Of All the Shock Corridors,
in All the Looney Bins,
in All the World,
She Walks Into Mine.
By 1968 the Summer of Love had long given way to the Fall and Winter of Bumming, when, contrary to Wavy Gravy’s1 assertion that there’s no such thing as bad acid, just acid that’s made wrong, shitloads of street acid filled with impurities, much of it laced with speed, pushed the Ivory Snow–pure Owsley2 product off the figurative shelf, and people started freaking out. If that wasn’t enough for the gestalt to do a hard 180, a black dealer, street name Superspade, was ripped off and stabbed to death (mayhap by some dudes whose minds had been blown by some of that wrong-made acid) during a dope deal gone sour, in San Francisco, the epicenter of the flowers-in-your-hair movement.
In 1968 Dr. Spock, Olympic rowing gold medalist and pediatrician to the baby boomers, along with the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a former CIA agent (and therefore possibly an agent provocatuer) and member of Skull and Bones3 (and therefore probably an asshole), the president of SANE and a proponent of civil rights, gay rights, and peace on earth, were busted for conspiracy to encourage kids to evade the draft; the North Koreans commandeered the USS Pueblo (U-2 spyplane redux,4 only this time with a crew of eighty-three); and the VC started the Tet Offensive. And that was only January.
Later that year the first platoon of Charlie Company, under the command of Lt. William Calley, entered the hamlet of My Lai guns blazing, killing between four and five hundred men, women, children, putting to rest once and for all the myth of the American Army as the cavalry riding to the rescue.
Sixty Minutes, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Laugh-In, and The Prisoner all premiered on the tube, while Rosemary’s Baby popped out at a theater near you, along with Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead.
Jane Fonda, the queen of the antiwar movement, cavorting through space nearly naked in Barbarella, gave all the hard hats hard-ons, as she writhed within the excessive machine, a full-body vibrator/torture device that sent Sweet Lady Jane to the outer limits of ecstasy.
It was springtime for Dubcek in Prague until the Velvet Revolution was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks. The Baader-Meinhof Gang formed in West Germany, while students rioting in Paris were so out of control, the Cannes Film Festival had to be canceled. OJ won the Heisman, the Jets lost the Heidi game on their way to victory in Super Bowl III, the Big Mac was born, a plague of maggots rained down on Acapulco, the Zodiac Killer claimed his first victim.
Before the fall of ’67 all things had seemed possible; the flower children, having read the tarot, consulted the I Ching, were ready to augur in the dawning Age of Aquarius. A funny thing happened on the way to nirvana on earth however: the all-important step between what is and what should be couldn’t be negotiated, and all those good vibrations shuddered their way into the void; the Age of Aquarius disintegrated like a wooden Buddha in the Burmese rain forest.
Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and race riots erupted in a 125 cities including DC, New York, and Chicago.5
A day after Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, assuring herself at least fifteen minutes of fame, Bobby Kennedy, who had co-opted Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy and looked like a shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nomination, LBJ having declined to run again,6 was shot dead by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in LA as he was heading to a press conference to discuss his victory in the California primary that night.7
Hubert Humphrey got the Dem nom by default, choosing crybaby Edmund Muskie of Maine8 as his running mate, at a convention remembered for nonstop rioting in the streets of Chicago, instigated, the government later alleged, by the Chicago Seven (which included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden, who was later to marry Barbarella, Queen of Outer Space). It was met with head-bashing brutality by Daley’s polizei, the original Chicago Bulls, prompting Abe Ribicoff, the Jewish senator from Connecticut, to accuse the mayor of using Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.
The Republicans chose Richard (It is necessary for me to establish a winner image. Therefore, I have to beat somebody) Nixon and Spiro (nattering nabobs of negativism) Agnew.
Gollum beat Elmer Fudd because he had a plan to end the war, a secret plan he wouldn’t reveal until after he was elected. And so, the American public, whom no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of, voted him in, even though Tricky Dick had previously maintained, Solutions are not the answer.
As peace and love gave way to helter skelter, I dipped further into the outlaw apothecary, popping pills, guzzling cough syrup, snorting crystal meth, shooting skag. Since I had dropped out of college, one step ahead of being thrown out, I was reclassified 1-A (primo candidate for the charnel house that was the Nam). What with the skag, the speed, and some of the aforementioned stepped-on acid, I was at the tipping point of sanity — my motto was We’re all on the same side, we’re all out to get me. In a rare moment of mental clarity, I decided to slaughter two bald eagles with one stoned idea: I would sign myself into the loony bin and cool out for a while, at the same time avoiding the military meat grinder — insanity (at least of the kind I was manifesting) being kryptonite to a smoothly functioning, well-oiled killing machine.
The seventh and eighth floors of the Klingenstein Pavilion of Mount Sinai Hospital were dedicated psych wards. I was assigned to 8 North, sharing a room with three other looney tunes. When the wackos weren’t in group or individual therapy, they enjoyed the freedom to wander the halls just like in Shock Corridor. Early on in my confinement, while strolling the Boulevard of Broken Minds trying to detect who killed Sloane in the kitchen, I happened upon Danny, from 8 South. Acid flashbacks, amphetamine-generated hallucinations, and nonspecific heebie-jeebies had landed him in the House of Bedlam. He was a landsmann. When he found out that I had no friends in town — they were on the outside, upstate, wearing their 24/7 × 365 party hats of the apocalypse — he invited me to join him, with his, during visiting hours.
That evening I jaunty-jollied over to the 8 South commons where Danny was holding court, surrounded by friends. He saw me, smiled, and waved me over. Just as he was about to introduce me, the chick sitting closest to him, the one holding his hand, gazed up at me, locked in on me. I became trapped in her tractor-beam stare.
Einstein said, When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour. I was staring at a pretty girl — more accurately a pretty girl was staring at me — but it felt more like I was sitting on a hot stove. I couldn’t tell you how much time passed, only that it felt like forever, like when you’re in a car, going too fast, and you’ve lost control: you know what’s going to happen, you know it’s not going to end well, but the universe slows to a crawl. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism, some evolutionary obverse to fight or flight — time dilating in order to provide a few extra milliseconds in which you may reflexively react and avert, therefore survive, the catastrophe you’re hurtling toward. But it’s likely there are no more than a handful of athletes and ninjas evolved enough to take advantage of this illusion. For the rest of us it just delays the inevitable moment of impact.
She wouldn’t stop looking at me. I was getting more uptight, more confused by the second. What had I done to deserve this? What had I done wrong? Should I just turn and split, or should I try to weather the storm? Just as I was initializing the cut-and-run, she popped out of her chair — she was tall, statuesque even, a Greek goddess in a crocheted dress — and rushed me.
Good old time dilation afforded me an endless moment to ponder the question — what the fuck was going on? Then she was upon me, wrapping her arms around me, hugging me, calling me by my name, asking me if I recognized her, which I didn’t. Danny was looking at me with a combination of surprise and anger, the rest of his tribe merely surprised, mostly amused.
I was beginning to swoon. This shit was getting spooky. And she was unrelenting. I’m Fern. Don’t you remember? You lived on Suffolk Street, I lived around the corner on Grand. We used to play together, all the time.
According to the paper of record, the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for backstory is from an AP dispatch by Jerry Buck in 1982 about the screenwriters Stephen and Elinor Karpf: They had been compiling characters and back stories for a prospective serial for several years. The OED notes that the term’s early specific meaning was a history created for a fictional character or situation, especially in a film or television series.
At that moment I felt like I was one of those fictional characters, trapped in a Melodrama in Mount Sinai, in which I was either an amnesia victim or someone being gaslighted.9 I was hoping an omniscient narrator, having compiled my character’s backstory, would reveal it to me in some combo of flashback or voiceover — two of the symptoms that had landed me in this disorienting here and now — which would enable me to make sense of the Twilight Zone scene in which I found myself entangled.
Boy Gets Girl, kicked off by the Cute Meet: When I was six, I was the junior skelly champeen of Suffolk Street. All you needed to play was chalk and some weighted bottle caps, the latter of which could not be bought in a sporting goods shop. They had to be made. Lighting up one of the womb’s Sabbath candles and letting the wax drip into the cap until it was full did the trick.
But not any bottle cap would do. Competition-worthy caps had to have a flat bottom so that they could skim smoothly across the concrete. Since there was no such thing as a factory-fresh cap, all caps by definition having suffered violent trauma in the maw of a bottle opener, the arming of the skelly hero necessitated scouring the nabe to find suitable ones.
One sunny afternoon, while on a bottle cap odyssey, I walked into a bodega on Clinton, south of Delancey, bee-lined to the cooler, stuck my hand down the built-in cap collector, and started fishing for caps.
A girl, about my age, buying a Ring Ding, wandered over, asked, What ya doing?
Finding caps. For skelly.
I could hardly believe my ears. Where did this girl come from, Mars? But she seemed nice, and so instead of giving mean, I decided to answer her straight up. But before I could, the bodega-keeper chased me from the store.
Come back when you want to buy something, he told me as he pushed me out the door.
As I was slinking down the street, the girl came running.
Wait up, she called.
I turned. She had her Ring Ding in one hand, the other balled up in a fist. She smiled, her mouth chocolaty and crumby, and unclenched the fist. It was filled with bottle caps. Then she pointed to one of her pockets. It was bulging with bottle caps as well. That’s how I first met Fern.
From that first day on we were pretty much inseparable.
Boy Loses Girl: One afternoon, instead of going to the Loews Delancey to see Martin and Lewis in At War with the Army, Fern and I spent our movie money on two sheets of colorful cockamamies — bright, beautiful, strange temporary tattoos.
Since I was a latchkey kid, we went to my place to play. Water being the agent of transference enabling a cockamamie to migrate from paper to skin, it quickly became clear that this game was going to be messy and wet. Being extra-smart six-year-olds, we determined it would be best to head to the bathroom (an H2O appropriate zone), take off our clothes, get in the bathtub, turn on the water, and responsibly apply cockamamies all over each other.
We were having such a good time that before long we had evolved into a singular, giggling organism — in latency, and yet in love — expertly adorning each other with temporary tattoos.
After a while we had just about run out of space on our small bodies; in fact, the last virginal spots on our epidermises were around our genitals. Fern applied a roaring lion on the smooth skin right above mine; I was in the midst of applying a parrot above hers when the bathroom door opened and my mother walked in. Between the giggling and the running water, because we had been enjoying ourselves so much, we hadn’t heard the apartment door open, or even the bathroom door for that matter.
My mother walked in smiling at first, reflexively, maternally; it warms the heart to hear children happily at play.
Then she looked more closely, saw my hand near Fern’s I had no name for it then, and let out a bone-breaking, bloodcurdling, Fay-Wray-meets-King-Kong scream. Fern and I stopped giggling. We went quiet and still, the only sound to be heard was the bathtub’s running faucet.
Mommy, what’s the matter, why did you scream that way? My hand was still right by Fern’s I had no name for it then; my mother was staring at me, anger boiling out of her eyes.
Suddenly, I just knew. Mom’s anger had to do with the cockamamies, with Fern and me naked, playing with our privates. I flushed with shame. I quickly pulled my hand away, revealing the colorful parrot perched atop her I had no name for it then.
We both got dressed, so ashamed we couldn’t look at each other.
You have to leave, now, and don’t you ever come back, my mother hissed. Fern shrank away in horror. And don’t think I’m not going to call your mother and tell her what a naughty thing you’ve done.
We were both crying.
Mommy, don’t do that. Please, Mommy, don’t make her go. We didn’t mean to do anything wrong.
She slapped me, hard. Stop with your cockamamie stories, Rob-it. I’m no fool. I see what was going on.
Even though I was overwhelmed with fear and shame, bawling like a baby, this unconscious play on words struck me as quite funny. I started giggling through my tears. My mother didn’t get the joke. She assumed I was laughing at her, which, in a way, I suppose I was. She lost it, started slapping the crap out of me. I was covering up, screaming, crying, laughing, all at the same time.
While my mother beat me, Fern beat it from my house, slamming the door behind her. I could hear her footsteps as she raced down the stairs and out my front door, could hear it slam shut behind her.
Self-Pity is a siren luring you toward the jagged rocks with her sweet song, the chorus of which is It’s not your fault. The gist of her ditty is that you did nothing wrong. It was them, your parents, your teachers, your playmates — they’re the ones who were wrong, they’re the ones who damned you to this hellscape you now find yourself in; you have no reason, no cause to examine yourself; all you need do is be stoned fucking angry at them.
My Friend the Cartoonist’s shrink brilliantly distilled the essence of what it is to be fucked up, explaining to him: neurosis is a solution that’s become a problem. My soaked-in-self-pity solution from that moment on was alienation, withdrawal, rebellion, and, finally, most importantly, drugs, all kinds of drugs: combustibles — reefer, hash, opium, gate-waying me to psychedelics — acid, mescaline, psilocybin DMT; then on to speed10 starting with pharmaceutical goof balls like Dexamil and Eskatrol (mother’s little helpers), then moving up in class to benzedrine, desoxyn, and black beauties, before finally finishing with an endless line of crystal meth; when times got tough and the supply lines got interrupted, the fallback was over-the-counter remedies for damaged souls — the dextromethorphan twins, Robitussin and Romilar; and for a change of pace there was always the booze cruise, slugging down Ripple and Night Train, Wolfschmidts and fruit-flavored sugar-added brandies; but in the end, as all things must end, it was skag, a tsunami of skag washing in from the Golden Triangle, an unintended consequence of the lunatic war in the Nam.
This solution of mine worked really well, until it didn’t anymore; it then became a problem.
Which brings this backstory up to speed (so to speak) and…
Back to the bin for the big reveal, where Boy (sort of) Gets Girl Back: By now Fern held me in a breathtaking bear hug, detailing our shared past, a past I had no memory of, because I had purposefully, and over a long period, inhaled of the incense of forgetfuless.11
Finally, in frustration, she practically screamed, The cockamamies…
And that’s when it all came rushing back, that whole sad Adam-and-Eve moment: expelled from the garden, wandering the wilderness, settling into the fifth circle of hell (wrath and sullenness), before finally arriving at this ridiculously synchronous, utterly unbelievable moment.
How’d you recognize me?
You haven’t changed.
You sure have.
Do you recognize me now?
I was having a hard time finding the convergence point between the image in my head of the naked, giggling six-year-old Fern, my hand on her pussy (I had a name for it by then), and the voluptuous, lubricious, all-grown-up Fern standing before me. The thought of my hand on that pussy threatened to turn my swoon into an all-out syncope.
This time I consciously retreated into my Fortress of Time Dilation, tried to process it all without distortion. This chick wasn’t pissed at me, that much was clear. In fact, she seemed genuinely happy to see me. Once that was settled, my life passed before my eyes in two versions, what was and what could have been, the mirror image of Jimmy Stewart’s angel-aided vision in It’s a Wonderful Life. Only in my version, what was sucked big time; I was in the bin because I couldn’t cope with normal everyday shit. It’s what could have been that would have been the wonderful life. A profound sadness shrouded me like a hairshirt. I wanted to ball my body up into a fetus and be reborn. Absent that, I wanted to cry till I died. But I couldn’t do that either. My reptile mind took over and told me I had to maintain. So I wuz cool.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s great to see you.
1 Wavy Gravy shared a surname with the Mormon presidential hopeful of the car elevator and the binders full of women. He founded the Hog Farm Collective which built trails and fire pits and manned the free kitchen at Woodstock. And it was in Woodstock that Mr. Gravy is credited with giving the warning Do not take the brown acid. The brown acid is bad. And even though the Gravy man might defend himself as the Dadaist (Tristan Tzara?) once did (in my memory, at least, if not in fact), and I paraphrase, my words are not those of a peace treaty, they cannot be held against me, the need for any such defense is moot since that attribution simply ain’t how it went down. The real credit for the brown acid warning belongs to the slyly monickered Chip Monck, who made this announcement from the podium: To get back to the warning that I received. You may take it with however many grains of salt that you wish. That the brown acid that is circulating around us isn’t too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that. Of course it’s your own trip. So be my guest, but please be advised that there is a warning on that one, ok? But Senor Wavy’s way with an epigram is not up for debate. His Waiting for Godot-ish observation of the human condition, we’re all bozos on the bus/so might as well sit back/and enjoy the ride is perhaps his most profound, and will certainly gain him entry into the antechamber of the Bartlett’s Hall of Quotable Fame.
2 Margalit Fox (whom My Friend the Film Critic rightly considers to be an artist of the obit), pointed out in her March 14, 2011 necrology that Owsley was so widely known [that] he appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica article on LSD under the apparently unironic index term “Augustus Owsley Stanley III (American chemist),” [and that] The Oxford English Dictionary contains an entry for the noun “Owsley” as“an extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD.” Owsley was the psychedelic, autodidactic polymath, black sheep scion of a Kentucky political family (his gramps was first a congressman, then the governor of, and finally a senator from the Bluegrass State). Owsley began underground life as a sound engineer for the Grateful Dead nicknamed Bear but after LSD became a proscribed substance he found his calling as a self-taught chemist. His remarkably pure product, which rivaled pharmaceutical grade Sandoz shit, fueled the fabled Electric Kool Aid Acid Fests thrown by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. His various batches were so beloved they even had names — Blue Cheer, White Lightning, Purple Monterey (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Purple Haze which pissed Owsley off since he never wanted his product associated with anything other than crystal clarity). He moved to Australia in the 1980s, so he might survive what he believed to be a coming Ice Age that would annihilate the Northern Hemisphere (the underlying high concept that Roland Emerrich used in The Day After Tommorow to refine his evolving cinematic representations of the destruction of both LA and NYC). He died in an auto accident in 2011.
3 He recruited William F. Buckley Jr. for the secret society.
4 In 1960 while Ike was still the Prez and Khruschev had already threatened to bury us, had already debated modern kitchen design with Tricky Dick during his veep incarnation, but before he banged his shoe on the desk at the General Assembly in a fit of pique, the Commies shot down a U-2 spy plane piloted by Frances Gary Powers (a CIA pilot) as it flew over Soviet territory. The Bolshies went all Captain Renault on it and claimed that they were shocked, shocked to find out that there was spying going on. They luxuriated in the moral authority of it all, putting Powers on trial, and convicting him. Two years later they released him in a prisoner exchange for Rudolf Abel, a Brit-born spy convicted in the US of A in what was known as the Hollow Nickel Case because he passed his purloined microfiche to his handlers inside reamed-out coins.
5 The night after the Rev. King was killed, while parts of New York and Chicago still burned, I braved the mean streets and bopped over to the Felt Forum, where I joined 5,000 fellow pucknuts to watch the Rangers, winners of the first two games of the series, lose to the Blackhawks, who would then go on to win three more games in a row; and even though my long-suffering fanship should have inured me to yet another lost season, the Blueshirts’ elimination, sad to say, left me much more bereft than the murder of MLK Jr.
6 The night that President Droopy threw in the towel I was having dinner with Fern (of whom much more a little further on) in a Mexican restaurant on Greenwich Street (I think) with a name starting with El but not El Parador, which was pricey and on east 34th. When we stepped out of the place having finished off our combo plates and obligatory flan, we were swept up in a ecstatic mob working its way east, to St. Marks I suppose, their hive mind working overtime, processing Droopy’s speech and mistakenly thinking we had won, that the war would be over before morning, and that all that dope-y protesting actually amounted to more than a hill of beans in our crazy world. How very fucking wrong they were.
8 On February 24, 1972, two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, the Manchester Union Leader published a letter purportedly written by Muskie of Maine that revealed him to have an animus against Americans of French-Canadian descent whom he referred to by the pejorative Canucks. Muskie felt honor- bound to defend himself. Big mistake. He made a speech in front of the newspaper’s offices, which from that day on became known simply as “the crying speech,” because the man blubbered like a baby. Since Amurrica cannot abide a commander in chief who’s a crybaby, Muskie’s candidacy crashed and burned. This worked out really well for Gollum, since Muskie was thought by many to pose the greatest threat to his second term. It therefore came as no surprise when the FBI revealed that the Canuck Letter was part of the dirty tricks campaign against Democrats orchestrated by CREEP, the perfectly acronym-ed Committee to Re-Elect the President, none other than that dick Nixon his own damn self.
9 Gaslight gained a new definition because of the 1944 film in which Charles Boyer tries to drive his wife insane, his wife played by Ingrid Bergman, who earlier famously played Ilsa Lund to Bogey’s Rick in Casablanca, and who in 1950, after a decade of stardom in American films, went to Italy and starred in Stromboli, which led to a love affair with her director, Roberto Rossellini, while they were both married to others. The affair and then marriage to Rossellini created a shonda in the US that forced her to remain in Europe until 1956, when she made her successful Hollywood return in Anastasia. The Urban Dictionary offers this definition of gaslight — an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim — having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception._
10 Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887. In 1932 Smith Kline & French, a patent medicine outfit looking to branch out into serious pharmacology, marketed a water-soluble version of amphetamine that they called Benzedrine. They sold it in inhaler form, promoting it as a bronchial dilator. Each inhaler contained 325 milligrams of speed. As soon as they removed the Do Not Overdose warning on the label the product took off. One of the more popular ways people used it to dilate their bronchia was breaking the inhaler open, taking out the medicated strip, and dunking it into their morning cup of Joe. That’s how Charlie Parker took the A train. In WW II amphetamine was drafted by both the Allied and the Axis powers. They provided their soldiers with speed in order to make them more alert and more aggressive. (It was as much Benzedrine as bushido that sent those kamikaze pilots suiciding into our warships.) Hitler led by example — Der Führer was a speed freak; his personal physician shot him up with the shit several times daily. Albert Speer blamed speed for the loopy decision-making that enabled Hitler to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. If Speer is to be believed, and Hitler’s meth-tardation derailed the Final Solution then we must seriously consider adding speed to the good-for-the-Jews column of the ledger.
11 See footnote 8 in “Chance is the Fool’s Name for Fate Part 1: Of All the Gin Joints…”