Janice, Dierdre, and I arrived in San Francisco late in the spring of 1961, just as the cold seasonal weather was closing in. (Mark Twain has been quoted as saying that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.) The foghorn on Alcatraz sounded the Rock’s last year of its operation is a penitentiary.
Our apartment had a Murphy bed, the first one I’d ever seen outside a Laurel and Hardy movie. It was on the fourth floor of a five-story building, on the lowest slope of Russian Hill, a short distance from the bay. Walking up the hill at night, we would fall under the spell of the prison island’s foghorn and the searchlight arcs sweeping the veil of mists.
There had been at least one escape while we were in town. A famous local actor was said to have parked a car in the Marina, keys in the ignition, a bag of sandwiches on the seat — just in case the cons made it through currents and dodged the sharks ad patrol boats. This kind of gesture defined the city at that time. Halfway up the foggy hill from us was an Italian restaurant, candlelit, with red checkered tablecloths, fiascoes, even a kindly proprietor who extended credit.
“The City,” the Chronicle’s columnist unrelentingly called the place, with a jaunty suburban provincialism that provoked your youthful hipper than thou. Herb Caen was the sort of columnist who might referr to himself as a “scribe,” a scribe from Baghdad on the Bay. My picayune revenge was to call the place “Frisco” at least once a day — call it “Frisco” and watch a moment of well bred revulsion curl the thin lips of the tweedy, nice-looking people who seemed so large a percentage of the local population in those days. (Around 1960, a New York wit compared the ambience of San Francisco to being “stuck in an elevator in Lincoln Center.”) But it was sweet, pearl necklace of a city, at once exotic and Yankee, restrained yet dazzling, possessed of a beauty that went on surprising. And it was charming, a word I could not then honestly employ, because it described qualities beyond my conscious comprehension. No one had ever used it about New York.
Both Janice and I held down jobs during our summer in San Francisco. I had a day job, in a shirt factory on Mission Street. Janice worked night shift at the Bank of America while I babysat. When Stanford’s fall term began in September we moved out to Menlo Park near the Stanford campus. In the autumn of 1962 (a sunny season I couldn’t, newly transplanted to California, quite get myself to call “fall”) a number of us set out from Palo Alto to San Francisco in a friend’s Volkswagen bus. At the time I was erotically programmed for Volkswagen buses, conducting an affair, deliciously illicit, with a young graduate student wife who drove one. I remember anticipating the distant sight of that bus as she approached our rendezvous, recognizing her, honey haired, at the wheel, her groceries and toddler secured in the backseat. Illicitness was not going to be around much longer with its pangs and guilty pleasures. We were about to abolish the very notion.
In the days of illicitness one was serious. One struggled against the pressures of one’s early marriage and premature parenthood. One tried to behave like the characters in French new wave movies — a treacherous phone call, a shrug, a Galoise. A busload of youthful libertines, most of us in some manner of postgraduate fealty to Stanford, we drove to San Francisco that day on the Bayshore Freeway, Highway 101.
Our objective on the autumn day in question was an evening out, in which it would be possible to catch John Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery and Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, within half a mile of each other. We had decided to prepare for this embarrassment of riches by ingesting large amounts of peyote, the inoffensive appearing little cacti which in those days were mainly available south of the border in Mexican market stalls, offered for sale by tranquilly composed Native American ladies who looked as though they knew something most other people didn’t. As we now realize, this was the case.
Certainly they knew more about things than I did, hurtling through sunny California toward the evening pleasure. I was not completely checked out on what I knew, as opposed to all the rest. Someone had bought a great many gelatin capsules, available from corner drugstores. Someone else had boiled a huge mass of the slime green cactus meat into a loathsome dinosaur colored ratatouille and jammed it into the capsules. Peyote tasted even more disgusting than it appeared and one did anything to suppress the taste. All of us, three or four couples, proceeded to swallow a handful of these things, an average of six or so each. I admitted to six, in fact I had taken 12. Secretly I was convinced I knew the score. I had taken peyote before.
That I might require 12 capsules of peyote squash to respond to the genius arrayed before us in the night ahead — Coltrane, Bruce — plainly bespeaks an impulsiveness of appetite, lack of judgment, and so forth. I can’t remember anyone referring to excess, although surely the concept existed even in those times.
That afternoon we parked in North Beach, still known as the hipster quarter then. (In contrast, Haight-Ashbury in 1962 was a working-class island neighborhood, full of inexpensive pretty Victorian houses, a secret for the locals and the native-born.) We made Coltrane’s first set before dark. As the half dozen of us staggered in, we could feel the Aztec potion stirring inside us ever so subtly, closing down our frontal lobes, awakening the reptillian brain cells we all shared with the Great Lizard of the Dawn of Time. The Lizard was manifest in the hypnagogic patterns inlaid against our inner eyelids, unmistakably pre-Columbian, an angry Chacmool, scorning the white eyes’ summons.
As we took our table, a wind rose from over the edge of something, tasting of the void. The wind grew in intensity until it fixed us to our chairs and threatened to send our drinks flying. We held on. I affected sangfroid but I knew the wind would never stop, that it had come for me. Its force was unimaginable.
I turned to the stage where Coltrane was doing “My Favorite Things.” I suppose my jaw dropped, that I stood agape. I glorified the Lizard. The Lizard caused the music from the stage to become visible. This is not a metaphor; on peyote there are no metaphors. From the tenor sax issued festive, gorgeous silk bands of the brightest richest red, twirling and dancing and filling the space with scarlet bows and curls. The brass produced great fat waves of frost, ice-lightning it appeared, with a razor-sharp serrated edge — the waves expanding and contracting marvelously along the bass line. From each instrument in its kind issued some manner of bright spectacle, not one of which I could handle remotely. Bracing in the terrible wind, stepping carefully over the bright music that was piling up on the floor, I made for the street. I try to be cool, and showed everyone who glanced at my walkout a grinning rictus of terror. My extremely loyal Janice came with me as did a guy, one of our number, who had eyes for her. The three of us trudged around the corner into Chinatown.
This was, you might say, a Chinatown of the mind. It was actual Chinatown, Grant Avenue, but it was more profoundly Chinatown in no ethnic sense. Rather, the Polanski sense of a lost and terrifying cityscape; it’s clinky, clunky exoticism, designed to divert the tourists, provided me with an experience much richer and stranger — so rich and strange in fact that as I am a Christian faithful man I would not spend another such night although ’twere to win a world of happy days (Richard III, Act I, Scene 4). It was like drowning in a vat of the strangest malmsey.
I became persuaded that there was a sharp pain in my foot. I, Janice and the guy who had eyes for her all went into Saint Mary’s Square to sit on a bench, at the foot of the statue of Sun Yat-sen. When I took off my shoe it seemed that my sock was drenched in blood — bright blood, the color of John Coltrane’s soprano sax riffs. I took my socks off. My foot looked similarly bloodied. It appeared there was a nail in my brand-new Macy’s Palo Alto shoe, purchased a day or two before. The nail was pointed up, the business end half an inch into my sole, hence the sharp pain.
Across the path from us, a couple of tough looking Chinese teenagers were providing wolf tickets, close-ended blank menace. As they watched, we began to puzzle out the mystery of the foot, the shoe, and the nail. Something like this scene ensued.
Me: Blood! Shit!
J (six peyote capsules): That’s impossible, I mean, it’s not possible.
The Guy Who Had Eyes For Her (about the same): Unnh, blood? Huh?
Me: hammered! Some… hammered. In my shoe.
J: No, you’re hallucinating. Just look —
TGWHEFH: He’s hallucinating! You’re hammered, ha ha.
(Janice has put her hand to my foot and then into my shoe. Her hand has come out drenched in blood.)
J: That’s impossible. Jesus.
TGWHEFH: Is it blood?
Me: Yes! Blood!
(All three stare harder. Then harder still.)
J: Oh my god. Oh my god! (She gets more blood on her hand. Touches her hand, TGWHEFH gets blood all over his hand. We stare at our hands.)
J (to me): Geez, your eyes. Pupils. They’re huge!
(All look at each other’s pupils in turn and at each other’s hands and at their own. They begin to giggle.)
At this the teenagers exchanged thoughtful looks and departed the park. One droll thing about taking peyote in 1962 was that hardly anyone knew such a thing existed. The observers of our obscenely witless behavior had to ascribe it to either alcohol or mental disorder of an extreme sort. I never got to Lenny Bruce’s standup. And I had wasted my first Coltrane concert with foolishness.
Events of this sort were repeated; there was lunacy, stark terror, much enjoyment. The upside for me was that in the years of my fellowship at Stanford we all — friends, lovers, fellow grad students — saw a great deal of ourselves and each other which for the most part pleased us mightily. None but ourselves, a small circle of friends, as Phil Ochs put it, would go near us. We grew close.
Later that year a number of us received LSD sacramentally. The celebrant was Richard Alpert, PhD, since known as Baba Ram Dass, Ram Dass in the early days would jokingly referred to himself as “Dr. LSD Junior.” Dr. LSD Senior would be the late Timothy Leary, Ph.D., his partner in acid research at Harvard. One afternoon Ram Dass turned a number of us all into LSD with a lozenge spray, from an atomizer such as that which hoarse or dying opera singers are represented as self medicating their tonsils.
Among the communicants was Dr. Vic Lovell, the man to whom Ken Kesey dedicated ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Ram Dass had been Vic’s mentor in graduate school and Vic is the man usually credited with turning Kesey on, when the novelist worked as an orderly at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital where its results were being observed. The identity of the observers has since been much discussed.
The afternoon like so many others was dappled and lovely. A view minutes after we had fixed, I thought I noticed something peculiar about the back of my hand. Peculiar and nasty. A rash of some kind. Spreading. I gave it the lemur-eyed double scope. It refused to go away; rather, it spread its scabrous net the wider. I made the mistake of consulting Dr. Acid Jr. for a reality check.
Dr. Acid (ruminatively): When we were in Zihuatenejo one of us develop a rash on the back of his hand. It looked a little like that.
Dr. Acid: Yes. It spread.
Dr. Acid: Yes, It ran over his entire body. He thought he was going to die.
Me: So, what happened?
Dr. Acid: As a matter of fact, he died.
I pondered each word. The man had died. Suddenly this seemed a little amusing. The doctors cultivated serenity, is cosmic his interests were comical. I began to laugh uncontrollably. No one else did.
Later things improved. There was a brushfire, and red or yellow fire engines (who can tell? what was the difference?) and crackling, whining radio equipment. We had not started the fire, but we tried to make the best of it. A beautiful girl sat on a limb playing Bach on her flute until the aromatic smoke of burning leaves drove her down. Horses appeared and chased us until one of the women, an equestrian, chased them.