Monday, July 11, 2005

The Weed Museum

Before I started my t-shirt business as a junior in college, I witnessed first hand the operation of the most time honored category of college dorm small business, the weed dealership.

You see, I had an enterprising friend on my floor, let’s call him Bert. Along with just about everyone else in the fall of ’76 in the giant “Southwest” high-rise dorm complex at UMass, Bert was a weed connoisseur. None of us on the second floor of JFK, a 22 story behemoth, had a lot of extra money. Thus it was that Bert started by buying quarter pounds of herb, simply that he might get a free ounce out of the deal. Having the heart (or lack there of) of an accountant, Bert quickly turned his pot dealing into a thriving business, where he was able to bank $900.00 bucks a semester—above what he used for spending money! He was organized, efficient, fair, and consequently had very good word of mouth, especially among a group of well heeled chemical engineering majors on the ninth floor.

I should stop here to fill out the picture a bit. Marijuana was a different commodity back in the day, in the wilds of western Massachusetts. We never even saw green bud until the spring of ’76. The standard format of the day was the bag of brown “Columbian” pot for forty bucks an ounce. It was always a festive occasion when a fresh pound arrived. Out came the scales, and we all pitched in, bagging up ounces while sampling the wares, playing everything from the Who, Roxy Music, and the Dead, to the guitar strains of Pop Diety Peter Frampton (Punk was still just around the corner). It paid to have friends in high places!

On rare occasions, you would get stonier, stinkier “gold”, or “red” pot, which was highly prized. When we first saw green bud, labeled “sinsimilla”, in the spring of ’76, it came in at $45.00 an ounce, and we all laughed. “I’m not gonna pay forty five bucks for homegrown!” Then we tried it. We paid.

As the year wore on and Bert moved an amazing quantity of high quality weed, he felt compelled to start his Weed Museum. This was comprised of a plastic fishing tackle box, and some pill vials he had stolen from a summer job he had in a local pharmacy. A sample of each type of bud was duly saved and labeled in the Weed Museum. Bert held onto this amazing relic of deals past for a few years, then finally smoked it all up. When I asked him why, he simply said, “It was getting stale—had to.” Couldn’t argue with that.

My best memory of the museum was smoking this unbelievable doob from it, culled from gold, red, brown and green buds. A pinch of everything. Worked fine! An active buzz, so to speak. Sad to say, I wasn't on hand later when my pal decided to burn his was through this ultimate stash.

Although Bert was a fine business man, he ultimately made an error that cast him out of the trade. Well, he was perhaps ready to resign anyhow, cut his risk factor as it were. But in the spring of ’76, Bert’s supplier gained access to a large quantity of low rent Mexican pot, packed in bricks, that could be had for a song. Our enterprising pal picked up several pounds, which he sold to a kid from his hometown. As Bert and I were from the same burg, it was my hometown too. I remember sitting around the dinner table with my mom and day, who announced, “There’s been a real problem at the High School lately. Big influx of marijuana!”. No kidding???

While it was indeed a move of dubious moral integrity to move several pounds of dope into a high school environment (even in the hedonistic Seventies), my dealer friend's critical error grew out of a grand plot conceived in a fit of hubris.

Bert’s high school connection was moving so much of this cheap, ratty Mexican reefer, that Bert felt confident. Time to expand! He put in an order for thirty five pounds of this sore throat inducing stuff, when his home town connection went silent. I think he got popped, or got cold feet, frankly it’s so long ago I just don’t remember what became of him. And then, Bert made his big mistake. He didn’t pay his supplier. Needless to say, these people were not impressed. I can't remember how much Bert owed at this point. Suffice to say, it was a lot.

Next semester, Bert took some time off from his studies to work, to decide what to major in, and of course to hide from his supplier. I was still on campus, and his suppliers couldn’t find the guy. They called me a few times, trying to sound tough. But the fact was, they too were just kids, undergraduates like us, just a year or two older. The suppliers knew that I was Bert’s friend, but in fact had no actual connection to his business dealings. So, they eventually faded away, gave up, what ever.

In retrospect, I think Bert made a big mistake. He burned his supplier. Never a good thing, but particularly risky in an illegal business! Truth be told, it is the type of thing a nineteen year old does, because they are green, arrogant and just plain dumb. It could be the type of incident that would make one a more responsible person later on. Or not. I'm too embarrassed to run down all really stupid stuff I did at that age, which is why I'm picking on "Bert"!

Finally, a word on marijuana. I love smoking pot. Yes, it is illegal. I can’t think of anything sillier or more counterproductive than making pot illegal. It reminds me of the William S. Burroughs bit, “Control is controlled by the need to control”. Indeed. I know reefer can be bad for you. It can give you a sore throat and make you an unproductive, paranoid dud if you smoke too much of it.

But used in moderation, it can open your intellect up to the non-linear gestalt of your own mental processes. The first twenty minutes of the buzz are good for inspiration, but be damn sure you write it down! Quick!

Marijuana can make you giggle and laugh. This is good for you! It can make you appreciate the absurdity of hierarchy, and see the surreal in everything from a donut to toothpaste. It can make your genitals hum and want to do something fun.

It can also make you not care about getting back to work by exactly one o’clock on the dot, it’s anti-hierarchical effects have a lot to do with why COP BRAIN doesn’t like it. It does not destroy your self esteem like alcohol does, thus it is not a good tool for the authorities to endorse. Yup, alcohol is perfect for keeping the workers in line, makes them skulky and contrite, and eager to please.

If you get the idea that I am an advocate of social (as well as medicinal) use of Marijuana, BINGO! Go to the head of the class! Let’s make it legal, tax it, regulate it, stop wasting money incarcerating people over it. It may be the ultimate tool for putting our public financing back on it’s feet, by the grace of the good will of this amazing plant for the people of the planet. Make no mistake, marijuana is indeed a friend and ally of the human race, and it is about time we acknowledge it as such.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Low Rent Start Up

The Green Duck needed a new transmission—BAD! Like last week. It groaned with an industrial, metal-on-metal fervor. Let me stop here and proffer a key bit of advice: When you are a near penniless college student, and you need a car, you will, by definition, be buying at the low end of the market. Under no circumstances are you to buy a used Rambler American, formerly owned by the telephone company. The good news is that chances are real slim there days of running into said vehicle.

Sadly, this was not the case for me. In the summer of ’77, I needed cheap wheels, and through some quixotic lack of logic, I romanticized the used, industrial green Rambler with the three-on-the-tree transmission as quite a cool set of wheels. Boy, was I wrong.

So there I was six months later, my beloved Rambler in pathetic condition, barely running. It was December 1977, at the beginning of the six week semester break inflicted on UMass students by dint of some institutional lack of vision. What is a college student supposed to do at Mom and Dad’s house for six weeks in the middle of the snowy, frozen-ass winter? With a ramshackle Rambler needing a couple hundred bucks worth of transmission work, and little prospect of employment, even if the alleged car actually worked?

I hit on a plan to fix the Green Duck. I had no idea what would happen once my car was fixed, but I figured I’d think of something. Well, at least I could round up my pals, get a few six packs, and drive around drinking on slippery, icy, winding, narrow New England roads, one solution to the hopelessness of trying to score a six week job in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a recession.

Rooting around in the attic, I ferreted out my collection of hundreds, if not thousands, of Marvel comics I’d collected between the ages of ten and fifteen. This was the good stuff, the real deal. The Jack Kirby run of Fantastic Four, Thors, and more. The John Romita (senior) Spiderman’s. The Gene Colan Daredevil’s, and of course, The complete 24 issue run of Conan the Barbarian drawn by Barry Smith. Although these had been sacred objects to me for years, by the age of twenty I’d had a radical shift in priorities. The fascinations of my adolescence had faded, so I determined to pawn my Marvel collection and fix my damn car. The prospect of wrestling with one of my bevy of home town girl friends in the back seat of the Green Duck easily trumped the glory of re-reading even Jack (the King) Kirby.

Between Christmas and New Years, on a “warm” and sunny day of forty degrees or so, I set out on the perilous journey to a comic shop some thirty miles form my parents house in Sudbury (twenty miles west of Boston) that expressed an interest in buying the books. Heaving with what seemed like it’s death throes, I grimly piloted my ramshackle Rambler to the shop in Brockton, just south of Boston, where some pale, scrawny pathetic geek with a limp hank of greasy black hair ripped me off blind, giving me $212.00 in ramsom for these mags that had been the cornerstone of my adolescence. Retail on these books at the time would have been well in excess of $1500.00, but my business & negotiating acumen was far off in my future in 1977.

Still, I knew it was a raw deal, but I needed the bucks. Shrugging off the sellers’ remorse, I stopped in to see my pal Steve Beaupre at Strawberry Records, where he worked, on the way home in Framingham. I picked up Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, and the infamous double live LP know as “Skullfuck”, by the Grateful Dead, and my mood markedly improved.

By the time I was driving off with these new tunes to play on mom and dad’s giant console stereo, I’d solved the problem of what to do about work over the too-long winter break. I was going to print t-shirts of my cartoon characters and sell them! I had a popular daily strip in the UMass college paper entitled “Aluminum Foil”, featuring Gerald, a foil head, and Benb, a sort of smiling, zen-scarecrow, fat idiot. How was I going to sell t-shirts to UMass students over winter break? Good question. Big Picture thinking was not my forte either, at the tender age of twenty.

In any case, I stopped in at the local art supply store and bought some water based speedball t-shirt ink, a cheesy speedball “hobbyist” screen printing kit that included a small screen, a squeegee, an exacto knife, and a roll of “nu-film”, which was hand cut laquer based screen printing film. Total outlay, about thirty three bucks. I was in business!

That evening, I stumbled through the basics, and printed my first t-shirt in my parents basement, a nice drawing of Gerald the foilhead, in a Crumb inspired “truckin” pose. I actually did find one small shirt job over the break, doing a couple dozen shirts for a friends’ band. As for the Green Duck and the new transmission, I spent my way through my small stake in no time, and my mom and dad bailed me out, paying for the new tranny. Spoiled college kid!

When I got back to school at the end of January, I did indeed manage to move a few shirts each week adorned with my characters, but I quickly (and unexpectedly) found myself in demand as a wholesale screen printer. The student credit union, several dorms, student clubs and the like descended on me, asking that I print their shirts. I began to bootleg shirts for everything from concerts to track meets, making more money faster than I ever had. For years, I would see people wearing my “Amherst Smoke In” T-Shirts.

It was great to make enough money to have a car, take out girls, go to concerts and all that good stuff, but first and foremost, the appeal to me has always been the exhilarating freedom of having no boss.

The odd thing about my experience is that I truly followed the path of least resistance in order to make a living. It worked; the way was clear. This has served me as an artist also. Although I am a cartoonist, I never truly desired to follow in any of the well worn cartoon career paths. A mainstream daily strip, whether funny or adventure, was too commercial a beast for my sensibilities. Ditto political cartooning. I was not drawn to animation. And although I enjoyed superhero stuff as a kid, I had, and have, no interest in doing kid stuff, or genre stuff. The original underground cartoonists provided a clue: Use cartooning as a formal art form, a vehicle to express your own vision.

Having a solid commercial self employment base in screen printing literally set me free to be the artist I have wanted to be. I am without interference from the demands of the commercial marketplace, or even the ebbs and flows of fashion, and trend, in the small world of “art” comics. It has been my good fortune, and indeed my plan, to grant myself the freedom to commune with my own peculiar muse, manifesting the odd and wonderful as I see fit.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Education of an Space Cadet Entrepreneur

As an adolescent, I bonded with a Japanese Maple tree outside the window of my sixth grade classroom. Some of the curriculum was a bit on the dry side. So, I semi crossed my eyes and tranced out on said gorgeous little tree, and went pretty much into my own world. I swung through the concrete canyons of Manhattan with Spiderman from web to web, I sacked Spanish galleons on the high seas with Sir Francis Drake, and I kissed a variety of sixth grade hotties in the seas of shrubbery astride Glenbrook Middle School, all in my mind's eye while contemplating my leafy friend.

"Steven, you are stupid", announced twelve year old Diane Kwartler. "You're always staring out the window when you should be listening to the lesson". Harsh! Diane was speaking from a point of view drilled into her by her mom, probably a stay at home mom who was whip smart, frustrated by her lack of engagement in the world at large, hamstrung by a pre-women's liberation culture, Wellesley educated then married off to rot in the suburbs.

Diane's cold assessment of my mental faculties was only a bit tempered by her sultry, heavy lidded eyes, full lips and tiny skirt. Yup, she was a full on sixth grade babe, but so clearly out of my league... or was she??? Why would she tell me I was stupid if she didn't really, really like me?

Mrs. Tasgal, my sixth grade teacher, clearly did not agree with Diane in any case. She gave me five "A"s and one "B", and was impressed by my creative approach to an essay assignment entitled "I am the rug in School". I was deeply chagrined that I was one of the only kids who failed to write a clever story about the daily insult of being walked all over, and generally muddied up. I wrote a sordid tale of Mr. Texiera (the vice principal and all around hatchet man) being a communist spy; as the rug, I was privy to all his communication with the Kremlin and duly turned his sorry ass over to the authorities.

I was quite surprised that Mrs. Tasgal announced that my essay was the best in the class! Even Diane Kwartler demurely smiled my way.

By now, you may be asking, what do Steve's grade six stories have to do with being a self employed Bohemian? Pretty obvious lesson here I guess. If you march to the beat of a different drummer, have an active fantasy life while everyone else is diagraming sentences, and generally seek to subvert hierarchy early and often, congratulations! Move to the head of the boho self employed queue. You are thinking for yourself and have your own agenda to serve. So serve it.

By the way, just before I graduated Glenbrook Middle School, Mr. Texiera, the vice principal, also felt compelled to inform me that I was stupid, and would end up in prison to boot! But that's another story, having to do with Mrs. Miller (the young math teacher) having such shapely legs that I was compelled to throw peanut M&M's at her head in the cafeteria. I duly note that, in my life so far, I have spent only one night in jail, having to do with typical drunken collegiate shenanigans. Hopefully, that will be the sum total of my time behind bars.