Neo-American Church

Chapter 20


This was not the sort of experience for a statesman to encounter who was planning out a peaceful revolution in his mind.

I now found myself dependent, at least for the roof over my head, on the charity of a bootlegger, or rather, a rentier to bootleggers. Jim was much too disorganized to manage anything as complicated as a white-lightning run. His spacious brick home, in one of the wealthiest sections of Birmingham, was a mess within, strewn with cheap occultist literature and all kinds of trash and garbage of a less abstract variety.

In the basement, carefully tended by two “good old country boys,” an enormous, galvanized tank poured out a steady stream of that substance with which I was least competent to cope, at the turn of a tap. A short walk down the cellar stairs and I was in the presence of a fountain of forgetfulness. In a way, one might say, my “prayers” had been answered, damn it.

The country place, which I had all to myself, wasn’t so bad, but my depression was so deep I couldn’t write a word or do much of anything, except walk around in the dreary woods. Legal problems Jim had neglected to mention in his letters prevented him from giving the Church any property. He was the black sheep of a “good” family, and everything he had was tied up in trusts.

Brandye Maske, a southern peach who had joined the Church in Miami, and who was then bee hee of Birmingham, where she attended an exclusive school for girls, drove up with the best intentions in the world. It was useless. I had the libido of a jelly donut. A big trip probably would have brought me to my senses (wise idiom), but those who need a trip the most are the least likely to want one, and I was no exception.

Should Brandye have bombed me? Yes, I now declare with great confidence. If all the other ducks are in order (they were), a good friend of a Psychedelian who is clearly depressed should at least throw a Ching about it. But those were the early days. Almost everyone was uncertain about such interventions and it was against the prevailing doctrine.

Through a private detective friend of Jim, I found that there was, no surprise, a warrant out for me in Florida, and I got Sally’s address in Sarasota. One more try, I told myself.

I took the bus. Sally wouldn’t budge an inch. She was staying in Florida and the kids were staying with her. If I wanted to visit, I would have to take my chances with the police. Waiting in the train station in Sarasota to return to Alabama, I had one belt too many of Jim’s 190-proof product. White lightning is also known, for good reason, as “sneaky Pete.” I passed out on a bench and woke up in the city jail. The next morning I was transferred to the county jail. The old warrant had turned up.

The Sarasota County jail must have been a real dungeon even during the off season, but this was January 2, 1967, so it was also overbooked. No daylight. Twelve men, on average, in a tank with six beds, so late arrivals, me included, slept on the floor on flat and filthy mattresses.

The dominant inmate was a deranged gorilla, ordinarily good-natured but given to sudden bursts of mindless violence. He had been in this dismal hole for nine months for lack of bail. Two seventeen-year-old boys, who had passed some bad checks, had been there for six months for the same reason. The gorilla usually picked on them. When he got overactive, the custom was to smile, and attempt to treat it all as playful roughhousing. When he approached me during one of these outbursts, I said, meanwhile breaking out in a cold sweat, “George, if you lay a finger on me, I’ll bang a ballpoint pen through your ear with a shoe in the middle of the night.” I meant it. George treated me with utmost politeness thereafter.

After a week or so of this shit, I was transferred to a newly built slammer in Ocala and bail of $1,000 was set on a charge of possession of a dangerous drug. It took Lisa Bieberman a couple weeks to raise the bail from various Psychedelians around the country. The first thing I did after being released was buy an orange from a nearby open-air stand. Citrus fruits, which grew all around, were never served in the two jails I had been in.

Spending some time behind bars became fairly common among white, middle-class American kids in those days and, in a way, it was a good thing it did. In this area, there’s no substitute for personal experience. Few people who have fallen victim to it fail to notice that the American criminal justice system is organized to protect the rich and to rob and demoralize the poor. What justice is available is sold, virtually as a commodity, to those who can pay for it. As Defoe put it, “Knowledge of things would teach them every hour that law is but a heathen word for power.” All governments are fascist at heart and are restrained, if at all, only by fear of French or Russian Revolution replays, one of which has been overdue around here for a long time.

For solipsistic nihilists, however, there is another side to it. One must also wonder why, Snazzm, one has brought this kind of nightmare on oneself. I do not say this to excuse in any way the cruelty of the punishment freaks who have created and who operate the barbaric American system. If you are attacked by a monster in a nightmare, and have a shotgun handy, let the creature have it with both barrels. But nightmares cannot be conquered or ameliorated or avoided merely by deploring them. Honest analysis is called for.

Trite as it is, it will often turn out that one’s errors are due to bad habits and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Frivolity with money doesn’t help either. No agitator, revolutionary or professional criminal should expect to escape unscathed forever. John Jay Chapman is very good on this topic. Resolutions made in jails may hold up better than those made in less stark surroundings. In any case, if one is stuck with a dangerous line of work, one ought to give serious thought to how best to protect oneself while doing it and get advice from seasoned professionals.

Back in Alabama I found Jim’s place deserted. Checks for several hundred dollars which I had been expecting in the mail were nowhere to be found. The still was gone, and there wasn’t a drop of anything alcoholic, legal or illegal, in the house. The phone rang. It was Jim. The distillers had gotten word of a raid only a few minutes before it was scheduled to take place, and had fled at once, leaving the evidence in place. Jim had taken my checks to a bank and tried to cash them, but the teller had gotten suspicious, so he had stepped outside and thrown them down a sewer. He was now in Florida, hiding out at a girlfriend’s house. No, I had better not sell his furniture. The boys suspected me of being the rat. I had better get out of town before I got killed. Delightful, first Bobby Kennedy and now this.

I called Millbrook and Bill Haines answered. Tim was in California. The Ashram had moved into the Big House and Bill was in charge. They were broke, but he would try to scrape up $75 to get me back to civilization. The next day, the money was at the Western Union office. Bali Ram had come up with the cash. He had had a vision that I would pull them out of their difficulties. You’re as good a man as I am, Bali Ram. Well, that was that. As I write, “The Prisoners’ Chorus” from Fidelio is on the stereo, and my mood on the train going north was on the same track. Even the industrial wastelands of New Jersey looked good, but the snow-covered landscape of the Hudson Valley looked like fairyland. My depression was lifting: I could distinguish between good places and bad places. Compared to my days at MGL, I was still in sad shape, but I could now see how fortunate, in many ways, I was in my condition and my prospects. I had friends and I had a place where I could go. Only suffering and loss will show many of us, born in luxury relative to the mass of mankind, how lucky we are, and how important those simple requirements are to a happy life.

I took a cab from the Place of Overflowing Shitholes. The driver got a lot of kidding from his dispatcher when he reported his destination over the radio.

There were two changes in the outward appearance of the Big House. A giant face, called the Universal Man, had been painted on the facade and a formidable metal monstrosity of vaguely telescopic appearance squatted on the roof of the porch. It had been built by Narad, the Man of Iron, who had left without explaining what it was for. Someone eventually disassembled it.

The Universal Man was not much admired. He looked more like a leering gigolo than a hero or philosopher, but the visiting artist who had painted him had known well what he was about. He had left his Mark upon us, and there was no way to stash it in the storage room with all the other bizarre productions left behind by less audacious artists. I think most of us, although nobody ever said so, became sort of fond of the old boy.

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