My younger brother Al was always the black sheep of the family; always in trouble with our parents, the school, the law and anyone else in authority. As kids, he and I were always fighting – not just arguing, but physically assaulting each other. We weren’t old enough to use our fists then, but we were often at perilous odds, threatening each other with bits of wood, rocks or whatever else we could lay our hands on.
All this had ended abruptly – literally overnight – when Al was ten, when he suddenly disappeared from the family home and from my life: our parents had sent him away to a church-based boarding school, a Mormon college four hundred miles north. None of us – my other three brothers or me – could work out why they’d done it, since none of us, with the exception of my mother, were churchgoers. As soon as he could after leaving school he moved with his wife and their two kids to Sydney, as far away from the rest of us as he could comfortably get.
Al has his own story, and I’m not going to tell it here, except to say it’d make interesting reading. Some of the events of the ten years between his abrupt departure and my equally abrupt return visit, I’ve gleaned since: two kids and a wife at age fifteen, a couple of spells in jail, a knifing that left him with critical injuries, numerous instances of unbelievably bad luck.
When I first came across him in Australia, I’d just returned to Sydney from a pretty mediocre stint of several months in Melbourne, where I’d held a menial, monotonous job on a packing line. Most of the scant connections I’d had in Sydney had moved away. I was low on cash and employment prospects – young New Zealanders were still viewed with suspicions as likely “fly-by-nighters” at that time – and accommodation was at a premium. I’d moved into a shared house – a squat, in fact, down the back of Kings Cross – for a couple of months, but it was a bad environment – peoples’ stuff always getting stolen, a lot of violence on the street, unhinged people coming and going. It was desperation that drove me to call Al over in Stanmore and arrange to come around.
I was still in a kind of defensive stance when I pushed open the gate of the small duplex and knocked on the door. Al’s appearance defied any preconception I might have had; he was tall, lean and wiry; his hair was long, exploding from beneath a battered bush hat.; his arms were muscular from physical work, tanned and covered with tattoos. Around his throat he wore a knotted leather thong.
It was a sunny afternoon, so we sat in the tiny front yard, talking mainly about what we’d been doing, filling the awkward space. Al brought out a beer. A little while later a guy turned up at the gate. Al went to meet him. There was a brief, covert exchange before Al and the stranger disappeared into the house. When the stranger left and Al returned to the front porch, he seemed a bit more relaxed. I had another beer. After a while, my brother said:
“Every smoke a joint?”
“Marijuana. You know, pot.”
I had to admit, rather shamefaced, that I hadn’t. Sure, I’d been in its orbit at Uni, but I’d not known the kind of people who were connected to it or who were sufficiently familiar to take me into their confidence. I carried with me all the echoes of mainstream mantra on the questionable qualities of cannabis.
Al reached into his pocket. “Wanna try it?”
I was keen. He lit the joint and handed it to me, and as the pop-art poster says, ‘I took my first puff of marijuana’.
It was to be a life-changing experience. The power of that first experience – the sudden understanding that the person I had thought I was, was not, in reality, who I actually was, and that the world, as I’d conceived it was not as I’d envisaged it to be. I’d been a straight thinker, sure that I was in control of the world when in fact I wasn’t. I’m not suggesting this first experience with psychotropics changed my life, but it opened my eyes to another conception of myself and the world that I definitely wanted to explore.
Al had got into a bit of ganga with his circle in New Zealand before he left, but when I re-connected with him, he wasn’t much more connected with the Sydney scene than I was. Our first ‘score’ was in the park near the fountain in The Cross, where I’d seen a lot of dealers doing their thing. We simply sat and waited until Al spied a likely-looking guy and went over to him. The guy directed us to a third-floor attic in Victoria Street, where we waited with a dozen or so others for the gear to arrive. When it did, it was divvied up according to what we wanted. The guy had some LSD – ‘Four-way Clearlite’, he called it – so we bought a tab of that in addition to a small quantity of marijuana. The dealer had trouble keeping a straight face; even by the standards of the day, a two-dollar tab of acid and a matchbox full of weed was a small order.
We divvied up the smoke and made an arrangement to drop the acid the following weekend. Even then, we were conservative: half a tab each, dissolved under the tongue. For a while, nothing happened: we sat at the table, Al’s wife peeling the potatoes, me staring vacantly across the table at the plate of raw meat. Then the potatoes came to life, the sinews began to writhe and we were off and running!
The beautiful thing about that moment, like the many hallucinations that followed, was that I could share it honestly with someone, and someone I knew well. Whatever animosity might have existed between us previously, it was gone; getting high together was, as Al described it, ‘a total buzz’, a cacophony of joking and laughter that repeatedly reduced us to hysterics. The thing was, we knew each other; even though the relationship had been interrupted a long time ago, we had a shared early life experience of our family that was, in many fundamental ways, the same. We’d both felt ‘ordered about’ by our older brothers, and in sharing those feelings, we built a bond that’s survived since.
In those days, most of the marijuana being dealt in Sydney came from two sources. Most was bush weed from the northern part of the state, brought down and sold by the growers. It was mainly the indica variety, good for a light, relaxing high. Then there was the stuff coming in from Asia and the Middle East, good quality hashish and Buddha, a strand of marijuana often laced with opium, that could produce a powerful ecstatic effect. It was wonderful to sit in Centennial Park at dawn, at the head of the long avenue of palms, and understand how a person of Buddha’s contemplative nature might have felt in their meditations; or to walk up the road feeling like something off a Yellow Submarine cover, or driving into the country in a giant football.
But fundamentally, I knew the pleasant, undemanding landscape I inhabited when stoned was an illusion. I left LSD behind early, after only a few trips, once I heard they were using some kind of toxin – strychnine, or arsenic – in the red pills being hawked as acid. Hashish became less plentiful, and over a year or so most of the marijuana dealers we knew had either closed up shop or had been shut down by the emerging business model for the industry, controlled by the Griffith growers and crime syndicates. ‘Weed’ became prohibitively expensive as supply became increasingly regulated by the bosses. The market offered a lot of expensive, mind-bending hydroponic weed, a drug that produced not only illusions but delusions as well. The ‘drug scene’ became increasingly ugly: more addicts, more hard-core criminals involved. The new drugs unhinged people, or perhaps just attracted unhinged people, and generally I kept my distance from the new culture and the people involved in it. Besides, the Sydney experience was winding down; Al and his family were moving north to Queensland, and I was going to return to New Zealand to do the mandatory post-graduate training year required to become a high school teacher. I’d only recently got married, and I wanted to clean up my act.
But providence can play funny tricks. A week before I was due to depart, Al’s bad luck got us both into a bit of trouble, when we were stopped coming back from Maroubra by a random police check of Al’s vehicle. When the car turned out to have no current registration sticker – Al had a habit of popping the windscreens out of abandoned vehicles with a week or two’s rego remaining and fitting them into his own vehicle – the cops’ interest became more intense. Things took a turn for the worse when a young probationary constable spotted a dilly-bag on the back seat and asked what was in it. When Al, forthright as usual, said “Lemons”, the cop thought he was being a smart-arse. He went red in the face, snatched up the bag, and wasn’t at all impressed when Al’s explanation turned out to be the truth. The constable then undertook a more vigorous search of the car, which eventually revealed a chillum full of pot in the back of the glovebox. So we were arrested and taken to the watch-house at Kingsford for questioning.
The Detective in charge of our interrogation was very diligent in enquiring about our backgrounds, and I’ve no doubt that finding we were ‘foreigners’ – young New Zealanders without any substantial local connections – had a significant bearing on our subsequent treatment. I’m not just talking verbal standover stuff, either; when I raised a not-unreasonable objection to being told what to write in my statement, I was dragged by the hair off my chair by the interrogating Detective and told: “You talk to me like that again, Cunt, and you’ll be telling me the rest from the floor!” Al got the phone book treatment: beaten around the ears with the flat of the Sydney White Pages, hard enough to cause a nosebleed but leaving no scars or bruises. We were ‘placed in custody’ without recourse to a phone call to a lawyer or our spouses (who had no idea where we were); kept in freezing cells overnight with just a smelly, threadbare blanket, and woken noisily every hour to ensure we looked like shit when we fronted up in court.
Around 2.30 in the morning we were shaken awake once again, handcuffed into the back of a patrol car and transferred to the holding cells beneath the central Sydney Courthouse, with offhand assurances by the escorting police that, if we ‘tried anything’, they would just point their guns and shoot – “None of this ‘shoot-to-wound’ bullshit”. By the time we got our thirty seconds in front of the magistrate, we looked every bit the stereotypical hardened sociopaths they wanted to portray.
The judge, impatient to get through a depressing Sunday morning workload of petty misdemeanours, granted us bail on surety and we walked free. We had to front up to Redfern Courthouse a couple of weeks later for sentencing, but it was a pretty perfunctory affair: fifty dollars on each of two charges, possession and use. [My fault, that one: when the interrogating Detective asked “What did you do with the rest of it?”, I was naïve enough to say that we’d smoked it – another fifty bucks each, thanks!]
The aim of this mistreatment, presumably, was to dissuade us from touching drugs again. In this, the forces of law and order were manifestly unsuccessful; no sooner did we get a hundred metres from the courthouse than Al pulled a joint from his sock and (much to my horror!) lit up.
I returned to New Zealand to a week or so later, but Al and I continued our liaison d’amour with marijuana for a long time afterwards. I did learn something important from my treatment on that occasion, however: that all are equal before the law but not after it; that for many, depending on how you’re connected, justice stops at the prison door.
Categories: My Story