A feeling like I’d been punched hard in the gut transcended my high. And I was really high, higher than the old proverbial kite. Not much can bring me down to good old Mother Earth when I’m in a state of out-of-sight, far-out euphoria only good pot can deliver, but this did. A good high wasted. Dashed on the rocks.
Four of us were seated inside the car. The cops were at the windows, peering at us like aliens at first contact, shining their lights around and around into our faces and into the beyond. The diffused yellow beams then came to a rest on the console where an open, giant, six-ounce plastic bag of pot lay open like a vase of Baby’s Breath, a plant I cannot stomach. If I’d been a fish I would have been caught, cleaned, fried and eaten.
New Jersey Wedding
I was in New Jersey for a wedding. It was 1971 and I had just graduated from college. I had my 4-F classification, so I knew I wasn’t going to Vietnam and the jungles of my nightmares. No Viet Cong for me, thank you very much. Nixon was still running nakedly rampant and lawless through what was left of the government. Protests against the war were still growing. Ever larger, more pronounced. Too many soldiers were returning in body bags, lives cut short for a useless war perpetrated by useless politicians and warmongers.
The Eve of Destruction
I was feeling good; my friend was getting married to another friend of mine, so it was a two-for-one. I knew everyone involved on both sides. It was to be a gentle hippie wedding in the woods by a stream. I was looking forward to it. After all that was going down on planet Earth, I needed this respite. When I drove my ‘55 Ford pickup into Trenton, New Jersey, a few days before the festivities, I was struck by how depressed the city looked. I don’t know why I was so surprised. Cities, especially the inner kind, in the late sixties and early seventies looked like bombed-out war zones on the Eve of Destruction. In 1968, Trenton was shaken by riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I didn’t drive the scenic way into the city, where the high Victorian homes looked down on the city with distain. No, I came in through the bathroom window, into the blown-out backwaters, stopped at a bar named Hoza’s Bar and Grill down the street from a hulking, dark steel mill belching grey grime like a dragon into a grey sky.
Now that I look back at the scene from where I sit, I might as well have landed some 300 miles west at the Clairton Ironworks outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with Robert Di Nero, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken, all of us sitting slumped over a rundown bar drinking Puddlers Highballs (a beer with a shot of rotgut inside). The film The Deer Hunter had been a seminal one for me when it came out in 1978. I had lived like that growing up near the mills before I picked up my bags and moved west to Colorado in the mid-sixties, where I found a safe, beautiful haven I never knew existed. I think of the song “Colorado” Stephen Stills and his band played on their seminal album, Manassas.
We’d been smoking with the windows rolled up to get the most of the marijuana. Like swimming around inside a fish tank without the water, only smoke—sweet-smelling smoke. The groom sat in the front passenger’s seat. I was in back with another friend. The driver had brought the stash. We’d all had a dinner with the wedding party that night under the stars and were headed to a bar with everyone to close out the night. The driver pulled over on the way and we rolled some cigar-like jointsthat resembled the Hindenburg and began smoking them. That’s when it happened.
There was a knock on the windows. I looked up, turned toward the sound of knuckles rapping. A cop was peering in at me, wide-eyed. Of course, we panicked, paranoia skyrocketing with our hearts in tow. More cops appeared and knocked again, told us to get out. The groom stashed the pot under his seat. We rolled the windows down. Yes, officer?The driver asked politely. A cloud of smoke exited the car into the cops’ faces, nearly blowing them over. After that we were ushered into a couple of squad cars and hauled away to jail. The night before the groom was supposed to have gotten married.
The Holding Cell
We were thrown together into a large holding cell in the basement of a courthouse. I didn’t know where we were, in Trenton or somewhere else. It was all the same to me. I imagined one jail looked like another. Hell, I was too stoned to know. Four of us behind bars. I lay down on the floor. There were cement platforms without mattresses scattered around the cell. My three friends lay down on them. I remember being cold, so I huddled up into the fetal position and fell into a fitful, drug-induced sleep.
When I awoke it was morning, or so I thought. There were no windows down there in the dungeon. I rolled over, my whole body aching from sleeping on the hard floor. When I asked, the groom told me it was six o’clock. The bride was standing on the other side of the bars, telling us what was going to happen. I was too groggy to figure it out. I only knew they were going to lock us up and throw the key away for a long, long time. The drug lawswere bad in those days. You could be put away forever if you were caught with so much as a joint. We had six or seven ounces in our possession. Screwed was the world of hurt we found ourselves in. The shit was flying so fast and furious I was having a hard time getting a breath in.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Different states have different drug laws; the vagaries of the law are confusing at best, especially for someone like me, who operates on the edges of society. Even back then, in 1971, drug laws varied from state to state, overseen by the Feds. But as it was, we were lucky enough to have been busted in New Jersey in 1971. Had it been a year earlier, we would have been sent to prison until we were gray and old and as hoary as a dead plant. As it was that’s what I thought was going to happen as I sat in the cell, waiting to be called up to court for our arraignment in Hell.
The public defender visited us, a small, wiry woman who looked not much older than me. I groaned and put my head in my hands, thinking this is it, I’m done for. I was still a little stoned from the night before, shaking, sweating, waiting it out as she spoke to us. Nothing was certain, but she thought we’d be able to go free. I looked up, awestruck, wondering if I’d heard right. We’d been caught with a ton of pot, enough to lock us all up forever and she was telling us we’d be alright? Alright, in prison? Here in new Jersey? Yer kiddin me…right?
High Crimes and Misdemeanors
What I didn’t know, until the public defender explained it, was that the governor’s son had been caught with possession of marijuana a year earlier. To make a long story short, the governor, William Cahill, used the legislative branch to change the pot laws from felony to misdemeanor so he could save his son from being thrown in prison. Second-time offenses were accompanied by hefty prison time, though. Still, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Expect the worst, hope for the best.
On the Record
Sometime later we were led out of our cell by the guards and taken upstairs to a court room. I was so tired I lay down on one of the long tables where the defense sits. The judge hadn’t appeared yet, but the public defender pulled me off the table and sat me down on the bench next to my cohorts. The judge arrived and finally began his proceedings, but the hearing lasted no longer than thirty minutes. We were all given misdemeanors, which would stay on our records for ten years, then be erased. As long as we didn’t offend a second time. We were then set free.
Freedom’s Just Another Word
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Yeah, freedom never meant more to me than when I stepped out of that courtroom into the sunshine of the day. That afternoon at five, with rain clouds brewing in the east, my friends got married in a glade in the forest. It had been the end of a beautiful day that started our poorly. As I stood and watched the ceremony stoned out of my mind, I noticed a vase of roses on a dais nearby. Clustered around the roses, choking their beauty with blandness, were sprigs of Baby’s Breath.