Salvos Weed, Whitewashed

Niela Orr

Not long ago, a new billboard went up on Virgil Avenue near Fountain, to stand watch over LA’s hipster preserves of Los Feliz and Silver Lake—neighborhoods to the north and east of my own, the genre-defying East Hollywood. Nine billboards of varying immensity lend an outsize commercial presence to the three-block radius here, underscoring the influence of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, the two main thoroughfares that cut through. Each ad bears its own message, designed to resonate with the audience drawn to the neighborhood’s signature businesses: community yoga studios, bike repair shops, yuppie dog food joints, and the Vista Theatre, a single-screen art deco movie house with a green neon sign that reads simply “VISTA” and burns all night long.

At first glance, the new billboard’s image is the apotheosis of all this laid-back lifestyle commerce, at least when you see it backlit against the evening sky: a white hipster Jesus in a bike helmet. On closer inspection, though, you realize you’re looking at a guileless-looking guy staring back at you with Seth Rogen’s stoner face. Yet it’s not Seth Rogen. It’s The Guy, a weed deliveryman played by Ben Sinclair, who, along with Katja Blichfeld, is the cocreator and writer of Vimeo’s cult-hit web series High Maintenance.

High Maintenance marks the beginning of a new era in mainstream American pop culture: the whitewashing of the weed dealer.

The Guy exudes the insular hipster aura of his surroundings. He looks faded and a little blurred against a white and yellow background. On the yellow side, bold text reads: “The Greatest Show Not on Television Is Back.” The tagline references Vimeo’s online-only platform and, as of this spring, is outdated—High Maintenance will be ditching its web past and heading to HBO for a six-episode run (a move announced, coyly, on April 20). But the tagline also functions in another way; it suggests some kind of surreptitious off-screen movement, a furtive cover for redrawing the public face of pot dealing in America.

It’s not hard to see why the show’s marketers have hit upon this faux-subversive formula. High Maintenance marks the beginning of a new era in mainstream American pop culture: the whitewashing of the weed dealer. Recent depictions of the white pot dealer were either too outlandish (Weeds), too goofy (We’re the Millers, Pineapple Express), or too indie and set too far in the past (The Wackness) to take seriously. But High Maintenance, which premiered in 2012 and just aired its fifth season, is very much of the hipster-capitalist moment. The show is set in New York City, where The Guy bikes around Brooklyn serving bud on the sly to his mostly white, upper-middle-class clientele.

The seeming dissonance of pot dealing plunked into the domestic rounds of privileged hipster life is what fuels most of the show’s comedy. High Maintenance chronicles The Guy’s adventures as a buzz-dispensing traveling salesman; each new episode, which lasts between five and nineteen minutes, reflects some new dimension of the weed trade. As The Guy helps his clients with some issue that needs fixing or rehashing—carting munchies from a takeout joint, or showing some middle-aged first-timer how to roll one—the show’s audience grows steadily more inured to seeing pot dealing as just another quirky stop on a tour of the casualized service economy. And indeed, the show’s studied mundanities have only become more topical with time; its run has overlapped with a real-world loosening of pot laws, with Washington and Colorado—and more recently, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C.—approving ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana.

Although High Maintenance may be a Vimeo Original, The Guy is not. The character is a direct reference to “The Guy,” slang for weed dealer (i.e., “I’m meeting my guy tonight. Can I get you anything while I’m out?”). The Guy is the pop-culture archetype of the amiable drug dealer; one of his obvious forebears is The Dude, the burned-out hippie played for knowing laughs by Jeff Bridges in the 1998 Coen brothers cult film, The Big Lebowski. But The Dude was better known as a consumer, rather than a dealer, of drugs. A more relevant predecessor is probably “my man,” as in Lou Reed’s “I’m waiting for my man.” The “pusher man,” as famously evoked by Curtis Mayfield and rendered in Blaxploitation flicks, is the opposite of The Guy: harsh, predatory, and cruel. Blichfeld and Sinclair, by gracing The Guy with this generic name, acknowledge this tradition, but have also shorn it of its implied menace, suggesting instead that their character embodies an everyman sensibility.

However, The Guy’s seeming universality masks an important tension between the kind of drug dealing that popular culture productions mine for harmless comic fodder and the kind that our carceral state takes very seriously—a tension of race. This is the factor that typically decides whose mug is on a billboard and whose is in a mug shot. Not that drug dealing is by any means a monopoly of people of color; plenty of white dealers are moving product, especially as pot nudges its way into the orbit of legitimate commerce.

But the shift symbolized by The Guy—the whitewashing of the drug game—has evoked a rough racial parity in pop-cult portrayals of drug dealing where none actually exists. High Maintenance is, as my neighborhood billboard readily reminds us, a direct response to the liberal climate that’s developed as more states and municipalities legalize recreational pot. Some critics have lauded the show as revolutionary—The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote that episodes of High Maintenance are “luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling”—a telling indicator of our collective amnesia when it comes to even quite recent entertainment patterns. You could easily write off this lapse in racial awareness to the notoriously bad memory that afflicts heavy pot users, but it’s rooted in a more serious, and more prototypically American, condition: a failure to reckon with the history of race, and how it’s played out in our drug-themed entertainments.

Postracial Pushers

Historically, white drug-dealing protagonists have been the product of social upheaval. In the 1970s, white drug-dealing characters in movies and television were either hippies, mobsters, ethnic whites, or other perceived degenerates, namely in The French Connection and Midnight Express. The Great Depression gave rise to bootlegger Moses Pray in Paper Moon (1973), and the 2008 recession created an environment in which Walter White, of Breaking Bad notoriety, could thrive.

In the cloistered world of High Maintenance, getting high is just a slightly more subversive brand of upper-middle-class cocooning.

Meanwhile, mob movies and social realist dramas have made the juxtaposition of white and black criminality an overt theme. In The Godfather, Corleone family ally Joseph Zaluchi speaks up against drug trafficking in white neighborhoods: “In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” In The Sopranos, black drug dealers are the scapegoats for a Mafia killing, mirroring the real-life conscription of blacks into service as criminal scapegoats in high-profile tabloid cases such as Susan Smith’s murder trial.

In The Wire, The Greek, an Eastern European crime lord (in one episode, he reveals he’s not even Greek, in a canny allusion to the fungibility of ethnic identity for white Americans) who controls most of the illegal trade distribution in Baltimore, evades escape behind several layers of protective measures, while the black dealers he sells heroin to are prosecuted and incarcerated. In most scenes, unsuspecting characters assume that The Greek is simply a regular at the diner where his subordinates conduct business—another visual reminder of how white people generically present as nonthreatening background characters. The Greek and Joe Zaluchi each represent the racial division of labor that has long governed the way we’ve seen drug dealing happen on TV and the big screen: keep it with the coloreds.

During the 1980s, Reagan-era culture lords became infatuated with the threatening image of the crazed black crack dealer, as mainstream white culture became more conservative and crack cocaine flooded poor black communities. The schlocky Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), in which Charles Bronson’s self-righteous vigilante sets out to avenge the death of a young white teen at the hands of a black crack dealer, served as a symbol for ’80s-era race rhetoric. Even though it boasts all the narrative sophistication of an after-school special, Death Wish 4 is indicative of the zeitgeist that spawned Colors and New Jack City, two similarly gritty drug flicks of the late ’80s and early ’90s with a similar race-consciousness. (Although Colors is mostly about gang colors, the best-known snatch of dialogue from the film—“They’re flying their colors, we’re flying ours”—is slyly emblematic of the era’s rigid, white-against-black dualism.) And that’s been the racial status quo in drug dramas for the past four decades: dealers are represented either as some menacing black face on Miami Vice, Law & Order, or CSI: NY, or as the colorful ethnic freaks of Cheech & Chong movies. Save for the occasional outliers-proving-the rule—e.g., the dealers depicted in Richard Linklater’s Tape and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, and of course The Wire and Breaking Bad—pop culture has painted drug dealers in caramel tones.

That’s all changing, however, with The Guy’s ascendance. Just as High Maintenance made Vimeo a legitimate content creator, or at least a stepping stone to HBO, it promulgates a new mainstream-friendly narrative for the pot business. The show provides a nicer, safer, easier way to address weed dealing than the material associated with the drug-distribution networks in many places where the drug is still not legal, like The Guy’s New York City. The net effect is to white out the face of the drug trade as it actually exists in locales like New York, where, according to the drug-law reform advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, black and Latino drug offenders made up 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the first eight months of mayor Bill de Blasio’s term.

On High Maintenance, law enforcement barely figures into the story at all—another dramatic reversal of the cop-and-mob shows that brought us so many prior depictions of the dealing life. The Guy is neither arrested nor hassled by police. In fact, in one episode, we see him sitting next to a transit police officer, and are encouraged to laugh along as we realize that the only unsettling thing about the encounter for The Guy is the cop’s obnoxious nail clipping. As the credits roll, The Guy jokes around with the officer, not sweating the ziplock container filled with bags of weed hidden in his backpack. In another episode, The Guy’s chief rival, a white Frenchwoman named Orly, obnoxiously yells, “Weed delivery!” as she buzzes her client’s doorbell, unconcerned with who might hear. The writers do not underscore the rarity of those experiences, nor do they dwell on the presumption of innocence attached to white drug delivery workers, as opposed to their black and Latino counterparts.

The seeming race-neutrality of High Maintenance could be mistaken for a corrective to all the crudely stereotyped depictions of black and Latino drug dealers out there—a reminder that white people traffic in illicit substances too. Yet the show’s treatment of its black characters doesn’t exactly achieve any corresponding breakthroughs for the cause of racial enlightenment. Two of the show’s nineteen episodes, “Jonathan” and “Geiger,” are centered entirely on black potheads. In the former, a stand-up comic (Hannibal Buress) copes with PTSD in the wake of a shooting that took place during one of his comedy-club gigs. Buress’s character is critical of the white women he meets on the road—but we soon discover that this discomfort doesn’t really stem from race per se; rather, it’s part of his reaction to his recent trauma, and of a piece with the more general awkwardness he feels when socializing with groupies. “Geiger” is also curiously color-blind. In it, Lucy and Andrew, a paranoid buppie couple, attempt to stock up on The Guy’s product as they lay in supplies for their “prepper” lifestyle, in anticipation of the collapse of the government or other last-days scenarios. The viewer never discovers what’s behind their anxiety. There’s a vague sense of racial distrust in Andrew’s side-eye glances at his coworkers, but without more pointed details, these merely come across as the eccentricities of a caricatured black conspiracy theorist. High Maintenance’s music supervisor may as well have scored Andrew’s scenes with the Geto Boys’ trippy “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” If Andrew is seeking to flee the relentlessly all-white world of High Maintenance, you might feel for him, but as matters stand, you don’t really know what’s behind his twitchy stare.

The group dynamics that drive the show’s action also feed into its racial politics. The tight social circle that lent a charming intimacy to the show’s initial episodes begins to feel like a cult around season three. Every scene featuring a generic group of white thirtysomethings passing joints around recalls the insularity of another weed-obsessed pop-culture touchstone: That ’70s Show. (This is especially true of its pointedly bleary camerawork.) It’s no coincidence that the show pivots on small gatherings and word-of-mouth connection building; it’s obsessed with exclusivity. Consider the show’s narrow array of B plots: it’s all riot grrrl feminist weed collectives and ASMR channels and offbeat sects and invite-only TEDx talks. In “Geiger,” a group talks shit about pseudo-serious hipster fare like Vice TV, offering in the process some unwitting commentary on the racial and economic limitations of The Guy and his world. Where Vice’s douchey gaze opens up on global niche-culture, High Maintenance is confined within a very small, increasingly stultified one. Its post-race subtext hints at the same oblique multiculturalism of Coke’s advertising schemes, resembling nothing so much as the soft-drink giant’s classic commercial featuring a psychedelic band of hippies hymning the bliss of Coke consumption as they rotate around in a world-saving circle.

In keeping with this same small-world theme, the show’s trademark vignettes have drawn much admiring attention. Former Weeds and current Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan called these tiny stories “delicious.” (You’d think she was talking about small-batch, artisanal pot brownies.) All of the dealing in these delectable vignettes takes place in private, not via hand-to-hand transactions on the street. This closely knit network of dealing expresses a not-so-subtle distaste for the grime and crime found outside, where people who don’t have the luxury of selling in homes tend to operate. The intimacy of the interactions again gives off the impression of innovative storytelling, while producing a measure of verisimilitude in depicting dealers who hew to a strict inside-only policy. But once more, there’s less here than meets the eye; in the cloistered world of High Maintenance, getting high is just a slightly more subversive brand of upper-middle-class cocooning. Here, weirdly enough, the show is echoing the ethos of the above-board weed trade: Colorado’s “Good to Know” marijuana education campaign features blissed-out, post-civic slogans such as “Public Space Is Not the Place.”

Red, White, and Blue Dream

Of course High Maintenance isn’t just creating this claustral vision of weed consumption; it’s also faithfully recording the contradictions that stem from an increasingly mainstream culture of public pot connoisseurship. In California, where medical marijuana is legal, white journalists from LA Weekly get high with their subjects. Grantland’s Molly Lambert wrote a piece about Kevin Smith’s film Tusk that opens with her purchase of the promotional marijuana strains “White Walrus” and “Mr. Tusk” and ends with a communal partaking of the herb after the film’s premiere (which occurred, coincidentally, at the Vista Theatre). In December 2013, the Denver Post hired Jake Browne, the nation’s first “pot critic.” Browne explained the gig to a New York Times reporter thusly: “I like pot, I think it’s a fun topic. Somebody has to cover it. So why can’t I be that guy?”

The marijuana cloud that engulfs Los Angeles could be the strain Blue Dream—a linguistic riff on the myth of the American Dream, itself a kind of hallucinogen.

This shifting weed market has attracted more skeptical critics, too. The writer and law professor Michelle Alexander has commented on the big-business takeover of the pot trade in Colorado and Washington. In a press call put forth by the Drug Policy Alliance, Alexander laid out the contrast starkly: “After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things.” One can easily extend this critique to the mainstream marketing stratagem fueling the appeal of High Maintenance. In this case, content providers like Vimeo are bolstering their platform by peddling this particular hip narrative and not the other sides of it, as other, more race- and class-conscious narratives have. Although phone communication is central to The Guy’s business dealings, High Maintenance is obviously not The Wire.

Two recent movies, Gimme the Loot (2012) and Newlyweeds (2013), come close to delivering the complexity and unease conspicuously missing from High Maintenance. In the former, a black teenager deals pot to a white teenager in her Upper West Side apartment. Their brief afternoon together unpacks issues of race and class in a way that’s moving and funny to watch. In the latter, a black weed addict is arrested after attempting to solicit a white weed dealer in public. Inside, he meets a black man who tries to sell him herb.

Another more nuanced rendering of the ways in which the worlds of race and drug dealing intersect comes via FX’s You’re the Worst, set in Silver Lake. Desmin Borges plays Edgar Quintero, a Mexican American man and former weed dealer to Jimmy, his best friend and roommate. Edgar is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, trying to cope with a gnawing heroin addiction. His genuine sweetness and madcap antics cut through the dense fog of hipster snark that otherwise envelops You’re the Worst and provide an affecting antidote to the stereotypes of the safe white dealer and the pathological black criminal—The Guy and the pusher man.

Meanwhile, at the periphery of the real-life Silver Lake, the High Maintenance billboard promotes the lifestyle of both The Guy’s clients and the people in my neighborhood, who are effectively indistinguishable. The only difference is that, thanks to California’s medical marijuana law, my neighbors can get a prescription written by a Green Cross doctor—a.k.a., a Guy with a medical license. And instead of buying from one Guy, they can purchase medical weed from a collective of Guys (and Gals) around the corner on Sunset Boulevard. On this street corner, each advertisement is dealing the idea of the freedom to get high, in one way or another, bundled in a comfortable cocoon of class exclusivity. The American Apparel model’s legs open out only toward you, and the warring Mandela and MLK mini-billboards, rented on the occasion of Dr. King’s holiday, speak to your liberal conscience. The atmospheric marijuana cloud that engulfs Los Angeles could be the marijuana strain Blue Dream—a linguistic riff on the myth of the American Dream, itself a kind of hallucinogen. That funky stench of “green” could also evoke, in a broader ambient sense, the time-honored canons of American greed.

After taking a photo, and letting the image sink in for a second longer, I move on, lest I be suspected of peddling something, too; in my social world, the harmless comedy of a High Maintenance vignette can segue all too readily into an episode of Cops. The intersection of Virgil and Fountain can start to feel like crosshairs if you don’t look like The Guy. This reasonable fear of being unfairly suspected of a crime, coupled with the recognition that the LA cops disproportionately subject African American and Latino people to stop-and-frisk searches, hints at an alternative tagline for High Maintenance that will never make it onto a billboard: The Greatest Show Not on Television Is Black.