PRINCE OF POT

EXCERPT FROM RAINBOW WARRIOR

1990

“Medical Marijuana.” Dennis danced around the kitchen table bubbling his explanation for the bust. “It was Jonathan’s pot and he has AIDS. There’s no way they’ll ever get this past a jury.  They’ll throw it out.” His nonchalance was baffling. “Trust me, guys, Medical Marijuana.” He was underlining these two words, Medical Marijuana, and I could sense he was rehearsing, There was certainly a lot of explaining ahead.

Dennis had gotten out of jail a little before 10 am. He and his roommate/ former lover/ boy toy Jonathan had been rousted the night before in a sweep that wiped out his whole operation. They arrested everybody including Steve, another Dennis ex, who was running the show at the new place on Castro.  This was the umpteenth time in twelve years Dennis had been busted for selling pot.

The Big Top raid in the late seventies had wiped him out before.  Back then he had lost everything; ended up going to jail for six months and, most incredibly, had been shot by a cop in his leg.  He still had the bullet in him, and much to the authorities’ chagrin, he had the fire and temerity to come back again and again and blow smoke in their faces.  Dennis was more than your average neighborhood dope dealer, He considered himself a revolutionary.
We had another cup of coffee, Cleve was on his way over.  Poor Jonathan was in a daze, weak and sick.  Nobody had slept. The Cops had broken down the door around one in the morning and literally dragged Jonathan off his death bed, thrown him face down on floor, and handcuffed him.  For the next two hours Dennis and Jonathan watched prostrate with their wrists tied behind their backs as the “Vice Squad” ripped apart the house.

Prince of Pot (continued from above)

Every single piece of paper in the entire three story Victorian was boxed for evidence and Dennis never threw anything away. All the while the goons trash the place, throwing the food out of the fridge to make a stinking mess, all the while jabbing with queer insults, laughing at a picture of Harvey Milk and making hate jokes about AIDS, “They were total pigs.” Dennis said

Of course they found the pot, but there was only a couple of ounces and barely a thousand in cash. But what Dennis and Jonathan didn’t know then was the cops were also over at the place on Castro Street hauling in twenty-five pounds and a load of money. We worried that some kind of government investigation was underway, but the reality was Dennis had been ratted out. “It’s always the snitches “ he said. “ Every time I ever got busted it was because I got fingered.”

It was true, Dennis was crafty. He usually spotted the cops a mile away, plus he was careful, especially after he got shot. He was a fearless leader on the outside but those of us close to him knew otherwise. He was paranoid twenty-four hours a day and didn’t trust anyone. It made him lonely. That was his greatest fear, being alone, so there were always people around. Dennis was generous to a fault. Nobody ever went hungry or slept on the street in his realm. I called him “the Prince of Pot”.

Cleve came in and made another twelve cups of French roast coffee. “Norma?” Cleve couldn’t believe that this woman Dennis had known since the sixties and whose son Dennis had taken care of for years was the culprit. “Norma?” Cleve looked at everyone to make sure it was true, and then, after fully soaking in the horror in his most vicious tone declared ”God what a stupid, stupid woman.”

Norma, as it came to light, was responsible. Earlier the previous morning she had came over and asked Dennis for some money. Dennis refused, suspecting she was drunk. Dennis had supported a lot of people, including me, for years. He gave out money to cover the rent in hard times. But he had his limits. Norma had gone too far, slurring pathetic demands in that goofy little girl whine she used, wanting a couple of joints and twenty bucks. Dennis snapped at her as she spittled around in dirty bathroom slippers raging threats of revenge before she left empty handed. Dennis hated drunks and junkies, they were not welcome in his Cannabis Camelot. But he couldn’t get rid of Norma, the family idiot whose son never really had a mother until Dennis took him in.

The bust started a couple of hours later when US Park Police found Norma and her bum boyfriend in the front seat of her car passed out with a case of beer and a balloon full of Heroin. The Park Police turned her over to the locals. Jonesing for another fix and desperate to avoid Federal charges, she fingered Dennis.

To the cowboys on the vice squad it was too good to be true. They’d been on Dennis’s case for years and he’d always stayed a step ahead of them. They loaded her considerable carcass into an unmarked sedan and drove her over to Castro Street where she pointed out the secret site of Dennis’s main operation, then past his house and finally dumped her in a cell back at the Hall of Justice where they let her dry out a little. With Norma’s confession in hand they got a search warrant and stormed in around one in the morning.

“God, we were all here just an hour before that playing cards.” Cleve shook his head, glad he’d avoided the embarrassing round up and disgusted more with Dennis than with Norma. “You shoulda given her the money, you really fucked up.”

Dennis protested, saying he knew she was on drugs, but Cleve cut him off, “All you think about is your ass, now you’ve got everybody else in trouble, all because you decided to be mean and hand out a little tough love to somebody too stupid to know any better. Stupid woman, Stupid woman,” Cleve ranted, “ She’s paying you back, this all your fault.”

“You’re making a big deal out of nothing.” Dennis put his foot down, there wasn’t going to be anymore criticism. “I’ve already got lawyers. It will all go away. It’s a blessing in disguise. Norma will never come back. I’m rid of her.” Dennis soothed every concern.

“Lawyers?” Cleve probed further, “You mean you’re getting separate lawyers for you, Jonathan and Steve?”

“And John too.” Dennis seemed to have it all figured out. John, the latest in a long line of pretty straight boys Dennis surrounded himself with, lived downstairs from Steve on Castro Street. He’d been staying in this second apartment which served as the secret stash for the “store” up stairs. When the cops broke down the door above him, he saw Steve, who wasn’t home at the time, coming up the street from the coffee shop. He opened his door to warn him of the bust, and the cops grabbed both of them and accidentally discovered the booty in the second apartment they didn’t have a warrant for.

“It’s a fucking mess,” Dennis conceded. “They got almost everything.” For a minute Dennis looked worried, chain smoking menthols and staring off avoiding eye contact while the bust was explained over and over again, it was just too ridiculous to be true.

Cleve walked me out, we got to the corner and he said “you’re a fool to move in with Dennis now, there’s something fishy going on. Separate lawyers, separate deals.”

Dennis wanted me to move in, and though Cleve warned me, I did. I was always around anyway and secretly I loved him, not with any hope of romance but with the care and concern of a brother, that’s how I thought of both Dennis and Cleve. “He needs us,” I said. “And Jonathan, he’s going fast now, we’re all he’s got for support and Dennis needs support too. I’m nervous about it but I’m going ahead. What can happen to me anyway, it’s not like I’m running the biz.”

“You know too much, it’s dangerous,” Cleve persisted. There’s a stupid factor, Norma and all those dead beat kids, you’ll hate it.”

“Dennis is an anti-intellectual,” I agreed “ But I’m not letting that get in the way of my heart.”

“You’ll regret it, and since when have you ever had a heart?” Cleve sneered, “It’ll drag you down. You should make flags. You’re getting involved with something you don’t know anything about. You’re wasting your life.” With that he turned up the hill towards his apartment and after he climbed a few steps called back in a completely different voice as though his admonition had never happened, the nonsequitor of a manic depressive, “Well, Dennis said you’re making dinner tonight because none of us has any money.”

Spaghetti again, but I made apple pies from scratch to celebrate everyone’s release from jail. After the dishes were done, everyone was expected to clean up after themselves. Dennis always kept a neat house. Another pot of coffee percolated.

Jonathan wanted to play a board game, Risk. We settled on the living room floor picking the colors of our armies, choosing cards one at time to determine the countries we would control, rolling the dice to see who’d go first. The war game was a favorite of Jonathan’s, not because he won with any regularity, but because it provided a social context for a lot of bitchy banter and he liked watching Cleve and Dennis go at it in total seriousness. Two generals playing out strategies, cutting deals, screwing the weaker players until one of them achieved world domination, the object of the game.

I had a bad hand and an ugly color, with my usual flair I risked everything on a few transparent bluffs, which everyone howled over and was out of the game first. I watched them play silently analyzing the moves and the psychology at work. Dennis ever the cunning fox, Cleve ruthless, and Jonathan lucky.

“This whole mess would never have happened if Steve had sent the pot over to Earl’s. I told him that every night and the one time he forgets they come.” Dennis was showing his bitter side. “In a way this is all Steve’s fault.”

Jonathan, aghast, said “It’s about Norma, not about Steve.” Cleve and I looked at each other. Dennis was setting Steve up for the fall. Jonathan fumed, “It’s you’re fault Dennis, don’t blame anyone else.”

Dennis, chastised, said ‘Oh you’re right, I should never have put Steve in charge in the first place.”

Cleve defended Steve, “He did a great job and made you a ton of money, don’t forget that. He put his ass on the line for you, don’t you have any loyalty?” Cleve was boiling over, “You’d better be careful Dennis, remember what goes around comes around.”

Dennis narrowed his eyes and said “ You bitches.” He always said that when everyone closed ranks against him in games and life. “Well, somebody is gonna take the fall on this and it can’t be me. If I go, with my record I’ll get at least ten years. Steve’s clean. He’ll get six months in county, nothing. He knew the risks and that’s the way it goes.” Then a burst of contrite apology followed and he cried. Dennis put his silver head on my shoulder and I hugged him only to discover a feeling that it was all an act.

Actors. Dennis has a collection of masks from all over the world. He decorates his house with them. Bizarre exotic eyes follow you everywhere. The most opulent of these hang in the living room at he top of the stairs. Golden gargoyles protecting him from visitors, he even a built a lordly balcony in his bedroom, that was up another flight of stairs behind a locked door.

Dennis has king sized bed under a large molded acrylic crystal clear pyramid skylight. The pillow, where his head lays in a one eyed sleep filled with nightmares from his time in Vietnam and dreams of UFOs is arranged so he can see through the panes of miniature French doors. The dauphin of dope even when he’s alone, Robin Hood hiding from the sheriff, a leprechaun wizard behind royal green curtains. He keeps a constant vigil, fine tuning the strings on marionettes that soar above the salon of stares below.

We called him “Evita.” He lived up to it, Dennis Peron. The last name was the same, but his lineage went back to Long Island not to Argentina. Still, his court was monikered “Peronistas” as they followed their generous, saintly, devilish, extravagant, and cruel leader. Dennis loved “Cats” and his little dog Muffie the Maltese Princess. He wore her everywhere, a white fur canine charmer draped on his arm, Evita again. They matched perfectly, Dennis silver haired, finely boned, and twinkled eyed.

Jonathan’s room was up yet another hidden flight of oak stairs at the far end of the white sky-lit living room. He painted it a horrendous shade of sky blue and covered the floor with bright green wall-to-wall carpet. “It’s like being out doors,” Jonathan making sure we all got his “masterpiece” of interior decoration. Near his bed there were scraps of fur from dead animals hanging from antlers. He often wore these on Halloween and other festive occasions. Jonathan was a radical Faerie, small and delicate much like Dennis, but his spirituality was sincere and expansive, at complete odds with the crass hedonistic pragmatism and avowed atheism that Dennis adhered to.

Jonathan had AIDS but never followed any particular treatment. Cleve was on AZT and tried to get him to consider taking some sustained course of proactive medical intervention. Cleve suffered from a long list of side effects, the most bothersome was a persistent rash that kept him covered up and indoors with frequent visits to his dermatologist. Jonathan was content to live on tapioca pudding and milkshakes. He was hobbled by bouts of diarrhea as Morgan was, yet he was more embarrassed by the Karposi’s lesions that erupted on his face. I showed him all the drag queen make-up tricks to apply foundation. Jonathan never went in public with out a thin coat of beige paint covering up the secret plague that marked his still youthful countenance. He was only thirty.

Except for sporadic consultations with Cleve who begged him to see doctors, Jonathan never talked about his illness. “Everything was just fine” he’d say running off to the bathroom every hour with a fresh roll of toilet paper. Dennis finally persuaded him to move up to the Russian River to a little house on the waters edge purchased a few months earlier. Redwoods and refuge from sickness and legal worries all around, Dennis thought of everything. Change the channels. That’s why Jonathan loved him. “He knows how to live,” Jonathan pondered darkly like a philosopher in the forest, “He doesn’t want to know anything about death.”

Neither did I. Denial was the order of the day, cynicism taken all the way to the last candle, AIDS killing the spirit. Dennis built a cozy fire in the wood stove every night and Richard Pope our long time friend moved in to take care of Jonathan’s every need.

Dennis had a perfect sense of hippie-style, a big deck was built for tie dyed entertaining in log cabin splendor. The hot tub held ten comfortably. To go with it, Dennis bought a round blue and white plastic swimming pool suitable for a trailer park playground. A turquoise vinyl pond big enough to drown in and cheap enough to scream ostentatious bad taste with the floating pink flamingoes and yellow rubber ducks.

“A-Gay’s” Dennis wagged his white trash badge one day, “That’s what you and Cleve want to be. Wannabe’s is all you’ll ever be.” Dennis only got behind art projects when it served him. The Rainbow Flag and the Quilt did not interest him, too much mainstream acceptance. Basking in each other’s glory was never easy. The three of us liked the spotlight reserved for heroes. Dennis was jealous of Cleve, but it was Freudian and subtle. Only Jonathan, Steve, Richard Pope, and myself knew that it was about Harvey Milk.

Harvey was friend to both them but in different ways. He was Cleve’s mentor but a peer of Dennis. When Dennis complained about “A-Gay’s” it was code for the outsider credentials he shared with Harvey. Cleve’s Names Project was about it being a job for Cleve who never had any money. That was OK, but he ridiculed the rich and powerful who supported the quilt. One thing Cleve and I agreed on was you couldn’t take him anywhere.

Once I crashed Dennis, Jonathan, and twenty five of our closest friends into the Black and White Ball, San Francisco’s premiere party. Wearing “freebox” black tie, they ended up on the loggia of the Opera house blowing clouds of marijuana around a nine piece Reggae Band. There was a trail of smoke so thick it drifted out over the Civic center Plaza below and had Police running circles sniffing like dogs through the bushes but never looking up. Grand Dames of the blueblood Symphony scene inhaled deeply while pretending to hold their noses as they tip-toed in pinched pumps past chiaroscuro shanty dancers who laughed at them gaily. Dennis, in the company of real princes, became a clown. That was another connection to Harvey, a fool’s natural humor.

Cleve could be funny, but he wasn’t one to put on a lampshade, stand on top of the dinner table, and lead the shimmy. Cleve had his bawdy side, but it paled in comparison to Dennis who turned every tale into an audience blushing contest. Cleve was smart though. He had educated himself. That was his bloodline to Harvey. Cleve’s intellect and political instincts were Harvey’s delight. Dennis envied this bond, “A-Gay’s” also meant people he thought knew more than he did.

“I’m trash, they’ll never accept me.” Dennis betrayed his insecurity about his own simple mind and low place as a colorful criminal in society.

The biggest difference between Dennis and Cleve was that Dennis aspired to Harvey’s martyrdom as the ultimate destiny of true greatness, and Cleve feared such a shallow ending. Two ancient souls, the Pharaoh and the prophet, Ramses and Moses each reaching for divine power wanting to change history. Dennis crafted a ganja kingdom and Cleve shook kings awake.

The great irony was that while Dennis savaged “A-Gay’s” for their expensive lifestyles and the hierarchy of sycophants around them, his own life wasn’t that much different. Money was central to everything, it bought protection and status, and mostly it bought love. Dennis craved the adoration of sexually confused scruffy boys who needed a father figure. He collected them favoring one after another. Some like Jonathan and Steve became his ministers, while the rest drifted in and out of the harem; chosen one night, exiled the next, and summoned back when needed.

I was twenty years older than most of the kids Dennis entertained himself with. Others of my generation gathered near, guests cruising and picking over the beautiful spoils, cute young guys who hung around long after Dennis had lost his fickle appetite for them. I watched the seductions going on at the dinner table and in the hot tub with the amusement of a worldly aunt, but the orgy that everyone came for never quite happened. It was all a tease, mere acting. There weren’t any real love affairs blooming, just boring adolescent summer camp sexual flirtations. At night, after the fire was out and the water got cold, everyone slept solitaire in their sleeping bags, the elders in lonely frustration and the young grateful to not be the next mornings gossip.

The generation gap became a lucid experience when every month or so Dennis would screen on his VCR the movie classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He knew every word of Tennessee Williams’ story and would act it out for us, cackling at the camp, acting so gay, and entertaining everyone to tears laughing at his antics. The old drag queen parlor game where you figure out who your friends are as the characters in the movie as a way of dishing. The youngsters dozed in boredom.

Big Daddy is the partriarch of a genteel southern Family. Maggie is Maggie “the Cat”, Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest role. Paul Newman is Brick her husband, the golden son. He’s an impotent mess, grieving over the loss of his beat friend Skipper. Sister Woman is the pregnant wife of the older less favored, mother to an obnoxious brood of “no necked monsters.” Big Mama’s having another drink and terrified her world is falling apart. There’s a secret Big Daddy is dying of cancer. Maggie and Brick with a messy passionate marriage and no children, battle conformist rivals determined to become the heirs.

“Cat on A Hot Tin Roof’s” homosexual subplots, the deep relationship between Brick and his friend Skipper and the deeper repressions of fathers and sons are quite provocative for the time 1958. Newman’s acting is brilliantly nuanced, sexual, but Burl Ives steals the show as the grandiose and controlling Big Daddy.

Dennis, always Big Daddy, treated us to an armchair performance tour de force. “Mendacity,” Big Daddy bellowed and Dennis imitated, but in a mean clipped voice. That’s what they hated; lies, falsehood, prevarication, and deception. Dennis said it often, his word du jour, ‘mendacity.”

Eliazbeth Taylor, Maggie dressed to perfection in white, gets her man. Paul Newman advances toward her in opened pajamas, The antelbellum bedroom smolders, Brick and Big Daddy have made their peace, and his brother tells his meddlesome wife to shut up. All the male relationships have a happy ending. Brick’s manhood throbs with life once more.

“What’s the secret of a Cat on a hot tin roof?” Brick smiles

Maggie the Cat says “Just staying up there I guess.”

Fade to black, wake up the stoned.

Steve, was an exception to the clearisil cadre Dennis adorned himself with. He was young, but wise. Steve kept a healthy distance from everyone, avoiding the melodrama going on when the TV was off. After the bust, while we all waited to see what would happen, Steve tended his bamboo garden and girded himself for the twisted fate ahead of him.

“You’re drowning” he told me one day down by the river. We were barefoot, on our way to the canoe. “You think that you’re Big Mama, taking care everything, cooking great dinners, loving. But you’re like everybody else, Maggie the Cat just trying to survive. You’re suffocating in Dennis’s smoke. Escape the dysfunctional family.”

I loved my friends, but they were holding me back. Cleve poked me again and again with his tirades “You’re wasting your life. Dennis is an idiot.” Steve warned me that it would all be over after Jonathan died. “Get a new life.” he said, making plans for Hawaii when he got out of jail.

Richard and I were up at the river when the phone call came from Steve. Our dear friend had passed away suddenly. Dennis was on the East Coast tending his parents when it happened. Cleve was wrecked with grief. I never saw him so sad.

Dennis flew home the next morning and we arranged a beautiful memorial at Jonathans favorite beach. Hundreds of people came. There were drums, poems, peace pipes, and tears. Steve and Cleve chisled Jonathan’s name into the sandstone cliffs. When it was time to go, Dennis and I walked to the car watching the sun set as we made our way along the winding path. “ Medical Marijuana.” he fixated again grasping my arm with a trembling funeral hand. “ I’m going to use Jonathans death to change the world, it’s going to mean something.” He looked me square in eye and said “It’s my destiny.”

At the end of 1990 my life as Betsy Ross was wrapped around relationships with my friends. I still made Rainbow Flags. My place in the movement was secure and my ego satisfied. I didn’t worry about destiny. I left that to others like Cleve and Dennis. I thought my role was to serve them and their quests.

Twelve years had passed since my greatest work debuted. Thirty-nine facing forty, out of style and out of time, I hoped there’d be an exception to the rule that there are no second acts in American lives. I at least was alive, unlike Jonathan , Morgan, and so many others lost. A cat on a hot tin roof, just trying to stay on it.

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RAINBOW WARRIOR

Non-Fiction

Today, the Rainbow Flag has become a worldwide symbol of LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusiveness, and its rainbow hues have illuminated landmarks from the White House to the Eiffel Tower to the Sydney Opera House. Gilbert Baker often called himself the “Gay Betsy Ross,” and readers of his colorful, irreverent and deeply personal memoir will find it difficult to disagree.