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Cheech Is Not My Real Name
...But Don't Call Me Chong
By Cheech Marin
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 14, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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An unborn baby with a fatal heart defect . . . a skier submerged for an hour in a frozen Norwegian lake . . . a comatose brain surgery patient whom doctors have declared a "vegetable."
The long-awaited memoir from a counterculture legend. Cheech Marin came of age at an interesting time in America and became a self-made counterculture legend with his other half, Tommy Chong. This insightful memoir delves into how Cheech dodged the draft, formed one of the most successful comedy duos of all time, became the face of the recreational drug movement with the film Up in Smoke, forged a successful solo career with roles in The Lion King and, more recently, Jane the Virgin, and became the owner of the most renowned collection of Chicano art in the world. Written in Cheech's uniquely hilarious voice, this memoir will take you to new highs.
What are you?
I had never seen a sky so blue in my whole life. Of course, I had never been to Canada before, either. It was mid-September 1968, and I was hitchhiking on a country road outside of Calgary, Alberta. Way off in the distance, the Canadian Rockies rose up like the picture in my mind of what the Rocky Mountains were supposed to look like: tall, majestic, snow-capped, big-assed mountains.
And damn, the sky was blue! It went on and on without a single cloud to give contrast to "infinity and beyond."
What was I doing here?
How does a South Central Los Angeles–born, San Fernando Valley–raised Chicano end up walking down a country road like he's in a James Taylor song?
Well, why not?
After all, I had on the youth uniform of the time: blue chambray shirt, faded Levi's, cowboy boots, and a peace sign necklace. I was filled with all the contemporary counterculture ideals and slogans. I was on the leading edge of the "baby boom," the picture of American youth. I was young, dumb, and full of come. So what the hell was I doing here?
I was on the lam.
Well, sort of.
No, actually, I was on the lam; I just hadn't realized all the complications yet. I was in Canada because I had made a decision that totally changed my life. I had made it quickly but without fear. I had made it without consulting my family or friends. It was the kind of decision that I have made several times in my life. A door of opportunity opens, and you either go through it or you don't. I trusted my instincts most of the time, but that didn't mean it always worked out.
I had turned in my draft card, philosophically denying the government's authority over me and at the same time choosing to go to Canada to pursue my artistic calling as a potter. It was a philosophical twofer.
That decision placed me in the perfect Chicano existential quandary. Was I running away from something or was I running toward something? Was I an artist or was I a draft resister? Was I a Chicano or a Mexican or a Mexican-American or just an American? Or was I just hungry?
"I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. Leave me alone."
So, with fifty dollars in my pocket I rode "the Dog" (Greyhound bus) up to Calgary. As soon as I crossed the border I felt like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. There was nobody after me here. I wasn't going to be shot or imprisoned. Everybody I saw looked… happy. How weird—don't they know what's going on? That was maybe because there was nothing going on here in Canada, the "Land of the Polite." At least there was nothing going on that was politically horrendous. Maybe I was the one who was weird.
Calgary was nothing like I'd pictured it in my imagination. I thought I was going to be met by Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with a dogsled and smiling Eskimos.
But Calgary looked like Bakersfield.
It was actually a cattle and oil town, and many people wore cowboy hats. It was Northern Montana. It was the home of the Calgary Stampede, the world's biggest rodeo. The Stampede was actually happening when I arrived.
I called Jerry Kaufman (a fellow potter I'd hoped to work with) when I arrived at the bus station. He was very surprised to hear from me. As a matter of fact, he didn't even know that I was really coming. He just remembered that a mutual friend of ours had said that I might be coming… someday… maybe. Whatever. He said he'd be down in a half hour to pick me up. I really miss those innocent days when strangers would take you in and treat you like family. They didn't know any better.
Jerry picked me up, and on the way home he mentioned that since he didn't know I was coming, he and his wife and young son had planned a trip. They were leaving for Seattle in the morning for two weeks, but I was welcome to stay.
When we all got up in the morning, I met the family. They seemed like nice hippies. Not Charles Manson types or anything. Jerry showed me how to work the water pump and the intricacies of the outhouse and which way town was, and then they split.
So there I was, an inner-city Chicano from Hollywood and Vine standing in the middle of miles and miles of farmland with not a single person or building in sight.
A man out standing in his field. Cool!
I loved it. It was a brand-new start in a brand-new country. A country that wasn't at war. A country that didn't care where you came from. A country that would give an honest fella an honest break. I could be a brand-new person here judged only by the content of my character.
Before all that would happen, though, I figured I'd check out this big rodeo. So I started walking with my thumb out. After a while, a truck approached. A big trail of honest Canadian dust swirled behind it. It slowed down as it approached me and then pulled to a stop. The passenger door flew open and a cowboy that looked like Kenny Chesney's inbred third cousin smiled and shouted out "Hop in, chief!"
"Hop in, chief?" What the fuck? This cracker thinks I'm an Indian.
"Where you headed?"
"To the Stampede."
"Well this is your lucky day. That's where I'm going."
We rode along for another minute in silence and then he gave me a long appraising look and said, "You're not Indian, are you?"
"Well, then, what the hell are you?"
I studied him for a few seconds and then said, "Chicano."
He studied me for a few seconds and then said, "You speak English pretty good. What do they speak where you come from?"
"Vado-knees," he repeated. Well, welcome to Canada-o.
Up on the Rooftop
Meanwhile, twenty-two years earlier…
I, Richard Anthony Marin, was born July 13, 1946, at 1:00 p.m. in South Hoover Hospital, in South Central Los Angeles. My parents, Oscar Marin and Elsa Meza, were also born in more or less the same area and attended Jefferson High School, which was a racially mixed but predominantly African-American school that became even more so each succeeding year.
By the time I was born, the neighborhood was about 90 percent black with a sprinkling of Mexicans, a few Asians, and a couple of "What the hell are you doing here?" whites.
It wasn't a "sketchy" neighborhood; it was straight up "ghetto."
Right from the beginning I knew it was a violent place. By the time I was seven, I had seen two homicides committed right before my eyes, but I had friends and most of my family all around.
My large and tight-knit family with grandparents, uncles and aunts, fake uncles, fake aunts, and a swarm of cousins all lived in close proximity. They generally had the same racial mix in their neighborhoods except for one part of the family that moved to Pico Rivera and became Jehovah's Witnesses… guys… but whatever.
I started grammar school at Trinity Street School, just three blocks from our house. The first day of school my mother walked me hand in hand to the playground. The chain-link fence enclosed what looked like a million loud, yelling, screaming, and running kids. It looked like a vortex that would swallow me up if I came too close. I gripped my mother's hand tightly as we entered the gate. The first thing I saw as we stepped into the yard was a fight between two young girls. A black girl and a Mexican girl. The black girl had a grip on the Mexican girl's long, black hair and was swinging her around with her feet off the ground.
Worried, I looked up at my mother and said, "Don't leave me here!"
"It's all right, you'll be OK," she said. But the look in her eyes told me that she really just hoped she was telling the truth.
The whole scene changed as we entered the kindergarten area, which had its own little garden and grass for us to play on. It was like a cool oasis next to the steaming cauldron of the playground.
I was soon put at ease by Mrs. Brown, the kindergarten teacher, who had a smile and a glass of lemonade for each student. My mother gave me a kiss on the top of my head and said, "I'll see you at noon," then quietly slipped out.
Before I could panic, Mrs. Brown started introducing the children to each other. She introduced me to the cutest little Chinese girl in the world, Mary Lee, and from that moment forward I was OK.
We were shown where the crayons and paper and paint supplies were and told to try to draw pictures of each other. Mary and I quickly paired off, and I learned something that still holds true today. Most every female loves to have her picture made, whether it's painted or photographed or Instagrammed or even selfied. So the quickest way to get a girl's attention is to say, "I'd love to do your portrait." If only I were a better artist or even any artist at all. When I showed Mary my efforts, her face looked like she had just sucked on a lemon.
"That doesn't look like me."
I had to learn to deal with rejection early. It would help out later in showbiz.
I quickly settled into a routine and started making friends. My best friend would be a young boy named Jesse. We spent a lot of time at each other's houses getting into mischief. I was always a rascally, curious kid, and Jesse was my partner in crime. Jesse was, in a way, a school celebrity because his mama did Bobo Brazil's laundry.
Bobo Brazil (real name Houston Harris) was the first black World Wrestling Association heavyweight champion. He was a very large man, about six foot six inches tall and 270 pounds of solid muscle. All the kids in my school watched wrestling, and Bobo was every kid's hero.
About once or twice a month he would pull up in front of Jesse's house, in his long, white, Cadillac Eldorado convertible with zebra upholstery, right across the street from our school.
As soon as he got out of his car, the whole schoolyard would come rushing over to the fence to see him and shout out his name. They'd yell out for him to crush "Killer Kowalski" or "Dick the Bruiser" or whoever he was wrestling on Wednesday night.
I was always glued to the TV set on that night with my grandmother, who spoke no English, but you needed no particular language to enjoy wrestling. It was the only time I'd ever see my Gramma Lola so animated. She would jump up and down and scream at the screen in Spanish, "Watch out! He's behind you!" When her favorite would win she would hug me and dance around. The "spirit of wrestling" possessed her way more than anything that happened at church.
When Bobo came out of the house with his new bag full of clean laundry, he would scan the crowd and find Jesse and motion for him to come up front. Bobo would hand him a quarter through the fence. Of course, being his best friend, I got a quarter, too. It was my first brush with showbiz and I was mesmerized. Bobo Brazil was on TV, drove a big, white Cadillac, and made the kids go nuts. I was drawn like a moth to the flame.
The hook was really set when I appeared in my first Christmas musical. I was six years old. It was a presentation at night in the auditorium, and the whole class was to sing the Christmas classic "Up on the Rooftop." Everybody was fitted with a blue paper headband with a big gold star right in front. For some reason, I was singled out to play the kettledrum. Now, the kettledrum is a big-ass drum and I was a little-ass kid. Even while standing on a stool, the only thing you could see was the gold star on top of my head.
The class started to sing and I waited for my cue. I gripped my mallet tightly and tried to slow down my breathing… and then it came:
"Up on the rooftop" boom, boom, boom.
A tiny hand holding a mallet appeared out of nowhere and hit the drum with perfect timing… boom, boom, boom.
The whole audience burst out laughing. "Where did that hand come from and what's with the floating star?"
The first time I did it I didn't even hear the audience, I was so concentrated on hitting the drum. The second time the laughter was even louder and I could hear people talking and giggling. The third time the people were convulsing with laughter. The song ended and the audience erupted in applause. The whole class took a bow and then my teacher motioned for me to step out from behind the drum. As soon as the audience saw me, they started screaming and whistling and laughing and applauding.
That was it. From that moment on, I knew it was the high life for me.
I don't know why but, in those early days, it seemed that I was always being picked for special events. In 1952, there was a radio show called House Party, hosted by Art Linkletter. It was a huge show that went on to become an even bigger television show. Mr. Linkletter was a very prominent TV personality whose amiable nature made him one of America's favorites. I loved him and watched him all the time. He later had another big TV show called People Are Funny.
This radio show was broadcast live from a studio in Hollywood. In one of its regular features, Art would ask young kids all kinds of questions to try to elicit funny answers. Usually he tried to get the kids to spill the beans on family secrets, like their mother's pregnant and their dad doesn't know. That kind of stuff.
Four kids from my first-grade class were picked to be on the show, and I was one of them. On the appointed day a big, black limousine pulled up and the whole school watched as the four of us got in and waved good-bye. Inside, the limo was loaded with candy and sodas and cookies, which we all set upon devouring immediately. When we finally pulled up in front of the studio, four little sugar-filled first graders burst out of the limo like mad bumblebees. I had never been out of my neighborhood before, let alone to the middle of Hollywood. It was like being dropped into the Land of Oz. We were quickly herded into a room where a nice man with nice manners patiently explained what was going to happen on the show.
"When Mr. Linkletter asks you a question, don't be afraid, just tell him the truth and… have fun out there!"
This guy had all the makings of a future community theater director. He was talking to four first graders who had just guzzled down two cans of soda and eaten twenty pieces of candy apiece. Our attention span was set on BZZZZ… and we all had to pee. The door to our room popped open and another assistant stuck his smiling face inside and said, "OK, it's time to go."
"I have to pee."
"No time, you're on," he chirped.
He turned on his megawatt smile and led us to the stage. There were four tall director's chairs set up on the stage and then, out of nowhere, a bunch of stagehands rushed out, picked us up and set us on the chairs, and then disappeared. As a parting shot, Mr. Megawatt chirped, "Have fun with it!"
There was a large studio audience and lots of lights and then Mr. Linkletter came out… and everything was cool. He had such an ease and a charm that he could even relax squirming first graders… and we were squirming!
He got the audience laughing and then eventually us kids. When he came around to me he asked, "And what does your father do?"
"He's a policeman."
Linkletter feigned horror. "A policeman. That's a very dangerous job. And what do you want to be when you grow up?"
For my whole life I have never known why, but I said, "Policeman."
Even at that young age, I knew that the last thing I wanted to be in life was a policeman, but the lights were on and I cracked under pressure. Hey, I was six.
Then Mr. Linkletter asked, "What if you were a policeman, and a burglar came into your house at night?"
"I'd get my gun."
"Well, what if you didn't have a gun? Say you left it at work that night."
I cocked my head down and then looked up at him and sneered, "Maybe I have a knife?"
"I give up!"
Art got a big laugh from the audience and then the show was over. Mr. Linkletter said good-bye to all of us and left the stage. Four stagehands again appeared out of nowhere and lifted us out of our chairs. We all made a beeline for the bathroom. Most of us made it.
As the 1950s wore on, Los Angeles established itself as a hub for television production. All the national shows were shot either there or in New York, but local shows, especially kids' shows, were what I really loved. They talked to kids in the studio and showed cartoons, but you could write in and request to be in the audience. I did and I got on the Webster Webfoot Show, which featured a ventriloquist (Mr. Jimmy) and a talking duck (Webster). I wrote in to all the shows whether they had an audience or not. They would always send you something, a membership card or a badge or pin.
Other shows I liked were Sheriff John's Lunch Brigade, Engineer Bill (who would play "Red Light, Green Light" to get kids to drink their milk: "On the green light you go, and on the red light you stop, because no engineer would ever run a red light."), Thunder Bolt the Wonder Colt, the show about a young horse that was hit by lightning and gained superpowers. Kind of like Spider-Man with hooves, acted out by puppets.
It's hard to believe now, but in those days, television was a new thing. I remember, although vaguely, that there was a time when there was no TV… and then there was! I told this fact to my young son Joey when he was about nine years old. I went to call him out of his room for dinner and I looked around at all the electronic gadgets and computer games and remote controlled TVs, and I said, "When I was your age, we didn't have TV."
He rolled his eyes because he had heard many times the tales of my tough upbringing.
"I know, you guys were too poor."
"No, it wasn't that; it's that television wasn't invented yet."
It took him a few moments to process this information. I could hear him thinking.
"What do you mean there was no TV? How could there be no TV? That was like saying there was a time when there was no air. Just how old are you?"
Then in wonderment, he added, "What was it like the first time you saw fire?"
"Wash your hands and come to dinner… and turn off that TV."
Growing up, I had my share of those moments that leave indelible marks and stay with you your whole life.
One of those occurred for me when I was in the second grade. Our school was very near the Grand Central Market, an enormous building that sold almost everything that grew on earth. They had every vegetable, every fruit, every grain, every flower, literally anything that you could imagine.
Mrs. Harding, my teacher, announced that we would be going on a field trip to the market. We all hopped on a bus and within a few minutes we were there. We walked through the doors, and it was like stepping into the Garden of Eden. I'm surprised harp music didn't play. We all had a blast running around and seeing every exotic plant in the world.
When we got back to class, Mrs. Harding passed out the good paper and crayons and told us to draw the thing that impressed us the most. We had an assistant teacher in class that day who was, I guess, completing the requirements for her teaching certificate, and she helped pass out the supplies. I couldn't wait to get started.
The things that impressed me the most were these giant banana squashes that were a yellow-orange color and were taller than I was. I spread out my paper and got to work. I thought I was doing an amazing job illustrating these vegetables that were almost two feet over my head. I drew myself as a little stick-figure kid standing next to them with a big smile.
After about half an hour, the teachers came around to view our work. As they went around the class, I heard them making comments about each kid's work like "Oh, that's very nice" or "I like how you used all the colors." I couldn't wait for their comments about my amazing squashes.
Finally, the assistant came over to me and picked up my work. She let out a little laugh and shook her head.
"Well, you'll never be an artist."
She took my drawing with her and moved along. If I was older I would have thought of something witty to say, like, Die and rot in hell, you evil, soul-crushing bitch!
But I was only seven, and I just tried not to cry while the artist in me crawled off to shrivel up in some dark, unlit corner of my soul.
I never tried to draw again after that, but later in life I would become a world-renowned art collector. So, yeah: Die, bitch!
When I wasn't in school, life in the hood went on pretty much as usual. Every half hour or so a police car with its siren blaring would go speeding down the street and then drive away. Sirens used to freak me out and I would look for someplace to hide and cover my ears. It is no wonder that African-American men have a higher rate of early heart attack and hypertension than anybody else. The tension is constant. You don't ever really get used to it. It's not a matter of race; it's a matter of poverty. The same neighborhood today is still a very poor one and it is now 100 percent Latino and the exact same problems exist. I've been back and have seen it firsthand.
My mother countered this environment by joining the Parent-Teacher Association. She eventually became president of the Trinity Street School chapter. She was always a joiner and would become president of a few more organizations in the following years.
My father, Oscar, was a policeman. He joined the force because the Department of Water and Power, where he had been working, would not promote Mexicans past the rank of cable splicer. He took the advancement test three times and all three times was ranked number one… and still only a cable splicer. He saw the writing on the wall. It was nothing new; he had seen it all his life. He heard that the police department was hiring, and without my mother's knowledge, signed up for the job that he would hold for the next thirty years.
Since we only had the one car, a 1952 Plymouth, it was her duty to take my father to work and pick him up at the end of his shift each day. Taking him to work was always uneventful. We dropped him off and he walked into the station and that was that. Picking him up was where all the action was.
Policemen are always moved around from station to station in different parts of the city. We never knew when he was going to get off because he could get involved in some case and be hours late. So there we would be, sitting in our Plymouth waiting and waiting and waiting.
Each station had a different specialty. Georgia Street was a police station and also an emergency hospital. We watched the ambulances pull in with red lights flashing and sirens blasting, and the doors would burst open to reveal some blood-soaked person on a gurney who would be rushed inside, just like on television. One time two rival gangs arrived at the hospital and continued to duke it out in the parking lot as they carried their wounded inside.
The worst one was the Lincoln Heights Jail. We would be waiting in the parking lot and the paddy wagon would pull in right next to us. They had been out on the street picking up drunks and derelicts. One of the policemen would open the doors and out would fall some drunk who would go splat on the cement. Usually, they had pissed their pants and crapped their drawers, and the stench that wafted across the parking lot could knock a buzzard off a shit wagon.
One station I particularly remember was University Station. It was right next to the University of Southern California, hence the name. There was a bar across the street from the station called the "502 Room"—502 was police code for drunk driving. More often than not, my dad would be there before us, sitting in a car with three other policemen, each with a six-pack of beer in his lap, downing them as fast as they could. It took that much for them to come down from the pressure of the job.
Policemen have an abnormally high rate of alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, and suicide. You deal with the worst and most dangerous segment of society every day. You never know if you're going to come home at night. I knew right away that this was not the job I wanted to have, despite what I told Art Linkletter.
You know the funny thing about growing up in this kind of neighborhood is that you don't know anything else. You have nothing to compare it to. It all seems so normal. That was about to change very quickly.
In the dead of night
Bam, bam, bam!
In 1954 I was only eight years old, but I knew exactly what those sounds were. They were gunshots and they were coming from right outside my bedroom window.
Bam, bam, bam!
Three more shots and I hit the floor and crawled into the front room where my mother and father slept.
"Mommy, they're shooting out there."
"I know, mijo, stay down."
I looked around the room and couldn't find my father.
"He's out there, mijo, stay down."
I stayed down on the floor wrapped in my mother's protective arms for what seemed like forever. Finally, after a long silence, my mother went to the window and peeked through the shades. Swirling red and blue police lights flooded the room.
"What's happening?" I asked my mother, my body shivering with fright.
"There was a burglary."
A narrow, five-foot alley separated our duplex from a barbershop that had indeed been robbed.
Around 3:00 a.m., an alarm had gone off. It was faint, but loud enough to awaken my father, by now a nearly ten-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department.
He got out of bed and pulled back the window shade and saw someone in the barbershop walking around with a small flashlight. He pulled on a pair of khakis and a white T-shirt, and got his gun. He told my mother to call the police, give them the address, and tell them that her husband was LAPD and he was going out to investigate. He told her to be sure to tell them that he was the one in khakis and a white T-shirt.
He entered the alley from the street side and walked halfway down to the window that had been jimmied open. He shined his flashlight on the man inside, identified himself as a policeman, and told the man to come out with his hands up. The man complied and put his hands on the side of the shop as my dad frisked him. He found three straight razors in the coat pocket and turned him back around.
"What are you going to do with me?"
"I'm going to hold you here until the police come. They're on their way."
The man looked around nervously and heard a siren wailing just down the street. It had been raining that night, and the man had brought an umbrella that leaned against the building. The siren was now just yards away.
"I'm not going back to prison."
He made a lunge at my father's gun and knocked it out of his hands. They wrestled on the wet ground, each trying to find the loose gun. Whoever got to that gun first was going to live. Luckily, my father found it first. The burglar broke free and grabbed the umbrella and proceeded to repeatedly whack my dad over the head with it. The cops were spilling out of the patrol car, guns drawn. My mom yelled out of the window.
"My husband's a policeman! He's the one in the white T-shirt!"
My dad, on his hands and knees, found his gun with the guy still whacking him with the umbrella. He rolled over on his back and fired. Though hit in the shoulder, the burglar turned and tried to run away. The cops opened up and my dad continued to fire. At the end of the alley the man collapsed, dead.
Another day in the hood.
- On Sale
- Mar 14, 2017
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing