THE YANKEE IN SEARCH OF ADVENTURE
There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were of both sexes.
Tim, never one to diddle around when a trip to Nepal with a Swedish model was in the offing, had already left when I got to Millbrook. Michael Hollingshead, about whom I knew very little, despite his having written me a long and smarmy letter a week or two earlier, was now in some kind of alliance with Dick and Ralph as a co-administrator of the house. Nena’s mother and brother were still in town but the baroness never visited the Big House because, Ralph told me, she loathed Hollingshead. I gave Nena’s brother, a nice guy, a baron and a sports car enthusiast, a driving lesson. He thought he needed practice with an American car before venturing out on the public roads in one. He was right.
My introduction to Hollingshead was appropriately bizarre and vaguely unpleasant. I was in the kitchen during the first evening of my visit, talking to Ralph and Susan, when a tall man with unreadable features, dressed in slacks, a sport coat and a fedora with a ribbon of photographs around the brim, came twirling into the room, revolving like one of those “waltzing” mice which can’t move in a straight line because of a genetic fault. They were pretty popular pets for kids back in the ’30s.
As this apparition spun around the table muttering to himself, Ralph’s eyes narrowed and Susan took a deep breath and held it. He acted as though he wanted to sit down on one of the empty chairs but couldn’t figure out how to do it. I pulled one out for him, which seemed to piss him off. He moved his arms angrily and sputtered. Still twirling, he moved out of the room.
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“Michael Hollingshead,” Ralph said, poker faced as usual.
Dick and two young guys with the look of New York hustlers came in. They all seemed very stoned. I was introduced. Ernie and Arnie. They proceeded to mix up some pancake batter while giggling and whispering to each other.
“Listen, Art,” Ralph said to me in an undertone, “let’s go to the music room. I want to talk to you.”
We sat down cross-legged next to the fish tank in the center of the floor. Ralph pulled out a joint, lit it, took a drag and passed it to me. It was pretty good stuff for those pre-sinsemilla times.
“Have you been tripping much?” Ralph asked. I told him about the morning glory seed trip and a small acid trip Sally and I had taken, which had produced some eyes-closed visionary effects and an interesting sequel: I had taken the next day off and while out driving we both had seen Bucky in his car. We waved to him but he ignored us. Later, Bucky swore up and down that he was teaching Latin to future apple knockers at the time and hadn’t left the school all day. A hallucination? A mutual hallucination? A mutual hallucination hours after the trip ended?
Hmmm. Well, so, McPozzm, maybe the use of psychedelics produces a hallucination, as distinct from a vision, every now and then. So do all kinds of other things, like sudden withdrawal from amphetamines or fasting. It remains sleazily dishonest and typical of the American Psychiatric Association to insist on labeling psychedelics as “hallucinogens.” Hallucinations are not among the usual or desired effects and the filthy swine (whom I can see very clearly) know it very well. I refer the reader who doesn’t think these distinctions are important to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which can be found in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. In fact, in the general interest of encouraging sanity, I refer everyone everywhere to this masterful homily.
I told Ralph I was hoping to take a trip with Tim, but since he wasn’t around, well, er, hmm.
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Ralph said. “I don’t think you should take anything while the house is like this. Things are really crazy around here right now.”
“OK,” I agreed. I felt a mixture of disappointment and relief. Ralph asked me to drive him to the train station in Poughkeepsie to pick up his sister-in-law. She needed a minor operation and had decided to have it done in a small hospital in Sharon, Connecticut, which wasn’t far from Millbrook. When we got into my car Ralph pulled out another joint. It was a very dark night.
On the way to Poughkeepsie, Ralph explained the general situation. This was Thursday night and the last chance for people living in the house to do as they pleased, because visitors would be arriving Friday night and staying through Sunday. Paying visitors. Economic necessity had reared its ugly head. The “guests” would be met at the train Friday afternoon and not allowed to speak to each other or anyone else until Saturday morning. Then there were lectures and exercises and whatnot and they went home Sunday. No drugs. They had been doing this for the last three weekends and Ralph thought it was working out reasonably well. I could help if I liked. Ernie and Arnie were to put on a “light show,” whatever that was, and Hollingshead was a drug smuggler who had provided Tim with his first acid hits. Aside from those bare facts Ralph seemed reluctant to talk about the new residents. He wanted me to see for myself.
We then entered the dirty, dismal and decaying streets of Poughkeepsie, New York. Ralph ceased to pull out joints. There was no way that either of us would inhale deeply in an atmosphere such as this.
Unattractive as the name may be, I find it hard to believe that “Poughkeepsie” really means “Place of Overflowing Shitholes” in the language of the Iroquois, or that this tribe founded the city and maintained it for centuries as the center of their sadistic “federation,” which either destroyed or enslaved all the other tribes in the region. By what means could these savages have cross-bred with a species of giant rodents, now extinct, resulting in the hideous monstrosities who dominate the Dutchess County religious, political and financial establishment to this very day? The answer is blowing in the wind.
One thing is for sure: Poughkeepsie does not appear, under any name, on most maps.
No matter where one goes in the Place of Overflowing Shitholes, there is always something disgusting either right in front of one’s nose or right around the corner. The haggard, slack-jawed, vacant-eyed pedestrians who trudge its streets appear to have been stunned since birth into a condition of chronic somnambulism.
All over town, farts of poisonous gasses burst from the cracks in the sidewalks as one treads near or on them. This doesn’t seem to bother the inmates at all, perhaps because they know that inhaling these exudations will help to shorten their lives.
The angles and vistas are all wrong. Things do not fit together the way they should. Scabrous, Dickensian tenements and crumbling warehouses, used for the storage of bilge from decommissioned nuclear submarines, entirely block the view of the river.
Any aesthete worthy of the name would be rendered hors de combat in the Place of Overflowing Shitholes within a few seconds of exposure, but lawyers and publishers, as one might expect, find the place very much to their tastes and often retire there so they can savor the ambiance in their old age.
It is said that Theodore Roosevelt had a deep, assured and resonant bass voice until, while governor of New York State, he read the report of a secret commission on the true history of Poughkeepsie. He sank down under his desk and remained there, curled up on the rug, in a kind of hysterical coma for a period of twenty-seven days. On recovering, he had retrograde amnesia for the entire incident, but spoke in a shrieking falsetto for the rest of his life. (The other oddities he developed, such as Eskimo-stuffing, are well known to historians, but too numerous to mention here.)
As soon as he was elected governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered to grant full pardons to several Mafia murderers then awaiting electrocution at Sing-Sing, if the rulers of New Jersey would accept the Place of Overflowing Shitholes as part of their state. The Jersey City gang lords of the day rejected the offer, resolutely stating, “There is some shit we will not eat.”
Ralph’s sister-in-law was very appreciative of the third and final joint, which Ralph passed around as soon as we were outside the city limits and on our way back to Millbrook.
So was I.
I think I have written the above description of the Place of Overflowing Shitholes in the spirit in which Henry Miller wrote his description of the planet Saturn in The Colossus of Maroussi. He called it an “emotional photograph.” Right. There are some subjects which cry out for this kind of treatment.
The comforting darkness and Ralph’s generous helpings of hemp greatly moderated the ordeal of this particular visit. Unfortunately, this balm was not always to be available on future visits.
Driving while stoned on the lesser sacrament is safer under any and all circumstances than driving while drunk, and may well be safer, for experienced users in general, than driving straight.
Stoned drivers rarely, if ever, get on angry, competitive, high-speed kicks, so any errors we make are likely to be trivial. We tend to be methodical, thoughtful, cautious, defensive drivers. It might be a good idea to pass out free Alice B. Toklas brownies at rest stops on New Year’s eve, along with the coffee. Then there would be more of a there there for many people for sure.
Awareness, after all, is what being stoned is all about and it figures that the more aware one is of one’s surroundings, the better a driver or pilot or operating engineer one will be. I think this thesis is supported by the strange absence of any (publicized) research on the subject.
The theory could easily be checked out in a triple-blind study of bus drivers, using real and fake Alice B. Toklas brownies. I bet the moderately stoned drivers would prove to be better drivers in every way.
LSD-taking that evening was concentrated in the Bowling Alley, where Dick, Hollingshead, Ernie, Arnie, and a rich girl from New York, famous for maintaining dozens of indigent heads in her town house, were camping out, without running water or electricity, for the night in front of the fireplace. I dropped in for a few minutes just to say hello. Hollingshead was still twirling and Ernie, while fondling and kissing Dick’s hand, was still mumbling about going up the Amazon to interact with alligators. I exchanged a few pleasantries with the inmates, returned to the Big House and went to bed early.
Going to sleep, I resolved to stick with Ralph for the duration of my visit. Hollingshead, Ernie and Arnie were neither scholars nor gentlemen. Life at Millbrook had taken a turn for the worse, with creeps in high places. It was a good thing I had the lodge to return to. If not, I might find myself up the Amazon with the alligators.
The next day passed without excitement. I went to a nearby state school, picked up three young retardates to help clean the Big House, supervised their work, and brought them back. High-grade morons. They enjoyed the experience enormously, particularly the opportunity to ogle so many pretty girls.
The Fergusons now occupied the Gatehouse. But even with Millbrook’s cutest absent from the Big House most of the time, the place was still loaded for bear, so to speak. Psychedelian communities almost always are. Gotama wouldn’t let an unattached female “within a hundred miles” of his ashram, Haines would say, every now and then, a somewhat hyperbolic way of putting it. But this attitude, to put it mildly, did not apply at Millbrook. Positive traits being positively correlated, there were “super-girls” all over the place, from start to finish.
If that’s a curse, it’s one I am willing to up with put.
The visitors arrived late in the afternoon and quietly trooped up to their rooms in the servants’ wing, most of which, I had noticed, had been decorated in a gaudy, spooky style with cracked mirror fragments glued to one wall, swirls of clashing colors on another, magazine photo collages on a ceiling and so forth. Ernie and Arnie at work. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the light show that was shown later in the evening either. What was so “psychedelic” about colored blobs floating around?
Some very prosaic imaginations were at work, that was for sure.
Dinner with the silent guests, however, was hilarious. About twenty of them, mostly conservatively dressed and middle-aged, had come in the front door, smiling grimly but with fear in their eyes, to follow a silent but beaming Dick up the stairs. When they came down a couple hours later, after we had cooked dinner and set it out on low tables around the dining room, a place card in front of every cushion, I could hardly believe the evidence of my senses. The “guests” were all wearing white robes made out of bed sheets. I came close to choking trying to get back to the kitchen without laughing out loud.
In the kitchen, Pat McNeill, Susan Leary and Susan Metzner were having a major giggling fit, in which I immediately joined.
The robes, they explained, were intended to obliterate social distinctions, but they cracked up over it anyway. A giggling fit, when you are stoned on grass, as we all were, is, one might say, no laughing matter. Susan Metzner, between sobs and gasps, asked me to read some kind of paper, authored by Hollingshead, to the Ku Klux Klan in the next room.
“Very simple … gasp … you just hit the gong … tee hee hee … and read this bullshit … ha, ha, ha … until it says GONG … sob … when you hit it again …” she dissolved into tears. Susan Leary had her head down on the table and was shuddering all over, and Pat was not in much better shape.
I peeked out at the dining room through the pantry door. Dick, Ralph and Hollingshead were solemnly seated with the guests. They were being silent but not wearing bed sheets. Back in the kitchen, I tried to read the paper to myself, but my hand was shaking so badly from suppressed bursts of merriment that I could hardly make it out … with the next mouthful of food contemplate on the wonders of the body; where the food goes, how it is digested.
What the fuck? Mouthful? Where it goes? How it is digested? At a very early age, I had been firmly instructed that the dinner table was not the place to bring up clinical topics such as these. One might discuss them in the doctor’s office or the classroom, or maybe on the front porch, but not while people were trying to eat.
I made some kind of strangled effort to express my dismay, which merely caused Susan Metzner to collapse next to Susan Leary at the table. In this respect, I was fairly certain, Susan, Susan and Pat had been brought up as I had. Well, I would just have to get a grip on myself.
I went out into the dining room and tried not to look at the solemn congregation. Where the fuck was the damn gong? I didn’t see any gong. Oh yeah, there was a big gong, at least three feet in diameter, hanging in a frame next to the front door. I went out in the hall and brought it in … heavy bastard. There was a big beater with it. I heaved the frame up onto a serving table next to the pantry door and gripped the hammer with my right hand while I held the paper with my left. Everyone was looking at me with utmost gravity. I was afraid that I would burst into loon-like shrieks at any moment, but my apprehension struck me as hilariously funny, also.
I hit the gong a good whack, with the usual consequences (GONNNNNNNNG) and started reading, pretending all the while that I was somewhere else and that some mechanical dummy was reading the paper. Somehow, I got to the last sentence without incident.
When you hear the sound of the gong (GONNNNNNNNG) …
Were those screams I could hear coming from the kitchen?
… observe its structured wonders, skin, hair, tissue, blood, vein, bone, muscle, net of nerve. Observe its message. (For one awful moment, I considered going on with appendix, colon, … memories of a misspent youth , but I suppressed the urge.)
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
I fled to the kitchen. No member of my audience had so much as chuckled during the recitation, but the girls in the kitchen had reached the stage of final exhaustion. They were just sitting there, limply, like rag dolls, with tears streaming down their cheeks.
“Arthur,” Susan Metzner said, a tremor or two passing over her face, “you weren’t supposed to use the big gong. There was a tiny one right next to you the whole time.”
I went out and took the first vacant place I could find, forgetting about the place names entirely. “Hi,” I said to the people at the table. At the same time, I noticed that I was Dr. Morris Tannenbaum, M.D., and the guy across from me was trying to tell me something in sign language. I closed my eyes … all you have to do is behave normally, I told myself. I opened my eyes and turned to the white-robed lady at my side. “Hi,” I said in a perfectly normal voice, “I’m Art Kleps, not Dr. Tannenbaum. Where is Dr. Tannenbaum?” The three other people at my table looked at me with consternation and dismay. The guy making the sign language pointed first at his place card and then at his mouth. He was making motions as if to first zip and then sew his lips together. Christ! I had violated the rule of silence. I got up and left, and stayed away from the visitors for the rest of the evening, except to look in on the light show for a couple of minutes. I wondered once again why some people thought floating blobs were “psychedelic.” I went back to my book.
Late that night, after all the visitors had been put to bed, everyone got together in Tim’s room for a critique of the day and plans for the morrow. A hash pipe was passed but the whole scene bored me stiff. It sounded like a PTA meeting. Fortunately, I was sitting on the edge of Tim’s bed, which was in an alcove, next to the rich girl from New York. She didn’t mind at all being pulled back on the bed for some routine sophomoric behavior. But the reclining position and the long, full day and the brandy and the hash were too much for me. In five minutes I was out cold.