Smoking with Strangers




Smoking with Strangers by Micah Hauser

The comic intimacy of 'High Maintenance'

May 19th, 2014 reset - +

IN HIGH MAINTENANCE, a sly, genre-busting web series created by husband-and-wife team Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the protagonist, an unnamed pot dealer known only as “The Guy,” cycles around New York City delivering his wares to the people. To call him a protagonist, though, is not really accurate — he’s more like a reference point. Each episode focuses on a particular customer, and by extension, their living space, which is where all of these deals go down. Sometimes The Guy hangs around, like when he helps two young, PETA-minded Brooklyn ladies figure out how to, uh, humanely dispose of a mouse stuck in a glue trap, or when he teaches an overworked assistant about non-pharmaceutical relaxation techniques (you’ll never guess). Other times, he’s barely there at all — surreptitiously dropping in at a Passover Seder on the Upper West Side, or playing a few minutes of X-Box before departing a depressed client’s abode. 

The show is funny, but not in the ways we’re conditioned to expect from stoner-leaning media. There are no 3-foot bongs, no cross-joints, no late-night expeditions to Shake Shack, no burnouts philosophizing about space and time, man. (Full disclosure: there is some giggling.) These are ordinary people who live ordinary lives and happen to smoke weed. Some of them should probably smoke less — the husband in the newest episode, “Rachel,” bums around all day getting high instead of working on his second book — and some use it to escape particular problems or moments of stress, but most are unremarkable, functional adults. Zero judgment is passed (on the weed smoking, anyway). It’s just part of people's lives, and the act of smoking and purchasing weed is treated no differently than getting a drink at a bar — an activity portrayed without ceremony in basically every television program in history. Welcome to the 21st century.

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Given the familiar constraints of the stoner flick, we see an ostensibly broad range of characters — young male shut-in living with his sickly mother, middle-aged female bird watcher with diet problems, struggling couple trying to make end’s meet by renting out their apartment via Airbnb — though it should be noted that High Maintenance traffics in a pretty specific social milieu. These are all upper-middle class city dwellers, that privileged ilk afforded the luxury of having drugs delivered to their doorstep by an affable, bearded cyclist with a winsome smile and an almost monk-like balding pattern, flannel shirttails fluttering gracefully aloft as he pedals through the boroughs. In one episode, a client notices The Guy is wearing a wedding ring. As it turns out, there’s no Mrs. Guy; he wears it only because he thinks it makes him look more trustworthy, which is hardly necessary, because it’s difficult to imagine a more non-threatening drug dealer. Part of what makes the show so addictive is how The Guy seems like a genuinely Good Guy — polite, mild-mannered, truly interested in his clients’ lives, always willing to smoke a bowl, trying to make some money, live right, be kind to people. 

In the "Matilda" episode, a standout in terms of structure, The Guy’s teenaged niece visits from Arizona. She’s one of those precocious children who seem like a full-fledged adult trapped inside a young person's body — easy-going, constantly rattling facts off her iPhone, observant, funny. The Guy wants to take her to see the play Matilda on Broadway, which isn’t cheap entertainment: “apparently it costs half a month’s rent to see a fucking Broadway show.” To fund the endeavor, he treats his clients to a “Sunday brunch special,” and over the next few minutes we see clips of the niece making chilaquiles with a friend (“this afternoon is brought to you by the Waldorf school”) interspersed with The Guy running around town, brokering deals, turning green into green. What novelty: a drug dealer busting his ass so that he can make enough money to treat his niece to an evening of musical theater. They hit a few speed bumps, and it’s endearing to watch The Guy try and comically fail to protect her from the vicissitudes of his line of work, and New York City more generally. When they end up at a sort of DIY, underground, Brooklynized TED Talk, hosted by some of The Guy’s clients, the scene is set for a satisfying dose of hipster mockery. “The sustainability of artistic networks solely depends on fostering a more fertile ground for future possibilities”; “If you are looking to put a life inside of you — go gluten-free, go soy-free, and that baby will be yours.” 

Then, something interesting happens. The speeches end, and as people are milling around afterward — shoes off, drinks in hand, hummus on the snack table — we see The Guy’s niece having a genuinely lovely time. She’s a kid from Arizona, wandering around a very adult cocktail party in the cultural capital of the country — talking, laughing, and feeling like a grown-up. Coolness, as it turns out, is relative. And this is another hallmark of the series — an impressive ability to poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of Brooklyn life without devolving into caricature or farce. It’s a position somewhere between irony and sincerity, and it makes for much better viewing than too heavy a helping of one or the other. When a show, or a plotline, becomes too singularly focused on ridicule, it loses its power. (Think about how Marnie’s laughable YouTube exploits transformed her from character into punch line in the most recent season of Girls.) On the other hand, it’s tough for viewers to trust a show that refuses outright to acknowledge the silliness of its characters. High Maintenance walks the tightrope, showing us that skewering and dignifying aren’t mutually exclusive. Finally, we can have our Kombucha and drink it, too.

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Given that the show has no set cast of characters (save for The Guy), we meet new people in every episode. They are revealed to us much in the way we meet people in life — fleetingly — and all we can do is try to glean whole personas from tiny details. There are no arcs followed, hopes realized, or long-term changes made. And yet, even in the absence of these fundamental building blocks of traditional storytelling, High Maintenance mesmerizes, precisely because of the way it makes strangers, and our eagerness to construct narratives for them, its focal point. 

In an essay called “Stealing Glances,” Sheila Heti asks why city dwellers are so eager to look at one another, yet so reluctant to make actual eye contact. We’re constantly studying each other — on the subway, on the sidewalk, in parks — absorbing details about affect and dress, noticing earrings and backpacks, lip gloss and cell phones, sandwiches and book covers, yet when a stranger raises her eyes to meet ours, we avert our gaze in rushed embarrassment: 

We are naturally curious about other people. From the start, as babies, we are drawn to the eyes of our parents. Imagine a cat, neurotically trying not to look directly at a passing cat. We need eye-to-eye contact. We want to see each others’ faces. It is why we take and keep photographs, watch television, hang portraits in our homes. There is something terrible about looking at each other, only to have reflected back our own (and the other person’s) thwarted, repressed desire to look. Somewhere we have failed magnificently.

We’re all bothered by this pesky itch; we all want to look but no one wants to be seen looking. High Maintenance is sweet salve for this irritation. The Guy gets to do what we all secretly dream of — slip unobtrusively into the private spaces of strangers. How easy it is to ignore the interior lives of others in a metropolis like New York City. The drug dealer is our seer, the one with the pass, privy to the dramas and, more frequently, the banalities, of our fellow strangers’ lives. This is the real power of the show. Each episode offers an intimate vantage on someone’s world, projects our fantasy of what happens when that lady with the weird hair and the sad eyes, who we’ve been staring at since she got on the train in midtown, steps off at West Fourth Street and disappears into oblivion. Maybe there’s a reason The Guy has no name — he’s a kind of avatar for our collective curiosities, a cycling Panopticon who peers into the hidden nooks and crannies of our over-stuffed apartment buildings.

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The drug deal, by nature, is a well-defined and temporally limited interaction. Exchange of pleasantries, exchange of cash for contraband, exchange of goodbyes, fin. There’s an odd intimacy to it, to hosting such a furtive economic interaction within one’s home. With the exception of ordering take-out, we almost never conduct business where we live — and the deliveryman rarely, if ever, actually comes inside. The Guy is allowed to pass over this threshold; he is invited in. The illegality of it makes for fast friendship; suddenly, you’re in cahoots with a relative stranger, in your most private space, breaking the law. And knowing that he’ll only be there for a short while frees you to say things you normally wouldn’t, to share intimate details.

In an episode called “Jonathan,” Hannibal Buress, a client of The Guy, witnesses and is traumatized by a shooting at one of his stand-up shows. It’s a surprisingly raw and disturbing storyline for a comedy series purportedly about marijuana deliveries. Days after the incident, in a haze, he calls The Guy. While playing a violent video game, Hannibal breaks down, and The Guy is the first person we see who asks him if he’s okay. “No,” Buress says. “Do you want me to leave?" asks the Guy. “No.” The scene cuts after this, but it’s not difficult to imagine The Guy hanging around for a little while, sitting on the couch with Hannibal in silence.

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Each episode of High Maintenance is named with a proper noun — Dinah, Helen, Jamie, Jonathan, Rachel, Qasim, etc. Given the structure of the series, you might think they refer to a client visited by The Guy in each episode. In fact, rarely do these names bear anything greater than tangential relation to the main storyline, and never do they refer to the person actually buying weed. The vast majority allude to some passing, inconsequential detail. In “Stevie,” The Guy tells a five-second story about Stevie Nicks. In “Jonathan,” someone sends a text message to Jonathan Ames. In “Olivia,” two clients briefly disparage the Facebook page of someone named Olivia.

Naming each episode after an inconsequential detail reinforces the notion that there are no “inconsequential” details. High Maintenance brings the small stuff to the fore, issuing an implicit directive to pay attention to what we normally glance over. According to John Berger, this is “the point” of stories. In Bento’s Sketchbook, he speaks of a story’s outcome — its takeaway, its inheritance — as internalization by the reader of the narrative’s “particular habits of bestowing attention.” If the story resonates, we then apply those habits to our own lives. Minutiae acquire the shimmer of untold histories. 

High Maintenance lingers on the minutiae, employing an incredible economy of storytelling to convey the sense of a person in under 15 minutes (most episodes are even shorter). An exercise fanatic meticulously cleaning the outside of his refrigerator door, a woman briefly closing her eyes as a train zips by her on the subway platform, a man scribbling a note for the dry cleaner to stop using starch on his shirts. From such small details we begin to build out the web of a life. The show’s unwavering attention to these details, these little clues that are like portals, teaches us a way of looking, and looking closely. So, what’s the point? What do we stand to gain? To quote again some lines from Sheila Heti:

Take the option of making real eye contact with strangers — frank, fully conscious, unafraid, respectful, not obtrusive ... to look at someone in this way is to acknowledge and recognize how they’re like you, how they are like everyone you know and love. 

Try to notice the people and things around you. Weed is good for that. Life is still high maintenance, but it's nice to know you aren't alone.

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Micah Hauser is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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