I remember the first time I went to the speakeasy.
I'd run out of weed and had no contacts. Luckily for me, I worked with a graphic designer and he had long hair. I was almost certain he would know someone.
He did – but this wasn't some street dealer. He told me about a private members' club in north London where you could pick up whatever you wanted. "I'll pick you something up," he said.
"No. You're taking me to this place!"
"Okay. I need to get permission," he replied.
A day later, he swung by my desk and told me we could head over that evening; 6PM came round and we made our way.
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"There are some rules you have to know about," he said "You can't just come here whenever you want. Before you do, you have to text this number with the time you want to come."
"And don't go talking about this place to just anyone. One blabber and it's all over."
"And if you want to invite someone, ask permission first. Don't do it for a while. Leave it a few months."
"We're here," he said.
He rang the doorbell. I noticed a camera pointing at us. A minute so later, the door opened. A woman answered.
"Hi, Erika*," my colleague said.
"A new recruit! Does he know the rules?" asked the woman.
"Indeed he does."
"Okay. Take off your coats and head on in."
The woman led us to another door, opened it, and there it was.
I didn't know entirely what to expect, but the first thing that came to mind was how it wasn't seedy in the slightest. It wasn't chaotic. There was art on the walls. People were laughing and playing Scrabble. It was peaceful, like Cheers, but with pingers rather than pints.
Erika sat down next to a computer near the entrance and motioned for me to sit next to her.
She asked for my name and phone number, and for the reason I was joining. You had to pick between art, comedy, music and a few other options.
"All that's left is your membership fee. £20."
I handed it over, and in return she handed me the rules on a card, and then sent me a text message.
"Welcome. Go and relax. I will be over soon."
I went and sat next to my colleague, who was talking to a couple of guys. I was too busy just looking around to take part in the conversation. Every newbie is the same.
Erika came over to the table and asked, "What do you want?"
"£40 of weed."
"What weed do you want?"
"I get a choice?"
"Yeah. Skunk or Thai stick or hash or squidgy black."
"I'll grab some Thai. Thanks."
My colleague jumped in next: "I'll have a gram of coke, a gram of MDMA, an ounce and a quarter of the Thai."
"Thank you," she said, heading off into another room and closing the door behind her.
There were many more unwritten rules. Erika didn't like people coming in and out. If you came, you should stay a while. Having lots of people come and go looks suspicious. She didn't like folks using their phones either. All of these little things made the studio what it was: a sociable spot. You had no choice but to mingle, and once you were high enough, it's all you wanted to do anyway.
Erika's patrons came from all walks of life. It didn't matter if you were a day labourer or a record label executive, a banker or a chef. If you followed the rules, behaved yourself and had the money for what you wanted, you were welcome. Many new friendships and relationships blossomed at the speakeasy, including a few that went on to marriage and children.
You'll notice I'm talking in the past tense. The studio was raided a few years ago, and Erika arrested, charged and imprisoned. She was released from prison recently. I went to see her.
"How did you end up running a place like that?" I asked.
"It wasn't my chosen career path," Erika replied. "It all started after working long hours in the creative world. The industry was changing, and after a while jobs became thin on the ground. It became harder to find work that paid enough to support the studio. Things were getting a bit tight and desperate, so I threw a party! I'd been selling a bit of weed to support my own habit for a while, then it was suggested I should sell some 'powder'. I didn't think I knew anyone who did that, but, oh, I was so wrong! Well, it ended up keeping the bailiffs away for a while. Then it progressed into the social club. I charged for memberships. I developed the rules."
"And you did well. I always saw new members coming in."
"At a certain point, I had to stop accepting new members – there were just too many people. No one wanted to upset the equilibrium, and everyone wanted to keep the secret going. People have often said this place would make for a great novel or TV show. There are so many stories to tell."
"Did you ever think, 'I have to stop this'?"
"I knew I didn't want to continue down this path; it wasn't a safe path, and although no one wanted the good times to come to an end, I felt that I had to set a goal date that I would like to stop dealing. Having the constant pressure of knowing that it could collapse at any time hanging over you is not healthy. I decided to try and set up an alternative business and go completely legit, so that when I did stop I had an ongoing legal business."
"And then that decision was made for you, right?"
"Yeah. The place got raided. I had a camera at the door that I checked before letting people in, but when the police came, I didn't have much choice – they came with a warrant. I told everyone to get rid of any substances on their possession. I would take responsibility and be the only one to take the rap."
"Can you remember that moment? How did you feel?"
"Being arrested is something that you are always aware can happen, but your world is in such a cloistered bubble that when it does actually happen, it is still a huge shock to your system, right to your core. You feel sick, nervous and incapacitated. A mainly 'no comment' interview meant that I wouldn't give up anyone else's name. You just don't do that. I also pled guilty to receive potentially a third off my sentence."
She opened her bag and showed me a huge stack of postcards.
"I drew a postcard every day I was on bail and in prison. At first, the images were a portrayal of my emotions as they affected my day-to-day life. Later, when I was finally sent to court, and then on to HMP Holloway to serve my sentence, the postcards came to be a document of my life in custody and surroundings that I found myself in. I drew a postcard every day during the whole of my sentence to try and document the day-to-day trials and tribulations of being cut off from family and friends, and thrown into an alien environment with people that I didn't know."
"How are you finding freedom?"
"I love having a bed!"
"How's everything else going?"
"I face new challenges. Re-adjusting back into society is far from easy, released into a world that continues to place hurdles in front of those with convictions. I want my story to give an insight into the prison system and not only be a deterrent to others, but a way of raising awareness of some of the issues that confront those affected by the Criminal Justice System on all sides."
* Name has been changed to protect "Erika's" privacy.