Crank has been known by many names. Crank, I suppose, is what it comes down to. Cranks your motor. Revs it up to 10,000 rpm, knocks a piston through the block, blows your head gasket, then your brains leak out. You can crank that engine til your face turns blue and that engine will never fire again. Dead as a doorknob.
Methamphetamine was the beginning of this story. Hitler’s big brain scientists cooked it up. It was given to pilots and the troops to keep them alert and focused. It quickly found its way into the field issue packs of the American military. Although my brother-in-law tells me that when he worked in supply in Da Nang it was not in the service packs of those soldiers because he methodically took it out of every pack. I suppose he was doing it for their own good so they would not turn into crankers.
What we call crank now is a totally different thing. Sometimes it is made with a mishmash of chemicals — sometimes they cheat and just use a concentrated powder form of ephedrine. Ephedrine came from ephedra. It was a plant the Indians made a tea of. A mild stimulant. When Brigham Young brought the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley he found coffee to be in short supply so the Mormons started drinking Indian tea. It’s a spindly desert plant with no leaves that grows in the early spring. It looks like knotted bamboo growing in a tiny bush. When the Mormons started drinking it the travelers who came through the valley on the way to the golden hills of California took to calling it Brigham tea or Mormon tea. If you look in your herbal dictionary you will see these names listed.
Soon the scientists had extracted the active ingredient and made a synthetic form of ephedrine no longer dependent on finding a scarce desert plant with a short growing period. It was merchandised in cold medicines because it dried the sinuses as well as provided a feeling of renewed energy.
Lately the crankers have taken to buying up all the Sudafed in Walgreen’s and cooking it up again into a more concentrated form that can be shot up, snorted or smoked like crack.
Ephedrine, however, is mostly a motor stimulant. Methedrine is something else entirely. Meth is a brain stimulant. Therein lies the great dividing line. Eventually both stimulants consume you from the inside out until you collapse into yourself and become half of your original self. If even that.
But the pathway is slightly different.
I should add that before meth hit the scene there was dexedrine — called “dexies,” I believe, by the cool hipsters and jazz men of the late forties/early fifties. Dexies worked as an antidote to the land of nod (heroin for those who don’t know). You could shoot a nice balloon of Mexican yellow then slam-dunk a handful of dexies so you could find your way to the stage and play a riff or two of god’s own music.
Those were the days. The days of Lenny Bruce, Bill Evans, the great Art Pepper, Coltrane, Miles Davis. The cool fifties, not the fifties they remember in country music. No, not at all. The real fifties. Black and white. The Man with the Golden Arm. Lenny Bruce and his old lady — I forgot her name, Honey? Yeah, Honey that was it — walking around North Beach, his eyes so dark and full of sharp pain that he tortured his thoughts into barbs to sting the rich. Mike’s Pool Hall where Big Daddy Nord wore a white apron and held court. The room full of smoke and jazz men black and white hipsters, the pool tables always backed up with quarters. 8-balls slamming into a pocket, good beer, strong coffee, huge beef sandwiches on real San Francisco sour dough bread baked every day up Grant Street in small shops by Italian men and women who never quite got over to America without dragging old Italy with them. To our delight.
I got in on the tail end of all that. When I arrived in San Francisco it was still possible to see Lenny Bruce in Vesuvio’s, still possible to attend all-night parties (a gentle word for what actually happened) with Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Phillip Whalen, Bob Kaufman and a whole stage full of unknown, hopeful poets like myself. It was the death of the beats, and the hippy thing had not yet come into to being. I always heard stories about if I had only been here five years ago. I never got to see the Anxious Asp. But I knew the Cafe Trieste, the Enigma and of course Vesuvio’s, which is still there.
About the time I first came to the Beach a new drug was coming up. Liquid methamphetamine. I had taken my share of bennies and dexies and smoked pot everyday (which was required otherwise you would be a narc). None of it was my bag. But I tried to be hip. I had a copy of Howl, later discarded for Aleister Crowley. I wore tights or a pair of skin tight 501s with a button fly so you could cram your butt into them one button at a time. I wore huge sweatshirts and Jesus sandals hand-made in a sandal shop on Grant by a huge man with a big bushy beard. He actually worked in Venice Beach at one time, I think, or at least there was a man just like him, huge and bushy bearded, who used to make sandals on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Am I wrong? Or does anyone remember?
In a pot dazed confusion one day I met a cool black jazz guy named Zack. We went up to his room in the Swiss American, which I think was the name of the hotel that was above Carol Doda’s blinking tits. His room was at the front, over the sign, so blinking tits constantly reflected on the walls all night. He used only candles — no electric light. Incense was burning patchouli in my brain, everlasting patchouli.
He took out an ampoule and broke the top off the neck. Then he poured it into a syringe and shot us both up. A great power rushed through me and when it hit my heart I thought it would burst into flame, but instead it slammed shut and stopped up and I waited to die, my mouth wide open like a fish hoping for air until suddenly it kicked in again and rapidly caught up to speed. My mind opened wide like my heart and a new vision came to me. I was stronger than god. I was more alive than alive. I had the will, the mind and the extraordinary vision of the gods. I could see through walls. I could do anything I dreamed of doing. I could speak to the dead. I could save the living…
Or so I thought. I never smoked pot again. I drifted in a methedrine haze for years. My poetry went away. The gods went away. Even liquid meth went away. It was replaced by crystal meth, which they said was what was left over after you made liquid meth, but crystal meth was a grinding scene, trapped in rooms with cranked up maniacs, hoping to live another day. Dry streets, sad broken lives.
This is all that it came to.
But I did survive because one day I decided king heroin could put an end to this endless sleepless bright crackling glass methedrine world. So I put sweet morphia into my arm and escaped into a dream which quickly became a nightmare that few of you would ever be able to understand.
I ended up in Synanon as most people know and so here I am today. A survivor — so to speak.
Crank is a wintertime drug. Anderson Valley. California, is a place of gawd-awful winters. Just as here, in Salt Lake where I recently moved. In both towns you see the crankers grinding about their daily missions of no consequence. Pathetic rat-like creatures spinning endlessly in a cage of their own creation.
I used to laugh out loud when I drove by Navarro — the “deep end” of Anderson Valley — and saw the arc lights of a speed freak welder as he dismantled cars and remantled cars endlessly to no end. Every project abandoned mid-way to start another that seems more urgent at the moment. The lights that were rigged over a great hole in Navarro so crankers could dig for old bottles because those old bottles (from the logging days) were worth millions on the Antique Road Show.
Or so they imagined.
It was the Navarro cranksters’ version of the old gold rush. Shreds of glass held to the light. Empty marvels of endless crank. After all, it is a motor activator. It is a working drug. It was designed to increase worker productivity. Catch-22. Only for so long. Then it devolves into endless searching and abandoning and searching and eating your own tail.
What does all this tell you?
Those who are caught in the thrall of crank will crank until they finally rev it up a notch too hard. Some will die. Others will be survivors like me. We all know each other. I can look at any stranger and tell you if they have been down that road before. I know because they have big holes in their brains, a certain worn look to them. A history in their eyes.
I, of course, don’t imagine myself to look that way, but maybe I do to them, because I always see a little glimmer of pleasure and recognition in their eyes when we meet. Like we are kindred spirits, survivors of our own generation’s holocaust.
This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser (www.theava.com) in 2002. Ms. Hepting, a full-blooded Assiniboine Indian, has since moved back to her home in Moab and retired