When I first moved to Denver in 2004, I had a very difficult time locating pot. I spent a lot of time at galleries, concert venues and taverns like Gabors and Bar Bar, asking everyone I met where I could find "some grass" (as an ignorant farm boy, I still spoke like a hippie from Dragnet), and getting a baffled shrug from just about everyone I encountered. Either it wasn't as popular then...or no one trusted me. Then one night at the DIY space Monkey Mania, I was told I could just go down to Civic Center Park and someone would happily sell me what I needed. This was a disturbing prospect for an ignorant, ex-evangelical kid who thought Denver was just as dangerous as South Central L.A. But I did it, and continued to buy there until I got a dealer -- like a civilized human being.
And now -- one decade and several pieces of legislation later -- I am returning to Civic Center Park, looking to see if you can still pick up a dime of schwag, all the while craning your neck to look out for the po-po while a thug with bad cornrows sprinkles his musty dust into your outstretched palm.
Unless you've done any serious time for possession, you may be like me in feeling a slight nostalgia for the time when marijuana was illegal in Denver. I certainly don't want to return to those days, but I will admit that smoking pot meant something different then than it does now. The normalization of weed has altered its cultural specificity, and while that's good for society, it makes me long for the days when getting high was an identity.
Back in 2004, when I used to go to Civic Center Park (or the bus shelter at Colfax and Broadway, which has since been torn down) for pot, it was a giddy little thrill. I was living an urban life. I was Superfly. I was David Lee Roth when he was arrested for buying a dime back in Washington Square Park in 1993. (Reader's note: Only white people romanticize getting arrested.)
Today I know that buying weed in the park is something you do when you don't have any options. I still do it if I'm traveling alone in a foreign city, but for the most part it's something I avoid. Back when I lived in Iowa, I was the park: Middle-aged guys whose dealers from the '70s had either died or moved away would approach me, knowing me as that kid from church who now does drugs. So naturally I started buying quarter pounds and upselling them eighths at 50 percent.
I recently returned to Iowa and saw a few of them. I had copies of Westword that featured my stories, but they ignored the stories and marveled at our marijuana ads like they were fourteen-year-old boys discovering porn for the first time. They begged me for details about our upcoming recreational marijuana dispensaries (or "legal weed stores," as they phrased it), and I slowly spoon-fed the details to them like porridge to orphans.
These were people who understood what it meant societally to be a pothead. This wasn't a good thing, but it was very different, and I couldn't relate. I mean, I work for a newspaper where we've actually had meetings about whether or not to grow cannabis plants in the office. These guys were afraid of losing their jobs for smoking weed, whereas I'm paid to buy weed in the park and then write about it.
Surprisingly, you can still buy marijuana in Civic Center Park. After an uneventful five minutes of hanging out on the northeast corner of the garden (my spot in 2004), I'd become convinced that the tradition had lapsed. This was last Saturday, when the sky had turned dark and freezing at 2 p.m. A Tejano band was at the Greek Amphitheater, with a ten-year-old girl singing before a crowd that hardly outnumbered those on the stage.
I watched them for another ten minutes and was about to give up -- but then noticed a crowd of puffy jackets and workboots on the north side of the park, where Colfax splits into 15th Street. I began pacing around about twenty yards away, surprisingly feeling the same anxiety I'd felt when doing this ten years earlier. It was like approaching a group outside of your clique in high school -- or perhaps it was some unconscious form of racist fear. (I consider myself a progressive anti-racist, but as Malcolm Gladwell and the Implicit Association Test say, 80 percent of us are a little racist.)
A handsome kid in a Scarface hoodie noticed me walking by and gave me a familiar "sup" nod. Which I returned, remembering how this works. "What choo need?" I was about to say a nickel bag, but that was an outdated term even in 2004. I wasn't looking to buy very much -- I had plenty of herb at home and was just doing this for a story (I suppose that would make our interaction the only post-modern drug deal I'd ever heard of) so I said: "Just a five."
This remains about the only cool thing about buying marijuana in the park: You can get as little as you want. Any proper dealer refuses to sell anything less than an eighth, which can be too much of an investment if you're traveling or only want to share a joint with your girlfriend on New Year's Eve.
Then again, dealers are prepared with baggies. This is not the case when you buy your dope in the park. While trying to be discreet while passing your sweaty wad of cash into the dude's palm, you also have to deal with him telling you to "hold out your hands" like you're a child about to receive communion. Then he sprinkles it in there, and you're left with either tossing your score into your pocket -- thereby mixing it up with a bunch of sweaty lint -- or immediately finding a container for it. (If you're a cigarette smoker, the cellophane from your pack comes in handy at this point.)
The whole interaction probably lasted thirteen seconds. Neither of us were interested in small talk or sparking a bowl together -- another advantage of buying from a stranger in the park over a dealer you have to pretend to be friends with. Walking away, I pulled my hand out of my pocket and surveyed the goods. The pot was a bit dry and had a slight musk of mildew, but it was a luminescent green, and it was a tight collection of buds.
This isn't schwag, I thought to myself, using that word for the first time in many years. When I used to buy pot in the park, it was the same quality that I used to sell in Iowa: compressed brick weed that was loaded with seeds and most likely driven inside a tire from Mexico. The stuff I bought on Saturday wasn't great -- but it wasn't bad, either. It would've been considered "kind bud" a decade earlier, a designation that mostly just meant "not shit."
It was also considerably cheaper than what's coming down the pipe with recreational marijuana. I estimated this palm-full of buds to be somewhere around a gram, and at five bucks it was considerably cheaper than the $15 to $20 a gram that legalized, non-medicinal marijuana will likely be sold for.
The hard wind died down long enough for me to find a quiet corner and roll a joint. I then walked the perimeter of the park and casually smoked, listening to the Tejano band playing "Es tan dulce confiar en Jesús." And while the pot definitely wasn't as good as what I had at home, it was making me nostalgic -- which was the whole point of this project. For a half an hour I pretended that I could still get in trouble for this, that smoking marijuana in public was somehow rebellious. I understand that it's still technically illegal to smoke in the park, but these days I could be more of a rebel by failing to pick up my dog's shit.
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Even with all this romanticism and the cheaper prices and small quantities, I know I won't be returning to Civic Center Park for my marijuana. Perhaps at 31 I'm no longer attracted to seediness like I was at 21. Or maybe, like everyone else who will line up to buy legal weed on January 1, I'm just not that interested in pot-smoking as an identity. Like most people who've lived in Colorado for a few years, I now feel that marijuana is just a casual, everyday product that can be purchased with as little fanfare as picking up a bottle of laundry detergent.
(Tune in next time when I walk to Colfax and Clarkson to purchase a nice rock of crack!)
Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.