I saw two advantages to walking to the other stop. One was the likelihood that someone among this more troublesome huddle would have cigarettes, or worse. The other was the fire these hoodlums would build on top of a manhole cover to keep warm. It was a burning beacon that pulled me those extra blocks through the brutal winter winds - winds that would surely kill the kids who had no bus stop fire.
Ted Barrett lived across the street from me, but he also made the long journey to be with our kind every morning. I knew I could depend on Ted for a smoke. In his own pranksterish, Eddie Haskell way, he was generous in contributing to my delinquency. Ted was taller, and could more easily convince the convenience store clerks to sell him a pack of cigarettes – something still possible for a minor to pull off when the legal smoking age was sixteen. He often gave me hell for never having scored cigarettes of my own, so I had to check for signs that he’d put a load (a small explosive) in the Marlboro he offered me. But this day the bus stop offerings were even more explosive. Wendy Bertrand had a joint.
Seventh Grade might seem a little young to some for weed to be available. I didn’t think so at the time, but my grungy suburb may have been a little advanced in this area. As far back as I can remember I was surrounded by older kids, redneck teenagers, blasting KISS and Nugent, while passing fat doobs in the basement, and I was fascinated by their exploits. As a preschooler I bypassed all interest in Disney cartoons and fixed my attention on the black light posters, rock LPs, and Cheech and Chong slang of my teen neighbors. Long before that spliff at the bus stop, I’d been rolling fake joints out of notebook paper and pencil shavings. You couldn’t smoke them, but the prop caused great concern for my Fifth Grade teacher, which told me I was on the right path.
And it wasn’t just me becoming obsessed with illicit stimulants. The world revolved around smuggled cigarettes for most of my boyhood chums and stronger substances soon followed. Artificial stimulation was of paramount importance in our tiny lives. If we didn’t have anything to smoke, we’d induce hyper ventilation, developing methods of making ourselves pass out. (We were comparatively safer with real drugs available.) This was all clandestine, to be sure, but it didn’t seem strange. Drugs, at this age, held the same priority as comic books or bubblegum cards. Seventh Grade was a weird, coming-of-age netherworld where pot and Micronauts were equally desirable. It may seem unwholesome, but it could also be argued that I enjoyed my Flintstones reruns more than most kids.
That joint at the bus stop wasn’t my first, but it turned out to be the most potent to date. Ted, Wendy, and the rest were a year or two older than me, perhaps more accustomed to getting baked on this level, but I was having a hard time keeping it together. (I know this wasn’t LSD or anything, but give me a break – I was a KID!) What had promised to be an average school day was now fractured through an intensely altered consciousness. I tried to remember if I had a spelling test or anything lined up. Standing upright was proving to be trouble enough without worrying about scholastic achievement.
I was mesmerized by the fierce wind whipping the manhole fire in a horizontal stream. Ted made a clownish gesture of straddling the fire to warm his ass. Suddenly, there was a whoosh, with a cloud of vapor, as the flame blew across his head. He bolted upright, burnt hair cascading all around him. His hair and eyebrows had been singed white. The others were in hysterics, but I was stunned. The whole violent event had happened in slow motion. Here we were, I thought, next to the same neighborhood ditch where Ted and I had been catching minnows in a Coke bottle like Huck and Tom just a few years earlier. And now I was on a powerful high, watching Ted very nearly get killed. Too much.
After six centuries in the howling cold, the bus finally arrived. We hurried into the warmth while Larry Black kicked the firewood into the ditch. Larry, on his second term as an Eighth Grader, was already an acid casualty, smiling quietly most of the time, but prone to unpredictable outbursts. Today, thanks to the weed, he was feeling talkative. He stopped next to the bus driver to address the passengers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! For those of you who saw the helicopters last night…relax! Just relax! It’s all under control!”
Larry giggled all the way to his seat. His weirdness did nothing to soothe my nerves. I turned to Wendy. Even though I had her sized up as a redneck trollop (Wendy had shown me topless photos of herself at one point), she was the closest thing to a sympathetic female at that moment.
“I think I’m in trouble,” I said.
“I’m reeeeeeally stoned.”
Wendy laughed. She thought it cute – little Ashley can’t handle his high. I was hoping for some maternal sympathy, but somehow, her ridicule made me feel a little better. Behind me,Ted tried to brush what was left of his hair.
The bus rounded the corner to hit the next stop. The pale, nerdy children I had avoided in favor of the Bad Kids filed on politely in their mismatched pastels, their homework – including extra credit questions – neatly tucked away in their Trapper Keepers. They were Honor Roll bound, a day of academic heroism ahead of them. But for now they had to nervously navigate a busload of amateur pothead thugs. Same neighborhood, same bus heading to the same public school. Yet somehow these two bus stops were worlds apart.
I rather envied the virgin brains of those bookworms that day. Once we arrived at school, I discovered my footsteps produced an overwhelming rhythm. At every fourth step, a swirling psychedelic sound wave rolled through my head for the next four steps, then repeated after another four. And the only way to make it stop was to stop walking, which made the trip across the parking lot an extended dance mix. This was pretty good pot.
So naturally, when Wendy admitted than she had additional joints in homeroom, I begged her to sell me one. She relented and I slipped her the princely sum of one dollar. I hid the joint in my sock.
And there it lived for the rest of the day, through the tedium of my math and biology classes, awaiting the afternoon when a friend and I could slip off into the woods to enjoy it. I can still feel the charge of having that doob stashed away, the excitement of things to come. And I knew, even then, that the anticipation felt just like my birthday – like knowing that cake and presents would be waiting for me when I got home. Maybe that C3P0 action figure I’d been asking for, or the Batcave playset. I’d sit through the drudgery of another school day smiling with my private secret. This jail can’t hold me, because I’ve got a million dollars in my sock.