Having grown up in middle-class Indianapolis, I've never been disdainful of the mainstream. My roots are firmly implanted there, and I've benefited enormously from them. But I never aspired to join it. From the time I was a kid, I was always drawn to the "madmen and artists," as Allen Ginsberg called them, even though I had never heard the phrase or his name. Poetry wasn't big in my peer group.

By the time Tony the Dope Dealer cracked my reality, I'd known more than my share of madmen. I have more stories about dying young than anyone I've ever met. But artists? Can't say I'd known a single one growing up. A couple guys from my neighborhood played guitars and sang folk and rock at the Hummingbird Cafe in downtown Indy's Talbot Village. One of them plays Christian rock today, at least I'm pretty sure it's him. But that was it.

Tony was a madman. I knew that the moment I first heard his voice. And while I didn't share his dream of earning a hundred thousand dollars dealing pot, his preoccupation with it intrigued me. "Money, that's what I'm into," he told me in one of our first conversations, "money." He was also an artist, and the money, he said, was a means to an end. He would earn enough dealing to quit and then focus on his art.



For more tales of Bloomington past
  • Forty Years in Bloomington: A Memoir -- Index

  • I know that he made enough money to achieve that goal. I watched him do it. But I'm not really sure about the rest. I know he had an involuntary retirement, and a few years ago I heard he was still doing art. I'm not surprised. I saw some of his paintings in the old days. He was truly creative -- an artist as well as a madman.

    ***

    It's been too long since I saw Tony, and my visual memory is too faulty, to say for sure that he had features like Johnny Depp. He once told me, as he pointed to his face, that he had a child, or was going to have a child, with a woman who wanted to have a kid with someone who "had good lines." And I reacted "Tony" when I saw a scene in the 2001 movie Blow where drug dealer George Jung, played by Depp, struts through the Miami airport. One still photo I've found is a dead ringer for Tony in my mind's eye.

    "As I passed the oak table in the kitchen just inside the door, I noticed a stack of bills about a foot long."

    Anyway, I'm not really sure how I maintained access to Tony and his scene. I was into sharing with friends, not getting rich. And I never hung out with anyone in his social circle. I would go to his place after everyone was gone and everything was done, and I'd devour the stories he would tell. He thrived on sharing his adventures.

    Tony preached keeping a low profile as a business practice, but he was flamboyant as hell -- flashy jewelry, expensive shades, clothes and cars. When I met him he drove a Chevy truck that was big, windowless, ideal for hauling. Over the two years I got to know him, Tony's transportation choices evolved to imported and antique sports cars. The last time I saw him behind a wheel, he was cruising down Kirkwood in a red, early 60s Corvette convertible. He wasn't shy about pushing the limits. I recall a conversation he had with a guy who matter-of-factly stated that one could but wouldn't unload a marijuana shipment on Kirkwood. Tony replied, matter-of-factly, that he in fact had. I easily visualized the scene.

    Once, when I went to Tony's house in Brown County, he didn't answer when I knocked. He knew I was coming, so I walked through the open screen door and shouted his name. I heard music from the second floor and started toward the stairs, but as I passed the oak table in the kitchen just inside the door, I noticed a stack of bills about a foot long. I kept my distance but could clearly see hundreds on both ends of the stack. When I told him the money was on the table and the door was open, he said, "I know."

    ***

    The most profound thing Tony ever told me was, "Stick to marijuana, and you'll be okay. Nobody cares about pot," advice that jibed with my experience with the early 70s drug culture. Everyone I knew who had been arrested for dealing had been selling LSD. The speed freaks and junkies whose paths I had crossed were, well, just fucked up. But in 1975, five states decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot. And in 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter advocated decriminalization. He abandoned the notion as president when news broke that his chief of staff had allegedly snorted cocaine at the New York City club Studio 54.

    "From the moment they put us in the sheriff's cruiser, the case was treated like a joke or, more accurately, an annoyance."

    In 1974, two years after I met Tony, I lived with another madman who brought an undercover Bloomington police detective to his room to buy five pounds of pot, and we roommates spent the weekend in the Monroe County Jail, at the time located in the old City Building now occupied by the John Waldron Arts Center. Talk about a dungeon. It was a cage jammed with a couple dozen guys with no room to move. Our cell block faced Fourth Street, and all that could be seen of the outside was a neon sign above a restaurant called Leung Chung, if you climbed on the bars and craned your neck, which the three of us, two of whom had nothing to do with the deal, spent most of our jail time doing.

    From the moment they put us in the sheriff's cruiser, the case was treated like a joke or, more accurately, an annoyance.

    One of the deputies who transported us to jail slumped in his seat as we pulled out of our driveway and onto State Road 45, pulled his hat down and said, sarcastically, "The killer weed." We spent the entire drive from New Unionville to Fourth and Walnut talking about how absurd it was for us to be going to jail. Both sheriffs expressed open distaste for narcs and said they hated taking us to jail. They sincerely wished us luck when they dropped us off at lockup.

    The guy who got us busted had a friend who delivered pizzas to a lawyer named John G. Baker, who told us first thing on Monday morning that the prosecutor essentially sent his regards. Republican Greg Carter, Baker said, told him to tell us that anyone who would get busted by this particular cop was a "green ass," and he wasn't going to put anyone in jail for being a green ass. Baker assured us that the prosecutor understood that the police report that said our housemate had 10 pounds was a fabrication.

    The judge in our case, Douglas "Randy" Bridges, whose jurisprudence I would cover in the 1980s and '90s as a reporter at the Herald-Times, wore a handlebar mustache in 1974 and seemed bothered to be dealing with us. As he read the facts into the record, Baker interrupted multiple times to say, "Your honor, the record should reflect ..." All three of us pled guilty to misdemeanor possession of less than 30 grams, and our records were supposedly expunged. We each had one meeting with a probation officer, which lasted about 15 minutes. He made it clear he had more important matters to tend to.

    Baker's bill for his representation, for getting three guys off a five-pound pot bust, was $321, total. And when it was over, the court returned the $200 cash bond each of us had posted to get out of jail. The entire episode cost us three days in jail and $107 apiece. I understood how Tony could be so cock sure when he once told me, "If I got busted, I'd be back into dealing the day I got out."

    ***

    "The papers carried stories of trucks found abandoned on the road with bales of pot in the back and bullet holes in the side."

    If only Tony, not to mention our culture, had followed his advice and kept it mellow. A weekend in jail satisfied my curiosity about the dope dealer culture, and I only saw Tony a couple times after that. But I heard lots of stories, including tales of an appetite for freebase cocaine, a particularly potent form of the drug that is smoked.

    And while I don't know if Tony was impacted, the dealer scene eventually became violent. The papers carried stories of trucks found abandoned on the road with bales of pot in the back and bullet holes in the side. Dealers were robbed and beaten. At least one I heard of was killed.

    When my friend who originally introduced me to Tony died a few years ago, an old college friend from The Region I called with the news told me Tony had done some prison time. He was, however, still creating amazing art.

    ***

    Of all the characters I've met in 40 years in Bloomington, and I've made a career out of them, Tony the Dope Dealer is the class valedictorian. And I have to admit he was a transformative figure in my life. Throughout much of my time on Earth I really had no idea who I was and, honestly, spent a lot of time wishing I was someone else. Athletes and bad asses ruled in Indy. I played high school basketball, but I wasn't really either. In college, I was so out of my cultural element that I felt like an alien the first three years.

    But when I met Tony just before starting senior year, I found myself. His self-assurance was contagious, and through our acquaintance I became somebody instead of an awkward hanger-on. Suddenly, I was the center of a lot of people's universes. They wanted to know me, they wanted to be able to say they knew me. I was kind of a star.

    Once, for example, I walked into a friend's place on East Cottage Grove, and there sat a guy who had been a star athlete/homecoming king at Arlington High School in Indy, literally the It Boy. Arlington was an upper-class school and the second largest in the state when I attended my freshman and sophomore years, and I felt like a complete drone. This guy dated the hottest cheerleader; everybody wanted to be like him. When I walked in and sat down, my friend introduced us, and the quarterback said, "I don't know if you remember me or not, but we went to Arlington High School together." Talk about validation.

    My newfound self-assuredness, courtesy of my relationship with Tony, carried with it another perk -- girls. Counterculture Bloomington women preferred madmen and artists over athletes and bad asses. Not long after starting my senior year, I knew I was staying in Bloomington, at least for a while, thanks to Tony.

    Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.