I sometimes think that this is my punishment for all those years of intermittent amphetamine addiction. Now, in my abstinent old age, I end up here in the Crystal Corridor… I mean the Anderson Valley. Not a day goes by that I don’t see that false light in somebody’s face, often in several faces, in several places up and down the Valley. You can’t hide it from me. I know it inside out. And there are more of you, increasing every year, especially in winter. The harder the conditions, the more people strain to escape, and some, in fact many, especially the young in this Valley have figured out that speed makes even the darkest days glitter. Suddenly an empty, bored mind is filled with an avalanche of opposing ideas, fascinating and distracting and never, never boring.
It’s a trick, of course. Just a maze. They go in, they go around, they go again (your children, I mean) and they come out the other end (if they don’t just get lost), a shadow of what they were: life consumed, skin, bone and mind. They have devoured themselves in a frenzy of intoxication. Toxicity is what remains. Speed, in my opinion is a systemic poison of the body and mind. But, oh, does it glitter on the way down.
My teeth grind when I see these kids racing up and down the Valley. The glitzy eye, the clever focus on appearing normal, the stiff smiles, too hearty laugh, a glaze of moisture on the skin, even in the cold, shades of mud brown around the eyes, muscles held sharply in check, a tremor in the hands, that extra effort not to chatter away too fast among the non-speeders. I dislike it. The whole thing is so annoying. A constant reminder of what I must have seemed like to others. It’s disgusting. I have the same revulsion that a reformed drunk must have for the still drunk.
Methamphetamine was first synthesized in 1927. I have heard that the Nazis fathered it to make better soldiers for The Fuhrerland, but whether they were the first or the American military was first matters little. The Pentagon immediately realized its military potential. A sleepy killer, after-all is not an efficient killer. A hyped up, aggressive, paranoid, over-amped killer is just what you need: especially ones that can kill for 48 hours without eating, sleeping and barely even stopping to take a piss. Amphetamine leaves little space for sympathy for the dead or dying — which is an extra little bonus. World War II was the first war that was fought on speed. None have been fought without it since.
Japan used it, as well as for combat, to keep up production on the home front. After the war they had huge stockpiles left over so they marketed it over the counter for “the elimination of drowsiness and the repletion of the spirit.” Yes, indeed. When they sold all their surplus they made it illegal and instituted severe penalties, treatment programs and public education on the dangers of amphetamines to deal with the massive addiction problem they had created.
In 1969, Gordon Cooper was the first astronaut on speed in outer space. He took it to help him with the manual control of his capsule in re-entry. That’s probably what those Russians were doing up there in that space station for years. Tweaking their little hearts out.
I could tell you some mean, ugly stories about my life as a speed freak but I won’t. They are much the same as everybody else’s mean, ugly speed stories . . . violent, painful, tawdry and unpleasant, because that’s just how it gets after awhile. It’s the name of the game and it goes like that for everybody, no matter who you are or how fucking smart you think you are.
I’ll just tell you about the first day I started wearing long sleeve shirts all the time. Oh, it wasn’t the first time I ever used crystal. I had toyed with it for a long time, but it was certainly the day I made my total commitment.
I lived in the Times Hotel. That was on Pacific, just below Broadway, on the Beach in San Francisco. Jean Genet once stayed in that hotel, or so the legend goes. This was in November of 1963, the day the President died. The Times was a mostly Chinese hotel. I don’t know why they let me have a room, maybe they thought I would put out. Wasn’t long before they kicked me out. I don’t know why they kicked me out. No one would say. Maybe because I did not put out. Anyway I lived there then. The rooms were really small. There was a single bathroom at the end of each dark hall, one light bulb above the door and no wasted electricity. There was a big brightly lit communal kitchen on the bottom floor where I lived. It smelled great in the evenings with Chinese food cooking in big woks and the old men all sitting at a long table laughing and talking very loud all at once. Sometimes they were smoking something with a long bamboo pipe and a bucket of water. They always stopped whatever they were doing whenever I came in the room. They just stopped and stared at me, so finally I stopped bothering them. Why did I need to eat anyway?
Once I asked about the smoking. “That Chinese tobacco,” an old man said.
“Can I have some?”
“No, only for Chinese.” And the Chinese have a way of saying no that seems final, as if no amount of wheedling will change it, so I figured I could get opium other places, and I did.
The Times Hotel burned down one night, but it wasn’t my fault. I was long gone.
It wasn’t because of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Book Depository that I stuck a needle in my arm that day, but it helped.
The real problem was Lawrence Durrell. I had discovered Lawrence Durrell sometime in August and I consumed his novels, the Alexandria Quintet or Quartet or whatever it was — that wasn’t the problem. The problem was his poetry. First you must remember that I was young, very young and I was dead serious as only the very young can be. I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be the greatest poet who ever lived. Ginsburg, Kerouac, Lamantia and McClure; those guys didn’t intimidate me. I figured when I got their age I could be better. But Durrell was another story. He was perfect. Every line was just perfect. He was the greatest poet who ever lived, I thought.
Where did that leave me: no more room at the top. So I copied down his poems in my handwriting and I carried them everywhere, in the streets, in the coffee houses, in the bars, up the stairs to pot-soaked flats on Union and Filbert, and I read them to myself, to the cars, to the trees and to anyone who would listen. Finally on the night before John Kennedy died somebody said, “That’s fine, young lady, but why don’t you write some poetry of your own?”
And that was devastating. It was the end, I thought. I set his books on fire on the cobblestones in the alley outside my room. I burned every poem I had ever written down. His poetry or my pathetic rhymes. I was done with Lawrence Durrell. Actually, I have never read any of his works again.
Bye, bye miss American Pie
I drove the Chevy to the levee
but the levee was dry
them good old boys was drinkin whiskey and rye
singin’ this will be the day that I die.
It was about dawn that morning when I burned up my mentor’s work. It was a gray day coming. I burned heavy sticks of Chinese incense and slept for awhile. In those days I thought nothing of time but it must have been early afternoon when I woke up. It was after he was dead, I know that. I woke up hopeless, again, and I dressed in black for my day of reckoning. The fog was still out there. I think it was raining, just a little, like it often does in the City. I smoked a joint and got myself all paranoid, which was my usual state, then I walked up Broadway figuring to have some coffee and a bowl of minestrone soup at Mike’s Pool Hall. Big Daddy Nord was still there. It was almost the end of his time, almost the end of Mike’s Pool Hall, in fact.
Big Daddy Nord was a massive man in a white apron. He was a North Beach legend. I can’t quite remember why right now. Mike’s Pool Hall was a legend, and I do know the why of that. Everybody went there. It was the only place in North Beach where everybody went. Beatniks, poets, jazz musician, actors, whores, dancers, queens, clowns, bums and hustlers; they were all there. You could easily find Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl or Miles Davis there on any given day. I didn’t usually go there because it was a little too intimidating for a hick kid from Utah, but on that day I did. And the place was packed. People were standing. They were just standing and sitting quietly, without a whisper, stock still and they were smoking. The smoke was so thick you didn’t need to light one to choke, but of course you did. The radio was the only sound. The radio was loud.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY HAS BEEN SHOT. I REPEAT: PRESIDENT KENNEDY HAS BEEN SHOT AND IS BELIEVED DEAD IN HIS MOTORCADE IN DALLAS. THERE IS AN UNCONFIRMED REPORT OF A SNIPER IN THE TEXAS BOOK DEPOSITORY. I REPEAT: THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES HAS BEEN SHOT. VICE PRESIDENT JOHNSON IS IN ROUTE
No one spoke.
“It was the day the music died.
Bye, bye miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
but the levee was dry.”
(He must have been talking about that, Don McLean. He had to be talking about it.)
I sat at the front window looking out at the wet cement. I sat for at least an hour smoking cigarette after cigarette, and I waited.
It was a unifying despair. It wasn’t that Kennedy was so great to this bunch of intellectuals. The fact that he was not great made the implications of this act even worse in this room, because we all knew who killed John Kennedy. No matter who they busted, no matter what they said, we all knew that the CIA, FBI, the American KGB, secret police had killed the President of the United States. And they did it because they could, and because he was a minor annoyance to them. It was the day that any shred of respect for so-called democracy died, and hope died with it.
After a while I got sick of that radio grinding on my mind and the foul, disgusting taste of cigarettes in my mouth, so I headed up to Columbus into the fresh wind. It was like tearing all the filth from my skin. Up on Grant I ran into a tall, light-skinned black dude who was bone-thin and a heavy tweaker, so I asked him did he have any meth, and it turned out he did.
We went up to his room in Dante’s and it was right there at the corner of Broadway and Columbus over the top of Carol Doda’s flashing neon tits, just perhaps a floor or two away from where her piano got out of control with the fat guy and the dancer on it and squished that guy to death a while back, and the hooker had to push and crawl her way out from his corpse and the ceiling. It was right there, the first time I ever tied my arm off and found a good fat vein and pushed that needle through the vein to shove that pure, pale liquid methamphetamine into my bloodstream. Oh, I didn’t do it. He did, but it was I who willed it and wanted it.
That was in the days of good meth, not like that shit they use nowadays. This stuff didn’t let you keep on living on and on. You did it, you burned brighter than a rocket blast, and you flew apart, and you lost your life in just a little while. But it was good, damn good.
You got it by mail, claimed you raised chickens and needed it to increase your egg production. I suppose you could buy it in any feed store if you knew where one was. There was no feed store in North Beach, but there evidently were plenty of chicken farmers. It came in boxes with rows of little glass ampoules. You snapped off the head and you poured it in a spoon and you sucked it up with an eyedropper and when that shit hit your heart it was like the California Zephyr coming through to take you for a ride. I couldn’t say no. A couple hours later you were looking for a new ticket for another ride. I didn’t think I had seen god; I thought I was fucking god for awhile. Later they took that stuff off the market and you could only get desoxyn, which was crystal. It was a rougher, a more jagged high than the pure methadrine liquid. And it never was the same.
But it took me apart a piece at a time, just like it does everybody. Just like that family in Willits, just like the pale pathetic creatures I see racing up and around this Valley. Grinding their teeth, doing nothing, going nowhere, a constant worry to the ones who love them.
I suppose you think this means I am for more laws and a big crack down on dealers? Not at all.
I see a lot of hopeless kids around this Valley. What can they do here? What is there for them to do? They love this place. It is their home, but there are no jobs here. No money for them. Just low end slave jobs that nobody wants, and even those jobs are hard to come by. It is the lack of hope that drives people to amphetamine. Amphetamine gives them what they don’t have, what they need. It gives people drive, determination, hope, will, the ability to get things done, the energy to go on another day. They don’t have these things, so they use it. Then after a while they lose it and just spin in place.
What turned me around was Synanon and, for all its later faults, it was the prototype, the very best drug program that I know of. Synanon is gone and it’s spin-offs so compromised and diluted with bureaucrats that the effectiveness is absent. I see a lot of kids around who need a good drug program and if I knew of one I would tell them about it. But I don’t. There are no programs out there—just a bunch of social workers smirking around collecting paychecks. They don’t give a fuck about the kids—it’s worse for a kid to go to those programs than to not go at all because no matter how hard-hearted and tough kids look, they go into treatment with a little core of hope that it will work and their life will change. If it is a sham, they’ll come away ripped off of their hope and maybe there won’t be another chance, or if there is, they won’t take it.
Jail won’t fix it, I can tell you that, but that seems to be the only answer we’re willing to give them: just lock them up—they ain’t worth fixin’—and it ain’t my kid is it?