“Kid, we only gotone question. Have you ever been arrested?”
And I proceeded to tell him the story of the Alice’s Restaurant Massacre, with full orchestration and five part harmony and stuff like that and all the phenome… – and he stopped me right there and said, “Kid, did you ever go to court?”
And I proceeded to tell him the story of the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one, and he stopped me right there and said, “Kid, I want you to go and sit down on that bench that says Group W …. NOW kid!!”
And I, I walked over to the, to the bench there, and there is, Group W’s where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committing your special crime, and there was all kinds of mean nasty ugly looking people on the bench there. Mother rapers. Father stabbers. Father rapers! Father rapers sitting right there on the bench next to me!
–Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant
I didn’t have have to pay fifty dollars and pick up the garbage in the snow. I didn’t have the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossies with the cirles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what it was and how it could be used as evidence against me.
But yes sir Officer Obie, I have been arrested.
There was a time in my life – and this may come as something of a surprise – where I was young and stupid and high and liked to drive way too fast. When I would eat/drink/smoke/snort/shoot/swallow anything I was offered, anytime, anywhere. Where a work shift straight, not on anything of any kind, was almost unheard of.
I think I’ve talked about Tower before. Tower Records, a west coast fixture since 1969. What used to be one of the hippest record stores around; L.A., SF, Tokyo. The store all the hipster kids wanted to work in. And I worked there, but of course, not in L.A. or SF, or Tokyo and not in the record store. I worked selling posters and plants and bongs; a store in Campbell, CA called Tower Posters, which was the little brother to Tower Records next door.
Tower Posters is gone – has been gone for more years that I really want to think about. Tower found no real margin in selling posters and plants, and they got tired of fighting the law over drug paraphernalia despite the fact that it was the kind of all-cash business that really, really helps one hide extra profit and loss. They later turned it into a book and then a video store, in the days when video tape rentals were still a money-making business.
In the early eighties, though, Tower Posters (or Power Toasters, as we used to answer the phone) seemed like a damned cool place to work. Because while the record and tape stores had the line on the music industry – in-store appearances by bands, freebie stuff from the record companies, music blasting all day long, free concert tickets – we had something they didn’t. We had drugs.
People used to laugh; they’d say, it can’t really be like that, it can’t really be like everyone imagines.. And I’d answer them, no, it’s worse. It’s what you think and more.
I was a stoner kid from the suburbs, with solidly middle-class, liberal-intellectual parents. I was into pot and prog rock, porn, weapons, and sci-fi. This was my first real job. I’d had the usual yard-work-for-a-couple-bucks deals, some part-time gigs shelving books or picking up supplies or doing inventories at the bookstore my mom managed. But I’d never really had a job before. So I was a bit shell-shocked. I worked two or three day shifts, training on cash register (which I turned out to be something I’m really really good at), learning the procedures, stressing over, you know, having to be there day in and day out.
The boss man – Paul – asked if I minded working the closing shit – 3pm to midnight. Hell no, was my answer. Sleep til noon every day and stay up late? And get paid for it? And so after a few days training, I went on the closing shift.
I hadn’t met the closing shift manager; he’d been on vacation. The night I went on closing was his first day back. So I walked in, signed in, and then was accosted by a man I knew for a very short time, but who made a huge impression on my life.
Dan. I’d like to put his full name here, but I won’t. Imagine a little bit of Mark Volman, a little bit of Raplh Kramden, and a lot of John Belushi. A little bit of Greatful Dead, and a lot of of Hells Angel. Dan was a beast of a man – rude, coarse, gruff. His clothes never fit him right, he always looked like he needed a shave and a bath. He had a way of talking to people that made everything seem dirty. He’s the kinda guy you felt like would fuck you if you woke up in a jail cell with him, but who’d sure as hell take care of you if you were his bitch. Dan looked like he should be driving a garbage truck or painting houses, but also seemed, Bukowski-like, to maybe have something more in there beyond the crude, gruff exterior. When the day shift was gone, he’d change the radio to symphony; he’d get sick of the hard rock and punk and prog the rest of us always played.
Thinking back, I’m sure Dan couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, if that. But to me – barely twenty – he seemed the elder statesman of the drug culture. He was my mentor, not just in how to do the job we got paid for, but also how to fuck off and not get caught, how to do the job well when we were fucked up, and how to rip the man off without leaving a trail. Dan was an asshole, and yet I think I sort of had a crush on him, in a completely masculine, non-sexual (really) way.
The first thing Dan said to me that day was “Fuck, I have to train a new kid? God fucking DAMN it.” I don’t think he talked to me again for two or three hours, not til the day shift were all gone.
So our first night closing, after the day and mid-shift people left and we had the place to ourselves, our next conversation we had went something like this.
“I’m goin’ to the shitter, watch my register.”
After that I didn’t see Dan for twenty minutes. He’d left me to cover both the front register – mine – and his, the back, the walled-off head shop where we sold bongs and pipes. A big no-no; one person was never supposed to cover both. I’d just been lectured about it by the boss-man Paul. But you know, Dan said, so I was covering both.
Finally, he came walking out of the back room – and I find I don’t have the words for how Dan walked, it was a gait unlike anyone I’ve ever known, on the balls of his feet, like a gorilla with spring-loaded knees. He always looked like he was about to either fall on you, or leap at you.
And Dan said in the most casual way possible, “I left a line for ya in back, y’want it?”
There was a long moment where I struggled to compute what he meant, and then something went click in my skull and I understood. And I didn’t just understand what he was saying, I understood that it was all true, what I’d heard about Tower. I understood that it was going to be that kind of job.
I went into the back room – a place that I still see in my mind’s eye, in the way you recall a dorm room or your first grown-up apartment or your party fort or your first dive bar. The way you remember the places you partied, the place where you spent hour after mind-fucked hour. It’s a crystal-clear memory of a hazy room, with everything in a whirling soft-focus. Rock’n roll posters, graphitti, stickers, broken stuff and junk. Back-stock of plants, posters, drug paraphernalia. A smell that’s part warehouse and part spilled bong water, patchouli and sweat and and dust.
I poked around, wondering what I was looking for. And found it in the bathroom.
Now, I didn’t really know a damned thing. I was, despite being a huge stoner, a pretty sheltered kid. Oh, I knew the lingo, I know how it all worked. I knew the names and consumption methods of pretty much any drug you could think of. But I’d never really seen the stuff. Later, I would understand the significance of this.
We had an office coke mirror; of course we did. Just like we had a bong and a bunch of roach clips and several pipes. They lived in the back office, sort of tucked away in the desk. Glossy black, not really a mirror at all though that’s what we called it, with green leaves (I assume they were coca leaves) etched on the back side of the glass. It was roughly 6″x9″. A reasonable size, easily passed, easily hidden. It was chipped around the sides, I assume that’s why it was in the office-use stack.
On this mirror was a rail of cocaine.
We’ve all seen this in the movies. The dusty, sparkly white stuff. You’ll have an idea what it looked like. A razor blade next to it, a tooter ( a bic pen with the ink insert pulled out, which was always the office favorite despite the wide array of things we sold in the shop for that purpose). But what I didn’t know at the time was that you’d expect this to be an inch, two, three. That would have been a reasonable line to leave a co-worker.
What greeted me was a rail of coke cut from one corner of the mirror to the other. What I realize now is an obscene amount of cocaine to lay out for a punk kid you just met.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I think I stared at it for a bit, puzzling out the details. Bend over? Pick up the mirror? Do I need both hands to hold the tooter and plug my nose? What happens if I sneeze?
I figured it out. I took a test snort, found it tickled and burned, not unpleasantly. And off I went, tracking across the mirror. I think it took a good three snorts to get it all in.
My nose felt funny. It hurt, and burned, and then started to go numb. And I started to smile. And then as I walked out front, I started to vibrate, and my smile got bigger, and I felt like I owned the fucking world.
“How was that?” Dan asked me.
“Nice,” I said, as that weird taste started to drain down the back of my throat. And I started to wonder if Dan had more. And I wanted to go out and find someone to fuck, someplace to dance. I felt o-fucking-k.
That’s how it started. And that was typical of Tower. People had drugs. People dealt drugs. Some of the guys I worked with carried weapons, I learned later, and all of us, to a one, knew a guy who could set us up somehow or other. Drug dealers were our customers; we sold scales, cut, sno-seals and vials and little baggies. Razor blades and spoons and tooters. We had what was needed, so the people we waited on paid in cash and sometimes offered to barter what they had for what we had.
I didn’t sleep a lot in those days. But holy fuck, did I have fun.
I never sold drugs. Not because I had anything against the idea; but I never really needed to. I knew people who could get me anything, I knew people who had everything. I knew people who shared. I didn’t, really, even spend a lot of money on drugs. Again, I didn’t need to. They were there, and I was the guy who’d always help a brutha. I’d take a shift for someone else, drive ’em to where they needed to go, watch the doors and call if the boss or the cops ever showed up. I’d loan money when someone’s bankroll was short. Like in my rock days, I wasn’t the band, but I was the crew.
There were a series of guys I worked with; some I know still, some I’ve not talked to in years. Some are business people now, bankers or lawyers. Some are even ministers. All of ’em then, back then, somewhere in the chain that took illicit substances from the hands of produces to the hands of consumers. Small fuckin’ time, to a one. But there was some danger, and a steady supply, and it was cool, I thought. I told myself I was livin’ in the underground. I was doin’ it, I was on the edge. And it felt good, to a twenty-year-old kid from the suburbs. And these guys were my friends.
One of these guys – a golden surfer boy, the kind of guy for whom getting laid was as easy as simply saying hello, who drove a Datsun 280z (to this day one of my favorite cars), who managed to slide through life on looks and charms and no brains whatsoever – was a particularly good friend for a while there. It was only months, but in the weirdly compressed haze of memory, it seems like years. I don’t know how we wound up friends; I think I was the only guy he worked with who wasn’t mean to him, who didn’t treat him like a moron. But somehow I counciled him through a number of breakups, watched his register while he’d pick up girls in the store and fuck ’em in the parking lot, loaned him my truck so he could go pick up stuff. And I shared many a quarter gram with him, taking turns loading up spoons and all sorts of surreptitious use devices. We talked and talked as only two wired kids can, about cars and girls, music, drugs. About which co-workers we wanted to fuck, and what we liked to do to a girl in bed.
One night, Sufer-guy took off work early, and he handed me his stash. Keep this, he said, or I’ll do it all up before tomorrow.. We had a closing shift that next day, and he knew I’d hang on to it and we could share it then.
And I was that kind of guy. The guy you trust with your drugs. Not the kind of guy you’d trust alone with your girlfriend, but certainly, the guy you’d trust with your money, your car, your stash.
And so that’s how I came to have a small brown vial in my bag when I left work that night.
I went to see my girlfriend after work, spent an hour or so with her. She lived at her parents house, so my dropping by late was normal; late night partying wasn’t, though I imagine I took a chance to sample the stash on the way there, or after leaving.
I drove a Chevy Nova at the time. An olive green 73 with a big 350 v8. This was a car I had no respect for at the time, though it’s a car I’d kill to have back today. A big engine, a light body. A car with so much torque and so little weight that you had to fill the gas tank if you didn’t want the tires to break loose on every punch of the gas pedal.
That night, I learned how fast it’d go. And I learned a few other things also.
The trip home wasn’t long – over a small set of foothills, and then a short jog on the freeway – California Highway 17. It was maybe two miles of empty freeway. And I decided to open it wide and see.
At 120, a mile is little more than a blink. I’ve gone faster on motorcycles, and there’s a bizarre tunnel-vision that happens at high speed. I slapped the pedal down and heard the engine roar and distance and time compressed; I wanted to watch the needle but I couldn’t. The freeway was coming at me too fast, the road around me becoming the road behind me at a blurring speed. And there were lights behind me, way, way, way behind me.
And I learned that you don’t put your foot on the brakes when you think there could be a cop behind you. Ever.
I was at my exit before I knew it, and off the freeway. And if I had known at that moment that there was someone after me, there’s no question I would have run. My 350 could have been around a corner and hidden before they’d ever cleared the freeway; this was my neighborhood, I knew every inch of these streets. But I was still thinking I’d imagined the cop behind me, thinking, they could not possibly have clocked me at that distance.
So I stopped at a light, and then there were lights flashing behind me, and I had that oh for fuck’s sake moment.
The rest of this story is more painful to tell than I want it to be. I want to tell a funny tale full of ironic absurdity. 27 8×10 colored glossies, four-part harmony and a thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. I want to tell this story the way Matteo would tell it – You fuckin’ people got nuthin’ better to do that take me down? Well then you’re gonna have to earn it, and none of us get outta this un-bruised. But the reality is, it was a twenty-year-old kid’s first real brush with the man and I didn’t fully grasp what the man can do to you.
They pulled me outta my car, and then while one of ’em took me aside, hand on gun, the other searched my car and found my kit, which had plenty in it I shouldn’t have had. My kit was well stashed under my seat, they had to go looking.
They were happy about what they found, and even happier when they found a big fuckin’ knife on my belt, which then let them act like I was resisting arrest and rough me up. They handled me like I was a danger, despite the fact that I was tired, spooked, and kept thinking this can’t be fucking real. They cuffed me and tossed me the back of the cop car, strapped me in.
It gets blurry after that. I remember telling them the wrong things, forgetting my right to remain silent. Saying all the things I shouldn’t have been saying. The booking took what seemed like hours, and I can remember watching some fucked up hooker on the other side of the bars in the holding cell finger-fuck herself while making licking her lips in a bizzare parody of sexual arousal.
I called my parents. And they’re ok, my parents. They were not mad. They were not upset. We’ll bail you out, they said, and hung up to find a bail-bondsman.
I got processed, eventually. My clothes taken. I was given an orange jumpsuit that was too small for me. flip-flops. Despite the ill fit of the jumpsuit, it was the underwear that bothered me most.
It was a truly weird experience, being walked through the huge county jail complex and put in a cell. One of the most isolated moments I’ve ever had. I was, for the first time in my life, utterly, completely alone.
I lay down on the bunk, and tried to sleep, and didn’t.
Eventually, the lights went on, and a klaxon rang, and it was time to get up. I sat up on my bunk, hung my head, and wondered how much longer this day would go, and how much worse it could get.
It wasn’t what I expected.
“Karl, man, is that you?”
I’d run into a friend, in Santa Clara County Jail. It’s just the shit that happens to me, running into people I know in the oddest damned places, like on a canal in Amsterdam. I regret that I can’t recall the man’s name, but he worked as a grill cook at a place near Tower, one of our regular hangouts. A big black dude, part of the friends-of-tower crew who’d come in after work and hang out with us, party with us once in a while. A guy I liked ’cause he made the fact that he was the only black guy in the gang a point of humor, always pointing it out, mock-accusing us all of racism for comic effect. Not a close friend of mine by any means, but a guy I liked and respected.
I was, you might say, in good hands; the first good thing that had happened to me in what felt like days. He told me he was in for “Warrants, man, warrants“, and said to stick close to him and I’d be ok, and off we went to the cafeteria.
I’ve eaten a lot of weird things in my life. I’ve eaten stuff I’ve picked up off the floor. I’ve eaten stuff that didn’t look or smell or taste like food. I’ve eaten airline food, stuff that was cooked in tin cans, stuff with feet and faces still on. I’ve eaten guts and brains and things that are still alive. I’ve put my tongue in all manner of places.
But the gray substance they put on my plate there was beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. I couldn’t tell if it was oatmeal or chip beef; some of the people around me were putting salt on it, some sugar, and all were looking around like they knew I was gonna steal it from them. I made friends by sharing mine, because god knows I didn’t want it anywhere near me.
I’m not sure what happened next. I know it was one of the first moments in my life when I practiced the don’t fuck with me walk, which has carried me well on many dark nights in many bad parts of many cities since. I don’t think I had it down yet, then, but I copied the way the guys around me did it, and walked with a big dude who knew the ropes, and no one fucked with me at all. I tell myself it’s ’cause I pulled the jailhouse vibe right, but in truth it’s simply that, for the most part, the inmates in the county jail are too busy waiting out their own misery to bother anyone else. This ain’t hard time; this is penny-ante shit and the locals ain’t hardened cons.
Eventually, someone came and got me. And I was walked out of the cell by someone who treated me like I was a wild and dangerous animal. And I waited; stay behind the line! they said, and I waited, and waited. And then they opened the gate, and they gave me a bag with my clothes, and they had me sign something, and pointed to the door.
And it was over. I walked out into a diesel-smelling passageway under ground, and blinked as I came out into morning sun, and there were my people, mom and dad and brother and girlfriend. And they treated me like I was some sort of folk hero, like I was coming home from war. They took me out for steak and eggs, and wanted to know what had happened, and told me funny stories about choosing a bail-bondsman because his name was Buffy (Buffy the Bondsman – I’m not kidding).
And that’s pretty much all there was to it. I could tell a story about how I hired the Mayor of Los Gatos to represent me in a court of law; about going in to buy a suit (grey wide-wale corduroy, first suit I ever ever owned, and in fact, just about the only suit I ever owned.) I could talk about getting my hair cut by a woman who looked like Opal from All My Children at a salon called the Golden Mirror (pronounced Gold’n Mear), my first haircut I ever paid for. I could talk about how I boxed up all my (many) bongs and pipes and mirrors and hid them in the shed, marked souvenirs.
I could talk about how the DA looked around the courtroom for me and couldn’t find me ’til my lawyer pointed me out (in my three piece suit and fine haircut, I was a different young man that my mug shot must have shown). I could talk about how I insisted that my plea would be nolo contendere, because dammit, it was an illegal search and seizure, even if I couldn’t prove it. Or about how I got a big fine, and eighteen months probation in which I saw my probation officer once; a punishment for DUI and possession that five years later would have come with jail time but which, pre-war-on-drugs, was a slap on the wrist.
Or I could talk about the drug diversion class I got as part of my punishment, in which I learned about drug use and safety, and about how dangerous tylenol was, and which I enjoyed the fuck out of ’cause the teacher was a forensic pathologist for the county coroners office.
And maybe I’ll tell all that part of the story later. But for now let’s talk about life after, and lessons learned.
Because there have to be lessons learned, don’t there? Well? Don’t there?
I learned a couple things. Don’t fucking speed when you’re carrying. Be a model fucking citizen. Really. I mean it. I learned that I have the right to remain silent, and I’m telling you, you ever meet the man, you exercise that right. Because they man ain’t your friend.
I learned that the kid with some money, the clean white kid in the nice suit with the good-looking family gets off lighter. Don’t buy it when they say justice is blind.
And I learned I don’t wanna see any more of that side of bars than I’ve seen so far. No matter how much I like looking like a guy who’s done time, I have seen quite enough of that. The outside suits me fine.
And you know what I did when I got out? I went right back to doing the same shit, with the same people. Because that’s how I am. I just got smarter.
And that’s only my first funny Tower story. Just you wait.
And friends, somewhere in Washington enshrined in some little folder, is a
study in black and white of my fingerprints. And the only reason I’m
singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar
situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a
situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into
the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get
anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if
one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and
they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony,
they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.
And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in
singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an
organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said
fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and
walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.
–Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant