Way back in the spring of 2012, when Mitt Romney was still stumping for his party’s nomination in the coming presidential election, a low-key documentary called California 90420 was released, with little fanfare, to scattered attention and lukewarm critical acclaim. Directed by the same Dean Shull who co-produced 2005’s Waiting…, the film loosely follows two pet projects of Bay Area cannabis activist Richard Lee: the (doomed) 2010 campaign for Proposition 19, which would have helped to legalize cannabis in California, and the establishment of Oaksterdam University, the nation’s first-ever “cannabis college.”
Even before its release, the film was plagued by misfortune. Prop 19 had long since failed, and, shortly before the movie hit theaters—not coincidentally, on April 20—both Lee’s apartment and Oaksterdam University were raided by agents of the IRS, the DEA, and the US Marshal Service. Amid fears of federal prosecution (which, somehow, never materialized), Lee passed Oaksterdam’s reins to another of California 90420’s subjects, Dale Sky Jones.
Jones is presented in the film as Lee’s girl Friday, and she represents a microcosm of Oaksterdam’s faculty: harried, passionate, spread a little too thin as both the school’s executive chancellor and a central player in the campaign for Prop 19. Representing the student body are John Hirsch, a dubstep DJ who emigrated from Illinois to “make it in music and cannabis,” and a bubbly, blazed 21-year-old named Alix, whose enthusiasm for cannabis is both boundless and eloquent. Writing for Salon at the time of the film’s release, Andrew O’Hehir describes Alix as “a stick-skinny gamine who is profane and funny and clearly intelligent and massively baked almost 24/7.” For several years, first during my childhood and then later, after college, she was also my next-door neighbor.
“Everything that you love in this world will reject you or die,” Alix tells the camera in an early scene of California 90420. “But not marijuana.” It’s a line cribbed from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, with a cannabinoid twist. In its original version, the line reads, “It’s easy to cry when you realize that everyone you love will reject you or die. On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero.” Not the most profound entry in the existential canon, but it’s apt. By the end of May, just weeks after the film’s release, Alix was dead.
I first met Alix after my family moved into the house next door to hers, when I was nine years old. We lived in a borderline-rural suburb on the northern California coast about half an hour south of San Francisco, and the first few years of our friendship were preoccupied with outdoorsy kid stuff: trees were climbed, rocks were thrown, there was a casual flirtation with the occult when Alix borrowed a book on witchcraft from the local library. Our parents, never on the best terms to begin with, fell out around the time we entered middle school, and our own friendship abruptly ceased. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was drawn back into her social orbit, when she became determined to sleep with a high school friend of mine. (Eventually, she was successful.)
By the time we became reacquainted—during my junior and her sophomore year—Alix was a punk. Her clothes were dark and torn, and her hair was either shaved completely or cropped and dyed a shocking pink or gothic black. Once, during our period of estrangement, I watched from the upstairs window of my parents’ house as a belligerent Alix was loaded, struggling, into the back of a patrol car, where she continued to rage as her parents desperately smoothed things over with the deputy sheriffs.
Even when we were on friendly terms, I was always a little intimidated by her. She was by no means a bully, but she did lack certain social graces, and had almost no patience for anyone who didn’t live up to whatever expectation she had of them. For a while she insisted I should have a nickname—“Christmas”—but after a few weeks she dropped the campaign almost as abruptly as she’d taken it up.
I never learned what happened that day with the squad car, but I did learn, later, that Alix was busy during those high school years when we weren’t speaking. In California 90420, she gives a succinct summary of what she was up to: published at thirteen; winner of a California State Poetry Award; pieces in Spin, 7×7 Magazine, and The Onion—all before she turned eighteen. I had imagined she’d slipped off the world’s radar, but apparently I was wrong. The only person she was lost to was me.
Our friendship followed this pattern for years: we were close during a year of community college, but drifted apart when I spent a semester abroad. I switched to a university in southern California and saw her only occasionally over the next two years. (She married, briefly, and a friend and I once watched, uncomfortably, while she and her husband injected themselves with heroin in their Tenderloin apartment.) We became close again almost by accident, after I graduated, when we were both, once more, living at home.
At that time I had a terrible job in San Francisco and Alix was living like a Lou Reed song—working on whatever project struck her as interesting, making frequent trips to Los Angeles, Oakland, New York. It must have been around this time she started thinking about Oaksterdam, though I can’t remember if it came up. We stayed up late, smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cheaper wine, and mornings we’d take coffee mugs down to the beach. On one of these walks we got penned in by a sudden high tide and had to scramble up thirty feet of a shale cliff face, mugs in hand. By the time we got to the top, our clothes were soaked, covered in sand and mud.
That winter, just before I moved to Chicago, Alix’s friend Christian committed suicide. When she told me about it, it was the middle of January, which in that part of the world means cooler days and nights than usual—hoodie weather—punctuated by the occasional winter storm. An old roommate of mine, Diarmaid, was in town with his girlfriend, Noa. I think it must have been the first time they met Alix. It was one of those cooler-than-usual January nights, and the four of us were on the porch of my parents’ house, probably drinking, certainly talking, certainly smoking cigarettes. I think we were listening to Leonard Cohen. Alix told us her friend Christian had hanged himself with his belt.
About a mile and a half north, just off Highway 1, there was—and still is—a modest hostel in the old Point Montara Lighthouse. Diarmaid and Noa had booked a room for the night. The four of us relocated from the porch to the lighthouse, stopping at one of the town’s two markets for beer along the way. At some point, it started to rain—not the usual light drizzle you’d normally get on a January night on the Pacific coast, but real rain, one of those occasional winter storms that downs branches, floods drainage ditches, knocks out power for a few blocks.
In Diarmaid and Noa’s room at the hostel, we waited it out. We talked—not about Christian, but about the unimportant. Music probably. Alex told stories; she was an incredible storyteller. She loved to talk, tell tall tales, and it was sometimes hard to know where the unvarnished truth ended and a damn good story began. And she certainly didn’t shy away from working blue. She’d recently had an abortion, and at one point she lifted her shirt, demanding we all admire the breasts she’d gotten out of the pregnancy. We worked our way through 40-ounce beers, smoking cigarettes out the window and ashing into the storm. The rain never let up.
Alix and I eventually figured it had gotten late enough—we were only a mile or two from home, we’d get rained on for a bit and change after. Not a big deal. We said our goodbyes and headed into the rain, but we’d only been outside a minute when we got to the tall, chain-link gate at the entrance to the parking lot. It had been locked behind us. Sheepishly, we returned to the room. Alix and I slept head-to-feet on the top bunk; Diarmaid and Noa shared the bunk below. By morning, the rain had stopped. Alix and I walked back home. I left for Chicago about a week later.
I moved back to California after a year and spent a few weeks looking for an apartment in San Francisco. I was with Alix when I got the call that I’d finally been approved for one; we celebrated with beers and Klonopin. I ended up living with Diarmaid, again, and Alix was a not infrequent visitor to our Mission District apartment. We picked up more or less where we’d all left off.
By the time I found out Alix was pregnant, I hadn’t even known she’d been seeing anyone; I balked when she told me she meant to keep it. Another period of estrangement followed, but this was the first time it had ever felt intentional. She sent me a message on Facebook saying she didn’t want that kind of negativity around her child. I honestly don’t remember if I wrote back. On some level it seemed silly, the kind of petty emotional fight that would eventually blow over. Things would cool down; everything would go back to the way it was before. And maybe that could have been the case.
The last time I heard from Alix was after her son Milo was born. We hadn’t spoken in months, and she called me from someone else’s cell phone. It was as if nothing had changed between us: her phone was dead, Milo was with his dad; come over and let’s all get drunk like we used to. It was the middle of the day; she sounded manic. I was buying groceries with a friend, and by the time I called back she wasn’t there: no one knew where she’d gone, and her phone was still dead. When my mother called me a few weeks later, it wasn’t a patrol car parked in front of the house, it was the county coroner’s van.
A dark, druggy current underpins California 90420, and not just the obvious one. Sure, everyone’s baked, but there’s something else going on, too. In one scene, surfer-turned-actor-turned-pot-shop-manager Brian Zarate speaks about his friendship with Heath Ledger on the set of the 2005 skate movie Lords of Dogtown. “Heath Ledger and I were really good friends in the movie,” Zarate says, “but off set we were even better friends.” He talks about “smoking big buddy ’til there’s no more to be smoked.” Dogtown also features comedian Mitch Hedberg, in a cameo role, as the proprietor of a skate shop. But Ledger died from a lethal combination of prescription painkillers, and Hedberg overdosed while mixing cocaine and heroin. Zarate himself died, along with his dog, in a single-car accident in Santa Monica late one night in January 2016.
Shortly before she died, Alix deactivated her Facebook account. Although her parents claimed “natural causes”—whatever those might be—the coroner eventually determined that the cause of death was “multiple drug toxicity.” The memorial service was deliberately casual, one of those loose, non-denominational gatherings you find on the California coast. Despite the informality, I didn’t hear anyone mention the word “suicide,” and I don’t know if it’s been brought up since. The death was ruled accidental.
There’s a point in California 90420 where Alix is torn up, teary-eyed over Christian, the friend who killed himself before that night at the lighthouse. On screen it’s dark, and Alix leans against a pink stucco wall, holding a cigarette and talking loudly over the passing traffic. “It made me angry. Christian did this to himself. I just kept thinking, ‘I hope it’s fucking worth it to you, to put so many people through so much pain. How could you do this to us?’”
Like Alix and me, she and Christian had drifted apart in the time before his death. Like ours, their silence was broken only once, by a brief, late-night phone call (“I was like, ‘Don’t call me, I’m sleeping, fuck off’”). In the documentary, Alix seems to mourn the loss of the friendship as much as the friend himself.
“You like to think that you could just call someone,” she says. “‘Dude, I feel really upset right now, can we hang out?’” Her eyes are bright, pupils owlishly large in the glare of Shull’s ad hoc lighting. “I always want to be the person that drops everything.” She adds a final “That’s all” before dragging on her cigarette, which looks like it’s gone out.
Watching Alix in the film, I wonder what those who knew Ledger or Hedberg or even Zarate felt after they were gone. The ability to call up someone’s likeness with the push of a button is heady, even intoxicating; at times the temptation can be hard to resist.
I was living in Richmond, Virginia, by the time I discovered California 90420 was streaming on Hulu, and I spent a number of hours in a Carytown bungalow clicking back and forth along the progress bar, watching and rewatching the scenes with Alix. For a minute or two at a time, it could almost feel like she was still here.
It’s one danger of a life after the camera—the inclination to record everything, to capture each moment on tape—or film, or a hard drive, or the cloud. It means we’re all becoming the documentarians of our own lives. And, as with any documentary, every one of our stories eventually becomes a ghost story. On a long enough timeline, that is.
In what may or may not be a nod to 1973’s American Graffiti, California 90420 ends by catching up with each of its subjects a few months down the road. Here we see Alix, pregnant, in a park, wearing sunglasses and a striped shirt, her joie de vivre almost palpable. We learn—or at any rate, we’re told—that she’s doing some sort of work for NASA. Her years of hard partying seem to be behind her.
In a montage of still images, there’s a photo that was taken on the balcony of the San Francisco apartment where I lived with Diarmaid after I came back from Chicago. In it, Alix is down on one knee, inhaling a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, giving the finger to whoever had managed to “ice” her. Juvenile as it was, the prank was a popular one that winter.
But another photo exists from that night, one that didn’t make it into the movie. It’s of me and Alix together on the same balcony; drinks and empties are all around us, and I’m wearing a pink hat—hers—with some dumb slogan stenciled on the brim. Across our knuckles we’ve written “WE LOVE OUR LIVES” in permanent ink and capital letters, with two exclamation points. I don’t think we really mean it, but it feels close enough to true for the joke to work: we’re young and overconfident, we’re more or less employed. We have friends and lovers and a place to sleep; we’ve got what feels like an eternity of experience behind us and our whole lives ahead. We’re drunk. We’re idiots. We’re alive.
Image of Andrew and Alix created by Katie Stine.