MY FIRST SMOKE
I'd been working with Shel Silverstein for about three months as his photographer. He was doing some travel articles for Playboy and the photos gave a nice added dimension to them. We'd rambled around some picturesque provincial towns in Spain where he did a few cautious bull fights. We'd scaled a few mountains in Switzerland and skied down their slopes. We'd taken camel rides in the desert in southern Marocco that parodied a high-adventure thriller. Then Shel and I spent a few more days in Casablanca to unwind and catch up on each others lives --we'd grown up next door in a Chicago neighborhood. Then he went back to his place in Greenwich Village and I headed up to Tangier. I had plans to go back to Laetitia, my lady friend in Paris I'd been with before setting off with Shel, but I'd heard so much exotic and bizarre about the nearby international city it was too much to pass up exploring before going back to a more down-to- earth life.
Tangier, right across the Mediterranean Bay from the Rock of Gibraltar atop of Marocco, was divided into two sectors at that time. About half the town was clearly European, mostly French, and the other half was the Medina, the Moroccan sector. It was a fairly comfortable time politically, so there was little real tension between the two quarters. One saw some Europeans in the Medina and many Moroccans in the European sector.
I found an inexpensive, comfortable hotel room with an expansive view over the town and out to the Atlantic. It was in an area near a few interesting book stores, an art supply shop --I was doing some water coloring at the time --and a few European coffee houses. (This was in the early 60ies). I soon met a band of middle-aged expatriate Americans and a few Frenchmen who took me under their wings and showed me their Tangier".
For example, an example of a favorite Night Spot of theirs was in the Medina. The decor was touristic, a Hollywood version of Arabic, with way more gold frills than was called for. And the dancers, behind the swirling veils across their near naked forms to the sharp drum beat, were boys. The crowd's way of showing their bohemian side, I supposed.
Most of them were mainly fond of chess and often spend hours huddled around a board, a few playing, the others commenting and chatting Easily bored at those times, then I'd go seek my own entertainment. One of the places I began to frequent was a rustic bar in a lower area of the French Quarter that served a decent wine, The owner and barkeep was actually an Englishman, named Thomas, a Cockney from London, I liked his raw, earthy humor and we struck up a bit of a friendship.
I enjoyed the roughish stories of his exploits back home over a few glasses. He said he'd been a thief and petty racketeer, till it was clear the law was on his trail. Then he escaped and, somehow ended up here, in Tangier, mainly because they couldn't extradite him. His lawyer had contacted him some years later promising that, if he came back, he was sure to get justice a fair trial. Thomas laughed sarcastically and confirmed to me, "An that's the last thing I would 'ave wanted!"
He showed me special places in the city my other friends would never have gone to. One afternoon we sauntered around the Medina's narrow stone-paved streets tightly lined with various little stores crammed with shawls and capes, candles and ornaments, and local fruits and vegetables. He asked me if I'd been to a local "tea house" yet. When I replied not, he responded with a mirthful laugh and clap of his hands. "I know the perfect place fer yu'," he assured me.
Thomas knew the Medina well, and was well known. As we walked the twisting pathways between the high, mud colored walls to the spot he had in mind, several merchants and shopkeepers gave him friendly nods of recognition. Far, far into the labyrinth, we found the place. A steep, narrow set of whitewashed steps led down into very large, very simple, semi- basement chamber.
Fifteen or twenty Moroccan men, in earth-hued jalaba robes and turbans, sat on pillows around little tables and leaned against the rug covered walls enclosing the room. The mood was light and cheerful, like private celebrations. There was a lad in one corner playing rhythms on a dhumbeck hand drum tucked under his arm and chanting warm. melodious tunes. I liked that place right away.
Although there were cups of tea in front of everyone that were continual refilled, it was the tall water pipes resting on the floor near most of the tables that took my interest. I was beginning to get a fuller picture of a local "tea house."
Even though I'd grown up in a neighborhood and went to schools in Chicago where smoking grass wasn't unusual, I'd never tried it. Although the idea interested me, I never cared to spend time with those hooligan types. But here, now, in Tangier, immersed in this culture's experience and traditional appreciation of it, surrounded by the good natured sociability that it nurtured, a smoke sounded very inviting.
Thomas watched me watching, then nodded at a nearby water pipe and smiled questioningly. I smiled back and nodded in pleased affirmation. He gave one of the waiters a sign, who soon walked over with a water pipe for us. Salaam Alechum, "peace unto you", he greeted us as he lit the bowl of keef. I took the pipe's mouthpiece that was fixed on a long, flexible tube and drew several full, long breaths. The flavor was of a mild smoky mint — perhaps a scent in the water — and the bubbles rolling up the glass stem stroked with the drum's tempo.
After a few tokes, I sat back, waiting expectantly. I had no fixed ideas, other than I knew it was "mind altering". Those wonderland journeys with Shel had loosened and expanded my psyche and filled it with exotic splendors. And now, in the company of Thomas and his dark humor and this room filled with the spirit of joyful intoxication, those first bubbly tokes dissolved and shed my old day-to-day self. And I was left with the luminescent "me" I'd been seeking a for a long, long time.
Thomas continued to watch me with a patient, pleased grin. I sensed the dark green fumes permeate throughout me down deep into my center. The sense of special awareness softly wafted out to fill my whole being, letting me feel more and more surreal. All of me was permeated with this sense of awakening. It so transcended my comprehension, I was freed to sense and feel way beyond my mind's narrow limitations. A tingling and a rush, opening to new dimensions with each inhalation.
Now a light bloomed, an expansiveness that wholly filled and overflowed my being's domain. And quiet. Utter stillness. Expanding ecstasy . It drew me, settled me into a welcoming, bountiful, bliss filled universe. I was home!
"Well, did that do it for you?" Thomas asked with some coyness.
That other universe suddenly reappeared.
I checked in on myself. Several times. My state of mind and body were edgeless, luminous, radiantly undefined. I had no idea what had happened in this world around me while I was in that timeless illumination. Had it been a moment or days? I looked at the others perched at their tables, each group cheerfully self-absorbed, just as they had been. So, I surmised, I hadn't made any disturbing sounds or actions. Thomas looked amused and, somehow, satisfied. I decided I needed to move around. "I'm going to walk a bit outside," I told him, took a deep, full breath and stood up ready to go. I thought.
But something drew me to look back down at the floor behind me. Startled, I saw my body was still sitting back there on the pillow, eyes open, as alert as Thomas perched next to him. There is another me, I recognized. as I'd long suspected and hoped. That is my human creature 'me' over there, I knew. I am the "one who goes with," the Egyptian Ka. The luminous one. That "me" is the worldly one and I am the "otherworldly."
Then there was a flood of drastic uncertainty. Unimaginable to be truly apart from that tangible sense of myself. No body. No dominion in the world. Flames of vulnerability lashed at me. At that, I instantly snapped back down there into my body perched on a cushion. But with a totally altered sense of my true "self."
And, to this day, though I've been smoking off and on since then — some 50 years — although it is not as startlingly boisterous as that first conflagration, the sacrament still awakens and empowers this "otherworldly me."
Of all the adventures of those splendid journeys, Tangier had gifted me with the finest, lifelong one.