After the first time I got busted at boarding school, for stumbling around plastered on rum at a school dance, I was put on probation and forced to attend a weekend encounter group with other students who had run afoul of the section of the campus code of conduct pertaining to drugs and alcohol. The group was run by the campus counselor, whose purpose, I suppose, was to try to get us to understand why we were engaging in behavior that had led us to the group.
We did some “drug-free” stress reducing exercises such as lying on the rug of the classroom with the lights out and tensing and untensing various parts of our bodies while imagining ourselves lying by some quiet generic placid lake with strong zoning against jet-skis and whatnot. When that was over we got up and sat in the metal and formica chairdesks of the classroom, which happened to be the same classroom in which I was failing American History, and the counselor tried to get us to talk about our feelings especially vis a vis getting drunk or high. I participated far less than any other student, having none of the polished insights that the other students were able to flawlessly unleash like country-club-taught tennis court backhands. In that way it just seemed an extension of all other public life at that school: the other students there all seemed more sophisticated, mature, and intellectually advanced than me.
The one insight I still recall from that weekend encounter group was from this bleary-eyed red-headed kid who saw part of the allure of smoking bong hits as deriving from its ritualized aspects. Smoking pot at boarding school certainly was ritualized, much more so than in any other pot-smoking context I’ve been in since: You get the lights in the room just right. You put on the right record. You roll up a towel and put it in the crack between the door and the floor. You remove the bong from its hiding place in the closet. You roll up another towel to use as your “hit towel.” You pack a hit in the bowl of the bong. You remove from the top of the bong the odor-trapping device known in the typical homoerotic slang of the school as the “dick” (some “dicks” were fashioned out of big wads of masking tape; others were simply objects that happened to be the perfect size to stop up the head of the bong, such as the upside down—and depantsed—Mr. T doll we used in our bong). You light the bowl. You take the hit. You hold it. (Here’s where things usually start to go wrong. Guys start coughing or guys bust out laughing. The room fills with incriminating smoke amid accusations and, because everyone’s getting stoned, hilarity. This is known as “blowing” the hit.) If you are able to hold the hit without “blowing” it, you exhale into the hit towel, leaving a brown marijuana kiss on the fabric.
I see all this now but at the time of the drug-free weekend I had never once thought of it that way. The red-headed kid used as an illustrative metaphor for his theory the ritual of eating a piece of Bazooka Joe. A big part of the fun of eating a piece of Bazooka Joe, he explained, is the ritualistic unwrapping of the gum and the reading of the comic and the fortune. In that sense I had been exhibiting the behavior that would lead me to the encounter group for years and years, ever since participating chronically in the ritual of opening baseball cards: You buy the cards and before opening the pack you carry the pack home, feeling the bump of gum inside and the stack of brand new cards, that moment of wide open possibilities in some ways the best moment of all. Once you are in the perfect place for unveiling the new pack, you slide your forefinger under the lightly glued flaps, opening them, releasing the gum scent into the room. I always blurred my vision at this point, not wanting to know the identity of the first card visible below the flap. That card was always face down, and I had it in my head that the first card I learn the identity of should be face-up. As I flipped the stack of cards the plastic wrapper fell away and I slipped the stick of hard gum in my mouth and broke it up and chewed, releasing the sugar just as I began to look to see which Cardboard Gods were a new glowing part of my own little solitary world.
But even when the red-headed kid had presented his theory I had partially disagreed with him for what I intuitively felt was missing from the theory. I didn’t actually voice any disagreement, and wasn’t even able to put the disagreement into words in my own mind. I think, at the time, my first thought was: “That’s it? That’s all getting high is? Chewing Bazooka Joe?”
Basically, the pale red-headed kid had offered a perceptive but completely joyless explanation. To me, getting drunk and getting high were huge. I mean they were these experiences that dwarfed the everyday happenings that made me feel small and useless. They were openings into whole other worlds. His theory left out that feeling, and more than that left out the fact that when we got high we laughed so hard tears rolled down our cheeks. If he’d been talking about the ritual of opening packs of baseball cards, he would have described the process as I did above, and he would have stopped there, leaving out a description of the revelations and visitations the ritual led to. He would have left out, for example, the feeling of finding this beamingly happy 1976 Hal McRae card in a brand new pack. This is why I bought cards. This is why I smoked pot and drank alcohol with my friends at boarding school. It made me happy. It threw open the shutters. It let in the sunlight.