March 02, 2008

The Drug Store

By change100 © 2008

I got a space in front of a health food store on Santa Monica Boulevard. Squinting against the winter sun, I foraged for change in the tray next to the gearshift and found barely enough to cover the meter's one hour limit. Surely I'd have to re-feed it to avoid a ticket, but nine times out of ten I didn't remember to. The clinic didn't open for ten minutes anyhow. There was a chance I could end up one of the first in line and be out by the time the last minutes ticked away on the meter.

Noon in West Hollywood brought out the lunchtime crowd. Impossibly perfect looking gay men gathered in the sidewalk cafes and coffee shops. A few jogged along the Boulevard, stepping in time with the music blasting through their ear buds. I passed a bookstore, a Russian deli, and a nail salon that I recognized from once living in this neighborhood. But still I couldn't picture the building I was heading to, though it's number and street placed it on a corner I've driven past hundreds of times. It had to be next to the motel. Or maybe the drugstore. I turned up La Cienega and power-walked it's steep incline as I looked for the number on the card.

At first, I walked straight past it. The weeds in front of the tan and white building were so overgrown I just assumed it was closed. But it matched the number, so it at least warranted exploration, even though it looked like some sort of abandoned apartment house straight out of post-war Eastern Europe. I walked down a cement pathway into the shade of unkempt trees and saw a cloudy glass door that led into a deserted elevator lobby. It was open. Someone was here. The lobby walls were covered in cheap faux-oak paneling and the floors in decades-old linoleum. Next to the elevator doors hung a building directory. And there it was. Dr. Jerry Greenblatt, M.D. Fourth floor. I gingerly stepped into the sketchiest elevator in Los Angeles and prayed it wouldn't drop me to the basement.

The smell of smoke hit me as the doors opened on the fourth floor, stale and lingering in the airless hallway. A sign that read "No Smoking or Your Referral Will Be Revoked!”" hung in protest on the door to the restroom. There were no other signs of life or business as I passed by dozens of closed doors. Did anyone else work here? Toward the end of the hallway, I found the door to the doctor's office. Just a closed door, no window, nothing else to tell you that it was, indeed, a doctor's office, except for the crooked sign bearing his name. I gripped the metal knob and turned it.

Inside, fluorescent lighting filled the small waiting room. I wasn't the first here, not even the tenth. A skater kid, complete with his board covered in stickers. A dorky-looking guy in a black turtleneck and glasses. An early-thirties professional woman flipping through Vanity Fair. And about five Latino guys wearing jerseys from various Los Angeles sports franchises. At the reception desk, a young black man with a huge smile beckoned me closer.

"Is this your first time?" he asked.

"Yeah. First time here."

"Well, welcome!" he said cheerily, erasing the sketchy vibes that had haunted me since passing through the building's doors. "Just fill out these forms and the doctor will see you shortly."

Mr. Happy handed me a clipboard with at least 10 pages for me to fill out. I took a seat next to a portly Mexican in a Nomar Garciaparra jersey and went to work. Name, address, Social, height, weight, medications currently taken. Do you have any of these health problems? Family history? Hopitalizations? Date of last menstrual period? Date of last pap smear? Countries visited in the last year? On that one, I actually had to think.

How did you hear about our services? Best friend is a patient.

How often do you use cannabis? As often as I can.

How much cannabis do you use per day? Maybe a gram?

At what age did you start using cannabis? At my junior prom when my date ditched me at the after-party to hook up with a model. (OK, so I really didn't write that even though it's true)

What ailment do you treat using cannabis? (Oh... and here's a list of the ailments that are legally treatable under CA Proposition 215.)

I'd decided weeks ago that I'd go with insomnia. I was no good at faking pain, cancer was out of the question, and headaches were just too, I don't know, vague? I knew enough about insomnia after dating an insomniac for over 2 years. So, I could conceivably and intelligently discuss insomnia with a medical professional. Yup, OK, there it was. I-N-S-O-M-N-I-A. I was officially, in the eyes of the State of California, an insomniac. As I finished off the forms, I wondered what Garciaparra's aliment was. Migraines? Stomach cancer? Glaucoma? Then I saw it on his form. "Neck pain from car accident in '06." Not bad.

I pulled out a novel and read while I waited. Mr. Happy was calling people back three at a time to wait in a second ante-room for the doctor, and they seemed to re-emerge in 15-minute cycles. My thoughts briefly turned to the parking meter when I heard my name called.

I went into the back with Dorky Turtleneck and Ms. Professional. Mr. Happy gave me more forms to fill out and I noticed the smiling, jeweled Buddha graphic on his t-shirt that nearly matched the perpetual grin on his face. Another huge black dude with neat cornrows and a NY Yankees shirt explained the procedure to me, as I was the only first-timer of our threesome. The others were in for their yearly renewals. First I'd talk to Kyle in his office and get my California ID copied and pay the fee up-front. If I didn't get a recommendation, I'd get my money back at the end. Then I'd get to see the doctor.

Kyle told me a lot of what I already knew as he copied my license and handed me more forms to sign. Don't medicate in the car. Always put your medicine in the trunk if you're transporting it. You'll always need your ID and a copy of your prescription to go inside a dispensary. It will take 24 hours to validate your prescription. Unless you need something today. Do you need something today?

"Yeah... sure I need something today."

Kyle pulled out a business card. He flipped it over and wrote "1 free pre-roll" on the back.

"Just tell them I sent you. They know us here and will set you up right away."

I went back into the ante-room and had just re-assumed my seat between Dorky Turtleneck and Ms. Professional, when Mr. Happy opened the door to the waiting room and ushered in two women in business suits. Each wore a badge that said "Investigator." They went directly into the doctor's office and closed the door. Two minutes later, the doctor came flying out of his office and rushed up to Mr. Happy. The two spoke in hushed tones before adjourning to a back room loaded with medical files.

Seriously, could I really be that girl? The one who just happens to be legally getting her medical cannabis referral when the Feds decide to raid the place? Fuck. This is what I get for going to the guy who ended up outed as “L.A.’s Pot Doctor” on a CBS News report.

Cornrows must have seen the panic-stricken look on my face, because he began to reassure me.

“Don’t worry, they’ll be out of here in a few minutes. It’s all good, happens every once in a while but they can’t do nothin’.”

“Seriously, can’t they like, go fight real crime or something instead of bothering people here? It’s legal in our state!” spat Ms. Professional, barely looking up from her magazine.

The Doctor and Mr. Happy re-emerged from the file room, the Doc clutching a file folder. He sped-walk past the three of us and closed his office door. Mr. Happy went back to his perch at the front desk and turned up the radio. Some R&B station was playing “What’s Goin’ On” and Cornrows started singing along as he did a little shuffle.

The investigators were ushered out five minutes later. I never found out what they wanted, because as soon as they were out the door, the Doctor called me back to his office. The room was fairly large, and his desk was positioned at its very center. Two chairs covered in dingy mauve upholstery sat in front of it. On the back wall behind him were perhaps a half a dozen framed diplomas. I cursed myself for not wearing my glasses as I squinted to make out the name of the hospital where he completed his residency. “New York Hospital?” Was there such a thing?

The Doctor was older, maybe 60, and had a thick New York accent. His nose was round like a department store Santa Claus and his face gentle and inviting. He asked me briefly about the insomnia, how long I’d had it, and how long I’d been treating it with cannabis. I gave him some line about discovering its benefits while traveling in the Netherlands and he immediately started writing out my prescription. After a brief lecture on medicating using edibles and vaporizers instead of smoking it, I was back on my way out to Mr. Happy’s enclave, where my prescription was officially stamped, and I was sent on my way. As I walked out the door to the waiting room, Garciaparra was coming in. We gave each other “the nod.”

I immediately headed across the street to the “Zen Wellness Center” per Kyle’s recommendation. I rang a doorbell and was buzzed in to a tiny waiting room. A man sat behind a panel of one-way glass with a tiny slit at the bottom. I could see his lips move but no other part of him.

“First time here?” the lips said.

“Uh, yeah” I said, handing over my ID and prescription.

“Take a seat, it’ll be about 5 minutes. We’re busy today.”

Just then, the door to the back opened, and two fifty-something women emerged, carrying small, plain paper bags stapled closed and headed back out into the afternoon sun, nearly giggling with excitement.

“OK, you can come in now.”

It was like I stepped into an Amsterdam coffee shop. Right here, in the middle of Los Angeles. I couldn’t believe these places really existed. In the U.S. of A. Trippy posters lined the walls, and a Foreigner song played on the stereo. Christmas lights lined the ceiling. A kid in a beanie cap took a long hit off a balloon over in the vapo-lounge off to the side. A tattooed man with olive skin greeted me with a smile as wide as Mr. Happy's as I walked in. He stood in front of a glass display case containing dozens of different strains, all neatly packed into plastic medicine bottles.

"First time here? Don't be shy, welcome to Zen Wellness! What are you looking for today?"

Two minutes later, I was walking back to my car with a plain paper bag containing an eighth of Afghooey and a free joint. I could see the parking ticket flapping off my windshield from half a block away.

But this time, and only this time... I didn't care.

Change100 is a writer from Los Angeles.

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