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Driving a Red Rental Car Through Willits

The grizzled old philosopher/working man/lifelong confirmed stoner I used to get weed from when I lived in Arcata is being evicted from his sandy little shacked-up trailer in Manila which squats on a tide-soaked marsh next to the old Sierra-Pacific mill on the Mad River Slough. It seems his landlord is modernizing the prop­erty, which means that particular damp little cluster of affordable housing — decrepit, perpetually sandy, aboil with vigorous mosquitoes — will have to be cleaned up. I wasn't able to put together the exact chain of cause and effect in our short conversation, but the point is he's being uprooted, for a combination of all-too-familiar economic and aesthetic reasons.

They've already put up a No Trespassing sign that will only discourage the weed trade, which I'm sure is the point. The irony is that the poor old tree-planter — when his personal hoedad finally broke it had been worn down smooth and lean as an old coot's leg bone, and flexible as a steelhead rod — suffers from pain inflicted over decades of hard work and exuberant living. He was slow coming to the door, on wobbly pins.

If anybody deserves the legal right to possess and smoke weed, even if its only benefit is a mild distraction, it's him. But he seems not to have thought to get his rec­ommendation. Probably he never felt like spending the extra cash on a doctor, when he could buy beer instead. As a dealer, he always had access to as much as he could smoke.

To call him a dealer is hardly fair. He was, in his hey­day, one of the rare breed whose personal life suited itself to having a constant stream of visitors, some bringing weed to sell, others coming to buy, and every­one staying for at least one joint and a beer, with NPR or the Giants game on the television. He was a one-man dispensary who didn't need to check your papers.

From headquarters at one corner of his sandy couch, surrounded at all times by two or three seemingly dozing gents who might suddenly nudge one with a blazing cheroot or ask, in softest confidence, after one 's family, JD not only offered to all visitors, but continuously drank, the kind of beer that comes in bright blue or silver cans and includes Ice in the formula — a regimen aug­mented with plenty of fried red meat and cigarettes.

He is, as far as anyone knows, among the original working-class hippies of his generation. Wherever he's from, his time in Arcata has been spent living lustfully, from beer league softball to the bars on the Arcata plaza and the famous barbeques surrounded by the berry vines in his yard.

I recall the night we closed down the bar in Colum­bia, the old Gold Country mining town, in the middle of a tree planting trip. On the walk back to our sleeping tarp, JD came so profoundly under the sway of drink, mostly beer, that he stood on his head on the wooden sidewalk and would have stopped traffic had there been any, with a bizarre acrobatic display under the moon­light, the whole time posing philosophical riddles and giving an impromptu lecture on either metallurgy or hydrology. That day he had planted his thousand trees, up and down brutal slopes in the face of insulting weather, going tree for tree with healthy illegal and legal aliens half his age. Like any other day, pretty much.

Most importantly, during all the years I lived in Arcata, I could rely on one thing: JD's sagging little shack — he showed me where the landlord had shored up the floor, under which Humboldt Bay's dank waters gurgled in a saturated water table — would be, whenever I stopped by, well supplied with eclectic, often surpris­ing, characters as diverse as lawyers, chefs, Jamaicans, and a one-legged Frenchman — and plenty of good Humboldt weed at always reasonable prices.

So the idea that JD had nothing to sell was disquiet­ing. His shack seemed much more depressing than I remembered, and not just because there was nobody on his couch rolling another one. The advent of the dispen­sary has failed to contain prices — even with my rec­ommendation I knew his flat $40 an eighth was as good or better than any deal I could make in one of Sacra­mento's many outlets, with their many grades and cut-rate deals — but at least it has taken the doubt out of supply. But I've yet to encounter a dispensary waiting room with the convivial atmosphere and spirited clamor of JD's place on a good Saturday night in, say, 1997.

We took a chance at Arcata's dispensary on K Street, the only one I could find open at that time, and the wait was, as predicted in an online rating site, long (and seemingly needless), with a disorganized office staff shouting into phones and rebooting computers, as we simmered in the anteroom with nothing to read but a sin­gle copy of the cannabis newspaper that every dispen­sary has. Their selection was nothing special and the pricing system unnecessarily complex, but at least we had something to go with the Humboldt honeys and Ore­gon jams we were bringing home.

By the time we hit Willits, the buzz we had nurtured in the cold breeze on the beach behind King Salmon, in the shadow of the nuclear power plant, had dissipated. It was a hot afternoon, hotter still because we were pausing for traffic and Willits at that time of day is like a giant floating wreck of RVs, long-haul trucks, and tourists. Just as I was pontificating on Willits' shortcomings, beginning with it being a notorious speed trap, the driver hit the brakes and coasted into the shade of a metal building, swearing lightly as he did so. I could see the red light in the rear-view by then.

The cops were right there at the window, asking him for ID and claiming that he had been doing 40 in a 25 zone. We were just at the area where drivers can work their way out of the congestion of downtown and smell that freeway ahead, so it's possible he was speeding — although, curiously, unlike what happened with the cops in Grants Pass a few days earlier — when we were car­rying weed but weren't searched — the alleged traffic violation was never mentioned again. They asked the driver to step out of the car, then informed him that they smelled marijuana and wanted to have a look at our things.

So it was not long before we were out on the asphalt, pockets helpfully emptied by officer Andrade, who con­ducted a methodical search while officer Ellis kept an eye on us. I thought I might know him, he looked a little like a mill foreman I used to know who made the drive from Willits to Fort Bragg daily in a gas-saving late-60s Toyota sedan. But as far as I could tell this Ellis had never been near a mill. He kindly allowed us to stand in the shade and watch as Andrade went through each door of the garish red car, through the trunk, all the pouches and possible stash points, unzipping every item of lug­gage; he manfully plunged his bare arm to the shoulder in a duffel bag of week-old dirty socks, but could uncover only the small purchases we had made in Arcata that morning, together with our authentic letters of rec­ommendation.

The rest of the way into Sacramento we laughed about the multiple ironies, relieved of course not to have been detained or really inconvenienced, except for the humiliation of standing on the side of the road being searched.

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