Friday, September 26, 2008

Confessions of an Enemy Combatant

Reprint of an essay written by my friend, citizen ergot, and published in The Fine Print back in 2008.  Enjoy...

“If you’re gonna be serious about your drug use, there’s no point in buying small quantities at inflated prices…paying your dealer’s rent. You might as well buy in bulk, at discounted rates…sell it to your friends and neighbors at a mark-up…then you become ‘The Man’…” So counseled Dwight, my shift supervisor at the greasy spoon diner where I worked as a teenager. This and other hard-won wisdom, offered up between omelets and homefries on groggy Sunday mornings, was intended to help me avoid the pitfalls so common to the novice drug user. In addition to advice, Dwight offered hands-on experience—giving me my first samples of LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ecstasy, marijuana, crystal meth, and anything else I cared to try. Dwight—several years older than me, with a cool, beautiful girlfriend and the largest music collection I’d ever seen—saw himself as something of a mind-expansion mentor. He wanted me to be “turned on” in a safe environment, free of “bad shit and bummer friends.” Dwight guided me through those first few experiences, and then was there for me with bumps of speed and a wry smile when I came into work after a long night of “tripping,” short on sleep and still seeing tracers run cross the stove.

So it happened that at sixteen, when most kids I knew were still sneaking booze out of their parents’ liquor cabinets, I was probably the first guy on my block to try LSD. Needless to say, as an angsty, working-class teenager who looked at the society around him and knew that something just didn’t add up, hallucinogens pretty much rocked my metaphysical perspective. In the immortal words of Bill Hicks: “Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.” I took to hallucinogens with an almost missionary zeal, and took Dwight’s advice to heart, going in with him on bulk purchases of LSD and learning how to differentiate poisonous from hallucinogenic mushrooms in order to exploit the vast, prolific cow pastures of central Florida.

At the time, LSD and ecstasy in particular were pretty abundant, and LSD was going for about $7 per “hit.” However, we lucked upon a reliable dealer with quality product and found that we could get “sheets” of acid (100 hits/sheet) for about $125; do the math and you’ll see that Dwight’s logic was impeccable. Up until that time my life options had seemed pretty limited: I could continue slaving away at a minimum wage job and try to work my way slowly through community college, or I could join the military. My foray into drug culture provided a much more attractive possibility, however: quicker, easier money than I’d ever made and a whole new world of friends and experiences, swirled altogether with adventures and visions that Miramax couldn’t touch. For many glorious months, my life was cast against a hallucinogenic terrain, replete with new worlds to be discovered and set to a fantastic soundtrack. Ironic as it may seem, I often credit that early experimentation with psychedelics with diverting me from a much more dangerous path—one of violence and self-destructiveness that ultimately devoured the lives of countless other kids who grew up in a similar situation as myself.

I never really considered myself a serious dealer. I essentially bought enough so that I could “hook up” my expanding circle of friends, meanwhile my girlfriend and closest pals could trip for free whenever we wanted. The extra income was a bonus, but never amounted to too much and was quickly blown on concerts, partying, and travel. Yet these sorts of escapades have a way of taking on a life of their own, and at some point it became clear to me that being The Man also came with a whole other set of consequences that I wasn’t quite prepared to deal with. Red flags began to creep their way into my psychedelic haze. My younger sister, for instance, heard about my little side business from some kids at her high school; and when a friend of mine ran into some trouble with the law, the police essentially asked her to narc on me.

I learned another hard lesson when my original LSD wholesaler disappeared and I had to start shopping around for new suppliers. One guy took me for the inexperienced punk that I was and sold me a pretty sizable load of bunk shit. I quickly learned that one downside to black market dealings is that entrepreneurial acumen will only get one so far; at the end of the day, might still makes right. Initially I tried pursuing “Bunky” (as we called the guy who’d ripped me off) for a refund. But he took full advantage of this rather teachable moment and used a handgun to educate me as to the ways of the underworld. At that point I had an important choice to make: I could cut my losses and walk away, or get my own piece and “play the role model,” as the song goes. I’m probably here today, coolly reflecting on this episode from my life, because I just didn’t have the stomach for the latter. Bunky held onto his booty and I searched for a way to rebound from my poor investment decision.

One friend suggested I diversify my holdings and move into crystal meth futures. By then, I’d tried meth—or poor man’s coke, as we called it—a few times and really enjoyed it, even if I knew better than to get too cozy with it; there were more than enough emaciated, toothless wretches hanging around the trailer park to drive that point home. But quick money was quick money, or so I thought, so I bought a few hundred dollars worth just to see how it went. Mike, another co-worker, turned out to be a budding meth-head, and overnight he became one of my closest pals and best customers. Mike would come by my house several times per day, at all hours, eager to buy another bag. On each visit he would ask to see my entire line of baggied product, and would carefully inspect each one in hopes of getting the best deal. It only took a few visits from Mike, and others like him, to realize that dealing a truly addictive substance like meth was worlds apart from my earlier experiences; and the longer I did it, the more I started to feel like Satan, not to mention a growing concern for my safety. My mentor and drug guru Dwight even fell under meth’s deadly spell eventually and lost pretty much everything, only deepening my disdain for the miserable substance. Finally I flushed the rest of my supply down the toilet, and with it much of my remaining ambition to be The Man.

A year or so later, as a student in a residential, vocational training program which I’d entered mostly to get away from my home town and my dodgy past, I took to dealing one last time. This time it was only weed, which my girlfriend would meticulously hide inside the “care packages” she’d mail me on a weekly basis. Once again, the temptation of quick profit was too hard to resist; especially as each box of Lucky Charms, with its special prize inside, earned me more than a couple weeks’ pay at the facility. But it all came crashing dangerously down when one of my instructors caught on to what I was doing on the eve of my graduation and a full-ride scholarship to college. He confronted me late one night, and despite all that I had to lose at the time, I didn’t have the gall to stare him in the eyes and lie about what I’d been doing. This time my lack of thuggishness was to my benefit, however. Since I came clean about the whole affair he kept it between us and allowed me to graduate rather than turning me in. Only a slightly different turn of events or state of mind on his part and I would probably be a convicted drug felon rather than a college graduate right now.

Reflecting on these experiences years later, it feels worlds away. These days I am career and movement-focused. I work regular day-jobs. I have family responsibilities and a somewhat impressive resume. Like most middle class or aspiring middle class people, I am terrified of what a drug trafficking arrest would mean for my family, and for my future, even as my attraction to mind-altering substances lingers. I still have a somewhat missionary zeal when it comes to hallucinogens, even if only undercover, and believe that pretty much everyone should give them a try at some point in their lives. If nothing else, the world would honestly probably be a better place if people exchanged their television viewing for exploring the visions and thoughts that reside in the untrammeled vistas of their own mind.

And I still believe that the “War on Drugs” is a farce, even as I have a more nuanced political perspective on it now than I did during my days as an enemy combatant on the front lines. Though many people will continue to choose—as I ultimately did—security, responsibility, and material comfort over recreational drug use, that doesn’t mean that the harsh criminalization of drugs is right, or even efficacious. In a society as deeply divided as our own, there will always be those who have very little to lose and are desperate for a way out. As a spokesman for the organization Law EnforcementAgainst Prohibition states, real drug dealers “…accept the possibility of death and long prison terms as a condition of employment.” What seems most apparent to me, in retrospect, is the nearly irresistible allure of drugs, from a psychological as well as economic perspective. Attempting to bind and castigate that facet of our self which seeks only to escape from undesirable and mundane circumstance seems about as absurd as, well, designating a plant which grows naturally upon the earth as illegal. The world needs a little lunacy; this world, especially, needs a little lunacy.

So until that day when the calculated, dogmatic absurdities of our society run their course and we cease waging war on ourselves, I continue to sneer at the police, and rejoice in ditchweed growing wild on abandoned lots. And I strive to live the sage advice of my newfound mind-expansion mentor, Wendell, who admonishes us to everyday do something that won’t compute. “…As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A Boss is Still a Boss

NOTE: During my first few months in Gainesville, I worked at a "mom and pop" grocery store called Ward's Supermarket. Though a long-standing Gainesville institution, the bosses there are pretty tyrannical and I was happy to leave at the end of the summer. I wrote and published the below essay anonymously, during my employment at Ward's, in order to stimulate some much-needed conversation amongst area Leftists on the supposed virtues of "buying local."

In the May/June Iguana, Kevin Bond makes a good case for buying local. Research by Civic Economics—an economic analysis and strategic planning consultancy—has documented the tangible economic benefits of buying local in a variety of communities throughout the U.S. Dollars spent with locally-owned businesses tend to circulate through our economy longer than, for instance, shopping at Wal-Mart, which sends a hefty cut of each customer’s dollar to its shareholders’ pockets elsewhere. Moreover, smaller, non-chain restaurants are able to utilize more flexible menus which allow for a wider selection of in-season and locally grown food. Economic arguments aside however, as someone who has spent the better part of their life working for the “mom and pop” establishments Mr. Bond extols, I feel the need to refine his argument.

There is nothing inherent in locally-owned businesses which bestows them with “strong concerns for environmental and sustainability issues…and for issues of globalization…”, nor will these businesses necessarily “serve us socially and environmentally responsible goods and services.” I applaud those local businesses which do strive to meet these criteria, but I have also worked for plenty which exemplify the polar opposite. In many of my jobs at “mom and pop” businesses, including the one where I currently work, I have witnessed gross violations of environmental responsibility, worker safety, and basic human dignity. There are countless small business owners and managers who differ from the most truculent corporate CEO in opportunity only; given the chance, many of them would gladly take their exploitation to the global scale.

Further, since small businesses are more likely to avoid the scrutiny of large regulatory agencies or citizen watchdog groups, they frequently have less incentive to pay attention to issues such as discrimination, pollution, and workplace safety. Yet these are issues which larger companies can scarcely afford to ignore—just ask Publix, which settled a class action lawsuit for gender discrimination back in ‘97. The settlement resulted in damages of tens of millions of dollars, as well as a significant restructuring of the company’s Human Resources Department. Meanwhile, the blatant yet tolerated sexual harassment by managers at my current job continues unabated.

And finally, when it comes to the service industry, regardless of whether we’re talking about a corporate chain or a locally-owned business, very few workers are actually being paid a living wage. Many of these workers are then trapped in a cycle of poverty and forced to shop wherever they can find the lowest prices—locally-owned or otherwise. Therefore, building strong community organizations and ethics which promote environmental stewardship while amplifying the voices of working people and aggressively supporting their rights is at least as important as buying local. Otherwise we are likely to end up with nothing more than a polluted community and a local economy dominated by petty thugs and wannabe tyrants.

If locally-owned businesses have an advantage over corporate chains with regard to environmental and social justice, it’s that the people who make such decisions are our neighbors—not faceless bureaucrats in a corporate headquarters far, far away. Since we often know where they live, work, and recreate, local managers and business owners can more easily be held accountable for their actions. But this advantage only means something if we, the local consumers, capitalize on it. There are some encouraging examples that strong consumer preference partnered with business acumen can make a positive difference for our health and the environment. Witness the rise of the natural foods movement, once solely populated by low-to-the-ground independent stores who were able to respond to human needs and a growing market much quicker than the corporate behemoths; ditto for much of the green products industry. Whether customer demand can spark a similar revolution in favor of workers’ rights and a just economy, however, remains to be seen. The “fair trade” movement has some interesting prospects; but does our sense of solidarity extend throughout the entirety of the supply chain—from the peasant farmer who grows our coffee to the worker who stocks it on the shelves or the barista who brews it?

So the next time you’re patronizing your favorite locally-owned business, pondering where the item you’re about to purchase was produced, I hope you’ll consider a few additional questions:
*What is a living wage for the Gainesville area?
*Are workers in this establishment paid a living wage, treated with respect, and allowed to organize for their collective self-interest if they so choose?
*What recourse exists in our community for workers who are not being treated fairly in the workplace?

If you find that you don’t know the answers to these questions, try asking the person who’s serving you. Such conversations could go a long way in giving our community the “unique, vibrant, and sustainable” local economy that Mr. Bond, and all of us, would like to see.