An old friend from my past died a few weeks ago, and he’s been on my mind a lot since then. Jesse and I knew each other as teen and new adults. Friendships in those years meant more than family to me, and it was the same for my friends. We were family to each other, because our families of origin didn’t work.
Many of our gang, dubbed the Pranksters by the slyly intelligent Doug Beeler years before I read Ken Kesey, had fathers who drank, parents who were divorced, mothers who hit us, and so on. Some of us had been forcefully evicted from the family home. Jesse, in this merry band of long-haired freaks, was the coolest.
Jesse’s family seemed fine to me, but he fit right in with the rest of us misfits. Jesse wasn’t much taller than me, and I’m 5’3. He had shoulder length black hair and a tidy mustache that didn’t ever grow over onto his lips. He had black framed glasses when wire rimmed specs were the rage. He was damn smart, and those glasses suited him. He was unique. A character. A charmer with braces and an easy smile. He was a peacekeeper and a positive force in our band of gypsies.
One of the things I really loved about him was his vocabulary. He spoke with ease and assurance in long sentences designed to provoke laughter. We always wanted to laugh back then. Laugh and listen to music. And if we could, get high.
Jesse called weed things like sweet leaf and smoke. He called cigarettes “tubes.” When he had to leave, he’d say “Gotta book” and when he loved something, it was “cool” it was “far fucking out.” We all loved the F word as adjective, but Jesse said it first.
He wore plaid flannel shirts and jeans with holes, not patches. He had a style about him, a bandana around his forehead and crown, with the rest of that dark hair in disarray to his shoulders, no farther. Worn boots that looked like Doc Martens before there were Doc Martens.
Jesse taught me to beg with class. He had a loose-limbed stance and a totally relaxed walk. He was relaxed when he pan-handled, too. The world was a different place then. We were too young to work and too old for an allowance. Some of us didn’t have addresses, most of us walked or hitched by way of transportation. On rare occasions, Jesse’s dad would let him drive the ‘Cuda.
On those days when we wanted to be high, which was every minute of every day, and needed money for beer or weed, Jesse taught me to stand casually outside the party store at the Crossroads (also named by Beeler, Jesse’s best friend) and instead of holding out a hand and saying “please can you buy me some beer and also can you pay for it?” look a person in the eye to get a feel if they would give me their loose change.
Then, still not holding out my hand, say two words: “Spare change?” Only when I heard the jingle of silver coming out of pocket or purse, did I hold out my hand for the offered coins and say thank you. Jesse always added “peace” so I did, too. So this job of pan-handling for substance abuse purposes had two parts: part one, gather “bread” part two: find a buyer for beer or a seller of pot.
Later, when I was on the road and hungry, I didn’t panhandle much. I’d rather go hungry and only felt comfortable begging with Jesse safely tucked somewhere close but out of sight. Also, I did not like the taste of beer, but drank it only for the buzz. Jesse taught me how to do that, too. Drink as much as possible in one swallow, then pass the GIQ.
Jesse could roll a joint with one hand, hanging from the limbs of a tree in the “Living Room” (another DB coinage) deep in the woods at the state park where we sometimes hung out. He’d spark a match and inhale with aplomb, that sweet smile on his face as he held the smoke as long as possible.
When I got the news of Jesse’s death, I hadn’t seen him in forty years. Our paths diverged as I got straight and started a family. I have heard through mutual friends, though, that he went out the way he was then. Still seeking the next high, still smiling.