By David Daniel
He was the original marijuana maven. Gastronome of ganja, raja of reefer, sultan of spleefs, hipster of hemp . . . the sobriquets pile up. Skoobie doobie, Puff buff. Not that anyone called him by anything other than his name. Langston.
No tie-dyed hippie, he had a responsible job with Boston Edison, sitting in the whirring ozone gloom of a huge power station by the Mystic River, monitoring the flow of energy to the city. On the job he was always straight because a half million residents depended on him. But weekend evenings . . . those were his own.
Alone among the intersecting rings of our mutual friends, Langston didn’t go out places and party. He was not to be found fist-pumping at concerts, or food-freaking at all-night diners. Mustached and neatly afro’d, attired in pressed jeans and a clean shirt, he stayed home with his lady “Pepsi.” Kicked back in a vinyl recliner, his sandaled feet up, he was a country squire. And he loved to read.
Beyond books, his prized possession was his stash, and he worked it with the loving care a jeweler gives to diamonds. Friends did not go to him to buy—Langston was no dealer. He was a connoisseur. And he was generous and liked to turn you on.
Pepsi never partook. She’d offer guests coffee from a carafe she left on the warmer all day. I accepted a cup once; it had the texture of river silt and the aftertaste of varnish. From then on, the wine that people brought when they visited was sufficient. That and, of course, Langston’s herb.
He kept it in a dovetailed rosewood box with a hinged lid and a small silver lock. The lock was a joke security-wise, but it seemed to imbue the box with a sense of fable. Acapulco, Panama, Maui, and more—there were often four or five varieties in there, each in a polyethylene bag. But Langston wasn’t a dope snob. No one took greater satisfaction in cleaning a lid of ditch weed than he. Working the rough flowers with nimble fingers, tweezing out stems, letting the seeds roll down the dust jacket of an LP, he was a contented man.
There was always good music at Langston’s. As host, he claimed the right to pick the tunes, calling out album titles to the devoted and gracious Pepsi, who would slide a record from its inner sleeve and set it gently on the Thorens TD 190 turntable. Then, with a fat number making the rounds, and music rippling out of tall Sansui speakers, which, like the Thorens and the Marantz receiver, Langston had bought in Japan while on R&R from Viet Nam, he might commence a story of long journeys, fraught border crossings, frequently with narcs and paranoia sparking at the edges. It was largely a pose, sure, I knew that, and he knew I knew. He’d been a PFC payroll clerk with an Admin Company in Saigon. But that didn’t lessen the pleasure of a visit; and he never claimed his stories were true. Langston was a famously astute and accommodating host, and I was constantly learning from him.
Occasionally, he’d have something exotic to share. Thai stick or sinsemilla. Or the time he brought out a clutch of Nepalese temple fingers, wrapped with pink ribbon—and smiling cryptically he told of the young Tibetan women (embellishing, no doubt) who ran naked through fields of towering cannabis plants, their golden, oiled bodies drawing the pollen, which was then wiped off and processed into the amber sticks of hashish, which did resemble fingers.
He had an ornate Moroccan hookah, though it was more aesthetic than functional. And bong hits, forget it; to him they were the crass equivalent of chugging beers. His preferred method, the way he said that the divine spirit intended for humans to get blessedly high, was to smoke a communal joint.
We would watch as from an array of rolling papers (Bambu, E-Z Wider, Zig-Zag wheat straws, and a selection of flavored varieties in pastel hues) he would fashion a bomber. “It’s all in the roll,” he’d say, nodding sagely as the first fragrant smoke drifted up through his drooping mustache and past his closed eyes. And before long we’d all be sitting under a spell.
Conversations meandered and roamed. Food, politics, books, sex, Primal Scream therapy, the secret meanings of Dylan songs, the war (Langston and I were both vets) were topics that arose. And all the music sounded important and deep. Sooner or later, everything swirled together and became one.
All that was long ago.
I’ve traveled a bumpy road in the years since: ten college semesters but no degree, two gone marriages, confusions, half a dozen false starts on some kind of career that bounced me all over the country. Now, hopeful that medical devices sales might finally be my thing, I was in Boston for two days of interviews and a final test in the form of a mock sales demo. And it was here, on my second day, during a break and on a whim, that I found his number and telephoned Langston. When I identified myself, there was a small silence, then he laughed. “Chet.” And it was as if no time has passed. Though time has. There was a slight rasp to his voice, but he was excited and invited me to come by that evening.
As soon as I hung up, I had second thoughts. The job was not definite yet. The screening sessions were pretty intensive, requiring me to be sharp, and in the A.M. I would have to give a sales presentation to the hiring managers. I debated phoning Langston back. Instead, I told myself that before I left to see him, I would do a final review of my talking points and lay out my clothes for the morning. I know he had stayed with Edison and retired with a pension; maybe he’d have advice to offer.
At a liquor mart I contemplate a smooth French merlot, then think, screw it, and buy a mezcal añejo with a scorpion inside. Pepsi, now Langston’s wife, greets me. Some of her old energy has ebbed but not the warmth. “Coffee?” she asks. I smile back and hold up the paper bag with its obvious bottle of something. We chat a few moments, then she points to the den. “His Lordship awaits you.”
“Chet,” Langston says, “my man.” He is in a green leather recliner. The handshake is the old Marvin-Gaye-What’s-Goin’-On clasp, and I feel myself relax. He waves me into a chair. His mustache is gone, his scalp furred with thinning gray wool. Horn-rimmed glasses give him a Cornel West look. Pepsi brings tumblers with ice, and we open the mezcal. I tell him about my recent life, my hopes for a new start. I hear confidence in my voice. He listens. He talks, and I listen. When we aren’t talking, we sit in easy silence.
Intermixed with the fine rugs and furnishings are shelves of books. No sign of the rosewood box. I spy LPs, a turntable, and big Sansuis. “Are those the—?”
“Buy quality and you only have to buy once,” Langston says.
“House rule still the same? Host chooses the music, guest shuts his pie hole?”
He laughs. “I don’t do rules much anymore. Pick out something from the vault.”
I search awhile, my mind flashing with recollections—too many; it’ll take all night. I come up with Pearls Before Swine’s One Nation Underground. Haven’t heard it in forty years—probably the last time was here. Tom Rapp starts singing “Another Time.” We listen, drinking. Then from his shirt pocket Langston plucks something. “Old time’s sake?” A joint. “Or do they whiz-quiz you on the new job?”
I haven’t explained that the job isn’t official till after my sales pitch in the morning, but I’m feeling good. Relaxed. “Old time’s sake,” I agree. He sparks the joint and passes it over. I hit it and shut my eyes.
Back and forth it goes for a while. Pepsi appears, says goodnight, and drifts off to bed. I put on another record—a British import of Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy. More pours of mezcal. I wonder vaguely what we’ll do with the scorpion if we get that far. Our talk grows desultory. Then nothing at all. The record plays out.
It’s late. I should be going. I look to Langston for a cue. Neither of us moves.
With a small dart of anxiety, come visions of the morning’s sales demo, now just (I squint at my watch) seven hours away. I try to remember my talking points, but everything’s a haze. I’m not even sure where it’s being held.
Panic starting to nibble at me, I glance at Langston, my friend whom, invisible and unknown to them, the citizens of Boston looked to for years for their power and light. He says something. Not sure I heard, I ask him to repeat it. Calmly, he says: “It’s all in the roll.”
His mantra from decades ago.
Nervously, I wait for more. Nothing follows.
What does he mean? That the way you live your life is up to you? The years roll on? Roll with the punches? Roll out your sleeping bag, pilgrim, and stay awhile? Smile with the Buddha, buddy? Let be be finale of seem? Or is that me, looking for a bridge over troubled waters, for deeper wellsprings beneath the surface? I don’t need Freud to tell me that sometimes a joint is just a joint, and that maybe Langston doesn’t mean anything at all. And yet . . . he does … doesn’t he?
I watch him. Langston gives his cryptic smile.