The death of Augustus Owsley Stanley III last week immediately made me see, resting in the palm of my hot little hand, that iconic purple tablet engraved with a tiny image of Batman on its convex surface. In a novel I recently completed, Airtight, the prologue, set thirty years before the story actually begins—it’s the tale of two desperate middle-aged men, now out of work and in debt, who return to their old college to dig up drugs they’d buried three decades earlier in hopes of selling it and getting back on their feet—details an acid trip, in fact my last, taken when I was at my first college. The same college that decided, after two years of me, that I was “socially unacceptable.” Which I think was more true than they suspected at the time.
For reasons best known to my youthful mind, I ended up in a college in southern Indiana, some twenty miles south of Indianapolis (known then as “Naptown,” which I fervently believed had something to do with the fact that, unlike my native New York, there was nothing to do there but sleep). This was an accident, I must confess, an aberration of sorts, and in the end a kind of hilarious mistake. I should have gone to college in New England (which I eventually did) or California, but I ended up in what was most certainly part of the American South.
On my first night there I, and various others from my dorm, were walking to some sort of social event thrown for incoming freshmen. One of these guys stopped me and said, as though reciting lines from a very bad anti-drug movie, “Now that you’re no longer living at home, you might want to consider trying something a little mind-bending.” He handed me a lit joint. As I puffed away he went on, “Of course it probably won’t hit you the first time, and you may have to try it again—“ But by that time I was half out of my mind with glee. I said, “Where can I get more of this stuff?”
By the end of the school year I was addicted to crystal meth and was smoking anything anyone offered me. I spent that summer—what has become known as “The Summer of Love” (though I would call it the Summer of Very Good Dope)—living in the West Village and working on weekends at a store on East 10th Street that sold consignment articles, provided free macrobiotic stew (which I sometimes was asked to cook up, a tasteless, thin, nauseating thing that we served to runaways from Scarsdale, while we, who worked there, ate pastrami sandwiches from the 2nd Avenue Deli), and offered the comforts of a day-glo trip room as well as a “meditation room,” fully outfitted with Indian music, incense and, to the pleasure of some, mattresses. We also sold underground newspapers from all over the country as well as the usual paraphernalia of the drug culture—pipes and screens and such. Once, before coming to work on a busy Saturday night, I shared a joint with the same guy who offered me one that first night of college—his cousin owned the shop and he lived a few blocks away—grass so potent that not long after I stationed myself on the store’s window seat as the crowds of tourists and hippies started to pour in, I rolled onto the floor in a four-hour stupor. Amazingly, there was very little shoplifting, and the register remained closed. Nor did anyone call the police or summon an ambulance. I was just another body sprawled out on the floor. Something we all saw fairly frequently back then. I wasn’t even fired for my indiscretion. Which was fine by me, as I was paid not in cash but in chunks of high-grade Moroccan opium, which, combined with speed, provided one with something pretty close to being asleep and dreaming while you were completely and vividly awake, like some hideous criminal from the pages of Conan Doyle.
A week or so later a friend and I decided to go see Eric Burdon and the Animals, not so much because we were huge fans of their music (“The House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” were their big hits; heard once they were fine; heard twice they quickly grew dull), as much as we had two bucks burning holes in our pockets, and it was, well, just something to do. We arrived and got on line, only to be told that Eric was sick and his bass player, Chas Chandler, wanted to put on instead a guy he managed who’d just made a big splash at Monterey. The guy’s name was Jimi Hendrix. I had no idea who this was and suggested we split and find something else to do, such as take more opium and speed and maybe go see “Blow-Up” for the fourth time at the cinema on 8th Street (we’d seen it three times in a row a few weeks earlier). But my friend said that he’d read that this Hendrix played guitar with his teeth. So we paid our two bucks and went in. The club held maybe 150 people, tops. The opening acts were the ubiquitous Richie Havens and a band led by Jeremy Steig, a flute-player and son of the great William Steig. We sensed that something big was happening when a waitress shooed some customers away from a table near the bandstand. “That’s Bobby Dylan’s reserved table.” Dylan didn’t show up—he would’ve stolen the show—but Jimi Hendrix came on and was, well, amazing.
A week later my friend suggested I drop acid. Until then I’d been cautious about doing acid, and the people who owned the store where I worked were adamant that taking any hallucinogenics was a serious matter. Acid was a way inwards, fraught with all matter of dangers, and one could only do it with a guide. And, they insisted, if I was really intent on taking LSD I should only take one of Owsley’s products, as they were very clean and very reliable. In fact, I’d been fully aware of how they managed to get their supply of acid. I quote from Airtight:
The Owsleys came via Railway Express in duffle bags all the way from San Francisco. Trading on the street for twenty bucks a pop, these were bought wholesale and by the gross for a nickel apiece from a dealer known only as Superspade, who lived somewhere in the Bay Area. People took turns going to Grand Central to claim the thing, handing in their ticket and hefting the bag onto their shoulder for the long tense walk past the cops that always seemed to be hanging inside the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance where, especially in the winter, the heating vents were most active. Deliveries ended when Superspade was found stabbed, shot and left dangling in a sleeping-bag from the top of an oceanside cliff in Marin; though there was also a rumor back East that his torso was found floating in San Francisco Bay, and that every few weeks another essential element of Superspade—a Superhand, a Superleg—would bob up to be retrieved.
My guide was my friend with whom I’d gone to see Hendrix. An acid trip is made up more or less of three parts, the middle being the riskiest, and it’s why a guide is important. It’s when you can lose your identity, and when, if you’re not guided, you can lose your mind. For good. I managed to retain a good portion of mine, and once I got through it my friend put on a record that had just been released—Jimi Hendrix’s first album. I was hooked. It was then I began taking weekly trips, almost always with one of Owsley’s products. Once I was back in Indiana I would drop a tab every Friday afternoon before my Romantic Poetry class, and by the time class was dismissed I was a happy guy, floating back to my dorm room for my eight hours of bliss. By then I no longer needed a guide, though I’d taught my roommate, a responsible, serious psychology major, how to help me out if I needed help. I also began to build up a tolerance to acid, so I’d drop a tablet, then five hours later take another. Sometimes I took two at once. That was when I decided I needed something a little stronger. A friend in Brooklyn, who’d been asked to leave the college the previous year, was my connection. He’d always been able to provide me with anything I wanted, from drugs to electric guitars (“Where’d you find this?” “It fell off the back of a truck on Bay Parkway.”) This time he outdid himself. Enclosed, as always, between the covers of birthday cards designed for four-year-olds, the white powder was flattened between sheets of foil. I had no idea how much was there or what a single dose would look like, so I took most of it, that February afternoon, and headed for class. What I write in Airtight happened exactly as I relate it. The main character, whom I call Nick, stands in for me, just as the fictional town and college of Allenville, Pennsylvania, stands in for where I really was at the time. I set it a few years later than it actually happened:
He drifted back to his cinderblock dorm room, with its Tensor lamp, KLH stereo and poster of Allen Ginsberg in an Uncle Sam hat, put Jimi Hendrix’s first LP on the turntable, and lay down on his bed to settle in for the remainder of his trip. He held a hand out in front of his face, and though it was numb, though when he touched it with his other hand it was like something made of rubber, it shimmered like a bulb about to burn out, then—zzzzip—disappeared. He made a fist and it reappeared. Groovy, man, he would have commented under other circumstances, but something was different. He sat up and looked at the record spinning around and it was no longer black, it was flesh-colored and soft and the needle seemed to be carving canyons into it. He reached over and pulled the plug and Jimi sang “Manic de…press…ion…is…”
“Okay,” he said to himself as he sat up. “Be calm. Be cool. Relax.” He put his hands on his thighs and they seemed to sink into them.
Deep breaths. Nice thoughts: pretty girls, good music. Happy, happy.
Nick stood in front of the mirror mounted over his desk. His first twenty trips or so had been guided by one friend or another who knew what they were doing. But Nick was a pro by now, and this time, when things were starting to tilt into the Very Weird and Abnormal he had no one to count on; at least no one any closer than a specialist in freak-outs known as Magic Mike, who lived on 13th Street and Avenue A, which required a toll call and a bus ticket. He lit a Camel and when he went to take a drag his hand blended in with his face and his cigarette fell to the floor.
He bent down to pick it up and when he stood he was gone. He had no reflection. He had disappeared. It was a completely finished hallucination, something brilliant and ingenious that he would have admired had he not been the object of it: all three dimensions were covered. In his eyes he had become nothing, not even a faint outline. In the mirror he could even see through himself to the furnishings behind him: the Jimi Hendrix record as it melted into the turntable; his bed, last made, oh, some three weeks ago: he was the haunter and the haunted, all at the same time. And then it came to him: he’d opened a metaphysical door and was standing on the threshold of his own death. He was both in a dorm room in Allenville, Pennsylvania and in a place that was beyond time. One step and he would be gone forever.
This was the big one, he thought, the thing bands from San Francisco to London had sung about, that sacred texts had so reverently spoken of as something attainable only after a life—or many lives—of contemplation and abstinence; the state of grace that would change his life forever: the Clear White Light itself. At least one of the Beatles had been there (he could never see Ringo or Paul communing with the Great Divine, and as for the edgy John, well that was anybody’s guess); David Crosby had a permanent round-trip ticket to it, as though he had access to a shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Nirvana; and the Velvet Underground, who wrote a song with nearly the same name, had achieved it through different means. But now he had joined the pantheon of the Enlightened, he had been ambushed by the One Magnificent Truth. It was staring him in the face and his fate was sealed. He knew the meaning of life. He understood what people tried to say when they spoke of God. Kubrick’s 2001 now made perfect, impeccable sense to him. All that was left was for him to step up to the window, crack it open and let himself drop. He wouldn’t die; only his body would be crushed and mutilated, but he sensed—no, he knew—he would live on somehow, and in that state, whatever it may be, he would be a force in the universe: a shadow in an afternoon world; a breeze that breaks the stillness of evening. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass and peered down to see not a monolith standing in a lunar crater, but a red Firebird, a black VW Beetle, and the housemother’s shit-colored Buick. One of them might be in for a big surprise.
But there was a choice. There was a choice, there was a choice, there is a choice, and the words kept running through his head as he paced the room and caught glimpses in the mirror of his not being there out of the corner of his eye. He could live through this. He’d be damaged in some obscure way, he knew that much, he might end up in a vegetative state in an institution outside Buffalo for the rest of his days, dutifully visited by his aging parents each week until they ran out of money, time and patience for the eight-hour bus ride from Jersey; or he might turn out to be a valuable member of society; brilliant and blazing beyond anyone’s expectations, a kind of savior or prophet, a man whose eyes glowed with intelligence and insight. Women would flock to him, chauffeurs would open doors for him, he would walk on water and when he wasn’t walking on water he’d be counting his millions. The choice was his to make. And with that, death was off the table.
There was nowhere else to go but back to the beginning. Carrying the knowledge of the nature of existence, he had to start all over again, this time from scratch. He was a baby in a bubble, rising up over Jupiter, far, far away from home. Cue the music. Bring on the awe.
But first he had to bang like hell on the wall and get some help.
And that ended my drug career. No more grass, no more acid, certainly no more meth. That last acid trip came to revisit me, though, sporadically over the years, coming upon me at odd times: once when walking into Grand Central I went into full trip-mode and somehow made it on to the subway without hurling myself onto the tracks; another time, in my next college, where I passed for a Very Serious Student, in a Victorian Novel class, when I began hallucinating and had to restrain myself from standing up and doing something very dangerous either to myself or the person sitting in front of me. For years after that I could summon up what’s known as a flashback, and I could probably do it now, all these many years later. But I’m content in having gone to the very edge, to seeing what it was all about, and to appreciate the lessons of the Clear White Light. Thanks, Owsley, for paving the way for me.