When we asked Sonia Pilcer about cannabis and writing, she had only to direct us toward the novels she has published. Four of them had scenes of marijuana smoking. “I use weed in my fiction as a social lubricant, for seduction, truth-telling, and general mayhem,” Pilcer says. “I think we’re more accustomed to seeing drink as the inebriant — in writers like Eugene O’Neill, John Cassavetes, and John Cheever, to name a few.” Two of Sonia’s favorite pot-centric scenes, from her books Maiden Rites and The Last Hotel, follow here to provide a glimpse into the cannabis culture of yesteryear.
Columbia University, 1967
“You want to see my dorm?” Wayne asked when we met on Broadway and 116th Street. He carried a red laundry bag.
“Couldn’t we take a walk or something, so – uh, you could show me around the campus?”
“I’ve got to drop this laundry off.”
The guard didn’t look up as we passed to the elevator. “Don’t they check?” I asked.
“Be careful,” he said, taking my hand as we entered a small room. “Everyone falls over the wires.”
I looked down. A dozen wires crossed near the desk with several extension cords like ganglia between them.
“There’s only one outlet. Which means you can’t shave with the lights on, or listen to music at the same time, or you blow a fuse.” He dropped the laundry bag on his bed. “How are you on socks?”
As he folded T-shirts and socks, I tried to match socks. Our fingers met for a moment.
He pulled me to him. “Do you smoke?”
“Oh, um. Not really.”
“This is good stuff. I got it from someone in the chemistry department.”
Wayne fetched a Nescafe can from the top shelf of his bookcase. Lifting the lid, he removed a Baggie of brown marijuana, a tweezer, and Bambu rolling paper. The seeds rattled at the bottom of the can. “Would you hand me that album cover?”
“You can turn on the stereo if you want. Just hit the power switch?”
He crumbled the weed between his fingers over the album’s surface. Then, tilting it slightly, he swept the grass with a matchbook cover so that the seeds rolled to the bottom. He began rolling a joint with two fingers, his tongue licking the paper to seal it.
“I’m not sure I’m actually that much into it,” I began.
“That’s cool.” He lit up, inhaled through his nose and mouth, then passed it to me.
I puffed lightly, then exhaled the smoke.
“You can’t get high that way,” he said. “You’ve got to keep the smoke in your lungs. Like this.” He demonstrated by taking another hefty draft, pointing with his finger to show how it filled his lungs, where he held it for several seconds as he passed the joint to me.
“Okay,” I said taking another puff.
“First, force the air out of your lungs.”
I exhaled hard so my lungs collapsed. Then slowly I inhaled the smoke. “But don’t you think it’s dangerous?”
“You know, a crutch – and a person can become dependent even if it’s not physiologically addictive. What about psychological addiction?” I choked. “Nothing’s happened so far,” I said, squinting at a paper lantern, that it might suggest some cosmic truth to me about the universe.
“You probably haven’t had enough yet,” he said. “I’ll roll another one.” He grabbed the Bambu package.
“Empty! Dammit! You don’t have any cigarettes?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Do you have a Tampon with you?”
“That’s a weird question.”
“The paper it’s wrapped in is perfect for rolling.”
I shrugged. “Look, forget about it.”
“Wouldn’t you like to really get high?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Hannah!” he cried out, pulling an empty beer can out of the garbage. “You’re about to witness Old Boh turn into a bong.”
Making a fist, he punched a depression in the top of the can. Then with a pocket knife, he began to bore several holes. “Now watch this,” he said, dropping large clumps of marijuana over the holes. He lit them and passed the can to me. “Breathe through the pop-top!”
The smoke rushed into my throat. I coughed.
“Try to keep it in.”
I gagged slightly, eyeballs popping. “I’ve smoked before,” I said, taking another deep puff. “I could smoke the whole bag and nothing would happen. My grasp on reality is too strong. There’s an impermeable membrane around it.”
“Are you feeling anything yet?”
“I mean, in my case, reality has an impermeable membrane around it.”
“That would be a great name for a rock band. The Impermeable Membrane or Membranes of Reality?”
The smoke rushed down my throat, filling my lungs, rising into the aorta of my heart, tweaking me between the legs before it rushed out of my mouth.
“I think I’m getting something.”
“I told you it was nice stuff.”
I nodded. “I see what you mean. Everything has a slight fuzzy edge around it and seems a little bit brighter.” I peered around his room. “Yes, I think I’ve gotten a little stoned, which means that the membrane may be permeable and can be broken—and penetrated.” My voice trailed off as I sank, head first, into the doughy implications of that statement. “God,” I said as Wayne kissed my neck.
His lips swept over my neck, down my collarbone to the upper strata of my breasts.
“Wayne, I told you I have a boyfriend.”
“I won’t tell him.”
“You don’t understand. We have an honest relationship.”
“Shhh.” He slipped his hand under my shirt, traveling across my back to my bra, which he snapped open with one hand.
Was it the grass or a demonic side of me: pure, raging, libidinous id? But maybe this was reality, and I should try to experience in a spontaneous way. No more impermeable membrane…
– Excerpt from MAIDEN RITES (Viking, 1982)
West 72nd Street, 1979
It was dark inside the Nickel Bar. Leah ordered a Tab, dropped her shades on her nose to check out the scene. Hard-drinking patrons sat at the bar, covered in a cloud of smoke. She walked past them to a stool at the far end.
Leah felt his presence before she knew it. Startled, she opened her eyes. A fine-looking black Ras with long dreadlocks, a single glittering gold tooth set in the center of his white pearlies, sat down next to her at the bar.
“Kofi!” she cried out.
“What’s with the shade shit?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“I always wear my shades,” he said.
“What’s happening with you?”
“Did you hear about Cathy Jones?”
“She got busted.”
“You’re kidding.” Leah dropped her voice. “How?”
“A narc,” he said. “Some long-haired prick who fucked her.”
“No shit.” She shook her head.
“She sold him two joints,” he said. “Can you believe it? How fucked-up is that?”
“Speaking of fucked up,” she whispered in his ear.
Leah put two dollars on the bar, then made her way to the back. Closing the bathroom door behind her, she checked out her reflection. Her hair needed washing.
A light knock on the door. “Kofi?” She opened the door for him.
“Hey, babe!” he said, leaning against the sink.
“You have a nickel?”
When Kofi smiled, his gold tooth glowed like sunrise on a New York skyline. “Prices are up, babe,” he said. “My nickels are dimes.”
Kofi went into his Guatemalan knapsack and took out a plastic baggie. She inhaled its bouquet.
“Would you accept twenty?”
“No can do.”
Leah dug into her Indian bag for her wallet. “Here.” She handed him a twenty and five singles.
He pocketed the cash, then gave her an approving appraisal. “You’re attractive for a dyke.”
“You’re not bad for a male.” She stuck the baggie into the inside pocket of her trench. “I like your dreads.” She smiled. “How often you wash ‘em?”
He took out a rolled joint, lit it, drew on it, passed her the joint. Leah inhaled deeply. “Mmmm,” she sighed.
“Every two months,” he said, twirling a braid around his finger. “But I clean them every day with a toothbrush.”
He took another hit, gave her the joint again. She breathed in the smoke, beginning to cough suddenly.
“Easy does it,” Kofi said.
She took a sip of her Tab. “I’m okay.”
Opening the door, fumes escaped into the area. An older black patron in a Yankee cap looked like he’d been waiting for the toilet awhile. He was pissed. “What the hell you been doing in there?”
Kofi shrugged. Leah just looked down, her best defense.
After the door slammed shut behind them, they cracked up and slapped each other five. “As if he didn’t know,” Leah said.
Alone in her room, Leah emptied her plastic baggie on a record jacket. Jimi’s Afro aflame like a black sun god. She started up her turntable. The small pile of weed cast its fragrance.
Lately things just don’t seem the same…
At home, Leah preferred her glass hookah, which she filled with ginseng tea. She sprinkled several flakes and lit up, drawing deeply on the long tube until the liquid in the bowl began to boil. The smoke floated up, filling her lungs. Like Alice’s Caterpillar, she sat on her lily pad, sucking on the hose of her hookah, blowing smoke rings in the air. The scent from the sacred plant filled the room.
Oh, how she loved it. Gentle and green. When Kofi asked whether she got off, she hadn’t, actually. She rarely did — with another person. She was just being polite. Smoking was a solitary activity for her. It wasn’t about parties or sex, though that was fun, of course. Mainly, she did it for herself, to herself, by herself. It was a lifeline. Having grown up with the psychos, her parents, she should have an IV pumped directly into her veins.
A mild buzz kept the doctor away, she mused. Most of the time. Dope allowed her to live. To imagine. To have time off from her demons. There had been times she let someone in her lair. Oh, Angela. You bitch, you cunt…
A cockroach scurried across the floor, followed by another one. “Gross!” Leah stood up and stomped on both of them. Good thing she was wearing her boots.
She sat down and lit the hookah again. Its magic smoke surrounded her. She thought of Angela’s white, milky thighs. She could live there forever.
I’m acting funny and don’t know why
Excuse me, Miss, while I kiss the sky.
– Excerpt from THE LAST HOTEL (Heliotrope Books, 2015)
Sonia Pilcer is an author, playwright, and poet. Her books include Teen Angel, Maiden Rites, Little Darlings, I-Land: Manhattan Monologues, The Holocaust Kid, and The Last Hotel. She is responsible for coining the term “2G” to refer to Second Generation Holocaust survivors. Other stories and essays by Pilcer have appeared in the anthologies Sudden Flash Youth, New York Sex, Nothing Makes You Free, and Visions of America. Her journalism has appeared in such outlets as the Los Angeles Times, The Forward, and The Village Voice. Pilcer served as director of the Chataqua Writing Program, and currently teaches writing workshops in New York City and the Berkshires. Learn more about her work at soniapilcer.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.