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The Young Stoners
Cloud shadows drifting over the endless prairie.
We were together once, you and me.
Tied-up dogs barking at the rising sun.
At 17, the bowl I had was dug out of an old hollowed out deer antler. I don’t know who made it. Not me. And not Al, who gave it to me out of the kindness of his own baked heart one winter afternoon while we were sitting around Mick McMeat’s wood stove. The stem was a skinny copper pipe and it had real leather bootlace wrapped tightly around the entire length of it. The whole thing was three inches, three-and-a-half tops.
When Al said I could keep it, I had no reaction. It was a gift worth maybe a few bucks in some South Street city head shop, if you could even find one, but value is arbitrary and me and you both know that. Gold means nothing to someone like me and it never has. But back then, same as today, if you had showed us a fake arrowhead tied to an old straight stick that you could hang on a wall or hold in your hand and take a bold hit of skunk and pretend it was flying through the air as you held that hit inside of you while you waited for the pizza dude’s headlights to show up outside the garage where we were toasting our feet to a Merle Haggard cassette, then you would have born witness to a time-travelin’ long-haired teenage me/ my eyes squinting from the sweet weight of the smoke wisping ‘round my skull/ and my body attached to the arrow/ a hundred and fifty years ago/ as we both sped into the ether towards a herd of buffalo like a train.
It was perfect in my eyes, this bowl was, and Al giving it to me with no strings attached was something more than common occurrence in my book. This was a present to behold. A mountain man’s bowl. A viking’s vessel in which to travel from distant land to distant land. Despite our heavy daily indulging, I had never even seen Al break this one out before.
I spun it in my fingers slowly/ like a roasting pig.
I lifted it to my nose and took a drag off the cold resin painted to that scoop in the bone.
I thanked Al meekly. Then I kicked his tight jeans left leg with my right sneaker because it was all I could think to do.
His kindness was intentional and I could feel it. No one else was paying attention. My brother was staring at the Kiss poster on the wall. Wayne was messing with his dad’s video camera. McMeat was putting another log in the burning spaceship’s engine. We were all so young and unsure of anything.
I kept the bowl for many years after that. It got me so stoned so many times that I think the burning copper pipe is more than likely the thing that will come back to haunt me someday before long. Tumors or whatever.
I don’t care.
It was all worth it.
In the garage out the back of Mike’s (Mick McMeat’s) house, there was a side room off to the left of the big bays and that’s where we spent our high school years. It was all concrete walls with rough textured finish and workbenches and old tires. We moved things around in the beginning, hung a blue tarp in one spot and hung an old floral curtain from the deep 70’s in the doorway from the other bays where Mike’s dad parked his minty colored Cadillac and Mike parked his old yellow Ford truck.
Some nights, coming back from Zern’s, our Mecca, a distant farmer’s market where you could buy a cup of cooked mushrooms and eat them with a toothpick while you looked at vintage Grandpa Jones and David Allan Coe cassettes stoned off your ass, me and Al and McMeat and Dave and Wayne, we’d dump out paper bags full of cheap cones of Christmas Tree incense onto the folding card table we held court around.
The process of arrival was intensely sweet. Our travels were always somewhat precarious, of course, because in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, local cops and state cops both would delight in a primal way if they were lucky enough to have pulled over a car load of long-haired boys with glassy taxidermy eyes and sunbaked worm lips. To be discovered would have been unfathomable. Not because we were afraid of our parents’ reactions (we were not), but because the idea of being seriously stalled and inconvenienced out in the world by big, white, angry dudes instead of taking mouthwash bong hits and smoking Marlboro Reds with Gimme Back My Bullets playing really loud was more than we could bear.
Or it was more than I could bear, anyways. I can’t speak for all these dudes, but I can tell you this… I was deathly afraid of being caught by the cops. And I understood, from experience, that if or when we were: there would be trouble. Hard times. Cops were bad news to me even back then. They represented a system that I knew damn well could do whatever it wanted to on a lonely stretch of backwoods road or even in some desolate spot in some strip mall parking lot beneath a heavy winter darkness.
So we were careful. You had to be careful. You had to live with one eye on the Bill Monroe cassette and one eye on the road up ahead. Don’t speed ever. And use your turn signals and limit the stickers on the back of your ride.
Go out into the world and explore and forage, but make it back to the cave above all else. Then you could rest easy. Then you could open the George Jones cassette you had bought for three bucks and someone would spark a bowl and the fire would catch and the Christmas lights would go on and we would smile at each other and poke each other or hit each other’s arms and never say I love you but, you know… I did. I was just too unsure of myself to admit it.
In the mountains one morning, hours from our homes, I stood with Mick McMeat in the pre-dawn woods near my mom and stepdad’s cabin smoking cigarettes and breathing just fine. The trail was barely visible in my flashlight shine, but by then I had memorized it anyway. I knew the bends/I knew to look for certain cairns that meant certain side paths were drifting off to our left higher up.
I remember Mike’s breath, the softness of his exhales as we stood in the woods not long before the sun came up. The farm dogs down in the valley would bark at each other from their places/ from their dirty ropes tied to trees/ or from their free roaming steps out at the edge of the corn at the edge of the yard behind the old barn. In those fleeting moments, unloaded 12 gauge pumps laying still across our shoulders, I believed that my life would always have a way of working out. Something about the hunter’s woods in the October morning, it always convinced me that there was a future for us. For me and my friends. Nothing clearer than that. It didn’t really work out the way that I dreamed it, I guess, but still.
Mike’s cigarette smoke drifted up into my face after he let it slip out of his. The first rays of morning came then, like in a movie you might go see in the theater. Mist of faint light followed by one first rod and then another and then another until the crown of that burning star would break through the dark old mountain top across the valley.
We shifted feet. Sometimes you could hear deer crashing through downed limbs somewhere not so far away. I could hit my smoke and watch the sun breaking the horizon and there would be a low voiced dog letting individual barks go with a strange intentional slowness: with a direct pause between each one: then the near silence/ just a far-off generator buzzing: then another bark: then a school bus moving: then the school bus stopping but still running: and another bark: a single bark: and then the bus heading off again: growing quieter as it rolled: then another bark: and then a sudden sharp crack of breaking branches and the world freezing up as me and Mike looked at each other and his breath was like ghosts and we knew it was deer and it felt spooky and wild and we were together before it.
Before all of it.
School bus motor falling away to nothingness.
Farm dog barking and falling away to nothingness.
That sun hitting our side of the valley now and we were falling away to nothingness.
But it didn’t seem that way at the time.
It didn’t seem that way when we threw rocks at the leaves on the ground trying to get the squirrel to come around to our side of the tree.
It didn’t seem that way when we watched a possum moving down a dead log with last night written all over his tired pace.
It did not seem like nothingness was even a remote possibility when we leaned our teenage asses back against a tall old oak tree and ate beef jerky from the bag and sipped Cokes in cans and smoked cigarettes next to each other and said stupid shit about stuff that made us laugh.
What if you saw a Yeti over there by that boulder and he was whacking off and didn’t see us. Would you holler something at him or would you be shitting your pants?
We might smoke a bowl then, around 7:30 in the morning. Pack a little shake in my deer antler pipe and light it up with a Bic. A Bic with a slice of pizza on it. Or a Bic with AC/DC on it if they had one. Or just a light blue Bic. Or a bright red one that I couldn’t remember where I even got it.
Aim the flame at Hell and Heaven will arise.
Careful not to blow burning ash, we were tender in our movements then/ me and Mike/ the others sleeping at the camp/ me and Mike handing the cherry back and forth/ dragging with closed eyes and holding back small coughs/ our country blow-outs something to behold.
The garage was different. Ducking down in the front seat of the car outside the school was different. Even the woodlots back home with the goth kids or the weird jock stoners sometimes, that was all different. This was more magic, more special. Alone in the northern counties, teenage suburban stoner boys could sense the real freedom that America only hinted at anymore. The wild west. The cities in the 70’s. Forgotten places and undiscovered hollows and long stretches of land where no law was present except the laws of nature.
I don’t remember us killing many squirrels. I think we got a few here and there but that day we didn’t. We ended up shooting our guns at leaves in the trees. We just wanted to make some noise, feel the thrust of a shotgun boom.
We just wanted to laugh at the autumn sunlight throwing shadows on the carpet of leaves. Each of us moving with the other.
Each of us smoking on the trail back down, and looking at the other’s zits and not thinking twice about it.
Not thinking twice about anything.
Each of us smiling and never really thinking about anything.
In John’s car on the way to the free John Hiatt concert at Penns Landing, we are six or seven squashed inside. The air is mutant hot. Philly in the summer is a fever dream. A loaded gun. A sexual fantasy.
John doesn’t smoke cigs or weed so he is the obvious choice to drive us into the deep city. But he is also my oldest friend and he is a beautiful soul who could kick all of our asses with his one hand tied behind his back but never has. And never does.
Even when Mick McMeat loses his lunch, John seems poised. He’s catholic school and we are not so maybe that’s something. But when we are in good traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, about halfway there, Mike unloads so much projectile vomit from the back seat onto John’s car stereo that for a moment there is nothing but the cassette still playing.
I can’t remember.
But there is so much sick and the sudden burst of everything at once causes everyone to shriek and curse and try to move when there is nowhere to go. The heat begins cooking the soup and the ripe sour is death. But somehow John steers the ship. He is 17 maybe 18, same as me, and he remains steady while I am trying to understand if Mike is ok and if he is about to go again, this time on one of us.
John doesn’t sway.
After a long moment, he slaps his steering wheel and stares straight ahead at the busy highway and yells at the top of his lungs.
Jesus Christ, Mike! What the fuck was that???!!
We all laugh. We gag. We try to figure out how to clean John’s stereo and we feel so bad for him but not so much for Mike. He is stoned and now he is maybe sick but no one knows why as the summertime rolls around in the car and we all try to wipe the specks of vomit from our friend’s body onto other people who are next to us without them knowing what we are up to.
The beauty lies in the unstoppable will here, I’d have to say.
An hour later we are in the crowd, waiting for John Hiatt. He will play solo, just him and his guitar. It is a good show from what I can remember. We are young guys from Montgomery County and we love music and we smell like vomit and it is hot and Mike is okay.
I hand him a burning deer antler bowl. He smiles, takes a hit, and then raises his fist in the air as he holds it all in. When he exhales he lets out a triumphant little hoot, the smoke from his lungs leaving his body and rising slowly up over the river, over Camden skyline as that hissing sun goes down.
Me and my brother Dave on the guitars. Mick McMeat on his Rickenbacker bass. Al on the drum kit we have parked in front of the bay door. Wayne filming us on his Dad’s camera. Troy in a chair, watching/ taking a hit/ his Harley boots up on a milk crate/ he’s killed more deer than the rest of us combined. Others, maybe. Here and there.
The music is improvisational. Scuzzy cheap Gibsons and Lemmy cold plunks. Al lives behind the beat and I think he would rather be playing the guitar but there’s only two amps and me and Dave don’t share them tonight. Or hardly ever, I guess. Donnie Pizza Sauce comes in at some point, Marlboro dangling loose from his lips/ flag pole shifting in a mudslide/ and he finds a seat by Troy and hits the bowl or the joint or the bong filled with crushed ice and cheap mouthwash at some point and his eyes go slitty like bad clams barely opening down in the olive oil, down in the juice.
I sing things that come to mind as they come to mind. I try very, very hard to rhyme my words and to have them make some kind of sense. I like literal lyrics at this stage of my game. I am into old bluegrass stuff and Little Richard and the Stones and Hank Williams and the old blues masters and all kinds of shit. But most of it is straight up. Literal. I don’t understand stream-of-consciousness art yet even though that is exactly what I am doing. Sometimes I think that maybe these days/ these nights/ and there were hundreds and hundreds of them across years in that garage/ sometimes I think that this was what made me a decent writer and a decent performer later on in life. I backed myself up against a very tricky wall, time and time again.
Here we go, let the jams begin. But we have to find the song in all of this. And there has to be words to sing. And they have to tell a story or at least make sense.
Many Men Dead.
Radio Answer Man.
George Thorogood is the King of Rock-n-Roll.
The songs are mostly gone now, but I remember shreds and moments.
Dave was so good on the guitar even when he was 15 or 16. Mike was super solid on his bass. And Al was surprisingly adept on the kit, especially when you consider how baked we all were most of the time.
It was a band. My first. Dave’s first. We were a real garage band, not by choice, but because that’s the only chance we had. We never played any gigs but looking back, we could have. I wish we had. But our kingdom was with each other, in that small concrete room, with the hot logs burning and the safety of no cops to fuck with us and no girls to distract us and no parents to look at us and no watchers but the few people who showed up. To get high and to laugh in safety.
We called ourselves The Rumble Crumbs.
It was one of the most glorious times of my whole life.
We had a song we made up one winter afternoon. I remember it as we lived it. I called it Rumble Crumb Special. We were really stoned and we were really onto something in that moment. I know we were. Because the song was like this long wild winding trail of pig grease chords and flappy bumper beats for a long time before I felt the spirit move me to song.
And then when I did sing, the first words that came to my head were something I still recall so vividly, so specifically, so magically.
Rumble Crumb!- Rumble Crumb!- Rumble Crumb Special!
Other bands- other bands- other bands are medical!
I’m still really proud of that. I’m not sure why. I think it’s because the instant I sang it I turned around to see the others, to see what they thought, and they were all smiling. Not because of the lyrics, probably, although I thought maybe that was why at the time. But I think they were just happy. Just vibing. Just feeling relaxed and alive and okay with the sound of my voice banging out of the P.A. and the drums Al was thumping on chasing us like a horror movie. A really good one. And I still see Mike and Dave looking at each other/ Dave, his long dirty blonde hair unhatted and flowing in the smoke, smirking at Mike/ Mike, his Mike Ness 50’s greaser cut framing his handsome young face as he was beaming at Dave with his true, true smile.
I was husky, side-burned, stoned, and unsexy. I had a white Coors Lite sweatshirt with no hood. I don’t remember if I was wearing it that particular night, but if I was then you would have smelled the Pert coming off my locks and seen the dark snakes of my teenage head hanging down over my face/ cascading down my back/ swaying with my movements to the guitar I was wrestling with right then.
Troy and Donnie listening but looking away.
It was all so awkward and strange and lovely.
More people in the band than the crowd.
I came to appreciate the oddity of that feeling. I came to understand that it wasn’t a reflection on me or the band or anything like that. It was just the way things were. Random. Without meaning. Making it all up as we went, but trying desperately to have it make sense.
We were all so rock/roll.
And I never knew that until just now.
Someday I will find Mike’s grave and go to it. It won’t be sad because I don’t want it to be. He died of stomach cancer a few years ago. He was 45. I had no idea he was sick. I had lost touch with him, with all of them. Even with my own brother as it goes nowadays. I had passed through this place where the friendships were so deep and the love was so real that I think we were poisoned at some point by our own familiarity with each other.
I could, once long ago, predict what my boys would say next. I could feel their feelings and their impulses and even sometimes their thoughts. Or even if I could not, I was convinced that I could. And that they could read me that way too. Our time together across all of high school, it was a time that many would probably see as strange. None of us dated any girls much. And the times that we maybe did, well, it broke bones in the collective creature that we had each been a part of.
Miles and miles of young man road, we killed it. Squirrels in the trees and sunsets on the river. We fished and hunted and ate sausage grinders that we had delivered to the garage on Saturday nights in a light snow when we all showed up with money from our dinky jobs and no bills to pay and no life to pay for.
Just weed. And soda. And packs of smokes and cassettes and incense.
I never had friendships like that again. I think when it all ended, the way it ended, kind of suddenly, with Mike not wanting to jam in the garage anymore, it scared the hell out of me. And I was too immature yet to understand the feeling. It was as if something made out of the celestial had been melted down before my eyes. I don’t blame Mike even a tiny bit. He was ready to move on. And he should have been.
The dope. The garage. The woods in that young man’s morning sunshine. It was all something wonderful and liberating. I earned no college scholarships. I was given no honorable mentions when I graduated high school. No one invited me to the senior prom and I was way too insecure to ask anyone else to go. I had a girlfriend in my senior year. She was a sophomore and she loved The Cure and she was cooler than me in all the ways. I never saw or heard from her again after our short run ended.
Everything from my past rambles by on a clacky freight train and I’ve got no legs/ can’t run alongside/ can’t grab the doors/ can’t jump inside. I don’t want to either. I don’t live for yesterdays; they can’t save me now. At his grave, if I can find it, I’d leave Mike a pack of smokes for old times sake. Or a Replacements cassette. Or an old squirrel tail.
I don’t smoke weed anymore. I wouldn’t even know how to get any. And I’d leave my deer antler bowl that Al gave me, but it’s long gone.
It’s weird/ I can’t recall what happened to it.
I wonder if it lives on.
That would be so cool.
The flick of a Bic in ratty woods behind some dead mall.
Stars in the sky.
Breath like ghosts rising up from all of this.
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Edited by Arle Bielanko.
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