As a sometime fan of That 70's Show (and the ex-girlfriend of a guy who owned a copy of Up In Smoke) I knew who TV actor Tommy Chong was long before I got to the Barnes and Noble in Chelsea to hear him speak. In his recurring role of Leo on That 70's Show, he plays the aging hippie owner of a photo lab where Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson) toils. I admit I was very curious about the man who was better known for rolling trumpet-sized spliffs than for his literary prowess.
When I got there promptly at seven, the Barnes and Noble staff stood along rows of curiously repositioned CD racks, cordoning the space into a maze-like ramble leading eventually to a section of about 85 chairs. Not to go for the easy joke here, but seriously god knows what those folks were smoking to configure this firetrap. Within this makeshift sitting area, every seat was filled by folks who, at first glance, looked innocuous enough: Balding professionals and college students interspersed with New York's mainstay of the tragically hip and the just plain tragic.
At 7: 08, I watch the guest of honor make his way to the front of the room.
I have to say it, for a burn-out with nine months of jail time under his belt, Tommy Chong looked great. He had silver hair and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. He wore a t-shirt with only the word WAR visible from my perch. He began with the prerequisite joke about being more suited to hock bongs than literature which got the prerequisite laugh out of the crowd. He was totally preaching to the Chong choir–fans of his movies and television careers.
He got right in it. He took us with him to his controversial nine months in jail for selling marijuana paraphernalia. He began with the story of Vanity Fair magazine picking him up and dropping him off at the jail in a limo to get the expose. When we arrived at the part where frankly, if you had 'em you should've smoked 'em, I already saw what was coming. After all, his book was called The I Chong and I already knew about the I Ching, a famous book of spiritual guidance. And there it was (deep, deep toke, people): In the slammer, Tommy Chong found God. And this time instead of smoking it all away, he wrote it down for all of us to see and a few of us to hear.
I haven't read the book. And to be perfectly honest, the actor was so totally sincere in his address that there was a moment I swear he was going to either cry or blaze up. And although the LA Times panned it, apparently the book really spoke to Howard Stern. So, do not get me wrong– I am not making fun. At one point I even found myself believing as Tommy Chong bore witness: Turns out the I Ching uses the same binary laws of 1s and 0s as computers except, 2s and 3s and it's all the same as your numeric DNA and, wait for it…Infinity, my friends, is zero. So put that in your pipe and…sorry. I admit it. He lost me.
Still, as a writer I totally got it when he went on to say that what he really learned in prison was that there was more to life than smoking pot and comedy: There was writing and stuff too. And there is nothing at all wrong with a message like that, and isn't it nice that Tommy Chong went to prison for nine months to learn it and save you the trouble?
By guest blogger JOSELIN LINDER
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