elementary, my dear watson

YESTERDAY, I RECOUNTED to a friend the story of how I once tried opium, but by accident. No one ever believes me when I tell this story. They like to think that a person knows exactly what drugs they take and when, and how, and their provenance, but in my case, it really just happened. I was a senior in college then, and had just returned from a study abroad program in Europe to Washington, which is where I was studying journalism. I had gone to call on my friend Seán who was renting an apartment up on O Street, across from a boisterous gay nightclub. There were many quarrels outside the nightclub, and at night we could hear lovers fighting in the alleyways. There was pure torment down there. It was interesting to walk through that neighborhood if you were not gay, because you might notice some old man looking at you a little too long while he took his dog out for a walk. A funny little district.

Seán lived up on the third floor. He was one of these drug people, people who knew of and experimented with drugs. I was never a drug person per se, but, for whatever reason, I have always had one or two of these characters floating around nearby, hovering in the near distance, the kind of cat who will lecture authoritatively on the effects of indica versus sativa. Even in high school, I had another friend, Beaver, who used to roar up in his car and whisk me away to some field on the edge of town where he would set up his howitzer-like water pipe and implore me to try it. My college friend Seán was one of these experimenters and lifestyle artists, but he also was and is in his bones an Irish intellectual. His walls were lined with the books of Joyce and Yeats. Whether sober or not, he could engage you at the highest levels on the political conditions in Ireland and the history of Ireland. Seán also had a habit of attracting strange characters, like me I suppose. After my time in Europe, I had taken to walking around with a “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and could be seen strolling up and down the avenues of Washington repeating back Danish phrases out loud. Many of his other friends though were of another sordid sort and I didn’t even know their real names. These kids only had nicknames. One was called Scooby.

It was February then and they were watching the Olympics in Salt Lake City. This was the year that Veerpalu won the gold and Mae took home the bronze. Estonia was not at all on my radar then, even almost exactly a year to the day I would be moving into a Khrushchevka in Tallinn. The hash pipe came around the room, and Scooby handed it to me. The first thing that struck me was its odd metallic taste. But there were other factors at play. A cannabis high is different from an opium high. A cannabis high will surprise you a bit, because even if it is strong, you won’t recognize it at first, unless you are a connoisseur, a pure play drug person. You can watch skiing on TV all day long with a cannabis high, and not miss anything. This was different. I was overwhelmed by a kind of gray melancholic sleep, a complete withdrawal of desire. I was on the couch but could not move. There was a glass nearby, but I could not bear to reach for it. I tried to move my hand, but I couldn’t make it move. “Hey, this hash is strong,” I remember saying to Seán as he watched the men ski on TV. My own words sounded faraway, as if not my own. Seán looked up at me through his glasses and raised his red eyebrows with his Irish intellectual eyes twinkling and said. “It’s not hash, man. It’s opium.” Opium? The kind of opium that started wars in China in the 19th century? The kind of opium that Watson caught Sherlock Holmes smoking in an East London den? That kind of opium? Seán nodded. Then the pipe went back around the room.

In a puff of smoke, I had become one of them, the lotus-eaters, dreaming my winter blues away in peaceful apathy. It was a drug that took away not just your pain but everything else. It wasn’t my thing. I preferred psychotropics, something that might help me see things in a new and refreshing light. I believed in a psychedelic world, a world of color and permeable meaning. I am not sure how that day ended, but perhaps with me walking home, listening to my “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and muttering to myself. Now that such experiences are decades in the past, I have to wonder what I was even doing there, how I walked into that scene, how I wound up smoking opium by accident. It seems like a lifetime ago, and my experiences are back there, in the distant past. Those kinds of characters are still floating around me though. They always are. When you are a writer, you make a habit of surrounding yourself with such people and experiences. I just didn’t know that I was a writer back then.


IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.

tüütumaa park

I HAD TO GO to the airport to pick up a daughter flying in from Brussels (and there was panic about whether or not she was even on the plane). While at the gate, I was pacing in worry when she called out to me, “Dad. Dad! I’m right over here. God, what an idiot.” Then we had to go back home. All of Europe was arrayed in Scandinavian-style apartment blocks. You know those big yellow brick buildings you see in Stockholm, or Copenhagen especially. “Estonia” was merely at the end of one particularly long boulevard. It was dark and it was raining. When I got home, my woman friend was gone. She had come to see me but I had to leave her alone to attend to my family needs. Apparently, she didn’t have the patience to spend all day, leafing through old magazines. She had worn a special dress for me, but where was I? At the airport? She didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Not even a message. When I inquired after my female guest my other daughter said, “You mean the one with the breast implants?” “Breast implants? I thought they were real. When did she get breast implants?” I was not convinced about the fake breasts. But I also didn’t want to ask. They were fine, firm, very believable breasts anyway. Organic. I understood then that my other daughter was just trying to downgrade her in my mind. It was all about attention, you see. These daughters of mine, they wanted my attention. Another female interloper was just a drag on the attention stock. She needed to be pushed out of the picture. They sure were crafty. The next morning I had to go out with Morris for a meeting at a startup company on the other side of town. It was somehow impossible to get to this place on foot. I looked at the map. It said it was located in “Tüütumaa Park.” The river flowed straight toward the park, and we decided to commandeer a small vessel. It was this ramshackle wooden thing, leaking, but still seaworthy. The waterways were full of great sea lions, walruses, elephant seals. They floated by, big furry masses of dopey fish-feeding mammals. “There must be sharks in these waters,” I told Morris. “Where there are seals, there are sharks. I don’t like it one bit.” The water was incredibly clear, but I saw no great whites or hammerheads. They had to be down there somewhere. It was just so troublesome to get all the way down to Tüütumaa. Why were we even going? To visit another software company? Excuse me, ICT. Who cared anymore anyways? I really hoped that they had a food court down there. Maybe a coffee house that roasted its own beans. Something to make the trip worthwhile.

in search of chief ted

AND THEN ONE MORNING, I went out for a walk in Setauket. Setauket is, or was, a tiny Anglo settlement. The original European inhabitants were Puritans from New England. They arrived by boat, and traded with the local Algonquians, who were recorded in history as the Setalcott (which might hint at the original pronunciation of the name). Old timers like Ted Green and Sherman Mills used to say SEE-tauket, but newer arrivals call it Set-AUK-et. Hence, the famed Se-Port Deli.

I looked for Chief Ted’s grave at Laurel Hill, but couldn’t find it, but I found some other Greens, Harts, and Sells. I had never gone into the cemetery itself, which is an old Setalcott burial ground, and seems somehow off-limits to outsiders, but I was surprised by how lush and leafy the whole place was. There used to be an old house at the end of Locust Avenue terminating in Christian Avenue that belonged to this enclave of the original people, but it’s long gone, and has been replaced with some standard suburban structure, of zero cultural value. There used to be a kid who lived up that hill named Reggie, but I can’t recall what his last name was. I just remember him walking up that hill when our bus dropped him off. Maybe Chief Ted’s nephew?

Chief Ted told me that when he was a kid in the 1930s, the Klan was active on Long Island. Men in white sheets would come through the forests at night to terrorize the people of color. There used to be a series of houses over at the intersection of Old Town Road and Main Street called Chicken Hill, and a pub nearby. Chief Ted told me that the owner of the pub took out life insurance policies on all of his Afro-Indian clients, so that each time one of them croaked after a lifetime of drinking his alcohol, he earned a little money too. Sharp fella. In the Setauket of the ’30s, Chief Ted would walk with the other children into Port Jefferson to buy ice cream at Grandma’s and walk back. I remember going to Grandma’s when I was a kid. I think we had my seventh birthday there. It’s long gone now. Port Jefferson of old.

I gave up on looking for Chief Ted and turned left onto Lake Street. The original settlement of Setauket was built around this now stagnant green inlet. The land where my parents live up the hill was undeveloped into the 1970s. Some of these houses are built in the traditional saltbox fashion that is common throughout New England. Up the hill and down Old Field Road, you find more wannabe colonial mansions. These are hidden behind hedges and gates, and there are no people. It is a peculiar feeling to walk all the way down Old Field Road, and then down Mount Grey Road, and then turn onto West Meadow Road, heading for the beach, engulfed in shady affluence, and still see no people. Now and then you can hear them, children’s voices in a distant garden, but other than a passing car, it is silent.

There are certain roads, like the one that leads out to Flax Pond and Crane Neck, that are framed by stone posts and look like the entry ways to a Mexican caudillo’s hacienda. One might expect armed guards in camouflage to arrest any intruder. It is more Gatsby than Escobar here, but it begs the question, what is the real difference between Gatsby and Escobar? Skin tone? Language? Gatsby wasn’t a killer, but he was dealing in moonshine. Pablo was selling cocaine. At some level, big money is just big money, whether you made it legally or not. The desire of big money is to isolate itself, to insulate itself, to hide itself away from the world. A person of means does not socialize with the common man. He hides himself away down a long drive, vacations to an exclusive island, cherry picks visitors. Old Field felt so silent and lifeless and I recalled dramatic teenage mornings, roaming around these same vacant streets listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band singing “Walking Blues.”

At West Meadow, I decided to go for broke and make it to the Gamecock Cottage and the heralded “Porpoise Channel” of Johnny Remorse. I kept looking around for the Krip Keepas, but there was none in sight. Not even Matty D. Where could he be? Still running from the Suffolk County PD? Instead I filled up my cup at the artesian well in the middle of the wetlands reserve at the Erwin Ernst Marine Conservation Center. There was an older man there who told me he had been getting water there for 40 years, and that I should be grateful and thank Mother Earth. I thanked her and went on my way.

Along the road back, I overheard some Italians, identifiable by their use of the words “qui” (here) and “la” (there). I managed to fake my way through some dialogue. They were from Napoli, Naples, and I told them I was Barese, from Bari, which in some remote way I am. “Ah,” the Neapolitan said. “We are over here and you are over there” (the cities are on opposite sides of the Italian peninsula). Next I passed two women who I think were speaking Czech or Polish. Some western Slavic language. And then there was a Chinese couple out on skates. Funny, I came all the way to Setauket on Long Island, ancient hamlet of Puritan settlers, and yet nobody is speaking English here, I thought.

I’m not even speaking English.

weed world

WEED, WEED, tufts of weed. Rolling through the streets, gathering dust like in the Old West. Wyatt Earp’s weed. Doc Holiday’s ganja. The holy sacrament of Jah! Ever living, ever fearful. Bat Masterson’s dank nuggets. Wild Bill Hickok’s satchel of chronic. The fragrant stink of green. It arrives, a plenitude of stenches. It stings, it hits high and sweet and then low and pungent, heavy, somehow melancholic and sad too. It floats over the heads of Texan tourists through Times Square, hugs the indigent people with tattoos who are laughing at their own jokes, and hovers over the local New Yorkers out for a jog, and the business ladies with their manicures at the corner table on East 81st Street. On 31 March 2021, cannabis was decriminalized in New York, and its potent winds wind across avenues, down side streets, up museum steps, down kitchen basements, linger about in taxis, chase kids into 99 cent pizza parlors. The weed wraps around the shanty tents promising immediate COVID-19 testing, even same day PCR. It’s different from the New York I left behind many years ago. New York smells different nowadays.

The trains rattle in, shake along, dive under the East River. They are worn and rusty, and there is no free wireless internet. New York is not about giving things away for free. New York is about charging you two times as much, if not three, and making you feel like you somehow got a good deal, because someone else is charging ten times as much. It is worth remarking that every piece of Manhattan island has been made over and remade, sculpted, hollowed out, reconstructed, and that even the wilds of Central Park were cultivated out of earth that was moved from elsewhere to make way for an elevated train. Once upon a time, this beatific isle was unspoiled nature. There were no property rights, nor air rights. You must take a moment to let that sink in. Nobody owned the land of New York State, and there was no New York State. There was no state, no governor, no avenues, no Subway, and you could smoke anything you wanted, if you could get your hands on it, or trade for it, maybe with one of those long clay Dutch pipes of the Henry Hudson days, or maybe a local Indian one. There was no line where one man’s tract ended and another began. It was all seamless. Land rolled into land. Such was Manhattan of old.

At Madame Tussauds, I took a selfie with Donald Trump and then another with Sean Combs. At the Met, I saw Van Gogh trees and Monet seasides. Winslow Homer had a thing for bare-chested Bahamanian men. George O’Keefe had a thing for desert bones. My favorite painting was The Three Sisters by Léon Frédéric, a Belgian, anno 1896. It is interesting for sure that they dragged all of this European art, Chinese and Egyptian art, and Japanese art, and even the furnishings of hotels and palaces in France, and set it up for us to see here in New York, a city that bulldozed nature and chased remnant Algonquian culture away. New York in this sense is a funny place. It is both everywhere and nowhere. Everything is here, but everything that is here came from somewhere else. Even the name was borrowed from the North of England.

That’s why people need weed. They need it to make sense of the humidity and appropriation.

three years away

THREE YEARS I was away. Almost exactly, to the date. The last days I remember being here were in July. It was the time of the Green Corn Festival, hosted by the local Indian nation. I went to the powwow and talked to the head woman. We both knew her predecessor, Chief Ted. She told me she was disappointed in him, because he died and left her to run things.

I knew not what to say, but that was three years ago.

In the August after my return to Estonia, I traveled to Stockholm, and that fall, the fall of ’19, I turned 40 years old and took a ship to Helsinki the following day to participate in Slush, a major meeting of startups. I was supposed to have a meeting with an important source regarding a book, but she stayed in Paris and changed her plans. I don’t even remember coming back on the ship. It would be the last time I would leave Estonia for almost three years.

Then the new decade dawned, and the pandemic with it. I welcomed the first lockdown and slept through those weeks in late March and April. But there were others, and I cannot really say where the time went. 2020. 2021. It was only in May 2022, that my car crossed the Latvian border, and we drove all the way to Riga and flew to Copenhagen, like normal people, like the way it once was. And in June, they finally allowed American citizens to travel to the US without showing any kind of COVID-19 test result. So our flight back went smoothly. There were no additional hurdles. There we were, after three years, in John F. Kennedy International Airport.

THE FIRST THING that I probably noticed in New York that struck me as strange was the clerk at the airport shop asking me about my shirt. He asked me where the North Fork was, and I explained to him that Long Island, the same island we both stood on at the time, had two forks at its end, and one fork was the North Fork and the other was the South Fork. The North Fork had Orient Point and the ferry to Connecticut and the South Fork had the Hamptons. It occurred to me that in Estonia, nobody would start a conversation with a client like that.

The following day yielded a few more surprises. In the liquor store, I watched as a man greeted the owner with, “God bless you and God bless this great country!” The seller was taken slightly aback but welcomed the blessing. I was then trying to determine the price of a bottle of prosecco with my father. Almost as soon as I had stepped off the plane, the US Supreme Court had repealed Roe vs. Wade. “Oops, we were wrong about that one.” What was going on in this country? Later, former President Donald Trump was quoted as saying the ruling was the will of God. How did he know what God wanted? And what did God have to do with a Long Island liquor store? None of these things seemed to make sense. These were my thoughts as I stood outside Carvel beneath a great poster celebrating the 45th birthday of Fudgie the Whale.

“A whale of an ice cream cake.”

MOST NEW YORKERS are foreign in provenance. The Republican primary for governor was between Lee Zeldin, a “Trump won” denialist who is Jewish, and Andrew Giuliani, who is Italian. New Yorkers don’t notice these things. They are trained to ignore them or to pretend that they don’t matter. For someone who has lived abroad for many years, you cannot help but notice that nearly all the inhabitants of this place arrived, mainly by ship, within the past 150 years. Within a generation, they had stripped themselves of their languages and roots, and became Homo americanus. Zeldin won, but Giuliani got to raise his profile in the press. Their signs were everywhere on the island. Giuliani, Zeldin. Zeldin, Giuliani. They love America. Did we love our predecessor countries as much? Was there once a contest featuring an ancient Zeldin proclaiming his love for Minsk, or a Giuliani kissing the blessed vineyards of Tuscany?

The land my parents live on was part of a land grant to British settlers made out by the local Indian nation in the 1660s, the same one that celebrates the Green Corn Festival every July. They are still here. For the ensuring three centuries, it remained mostly undeveloped farmland and forest. The postwar boom brought city dwellers east. The land was carved up into small estates of an acre or two. Each homestead has a manicured lawn, carefully placed trees and shrubberies, often a swimming pool. Food is imported from local farms or from California or Mexico. To get anywhere, you need to drive there, but rising gas prices are starting to bite. It is an inherently unsustainable way of life, but it limps forward, nurtured by sprinkler systems, tended to by cheap Central American labor. Hefty trucks, driven by contractors, rule the roads. Nobody wants to accept that it is unsustainable, even if it is. They want lower gas prices and a Fudgie the Whale the cake. They want god to bless their prosecco and this great country too.

It certainly is great, but how and in what ways, that I cannot yet discern. More vast than great. That’s how it seems to me.