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Tour Rehearsal Tapes - Single by The Black Keys

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Happy Halloween from the Gas Station

It started with a single insect. With wings tucked beneath an olive green shell, it marched haplessly across the counter in front of me. I looked down from the book I’d been reading all afternoon, noticed a viridescent creature—the shape of an ant and the size of a tic-tac—then looked back at my book.
It took about three seconds before a sudden sense of panic roundhouse-kicked me in the face.
I screamed, slammed the book down on top of the insect, and shouted to my coworker, “Jerry! Code green! Get the kit!”
Jerry, who had spent the last two hours sitting on a milkcrate behind the counter watching clips from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on his phone, suddenly sprang into action.
“I’m on it!” he yelled as he dove over the counter, taking the entire Powerball display with him and crashing onto the other side. He hit the ground, bounced back up, and sprinted into the dry storage room where I had painstakingly arranged a number of emergency kits for such an occasion as this.
For those of you new to this blog, I should probably take a second and explain a few things…
The gas station where Jerry and I work has been around for a long time. At least as long as the town it was built next to. It has a rich and complicated history that I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say that weird things happen here. More specifically, bad things happen here. I hate using the word “cursed,” but there have been so many deaths and dismemberments on company grounds that people around these parts refer to ambulances as “gas station wagons,” so... you do the math.
The previous owners didn’t seem to care all that much about the tragic “accidents” that kept occurring under their watch. At times, I wondered if they were somehow in on it. If they were secretly observing the employees via hidden cameras like we were some kind of giant, messed up game of The Sims. Of course, things changed after the owners’ bodies were found a few miles down the road under what can best be described as “mysterious circumstances.”
With them out of the picture, the burden of safety somehow fell upon my shoulders. I was determined to make sure nobody else ended up dead unless they wanted to. I spent several weeks and hundreds of overtime hours putting together the emergency response kits in the supply closet, each clearly marked for the type of scenario it was meant to maintain. Now, I was ready for almost anything the universe could throw at me.
There was a box for code blues (gasoline powered backup generator, CV radio, portable stove, blankets). I made a kit for code yellows (epipen, antivenom, celox powder, heavy duty zip ties). I hid a storage tub on the top shelf for any code pinks (bone saws, plastic drop cloths, contractor bags, disposable coveralls and goggles). And of course, should all hope finally be lost, there was a shoebox in there for code reds. God help us if it ever comes down to a code red…
Jerry ran out of the storage closet with the box labeled “Code Green: For Emergencies Only!” in his arms, nearly slamming into Mr. Abrahm along the way.
“Hey! What the hell?!” Abrahm grunted.
I met Jerry in the center of the room. “No time to explain!” I yelled, tearing into the box before he’d even dropped it to the floor. The first thing to come out was the bulk-sized roll of duct tape. I tossed it into Jerry’s arms and pointed at the front door. “Get the cracks, the vents, the window sills, the spider holes, anywhere we’re exposed to the outside. This place needs to be airtight!”
“Aye aye, captain!” he sang before rushing to work.
Abrahm shuffled up next to me with a frown and furrowed brow. “That kid almost made me spill my drink! What in the Sam Hill has gotten into you two?”
Mr. Abrahm was a regular at the gas station, a thick man with a smoker-stained yellow beard and aviator bifocals. He worked for the waste disposal company in town as senior garbage truck operator. Once a week, he’d stop by the gas station on his way to the landfill to fuel up and grab a cup of coffee and a porno magazine.
Time was precious, so I kept my answer brief. “I saw a mayfly.”
Abrahm dropped his coffee onto the floor and muttered quietly, “Mother of God...”
Maybe the little bastard hitched a ride in a customer’s hair or clothes. Maybe an errant wind current separated it from the rest of the flock. It didn’t really matter how it got here. All that mattered was that the infestation had begun. This was a harbinger of things to come, and time was not on our side.
With Jerry on crack duty (save your jokes), I raced to the back room and unlocked the circuit breaker box on the wall by the time clock. The sun hadn’t set. We were still ahead of the game. I killed all of the electricity to the gas station in one quick go.
The static hiss from the overhead fluorescents died with a soft whimper. Soon, the only light was what little spilled in from the evening sun, filtered through countless trees of the forest surrounding us on all sides. The illuminant was bare, but enough for us to continue the tasks at hand.
I returned to the code green box while Abrahm lamented loudly over our situation. “I can’t believe it’s already been five years! Are you sure? Are you sure it was a mayfly you saw and not just a leafhopper or something?”
I retrieved a can of bug spray and lighter from the emergency box, tucked them into my hoodie pocket, then pulled out the case of medical grade face masks. “It wasn’t a leafhopper. Trust me.” I equipped a mask, then offered the case to Abrahm. He didn’t hesitate to pull one out for himself.
It was a good thing he was a local. That meant I didn’t have to waste any precious time explaining what was going on, or why this was so urgent. He fumbled with the mask in his hands and worked his way through the denial stage of terror. “Could it have been a thrip? Or maybe just an aphid?”
“I know what I saw. I’m pretty observant.”
I should have known the universe wouldn’t let me get away with a statement like that.
“Excuse me.” The unexpected voice in my ear made me jump.
I spun around to see the dark shape of a person standing only a few inches away and blurted out the question, “Where did you come from?!”
She answered, “I’ve been here the whole time. What’s going on? Was there a power failure? Can I still check out?”
I bent down and grabbed one of the two emergency flashlights and flicked it on, casting the room in an eerie red glow. Now I could see exactly who or what I was talking to. She was a couple inches shorter than me, about my age, with short blonde hair and at least ten piercings per ear. She wore a black lace choker around her neck with a pentagram pendant dangling in front, and a leather jacket zipped all the way up. She also had orange and white stripes on her cheeks, a coal-black nose, two furry ears on top of her head, and fishnet stockings. Whoever she was, she definitely wasn’t a local.
I instinctively took a step back and gripped the flashlight tighter in case I was about to need to defend myself. You know things are bad when your first assumption is that you’re being invaded by fox-people. These days, I can’t really take any chances.
But the young woman wasn’t attacking anyone. In fact, she looked as confused as I felt.
“Why do you look like that?” I asked before I had time to realize how rude I sounded.
“I’m on my way to a Halloween party. Why do you look like that?”
Oh yeah. I’d already forgotten that today was Halloween. I guess the holiday lost its appeal to me ever since the incident all those years ago… but again, that’s a story for another time.
“There’s an emergency.” I said.
She didn’t seem impressed. “What happened?”
“Nothing yet. But something’s about to happen.”
She crossed her arms and gave me a look that said I’m not buying it. “Well, in that case, I think I should be on my way.” She dropped the handful of groceries she’d been carrying onto the front counter and took a step for the door.
“Wait!” I called out.
She turned back to face me, but didn’t stop. She just took small steps backwards, ever closer to the where Jerry was busily running lines of tape and sealing up her intended exit.
“Whatever’s going on right now is not my kind of crazy. You guys have fun playing space doctor, but I’m gonna go.”
This next part went fast. Way too fast.
Abrahm rushed past me, reached out, and grabbed her by the arm.
“Hey!” she protested. “Let go of me, you creep!”
“Listen here, young lady. You’re not going anywhere. Now sit down and shut--”
In a flash, Jerry was at her side. I heard the thwack and saw Abrahm collapse onto the floor before I even realized that Jerry had headbutted the old man.
“She said leggo her eggo!”
Abrahm held his bleeding nose in one hand and broken glasses in the other. He spat out angry curses from the ground as the young woman rubbed her arm and said, “Thank you. Did… that hurt?”
Jerry answered, “Yeah, probably. Hey, old dude, did that hurt?”
“Fuck you!” Abrahm hissed. “I was just trying to stop her from going outside.”
She stepped around Jerry, looked down at the man, and asked, “Why?”
I answered for him. “It’s not safe out there. Something’s coming.”
Jerry turned to her and said, “If you wanna go, we won’t stop ya. But if I were you, I’d listen to what Jack has to say. He’s usually right about this kind of thing.”
“Thanks,” I said.
She cut her eyes between the three of us, settling on me to ask, “Alright, doctor. What exactly is coming?”
I took a deep breath, then explained.
“In our town, once every five years, the bugs come. They swarm us by the millions, in clouds thick enough to block out the entire sky. They knock over trash cans, patio furniture, anything that isn’t bolted to the ground. It got so bad last time that cows literally choked to death trying to breath in the middle of it. It only lasts for one night before they all die. Tomorrow, the streets and yards will be covered in green slime like we were hit by a sherbert snowstorm.”
She turned to Jerry and asked, “Is he being serious?”
He answered, “Serious as a clown having a heart attack.”
Abrahm was on his feet now with the surgical mask over his face, a red spot growing around the nose area as he taped his glasses back into one piece. “I’ve seen ten swarms since I was a boy, and I swear to God it gets worse every time. I don’t know if it’s global warming or if it’s all the chemicals they keep dumping in our creek, but these sumbitches are getting stronger and meaner. Jack, are you absolutely certain it was a mayfly you saw?”
She laughed. “Wait, wait, what?! You guys are getting your panties into a bunch over mayflies?”
“It’s not really mayflies,” I explained. “That’s just what we call them.”
“It’s October. We couldn’t be any further from May. Why do you call them mayflies?”
She had a good point there. Why did we all agree to use such obviously inaccurate nomenclature for this periodic shitstorm of biblical magnitude? Why didn’t we call them something more appropriate, like nightmarebugs? Or hellswarmers? Or dick-gnats?
I tried to think back to the first swarm I could remember. It was fifteen years earlier, I was a child, and some men in suits came and talked to our elementary school class the day after the swarm. They stuck around for the entire school day, but my memories from that far back are seldom precise and hardly reliable.
The only detail that really stuck with me was when the men insisted we shouldn’t talk about the mayflies. We shouldn’t mention them to anyone from out of town, not even family. They explained that it was extremely rude to discuss mayflies, and if we ever brought up mayflies with an adult, they would be very mad at us.
I might have dismissed those memories as having been mangled through the filters of childhood ignorance and time, but the men came back again five years later to talk to my high school class.
This time, they were less interested in intimidation tactics and more interested in data mining. They handed out survey forms with questions like “Did you see the swarm? Were you in the swarm? Were you bitten? Did the bite break skin? Did any of the mayfly remnants enter any orifice of your body? Do you know of any other residents who may have ingested mayfly remnants?” After collecting our answers, the men gave a short speech on mayfly safety (“Never drive in a swarm! Stay inside and turn off the lights! Do not touch or eat mayflies!"), then they reminded us to never discuss mayflies with anyone, ever.
As high schoolers, we had more important things to worry about than following up on mysterious bug experts, and at the time five years felt like such a long way off before the next swarm. I honestly thought I’d have moved away before the next swarm hit. But here I was, two swarms later, nearly as unprepared as ever.
The girl in the fox costume shook her head. “I feel like you guys are screwing with me.”
This conversation had already taken up too much time. I needed to let everyone else know what was coming. I left Jerry in charge and went to grab the store phone. He was always better at talking to people than I was, anyway. While the rest of the room ping ponged between different versions of “I don’t believe it,” and “You better believe it,” I dialed the sheriff’s station, acutely aware of how sad it was that I already had the number memorized.
The sheriff’s department in our town has always had a single employee specifically designated as the “gas station babysitter,” but the current title-holder had recently suffered an attack of temporary insanity his first week into the job. Last I heard, they found his cruiser in Mexico a couple days after his "episode," and the deputy himself is still officially missing in action. Compared to some of the others who came before him, I’d say he got off easy.
Sheriff O’Brien was still searching for someone to replace him. In the meantime, I had to dial the sheriff department directly for any and all emergencies. I was convinced the woman in charge of answering phones hated me by now, and as it continued to ring, I had to wonder if she was screening the call, or if there was another reason nobody could pick up the phone.
Jerry slid up next to me and whispered, “Okay dude. I’ve been talking to Lucy, and I think I’ve convinced her to stick around for the rest of the night.”
“Lucy?”
“The fox.”
I looked over to see Lucy wearing a doctor’s mask and holding the other emergency flashlight. She flicked it on and pointed the red light at the ceiling.
“Oh, cool. Good.”
“But listen, before things get any crazier, there’s something really important I need to tell you. And I hope you’re not going to be mad.” I hung up the phone. It had been ringing for over a minute without any answer.
“What’s up?” I asked, sensing that I wasn’t going to like the answer.
Right then, we heard the toilet flush. I pointed my flashlight at the bathroom door as it creaked open, spilling a sliver of light into the hallway. A man emerged, holding his cell phone in front of him with the flashlight turned on. “Hey, ya’ll. What happened to the power?.” He looked out at the room, then added, “Is this a costume party?”
He was thin, sporting blue jeans and a navy polo a couple sizes too big. He had dark skin and beard stubble, a confused expression on his face, and a nametag pinned over his chest that read “Bart.” It took me a second to recognize him as one of our alcohol vendors.
At first, I was annoyed. This guy’s presence meant I was going to have to explain the mayfly history to another out-of-towner. But that concern was quickly leapfrogged by another, more pressing issue--he was heading for the front door.
“Wait a second,” Abrahm said, trying to step into his path.
Bart sidestepped the old man with ease and grace like it was a rehearsed dance move, saying, “Sorry, I have to get back on the road.”
“Hang on!” I shouted. But he wasn’t slowing.
“I’m behind schedule and have three more stops to make tonight.”
“Wait!” I tried. But he was already at the door. He pushed it, but the locks stopped it from opening. In one last bout of desperation, I pointed at him and yelled, “Jerry! Stop him!”
Jerry crossed the distance to where Bart was awkwardly peeling away strips of duct tape. With a running start, he plowed into the vendor and tackled him into a display of bagged pork rinds.
“Jesus!” screamed Abrahm.
I rushed over to Bart’s side as Jerry dusted the crumbs off of himself.
“Why did you do that?!” I yelled.
“What? You told me to stop him. You didn’t give me any context. I thought maybe he was stealing or something.”
Bart, reasonably, hadn’t had the wherewithal to properly prepare for being knocked off his feet. He had hit his head against the ground hard enough to leave a lump and ring his bell, but he was conscious. Groaning and disoriented--but conscious.
I found Bart’s cell phone underneath a pile of crushed pigskins and ripped bags, held my hand over the phone’s light, and asked, “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Th- Three? Three fingers?”
“That’s right,” I said before turning off his phone’s flashlight and stuffing it into my hoodie pocket. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“Hey!” he sputtered. “What are you doing with my phone?”
Abrahm answered for me, “Can’t risk letting you turn on the screen and paint a target on our asses. That goes for everybody. Y’all hear? No electronics. No Gameboys or gizmos. No flashlights except for these. They’re attracted to white light.”
Bart looked like he was going to make it through without any lasting damage, so I turned my attention back to more pressing matters. “I need to find a way to get in touch with the sheriff and let her know.”
Right then, we heard it. The low, piercing, continuous whine floating on the wind all the way from town. It sounded like the swan song of a dying titan. An eerie portent of things to come. No matter how many times I hear them, I will never get used to the tornado sirens.
Abrahm chuckled, “Sounds to me like she already knows. Damn. I was really hoping you were wrong about this.”
So was I.
“Hey, sorry about Bill Goldberging you,” Jerry said, offering his hand to Bart. The man on the ground hesitantly took it and let Jerry pull him to his feet.
“I… I still-- I still have to deliver--”
Bart wobbled. Jerry grabbed him by both shoulders and stabilized him. “Wh-Wha-What happened? Wh-Why is she a fox? Why are you both doctors? What hit me? Are these pork rinds? What’s going on?”
I sighed, then started, “In our town, once every five years, the bugs come…”
By the time I finished explaining it all for the second and (hopefully) last time, the mood of the room had drastically changed. Lucy and Jerry were sitting at the booth by the window, sharing a six pack of White Claw. Abrahm was leaning against the counter, rolling himself a cigarette. And poor Bart was back on the ground, sitting cross-legged, holding an ice bag against the back of his head and staring out the taped-up window at his delivery van on the other side.
The only sound was the steady wailing of far-off tornado sirens and the occasional slurp of a drink. Nobody was looking in my direction, and part of me wondered if anyone had been listening at all, or if I’d just retold the whole story for nothing.
“Any questions?” I asked.
Lucy perked up like the idea that just struck her was electrified. “Oh my god! What about the trick-or-treaters?!”
“There aren’t any. Our town outlawed that a long time ago,” I answered.
“No offense,” said Bart. “But your town kinda sucks.”
“None taken.”
“Look, if I don’t get these deliveries on time, I--” He didn’t finish his sentence. Something stopped him. It was subtle, nearly imperceptible at first. Abrahm put away his rolling tobacco. Jerry and Lucy looked up at me. There was another noise, growing louder. We could feel it. And it was moving. Fast. Coming for us.
The ground shook like this was some kind of earthquake, and we slowly, carefully, gravitated into a group by the front door. Morbid curiosity propelling us upstream against common sense and wisdom.
The sky outside was already dark, but whatever light remained disappeared like a candle flame being snuffed out. Lucy pressed her flashlight into the glass. I did the same. The parking lot out front was ominously still. A few gas pumps. A delivery van and garbage truck at the edge of the lot. A single car about ten feet away. All bathed in red light. And then, all of a sudden, the dam burst.
An enormous buck sprinted out of the woods and across the lot in front of us. It leapt over the hood of Lucy’s car and continued into the woods on the other side of the lot. Before we could react, two more deer sprinted into the lot, followed by four more. It was a stampede of them, running for deer life, trying to get away before it was too late.
The ground was vibrating now. Crashing noises like trees falling over drowned out the tornado sirens. There were booms and breaks, reverberations and tearing, and somewhere in the mix, animalistic screams. The edges of the glass door filled in like green ink spilling onto a glass table. The green skittered and flowed and combined and spread from one side to the other. Soon, the only space free of bugs was a hole in the center, the size of a beach ball. Then the size of a dinner plate. Then the size of a penny. Then, the entire door was covered by a solid wall of millions of crawling green legs.
Bart was right behind my shoulder when he whispered, “Give me my phone! I want to film this.”
Abrahm didn’t mince words. “I will kill you.”
Lucy pulled her flashlight away from the window, reached into her pocket, and retrieved her keys.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want to check on something.”
She pressed a button on her car fob before we could stop her. The short beep-beep of her vehicle marked the explosion of bugs from the front of the door, all taking flight at the same time. With the glass clear, I immediately saw why.
She had used her key fob to remotely engage her car’s headlights, and for the briefest of moments, we all saw exactly how bad the swarm was. The worst blizzard in history had nothing on this. We were inside a green snowglobe inside a green duststorm inside a celestial haze of green and black television static. The insects flowed in pure chaos, churning like white-water rapids. The only organization being a general frenetic attraction to the car, and in a matter of seconds, they had smothered her vehicle in layers thick enough to be light impenetrable.
“Oh my god,” she said as the bugs returned to swallowing the glass door of the gas station. “Is it always like this?”
“No,” I said honestly. “This is much, much worse.”
We stared at the shrinking window to the chaotic outside. Soon, we would be under the green curtain again. Not like it mattered. The swarm was too thick to see anything. But still, we watched for as long as we could. We stood shoulder to shoulder and watched until the glass was nothing but a squirming, breathing mass of green legs.
We’re going to be okay, I told myself. We made it in time. The town was warned. All we have to do now--all we can do now--is wait it out.
Over the sound of the insect storm, I heard one more thing. It sounded almost like a voice. Like someone screaming.
A hand slammed into the other side of the door just as I realized what the voice was saying.
“Help! Open the door! Help us!

Continue to Part Two
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6

Between the Weed and Me

Between the Weed and Me
I first decided to smoke weed in the third grade. That is to say, the final straw that broke the authoritarian bind which prevented me from becoming a weedlover began with a simple English exam, where the teacher outrageously marked my spelling of ‘because’ as incorrect. I had opted for the clipped ‘cause’ since that’s how we spoke on the playground. English was my third language, but I loved it and paid careful attention to spelling. I knew I was expected to start with the prepositional prefix, yet I thought my bold vernacular would shake off the teacher’s dusty tradition. She didn’t give in, although I was willing to forgive this pigheadedness and confronted her, only to be told that there’s just one correct way to spell the word, and I’d made a clear mistake. So be it. I had faint suspicions that adults were out of touch, and that the world would remain ignorant until my generation took power. It would take a while for me to learn that the clipped spelling had been around for centuries, and that ‘be-‘ is itself a clipped version of the Proto-Indo-European root ‘ambhi’. As far as I was concerned at the time, the spelling incident had sealed my distrust of the old guard.
That’s why years later, when the lispy Ms. Stein told our 10th grade class that cannabith is an awful, terrible, bad thing we should stay away from, I immediately accepted the derisive laughter of my colleagues, and their conclusion that it’s overblown scaremongering. Before her failed intervention, I didn’t even know cannabis existed, or that people really wanted to do it but totally shouldn’t. Plus, if the old generation’s against it, there must be something important that they’re missing. After cafeteria meetings with theoretical and practical considerations of cannabis intake, I found myself in Joseph’s living room holding a bong and trying to inhale the spurts of smoke. I followed the instructions but it was still impossible to get the smoke in my lungs, so I gave up and settled for a sore throat. I was envious of Joseph as he relaxed on the couch, describing a flow of gorgeous visions projected behind his eyelids. This promise of visions was too fascinating to give up on, and I later took home a bong of my own to practice.
This so-called bong was brutally awkward, consisting of a small glass bowl jammed into the side of a plastic water bottle, roughly secured with layers of duct tape. This wonkiness might have had less to do with the prohibitive cost of bongs, and more to do with the suburban taste for grungy DIY stuff like duct tape wallets. I went inside my cramped closet after the parental authorities went to sleep, with warm orange light grazing the plaid shirt in front of me and flooding the soft pink carpet by my feet. I had to be quiet, gently sucking in tiny bursts of smoke that I struggled to pass into my lungs. After a few attempts sprinkled with gnawing worry about school the next day, I gave up and scrambled to hide the evidence. I justified lying by telling myself that my parents are prisoners of their generation’s stupidity and would only respond with hostility to things they don’t understand. My mom was born with a supernatural sense of smell, so she was clearly suspicious when she popped her head in my bedroom the next morning. Pointing to the open window, I explained that smoke must have drifted in from outside. She wasn’t buying it, even asking me directly if I’ve been secretly smoking, but she eventually dropped the subject after my rehearsed nonchalant denial.
A Single Spark Can Start a Spectral Fire
It took many more frustrating attempts to finally get the effects, about seven in total, but I became victoriously high in December of 2003. The auspicious event took place after Joseph & I smoked in the bare Canadian winter, immediately rushing inside after the smoke had entered our lungs. Once my conscious focus shifted away from animal re-comforting, the notoriously lovely buzz started to take hold. My body became friendlier to me, rewarding all movement with a sense of joy, and the anxiogenic confusion of adolescence became a hilarious absurdity. Laughter danced out of me as I wriggled around on a smoothly varnished oak dining chair, coupled with a general sense of wonder. I felt love for Joseph, my classmates, and my family. Reflecting on my comfortable middle-class life, I felt gratitude rather than the usual disgusted alienation. The fact that the older generation wanted to ban such harmless delight no longer brought up feelings of hatred, instead it seemed hilarious. Little did I know that just a couple of years earlier, the Canadian gov’t began to shift its attitude towards the drug ever so slightly, foreshadowing the full legalization many years later.
My lovely inaugural ride didn’t last long, since I realized with shock that I’d forgotten about a movie date with Trisha. The world already buzzed with beauty so it seemed absurd to travel far across the city in order to sit in a darkened auditorium, but the fear of losing my girlfriend was too strong. The next hour on the bus was an anxiety marathon as I incredulously stared at the vanishing minutes on my bulky black G-Shock watch, and afterwards sprinted through Yorkdale mall in a panic to get to the screening of Return of the King. Trisha was sitting in the very front row in a completely packed auditorium, utterly furious. I went to kiss her but she turned her head away in disgust. It was so disrespectful that I thought she’d made some kind of mistake, for a split second imagining it was a poorly timed muscle twitch. Had she known I was high, she might have wept and broken up with me on the spot, as she was deeply trusting of prohibitions. Hardly my Eve.
This kind of darkened twist at the end of a trip would become a reliable tradition. The second blast-off was next summer, when we went to the middle of a dense and inhospitable forest near my old middle-school. The high felt great at first, each plant glowing with bewitching mystery, but the return to social life brought a post-Edenic onslaught of pain, shame and embarrassment. Since we needed to smoke in secret, we were in the thick of an insect-ridden patch of forest, so I ended up getting the biggest mosquito bite I’ve ever had, smack-dab in the middle of my forehead. I took the bus home disfigured, with waves of paranoid humiliation washing over me as strangers gawked.
The Sepulchre of Suburbia
The worst experience of the early years was trying to smoke in the bathroom while my parents were out of the house. I would open the window and stand on the toilet, blowing smoke into the bathroom vent above because using any fragrant spray would be too suspicious for my olfactorily prodigious mother. The main problem with this technique was that the draft from the open window would make the door rattle, and since I was obsessed with avoiding detection, all I could do was focus on the sound of the door bumping into the lock jamb. Through the drug’s sharpening of the senses, the sound was steadily amplified and grew more dramatic, inspiring images of firefighters & cops breaking down the door to arrest me. Even after I went to a completely quiet room, I could still hear the door rattling alongside the ghosts of sirens, with virtually no control over it. It was like having my mind tumbled in a dryer of dread and anxiety without an off-switch.
Whenever my buzz wasn’t killed, it was like reaching a higher plane of existence. If a drug increases the sensitivity of the mind, it’ll cut both ways, either sharpening worry or deepening gratitude, depending on the external circumstances and interior wisdom.The buds of the cannabis plant are a kind of fragile gem, which is appropriate given the word’s Proto-Indo-European root connoting sprouts or buds. It’s an ancient gem, discovered and prized for thousands of years across the globe, from Romania to China. Highly sought after, it has inspired deities and rituals to appease and extract its magical powers. It dazzles with its viscerally hypnotic effects, tickling the mind’s eye in an infinite number of ways. Its integration into commerce has shackled and exploited many. This illicit sapphire reveals its beauty with great care, but is easily broken not just by conservative forces, but even by 420-friendly peers.
On the rare occasions where I went to a party and had a chance to smoke, the group ended up sitting in a darkened room staring at a screen, watching a movie or TV show. I took out a sketchbook to draw despite the poor lighting, and there was an old rush of elation that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Struggling in school, drawing had become an economically precarious dud, but the gem’s light extracted the ecstasy of expression and sight that I used to feel in my childhood. It was such a wholesome, peaceful, and productive experience that I decided to tell my parents about it.
This was a profoundly bad decision. The details of my confession are spotty, but I do remember that they reacted as badly as if I’d told them I secretly tortured disabled children for fun. I’ve never seen my parents angrier and more disappointed, which was terrifically upsetting since from my perspective, I’d made a marvelously beneficial discovery. To be fair, this was in line with the harsh anti-drug dictatorial communism they grew up with in Romania. My image as a worthy son was shattered, with my dad telling me that he wouldn’t have ever imagined I was one of those people. In my mom’s eyes, I was a despicable criminal, despite my tearful insistence on the spiritual significance of getting high. The event devastated me too, deepening my distrust of the older generation. After this blowout argument, I wanted to effectively break up with my family, and could barely wait to escape the household.
God Save the Green
But the gap between me & my weedly peers grew as well. Joseph was my closest friend for years, but we drifted apart after we moved to different schools, so I resorted to selecting friends via an online forum of fellow alienated youths, forming a group that meant a lot to me. Once, we decided to go to a concert together, but as soon as we got high, the idea of loud music in a dark, crowded and stuffy space was ridiculous. Everything was beautiful already. At the last moment I told them I wasn’t feeling it, that I’d meet them again later, and headed into Eliot’s second-hand bookstore. I cut straight to the tiny Religion & Philosophy section and browsed the titles, miraculously coming upon a single frayed copy of Alan Watts’ Behold the Spirit, his doctoral thesis on Christian mysticism that I’d been aching to find. In my heightened cannabistic state, the introduction spoke to me just like the friend I wished I had, elegantly reckoning with life’s depth. I only needed to pay six bucks for such a treasure and sat in a cafe to wrap my head around the mystery of God. The more I read, the more it felt like my soul was tickled by the prospect of coming to terms with God again after many years of atheistic drift. That’s how The Gem was meant to be handled.
Disharmony in my relationship with youth culture in general and weed culture in particular would continue to replay itself. Visiting Terry’s basement apartment would often involve getting high and watching stuff, while I tried to draw or write in my sketchbook without him noticing. Although I was grateful to be immersed in impressive new visual culture, these rare meetings were crucial for my schoolwork, furnishing ideas that helped me finish my thesis. I couldn’t help but think how much more I could get done if this was a daily practice. One of my most ambitious illustrations began after I hung out with Matt, who promptly fell asleep on the couch after we smoked, allowing me to sketch stunning psychedelic visions filled with Christian symbols. I spent months working on the resulting illustration since I considered the visions provided by The Gem to be sacred, something like a mentorship with a hyper-intelligent alien.
Ripening estrangement from family, friends and society at large took its toll on me. I tried going to a psychiatrist who had a three-stage approach to counselling young men with depression. His first tactic was to moralize, asking me my religion and pointing out that it forbids suicide. Secondly, he offered Prozac. Faced with skepticism on both fronts, he finally stated that he didn’t care whether I lived or died. Third grade flashed in my mind; another old idiot. Yet again, I felt justified in my distrust of authority, convincing me to give up professional help and finding my own solace through art and philosophy. Although I had many great moments, this was a fragile strategy that would often result in a weary spirit, eventually edging me to depths of anguish.
Bud Buddy
Luckily, during the worst psychological crisis, one of my classmates wanted to introduce me to her boyfriend, saying that we would get along really well. I hated the idea since I had a crush on her, and meeting her lover was pouring salt on a gaping emotional wound, but I went along anyway owing to some obscene allegiance to being polite. This turned out to be an excellent decision, since her boyfriend Benjamin was the one person who I could actually get along with. His alienated introversion rivaled mine, and while he was primarily interested in fiction he was able to keep up with me on philosophy, often besting my arguments, and leading to all-night talkathons that elevated my spirit. With the aid of copious amounts of cannabis and caffeine, I opened up to him about everything and anything, knowing I could rely on an intelligent response. It was during those nights that I felt I made the fullest intellectual breakthroughs, finally gaining important insight on topics ranging from atonal jazz to chemistry. Naturally, he was approximately my age, making him part of The Greatest Generation.
When Ben decided to move to Montreal, I was ready to join him and began preparing my luggage, one bag holding my bulky computer tower, and the other stuffed with clothes, books and art supplies. Having just graduated, it was the perfect opportunity to break free of my metropolis with its mass of unrelatables, although my parents were astonishingly supportive. Ben already knew a couple of people who lived in Montreal, so he left Toronto before I did, and once he settled in, I got an email suggesting we become roomies to save money on rent, which seemed like a great idea. The only thing I was worried about leaving behind was the large dance space afforded by my suburban house. After a pleasant bus ride where I eavesdropped on a six-hour conversation, I could finally step into a room of my own, tucked on a hill with giant maples and a quick walk from the gorgeous Mount Royal.
I dropped off my luggage and took a walk in the neighborhood, feeling like I was finally free. No more exams, teachers, lectures, TV, passivity, moralizing, conservatism, or arguments about my lifestyle, just the need for money. It was like a tedious nightmare coming to an end. With Ben around, there was a constant inspiration to be passionately creative, without any restriction on cannabis use. At first, this was exactly as fantastic as I’d hoped it would be, although actually getting weed was tricky. As much as I resented being at the mercy of other people’s offers to smoke me out, it was nice to avoid the deplorable silliness of trying to buy illegal plants. It felt like I was in a bad novel, meeting someone who moonlighted as a gun runner and secretly exchanging weed with special handshakes. Our weed dealer Alex was, unsurprisingly, always late, rarely answered his phone, and mumbled awfully, which inspired us to look elsewhere but with little luck. Benjamin & I walked along the restaurant district and some scary guys sold us something that looked like dirty oregano, but we didn’t feel like complaining since our lives were worth more than ten dollars. This technique didn’t always result in bad weed, since a young punk couple once sold us spectacular hashish, so great in fact, that when I first tried it out and Ben asked me how it was, I could only reply with giggles so intense I had to fart.
Alex was hard to ditch since his weed was so good. He claimed to be selling a strain called AK-47, a mix of Colombian, Mexican, Thai and Afghani pot which is known for inspiring creativity, although I didn’t much care about its pedigree. I just felt blessed to have any at all. When I unpocketed the little plastic package at home and loaded it up in Ben’s makeshift gravity bong, the experience was more like finally landing on planet Earth rather than floating into clouds. Without social obligations or the paranoia of getting caught, I could calmly absorb all the lessons The Gem had to teach me.
The Green Light
The overarching theme of The Gem’s lessons was that of radical appreciation, dissolving critical distinction into an ocean of awestruck gratitude. As I poked my head out our second-story window and stared down at a footprint in the mud, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and began to tear up. It was gorgeous not just because of its richly saturated hickory with specular highlights from the dazzling mid-day sun, or the reflective puddles giggling with green leaves, but also its transience and Biblical echoes. Cutting open a tomato was like peering inside an alien miracle decorated in luscious hues ranging from crimson to blush, oozing seeds packed with an unfathomable language.
Having secured a professional commission and given full creative freedom, The Gem got me thinking of myself as a potential success, as opposed to what I had anticipated in my despair, namely, a penniless nobody at the margins of society. Getting stoned and browsing art history books on the lush summer grass even persuaded me to think I could make something of myself, maybe earn millions and enjoy earning each penny. Suddenly the fact that there was a tiny chance of success was a source of great hope, rather than cause for resignation. I could take charge of the world and make it better, more beautiful, smarter, just as I planned to in third grade. A thousand year Reich of beauty and self-exploration!
Well, it worked out fabulously for a few months. I engineered days with existential magic, feeling happy and grateful from morning until night, just as I dreamed of in my moments of dreadful sober loneliness. Taking a walk past the endless lush gardens in people’s front yard was enough to fill my soul with awe, and watching traffic lights reflect off of wet asphalt was simply to die for. It felt like I’d reached the pinnacle of psychological health; directly connected to an immanent divinity, in love with life but tuned to the dark edges of my emotions, ambitious yet satisfied with what I had, appreciative of friendship but self-sufficient and autonomous. And thanks to weed, this could be a sustained state of mind. What could possibly be next?
At around the same age I was at the time, Neil Young sang in Old Man that living alone in a paradise made him think of two. So, as marvelous as Ben was, my feverish attraction to women was hard to ignore, and I wanted someone to share my bliss with. Rather than leaving well enough alone, I figured that adding a lover into the mix would catapult me to an even higher level of satisfaction. Like Adam’s partner in Genesis, it turned out this would be the key in my expulsion from my weedly garden of bliss.
submitted by andreigeorgescu to Psychonaut