Three women, white-haired and clad in billowing tie-dye dresses, enter the building in a flutter of patchouli-scented cloth and plop down $15 each for admission. Behind them, a wispy-bearded teen approaches the doorman.
"Can kids come in?" he asks, completely unabashed. There is a nod. Until entering the festival, I cannot possibly grasp the implication of this exchange -- that "kids" means not only the small girl clinging to her father's hip, but also hundreds of 13-year-old potheads.
In the Hemp Bazaar, the first room on the ground floor, people stroll among a dozen or so hempcentric tables and booths. Hemp purses, twine, hacky sacks, hanging chairs, hammocks, belts, backpacks, water-bottle bags, and clothing are offered by Xochi Hemp and other such companies. In one corner, free 10-minute massages are doled out to kids too young to know the meaning of tension. The Libertarian Party of California passes out pamphlets on sensible drug policies and jury duty. At the Cannabis Action Network table, a heavily tattooed, long-haired beauty wearing a garland of phony marijuana leaves stands over a sign reading "Marijuana users tend to be more open to experience, more esthetically oriented, and more interested in creativity or spontaneity than non-marijuana smokers." The feeling in the room is jubilant, but relaxed, assisted, in part, by a thick cloud of sweet-smelling smoke issuing from folks trying out their new multicolored bongs and hand-carved pipes.
"Please don't take my picture," begs a chubby, greasy-haired girl as her lips curl over her braces in a pout. "My mother would just kill me." Her friends seated on the floor nearby peer at me with bleary eyes. "Hey, how ya doin'?" asks a pale, skinny-necked kid from under an ill-fitting baseball cap. He doesn't wait for an answer. A distant, quiet smile spreads across his face as he focuses his eyes on a spot on the floor two feet away. For nearly five minutes, nothing -- not even a crazy man draped in wooden bongs doing a clattering jig close by -- distracts him from the fascination of the tile floor.
"You know, they're just experimenting," says a clean-cut-looking gent with a cell phone. He tries on a Headcase hat with the ever-popular 420 logo (urban myth has it that 420 was a police code used to denote illegal marijuana use and/or juvenile disturbances, depending on who you ask; it is also the name of the label founded by Oakland-based punk-funk, stoner band Puzzlefish; and the time at which today's festivities began). "I think weed is the first step most teens take at self-delineation. It's one of the first choices we make completely independent of our parents. You remember that feeling, don't you?" The man smiles and takes the hand of his willowy lady friend and picks his way through the entrance hall, which is clogged with giggling skaters, ravers, and Deadheads.
Upstairs, the main dance hall is cool and dark, aside from the foggy light seeping in through the Maritime's windows. Hundreds of kids sit or lie on the floor in small groups surrounded by bottles of water and munchies purchased downstairs at the Hemp Seed Cafe -- hemp seed chili, hemp seed pizza, hemp seed cookies, etc., all prepared with loving care by chef Evan Rotman. Because the bands are between sets, the more energetic in the crowd make their way past a large table manned by the beefy Long Beach punks from Skunk Records (the punk-funk-surfabilly label founded by Sublime) and slip down into the basement.
In one pitch-black room sprinkled with thousands of tiny, spinning lights, the Gathering has planned a rave. The kids sit, waiting in the dark as the sound system is set up.
"It's still daylight out," says a young woman as she studies a fluorescent flier under black light. "I usually don't drop in daylight." She shrugs, passing me the flier -- which announces the arrival of galactic culture on Earth -- and cruises out into the labyrinth of halls that make up the lower levels of the Maritime. At one end, warm, herbal smells waft out from the spacious, brightly lit, subterranean cafe. A line of hungry critters stretches down the hall, past the dimly lit circular bar where most of the older set has slumped into deep burgundy booths to sip from highball glasses. Mahogany and brass gleam from every surface. Small portholes with nautical scenes painted in them glow above the drinkers' heads.
"Hey dude, look," says a heavy-eyed man to his pal. "It's like being underwater." He chuckles and slugs his friend's shoulder.
Aboveground, three girls sprint down a hallway as if they've just been released from an eighth-grade algebra class. On their way, they bump into a gray-haired woman, who is studying photos pinned up on the Prisoners of the Drug War Wall.
"It's such a shame," she says referring to a mother of two serving 25 years. "I mean it's not like it's cocaine, you know." How true. It's unlikely that there would be a Cocaine Festival.
By Silke Tudor