Flashback Friday: Memoirs of an Old Weedhead

Chicago. The Thirties. Skid row. And marijuana was there. Relive those days with us now as we seek out reefer’s roots.
Flashback Friday: Memoirs of an Old Weedhead
Bettmann Archive

Chitown during the ’30s: Pablo’s stickin’ from his socks—three bucks for a smoker’s dozen—down on the corner of Canal and Madison, and Mr. White’s cruisin’ the South Side in his yellow cab offering 100 mezzrolls for an Andrew Jackson. Then, after you meet your man it’s over to Little Johnny Lindsay’s for a night of pre-Marijuana Tax Act fun. Go back in time with this October, 1982 gem from F.J. Wallace.

When you were standing on the corner of Canal and Madison streets, Chicago, in the early ’30s, you were in the city’s backyard. Here the prevailing winds from the lake had blown the bums, the derelicts, the “downers” (horizontal drunks, not to be confused with depressants) and deposited them in windrows along West Madison Street in one of the country’s gamiest skid rows. Though the landscape was grubby and the principal view was the backsides of the big skyscrapers, you were, if you knew this wicked city, only one step from paradise. Around the corner and down the alley was the United States’s first recorded fresh-air, drive-in, curb-service marijuana market. To shop there you steered the old disc-wheeled Dodge down the garbagey alley, past the back door of the greasy spoon; by the escape hatch of Louis Milazzo’s speakeasy (Louie’s was the watering trough for the reporters and rewrite men from the old Daily News across the street). Marinated in gin, these Neanderthals would have been horrified had they but known that some of their juniors were threading their way down the alley: “Dope fiends looking for a fix.” You went at five miles per hour past the resale shop, jam-stocked with “relievers,” hundreds of the odd and mismatched shoes that the indigenous drunks had lost to thieves in the night and that had to be redeemed the next day. Next comes the barber college, the only head shop in sight in them days, brightened by the sandwich board out front that boasted: “old barbers send their sons here.”

At this point you were spotted by your man, Pablo, the gardener from the Garden of Weed, and the deal was on. Pablo’s station was at the heart of the Workman’s Palace, a gaudy name for a mean slave market that sent Mexican day laborers out to sweat over the miles of railroad tracks that fanned out from this hub. Along those rights of way grew some of the finest gage this side of Laredo, and the workers fetched it in by the bush, manicured it and rolled it into fat joints, with the tight, neat hexagonal tuck at one end and the slight twist at the other that could be worked down into the roach of your dreams: sweet, fragrant, high voltage, opening up the doors of perception for us kindergartners.

In the conventional ritual, Pablo popped into the passenger’s seat in front. Your buddy was in the back, cash in one hand, taking his pulse with the other. From behind Pablo’s ear, or from under his cap, came the first joint, on the house; to be shared—a token of brotherly love. Free of the alley at the west end, you cruised a few blocks, circled and brought Pablo back to home base. Meanwhile, from his sock he had produced a newspaper-rolled bundle of joints, a “smoker’s dozen.” Thirteen to the count, all yours for three bucks. Pablo debarked with a sunny “You like?” You did, and you were on your way.

Pablo and pals disappeared after sundown, and if the yen hit you, you then had to range a little wider. Some of the city’s 30,000 Mexicans had settled down in the Valley where they established a cozy coexistence with the Italian alky cookers and bootleggers. One favored spot was Mike’s A.E.F. Cafe, south and west of the Loop. This tacky, storefront speak was presided over by Mike, a soft-spoken, gentle Sicilian who read Benvenuto Cellini for kicks. His mother, so legend held, had been a Valley madam. Busy purveying “the brown and the white” (caramelized spirits sold as bourbon and bathtub gin), Mike nevertheless deplored the inclination of some of his clients toward the more elevated spirits contained in cannabis. Nightly he swore to dispossess his tenant from the flat above: Aunt Molly, billowy Mexican madonna, who, when properly approached, could produce from her alarming décolletage the same quality joints that Pablo trafficked in. But they cost a bit more. The righteous Mike was most likely getting a bit off the top in the transactions he denounced.

Pablo and friends stopped stickin’ periodically. Coppers, distracted by mob slayings in the streets, would shake them down occasionally for “selling cigarettes without a license.” This pallid charge was about the best they could do before the passage of the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 put some bite into the toothless state laws. But word was passed along the bar at the Three Deuces, 222 North State Street, that there was gold in the streets of the South Side, around 47th Street and Indiana Avenue. Code: Ask for Mr. White, black driver of a yellow cab. Me and a pal learned that a 20-dollar bill was good for openers. This got us, quite actually, a hat full of perfectly rolled joints—plus a free cab ride home. It turned out that my Cavanagh fedora held more than a hundred of the nicely rolled joints, or “mezz-rolls,” as the street talk of the day had it. There was joy in Streeterville that night, and our shellac Okehs of Louis Armstrong’s “New Tiger Rag” and “You’re Drivin’ Me Crazy” were ground down right to the bottom of the grooves.

The final initiation of young, white weed-heads into high society was arrived at when you conned your way into the all-night parties that followed an appearance by Mr. Armstrong and band at the Regal Theater or the Savoy Ballroom, both at 47th and South Parkway. You flashed a press pass or let drop the inference that you might help get a “wire” (radio) into such jazz clubs as Bacon’s Casino or the Three Deuces.

At these parties the eavesdropping was richly rewarding. “Pass me that marijuana or I’ll raise an excitement,” was one of the more poetic passages overheard. “Lemme tighten your wig with the best roll out of New York,” was a most hospitable invitation to take a toke. “Light up and be somebody,” was the seductive nudge. Your self-appointed host was Little Johnny Lindsay, balding, affable, sometime bass player whose business card proclaimed him to be “Louis Armstrong’s Right Hand Man.” In the packed, smoke-filled apartment the boss trumpet player of all time came and went in his bathrobe, blessing the faithful, bestowing the final benediction when he called you “Face,” the last word in recognition and identification as one of the elite, no less than a term of endearment. Louis, ever the peacock, switched bathrobes about every half hour to amuse the court. A kerchief headpiece to match (or clash with) his regal robes added just the right fillip. His chops glistened with his own homemade lip salve, almost dimming the wicked intensity of that all-enveloping grin.

The final initiation rite was really a trial by fire. As the good times rolled to a lull along about dawn, you were invited to, nay, expected to, take a good belt of Abilene Water, the dynamite laxative that these troubadours carried by the case when on the road. It was a command performance: “Cleans you out, man.” Recollection of that day’s hangover plus the trots, or “Michigan Quicksteps,” as they were then called, would only muddy up this memoir. Hardier souls went on to breakfast dances. We went home and into a bed that was, mercifully, near the can.

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