by BJW Nashe
The ongoing saga of crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is big news right now. After months of denying the rumors swirling around him, Ford has finally admitted to “smoking crack, probably a year ago, in a drunken stupor.” Toronto police reportedly have obtained a video that shows the super-size mayor hitting the pipe. Ford probably figured it was time to come clean about the whole debacle.
The story is ready-made for dark humor — and many of us are happy to oblige. For those of us who have somewhat jaded personal histories, however, the crack-smoking mayor is not that shocking. We have had plenty of our own “Rob Ford Moments” over the years. We too have smoked crack during drunken stupors. We probably never did so while holding public office, but we have done all kinds of crazy things we would never want to appear on video.
In light of the mayor’s public confession, many are outraged by his behavior, while others have been quick to ridicule him. No doubt, Rob Ford’s politics are corrupt and hypocritical. For this alone he deserves all the criticism that comes his way. When it comes to his substance abuse, though, I am not too eager to moralize. And while I can laugh along with along with everyone else at the mayor’s shame and humiliation, I have to admit that I’m also laughing at myself. I’ve endured too many of my own “Rob Ford Moments” to claim any kind of high ground here. In no way does this make me unique. I mainly consider myself fortunate, compared to millions of people who have fared far worse during our disastrous “War on Drugs,” many of whom are now either dead or wasting away in prison.
My first “Rob Ford Moment” occurred way back in 1981, at the start of the Reagan era. It was the night I ended up in Orange County Jail.
My memories of this episode are hazy in some respects, but quite vivid in others. I recall a mild Southern California evening in late March. The sky above Santa Ana was softly shrouded in smog. The town smelled like cat piss and gasoline and fresh-cut grass. I remember being young and thin and carefree and bored — but full of all sorts of bright ideas and ill-advised plans.
On this particular Saturday night, the plan was to meet up with a couple of friends, swill down a few beers, gobble some psilocybin mushrooms, and go see a movie about Satan. The Omen III: The Final Conflict was playing over at the nearby Cinedome. Good enough. The comedian Richard Pryor used to joke about how crazy white people are. “They’re so crazy,” said Pryor, “they take acid and go see The Exorcist.” Yep, that was me and my friends. Crack was yet to be invented. But psychedelics were readily available. We’d already soared through the jungle of Apocalypse Now on LSD. Same with Conan the Barbarian. (Even now, the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger is liable to trigger flashbacks.) We spent a full day tripping at Disneyland. We hallucinated through endless afternoon games of frisbee golf, and dosed ourselves silly for late night shows by our favorite bands at the Hollywood Palladium, the Roxy, and the Whiskey A Go-Go.
So a film about the Antichrist should have been a fairly straightforward night of entertainment.
My best friend Dave lived in Santa Ana, in his family’s large Edwardian house, which was located on a pleasant street lined with oak trees. His father was a bipolar plumber who drank Coors, laughed at his own crude jokes, and fooled nobody by sneaking cigarettes outside by the side of the garage. Mom was a talented artist who painted watercolors and made sculptures and collected weird artifacts from garage sales. Their lively house was decorated with her incredible “shell mirrors,” which she had fashioned by covering the glass frames with white seashells.
Dave had the upstairs attic room all to himself — a libertarian space that existed outside all rules and regulations. He had a younger sister in high school whose room downstairs afforded a bit more oversight — but not much. She listened to punk rock, dyed streaks in her hair, rode around town on a moped plastered in black-and-white stickers, and fooled nobody by leaning out of her bedroom window to smoke cigarettes and joints.
Steve and I arrived within minutes of each other and headed around back to stroll through the unlocked door. No need to knock or ring the bell here. Dave was in the kitchen chomping on homemade beef jerky. “You guys want some?” he said, then added, “of course, you’re probably better off going on an empty stomach.” We gave him a funny look. So then why are you eating? “Hey, I’m starving. Just need to get a little protein in me. Besides, I’m driving tonight.” We shrugged and grabbed some beer out of the fridge and followed him upstairs. We were drinking Dos Equis in those days. There were bong hits all around, all the time. I distinctly remember Dave putting on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album, but I have no idea what we talked about.
Biographically speaking, we were 18-19 years old and still living at home with our parents. We weren’t exactly White Male Fuck-Ups (WMFUs), since we were taking community college classes and had part-time jobs. Dave and Steve both toiled away in a supermarket, while I worked for the City of Orange Parks and Recreation Department, doing maintenance on ballfields. We functioned fairly well, on the surface. Personality-wise, Dave was high-strung and impulsive, fond of weapons, and prone to sudden violence. Steve was a motor mouth and a schemer, always plotting ways to get rich. Architecture and real estate were his current obsessions. I was more low-key, often spaced out or lost in daydreams, but I had a highly addictive personality. Like all young adult males, we were preoccupied with getting laid. Sometimes we even succeeded. Between the three of us, we had all seven deadly sins pretty well covered.
Hallucinogens were a hobby or pastime — kind of like tennis. Most of our favorite reading material at the time encouraged rampant drug use. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had thoroughly corrupted us. Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan had also worked its magic. Castaneda’s “Yaqui Way of Knowledge” was appealing for many reasons — mainly because the whole enterprise seemed so hopelessly weird in the context of bland suburban America. If only we had known that sci-fi guru Philip K. Dick was then living in an apartment just a couple miles away, we could have paid him a visit now and then, and he might have filled our heads with elaborate tales of interstellar telepathy and government conspiracy.
About an hour before setting off for the movie theater, we each ate two grams of the magic mushrooms, and prepared to blast off into the Nagual. I’d heard that the fungi were grown in cow dung, and that made sense, based on how horrible they tasted. Nonetheless, this particular batch soon proved to be potent enough to obliterate any concerns about their origin. By the time we went outside and piled into Dave’s El Camino, the effects were upon us. The battered car struck us as hilarious, sitting there parked by the curb. As we zoomed off down the road, the headlights and street lamps passing by looked like fireworks exploding across the windshield. I remember Steve saying, “Maybe you should slow down a little,” after we swerved and screeched to avoid a dog running across the street. Dave slammed a Dead Kennedys tape into the deck and stomped on the gas. “Just don’t puke in my damn car,” he said.
At least the Cinedome was only five miles away. Once we parked and shambled up to buy our tickets, we were pretty twisted. Money and arithmetic had become challenging. With an idiotic grin, I leaned toward a pale young woman perched behind the ticket window. “How much does this, um, cost?” A line had formed behind us. Everybody’s clothes looked oddly exaggerated, as if they were wearing costumes. The dollar bills in my hand were a jumble of freakish graphics that made little sense — snakes and pyramids and random hieroglyphics. “What’s the difference, really, between a ten and a twenty? Who says? Who decides these things? Never mind… Just thinking out loud. Almost finished.” Eventually we managed to buy three tickets and shove the change back in our pockets. The snack bar was out of the question. Popcorn? Candy? Hell no, it was poison from outer space. Steve pointed at the soda machine and said, “Cancer.” Eventually we found our way inside to look for seats. A laughing fit ensued. The theater was getting crowded. We would need to somehow maintain, or security would intervene. Hopefully we could just focus on the Antichrist, and all would be well.
There are no drugs miraculous enough to turn The Omen III: The Final Conflict into a worthwhile viewing experience. A bombastic film with a ridiculous plot, it is the cinematic equivalent of being molested by an insane priest. The story presents the concluding chapter in the epic saga of Damien Thorn — the raven-haired, beady-eyed Antichrist we first encountered as an infant in The Omen, and then again as a boy in The Omen II. He was born with “666“ tattooed onto his scalp. Now he is all grown up, fully aware of his dark birthright, and lo and behold, he looks just like a Wall Street executive in a foul mood. For some reason he gets appointed U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. A spectacular sight appears in the sky — the “Star of Bethlehem.” Damien knows this can only mean one thing: Christ is returning for “the final conflict.” Damien is hellbent on destroying the Son of God and ruling the world in the name of pure evil. Some Catholic priests bravely conspire against Damien’s hellish ambitions, so the movie plays out as a near-future cloak-and-dagger tale dressed up in gaudy, apocalyptic imagery from the Book of Revelations. Compared to this, The Da Vinci Code is a cool, level-headed slice of realism.
Sitting there with a head full of psilocybin watching The Omen III felt stupid, like a horrible waste of time. Even blasted on mushrooms, it was impossible to suspend disbelief when confronted with so much overblown nonsense. We found ourselves laughing at inappropriate moments, catching nervous glances from those seated around us. Mostly we were just stupefied, though. Why in the world would someone make such a film? Why would anyone pay to see it? Were we missing something? Was this some sort of deep Reagan allegory? Were we all insane? It made no sense.
When the movie ended we left in a hurry, gripped by a deep sense of shame and regret. I said, “At least Conan had some naked women in it.” Steve said Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a much better film. “Movies about Satan always suck, for some reason.” On the way back to Santa Ana, Dave decided to pull over at the entrance to Santiago Park. “I need to smoke some weed,” he muttered, “just to get that shit out of my system.” He quickly rolled up a spliff and lit up. Soon the inside of the car was billowing with smoke, like a scene out of Cheech and Chong. Steve had forgotten all about Satan, and was now rambling on about how Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West was the greatest achievement in the history of western civilization.
Suddenly we noticed the lights flashing behind us. A cop car. Hellfire and damnation. We were trapped. The officer who slowly approached on the driver’s side was quickly hit in the face with a cloud of dope smoke. He leaned forward and sniffed. “OK. I need you all to step out of the car, and I need to see some ID.” We got out of the car shaking our heads, adrenaline surging. The cop asked us a few questions. We told him we had just left the Cinedome, and stopped here to smoke out before going home. No big deal. He asked what movie we saw, then gave us a funny look when we told him. Maybe we should have said our pastor at church had instructed us to see The Omen III. “Last I checked marijuana’s illegal,” the cop said. “I’m going to have to search the car. Come over this way.” A second cop drove up — his backup. We were promptly handcuffed and loaded into the back seat of the first squad car. There we sat and watched as the two officers probed the interior of Dave’s El Camino with flashlights.
“Goddamnit!” said Dave as one of the cops pulled his backpack from behind the driver’s seat. “I’ve got an ounce of mushrooms in there.” Sure enough, now the cop was holding up several plastic baggies, each containing exactly one gram, which he studied in the glare of his flashlight. I couldn’t believe Dave had brought his entire stash along with him for the ride. Why would he do this? But then, I was hardly blameless, since I had a small bag of weed in my own pack. And a few seconds later, the weed was also being examined in the light. “We’re screwed,” said Steve. “They’re gonna take us to jail.” He started cursing both of us for our foolishness. I said we needed to stay calm. “Maybe they’ll confiscate the drugs and send us off with a warning.” Fat chance. Dave kicked at the back of the seat in front of him and hollered at us to shut up.
The two cops conferred briefly, before retrieving us from the back seat to search our pockets and read us our rights. We were under arrest. They shoved us back inside the cop car and drove us down to the police station. It was nearing midnight, but our evening was just beginning.
Anyone who has been arrested like this knows that you are not simply booked and thrown into a cell with any kind of quick precision. You go through a long, drawn out process. First, there is the interrogation. We were each placed in separate rooms and made to wait awhile, sweating it out in dazed confusion. Then the two officers took turns questioning us, playing good cop/bad cop. They were not at all familiar with “the Yaqui Way of Knowledge.” They seemed to think we might be part of some sinister criminal underworld, rather than just a few kids out messing around. They were charging us with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. The individually bagged mushrooms were considered evidence of drug dealing. I tried to explain that those were just separate doses weighed out for consumption, not for sales. It didn’t matter. The cops were either simply bored and in the mood to cause us distress, or just incredibly stupid. The questioning went on for two or three hours. They acted as if they were Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, and we were key players in a vast drug cartel.
The good cop came on all friendly and understanding. If you just cooperate with us here, we can get this whole thing taken care of. The bad cop threatened us and raved in our faces. The subject of ass-rape kept coming up, as well as the seriousness of the charges, and the prison terms we would face. But it was ass-rape that he tended to dwell on. He was quite preoccupied with the topic. “Just wait til you get to County. They’re gonna love your ass in there.” I tried to tune it out and disappear. I was non-responsive. Still it went on and on. So is your friend Dave a pusher or what? Who does he sell to, the kids down at the mall? The high school? Why mushrooms? Don’t you know what these things can do to you? Have you ever seen a horse eat these things and go crazy?”
No, I hadn’t. And the notion of a horse on hallucinogenic drugs was too much to take at this point. A typical psychedelic trip takes you through various phases. There is the initial rush, accompanied by hallucinations which vary in intensity depending on the dose. This is followed by a few hours of reeling thoughts and emotions — a psychological roller coaster with unpredictable ups and downs. Then you settle into a more calm, reflective state. Here you are capable of certain insights that your normal thought processes tend to filter out. You become keenly aware of the arbitrary and absurd nature of things you would otherwise take for granted.
Since I had by now progressed into the reflective phase, the interrogation struck me as gamesmanship. I didn’t think we were guilty of anything, so I decided to just tell the truth. Enough of this idiocy. I was too stoned to play these cop games. Yes, I said, we took the mushrooms and went to see the movie about Satan. I have no idea who Dave got the mushrooms from. No, Dave was not a pusher down at the mall. We weren’t drug dealers. As for the weed, I bought a small amount from a guy named Mike. He lived in Orange. No, I didn’t know his last name (I did, but they didn’t need to know this). No, Mike wasn’t a “big supplier.” No, I didn’t think we did anything wrong. This was all mistake. We had bothered or harmed no one.
Finally the cops decided to give up on uncovering our secret criminal connections. We were allowed to make our phone call — waking our parents up at 3 A.M. to explain our little predicament. That was fun. Then the bad cop drove us over to Orange County Jail, mentioning ass-rape a couple more times in a light, casual manner, sort of chuckling to himself. Inside the jail, were put in a holding pen for an hour or two. Dave kept whispering to me that he couldn’t believe I would cave in and give them Mike’s name. As if he had been bravely protecting his underworld contacts. He was wild-eyed and angry. I thought he might grab me by the throat. Our nerves were all pretty jangled.
My sense of time was distorted from the drugs. The booking process seemed to go on forever. We were strip-searched so they could check our rectums. (What is it with the anal fixation in these places?) We were traipsed through an eternity of fingerprinting and photographing. Questions were asked, forms filled out. The repetition was mind-numbing. Our personal belongings were taken, and we were dressed in orange jump suits with rubber flip flops for shoes. We were given a piece of rolled up foam matting and a blanket and a pillow. Then we were led through a vast steel maze to our cells.
My cell had four bunks that were already taken by four black guys, who just looked at me and rolled their eyes. I sat down on the floor. I hoped it was only a matter of time until I was bailed out. Fortunately, I didn’t even have to spend much time in the cell. First I was pulled out to meet with somebody — a public defender? — who told me I would soon be released on my own recognizance. Then it was time for lunch. Jail food tasted far worse than the mushrooms had. Dave and Steve and I sat there in a daze, picking at the slimy stuff on our plates. We swapped an item — a piece of bread or cup of jello — and the other guys at the table nearly did flips. “Can’t do that, man. Guards see you switch something like that, they’ll kick your ass. Kick all our asses, too.”
After lunch, it was TV time. I forget what show was on. Some cop show, probably. I wasn’t paying attention. Exhaustion was setting in. A skinny white guy with long greasy hair and a beard — obviously some drug casualty — tried to strike up a conversation with me. “What are you doing here, brother?” I gave him a brief recap. He grimaced when I mentioned the movie. “Satan’s everywhere in here, man. The Antichrist. He’s got the mark of the Beast. I can feel him in this place. It’s no joke, man.” In a sense, he was right. This guy was probably fried from angel dust, or the victim of some cult. Still, Orange County Jail was pretty Satanic. The guards in particular seemed demonic. In my altered mental state, I pictured their faces all starting to morph into Damien Thorn, like devil clones. The inmates, on the other hand, seemed to be mostly an assortment of riff raff, though. This was no state penitentiary or federal prison, where the truly dangerous psychos were locked up. I neither experienced or witnessed any ass-rape during my short stay in Orange County Jail. Just a bunch of depressed prisoners chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes (which was then still allowed).
We were released on bail sometime after 4 P.M. Our parents were furious, but naturally relieved to get us out. The ridiculous charge of possession with intent to sell had jacked our bail up to 10K each. Ironically, we would have soon been released on our own recognizance anyway. So posting bail may have been a useless expense. Now came the family recriminations. Our folks were no more familiar with “the Yaqui way of knowledge” than the cops had been. Home life was tense for a while. You reach a point where you just stop discussing certain things. I went to talk to a lawyer who quoted me a substantial fee for representation, but offered no useful information during the free consultation. I decided to wait and see. Eventually, we found out that all charges against us had been dropped. This was probably due to racial privilege. If we had been Hispanic or African-American, we probably wouldn’t have been let off so easy. We probably would have been forced to plead guilty to felonies in order to avoid jail time.
Life went on. Was I scared straight after my “Rob Ford Moment?” Hell no. Chances are, the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto won’t be either. Mainly what I concluded from my night in Orange County Jail was that as long as I hurt no one, I was going to do whatever I wanted to do. The important thing was to not get caught. Dave and Steve and I would go on to have all sorts of adventures during the next two years, including car wrecks and petty crime and wild women and hassles with Mexican federales (bribery on the spot will keep you out of jail in Tijuana). Like so many others from our generation, addiction would be a big part of our story. Over time, we gradually fell out of touch with each other. I moved away from Orange County, went to college in Santa Cruz, then settled in the Bay Area.
I went on to have many more “Rob Ford Moments.” In fact, they got progressively worse with each passing year. Due to some skillful evasion and lots of dumb luck, I never spent another night in jail. More importantly though, I did finally go on to make some changes. The only mind-altering substances I use now are caffeine and Valerian root.
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