Tommy Chong Goes New Age in Bryant Park


Tommy Chong believes that “the DEA are the real drug dealers,” that “we wouldn’t have the computer if it weren’t for pot,” and that “the reason we have gasoline is because Rockefeller and the boys had a lot of oil.” Since the speaker is an old hippie, you may be inclined to dismiss this as old hippie nonsense. But since the old hippie is Tommy Chong, you cut him a little more slack, because he’s a very avuncular, soothing presence, and he tells jokes.

We and a crowd of about 100 people — most middle-aged and casually dressed, a few with greying ponytails — settled in with Chong at Bryant Park’s outdoor “Reading Room” today. His interlocutor was Josh Gilbert, who directed the film A/K/A Tommy Chong, DVDs of which were being signed and sold after the talk, along with copies of Chong’s book, Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Biography.

Chong — who is tan and grizzled in a nice California way, with a warm drawl, hangdog face, and the soothing presence of a stoner Wilford Brimley — didn’t talk much about the product. He briefly got into into the hellacious legal vendetta pursued against him by U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who not only put him in jail for selling bongs over the internet in 2003, but also ran the operation that seized 10,000 copies of the a/k/a Tommy Chong video earlier this year. And he reminisced briefly about his Cheech & Chong days, saying the act was popular because “we played two characters everyone could look down on.”

But you got the impression that Chong wasn’t as interested in selling you merch as in putting you in touch with the infinite, as he maintained his nine months of incarceration had done for him.

There were some laughs. When Gilbert mentioned, in connection with Buchanan, “the Whizzinator,” a prosthetic penis that allows you to produce THC-free urine on demand, Chong said, “There’s a disclaimer on it: Not To Be Used By Women.” He said that because drug companies produce Viagra and also sponsor the TV show “To Catch a Predator,” “It’s like they make you horny, and then they put you in jail for being horny.”

Well, we didn’t say they were hysterical laughs. Chong also spoke kindly of his old friend, marijuana, which he praised as “a great equalizer. In the 60s, at Woodstock, it wasn’t the music, it wasn’t the people, it was the pot. When you pass a joint, you don’t look and see a black guy and say, ‘oh, better not pass it to him.’ No, you do it, and you do it because –” He held up an imaginary joint. “– it’s your common bond.”

But the meat of Chong’s address was devoted to his spritual journey in prison, and sharing it with others. When he first went in, Chong got a copy of the I Ching, and on his first roll drew the passage, “You are in jail for a reason.” That got his attention. He came to realize “I was in a correctional facility because I needed to correct my attitude,” and devoted his jail time to spiritual pursuits such as “watching a sunset every night for three months” and participating with the Native-American prisoners in a sweat lodge. “The only way you can stand the heat” in the lodge “is to abandon your ego,” he said. “And then I left my body, but it wasn’t me, it was my ego… the false sense of who we have to be… that’s why I was in prison, I had to learn these things.”

Where the old Tommy Chong was inclined to say things like “Dave’s not here, man,” the new one says “Darkness is just the absence of light. Think about that!” and “If we were perfect, the world would have an end; if we are too perfect, we won’t survive,” and “You have to listen to the invisible.” It was the invisible, he said, that guided him, a high-school dropout from Calgary, Alberta, to riches and fame, and he said that if we wanted to be rich and famous, “it’s very easy.” (At this point several spectators leaned forward in their seats.) “You have to want it bad enough, and you have to realize that it’s not you who’s doing it.”

Typing these things out now makes them look ridiculous, as the meticulous, important notes people sometimes take during acid trips turn out, upon comedown, to be nothing but scribbles. But hearing Tommy Chong say them as we sat under the plane trees on a lovely summer day was not a bad way to pass time. If only someone had passed some weed.