The frying pan and the egg

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Bruce/Griswold Cast Iron Skillet Resto Project

In 1996, my fifth grade class at Mesa Elementary and I earned our sheriff’s badge from Darren the D.A.R.E. lion. We walked across a makeshift stage in ceremonial acknowledgement of the very important part we all played in fighting the war on drugs. At 10 years old, I learned drugs were bad, addiction worse and that together, they could make people do some crazy and dangerous things. We were kids on our way to be teenagers, and as we headed to the wide halls of middle school, we felt prepared to fight potential dangers one “just say no” at a time.

Darren might have taught me my mantra, but it was Rachel Leigh Cook who really nailed the point home. I related to her — the rough-around-the-edges actor from The Baby-Sitters Club, a movie that helped me experience the growing pains of adolescence.

So when I saw her on a TV commercial looking cool in high-waisted Levi’s and a white tank top I sat up and listened intently. It was like she was speaking just to me when she compared a brain to an egg and a skillet to heroin, and then demonstrated what happens when an egg gets slammed by a pan (it breaks and yolk and bits of eggshell go everywhere). Then, holding up her cast-iron weapon, she rampaged around the kitchen, breaking everything in sight, in exhibition of all the metaphor was capable of — equating plates and glasses to families and society. Finally, at the end of her fury she stood among the ruins, breathless, and threw the pan onto the counter before looking straight into the camera to say, “Any questions?”

The question was rhetorical, but even if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have dared ask a follow-up. She was still huffing and puffing with that skillet in her hand and I was primed and eager to take her at her word. All I could think is that someone should lock that skillet in jail.

So firmly attached to the symbolism of the frying pan and the egg, I somehow didn’t grasp that Cook stood for something too. If the brain is destroyed by the drug, then who is the one exposing the drug to the brain? Rachael Leigh Cook, the sweet, teenage actress. In the politics of prohibition and criminalization, it’s not the pan that would be locked away, it would be her — if she wasn’t white.

There are huge racial disparities in drug arrest rates. Eighty-five percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine offenses are black, even though the majority of users of the drug are white and similar disparities have been reported for marijuana arrests by the ACLU. Because of these disparities, one in three black boys born today will spend time in prison.

As Cook, Generation X and I grew up, we experienced this reality, a vastly different one than the picture that had been painted for us. We saw zero-tolerance policies prevent our peers from completing their education, we saw people go to jail, we saw poverty divide the youth into groups and classes. Meanwhile I (and I imagine many of us) did drugs and my own experience fell far flat of the promised cerebral destruction. Meanwhile, drug-use rates rose while addiction rates stayed flat. Regardless, the frying pan and the egg continued to provide a powerful symbol for the war on drugs, even as its ideological framework was crumbling.

Fast forward to 2017 when 28 states have legalized medical marijuana, while seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. Millions of people are living with a Schedule 1 substance in their everyday lives and still 1.5 million people are arrested for drug possession every year and over half of them are for marijuana. Many of us recognize the tragedy of this concurrence Cook was in a position to do something about it.

On April 20, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Cook released a revamped version of her 1997 PSA. In it, the now 37-year-old actor holds up a white egg and says, “This is one of the millions of Americans who uses drugs and won’t get arrested.” Suddenly you become aware of the white woman standing in front of you, putting down the egg and picking up a brown one. “However, this American is several times more likely to get charged with a drug crime,” she says, before imploring the viewer to empathize. “Imagine it’s you.”

This time she’s less rage-y — she walks the viewer through an animation of the brown egg’s journey through jail, reentry, poverty, recidivism and, ultimately, disenfranchisement, only to compare it to the white egg, happy in a house, with a family and a job, but using drugs all the same. This time it’s not the villainy of addiction that brings the pan smashing down, it’s the anger festering in the hypocrisy of inequality — the egg as a stand-in for people of color, the skillet as the war on drugs itself.

Twenty years later, it seems Cook has wearied of the whole symbolism, however powerful it might be. At the end of the new video, she doesn’t throw the pan crashing onto the counter like she did in 1997. Instead, she lets it drop from her fingers. While a pan obliterating an egg might be a good way to make a point, ultimately it’s just a frying pan and an egg.

At the end of the video when Cook stares into the camera and asks, “Any questions?” one can only hope that this time, without a weapon in her hand, she means it. Because standing there is a woman who had to have asked some pretty probing questions into what were once opposite and strongly held beliefs in order to change her mind and seek a different way forward.