I was just a boy when I went on my first psychedelic drug trip.
It happened during Easter break of 1972 when I was hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with a friend and schoolmate from Whittier Elementary. My dad gave me money for the movies and to get Italian sodas at Caffe Mediterranean before he settled into his usual spot in front of Cody’s bookstore where he sold his space age medallions. I went to the Med with my buddy and we knocked back our beverages before heading over to the art house cinema where a line had already formed. People were gathered on the sidewalk when we joined the line, just a couple of little kids on campus among an assortment of college students, street people, hippies, and other fans of the Fab Four, all of us waiting to see a Beatles movie marathon.
A medley of odor molecules filled the air with the aroma of city bus fumes, marijuana and incense smoke, patchouli and body odor, and just a whiff of freshly shat dog shit that came out of a mutt that crossed the graffiti covered Avenue when we arrived, leaving a dump at the curb near our feet. The line started moving closer to the box office and a Hare Krishna dude came up the street—like a freaky doppelgänger of the Candy Man from last year’s Willy Wonka movie—and he’s suddenly dispensing hits of blotter acid to the moviegoing masses while reciting the familiar mantra of Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.
Instead of promises of rainbows and sighs and groovy lemon pies, or a shower of sugary treats, we are serenaded by a bald religious freak who places tiny squares of LSD-infused paper on the palms of our outstretched hands. I take one without really understanding or caring at all what I’m getting myself into simply because there is no adult to stop me from finding out—and because the motto of the street is do your own thing. That mandate includes kids, when it comes to navigating the same unknown territory, and in this instance we will be guided by a hallucinogenic chemical on a piece of paper stamped with a color illustration of Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the Disney movie Fantasia.
I doubt I considered the probability that my parents would likely shit a brick if they knew I was taking acid before they tried it. They would most certainly be surprised if they learned I was embarking on a fantastical adventure with Hare Krishna Hare Poppins, even though the fellow wasn’t sticking around to witness the turning on and tuning in to come. My folks knew I was being exposed to all kinds of urban street culture that they couldn’t possibly shield me from in the Berserkly ghetto of the 2400 block of Telegraph Avenue. Of course, they were also testing their own limits and I knew they had been smoking pot for at least a year. I reckon that means they might shit a brick of hashish if they knew I was about to slip through the doors of perception like a naughty boy sneaking into a forbidden room.
My parents sometimes expressed concern about my safety when I was in the world without them and they worried about what I might encounter in the schoolyard during recess. Like millions of parents everywhere, they told me to never accept drugs from strangers or other kids. I’d heard from other kids at school that some drugs were better than others and some drugs were much worse and I felt confident that none of my friends used drugs. Some had older siblings that did and I heard some cautionary tales, especially about heroin which had become a real problem on the streets of Berkeley, but I never saw anyone I knew strung out on smack. I told my parents not to worry about me trying hard drugs like heroin at school because the kids at Whittier were savvy enough to jeer and throw rocks at any junkie or dealer that strayed too near the fence around the schoolyard.
Mom and dad weren’t yet hippies but they weren’t exactly straight either, especially when it came to their opinions about illegal drugs, Nixon, and the war in Vietnam. Both were loosening up more, in different ways, after their recent divorce. At the same time, they were still mainstream enough to be the responsible adults that raised me in New York in the mid-sixties before we moved to California at the start of the decade. People around me were in the midst of rapidly changing and evolving every day and experiencing mental and emotional growth spurts akin to a second childhood. Meanwhile, I’m an actual child, trying to reach my developmental milestones in the usual chronological order while also scrambling over those milestones in an effort to keep up with the childlike adults around me.
I began to question confusing statements made by adults after hearing one say that “smoking is bad” a moment before he lit up a cigarette. It’s difficult to trust the judgment and opinions of people that assert that alcohol is dangerous when you’ve seen them having cocktails after dinner. I was only seven years old and I’d heard the phrase do as I say, not as I do enough times to wonder if adults understood how absurd and unfair it sounded. I needed a word to describe the absurd thing adults say and the word was finally heard at the coffeehouse one morning when I overheard someone say, “People are so full of hypocritical bullshit.” When I asked my mom the meaning of hypocritical she explained it and I knew that it was the perfect word to describe adult logic. I was catching glimpses of the man behind the curtain and beginning to wake up to the reality that the path to adulthood led to a cul-de-sac of contradictions.
Marijuana was one of those drugs that wasn’t supposed to be as bad as the others and I recognized weed from the smell and from seeing adults around me smoking pot and noticing that it effected their behavior. I still hadn’t tried smoking reefer, even after some kids laid on the peer pressure, mostly because I didn’t like the smell of it and the idea of inhaling any kind of smoke into my lungs seemed stupid. Adults frequently did stupid things.
For instance, I recently caught my dad tripping on mescaline in front of Peet’s, the neighborhood coffeehouse I mentioned earlier that stands at the corner of Walnut and Vine, just around the corner from where we lived on Oxford Street. I knew he was tripping on something, even before I asked him why he was acting so strange, and he told me what he had taken. Dad was so disoriented and was having such a bad trip that he was relieved and happy to see me so I could help him find his way home. The walk from Peet’s was particularly challenging for my dad that day because apparently the sidewalk was moving. And, even though I perceived the sidewalk as being more traditionally rigid and unmoveable, I knew the futility of arguing with my father when he was certain about something.
I didn’t know what mescaline was, though I’d heard the word before and assumed it was probably an illegal street drug. My dad scored it from his housemates, a very nice young deaf couple who also happened to be the neighborhood drug dealers, operating out of the house my dad moved into after my parents separated. The house was conveniently located next to the building I lived in with my mother and sister—in the same apartment we lived in together with my dad when we first arrived in Berkeley from Long Island.
At this point I should add that everything I thought I knew about LSD came from an episode of a television show called Dragnet.