Distant Karma Catches Up With the Brotherhood's Brenice Lee Smith

Distant Karma
The wheel of life brings Brotherhood of Eternal Love member Brenice Lee Smith back to OC for a brief stay in jail

My passenger for the day walks out of the Best Western Hotel on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. It’s just after 8 a.m. on Nov. 23, the sun is glaring blindingly over the roof of the building, and I have to hold my hand up to shield my eyes. Brenice Lee Smith, 64, closely resembles George Carlin in his later years. He has the same prominent eyebrows and high forehead, and his thin white hair is pulled into a short ponytail. But there the similarity ends: Smith is wearing a yellow smock, a bright-orange cotton jacket and a maroon robe, all of which, I gather, constitute the standard attire of a practicing Buddhist from Nepal.

Smith shakes my hand and introduces himself as “Dorje,” the name given to him by his Tibetan guru, the great Lama Kalu Rinpoche, many years ago at a monastery in Darjeeling, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Dorje means “diamond” or “thunderbolt” in Tibetan—the word also can refer to the ceremonial scepter held in their right hand by lamas—and the moniker is clearly a great honor for Smith, whose somewhat unusual first name rhymes with Dennis and who is better known by his friends and family simply as Brennie.

This morning, I am acting as chauffeur for Smith, who does not drive. He has to be at John Wayne Airport by 12:30 p.m., and before that, he has a date at the Orange County Superior Courthouse. Specifically, Smith must present himself at the DNA collection room on the second floor to provide the court with a sample of his genetic makeup by swabbing the inside of his cheek with a plastic scraper.

As he sits down in the front passenger seat of my four-door sedan, his niece, Lorey James, who is sitting in the back seat, reminds him to put on his seat belt. “It’s the law,” she adds.

“Ah, yes,” Smith says. “Seat belts.”

A puzzled expression forms on his face as he cocks his head from one angle to another, struggling to figure out how to work the device. Helplessly, he lifts his right arm up in the air while his other hand pulls in vain on the buckle clasp on the left side of his seat, the part of the assemblage that doesn’t stretch because it’s anchored to the floor. “I really don’t understand these things,” he finally says. “How does this work?”

*     *     *

This is only the third time that Smith has ever worn a seat belt. As a kid growing up in Buena Park in the 1950s and later, as a member of the Laguna Beach-based band of acid-dropping hippie drug smugglers known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, he never wore one, he says, and by the time they became mandatory for automobile passengers in California in the mid-1980s, he was long gone, a fugitive of the first major skirmish in America’s seemingly eternal so-called “War On Drugs.” The last time he set foot in Orange County, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Bee Gees topped the charts. He only came home a few months ago, and he’s already eager to get out of the country.

The last time Smith wore a seat belt was a few nights before I met him, shortly after midnight, when he got a ride from Theo Lacy Men’s Jail to his Long Beach hotel room, with a quick detour to a fast-food restaurant in Newport Beach. After decades away from Southern California, the first meal Smith wanted when he got out of jail was a cheeseburger. Driving the car that night was William Kirkley, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love called Orange Sunshine, and his director of photography Rudiger Barth, both of whom were more than happy to oblige Smith’s request by driving him to an In-N-Out.

“You really ought to get the double-double,” Kirkley had suggested as they sat in the drive-through lane. (Full disclosure: I’ve provided research assistance for Orange Sunshine.) Smith, not knowing what the hell that meant, gruffly insisted he just wanted a simple cheeseburger. They drove to the beach at the end of the Balboa Peninsula for an impromptu, celebratory picnic. After he wolfed down his burger, Smith, still hungry, sighed with wistful resignation. “You’re right,” he muttered. “I should have gotten the double-double.”

Before that night, the only other time in his life that Smith had worn a seat belt was two months ago when, along with a pair of prostitutes and another male prisoner, he sat handcuffed in the back of a police van on a several-hours-long journey from the San Mateo County Jail to the Orange County Men’s Jail. Three days earlier, at about 9 p.m. on Sept. 26, he had been arrested at the San Francisco International Airport after arriving on a flight from his home in Kathmandu, setting foot on American soil for the first time since 1979.

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