Phyllis, half seducing half warning, got the ink going in my veins. There were a lot of very impressive deals for books happening. The OJ. Trial was gearing up and the market for confessional tell-alls was exploding. This bonanza extended onto gay bookshelves as well. Martina Navratilova, Greg Luganis, Michaelangelo Signorele – it looked like easy money.
I did all the math as usual, calculating I could write ten pages a day, even though I didn’t know how to type. At that rate it would just be a matter of a few weeks and I would join the published elite. At the end of the rainbow there’d be royalties after all. I called Phyllis with my plan and she almost died laughing, I could hear her put her hand over the receiver and announce to the movie producer present that “Gilbert’s going to write his book in six weeks everybody.” She chewed a carrot loudly on the other end, “I think six months is more like it, and don’t be surprised if it takes six years.”
At the beginning of September I was under way and after six weeks I had a hundred pages. I called Phyllis with the news. “A hundred pages, that’s pretty good, yeah, but the second hundred are a lot harder.” I asked if maybe she’d take a look and she again almost died laughing, choking on a saltine cracker. “Not on your life, I’ll read it when it’s published.”
Crushed, I rewrote the whole thing. Another six weeks went by and still only a hundred pages. Phyllis did indulge me, listening to selected readings at the kitchen table after a pasta orgy. I practiced for the radio waves I would soon be riding, and my friends all said “It’s masterpiece theater darling.” I felt inspired, Phyllis would laugh, “Brilliant, genius.”
I was determined to be a writer. Every time I’d sit at the keyboard I’d tell myself that I was ultimately making Rainbow Flags. But there’s world of difference between mastering a machine with your hands and using your mind to communicate. I knew a book would take time because I had no skills, so it would take six months or even a year. Back to zero, I needed a job.
Dennis said I should work the counter at his newly opened Cannabis Buyers Club at 194 Church Street, a big room upstairs over a bar near the heart of the Castro. I knew I was taking a detour, but there are plenty of other writers waiting tables, it was all part of the experience, I told myself. Besides, it would be an adventure and I could always write a another book about pot
At first, I went to work on the lunch shift eleven to one, but within a week or so I found myself putting in a full day. Dennis didn’t know what he was doing when it came to people, he couldn’t remember their names and the idiot savant in him riddled his casual small talk with a clowns condescension and insult. He said my real role was to bring gay credibility to his medical marijuana cause. “Yeah, I use Cleve the same way, it’s good PR.”
I felt embarrassed, weighing up little baggies and giving them to people so I told myself I was tending the sick. But more and more I tended to Dennis and his self ordained destiny. Dennis would ruffle someone’s feathers and I would soothe them. He’d start a war between two friends and I’d make peace. He’d worry about the narcs and I’d say “think about it tomorrow.”
We called ourselves “Grassroots Girlfriends,” all pun intended. After Dennis’s boyfriend Jonathan had passed away from AIDS in 1990, Dennis had succeeded getting an ordinance, Proposition P, on the San Francisco ballot making marijuana the lowest priority in local law enforcement. It won with almost 80% of the vote. The Grassroots Girlfriends was a queer little sorority that organized the practical details of the campaign, while Dennis perfected his Midas touch. With the progressive new law under his belt he had quietly opened the doors of his “Cannabis Buyer’s Club” in 1993.
It didn’t stay quiet very long. When I started working the counter at the end of September in 1994 there were 500 members, by Christmas there were thousands. Those of us close to Dennis became the waitresses and doormen of the pot speakeasy. At night in my basement bedroom I’d toss and turn paranoid the narcs would bust in any moment.
No one had seen anything like it, it was Amsterdam, Act -up, and AIDS all rolled into one message “medical marijuana” and Dennis became our Ronald Reagan. “Compassion.” He worked the word to the point of hubris. It was all pure show biz, the Cannabis Buyer’s Club was our stage, every one knew the obvious theater of our actions, aware of the improvising going on, we made it for the media and the timing was perfect.
Dennis never kept records, but I convinced him we ought to get letters from Doctors that recommended marijuana. Jude came in from New York and put a filing system together, Dennis didn’t think that these papers amounted to very much, but he indulged us with a phone and fax, and I told him if anything ever happened we could always subpoena every Doctor in San Francisco in his defense with the letters as evidence. He liked that, and went around placating everyone’s fear of being thrown into jail at any moment with “No jury will ever convict us.”
On Fridays, always the busiest, people would line up out side the front door, there’d often be more than a hundred waiting to get in. When the weather got bad everyone would stick around listening to music and smoking joints, it got so crowded I wondered if the stairs might cave in from the weight of so many bodies. The Cannabis Club became a home away from home for lots of folks. It was safe, it was fun, and even if you didn’t have money, Dennis would make sure you had pot.
My cynicism was softened by the growing reality of the importance of marijuana in the lives with people with AIDS. Cleve always said it saved his life, that with out it he’d be vomiting and unable to eat. I looked across the smoke filled room I saw the faces of most of my friends smile. For a moment they’d forget the sickness and death surrounding us. It made it easy to ignore the haphazard operation we were pasting together. Sure there were fuck ups and Dennis could be an idiot, but you’d be looking at someone who weighed a hundred pounds with an IV hook up taped to their arm and realize the little bag you handed them was keeping them alive with some dignity. They could put off the morphine pump and the grim reaper another day, finding instead relief from the magic herb.
The strategy of medical marijuana was to create a new idea: your brother dying of AIDS and your grandmother’s glaucoma, instead of Cheech and Chong. In San Francisco, the center of the remaining Hippie universe this wasn’t easy, For every patient in the terminal ward we’d smuggle brownies to in the hospital, there were a dozen teenagers on Haight Street stoned out of their Grateful Dead minds. More complicated was Dennis himself, who had changed from a scraggly long haired reefer Rasputin into a white haired, spectacled, and respectable political ring master and media wiz. But he was still the Prince of Pot, worshipped to dilated excess by an entire city in love with it’s musky flower power past and outlaw heroes.
Dennis brought in “Brownie Mary” and Hazel Rodgers, two women twice his age to work in the office. It was brilliant. Everybody in California has a place in their hearts for the Little old lady from Pasadena. Hazel and Mary, whose most important job turned out to be telling Dennis when he was full of shit, were full of love for their “kids”, as they called us, and got other seniors to change their minds about marijuana. “Grass roots gay girl friends” and “you go girl grandmas” teamed up and took our campaign to the airwaves. The Prince and his fairy godmothers plucking Americas heart strings, playing the tabloid banjo, and orchestrating talk show appearances. The three of them were super stars the media couldn’t resist.
The world came to our door, everyday another camera crew from Germany, Japan, ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, BBC, not to mention the reporters walking around in the purple haze with stenographer pads getting testimony from hundreds of willing extras about AIDS cocktails.
Medical Marijuana burned its way into the minds of millions all through the spring of 95. Dennis always said everyday at the Cannabis Club was a miracle, “Destiny” he’d shrug on the way home from the Gym at the end of another long day. We’d smoke cigarettes walking through the side streets of the Castro brainstorming tomorrow’s headlines and casting the photo ops.
“I don’t understand why Cleve doesn’t help more.” Dennis complained under the full moon. True, Cleve wasn’t around much, but I chalked it up to the lingering bitterness after New York and of course he lived two hours away. Cleve offered Dennis some good advice about trying to organize the Cannabis Buyers Club as a nonprofit with some community involvement, but Dennis ignored it.
“Cleve didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, Dennis. He’d probably be more enthusiastic if you listened to him, instead of trying to use him.” I was telling him the truth, for a moment Dennis gazed at me with a hurt look and a bushel of stars in his eyes. “And besides, it’s not like he hasn’t done anything, he’s written about it and he’s not in the closet about marijuana like the rest of our so-called leaders, that’s worth something.”
“You’re defending apathy.” Dennis lit us each a True menthol. “I don’t get it, Cleve has AIDS, he smokes pot like crazy, I give it to him free, he should do more.” Dennis pouted. “What about some of the others, you could talk to them, they like you.”
“Right, I’m going to call up Roberta Achtenberg and get her to change Clinton’s mind about pot?” I laughed at the thought of it.
“What about Carole Migden, you could call her up.” Dennis was up to something. “We need her to help us too.”
“Help us do what, Dennis? Carole isn’t going to touch this, and neither is any body else with a serious career in government. We’re on our own.”
“They’re all making a big mistake, I’ve got a plan to put an initiative on the November Ballot and it’s going to win. Why don’t they get on the train?” Dennis was baffled by the indifference of people he assumed would be his cheerleaders. His single-minded vision about marijuana was inspiring to many, but frightened the gay establishment.
“These people you say you need, they’re already in the hot seat about sex, and you expect them to endorse drugs?” I knew there were exceptions, but I’d already talked to Roberta and Carole and it was clear to me they were on our side but embarrassed by Dennis and the circus of publicity going on. This was his show and they stayed in the balcony.
“I know, it’s me isn’t it?” Dennis inhaled frustration.
“Oh no,” I lied, but I took the opportunity to suggest we might be wise to take a page out of the sixties and get “clean for Gene,” cut your hair, put on a necktie, and stop wearing a red Flag. “We’re out on limb, Dennis, it’s all about numbers. There are a thousand people coming every day, that’s the only thing between us and our enemies.”
“Let them come, it would be the best thing that ever happened.” Dennis rehearsed, flippantly snapping his wrist in the air flicking an ash. It was a prophecy.
* * * * *
I never got New York out of my blood and I kept making Rainbow Flags. Richard and I called each other all the time. I loved him, but our friendship was the deeper passion we shared. He was nervous about my involvement with Dennis, worried something bad could happen. “You’re pushing a lot of buttons,” he had warned long distance, “What if somebody starts pushing back. Nobody cares about the Drug War, just you and your stoner San Francisco friends.”
He helped me organize another display of the Flag for the June 1995 NYC parade. I went east to help stitch remnants of the big Rainbow Flag from Stonewall 25 into a respectable length more than a city block long.
I had made a few bound copies of my “book” and gave the first one to Richard when I finally saw him again. Relieved I hadn’t given up on my art, Richard softened his disapproval of my moonlight activism. “I guess writer’s have to wait tables too,” he surmised knowing I was broke all the time,
“Maybe you’ll get rich from your book and then you won’t have to do it.”
I didn’t argue with him. I wanted another chance in New York and I knew writing a book was the only way back. Charley, of course was way ahead of the curve on Medical Marijuana, and saw there was an opportunity for two books. “You’ve got to do the Rainbow Flag Book while it’s hot, never forget things get cold,” he admonished, “are you sure you can write one while your living the other?”
“It’s a Gemini thing, doing two things at once, my whole life is in split focus.” I reasoned.
“Yeah, but the only thing that counts is finishing something. A book isn’t as easy as some artwork you can bullshit at the last minute.” Charley worked my nerves and my insecurities.
“Well this whole memoir craze going on, it’s all going to be over someday. Maybe the only true memoirs are all posthumously published, I’ll end up like that guy who wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
“You’ll be dunce if you don’t finish your story, you owe it to your people.”
“I’m taking a risk. You’re giving me a hard time, I don’t know anything about writing and publishing, I make flags, and now I’m veering off that to write. People like my art work, but are they ready for a book? “
“No, are you ready for it?” Charley cut me off. “Strike while the iron is hot.”
“It takes so long, I type with one finger,”
“Get a tape recorder.”
“I tried it and it doesn’t work for me, I like making the pages, you know I tell myself that every page is another Rainbow Flag.”
“I’m telling you, Gilbert, get something out quick, I know you’re a perfectionist, but go for a big commercial success, that’s all that counts in New York. Sleep your way to the top if you have to, but do it.” Charley was wickedly serious.
“I’m too old for that, I’m already on top, I don’t have to do anything except keep making Rainbow Flags, My life as Betsy Ross is simple as long I’m sewing, I’m complicating it with my own personality when I’m writing. People won’t just be looking my artwork anymore. They’ll be judging my life. It’s a big risk.”
“Darling, take it and cry all the way to the Bank.” Charley pronounced in high camp. “Then make the movie.”
“Only if you produce it. And make sure whoever plays me is good in high heels.”
Richard and I left everything to chance as usual; an if you build it they will come approach. We took a taxi and the Flag followed us in pickup to our spot in the parade que. We’d recruited two dozen friends to help, far short of the many we’d need, so there we were on Fifth Avenue at the last minute literally dragging people through the Barricades to join us lifting the rainbow into the air.
I felt vindicated when we walked past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, this time with the sanction and Permit of The City of New York. The Cops were line up shoulder to shoulder in three rows, the overtime alone on these guys would fund a hospice. As I gazed down Fifth Avenue over the big celebration, in the distance the triumphal Arch in Washington square, the proportions of my victories became smaller and smaller when my mind wondered past the horizon to the future.
Guiliani was still mayor, getting away with murder and headed toward easy re-election. I marveled at the resiliency of the New York Gay community in the face of his sophisticated manipulations and brutal oppression. I got to know Anne Northrop better. I admired her spirit and envied her humor. San Franciscans were lucky not to know the frustrations of New Yorkers, the sense of everything being totally fucked up and no refuge from relentless and evil forces at work everywhere. Anne Northrop said “ What you don’t understand about New York is that it’s an 18th century town in the twentieth century. Nothing works.”
But Anne was dyed in the wool New York, she’d never leave. I figured, and why should she? New York was the center of everything, media, politics, culture. I longed to be more a part of it. The possibilities seemed endless.
Before I returned to California, I walked the streets for a week in a remembrance of things past. Richard and I hung out a lot, sharing meals with our friends, enjoying the summer. When I said goodbye, I knew it wouldn’t be for long. New York would be my home in the new millennium, I’d make many visits, but first there was a book to write.
Back in San Francisco, my basement room was like a caccoon, I’d barely fit in a bed and a big drafting table I used as a desk. I piled a sound system on top of an old dresser that I squeezed into one of the irregular corners where the foundation of the old house had been rebuilt after earthquake. The city was digging up our street to put in a new streetcar system and I was shaken awake every morning at seven thirty by jackhammers.
The “basement apartment” as we called it was created out of a dirt floor and a brick wall two feet high that the frame of the house rested on. When Dennis did some remodeling in the mid eighties he never replaced the ancient footings and instead added timber posts and sheer walls for support. That’s what had saved the place in the big earthquake of 1989. After it was over Dennis made sure everyone was okay getting people out of the house before anything else happened. We’d survived a close call with death. That moment cemented my love for Dennis, for the past six years it had grown into a comfortable brotherly bond. As I looked back on it in 1995, it seemed like the earthquake defined my relationship with Dennis, I was riding an uncontrollable wave. “Destiny” as he would grandly describe it. Our lives were raw natural and exciting. The whole time we lived together it was like being in house of cards that all might come tumbling down at any moment, and from my room in the basement I worried I’d be at the bottom of the next earthquake, one of our own making.
I’d never really done much to the spaceYou entered the basement apartment through a little covered porch under the deck that we referred to as the cubby hole, then there was a kitchen all trimmed out in black and white ceramic tile. The Kitchen opened into a large catch all room with a bath off to one side and the door to the hallway and bedroom on the other. I’d left everything untouched since the big fix up, but now in 1995, it needed some paint and another round of patching the wear and tear that a constant stream of guests had left in their wake.
Jude camped out in one corner, Michael Petrelis showed up one day and unpacked his bags in another corner, then there’d be overnighters like Scott Imler from Santa Cruz and his boy friend George Leddy from UC Berkeley, Vic Hernandez, and all the rest of the grass roots girlfriends. The basement became our bunker clubhouse, it was crowded and dorm like but we loved it.
There was only one problem. Dennis had an erstwhile assistant and chief yes man, John, who’d been kept on after the big Norma Bust. In the darkest recesses of the common room in the basement John had a desk buried under an avalanche of paper, covered in ashes and half smoked joints, weighted under a rubble of dead coffee cups. He didn’t live with us, at night he’d leave and go off to his mysterious studio apartment somewhere in North Beach. For a while it worked, he’d come in when we’d all go off to work at the Club, ships that pass in the night. But the guy was a mess, and his rat like squalor was a path of thorns I’d walk through to my bedroom, not to mention Jude and Michael having to sleep in the middle of it.
To be fair, none of us were neatniks, but we bathed daily and made our beds. I could never figure out why Dennis, who mopped the kitchen and bathroom floor every morning would have as his side kick a grungy quisling. It was a paradox. Dennis, who’d cleaned up his act and enjoyed middle class comforts, proud of his home, and then John in a feral grovel beside him, unshaven, in rags reeking of dirt. Finally, one day Dennis took him over to the community thrift store on Valencia Street for a new wardrobe of hand me downs and got on his case about grubby hands.
Every one who worked for Dennis at the club had the same title, “personal assistant.” The office, existed only as a collection of boxes scattered through out the house, the end tables in the living room where the fax machine lived, the bulletin board in the Kitchen, and the rat nest in the basement. We needed a real work space, there wasn’t any room at the club, and Dennis complained when he couldn’t find anything. The opportunity to do something about it came when I returned from New York.
Dennis and all the Peronista’s loaded up sleeping bags and camping gear headed for the Rainbow Gathering in Arizona, I’d be alone for two weeks while everyone else would celebrate the 4th of July in the dessert with a week long tribal pow wow. I never went to these events, I liked the Rainbow Family, loved their back to nature philosophy and communal network of friends that stretched coast to coast, but the idea of spending two weeks with twenty five thousand people and no running water, forget it. I sent Rainbow Flags instead, and showed Jude and Dennis how to rig them to be big shade cloths.
Jude persisted to the last minute that I should join the caravan, but my heart wasn’t in it. The Rainbow Gathering always followed within a week the Gay parade, I’d be burnt out on people by then, and I liked having time for myself to recharge. I waved good bye to every one as they piled into beat up vans and colorful Volkswagen buses, Jude and Dennis still standing on the side walk tempting me to go at the last minute
I slept in late, the house was silent. The sun was up, we’d have a rare hot day in July, usually San Francisco is foggy and cold that time of year. After two cups of coffee, I walked up to Cliffs Variety Store on Castro, the hardware store would be my first stop. Dennis gave me five hundred dollars, after I asked him for a thousand, and told me to fix up the office while they were away.
I wasn’t just fixing it up, I moved it. Dennis always did everything at the kitchen table. Every morning we’d read the paper, spin the stories into the silliest jokes, and listen to Dennis dictate his latest press release. I moved a big wood desk under the window, and set up the little IBM 486 and the fax machine. From now on we’d have everything at our fingertips. the new “office” would be upstairs in the morning sunshine and out of the dark corner next to my bedroom.
I painted the basement bathroom, and built some shelves to better hold our clothes as there was never a closet built in the renovation. There was one small cedar lined built-in cupboard under the stairs, but Dennis kept it under lock and key and full of marijuana. The toilet and tub sparkled, the towels folded neatly, and the walls gleamed a new color, Revlon ultra red.
I could not get the paint brush out of my hand, suddenly obsessed with latex goo, and high on the fumes and the glossy results, I pushed farther and farther into the room, painting each wall a different color of the rainbow. A few days later I was living inside a spectacular Mondrian, cubist, wonderland with not a trace of the old landlord off white anywhere.
There was a huge desk I built the length of one wall with room enough for three people to work. A huge system of selves for all the paper propaganda and correspondence was what I spent the money on and I stayed up late every night sorting and filing. The art wizard in me waved the wand, and as a final touch I created dozens of small Rainbow Flag paintings on blocked canvass that hung everywhere, like tile thematically connecting the wild brilliant walls.
“Oh my god, girl, what have you done” Dennis shrieked when he got home from the Rainbow Gathering. He liked it and marveled at the organized desk awaiting him, “I guess I should learn how to use the computer, but that’s what I have John for.”
“Take a look down stairs, he’s ruined everything.” John was mad, slamming back door open. “You mother fucker, I’ll get you for this.” he taunted in a visible tantrum on his way out the side gate.
“What’s that all about, I did him a favor.” my conscience was clear.
“He’ll get used to it.” Dennis answered. I know you guys want me to fire him, but I need him.”
Just then Jude and Michael burst in with their review my paint job, “Play school meets Lego.”
“Gilbert has John in a tizzy.” Dennis liked to stir shit up.
“Panties in a bunch?” Petrelis quoted Dennis’s favorite line.
“He’s an idiot, there’s good people who want to help, smarter too.” I encouraged.
“You bitches,” Dennis griped, “can’t we all just get along? I need him, and that’s it, you’ll have to work it out with him.”
John fumed for few more days, I made nice, and tried to get the new office set up in the Kitchen going. I kept my doubts private and things got back to what passed as a routine in our house.
There were smart people around, the best minds, the most informed, the legal eagles. The initiative Dennis was getting ready to organize for the November 96 ballot began it’s life in our living room. Scott Imler came up from Santa Cruz. Dale Gerringer, director of California NORMAL, commuted from the East Bay with Dr. Tod Mikuriya and lawyer Bill Panzer. Lynette Shaw, from Marin, Lynn and Judy Osborn from Ventura, Valerie Corral, Mary Krell, and Ellen Komp all brainstormed the language of the new law along with Dennis, John, Jude, Michael Petrelis, and myself. We must have floated two dozen different texts, until we agreed on one we called the sofa version.
Our aim was to change the California State law, people who used marijuana with a Doctor’s recommendation would be exempt from prosecution or more accurately they would be able to shield themselves in court if they were prosecuted. It was a daring stroke to turn back sixty years of Marijuana prohibition. There were grumbles about deciding medicine at the ballot box, we knew the law was vague, but we’d commissioned a poll and found we’d win handily. Over the last two years we’d won huge victories on the local level all across the golden state, we’d pushed our legislators to pass two consecutive bills only to watch their promised reforms killed by the veto of the Republican governor. Going to the polls in the general election with the issue was our only way to change the system.
More than six hundred thousand signatures of registered California voters would have to be collected in a 150 day period to qualify the newly titled Compassionate Use act of 1996. Then, assuming we’d make the ballot, there’d be a campaign to win. It would take more than all our Grassroots Girlfriends and Go Get’em Grandma’s to pull off a victory. It would take money. The only source was the steady flow of cash pouring into the cardboard box at the Cannabis Buyers Club. I worried that this might be a problem, funding our political ambitions with dollars dredged from the pockets of the sick, but Dennis had no qualms. The end justifies the means he said, truly the prince of pot.
There was money, I never knew the real story, but by the end of July Dennis was bragging that there was too much to count so he weighed it, a thousand in twenties leveled off at 420 grams. Not that we weren’t spending it as fast as it came in, pot was expensive; sometimes five thousand for a pound that would be gone in an hour. Dennis wasn’t one to be extravagantt, his refrigerator was full of peanut butter and jelly, the cupboards stocked with cereal and pasta. He drove an old car, and bought his clothes at thrift stores. Still, everyone realized that the Cannabis Buyer’s Club was a gold mine.
“What about the Election Commission?” I wondered. “Don’t we have to explain all this?” Dennis would light another cigarette and fidget with the mail. “People are already writing checks and we don’t even have a bank account.”
“John’s taking care of it.” He’d answer, but Dennis was worried the narcs would seize any account. Everything was greenbacks. But there were rip offs and break-ins, someone got $15,000, another time they cleaned us out of marijuana. “ I’m fucked, the Gay leader’s all hate me, except for Tom Ammiano, and what can he do? The only thing we can do is do it our selves, do we even need ligitematacy from people who don’t give a rat’s ass about us? Those “A” gay’s will try and stop me.“ he ranted. “ But they’ll never get around destiny, we’ll win with or with out them. The money people hate activists because they can’t control the message, what will they do if the activists have money?” Dennis impish.
A few days later, I was working the counter on a busy after noon when I noticed a hunky man standing over by the top of the stairs talking to Dennis. I recognized him immediately as a gay cop, so I went over to check him out. “AIDS?” I asked and he nodded avoiding eye contact. Pulling Dennis aside for a moment, I warned him pointing with my eyes, “Narc.”
“Really?” Dennis reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his wire rim glasses for a better look. “He’s a fag, I’m sure I’ve seen him around, He works at Cafe, a bouncer or something.” Dennis smiled for him and we watched as he found his way to the counter and bought a forty dollar bag. “Maybe the guy does have AIDS, it isn’t far fetched considering how many gay cops there are in San Francisco.”
“Still. I bet they’re snooping around. We’re on the news everyday, how could they not be interested.”
“So they send up a fag cop to check us out, what’s he going to report, he came to the club and there were a lot of sick people smoking pot and having a good time? Big deal, besides the mayor and the chief of police are on our side, the cops are curious, whaddya expect?” Dennis curled his lip and his eyes twinkled, “Don’t get paranoid, it’s bad for business.”
“Yeah well, what about the others? Just because we got locals to support us, doesn’t stop the DEA and all the X Files, cointerpol, CIA from coming in.”
“Not gonna happen” Dennis shrugged his shoulders, “A thousand sick people with AIDS in San Francisco, they aren’t that stupid, and besides the media is on our side.”
“How long do you think that will last” I scoffed.
“Until the election.” Dennis hoped.
I confronted Dennis about being the Prince of Pot. “Yeah I heard you called me a king.” He jabbed. But queen to queen I saw there was a problem. Dennis didn’t spend his time running his empire and building a campaign, instead he received petitioners one after the other all day long each wanting some pot or money. He would hear their plea with patience and then grant or deny the request as his mood dictated. Big Daddy and Santa Claus, Saint Dennis.
He loved the love, going from hug to hug, compliment to compliment, handing out favors, charming interviewers. At the end of the day he’d be exhausted and all the important work of getting a team in place to win the campaign left undone. My criticism was that if he wanted the campaign to be about him he should run for office, but we were doing a statewide initiative and it meant getting people engaged in a democratic process. To be an effective leader he’d have to share power and manage his time better, Dennis could only focus on the things he could instantly satisfy, helping some one with money or marijuana was easy.
To deal with the situation, he put John, his number one yes man in charge of communication. If you wanted to talk to Dennis you’d go through John, who then ushered every idiot’s trivial time sucking demand right back into Dennis face. It got worse, Dennis would walk into the Club and dozens of groupies would engulf him, like a flock of beggar children at the feet of a master. It was ugly, John had Dennis walled off in a reality that he controlled, a prince surrounded by paupers.
There were ten thousand people coming every week. People would fill up the Safeway parking lot across the street and the merchants nearby enjoyed a steady stream of foot traffic customers. Dennis decided to expand. At first he was going to move the campaign to an old electronics warehouse on Market Street that I knew had been used as a headquarters for Tom Ammiano’s successful bid for the Board of Supervisors, and we’d open up more clubs in the neighborhoods. But soon all thought turned to opening the Macy’s of marijuana, a five story retail palace. Versailles for the stoned mob and a televised revolution.
I’d had enough of being the first lady of marijuana. Dennis used me because I could solve problems and connected him, but my opinions irritated him, we disagreed all the time. Further, I never trusted John his chief fool and chancellor. We’d become our own worst enemies, from months out I saw we were headed towards disaster, there was no way we’d get an initiative on the ballot, the whole campaign stuck on stupid. Dennis thought he could pay for everything, and he didn’t need anyone else, but were there really millions of dollars stuck away somewhere. I didn’t think so. People were grumbling that Dennis was making fifty thousand a day. I never saw it.
Dennis prepared his new headquarters, and every day there’d be another colossal fuck up. The Ammmiano campaign left behind a 200 line phone bank hook up, John had a worker use a chain saw to cut through the main connection and route a single line to his desk. Letterhead was printed listing “Bakersfield County,” there isn’t one. People with real campaign skills were turned around at the door, and finally a truckload of donated Apple computers from George Lucas’s Sky Walker Ranch was sent away, twice.
I saw an opportunity when I heard Scott Imler, who was also frustrated with the imploding campaign in San Francisco decided to go to Los Angeles and build a new paradigm. “If we want to win, that’s where it’ll happen.” he told me. “San Francisco is a done deal, there’s nothing to do there. If you want to be part of the future instead of the past, LA is the millennium city.”
This was odd coming from a man such as Scott more at home on muddy mountainside in long johns and work boots. He was the guy to do it though, conquer Hollywood, smart and good-looking in an Abraham Lincoln way. He’d worked in Washington DC laying a lot of the early ground work and when everyone else went “oh forget about LA”, Scott knew better.
It’s very much required that you loathe LA if you live in San Francisco, it’s plastic and pretense, it’s shallow tinseltown fads, really lowbrow. I’d been there a couple of times, the Academy Awards were a hoot, but that was ten years ago. I liked it though, Hollywood after all.
My predicament was I didn’t fit into San Francisco any more. I’d become a contrarian, all my ideas didn’t work in the circumstances around me. Hopelessly cliché, impossibly fashionable, cynical. How did it happen, people were saying I was mainstream and “neo conservative” by San Francisco standards. Art is my political philosophy I said, and I believe, but it can destroy relationships.
I’d already wrecked my friendship with Cleve over artistic control now it was happening again with Dennis, we’d probably end up firing each other in some twisted loop of karma, history repeating itself. I wasn’t sure LA was the answer, but I went, distance would be my answer to so much disagreement with Dennis. Exile in paradise.
The Pacific Ocean lapped around my feet, the water was warm, Venice Beach on a late summer afternoon. I closed my eyes, giving myself up to the rays of the sun. I thought this feels so mellow and I waited for that golden moment when love comes home, but instead my mind burned ambition behind my squinted eyes and I thought about New York.
I didn’t fit there either. I gave everything away, moved out of my basement room the next morning, kept some good clothes and a laptop spending the next two years a nomad, couch surfing on both coasts, writing.
Medical Marijuana was Dennis’ destiny, not mine. I was part of the scenery, but others commanded the stage. Scott Imler created a wave of good PR in southern California, reaching out to Churches for their support and putting together a patient cooperative in West Hollywood. But as I predicted, we fell far short of the number of signatures required, sabotaged by stupidity.
Scott and Lynette Shaw up in Marin contacted some influential drug policy people and laid out our situation, we had only a few weeks left and only a quarter of the required number for qualification. They wouldn’t help us, not with Dennis involved. It looked hopeless.
A mens discount fashion mogul invited everyone working on the issue in California to a dinner in Oakland. I ran into Scott at the bar who’d flown up from LA on a plane next to some high rolling consultants who didn’t know he’d overheard their plans. He told me they were taking over, riding a political gravy train financed by George Soros a progressive billionaire, we were all fired.
“You can’t fire the movement.” I gagged. But they did, replacing it with a professional paid signature gathering operation and a campaign war chest. Dennis didn’t just fade away as they hoped, but he wasn’t the only show in town anymore. Worse he was the freakshow, now that the money people were in the spotlight. the poster boy for the opposition. He was painted as a huckster and cult leader.
Charlie called him the brother outside, the Malcolm X of marijuana, the extremist who makes the middle road a little wider. Dennis saw himself as the Martin Luther King, whom he plagarized in vulgar ignorance and idolized as a dreamer.
I stayed away from San Francisco, for me it was a nightmare and privately a big question mark. I’d heard Dennis and John laughing with some big dealers that the Compassionate Use Act would never pass, that the dope business would flourish in the chaos they were bank rolling. I was quite taken a back by this; was Dennis lying to them, or to the rest of us who believed in what we were bringing to the ballot box?
The sincerity factor boiled over time and again. At the beginning of the signature gathering the petitions were printed incorrectly, a legal stumble as to their validity, and more insulting not union made. John, at Dennis command, had taken care of everything once again to disastrous effect. He ordered a hundred thousand of them. I said it was stupid and did so in the newspapers, when Dennis dismissed me with “Nobody cares about the Union Bug.” and John labeled me a traitor. Then I found out, along with every one else they’d changed the language of the law, that the “sofa version” so many had worked over was not filed, but instead a clumsy imitation John typo’d to switch at the last moment. I was disappointed when Dennis and John lied about it, every body knew they did it, it was right there in print.
That was my problem, I cared and I dared to be critical. To me the excitement was about the gay community building and deciding a successful election on broader issue than sexual orientation. I knew we were making the difference, or maybe could make the difference, if we could disipline ourselves in the media orgy around us. It bothered me that the leaders locally and in Washington stayed mostly silent, terrified of San Franciso’s loosest cannon, 60’s prince, and lordly master over all drooling stoned out sociopathic negotive stereotype. But in spite of his wildest antics it didn’t matter because we were effective in Los Angeles the mother load of votes. I helped stop the loony tunes going on in my hometown, filling the media with anything else, working with the new consultants engineering other stories, local. It made a contrast.
As the campaign drew to a close, Dennis invited me up to help him on the media and I jumped at the chance to do damage control in San Francisco. Within a day or two of my arrival I found myself once again the first lady of Marijuana, an ornament in the vast court around the Prince and his dark dopey Richeleau. All communication was through John, I was moved across the hall from going from the oval office to the east wing. My job was to be fabulous.
One day I found a gun buried underneath my desk. Dennis was very concerned for about an hour, then he said he knew about it and forgot. that made me really nervous. I confronted him when I found out he bought sixty pounds from the California Militia, “those people are our enemies,” I screamed at him, “they’re the ones bombing gay bars.” Dennis just brushed it off at first denying it, then he “didn’t know”, and finally “you bitches mind your own business.” Dennis lied to me on an hourly basis. There were secrets where there should have been trust, I started seeing the whole operation as a sham, all about making money and being infamous.
I was so over it, I longed to make Rainbow Flags. I’d been working on Medical Marijuana more than two years, the same two years I’d been writing and neither satisfied me. Writing one book and living another became a life of complete distraction, I couldn’t focus on either as both were ripping holes in my friendships.
I considered Cleve and Dennis my brothers, one on the out side, the other a consummate insider, and my self the third point of a triangle that had its roots in Harvey Milk. I thought we were all extensions of his legacy and that we ‘d each found a measure of greatness working on Gay rights, AIDS, and Medical Marijuana. But our family and kinship in San Francisco hardened into a tombstone of living nostalgia for the post Stonewall era, the seventies when we thought we could have it all, the eighties when we lost everything, and the nineties when it was everyone for themselves.
A haze of doubt and reflection filled my days as a foggy July passed but one day my addiction to love, artistic indulgence, and my comfortable life came to a predictable and shocking end.
I woke up early at the Isis Street warehouse, it was Sunday and I dressed nicely in black slacks and a yellow polo shirt. Dennis was off for the weekend giving a speech in Vancouver and I was putting together a video package for Nightline and Oprah so I’d go in early and not be disturbed. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut across the street from the Club. Market Street was deserted as I crossed thinking about the tape we’d done last night.
I put my key in the door balancing my paper bag breakfast in the other and opened the lock. Something blocked the door, a huge sheet of black plastic taped over it and the windows. Those damn kids I thought, knowing the flock of teenagers that hovered near Dennis were somehow responsible for midnight redecorating. All the plants were shoved against the plastic, what a fucking mess I muttered as I pushed my way inside. I heard some loud voices in the back by the elevator. I saw a couple of people and as I looked closer I realized they were police officers in black ninja swat team gear. I’d walked into a bust.
I stood there frozen beginning to take it all in. I could hear doors being smashed open upstairs and saw them carting file cabinets towards a moving van parked out back. The two officers nearest walked right toward me. I recognized the first one as the very gay cop I’d fingered months before. He looked right at me and without saying a word passed by and his friend followed him to go up the stairs.
I finally got enough oxygen in my brain to step back and fumble my way out the door. I walked very quickly, not quite running, by now I was seeing police everywhere, even a helicopter was circling. I kept going, maybe I could make it to the MUNI station on the corner and get away. Just as I got to bus shelter a miracle happened and an empty cab rolled up, I opened the door and put my foot inside turning just enough to see officers coming out of the door pointing at me. I slid into the back seat and locked the door telling the driver to head for the Castro.
I got off a block away from the house and ducked into our corner Java joint. The street was blocked off with squad cars and police were all over. I called the lawyer and left a message. I woke our friends who lived nearby. People filled the sidewalk cafe, waiting for the cops to leave. Vic Hernandez came out of the house. They’d questioned him and let him go. There was a warrant and they’d broken down the door with a battering ram around seven.
Right in the middle of the campaign the Attorney General of California decided to stop the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers club and declared war on Dennis and the initiative. By nine am we’d gathered enough neighbors and energy to announce we’d hold a march that afternoon at three. I went back to the Club still being ransacked for evidence as the press arrived. After another hour of cigarettes and sidewalk nerves, the police pulled down the black plastic curtain and at last our prying eyes were given a glimpse inside. A few moments later the five or six people who were sleeping in the building when they came were all let go. The goon squad finished packing up the vans with boxes and when they were ready to roll out on of them opened the door. No one was arrested.
I managed to keep the press fixated on the first floor where the medical records were kept. Thousands of files were gone, whole cabinets taken, even a desk and, of course, the computer. The TV cameras and bright lights were let loose, and I shoved every friendly face at a reporter. By noon hundreds of people were milling around mad and confused. “We aren’t doing anything wrong.” some one said, it was the only truly sober moment I ever had at the Cannabis Buyers Club, because underneath all the fuck ups and ego trips that was the truth.
Dennis finally called from Vancouver. Some one had seen it on the news there and ran to tell him. He wasn’t sure what to do. He was already in Canada and would be reported as out of the country. John told him to stay there a few days, at which point I blew up, demanding Dennis return at once and defend himself or forever be a coward who ran. John whined but Dennis would be on the next plane home.
The charges were quite serious, conspiracy. A grand jury had been investigating us for almost a year. It turned out the gay cop was some kind of secret agent. There were hundreds of police involved, thousands of hours of undercover video surveillance, wire taps, helicopters and planes, the whole X files.
We marched that afternoon, almost a thousand people showed up supporting the Cannabis Buyer’s Club. The next night three thousand came as Dennis rallied the community with an old bullhorn at Harvey Milk Plaza. Amazingly people thought this was an attack on San Francisco as much as it was on medical marijuana, even some gay politicos were on the scene.
We set of marching with candles singing “We shall overcome.” filling Market Street for several blocks. At Van Ness Avenue I directed everyone toward the State Building. John, who did not march and stayed at the Club, ran up to me shaking with anger, cursing, “They are supposed to go to the Club what are you doing? Dennis wants the march to go this way.”
“It’s not about you and Dennis anymore.” I countered and the march proceeded to the State Building for a confrontation under the great seal of California. Dennis didn’t care. He said it was brilliant as I hoisted him on top of a cement trash box to address the huge crowd. He screamed himself hoarse inciting the anger every one felt. From every direction police cars swarmed in, their sirens and lights blazing. We’d caught them unprepared, nobody was home at the State Building save a lone security officer.
Big jailhouse buses arrived. The Tac squad assembled behind shields and night sticks. It looked like New York, there were so many cops. The crowd chanted louder and louder, Dennis in a frothing harangue used every obscenity to provoke them further and further. We could have easily stormed up the stairs and torched the entire place, or even broken some windows, but I shook Dennis to his senses and he called for silence and told everyone “ Go home, we aren’t about to give the cops the headline.” People dispersed almost instantly. I grabbed Dennis and ran.
“The situation is out of control.” I warned him. “I don’t want to get killed.” Everywhere we went Police watched us.
“It’s scary now.” Dennis conceded out of breath.
When I looked in his eyes I saw the that was the difference between us on medical marijuana, I wasn’t willing to die for it. “ I reject martyrdom, Dennis, that’s for you and Harvey, but it’s a big lie, a cover up for murder. Don’t settle for that kind of destiny, it’s small.”
“You’re small too,” Dennis challenged, “compared to Harvey.” Then he was seized with fear and shivered in the night air, “God” he sighed breathing in the consequences of his actions in the face of certain danger, “Gilbert, do think they want to kill us?”
“They’re the ones with the guns.” I was worried, “And they’re the one’s with the cameras” I warned him.
“You’re way off, this is the best thing that could ever happen, it’s like gasoline on a fire, we’ll for sure win the election now, that’s all that’s important.”
Thousands of people who depended on the Club for marijuana were left stranded, but Dennis refused to re-open the Club. “The more people suffer, the better I look.” he decreed one afternoon in front of room full of shocked supporters encouraging him to go on. I quit the next day, walking through the club slamming every door on my way out. Before I left San Francisco, I got the MCC Church to help give pot to needy patients as a counter stroke to vivid public documentation of profiteering and corruption as the Government laid out it’s case against Dennis and the Club.
I watched from LA in horror as the election drew to close. We were diving in the polls, the Drug Czar and all the ex Presidents rallied the warriors, while patients desperate for relief were routinely arrested. Dennis reigned supreme, dancing on tabletop with lampshade crown, the Club/ Campaign Headquarters/ freak show/ Jonestown/ media suicide his backdrop. Medical marijuana was “the biggest con job ever”, was what the cops said and a lot of people looked at the evidence and the circus in San Francisco and believed it.
I voted absentee and waited for the results in Hollywood with Scott Imler standing in front of a battery of cameras, the entire LA news scene world live. By 54 to 46% we won and proposition 215, The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 became law. State law, not Federal law, there was more drama ahead, but our victory opened the door for a new way of thinking about marijuana and the entire country moved our direction.
My work was over, now the scientist will take over I thought. I went back to writing about the Rainbow Flag grateful to have escaped the misfortune that swirled around me. Marijuana and Gay Rights proved a combustible mixture, igniting a change in society but at tremendous personal cost. I divorced my self from Dennis, after twenty-five years my whole life in San Francisco lay in ruins.
There are some things I can not tell you because my life has skirted the edges of the law. Perhaps one day I will be able to write another book about what I saw during the Medical Marijuana Revolution. What I remember is a movement that ended where the ego trips began. It was a uncomfortable lesson about desire, ambition, and morality that haunts me. Dennis, like Cleve would avoid me, disappearing into the years, they both retired into rural obscurity. While the community around us thought we were heroes, privately we reminded each other of our human failures. I hear that song “We are Family”, I think about the one I left wrecked in San Francisco.