I used to give a cooking class in which I would prepare a crème anglaise. At one point I scraped the tiny vanilla specks out of each length of the bean and explained that the consistency of the resulting paste was reminiscent of opium. This performance was repeated more than once until I heard a member of the audience say loudly “How does he know what opium looks like?” This silenced me for evermore and fortunately nothing ever came of it.
But the funny thing is, is that I do know what opium looks like and feels like, if I may be deliberately ambiguous.
I don’t know when I first heard of opium but it was certainly before the summer when I tore up the neighbor’s garden. I must have been about eleven or so and the woman up the street asked me to take care of her garden or, what we called it in those days, “the backyard,” while she went on vacation for two weeks. This was not the first time I had taken care of a neighbor’s yard and I always jumped at the chance even though it meant a week or two of work and attention for maybe ten or if I were really lucky, twenty, bucks. What lay behind my interest was not the money but that I would suddenly have a center of operations where my friends and I could hang out. I got to play host and with any luck would have managed to work my way into the locked house to take a few swigs of booze. In any case, she was showing me the garden, telling me where to water and how often when she pointed to some bright flowers and said “These are my ‘oriental’ poppies.” I immediately felt a jolt of electric excitement. I knew that they could have as easily been called “opium” poppies.
My mind went immediately to work. One must remember, information could be hard to access in those days. People were lucky to have a banal encyclopedia on their shelves. I could ride my bicycle three miles to the public library where pickings were slim, I could ride over to Stanford for scientific stuff (I guess I was young enough to appear harmless and was let in virtually everywhere), but finding out about opium and, most importantly, how to harvest it, was not necessarily easily at hand. However, one of the blessings of my childhood, and I have it to this day, was my grandfather’s 1910 eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I have since learned that the eleventh edition represented the Britannica’s last effort to have the encyclopedia offer the most thorough and rigorous commentary on every possible subject. In any case, it was a goldmine of cool stuff and was particularly helpful in my pursuit of my interest in the illicit, including booze and drugs. I have the original opium piece in front of me now—the article takes up seven pages of the smallest print I have ever seen, printed on onionskin. The print becomes even smaller as subcategories are introduced such as the various countries in which opium “is” produced. Information is given about soil, and planting, and cultivation such that it takes the equivalent of 10 pages in a normal book to get to the exciting part—harvesting of the opium. As I read it now (and stare at the elegant engraving showing the pod and exactly where it should be excised to extract the opium) I realize that I must have been in luck since the pods are only ready for about two weeks out of the year. When the flowers fall off, the familiar looking pods form and are ready to be harvested. Details are given about making the necessary incision, at what time of day (in the evening) and when and how to collect the raw opium that will have exuded from the pod’s wound. I can’t imagine how long it would take to find this much information on the internet. But what I remember now were poppy pedals strewn haphazardly around the yard, the sagging wilting pods and a panorama of devastation after I had sacrificed her entire poppy patch (which was indeed substantial) to make one ball of raw opium the size of a hazelnut. I swallowed the whole thing one morning as I rode my bicycle to summer school. Thank goodness the stuff didn’t have any (or much?) potency since that amount could have killed me. In retrospect, the only thing about my product (or that of my poor neighbor’s) that resembled opium was its characteristic consistency—like well-chewed-on chewing gum—and it’s dark brown color.
It wasn’t until many years later and under very different circumstances that I encountered opium again. My friend Denny and I were introduced to it by one of our “connections.” He gave us each what was about 1/3 of a gram along with a glass of milk the idea being that the milk makes the opium less likely to upset one’s stomach. We managed to get home ok before the stuff really kicked in and left us in a stupor, sipping Coca Cola, well into the morning. We both threw up—a sign of a good dose—but otherwise had no ill effects and certainly no repeated cravings. I think we ended up buying an ounce from the guy and dealing it out, in our big time way, in one-gram aluminum foil packets. But I studied its consistency and remember it now as somewhat tar-like, but smelling of damp leaves and decaying vegetation, not like tar at all. The feeling, or “high,” it produced reminded me of how I felt when my mother would give me paregoric (which is a simple tincture of opium) to treat my persistent diarrhea. You see, I’ve been on opium since early childhood.
Years later, and on a similar bodily level, the consistency of opium became a topic of more practical concern. We—Otts (my boyfriend) and I—discovered that if we inserted a pellet up our ass that we would avoid the rumbling stomach effect. The only problem was that opium is sticky and would cling to the finger as we tried to slide it up there. I don’t know if it was I who thought of it, but we would form it into pellets and freeze it before inserting it as easily as a suppository. The effect, as it came on, was of the rectum becoming delightfully numb and the feeling then extending out into the rest of the body. Eventually it leads to a certain post-coital like euphoria and then to the dream state in which one’s head nods as he sinks into reverie. But the strange thing about being stoned on opium is that it’s possible to be very stoned, to be “on a nod,” and to still “maintain.” You could be a million miles from nowhere in your mind and the doorbell would ring and you could get up and talk as needed as though nothing were amiss.
When Otts and I lived together, Otts had access to opium and we used to smoke it after dinner. We didn’t really know what were doing but we would put it in a skillet, put the skillet on the stove, and breath up the smoke with an empty paper towel roll. We would usually do MDA at the same time.
I didn’t encounter opium again until I was in Kathmandu and bought an ounce for four dollars. Being so cheap meant I could smoke it instead of eat it (eating is more powerful). I had bought a chillum which is a cone-shaped pipe used for smoking cannabis. The chillum has a small opening on one end which is the end one normally sucks on. I, however, would work the opium into the hole and then suck in a candle flame through the small hole, sucking through the large opening. This would pull the flame over the opium in the pipe and vaporize it.
One of the effects of opium is its ability to help concentration. Reading on it is wonderful and I read many a book in that little hotel room in Kathmandu with my friend Dennis. As it grew past midnight, we would bop on down to Earth Restaurant and join the French junkies drinking their milkshakes. (Opium causes one to crave sweets.)
Because I didn’t want to bring opium across borders, I had to score each time I went to a new country. This wasn’t hard in southern Asia and I always had a good amount for smoking in the evening or eating by day. Being stoned on opium helped me endure the interminable bus and train rides across the entire continent.
But despite my opium experience I had never been to an opium den. I had read about them in Colette (where she describes the smell of burning opium as being a little like chocolate) and had seen elaborate porcelain opium pillows. But when I arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, I was in luck. I stayed in a cheap hotel and met some German hippies who know about an opium den and were planning to go there that evening. I decided to tag along.
This opium den was not what I had envisioned. It was lit with a single harsh florescent light. The pillows were bricks. The customers would lie around with their heads facing inward to form a circle. In the middle of the circle sat a young boy (hell, what’s a little child labor in an opium den) who manipulated the pipe. The pipe was a long bamboo tube with a bulb on one end. In the side of the bulb was a small hole. The opium was sold as “chits” which were concave metal disks—an inch or so across—half full with black tar. Each chit was good for 6 puffs. As you reclined, the boy would insert a small amount of opium in the hole in the side of the bulb and hold the pipe for you on one end and the bulb next to a flame with the other. As one inhaled, the flame would go through the small opening where it volatilized the opium.
After one chit, I was pretty stoned. But not to waste a good opportunity, I went for a second for a total of 12 puffs. The owner gave me a 13th puff as “baksheesh.”
By this point I could hardly see. My new friends and I piled into a couple of rickshaws and made it back to the hotel. For the next 12 hours, I lay naked on a bed scratching lazily. (Opium makes you itch.)
Strangely, I never grew addicted to opium and didn’t miss it when I couldn’t have it. It was only years later, after a hospital stint on morphine, that I experienced the ravages of withdrawal, probably the worst experience I know of.