The swarm ascending the subway steps at 86th Street and Central Park West that lavender twilight in August 1969 was smacked with the sweet smell of marijuana. One by one they silently seized an opportunity to suck it in, as if the collapse of their nostrils, slight pucker of their lips and soft flutter of their eyelids didn't breach a secreted state of mind in each dawdler waiting for the traffic light to change; then change again.
I'd never smoked pot, but that didn't deter me from voluntarily filling my lungs with the ostensible illegality of it all.
"Prudence, Missy," Frank Sullivan cautioned from barely behind me. I glanced around to greet my longtime widowed neighbor before continuing the short block south to the 19th century whitestone where he wilted in the basement grotto with garden, while I blossomed in a bay-windowed floor-through above him.
"Are hippies flooding the park tonight?"
"Suspect so," he grumbled.
If you stretched Yosemite Sam to roughly 6 feet 3, trimmed his thickset, tangerine mustache back to lip width, removed the bent brim hat hiding a bramble of matching hair, conceded the racoonish eyes, and exchanged the cartoon cavalry blues for a brindle brown suit that looked like it once was a cannon wad, you'd find the spitting image of Frank, sans Sam's feistiness.
"Seems to get stronger the closer we get to home."
"Um," said Frank. His wise eyes began scanning high-rise windows for clues.
Other sidewalkers searched the same.
"You don't suppose it's linked to Leon, do you?"
Leon occupied a large flat at the far back on the second floor of our building; a wastrel in wrinkled duds with a smokescreen smile plastered to a chipmunkish face, colored by a constant 5 o'clock shadow. His crushed velvet hair and sleepy, spoon-sized eyes attracted bevies of girls practicing free love for lots of pot.
I liked Leon, from afar. We often exchanged chance encounter chitchat as rats trapped on stalled subway trains, or Sunday stoop sitters, or shoppers hovering over salami selections at Zabar's. I learned he'd been an ambition-deficient child prodigy, expelled from numerous prep schools before finally graduating, only to become an NYU delinquent, paying exam takers with weed to earn him his degree. He'd been fired from every job his parents procured for him, due to shiftlessness. His final fiasco occurred as an adjuster for his uncle's insurance agency. Rather than investigate, Leon rubber-stamped each claim as meritable by issuing an instant check.
Since then, his parents paid him a princely sum to maintain complacence, and steer clear of their Westport, Conn., home, except for holidays.
Scurrying ahead to the lobby landing, I forced open the beveled glass door, freeing a misty stream of cannabis clouds floating above a shallow sea of warm water. Once upstairs I found the illicit source of both seeping from under Leon's door. I pounded, somewhat frantic.
Leon answered, oblivious.
"Leon. You're alive."
"I am!" he preened, fully clothed, with numerous rope-a-soaps swinging from his belt. "I'm taking a bath."
"No, Leon, you aren't," I assured, steering him to the bathroom to shut off the water overflowing his tub.
"I'm not?" he puzzled. We pivoted toward the kitchen where smoke oozed from the oven.
"Good lord, Leon, whatever you're baking is burning."
"A loaf!" he proclaimed. "It boosts potency."
I pulled the cord to set the overhead fan in motion before opening the oven door. Inside sat a cookie sheet covered with smoldering residue. "How big was it?"
"Ten pounds," I repeated, matter-of-factly. "Reduced to soot."
"Soot?" he grinned, twinkle-eyed. "Fa-a-a-r out!"
By then Frank had arrived with mop and bucket and began cleaning up.
"Ain't the first time he's made this mess when stoned, Missy."
Leon chortled, then asked, "You on for Woodstock tomorrow? Jefferson Air's there, man. I got tickets." He plopped down to study debris adrift in the water. "Somewhere."
"Don't go, Missy," warned Frank.
"Come on-n-n-n," beamed Leon. "I'm driving."
"Count me out," I decided. "Maybe next time."
The cultural climate of the country seemed to shift swiftly after that one-shot weekend. Not just on the streets of large cities, but in small towns, and rural areas. People appeared braver, bolder, less bereft.
Leon went to Woodstock, but never returned, even though his rent continued to be paid long after I moved away, a year later. I looked for him in familiar places, to no avail.
"Who knows?" Frank called out as I descended the subway steps en route to elsewhere forevermore. "Maybe he's in the joint."
Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist living in Florida. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.