spiel.
After going down what seemed every street in that little town, the driver got back on the main highway, but this time he’s going in the opposite direction that I want to go. So, I figure now is the time to speak up and let my desires be known.
“How about,” I said, “letting me off here? I’m going the other way.”
This time it was the driver who spoke: “Sorry, kid, but you see them lights coming up fast behind us? Well, they belong to the sheriff. But don’t you worry none, I kin outrun him.”
As it turned out the idiot who was driving—a product of inbreeding, no doubt—could not outrun the sheriff. He could only run the car off the road and into a cornfield of ripe corn. Now, I’m no farmer, and I had no way of telling if the corn was ripe or not short of eating it, but the damn stalks were ten feet high.
By the way, when I said earlier that the occupants of the car were crazy, the reason I knew so was that the entire time we were being pursued by the sheriff, the whole bunch of them were laughing uproariously. Now back to my tale of woe.
The car left the road and plowed into the corn stalks. It made it only about four feet in when it got stuck in the dirt. Three of the four doors swung open and everyone but me and the woman sitting next to me bailed. I mean they took off for the hills, fast!
The woman asked, “Ain’t you runnin’?”
“No,” said I, “I’ll just explain to the cop how I came to be here.”
“Ain’t gonna do you no good. This here’s the sheriff’s car, and he ain’t gonna take kindly to anyone he finds sitting in it.”
With those words of comfort, she slid over toward the open door, abandoned the sinking ship, and disappeared into the corn. It took me about one second to decide my course of action, which was to run and run fast. I opened the door, exited the car, and did my own fade into the corn.
Being a bit smarter than the average idiot, I didn’t go far into the corn, just a few feet. Then I ran parallel to the road, in the direction the sheriff was coming from. My plan was to get behind him. I figured he’d roll onto the field close to his car. And then he would search the corn for the miscreants that had had the audacity to steal his beautiful 1964 Dodge Valiant station wagon. And for one of the few times in my life, I was right. He drove right up to the Valiant, got out of his cruiser, and with a quick glance at his baby to make sure she was undamaged, he took off into the corn.
That’s when I exited the cornfield, crossed the road, and started walking in the direction of home. Now if I was seen or apprehended, I could say with a straight face, “Car? What car?” However, it did not play out that way. I got a ride within a few minutes and was long gone by the time the sheriff or the crazies ever made it out of the cornfield.
A minor adventure, I admit. But hey, I didn’t go looking for adventures of any kind during my hitching days. They just seemed to find me.
I made it back to Miami about 6:30 Monday night, which meant I beat the bus by twelve and a half hours.
I took off from home halfway through my seventeenth year when I was still wet behind the ears. I was on the road for almost five years and in that time I’ve had a few adventures. Not many, really. But the ones I had were doozies. I recently wrote about two of them (Sand Paintings, and The Swamp). They were well received, so I thought, what the hell? Might as well let it all hang out. Below is the latest installment of how I spent my misspent youth.
I’d been travelin’ up and down the coast of California for about six months when I finally thought that I’d check out the beaches. You know, Huntington, Redondo, Manhattan Beach … the usual. It wasn’t long before I caught sight of the surfers. Man, to that eighteen-year-old boy, surfin’ looked really cool. I wanted to try it. So, I got myself a job washin’ dishes at this hash house. I was sleepin’ in alleyways and under lifeguard stands because I was workin’ for a board and didn’t want to spend money on rent. And before I knew it, I was able to quit that job because I had earned enough for a second-hand surfboard.
This was 1968 and a short board was anything under ten feet. I got me a 9’6’’ beauty. I even painted the bottom in an American flag motif. I think I was protesting the Viet Nam War. Today, I’m not so sure why I did it. Maybe the surf was flat that day and I had nothing else to do, but it did look cool.
I bought the board from a shop on Hermosa Beach, so naturally I stayed in the neighborhood. I mean, how far could I go with a surf board and no car? It was summer, and sleeping on the beach was no problem … most of the time. When it rained, well, that was a bitch. But for the most part, I was happy surfing all day and cadgin’ a meal at night. I usually fed myself by going to the back door of a restaurant and asking if I could work for something to eat.
One of the most memorable of my “back-door escapades” was the time I knocked at a restaurant’s back door and gave my usual spiel. Well, this cook—or maybe he was a chef—lets me in, walks me over to a table in the kitchen, and says, “Don’t worry about the work. Just sit here and I’ll feed you.”
Just as I was putting the first mouthful of his fine cuisine into my mouth, this woman walks in from the dining room, sees me, and says, “What’s he doing here? Get him out!”
It turned out she was the owner. Well, my friend the chef answered, “When a man comes to my kitchen hungry, I am gonna feed him.” As he finished speaking, he lifted the knife he was using and pointed it menacingly at his boss. He kept it pointed at her until she—without saying a word—turned around and went back into the dining room.
Anyway, back to my story. Okay, I’ve got my new surfboard, I’m eating at least once a day, and I’m surfin’. Of course, I’ve got nowhere to live, but, to an eighteen-year-old, that’s no sweat. I’m happy as a pig in shit. I needed nothing else.
I had it worked out with one of the lifeguards to watch my board on the few occasions I left the beach. Surfin’ does work up one’s appetite. So I’d meander up to the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) every once in a while to see what I could promote—food-wise. On the day in question, I was attracted by loud music blaring out of a pair of speakers placed in front of a waterbed store. It was Canned Heat’s Going Up The Country.
So, I was standing there, just killing time until the song was over, when this dude walked up to me and said, “I dig this song too.” He was about my age, maybe a few years older, blond hair, about 6’1’’ and kinda thin. His name was Pete. We got to talking and then he asked, “Wanna blow a joint?” Now, did you ever hear of a kid in 1968 who didn’t want to blow a joint?
He took me to the house that he shared with his sister. It was only a few feet from the beach and it was painted green. That I remember. I also remember his sister; she was my age, beautiful and unattached, which did me no good whatsoever. I was too shy in those days to open my mouth around girls.
The long shot of it was, I was invited to move in halfway through the first joint. And that set into motion events that led to my being robbed, having a knife at my throat, being the victim of a murder attempt, trying to smuggle a pound of pot across the Mexican-U.S. border, being jailed, having a near-death experience, and all sorts of fun things. And, no, Pete was not a bad guy. Pete was a great guy; he was just an idiot … like I was.
After a few weeks of living with Pete and his sister, he and I start talking about how we could make real money. We thought that if we went down to Tijuana, copped a pound of primo Mexican Gold, brought it back to Hermosa Beach and sold it by the ounce, or “can” as it was referred to in Southern California back in those days, we’d be rich. Not to mention all the “free” pot we’d have. So guess what the two idiots did? If your guess is that we hitchhiked to Tijuana to buy a pound of pot and then walk it across the border, then give yourself a cigar. That’s exactly what we set out to do. But things didn’t work out quite that way.
On the way down, we got picked up by these two guys that were going there to cop “Reds” and “Greens.” Now I know those things have legit names, but to me they were “downers”, and not my type of high at all. I was pretty square in those days. Sure, I smoked pot, popped a little acid, shot a little acid, shot a little speed, did some mescaline (both organic and synthetic), but besides that, I was as pure as the driven snow.
Anyway, these guys were hip. They stopped before we got to the border and showed us how they were going to smuggle the shit in. It’s probably old hat by now, but, at the time, I thought I was talking to two geniuses. What they were going to do was hide the stuff under the carburetor on their car engine. They even popped it off and showed us where they had hollowed out a space and were gonna put the jars of pills. Genius, I tells ya! Pure genius!
They drove us into Mexico, and there we split up. Each pair out to make their own score. The only difference being that those guys knew what they were doing. As opposed to the two babes-in-the-woods that Pete and I turned out to be.
I don’t remember how we found the asshole who said he’d sell us a pound of marijuana, but find him we did. He took us to the seediest whorehouse I’ve ever seen. And seeing how it was the only whorehouse I’d ever seen, I reckon that’s not saying much.
As he’s bringing us in the back door, who the hell do you think we meet coming out of the place? You got it! The two geniuses. They’re holding big, brown, fat bottles of pills. There had to be at least five hundred pills per bottle. They stopped to show us their score, and then one of them asked, “Hey, you guys want some Reds?”
“Sure. Why not?”
They open one of the bottles and pour about ten pills each into my and Pete’s hands and we put ’em in our pockets. Now, this scene was keenly observed by our connection, which, as you’ll see in a moment, played a big part in this sordid tale.
So, the guy was holding the door of the whorehouse open for us. Right then and there I should have smelled a rat. He was smilin’ too broadly, and that one gold tooth he had in his mouth made him look just like the bandit in the Humphrey Bogart movie. You know the one, Walter Huston is in it along with Tim—can’t think of his last name right now—but it’s the one where the bandit and his cohorts are pretending to be the police; Bogie requests to see their badges and one of ’em says, “Badges? We don’t need no steekin’ badges!” Great line, great movie. Holt! That was his last name, Tim Holt. Well, our doorman looked just like that bandit.
Once inside, we were escorted down this poorly lit corridor with rooms on each side. I’m being generous when I call them rooms. They were about ten feet by ten feet, just big enough for two people. There was some kind of bed in each room, and upon each bed was a roll of toilet paper. Because it was the middle of the afternoon, every door was wide open—no customers.
Okay boys and girls, here’s where the fun really begins. It’s all been peaches and cream up to now. We got about halfway down the corridor when the bandit stopped in his tracks and asked to see our money. You know, just to make sure we were legit. And being the complete dumb asses that we were, we whipped out our money to show him just how legit we were.
It was at that very instant that a door flew open and three guys that looked even worse than our bandit rushed towards us. Before either one of us knew it, we were pressed up against the wall with knives at our throats. They were talkin’ Spanish, but I kinda had the feelin’ they wanted our money.
Hey guys, you can have it! We appreciate you asking so nicely.
Behind the three guys stood our bandit, still smiling—the son-of-a-bitch. Then our bandit said something to the new bandits in Spanish, and the next thing we knew, these guys were rooting around in our pockets. You know, it’s kind of hard to hold a knife to someone’s throat and simultaneously go through his pockets. Try it some time, and you’ll see what I mean. But these guys were good at it. They probably had a lot of practice.
My personal bandit, and by that I mean the one holding the knife to my throat, as opposed to Pete’s personal bandit who was holding a knife to his throat, pulled out about six of my ten reds while still holding his knife in the prerequisite position, then he turned his head and showed his find to our bandit, who intoned, “Si, si.”
Si, si is right. Yes, yes. What the hell am I doing in a whorehouse in Tijuana in the middle of the afternoon being robbed by a character out of a Humphrey Bogart movie?
Did I say that the fun was going to start when these guys held knives to our throats? Well, if I did, I was mistaken Now the real fun began. Pete had gone through everything I had gone through. His bandit was now holding his reds. Then the two bandits turned their attention back to us once our original bandit nodded his head in approval. Approval of what we did not know. But hey, no sweat. We were about to find out.
Now, before I go any further, for all you non-junkies out there, two of those reds would put you to sleep for at least twelve hours; three, and you could kiss an entire day good-bye. Four . . . you’re talking about a trip to the emergency room. You get my drift? I don’t know how many were shoved down Pete’s throat, but I got six. Then they threw us out onto the street. I didn’t know what was going on then, but over the years my feeble mind has kind of pieced things together.
This is what I believe their thinking was: One, we would either OD on the streets of Tijuana, or two, we would be picked up by the police on a public whatever-you-call-it-when-you’re-really-stoned-on-reds charge. They had very little fear that we would go to the police on our own volition. What the hell were we going to say? “Excuse me, sir, but I tried to buy drugs in your country, and I was robbed.” I don’t think so, and our bandit friends knew so. And anyway, they probably had the police in their hip pockets. Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries in the world when it comes to the police. And Tijuana was, and probably still is, the most corrupt city in all of Mexico.
Well, whatever their plan was, we fooled ’em. We didn’t pass out until we were back in the good old U S of A … barely. This is no exaggeration. We were only two steps across the border and into this country with its wonderful jails, as opposed to Mexico’s shitty jails, when we keeled over.
Can you imagine the police of today finding a comatose eighteen-year-old boy on the street and taking him to jail? I mean, really! But that is what the San Diego County Police did. I probably wasn’t actually comatose, but I have no recollection of being arrested. I was in their goddamn jail two days before I regained consciousness. The only saving grace as far as I was concerned was that Pete was in the same cell with me. He had regained consciousness about an hour before I did.
So there we were, two would-be drug kingpins, on the second tier of the cellblock, down the row, in the last cell.
The coppers wanted to get us for being under the influence of dangerous drugs. But to do so, they needed a urine sample. I’m escorted downstairs, handed a cup, and told to go into the open cell in front of me and pee into said cup.
This next part, I swear, is the God’s honest truth. When I walked into the cell, there was a puddle of piss on the floor. I knew what it was because of its fragrant aroma. I don’t know about most of you, but when I come out of a coma, I just can’t piss. Maybe it’s because my body was in the process of shutting down. You know, some people call it dying. Well, whatever the cause, I just could not pee that night. And believe me, I tried!
When the copper came to take my sample, I told him I just couldn’t go. At about that time, he saw the puddle on the floor. He accused me of being the culprit. Who me? I’d never peed on a floor in my life. Well, at least not until recently.
Because they thought me a wise-ass, I was unceremoniously thrown back into our cell. By the way, we were not given a phone call, or arraigned within the time limit prescribed by the Constitution. Of course, at eighteen, I was not yet the constitutional scholar that I am today, so I kept my big yap shut.
To pass the time while awaiting our day in court, we made a chess set out of torn paper bits. We were lucky; somehow, we came into possession of a pencil, which meant we could identify the pieces. You know, “P” for pawn, “Q” for queen, etc … etc. But we didn’t have a board, so we had to imagine the squares. Three days of that shit, and I haven’t been right since.
We were finally brought before a judge. Looking down at us, I guess he saw a couple of stupid kids. After all, the charge was only a misdemeanor, so he gave us OR. Which meant your Own Recognizance, which meant no bail need be posted. They’d trust you to come back for your day in court.
So Pete and I found ourselves free and out on the street once again. And Pete says to me, “So, what now?”
I say to Pete: “Fuck California, I’m goin’ east. Sell my board and keep the money.
And, as I am so fond of saying, I then walked into a new life.
I ran into Jimmy of The Dené in the summer of 1967 when I was seventeen-years-old. I was hitchhiking, trying to get to California from my home in Miami, Florida, but I got sidetracked along the way and ended up in Peoria, Illinois. I only mention this because I found myself on the fabled Route 66.
I had no map and I was rather lost, but a kind man that I met at a gas station told me to keep on 66 and it would lead me right into Los Angeles. What it did … was lead me into one of the most profound experiences of my life.
A day later, I was standing by the side of the road outside of Gallup, New Mexico, just before sunset, hoping to catch a ride at least as far as Flagstaff before it got full dark. As the sun kissed the rim of the earth, turning the western sky a bright, fiery orange, an old beat-up, blue pickup truck screeched to a halt; the driver leaned toward the open passenger window and said, “Where ya going?”
“I ain’t going that far, but I can get you down the road a bit.”
I threw my kit in the back, opened the door, and got inside.
The guy hit the accelerator, lurching the truck back onto the asphalt—spewing rocks and pebbles in its wake.
Before he hit second gear, and with his eyes still on the road, he said, “My name’s Jimmy. Glad to meet ya.”
I told him my name and we settled into a comfortable silence as we raced toward the setting sun. When you’re hitching, you go with the flow. Most people pick you up because they want someone to talk to, but this guy seemed to like things quiet, which was fine with me.
About fifteen minutes later, he spoke up. “I turn off up ahead and it’s getting dark. You wanna crash on my couch? I’ll drive you back to the highway in the morning.”
I didn’t have to think twice about it. A couch sure beat sleeping on the side of the road. It gets damp out there in the early morning hours.
Jimmy then told me he was a Navajo and lived on the reservation. We turned off the highway and headed north down a bumpy dirt road. Eventually we came to a trailer sitting all by itself.
“We live in a corner of the reservation, away from the others. The reservation is 27,000 square miles, so there’s plenty of room. The only problem is, there’s no electricity out here,” said Jimmy.
As we walked up to the trailer, Jimmy informed me that he lived with his grandfather. “He is a medicine man and he speaks very little English. His name is Ti՜éhonaa՜éi Lizhini—Black Moon in English. I will interpret for him.”
I followed Jimmy into the trailer. It was dark inside, the only light coming from a lantern that sat on the kitchen table. Off to my right, I saw an old man standing at a propane stove, stirring something in a large kettle. Jimmy said, “Yá’át’ééh, Análi.” He turned to me and kind of apologized for not speaking in English by saying, “I just said, ‘Hello, Grandfather’.” Then he added, “Why don’t you go sit on the couch and I’ll explain to him that you will be joining us for dinner and staying the night.”
I made myself comfortable on the couch, my only thought: Whatever the old man is cooking sure smells good.
I’m gonna cut out all the small talk that passed between me and Jimmy while his grandfather prepared the dinner and take you to the scene as we sat around the kitchen table.
As we started eating our deer stew, I said to Jimmy, “I never met any Navajos before.”
“We call ourselves The Dené. It means The People. We got the name Navajo from the Spanish. They called us Apachu de Nabajo. It means “Apaches Who Farm in the Valley.”
When I had eaten a good portion of the stew, I smiled at Black Moon and pointed to my bowl. “Good,” I said. He smiled back and nodded his head. Then started talking a mile a minute in the Navajo language. Of course, I could not understand what he was saying, but Jimmy listened and nodded his head. Turning to me, he said, “Grandfather wants me to tell you how the Navajo came to be on the earth. I’ll tell you the short version because I don’t want to bore you.”
“You won’t bore me. This is why I’m on the road. I want to meet new people and learn things.”
“I may not bore you, but the whole story is too long. We’re gonna have to hit the hay soon. My grandfather needs to be at the Sacred Mountain before sunrise. I’ll drive him there and then take you to the highway.”
As I ate my stew, Jimmy started in on his narrative.
“Basically, our creation story goes like this: The first world is, Nihodilhil or Black World. The whole world was pitch black, but there were four clouds in the sky: the Blue Cloud, the Yellow, the Black, and the White Cloud. The Blue and Yellow Clouds came together and formed First Woman. Then the Black and White Clouds did the same and formed First Man.
“Seeing First Man’s fire, First Woman made her way to him. He asked her to live with him and she agreed. They did not want to live in the darkness forever, so they searched until they found the path to Ni՜hodootl՜izh, the Blue World. They climbed the mountain path until they emerged into the new world.
“Once there, they found many animals that were at war with one another. Coyote also lived there. He traveled in the four directions of the four winds and saw that the beings who lived there were not happy and wanted to leave the Blue World. This he told First Man.
“First Man made four wands. One of black stone, one of turquoise, one of abalone, and one was made of shell. Using those wands, the beings of the second world followed First Man and First Woman into Nihaltsoh, the Yellow World. There they found the Four Sacred Mountains.
“First Man planted a reed and it grew to the sky. First Man, First Woman, Coyote, and the other beings used the reed to climb into Nihalgai, the Glittering World. That is the world in which we live.”
When Jimmy had finished speaking, his grandfather reached across the table, patted my hand, and said something in the Navajo tongue. Jimmy translated his words.
“My grandfather likes you. He says you are young and you will live a long time. He wanted you to know our creation story so that you can tell other white men. He has also invited you to watch him build his sandpainting in the morning. He is almost finished. It is an honor that he has asked you, but I will tell him that you must be on your journey.”
“Not so fast, Jimmy. I’ve got nowhere I gotta be and no one waiting for me when I get there. I would love to see him build his sandpainting. Although I do have one question. What is a sandpainting?”
“I will tell you in the morning. Now we sleep.”
The next morning, Jimmy shook me awake before dawn. “Are you ready?” he asked. I was still half asleep and had to think for a minute. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee brought me around. “Sure. As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Then help yourself to some coffee. The cups are on the counter. Sorry, we have no milk or sugar.”
“Good. Grandfather is getting dressed. We’ll be leaving in about ten minutes.”
I poured myself some coffee and took the cup outside to take in the cold desert morning. The stars in the sky blew me away. Having been raised in a city, I had never seen so many stars. I drank my coffee and enjoyed the view.
Soon the door opened and Jimmy and his grandfather came out.
We piled into the truck with Black Moon sitting between Jimmy and me. We took off down the same worn dirt road that we had come in on. But this time we were going farther onto the reservation. After a few minutes, I asked Jimmy to tell me about sandpaintings.
“They are used in our curing ceremonies to attract The Holy Ones. They are made with crushed stone, ground minerals, and pollen. And sometimes, flowers. Oh yeah, and, of course, sand. The ground is prepared first and then the medicine man sets about building his painting. Once it is complete, he will chant to sanctify it. Then the sick person sits on it, and the medicine man does a ritual chant, to bring forth the healing powers of The Holy Ones. That’s all there is to it.”
I nodded like I understood what he was talking about. Just to say something, I asked where we were headed.
“We are going to Doko’oosliid. It is one of the Four Sacred Mountains. Nowadays, most medicine men build their sandpaintings in a hogan, but my grandfather likes the old ways. He says that doing the ceremony in the cave of a sacred mountain hastens the curing process.”
We pulled up to the base of a mountain and Jimmy announced that we were at our destination. Black Moon smiled at me as he got out of the truck and took me by the hand. He led me off to the right. Jimmy yelled after us that he would catch up as soon as he filled the lantern with oil.
When we got to the mouth of the cave, Black Moon pointed to the ground and said, “You stay.” He then went inside. Less than a minute later, Jimmy walked up holding a lantern.
“I feel like a dog. Your grandfather told me to ‘stay’.”
Jimmy held out the lantern in my direction. “Hold this,” he said.
As I held the lantern and Jimmy lit it, he explained. “The paintings are on the floor of the cave. It would not be good to walk over one of them. My grandfather knows his way around and there is a lantern in there that he will light. By the time we go in, bringing this lantern, there will be plenty of light. Also, he needs some time alone to say his prayers before he starts his work. We will give him a few more minutes and then go in. And when we go in, please do not talk. It will distract my grandfather.”
Five minutes later, we walked into the cave. There was a yellow light reflecting off the walls about fifty feet in. I was behind Jimmy, who held the lantern. “Step where I step,” he instructed in a whisper. “There are two paintings up ahead. One is completed; one my grandfather will be working on.”
I followed Jimmy, being careful to walk in his path. Before we got to the back of the cave, he stopped and held the lantern out to his left and pointed. And there it was—a finished sandpainting. I couldn’t believe the detail, the vibrant colors, the majesty of the thing. I was speechless. And here it is five decades later and I still don’t have the words to describe what I saw that day, which is ironic, seeing as how I make my living with words.
We continued on to where Black Moon sat on the ground, focused on his art, with seven small bowls within arms’ reach—each filled with a different substance, and each substance a different color. For two hours, I sat across from him and watched him work. As I said at the beginning of this narrative, it was a profound experience.
Presently, Jimmy nudged me and tilted his head toward the cave entrance. It was time to leave. The whole time we were there, his grandfather did not once acknowledge our presence. Outside, Jimmy extinguished the lantern and started to walk toward the truck. But after a few steps, he stopped and turned to me. “My grandfather told me to tell you this. He wanted you to see the paintings and how they are built. You are the first white person he has ever allowed to see him work. He wants you to bring the word to your white friends that we are not savages, that our religion is as strong as yours, and that we worship the same god.”
“I will remember that, Jimmy. And I will spread the word. But what happens to the paintings once the ceremony is complete? They are so beautiful.”
“They are destroyed and the materials collected and returned to the earth. They are only meant to exist for a few days.”
“It is our way.”
Jimmy got me back to the highway, we shook hands, and I continued on my journey a different person than I had been twenty-four hours earlier. But is that not the way of life? At the end of each day, should we not be a person different from the one that started the day?