“MAIL CONTAINS DRUG, YOUNG WOMEN SEIZED” reads an August 22, 1969 headline in the Milwaukee Journal. Below, in grainy black and white, floats Meridy Domnitz’s mug shot. At twenty, my mother looks more pathetic than criminal. Her frizzy hair has gone renegade from a sideways ponytail and she wears what appears to be a paisley kurta.
My mother never disguised the fact that, throughout my childhood, she made her living selling marijuana. I grew up listening to her spin vivid yarns while she rolled joints or counted cash, usually sprawled sideways on her king-sized bed. Customers would climb aboard the bed — nicknamed “the barge” — and linger for hours, enveloped in a miasma of smoke and stories.
I’ve heard my mother tell the story behind this article a hundred times, and I never tire of it. This was her first dalliance with the wrong side of the law; by the time she gave birth to me, nearly a decade later, the dealer persona was center stage.
If my mother were a comic book superhero, this would be her origin story.
In 1967, Meridy was still a good girl, an honors student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On her way to class one chilly October day, she stumbled upon a now-infamous protest against Dow Chemical and caught a faceful of tear gas. Her eyes were still burning when she flipped on the television in her dorm later that night. “There I was on the evening news,” she says, “wearing mustard yellow Bermuda shorts and these knee socks my mother had picked out. My hair was in a flip and I looked, like, totally straight. I was mortified! At the same time, it was thrilling.”
The next afternoon, she borrowed bell-bottoms and showed up to protest. Later that week, she tried marijuana for the first time.
She liked it.
Meridy had a cousin in Berkeley, California, who dealt a little pot. In 1969, he married Patty Abrams, a gorgeous Native American woman. That August, Patty brought their new baby Jacob to meet the family in Milwaukee. Meridy was spending summer break there with her folks. The women bonded over mushroom tea.
In true hippie fashion, Patty hadn’t brought enough money for her return flight. So her husband mailed a special package through the United States Postal Service: two kilos of marijuana for Patty to sell. He wrapped bricks of grass in plastic, taped and boxed them, covered the box in butcher paper and addressed it to his infant son, Jacob Abrams. “With love, Dad.”
Meridy wasn’t involved in the scheme — she smoked pot then; she didn’t sell it — but she offered Patty a ride to the post office. She and another friend waited while Patty went inside in to pick up the package.
The post office was in the basement of the Milwaukee Federal Building, an ornate Gothic structure replete with gargoyles. In the late afternoon, rooftop spires cast knife-like shadows along Wisconsin Avenue. Patty emerged, awkwardly balancing the package in one arm and the squirming baby in the other. Meridy hustled to relieve her of the box.
As Meridy stooped to reenter the car, a gun barrel tapped the back of her head.
At this point in the story, my mother’s voice always drops into a menacing, phlegmy growl. “Alright, ya’ goddamn hippie,” she rumbles. “You’re under arrest for interstate transportation of narcotics.”
Meet Patrolman Rodney Steinrod: crew cut, Banlon shirt, razor-sharp creases. In my mother’s telling, he’s a villain from a comic book: the evil super-cop.
Steinrod (whose name I’ve changed here) ushered the party into the Federal Building and down a seemingly endless corridor to a bare white room with a table. He placed the sealed package in front of Meridy, and instructed her to open it.
“It’s not addressed to me,” she said. “Isn’t it illegal to open someone else’s mail?”
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Her friend also refused. Baby Jacob, the proper addressee, slept in Patty’s arms, his little hands balled-up by his cheeks. He wouldn’t be opening boxes for a few years; at best, he could gum the corner.
“Steinrod got really frustrated,” Meridy remembers. “You could just see his face turning red and his blood pressure going up.” The patrolman finally sliced the box open himself. The dusky scent of Mexican gold bud wafted into the room.
A female officer oversaw the strip searches and found the girls’ orifices vacant of drugs. Meridy’s wicker purse, however, was far more interesting.
My mother’s purses have always been cornucopias of random crap. She probably carried coconut oil, make-up, art supplies, toothpicks, jewelry and 50,000 scraps of paper, as well as assorted pothead paraphernalia. In her words, “They found four joints, three roaches, two seeds and a partridge in a pear tree.”
In 1969, marijuana was not considered a soft drug. In the eyes of the law, it was on par with heroin. Sentences varied wildly and could be extreme; a twenty-year-old University of Virginia track star named Frank La Varre received a twenty-five-year prison sentence for possession of three pounds — less than baby Jacob’s special delivery. Even the joints in Meridy’s purse could constitute a felony. The women faced life-crushing charges.
Meridy’s father, Bill “Diamond” Domnitz, was a twinkle-eyed tough guy with a cigarette laugh. In his younger days he’d owned the Loop Super Bar, a perennially dark saloon near the central police station. He had friends on both sides of the law and friends who bridged the gap. Bill called on an old lawyer pal to represent the girls.
The lawyer argued that because the package was addressed to someone else — the baby — and because Steinrod opened the box himself, the subsequent search and seizure was illegal. On December 12, 1969, he petitioned for dismissal.
“I don’t buy that, by golly,” the judge snapped. “He gets a report and two women pick up a package, they’re both involved in a handling of a package of marijuana. In a further search of this defendant, actually found more marijuana on her person. Motion to dismiss denied.”
By golly. Did people really talk like that? The trial transcript reads like a script from a moralistic 1950s crime drama.
Court dates dragged on through a slushy winter. “I was the picture of innocence,” Meridy says, “wearing a little blue church dress with a Peter Pan collar. My dad came to every appearance and I loved that part. We’d sit in the back and dream up tortures for Steinrod — who was always there, he was so after my ass! So my dad would whisper, ‘Let’s put his balls in a blender,’ and then I’d come up with one. We’d end up in fits, because we were trying so hard not to laugh.”
Ultimately, Meridy’s lawyer got the matter transferred to another judge — one who saw things her way. Steinrod had broken the chain of custody and blown the case. On March 20, 1970, the complaints were ruled “defective.” Case dismissed.
A week later, Bill received a call from a friend at the police department. “Be sure your kid keeps her nose clean. He’s fishing for a new warrant.”
Apparently Steinrod didn’t like losing. Now it was personal.
“I was followed wherever I went,” Meridy says. “Steinrod just never let up. He was like [Joe Friday] in ‘Dragnet,’ waiting outside my parents’ house and tailing me all over town. I couldn’t hang out with friends, because I jeopardized them by simply being there.”
In the depths of winter, 1970, Bill came into Meridy’s room. She remembers him giggling so hard he could barely talk, tears streaming. “Get this,” he said. “Steinrod was bending over to put a cone in the street, and he got hit by a truck and killed. The putz is dead!”
Her nemesis vanquished, my mother moved to San Francisco, opened a high-profile magic brownie business, and dealt large quantities of pot for twenty-five years. A sense of invincibility buoyed her throughout her career.
Amazingly, she was never busted again.
There’s comfort in a deeply familiar story, in knowing the next line before you hear it. How young children ask their parents to read the same bedtime book aloud, night after night, no surprises. And they all lived happily ever after. The End. So, one day in 2014, I flop on “the barge” with my mother and record her telling my favorite stories. It’s something I think everyone should do with their folks: record them at their best, when they’re being funny and smart.
My problem is that I have a writing habit, which means I can’t leave well enough alone. Soon, I’m on the phone to Milwaukee, sweet-talking a court librarian into hauling files out of storage. The process is archaic — microfiche and snail mail. I’m on tenterhooks, because I want my mother to be a reliable narrator; I want her origin story to be true. Evidence trickles in, and I’m delighted to see how neatly it adds up.
Then, I find a packet from the Milwaukee County Genealogical Society folded into the tiny mail slot of my San Francisco flat. I tear it open, expecting the final piece of corroboration: Rodney Steinrod’s 1970 obituary.
The obituary is here, but it’s all wrong. The date of death reads July 18, 1999.
Memory being a fragile, imperfect tool, I’m not shocked to find a wrinkle in my mother’s story. But this — this is a gigantic, gaping crevasse. Steinrod’s death is the punchline, the best part of the story. Without him, the narrative crumbles.
Two glasses of wine later, I’m on the phone with Steinrod’s surviving daughter. I explain that my mother knew him long ago, and thought he was killed in 1970.
I don’t mention that she celebrated his death.
“Yes, there was an accident,” she says. “I guess it would’ve been around that time. I was ten or eleven…There was a lady, from the story I got, whose car broke down alongside the freeway. He got out to help her, and somebody hit him and just took off. He almost died. It was very, very severe. His arm and leg were severed and they had to do plastic surgery on his face. There was a lot of damage…He went on disability and never went back to duty because, physically, he couldn’t do it anymore.”
The part in my mother’s story where the uptight cop dies always cracked me up. Talking with this woman, I feel a little sick.
“He had a big heart,” she says. “Strict, very strict, but kind. He would give you the shirt off his back. He was just a humane, wonderful man.”
I don’t know how to react. It’s like finding out that Batman’s parents weren’t murdered in Gotham; that they put him up for adoption and moved to Missoula; that Batman’s vengeance upon the criminal underground was all built on a misunderstanding.
The origin story unravels.
You can’t have a superhero without a super-villain, and it’s tough to assign that role to a man who would give you the shirt off his back, whose career was destroyed in a squealing of tires, and who then lived through decades of disability and pain.
Of course, my mother isn’t a superhero either; she’s an ordinary person with a messy life. I idolized her as a child, but unmasking parents is part of adolescence. Been there, done that.
Still, some part of me believed her immune to the law. From the Jimmy Carter era through Clinton, we kept garbage bags of pot stuffed in our closets — and that didn’t worry me a bit. The big bust never happened, but it could have. She could’ve spent my childhood in prison.
Long after the fact, I’m surprised at how vulnerable this makes me feel.
“Steinrod didn’t die in 1970,” I tell Meridy on the phone.
She’s so quick to answer. “He sure did.”
I read her the obituary. Twice.
“Wow…” Her voice is soft, wispy. “My dad must have lied.”
“Why would he do that?”
Deep breath. “So I would feel safe.”
I think about false security, what sort of favor that is. If Bill set out to raise an intrepid woman, he succeeded. Meridy has lived a rich and risky life, the kind that generates great stories. Fearlessness also has consequences. She never invested in a retirement plan, for example, or even health insurance. Now that she’s sixty-seven, it’s a problem.
“Or maybe you just exaggerated,” I venture. “In telling the story so many times, maybe you lost track of the truth.”
“All I can tell you is that’s how I remember it. He died.”
I believe her, even though she’s wrong. A story can take on its own life; the yarn begins to spin itself. Does everyone have an origin story? I consider the moments that built me. The time a rooster nearly blinded me because I’d been cruel to him, the time my dad had a psychotic episode during my slumber party, the time I insulted my English teacher and she cried. Wounds and lessons learned and small victories: These are stories we might swap in getting-to-know-you conversations. Under close examination, any of them might disintegrate like brittle paper.
It’s a chicken-or-egg riddle. I can’t figure out if the stories have made me, or if I have invented the stories.
We’ve fallen quiet on the phone, each chasing our own thoughts. I hear my mother wheezing into the receiver. She’s overweight and her lungs are trashed from decades of smoking. Someday I will lose her, an obvious fact that nevertheless destroys me. She is only human, after all.
“Anyway,” she sighs, “my version makes a better story.”
I have to admit she’s right.