The first time I bought drugs is etched in my mind. I’d been smoking cannabis off and on since I was in my mid-teens: people would sometimes pass around joints at parties or when a group of us was hanging out at the various places we lived in, usually fairly tatty old houses where the furniture was equally ancient and shabby. But I was chuffed the first time it was offered to me as product to purchase. This meant I was trustworthy and clearly part of the scene. I had arrived.
I was drinking watery, low-alcohol beer, the only type available in New Zealand at the time, in my favourite watering hole in downtown Wellington, circa 1972. The Duke of Edinburgh was on the corner of Willis Street, the main street in New Zealand’s capital city, and Manners Street. The old pub was a short walk from home which was a little further up the hill in the Aro Valley. The Duke later became a shopping mall and bore no resemblance to the much-loved pub our crowd used to hang out in. The clientele was an odd mixture of students, musicians, journalists and drug dealers – downstairs – and the more academic, lecturers and grownups, upstairs. I sometimes ventured upstairs but felt more comfortable with the rabble downstairs – although I often used to wonder what my parents would have thought. They were pretty conservative and this lot were not. The carpet at the Duke had clearly been there for many years and emitted a stale scent having absorbed many litres of the amber fluid we used to buy by the jug. Each jug contained a huge amount of beer which we slurped out of heavy 7oz glasses for hours without too many ill effects. Compared with today’s high-alcohol beer, it was weak as piss. So ‘getting on the piss’ was a fairly tame affair. Still, getting ‘pissed and stoned’ was a favourite past-time.
So there I was, minding my own business, having a beer in the late afternoon with my mates and chewing the fat. My intellectual friend Ron, and briefly my boyfriend (they were all brief affairs, my love affairs in those days), was doing what he always did at his regular corner table, rolling very thin rollies, chain smoking them, thinking up words for his crossword and writing them down in pencil. Ron was probably the most erudite of this scruffy lot and he had a dry sense of humour. I was still relatively new to Wellington, having only just graduated from a year at journalism school at Wellington Polytechnic. I didn’t really feel ‘a part of’ the scene, but the Duke crowd seemed to tolerate me and I was gradually becoming accepted. I had just turned 20 and didn’t even know how to score, so had wondered where everyone else’s dope came from. My friends weren’t exactly what you’d call stoners, in today’s language, but we got on it occasionally and then laughed a lot. The weed was a lot ‘lighter’ then; not the ‘heavy’ skunk that fucks you up these days.
Fitting in was important to me; I desperately wanted to be accepted by this interesting crowd. They were such a diverse bunch and yet we all seemed to have something in common – if only the Duke. No-one questioned why I was there, a young, unemployed news reporter, fresh out of journalism school and yet to find a job. I could walk in on my own, buy a beer and find someone to talk to without too much trouble. So when Frank, aka Frank Prythertch, came over and grabbed my arm with his huge paw, saying: ‘Come with me,’ I went along quite meekly, intrigued. I wasn’t sure where we were going or why, but I suspected it had something to do with drugs. Frank was about the most notorious Duke habitue. His battle-scarred face featured a very crooked nose, the result I presumed from being broken more than once. He had a scraggly moustache and a way with words. He was huge, well over 6.2 and built like a brick shithouse. We’d had the odd conversation before this momentous occasion and I knew he sold the odd bit of dope. He knew lots of the other public bar regulars and was always there, propped up at one of the round, high tables, sitting on a tall bar stool. No comfortable seating arrangements downstairs at the Duke.
Directly opposite the Duke over the other side of Wills Street and up some steep steps on Boulcott Street was St Mary of the Angels, a Catholic church, a large grey, glowering stone structure. We seemed to be headed in the direction of this holy monument. Frank was muttering something incomprehensible – he was fairly drunk – and I was up for an adventure, so didn’t question him and was just impaired enough to let my defences down. I’d never been inside a Catholic church before and felt slightly intimidated by the opulence of it all, the high vaulted ceiling, the ornate décor, the scent of incense and a huge bank of candles that bathed the hushed surroundings in a golden glow. We were the only people inside the cavernous place. Frank was intent on something and, staggering slightly, ushered me all the way up the aisle to the front-row pew and knelt down. He bowed his head, seemingly in prayer. Being a newly emerging atheist, I refused to kneel and sat beside him. After taking in my surroundings, I noticed that fact he was rolling a joint, head bowed and muttering what I thought might be some obscure Catholic prayer. I couldn’t make it out.
I became mute with fear. The cannabis was spilling all over the place, scattering on the marble floor. I offered up a little prayer of my own, despite my own nascent belief system, that no harm would come our way. It was a big fat clumsy joint, rolled with all the drunken precision Frank could muster at the time.
‘Come on,’ he mumbled, grabbing me by the arm again and leading me out. We nearly reached a side exit, when Frank asked me if I had a light. I didn’t. ‘Hold on then,’ he said and stumbled back inside to the bank of smoking candles. Fuck me if he wasn’t going to light a joint inside the church. Clouds of cannabis smoke started billowing around Frank’s head as he bent over the candles, torching the spliff right there to the right of the aisle, right there at the front of the rows of, luckily, empty pews. As he came shuffling towards me, waving the lit joint to extinguish the flame, Frank wore a lopsided grin on his battered face. I saw the scene as if I were in a Fellini film. Girl, just out of her teens, in her best faded blue jeans with dark curly hair framing a bewildered face. Was this really happening? This was too weird and dangerous. Slightly older, large lumbering man with plate-like hands and scruffy clothes, wearing workman’s boots, puffing furiously on a spliff, emitting more clouds of smoke. By now the familiar aromatic smell was wafting my way.
We sat on a low concrete wall, leaning against the larger wall of the church. Frank passed the joint to me and I took a drag, relieved at what we’d just gotten away with. The THC was starting to kick in and I took big lung-fulls of the sweet smoke. My fear was beginning to subside when around the corner, about 20m away, appeared a clergyman, putting his head through a flowing a white vestment. He was walking briskly towards the entrance we had just exited. He was clearly on his way in to the church to perform some mick ministry. I was hoping that he didn’t notice us.
No such luck.
‘Father!’ bellowed Frank. The young cleric – he didn’t seem much older than us – looked up, seeing us for the first time. I was horrified as he changed direction and came towards us. Fuck, I thought, this isn’t going to go well. ‘Father!’ said Frank again, redundantly, because the man of God was clearly about to engage with us. By this stage I was completely out of it and struck dumb.
‘Here, Father, try some of this,’ said Frank, waving the half-smoked joint at the approaching priest. Oh God; I was mortified. He was offering drugs to a holy guy. I tried to shrink into the ground.
‘No thanks,’ said the cleric in a good-natured way. Jesus, the man was a saint. I half expected him to call the cops. But Frank persisted, saying, ‘What do you think of drugs, Father?’ This was getting worse. Not only was he trying to push drugs onto the unsuspecting priest, he wanted to engage him in conversation about drugs!
I giggled nervously.
‘I don’t condemn drugs and I don’t condone them,’ said the priest. ‘Well then, Father,’ said Frank and from side on I saw his eyes crinkle with a mischievous look as he eyeballed the cleric. My skin crawled with fear. What the fuck was going on?
‘Give us your blessing.’
It wasn’t a polite request. It was a command. I guessed it was some kind of Catholic thing. I’d never been blessed before; didn’t even know such a thing was possible.
Without missing a beat, the poor priest started to intone a prayer, blessing each of us in turn, at the same time making that familiar gesture of the cross with his right hand.
‘And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to hear confession.’
And he turned, heading off on his original mission, a billowing white cloud of surplice over his flowing black cassock. Even Frank was speechless. I’d never heard such a statement – the priest’s condone/condemn thing. The dude didn’t have an opinion one way or another. I thought people were either for drugs or against them. The thought that there could be a middle ground was a whole new concept for me. My 20-year-old drug-addled mind simply boggled.
We finished the joint off, not saying much, pondering what had just happened and wondering if this was what it felt like to be blessed. Eventually we clambered to our slightly unsteady feet and as we made our bedraggled way back down the path in the church grounds, Frank pulled out a bag of the green stuff, saying, ‘Here you are: that’ll be 10 bucks.’ It was my first drug transaction and I was chuffed. I was in with the Duke crowd now. I handed over my money feeling proud that I’d accomplished such a thing. Later, smoking it with my flatmates at home, it didn’t seem to have the same effect. I wondered if it was because the circumstances weren’t so extraordinary.
About 25 years later, after the Duke had long been a mall, we were having a Duke reunion at another bar in Wellington – and there was Frank. He was alone, slumped over at a corner table, propping himself up, a meaty hand holding up a heavy head, nodding off, looking very out of it. Eventually I made my way over to him and asked if he was OK. He roused himself out of a deep torpor and, peering at me through very bloodshot eyes, said, ‘I thought I’d have a taste [ie inject himself with small quantity of heroin] to remember the good old days.’
Then Frank blearily nodded off again. He was a mess. I pondered on his motivation; he seemed to be missing out on the celebratory nature of the occasion – here we all were again, gathered together to remember our beloved pub. The same crowd, now all a little older and wiser (or not) and having fun catching up and laughing at our old antics.
Then he stirred, seeming to remember something, and lifting his head again, said: ‘Oh, and by the way, that stuff I sold you at the church was cabbage.’
It didn’t put me off though, and I went on to have an illustrious association with drugs. Around that time, my mother pointed out some story in a newspaper that talked about how kids were ‘experimenting with drugs’. I didn’t say it at the time, but I thought: ‘We weren’t experimenting – we knew exactly what we were doing.’
It only took me about 30-odd years to sober up and get clean.