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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fear and Self-Loathing in Denver (Part 3)

A Literary Homage from the Depraved Center of a Cultural Revolution

Yuppies Ruin Everything... (End of the Rainbow) - 4 May, 2015

Sweet Jesus, how long has it been? Two weeks today since that strange day in Denver. I’m sitting here now, in my own living room, looking out the window and the sky is half blue and half black. A giant thunderhead is rolling off to the north on 40 MPH winds after drizzling over most of town. From the west, the harsh, hard, setting 5 o’clock sun is forming the most intense rainbow I’ve ever seen against what would be the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains if they weren’t hidden behind the fogbank that the low thunderhead has become. It’s truly a wonderful sight, even despite the irony that the rainbow ends directly on top of the house across our fence that serves as a drive thru window for meth and heroin. The neighborhood junkies’ “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. Last year it was raided twice. Those must have been dark times for the living zombies I watch lurch up and down Agua Fria most afternoons.

For the past 2 hours, I’ve been sitting here, staring out that window at the gloom and drizzle, refreshing Facebook every few minutes, watching Jon Oliver rant about everything nobody knows is fucking us, and idly packing Tim’s old wizard pipe, staring at a bunch of fragmented notes on an otherwise blank page that are supposed to outline the conclusion to this jangled saga of the depressing realities I came face to face with on that awful trip to Denver. That’s a lie. I had a good time. But thinking about the thing as a whole depresses me. There’s no promise of a bright future. Only the exact future we’ve been building for ourselves as a society for the last several decades. It’s almost a perfect summary of everything the 80s, 90s, and post-9/11 era were about, at their core. Looking back it seems our present socially starved limbo of hyper-narcissism was inevitable – like the return of the strung out, wiry old woman that just parallel parked for 5 minutes before walking into the “dispensary” of her choice – and I struggle to find solace in the knowledge that the potheads and stoners I’ve always thought of as “my people” are by and large no longer thought of by society as comparable to the folks that come and go all day, to and from the crack-den across the way.

Especially when that legitimacy comes at the price of losing our bizarre brand of comradery to the same corporate evils that have hollowed out the center of every great American tradition from baseball to the investigative journalism. It hurts to look this closely at the patterns. This same thing happens every time young people try to create a cultural identity of their own. Seattle, Austin, Brooklyn… now Denver. Every time a large number of young people move somewhere – because they’re poor and it’s cheap – and they successfully define their culture on their own terms, it inevitably becomes “cool,” and there are sharks in the water before anyone has the presence of mind to recognize what’s happening. It’s like watching a nature documentary, helplessly rooting for the small, isolated young gazelle, split from the herd, as it falls prey to a wily pack of predators, simply engaging in the perpetual natural rhythm.

The greatest tragedy, quite possibly, is that Denver was “over” before it was even really “cool.” Denver never got to really define its cultural personality in any mainstream way before it was inundated with commercialism and mercilessly gentrified. That said, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise, as the music and art scenes will likely never be as intensely commercially exploited here as, for instance, Seattle in the 90s.

I’m not saying, by any means, that the music or art scenes in Denver are in any way “over.” Those fighting that fight are resilient and inspired as ever. Their fight is simply that much harder for all the attention their city is getting for other reasons. Rising rents are forcing small DIY venues to compete on a level many can’t keep up with, but the few that do are at the cutting edge of what could be this generation’s defining art form: the house party. Specifically, the DIY concert hosted at a multimedia art/living space.

Millennials grew up multitasking. We were raised by the 90s, activity-centric soccer mom mentality, and it’s no surprise we’re all jacks of many trades. Everyone I know is in a few bands, does some sort (or several) of art, and/or engages in some sort of expressive art form, be it dance, acting, or what have you. So it’s natural that when you get several of us together, our living spaces often become multifaceted funhouses of creative expression. I will repeat this sentiment to my dying breath: every one of the best concerts I’ve been to has been in someone’s basement, living room, or garage. And more and more of these strange group dwellings are realizing that a party only gets better if the walls are painted random colors, covered in weird art, and flooded with engaging projections. DIY house venues may not be a new invention, but they now represent the pulse of almost every modern art form. From music to painting, to performance art, they are to the rest of the country what Austin’s dive bars are to their scene. There’s an entire circuit of DIY music that’s spawned from the love affair between the internet and rock and roll’s affinity for couch-crashing. Bands can travel indefinitely, touring up and down both coasts, and through the middle of the country for almost no money, playing living rooms, porches, barns, roofs, alleyways, and anywhere else a bunch of young people are gathering to get drunk and rub up against each other. Even a one-horse retirement community like Santa Fe has a thriving (if small) underground DIY scene, but Denver’s is the quintessence of how a DIY scene is supposed to be run. 


The secondary objective in our journey was a concert taking place at one of the oldest DIY venues not only in Denver, but maybe in the whole country. Rhinoceropolis celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend, making it the oldest DIY venue I’ve ever been to, and cementing its reputation as a pillar of the local scene. We were planning on catching Annabelle Chairlegs, an act composed partially of our old schoolmates, veterans of the DIY circuit, now based out of Austin.

But in the state we found ourselves after the Cannabis Cup, the fear began to arise in me that we would not make it that far. Zenon and Amy were asleep in the back, and we were on a quest for coffee, lest we succumb to similar fates. I actually don’t drink the stuff, but I was so despondent from what I had witnessed at the Cup that I found myself close to the edge of total, irrational despair. What would I write about? Surely there was nothing to learn from the fact that the culture marijuana users slowly developed between one another over the course of half a century of hiding from the law like plague rats is now being turned into the new frontier of cutthroat capitalism and being sold as t-shirts and trucker hats to kids who will never know a world where you can do jail time for a joint. We’ve gone from incarcerating people for their vices to making money off them. Maybe that’s what truly defines this country, and everyone that allows themselves to buy into the “Dream.” Nothing pure cannot be corrupted with the promise of legitimacy and a barrel of cash.

It was a dark moment. Worse yet, finding a cup of coffee in Denver after 4 PM is, as Dylan would say, in the words of Macho Man, Randy Savage, “Like men playing with boys: It ain’t gonna happen.” The third coffee shop we arrived at turned out to be open, thankfully, and as we sat inside, staring idly at our phones, I began to realize the dark reality of the situation. It was perfectly put by the girl behind the counter when I asked her opinion of living in Denver at this moment in time. “Maybe it’s because I’m from New York,” she prefaced, “But I just have no respect for a city that defines itself with pot, skiing, and cross-fit training. Especially cross-fit,” she added, “I fucking hate that shit.”

An alarm went off in my head from that statement. My mistake all along had been that I was relying on an image other people held in their minds for my own sense of identity. That’s what yuppies do – buy their personality in an applicable paste. I’d seen the scumbags on every street corner since coming to this town, and every conversation I’d had with anyone about the major differences between Denver “then and now” came down to the massive influx of yuppies, here to grab their slice of all the cash that’s being thrown around the pot fields.

“We brought in 80,000 people last year,” JD had told me that morning, “I grew up in a historic neighborhood, so all the homes were over 100 years old. That neighborhood used to be young families with blue collar jobs. But now it’s doctors and lawyers moving in next door and the diversity has gone way down. The reason for that is the area’s gotten a lot more expensive.” The hope is that, with this influx of money and youth, the city will move more toward being a hub for art and music. JD mentioned the booming Rhino (River North) Arts District, but as I would find out that evening, a commercial boom is not always in the best interest of an art district.

You see, the problem with living near yuppies is that there is never enough money for them. JD explained the process perfectly, from the perspective of someone who watched it happen to his own neighborhood, “It’s not that people are being forced to sell their properties,” he says, “It’s just, they realize they can make some quick easy cash and move out to a suburb. Then someone comes and flips the house and turns it into a duplex. And suddenly where there was one family and a large plot of land, now there’s two families and they each have a small plot of land. It’s just packing it in. [This attracts] the same kind of people – the kind who can afford it – and that’s just young professional white people. They come in, get a job downtown, with a starting salary of $65,000 a year, and they get a house right nearby. And a lot of them just flip homes on the side, too, so they actually perpetuate the problem.” They make more money and attract more yuppies. As JD pointed out, the ironic joke is that, “[It’s] money they end up having to spend, because they affect their own cost of living.”

One important obstacle most of the people flocking to Denver aren’t thinking about right now is the most obvious to those of us who grew up in the desert. “With 80,000 people moving here – and with California being in a drought – and they take water from Colorado as well – so… We’re gonna need that water eventually. And the more Denver grows, and the denser it gets, we’re gonna need to make sure that water gets to the right place.”

But based on what’s happening in the Rhino District, the newcomers aren’t likely to wise up to the issue anytime soon. Talking to Ben, who was running sound at Rhinoceropolis that night, I got a firsthand account of how it looks when “progress” moves in next door.

“I’ve never seen a block change so quickly,” he explained, “The money just came through. Now there’s an artisan beef place and a market right there,” he points down the street. “It’s been an industrial neighborhood since the 1800s. It was always steel plants, and this is the first time it’s being gentrified.”

A native of Huston, who left when Austin started exploding, he has an interesting perspective on the crowd that follows these “scenes.” “There’s people who come to places because they hear a certain thing is changing,” Ben says, “And it becomes oversaturated with people who are just interested in hype.” This has caused a new paradigm in how populations migrate. Ben continues, “People used to move places because of jobs. Now they don’t go because of jobs, they just go because it’s cool. It’s a double edged sword. [People] want indie film scenes, and DIY music and art. But the more people want that – with their money – the more it becomes impossible, because the money corrupts it. This is the ‘Rhino Arts District.’ [Rhinoceropolis] has been around longer than the [name] ‘Rhino Art District,’ and yet nobody knows about it. But they’re bringing in so much money that nobody can afford to live here. They want it to be an arts district but they’re kicking out all the artists.”

The local supporting acts were all tremendously engaging and brought a diverse, interested crowd. You know it’s a good show when even between sets, this fucking guy is feeling it this hard. Maybe that’s just a testament to whatever he took in preparation for the night, but the fact remains that freaks like he and I wouldn’t be welcome if this party was organized by the same people as the Cannabis Cup. Not without a cool $50 at the door and possibly an insurance waiver.

I had a hard time watching the show. It’s a strong testament to my pessimism, but every time I see an organic, beautiful project of self-expression arise among a group like that, I get sad. Especially with one as established as Rhinoceropolis, I just can’t shake the ugly realization that one day it is going to end. Usually DIY venues operate for a year or maybe two or three, and then people move, and the scene goes to a new place. But when a DIY venue becomes an establishment, like this place, the inevitable demise is an actual, perceptible detriment to the community. The worst part is, with the right public subsidies, there’s no reason spaces like Rhino couldn’t be sustained. But sadly, respectable society’s idea of “progress” revolves around property value. And these days it seems there’s no room for beauty at the expense of the bottom line.


Sitting on a Couch, Listening to Tinariwen

I had to look away. I was happy that my old friend Daniel had shown up. We wandered around the space, taking pictures of the walls and the stories they told. Since his childhood, Daniel has been playing East African music, and now he teaches it in Boulder, to ease the white guilt of those very same yuppies that are unwittingly threatening to end this oasis of honest expression. Hanging out with Daniel always tends to level me out, which, after the day’s events, was my only hope for warding off catatonic bewilderment. I was clinging to the frayed ends of reason as we sat in the parking lot and I recounted the day’s events to him, between sips of a Rainier tallboy (A momentary respite from my distress came an hour or so earlier when Zenon had found my favorite shitty beer at a liquor store. The biggest advantage to this sort of concentration of hipsters is a healthy selection of beers).

Once, many years ago, Daniel and I sat on a couch at a party at Jenny Luna’s house, very much like this one. There wasn’t a band, but the mood of the night, at least from my perspective, was very similar. Maybe that’s just a symptom of exhaustion. Either way, at this party, years before, Daniel and I had agreed, at one point, in a very high and drunk state that we both felt the strange time dilation I described earlier; as though we had always been sitting on that couch, listening to Tinariwen. And, regardless of where we went in twenty minutes or twenty years, we’d likely, in some universe, always be sitting on that couch, listening to Tinariwen. We occasionally still text each other from great distances, reminding one another – when we remember ourselves – that we’re really still just sitting on Jenny Luna’s couch, listening to Tinariwen. It is a thought that has comforted me on many nights when my demons and self-doubt loomed fiercely and I found myself unsure that – as another friend is often fond of reminding me in moments like these – the sun would in fact rise tomorrow, and everything would be back to normal. And on the evening of April 20, it definitely kept me from going over the proverbial edge of despair and diving straight to the bottom of a bottle.

Instead, I hung out with Daniel. We left the show early, as he, too, had been awake since very early, and was eager to get home. The friends I’d come up here with were driving back after the show, and, faced with the option of sleeping in a car or on a couch, I opted for the latter. I would simply take a Greyhound home from Boulder the next morning (or so I thought). On the drive to his house, Daniel and I discussed getting old, and the steps we so reluctantly stand on the brink of, along with so many of our peers. Friends are having children. Parents are dying. Soon we will be “average Americans.” Soon we will be adults. Might have already happened, and we’re just now realizing. That’s a very threatening proposition for a group of people that still very much enjoys cartoons and keg parties. It’s not that we’re not ready. It’s that we’ve known this was an eventuality since we were old enough to understand the news that was blared at us 24 hours a day. The minute we take responsibility for where we go as a society, we’re also taking responsibility for where we are as a society, and nobody wants to do that. That’s why every generation that goes by identifies that much more readily with counterculture; “culture” is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Millennials will very likely – in the next decade or so, as they start to have more and more children (and they will, despite whatever trends you read about on the internet) – become just as obsessed with money as everyone that came before them. But eventually (possibly quite soon), we will live in a world that nobody wants to bring more children into. Until that day, this cycle, of young people pushing the edge of creative culture and being immediately co-opted, commercialized, sold-out and abandoned by the Market of Cool will continue to perpetuate itself like clockwork. Everyone needs to make a buck. Even I intend to sell these words I wrote about it. Because wherever young people are converging, there is money to be made. That’s the real American Dream. Being young enough to grab what you can in the name of progress. Then you make kids of your own and they find a new way to start the circle again. God bless us, every one.

The next day as Daniel and I walked to a taco truck several blocks from his house, we came across a shelf of books on a corner with a sign, reading, “Community Library.” Daniel stopped to browse through the available titles, only to find self-help guides and trashy airport paperback fiction.

“I like the concept,” he laughed, as we walked away, “Just not the selection.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Long Way Home

It turns out the quickest, cheapest way to get from Denver/Boulder back to Santa Fe, New Mexico is to rent a car. If that’s out of your price range, you’re probably not welcome anyway. I had never rented a car, as I don’t own a credit card, but nevertheless, Daniel and I were able to convince the man at the dealership that we are responsible people. If he rented a car “to Daniel” and signed me up as a “secondary driver,” I assured the man I would get it back to Santa Fe in one piece.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the exchange, he was only able to rent me one of Kia’s drivable toasters, the newest model of which, the Soul, is legal on the highway and can reach speeds of almost 80 MPH. That said, the upholstery was very pleasantly toast-scented, which lasted most of the duration of my trip back south. Upon entering the Pecos wilderness, as the sun set, and I sped the last stretch toward home, I was overcome with the urge to feel the wind in my face, and I rolled down all the windows for a good 30 or 40 miles, listening to nothing but the sound of the evening desert air blast around me and trying to wrap my head around everything I’d seen the day before.

“Well no one really knows what you’re talking about, so I guess we’re already there. And no one opens up when you scream and shout, so it’s time to make a couple things clear. If you’re afraid of what you need… If you’re afraid of what you need… Look around you. You’re surrounded. It won’t get any better.”
-“Home,” LCD Soundsystem

I’m still just trying to process it all. That’s the problem with trying to define a paradigm as you live it. There’s too much information that you just can’t look at with honest eyes while you’re knee deep in experiencing it. The Gonzo thing seems to address that particular shortcoming of human perception, with the liberal application of drugs and alcohol forcing you to look at the culture you’re engaging in with what I like to refer to as “soft eyes…” But who can live like that all the time? Especially with these God awful deadlines?

Ten years from now, we will have a lot more perspective on what was accomplished in places like Rhinoceropolis, and perhaps their influence will be a lot more permanent than that of pot culture, which will eat itself alive faster than skateboarding and punk rock combined. Twenty years from now, when Cheech and Chong seem as strange and dated as the Charleston, perhaps commercial art and music will have collapsed into a free-for-all of artist-run DIY venues and exhibition spaces, and maybe we’ll all be laughing about the days when we allowed corporate entities to try to dictate the direction of popular art for profit.

I hope that day comes soon, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m just going to keep going to house shows. Awful hacks will always cling to whatever new thing becomes cool, but that’s what keeps pushing people to innovate further. The hacks are the ones that wallow in what has already been established as cool, without adding anything of their own to it. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from whatever moves you, it’s when you fail to make it your own that it becomes stale, and the problem with most commercial ventures is that, once the money’s involved, nobody is willing to risk deviating from the established formula.

The only advice I have for anyone that feels the irresistible urge to create in this climate of self-interest verging on absolute narcissism is to not be afraid of the tendency to talk about what you know, even if nobody seems to care. Just do it with honesty, and as long as it’s true to your experience, somebody will relate.

“Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. There is water at the bottom of the ocean.”

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Fear and Self-Loathing in Denver (Part 2)

A Literary Homage from the Depraved Center of a Cultural Revolution


Link to Part I



Responsibility, the Marijuana Mile, and a Gathering of Unwashed Buffoons - 20 April, 2015

“Well, there’s always the ‘Marijuana Mile,’” JD tells us, as I pack a bowl. “If you’re looking to hit up a dispensary, Broadway is just weed shop after weed shop.”

It was a pleasant surprise, last night, when we arrived at his home, to be greeted by someone who wasn’t, as I’d expected, asleep or, worse yet, drunk and wild. After a long car journey to an indeterminate destination, where you only know that you are staying with friends of friends, Murphy’s Law dictates that there will either not be enough space for everyone to sleep or your host will be drunk and violent. Or maybe I’m a pessimist. It’s hard to say. I was honestly sort of looking forward to it. I may have just been projecting, as swilling whiskey for the six hours on the way up had certainly put me in a roguish disposition. Perhaps it was the fact that halfway to our destination, we received word that our original intended host was sick, and had to alter our plan. “Surely this will go wrong in some other way. Surely we are headed for the kind of chaotic night of couch-surfing that always yields a good story,” I wailed silently in my own head, as I pretended to nap in the back seat. I did not want to agitate my compatriots. They have a very different attitude than I do about getting into weird adventures with strange people. Give me a drunken hooligan to follow around a strange city, and I’ll have the time of my life. My friends, on the other hand, are the kind of folks who pack an actual bag – and with clothes, at that, as opposed to booze, drug paraphernalia, and note-taking materials – when going on a weekend trip, instead of just loading up their equipment satchel and hitting the road. I mean no judgment in that account, I simply wanted to articulate this difference in our intents for this trip. They were on vacation. I was doing serious work.

As I stumbled out of the car into the darkness, gathering my effects, my friends tried to identify which of the similar, fenceless, unmarked houses we were bound for. JD stepped out of the one we were parked in front of just in time to call out to my stoned comrades before they got so far down the block he’d wake the whole block. An encouraging start. Inside, we were greeted by his roommate, Sam, who immediately offered us beers that had been abandoned in their fridge longer than anyone cared to get into the specifics of. Also wonderful. It wasn’t until I went to the kitchen to input their wireless password into my phone that I realized I was dealing with responsible people. None of the word combination/birthdate nonsense jokers like myself use to secure their internet access, these guys had a 15-digit randomized string of jibberish that spoke directly to the tech-savy of at least one of the residents in the house. A wave of relief washed over me, because as much as I may have been excited about the prospect of partying all weekend with strangers in a strange land, I appreciated the value of a ballast; a person reasonable enough to discourage my more mischievous inclinations, and perhaps even explain the laws surrounding the regulation of my favorite recreational substance.

Also, being in the company of someone who isn’t swinging for the proverbial fences of depravity tends to keep the team a little more on-task. For instance, at the present moment, we are trying to figure out what to do for breakfast. While we’ve been sidetracked several times since the discussion began half an hour ago with two bowls traveling in opposite directions around the room, JS has managed to keep us relatively focused on our eventual goal of nourishment. After all, he has to work today. It is Monday. We’ve merely detoured into a plan to get coffee first… And maybe hit up a dispensary… Maybe we should smoke a joint first. I’m grinding weed for the joint, as JD pontificates on the logistics of doing both in the span of 30 yards, and we all wait for Zenon to get done in the bathroom.

I’m glad to have run into JD. My biggest worry, as I’ve mentioned before, is that this trip will only make me stare in the face of the inadequacies of people my age. I’m afraid that coming out of here, I will have confirmed every ugly stereotype I’ve ever been boiled down to by a person over 40, and – while I’d be perfectly comfortable if that was simply a negative reflection on me – I don’t know if I can tolerate being part of a generation defined by all the least admirable parts of my character. Meeting JD reminds me, fairly early on, that there are many level-headed, responsible – dare I say, even conservative – members of my peer group. This became clear to me earlier this morning when he walked in to the living room in which my troop of miscreants was waking up, dressed for work 5 hours ahead of schedule. “You working soon?” we asked, casually, trying to discern how quickly we needed to vacate the premises.

“No,” he replied, “It’s just a thing I do; get dressed and get ready for the day. I just hate feeling like I wasted a day.”

I marveled at his resolve, “One of my favorite things is wasting entire days.”

Folks like JD give me a lot of hope for what the future will look like. He is a reasonable person. This is something I admire very much in people, as it’s a very rare quality, and one I possess little of myself. He doesn’t seem the type to argue a point he doesn’t feel strongly about, and the things he feels strongly about seem to be informed in a very logical way. He has a decent job that follows a legitimate career path, but despite being put in charge of large groups of young people most weekdays, he hasn’t renounced the carefree attitudes that brought the rest of us up here this weekend. It takes a very balanced person to be able to celebrate 4/20 with his friends, without feeling obligated to completely unplug, as he’s now reminded us several times, “It is Monday…”

“So what do you think,” I ask him, donning my journalist face while holding in a hit and passing the bowl off to Amy, on my left, “About this whole legalization, thing? You live here. I’m sure it’s changed a lot.”

He laughs and considers the loaded, open-ended question for a moment as I eye him bemusedly, waiting to see what direction he’ll take it in. “I mean… It’s great,” he starts, his tone indicating that the overall impact of the change could be viewed as nothing but a net positive, “But they messed up in the rollout. The main thing I have a qualm with is that, at first, they forgot to limit where [dispensaries] could be opened, and when they first came out, they went up everywhere; next to elementary schools, a few blocks from a high school…”

As he finishes the sentence, it’s clear to me that he’s speaking from his professional experience working with teens and pre-teens, and with an intimate understanding of their attitudes toward the substance during that developing, emotionally volatile time. “It’s not even about it being tempting. It’s kind of like putting a “Cash for Gold” place right next to a high school. There’s a type of place I think we should keep ‘clean.’ I don’t even think there should be fast food in those places.” He laughs, realizing the sound business idea he’s stumbled on, “They should put the dispensaries and the McDonalds in the same place.”

A lot of our elders would be surprised, shocked, or even offended to know that this rising, talented teacher – a future leader in the education of the next generation – is a member of my tribe. But to people my age, when we look back on our favorite teachers, it’s intuitive. One of the keys to being an effective educator is an open mind.

As we get ready and pack our stuff back in the car, he relates to me one of his early experiences with legal edible weed. “For a while [knowing your dose] was a problem with the edibles they were selling; they weren’t portioned. You didn’t know how much weed you were consuming. One time I got a chocolate bar that was like 200 mg, but it was super small. How do you portion that? And then it crumbles on you, so you have no idea.”

I smile at him, repeating my mantra for the trip, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

“But that’s not what I wanted. I just wanted to go to sleep, y’know?”

In the long run, as systems of regulation are established and develop, the main advantage to legal pot sales will be a decrease in that kind of ambiguity, and all the other uncomfortable grey areas that surround procuring weed. Everyone has a story about a sketchy situation they’ve been in while trying to score. Generally, it’s nothing particularly dangerous, but we’ve all had that annoyingly vulnerable experience of waiting for a stranger in a parking lot, or having to knock on a door or call a phone number under vague instructions from a friend. Not to mention idiotic passwords and veil-thin ruses that any police could see right through if there was anything left to gain from arresting potheads. The reason pot legalization is such an obvious inevitability is because our whole lives we’ve all always been able to buy pot – that was never the problem – now it’s just more consistent and organized. The criminality was what brought that element of danger and fear of being cheated.

As Amy points out, “A lot of friends’ parents grew it. Everyone could get it,” but when you buy weed on the street – even from your best friend or your uncle – it’s a difficult and unreliable process determining the origins (and, more importantly, growing conditions) of your pot. With legitimacy, things like organic certification, quality control, reporting, and accountability all come into play. Of course, along with those things, also comes a bottom line, and a class of businesspeople that will do anything to ensure that bottom line, regardless of what may need to be compromised in the process. At this point that makes little difference to the culture that has developed among habitual pot smokers over the last half century, but when companies like Walmart or Johnson and Johnson get into the weed business, the entire game will change. Right now, most of the companies involved in the legitimate recreational (and medicinal – many do both) marijuana trade are startups run by people who got into the business because of their initial involvement with the culture. But when the red tape starts to fall away on a national level, and the entities with REAL money get involved, they won’t be just poking around casually, they will be diving in with long-existing five year plans, and looking to corner whatever aspect of the market they are best logistically set up to take over. Consider a future, 20 years from now, where Monsanto is a leading supplier of marijuana seeds, Phillip Morris owns the fields and processing plants, Johnson and Johnson runs the tinctures, oils, and waxes, and Walmart sells the whole lot from their pharmacy. It’s a worst case scenario, but it’s not an impossibility at this point. That’s eventually where we’re headed. But the long road between here and there will be interesting and full of forks. Some of the early comers to the game will carve out a large enough niche for themselves to get bought out by, or even compete with the corporate players – but it will be a bloodbath when the floodgates open, and that time will eventually come. As consumers we will have a role in determining the development of that market, as we always have. Unfortunately a lot of us don’t really pay attention to the ethics behind the businesses we support, especially when they’re legal.

Emerging from the bathroom, Zenon reaches into his pocket and pulls out a $1 bill, reminding us of our planned purpose – he heard most of the conversation about dispensaries through the door. “I’m ready to buy today…” he says, smugly, displaying the bill, “Me and Mr. Benjamin.”

“That’s George,” I reply.

He looks down at the note stretched between his thumbs and index fingers, “… George Benjamin… The first president to fly a kite… On the moon…”


Depending on which direction you go down Broadway from the coffee shop we just walked out of, it’s either 50 or 100 yards before you reach the first pot dispensary – unless you cross the street, in which case it’s more like 20, discounting the distance to the corner and back from it after crossing. The first dispensary we come to has a line out the door, because they are giving away free donuts, and, as we have coffee, and are in no mood for either waiting or donuts, we simply turn around and walk to the next pot shop. If I had to pick my favorite circumstance of Denver’s marijuana boom, it’s that I’ve never had that wide a selection in buying anything.

That said, the choices quickly become overwhelming. I have a confession that may lose me a little bit of credibility in certain circles: I can’t tell the difference between different strains of pot. If it’s obviously different looking or smelling, fine – but I’ve been smoking pot for over a decade in some occasionally obscene quantities, and I have never been able to tell the difference between an Indica and a Sativa, or been able to identify a strain without being told. I’ve held 3 “iterations” of the same strain before (one indoor, one outdoor, and another indoor that was improperly manicured), and as far as I could tell, they were totally different from one another. And the sad fact of the matter is that they were different from one another – in some ways more different than many individual strains are from one another. You see, the way pot is grown, the point in its development at which it’s harvested, the color of the lights used, the way it was cured, handled, and packaged after harvest – all these things have more to do with the potency and characteristics of the high than just the genetics. It’s pretty easy, visually, to determine the difference between “good pot” and “bad pot,” and I suppose it’s trivially interesting to know the tested THC content, but in practical terms, once you get past a certain level of quality – take a breath, sit down, strap in – there’s no fucking difference.

Which is why the dispensaries don’t really impress me. It’s like going to the houses of many street-level dealers I’ve known over the years, who simply present you with 5 or 6 jars of very similar-looking marijuana on a sliding price scale, and you pick one – only with four times as many jars and with a lot more cameras watching. The sales personnel are helpful, I suppose, but aside from giving me specific measurements of THC content on the edibles and vague descriptions of the “high” from the different strains they had, nobody can empirically or even comparatively qualify any of the claims they make.

“These cookies have 10g of THC in each.”

“What does that mean?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How high will that get me?”

“Well that depends on your tolerance.”

“Well, compared to smoking a bowl.”

“That depends on the marijuana.”

Do you see the problem here? It’s the same problem I’ve always had when buying weed, and while state regulations attempt to require some sort of labeling and explanation of potency, none of that information is any more useful to me than knowing the speed at which my car’s airbags will deploy in the event of an accident. So the only difference now is that I’m not buying pot from a friend, I’m dealing with a stranger who’s just as weird as any pot dealer I’ve ever met, but not familiar to me, and so the situation is awkward. They’re wonderful weirdos though.

The “security” guy who took our IDs at the door is hesitant to give me his name, but overjoyed to talk my ear off when I tell him I’m on assignment writing about the weed revolution. He’s been involved in the business, of course, far longer than it’s been legitimate. He tells me about how many of the early dispensaries were opened by former large-scale dealers, but the majority of those were shut down when the state passed a law requiring dispensary owners to have a clean felony record.

“You want to see the biggest difference since all this started?” he explains, “You go out on the street and you check out the cops as they’re rolling by. Three years ago it was all old Crown Vics, and now every one’s driving a brand new Charger or Impala.” I suppose irony is a hallmark of these sort of societal changes.


Now armed with coffee, a smorgasbord of marijuana infused snacks, pre-rolled joints and a few loose grams of local top shelf cannabis (the employees at the dispensary were confused that we brought coffee with us, as though none of them had ever heard of a “hippy speedball”), we part ways with JD and set forth on our quest. It is five minutes to noon, and we have been “getting moving” for the past three hours. We had originally planned to get to the Cannabis Cup early, meet up with some friends, and try to hit as many sample stands as we could before they ran out – for research – but it becomes immediately clear to us after a second joint that we must first consume a hearty breakfast if we expect to last until the eponymous time of today’s celebration.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to me that restaurants modeled after old cowboy hangouts are so conducive to stoner patrons. Swift’s is an old-fashioned diner that, 55 years ago, when it opened, probably catered almost entirely to the redneck stereotypes we all envision John Denver fans to be. Beards, flannel shirts, perhaps an axe or a six-gun in tow… These mountain folk still very much define the state of Colorado, and because the conservative end of the state’s political spectrum is primarily made up of them, it’s easy to see why the state was among the first to push legalization through. Even they – before the racist, scare tactic propaganda of the 1920s and 30s – were once potheads. Hemp had once been an important cash crop in the American West, largely due to its hardiness and resilience even in drought-prone climates. It’s not surprising that, before the alcohol lobby served up marijuana criminalization as a tool for bigoted, white politicians to further terrorize minorities – who used it more prevalently than their constituents – many people of all races and walks of life in this area, which was then much less densely populated, economically well-off, and therefore more open to cultural exchange, smoked pot. So it’s only natural that the strange, kitschy little cowboy diners you find in hip towns in Colorado, California, and the Pacific Northwest are now generally sustained by stoners. The casual atmosphere, low overhead, the wacky menus and d├ęcor, and the dense, greasy, salty food are perfect for us. And for all our giggling and nonsense, they seem to love us, too.

Before we parted ways, JD mentioned that a good place to check out might be the lawn of the State Capitol building downtown. Every year since the legalization, crowds have gathered on their lawmakers’ doorstep on April 20th, and indulged, while expressing… well… that part is complicated. You see, this year, a permit was obtained to hold the event over the weekend. For the past two days, the area surrounding the park was roped off, and there were musical performances, vendors, food, drinks, and an entire sanctioned event. However, the permit was not granted for the actual day itself. The powers that be were apparently willing to humor the stoners for a weekend, and let them have their bizarre little gathering, but not on a Monday. I suppose that’s reasonable, but it’s a stupid deal to try to make for a number of reasons, foremost among which is that the decades of criminalizing pot culture has for at least the foreseeable future connected that culture with society’s underbelly.

Potheads wanted to have a party in the park on a specific day. They were told they could have the weekend before that day. Most reasonable potheads said, “Sure, that’s fair,” and attended then. And then the workday after rolled around, and while many of those same reasonable potheads will definitely partake in copious quantities of marijuana today, the more die-hard among us (read: “those with a chip on their shoulder and nothing better to do”) came out to the Capitol lawn again.

As Ty, a ginger teen who just offered me a pipe explains, “It’s basically a peaceful protest.”

“Of what?”

“That we didn’t get to have the permit for 4/20.”

“They just wouldn’t issue it for today?”

“Well… I heard they didn’t get the request in on time, because they didn’t realize 4/20 was on a Monday.”

And so you see, nobody really knows (at least nobody within the 100 yard circle of pot smoke that surrounds me) why this event isn’t officially sanctioned, but everyone knows to do what we’ve always done when we can’t have our way: show up in a big crowd and smoke pot there anyway. Colorado has been having these “weed-ins” on college campuses on this date for years, and I’d wager tidy sums of cash that a vast majority of the kids who attended them credit themselves with pushing the move for legalization by doing so. But looking around me, it just doesn’t add up. All over the country, for the past year, people have been legitimately protesting (and in some cases, violently rioting) in numbers that far exceed this relatively miniscule clutch of teenagers and vagabonds, over the fact that white police keep killing unarmed black civilians. Very little has changed in how our police departments are run, and that’s a way more one-sided and obvious issue than the legal status of a plant. It’s much more likely to me that the economic benefits of pot legalization finally became too obvious for the square community to ignore. It speaks very directly to the primary sickness in our American culture. We could, as a nation, give a flying fuck what happens to individual human lives, until there’s a buck to be turned on it. It also points to the idea that it’s very likely that whoever got the permit for this weekend’s events was doing it solely for the money to be made – money they didn’t expect to make off the crowd gathered today.

The crowd in the park is certainly not a testament to the diversity of the pot-smoking populace. I’ve never seen so many filthy black t-shirts and unwashed pseudo-dreads in one place outside a metal concert. Occasionally a few police ride through on bicycles to ensure that nobody is breaking any laws more serious than smoking pot in a public park. They don’t care about that. They seem more annoyed than anything else. Which is understandable, as every time they try to do their job they are almost instinctively jeered at and heckled by the crowd. I’ve had my share of shitty experiences with power-maddened cops, and I harbor no good will toward the culture they have cultivated in their institutions, but it seems pointless and immature to express when they themselves are being civil. The crowd around me has spent so much time on the other side of the law, that they recognize their enemy immediately by the uniform, without ever considering the person who has to wear it, and the complexities of their humanity.

My friends recognize almost immediately that this is not our crowd, and after a joint with Ty and his friend, we start to make our way back to the car. While I agree with them that this “scene” is a stale cross-section of what most of America imagines potheads look like, I’m worried that it will be closer to what first made me identify with the culture than our next stop, the primary objective of our visit: the High Times Cannabis Cup. The unity these people feel in their disdain for authority is an important part of what made the culture so special to those of us who have been a part of it for the last several decades. Freaks, outcasts, weirdos, and failures of all walks and shapes and sizes found an accepting community among those who shared their love of the funny sort of carelessness you get from a joint. Many of us established our most lasting friendships sitting around and giggling with strangers, when moments before we had felt too awkward to introduce ourselves. Perhaps that’s a large part of why millennials are so fond of the drug; we all have issues with intimacy, and it makes it easier. But while I didn’t necessarily identify with the blind anti-authoritarianism of the gathering we just left, I fear that the gross commercialism I’m about to walk into is going to leave me sincerely distraught about the future of the culture I grew up claiming as my own.

The Cannabis Cup is an Orgy of Capitalism


“So really, to you,” I suggested, “This is just a business expo like any other…”
He smiled congenially and chuckled at the notion. With his clean-cut appearance, polo shirt, and khaki slacks, the man seemed out of place here. In a room full of several thousand red-eyed, baggily clad young ruffians, this slightly overweight security consultant knew as well as I did that he’s the new kid on the scene. In fact, of all the people I talked to this afternoon, he was probably the most honest about his purpose here. “Well, it’s a business expo,” he grinned up at me, “But it’s certainly not like any other.”

This new paradigm of legal recreational marijuana sales has made for some strange bedfellows. Whereas years ago, you’d never find a booth like this (a bunch of clean-cut security professionals selling high powered cameras and monitoring software) at a weed convention, there’s an entire section of vendors here who have nothing to do with the culture of potheads. They came with the industry. They are following the money. As my jolly new friend explained, “Business people are business people, regardless of their line of work.” It’s probably the most American thing I’ve ever heard anyone say.

April 20th is the most important day on the stoner calendar. For the better part of my adolescence it was the only holiday I truly celebrated. In the beginning it wasn’t even so much about getting high. I had a low tolerance, and couldn’t keep up with most habitual stoners. More than the mind-limbering effects of the drug, I appreciated the culture that surrounded it. Simply put, it was the first time I found “my people.”

High Times magazine advertises their symposium of pot as a sort of Disneyland for stoners; a celebration of legalization and the culture’s progress toward legitimacy. I was never under any illusion that it would be this, but I don’t think anything could have truly prepared me for the sheer entrepreneurial depravity of the Cup’s reality. Aside from the omnipresent smoke cloud and the prevalent barrage of bass-heavy reggae beats, the main difference between the Cannabis Cup and any other industry convention is that the end consumers are a large part of the visiting demographic – at $50 a ticket. As a result, the event is less Comic Con, and more Antiques Roadshow. The main purpose of this gathering is marketing.

Of course, as always, when dealing in the legally pubescent realm of marijuana, there is a catch. You see, none of the dispensaries are allowed to sell their product at this convention. So instead of selling, the dispensaries give things away. The mood is what I imagine one would have experienced in a market during the Dark Ages; like a depraved commercial carnival without any of the things that make carnivals fun. One dispensary has a guy walking around on stilts to gain attention, but he is failing, as, not 30 feet away is not a stand, but a stage, advertising Magic Butter with strippers and dancers wearing anthropomorphic neon-green butter heads with googly eyes. One stall has a particularly large crowd gathered around an ostentatious bro, standing above them, pants hanging off his ass, nondescript logo on his sideways-tilted hat, cupping the mic like he’s about to rap battle Eminem, throwing out vape pen kits and encouraging the faded denizens below to “come hang” for 4:20. He makes his living hiring out his services to companies that cannot or will not represent themselves at such events. Like a traveling snake oil salesman in the Old West, he brings nothing new into the world and has no concern for what he’s selling. He just knows he’s good at it and it pays.

Among the stalls for grow supplies, lights, fertilizers, and seeds, the vast majority of vendors are distributing samples of “dabs.” Whether to demonstrate their various portable or complicated rigs, or sample the sundry waxy hash concentrates, most stalls have four or five people perpetually in line to try their wares. The biggest problem with spending an entire day at this event – as anyone who’s ever taken even a single “dab” will tell you – is that this popular new smoking method knocks a hole in your perception so suddenly and firmly that beyond the first few tokes, it’s unlikely you’ll have any idea of what any ensuing hits do for you. Unlike a beer festival or wine tasting, there’s no effective way of consuming hash consistently all day long while retaining any shred of objective perspective.

At 4:19, sitting on a small patch of grass in the gated-in parking lot the event took place in, I look around at the people that surround me, and realize this show has nothing to do with celebrating the culture that developed around habitual marijuana use. As I look around me at the hundreds of faces – joints in mouths, lighters in one hand, phones open to a clock in the other – it is clear that most of them are just shopping. Half are just cheeky tourists, here to “slum it” with the hippies for a day, and tour the strange human zoo their state’s legalization movement bestowed on them. Conventions such as this are the leading edge of American capitalism’s inevitable consumption of all the traditions my friends and I – and those like us across the country – cultivated organically between ourselves. Like the Taco Bell chihuahua, it’s a blatantly commercial mockery of the culture that lies at the heart at some of the dearest friendships I’ve had in my life.

Even the innumerable food trucks are insufficient. Every one perpetually sports a line 15 to 30 people deep, and most will run out of food by 5PM. Looking around at the sweltering parking lot in which the convention is being held, with not a bench to sit on, and only one miniscule, trash-covered patch of grass and trees, in the shadow of a massive grey building, it’s obvious that whoever planned this event knows more about marketing than getting high. They have absolutely no idea what makes marijuana such a wonderful drug in terms of relating to those around you, and are merely attempting to profit off the mass of unwashed freaks that latches onto anything counter-cultural when it becomes “cool.” The High Times Cannabis Cup (and, honestly, the entirety of the magazine’s output) is an attempt at commercializing a culture that has always been defined by its illegitimacy. It is to actual potheads as Hot Topic is to people who listen to rock and roll or Olive Garden to Italians.

After wandering in a circle around the convention grounds for another half hour, we finally find the exit, where we are herded back into school busses by very annoyed-looking security personnel, and ferried back to the parking lots. They are conveniently located about half an hour away, where any traffic accidents will be more difficult to link to the Pot Fair. Like in any commercial venture, once they were done selling us things, we were of no more use to them. But we are responsible people. So we sit in the car a while, until someone feels capable of driving. Zenon rolls a joint. You know, to take the edge off.