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My San Francisco Treat

{ Archive: the following essay appeared in Java Magazine, and won First Place for Feature Writing at the Arizona Press Club in 2005 – Photos by Mr. Lee }

San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the nation’s most beautiful cities—a dream destination for many a traveler. So it was for us, the first trip in years we would take without our sons. It was October, and the weather was perfect, almost no weather at all. Our financial situation allowed us to stay at a nice four-star hotel in the Union Square area. It was what one might call a gentleman’s hotel, dark decor and wood-paneled walls. The lobby was quiet and tidy. We checked in for our two-night stay, and were handed the keys and a map to our room, which we were warned was a little tricky to find. The desk clerk directed us to the elevator that would lead to the start of our three-day holiday. When the elevator door opened I was surprised to see that, instead of the anticipated wood paneling, its interior was decidedly orange. I had to wonder whose idea the orange wallpaper and painted walls were. It certainly seemed out of place in this otherwise conservative businessperson’s hotel. Our room was in a newer wing of the hotel, which meant getting off the elevator on the third floor, three floors below the one where our room waited for us. We traversed an odd path of hallway that ascended so slightly we barely realized we were one floor higher. Faithfully following the map, we boarded a second elevator. This one was green—lime green. As the directions promised we were soon standing at the door of room 623.

We dispensed of our bags, ready to see the sights. As usual, I wanted to know where to go for the best food, but it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. Mr. Lee knew of a bar that served what he promised to be the best Bloody Mary in the world—large and so full of garnish it was like drinking a salad. He asked the doorman to hail a cab to take us to Haight-Ashbury. The doorman sent us on our way with instructions to have fun. We located the Club Deluxe on Haight Street, and Mr. Lee was right. Besides the usual celery stick there was an asparagus spear, tomato, okra, a carrot, green olives and a lemon wedge. We chewed and sucked them down and headed down our path to nowhere in particular. Following what sounded like Reggae music, we found ourselves filing into Golden Gate Park amidst people twenty years our junior, hair in dreadlocks and heavy with metal adornments. A banner displaying the Rastafarian colors of red, yellow and green, with a listing of bands announced the fact that we had wandered onto a Reggae festival.

For the next hour we observed dogs jumping for Frisbees while their people, happy and carefree, danced in long skirts and ragged clothes. It reminded me of my hippier days. But, I was getting hungry. I remembered that we had passed a Caribbean restaurant on the way to the park and convinced Mr. Lee that it should be our next destination. Walking toward the exit I noticed I was alone. When I stopped to look behind me, I found Mr. Lee engaged in conversation with a woman holding a big basket of goodies. She was wearing a faded dress and her hair was a matted nest of gnarls. White as a ghost and bug-eyed, she swayed to the music while Mr. Lee looked in his wallet. He walked toward me unwrapping what appeared to be a quarter-pound brownie. Weren’t we on our way to eat dinner? Why was he buying dessert? He took a big bite for himself and tore off a messy piece for me. He knows I don’t love sweets but pushed it toward me whispering that it was a marijuana brownie.


It had been at least twenty-five years since I was in the vicinity of a marijuana brownie, a brownie that would have been lovingly prepared under the supervision of a close friend or me—we didn’t even know where this brownie had been. I watched Mr. Lee gobble down another piece before delivering a blob into my reluctant hand.

He practically insisted, “Oh come on, it probably won’t do anything anyway.”

I had to protest. It was really gooey—and no napkin!

The strong taste of marijuana brought me back to brownie days gone by. The weedy pot that we used produced a buzz only under the most scientific conditions, which included having an empty stomach, eating an entire pan of the goodies and smoking at least as much as we ate. Even then, the night would be spent quizzing one another; “Do you feel anything?”

“I can’t tell. What about you?”

“Maybe, a little.”

“Me too—I guess.”

If we did get a buzz, it was probably due to sugar and sheer will.

Cha, Cha, Cha, the Caribbean restaurant, was a busy place. By the time the server took our order I had already forgotten the brownie incident and we were talking about what we would do after dinner. I don’t remember what I ordered, or if I liked it. What I do remember is getting to the end of the meal and feeling oddly strange. I needed to get out of that restaurant—and now. I’d become hyper aware of my bodily functions. I could actually feel my heart pumping blood, my lungs exchanging air and my brain misfiring. We practically ran down Haight Street, going fast in the opposite direction of literally everyone else. Knotty dreads, tattoos, and pierced parts rushed past as we looked at each other in despair. I don’t remember any dialogue those few blocks, but we were desperate to hail a cab. We slid into the back seat. One of us muttered the name of our hotel, but we were otherwise silent. I recall that it was imperative the driver not hear a solitary word out of us. We communicated telepathically with occasional eye gestures.

Mr. Lee was looking rather pale and sort of bug-eyed as he mouthed the words, “I’m starting to feel weird.”

I nodded, took a deep breath and rolled my own bug-eyes, “Really weird.”

It occurred to me that we were beginning to resemble that brownie vendor in the park. Hardly more than an hour had passed since we ate the dreaded treat and I was hoping it wouldn’t get any more intense. As we rounded corner after San Francisco corner we repeated these sentiments a dozen times before accepting the fact that we did get a buzz. I guess we paid the cab driver because he stopped in front of our hotel, and we tumbled out. The doorman recognized us from two hours earlier when he hailed our cab and welcomed us back.

“How was Haight-Ashbury?” he asked, smiling appropriately.

Sure he knew what we had done I didn’t dare look him in the eye, but Mr. Lee managed to answer an unconvincing “Fine,” before heading straight for the elevator. I was breathing heavily as we hurried through the lobby of the fine gentleman’s hotel. I couldn’t wait to get to our room where we could properly assess the situation. I pushed the button to call the elevator to our service and waited anxiously for it to descend. The numbers above the doors announced its progress: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1- 1/2, 1 -1/4. I couldn’t imagine what was taking so long and, for a minute, considered using the stairs. Just then, the doors opened and we were literally blinded by the intensely glowing fluorescent orange interior that spilled out onto the wood floor of the hotel lobby. I looked around to see if anyone else saw it and quickly ducked inside. Mirrors I hadn’t noticed before doubled its intensity. We were fortunate to be alone in the elevator as we examined our features in the mirror. It would have been okay to engage in hysterical laughter now, but we weren’t laughing. I believed everything would be better once we got to the safety of our little room on the sixth floor. The problem, of course, was that we couldn’t find it. What was charming when we checked in turned into a nightmare as we traversed hall after hall looking for the secret passage to our wing. The only thing that would have been more absurd was if we had checked into a house of mirrors. By the time we found the green elevator, its psychedelic chartreuse walls and carpet were blinking.

Some thirty minutes after entering the hotel we fumbled with the key and were finally granted passage to our room. Behind closed door we talked about our predicament. It had been just over two hours since we ingested the brownies, and it was getting stranger by the minute. I notified Mr. Lee that I was in serious danger of exploding. We lay on the bed next to each other while I quizzed him on the details of the transaction. What if it was something much stronger than marijuana? Like poison! What if we both expired in this hotel room—our children would never know what had happened. It made perfect sense, at that moment, to prepare a note detailing our demise. I fumbled around for paper and a pencil until Mr. Lee asked what I was doing—I couldn’t remember. It didn’t occur to me at the time that these were unnatural thoughts. Instead of trying to save our lives, I was content to leave our babies a note explaining how we had died on the first night of our holiday in San Francisco. What about an antidote? Perhaps there was still time for us to get to the Emergency Room.

Lying there on the bed, it felt like I lost control of my bowels—a nice touch. I hurried to the bathroom. My fears were unfounded, but it was then and there, on the pot, that my life flashed before my eyes. More precisely, my life only just started to flash before my eyes when, less than halfway through my relatively short life, I was interrupted by the sound of Mr. Lee talking to someone on the telephone, about me. I strained to listen and just barely heard him saying, in the most dignified tone he’s ever used, “I’m calling from room 623. Yes, my wife is having an overdose.” He continued, “Well, actually, so am I.” I tried to pry myself from my seat but couldn’t quite. Then whoever he had on the line must have asked what kind of overdose because the next thing I heard him say was “pot brownies.”

“Who are you talking to?” I yelled.

Mr. Lee was telling our secret to a woman at the front desk. In her effort to avoid bad publicity for the hotel—a double drug overdose—she wanted to call an ambulance. I think he was seriously considering it, while I pulled myself together enough to tell him to hang up. He didn’t. Then I heard him say that he’d like to speak with the house doctor. While we waited for the house doctor to return the call, Mr. Lee brought me up to speed. We would take the doctor’s advice whatever it was, he explained. If that meant taking an ambulance to the Emergency Room, so be it. All I could imagine was each of us strapped to our own gurney or, worse yet, both of us strapped onto a double wide. Still Mr. Lee was beginning to make sense. In hindsight, I should have remembered that he’d eaten three-fourths of the brownie.

The call from the house doctor came quickly. Mr. Lee and the doctor had a matter-of-fact conversation regarding our symptoms. An overdose involving pot brownies didn’t elicit much sympathy. Fortunately it was determined that we would not make a scene by being wheeled through the lobby of the gentleman’s hotel while an ambulance parked outside with flashing lights and siren blaring. Instead a cab would wait discreetly across the street to escort us to the Emergency Room. I didn’t want to go and protested. The feeling of impending death had suddenly passed. Still Mr. Lee was determined to follow the plan set forth by the hotel doctor. The phone rang. Mr. Lee answered it and said we’d be right down. I told him we didn’t have to do it. He ordered me to put on my coat. I prepared to turn myself in to the authorities, which in this case were a desk clerk and a cab driver. We collected our things and started what would become a most bizarre San Francisco trip.

The elevator door opened to, not one or two, but several hotel employees disbursed throughout the lobby. I am certain now that every available employee, fortunate enough to be on duty that day, was eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of the couple from room 623 having the pot brownie overdose. Mr. Lee was a few paces ahead and, to my utter surprise, he walked past all of the smiling staff. I called out to him. He picked up speed as he approached the door. He was going to bolt. The desk clerk, and then the doorman called out to him. Mr. Lee broke out, and I rushed to catch up with him. I heard someone say something about the cab, but I threw open the door and chased him up the street. When I asked him what happened, he said he changed his mind.

I followed Mr. Lee as he turned one corner after the next. It was no easy task keeping up because he was walking double speed. I assumed he knew where he was going and that he wanted to get some distance between us and the hotel before he would let me in on his plan. Finally out of earshot of the fancy hotel he confided that he wanted us to take ourselves to the Emergency Room—even though I reminded him that we had no idea where it was. I looked around to get my bearings and was startled to see that, after walking precisely four blocks, we were standing right in front of our own hotel. Mr. Lee grabbed my arm, and we ran. I could just feel the doormen pointing and laughing at us as we made our narrow escape. Realizing that following Mr. Lee and his series of left turns put us in this predicament, I decided to take over and that we would avoid left turns completely. Somehow we made our way to Union Square where we were about to revel in our success when it dawned on me that we were supposed to be going to the Emergency Room. Zombie-like we shuffled past the normal pedestrians strolling the square. After less than half a short block we were exhausted and had to rest. It was beginning to get dark and the city lights were loud and confusing. We reasoned that a break would be beneficial and found a nice little patch of grass by a fountain in the middle of the square. We sat expressionless staring into space for a long while before I noticed that we were in the company of a few anxious-looking vagrants—apparently in their spot. Poor Mr. Lee was slumped over, evidently sleeping.  When I nudged him he turned in my direction and worked up a little smile before delivering bright yellow puke in the grass right next to me and my purse. It was a colorful reminder of where we supposed to be going—the Emergency Room.

This may have been a completely different trip if we had been somewhere in Humboldt County where this marijuana was grown, surrounded by trees instead of in this metropolis of lights and traffic signals, where life or death decisions had to be made every few seconds. There we stood on the corner of Post and Powell unable to make a single one. We waited through three traffic lights before having the confidence to cross the street. When we finally did Mr. Lee, who was evidently now under my care, entered the cross walk ahead of me. Just as I was about to step off the curb, a red hand started blinking and I knew it meant I should stop. So I did. Mr. Lee was more than half way through the cross walk when he noticed that I didn’t make it. He was torn between going on without me and turning back. I think we knew that if we were separated at that point we might never find each other. I motioned him to go on, even though a sudden panic came over me. A few horns from waiting motorists incited Mr. Lee to move through the cross walk. We looked at each other with the vast street separating us and waved a teary good-bye. We had made no provisions for this. I knew I had to work up the courage to cross the street by myself and hoped that Mr. Lee would be there when I got to the other side.

Once reunited, it was clear we needed a ride to the Emergency Room. Walking was entirely too unpredictable. We watched cabs zoom past but couldn’t quite catch one’s attention. We learned that hailing a cab by simply peering into the driver’s eyes wasn’t working. I looked around for another pedestrian to ask for assistance. Since I was unable to put a string of words together to formulate a question we were unsuccessful. Then I caught a glimpse of two men in jumpsuits carrying blinking lights while a police officer directed traffic around them. I put Mr. Lee in a sit-stay while I went for help. He should have tried to stop me but instead had these words of advice, “Don’t tell him what we did.” My approach was emotionless as I rehearsed in my head what I would say, then forget what it was. The baffled police officer watched me walk right into the street where he was directing traffic. Apparently I asked him the wrong question. Police officers don’t hail cabs. “Lady,” he said, “just stand by the street and put your hand out.” I thanked him and returned with the news. We did exactly as instructed and soon had a ride. We slithered into the back seat. The driver waited until Mr. Lee, in the same matter-of-fact manner you’d order a ride to Fisherman’s Wharf, said, “The Emergency Room, please.” The puzzled driver looked at us, probably to assess our condition and had one question, “Which one?”

We looked at one another like it might be a trick question. I took a guess. “The closest one?”

The driver said that would be the County Hospital. Suddenly Mr. Lee came to life, and I could see his sluggish wheels beginning to turn. We were staying in a four star hotel and had excellent insurance. Did we really need to go to the County Hospital? “No,” he said, “take us to the best one.”

The driver, I’m sure caught off guard by this unusual request, had to decide which Emergency Room was the best one in town—they aren’t rated in Frommer’s or even Lonely Planet. I felt a certain sense of relief as we sped off. We were finally in good hands. But that was about the time when I began to seriously doubt we needed urgent care. It had been a couple of hours since we lay dying in our hotel bed. I’d completely forgotten now—what was our emergency? The driver pulled up as close as he could, pointed to the double doors displaying the words we’d been looking for all night, and wished us good luck.

We shuffled up to the doors and stood on the pad that opens them automatically, looking at the clinical fluorescence of the huge space before us and then at each other’s pasty faces bathed in its strange green light. The reality of spending the next eight hours of our vacation under observation didn’t appeal to either of us. Besides a bigger emergency had developed—we had the munchies.

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