I was on welfare for a year when I lived in Humboldt County in 1996. $200 a month and a 100 in food stamps. It was an odd series of events that led to that situation. Which is usually how things work in my life (if I ever write an autobiography I should probably call it An Odd Series of Events).
I had spent the previous 10 years as a freelance cartoonist. But when I hit 40 I got hit by a combination of a massive mid-life crisis and complete nervous breakdown. Frankly, I was sick of sitting at a drawing board all day. I felt like life was passing me by. I wanted some ACTION! So I packed all my stuff in storage, got a frame backpack and sleepingbag, and I put out my thumb and Hit The Road.
I had this vague dream of finding a beautiful hippy chick with flowers in her hair, buying a big school bus and painting it psychedelic colors, and living in a little rustic cabin in the forest where I’d eat magic mushrooms and smoke pot from a big, round pipe, and live out my days like a fat, old Hobbit with a cosmic twinkle in my eyes. (I was taking wa-a-ay to much LSD back in those days and I had all sorts of odd notions percolating in my head that had very little to do with so-called reality.)
I quickly hooked up with the hardest drinkin’ and druggin’ segment of the Humboldt street scene. And got myself into all sorts of stupid adventures and misadventures. But after a year of that I was even more mentally deranged than when I started out. So by that time my only grand dream was to find a little flophouse hotel room where I could sit by myself for a year and lick my wounds and try to figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life, or at least put a stop to the downward spiral that my life had become.
Lacking any marketable skills, or social skills for that matter, welfare seemed like my only option at the time, at least as a stop-gap measure. Now I don’t know how it is in other places, but in Humboldt County you have to sign up for a work program before you got your welfare. You have to work X amount of hours for the county at minimum wage to pay for your benefits. Which is fair. Except my first day on the job my foreman had me digging a 6 foot ditch to lay pipes in rock hard dirt in 80 degree weather. By the end of the day I was soaked in sweat, and I was seriously wondering what I had gotten myself into. Course later I realized they did this purposely on the first day to weed out as many people off of the dole as possible. And most of the other work assignments were pretty mild. Picking up litter and pulling weeds and etc. (One of my favorite assignments was when the foreman had me clear out this big, vacant lot that was over-run with huge weeds and shrubs. He gave me this motorized weed-whacker thing — this sort of stick thing with a propeller at the end. I took great pleasure in demolishing that entire lot. It was like therapy. DESTRUCTION!! When it comes to search and destroy missions, I’m your man. The foreman said he’d never seen anyone work so hard.)
About 10 or 20 of us welfare recipients would ride together in a truck every day on the way to our work assignments. It soon become obvious that the one subject of conversation most of us had in common was drugs and alcohol. And we spent a lot of time regaling eachother with all the crazy stories about all the crazy things we had done while we were drunk and stoned.
One guy on my crew was this guy named Joe the stoner. Joe had long-ish stringy black hair and a droopy fu manchu mustache. Joe looked a little like Dicky Betts from the Allman Brothers and he was sort of the typical redneck hippie backwoods stoner (you know the type?). Joe was a character. One day we were working in this park, and we’re standing on this bridge over-looking this pond and there are these ducks swimming around down there about 100 yards a way. “Watch this,” said Joe. He picked up a big rock and flung it at the ducks. Hit one of the ducks right in the ass. The duck jumped up, squawking and quacking, and paddled off in a huff, Even Joe was a little surprised that he had actually hit the duck. Helluva’ shot.
Anyways, to kill time on the job, Joe started telling me stories about his days when he used to work in a big-time marijuana growing operation. Needless to say there are marijuana farms all over Humboldt. And it is a heavy, heavy scene. Sometimes you’d actually see big helicopters full of Feds heading off to bust a growing operation. I think they were called CAMP — Campaign Against Marijuana Planters or some shit like that. But it gave off the vibe of a heavily armed war-zone. Joe told me about these Mexican drug cartel types. Since it was such a hassle smuggling weed across the border, the Mexicans had started setting up secret pot farms way off in the boondocks of the national parks. And I had heard all sorts of horror stories about innocent families who were hiking off in the park and stumbled upon these heavily-armed encampments and were never heard from again. I guess the days of Yogi Bear and Boo Boo are long gone. sigh.
Its just a tense, tense scene. And if there’s one legitimate argument for decriminalizing pot: it would take the criminal element out of the equation. You would have thought America would have learned its lesson from the Prohibition of alcohol. But no-o-o-!! I remember one time I was hitching up to Eureka and I stopped in this bar in Garberville along the way. There were all these brand new, expensive-looking pick-up trucks parked outside, so it looked like a pretty cool joint. I hung out there in the bar for two or three hours getting drunk, and not a single person would talk to me. It was the most unfriendly bar I had ever been in. Nobody wanted to hear my amusing anecdotes and nobody laughed at my clever jokes. I was starting to wonder if I seriously smelled bad or something. Finally this one guy who sort of took pity sidled up to me and explained the situation. “Listen pal, its nothing personal. This is harvest time and everybody is paranoid that you’re an undercover cop.” O-o-oh. Considering how many millions of dollars were at stake, I’m surprised they didn’t just take me out back and shoot me, and ask questions later.
Anyways, Joe the stoner had this big, nasty scar on his cheek. “Ya wanna know how I got this scar?” said Joe. “It was a couple years ago. These friends of mine paid me to live in this little shack way out in the boonies and guard their pot farm. It was a pretty boring gig, actually. Until one day these two goons suddenly show up with rifles and they intend to kill me and make off with all the weed. It was like one of those Wild West shoot-outs as we’re facing off against eachother. But I’m a damn good shot. And I got the bead on them and shot them both dead. They managed to hit me with one shot before they died, got me right in the face. But luckily the bullet hit one of my teeth. Knocked my teeth out. But the bullet ricocheted harmlessly out the side of my cheek. That bullet could have just as easily ricocheted right up into my brain!”
“The cops came and visited me in the hospital. I was laying there in my hospital bed with all these tubes stuck in me. The cops looked at me and they figured it was just a case of natural justice. They didn’t even press charges against me or anything. Guess they figured I’d been punished enough. Cops generally don’t give a shit as looking as we’re just shooting eachother and not civilians.”
At that point I really started to wonder about my quaint little hippie dream about girls with flowers in their hair and psychedelic schoolbuses. So I dropped off of welfare and moved back to Berkeley. And further odd events.