“San Pedro” is an excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California.
It’s four in the morning on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m carrying three knives: a serrated bread knife, a meat cleaver, and a small, sharp kitchen knife. I’ve sloppily wrapped these and a roll of duct tape in a couple issues of the Los Angeles Times. I’m dressed all in black, with black leather driving gloves and a black balaclava. I’m wearing black running shoes, laced tightly.
There is a chill in the air and the sound of sprinkler systems watering strips of grass in front of apartment buildings is punctuated only by the occasional slow lull of tires on asphalt as disheveled partygoers carefully commute home. Street lights throw pools of orange light onto the sidewalk and I do my best to dart between these.
I’m tiptoeing. Chilly, but there’s a thin, nervous sweat on my skin. I’m a few blocks West of the strip, and these buildings are filled with sleeping residents. Every half a block or so I stop and listen, and look back over my shoulder. I’m cautious. I’ve overshot my goal and am circling the block, up Gardner to Franklin and then back to Curson.
As I near my destination I slow, and again look around. No one is here.
Soon I see Wattles Mansion, and the grounds surrounding it. Sloping lawns, elaborate gardens. There’s a tall fence around most of the gardens, with locked gates in front of each entrance. I make my way down the slatted wooden fence until it turns to chain link and then quicken my step. The garden butts up against and bows the fence, with many of the plants growing through it. There are a couple of palms nestled into the fence, consuming it slowly. Then some fibrous plants and next to them, in the middle of a stretch of cacti, there are tall lengths of one of the most common ornamental cacti in Southern California – Echinopsis Pachanoi, or San Pedro.
I’m broke and improvising. I know these aren’t optimal, and won’t be the most potent. These grow about a foot and a half a year if properly cared for. These ones are tall and thick, the grove looks over a decade old.
There’s been a small hole cut in the fence to allow towering pillars of cacti to grow through.
I look both ways, and scan the fence for cameras. I see none. Taking a deep breath, I spring into action. I drop the bundle of newspapers, the knives clatter on the ground. I grab the cleaver first and begin cutting the cactus. It does nothing but make dents. I’m moving frantically. I don’t know what will cut through these other than a saw, and I didn’t have a saw at home. I use the sharp knife to score a route around two of the cacti trunks, then pick up the serrated bread knife and begin sawing.
The bitter, alkaloidal smell hits me, and my eyes sting. I’m holding the cactus with one hand and sawing at it with the other, all at face level. The spines poke through the leather of the gloves and embed in my hands. My arms quickly begin to ache, and then shake, and I have to change hands every few minutes. When I hit the center of the cactus there is a wood-like core. I can’t saw through it.
Here, in desperation, I pick up the cleaver again and hack through it with long swings of my arm. One of the lengths comes free and topples to the ground. Then, the other.
They’re each taller than I am, at least six feet in length and six inches in diameter. I quickly wrap them in newspaper and tape the paper closed around them, wrapping it thickly around the middle. The spines jut through the paper, the tape, and my gloves and my hands are stinging from careless contact with them. Each of the six foot lengths weighs around fifteen pounds. I grab the knife handles in my hand, jettison the duct tape and the rest of the newspaper, and heave the cacti onto my shoulders. They tip forward and hit the ground, and as I slide them back to center them for balance the spines rake scratches along my shoulders and back.
Then I am running. I am running down Hollywood Boulevard, just before dawn, with my hands full of knives and stolen psychedelic cacti over each shoulder.
This is in the midst of my efforts to find a way to palatably process the cactus, and this one is a failure. I de-spine it, grind it, dry it, and chip it off of the wax paper only to find it unpalatable still. All that work goes in the trash. I give up on randomly sourced samples and night journeys to steal from gardens and take the risk of commerce, and order the good stuff from a mail order catalogue selling psychoactive plants. It arrives, and is healthy and surprisingly fresh for being a dead cutting.
I am now an expert at removing the spines and skin from the cactus and do so one final time, at the cost of my fingertips, especially the area underneath the nail bed where flecks of the sharp, waxy skin break off and embed themselves as I use my nails to separate them from the cactus flesh. After hours of preparation, it takes more hours to boil it into a tea, and even more hours boil it down to a reasonable amount to consume.
I drink it just after my twenty-third birthday with my dear friend who I have known since childhood and who I call my brother.
He is retching with every sip, and because he has trouble getting it down it’s incredibly difficult for me to keep my portion down. There’s nothing that settles the stomach less than the sound of another person vomiting. Nothing except perhaps the taste and feeling of drinking the disgusting brew that caused it. After finally downing a cup with excruciating effort, the bitter, lingering taste of the cactus throbbing through my system with every breath, I look at the second cup with resignation.
I’ve tried so hard. I’ve come this far. I repeat the lines from the franchise that sponsored my recent education “Almost there. Stay on target.”
But I can’t get the second cup down, and I’m afraid if I take another sip it will make the first cup come up.
So, I do what any self-respecting druggie does: I take it anally.
And it finally works. I’m tripping on Mescaline.
The trip is as sobering as a true look at what it took to get me to the high. What am I doing with my life? Where’s my Oscar?