When we enter How I Accidentally Started the Sixties, it is 1962, and our hero, a 19-year old named Howard Bloom is barefoot with a Harpo Marx haircut of a kind unknown to Western Civilization for roughly 300 years. The Beatles haven’t arrived to make long hair acceptable yet, and even when they will, their mop-tops will not emerge from their scalps like foot-long worms curled in terminal pain. Bloom is seeking Zen Buddhist enlightenment, Satori. To find it, he is hitchhiking and illegally riding freight trains up and down the West Coast, carrying a thoroughly disreputable sleeping bag packed with food and a five gallon Clorox jug filled with Kool Aid. Deceived by the notion that he has answers when, in fact, all he has is questions, a smattering of otherwise sensible humans have dropped out of their jobs and their college courses and followed Bloom to Berkeley, California, where they’ve holed up in a big, pink condemned house three blocks from the Berkeley University campus and have adopted a new clothing style: 24/7 nudity. Meanwhile, a fist-hard woman with red hair and a deliciously slender frame has dragged Bloom from Berkeley to San Pedro, California, for a month. But…
The time had come to leave San Pedro and head back to the Bay Area, where my clan had by now abandoned its big, pink, condemned house and found new quarters in the heart of San Francisco’s black ghetto. The super-slum neighborhood of choice was called The Fillmore district, but Bill Graham wouldn’t discover it for another three or four years, so at the moment, we were the only people in the district whose faces had the reflective qualities that make your cheeks and chin clearly visible at night. The rent for the new abode was dirt cheap, because the spacious seven-room apartment was on the fourth floor of a building whose first two stories had been burned to a fine ash, leaving only several columns of questionable strength holding up the higher floors and a stairway that wobbled in the wind, but with care could convey the intrepid to the two surviving stories, the two remaining apartments in the sky.
Trailing me as I left San Pedro was an 18-year-old who had become hypnotized by my tales of seeking the spiritual holy grail and insisted on leaving his summer job at the post-office, his future as a college student, his horrified middle-class parents, and, so far as I could see, his sanity.
The two of us set out for the open road, and sure enough were blessed with instant luck. A brand new blue Chevrolet, the kind that in those days— before a luxury automobile was downsized to fit on a charm bracelet and manufactured in Germany or Japan—could do 120 miles per hour, pulled over and offered us a ride all the way to SF. Well, actually, it wasn’t the car that made the offer. It was the kid inside, a 19 or 20 year-old in a genuine cheap suit who said it was his dad’s car, and that he’d been attending a business convention in San Diego. Now in those days, I was the only person from Buffalo, New York, over the age of 16 who had never gotten a driver’s license. But I LOVED to stomp my left foot on an accelerator. Miracle of miracles, the driver said he was tired, and asked if one of us would mind taking the wheel...he wanted to take a nap. I couldn’t wait to sidle into the pilot’s seat, which I did with the swiftness of a lizard insisting that a fast-moving bug enjoy the hospitality of its mouth.
Then our host, yawning from the back seat, asked if we’d mind pulling the car into a filling station and putting some gas in the tank. He’d pay for the fuel, he said, but someone had stolen his wallet at the convention and his credit cards were all gone. My post-office runaway acolyte and I pooled our spare change, pulled into a station, and purchased $2.33 cents worth of nourishment for the machine’s innards. When the attendant asked us to turn off the engine, we discovered we couldn’t. There were no keys. We asked our genial friend, who was laying so low in the back that you’d have thought he was auditioning to be a carpet, where the keys were. “Oh,” he whispered, “they were in my wallet when it was nabbed.”
The gas jockey kindly agreed to dole out a few drinks to our thirsty gas-guzzler despite the fact that its pistons were still spitting internal bursts of flame.
Then we set off on our travels again, glorying in the realization that it was 2:30 AM. Why? Because this meant the six-lane highway was almost totally empty, and I could methodically test the technical limits of the engines they shoved into Chevys. Frankly, it wasn’t a bad little V-8. It cruised comfortably at 115 mph. I didn’t take it much above that speed. After all, I was driving illegally, and I didn’t want to push my luck.
Our only bad fortune came when we were barreling down the tarmac and some vehicle bore down upon us from behind flashing ominous red lights. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “the cops.” So I hit the brakes like a sledgehammer, decelerating at a rate that nearly tossed our heads through the windshield. This was not, it turned out, a wise move. The thing behind us had no ability to slow down at a commensurate speed. As our rapid descent in velocity brought the vehicle on our tail to within about thirty feet of our back bumper, I finally made out in the rear view mirror exactly what it was—a Mack truck bigger than Darth Vader’s death star hurtling toward us at 120 miles an hour. It had red-lighted us as a signal to move to the right and let it pass. Thank God Chevys in those days could accelerate. I smashed the gas pedal half-way through the floorboards and we gathered momentum fast enough to avoid becoming just another squashed bug on the Mack’s already insect-littered grill.
We hit the San Francisco area just as the sun was coming up and all the early-morning commuters were emerging to park their cars on the highway. But we made it through the morass, finally dropped ourselves off at my coven’s new location, and thanked the guy in the back seat profusely for the ride.
It was only as we were climbing the swaying stairs to the new apartment that I began to put two and two and two together to get six (arithmetic has never been my strong point, as you’ll recall from my numerous similarities to Albert Einstein). The guy with the Chevy had no money, no keys, and had made damned sure he wasn’t driving the car. In fact, while he made himself respectable by wearing a suit and looking inconspicuously horizontal, he positioned this guy at the wheel whose overgrown haircut and shoeless approach to sartorial elegance would make him highly suspicious in the eyes of guys in blue uniforms. The car was STOLEN!
And here I’d been flying it across the desert at slightly subsonic speeds WITHOUT A LICENSE. If we’d been caught, the car’s “owner” would simply have claimed that HE’D been the hitchhiker, we’d picked HIM up, and if there was a theft involved, surely WE must have been the ones to pull it off.
But due to some happy accident, instead of landing in the slammer, we were safe at home (assuming the stairs held up until we could get to the top floor, and that the four scorched steel posts supporting what was left of the building didn’t buckle). Maybe there WAS a God after all!
At any rate, we made it to the upper stories and let ourselves in to the new, unlocked apartment, which was as still as a midnight church on New Year’s Eve, when good Christians are too busy getting plastered to worship anything that doesn’t come in a bottle. The floor was littered with nondescript lumps of fabric. At first the early morning light made it difficult to puzzle out exactly what they were. Then one of the bundles came alive. The heaps of rags were sleeping bags.
The first head to pop out was that of Carol Maynard, the highly tactile female who had found me “cat-like” and had welcomed me to her interior pleasure dome. She screamed my name with a heart-toasting delight, and dashed out of her textile cocoon, totally naked, flinging her arms around me in glee. Her voice woke the others, and within seconds, over a dozen equally unclothed bodies, male and female, had piled themselves in a giant hugging mound around me. It was nice to feel wanted.
When the human heap disbanded, I tried to introduce my follower from San Pedro to the crowd, only to discover he had disappeared. A brisk search revealed him sitting on the creaking stairs with his head in his hands, the victim of traumatic shock. He’d never seen a naked female before without a staple in her navel, and the sight of a whole tribe of them had thrown him into panic. “I don’t think I can take this,” he groaned. Within an hour, he was on the highway trying to thumb his way back to San Pedro, his parents, and his job at the post-office. His spiritual quest, had been, how should we say this... brief.
I reentered the apartment, distressed that we’d upset the kid so profoundly. But my friends had incredible news to share. They had discovered the magic elixir that unlocked the secrets of the universe, the mystic potion that allowed those in psychic pain to descend into the basement of the human mind and straighten out the plumbing, the lens through which the wonders of the universe could be seen in all their glory. It was the stuff the graduate biochem students at Berkeley had learned to synthesize in their spare time. These scholars had been kind enough to make their magic formula available to the world, sweetened and wrapped in handy, reusable aluminum foil. For this act of kindly sorcery, they were charging a mere pittance—$5.00 a cube. Their key to the secrets of a painfully tangled cosmos was called LSD.
LSD! I recognized the name immediately. It was lysergic acid diethylamide, the stuff Aldous Huxley (or was it Julian?) had lectured about on the BBC when I’d been glued to my bed as a high school student worshipping at the shrine of my antique wooden Crosley radio.
What’s more, my companions had managed to get their hands on genuine buttons of peyote cactus—not the dried and shredded remains Reed College students had baked the potency out of and placed in gelatin capsules, but the genuine article, looking like each bud had just been hand-plucked from the nearest swollen Lophophora Williamsii plant. And, miracle of miracles, this stuff had the same kind of mind-unpeeling effect as LSD!
So the next morning, the time arrived to embark on my first Fantastic Voyage (unfortunately, without the scientific assistance of Raquel Welch) and to follow Huxley into the brave new world of the cosmic interior.
First my companions gave me culinary tips. Peyote cactus tastes about as yummy as fresh-stewed salmonella. Some advised covering it with ketchup. Others recommended blending it in a milk shake. But everyone agreed, no human could eat it raw and survive the mutinous violence of raped and ravaged taste buds. So I decided to be brave and munch the stuff without condiments or secret sauce. Indeed, it did taste as if the luckless plant had died of gangrene, and now my mouth was on the verge of following its example. But I brushed my teeth and lived.
A half an hour later, as I lay on the floor in my sleeping bag, the window facing the street turned into the conning tower of the Starship Enterprise. The apartment soared through space, looking for fresh planets to conquer. But outer space wasn’t the dark place it’d been cracked up to be. It was filled with California sunshine.
Then I noticed the way the sunlight hit the walls. The colors didn’t seem as permanent as usual. They shifted from pink to green to purple, depending on a slight tweak of the control knobs in your mind. I removed a panel from the mental control board, and tried to watch the machinery at work. Sure enough, color wasn’t some external absolute. It was filled in artificially by a network of neuronal machinery between the surface of my eye and my brain as if the busy sensory cells were children crayoning between the empty outlines in a coloring book. And which crayons they used was something you could fiddle with.
I poked around a little further in the tangled circuitry below my consciousness. Sure enough, just like all the mystics and Zen masters had said, way down at the bottom of my brain was a small source of spontaneity, spitting out instant reactions to everything in sight. But those responses were strapped into a wheelchair and whisked through a massive hospital of spin doctors before they were spilled, after some delay, into my carefully tailored awareness. They were checked for social acceptability, plastic-surgeried to fit my notions of my self, given a haircut to appeal to the folks around me, sartorially inspected to make sure they wouldn’t make me look like a fool, then, only after a careful reworking in the makeup department and a final quality check, were they handed an official script and allowed to step out onto the stage of my mind to recite their reshaped tidings.
So THAT’S how the whole thing worked?!!?
Then I stared at the ceiling and began to visualize masterworks Botticelli and Van Gogh had never imagined, creations that were mine, all mine. I wanted to grab a brush and palette and get them down on paper. But, in fact, I hadn’t been capable of moving a muscle for over an hour. Next, I opened my mouth, let out a soft “ooooh,” and noticed the sound of my voice. What an intriguing noise! I varied the pitch. The fresh resonance was fantastic. For half an hour, I lay there “ooohing,” oblivious to the fact that other folks in the room might find this lengthy series of variations on a whale call slightly disconcerting.
Eventually, the fascination with the finer nuances of the external senses and the interior mind wore off, and I tried to move. I put on some shorts, and went outdoors. But I had fallen drastically down the evolutionary ladder and was bent over like an Australopithecus. If I’d had my druthers, I’d have knuckle-walked. However your average pre-ice-age throwback was taken perfectly for granted on the sidewalks of San Francisco.
Those are the good parts. My mind has been kind enough to erase the bad ones, but they were legion. Every conceivable demon came crawling out of my internal depths to sculpt its personal mini-hell from the putty of my conscious mind. Every psychic pain ever imagined by man sloshed boiling oil on the tender walls of my skull’s interior. Twenty four hours later, I realized that I had been given the greatest tour of the human brain in my life. I had learned things about my inner workings that would forever alter my outlook on life. But I also knew I’d been dragged through circles of hell even Dante had been unable to imagine, and I never wanted to take the stuff again. I never did.
That may have been a mistake. Some years later, Solomon Snyder, discoverer of endorphins and opiate receptors, would confess that he’d briefly plunged in where I’d left off and had emerged with a Nobel Prize.
On subsequent nights, I would see Carol Maynard take these prettily putrid nubbins of cactus and lay on the floor at what were allegedly parties, going through alternate cycles of death and resurrection. One moment she’d be in heaven, wide-eyed at its wonders. The next she’d be in hell’s incinerator, writhing with a pain there was nothing I could do to soothe. Little did any of us suspect it at the time, but she was taking her first steps into a desperate world.
Peyote was just the overture. The opera would come with more LSD. We stocked up for a grand expedition to Big Sur to try the stuff out. All dozen of us were slated for the trip. Some semi-stranger I never met had said we could use his lean-to on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. We’d stay there for two days. We needed all the steaks and Fig Newtons we could get our hands on. I took the responsibility for raiding the local supermarkets (I also used to do a lot of cooking for our assembled horde in those days; just call me Mother Bloom). Then, through some means of transportation I’ve long since forgotten (all I know is that Scotty didn’t beam us there), we ended up on the wild and nearly untouched shores of the Pacific.
Our lean-to was just that. It had a roof and one measly wall for the overhang to lean on. But the three empty spaces where the walls of a more complete building would have been had a terrific view. If you swung your gaze to the right, you looked north along the narrow cliff ridge that hung out over the beach 300’ feet below. If you swung your head left, you looked south to a ridge that swept in a gentle curve and posted a stone parapet far out in the ocean two or three miles away. If you looked straight out, you stared west over the corduroy-gray waves that eventually led—if you happened to be a purposeful and persistent porpoise—to Hawaii. Behind your head and the lean-to’s single wall were mountains covered with evergreens.
I’d read Robinson Jeffers’ poems on Big Sur, but it was still hard to believe that any human except for the Tarzan who had built our lean-to had ever been here.
We opened our first morning with a breakfast featuring fruit, cereal, milk and fortified sugar cubes...all your basic food groups, plus a tad of extra nutrient for the brain. Then we took off our clothes to hike down the cliff and visit the beach, despite the fact that your most intrepid mountain goat wouldn’t have dared navigate that particular precipice without a parachute.
But we had all the confidence in the world. I mean, the sugar cubes hadn’t discombobulated our cerebella yet, and we were in pretty good shape. Granted, none of us had ever climbed anything more complicated than an escalator, but what’s the big deal about some measly overhang the height of the Sears Tower with nothing but rocks—mostly sharp ones—at the bottom? So down we scrambled, one after the other, unprotected by even an athletic supporter with an inflatable air bag.
Miracle of miracles, we were all doing pretty well, finding tree roots to dangle from and rock ledges three inches wide on which to rest our naked toes. Then, about half way down, a strange thing happened. Somebody kicked open those old doors of perception and invited us in. The Mad Hatter poured tea, the dormouse complained about being locked in the wrong pot (he would have preferred cannabis), Alice was a little confused but otherwise very charming, though I must confess she was a bit young for me, and the rabbit seemed in a big hurry about something, probably having a hard time waiting for Alice to gain a few years and grow breasts.
But I didn’t have time for Lewis Carroll. My mind was too busy with Robert Louis Stevenson. I had been transformed into Ben Gunn, the hermit of the mountain, the miraculous old Treasure Island goat-man who could climb any vertical surface on the planet, then turn around and spit so accurately that he could hit a pirate in the eye from nearly a half a mile up (which is no mean feat when you consider that pirates only have one eye—the other is covered with a black patch; what’s more, if you’re an animal lover, you have to avoid spraying fugitive droplets on the blaggard’s parrot).
Unfortunately, Mr. Gunn, despite his years of experience, had gotten himself into a bit of trouble. Just as he’d come to life, his host, the genial and ever-generous Howard Bloom, had done something dumb. He’d stepped carefully from one tiny outcrop to another until he’d found himself on a six-foot-long by two-inch-wide ledge. A perfect place to stop and rest, except for one minor flaw. There were no footholds below for a good 20 feet. It was a clean, sheer drop. And the niches that had provided the path down to this wonderful launch site had mysteriously disappeared, leaving no way to go back up and try again. Yes, I seemed to have two alternatives. Stay there until I turned ninety, hoping that Saint Francis’s birds would feed me. Or entertain myself with the three-second drop to my doom.
Who the hell knows how I got out of this? I certainly don’t. Old Ben Gunn must have taken over, because somehow I ended up sidling to the far end of the ledge and by a miracle beyond the powers of all the virgins of Lourdes, found another crack into which I could wedge my toe and start the descent down again.
When I finally reached the bottom, I and my companions were too stoned to realize how astonishing it was that we were still alive. Embracing us was the strangest beach we had ever seen. It was solid black. There was no sand, just round, ebony pebbles. The entire expanse was a mere 200 feet across. The reason? The beach was shaped like a slivery moon—medium deep in the center, but narrowing to tiny points toward the ends. Sealing the crescent off on either side were thin stone walls a hundred feet high jutting like the flying buttresses of a cathedral into the sea. And the ocean, not content to be outdone by this architectural bravura, was tossing waves the height of bungalows at the buttress’ far ends, smashing like Poseidon’s fists on a morning when he couldn’t find his favorite swim fins.
Meanwhile, the chemical potion had pulled one of its specialties: reworking the fabric of time. Enough fantasies to program 110 cable channels for a month went flashing through our brains in roughly three seconds. Then we’d shift our eyes in a new direction, and another month of scripts would fast-forward through our interior picture tubes. There was only one problem. We were the starring characters in every teleplay, which meant we were switching identities at the rate of about one per nanosecond.
I had reverted to my australopithecine l condition again, and was walking the beach on all fours, testing the ground with my front paw while my remaining limbs formed a sturdy tripod holding me hunchedly horizontal and waiting for the test results from the probing forward paw to come in. This proved very handy when climbing through the narrow 20’-foot long by three-foot wide cave-slits in the towering outcrops of rock that separated the crescent-shaped beaches from each other, since any piece of shale you put your foot on could carry you like a toboggan into the sea. That faithful antenna of the fourth limb up ahead kept you from accompanying some mineral super-sled into the waves. And these waves were not the kind you’d want to mess with. They’d have whisked you to a farewell vacation in the mixing bowl at Club Cuisinart.
Then we discovered limpets. These are dainty half-clams that cling to the rocks. Pry one off, and you can watch the naked creature at work inside, a pink bit of flesh puckering up its lips in the hope of sucking solid surface and feeding on algae. I’m afraid we were not very humane about these innocent beasts. We pried them out of their shells, still lip-synching to records only they could hear, and ate them. Meanwhile, the entire evolution of the universe flashed through our minds in an animation drawn by Disney, directed by Spielberg, and garnished with special effects by the team that would someday make Star Wars.
Perched on the base of one of the stone buttresses that stretched far out into the sea, with waves thundering around as they ground rocks into sand and reached their spray-tipped fingers up to grab us if they could, I had my big insight for the day. I was with Alice, the ravishing brunette of a previous episode who had been lured into our group by Dick Hoff’s charms. I was still very, very shy about sex, and felt that there was something essentially evil about being male, something deeply malevolent about wanting women in a physical way. Images of masculine figures flashed through my mind, villains with curling mustaches whose unspeakable sin had been their lust for the body of an innocent heroine.
Then I remembered a little Pakistani businessman who had picked up Hoff, Carol Maynard and me one day when we’d been hitchhiking in the San Francisco area. The Pakistani had invited us to spend the night in his home, and since we were apartment-hunting at the time (the deal on the burned-out abode had yet not crossed our path) and had no place else to sack out, we’d accepted his generous offer.
Our host fed us a very nice dinner, which he cooked himself, since his wife seemed to be out of town. Then he began to drink. When he got sufficiently potted, he asked Carol to sleep with him. He was little and round and the sort of person who, when he’s clothed, wears a suit and tie, and Carol did not find him the least bit appealing. Plus, believe it or not, she did not sleep with men on the first date. In fact, she didn’t date at all. She had reserved her body for Hoff, with a little bit of me thrown in when things looked desperate.
Carol was terrified. Dick, who was the epitome of kindness, protected her, but did it while trying not to hurt the Pakistani’s feelings. But the little Paki was oozing the pain of sexual frustration from every pore. As he had a few more drinks, he started to shed his clothes. First the tie, then the shirt, then the pants, and finally the underwear. His paunch was astonishingly round. His body hair was like the decoration on the Taj Mahal. It curled in elegant swirls around his navel and his nipples.
He began to walk in circles, holding his penis, bleating pathetically, “Why won’t she sleep with me? Why won’t she sleep with me?” Horniness is much too flippant a word for sexual deprivation. It does nothing to capture the state’s agonies. I identified with this man. His was the plight of 95% of the males on the planet, but it had been removed from beneath the floorboards where it is normally hidden and allowed to parade its misery for a moment in plain sight.
Dick protected Carol all night. I wished I could make this man feel better, but I simply couldn’t short of sexual contact, something I, like Carol, preferred to avoid. Our Pakistani host continued to amble in his circular path. Then he finally gave up, whimpering, and went off to his bedroom to practice his passing out. The next morning we left, with an image of something terribly basic tattooed on my frontal lobes. Naked, painful, unfulfillable sexual need.
Hunched on the outcrop of rock with Alice, while the sea tried to snatch us into oblivion, I BECAME the little Pakistani. I was pathetic and frustrated and I wanted sex. Not that Alice was unwilling. This was in the days before I’d tested her trellis, and I’d never dared ask. Then I realized that the nightmare of being cast in the body of an Asian inmate from sexual purgatory was telling me something. I had sexual needs just like everybody else. But I had been frightened to admit them to myself, much less do anything about them. My image of male sexuality as villainous, something that would get you kicked out of the cosmos and frozen in nothingness, might just be wrong. When I was attracted to a woman, I needed to face up to the fact and attempt to win her over, preferably charming her sufficiently so that I could enjoy a conversation unencumbered by the obstacle of her clothes.
Sometimes I learn lessons with the speed of a decorticated snail, but this time I got the message. I asked Alice to sleep with me. Surprisingly, Alice was pleased with the notion. She said yes. Much as my mind was still in the torture chambers beneath the House of Horrors dressed up as a naked Pakistani, I had enough wits about me to make a date with her for the day after next, when we’d be back in San Francisco with our brains tucked back into our skulls again.
The sun soon flashed a warning that the night show was about to go on. Old Sol dipped toward the water to take a bath, turning the sky a brighter crimson than a Bloomingdales towel in a blue-tiled bathroom with accessories of cloud-white. Addled as we were, we realized we had better climb the cliff again.
So up we went, finding toe-holds, grabbing on to roots, and hoping that the bit of bush we’d wrapped a fist around was well enough anchored in the crumbling cliff-face to hold our weight, since none of us particularly wanted to attempt manned flight without the aerodynamic aid of underwear. The sun dove beneath the surface to snorkel until morning. The last light ebbed, leaving us to the disapproving eyes of cold, indifferent stars. And we were only half way up the cliff.
With my naked body pressed against a wall of stone and soil, I felt that I was climbing mother nature’s breast, and that she loved and would protect me (boy, were her nipples hard). Then I reached for the next root, and with a shower of dirt it jerked out of the surface. I quickly let it go, and didn’t hear it hit the beach for three or four seconds. Suddenly I realized that Mother Nature, for all her maternal instincts, was apparently busy just then with another of her children, and I was on my own. With visions of limpets sucking their lips wall-papering my now darkened eyes, I somehow made it to the top. So did we all.
Rather than spending the night in the lean-to, we took our sleeping bags across the highway to the mountainous fir forest. Then we huddled together. By now, I felt like the puppy dog in the group, a faithful follower of someone, probably Dick Hoff, anxious to be cuddled, willing to be warm and friendly to anyone. Though many of these people had followed me into the group, I never felt like a leader. But puppy dogs apparently have their appeal. When we arranged our sleeping bags so that we’d all be touching as many of each other as possible, everybody wanted to have his or her bag next to mine. I was very surprised. But it felt nice. We hallucinated the fluorescent sea creatures we’d seen that afternoon in tidal pools, and they pulsated us to sleep.
Two days later, I was sober again, and sitting on a front lawn with Alice. Once again, I felt out step-by-step her interest in me. It was there. It was real. And a pleasant portion of it was carnal. I had learned the lesson of the LSD and would carry it with me for years.
But in point of fact, the vast majority of the fantasies that had elbowed their way through my brain that day in Big Sur were nightmares. Most of them had carried barbs of pain and poison. I never took LSD again either. But I never forgot what it had shown me.
Next came the great Methedrine experiment. A waltz with that stuff was also an eye-opener, but it proved a good reminder of the reasons to avoid asking for too many dances with pharmaceutical partners.
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How I Accidentally Started the Drug Culture in 1962