Busted In Venice
It was a warm spring night in 1976, and I was at my desk, trying to write a scene in which a woman has a breakdown. The work was not going well. I wanted to convey that state of raw, animal fear in which one jumps at the sound of a kettle boiling, dogs barking, but I could not seem to breathe feeling into the words.
I sat there, scratching phrases, crossing them out, twirling my hair, when I heard a sudden crash in the patio at the rear of my house. I looked at the clock: 12:45 A.M. I was alone, and the houses next to me were dark.
Thud, thud—it sounded like people were beating the walls of the house with sticks. Then I heard footsteps. My heart began to pound. I ran to the back door screaming, “Who is it!”
I opened the door; before me were two men in plain clothes, carrying guns and high-powered flashlights. They had walked through my carport, pushed open a gate and entered a patio enclosed by a seven-foot fence. They asked if I had reported a burglary. I hadn’t. They said a call had come from number eighty five . . .
“This is fifty-eight. Eighty-five is down the way and across the street.” I wanted them to leave quickly. I glanced to the left. The policemen swung their flashlights to the left. There, in a pool of chalky light, stood three marijuana plants, five feet tall.
“You’re on private property,” I said. “Don’t you need a warrant?”
“No, not now. We’re conducting an investigation of a felony.”
I looked at the policemen. One had a sad hound’s face, the other seemed like an overweight lifeguard, blond, heavy-chested, officious.
“Are these plants yours?” the sad hound asked.
“I, uh, no … a friend left them . . .”
“You alone here?”
“Yes. Please, can’t you just forget about this? There’s a burglary down the street.”
The policemen caught each other’s eyes.
The sad hound shook his head. “I don’t think so. We couldn’t turn our backs on something like this.”
“I want to make a phone call,” I said.
“You can make it from the station.”
I asked if I could bring my work along.
Several of my neighbors had heard the noise and come to their windows. As they watched, the policemen handcuffed my arms behind my back. “Try to keep your hands still,” the officious blond said. “If you move ’em, the cuffs will get tighter.” We drove in a squad car to the Venice police station, then to the Van Nuys Women’s House of Detention. I felt angry, foolish; I had been warned about growing the plants but I had felt invulnerable, behind my fences.
I worried about how much money this was going to cost to untangle. I was behind schedule on a book, and my income had fallen so low I was eligible for food stamps. In 1976, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana had been decriminalized in California. Anyone caught with a small amount was given a citation, like a traffic ticket, but cultivation was still a felony. It was absurd: you could have marijuana but you could not grow it, buy it or sell it. At the Van Nuys jail, I was made to undress for a skin search.
“Bend over and spread yourself. Now squat on your heels.” I tried to think of it as calisthenics. In my clothes again, I was asked to sign a card having something to do with fingerprints. “What am I signing exactly?” I said. “You don’t have to sign if you don’t want to,” the matron said.
“Okay, then I won’t.” “That’s great.” She smirked and stamped “REFUSED” all over the
card. “The judge will love that.”
“Wait, you didn’t explain . . . !”
She made a hush sign and took me away to be photographed. “How tall are you?” she asked. “I always wanted to be tall. Look at this chile,” she said to a guard. “She could be a model.”
I was put in a cell with a pay phone on the wall and told I had five minutes. I called a friend who was an entertainment lawyer. He arranged for bail—five thousand dollars—then called another friend to pick me up.
Six hours later I was home, but those six hours had destroyed all confidence I maintained that the ground beneath me was stationary. Unable to sleep, unable to work, sick with worry, I found myself in the very state I had been struggling earlier to put on paper: jumping at the sound of dogs barking.
I called several criminal lawyers, but the lowest fee I was quoted was eight hundred dollars. I did not have eight hundred dollars. Finally, a friend referred me to Paul Fitzgerald, an eccentric attorney who said he was in practice not for the money but for “the art form.” Paul had defended people accused of crimes so heinous they seemed indefensible. He had been chief defense counsel for the Charles Manson family and, until 1973, had defended more multiple murderers than any other attorney in the state. The friend who referred me to Paul said, “You couldn’t be in better hands.”
Paul agreed to take my case for a nominal sum, and said the simplest solution was to move for “diversion”—a procedure by which first offenders are placed in a rehabilitation program instead of being tried. To qualify, I was sent for an interview with a probation officer, who filed the following report:
Appearing before the court on a first arrest for cultivation of marijuana is a 33-year-old free lance writer who is currently completing a novel on which she has almost exhausted funds advanced her. She denies any drug use, except for occasional marijuana which she smoked when she was in college. Defendant stated that the plants were grown simply out of curiosity. She has a large collection of plants, including vegetables and cactus, and stated a friend had given her some marijuana seeds. She feels that her growing the plants was “a big mistake.” She states that she is “enormously upset” about her arrest and placement in jail, as well as the worry she has caused her parents. She continued relating that one of the worst parts was anxiety since her arrest, which led to her being unable to sleep properly and in sum she stated she felt her violation of the law was “not worth it.”
A week later, I reported for “intake” at the Venice Drug Coalition, a shabby storefront on Electric Avenue, separated by streetcar tracks from the more chic parts of Venice. The Electric Avenue neighborhood is made up largely of Chicanos and blacks. At the V.D.C., as it is called, I was given an eight-page questionnaire. “What’s the longest you’ve been clean on the streets?” “How many fights have you been in this year?” “If you had to make a choice, which would you choose: uppers or downers?” I considered this; obviously, either was the wrong answer. I went with the truth—downers.
I was told I must attend group therapy twice a week for six weeks. At the first session, I was the only person who was white and not there to kick a serious addiction. The group leader, Robert Jackson, had the missionary zeal of a reformed junkie. He was tall, gregarious, opinionated, and possessed an earthy way of making an adage his own: “We always think the grass is greener when we drivin’ by on the freeway. But if you stop and go walk on it, there’s yellow grass!”
There were seven in our group. The first to be questioned by Jackson was May, a heavy woman with puffy lips and gray hair tied with a ribbon. She wore a flowered sack dress and white slippers, and spoke in a groggy voice. May was addicted to uppers; she said she had been taking Dexedrine for twenty years, and had cut down recently from twenty capsules a day to eight. She had been hospitalized and given shock treatments, unsuccessfully. Despite the Dexedrine she slept all day.
“What are some things you like to do?” Jackson asked. “Nothin’. I’m too tired to enjoy anythin’. I have a tired mind.” I thought of Peter Handke’s line about his mother in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams:” “Tired/Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead.”
The man next to May had stolen a color TV set from his grandmother so he could “get down,” then fallen asleep with a cigarette and burned down half his house, killing his cousin. He looked sullen, hopeless. Another man had just been “popped” for dealing heroin to minors; he had been on heroin himself since thirteen. He was on methadone presently, but having trouble “holding my mud.”
Jackson came around the circle to me. “What’s happenin’ with you, baby?”
“You just gonna sit here and observe us?”
“No, I mean … I grew some plants . . .”
“We know that’s bullshit, we don’ have to talk about that. But you gotta contribute somethin’ or we gonna sit here all day. Ain’t there nothin’ in yo’ life that’s causin’ you grief?”
What could I tell this group? I’m having writer’s block? I wake up with fear and tremors when I realize I have to face the typewriter again?
When Jackson learned I was a writer, he sat upright in his folding chair. “That’s it! Next week, you gonna bring us a piece of the book you’re writin’ and read it to the group.”
I had never read my work to anyone, and was particularly sensitive about reading unfinished work. “Look at it this way,” a friend said. “It’s a test. If you can hold their interest, you’ve got it made.”
It was a test I failed. I read a six-page excerpt, during which everyone nodded off and I kept hearing Jackson say, “Wake that brother up.” Jackson, however, was pleased, and confided that he wrote poetry which he wanted me to read.
As the weeks passed, I almost grew to look forward to my trips to the V.D.C. I became involved in the stories of the people there and they in mine. After the group, the daily bouts I faced with words seemed, for a brief but blessed time, less formidable.
I still had to find a way to “contribute,” so I began, in the remaining sessions, to talk about my relationships with men. This held their interest. Not only did they stay awake, they vied to give me advice. I told them I had recently fallen in love with a man who was married, someone I had known for many years. It was a situation in which I had promised myself I would never become involved. It was a violation of principles, and yet, once it had begun, I had difficulty stopping it. “I can’t help thinking,” I told the group, “being with this person makes me happy. How could something that makes me feel so good … be bad?”
A thin man with ravaged skin nodded understandingly. “That’s what I used to say . . . about heroin.”
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