Pot And Ponchos

Is that a real poncho, or a Sears poncho?

Is that a real poncho, or a Sears poncho?

Going through old photos the other day and came across this gem.  Ah, the poncho.  Difficult piece of clothing to pull off.  Women should never wear them, and the only men that can really rock them are Mexican revolutionaries or drug-addled hippies.  I guess at the time I fancied myself the latter.

But I look fucking ridiculous.   A poncho.  C’mon dude.  Really?

I know.  I know.

I was wearing that poncho the first time I tried scoring weed in Santa Fe.  I had new buddy drive me to the plaza where I had seen a variety of doper-looking scruffians and ne’er-do-wells hanging out.  A few were kicking the sack around.  Others huddled around in conspiratorial circles talking.  This was generally fertile grounds for sowing a pot connection.

Unless you’re a stranger wearing a poncho.

I jumped out of the van and walked over to a small group of these Plaza Rats.

“Hey guys.  Do any of you know where I can score a little herb?”

They all shook their heads no.  Emphatically.  It wasn’t like a no, not right now, but a no, never.  We don’t know anyone who ever sells marijuana.

Strange.  What gives?  I don’t see any X’s on their hands.  They don’t seem straight-edge.  Especially that dude with the knit rasta cap selling hand-carved soapstone hash pipes.  He’s shaking his head no, too.  Hmm.  I walked back dejectedly to the van.

For many years, my friend, Russell, would remind me of that day.  He was there at the plaza hanging out.

“We all just knew your were a narc!” he’d laugh.  “Oh, here comes some buzz-cut guy that jumped out of a white van…wearing a poncho!  Like that was going to throw us off.  He totally looks like a cop, but he must be cool, because…he’s wearing a poncho.  Hahahahahaha!  No way man.”

He had a point.  I wouldn’t have turned me on if I wasn’t me.  What was I thinking?

Fortunately, a little later, I met a guy named, David Scott, who sussed me out as a legitimate fuck-up, and finally vouched for me to his friends.  He invited Keller, my sister, and me to the house where he was living and introduced us.  I didn’t wear my poncho that night and we were welcomed warmly.  So that’s how I got to know The Plaza Rats, an indigenous tribe of freaks, punks and hipsters I immediately felt at home among.

And for the record, none of whom would ever know anyone who sold pot.

At least not anyone who would sell it to a burr-headed state trooper-looking dude wearing a poncho.

So what was the deal with the poncho in the first place?   Well, hear me out.   There was some reason behind my insanity.

I had just moved to Santa Fe, NM from Southern California in ’87.  Or was it ’88?  Doesn’t matter.  My sister and I had driven through a blizzard that got so gnarly we had to pull off and spend the night in Seligman AZ.  We had spent three hours of night driving in white-out conditions with everything we owned crammed into a Chevy Chevette (diesel) and a U-Haul roof carrier.

All I could do was try to stay in the wheel prints of the semi in front of us.  If he went over a cliff, I would have been following right behind.  It was some of the most wide-eyed, ass-puckered motoring I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing.  A memorable first time driving in snow.  I think that U-Haul carrier saved us.  Kept us squashed to the road.

When the semi finally pulled off at Seligman, we were elated.  To this day, that two-horse-turd town holds a special place in my heart.   I will never forget how good it looked that night with all its glowing neon angels.  Gas.  Motel.  Beer.  The holy trinity for tired travelers.  A sweet divine sanctuary.

We bought some snow chains, sandwiches, chips, and sodas.  (Try saying that with a bilateral lisp)  Anyway, there is a very good chance that I purchased some beer that night, but I can’t remember for sure.  The fact that I got roaring drunk in the town bar that night made the purchase of package store beer uneventful in my memory.  There were bigger things to remember about that night.

I remember my sister and I checking into a little motel and being very grateful to be alive and that we had made it, so far.  We still had a long way to go, over some treacherous snowy and icy roads, but for now, we were okay.  Breathe deep.  Holy shit.  What have I gotten us into?

I also remember feeling very proud of her.  She was damn good co-pilot.  Goddamn.  When things were looking grim, she kept her cool and that helped me keep my shit together.  I always knew she was gutsy, but that night, I got to see her at her finest.  Poised.  Steely-eyed.  Determined.  Scared for sure, but not letting The Fear best her.

She’s a good person to have at your side, pointing the way to go to avoid the burning zeppelin.

After I finished appreciating my sister, I decided to hit the bar.  She was in for the night, so I trudged through the snow to the only place open that night.  What I saw when I went in was pretty cinematic.

A black-haired biker babe behind the bar drying glasses, and one sole patron sitting at the bar.  A desiccated piece of grizzle, a wild-haired, bushy-browed, burned-out freak…wearing a poncho.   Oh fucking yes!  So exactly the bar of my dreams.  A sexy chick to look at and a weirdo to talk with is all I really need.

The place was rustic, with antlers and shit on the wooden walls, the plank saloon floor was urine-stained and varnished with years of vomit.  Probably a few quarts of blood splattered  here and there.  Nice.  Perfect actually.  I know you can’t have any real fun without spilling a few bodily fluids.

I ordered a beer and a shot for myself and the fabulous furry freak.   He nodded his appreciation.   Hell, I just looked Death in the eyes and didn’t flinch too much.  I could afford to buy the house a round or two.

I offered one to the bartender, but she declined.  She looked part Indian.  Probably a good idea.  She looked like she’d be a handful in a bar fight.  Strong arms.  Powerful legs…and ass.  I imagined us rolling around on a floor covered in broken glass, wrestling for the pool cue, knocking over tables, her biting into my shoulder, me pulling on her hair, then our eyes meeting.  Magic.  The look that says we belong together.  Then her mouth opening slightly.

“That’ll be sixteen dollars.”

I handed her a double saw.

“Keep it.”

“Thanks.”

“Roads are a motherfucker I hear,” the old head says, still looking straight ahead.

“Yeah, my ass hasn’t unclenched yet.  We’re driving to Santa Fe.  It would be nice if we don’t die.”

The head nodded.  The bartender told me nobody knew if I-40 would be open by tomorrow, and that we might be stranded.  That was fine by me.  This place seemed better than most.  But it was about to get much better.

“You want to burn one?” Mr. Poncho asked me.  Now I nodded.  We stepped outside and watched the snow come down while taking turns hitting at the joint.  It looked really peaceful.  Not like it did from behind the wheel.

I can’t remember how, but in the course of our conversation, Captain Beefheart came up.  I probably brought him up, since I was totally into Don Van Vliet.  A buddy had turned me on to Trout Mask Replica, and the rest was history.  Anything that utterly insane was not just something to listen to, but to somehow incorporate as a lifestyle choice.  The Captain was bat-chain puller insane and I was hoping that repeated listening would infect me with his liberated madness.  Like I needed more.  Bat chain puller.  Bat chain puller.  Puller.  Puller.

Anyway, not only did this guy know about Beefheart, but he could sing his entire catalog–pitch perfect, from the deep grumbles to the high screeching.   I shit you not.  It was an amazing thing to witness.  Especially stoned.  When we went back inside, I bought another round and he performed a little recital for me.  He not only sounded just like the Captain, but knew every single word to every song I threw out.  It was like having a living, breathing, weed-sharing, Captain Beefheart juke box taking requests.  Nothing was too esoteric.  I couldn’t stump him.

Ice Cream for Crow.  I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby.  Dachau Blues.  Abba Zabba.  Candle Mambo.  Big Eyed Beans from Venus.  Tropical Hot Dog Night.   Mirror Man.  I Wanna Find a Woman That Will Hold My Big Toe Until I Have to Go.  And of course, Bat Chain Puller.  He knew them all.

“Okay, Man With A Woman Head.”

He’d take a sip of beer and begin.

“The man with the woman head
Polynesian wallpaper made the face stand out,
a mixture of Oriental and early vaudeville jazz poofter,
forming a hard, beetle-like triangular chin much like a praying mantis.
Smoky razor-cut, low on the ear neck profile.
The face the color of a nicotine-stained hand.
Dark circles collected under the wrinkled, folded eyes,
map-like from too much turquoise eye-paint.
He showed his old tongue through ill-fitting wooden teeth,
stained from too much opium, chipped from the years.
The feet, brown wrinkles above straw loafers.
A piece of cocoanut in a pink seashell caught the tongue
and knotted into thin white strings.
Charcoal grey Eisenhower jacket zipped and tucked into a lotus green ascot.
A coil of ashes collected on the white-on-yellow dacs.
Four slender bones with rings and nails
endured the weight of a hard fast black rubber cigarette holder.
I could just make out Ace as he carried the tray and mouthed,
‘You cheap son of a bitch’
as a straw fell out of a Coke, cartwheeled into the gutter.
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood,
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood,
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood.”

Son of a bitch.  He knew the whole thing.   Maybe I had died back there on I-40, and this was my heaven.   I felt like I’d discovered buried treasure.  What a magnificent gem hidden in a wasteland of Arizona desert.  More beers.  More Beefheart.  More pot.  Digging that crazy poncho, too.

I have experienced many wild and wonderful things in my life, but running into that old freak, in a deserted bar during a snowstorm, remains a highlight.  The human Beefheart beat box.

I think that’s when I caught the poncho germ.  I too wanted to be a solitary, desert-dwelling human repository of cult-music.  A sun-baked beatster basting his brains in a tin-foil trailer.  Not giving a flying fuck.  Too crazy to care.  To be so out there you don’t worry about whether you’re pulling off the poncho or not.  You’re too busy talking to crows, painting rusted car hoods with animal scenes, and remembering how to sing every single Captain Beefheart song ever invented.  Just in case.

I already knew The American Dream wasn’t for me.  This seemed like a viable alternative.  Puller.  Puller.

They opened I-40 that next morning.  I was nervous, but had renewed faith that something was looking out.  We chained up, topped off with diesel, and shimmied that clattering Chevette along the ice.  That next day’s driving was actually worse.  Slush from passing trucks would splash on our windshields and stop our wipers, leaving us driving blind, but we made it.  Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We had never been there.  We didn’t know anybody.  Had no jobs.  No place to live.  Very little money.  And we didn’t give a flying fuck.

There’s nothing like almost dying a lot to make you feel alive, and not worried about small bullshit.

So anyway, a few days after getting there, I walked past a shop selling ponchos.  Oh fuck yeah.  I had to get one.  We had already scored a trailer to live at, inside the Space Science Center for UFO studies on St. Francis Drive.  This would be the second important component to starting my new weird life.  The third was pot, which I would get next.

Wearing my poncho.

I can't give you my coat. It's gotten quite cold.

It’s gotten quite cold, I’ve decided I can’t sell you my coat.

My Road to Redemption is Littered with Empties.

We’re not stopping until Seligman

There was hot death blowing through the windows.  Before us a black ribbon of asphalt unrolled to a horizon dancing hula in the heat waves.  Every party has to come to an end, and ours just came to a screeching halt through a cinderblock wall, up a ramp, over a troop of Girl Scouts, and into a vat of hot tar.  Panic attacks, shakes, retching, eyes watering, the hammer of guilt banging on the anvil of shame, just behind the temples.  It was going to be a long ride home.

Marko and I were on our way back from a visit to California, after an eleven day bender we would never forget–if we could remember any of it.   I do remember emceeing a punk rock show in Ventura while in a black-out, if that counts as remembering.  After 1,200 beers or so, we finally ran out of steam and decided to call it a day.  We could sense a mob collecting torches and pitchforks, so it was time to go.  Besides, I had library books due, and Marko couldn’t remember if he left the curling iron on.

Now, poison oozed from us in a viscous, bubonic sweat.  It coated us in a glaze that the desert kiln baked into our clay, our skin pulled tight against our desiccated skulls, lips pulled back and stuck above teeth dry enough to light a match on.  Grimacing like game show hosts on their third face-lift, our decaying organs gassed a fetid funk from our sewer holes.  It smelled like rotting something.  Rotting us.

We were drinking plenty of water, except it happened to come with beer.  It was hot beer, too.  Not Oh-gee-look-what-I-found-under-the-bed warm, but Cup O’ Soup chicken noodle hot.  Bottled beer broth.  Drinking beer that hot, really signals the end is near.  It’s purely maintenance drinking by that point.  Party time is over.  Drinking just enough to keep away the Jumping Jiminees, and maybe something worse, like a moment of clarity.

No time for that shit.  Now was not the time to fall apart, penitent, blubbering for redemption.  We had to make it home, and that was beyond the Indus, beyond the Hindu-Kush.

The car seemed thirsty enough for water.  It was boiling it away by the gallon.  I stared at the temperature gauge intently.  My blurred vision saw three of them, all different.

“We may be fucked, or not,”  I said, pointing to the dash, “It totally depends on which one of these is a lying son of a bitch.”

Marko didn’t say anything.  Lips tight.  Eyes on the road.  Hands at ten and two o’clock.   He was going stoic on me.

Marko and I were a combustible combination on any given school night, but even more so when on a mission to “blow off a little steam.”  We had wanted to take it to the next level and were thinking about going back to California for a while.  We figured that when you get used to drinking beer at a 7,000 foot altitude and you return to sea level, you would become a blood-doped Olympic-caliber drinker ready shatter records, and anything else lying around.  It was only a theory back then, but today a proven scientific fact.

A situation took place which presented the two of us with a perfect opportunity to research our thesis.  This incident, while a most unfortunate mishap, had created a stellar excuse for us to leave Santa Fe.  While waiting for things to cool down, we could visit family and friends, and reassure them we were doing well and feeling fit.  I know we reassured them alright.  Reeling and reeking, walking through a closed screen door, knocking over the Ficus, one of us wearing two different sneakers, the other with bloodied toilet paper stuck up a nostril, dragging a toy wagon filled with beer,  “Hi everybody, we’re really drunk, AND we brought guns!”

I don’t know if I can say it turned out to be a good visit.  Eventful yes.  Perhaps monumental.  But not all that good.  I still have some amends to make for that outing, including one to a chubby little teenage woman with bleached hair.  It’s tricky because I don’t know her name or what she looks like beyond the description I just gave.  Does anybody know her?  I think she was from Ventura.  She was at the punk show I can’t remember emceeing.  I have a letter for her.

It was time to get out of the town we got out of town to.  The air conditioner murdered our gas mileage, so we kept the windows down and let the Mohave come blasting in.  All one hundred and eleven degrees of it.  It felt like sitting in a toaster oven while wearing blow driers for goggles.

“Dude, I need you to pull over so I can piss!”  I yelled.  No response.  Did he hear?

“Dude, I need you to pull–”

“Needles in seventeen miles.  Hold it.”

“No man, this is a serious levee breaker.  Pull the fuck over.”

“We can’t stop out here.  We’ll never move again, and die.”

I kind of knew what he meant.  Sometimes you think you’re just going to take a knee to catch your breath, but fall over, permanently.  Can’t risk that.  I squeezed myself between my finger and thumb.  Time to soldier up.

When Needles, CA  looks like an oasis, you know things are sucking hard.  We pulled into a gas station.  We filled up with gas and topped off the radiator.  I went inside to use their restroom.  Afterwards, I looked around the store, and grabbed a Gatorade from the cooler.

“What good is that going to do?” Marko asked.  I thought about it, and put it back.  Don’t waste money on foolish things.  Was it time for the one hamburger I had budgeted for this 900 mile journey?  No, wait for Flagstaff.  Candy?  Bad for you.  Too hot for cigarettes.  Hmm…cold beer seems to be the only thing left.  We bought a six pack.  That’s right, for between the two of us.  Really not feeling well.

Back into the Oldsmobile and onto I-40.  Sipping on a cold beer will help.  All we needed was our 89th wind.

Marko suggested we smoke some weed.  It might make us feel better.

That is the lie, the big lie about weed, that somehow it will help, instead of making everything 47,ooo times worse.  Not thirty seconds after coughing your lungs out, you realize that you just took the first step towards turning some minor mental turmoil into a nightmare of Byronic proportions.  You brought this on yourself, with full knowledge and prior experience.  You did this voluntarily and not under the duress of some punishing deity or burdensome social obligation.  You are the Satan you once feared.

“Yeah, might as well.”  We rolled up the windows.

The weed didn’t make us feel better.  Just different.  Different as in worse.

“I think I’m going to die,” I announced as calmly as possible, “I can’t feel my heart.”

Marko looked over.  “How do we know we haven’t died already?  How do we know we weren’t killed in an accident a few miles back, and are just imagining this?”

We drove along in silence for a while.

“Okay, that better not be true!”  I started clapping my hands and blinking my eyes.  Still here.  Still here.  Fucking weed.

I tried to stay positive.  “You know, it’s not like dying right now would be the worst thing that could happen to us, right?”

“Yeah, not dying right now seems to be a lot worse.”

I thought about that.  That’s never a good place to go, especially when you’re rubbed raw and severely stoned.  Here we go with the heavy reflections…

“I’ve tried to live a good life.  You know, not hurt a lot of people.”  Marko just laughed.  “I’m serious, dude.  It’s not like I went out of my way.”  More laughter.  “I don’t think my karma will be too bad  if I have to come back as anything.”  Silence.  I waved my hands around.  “Maybe all this is just karmic payback for something.”

Highway Patrol passing us slowly.  Do not look over.  Push the bag over to Marko’s side.  Pretend you’re talking.

“Do you think molecules miss people when they die?”

“I bet people sure miss the molecules,” Marko said, cracking open a new beer, way before the 75 mile limit we set.

I had scared myself enough to join him.  Smoke more weed, too.  Might help.

By Flagstaff the wheels were really coming off.  After pulling off to fill up and finally get my hamburger, we got lost getting back on the Interstate.   It was night and our nerves were dangling out the window.  We were driving around looking for the on-ramp, barking and bitching at each other.  I was beginning to freak.

I seized on the fact that Arizona was a zero-tolerance state, which meant getting caught with any marijuana was enough to get a life sentence.  They don’t fuck around here.  They still think Hitler was misunderstood, and that daylight savings time is some sort of commie conspiracy.

We needed to throw the weed out the window, right now!

“Are you fucking crazy?”

“I don’t want to be raped!”

He grabbed the bag out of my hand.  “We are NOT going to be throwing our weed out the window!  You need to get a grip!”  he commanded.  I could tell he meant it, and settled down.  I did need to get a grip, but how does one do that?  I don’t know what to do in order to get this grip everyone so desperately wants me to obtain.  It seemed elusive.

My best guess in life was to drink as much beer as humanly possible.  That didn’t seem to be working.   Still needed some tinkering.   So now what?  I felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown, which is very opposite of getting a grip.  Then I thought, “Boy, I could sure use some help getting a grip.”  That was it.  It wasn’t a prayer.  More like a statement.

I nervously fiddled around with the radio and found a station playing Gregorian chants.  Honest to God.  Probably some public station trying to fill time, but it was just what we needed, something calming.  Soothing soul balm.  “Dominus ex patria, plurumbus unim exaltum, santu benedictum ortho novum …”  .  Monks chanting their prayers in cool caverns with damp moss-covered walls.  Some with eyes that can turn into blue flame and heal the sick with a touch a touch of their staff.

It had a sanctifying effect.  Marko and I started to relax.  While not entirely redeemed, we did feel temporarily absolved, and managed to chill out.  The air was getting cooler, too.  We stopped snapping at each other, and were soon back to cracking each other up.  He found the on-ramp and we resumed our journey.

There was plenty of horror left for us to enjoy during that death march home, but for now, with magically powered monks serenading us, we had stumbled upon a real oasis.  A place to rest, and get a grip.

To this day, we both agree that moment with the monks was the best one of the entire trip.  Looking back, I wonder if the little statement/request had anything to do with tuning in to the monk chants and subsequent chill-out.  Who knows?  Could it really be that easy?   Boy, that would piss off a lot of people.  I don’t know why, but it seems like it would.  These days.

Frankly, I had to resort to some similar hocus pocus mumbo jumbo to get sober.  I couldn’t stop drinking, no matter how bad it got, until I got so desperate that I just asked, something, anything, out there to help me.  I remember doing it in a bathroom in Redondo Beach.  I had been trying to detox myself, and was violently gagging as I tried to hold down the beer I needed to get in me to keep away the DT’s.  I looked up and saw myself in the mirror.

For the first time in my life I felt compassion for that poor fucker looking back at me.  “God, if you’re out there, and whatever you are, you need to help that guy. Nobody deserves to live like this.”  That was it.  I don’t know if that counts as a prayer, or a surrender, or whatever.  I hated myself so much that I couldn’t even ask for the help for me.  It had to be for that guy over there in the mirror.

After that, events started unfolding, and like finding chanting monks on the radio when there’s no hope left, things got better.  I got better.  All I had to do was ask.  Oh, and endure a bunch of soul-scorching fire, but you can’t be a total pussy when asking for help.  You need to show you’re willing to work.  That part kind of sucks, but not one tenth of what life was like before.  At least this journey has a happy destination, and plenty of rest stops along the way.  Good food.  Clean bathrooms.  Ice cold drinks.  And good directions.

Happy Motoring, fellow travelers!