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A New York State of High

In its move to HBO, ‘High Maintenance’ continues its chronicle of a fleet of New Yorkers and their charming, privileged world of recreational drug use.

In the age of infinite takes, pop culture—particularly television—has become a useful vehicle for sorting through society’s political woes. Partly this seems like a form of moral seriousness, a way of expressing how entertainment has something important to say about how we, or their show runners, see the world and ourselves. The elevation of pop-culture writing into political critique also carries the whiff of over-compensation—an effort to wring something productive out of the hours spent piping streaming media into our frontal lobes. Maybe you should just relax, already. Call your guy.

Tim, as I’ll call him, delivers weed around Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods—part of the belt of gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods where weed smoking can seem practically endemic. I thought it would be nice for us to catch up on High Maintenance before it premieres on HBO—a show that has traveled the long road from a low-budget web series to premium cable. High Maintenance is ostensibly about weed and weed culture, a topic wrapped in political overtones, especially as we gingerly move towards legalization. But anyone going into the show hoping for a reckoning with drug policy, the war on drugs, racial disparities in arrests, or the use of stop-and-frisk, will be sorely disappointed.

The show’s purpose isn’t to celebrate the pleasures of smoking weed, but rather to celebrate the eccentricities of a diverse band of New Yorkers, tenuously connected by marijuana use. All have “The Guy” in their phones, a semi-anonymous weed deliveryman who careens around Brooklyn on his bike, dispensing treats to his eclectic customer base. The character of The Guy—played by Ben Sinclair, who writes and directs the show with his wife, Katja Blichfeld—reflects the unusual mix of qualities that I’ve seen in deliverymen like Tim. They tend to be solicitous and engaging—like The Guy, Tim will sometimes sit with a customer and have a friendly smoke before resuming his rounds—while also exhibiting some of the care and caginess required for anyone who makes a living from an illegal activity.

Tim, who holds down another job at a bar, has delivered weed for about six years, working first in Manhattan and now in Brooklyn. The shift in boroughs was deliberate: “I noticed a vacuum. The services that would come to Brooklyn used to be really expensive. They had crazy high minimums.” His customers in Manhattan, he explained, were a different breed; often living in doorman buildings, they expected speedy, no-fuss delivery of his product as surely as they would order in takeout or call down for a taxi. Brooklyn provides a more relaxed environment, safer roads, and understanding customers. “I would never have agreed to do something like this with one of my Manhattan customers,” he said, cozying down in my living room. Tim appreciated a lot of what he saw in High Maintenance. A scene in which The Guy can’t find anywhere to park his bike and considers chaining it to a memorial for a deceased cyclist while an angry neighbor looks on, made him laugh with recognition. The show seems like it was written “by someone who has done this before,” he said.

The thing about weed delivery, both in High Maintenance and in many areas around the country, is that it no longer feels illegal, even though technically it still is. A number of municipalities and states, including New York, have moved toward decriminalization, if not outright legalization. California, the heartland of America’s medical marijuana and gray-market weed industries, is one of several states expected to pass a legalization measure this fall. Still, there are dangers to the job, even for an unassuming white guy delivering marijuana in some of the city’s more bougie neighborhoods. “I try to ride casual, try to blend,” Tim said. “Act like what I’m doing is completely normal. That’s one thing that I think they do capture on the show.”

Indeed, while the Guy has rules and a code of his own—all customers must be referred by someone he’s sold to before—the law is virtually absent from the show, until the fifth episode of the new season. On his way to a customer, the Guy practically steps over a group of young black men who are handcuffed and sitting on the ground, surrounded by police. It’s a brief but telling scene, as the white weed guy blithely moves past a group of people who are far more likely to be detained for the very thing he’s doing. From there, the Guy visits with a customer, a depressed freelance journalist with an intense selfie habit, with whom he’s agreed to sit down for an interview. The journalist walks him through some basic questions about his job and then raises precisely the issues that, in the past, High Maintenance has been criticized for not addressing. She tells him how people of color are disproportionately arrested for drug offenses, how the liberated underground market of Brooklyn weed may be a bounty for his mostly white customers but isn’t so easy to navigate for minorities who just want to smoke in peace.

Then the interview goes off the rails. The Guy, feeling a little surly at being asked about racial politics, begins hedging. He thought they were just going to talk funny anecdotes, he explains. The journalist ducks into the kitchen to answer a call, and The Guy Googles her, quickly discovering her Instagram account, on which she’s posted a photo of The Guy and his weed. He turns off her tape recorder, demands she delete the photo, and storms out of the apartment. The story closes with the journalist in bed, toggling between her social media feeds and an Elena Ferrante novel before she bursts into tears. It’s not quite clear why she’s so upset—disappointed with how she handled the interview, or perhaps something more amorphous. But what the scene gestures at, and where High Maintenance truly excels, is the deep and sudden loneliness that can accompany urban life.

As the botched interview showed, High Maintenance can shift rapidly from moments of high camp to more weighty emotional registers. But the show tends toward the whimsical, skirting, like The Guy does, around any confrontation with the forces of law and order. Tim is conscious of the fact that, as an unassuming white delivery guy, he doesn’t have much to fear from cops. “I think I would have to do something really stupid,” he said. “I don’t know, like run over an old lady on my bicycle in front of a cop, who happened to be looking at me when I did it. And then once that happened, they’d search my bag and then that’d be a double whammy.” He and I swapped stories about delivery guys we’ve talked to who have been stopped by undercover cops and searched, only to have their weed returned to them as they’re sent on their way. In both cases, the cops said they were looking for people involved in more serious, violent crimes. “Everybody has friends who smoke weed now,” Tim said. “Even the cops have friends who smoke weed.”

It’s hard to imagine that these encounters would play out the same way in the Bronx or East New York. One story I heard was told to me by a Filipino-American deliveryman who was working in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood whose rapid gentrification has proceeded in lock-step with a decline in its number of black residents. The cops gave the delivery guy a hard time, but he pleaded ignorance about the bag of weed in his car. He was eventually let go and he booked it out of the neighborhood as fast as he could, but later he noticed that his bag was missing two small containers of product. One of the cops must have palmed them, he decided. The story seemed like a perfect distillation of police corruption, reminiscent of a recent incident that occurred when police raided a dispensary in Santa Ana, California. In security camera footage, one of the officers can be seen grabbing and eating pot candies while joking about drinking and driving with the judge who signed the search warrant.

In short, people from all walks of life smoke weed—about 3.5 percent of the country now tokes daily—it’s just that the consequences fall mostly on those without any power of their own. This is evident in the frightening statistics about the jailing of non-violent drug offenders. It’s also a subtle, though not invisible, component of High Maintenance. “Museebat” wrings an affecting story out of Eesha, a Pakistani-American college student who lives with conservative, but deeply caring, family members (much of the episode’s dialogue is in Urdu). For Eesha, weed is an escape—she hides her stash on the roof of the building, where she also likes to smoke by herself—and a mild form of rebellion. Eventually, her uncle finds her weed and confronts his neighbors, a hilariously dysfunctional polyamorous couple played by Amy Ryan and Lee Tergesen, whom the uncle knows by the skunky smell wafting from their apartment. The uncle waves the small baggie and accuses his neighbor of getting his niece into drugs. Tergesen simply laughs and plucks the bag out of his hand. “This isn’t drugs,” he says. “This is pot.”