This week we bring you Chapter 2 of HIGH Confessions of a Cannabis Addict By Leonard Lee Buschel. Leonard Lee Buschel is an American publisher, substance abuse counselor 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.
The Starting Gate
I educated myself. To me, school was boring.
CUT TO: Beth Judah Hebrew School. Mr. Silver is sending me to the principal’s office . . . again. I was caught taking bets on that Sunday’s Eagles game.
The Philadelphia Eagles were a 14-point underdog against the New York Giants. My young classmates, who didn’t know what a point spread was, were all betting the Eagles would win outright. (No way that could happen against the New York Giants—not in 1962.) By the tender age of 12, I was well-versed in both the concept of the point spread and its profitable application.
I had learned these lessons at Cooper’s—not your ordinary corner confectionery. Cooper’s was the kind of candy store you’d see in an old Bowery Boys film or a Paul Mazursky movie or read about in The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s easy to picture handsome Jacob Garfinkel buying a pack of Chesterfields and telling the guys, “If this horse I have in the fifth at Garden State wins, I’m buying a one-way Greyhound ticket to Hollywood and changing my name to John Garfield.”
For a Jew, Cooper’s was the equivalent of an Irish pub, where neighbors often meet to have a few Guinnesses. But rather than a few pints, the magnet for me and some of these other brazen gamblers was placing bets with Moxie, the resident bookmaker; eating ice cream; drinking fountain sodas; and shooting the shit with the guys. I never felt alone or out of place there, even though I was the youngest patron. A real regular.
The younger of the guys (average age 30) and I played half-ball or handball out in front on the street every day, weather permitting. Meanwhile, to conduct their business, gamblers and bookmakers used the old-fashioned candlestick telephone. And I mean old-fashioned. The earpiece was separately tethered by a wire to a big black box with a protruding part, like an inverted megaphone to place your mouth against and speak. Very film noir if you ask me.
We played pinochle, rummy, or five-card stud and sometimes chess in the three booths at the back of the store. Always for money. Even chess. This was the kind of place where if two raindrops hit the front window at the same time, someone would bet you which drop rolled to the bottom first. However, it was the pinball machine that seemed to call my name, especially when I had someone to play against.
If a game is fun to play, it’s always more fun and way more intense if you have a bet on the outcome. A game of pinball only cost a nickel, but our bets could be up to 15 or 20 cents. To get those nickels, I would steal bottles off back porches and return them to the store for the deposit money. On a five-ball machine, I could play for 10 to 15 minutes on one game. That meant that for 10 to 15 minutes, I wasn’t thinking about anything else, like homework or chores or where I was going to get my next nickel to play another game.
Pinball took all the powers of observation and finger dexterity I had. At 12 years old, playing pinball was my first compulsive habit. When I was old enough to go to Las Vegas, and before Atlantic City drained every last dollar from New Jersey’s senior citizens and pie-in-the-sky lottery addicts, I would gamble on anything, but mostly on sports, poker, and other casino games.
Stooped over with age and experience, Benny Cooper was the owner of the candy store. For how long? Nobody knew, but definitely pre-Civil War. He was old. His smile was as bright as the gray hair on his shiny Jewish kup, a smile that would not quit. On Sunday mornings, the store became an eye-burning experience from the cigars and cigarettes smoked by all the regulars. Cooper minded his own business and never said a cross word to anyone. He also ignored any illegal transactions going on right in front of his Coke-bottle thick eyeglasses. Thankfully, I could owe him for anything I wanted whenever I ran out of money. Later, when I had a son of my own, I named him Benjamin. We called him Benny.
Cooper’s was home to a cast of characters who were as colorful as anything from the pens of Damon Runyon or Saul Bellow. With no daddy, I leaned on these paternal role models—the gamblers, bookmakers, convivial conmen, scholars, poets and hucksters from the streets of Philly. I gathered with my surrogate tutors, embroiled in discussions about politics, literature and the arts. Fights were rare. Firearms were unheard of. Although before I left the house, my mother warned me not to get hit by any stray insults. It was, after all, a Jewish neighborhood.
Moxie, who always wore a suit and a tie on his medium build, had an engaging smile that never really looked full—more like a stifled grin that was deciding which way to go next. He was the top bookmaker in the neighborhood.
Fixie must have been Sephardic. He had a dark, almost Latino complexion. Fixie was slender and flexible but not a big gambler. He had impressive eyebrows—cathedral round, not too bushy. But his eyes were expressive enough to make you think that he knew what he was talking about. He did odd jobs and small scams whenever he could. He was also the best half-ball player in the neighborhood.
Fox was bulky but not overweight. He was a solid, all-American guy who always needed a shave. His smile was pearly white. He was plain spoken and direct. And very good looking. He always had a girl stashed somewhere.
Bruce the Flying Goose was annoying yet very charismatic. He was five foot eight and had wavy dark hair, which he never combed. His Adam’s apple was noticeably large (he would not have made a convincing tranny). He was always trying to make some deal or another. Goose’s brother was called The Geese. He was odd-looking, almost Picasso-like. Together, the two of them could’ve starred in a buddy movie directed by Robert Downey Sr.—a movie that would be funny, nonsensical, absurd, and good-natured.
The know-it-alls who hung out at Cooper’s were always ready to share their advice. Two days after I had sex for the first time, I walked up to the corner, and future lawyer Big Ed hands me a book by Henry Miller. “I heard you had sex. Read this,” he said. “Now you can have an opinion.”
For me, the streetwise guys of North Philly offered needed fatherly advice. They had near-rabbinical insight regarding romance and finance. Sure, I could ask my mother for answers to life’s nagging questions, but she was too exhausted from working every day to give me anything but a woman’s perfunctory answer. From the guys on the corner, I would get answers from a man’s point of view, something my mother could never give me. Answers that sometimes were more like questions. The ways Jews so often do:
“Do you think it’s going to be a hot summer?”
“Do I think it’s going to be a hot summer? What am I, a weatherman?”
“If I dream about having sex with my mother, does that mean I’m going to become a Freudian therapist?”
“Does it mean you’re going to become a psychoanalyst? No, it means you better get laid soon.”
These men revered Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bobby Fischer, Arnold Rothstein, Sandy Kofax, Lenny Bruce, and our new young president, John F. Kennedy. In some ways, years later, I intellectually (and emotionally) adopted these men, along with Robert Bly, Tom Robbins, Hunter Thompson, Alan Watts, Martin Amis, J. D. Salinger and most influential of all, Henry Miller, the author dubbed the “Buddha with a penis,” to be my surrogate fathers. The poets who most moved me were Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg, Gregory Corso, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Lew Welch.
As for the arts, the one taken most seriously was cinema. Jumping into a car with a couple of guys to go downtown to see a first run film was heavenly. First for the camaraderie, second for the film but only if it was a good one. And if someone (like me) didn’t have enough money to get in, somebody would always offer to treat. If someone offered to cover your ticket, you had passed the initiation. You knew you belonged. Who knows, maybe the guys were all actually just hoping to get under my mother’s skirt. But those were some of the happiest days of my life. Going to the movies with friends, then and now, always puts a skip in my step. (Come to think of it, Mom did wear a lot of skirts.)
The complimentary social matrix of my maturation was Logan’s black-market society, where commercial transactions took place devoid of check-out counters and cash registers. Sales were undocumented, untaxed and most likely illegal. This was, of course, perfectly normal.
When Jackie Pants, with Cheshire cat grin, excitedly pulls up to the corner candy store, opens his car trunk filled with new Brooks Brothers suits, and offers them at 80 percent below retail, you know this is a deal made in the shade. The best deals are always too good to be true and too shady to withstand the bright light of ethical inquiry.
I don’t think the suit I wore to my Bar Mitzvah was “hot,” although it is an appealing picture stuffing a stolen suit with honest money, after phonetically mouthing a religious incantation without a spiritual experience anywhere in the room until my mother’s boyfriend gets the bill for the whole shindig and cries, “Jesus Christ, who ordered the two extra cases of Smirnoff?”
In truth, if my mother had happened to be coming out of the candy store with our biweekly supply of two half-gallons of Breyers vanilla fudge ice cream, and if the trunk of a late-model Chevrolet Impala were openly revealing teen-sized suits for sale at seriously marked-down prices, she would have bought one. Why not keep the money in the neighborhood and save a trip downtown to Wanamaker’s or Gimbels?
I followed their example, and what it got me at the Beth Judah Hebrew School was a lot of dough and a little trouble for taking bets. What did I know? I was only 12.
So there I was in Principal Rothenberg’s office. I was angry because I wasn’t done collecting bets, although the assorted lunch monies I had stuffed into my pants pockets were substantial enough to create a comfortable bulge. Being in the principal’s office was very awkward, for him not me. Rothenberg, a married man, was having an affair with my mother. I knew it. He knew that I knew it. When two enemies share the same secret, silence is their mutual friend. I protect his indiscretion, and he overlooks mine. Mr. Rothenberg’s affair was my first lesson in the practical application of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know . . . and what you know about them.”
“Lee” (my name before sobriety), advised Rothenberg, “just sit here for 10 minutes, then go tell your class I gave you a stern talking to.”
Had I been the adult, I would have given him the stern talking to. I may have been only 12, but I already felt like a man. Who needs a Bar Mitzvah? Although, one year later, we made it official, at least according to Jewish custom. I became a man raised by a woman.
Mom was very discreet regarding her affair, although her teen years were fairly risqué. Every year on her birthday, a large carton of 24 assorted gift boxes of Cherrydale Farms chocolates were delivered to our house. It was only after her death, when Brother Bruce and I read her diary, that we learned she, at the age of 16, was knocked up by Mr. Cherry (oh, the irony). He paid for the abortion and soothed his conscience by gifting Mom a lifetime supply of chocolate-covered cherries every Christmas. Although a gift for having an abortion should rightly be delivered on Good Friday.
Looking back at Mr. Principle (intentionally spelled like the synonym for morals), I’ll bet that my first lawyer, the very well (mob)-connected Rob Simone, would have told me to blackmail the bastard. I could have had gifts for all eight days of Hanukkah or a scholarship to the yeshiva. Yeah, as if that’s where I was headed.
Gambling can be as intoxicating as alcohol—and sunflower kernels. For the entirety of my youth, I had enjoyed eating sunflower seeds, cracking off the shell, and eating one kernel at a time. In 1965, on my way to the movies to see The Sound of Music in Atlantic City, all alone, I stopped by Planter’s Peanuts to buy a snack. The store had bags of unshelled sunflower seeds. I had never seen that before. So I bought a 16-ounce bag. Halfway through the movie, I realized I’d eaten the whole bag and was now physically ill. I sat through the film feeling uncomfortable but not knowing which way the seeds were going to exit my body. But still loving the movie as much as one could love any Nazi-inspired Broadway musical brought to the screen by born-Jewish geniuses. That is my first memory of addictive behavior. I would create many more.
Although alcohol has never been my drug of choice, alcohol can taste and feel like the nectar of the Gods. In Greek mythology, the Olympians were said to drink ambrosia, which bestowed upon them immortality. When reality sets in, mortality can be sobering and frightening. An ancient Hebrew legend tells the difference between moderate and irresponsible drinking. When Noah planted grape vines, Satan revealed to him the possible effects of alcohol. He slaughtered a lamb, a lion, an ape and a pig. He explained: “The first cup of wine will make you mild like a lamb; the second will make you feel brave like a lion; the third will make you act like an ape; and the fourth will make you wallow in the mud like a pig.” It’s when the wallowing episodes outnumber the bravery escapades that you have to STOP.
Famed comic Dick Van Dyke, after some time sober, remembered calling the AA office while drunk in the middle of the night during one of his drinking and crying binges. “I slipped off the wagon,” said Van Dyke. “I bought a bottle, had four drinks, and got sick to my stomach. I thought I might become so hooked again I was terrified, and I poured the rest down the sink. I haven’t had another drink since.”
Later in my life, in a dream that felt very real, the poet, novelist, and short story writer Charles Bukowski tried to kidnap me. I told him to go fuck himself with a beer bottle. He grabbed a Heineken and did so gladly.
In real life, I used to see Bukowski every time I went to the racetrack, usually Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. I later heard that his doctor told him if he didn’t stop drinking, he would die a mundane, miserable alcoholic death. Since Bukowski never wanted to be considered mundane in any way, he put down the bottle and replaced drinking with nonstop horse betting. In fact, he bet on every horse in every race. He never lost a race. He only lost money.
After a period of time, Bukowski’s doctor told him that his health had improved, and he could try drinking in moderation. As we know, moderation is not in everyone’s vocabulary, but Bukowski did his best. He turned drinking and gambling into two interlocking hobbies and was happy as a clam. Those who warned that booze would be the death of him were dead wrong. He died of leukemia in 1994, still holding onto his love of writing, women, booze and horse race gambling.
In my early twenties, I worked as the trophy photographer at Northfield Park Racetrack on the outskirts of Cleveland. It was harness racing, not thoroughbred racing. I shared an office with the security department. One night, my office mate, a retired FBI agent, made an announcement over the public address system, paging a male patron to come to the security office. When he arrived, racing form in hand, the officer told him they had received a call from the hospital: His wife had just died. Heartbroken, he left the office a little dazed—but not to call family and friends or get in his car and drive home, as you would think. No, he went right to the $100 window and made a bet. No photograph I could take could have captured that profoundly addictive moment. (Who knows, maybe he was celebrating.)
As a kid, I loved not only playing and betting on sports but watching and following all the action and intrigue that come with them. At 14, I was a devout Phillies fan. I kept a scrapbook filled with every story about “my team” and firmly believed they were a lock for the 1964 World Series. I cut out each day’s box scores from the morning Philadelphia Inquirer and glued them into my scrapbook. They were 10 games ahead in the standings in the National League, and I was on cloud nine with puberty behind me and a pennant in front of me. And then . . . it all went to hell in the debacle known as The Phold of ‘64.
On September 21, 1964, Chico Ruiz of the Cincinnati Reds stole home plate from third base, starting a losing streak for the Phillies, and that same day the St. Louis Cardinals started a winning streak. They went on to finish in first place and win the World Series against the New York Yankees.
I was heartbroken. No, I was beyond heartbroken. Overtaken by fate and massive depression, I put my scrapbook in a cardboard box and never looked at it again. I had invested an enormous amount of adolescent emotional (possibly sexual) energy in identifying myself with the Phillies. Their victories were mine; their ignominious defeat was mine as well. I vowed to no longer pin my self-image to the success of anyone else, nor fall for the hype of self-esteem by proxy.
If there were to be victories for Leonard Lee Buschel, they would be mine, on my terms, my way and not dependent on the fate of others, especially those who I had semi-worshipped but who never knew my name. Being a ’64 Phillies fanatic was a dream gone bad.
In some areas, people are judged by how rich they are, what kind of family they come from, what country club they belong to, and what kind of Caddy Daddy drives. In my neighborhood, there was no such crap. Instead, the most valuable thing we had was our word. If people couldn’t trust you, you were shunned because they couldn’t include you in their scams or be privy to their backdoor romances. The deal was: You lie=You get ostracized. I learned there is honor among thieves, so to speak, and in my neighborhood, that was equivalent to equality and acceptance.
Some folks may regard my old neighborhood as “dangerous.” Nonsense. It was only dangerous if you were seen doing anything suspicious or, worse yet, taken into custody by the cops. The day before I started Olney High School, Brother Bruce and I were taken into custody for “corner lounging.” This was a pivotal moment in my psychological and emotional development. It instilled in me an unwavering oppositional attitude toward authority.
You’ve never heard of the horrid crime of corner lounging? Well, that may be because the Constitution of the United States assures you of the right of free assembly, a concept unfamiliar to some local law enforcement officers. In truth, corner lounging is a crime in Philadelphia of long-standing reputation. In 1880, the mayor’s office reported 198 cases of corner lounging in the annual crime report, yet there were fewer than 10 charges of unlawful assembly, one crime of sodomy, and two folks arrested for bastardy.
Corner lounging is, as one would surmise, the crime of lounging on a corner. Mid-block lounging isn’t serious enough to merit incarceration. What happened? Brother Bruce and I went to the movies and took the bus home. Dropped off at the corner bus stop, we walked over to Cooper’s to see if anyone was hanging out, someone we could shoot the shit with or talk about the movie we’d just seen. Shortly after we got there, a red and white pulled up, two cops lumbered out of their cop car and grabbed us before we had even the slightest opportunity to start lounging. The cops took us to the slammer at the 35th Precinct. That’s where they lock you up before taking you downtown to the Round House to be booked and fingerprinted.
Brother Bruce, being over 16, was released on his own recognizance. Being under 16, I didn’t have sufficient recognizance. Mom couldn’t come get me because she was unreachable at the Ben Franklin Motor Inn with her married lover. He, however, did experience release, while I languished behind bars on the night before my first day of high school. Maybe that’s why I named my son Ben.
On a side note, believe it or not, I prefer the pre-cell phone era, when we were not all accessible anywhere, at any time day or night. Anyway, my brother called my best friend Joe D. His father, Shep, was our local “Committee Man” (politically connected). Joe asked his father to come to the 35th Precinct and get me out. He signed me out of jail at 2:00 a.m. In Philly, a neighborhood Committee Man’s personal power outweighs the beat cop and trumps the perversity of a corner lounging arrest.
Once, when best friend Joe borrowed Shep’s car to drive us to the yearly Strates Carnival, he opened the glove compartment and showed me a hundred parking tickets Shep had gotten and just ignored. That was the way Philly politics worked. We needed the car to go to the yearly Strates Carnival because it was a couple neighborhoods away and too outside our comfort zone to take the bus.
The rides were dangerous, the food was dangerous and the girls were extremely dangerous. And we were only going for the girls. The girls were dangerous because it seemed like whichever one was anxious to talk to you had two boyfriends who were anxious to beat you up. (Probably whacked around by their fathers and just living up to the adage, “Hurt people, hurt people.”)
Before Shep “got me sprung,” I was starting to fantasize—or hallucinate—that I could slip through the bars of the jail cell. Obviously, I could not. Luckily, when 2:00 a.m. rolled around and I was set free, I could go home and sleep for a few hours before my first day at high school.
Orientation Day? I thought I had just had initiation night. The hard floor-to-ceiling iron bars, the single phone call, the gestapo feel of the backseat of a cop car, and no idea what I had done wrong.
Sleep deprived, I stepped foot into the high school auditorium with more than 1,500 excited students chattering and yammering for the “welcome new students” assemblage. I was yawning like I had been up half the night planning my escape from jail, because I was! That’s alright. It was all bullshit anyway. All I could do was percolate in my mind my brewing, strong distrust for authority because the night before, I was arrested for nothing. It must have been a slow night at Logan’s 35th Precinct. That distrust for authority followed me through my high school years, at that very big (1,823 boys and girls) and oppressive educational institution.
If I couldn’t trust authority, I could trust the guys in the neighborhood.