Tony Beers, Illustrations by D. Brenner
1-31-11 (revised – originally published 12-25-2010)
After hitchhiking from Washington, D.C. to Bakersfield, California in only two and a half days, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Trying to get a ride from there north toward Berkeley was another story. The exit ramp was not a particularly difficult place for cars to stop; it afforded distance for cars both on the ramp and the highway lanes to see us before stopping to safely pick us up. As the cool fog lifted in the brightness of the morning and the slow stream of the highway became a river in its rush hour, I remarked to Raymond that this was one of the best spots we’d been in since leaving the God-awful Aspen, Colorado city limits. We couldn’t get a ride from those people for nearly six hours until the local cops gave us a lift to Highway 70 outside of town, making us agree to never come back to their resort village full of privileged spring skiers working hard to keep their Colorado bronze skin and the $300 sunglasses that matched. Raymond said he was on a personal journey to see the world beyond Hawarden, Iowa, population 2332, where he had lived his entire 19 years in farm-boy heaven. His father couldn’t understand, beyond a two-year degree in agriculture and a taste of city girls at the community college in Des Moines, why a young man, given the opportunity of his father’s 2000-acre farm business, would want the wanderlust of fools.
Finally, after a long silence and another string of whooshing cars passed, I said, “I can’t understand these people, you know what I’m sayin’ Raymond? The Greyhound is callin’ my name every time one goes by.” I was so naïve, I had thought that once we entered the Golden State we’d have to fight off the rides from “the nicest people in the world.” The sun was a very nice warm friend though, a welcoming I clung to as the day wore on and the bloom of my unrealistic California dream with its love and peaceful togetherness came slowly off the bud. The stark reality of exhaust fumes in my face and the cold unrecognizable stares at 80 miles an hour left me more than disillusioned. Discontented, looking down at the discharged oil on the ground, unable to escape the thick putrid air, I felt like I was that famous lone Indian from the 1970’s with his single tear, silently protesting pollution, my sadness looming over the valley behind me.
“A Greyhound bus? That’s what I said two hours ago,” Raymond said, annoyed. Then, after some time, squatting on his haunches and staring into the gravel on the side of the road and letting his voice fall almost below the noise of the traffic, he continued:
“Oh, maybe you weren’t paying attention — too busy asking that pretty clerk at the convenience store where you could buy a big bag of California oranges — the ones that you said were the best in the world? Before you tell me again that I should eat some of these oranges, that they’ll keep me alive and cure me of all diseases — before you even mention another goddamn orange, I’d like you to know that growing up on a farm, I know food; and not only are the oranges in Florida superior, my family’s been growing our own fruit straight out of the good Iowa earth for as long as I can remember. I don’t want an orange now or even later on when you forget that I’ve told you this. I know you explained to me in detail that drugs were mind-expanding and would — how did you say it? ‘illuminate the darkness and mediocrity of my pedestrian life’ — but I gotta say, in the most country bumpkin I can muster, don’t you think you should consider laying off the LSD for at least a day or two? I mean, I’m not a doctor or anything, but you seem to be forgetting what you’ve said ten minutes ago, and yesterday you didn’t know what state we were in! All I want is to get to my uncle’s house in San Francisco where I can eat some real food.”
We decided to walk the three miles or so into beautiful downtown Bakersfield, consisting of a sea of warehouses, cheap motels, and greasy spoons. Amidst the smell of diesel that bounced off the 95 degree cement like a mirage, zombie-like fast food workers, and dirty palm trees there was a landmark full of interesting and dangerous characters: the Greyhound bus station. Now, after a few days on the road, no sleep and drugs (I don’t think farmer boy fully appreciated the psychotropic gifts I had talked him into taking) that were rapidly wearing off, we fit right in and secured two tickets to Berkeley. Settling down on the bus station’s hard wooden benches with the high backs, Raymond pulled me away from a senseless discussion with a fellow traveler whose opinion was that the government was controlling our thoughts. He thought I should be wearing a foil homemade cap like his in order to keep my conductors clear of the microwave messages sent out from the FBI. I happily agreed to listen, while I pestered foil-head to accept one of my miracle-cure oranges.
“Dude, maybe you should lay off the Reynolds Wrap for a minute and try some of these oranges. They’ll soak up some of those waves, man, I’m sure of it!” Raymond, thinking that I was just trying to be nice to the guy kept silent at first, but then simply and firmly stated a loud “NO” to the both of us: “You guys are both crazy!”
Arriving in the Berkeley station was literally a breath of fresh air. The breeze coming off the San Francisco Bay was definitely what I had expected and it held some semblance of hope against the reality check that the last 24 hours had bestowed upon me. Raymond and I had decided to part ways, but I hung around the station long enough to see that he found the right bus to San Francisco.
I left the station and walking up the sidewalk, I was in heaven. The same gleam of adventure in my eye that I had left the East Coast with returned and I was glad to have my spirit free and be on my own again. Beautiful palms divided by a huge median full of plants with big shiny green and red and yellow leaves lined the street. Surrounding them everywhere were California poppies and other wildflowers of every variety and color imaginable. The beginning of my experience here may have given me pause, but now my eyes, in an unending kaleidoscope of color, again saw only the Garden of Eden I had described to my friends back home. Seemingly very happy people were going about their daily business. Everywhere I looked, there were hip people doing hip things even if they were just strolling into the community bank, or out of the Laundromat – and so many young girls, just walking around without a care in the world or a prejudice to me looking at them. California Girls. They just looked me straight in the eye and smiled right back.
I walked across the street to a coffee house for a rare treat: good coffee — that is, you didn’t need three packets of Cremora and four sugars to make it taste right. Back East, coffee was usually brown water – thin, tasteless, and scalding hot. In 1981, Peet’s Coffee had made its appearance in Berkeley and Mill Valley, California, but its corporate morphing child, Starbuck’s Roasting Co., was some years from reaching the rest of the country.
I strolled further up the sidewalk, with my coffee, toward the top of the hill where all roads ended at the University of California Berkeley campus. I approached a small gathering outside a storefront that seemed to be a bar or small club, with posters taped in the window of various bands performing in the coming weeks. After deciding which pretty hippie-chick I was going to approach to ask what band was playing, how far is the campus from here, where’s the closest grocery store — anything that would start a conversation — suddenly I had the inclination to look up at the small marquee above the entrance of the bar.
I must admit that my first reasoning for coming 3000 miles to “Berserkley,” as the hipsters of the late ‘60’s affectionately dubbed it, was to see and hear a group of musicians who completely changed the way I looked at life and significantly influenced my struggle — the ball of frustration and rebelliousness within me — that blinding cacophony of youth that plagued me at 21 years old and long after those early spring days in 1981.
The Grateful Dead, the San Francisco rock band of epic psychedelic coolness, were to play a benefit concert that Saturday at the Berkeley Community Center for the Performing Arts. It was at that very moment when I fully realized that Jerry Garcia was, in fact, going to play with his own band in this tiny bar next to the campus that very night, two days before the benefit was to happen.
I knew it was meant for me to be there, and to get a ticket inside this bar was important, but it was only some years later that I understood just how significant that moment was for me. I walked away up the block to get my bearings. After finding food in the form of Blondie’s Pizza, a student favorite high on the hill, I headed back towards the forming line. On the way I stopped on the sidewalk and peered into a storefront window. I smiled at the middle-aged man restocking a display of flashlights in the small hardware. He was a bit startled at my childlike interest. My eyes beamed through the glass with a brilliance, a strength he seemed to recognize, but I couldn’t yet. My bliss, almost a religion that I often confused with higher consciousness, was what I later came to know as mere ignorance, that insolent blindfold of youth. Years later, I recognized the guy in the hardware store many times in the mentors I’ve had throughout my life. I wish I’d at least spoken to him.
When I left there had been just a few Deadheads mingling outside the club; when I got back I found a long line forming down the sidewalk. Taking my position at the back of the line, I began making friends, all of us vowing to hold each other’s places when we had to go get food or whatever. All I knew was that I was determined to be cool. Bakersfield may have been hell, but this was by far the place with the coolest people I’d seen in my life so far and I was determined to blend in, not be too cocky, and soak up the coolness for all it was worth.
As the line got longer it also got bigger, filling up most of the sidewalk with small circles of heads getting to know each other quickly, if they didn’t already. We played music and discussed scams to get into the show if we didn’t get one of the 250 tickets going on sale at seven o’clock. And, of course, we dealt drugs – no hard stuff really, but I wasn’t paying attention to anyone unless they were talking about LSD. Berkeley acid was still legendary among hippies in California, but for a kid from the East Coast and a ‘70’s second-generation head anyway, Berkeley was nothing short of Mecca. This was the source. The birthplace of Orange Sunshine and Purple Haze, this was where the Grateful Dead played as the house band for the original Acid Tests of 1965-67. It was 1981 now and here I was, finally, and it wasn’t too late and it was beautiful! We smoked dope right on the street and drank beer carefully. Like in any good college town the cops seemed to be at least tolerant. I lost track of the hippie chick I had had my eye on, but I didn’t care. There were so many women with us, or walking past and joining our burgeoning street party, or just teeming all over the place — the campus, the dorms, the bookstore, wow! Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, too. Totally comfortable in that moment, without any worry, I felt free. I was so excited. It was great to be alive.
By the time the afternoon faded into sunset, I was having the time of my life. When the guy came up the line stopping every now and then along his way to gently squeeze a drop from the head of an eye dropper against a welcoming outstretched hand in an informal exchange for a couple of bucks, I knew. Liquid! LSD, pure and simple! Here was my chance to have quite possibly the best acid on the planet. The time for that delicacy was dwindling. This was a brilliant liquid that could bring a man back to the mirror of his childhood. Tapping into the deepest of psychological wells, it was so rich; it was the kaleidoscope of dreams. It was the caviar of psychedelics.
I said, “Hello my friend, how’s it going?”
“It’s going down smooth and beautiful my man. Two bucks a drop, or whatever you wish to donate, if you can dig that, bro – just hold out your hand and I’ll make you a little puddle that’ll knock you out!”
Now, being the hard core East Coast acid freak that I was, I took control of the situation, taking the bottle out of his hand and tipping it up over my open mouth. I squeezed it… one second, two seconds, maybe three. I stopped, and relinquishing the eye-dropper to the guy I said, “Oh, don’t worry, man, I’ll give you more than two dollars.” He looked sort of pale, his mouth and eyes wide, as I tried to hand him a five-dollar bill. He quickly said, “Oh, I’m not worried about the money at all. Keep it. I just hope you’re gonna be all right… that stuff is as pure as it gets, at least 250 mics a drop! Like, I really want you to be all right, ok? Know what I’m sayin’ bro?”
“Yeah, I mean, thank you for your concern and all, but I’m good. Good as gold, good as gold, brother. Don’t worry ‘bout me.”
Within a few seconds after he walked away, I realized that my bravado was slipping quickly into fear. The strength and purity of the drug was evident immediately — most definitely going to be nothing I’d experienced before. What was coming internally — the implosion of my psyche, the crippling breakdown and paralysis of my personality’s compass, then a guttural cathartic rendering — sort of a reintroduction of myself to myself — was not what scared me the most. It was the inevitable social interaction with my newfound peers and my ability to fit in that worried me. Being cool and handling this in front of these people was paramount. In my silly mind, they would surely see right through me to reveal a scared repressed kid from an uptight East Coast family, just posing as cool – I wanted to project myself as a spiritual shaman of sorts, perhaps on a journey — a road full of love and loss, but metamorphosis too. A mysterious traveler from a great distance. I just didn’t want my insides leaking out too much at this time, in this place.
“As good as gold” became the mantra I repeated to myself over and over again as the line began to move. I remember admitting to myself that this was the highest I’d ever been in my life and that I’d better take good care of myself. When I noticed peoples’ faces beginning to melt though, just a little bit out of the corner of my eye, I quickly looked away. “I’m OK…as good as gold, as good as gold, as good as gold.” I thought that I was getting a foothold on a sense of things while looking down at the ground, between what was really happening and what was my free-falling imagination. I was trying to graft on to my gut the sureness of experience that I didn’t really have. Suddenly the line broke free. There was a rush for the door of fans that were not in the line at all, and it was instant mayhem — I felt uncomfortable, too close to the pushing. I freaked out. My memory goes blank here for a few minutes, but I remember looking down the street toward the back of the line and, releasing myself from the crowd, I gave up my place in line and just walked away. I passed the last couple of people at the end of the line, who, with my new handicap of visual hallucinations now in full bloom, seemed to be earnestly begging me for an extra ticket, but it was hard to tell: their faces, contorting from young and beautiful to very old and almost skeletal, frightened me so much I had to run away from them. Finally, with the dark empty sidewalk stretching out ahead of me, I began to feel better. I realized that I’d been holding my breath, so I began to breathe again and felt a calm. I saw in my exhaled breath plumes of bright blue and green oblong balloons billowing into the dark air in front of me; pleasantly distracted from my fear and confusion, I was about to sit down on the empty sidewalk and try to get a grip on what was happening back at the club – was it all in my mind? Then I felt a shift in my lower spine. I straightened my back and suddenly a warm sensation was there – an effervescence of tiny diamonds inside tiny bubbles, sort of like the fizz of club soda, began pulsating, flowing slowly up my back.
Of course I didn’t understand it at the time, but as I walked back towards the throng of people and lights spilling into the street from the precious jewel I came to know as The Keystone, my shoulders seemed to broaden with every stride. Imperceptible to me then, the process of my personhood began that day, spreading out wider and wider into the sensitive phoenix I would later become.
I walked straight past the burgeoning line and commotion and somehow got in front of what seemed to be the box office window. A pimply-faced kid, overwhelmed, thankfully looking as scared as I, yelled through the glass, “One or two?” I said “one” somehow and gave him a bill magically produced from my pocket. When the kid looked at it, he nodded like it was a good one. As the crowd bore in on me, I was pushed sideways away from the window, towards the door and the man taking tickets. The kid yelled back through the window something about my change — I didn’t understand and didn’t care. This was a success. My usual way of dealing with trade in this hallucinogenic state was not good. I simply didn’t understand money or how it was supposed to work, so this was great. It was nothing short of a miracle that I had a large enough bill in my hand when I was supposed to, I certainly knew that much. I was in!
I knew I was getting pretty weird, though, when I put my hand to my lips and found that the fear and claustrophobia I’d come in with didn’t show so much: the grin I traced came as complete a surprise. As I shuffled with the crowd further into the room, I noticed the small bandstand to the left of the front door, the instruments crammed into a space normally used as a display window for the tiny storefront. I stopped walking, letting the longhaired earnest happy people brush by me. I stared at the big Hammond organ, a bass guitar, and other equipment I recognized like they were my own – Jerry’s guitar, naturally, was around his neck wherever he was hiding before the show, canoodling his own nerves as usual. As I stood there, I saw my own anxiety float past the instruments, past the drums and out the blacked out window behind them. I was in heaven. Finally I could just be myself. That is, if I didn’t fall down. My insides were still a contradiction. I was still afraid to look stupid, or to not be COOL at all costs! I felt so high… Oh God, please just don’t let me fall down!
For this band to play this tiny college bar was beyond my comprehension. This was home for Jerry, with a hometown-gig feel that gave me goose bumps. Toward the back of the tiny club people seemed to thin out a bit. The crowded push to get in didn’t feel cool at all, but with over a thousand micrograms of pure LSD now in its full coursing through my body and mind, who could blame me if I felt a bit anxious at first? In the dim light of the small oak bar – eight, maybe ten stools toward the back of the room — I looked it over. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and with the old-school neon red from the Budweiser sign glowing above, it felt familiar, unpretentious, and comfortable. I thought I would just saddle up to it and order a cold beer. I reveled in the moment, but as I began my stride across the room to one of two barstools unoccupied, I realized that I had two major flaws in my plan to be casual and cool. First, my legs suddenly seemed to be made of rubber, then wood, changing inconsistently from one moment to the next. Either they were so rigid that it seemed unnatural and weird to try to walk, or so soft that I was sure that I would melt into a crawl.
I didn’t want to call attention to the animated cartoon character I feared was becoming, but the other problem revealed itself when I began to move forward across the room. At first I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, but now the white lights scattered around the room and the red from the beer sign had slowly begun to converge, forming long strips that flowed on top of light wind currents suddenly present inside the bar. I told myself that this new development was strange, innocuous — but then the strips began to divide and change colors and divide again, until the air space from one side of the room to the other was completely filled up with these thin ribbons. Like colored fabric, they kept splintering into ever-smaller pieces until they were tiny dots of the most brilliant shiny color. Randomly, a really big multi-colored piece would appear out of a wall or the wood floor and gobble up a bunch of the tiny ones like a psychedelic whale. When bright white sequined dots began to form, to pop out between the colored ones, I blinked and that’s when I knew one thing for sure: the acid back home was not this Berkeley stuff, not even close. I had thought tripping was like Disneyland, only the ride lasted longer and had more lights, but this was another universe altogether. I’d stepped into another world. This was not Disneyland. This was a three-dimensional picture that encompassed everything that you could see — a huge jigsaw puzzle that would change the pieces randomly. As you got used to it, though, you could change the pieces yourself, easily, with your mind, with your imagination.
At the same time, in the corner of my eye I could clearly see large and small things — letters of the alphabet floated past, or words, whole phrases even. When someone would walk past or into one of these letters or words, the colorful floaties would disintegrate and re-form in smaller imperfect renditions of the original — really weird. There were pieces of fruit too. Giant ones! Some were like cartoon characters, others were just regular fruit – oranges, peaches, and I did see a very small apple all by itself, with an almost imperceptible little mouth, that would appear between the Johnny Walker bottles just long enough to make fun of the bartender with drunken vulgar quips when his back was turned, then quickly disappear again. Now that was scary. But get this: how about a five-foot banana man in a purple tracksuit, saying quietly, “Hey daddy-o, what’s shakin’?” Quite literally, anything I could think of, in any color I could imagine, I could see, filling in the thickening air space all around me. After awhile it wasn’t so disturbing. In fact, it was absolutely fascinating.
The Christmas lights strung along the top of the huge mirror that hung behind the bar suddenly began to flash rapidly. Given my frame of mind, I asked the bartender if he’d noticed this change. I was sort of surprised when he said nonchalantly, “Yeah, I know, the band’s comin’ out now.”
The music was great, the second set particularly amazing. I had lost my prized barstool seat when all of us had turned around to face the stage and dance. If I was tense with shaky legs in the first set, with my new mind’s eye in a dancing visual fantasia, then I was a happy and loose perfectly crazed sweat-dripping grin in the second. I’ll never forget the moment when I realized that I was in a dive, in Berkeley, CA, holding a cold beer in one hand and the brass rail of the bar with the other so I wouldn’t fall over, and Jerry Garcia was playing his heart out, doing a song called Midnight Moonlight with a frenetic vengeance no more than 20 feet away! If not for the rail I clung to, I would have been a euphoric puddle on the floor, never to recollect any of it.
It was hands down the best night of my life. That is, until Jerry finished the set and I set in motion my plan to go to the bathroom that I’d been afraid to execute for the last hour. Because I had become so dependent on the bar rail for equilibrium, walking to the back in the dark, swimming through my hallucinations and all the wild hippies dancing seemed precarious at best. Midnight Moonlight ended with such energy, the responding roar from the crowd seemed the distraction I needed and my cue. I knew that the band would only go backstage briefly before returning for the encore, so letting go of the rail I began wading through towards the back. My acid trip being at its peak, the greatest challenge, it seemed, was to not get disoriented, panic, and loose my cool, my balance, or both! I never suspected the band would not leave the stage at all, however, mostly because backstage in this place would of course be literally on the sidewalk. Only Jerry, with a lone guard, moving toward a back room was slowly making his way through the local crowd respectfully parting like the Red Sea, congratulating him as he passed. Having never seen the guy in such a small venue before, I had no way of anticipating this wrinkle in my expedition to the bathroom.
All this wouldn’t make any difference to me but for the fact that I was like Major Tom “stepping through the door” when suddenly, stumbling on someone’s sneaker, I began “floating in a most peculiar way,” in slow motion, with no direction from ground control. Wearing my heart on my sleeve and a permanent smile like a badge, I flew through the wall of fans and into the lone guard and Jerry. I ended up on my back, looking up at a very surprised Jerry, himself half-fallen over, his face three inches from mine. We were so close that I’ll never forget the beads of sweat, glasses cockeyed from the push and his frightened expression instantly changing to a soft understanding, and the four words we exchanged in that indelible blink of time. With everyone looking down at us, my face a red apple, I said the only two words I would speak to a beautiful man I adored… “Sorry man.”
Jerry responded with the kindness of a giant… “It’s okay.”