The BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST in his bed
in the Intensive Care Unit of New Jersey's Elizabeth General Medical Center,
as depicted on yellow lined paper by his son, Joel Roi.
Probably, it's not a good idea to smoke a joint after the onset of a heart attack, but I found that eating a marijuana cookie helped get me through mine. The cookie was loaded. By the time I was in the ER, I was flying.
Of course, if I knew I was having a heart attack, I never would have eaten the cookie. For me, pot is a stimulant. I find marijuana much more effective than coffee or even cocaine, which obviously is manufactured from the evil in Satan's heartless breast and with which I quit poisoning myself none too soon many years ago, cursing the day I was ever tempted into trying it in the first place.
No, I didn't think I was having a heart attack. I didn't have time for one. Not me. I had too many other things to do. Besides, 51 days shy of my 68th birthday, I thought I was going to live forever. In fact, I was sure of it.
Obviously, my heart attack came as quite a surprise. It happened on a Sunday morning, March 31, 1996, a day which, for me, will not only live in infamy but which, from now on, will always seem like yesterday. A neighbor I hardly even knew had gotten snuffed by his own bum ticker and, in order to pay my respects, I had to inconvenience myself by forgoing my regular Sunday morning practice of watching one of my favorite Sabbath spectacles, a TV show I call McLaugh, also known to me as the McLaughlin Group of Assholes.
Scheduled for 11:30 a.m., the funeral was held in an Irish mortician's establishment some seven blocks from the apartment building which houses the digs of both the corpse and I. Once one of the showplaces of the now jaded city of Elizabeth, N.J., the building is located on a busy thoroughfare known as North Avenue about a mile from the Newark International Airport terminal buildings. If I didn't have to carry any luggage, I could walk to the gate of whichever jetliner I might have to board in order to carry me to whichever destination I might choose. I never expected to have to travel so close to the hereafter.
It wasn't until after this neighbor died that I even learned his name, which was Herman. A friendly guy who always seemed to wear the same blue zippered jacket, he impressed me as someone a few years older than I, with a petite and diminutive gray-haired wife whom I found very gracious and whom, in the Jewish tradition of charity, I'd often see standing in front of the bank a few blocks away on Newark Avenue with a slotted can in her hand collecting quarters for the Deborah Hospital. She belongs to the reformed synagogue around the corner on North Broad and a lady rabbi presided at Herman's services.
Jews are supposed to wear yarmulkes, hats or some kind of head coverings at such events and, for the occasion, I donned my Stetson with the bullet hole in the back brim, a relic of the days when I pioneered live country music in Manhattan with my "Country in New York" concert series at Lincoln Center and at Madison Square Garden. The country shows folded because Manhattan had no audience for the likes of Dolly Parton or Willie Nelson in the early '70s. People tell me I've always been ahead of my time. I certainly wasn't ready to be called ahead of my time to St. Peter's pearly portals.
Walking home from Herman's funeral services, I started thinking about my own funeral. Herman's corpse had been sent to the cemetery in what seemed to me an ornate casket of mahogany stain. I thought that odd, because I was under the however mistaken impression that dead Jews are supposed to be wrapped only in a shroud and buried in plain pine boxes held together with wooden dowels instead of nails or screws. I'm told the reason for that is to help the worms turn the deceased into the same dust from whence we are all said to come.
Walking home from Herman's funeral, I didn't know that Jews had taken to the conceit of
Walking home from the
I thought about where
I wanted to be buried
showing off affluence by adorning their caskets with wooden Stars of David or by applying stain to the lumber of their eternal slumber. Or did the Irish undertaker sell Herman's family a bill of goods? Although I scorn religion, I thought to myself that I wanted to be buried in a plain pine box, just like all my own departed loved ones, my father, my mother, my wife. I made a mental note to remind my children not to let anyone sell them on anything fancier. And, my thoughts continued, I wanted to be buried in the same cemetery with my father, my mother, my wife, a cemetery which is also within walking distance from my home, a cemetery which poet Allen Ginsberg has immortalized in one of the greatest of his poems, Don't Grow Old:
Near the Scrap Yard my Father'll be Buried Near Newark Airport my father'll be Under a Winston Cigarette sign buried On Exit 14 Turnpike NJ South Through the tollgate Service Road 1 my father buried Past Merchants Refrigerating concrete on the cattailed marshes past the Budweiser Anheuser-Busch brick brewery in B'Nai Israel Cemetery behind a green painted iron fence where there used to be a paint factory and farms where Pennick makes chemicals now under the Penn Central power Station transformers and wires, at the borderline between Elizabeth and Newark, next to Aunt Rose Gaidemack, near Uncle Harry Meltzer one grave over from Abe's wife Anna my father'll be buried July 9, 1976
I was one of those who attended the funeral of Allen's father, Louis, back on July 12, 1976, just as Allen had been one of those at my wife's funeral on May 10, 1972. For years afterwards, every time I went to the cemetery to visit my father, my mother, my wife, I also would visit Louis Ginsberg's grave. Until eventually there came a time when I couldn't find Louis Ginsberg's grave any more. Obviously, the grave didn't disappear from the cemetery, but rather its location disappeared from my memory. I looked and looked, but suddenly I couldn't find Louis Ginsberg's grave any more.
There was a time when Allen was like a member of my family. My children would spend their summers at his farm in Cherry Valley in Upstate New York. After I introduced Allen to Bob Dylan in the mid '60s, we would all hang out together. Often, we would all crowd into my little English sports car, a TR3, with me behind the wheel: Bob; Allen; Allen's long-time lover, Peter Orlovsky; Peter's mentally disabled brother, Lafcadio; Allen's "girl friend," the late Barbara Rubin, a very charming woman, who pioneered the same kind of shaved-head hairdo later adopted by Irish singer Sinead O'Connor; Allen's buddy, Herbert Huncke, the junkie thief whom Allen later promoted to literary stardom; Gregory Corso, the eternally inebriated Beat poet who is another of Allen's cohorts: and, of course, my wife, Ann. Wherever we'd go, all nine of us would pile out of that little English sports car like a horde of Barnum and Bailey clowns emerging from a trick VW Beatle in a circus. We were all good friends then. Allen later even came to my 50th birthday party, thrown by my daughter, Brett.
As an idiot who used to smoke cocaine freebase, I can say with assurance that I've worked long and hard to earn my M.I., which is what the doctors called it, a myocardial infarction. In other words, a blood clot in the inner wall of my heart. I was told that if the clot had been in the outer wall, I would now be in the ground with my neighbor, Herman. As it happened, when I asked how close I was to death on a scale of one to ten, I was told I was a Ten. That's the nearest I ever got to Bo Derek.
For years, I've periodically felt a certain soreness in the hollow beneath my left shoulder. When someone years ago told me that's the location of a pressure point for my lungs, such information seemed to make sense because I also once smoked as many as five packs of cigarettes a day. But I didn't start with the ciggies until I was 36, the year the surgeon-general's report came out. So I didn't feel very alarmed when I felt the same soreness in the same place while walking back from Herman's funeral service. After all, I'd quit smoking everything some 10 years earlier, after finally being persuaded that all smoke from any source is anti-life. But when the soreness intensified while I still had a block or so to walk, I started experiencing some anxiety. No, I told myself, this can't be a heart attack. Heart attacks are supposed to come with sharp, stabbing pains that radiate down the left arm to the wrist. On a scale of one to ten, my pains never exceeded a two or a three. No, I kept telling myself, this can't be a heart attack. This has got to be an anxiety attack, the result of attending Herman's funeral service and then thinking about my own funeral.
It wasn't until I got home that the intensifying soreness turned into an increasing discomfiture and I felt the pressure growing in my left chest, both at the front and at the back. I'd experienced anxiety attacks in the past but never one as debilitating as this one.
Earlier that day, before my Sunday morning TV shows, I had started writing a story called Head Games, about the superstars of the '60s Rock Revolution, which I plan to serialize in future BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST columns, and I was in a hurry to resume working on that piece at my computer. My cookie was at home waiting for me and I eagerly devoured it, washing it down with seltzer water before sitting at my desk in front of my computer keyboard. I should have known I was in trouble when my attempt to boot up the machine went wrong. Wow! I never had an anxiety attack this bad! The pressure in my chest kept intensifying and I broke into a sweat. I got worried enough to phone my daughter in California. She's a chiropractor and she advised me to call 911, but I didn't want to make a fool of myself by calling an ambulance to go to the hospital with nothing more than an anxiety attack. Instead, I phoned a friend and asked her to come take me to the ER at the Elizabeth General Medical Center.
This friend, who herself recently had been widowed by a heart attack suffered by a favorite second-cousin of mine, drove me to the hospital emergency entrance, where I recognized the nurse on duty. Although I still don't know the nurse's name, I'd previously met her during my regular visits to the EGMC clinic, where, as a penniless writer who has been denied employment for some 26 years, I'd been accepted as a charity patient.
"I think I'm having an anxiety attack," I told her, "but I don't really know whether it might be something worse."
She told me to sit in the waiting room until she finished with her current patient. That took some five or ten minutes before she called me over and gave me an EKG. As soon as she saw the start of the printout emerging from the device, her eyes seemed to pop out of her head and the next thing I knew I was in a TV show, with three or four doctors hovering over me, asking all kinds of questions about my medical history while they performed all kinds of functions with the aid of five or six nurses, who started using me for a pin cushion while I heard one of them insist:
"I can get blood out of a stone!"
As I said, by that time the cookie had started to kick in and I was starting to fly. As I glanced at all the silly-looking gadgets they were hooking up to me, I couldn't help breaking into a giggling fit. Finally one of the doctors told me I was having a heart attack. He didn't say I'd had a heart attack but I was having a heart attack.
"You have a blood clot," he said, "but don't worry. You got here just in time. We're using a rotorooter to unclog the stoppage. It's something new. It's called TPA (or did he say AST? It sounded like something you'd put in an auto gas tank) and there's only a certain window of opportunity when we can use it but you got here well within that window."
It turned out that TPA (or is it AST?) is a recently developed blood-thinner which transformed me into a near-hemophiliac and the nurses were careful to prevent any runaway bleeding. As I said, by this time I was flying and, looking at all those dedicated
I got tender, loving
at the hospital
people working so feverishly and so angelically to save my life, I suddenly felt tremendously moved and I began to cry. Even now as I write this, straight as I am, with only a cup of coffee and no more cookies since my heart attack, I think about all the kind, tender, gentle, and loving care I got from the nurses, doctors and staff during my two-week stay in Elizabeth General Medical Center, a stay during which they wiped, washed and cleaned me, even when I experienced a disgusting bout of diarrhea on a bed pan while I was in the Intensive Care Unit, and I can't help but burst into tears remembering those angels. I'm only a pauper but everybody at that hospital treated me as if I were a prince. I'm certainly not looking forward to my dying day, but until that day comes, I will always burst into tears remembering the caring treatment they gave me.
Years ago, when I was busted for pot in Maryland, the judge asked me if I were a widow. I told him I was a widower and then, when he asked me why I used marijuana, I told him I used it because marijuana helped me write, something which is more important to me than maybe even sex. The judge then named a list of famous writers from Hemingway to Faulkner and asked did they need marijuana to write?
"No, your honor," I answered, adding under my breath that they didn't need marijuana because they were all drunks. I prefer THC, the active ingredient of pot, which is certainly more benign than alcohol. Call my use of marijuana a crutch, if you will, but if the need for an occasional pot cookie to get me going makes me a cripple, how else will I get where I have to go? As I've said, I really think the pot cookie relaxed me and helped me get through it all. It certainly didn't turn me into the zombie that the ignorant, anti-grass moralist crusaders would have you think.
Actually, such cookies are not easily available to me. I can't just walk into any bakery and order one. I have to depend on the Latter-day Alice B. Toklas who occasionally is kind enough to bake one for me. And, of course, I haven't eaten any since the cookie I ingested the day of Herman's funeral. In other words, I wrote what you're now reading while perfectly straight, but I'd bet if I wrote it while I were high, this story might be a lot more fun to read.##
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