This week we bring you Chapter 9 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.
One morning in 1980, I was alone in London, extremely entranced with the city. My local BFF Gerry Maguire Thompson told me to go see this new musical called Sweeney Todd. Absolutely had to he said! He hoped I could score a single ticket at the Royal National Theatre.
In my travel journal, I kept track of every “line item” throughout the day, beginning in the morning:
9:15 Instant Miso soup
9:30 One hit of Thai stick
10:30 Another hit
11:00 A shot of espresso and a line of coke
12:00 Two more shots of espresso and half a scone
12:30 Another hit and a spoonful of blow
1:00 Underground to Covent Garden
1:30 Get lucky, buy a single ticket at Royal National Theater and do a couple tiny spoonfuls
2:00 A Carlsberg lager at the pub on the corner
2:15 A mini-bottle of Bombay gin and another hit in front of the theater
2:25 Two more sniffs
2:30 Take my seat, curtain-up—WHAT A RUSH!
For anyone who hasn’t been blessed or lucky enough to have seen this explosion of musical theater anytime in the last 40 years, there is an incredibly LOUD high-pitched ship whistle in the first few minutes. I nearly jumped out of my skin and clutched my chest as if I were having a Hollywood heart attack.
I started out in the balcony and then moved down to a gloriously empty seat in the tenth row. No one tried to stop me. I wanted to be as close as possible to everything except myself. Too frightened to internalize, ingest, transform, or transcend, I always sought to be closer to that which was outside of me.
Looking back, I think the encyclopedia of my feelings as a human in this life can all be found referenced in Stephen Sondheim songs. I don’t know any artist I have learned more about my feelings from than Sondheim. I’ve seen all of his shows more than once, except Assassins, which I wasn’t able to catch live. Of course, I have the CD. Sometimes I wonder who I will mourn the most when they go. Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Sondheim, or Spike Lee (assuming I outlive them). Spike is the longshot. Black people seem to live forever if they’re not pulled over for a traffic stop. Don’t get me wrong, I am not obsessed with death, but it’s all I think about. I don’t really care how I die, hopefully quickly, hopefully painlessly, preferably in my sleep. I just don’t want to die during an asthma attack suffocating to death on fresh air, no, not the NPR radio show. Sondheim. When he goes, there won’t be much to look forward to on Broadway. Yes, Hadestown was great. But it’s no Sweeney Todd.
I was not unhappy or dissatisfied as a drug dealer. I just knew it could end tragically. So I began to pursue every legal opportunity to make a living without jeopardizing my freedom and my life. Once I backed a clothing designer. It didn’t work out. I had a video studio in Mill Valley, but I really couldn’t make a profit with one client, even though it was Peter Coyote. I backed Uncle Vinty’s vaudeville career, but that didn’t work out. (I wonder why? Wasn’t vaudeville making a comeback?) I didn’t want all my girlfriends to think all I could ever be was a drug dealer because they knew I would eventually either go to prison or get hurt. I was always looking over my shoulder, afraid my time would be up any day, and the cops would take me away forever. It’s not really a sustainable career. And I knew it too. It was just a matter of time. Every new day brought me closer to my demise. Little did I know that all it would take was a bottoming out on Ecstasy (MDMA) and a month at Betty Ford to free me of a futureless future and set me on a new path of love and light.
In 1984 my girlfriend was the brilliant set designer Cherry Baker. Years before, when she designed the restaurant and menu at the Yarrow Stalk in Boulder, she was Joe D.’s girlfriend. Cherry was also the chef. She is nothing short of a miracle worker and the author of the cookbook Delicious Desserts.
My friend George Wallace (real name) had just released his newest album. He was a composer, performer, producer, vocalist, musician capable of playing any instrument and singing every part for a three-record LP exercise program called FitKids. One night, years later, I took George out to see a performance by Philip Glass at the University of Pennsylvania. George had never heard of him before (George was more of a rock ‘n’ roller than a Steve Reich kind of guy.) I assured him that this would be the most interesting thing happening in all of Philadelphia that night. True enough, as we entered Irvine Auditorium, Timothy Leary was going in the next door—a rare sighting, especially in Philly. From the first chord, the uniquely round auditorium seemed to spin into space and remain aloft for 90 minutes. Maybe it was Leary spraying the air with an aerosol can of acid.
Anyway, I was interested in buying the rights to license George’s FitKids as a video. I contacted the album’s executive producer, Rob Rosen. He was a big (tall) New York attorney. We shot a demo in Marin County, starring my four-year-old son, Benjamin, and all his friends. We secured an appointment to pitch FitKids to executives at ABC.
Cherry and I flew to New York and stayed at her brother’s Columbus Circle apartment while he was out of town. The night before my meeting at ABC, Cherry and I did some coke—no, a lot of coke. And with a lot of coke comes a lot of alcohol. She passed out at about six in the morning, four hours before my 10 o’clock attempt at noncriminal success.
I tried getting at least a couple hour’s shut-eye, but construction crews in the Big Apple didn’t adhere to my sleep schedule. There were dozens of jackhammers hammering in front of the building. They rattled the windows and shook down the walls, and my heart, it was a-poundin’.
I thought, as always, that I was going to have a heart attack. This wasn’t only drug-induced paranoia. After all, I did have a life-threatening heart condition called aortic stenosis. My reasoning was a bit self-centered; I thought my “defunktive” heart was shaking the building.
I finally discerned that my ventricles were not violently disturbing the concrete and steel of New York, but it was honestly disturbing that I’d forgotten to pick up my business suit at the dry cleaner the day before. With meeting day being on a Jewish holiday, the cleaner was closed, as was most of New York, but ABC was open. So, there I am, waiting to meet my attorney/partner in just a regular shirt and tie with no jacket. It was fall, and it was chilly, but I had no choice.
We went to the ABC skyscraper, otherwise known as ABC News headquarters. I hadn’t slept at all. I hadn’t eaten at all. I was a mess, to say the least. My partner was a tall imposing figure, handsomely attired and well fed. We made our way to the elevator up to the 48th floor. It seemed as through the elevator itself took delight in speeding us up to our meeting so we could experience our rejection that much faster.
At the same time, I’m imagining the elevator is shooting toward the heavens so fast, it felt like we were on the Saturn V rocket, but instead of taking us to the moon, we would be crashing straight up through the roof into the heavens, and a well-placed parachute would glide us through the air and deposit us in Central Park where we would take a Hansom cab to the Algonquin Hotel and have lunch with Dorothy Parker and share delicious bon bons and bon mots with her friends and thus relieve me of this horrible life of drug addiction and despondency. Instead . . . we were gently frog marched into the executive’s office, and we’re seated on the other side of his mahogany desk, both pitching the show. Actually, Rob is doing most of the talking while I’m just trying to stay conscious and not throw up. I could feel beads of sweat flying off my forehead, like in a cartoon.
I start feeling really faint, and I’m looking at the executive’s desk. I see one of those fancy useless desk pen stands—where two pens with very pointy ends are inserted in a little slab of marble. I’m noticing that the pens are pointed toward me, and I start to think, if I pass out, I’m going to lose an eye by doing a header onto his desk. So I gently, nonchalantly, take the little marble granite pen thing and slide it over, just in case I fall forward.
I manage to keep it together long enough to get escorted out of the office with a “We’ll let you know,” which rhymes with NO. We did find out a couple weeks later that little gymnast bitch overachieving Olympic Gold medalist slut Mary Lou Retton was in New York pitching her exercise show at the same time. I guess ABC decided they would give it to the Olympian from the Olympics instead of the coke dealer from Philly.
You would like to think I had learned something from that experience. I learned you can always be blindsided by Mary Lou Retton even if you don’t lose an eye to a network executive’s pen and pencil set. Or, never send a man with a drug hangover to sell physical fitness.
In another appointment-related drama, I made a noon meeting with my attorney, Doug Wurken (still my attorney to this day), to discuss my small video company in Mill Valley, California, I had started. He arrived at my home on time, however I woke up a mere five minutes before the scheduled consultation. Problem was, I was hungover and nauseated and couldn’t get out of bed to throw up in the bathroom. But I could lean over and throw up my guts into the waste basket . . . every few minutes. Doug was waiting for me in the garden just outside my bedroom window. Yes, he could hear me vomiting loudly and profusely.
Well, I’m a quick learner. I turned to Cherry, who was living with me at the time, and said, “My God, we need to reassess our relationships with the professional and business worlds. From now on, no appointments before 2:00 p.m. Because, by then, we could at least put on a modicum of looking together and presentable to regular working people.”
I didn’t take that business meeting. The aftereffect of getting wasted meant Doug’s time was wasted on an unreliable and overly intoxicated client (me). The number of meetings cancelled or rescheduled over the years due to hangovers or semi-comatose conditions have never been tallied. Thank God that isn’t a problem today. If I make an appointment, you can rely on me showing up in my best condition. Like Johnny Cash used to sing, “If the Good Lord’s willing/and the creek don’t rise/we’ll see you in the morning.”
A natural-born entrepreneur, I’d come up with dozens of good business ideas, but my using always got in the way of bringing anything to fruition. Always.
A rise in my blood pressure from a jackhammer heartbeat similar to or exceeding my Columbus Circle panic attack happened during a glorious evening of rock ‘n’ roll at famed Hollywood hot spots the Roxy and the Rainbow Room. It began with a benefit to Save the Whales, but I was the one about to sleep with the fishes.
Thelonious Monster opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had never heard of Thelonious Monster, and they were amazing. Years later, I had the pleasure of working with the Monster’s front man, Bob Forrest, when I screened Bob and the Monster, a documentary film about Bob, at my REEL Recovery Film Festival. Bob was also nice enough to perform at the Experience, Strength and Hope Awards show in 2016, where he did a cutting five-minute spoken word diatribe against rehabs. Just because he had stopped cutting lines didn’t mean he’d stopped screaming at the powers that be.
Back at the Roxy, I didn’t think any band could be better than Bob Forrest and Thelonious Monster. Boy was I mistaken. Like the shaking of the building under New York construction worker jackhammers, now it was the entire universe shaking. The Chili Peppers had taken the stage and begun their first song. Their performance reached a new zenith, forming a grin on my face that I felt could last forever. Every nerve ending and every brain cell was ecstatic.
They were so exciting. They were so loud, and they were almost completely naked. It took about 10 minutes for Ilene (who is dead now) to yell out, “My God, they’re not wearing any clothes! Just socks on their cocks!” (Nice to know that half the band got sober in later years.)
When the show was over, we got our car from valet parking, reluctantly getting in but definitely not wanting the night to be over.
I asked Ilene, “Where to now?”
“The Rainbow Room!”
The Rainbow Room is right next door to the Roxy. The car nudged forward a few inches, we got out, and parked with the same valet. The drive was shorter than my penis.
The Rainbow Room was even more druggie than the Roxy—and so were we: a lot of coke and more than enough tequila. In present tense, it went like this:
We’re standing in one of the hallways between the lounges, and my heart is pounding like those jackhammers back in New York. Once again, I’m scared to death because of my heart condition. I’m just trying to keep my balance and my heart rate under 120.
I turn around and on the wall are various framed LPs, awards and gold records. The one I’m leaning against is by a well-known Los Angeles band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. This is it. I just know it.
Yeah, this is going to be my epitaph: He died clutching a mounted album called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack on the wall of the world-famous Rainbow Room on Sunset Boulevard where, unlike in Cheers, nobody knew his name.
Sweat-drenched and resigned to the inevitable, I wait for my life’s most significant moments to flash before my eyes. They do, but not in linear order or arranged by topic or significance. It was as if someone took VHS movies of my life and ran them through a Veg-O-Matic.
In my typical stoned critique mode, I silently ask, Who the hell edited this reel? I was so glad for the happy ending that night. I didn’t die, and I got laid.
My sexual exploits continued, as did my problems with asthma. In 1985 I was staying in a friend’s suburban house in Philly while he was traveling with his band. Ilene was with me and earlier in the day, I had run into my friend Desiree and invited her to visit. I left money with Ilene to pay for Desiree’s taxi.
I went out to the liquor store right before Desiree arrived and took my sweet time, knowing that if the two girls met alone, without me there, they would probably be going down on each other before I got back. Right again.
At six in the morning, Ilene had passed out and Desiree had tied me to a chair in the living room and wanted me to do more coke with her. I thought I was having another Hollywood heart attack. I couldn’t breathe because my asthmatic bronchia were in full “I ain’t marching anymore” mode. I begged her to untie me so I could use my asthma inhaler. I wanted to take some Valiums and go to sleep before the dawn broke. Desiree would have none of that and started to freak out.
I made Ilene wake up and untie me. I grabbed my inhaler, took a few whiffs and we drove Des to Penn Station. We drop-kicked her onto the train platform and dropped a hundred dollars in her purse. In those days, you could pay the conductors with cash. That was before computers controlled our every move, thought, purchase or comprehension of reality.
Ilene and I ran back to the car so we could take off in case Desiree decided to change her mind and wanted to come back to the party house with us. What a long night and morning. Train stations in the morning hold an unreal atmosphere, with well-dressed commuters, whereas we had not even gone to sleep yet. Call me nocturnal, or call me sleep deprived, but call me the happiest man alive because that night was over.
Ilene was a good friend, the kind of woman I could not see for months at a time and then hook up with again as if we hadn’t missed a beat. On New Year’s Eve 1986, Ilene, two other women and I are at the 4th St. Tavern in San Rafael. Great local band playing. We had already shared a bottle of Tattingers and dabbled in a little sex and had a lot more planned for later. Now we were drinking the hard stuff. Is there anything more elegant than a vodka on the rocks with a squeeze of lime? It’s like the moment when Watson and Crick realized they had discovered the design of the DNA molecule. They knew they were right because it was “beautiful.” That’s how I perceived a vodka on the rocks with a squirt of lime.
About 11:30 p.m., a guy comes up to me bewildered, amazed, and drunk. “How do you rate having three women tonight, and I don’t have any?”
“Because I give them what they want: love, laughter, honesty, and sex.” Maybe the drugs and champagne had a little something to do with it too. But just a little.
In the taxi from San Francisco International to San Anselmo, after a flight back from a detox de-coking trip to Zihuantanejo, Mexico, I ask Karl, “Once we get home, how long do you think it’ll take before we go for the coke stash?”
“How long does it take to open the front door?”
After a half-hour at home, a joint, a few lines, and putting a vial in the vial pocket of my jeans, I got into my car and drove over the forever stunningly beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. It was midnight. I was driving over the bridge to the Tenderloin. Sometimes I feel like Tom Waits, who famously said on The Tonight Show, “I’m so horny, the crack of dawn better watch out.”
I picked up a streetwalker. She had a real French name. It was a very long day that started at an airport in Mexico and ended very happily because I was able to get back home without the cops busting me with the hooker, without a DUI and without smashing my car from being blinded by the night. This was my first inkling that my behavior with drugs and sex might one day have disastrous consequences. Now that I know the definition of a sex addict, I think that night I had crossed the line.
I remember once asking my cousin Eric the Rap, who had lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, how long do you have to live in the Bay Area before the thrill of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge fades away. He said, “It never does.”
Moments such as these seem fleeting and perhaps inconsequential—or not. And if one is prudish, much of my life is an offense to the senses. Not my senses, of course. I recall making love to some woman after doing a few lines of not very well-chopped coke. I sneezed, broke a blood vessel, and exploded with projectile bleeding all over her pure white canvas-like back. I looked down and thought, I’m Jackson Pollock.
When I became a drug counselor years later, I told this story to a room full of male clients/patients/addicts. For months afterward, when they saw me in the hallway, they addressed me as Mr. Pollock. I didn’t realize how colorful the story actually was until I heard them address me that way. Maybe my life looked like a Pollock splatter painting.
The 1980s in New York was a charming dichotomy. After checking into the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City at 11:00 p.m., I went out to buy some fresh-cut flowers with no thorns to adorn the room. I was thinking about how cool it was to be able to buy anything you want at any hour in Manhattan. When I got back 15 minutes later, there was a fresh pool of blood in the elevator. Was it cocaine nosebleed blood similar to the one I had on my lover’s back or a fresh-cut stabbing?
It’s true, in a 24/7 town, someone could have gotten stabbed in the elevator in the time it takes to go out and buy flowers. At the Gramercy Park Hotel, if you went out to hang in the park, so the housekeeping staff could do its thing, and some lines were on the coffee table in the room, the maid would dust around them. That’s New York City. Maids doing maid things, and hotel guests doing everything.
It wasn’t until I saw myself in the bathroom mirror of a trendy afterhours club in New York, with a joint in one hand and a kamikaze sitting on the sink in front of me, while bending down with a silver straw in my nose inhaling a couple lines of uncut Bolivian cocaine, that I realized my original plan to avoid open-heart surgery was working. I had hit on the ultimate preventive surgery solution. The solution to my surgery woes was to continue a lifestyle that would kill me first, which wouldn’t have been the worst thing that could have happened, except for the lifelong grief I would have inflicted on my mother and brother.
I was still quite fearful of the possibility of doctors sawing my chest in half, stopping my heart, and replacing defective parts. But if you’re dead, the open-heart surgery idea is null and void. It was as if Thanatos himself was whispering a game plan in my ear—the only orifice I didn’t put something in to get high.
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