Nonfiction

An Education


The first thing I saw when I woke up was the row of ancient bibles in a corner bookshelf. The flat light of an overcast dawn confused my sense of time, though. Hadn’t my friends and I just gone to bed? Then I saw a short, round-faced man standing over me, wearing a porkpie hat exactly like Gene Hackman would wear in The French Connection a few years later. The man pointed a short-barrelled revolver at the centre of my forehead. I remember noting how perfectly circular the muzzle was and that its bluing was very deep. I saw the soft grey domes of the bullets in the cylinder and noted the thickness of the front site. Then I looked away from the revolver to glance at the film can holding a jumble of foil-wrapped drugs on the floor beside my bed.

“Move,” the little man said, smiling. “I dare you.”

I felt strangely calm, and was not about to move.

He withdrew a step while keeping the revolver pointed at my face and reached down with his free hand to pick up the can. It occurred to me, incongruously, that this event would probably signal the end of my university education.

an education Mike Wilson

by Mike Wilson

Two years earlier, in 1965, a week after I graduated from high school, my father drove me from our Florida home to a small-town college campus in southern Ohio.  I expected university to make something of me, but I had no idea what that might be. My father must have had dreams for me, but I’m sure he didn’t want me to follow in his footsteps. Then, he was a charmingly ruthless salesman who fantasized about a more adventurous life. His genial smile, curly black hair, and trim mustache made me think of Errol Flynn. He was—to use a word that was dated even then—“dashing.” But, at 16, I was nothing like that.

I was too tall, too polite, socially naive, and in every respect an outsider in my Miami high school. We were Canadian expats and my accent was variously mocked as “Scotch” or “queer” by classmates. Even my body language marked me as a foreigner. My ex-Marine gym teacher said I looked like “a Frankenstein” when I failed to provide an acceptable imitation of an American soldier as he marched us on the playing fields, chanting, “Count cadence, count!” followed by “Hit it!/Kick it!/Stab it!/Kill it!”

Unlike me, my father was a chameleon. He spelled his last name in a way that made it easy for Americans to pronounce, let it be known that he had appreciatively read FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit, a red-scare book about Communism, championed the importance of “states’ rights,” and rounded his phonemes so they would fall more softly on his customers’ and colleagues’ ears in the 79th Street mall where he had found a job selling furniture and appliances.

My father also admired criminals—at least those of the suave and masterful movie kind like Cary Grant. Before we moved to Miami, he had even been involved with an engaging American grifter who sold fake shares in a Canadian uranium mine. He occasionally reminded me that if I hadn’t “come along”—as though, abandoned, I had knocked at his door one cold night, begged for shelter, and imposed moral rectitude on him—he would have made his living as a thief, like one of the band of war veterans in Ocean’s 11 who attempt to liberate a fortune from five Las Vegas casinos.

Given that I thought of myself as a morally fastidious kid with liberal inclinations, and not a felon, it was unsettling when I stumbled across one of our similarities. The summer before we moved to the States, I worked with him at a furniture store outside Toronto. Since there was almost nothing to do after the mendacious “Sale” tags were pinned in place on the rows of cheap sofas, I spent my days playing endless games of solitaire on a plastic-topped kitchen table with a particularly ugly seaweed pattern. My boredom was leavened only by uneasy wonderment at my father’s ability to beguile and seduce shoppers.

One unusually busy afternoon in the store, he asked me to show a kitchen table to a young couple. Until that time, I had been a general helper, not a salesman. Nervous at first, I felt myself quickly slip into a new skin and led them to my solitaire table. I became suddenly appreciative of plastic lamination and seaweed and grateful for the opportunity to share that appreciation with the young couple looking at kitchen furniture. The woman listened to me thoughtfully, then touched her fingers to the mottled green surface of the table and the chrome banding with a poorly finished edge where I had cut my hand. “Easy enough to keep clean,” she murmured, and a moment later the man opened his wallet. That’s not so hard, I thought.

There had been no long-haired men, bare-breasted woman, folk dancers, or oppositional politics in south Florida.

A career in retail wasn’t part of my father’s plans for me. For his generation, improvement through higher education was an unassailable article of faith, though the exact content of that education was a featureless abstraction to us both. During our long drive from Miami to the liberal arts college in Ohio that had given me a full scholarship, we spoke little, both sensing the radical divergence our lives were about to take. My only preparation for this new life had been to read an illustrated booklet he bought me warning that college students were sometimes distracted from their studies by the activity of flinging metal pie plates to each other (the new word “frisbee” appeared once, safely fenced off in scare quotes) across the vast green lawns that were supposed to represent collegiate life.

At the end of our second day on the road, we arrived at a prosperous-looking village and followed historical brass markers that guided us to the college. I saw my father’s eyes narrow as he peered out the car window and took in the life around him. He had to brake for bearded, long-haired young men wearing gaudy t-shirts who walked heedlessly onto the road to meet girls perched along the curb on the other side. I pretended not to notice a girl my age tugging up the hem of her loose peasant blouse to nurse a baby in the shade of a store that advertised Peruvian carvings and Mexican serapes. As we drove past the college itself, I read the hand-lettered signs taped to pressure tables in front of the student union. They promised self-discovery in therapy groups, the opportunity to defeat poverty and crush capitalism through heroic self-sacrifice, and lessons in Israeli folk dancing, all to the tune of Hava Nagila, which rasped from a public address speaker beneath a table. 

There had been no long-haired men, bare-breasted woman, folk dancers, or oppositional politics in south Florida. Even pedestrians were rare on Miami sidewalks, much less wandering in the streets. There, men were still waging war against Cuba.

“Are you sure you want to go here?” my father asked, as he dubiously watched the long-haired boys. I expected to hear scorn in his tone, but, touchingly, there was only worry.

“I’m sure,” I lied.

After finding a place to park, he hefted one end of my black steamer trunk and helped me carry it to a dorm room down a hall whose plaster walls had been defaced with slogans and poems written in black Magic Marker. We walked past “To come together is divine” and “God is dead,” without comment, but “Fuck the war in Vietnam” filled me with unease. Even the high school kids in south Florida sounded like they were taking a sizeable risk when they said the word “fuck.” In my dorm room, which had lines from Ginsburg’s “Howl”— “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”— carefully lettered on the ceiling, my father and I shook hands, smiled painfully at each other, and silently parted ways.

When I sat in the college auditorium at freshman orientation the next day, the student council president swept his arms through the air and declared that the difficult and dangerous road ahead would see one third of us drop out. Certainly, he added, with evident satisfaction, there would be suicides. I glanced at the nodding faces of the kids sitting near me. Failure and suicide in pursuit of what? I wondered. What did they know that I didn’t?

A great deal, as it turned out. When a hall mate found out I didn’t know the difference between a natural history museum and an art museum, and had been to neither, he called me a “rustic.” In the college cafeteria I discovered containers of a thick white dessert—something that I had heard called “yogurt”—with fruit at the bottom. I thought it was an exclusively Jewish food because all the kids from New York ate it. I saw a boy sitting a few tables away in the cafeteria squirt oily-smelling lighter fluid on a little card that looked like a driver’s licence. When he held the flame of a lighter to it, the card flared to the cheers of onlookers. Since I was under 18 and had not registered, I had no idea it was a draft card and that its destruction was a crime. I met a runaway teenage girl from Boston who squatted in an empty dorm room and charged $5 for sex before moving on to her next destination—everyone`s destination, it seemed—California. A pet owner insisted with alarming passion that veterinary services would be free “after the revolution.” White students from wealthy families romanticized the poor, sedulously imitating the thumb-linking, knuckle-knocking ritual that was then known as the “black power handshake.”

And, of course, there were drugs. Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” of revolutionary nostrums, the I Ching, and Carlos Castañeda’s inventions about the peyote-fuelled mysticism and magic of First Nations peoples often found themselves on the same dormitory bookshelf. Drugs were against the Viet Nam war, for sexual freedom, against racial prejudice, tolerant of homosexuality, encouraging of creativity, and could even make dying an easeful and fulfilling experience. Aldous Huxley’s reputed suicide through an overdose of LSD led to many stoned, late-night debates about the exact amount needed for a “death dose.”

There were also, I should add, green lawns and Frisbees.

Then, sometime during my lonely, bewildered first term, the college’s financial aid administrator called me into her office to unapologetically reveal that someone had made a clerical error when I was admitted. No one had noticed that I was a Canadian citizen, so my full scholarship was to be summarily withdrawn. Perhaps, I thought with some relief, I could leave college, return to Toronto, live with my grandparents, and get a job. I was sure my parents couldn’t afford the burden of tuition. But my parents said no when I told them, I had to remain where I was and get the education that had been denied them. In the following weeks, feeling like a castaway on an island populated by cosmopolitan and self-involved teenagers, I let the old-fashioned front wave fall out of my hair and folded my dress shirts into the bottom of my steamer trunk. I pretended sexual experience I could barely imagine, drank straight bourbon from a water glass, wrote poetry, and acquired an interest in African drumming when I found a Babatunde Olatunji record called Drums of Passion in a trash can. I realized that, like my father, I had to become a chameleon.

My heart wasn’t in the academics, though; education seemed beyond me. I failed and abandoned courses, relieved to discover that, unlike high school, my parents didn’t have to sign a report card. I felt responsible for their financial distress and grieved that I couldn’t repay them with good grades. But what did grades mean when basic academic demands were seen as oppressively authoritarian—even by my teachers? On the first day of a geology class in my second year, the professor asked us what we wanted him to teach. A black student from Chicago’s south side, who had been recruited as part of the school’s mission of equality in education, stood up to declare that the only lesson to be learned was that we had been oppressing him for 300 years. I left the class following the next meeting, after an hour of political harangue and accusation, and never returned, yet received a grade of B+ for the term.

Youth, in this topsy-turvy world, was accorded more authority than experience, and I quickly learned to take advantage of it. I registered for classes in areas where I already knew the answers. I published a popular newspaper in which many of the stories were pure fabrication. I even made a successful claim to my academic advisor that a recently deceased member of the fine arts faculty promised me course credit for an independent study but had inconveniently died just before submitting the grade. Ultimately, that falsehood allowed me to graduate.

Money was tight and I was sometimes hungry. Without giving it a second thought, I bought—on consignment—a canvas-wrapped kilo of Lebanese hashish from an Israeli who imported it hidden under a turntable platter. I divided the dark hard oval with a hot knife and packaged the pieces for sale wrapped in tin foil. I met a young Comanche Indian who left hundreds of tabs of “Owsley blues,” the most highly refined LSD of the era, in my care. He never returned to collect them, so I sold them. A friend smuggled a trunk of marijuana from Guanajuato, each brick packaged in crackling green cellophane, and gave me one, which I divided into nickel bags. Methamphetamine and other hard drugs were available, but I had never wanted to have anything to do with the meth addicts I’d met. Their mania and nonsense talk was always followed by a hard crash, and then a search for more. Heroin was worse. It seemed to me part of a world of real crime and danger, and I wanted no part of that, either. My own dealings seemed, by comparison, an innocent and sometimes exciting game whose goal was to help buy groceries.

The police were not much of a threat, though the penalties for possession and dealing even a small amount of marijuana were draconian. The agents I ran into announced their identities with sturdy black shoes polished to an impressively high gloss. Their slang was embarrassingly out of date, they wore after-shave, their postures were too erect, and they acted altogether too tough. Their risible impersonations of bad guys seemed to have come from an old gangster film, not the dawn of what most of my classmates felt was a wondrous new age.

I was ignorant of many things, but I was still canny and honest enough to know that I wasn’t the bellwether of an Aquarian revolution. I had become friendly with an older student, Lukas Bauer (I have changed his name), who shared my cynicism about the imminence of a new order. Lukas had worked as a chemist for the US Food and Drug Administration, lived with Arab nomads while his father, a Protestant cleric and scholar, worked on translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ridden with a motorcycle gang. He was emotionally mercurial, brilliant, and dauntingly capable. When we talked about drugs, he derisively described methamphetamine production as a “kitchen-pot synthesis.” The creation of LSD, however, required sophisticated equipment and true expertise. The idea of making a big hit—a hit that made me think of my father’s suave criminals and their Las Vegas dreams, and filled me a sense of accomplishment and liberation from university life—began to develop almost of its own accord.

Thanks to his biker experience, Lukas was able to contact organized crime figures in Philadelphia. We sidestepped troubling questions of right and wrong by determining that our acid would be well-made, without any of those dangerous isomers that a bad chemist might cook up. We brought one more player on board, Bill Cooney, a tall, skinny boy from Los Angeles, who was majoring in philosophy and had unsuccessfully tried to educate me about classical music, George Berkeley’s idealism, and Asian religions. Bill also had an appetite for danger.

Lukas reached out to his Philadelphia connection and a deal came together with absurd ease: $500,000 in exchange for one gallon of pure LSD. We planned to obscure our trail by using assumed names and cash to purchase chemicals and lab equipment from different supply houses across the US. But first we needed that cash. Lukas and Bill came from well-off families, but neither had ready funds. Lukas’s wealthy young acquaintances in Philadelphia, however, did have money, and we concocted a scam to encourage them to rush to share it with us. I would pose as the epitome of cool, a drug dealer to the stars making a special run to Philadelphia. Lukas’s friends would be given the privilege of purchasing a modest quantity of drugs from me for an immodest amount of money.

“hippie” was still months away from becoming a universally known word or image.

I don’t remember how I dressed for this meeting, but it likely involved something with tie-dyes and beads. I carried the drugs—an eclectic assortment of LSD, peyote, my Lebanese hashish, and possibly some opium. To give my celebrity status a little more street cred, I packed the drugs into a round metal tin that had once held a roll of 35mm movie film stock.

The stewardesses on the plane tried to avoid staring at my dealer costume; “hippie” was still months away from becoming a universally known word or image. Lukas and Bill met me at Philadelphia International and we drove to Lukas’s father’s house and dined with him. Reverend Bauer was a gracious and welcoming man who appeared not to be troubled by my outlandish appearance. We discussed Mahayana Buddhism, I suppose, because Bill had told me about it. Although the subject didn’t truly interest me, ignorance of Buddhism was one more thing that would reveal me as an outsider among my peers. At the end of the evening, Reverend Bauer left for a conference and we had the house to ourselves. Lukas’s well-heeled friends were scheduled to turn up the next morning.

Before going to sleep, I ran my thumb across the spines of some leather-bound bibles in the bedroom where Lukas had installed me. I wanted to take one out and look for a publication date, but the book’s obvious age made me afraid to do more than touch it. Instead, I leafed through the notebook I carried with me, wrote some notes about the dinnertime discussion, placed my tin of drugs on the floor beside the bed, and fell into an easy and deep sleep. I was sure we were on our way.

The pudgy little man with the porkpie hat and the deeply blued revolver put an end to that hope. While I still lay in bed, afraid to move, he left the room and a younger, friendlier agent, with no weapon in sight, came to guard me and told me to get dressed. While I was pulling my clothes on, my guard leafed through the notebook I had left on the table the night before, making me nervous because it contained notes about the synthesis of LSD and the addresses of chemical supply houses. He flipped past those, however, and fixed, instead, on my notes about Mahayana Buddhism. “Aren’t the Mahayanas kind of militant?” he asked. I had absolutely no idea. I was frightened, but not too frightened to realize that I’d just been out-cooled in Buddhist lore by a cop. “What do you think of this ‘absolute reality’ stuff they talk about?” he asked. “It never made sense to me.”

He turned his back for a moment while he picked through the bookcase, and withdrew a bible that he flipped through without interest before snapping it shut. He then turned around and fingered the wingtip of the collar on his own shirt, and said, “You should take a thin razor blade and tape one edge so you can hold it. Then slit your collar along the seam and hide the blade inside it. That way, when the guys in jail try to fuck you, you can cut them up.”

A new conception of absolute reality suddenly loomed.

We were led out of the house in handcuffs by a uniformed cop. As we walked through the kitchen, I saw an agent pour milk and juice into the sink and peer into the empty containers, hoping to find contraband that was more carefully hidden than what they had found in my film can. Outside, Lukas’s friends—who, we learned later, had been busted the night before, and turned us in in exchange for their own freedom—conferred with more police. One of the cops was transferring skin diving gear from the trunk of their car to his patrol car. “I’ve always wanted one of these,” I heard him say. “Let’s just make this part of our deal.”

In the police station, I was so anxious and blinded by terror and tunnel vision that I couldn’t see Lukas or Bill standing on either side of me. Details caught and held my eye. I saw my inky finger leave its smudgy, crenellated image in a box on a sheet of paper, the round face of an electric clock that had had 24-hour numbers pasted over the conventional numerals (the “13:00” Scotch-taped over the “1” was falling off), and the bored and uneasy-looking men (mostly young, all white) in the jail cell. The cell was crowded, yet open to inspection; I didn’t feel the need for a razor blade. I knew only that I had betrayed the kindness Lukas’s father had shown us and felt humiliated by my own treachery.

We were not kept in the station for long. Lukas, with his myriad connections, produced a lawyer who had recently been a prosecuting attorney for the city of Philadelphia but had returned to private practice. Before our arraignment, we visited a barber shop at the lawyer’s suggestion, where we were somehow already known and, to a degree, notorious. When he was done, the barber who cut my hair whipped the cloth from my shoulders and declared to us all, “Illegitimi non carborundum.” Looking pleased with himself, he provided his own translation: “Don’t let the bastards fuck you in the ass!” I had no idea if he meant the police, the legal system, or the convicts whose company we were likely to join.

I thought of that other Justice, with her blindfold and balance, and wondered how we were being weighed.

The lawyer drove us to our arraignment at the home office of a Justice of the Peace whose name, for some reason, I remember. “Justice Leroy H. Forker” was embossed on a nameplate on his desk and we sat silently while our attorney made forceful arguments with a showmanship and vigour that seemed ludicrously out of keeping with the tiny judicial space we were crammed into.  Justice Forker reacted to none of our lawyer’s theatrics, though. When called on to speak, he would pause while his wife, who sat beside him, leaned toward his ear and whispered to him. He occasionally spoke her name: “Lillian.” I thought of that other Justice, with her blindfold and balance, and wondered how we were being weighed.

Somehow, we were free. Someone—Bill’s father? Lukas’s father?—took care of the bail. We spent a few more days in Philadelphia in a bizarrely relaxed kind of suspension before returning to our college campus. We visited a sports store, bought a couple of epées and Lukas taught Bill and me the basics of fencing. I started to smoke cigarettes—Gauloises. I saw my first episode of Star Trek—a rerun in which crew members take shore leave on a planet where memory and fantasy conjure reality, and everyone has adventures that range from the deadly to the erotic.

The Star Trek planet was the world I tried to live on for the next weeks back at school because I was too frightened and cowardly to tell my parents what had happened. They learned about it only when Bill’s father phoned them to ask about sharing the cost of the bail bond.

By then, my parents had moved back north, but not all the way to Canada. Their hopes of financial success and their increasing political conservatism made the United States a more congenial place for them. When they told me to come home, I flew to Buffalo, hitched a ride to their suburban home in Tonawanda, and found myself sitting across the kitchen table from my father, watching his face twist in confusion and rage. For some reason, he didn’t ask any questions. If he had, it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to remind him of his fantasies about robbing a Las Vegas casino and enjoying the life of a gentleman thief. After all, he had only talked about his dream; I had tried to make mine a reality.

When I was allowed to return to school and the legal charges disappeared as the result of a search warrant error, I got a full-time job and rented a room in a house far off campus. A drug dealer named Poochie was my neighbour. One day, Poochie’s suppliers, who I would see waiting ostentatiously outside his house in a black Lincoln with smoked windows, grabbed his girlfriend for some misdeed he must have committed. They beat her to her knees on a country road and shot her in the back of the head. The police had gotten tougher, better, and more corrupt, in conducting their business, as well. They recruited criminals to do their undercover work and laid false charges against innocents to intimidate them into becoming informants. I wanted nothing to do with that life.

A few years after our confrontation at the kitchen table, my father’s misguided sense of the adventurous took him away from the furniture store, from his wife and family, and into a scam that involved claiming federal funds for the supposed rehabilitation of street people in Las Vegas. No casinos were robbed. When he was in his sixties, he suffered cracked ribs during a bar fight. He kept a pistol close at hand. He worked as a prison guard in a federal penitentiary.

I heard about some of these things from letters and poems he wrote me, others from relatives. By this time, I knew enough about life to have become a little suspicious of his stories and even to have found something sadly wishful and tawdry about them. After his death, though, I regretted that I’d never told him him the story of my experience with higher education, and of my own inept venture into crime. Sharing that bit of truth, I thought, might have somehow helped to redeem us both. 

an education Mike Wilson Gabe Marcus is the pen name of a Montreal writer and photographer who has been advised that travel to the U.S. could be problematic if his real name were used. His more recent involvement in felonious activities has been limited.