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ArrowA NEW YEAR'S GREETING from Mohammed Ajmal Kasab Iman
The last Mumbai terrorist says hi!

Get ready to write an angry e-mail

Part III:
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A people's plague
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Race-baiting Hysteric

ArrowWaxy Beast: Music Reviews
by Eric Lingenfelter

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by Michael Gildea

Your completely accurate horoscope

[sic] - Your letters


How to Lose Money Running a Speed Lab


Part III: The Grand Plan

It was time to cook up our batch of speed. We were going to do the cooking at the house my mother owned in Benecia, just over the bridge from Martinez. Benecia is one of those sad historical towns. It was the capital of California for a while until Sacramento up the river bribed someone to steal the title. There are a lot of plaques all over Benecia to remind you of the great defeat, and photo exhibits of even sadder-looking camels. The town was also the headquarters of the California Camel Corps, one of the U.S. Army’s nineteenth-century boondoggles. They imported dromedaries to cross the great American deserts, except that there was this thing called “railroads” that could do it faster. I forget what happened to the camels. They were shot, probably.

California is full of places like that. They just never get mentioned. It’s surprisingly easy to lose your shirt there. It just doesn’t make the news. People who succeed are news, people who fail aren’t news unless someone dies in the process. And even then it better be someone who’s succeeded. The difference between the two groups is very stark there. It wasn’t until I went to New Zealand, a place where no one is really famous, that I even glimpsed the notion that non-famous people could have lives.

It was just a matter of what theme song you picked for your stab at fame and fortune. That was the first issue that Butler and I talked about as we entered our criminal enterprise: what movie we should see to launch, to brand, our career as speed producers/dealers. I suggested Scarface, but to my surprise Butler winced and demurred. Risky Business, he said, would be a better choice. Scarface was a little too heavy. Risky Business was more what we wanted to be, it had a light side to it. And Rebecca DeMornay leading a cast of thousands of cheerful prostitutes. We watched Tom Cruise in his first big role, playing a college student turned pimp to pay off the damage his friends do to his parents’ house when they’re away. He did that famous air guitar to Bob Seger in the empty mansion. It was a mansion, which seems noteworthy in retrospect, but I never bothered about that at the time. Why shouldn’t it be a mansion? If you don’t have a mansion, why not? That was the correct attitude in 1983, rather than whining about how mansion-y the house in the movie was.

And we were out to get ourselves mansions. That was the point: money. I’d never thought about money much. Glory seemed infinitely preferable, and the life of a famous impoverished band, taking all kinds of glorious drugs and having all kinds of glorious sex on mattresses in a trashed apartment, infinitely preferable to the correct prosperity of the rich suburbs.

But then came Reagan and we all changed our minds. I don’t know how or why, and when I try to recall nothing resembling argument comes to mind. The movies instructed us, the columns in the SF papers instructed us, and cars and houses and sheer funds became sexy, in a couple of years. You had to adjust.

Hence me, sitting in my parents’ house in Benecia all alone with three boxes of retorts, the chemical kind, and beakers, and other glassware that we’d bought in disguise at the chemical wholesaler on that freeway access road. Butler helped me unload them when we drove up in my parents’ old purple cop-surplus Plymouth, and then he’d had me drive him back to Bongoburgers in Berkeley. He was going to stay there for the seven days it would take to cook up the stuff. I had his recipe, photocopied from an old German chemist’s notes, now banned by the DEA. I’d stay in Benecia while he held the fort in Berkeley.

That’s how dumb I was. Mister Felony, sitting there cooking up the stinkiest and most toxic drug known to man by myself while Butler had cappuccino and read the paper at Mediterraneo on Telegraph.

The excuse I gave Terry and Marian and the rest of my friends at Bongoburgers was that I needed to work on my Ph.D. dissertation in seclusion. It made no sense to any of them, but they were busy at their own avid, senseless lives, all of which have turned out at least as badly as mine.

I was halfway through the Sade dissertation. I’d been planning to write on Wallace Stevens, whom I loved, whose poems I’d memorized long before anybody else thought they were any good, but I talked myself out of that wimpy topic and into one that would guarantee no hiring committee would ever even touch my application: the novels of the Marquis de Sade. Nobody else had really admitted reading them as porn, which I’d been doing since the lesbian couple who kept me as a platonic pet had given me Justine as a consolation prize, something to wank to while they shut the bedroom door and went about their strenuous business. By this time I’d taught myself to read, though not speak French and had worked my way through the seven different versions of Justine Sade wrote in prison, sometimes one-handed because I was making notes in the margins, and sometimes one-handed for the more usual reason. That was my career plan, prove what a bad person I was by doing a dissertation on Sade, and not a clean distant “theory” one but a very hands-on approach. It did not occur to me, and remember I’ve titled this little opus “Stupid” for good reason, that this might not impress the hiring committees of Midwestern and southern universities when it came time for them to choose a new Rhetoric and Composition teacher. I thought they’d think the way I had: that it was brave and noble to have switched from the cheap easy topic of Stevens—a man who wrote in my native language, in my own century, for God’s sake! What wimpiness, level of difficulty zero!—to a mad pervert prison scrawler who specialized in torture murders done in eighteenth-century French. How could anyone fail to hire the man who’d chosen the path less traveled by? Well, less traveled by anyone who cared to admit it, though I’m sure Sade has been read by a thousand times more people than have read Stevens as avidly as I did.

So there I was, all set up in the house in Benecia. I drove myself back to our house in Pleasant Hill, grunted at my father to drive me to Benecia, and was dropped off by him on the cracked steps of our “investment property.” Even by the standards of that town, it was a sad house in the warm twilight. The cracked steps led up to a wooden porch that was dangerous, especially for someone like me (most of it was muscle, but not all). It creaked in criticism of my eating habits. My mother had warned me tactfully to be careful. I was about 225 at that time, and to keep myself from breaking the 230 barrier I worked out as often as I could make myself on a rowing machine, which I’d brought up in the Plymouth. There it was, through the warped old glass of the front windows, where I’d pushed aside some of the antiques to make room for it. My mother had tried to run this house as an antiques shop, with my insane fat Uncle Fred as her storekeeper, but that hadn’t worked out too well, so it became a storehouse for all the antiques that couldn’t be sold. It was crammed with them, sad things made of glass, incredibly sad old posters, sad old toys, sad furniture piled to the ceiling in some rooms. And the ceilings were falling down, spotted with mould and water damage. A paradise for spiders.

I went in and cleared a little space for my sleeping bag in the middle room, moving things out of the way, trying not to look at them too much because they broke my heart. Every old unsold and unwanted thing in the world. Every single defeat for whatever thousand years. Little spiders and not so little spiders crawled away from the mass of old whatever, was that some kind of Victorian baby carriage with a swollen-faced albino doll in it? Don’t look if you can help it, just shove some room for the sleeping bag before the sun goes down. There was a kind of writing desk from some dead people that would do for writing my Sade chapter I’d promised to do this week. And there was a big bathroom at the back with a huge tub where I could cook the more flammable materials. Butler had warned me that “some are flammable and some are explosive, but flammable is actually worse.” I didn’t follow up on that information; I was planning mainly on hoping for the best.

I’d warned my parents to stay away for the week it would take to cook, but what if they decided I needed a break from all that study and dropped in to see me? If they found me among the bubbling retorts…I’d just kill myself. That even had a certain appeal.

Or if the cops…that was far, far worse. Even killing myself might not expiate that. It was so awful it crushed my head like a recycled can every time I thought of it. So I wouldn’t think about it. It didn’t seem to happen in the movies much. The cops hardly figured in either Scarface or Risky Business. Surely that was some consolation.

Step one was to tape paper over all the windows. Step two was to explain the suspicious taping of the windows with painting. I’d brought paint for the outside of the house. The paint would disguise the smell, I hoped, though I had no idea what cooking speed smelled like and Butler had been oddly reluctant to dwell on that particular issue. He had said enthusiastically in the beginning that there were some really excellent sophisticated ventilation systems you could buy that totally masked the smell, but when he heard how much money I had to invest in the scheme—he had none, the money and the house were my contribution while he supplied the know-how—he’d changed his tune and said we’d just tape up the windows and hope for the best. I had a private plan, in addition to this: I would personally try to inhale as deeply as I could for the week the stuff was cooking so that I could process as much as possible of the fumes through my own lungs so they wouldn’t get out and draw cops.

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