It came along slowly. The first thing I noticed was that colors were brighter … but then, colors were brighter after I smoked pot, too. However, this time they kept getting brighter! and brighter!! until I realized that I had never actually seen blue before. It was absolutely an amazing color!
For that matter, I had listened to sitar music by Ravi Shankar before, but I had never actually heard it. It was amazing! It took over the room, it took over my mind, it carried me off into the air in whirling patterns of shimmering light.
I spent a very long time lying on the couch staring up at the ceiling, except that it wasn’t the ceiling, it was an amazing universe of shapes and patterns and galaxies that waved, and swarmed, advanced and fell back, cyclones and infinite grids, colors and darkness playing with each other … I discovered that I had a full field of vision, 180 degrees up and down, left and right, and I could look anywhere in the field without moving my eyeballs! This was quite startling at the time.
(And to this day, I can see 180 degrees on every side while looking straight ahead.)
One time (yes, I took a number of psychedelic trips), I found that I was a great artist! I had a big pad of paper and a set of water colors. My first brush stroke was a stroke of genius! The next one was even better! I got more and more excited as the work progressed … until I made one brush stroke too many and the whole thing collapsed into an ugly brown puddle. This was my first hint that the amazing universes of LSD and mescaline were, in some important way, illusions.
I took some time crafting descriptions of acid trips in “High on Gold” (more time than I am taking here), and I hope that you will read them: they are pretty accurate representations of what it was like. However, my experiences with psychedelics differed significantly from those of my characters in the book, in that we only tripped every month or so, and always in a very careful, sacramental way.
I never had a bad trip. I can write that because I stopped a while back, and have no intention of doing it again. My last trip took place halfway down into the Grand Canyon, with some extraordinarily good acid, and I won’t even try to put into words what those 12 hours were like. When I eventually came back to everyday reality, I said to myself, ‘That was the acid trip of all time. There’s no point in ever taking another one.’
On a March evening, we were sitting around the Apartment (Bill, Clif & Marty’s place) smoking pot and listening to Miles Davis.
”I’m about ready for another acid trip.”
”Yeah, me too. What about Lee? Should we bring Lee along?”
”Yeah, Lee’s cool.”
It was a great honor to be ‘cool’ in this group. Deep down, I had in my heart felt ‘cool’ since I first read “On the Road” in 11th grade and discovered what ‘cool’ was; but actually getting there, snared as I was in middle-class conventions and academic expectations, was a path that I couldn’t seem to even find, let alone take.
San Francisco was changing that. The winter rain was gone, and every day I was walking the streets, cool and serene, riding the cable car, sitting by the dock on the bay, watching seals playing on the ocean rocks, lying on a lawn in Golden Gate Park smoking a joint and watching the big trees toss in the wind.
”What do you think, Lee? Want to take an acid trip?”
”Sure! Sounds like a great idea!”
Actually, I had no idea what I was signing up for. People had been talking about “acid” (LSD. d-lysergic acid diethylamide) for years; the reported effects ranged from euphoria and enlightenment to terror and psychosis.But these acid-trip veterans my new friends seemed whole and sane, and I figured I was cool enough to handle it.
There were two schools of thought about acid trips: Dr. Timothy Leary of Harvard insisted on a totally calm, controlled environment where the drug could manifest itself without distractions. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters preferred an atmosphere of total chaos, where you never knew what sudden interruption would get refracted through the weird prism of LSD.
Gary and his friends were firmly in the Leary camp. A week later at Gary’s place, he locked the door. The shades were drawn, telephone unplugged, plenty of music and food and art supplies on hand. The capsule full of brownish powder sat on my palm. “Here we go!” said Clif.
As a Chronicle copyboy, my wages were better, and I moved to a one-room apartment in the Haight-Ashbury District. This would turn out to be an historic move, though at the time it just seemed like a welcome relief from the Tenderloin wino hotel.
Gary already lived in “the Haight,” as it was known, with his wife and son. His high school friends Bill (another copyboy), Clif and Marty shared an apartment nearby. It was a spectacular beautiful place on the top of one of San Francisco’s famous hills, one of the few neighborhoods to escape the disastrous 1906 fire that followed the disastrous ’06 earthquake, so its beautiful Victorian houses were still there, now painted in outrageous gaudy colors.
In Victorian days, Henry Haight had given his name to one of the streets, Munroe Ashbury his name to the street that crossed it; together these men were instrumental in planning the neighborhood and the spectacular Golden Gate Park next door. The artists coming to San Francisco in the Beatnik era but too late to find an apartment in North Beach had settled in the Haight, and they were still there. The street was lined with ethnic grocery stores.
You could climb up from Haight Street to the top of Buena Vista Park for a view of the city and the bay spectacular beyond description.
Sunny days, cool breezes, friendly artists, happy grocers with fresh fruit … light up a joint and the colors explode as you walk down casual easygoing Haight Street to the towering eucalyptus trees, winding pathways and scantily clad damsels of the most beautiful park on earth — in 1964, it was as if I had died and gone to heaven!
“You don’t have to go to those bars,” said Gary. ”You should be smoking pot.”
“You think so?”
It was a moment of calm in the City Room — the second edition had gone to bed, and we were waiting to paste it up once it came off the presses. Gary was a skinny wild-eyed red-haired guy, implicit leader of the copyboys by virtue of his manic energy. “Absolutely! Alcohol just brings you down. Pot is –” His eyes went all dazzly, he spread his fingers in the air. “You ever try it?”
“Once.” All it had done for me was a dry throat and a headache. If I had been ‘high,’ I hadn’t noticed.
“You have to try it, man! Come on over to my house tonight. I’ll turn you on.”
After work, we were sitting at Gary’s kitchen table. He was turning the crank on an old tarnished flour sifter. Out the bottom fell green shreds of fragrant leaves. Swiftly he licked a cigarette paper, joined it to another one, pinched a copious quantity of leaf into the folded paper, rolled it up swiftly into a ‘joint’ as thick as my little finger, licked it closed. Lit it, took a deep drag, chased it down with a deep breath of air and handed it to me, speaking without exhaling, in a squeaky back-of-the-throat voice: “Your turn.”
It was a lovely sweet draft of herbal fragrance. “Hold it in!” I held my breath as long as I could, passing the joint back to him. By the time I had exhaled the second deep draft, everything had changed. Colors! Jazz! On the radio! Gary! Light dancing around his head! Curtains! Fluorescent light! “Pretty good, huh?” Gary’s voice, musical as an oboe!
Much later we were walking down Haight Street, deep-eyed kind-faced Oriental merchants packing up their brilliant-hued stands of amazing fruit. Where the street ended in a park with the biggest trees in the world was a diner, brilliantly lit in outrageous reds and purples. Gary introduced me to the California Cheeseburger. Taste! Mayonnaise! Bacon! Pickles.
Goodbye to books, Greyhound buses, skid row hotels, Hayes-Bickford, Vern, rubber drive belts — I had fallen down the rabbit hole.
The City Room was one wide room on the second floor of the Chronicle building, reachable by stairwell. Reporters in front of big standard upright office typewriters sat in ranks facing the riveting gaze of Abe Mellinkoff, City Editor. When one of them finished a draft, he (sic) would yank the paper out of the typewriter roller and yell “Boy!”
One of us would run, take the draft and rush it up to Abe, and then hurry back to the task of pasting up the previous edition for the copy editors, who sat in a ring in the middle of the room. To this day, if you give me a newspaper page, a sheet of paper, a paste pot and a 10-inch piece of 2-point leading, I can paste you up a story in less than 30 seconds. Meantime, Abe would have shouted “Boy!” and another boy would run the marked-up copy back to the anxious reporter.
Fascinating were the sports editors, who sat in the ring all evening testing each other: “What shortstop ended two consecutive innings in a World Series with double plays?” At least one of them would always have the answer.
Fascinating too was the Composition Room downstairs, where old men (sic) sat at Linotypes keying in the stories, producing a cascade of brass font-forms that would assemble themselves and be moved under a reservoir of molten lead, which would emerge as a Line ‘O Type, to be locked into a form and printed as a page.
One week I drew the graveyard shift, and every night sat all alone at Abe’s desk listening to the police radio and the chug of the Teletypes. The teletypes had bells: 1 ring for routine, 2 rings for news, 3 rings for Big News. The police calls were all about drunks and hookers, and I never got 3 bells, so I never had to pick up the phone and call Abe Mellinkoff. I would emerge at the end of the shift, dazed and exhausted, and go across the street for a beer.
Quite the collection of patrons in a Tenderloin saloon at 7 a.m.!
After two months in the warehouse, I was desperate to get out. One rainy morning reading the newspaper over eggs and toast, it occurred to me that the Chronicle itself might be my escape hatch. I was a writer, wasn’t I?
I had recently read a biography of some famous English author (I forget which one) who had landed his first newspaper job by volunteering to work without pay, so that night I wrote a letter to the City Editor (pen and ink – I had no typewriter) making the same offer.
To my surprise, in about a week I got a letter back from the editor, Abe Mellinkoff. “I’m afraid our unions would not be at all pleased if I hired somebody without pay. However, I’ll be happy to meet with you.”
I cleaned myself up as best my meager wardrobe would allow, and took a day off from Vern and the warehouse to go see Abe. He was a small, vigorous man with big black eyebrows and a corrosive sense of humor. “You’re not at all qualified to be a reporter here. The only entry-level job I have is Copyboy, and that doesn’t lead anywhere. Most of them quit after four or five months.”
It sounded better than standing in a warehouse watching the rain. I told him that actually, I had just been kicked out of college, but they had told me I could come back in the fall, and a copyboy job sounded perfect in the meantime. He got a kick out of that: “I like you: you’re honest! You’re hired.”
Thus began my introduction to print journalism and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my introduction to the Haight-Ashbury District as well.
During my second week in San Francisco, the winter rains began. I guess I thought that California didn’t really have winter; it certainly hadn’t occurred to me that winter would be day after day of rain. And what rain! San Francisco rain was hard and cold and constant. It came down in sheets — and then it came down harder.
I hadn’t packed much, but I did have a raincoat. Every morning I left my cheap weekly-rate hotel room and walked through the rain to Hayes-Bickford for bacon and eggs and the San Francisco Chronicle. I skipped the news and turned directly to the Help Wanted section: my money was going fast, and I had to find a job.
I was accustomed to Boston newspapers and wasn’t prepared for the skinny Chronicle and its job section, which ran to 3/4 of a page on a good day. There was nothing I was remotely qualified for. Discouraged, I looked out the window. I had never seen rain come down so hard. Then it came down harder. The next week, I stopped ordering the bacon.
Finally I applied through a temp agency for the position of “Warehouseman.” Vern was a skinny little gay guy who I think hired me for my looks, because it sure wasn’t for any experience with rubber drive belts or warehouse shipping. Day after day, it was just Vern in his heated office and me in the cold warehouse staring out at the rain. Then the rain came down harder. This California adventure wasn’t working out exactly the way I had hoped …
The first time I went to California, I was not hitchhiking. I rode the Greyhound bus. I had just been kicked out of college at the beginning of my senior year, my old car had only taken me as far as Albany before breaking down, and I was not a happy traveler.
The trip took three days. The scenery grew more interesting. I felt pretty grubby by Rock Springs, Wyoming; I gave up the chance to buy lunch, walked up the main street to a barbershop full of lean tanned men in cowboy boots, and got a shampoo and a shave. Amazing how much better I felt!
The end of the line was midnight in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. A fellow passenger remarked, “That’s the end of the Grey Hound. No more Grey Hound for me!” Counting my small supply of money, I checked into a skid row hotel.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to my bed shaking, the overhead light swaying, screams in the shaftway from my neighbors. It was an earthquake! (a little one) Yes, I was in California for real.