Once upon a time, in the richest kingdom on earth there was born, a girl child. Even though she was given everything an earthly child could want, good food in abundance, whatever clothing, shoes or boots she desired, an education and a nice home , she was still unhappy. She believed her life to be no more than that of an earthworm, dark ahead and dark behind, wiggling and squirming through mud and muck with the future as bleak as the past. So one day when she was a young maiden she slipped away from her home and went to a far away fabled city by the sea. This city was enshrouded in clouds always, the streets were built on steep hills, the house hung over the streets, very rich, very tall and very elegant. Much different from the small peasant village she came from. There she found a shop selling a magic potion. By taking this potion she learned of the words of the old ones that lay hidden in books on dusty shelves in little shops. She stole these books for now she was poor but rich in magic. She learned the ancient tongues and when she spoke them out loud the ancients slammed into her, rising up through her blood, bursting her heart and speaking to her of other worlds and ancient times. One day they showed her a great feast that they said was being prepared in her honor. Soon she would be with them in the other land, they told her, but for now she must go back to her old life. They would come no more. She continued to take the magic potion, believing this power had come from it, but they came no more. The potion she found was now a poison. She could not eat or sleep. She had no control over her mind and it devolved until she could do nothing but babble nursery rhymes. Eventually she abandoned the poison and healed her body. Whether all this was a gift or a curse she would never know. She knew only that it was a path she once chose but would not choose again. The riddle being this: knowing what she knows now (that the magical potion was actually a poison) would she, given the opportunity to go back in time, choose again that little pathway she chose then?
Crank has been known by many names. Crank I suppose is what it comes down to. Cranks your motor. Rev it up to 10,000 rpm, knock a piston through the block, blows your head gasket, then your brains leak out. You can crank that engine til your face turns blue and that engine will never fire again. Dead as a doorknob.
Methamphetamine was the beginning of this story. Hitler’s big brain scientists cooked it up. It was given to pilots and the troops to keep them alert and focused. It quickly found its way into the field issue packs of the American military. Although my brother-in-law tells me that when he worked in supply in Da Nang it was not in the service packs of those soldiers because he methodically took it out of every pack. I suppose he was doing it for their own good so they would not turn into crankers.
What we call crank now is a totally different thing. Sometimes it is made with a mishmash of chemicals — sometimes they cheat and just use a concentration powder form of ephedrine. Ephedrine came from ephedra. It was a plant the Indians made a tea of. A mild stimulant. When Brigham Young brought the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley he found coffee to be in short supply so the Mormons started drinking Indian tea. It is a spindly desert plant with no leaves that grows in the early spring. It looks like knotted bamboo growing in a tiny bush. When the Mormons started drinking it the travelers who came through the valley on the way to the golden hills of California took to calling it Brigham tea or Mormon tea. If you look in your herbal dictionary you will see these names listed.
Soon the scientists had extracted the active ingredient and made a synthetic form of ephedrine no longer dependent on finding a scarce desert plant with a short growing period. It was merchandised in cold medicines because it dried the sinuses as well as giving a feeling of renewed energy.
Lately the crankers have taken to buying up all the Sudafed in Walgreen’s and cooking it up again into a more concentrated form that can be shot up, snorted or smoked like crack.
Ephedrine however is mostly a motor stimulant. Where Methedrine was something else entirely. Meth was a brain stimulant. Therein lies the great dividing line. Eventually both stimulants consume you from the inside out until you collapse into yourself and become half of your original self. If even that.
But the pathway is slightly different.
I should add that before meth hit the scene there was dexedrine — called “dexies,” I believe, by the cool hipsters and jazz men of the late forties/early fifties. Dexies worked as an antidote to the land of nod (heroin for those who don’t know). You could shoot a nice balloon of Mexican yellow than slam-dunk a handful of dexies so you could find your way to the stage and play a riff or two of god’s own music.
Those were the days. The days of Lenny Bruce, Bill Evans, the great Art Pepper, Coltrane, Miles Davis. The cool fifties not the fifties they remember in country music. No, not at all. The real fifties. Black and white. The Man with the Golden Arm. Lenny Bruce and his old lady — I forgot her name, Honey? Yeah, Honey that was it — walking around North Beach, his eyes so dark and full of sharp pain that he tortured his thoughts into barbs to sting the rich. Mike’s Pool Hall where Big Daddy Nord wore a white apron and held court. The room full of smoke and jazz men black and white hipsters, the pool tables always backed up with quarters. 8-balls slamming into a pocket, good beer, strong coffee, huge beef sandwiches on real San Francisco sour dough bread baked every day up Grant Street in small shops by Italian men and women who never quite got over to America without dragging old Italy with them. To our delight.
I got in on the tail end of all that. When I arrived in San Francisco it was still possible to see Lenny Bruce in Vesuvio’s, still possible to attend all-night parties (a gentle word for what actually happened) with Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Phillip Whalen, Bob Kaufman and a whole stage full of unknown, hopeful poets like myself. It was the death of beats, and the hippy thing had not yet come into to being. I always heard stories about if I had only been here five years ago. I never got to see the Anxious Asp. But I knew the Cafe Trieste, the Enigma and of course Vesuvio’s, which is still there.
About the time I first came to the Beach a new drug was coming up. Liquid methamphetamine. I had taken my share of bennies and dexies and smoked pot everyday (which was required otherwise you would be a narc). None of it was my bag. But I tried to be hip. I had a copy of Howl, later discarded for Alliester Crowley. I wore tights or a pair of skin tight 501s with a button fly so you could cram you butt into them one button at a time. I wore huge sweatshirts and Jesus sandals hand-made in a sandal shop on Grant by a huge man with a big bushy beard. He actually worked in Venice Beach at one time, I think, or at least there was a man just like him, huge and bushy bearded, who used to make sandals on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Am I wrong? Or does anyone remember?
In a pot dazed confusion one day I met a cool black jazz guy named Zack. We went up to his room in the Swiss American (is that right?). Anyway, the hotel that was above Carol Doda’s blinking tits. His room was at the front, over the sign, so blinking tits constantly reflected on the walls all night. He used only candles — no electric light. Incense was burning patchouli in my brain, everlasting patchouli.
He took out an ampoule and broke the top off the neck. Then he poured it into a syringe and shot us both up. A great power rushed through me and when it hit my heart I thought it would burst into flame, but instead it slammed shut and stopped up and I waited to die, my mouth wide open like a fish hoping for air until suddenly it kicked in again and rapidly caught up to speed. My mind opened wide like my heart and a new vision came to me. I was stronger than god. I was more alive than alive. I had the will, the mind and the extraordinary vision of the gods. I could see through walls. I could do anything I dreamed of doing. I could speak to the dead. I could save the living…
Or so I thought. I never smoked pot again. I drifted in a methedrine haze for years. My poetry went away. The gods went away. Even liquid meth went away. It was replaced by crystal meth which they said was what was left over after you made liquid meth, but crystal meth was a grinding scene, trapped in rooms with cranked up maniacs, hoping to live another day. Dry streets, sad broken lives.
This is all that it came to.
But I did survive because one day I decided king heroin could put an end to this endless sleepless bright crackling glass methedrine world. So I put sweet morphia into my arm and escaped into a dream which quickly became a nightmare that few of you would ever be able to understand.
I ended up in Synanon as most people know and so here I am today. A survivor — so to speak.
Crank is a winter time drug. Anderson Valley is a place of gawd awful winters. Just as here, in Salt Lake. In both towns you see the crankers grinding about their daily missions of no consequence. Pathetic rat-like creatures spinning endlessly in a cage of their own creation.
I used to laugh out loud when I drove by Navarro and saw the arc lights of a speed freak welder as he dismantled cars and remantled cars endlessly to no end. Every project abandoned mid-way to start another that seems more urgent at the moment. The lights that were rigged over a great hole in Navarro so crankers could dig for old bottles because those old bottles (from the logging days) were worth millions on the Antique Road Show.
Or so they imagined.
It was the Navarro cranksters’ version of old gold rush. Shreds of glass held to the light. Empty marvels of endless crank. After all, it is a motor activator. It is a working drug. It was designed to increase worker productivity. Catch 22. Only for so long. Then it devolves into endless searching and abandoning and searching and eating your own tail.
What does all this tell you? Nothing. Those who are caught in the thrall of crank will crank until they finally rev it up a notch too hard. Some will die. Others will be survivors like me. We all know each other. I can look at any stranger and tell you if they have been down that road before. I know because they have big holes in their brains, a certain worn look to them. A history in their eyes.
I, of course, don't imagine myself to look that way, but maybe I do to them, because I always see a little glimmer of pleasure and recognition in their eyes when we meet. Like we are kindred spirits, survivors of our own generation’s holocaust.