A Hanukkah Story
Today is a very special day. It is both the sixth night of Hanukkah and the birthday of one of the founders of the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll. Have you ever seen a founder of the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll light a menorah, her eyes wide with innocence and delight? I have. To light, to life, to the ones we love who burn, burn, burn–
Long ago in a decade far, far away, my personal scientist Joni and I went to Rockaway beach for an afternoon of relaxing urban swimming. We approach relaxation like an elite fighting force and can deploy to any beach anywhere in the world within minutes with all our necessary supplies packed into a medium-sized messenger bag. I had taken my ceremonial shrieking sprint into the water and my personal scientist had done her ceremonial head-shaking. We were arrayed side by side on our matching sarongs (procured in an off-the-cuff re-supply in Nicaragua), digging our toes in the sand, reading, and swigging from a bottle of champagne.
“Got a joint?” asked my personal scientist.
We had never before discussed who would bring the joint, we had somehow always had at least one between us. It was one of the many charmed aspects of our friendship, in addition to always wanting to share the same appetizers in restaurants, returning more or less unscathed from our international adventures, and a deep understanding of one another’s souls. In fact, magically having one joint between us was part of the Genesis myth of our friendship.
It was our personal physician, Layla, who had brought us together. She was leaving to attend medical school on a Caribbean island and recommended that we hang out together in her absence. “You both really like to do things,” she told me.
One day not long after our personal physician left for her pre-Caribbean decompression in Hawaii, Joni called me up. “Hey Emily,” she said. “Layla gave me your number. I thought maybe you would like to go see this band called The New Pornographers that’s supposed to be pretty good. They’re playing at the Bowery Ballroom.”
“I would love to,” I replied. “That’s just over the bridge from my neighborhood. If you want, we can get some Korean food first and just walk there. If we time it right the sun will be setting over Manhattan.”
“Sounds great,” she said.
At the Korean restaurant, we both agreed that seafood scallion pancake sounded like a delicious appetizer, and we shared one. She had a kimchee-bap and I had a bibim-bap. It was a meal we would repeat dozens of times at the Korean restaurant, but since this is the genesis myth that was the first. Thus fortified, we set out for the Williamsburg Bridge. As we stepped onto the walkway, I reached into my boot and pulled out a flask. “I brought this whiskey,” I said. “So when we get to the show we can have a nice buzz on.”
Joni reached into her pocket and pulled out a joint. “I brought this joint,” she said, “so when we get to the show we can be stoned.”
It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The show that night was charmed. The New Pornographers became one of our favorite bands. The lead singer of the New Pornographers hit on us after the show but we were blissfully oblivious to his advances, twisting as we were the first strands of an endless conversation. The fact that The New Pornographers are playing this very night, along with Joni’s favorite band, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, is not surprising. The New Pornographers have always been just another charmed aspect of our beautiful friendship.
In the intervening years between that first joint and this latest beach excursion, we had had many similarly charmed experiences, crossed many borders and come through many gut-wrenching romantic experiences and healed from many hangovers and intestinal parasites more or less unscathed since that first glorious night. But today, it seemed, our luck had finally run out, and we had no joint with which to get stoned in the Rockaways.
“That’s okay. Rockaway’s still nice even if you’re not stoned.”
“This champagne isn’t half bad.”
“It’s still cold.”
“That swim was very refreshing.”
“Maybe we can take a walk.”
“We can get stoned later anyway, back at my house.”
“Or my house.”
“Or if we go to that party.”
“It’s not like we’re drug addicts.”
“It’s not even physically addictive.”
“I’d sure love to get stoned, though.”
“I mean, it’s the beach.”
In an act of desperation, I rooted through my messenger bag. I am so neat that I rarely find any loose floatsam in my bag. But when either drunk or high or beside myself with romantic excitement, I let the system break down and make messes, of my things and my life. Banking on a past instance of this rare but inevitable snafu, I looked in the final pocket, the smallest, zippered one, hoping.
In this pocket I miraculously found the squashed remnants of a tiny roach. I carefully extracted it and together Joni and I regarded this barely existent smokeable. Was it even a joint? It was at the edge of joint life. It was mostly paper, filter long gone, already pinched, sucked and spittled into a flattened point. There was, at the opposite end of its meager and disappointing length, a semi-burnt glob of something that had once been bud and was now a linty ball of ash and resin. It was all the weed we had in the world, or here at the end of it, which Rockaway may as well be.
“Probably will only burn for one hit,” I said, “if it burns at all. You take it.”
“No, no, it was your joint. You take it.”
“Actually,” I said, “it could just as easily have been your joint. And now it is our joint. But I’d say you have a better chance of getting it lit.”
Through years of careful research, my personal scientist has perfected a kind of joint-lighting tent-shelter that very effectively protects joints from the sorts of wind patterns commonly found on beaches, mountaintops and other places that inspire and require the smoking of joints. If anyone could light this joint, she could. She constructed the impromptu structure and disappeared underneath it.
“Got a light?” came the muffled voice from inside.
I slapped the lighter in her palm with the same assurance with which I hoped O.R. nurses handed scalpels to surgeons, and sat outside her brightly patterned sarong-hijab, waiting. The hijab, actually, would be the perfect joint-lighting and -smoking shelter, if you could make that little face screen out of something flame-retardant.
The lighter clicked and I saw a flash. The sarong-hijab contracted with inhalation. After a long second, Joni threw off the cloth, lifted her chin and triumphantly blew a stream of smoke skyward.
“Quick!” she said, handing me the joint. “It’s still burning.”
I inhaled, and lo, the joint burned for another hit.
Despite its tiny size and recent squashing, it was drawing fine. I passed it back. As Joni drew upon it, the cherry, which should have been much diminished by our respirations, glowed red, and the joint burned for another hit.
Our thumbs and forefingers briefly linked as we silently performed the baton passing in the relay race to stonage. I lay back on my sarong and contemplated the waters of Rockaway.
On the horizon a few cruise ships bobbed. Planes swooped down to land at JFK. Housing projects rose in every direction. A few once-grand beach houses now surrounded by gates and bars lined the boardwalk.
We ‘d come here many times before. We came on my twenty-fifth birthday, just me and Joni and her boyfriend at the time. Someone had accidentally but fortuitously smuggled a little baggie back from South America. We got high. It got dark. I floated on my back in the shallows in the twilight and we all ate ice cream sundaes.
And the joint burned for another hit.
We came here most Memorial Days and Labor Days. We came on picnics in the summer. We came when our personal physician moved back to New York and her boyfriend surfed at the one surfing beach in New York City. I came here alone and surfed at the one surfing beach in New York City, where the surfing elders of Queens bobbed and told me which waves to paddle for. I carried my rented surfboard on my head across a four-lane highway, past homeless people pushing shopping carts full of glass. The surfing elders of Queens yelled, “Paddle, honey!”
We had been to many beach towns now, much further away and more remote, with turquoise water and whiter sand and cliffs and palm trees, but Rockaway was our first beach. We joke that it will be our last beach, that we will come here to die when we are old.
The joint burned for another hit.
They say the currents at Rockaway are deadly. A couple of people drown there every summer. I always wondered if it was the currents or if people just didn’t know how to swim.
There were signs that said “Don’t Swim Alone,” they said, “Swimming Prohibited,” they said, “Swim at Your Own Risk,” but I always ignored them. On West Coast beaches there are much more evocative signs. There are signs that say: “FULL-SIZED ADULTS HAVE BEEN SWEPT OUT TO THEIR DEATHS FROM THIS SPOT WHERE YOU ARE STANDING.” There are signs that say “DEADLY CURRENTS” and have little diagrams of drowning stick figures. I heed these signs. The drowning stick figures scare me. But the Atlantic beaches are my home, and I figure those New Yorkers are just being typically, overly nervous. In the comparatively warm, welcoming Atlantic I swim in the spring, and the fall, and the dark. For an irreligious person I have strange beliefs about baptism and sin.
And the joint burned for another hit.
Once, while Joni was living in South America, she flew to Europe via New York to join her parents on a luxury cruise. She had a seven-hour layover in New York and her baggage was checked all the way through to Rome. She blew through customs and we met on the A train and went to Rockaway with time enough for a spliff, a swim and a sandwich. Ten days later she flew back the other way, but the A train wasn’t running to the beach that day. We met in a bar by the last stop and stepped out into the late-spring sunshine and stopped at a deli for a bottle of seltzer. We wheeled her wheelie-suitcase down the street to a swamp overlooking a trash-strewn field and an oil-slicked estuary. I produced some rum, a bunch of mint, a lime and some sugar and we drank mojitos in the swamp until it was time for her connecting flight. A half-deflated Mylar balloon blew through the field as dusk fell.
The next time I saw her we caught an overnight bus to Ecuador, where we rode horses in the mountains. Then we went to our favorite beach town, the lawless one.
I thought, lying on my sarong, how little I needed to be truly happy in this life–a friend, a joint, and a view–and yet just how very much this was. And we passed the joint between us, and it soldiered on like the Maccabee it was. And the joint burned for eight hits, though there had only been enough weed for one.