I HAVE NO plans to get high tomorrow on 4/20, National Pot Smokers’ Day, “a counter-culture holiday involving the consumption of cannabis” (says Wikipedia), and that makes me feel a little old, a little square, a little too pro-Establishment, and a little nostalgic for my high school years, when I thought nothing could be finer than smoking a bowl and sitting around talking about God. Okay, we didn’t really talk about God. Mostly, we ate DiGiorno Cheese-Stuffed Crust Pizza from our parents’ freezers. And okay, I didn’t always love getting high. Sometimes getting high made me paranoid. Sometimes it made me think that whoever I was with wanted to cut off my hair. Once, while I was high at home, my dog got the hiccups and I grew terrified that she would explode. (I still find it unnerving that dogs get the hiccups.)
My friends and I probably would have smoked less pot, and eaten less pizza, were beer easier to come by, but obtaining alcohol in the suburbs was no cakewalk. The problem, in retrospect, was one of aesthetics: We wore jewelry made of beads and string. We wore bright, tie-dyed T-shirts that said, “Thank you, Jerry” (it was 1997) or hooded sweatshirts that advertised our high school. Some of us were partial to pajama pants. In other words, our outfits did little to suggest adulthood. If someone’s older brother or sister refused to break the law for us, we resorted to “shoulder-tapping”—standing outside a liquor store and begging adult strangers on the sidewalk to buy us beer. Occasionally, some man with a moustache who never got over his long, virginal adolescence would acquiesce, but for the most part, shoulder-tapping proved to be labor-intensive, risky, and unreliable. We needed a better system.
One day, on a whim, I walked into a small liquor store in the center of town and saw that the person manning the register was no man at all. With his smooth face and clear, blue eyes, he looked like my peer. He dressed in that preppy way that guys perfected circa 1992—the white baseball cap, the plaid flannel button-down that could be whisked off and tied around the waist in the event of a sudden Nirvana song.
I brought my selections—probably Zima, or wine coolers, or a case of Rolling Rock—to the register and set about distracting him. “You go to college around here?”
“B.U.,” he said.
“Cool,” I said. “I go to B.C.”
“Oh yeah?” He rang me up without even asking for I.D. Probably because of my sophisticated taste in alcohol. Had he asked, I would have told him that unfortunately, I’d left my I.D. back at…um…college. “What do you study?”
“Medicine,” I said.
I couldn’t have chosen a major I knew less about, but that was what I said, so that was who I became: the pre-med student from Boston College who liked to kick back on a Friday night with a frosty bottle of Wild Cherry Boone’s Farm.
“Have a good weekend,” said John (let’s just call him John because I have zero recollection of his name).
“Oh, thanks, yeah, I’ll be drinking at some cool college parties,” I said.
Then I carted my booze out the door, praying that I wouldn’t run into anyone who knew my mom.
My friends were delighted. Our problems were solved. Every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend, I returned to the liquor store and chatted with John. But it didn’t take long for me to commit a criminal’s most egregious faux pas: I let my emotions take over. It was something about the way John would lift his cap from his head to run his fingers through his floppy hair, or perhaps it was the musical wisdom he imparted (Guns ‘n Roses were “totally clutch,” Dave Matthews Band “too frat-boy,” the Stones “untouchable”).
“I have a crush on John the liquor store cashier,” I announced to my friends.
“Oh no,” they said.
“And I can’t keep lying to him.”
They pleaded with me. But in my youth, true love trumped getting drunk. I couldn’t be dissuaded. Part of the issue was that it was senior year; I was sick of all the boys from high school. Everyone had made out with everyone at some point. I wanted to move up in the world. I wanted to date a college boy.
So I wrote John a letter and came clean. I was seventeen years old, I confessed. I attended high school. I didn’t really want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a poet. But in the meantime, I was terribly sorry that I’d founded our relationship on deceit.
To prove my compunction, I made him a mix tape. Or in the parlance of the day, a mix. I signed my name to the note, added my phone number, stuck the note and the cassette into an envelope, returned to the liquor store, purchased an unearthly haul of wine coolers, and handed him the envelope with my money.
John called me that night. The telephone in my bedroom was a ‘90s relic that lit up neon pink and displayed the parts and wires within. I cradled it between my ear and shoulder, twisting the cord around my finger.
“Do you want to come over this weekend?” John asked.
“Sure,” I said because “coming over” struck me as a perfectly reasonable, possibly even romantic, first date. I imagined we’d sit among his college text books and discuss the meaning of infinity, or we’d have a wet T-shirt contest, like college students did on TV.
John lived on Brighton Ave. in a basement apartment that he’d decorated in a minimalist style—a mattress on the floor and a couch.
“Do you want to get high?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said, sitting beside him on the couch, which smelled of maple syrup. He was rolling a joint.
In fact, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get high. There was potential paranoia to consider. But if a college boy offers you pot, you must accept. This is the way of the adult world.
That afternoon, I learned a valuable life lesson: College pot is different from high school pot. It is, as one might expect, more advanced. After a few puffs, I was so high, I was massaging my knees.
“Why are you touching your knees like that?” John asked.
“Oh,” I said, “because they feel like water balloons.”
“Whatever,” John said. “Do you want to listen to music?”
I didn’t really. It was all I could manage to sit in a quiet room, listening to John talk. For the most part, I had no idea what he was saying. Adding music sounded as complicated and as appealing as playing a round of competitive ping-pong. But I said, “Sure. Music.” I wondered where the music was. I hadn’t glimpsed so much as a boom box.
John snuffed out the joint and stood. He crossed the room to a closet, opened it, and dragged out an electric guitar and an amp. He plugged it all in, slung the strap of the guitar around his body, and faced me, his audience.
I noticed, for the first time, that John was very small. He looked like a child pretending to play his father’s guitar.
“Any requests?” he asked.
I stared at him. I blinked a few times, communicating in the language of coma patients.
“All righty then,” John said with a shrug. And without so much as a warm-up, he launched into “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”
It was so loud. It was the loudest song I’d ever heard. It filled every corner of the room. It made the pillows on the mattress quiver. His singing (squawking) was almost as loud as the guitar. He pronounced “me” may, the way Joe Elliot did in the Def Leppard version. Would it be rude to cover my ears?
Yes! replied my last functioning brain cell.
I worried that John’s neighbors would call the cops, who would break in and discover John’s pot. I would be arrested, and my mother would have to rescue me from jail. What were you doing? she would ask.
I was watching a college boy rock out in his basement.
My crime would be recorded on my permanent record. The colleges I’d applied to would send rejection letters: “Unfortunately, the blight on your permanent record disqualifies you from receiving a higher education. Instead, you will remain in your suburb, shoulder-tapping and making mixes and maybe coaching a sport at your high school.”
John parlayed “Pour Some Sugar On Me” into “Purple Rain.”
“I never meant to cause you any sorrow,” he sang, his eyes locked to mine.
I jumped to my feet. “I have to go!” I yelled.
John stopped playing. “Well, wait a minute,” he said. “I–”
“Goodbye!” My yell, now unnecessary, echoed through the apartment. Inexplicably, I executed some kind of bow, my hands pressed together as if in prayer. Then I ran out the door, my hopes of dating an older man dashed, my liquor store hook-up destroyed. But standing on the sidewalk, heart pounding, seventeen years old and high as a helicopter, wondering from which direction I’d come, I tasted an unfamiliar freedom. Here I was in the city by myself. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I’d escaped a concert/date. High school would soon be over. My life was about to begin.