Did Hollywood’s coke frenzy ever go away or just go underground? First of two parts. 3,081 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On the patio of Stazuzzi’s Trattoria on Sunset Boulevard, Bender dipped his bread into a bowl of pale yellow olive oil and realized his drug dealer’s complexion was the same color. Such was the effect of chemo. “I’m going to beat this,” Jimmy said. Three weeks later he was dead.
There was some question as to where the memorial would be held. Jimmy owned a small ranch in Ojai where he ran an antiques store that served as a money-laundering device for his cocaine business. His wife Annette had a house on Coldwater Drive behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was a four-star estate agent at Coldwell Banker and sold homes north of Sunset. Annette wouldn’t touch anything less than the high middle seven figures.
Annette hated Ojai, Jimmy’s dogs, his pet snakes, and the crap he called antiques so the memorial was held in her backyard facing the swimming pool. Besides, it was easier for his Los Angeles friends and former customers.
Most of the mourners had stopped using the drugs Jimmy sold and no longer needed him. Cocaine had been out of fashion for so long that Bender wondered how Mexican drug lords were making a living. In the eighties people wore dulled gold razor blades on chains around their necks and agents gave their clients six hundred dollar coke kits with onyx chopping boards and silver spoons for Christmas, all purchased from the Beverly Hills Head Shop on Brighton. Bender loved the paraphernalia: tightly rolled twenties for straws, narrow glass bottles with black caps, the joy of going through pockets of suits in a closet and discovering a forgotten paper bindle folded like origami with enough for a quick snort. He enjoyed the rituals of chopping, making lines, the final finger rub on the gums, the connection to sex (coke whore was not necessarily a term of disrespect) and the comradeship – all this he prized more than the drug itself. Cocaine was the perfect Hollywood drug. Like a Porsche, it demonstrated wealth and success. An ounce of marijuana, no matter how potent, couldn’t cost more than a hundred dollars, but a bowl of cocaine on a coffee table spelled thousands. Eventually there were too many stupid deaths, ruined careers, expensive rehabs and cocaine fueled over-budget films that tanked. Gyms, personal trainers, yoga, juice bars and the obsession for getting children into the right private school took over. It wasn’t cool to do coke anymore. Marijuana stayed socially acceptable and for a while Jimmy was the go-to-dealer until it became semi-legal in California under the concept of medicinal marijuana. Pot smokers got ID cards and bought their weed legally at dispensaries identified by neon green-cross signs.
Bender visited a doctor’s office on National Boulevard that advertised in the LA Weekly. He filled out a form and swore that he suffered from insomnia and joint pain, handed over his MasterCard and for seventy-five dollars got a certificate that enabled him to buy marijuana for a year. He drove to a dispensary located in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and presented his certificate and driver’s license to a woman at a desk. She entered his information in her computer and nodded to a guard who opened a door. Inside, Bender almost fainted. Behind a counter were rows of wall shelves lined with quart mason jars filled with marijuana. It was all for sale. It was more marijuana than Bender had ever seen in his life except on television news shows when bales of smugglers’ contraband were washed ashore and set on fire by DEA men with flame throwers. As he raised his eyes to the shelves of marijuana, Bender, who went through life accompanied by movie soundtracks, heard Carl Orff. The basses pounded out a steady Ut Princips, Ut Princips, Ut Princips, while tenors darted in between them with staccato cries of Legaliter, Legaliter, Legaliter.
A young clerk in a company uniform handed him a thin binder with pages of names, quantities and prices of the various marijuana. He flipped the pages. Names: Venom, Skywalker, The Hulk, Kryptonite, Blueberry Yum-Yum. Amounts: grams, quarters, eighths, Bender struggled to remember seventh-grade math. Prices: those he understood. But he had no idea why one type of weed was more expensive than another. He fell back on his wine list philosophy: more expensive was better. But what to order? He didn’t want to appear stupid about a drug he had used off and on since he was eighteen. He blurted, “I have pain. In my knees. Do you have something for that?”
“What kind of pain?”
Bender resisted asking if he was also a fucking doctor.
“Just an occasional throbbing pain.”
“In that case…”
The clerk climbed a stool, brought down a jar and held it out for Bender to smell.
Bender inhaled, and, as he did with sommeliers, pretended to be impressed.
“Um. Okay. I’ll take some.”
“A half, eighth, or an ounce?”
The clerk reached for a pair of silver chopsticks and placed what seemed to Bender a huge amount of the marijuana on a scale. He weighed it and dropped it in a plastic container.
“I’m a writer. Do you have anything for writing?”
The clerk brought down another jar.
“I have a lot of creatives who love this.”
“I’ll take a half.”
“Anything else? Edibles, hash, seeds, grinders?”
“No thanks. That’s it.” The clerk tapped a calculator. “One hundred and thirty–seven dollars with tax. Would you like a lighter?”
Bender was ecstatic. He had just bought enough marijuana for the next two years and they were throwing in a lighter?
“You bet I would like a lighter,” Bender said.
The clerk put the plastic jars in a brown paper bag. “Please don’t indulge within a hundred yards of the dispensary.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
Bender stopped at his friend Steve’s house on Beverly Drive. Steve owned a delicatessen in Santa Monica. Bender gave him samples. “This is for pain and this is for writing,” he said. At home Bender did what he always did with drugs: he locked the marijuana in his stash box along with his pipes, grinders, rolling papers and a diamond hard rock of hash that he had not touched for thirty years. The brown nugget reminded him of a bagel that he discovered in his glove compartment when he traded in the Prius. “Sir, you forgot your bagel.” It was a water bagel, still shiny and had the weight and consistency of petrified wood. He kept it on his desk for another five years and, if anyone asked, he said it was a prize from the Maccabee Games.
He called Steve.
“You try it?”
“How was it?”
“I haven’t been able to stop writing.”
Before legalization, Jimmy worked the studios and talent agencies like a Hollywood Willy Loman. Bender was producing a series at Warner Bros. and through his friend Julian, a criminal lawyer in Oakland, got a referral to Jimmy. To communicate with Jimmy and actually get the marijuana was a complicated process. First, Bender had to call the number of a satellite phone, whatever that was. He would leave his code number and wait for a call back. When the call came, he was asked for a second code number, and instructed to hang up. An hour later he got a call from Jimmy with a time to meet. If the time was agreeable, Bender was supposed to simply hang up. In violation of the protocol, he added, “Do you need a drive-on pass to get on the Warner lot?”
There was a curt reply from Jimmy. “The guards know me.”
A few minutes later, Jimmy showed up at the office. He was medium height, with a full head of brown hair combed straight back Pat Riley style, Ray-Bans perched on a fine aquiline nose and perfect white teeth that may not have been his own. He had a soft surfer’s drawl and a gentle disarming manner. In his thirties then, he dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, a linen shirt and a striped Mexican Baja hoodie with a loosely tied belt. He carried a thick attaché case and pretty much looked like what he was: a drug dealer. Bender offered to send him right down to TV casting but Jimmy had no use for show business unless he could meet actresses. Jimmy had Thai sticks, Humboldt Gold, Maui Wowee and some very strong Colombian that he did not recommend. Weed chosen, Bender handed him cash and received a white business envelope. Bender put it in his desk drawer and invited Jimmy to have a coffee with him. While they waited for Bender’s secretary to make a fresh pot, Jimmy examined Bender’s office collection of vinyl.
“Pharaoh Sanders, Very cool.”
At the Coldwater Canyon house the mourners had been sober for years, graduates of portfolio-emptying rehabs in Malibu or Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Addicts Anonymous, all happy to be alive, as they had friends who didn’t kick and die. Bender recognized a few people from the business, but the rest were strangers or Annette’s real estate colleagues. Before he knew Jimmy, Bender bought coke from his hairdresser Guillermo’s girlfriend. She was a senior loan officer at a bank in Westwood. A guard escorted Bender to the elevator, pressed the button to the third floor and he went into her office. She locked the door and sold him the coke. Bender went down in the elevator with a gram in his pocket and was shown to the door by the armed guard.
When Bender was producing a drama series at CBS, he had his own trailer on location. He could leave his drugs in his briefcase, step outside where an off duty LAPD motorcycle policeman would tell him he would watch his trailer. “No need to lock it, sir. I’ll keep an eye on it.” Bender loved the idea of bankers selling him cocaine and cops guarding it.
Annette looked stunning in a white blouse, leather jacket and black mini-skirt.
“The food is delicious,” Bender said.
“I use Lenore from Celebration Concepts. She does all my open houses. Can you stay? I want to talk to you later.”
Dale Roth, a screenwriter who wrote action movies for Van Damme that didn’t get made, conducted the memorial service. He was an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, which meant he could marry people. Bender knew ordained was a fancy word for filling out a form and sending in thirty-nine dollars. Roth kept it simple and talked about what a good guy Jimmy was, nods, how much he loved Annette, nods and how he was responsible for providing joy and spiritual awakening to a lot of people, laughter, and at some risk to himself, nods. He said that not many people knew Jimmy loved poetry and read his favorite poem by Wallace Stevens about blackbirds. Bender was struck by one stanza, “I was of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds.” Annette handed everyone a few pages of lyrics to Jimmy’s favorite songs. Accompanied by a waiter on electric piano they sang, Stand By Me, Born To Run and Pretty Woman in honor of Annette. Roth asked if anyone wanted to say something, there was a shuffled silence that went on too long. Bender caught Annette’s look, so he stepped forward.
“We were all fortunate to have Jimmy in our lives.” He was about to say ‘blessed’ but that would be going too far. “Jimmy was a businessman, but in the best sense of the word. He felt a responsibility to his customers, he always acted in good faith, and his product was always first rate or your money back. Just kidding, laughter.” Bender paused on a memory – the time after a huge dinner at Original Joe’s in North Beach when Jimmy reached under his car seat and pulled out a softball mound of flake coke. “You have to try this,” he said.
Jimmy sliced off a wedge the size of his thumb, wrapped it in a piece of paper and handed it to Bender. What a pal, Bender thought. What a fucking generous loving pal. A month later Jimmy reminded him that he was owed eighteen hundred dollars. Bender, too much of a gentleman, and wallowing in st-com money, graciously paid.
“Where was I? “
“Generosity,” Roth prompted.
“Yes. There is a saying in the Talmud: A man will be measured by his friends.” Bender made this up but who was going to check?
“Looking at this gathering, I can say that in the friendship department Jimmy measured way up there. And, I can extend those wise words to include the love of Annette. I write love stories for a living and I can tell you I would love to write theirs.” Bender had no idea where he was going but it had a good feel.
“When people find each other at an adult point in their lives, they often tend to be skeptical, jaded, and even cynical. Who can blame them? They’ve seen too much, been hurt too much, disappointed too much. It’s called baggage. But when Jimmy and Annette met and fell in love, it was as if all that other stuff never existed. I have to admit I was jealous. What can I say? They made love look easy. He raised his margarita glass. “Here’s to Annette. Here’s to Jimmy. And here’s to love.”
Annette wiped away a non-existent tear and winked at Bender.
Bender hung back in the kitchen watching the caterers pack up and leave. Annette came in and poured vodkas.
“That was lovely what you said about Jimmy and me.”
“I meant every word.”
They picked at a plate of leftover crab cakes.
“Did you know we met online? We wrote to each other for a year but I wouldn’t see him. I told him I wanted to get to really know him first. The truth is I was under house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet. He told me he was a doctor. Two bullshitters. It was very romantic.”
“I didn’t know about the ankle bracelet.”
“What a mess. I was hanging with the wrong people, did some favors and the next thing you know, boom.”
“I know only too well.” No I don’t, Bender thought. I have no idea what she’s talking about. Who cares?
They moved on to the cold mini-pizzas.
“You want me to put these in the microwave?”
“I’m good. By the way, what are you going to do with Ojai?” Bender asked.
“Jimmy’s got a daughter in Tahoe. She can have it.”
“A safe full of money? I wish. He didn’t have medical insurance, mine was worth shit and City of Hope took everything.”
She handed Bender a worn leather address book.
“He left this.”
Bender opened it. Inside were pages of names and phone numbers. He looked under the B’s. His name wasn’t there. Or maybe it was.
“It’s all in code. The names and the numbers.”
“You’re a smart creative guy. You do crosswords, Sudoku. Crack the code and we’re in business.”
“I thought the business was over. I mean, who does blow any more? And weed is getting so legal, next year they’ll be selling it at Wal-Mart.”
Upstairs in the bedroom with the 60-inch flat screen, Annette informed Bender that the Beverly Hills real estate business still ran on white powder and if he thought Silicon Valley was all Frisbee, salad bars and yoga, grow up. What’s more, if he believed no one in Hollywood did cocaine any more, it only showed how far out of show business he was. She had gotten a call from a very nice South American gentleman who offered his condolences but said she had a week to resume selling or he would have to move on to another distributor.
“We can’t sell if we don’t know who his customers are, can we?”
Bender was not comfortable with her choice of pronoun and didn’t think she was using the majestic plural but he felt it was too soon to pour cold water on her idea or, for that matter, her taut privately trained body. Was there a decent interval before you hit on the widow?
Jimmy was a dead criminal. Bender was an atheist, Annette was looking great, a decent interval was at the most another five minutes.
“Let me see the book again.”
She handed it over and he went back to the B page. Bender had researched codes for a spy movie once and realized Jimmy was using a Caesar Cipher. It was easy. You substituted one letter for another and shifted the alphabet three places so B became Y, E became B, N became K, D became A, and R became O. There it was: YBKABO equals BENDER. The phone numbers were even easier. He used letters for numbers so Bender’s number 592-0808 was EIB OHOH. Jimmy must have gotten the code from a comic book.
“It would take a lot of work but I might be able to figure it out,” Bender said.
Annette passed the pipe to Bender for another hit of Jimmy’s private reserve weed, so lethal that two hits were always one too many. On the bed, they were, relaxed, laying respectably parallel, knees touching, but only a short roll away from each other.
“By the way,” she said, “Jimmy left something for you.”
“He said of all his friends who weren’t fugitives you were the one he felt closest to. He said you had a lot in common.”
“I think we do. Or did.”
Bender wondered what his inheritance would be: one of Jimmy’s cars? The ‘63 Porsche? A Rolex, a gun? Jimmy collected guns.
Annette opened the drawer of a bedside table and gave Bender a jeweled pillbox. Inside were two shiny black capsules the size of Tylenols.
“He said we should take this together after he was gone.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he say how long we should wait?”
“Until it’s appropriate.”
“Appropriate wasn’t in his vocabulary.”
Bender examined the pills. Was this poison? Did Jimmy mean to kill them? Did he sense a post-funereal betrayal?
“You okay with taking this?” Bender said.
“Me? I’ll try anything twice.”
“You did this before? What happened?”
“We fucked all night.”
“Can I take it with vodka?”