It was a cold day in April, pouring rain, when I was discharged from the bin. I exited wearing a ratty tee, ripped wranglers, and a pair of flimsy institutional slippers, a heavy duty duffle filled with all my earthly possessions slung over one of my hunched shoulders.
I walked three blocks south, two blocks east, took the Lexington IRT at 96th downtown to forty second, transferred to the crosstown shuttle, took that to 7th, trudged through endless tunnels to connect with the CC, took that two stops downtown, making sure I was in the back of the train so I could exit on 25th Street, walked the two and a half blocks north, got to home base, 355 8th, entered right behind an altah cockah hauling her shopping cart, too freaked by my hulkitude to question my right of return, quickly walked past her, took a roscoe, then another, rode the even elevator to six (the odd elevator seemingly stuck on twenty-one), walked diagonally across the corridor to the fire stairs, took them two at a time at breakneck speed in order to avoid a confrontation with the doll-eyed killer the altah was fearful of (but who I knew, was, in actuality, lying in wait for me), popped out of the stairwell, onto the fifth floor, where, after a short right and a quick left, I hugged the wall until I reached Apartment 5D, the family manse.
I rang the doorbell.
The Womb opened the door. Seeing me did not bring joy to her wombish heart.
I walked past her, took a hard, left-handed, one eighty, entered what I still considered my room. The first thing I did after dropping my duffle was to undo the front vent of the combo heating-cooling unit on the wall, under the window, and pull out a six inch long, 25-tab Alka Seltzer bottle (its turquoise wrapper promising to cure the pain of headaches, neuritis, and neuralgia still intact), which had been tightly packed with really good shit, and given to me by My Friend the Bear, that I had stashed before surrendering myself to the asylum.
As I stared at the bottle, the beautiful buds singing to me their siren song, the episode of My Life as a Cartoon entitled Good & Bad Angel Debate the Existential Potential Intrinsic in the Contents of the Alka-Seltzer Bottle While Standing on Rob-it’s Shoulders and Whispering in His Ears began to unspool before my mind’s eye. Good Angel started. He was brief and to the point. What I wanted was not what I needed, was the very opposite of what I needed, was his simple but compelling pitch. Bad Angel didn’t dispute this. All he did was wonder what harm could derive from merely twisting the metal lid and opening the bottle. Couldn’t I experience the olfactic joy associated with the unique terpenoid qualities of the cannabis perfuming the air without necessarily moving on to the alveolar process triggered by smoke in my lungs and its potential consequences. While this seemed a perfectly reasonable question to ask GA vehemently insisted that past experience indicated otherwise. But just as I was about to acknowledge that GA was right and stash the bottle back in the heater-cooler he pushed his point. He analogized me opening my bottle to Pandora opening her Box. He insisted that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the consequences this act would unleash upon my world, that they would be manifold and downright shitty. That sounds like scare tactics plain and simple, was BA’s reflexive reply. And I had to agree with him. It felt as if GA was trying to intimidate me into not opening the bottle and that made me angry and that anger prompted me to twist its metal lid and open it.
The instant the sativa scent hit my nostrils I was transported to the land of the lotus eaters. My mind became befogged. All I wanted was to cocoon myself in the peaceful apathy of stoned sleep.
So I rolled me a fattie and lit it.
So much for rehab.
There is a well worn high school physics demonstration, DMT-like1 in its duration, that illustrates the awesome power unleashed when the atom is split. It involves several hundred mousetraps and an equal number plus one of Ping-Pong balls. The mousetraps are set on the floor, close to each other, each one sporting a ping pong ball where the piece ‘o cheese, or the slather of peanut butter, would go. After all the stragglers have filtered in, Teach attempts to explain what a chain reaction is in technical terms — it involves neutrons begetting neutrons and blah de blah de blah blah and is very hard to understand. But Teach is prepared and as the kids’ eyes glaze over, he tosses the remaining ping pong ball. It snaps a trap, a ball flies, lands on another trap, which launches another ping pong ball, and before you can say mushroom cloud all the traps have been snapped, all the balls launched. After he gives the kids a chance to react and digest, when all the awesome’s have been said, Teach explains that a chain reaction is a lot like what they just saw only with enough energy released to destroy half the state, which sets off its own little chain reaction — a renewed chorus of awesome’s, as well as a cascade of fuckin’A’s and god forbid’s.
The brain, befogged by psycho-active drugs, has its own version of mousetrap fission. A single word, a verb, a noun, even a name, pinballs through an empty head. The word invokes memories — a taste, a color, a moment, a thing, in turn taking you to a time or a place, setting a mood, for good or ill; this mood influences the next thought and the next, and the one after that, and suddenly, before you can say we hold these truths to be self-evident, this one word has begat a lexemic stampede, after which tens, hundreds, thousands of emotionally charged words go banging around inside that once empty head — logorrhea-fied Brownian motion. This linguistic chain reaction sets off a phantasmagoria of plastic synaptic connections, each with its own set of (often conflicting) feelings — real feelings recalling real events, pushing that once blithely empty head further and further toward, if you’re lucky, wonderment, the sheer pleasure that comes from a meditation on the absurdity of all things, though the more likely result is a global state of panic or confusion, lust or anger, sadness, paralysis, despair.
The shit I had reflexively smoked and smoked and smoked, all the way down to a finger singeing roach, came from Guerrero, had a golden glow, and a cannabinol kick in the kiloton range. I had quickly and reflexively turned myself into the victim of a roll-your-own apocalypse; I was experiencing a psychedelic China Syndrome.2 Only one hour removed from Bedlam and I was already way past the point of no return,3 ensconced within My Bedroom of Solitude, while, in the living room, not more than twenty feet away, the Father-Mother sat on the neon orange sofa, the herb’s sickly sweet smell no doubt wafting by their scandalized olfactorys, wondering, in a what-the-fuck sort of way, how the clearly incompetent shrinks of Sinai could have loosed this creature once again upon their world.
Meanwhile I was just trying to survive, man.
I was no stranger to bumming. I was a scarred and savvy veteran like Sgt. Zack in The Steel Helmet: I knew which bodies were booby-trapped, and how to survive a North Korean coup de grace with my hands tied behind my back (figuratively speaking); I knew that nobody knows where we are except the enemy;4 and I knew from reading Pogo that we have met the enemy and he is us. But I also knew that I had the power within me to gain momentary respite from my endless bummer.
And so I clutched at the first mantric branch to float by my wobbly brain. It came from the opening credits of Ben Casey M.D.: a hand drawing a series of primal symbols on a chalkboard, the disembodied voice of wisdom provided by Sam Jaffe5 intoning with gravitas:
♂ Man/♀ Woman/❇ Birth/✝ Death/∞ Infinity…
I repeated them over and over:
♂ Man/♀ Woman/❇ Birth/✝ Death/∞ Infinity…
♂ Man/♀ Woman/❇ Birth/✝ Death/∞ Infinity…
The rhythmic repetition of the words had a calming effect on my savaged state. I then made a big mistake. I meditated on what the words meant, on their significance.
This is what I came up with:
Man and woman couple; they bring forth a child; its callow transgressions, its willful disdain for that which man and woman wish of, and for it, speeds up the process of their shuffling off their mortal coil; and so, understandably, they will it a post-mortem gift—their legacy, its birthright—a guilt to suffer through eternity.
Like a record stuck in a groove hiccuping the same words over and over, I began repeating to my self over and over again Man, Woman… Man, Woman… Man, Woman…
I spiraled deeper and deeper into the ganglionic weeds proximate to the memory bank and there I made a withdrawal: James Brown, the-hardest-working-man-in-show-business,6 with his conk and his cape, getting back to his gospel roots, singing, screaming, celebrating the pecking order of the carnal world:
This is a man’s, a man’s, a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl —
Even in my freaked-the-fuck-out state I found it easy to laugh at the song’s sincere, flat earth primitivism:
Man thinks about little baby girls and baby boys
Man makes them happy, ’cause man makes them toys
And I kept on laughing until:
I sympathize with the man that don’t have a woman
He’s lost in the wilderness,
He’s lost in bitterness
He’s lost, lost, lost in loneliness
When El Padrino del Soul vocalized that empathic quatrain, I thought to myself — He could be singing about me. In that moment of self-awareness I fell victim to an emotional bliztkrieg that overran my mental Maginot Line. I could no longer hide in the trench of defensive laughter, the pillbox of sarcastic superiority, or the bunker of ironic detachment. I was defenseless. My Bedroom of Solitude had morphed into the House of Pain.7
If all this had already gone down within only a few hours of my release from Shock Corridor what, I mused with an end-of-times dread, would the next few days, weeks, months, hold in store for me with my impulse control practically nonexistent coupled with the ubiquitous availability of psycho-actives.
It was a bloodcurdling cascade of negative thinking that had me convinced that it might already be time for me to get my ass back to the bin.
But then a cooler head prevailed. My Good Angel, or was it my BA, I couldn’t tell, reminded me of a parsha8 from a book I had read at the suggestion of My Friend the Cartoonist, written by Richard Hallas, who remarkably also created Lassie. This book was no Lassie; it was a hard-boiled tale of hope and haplessness, gleefully titled, You Play the Black, and the Red Comes Up:
It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains.” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross the mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is raving mad. I’m mad. You’re mad.
I reasoned that if everybody in California was off the wall, out to lunch, and unavailable for comment, I would fit in just fine. I had not yet unpacked my duffle. I grabbed it, the reefer in a bottle, along with some cash I had stashed with it and split Womb-Seed city. I got my ass to JFK, bought me a half-fare student ticket to San Francisco on Eastern Airlines, flew there that very afternoon.
1 DMT is amyl nitrate with rocket boosters and a hallucinogenic payload. The time it takes for the active ingredient to go from pipe to lungs to brain is measured in nanos. And while it is extremely fast-acting, each episode is also rather short lived, prompting some to refer to it as coffee break acid. The first time I smoked DMT was literally a mind-blowing experience. A number of us were gathered round Jumbo Jockey as he pulled out a foil-covered cube the size of a single die (of the kind you would use to play Backgammon or Monopoly or shoots craps with.). He unwrapped it to reveal something waxy, white with a pinkish hue. He took out a corncob pipe, filled it with dried parsley flakes (wtf!?!), flipped his bic, held it under the cube until a few drops fell, like wax from a candle, onto the parsley. He then held up the pipe and asked, Who’s first? Me. (Reflexive volunteerism especially at times when I should know better had been and still is a regrettable habit of mine.) As soon as I said it I wished I could have unsaid it, since I knew I was breaking an elemental rule of getting high — Thou shalt never smoke, shoot, snort, nor swallow any substance that hath not had its true nature revealed to thee aforehand. Oh well. He walked over to me, put pipe to mouth, lighter to pipe and said, Toke, which I did, pulling in as much as I could as quickly as I could, performing the ritual with the fervor of a true believer. Before I could mutter even a tiny prayer (to whom I couldn’t tell you) or muster a soupcon of hope that I had not made a big fucking mistake, the top of my head exploded; in the instant of onset my ratty Salvation Army club chair transformed itself into the Captain’s Throne aboard the Starship Enterprise, and I began experiencing the Big Bang first hand and in warp drive. My runaway rocket went speed-of-lighting through a wormhole in space and time. I experienced crushing g-forces as the universe expanded outward before my eyes; I saw things you people wouldn’t believe — attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate; witnessed solar systems, galaxies, universes form themselves and flicker past, the whole vast expanse lit by an infinite palette of electric neon colors. As I was careening through time and space I also heard a distant thunder, booming, echoey, polyrhythmic and in an upbeat tempo, like god’s drum solo, muffled, light years away. Then it ended, as abruptly as it had begun. There was no gentle landing protocol, no parachute dropping me slowly, softly back to earth. All of a sudden I just found myself back in my ratty chair, limp, feeling as if I had been tossed about like Odysseus on a stormy sea. And that sound I had heard during my Fantastic Voyage turned out to be the sound of my own laughter processed through a psychedelic sound mixer. And I continued laughing, like a mondo-insano motherfucker, in fact, long after I had come down.
2 As per the Wikipedia, the term China Syndrome was coined by Ralph Lapp, a nuclear physicist who had had his head inside a mushroom cloud all the way back to the Manhattan Project. The hypothesis was that a catastrophic meltdown of the core materials in a nuclear reactor could cause them to melt through the containment vessel, the concrete housing beneath it, and burn a hole all the way through the earth to China. It inspired a movie, The China Syndrome (1979), where a Cassandra in Mr. Wizard mufti explained: It melts right down through the bottom of the plant-theoretically to China, but of course, as soon as it hits ground water, it blasts into the atmosphere and sends out clouds of radioactivity. The number of people killed would depend on which way the wind was blowing, rendering an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable. It’s likely Pennsylvania was chosen as a likely ground zero because in 1976 the TMI-2 reactor in the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant had a partial core meltdown that registered a five on the INES (the International Nuclear Event Scale): accident with wider consequences. It sent panic waves through the Northeast and for a few days we found ourselves in duck-and-cover mode, scrambling to acquire the massive amounts of Iodine needed to protect the corpus from the deadly effects of the radioactive Iodine cloud certain to be coming our way… In 1991 My Wife the Organizing Principle and I went to Prague to research a movie of the week version of The Golem. During my preparatory research I learned that the Czechs were fungal feinschmeckers (the wonderfully tortured German word for gourmet), and that if mushrooms were featured on a menu it was a must-order. Our guide, provided to us by the German studio that was to co-produce the movie, a kid named Ben, established his bonafides as a hard-core ironist by explaining on first meeting that he hailed from Rheydt which was also the birthplace of Josef Goebbels. One morning Ben led us to Hradchany, the model for Kafka’s castle. After a morning of touring the castle and the Alley of Gold behind it — a rat’s nest of little munchkin habitats where 200 alchemists lived and labbed during the reign of King Vladislav — we sat down in the restaurant within the castle’s walls where I was delighted to see a number of different mushroom dishes featured on the menu. As I was about to order Ben put on his best ironic smirk and said Bob, before you order the mushrooms I have one word to say to you. What word is that, Ben? Chernobyl. It seemed the gilled fungi soaked up radioactive fallout like the sponges they sorta look like. And since I hadn’t schlepped my stale-dated supply of Iodine along with me, I passed on the ‘shrooms.
3 Since I was a first generation angry Amurrican contrarian teen living with a love-it-or-leave-it pair of immigrant parentals (my pops originating in the Polish pale, my moms from a shtetl in East New York), it should come as no surprise that I focused the malocchio on the jingo-douchey, anti-commie, war-mongering John Wayne who swagger-wheezed through tired and empty manifest destiny epics like The Alamo and The Green Berets. I believed that Duke irredeemable… But, along about the time that the pop cult was turning A Whiter Shade of Pale due in no small measure to the widely held belief that mankind was on the Eve of Destruction, serendipity delivered me from the dustbin of despair and dropped me into a sizzling cult of avant-garde children who learned me a thing or two about how to see shit with clarity and insight. With this newly minted aestheto-vision I gazed upon Marion’s oeuvre once again but this time I found myself moved by his dark and dimensional-ized perfs in flicks like Red River, The Searchers, and Fort Apache. Once Captain Amurrica was allowed back into my life, it took no time for me to recall with pleasure The High and the Mighty which I had watched time and again as it played in heavy rotation on Million Dollar Movie for the entirety of my formative years. I especially loved the Dimitri Tiomkin (Oscar winning) theme Wayne whistled repeatedly as he conquered his demons and successfully landed a crippled DC-9 that had lost an engine and much of its fuel over the Pacific, past the point of no return, because of a domestic dispute in coach involving a cuckold, his wife, and the poor innocent schmuck he has mistaken for a gigolo, that followed Chekhov’s dictum: If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. In the end, a hero once again, Wayne whistles Tiomkin’s theme while walking off into the Frisco fog in a moment reminiscent of Rick and Renard melting into the night at the end of Casablanca. Oh, how I wish you could hear Johnny Boy whistling that tune right now.
4 The first in an aphoristic avalanche of wartime wisdom in The Steel Helmet. After Sgt. Zack has put a slug in the snotty, yellow belly North Korean who stabbed poor mute Sid Melton in the back, he’s reminded that his action might not be looked upon with pleasure further up the chain of command. In response Zack yanks the Commie up, gets right in his grill, and snarls If you die, I’ll kill you, a line, the spirit of which, is mirrored in Pickup on South Street when Moe, the lovable, tie-selling C.I. explains why her prices have gone up: Look, Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter’s Field, it would just about kill me. Back in The Steel Helmet, once the lily-livered red menace realizes he’s not gonna make it he begs the black medic, whom he’s been trying to turn citing Amurrican racism, to say a Buddhist prayer for him. The Medic, a cigarette lounging on his lips tough guy style, slaps him upside his head and gives this terse prayer: Buddha bless you! But it is the speech Zack gives explaining why he chose the infantry that is by far my favoritist, one which My Friend the Film Critic and I would jabber at each other for entertainment on many an afternoon as we yo-yo’d between venues soaking in the cinema: Aw, be smart. There’s nothing like the infantry. If you’re in a plane and get hit, what happens? You still gotta fall. There’s two strikes against you. If you’re on a ship and get hit, you can drown. In a tank, you can fry like an egg. But in the infantry, you get hit and that’s it. One or the other, you’re dead or alive. But you’re on the ground.
5 The altah Sam looked like every yid’s Uncle Irving but, in an earlier incarnation, and with the aid of tins and tins of brown shoe polish applied to his extremities, Jaffe brought Kipling’s dusky and servile regimental water boy Gunga Din to life. And like Godzilla, Rodan or The High and the Mighty, Gunga Din played in heavy rotation on Million Dollar Movie. It is from this movie that I got my go to phrase for any tense sitch: Don’t jump in the snakepit, goo-roo, which, I always imagined, spawn screamed at seed as the latter threatened to jump into a pit of vipers, but which, I have recently learned, was all in my head — just like much of the other shit I think I know.
6 Brown was recognized by numerous titles, including Soul Brother Number One, Sex Machine, Mr. Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, The King of Funk, Minister of The New New Super Heavy Funk, Mr. Please Please Please Please Her, The Boss and foremost, the Godfather of Soul. In my yoot and among my peer group Brown was idolized for having the tightest band in the land. That might have been so, I was no expert on such stuff, but what I did know was that King of Funk’s earnestness, combined with his simple soulful world-view, made him a budding ironist’s wet dream.
7 The House of Pain was the surgical suite in which Dr. Moreau transformed the creatures of The Island of Lost Souls into hu-men sans anesthesia. I first saw the flick on Chiller Theater or Creature Features or some such generic ghetto. And from that first viewing, as I watched The Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) lead the ani-men in their catechism, I knew this shit was more than just a horror movie. It was the bestest cine-meditation on the hubris of man subsuming the powers god and as such was formative fodder for my budding atheism.
8 A parsha is one of the fifty four discrete sections of the O.T. The year long cycle begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy, recited, one after the other, on successive sabbaths so that by the end of the yid calendar year the Torah has been read from beginning to end. Each parsha is followed by an haftorah, a kindred section of the prophets. Haftorah is among the more chilling words in the glossary of testamental torture since it is the rite of passage a Bar-Mitzvah boy must successfully perform, in all its squeaky sing-songiness in front of the entire, hyper-critical congregation in order for them to acknowledge one an adult member of the tribe: We accept [you], one of us, we accept [you]/Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.