This week we bring you Chapter 8 of HIGH Confessions of a Cannabis Addict By Leonard Lee Buschel. Leonard Lee Buschel is an American publisher, substance abuse counsellor and co-founder of Writers in Treatment, which supports recovery and the arts, and executive director of REEL Recovery Film Festival, focusing on stories of addiction and recovery. This week, we bring you the Preface to whet your appetite. Follow us weekly for more delicious chapters of this incredible story.
Always Make Way for Fools and Mad Men, Kids and Moms
The one thing we can never get enough of is love.
And the one thing we never give enough of is love.
I met Ben’s mother, Carlee, in 1977 at about two in the morning at an afterhours club in Philly called the Second Story. There was good energy in the club that night. I guess everyone had their own coke, so nobody was jonesing for any or trying to scam some from all the dealers in the room. Also, famed 76er Julius Erving was sitting alone at the bar having a cocktail. I learned the next morning from The Philadelphia Inquirer that on this very night, Dr. J. had the highest-scoring game of his career. Here he was all alone, in a noisy club, quietly celebrating with a drink.
I noticed an exceptionally beautiful woman, also alone, wearing a most stunning, colorful paper-thin silk dress. This was unusual garb for a barhopping woman in the days of disco. I went over to her, and asked, “Where did you get that amazing dress?”
She replied with an international smile that she got it on Portobello Road. I told her that I recently had been to Portobello Road, a flea market in the Jewish district of London, having spent the summer of 1976 in England rather than celebrate America’s bicentennial in Philly with the winners of the war to continue slavery, I preferred hanging in country that let America slip through its fingers 200 hundred years ago. We hit it off. Immediately. She hadn’t met that many, if any, men at the disco who knew London or the Portobello Road flea market.
I asked if she would join me for dinner the following night. She accepted. There was something slightly off at the next night’s dinner at the only Thai restaurant in Philadelphia. I was trying to communicate with her, but she seemed oddly distracted and disconnected. And she wasn’t eating her noodles or the shrimp special.
A year later, she confided in me that she had been so nervous about our first date that she had taken some LSD to take the edge off. To her, the noodles in her Pad Thai seemed to have a life of their own. Despite the psychedelic distractions, we got along well enough that we planned a second date.
She was an equestrian by profession and managed a ranch for a wealthy white songwriter who wrote hits for The Sound of Philadelphia records. Carlee was very adept at everything involving horses (except betting on them). Our second date was at her ranch. She had asked me if I rode, and of course I said yes, no wuss me. When we arrived at the stalls, there were two very large stallions. I waited for her to get some saddles for them, and I waited, and waited. Eventually she said, “Okay let’s get on.”
“Where are the saddles?”
“Oh, we mostly ride bareback here.”
I had only gone horseback riding a handful of times as a teenager. With all the masculine manhood I could muster, I grabbed the reins, hoisted myself up and on. Away we went. We had another city date the next night, very indoors with no acid. The next time I was at the ranch, still anticipating riding bareback, she suggested we ride in the other direction and do the jumping course.
We dated for a while, but there were some romance-related conflict issues in her life, and we drifted apart. Six months later, Three Mile Island was threatening to melt down near Harrisburg, not too far from Philly. I had my own reactors and decided to be on the next flight to Miami. I was more attracted to the airport’s restaurant serving tuna melts than seeing Eastern Pennsylvania melting into the earth. While I was hanging out in Florida, planning a vacation to Jamaica, Joe D., my sidekick, was now also working as my drug mule. He called me one evening from a few blocks away with alluring news.
“Hey, remember that chick Carlee you were seeing for a while? She’s here at this jazz club right now.”
“Don’t let her leave,” I said. “I’m on my way.”
Long story short, that night I convinced her to go away with me to Jamaica the next morning, where we sunbathed, swam, and had copious quantities of drugs and intimacy. We started a life together, and 10 months later she told me she was pregnant, again. We talked it over, and she decided to terminate the pregnancy. The day of termination, I said, “You know, you don’t have to do this.”
“Okay, but if I keep the kid, will you promise to take care of us for the rest of my life?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Carlee had already had one or two abortions, and the idea of a third was unbearable and I figured, as long as I was working, I could afford to support them. And if I wasn’t working, that would mean I was in prison or shot to death.
I kept my word and took care of her and Ben financially even after Carlee and I broke up, until eventually she married someone else and she became his responsibility.
I never had a dad to teach me how to play sports, let alone praise me for my abilities or efforts. When Ben was four years old, I took him to an empty bowling alley.
“The object of the game, Ben,” I explained, “is to roll the ball past the pins without knocking any of them over.”
With my enthusiastic support, encouragement and guidance, he bowled a perfect game.
Brother Bruce was always fond of Ben, calling him a “wild kid.” At age six, my little show-off volunteered to be on stage off Broadway at Penn and Teller’s hot new show. They asked him to throw darts at a map of Bible History. When Penn Gillette referred to Ben as a “wild kid,” Brother Bruce leaned over to me and said, “See, I told you!”
My son Ben and I have always been close—as close as a father and son can be when Dad loves his son but is also busy selling drugs for the first 14 years of the kid’s life so I could support him and his mother . . . and support my voracious appetite for orchestra seats at Sondheim musicals, Zen Macrobiotic workshops with Michio Kushi, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll concerts once a week and lots of jazz clubs, too.
The night before Ben was born at home in Radner, Pennsylvania, I was in Atlantic City with Bob Watson and Jerome gambling and doing coke. It’s not like we were doing coke just because we were in Atlantic City. We could have been sitting shiva or attending a wake or waiting in line at the DMV. We were always doing coke, and we happened to be in AC gambling all night.
When I got home and got in bed at seven in the morning, Carlee rolled over and said, “I think this is it. I’m going into labor.”
“No, please, not this morning. Wait until later. I need some sleep.”
Two hours later, she wakes me, “The midwife’s assistant is out of town. You have to help. Here’s a list of things we have to get ready.”
The idea of giving birth in a hospital never occurred to us. To start our son’s divine existence where people go to die or treat diseases seemed barbarically commercial and all part of Big Pharma’s brainwashing endeavors to make mothers think the most natural thing in the world, happening for eons, was only safe in a diseased-filled hospital, where the baby immediately gets his eyes flushed with silver nitrate and taken away from the mother’s breast to be circumcised. Imagine the trauma of being taken from Mommy and then whittled like a branch in the hands of an old Okie rocking on the front porch.
I boiled some sheets and got out our prearranged home birth kit with sanitized everything. I just want to make sure the new video camera is set up. I start drinking endless cups of coffee for the rest of the day. I never drank booze in the daytime.
There was a lot of moaning and groaning and consoling. If I tried to say anything funny, Carlee’s eyes would shoot daggers at me.
I think we both took a couple of hits from a joint to calm down—to reduce the screaming she was slowly starting to vocalize. The midwife arrived midafternoon, sans assistant. She was all set up with her plastic gloves, peroxide and emergency forceps. Depends, gauze and a plastic sheet—in case I forgot to boil and sun-dry a cotton sheet—and other items as well.
Family lore has it that she forgot her sterilized umbilical cord-cutting scissors, and all we had in the house to cut him loose was the razor off the coke mirror. That probably isn’t true.
Oh boy, what a party. Me, Carlee, the midwife, plus Spook and Mia, our two black labs. Carlee hated being filmed, so at six in the evening, right before giving birth to our leading man, she looked at the JVC video camera and it froze for the rest of the night. However, the Nikon was close at hand.
At 7:10 p.m., on the 10th of July, a seven-pound, nine-ounce baby boy was born. I was going to put my thumb on the doula’s scale to make it a perfect three 7:10, 7/10, 7 lb./10 oz. But I didn’t. Because I don’t lie and would never fuck with the scale when weighing cocaine, pot, or family members.
I cut the cord and said, “Please forgive me. I’m sorry I have to do this.”
He looked up at me, square in the eye. That night, when I went to pay the midwife in hundreds, I knew what to name the baby: Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin, the greatest of the colonial patriots and one who made his fortune in Philadelphia, creator of America’s library system and—check it out—the dude on the hundred-dollar bill; and for Benny Cooper, owner of that corner candy store of my precious and lonely youth. Though Benjamin Franklin loved whores, I did not want Ben to grow up like his father or his namesake.
There was a debate about whether to have the boy circumcised, given that it is a Judaic requirement. Neither of us were traditionalists, but we still scheduled a nip and tuck for Benjamin a couple days later. However, after seeing how incredibly carefree he was, we were afraid that cutting off part of his penis could ruin his day. So, I had to break the news to my mother a few mornings later that the bris had been called off, and we were having a No-Bris celebration. Brisket yes, Bris NO. We had a fabulous party, and all the Jewish male guests shared a collective sigh of relief to hear I told the mohel to take the day off—not my son’s foreskin. I quickly had a little T-shirt made that read, UNCUT. It was the perfect pun for my son’s all-natural pecker and his coke-dealing father’s ethics.
Avoiding boredom at all costs, within a three-year period, I had two sons, got married and annulled. It took three women for that hat trick. Before there were cell phone cameras, I would tell couples who were about to get married to make sure the wedding photographer was using a Polaroid, so they would be guaranteed they saw photos before they broke up. My marriage broke up during our honeymoon.
My firstborn, Joshua, was born to Carol Ann Schwartz. Carol and I also met in 1977, when Robert Downey Sr. invited me to see his new film, a work in progress, at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, called FilmEx. Always changing careers, I was working at a wholesale female garment gambit at the time. A friendly customer mentioned that one of her designers, a Jewish woman from the Bronx, was now living in Santa Monica and I should look her up.
I looked her up . . . and down and from the moment I laid eyes on her, I knew something interesting was bound to happen. I hoped it would be something good, but in any event, I didn’t know it would end up being that interesting and that tragic. Little did I know years later I would wind up as her son’s conservator due to his serious developing mental illness. From her apartment we took a romantic walk on the Santa Monica pier in the spring’s enticing night air.
Then we drove to The Rainbow Room. As we danced under a mirrored ball with multicolored strobe lights flashing across our faces, our bodies high on cocaine, pot and Donna Summer, we fell in love. Soon to come however would be the winters of my discontent.
We were inseparable for the five days I was in Los Angeles, and a few weeks later she came to Philadelphia to spend a few weeks with me. We went up to Toronto, a lot cooler than Philly, and while at dinner one night, before her first bite, she fell face-first into her snapper soup. For no immediate comprehensible reason, she had passed out cold. The visuals were stunning. It was the first time I had seen someone take a real “header.” Embarrassed for her, and me, I wanted to crawl into a shell. I was having mussels.
Once she regained consciousness and took the snapper off her face, we continued on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. We spent the next 10 days in various Canadian hotels and cabin rentals, canoeing on lakes and getting to know each other before we returned to Philly.
A few days later, we were out shopping with a wad of $5 dollar bills. Five dollars bills were almost considered disposable in the drug trade. Way too bulky to fly with or smuggle back to Colombia. No self-respecting dealer would accept them unless they were collecting from street dealers. But I did have one customer who always paid in fives, hundreds of them. He was the main supplier of weed to the organization known as MOVE, a local separatist organization that financed their activities by selling nickel-and-dime bags of pot. The group was a back-to-nature anarchist movement that would like to give America back to the Indians and do away with all governments. Interestingly, all the members shared the same surname: Africa.
When we got home from spending our filthy lucre (the fives were grimy) supported shopping spree, I asked Carol to hand me her newly cut keys so I could open the front door. I guess I was holding all the happily filled shopping bags. She couldn’t find them in her purse.
Now, that sort of thing is not that uncommon. Usually, a woman dumps everything out of her purse and then finds them in her coat pocket. This situation was markedly different because she became completely hysterical and unhinged, far out of proportion to the situation of just misplacing some apartment keys.
Her hysteria scared me because it was at a level that only a true hysteric could achieve. I was dumbstruck and dismayed; not because of the lost keys, but because I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone with someone so dramatically irrational. It was terrifying. Especially since I was a drug dealer, always adhering to the low-profile way of life. It was as if I was suddenly starring in some low-budget horror movie that, despite the crude lighting and exaggerated makeup, scares you half to death. Sort of like the classic film, The Three Faces of Eve. Instead, it was The Two Many Faces of Carol.
I began to more closely watch her emotional responses to other situations. For the most part, they were larger than life, over the top, highly charged, inappropriate, and grating on my nerves. This relationship wasn’t going to work for more reasons than our irreconcilable mismatched neuroses, and we lived on opposite coasts. I had a thriving drug-dealing enterprise underneath my wholesale garments ruse, and you can fill in the blanks with any other reasonable justifications.
I knew I had to tell her that we could no longer be a couple. I’m not a doctor, despite dispensing massive amounts of unprescribed drugs for self–medication purposes, but I could clearly see that she had significant emotional or psychiatric problems well beyond my coping or caretaking abilities. Such problems are not character defects but medical issues. This did not lessen her beauty, her talent, or her other many splendid qualities. Although she was a very fine commercial artist, and I was an art lover, the outbursts did create a pentimento on my desire to be in a long-term relationship with her.
The next day she returned from running and doing some seemingly childish errands and I sat her down and said,
“I have something important to tell you.”
“I have something important to tell you, too,” she replied pleasantly. “You go first.”
A glimmer of optimism sparkled briefly as I inferred that we may be on the same page of How to End Your Friendly Failed Relationship. Or, Let’s Nip This in the Bud. We were smoking a lot of pot.
“Well,” I said with all the warmth I could muster, “it seems obvious to me, and no doubt to you . . .”
She nodded with a sly smile. I waited for her to synchronistically finish my sentence. She did not, so I continued, “that we really should not stay together as a couple.”
All the color drained from her face before turning fire engine red. She stood up, looked me right in the eye, and calmly replied, “Well, I just found out I’m pregnant.”
With that, she socked me right in the face, knocking me halfway across the room; it was a pretty big room.
When we calmed down, she spoke forcefully but without rancor. “I’m thirty-five,” she said, “and I’m having this child—with you or without you. Let’s make an agreement: You never ask for custody; I’ll never ask for child support.”
My attorney wrote up an agreement that we signed the next day before a notary. Then I bought her a big ol’ yellow Chrysler New Yorker (she was after all born in the Bronx) and drove her back to California. I left her with an aging car and a blossoming fetus. Perhaps the biggest mistake of my life was to keep in touch with her. When Joshua was born, I assumed that because she was beautiful and talented, she would soon find a husband, and Joshua would have a daddy and not just a biological drug-dealing father 3,000 miles away.
Carol had called me a few days after Joshua was born, and I wished her well. One year went by, then two. When he was two or three years old, I went to meet the odd couple (I think there was some emotional incest at play) in Key Largo. The next year, I saw them in Big Sur and Joshua was jumping up and down on the bed, yelling “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” I never said those words in my entire life, so I wasn’t sure who he was talking to. Yet here I was hearing them, and it’s breaking my heart. I was not his daddy. I was just his father. He was the continuation of my orgasm, not my ward. A man in lust who just never thought much of the future because of his drug addiction, asthma, and aortic stenosis.
Over the next 16 years, I saw Carol and Joshua for a few hours here and there, almost once a year. It was heartbreaking because I think Josh didn’t experience abandonment. He experienced rejection.
“Dear Josh, it was never you I rejected, just your mother.” It would have been far better if he never knew me, if he believed that his daddy passed away dead when he was three weeks old. Like my dada did do. Living 3,000 miles apart, me in Philly and they in LA, and then 385 miles apart when I lived in Marin County and Carol and Josh were in Santa Monica was not conducive to a steady father-son relationship.
I swear I thought Carol would meet a man, fall in love, and get married so Joshua would have a full-time daddy. She had been married once before so I knew she had it in her, so to speak.
Joshua would see me and know I was his father, but I never took him anywhere because when he was removed from his mother’s presence, he reacted like he was being kidnapped (a bit hysterical wouldn’t you say?). So I could never have him come stay with me. We never were and would never become a family.
His mother and I remained good friends, mostly because she needed me to send her an ounce of weed every month because she was a marijuana addict worse than me. Sativa and Indica, like Woodward & Bernstein. She was ready for anything, including death.
The most emotionally connected moment in our years of occasional interaction was on a visit to Carol and Joshua’s shabby flat in Santa Monica. I was more distant than usual and was suffering from a terrible flu and raging fever. We were sitting together, attempting to communicate through my thick, medicated influenza fog, when Carol’s phone rang. The entire atmosphere was rent asunder by the succinct message, “Carol, your mother died.” She packed a couple bags for her and the kid, flew to Miami for the funeral for a mother-in-law that never was. I had never met the old lady, the newly deceased woman who raised her daughter to be a bit of a hysteric. At least I was there to drive them to the airport. And you know how much people hate driving friends to LAX.
I once asked Carol about her life in high school, where we all get a chance to figure out who we are and who we wanna be. She told me she couldn’t remember anything about being in high school. Not anything. If that’s not a sign of some deep-seated psychological trauma, what is? Maybe that’s why she smoked pot every day of her life. If fact when I went to her apartment to retrieve Josh’s artwork after she died on June 16, 2020, I found two plastic vials of store-bought weed on her nightstand. One sativa, the other indica. Neither could save her life. She died never letting God shine its light directly into her heart. Clouds block sunlight, pot blocks Love’s light.
Back in 1996, Carol, despite her sex appeal and creativity, still hadn’t beguiled her Mr. Right right to the Chuppah until Joshua went to college on a full scholarship to CalArts. There, his blazing talent and unleashed creativity rapidly spread his fame and reputation as a future artistic superstar. He was being called the next Basquiat. But by his second semester, the ascending flame of his career was forever extinguished by a complete mental and emotional breakdown. The school called us and said Joshua had given up his dorm room, moved into an art supply closet and often was shouting at professors in class. They thought he was on drugs. That would have been so simple to deal with. Stop the drugs, stop the madness. But it was the madness that ruled everything.
A SWAT team of mental health professionals conducted every known psychological test. He was diagnosed with everything from Bipolar Disorder to Schizophrenia to Schizod Personality Disorder to Psychosis NOS. It seemed as if he had also had a lot of traits of Borderline Personality Disorder. The list of suspected yet unconfirmed diagnoses was long. No one seemed to be able to put their finger on what evil spirit possessed him. Years later the medical director at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena declared, “He’s been misdiagnosed for 15 years. He’s actually just Autistic!” And artistic!
Years earlier, the head of psychiatry at San Francisco General told me what Joshua needed was a good agent to sell his artwork. “Mr. Buschel, your son is an artistic genius. Don’t let what happened to Janis Joplin happen to your son.”
I swear that’s what he said! Well, she died and her suffering ended. Joshua lives on. He went missing in November 2019 and resurfaced in December 2020, living on the corner of Adams Blvd. and S. San Pedro just adjacent to the official homeless district in downtown LA. He was still sketching and trading drawings for food, not fame.
Joshua, Carol’s son, was not invited to his mother’s wedding because she was apprehensive about his erratic behavior. Even in his earlier years, he manifested signs and symptoms indicative of disruptive emotional disturbances. His behavior from early adolescence became increasingly unpredictable and concerning. I saw things going off the rails, but I didn’t feel I had the right to discipline him or doing anything about it since I only saw him once a year.
This included Joshua’s refusal to stand for the final prayer at his own Bar Mitzvah, for example.
Strangely enough, I have been Joshua’s conservator since the state of California ruled him gravely mentally ill and completely disabled. His mother had moved away to live in the Emerald Triangle amongst the Northern California redwoods, completely abandoning her only son. Joshua became an orphan with two living parents. When he was conceived, such an ignominious destiny was inconceivable.
My dad didn’t die on purpose nor did he intentionally cut himself out of my nascent desire for a balanced family. My opportunity to pass out of Joshua’s life gave up the ghost the day he bounced on the bed, yelling “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
As a child, Joshua was emotionally married to his mother. Perhaps what some call psychic incest. They rarely had visitors and always were in conflict. While she was smoking pot and watching foreign films, he was in his room playing violent video games and probably harboring patricidal ideations. When Joshua saw me with Ben, my son from the non-Jewish mother, he seethed at our closeness, so clung even harder to his hysterical Jewish mother/monster/wife/wiccan/Airbnb womb host.
As a deeply damaged adult, he now has only a de facto father, protector and advocate. His mother abandoned him to me and the California mental healthcare system, which is an oxymoron.
For a few years, whenever Joshua was out of sorts, he would walk over to Cedars Sinai (where I had my open-heart operation and brain surgery) and tell the nurse at the emergency room that he was very unhappy, despondent and planning to kill himself. That act (was it an act?) always got him admitted to the psych ward. On one such 5150, he was speaking to another patient. When Josh asked him what he did for a living, the guy said, “I’m an actor.” Josh asked if he’d ever been in anything that Josh (an avid moviegoer) might have seen. “I did play Chaplin in one film.”
Joshua responds, “I’m Lee Buschel’s son.”
“Oh, my God,” he says, “that practically makes us brothers.” Robert Downey Jr. and Josh palled around like old friends. Robert got out the next day. Before he left, he purchased one of Joshua’s drawings that he had brought with him to the hospital. Robert had his manager send a check to the halfway house Joshua was living in at the time. When Joshua got the check cashed he spent all the money on DVDs. He did not own a DVD player or television. Such works the mind of the mad.
That was probably Joshua’s only sale to an A-lister. And the sadness just doesn’t end. As of the publication of this book, Joshua Theo Schwartz is shelterless. The cop I befriended on the city’s Mental Evaluation Unit has been having a team of social workers and one psychiatrist visiting Joshua weekly at his domicile behind the donut shop (not even a Dunkin’ Donuts) on S. San Pedro. They have offered him housing and unlimited pharmaceuticals, but he has chosen absolute freedom. Josh loved meeting Robert back then, and whenever I talk to Jr. he always wishes Joshua well.
Josh had taken to living on the street in late 2019. He resurfaced at the end of 2020, spent some time on a psych ward and abandoned living in the California mental health system in June 2021.
As it was, Joshua had previously been confined in a chemical straight jacket for many, many years. He didn’t have the Thorazine shuffle so common to those warehoused as “in treatment,” but he had the faraway look of the uncomfortably numb. He’s done time in two state mental prison hospitals. Once for attempted kidnapping—a bullshit charge yet he did spend two years at Napa State Hospital awaiting trial, during which time he suffered from selective mutation—he did not speak a single word. It actually worked. He proved himself to be incompetent, so they decided not to try him and let him loose. He also once threatened to kill an on-duty fireman at his halfway house, actually considered an act of terrorism. Josh did two years at Patton State Hospital for that.
Robert Downey Jr. recovered his life and career; perhaps Joshua never had one to recover. By the time he went to college, his future was either all used up or sneaking up on him from behind. These are the lugubrious facts of my life and sorrowful realities of Josh’s.
Needless to say, I never had a dad to show me the way, or any way. As shitty as it turned out, I did my best. Is it my fault that Josh has led an incredibly tragic life? Not totally.
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