For all of my green friends, HAPPY 4:20 DAY! For the rest of you, today is an unofficial holiday to celebrate hemp, cannabis, and marijuana. Whether you smoke it recreationally or not (and I don't much at all anymore) the movement to legitimize this plant for the medical, health, and industrial uses is rapidly gaining momentum.
To commemorate 4:20 and celebrate the Amazon/Kindle release of South of Normal, I am reprinting a chapter titled "Don't Fall Asleep Under The Manchineel Tree" in it's entirety. I hope all you green lovers and 4:20 enthusiasts enjoy it!
PS The print version will be out within a couple of weeks, and you can order it here.
A chapter from South of Normal.
On the south end of Playa Tamarindo, where the sands narrowed into cliffs of black rock, impassable except by crossing the sharp crags at low tide, stood a lone tree. Nothing else grew out there, where the ocean blew relentlessly without the bay as a buffer: neither savannah oaks nor coconut trees. The Manchineel tree was the only one that could survive, its deep roots acting like a windbreak, keeping the sand from eroding off the beach.
That tree was the perfect shelter on a scorching day: an umbrella of waxy green leaves and spiked flowers with small gray apples. I walked down there when I wanted to be alone, and think.
“Whaa gwaan mi breddah!” the Rasta called out to me on the way, emerging barefoot and shirtless from the jungle. He greeted me warmly and made sure I didn’t get tangled in his fishing lines, strung taut into the sea from bamboo sticks stuck in the sand.
He asked me where I was headed and I pointed to the Manchineel tree at the end of the beach.
“Ahh, mind yah don’t fall asleep under dat Manchineel tree,” he said. “Why’s that?” I asked.
He told me that the Manchineel was perfectly safe to sit under it when
it was sunny, but when it rained the water filtered through the leaves and the apples and became poisonous. They called it manzanilla de la muerte, or the “little apple of death,” in Spanish, and it was so poisonous that the Carib Indians used to dip their arrows in its sap. More than one drunk fell asleep under the Manchineel tree, the Rasta explained, and woke up with horrible blisters on his face like acid burns. If you got too much of it, or inhaled the smoke when it burned, you could go blind or become paralyzed, even die.
I thanked him and wished him luck with the fishing.
“Jah provide,” he said.
I walked on toward the tree, my footsteps disappearing in the sand with each wave that rolled in.
I’d read somewhere that there are 422,000 species of plants in the world, 1.7 million scientific names to label them all. Each of them have unique characteristics, benefits to the ecosystem they exist within, and natural defenses. Every one of them has a role in nature, a reason for existing that isn’t just a divine accident.
422,000 types of plants in the whole wide world, so much natural beauty in Costa Rica that it was like strolling in Edenic prehistory, and yet there were so many problems around this one little plant that some botanist named “marijuana.” How arbitrary it seemed that the Manchineel tree wouldn’t be just as shunned. After all, it could make you blind, or even kill you.
It sure seemed like a lot of people were smoking marijuana, no matter where I went in the world. It appeared to make people happier, to pacify their spirits a little bit. Maybe I was missing something, but I didn’t see the evil with people getting high. We all were trying to get high in some way, weren’t we? Through meditation, yoga, exercise, religion, chasing success, money, or pulling love toward us. And if that didn’t work, we went to our doctor and got permission to take a little pill, designed to do the exact same thing, albeit with the small disclaimer that they “may cause anxiety, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat, blood spouting out of your ears, yellow fish eyes, six types of rectal cancer, and death in some cases.” Wasn’t it all the same endorphins? What was the alternative, trying to get LOW?
Just like the Manchineel, when you used everything in nature for its intended purpose, with balance and prudence, the ecosystem worked just fine. So why could you get thrown in jail for just touching that one species of plant, when you were perfectly welcome to fall asleep under the Manchineel tree? Or, if we’re making everything that could be bad for us illegal, why are so many things left off the list?
I didn’t have a dog in that fight either way; even though someone offered marijuana to me daily in Tama, I rarely smoked, and if I never touched that one particular plant again for the rest of my life it wouldn’t really bother me. When I was younger I’d tried just about every substance under the sun (though I never put a needle in my arm), but once I reached my 30s do you want to know what my recreational drug of choice was? A few beers. I know, not very sexy, but a couple of beers and a 10:00 p.m. bedtime suited me just fine, maybe a puff every blue moon.
But Pistol was suffering in Babylon because he’d emulated nature and grew some plants for his own use. Sure, he got stupid. Okay, very stupid, and then he got caught, but he should have been scrubbing toilets and cleaning litter off the beach, not fighting for his life stuck in a Costa Rican prison with no hope of getting out for a long time. It felt so out of control, but there was no one I could go to and just say, “This is way out of hand and someone is going to get hurt. Please stop it.” Anything could happen to him in there.
And me? That desperate rush of entropy was all too familiar—I’d been thrust into a similar situation seventeen years earlier in Colorado.
I was hanging out with my roommate and our female neighbors after the bars on a Wednesday night, smoking a bowl. They were throwing a football around, being goofy, and it broke a window by accident. Someone called the cops and they came in without a warrant. There was a little weed on the table, but I didn’t think it would be a big deal. “Whatever you find is mine, but let the girls go,” I said, thinking I’d take one for the team. Little did I know but my roommate had a pound of mushrooms hidden in a golf bag and eighteen marijuana plants growing in his closet upstairs. The police ripped our apart- ment to shreds and then woke up the judge and got a proper warrant. We were stuffed and cuffed, brought down to the station separately, and coerced into writing statements without an attorney present. From there, they brought me to the county jail, where I woke up sleepless on a metal bench in a cold concrete room. The fluorescent lights were on 24 hours a day, reaching into my eyes like hot fish hooks. I was allowed to make phone calls but I couldn’t remember anyone’s phone number. I was processed, strip-searched, and given an orange jumpsuit to wear. They guard took my shoelaces, a standard precaution, he explained, so that no one would try to hang themselves.
#96CR275. That was my new identity. I was thrown into general popula- tion and assigned the top bunk in Pod #2A, just like Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment number on the show, I remember thinking. There was one small window facing east, a metal toilet with no seat, and a Bible. I was given a bologna sandwich, a mushy apple, and a carton of expired milk on a plastic tray. I got started on the Bible.
Reilly bailed me out on a Friday afternoon, only minutes before the cutoff time when I’d be stuck in there all weekend. I got home thinking it was just a bad dream, but when I listened to the answering machine it was my boss at the town community center firing me from my job.
I didn’t tell my mother I’d been arrested. To be honest, I was more afraid of her than going to jail. I had no money and now no job, but everyone told me that using the public defender was suicide, so I scrounged together my last remaining credit cards and made a down payment for a solid criminal defense attorney who took pity and let me pay in installments.
The next six months were a hellish waiting game to learn the fate of my life. It wasn’t looking good—they were trying to pin me with trafficking for the mushrooms and the marijuana that was growing, even though I’d had nothing to do with it. The prosecutor was pushing hard for four years in Federal prison with no chance of parole, and a felony on my record.
Still, I was one of the lucky ones, a white boy with a credit card, but there were plenty of others who went through processing with me who got denied bail, received stiffer sentences because the judge didn’t like how they looked, and had to walk the plank with the public defender. They were guilty just for showing up, for being born. At least I got to stress on the outside. But I found out quickly that when you’re in the system everyone has their hands in your pocket.
The only one who would give me a job was a drug dealer, a huge Mexican ex-felon named Jorge who ran a house painting company as a front for his other activities. He walked with a limp, courtesy of a baseball bat to the knee, and wore his sunglasses indoors. I woke up at dawn and worked all day outside in the winter, my fingers frozen from washing out buckets and clean- ing brushes. Jorge bounced checks all over town, including to his employees, so the only other worker who stuck with him was a guy named Eric, a high school dropout who sported a bowl haircut and wore tight white pants. Eric talked incessantly about the time he was abducted by aliens out of his front yard. He didn’t mind as much that Jorge wrote us bad paychecks because he wouldn’t need money anyway once the aliens came back to take him to their home planet, but I sure needed Earth currency. On a big Saturday night I’d get a 99-cent bottomless cup of coffee and read at the local café. At least it was warm in there, and sometimes people left half-eaten pastries on their plates when they left. Don’t get me wrong, I was incredibly thankful just to have a job because no one would hire someone with my criminal record, but still, my seven dollars an hour didn’t cover court fees, attorneys, and rent and living expenses.
Sometimes I was hungry, but I refused to go on welfare or food stamps. There were more than a few nights that I had pride for dinner. One day I looked in the phone book and got a ride to the Blood Center, where they let me donate plasma twice a week. They’d stick a three-inch-long, alarmingly thick needle into my arm and draw out my blood for 45 minutes, spinning it through a centrifuge and injecting my own blood back into my veins, devoid of the valuable white blood cells and platelets. For that I got $15 the first time I donated in a week, and $12 the second time because my blood was so depleted.
That was my grocery money, $27 a week. I waited for my orange juice and a cookie after I was done and then I shuffled straight to the grocery store. Everyone looked so happy, so clean, but I didn’t feel so good, sick to my stomach and about to fall over. I put things in my cart and added them up twice in my head and then brought them to the register. I waited with the other respectable people, but when everything was scanned and bagged my card bounced. “Maybe it’s just your card, try again,” the checkout girl said. “Do you have another one?” I didn’t. I had to put the things back into the cart, one by one, and then leave them.
The shame made my cheeks red, the only color in my face. I wanted to cry. The gal working felt bad for me, and she wanted to cry. Some of you are shaking your heads because you’ve been there, too. You’ll never forget that feeling, huh? “Just leave it, sweetie,” she said. “I’ll put it aside and have it ready for you when you come back,” but we both knew I wasn’t coming back. It was cold outside. I walked back home, past the college kids eating pizza and spilling beer on their front porches, making noises that I remembered as laughter.
When I got home I dialed the Blood Center. “The soonest you can come back in is Tuesday,” they said.
That winter I shaved my head. I lived in my attic bedroom with the door shut. I did more pushups and pull-ups than I’d been able to do before, extra sets out of fear. I shouldered weights that I couldn’t lift. I read 800-page books by Dumas and Dostoyevsky and actually understood them—“It is not possible to eat me without insisting that I sing praises of my devourer?”
My one pair of jeans sagged from my bony ass like a potato sack so I poked a new hole in my belt, then another. I waited months for a court date just to show up and they’d set another court date. The prosecutor was unrelenting.
I’ve never wanted so much in my life to get the fuck out, to just run and keep running. But if I bolted then there was no going back. My eyes bounced off the attic walls and then looked down at my shoelaces. I started consider- ing options that weren’t on the table before.
Four years in Federal prison—what would they do to me? I couldn’t sleep. Every night the wolves howled louder. I dreamt about their snarling pack chase and woke up with the taste of blood in my mouth.
My sentencing hearing was on the fifth of July. My attorney did a bang up job and got them to accept a plea bargain for of a couple misdemeanors and suspend the felony, a four-year sentence hanging over my head if I got into any trouble at all. That meant I could only get sentenced to up to six months in state prison—a huge victory. Still, no one in my family knew.
The judge was bored and ready to give me the full sentence, and asked if I had anything to say as a formality. I spoke from my heart. He lifted his head for the first time that day, actually looking at me like a person, and sentenced me to the mandatory minimum, fifteen days in county.
They said I could turn myself in the following Monday but I told them I’d rather get it over with, so I was handcuffed and put in the back of a sheriff ’s car in my borrowed suit. “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding was playing on the radio, and right there I decided to move to San Francisco once the whole thing was over with.
We got to the Larimer County Detention Center and I went through processing again and got thrown in.
“Do you know where you are?” the guard asked. I assured him that I did.
A menacing prisoner with a square head and knuckles like hams approached me.
He looked at me. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to a metal table where other menacing prisoners were sitting. I did, and he dealt us all cards. “My name is Metro,” he said. “Two’s and dirty Jacks are wild.”
“What’s up, Metro? I’m Norm,” and we were all friends by lunchtime. Most of the guys weren’t bad at all, just rough around the edges, in for fighting, small time possessions, or parole violations. There were a few guys who were in for check fraud or smacking their wives around, but we avoided them.
It was a vacation for me on the inside. We had cable TV and I got to play ping pong and cards.
Our first night we all watched a new movie on HBO, Mr. Holland’s Opus. By the midway point the guys were all bored and wanted to change the channel, but I was so touched by the movie’s emotion that I had a tear in my eye. Yeah, probably not the best time for that.
I did pull-ups on the shower bar and hung out with my homies, Metro, Gus Lee, a tall, athletic hippie from North Carolina who got pinched with mushrooms in his VW van on his way through town, and a Mexican teenager with a broken arm. I never asked him how his arm got broken. Gus kicked my ass at ping pong, but I could beat the kid playing with the cast most of the time.
We were given three meals a day, the same bologna sandwiches and spoiled milk, but I didn’t care. On the weekends we could have visitors, and Reilly came to see me. I desperately needed him to bring me some toiletries because when I came straight from sentencing I didn’t have a chance to bring any possessions. He brought me a toothbrush and deodorant and more clothes. He also presented me with soap on a rope. I’m not making this up—that horse fucker thought it was funny. But he also brought me lasagna, so I forgave him and we laughed about it.
I reached the Manchineel tree at the edge of the beach and sat in the sand beneath it, enjoying canopy from the midday sun. Imagine someone being against a tree, I thought. I knew if it rained I shouldn’t be there, but of course I didn’t have any bad feelings toward it for that. That’s the same reason I’m not pro-marijuana. How can I be for a plant? That’s almost as ridiculous as being against a plant. But do you want to hear what’s even funnier than soap on a rope? As I sat under the tree in Tamarindo and contemplated these twists of fate, almost two decades after my own incarceration, marijuana had just been legalized in Colorado. I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. It begged the question, was I immoral back then, or was the law immoral? Or does morality have nothing to do with the laws of man?
On the day of my release, I was twisted, jumpy. I threw all of my things in the trash and wished Metro and Gus and the Mexican kid with the cast good luck.
“Do you have someone picking you up?” the guard asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said, but when I walked out of the metal door and it buzzed and clicked behind me, there was Reilly’s blue Escort, parked with his motor running. I looked over my shoulder and then walked across the parking lot, squinting against the sun. Everything felt different, though I couldn’t explain why.
There was a guy in the front seat, so I jumped in the back and we drove off. “Norm, this is my new roommate, Joey,” he said. The handsome, smiling Italian guy in the front seat turned around and shook my hand.
“Nice to meet you, man—you can call me Pistol. How was it?”
“It wasn’t too bad. But no place you ever want to go, believe me.” “Yeah, I hear ya,” he said.
“So, where do you want to go?” Reilly asked as he turned onto North College Street, into the real world again. “Are you hungry? Where are you staying?”
“I...I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t thought about it at all. I don’t really have any money.”
“Ahhh, don’t sweat it,” Pistol said. “You can stay with us. Right, Reilly? Now, let’s go get a burger in Old Town. It’s on me.”
He reached into the back seat and handed me a lit joint. “And here— smoke one for freedom.”
And I did.