We were gathered in the publisher’s corner office just off Park Avenue on a snowy afternoon in February, looking at the intriguing series of ads that had been coming in over the past few months. Professionally photographed, seductively styled, they showed a shiny steel apparatus encircled with golden buds of weed damp with the resins prized by discriminating potheads.
“The question is,” said Thomas King Forcade, founder and head of the publishing empire he’d built under the Trans-High Corporation banner, “what the fuck is it?”
“Shit to Gold!” declared the ads appearing in the magazine where I was employed, all full-page buys. “Paid in cash,” said the sales director of High Times, the monthly publication dedicated to the ways and means of marijuana. I was on the masthead as a contributing writer on diverse topics, mostly of a cultural nature, on a career trajectory common to New York writers who toil in diverse editorial fields. Penning pieces for anyone who paid, from garish girlie mags to in-flight journals and the glossier monthlies, my expectation was to be sitting behind the publisher’s desk one day in a similar corner office with a Park Avenue view.
Leaning back in his chair and torching an overstuffed reefer with a switchblade that doubled as a lighter, Forcade said, “More importantly, you dig—” taking a long drag and holding the smoke for a pensive moment before expelling the finished thought in a low tight voice—“does it really work?”
The device in the advertisement was called the Pot-A-Lyzer. Selling for $299.99 from a PO box in Huntington Beach, California, the Pot-A-Lyzer promised to transform ordinary marijuana of the lowest grade into super-weed equal to the headiest strains known to cannabis connoisseurs. Mexican ditch weed, for example, could be imbued with the psychoactive punch of Maui Wowee, Thai Stick, or Colombian Gold. Ergo, shit to gold.
Forcade was troubled. Over the past two years since High Times’s founding in 1974, he’d built it into a success, the magazine of record, the straight dope on dope, as it were. If this thing was a scam, who would believe anything in High Times? Such was the magazine’s unique backward dynamic; you had faith in the ads and therefore the editorial content. That was, once you got past the fact that the magazine was produced by a bunch of dope fiends.
Tom considered me a trusted friend who shared his passionate commitment to freedom of the press and understood his subtle take on the more philosophical aspects of communications media. For my part, I regarded Tom as a certifiable nut. With a genius for trouble, he was never boring and we’d been through a few scrapes together. Cementing over the years into a kind of Old West loyalty, our relationship was best described by Bob Dylan when he said “to live outside the law you must be honest.”
With squinty feral eyes, a gray felt, flat-topped Stetson over stringy hair down to his shoulders, and dressed in preacherman black, Forcade resembled a character from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In appearance he embodied the Bad, and in mood swings ranging from Quaalude stupors to cocaine rages, he often assumed the Ugly. But he also was the Good; he insisted on integrity—the magazine’s and his own—which I respected, no matter how quixotic his quest.
“We’re looking for the truth here,” declared Forcade, defender of publishing standards.
Not everyone was on board. “Who cares if the damn thing works or not,” scowled the sales director, a well-dressed toughie in thigh-high boots and various shades of hand-tooled suede. The unique facts of the High Times business structure shaped her point of view. Newsstand sales were fine where the magazine was allowed space on newsstands. But at that time, it was only in a few states, and there relegated to the less-accessible racks holding Hustler, Swank, Juggs, Leg Show, and their ilk. Subscriptions contributed the smallest slice of the revenue. Who wanted to risk the postman snitching or the DEA nabbing the High Times subscriber list?
But Zig Zag, Bambu, and E-Z Wider, the rolling paper companies, and Clippy’s roach clips and Stone Wood Imports (handmade stash tins and joint cases) and a multitude of hemp T-shirt and bong manufacturers—what was known as the “paraphernalia industry”—had but one place to go to reach their target audience. Indeed, within the pages of High Times in the seventies, the sixties flower children blossomed anew as creative entrepreneurs and avid consumers.
And why not? Among the anti–Vietnam War movement heavies, staunch civil rights activists, and all-around FBI-listed troublemakers I knew, not many hewed to the strictest Marxist line. The transition from counterculture to something that paid the rent involved uncomfortable but inevitable choices. Even the card-carrying commies coughed up dollars for dope. And while the act of smoking marijuana was, for some, an anti-establishment statement, the weed itself possessed no inherent political valence. Even William F. Buckley confessed to a toke or two.
All proving to be a bonanza for High Times. Firing up a new economy, the hip magazine devoted to getting stoned depended on the very straight business of advertising sales. Whoever was behind the Pot-A-Lyzer had big bucks and wasn’t shy about spending it. This made the sales director happy.
“Screw the money,” said Tom. “If the gizmo doesn’t work, the hell with the ads.”
The sales director glared. Press deadline was Monday. Today was Friday. Everything pivoted on a classic conflict between integrity and commerce. To accept or reject the full-page ad in question? Only one thing would resolve the matter, and that was Truth. Objective and scientific. Either the Pot-A-Lyzer turned shit to gold—or, it didn’t.
Tom pushed an envelope across the desk in my direction. It contained a first-class round-trip air ticket on the next flight out and a sheaf of crisp hundreds for “expenses.” “I want you to check this out,” he said, at the same time handing me the joint. “Cover story—an exposé. Rip the lid off the groovy West Coast. You’ll probably win a Pulitzer, you dig?” We shared a distrust of California and all things groovy.
I waved it off, including the joint. Sure, midwinter in Manhattan sucked, my girlfriend was on my case, and a Pulitzer would be nice—but there was just one little hitch. I didn’t smoke pot.
Oh, at parties I’d take a civil toke on a joint or polite puff on a pipe and pass it along. While I was happy to encourage Maryjane for others, my personal preferences were pills, powders, and potions. Good Kentucky bourbon my mainstay, the occasional dexy for deadlines, and the odd line of coke reserved for romance. But here I was, the only nonsmoker on the High Times masthead, tapped for an official expedition to test a machine that by some cockamamie alchemy converted crappy marijuana into connoisseur quality herb. Pot just wasn’t my thing, and Tom knew it.
“That’s why I’m sending you, man,” Tom said, passing the joint to the sales director. “It makes perfect sense, you dig?”
Thirty thousand feet over the Midwest, I reflected on my first visit to the Golden State, in 1959 as a child in the company of my parents to the just-opened Disneyland. As a teenager hitch-hiking west in the Summer of Lov,e there was Haight Ashbury—another kind of Disneyland. But this was my first business trip to California.
Flying first class from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to Los Angeles International on Pan American World Airways, stewardesses in sky-blue uniforms filling my glass, the stakes were high. No mere tourist but James Bond coolly contemplating a licensed killing, Marlow on his way to Kurtz, Ahab with compass and harpoon. My assignment on behalf of Trans-High Corp. was every bit as serious, the truth of which can only now be disclosed without too much danger, and with only a little embarrassment, to those involved.
A black limousine hummed on the tarmac as I descended the airstairs from the jet hatchway. The long-haired driver in a sport jacket, T-shirt, and jeans clutched a sign inscribed with my name. I approached him with the nonchalance of a Big Apple boulevardier. He opened the door, took my briefcase and overnight bag and said, “They’re waiting for you at the restaurant.”
It was about six o’clock in the evening, a roseate glow off to the west, the sun sunk over the Pacific horizon. Its lingering warmth combined with the scent of night-blooming jasmine to gently subdue the memory of frigid Manhattan. I settled into the plush back seat. The driver pulled around and headed onto the freeway. He lit up a joint and handed it back over the seat. I said, “No, thanks.”
“High Times, yeah,” said the driver, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “You probably get the best.” He took another toke and put out the joint, which he evidently assumed I’d declined because of its inferior quality.
We rolled south and headed toward the beach. Between the reefer fumes wafting into the backseat and the receding tide of jetlag, I could feel my perceptions undergoing a perverse alteration. Determined to hang onto my street-smarts, I could feel California undermining the neat grid of my New York mentality. The first surrender was my reporter’s notebook. After an initial spate of pro forma notations, it slid into a back pocket from which it failed to re-emerge for the rest of the trip. My memory of what came next becomes a bit frayed, with gaps, blurs, and inappropriate images intruding.
I recall the limo gliding down a kind of main street, which must have been Huntington Beach—or maybe it was Hermosa Beach? Coming to a stop where the driver opened my door, there was a two-story restaurant, distinguished by a redwood rustic exterior. “They’re upstairs,” he said. “Ask for Joel.”
The blonde greeting me at the door was a knockout. My reaction was visceral, not merely for the tickle to my nether regions from her sexual allure but for the shock of her clean perfection. Compared to the Lower East Side slum goddesses, hairy-legged hippie chicks, and tough-assed feminists with whom I was accustomed to mingling back east, this specimen promised a brave new world.
“I’m Raquel,” she smiled, as if in a TV toothpaste commercial, “Follow me.” Ascending a spiral staircase, we were bathed in a warm light radiating from stained glass sconces and copper filigreed pendants suspended overhead from the vaulted ceiling in a woodsy cathedral designed by Louis Tiffany married to Gustav Stickley under the influence of magic mushrooms.
The entire room, scented with roasting meats and grilling seafood, seemed carved from a single redwood burl—the swirl-grained walls, the polished floors, the rounded tables, the ponderous chairs, and even, with their sienna tans and custom leather duds, the diners themselves. John Muir could have strolled by any moment.
My guide led me to a corner den upholstered in red leather, harboring a bunch of people. They were drinking wine and obviously waiting for me. A place was set with an empty glass that was quickly filled by my host, a stocky, suntanned man on the far side of his twenties. “Welcome,” he said, “I’m Joel. Have some of this Napa cabernet.”
In a button-down madras shirt and mop of sandy hair that drifted over his forehead, Joel was a dead ringer for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. I detested the Beach Boys, leaning more toward the Stones, but what the hell. Joel went around the table saying everyone’s name—a half-dozen healthy-looking women coupled with handsome, athletic young guys. Dressed in pastel preppy, they could have been a surf band or a volleyball team. Each nodded in turn, regarding me curiously. I was from New York, clad in black-on-black: the Man from High Times.
Seated with my host and his friends, I regaled them with stories about the rare cannabis varieties routinely tested by our in-house connoisseurs; the magazine’s strict fact-checking department that included experts from Harvard, Yale, and MIT; the DEA informant knowingly hired as receptionist and fed preposterous tips; and the Friday ritual visits from dealers, going from office to office peddling their exotic wares to the just-paid staff. I was making it all up, off the cuff, except for the latter business, which was sort of true, and the receptionist, which was just office gossip.
Food arrived, thick steaks, elaborately garnished grilled fish, and giant bowls of salad. Who these people were, I couldn’t figure out. Joel, it became clear, owned the restaurant. He also seemed, from the conversational flow, to own a car dealership and a surfboard company, manufactured hot tubs, and other enterprises. There was a dark hint that he was the brains behind a cross-border operation importing Mexican weed, his legit fronts laundering the profits. Even so, he and his companions exuded a light-hearted air of innocence, which made me suspicious and, at the same time, guilty for being cynical about such nice folks. A rolling cart piled high with house-baked pastries and hand-crafted ice creams arrived and we got down to business.
Joel was the entrepreneur bankrolling the Pot-A-Lyzer. Like Henry Ford describing the Model T, he talked about the Pot-A-Lyzer in a way that kept his listeners around the table rapt, not so much a sales pitch as a religious homily. The Pot-A-Lyzer was an engineering marvel that was going to change people’s lives, transform the entire marijuana business, a democratic force making good pot available to all, leveling the playing field between rich and poor potheads—and it was so easy to use! I would see for myself that very night. And wait until I met George, the inventor who had created the Pot-A-Lyzer—“the Einstein of ultra-cannabis chemistry!”
Years later Silicon Valley start-up jockeys would be waxing in a similar vein—the elevator pitch, as they call it—a combination of auto-dealer hype and high-tech hyperbole, with that peculiarly Californian new age soul twist. In those days, however, shortly before the dawn of the personal computer, the Pot-A-Lyzer was nothing less than a last gasp of Southern California’s dying aerospace industry. I’d seen the signs for Hughes Aircraft, Northrop, Rocketdyne on the drive down. Around the table sat the sons and daughters of men who had put America on the moon. Now I was about to be introduced to a piece of hardware welded together for another kind of space travel.
From the restaurant, Joel drove me in his Jaguar XKE to a house a few blocks away. A two-story beach chalet, it was a short block from the shore. The salt air here carried a wilder tang than its Atlantic counterpart; hints of Bogotá, Bangkok, and Honolulu. Before leaving the car, Joel said, “Look, I know you’re skeptical. You’ve got that East Coast edge. But, hey, this is California. Things are different here.”
Entering the door right off the street, we were greeted by George, the Einstein of ultra-cannabis chemistry. The Hawaiian shirt overhanging the faded surfer baggies he inhabited failed to conform to his body, rippling and deflating as fingers, hands, sandaled feet with toenails like rhino horns, and lanky arms, all parts going in different directions at once. He was affable enough, but his eyes were fixed on the floor, the walls, the ceiling, anything but direct eye contact with another human.
“George is going to take you through the steps,” said Joel before making a busy man’s exit.
“Groovy,” said George, leading me into the kitchen, set up as the mad scientist’s lab. A long table served as his test bench. There sat a kind of double-boiler resembling the one my grandmother in the Bronx used to make pot roast. The Pot-A-Lyzer in person was not exactly the sexy appliance pictured in the ads. The thing had knobs and steel tubes and rubber hoses sticking out of it. The name Rube Goldberg came to mind.
George said. “Hey, it’s really easy, just watch me.” His twitchy fingers fiddled with a knob and a tray swung out. “This is where you load in the bad pot,” he said. He poured some herbaceous matter from a plastic baggie into the tray, swiveled it back into place and turned the knob.
“Okay, you saw me pour the bad pot from this bag into the tray, right?” said George, glancing quickly at my face to make sure I saw he wasn’t pulling any tricks. “Now we’re going to roll some up and have a taste.”
He scattered a pinch of the bad pot into a Zig Zag, tucked it in and in one efficiently mastered tic, zipped up a perfectly cylindrical reefer, and lit up. After taking a hit, he handed it over. I took a puff.
“Pretty bad, huh?” he said.
“Terrible,” I agreed.
“Cheap Mexican ditch weed,” he said. “Now watch.”
Cheap Mexican ditch weed, nonetheless, it possessed a definite potency. In fact, it occurred to me instantly that I was good and stoned.
“You watching carefully?”
He unscrewed the top of the machine and then reached for a gallon jug. “This goes in here,” George said. The catalytic solution, he called it. “You have to be a bit careful though, okay? This is important. If you spill it, that’s not groovy. It’s kind of flammable. And this switch here, make sure it’s in the off position. To the left. To the right is on. Left off, right on. You got that?”
“Right on,” I said. I was watching, all right, paying attention as best I could. The entire procedure may have taken a few minutes but it seemed like it went on for hours, the most complicated mechanical process known to man.
The timer went off with a clanging bell, causing me to jump. I hadn’t noticed him setting a timer. Maybe I was just hearing bells? Groovy George knuckled the knob, the tray swung out. There was the ditch weed, looking moist and but not much different. It should glow, or something, I thought.
“Oh, it’s different for sure,” George chuckled. He rolled a joint, lit up, and handed it to me. I took a puff. It had a slightly oily taste.
“See the difference?” he said, grinning.
“For sure,” I said.
“Here, try the bad pot again.”
“Now try the Pot-A-Lyzed stuff. See?”
If there was a difference, I sure as hell couldn’t tell. Still stoned from the first joint, now I was totally, utterly ripped.
“Okay,” said George. “Now, to prove how easy it is to use, you’re going to do it.”
“Ha ha,” I said.
“Groovy, man, I’ll get you started.”
I got that knob to turn and the tray swung out. Sprinkled some bad pot in there. Cool so far. The phone rang somewhere and George went off to get it. The top unscrewed. There was the jug, and I was pouring the catalyzer in when I remembered something about a switch being on or off. I reached for it with one hand, pouring with the other. Some of the catalyzer spilled over the side. I searched for a rag or something. I could hear George telling Joel, “Yeah, he’s doing it now. Everything’s groovy.” Screw it, I thought, and turned the switch. Right, left—whatever. A spark jumped out. Suddenly the Pot-A-Lyzer was on fire.
I was grooving on the shimmering play of blue and orange flames. George was all over it in seconds with a fire extinguisher, quickly smothering the blaze. The Pot-A-Lyzer was a charred wreck of melted hoses and twisted metal.
”Sorry,” I said, certain I’d be sent home.
“No worries,” said George, all of his tics working furiously. “We’ve got our more advanced prototype over here.” He pulled another machine from a shelf. “The Pot-A-Lyzer Two. Let’s test run this baby—you’ll be the first, man. You’ll be taking it home with you—a gift for High Times!”
The night burned into the wee hours with George redoing the procedure. More tokes of the bad pot and then the good pot. Good pot, then more bad pot, and still more good pot. George’s patience and solicitous regard for a helpless jerk knew no bounds. The appearance of Raquel from the restaurant, summoned either for my entertainment or as a paramedic, provided a welcome break. We went to the beach for a pre-dawn stroll. The surf rolling in off the Pacific Rim seemed forgiving and promising. Or maybe I just passed out and dreamed it. Next day they somehow loaded me on the plane back to New York. Joel seemed a little disappointed in me, but ever the optimistic entrepreneur. “You’ll be okay,” he said.
I showed up at the High Times office lugging the Pot-A-Lyzer, which I deposited on Forcade’s desk, along with a straightforward story giving the gizmo the benefit of the doubt while extolling West Coast technological innovation and the appeal of its beaches and womenfolk. With Tom absent on one of his mysterious escapades, the Pot-A-Lyzer moved from his desk to the floor where it sat for months gathering dust. The office staff borrowed its hoses, tubes, and knobs for makeshift waterpipes and bong repair until the Pot-A-lyzer was reduced to just a pot, planted with a brave bromeliad.
The ads kept coming and High Times prospered. My story, which would probably not have earned a Pulitzer, never appeared. The magazine, founded as a high-minded endeavor, so to speak, soon lost my allegiance as it devolved to its current status as trade publication for a particular strain of horticulturalists. But California, where things were different, welcomed me back eventually for an extended stay, a long way from Park Avenue.