I’m a joker, I’m a smoker
I’m a midnight toker
“The Joker,” Steve Miller Band
I’m mixing weed with wine
“Walk It Back,” The National
The universe occasionally can be quite trippy.
Over coffee I was telling a friend about Don Nelson’s recent admission about what he has been doing lately: “I’ve been smoking some pot.”
Then, I realized the coffee shop was wafting over their music system Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” I sang quietly a bit of the lyrics because this song was ever-present during my adolescence spent in the 1970s.
“Man,” I said, joking a bit, “I should have been smoking pot when I was listening to this stuff in high school. I really wasted an opportunity.”
Here’s the irony: It was during high school that I switched to contact lenses from my glasses, but these were some heavy-duty hard lenses of the time. As a result, my eyes were almost always bloodshot.
In the 1970s, this signaled pot smoker. So people were often convinced I was high—although I was never a pot smoker throughout high school or college in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Many if not most of my friends smoked pot. I often was the designated driver for my high friends jonesing for munchies. Trips to Chick-fil-a were common with my red and white 1973 Gran Torino slammed full of giggling and stoned teenagers singing to the Ohio Players, Steve Miller Band, or Pink Floyd blaring over my stereo.
It wasn’t just my eyes signaling marijuana.
Deeply introverted and nearly paralyzed by undiagnosed anxiety (and likely ADHD/OCD), I was mostly terrified of pot as an illegal drug, a fear engrained by my working-class and conservative parents.
Another irony: My defense mechanisms for all this included a reputation for World-Class use of profanity (I was a devoted student of Richard Prior and George Carlin) and an elite tolerance for drinking alcohol.
Later in life I developed a joke about not being a pot smoker as a teen: I was too often drunk in high school and college and was afraid of holding something burning while intoxicated.
I first saw the Don Nelson clip on ESPN. The typical frat-culture of those sports shows included several mostly white men yucking it up about Nelson and smoking pot. In the clip, Nelson, approaching 80, has long hair, a beard, and gold chains around his neck; a couple black men beside him on the dais howl with laughter at his comment, and his smirk.
Also in the 1970s, I played basketball, loved basketball, and despite my initial disdain for the Boston Celtics (an urge grounded in the natural compulsion to reject anything our father likes), I became a Celtics fan. Over the years, I came to appreciate Celtics legends, notably Bill Russell.
Nelson was a Celtics player before he had a long career as an NBA coach.
Part of me wanted to say that Nelson has joined Russell as models of life goals for aging. I do, in fact, admire Russell for his career and his life in a way that is important to me.
And Nelson seems a happy man; I would never deny him that.
I can’t, however, ignore that as a very wealthy white man, Nelson has made his wealth with and on the backs of gifted black men in the NBA. I can’t, however, ignore that all this yucking up about smoking pot late in life because it is now plentiful and legal in some states takes place along side mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts black men.
How many people are unseen and unheard in our prisons or denied employment in their free lives because they too wanted to smoke some pot but got busted?
More than half of drug busts are for marijuana.
Marijuana usage is about the same for black and white people, but “Blacks Are 3.73 Times More Likely Than Whites to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession” (ACLU).
I really wish the Nelson clip could be funny, but it isn’t.
The clip is yet another documentation of the fruits of privilege—some people have access to living that other people are denied.
The access and denial are arbitrary and have nothing to do with merit.
The Joker in the Steve Miller Band song is a toker and he swears, “I sure don’t want to hurt no one.”
He seems like the sort of guys I hung out with in high school and college, stoners, all white and mostly insulated from any real harm, especially any fear of the criminal justice system.
“I ain’t hurtin’ nobody, man,” I can hear in my memory’s ear because my pothead friends always wanted me to join in.
I was, however, irrationally terrified.
And a part of me find Nelson’s peaceful easy feeling very compelling.
But I am reminded of a sobering refrain as I watch Nelson:
Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (E. V. Debs: Statement to the Court)