Pieces of salmon with lemon and capers falling from his lips, Ian leans in at me with an impish grin and holds his shaky fork steady to make a point––conveying both the mirth of a life of easy vice and the penalty of growing old. As he tells it, he is lucky to be here having this conversation and it is not just the cancer that he beat twice. It was 1970 in the era of “high hippiedome,” when tribes still mingled, just before factions, from overly strident Maoists to platform -shoe Glam rockers fractured England into divisions such as street rebels (Police & Thieves) and the all-night disco crowd.
Ian was a gap year traveler, making his way around the world––bummer that Hendrix died, anyhow. He was in Istanbul, having traveled through Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, and very much in tune with the fabric of the time. One can only imagine traveling in the days before computers and Oral Fix-It toothbrushes. This was even before Steve Jobs made his epic voyage of lysergic/digital discovery in India. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, not techno, would have been the camper van album of choice.
In an arid village Ian stayed for a week––no electricity, eating dalum and bulgur––he was offered a brick of what was dscribed as the finest quality local hash. It was so cheap he thought okay and bought it and put it in some subterranean nook of his suitcase. The trip to Istanbul via old Soviet jeeps that doubled as busses took two days. Then it was into Greece by train on a route that skirted the Bulgarian border––a locale infiltrated with intrigue, given the extremes of Ceaușescu-era Communism. At one point Turkish soldiers swept through the cars with guns at the ready, having rooted out a couple malcontents trying to get across the border undetected. (Sean Connery was in the next compartment, with a lithe brunnette assassin).*
Ian was a dedicated entrepreneur and still had the brick of hash intact, as he had been intending to sell it in the UK all along, rather than on the Continent, where the Rolling Stones had just finished a tour. Economics and sociability dictated that if he could simply smuggle the stuff into England he could sell it for double the price and spread Vibes.
Mission successful, Ian had some good times. He sold his brick off over a period of a month and it was in demand, though certain friends commented that it didn’t have the usual effect. Tokers north of London were not extremely picky, however.
After a month, Ian was down to half a kilo, more than he had expected to have left. He needed to divest the rest quickly, as he had a flight to New York in two days and a Wall Street internship opportunity that would surely please his folks. He found someone through a friend who wanted to buy the remainder and traveled to Central London, taking a bunk in a local hostel.
The problem Ian faced was that it wasn’t okay to take a half kilo of hash into the hostel… there were no lockers and no way to keep a stash like that secret. Ian scoped a mishmash of old junk at the end of an adjoining alleyway, placed next to the metal garbage cans for monthly pick-up. It was a discreet, narrow affair, with few windows on the builidings––no one would think to look there in a million years. At 1:00 am , as planned, he strolled out the hostel, winked at the blonde all-night receptionist, and made as if to buy a pack of smokes at the liquor store down the road. Instead, he ducked into the alleyway and rummaged around for his stuff, which he was to deliver in 10 minutes behind the pub.
At the moment he was digging up the brick, ready to gain capital for a nice New York lifestyle over the next couple months, a Bobby happened to be walking by on his beat. This was just Ian's bad luck––caught red-handed with a half a kilo of hash, enough to be considered “with intent to sell” Though he was a naif strictly into organics, the police would never believe he wasn’t involved in other stuff. A seven year sentence was minimum for this offense, though it could be commuted after four years for good behavior. By which point his soul would be crushed, professional prospects dashed.
Ian spent the entire night in an old style London prison below the gallows––he recalls vividly being led up the stairs directly from his cell into a wood-appointed courtroom presided over by powder-wigged magistrate. At the stand, having slept not a wink, Ian felt distinctly sick. The prosecution was beefed up, imposing, and out for blood––the amount of hash was enough that a federal agent had been called in to determine his level involvement in a hypothetical smuggling ring and the appropriate sentence.
Just at the moment when it seemed that the prosecution were going to push for and schieve a full 10 years behind bars, a lab technician burst into the proceedings and conferred with the judge. After about ten minutes of animated discussion the magistrate, known for his tough sentencing rolled his jowly cheeks toward the rafters, wrath d in his eyes and said “I had every intention of giving you a fair taste of English law––but, having analyzed the samples, it has come to our attention that the substance you carried and distributed is camel dung.”