Neo-American Church

Chapter 38


We were being made a holiday spectacle.

The next great scene at Millbrook was the Fourth of July party of 1967. Every Psychedelian resident of the estate was invited to the Bungalow.

Fireworks! Music by the Grateful Dead and Aluminum Dreams! Girls in hootchy-kootchy costumes! Many guests were expected from the upper reaches of New York stoned society.

Liberty forever! Equality and Fraternity, to my way of thinking, did not ring with the same clear note, but what the hell, to each his own poison. The general mood at Millbrook was still too stoned, despite our quarrels, to poop parties. Most of us, most of the time, saw our differences as entertainment and variety rather than sedition or subversion. We were all, after all, Psychedelians, and our enemies had not yet stormed the gates in force. We still lived in a pleasant little world we could honestly call our own, and most of us were determined to enjoy it.

Joe Gross, the psychiatrist who had joined the Church in Miami, showed up early in the day with Cathy Elbaum, a thin blonde of thirty or so, who had vague connections in the publishing world and with Sam and Martica Clapp. Joe, who had already visited once or twice, was in his usual state of confusion and apprehension over the coming festivities. He had not yet taken LSD, although he “believed in it,” and couldn’t make up his mind whether or not to take the plunge at the party.

Everything about Joe was confused and contradictory. A Gemini, he was alternately or simultaneously on both sides of every question, but never genuinely committed to anything. He hated New York, but lived there because his mother, with whom he had dinner twice a week, did. It was a standard case of the Jewish mother’s relentless grip so well-publicized in song and story.

Still a bachelor in his late thirties, he was strongly attracted only to women he couldn’t get: young, blonde, preferably Scandinavian girls whom he would spot on the streets and who would invariably “disappear” when he followed them. The ones he could get, and there was a constant parade, were all smartasses as crazy as he was who would inevitably muck up his mind. Whenever he could manage it, he would take trips to Scandinavia and Canada in search of his ideal, but “something” always went wrong.

Joe’s living arrangements illustrated the stark dualities which seemed to afflict every aspect of his life. His office, in the penthouse of 4 East 89th, overlooking the park and the Guggenheim Museum, was a little disorderly but comfortable and warm. Most of his patients were on Medicaid. Joe couldn’t refuse anyone with any kind of sob story, and the word had spread.

His apartment, a few doors down the street, was cold, barren and dirty. No curtains, no rugs and no furniture except two inflatable plastic chairs and a huge, round bed that was never made.

Considering all the other incongruities in his life, it probably seemed natural to Joe that he should join the Neo-American Church and hang around with me and the other Millbrookians but never take any of the stuff that was the point of it all, except a little grass now and then, which, he said, always made him “feel paranoid.”

If you “feel paranoid” every now and then you are almost certainly not a paranoid, at least not in any serious way. Meat Hook, I’m pretty sure, never “felt paranoid” in his life.

Joe, in the language of the day, was always “going on his patients’ trips.” Many of them must have thought he was faking approval of their enthusiasms for professional reasons, but those of us who knew him well knew he wasn’t. Every time I saw him he seemed to have new favorites: a guy who was “into” the Kabala, a girl who was “into” Sokka Gakkai, food nuts, sex nuts, spiritualists, flying saucer telepathic communicationists. The list seemed endless. It is endless.

Joe looked his part, too. He resembled a bearded and soiled version of the Pop’n Fresh dough man in the TV commercials, with thick glasses, and usually had an expression of diffident, quizzical acceptance on his pleasant face. Joe wanted to understand. He assumed everyone knew something important he didn’t. Unfortunately, as is often the case with nice guys, he was also afraid that he would turn into a ravening monster if he took acid, and perhaps murder his mother and rape the nearest Scandinavian blonde, or vice versa.

While Cathy and Joe were dressing for the party, Wendy took me aside and confided a deep, dark secret. She and Joe had decided to take “lots of tranquilizers” as soon as the festivities commenced. Since neither Wendy nor Joe could drink the way I did and remain upright, they both thought that this expedient might “allow them” to get “as stoned” as I did. Could be. It stands to reason that anything disinhibiting will encourage boosting to the point where dosage doesn’t really matter anymore, which was my standard pattern. What, me worry?

Tord and Joe instantly hit it off. Joe was fascinated by Tord’s nonchalance. Tord was planning on taking 40 milligrams of STP for the party. And the Keeper of the Divine Toad, who loved nothing better than a session of what might be called superficial depth analysis, was delighted to rake over his various theories about the Millbrook scene and its leading lights with a professional shrink. Wendy enjoyed this indoor sport also. I left them happily maundering away at the Gatehouse and went up to the Bungalow to help the Hitchcocks with the preparations.

Charlie Rumsey, who would have died a thousand deaths if he had missed anything like this, was on hand, and I helped him prepare several pitchers of the Supreme Sacrament in the pantry off the dining room before Suzanne dragged me off to help her hang up paper streamers.

Charlie, “that flunky” who didn’t show up at the “get my furniture back” meeting, was an old buddy of Billy’s and became, for a while, a frequent companion of mine also. While still in his early twenties, Charlie, an offshoot of the Harriman family, which had a nice little place down river from the Place of Overflowing Shitholes, had become well known in New York for treating the daughters of wealthy families to safaris in Africa, and for heavy gambling on sporting events. He seriously depleted his income with such adventures, and then, in an effort to recoup, lost the farm in cranberry futures. The year’s crop he happened to bet on was banned by the feds as too poisoned by pesticides to be marketed. He had enough left over from this debacle, however, to maintain a roomy apartment in New York and live the fabled “playboy” life without recourse to onerous employment.

When the Psychedelian Age dawned, “Champagne Charlie” came into his own. Although the general public never heard of him, he became as famous among the rich of New York as Dr. Jake. If Charlie supplied one’s sacraments, one could be sure that they were the best available, and that the vanguard of the jet set was stoned on the same stuff, a clincher sales point. Charlie knew “everybody” and “everybody” knew Charlie.

Psychedelianism will truly have triumphed on the day when the sun’s early light dawns in Central Park on a statue of Charlie, a characteristically impish smile creasing his boyish face, eternally pouring a glass of fortified bubbly for Human Nature Itself, as it were. It could and should be done. The wealthy children and grandchildren who did not inherit familial sociopathy because Charlie was on call when he was needed ought to feel an obligation to do it in remembrance of their spiritual father.

“Hey, Charlie,” Billy asked at one point, “can you think of anyone else we should invite?”

“How about Hunt?” Charlie immediately suggested. “I already invited Cathy.”

Cathy Hartford, who later became a dedicated missionary bee hee of the Church and Transultrametasuperpanhypersebastocrator of the Virgin Islands, was Huntington Hartford’s eighteen-year-old daughter.

“But he never turns on,” Billy objected.

“Well?” Charlie asked, with a wink in his voice.

“Right,” Billy said, after biting his fingernails for a moment or two. He made the call. Sure enough. Good old Hunt would try to make it.

By the time the outside guests started arriving, we were mostly zonked. Wendy, wearing her “ecstatic clothes,” had come up with Tord on his motorcycle, but Tord, at someone’s suggestion, had gone back down to the front gate to give people directions to the Bungalow. Peggy, who had just arrived from the city, approached me with a cross expression on her face.

“Who is that awful man down at the gate?” she wanted to know.

I explained that the awful man was my buddy Tord, Keeper of the Divine Toad, and that he was under the influence of 40 milligrams of STP, despite everything I had said to warn him off the stuff. Peggy was mollified, but not by much.

She had come up in a regular car with friends in informal attire who would don their costumes at the Bungalow. The driver had stopped to ask Tord how things were going.

“Oh, the usual with these rich bastards,” Tord had replied. “They’re all wearing costumes and showing off for each other and everyone’s stoned out of his gourd. Just go up and help yourselves to whatever you want. Eat the rich!”

From a factual standpoint, this was pretty accurate, but the tone was wrong.

“Give him hell when you see him later, Peggy,” I said. “There’s no excuse for that kind of stuff. If Tord finds all of this so distasteful he shouldn’t be living here.”

Later in the evening I saw Peggy wagging her finger in Tord’s face, followed by an intense exchange of views, followed by an embrace. So much for class warfare when one is plummeting through the Mysterium Tremendum and encounters another plummet. Compared to the plummeting, nothing else matters much.

I found Joe next to the swimming pool, holding a weak highball, looking like a lost sheep, standing out like a sore thumb, being a specter at the feast, and so forth. He was surveying a throng of costumed merrymakers (Billy was a turbaned pasha, Aurora a harem dancer) with undisguised bewilderment. Nothing Joe did was ever disguised.

His incomprehension arose from seeing almost everyone present knocking back cups of acid-spiked punch and then dancing, talking, laughing and swimming around in the pool as if they were enjoying themselves.

That’s what bothered Joe. If we had been wandering around pontificating in unknown tongues while pointing to non-existent objects in the sky, Joe would not have been worried. If we had stripped off our garments and fallen into a writhing heap of anybody-fuckers, he would have accepted this as explicable, and likewise if we had all squatted down and examined our navels for hidden mantras, or whatever.

He would have been impressed, but I don’t think he would have freaked out, if we had all sprouted wings and flown away cackling like geese, but to see everyone happily chatting away and bouncing around as people usually do at a good party profoundly violated his preconceptions. Joe was out front about it, as always. Looking particularly sheepish, he said, “You know what I want to know, Art? You aren’t going to believe this.”


“What are they all talking about?”

Exactly. It was, after all, not a frame of mind with which I was entirely unfamiliar. Despite my mescaline trip, when I first visited Millbrook I assumed the residents knew all kinds of important things I didn’t know.

Joe thought of psychedelic experience as synonymous with visionary experience. He thought he could imagine what it would be like. He would have hallucinations, or something similar, which meant he would be psychotic, or something similar, for a while, and perhaps forever.

All the nice things Psychedelians told him faded away before this vivid and alarming concept.

It followed from this that the more trips we took, the more territory, so to speak, we covered, and so we would accumulate information in pretty much the same way lonely lechers would accumulate information on visits to Copenhagen to chase blondies. We would have quite an accumulation of information to pore over with other visitors to the same places.

The uninitiated would not be welcome at such discussions. That was why Joe was standing there all by himself. He didn’t want to intrude on the “mysteries,” which everyone who knew about them seemed to treat so lightly, thereby making them seem even more mysterious.

I took a pill from my pocket.

“Joe, will you for Christ’s sake take one of these things and forget about all that shit?”

“What shit?” Joe wanted to know.

“Oh, all those unfounded speculations. You don’t know what you’re thinking about, or, to put it another way, I know what you are thinking about better than you do.”

Joe was horrified. Was I reading his mind? But after a lot of heavy drug pushing from me, he finally swallowed half the pill.

I couldn’t stay with him because Billy had asked me to spell Jack and Jimmy at the bar while they prepared the fireworks. I ducked out half an hour later to check and found Joe standing in the same spot and looking at the crowd with the same expression, except now his pupils were dilated.

“How’s it going, Joe?” I asked.

“Well, how do you manage things sexually?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely startled.

“Oh, you know, how do you decide who gets who?”

In my condition, I couldn’t take it. I went back to the bar after saying, “Oh, come on, Joe, relax,” and patting him on the back.

Why should I go on Joe’s bad trip? Do the strictures of decent and honorable pastoral conduct include a responsibility to wrestle with the bummers produced by people you have turned on? On the one hand it would seem so, and on the other hand it would seem not. By paying attention to it, you imply it’s worthy of your attention and if it’s worthy of your attention, it’s worthy of the attention of the nervous wreck who came up with it in the first place.

On the other hand, if you don’t pay attention, your behavior may be interpreted as callous indifference and cause resentment and bad feeling all around. Tim usually did what I had done with Joe, and I think he was right. Make some gesture of friendliness and play the whole thing down.

Joe’s trip confirmed him as a true Psychedelian, instead of someone who “believes in it” the way some people believe in the Angel Moroni, but it did not bring about any major changes in his style of life or way of thinking. While I knew him, he remained an extremely eclectic supernaturalist, and continued to hope and grope for pie in the sky, as did almost everyone else.

“What do you want?” I asked him one time.

“I want to see a miracle,” Joe replied.

Exactly. He wanted confirmation of the beliefs he already held, and had held since childhood. Joe didn’t want to change. No, far from it.

I could urge Joe to discard his preconceptions and keep an open mind, but there was no way I could do it for him or even teach him how to do it. In order to relax and enjoy himself, rather than manufacture and multiply an endless series of pseudo-problems and quasi-solutions, Joe would have to combat his own repetition compulsion, and transform himself. Aside from all the supportive, tolerant and friendly people around him, Joe had a magic kingdom, Millbrook, he could visit where a magic potion, LSD, was available and there was even a magic book, the I Ching, to assist him in this noble project. The fact was that Joe had more miraculous help available than he needed.

A wholesale transformation is only possible when one is willing to start over completely with a clean slate, and few people have any genuine desire to do it. The enemy is always the repetition compulsion. Nothing new will ever happen to anyone who always knows what to expect.

The fireworks display, something I had never witnessed before on a trip, was everything the various light shows then becoming popular tried to be but weren’t: absorbing, dazzling, “mind blowing.” The after images were just as good as the originals. As soon as it was over, the bands began to play. I alternately danced and tended bar. Bali Ram and Aurora put on an exhibition of fancy dancing on the porch by the flashing light of a strobe, and it wasn’t long before Charlie and I had to mix up a couple new pitchers of refreshments.

People kept pouring in the front door, including the Hartfords and friends, and I was delighted when Jack appeared to take over the bar. It was more fun to wander around with a pitcher and top off all the drinks standing around. Things were taking on that timeless quality. Various tableaux developed and faded to be replaced by others. Three girlfriends of Wendy’s showed up from the city, and we showed them to the first bedroom suite, which was being used as a coat room. I could see they were terrified out of their wits by the scene they had just passed through.

Wendy tried to reassure them.

“Where’s the acid, Arthur?” she asked me. “These girls have never had anything stronger than grass.”

“It’s all in the glass pitchers. Just stick to drinks out of bottles at the bar and you won’t have any problems,” I said to the trio of wide-eyed Jewish princesses. “Tell you what, I’ll go and get you some grass.” I went off in search of Billy, whom I found in his bedroom, talking to Charlie. A misunderstanding had developed. Hunt had just told Charlie he was barred from Paradise Island for life. Hunt, although he no longer owned the island in the Bahamas outright, apparently still had enough control over it so he could bar people who had offended him.

“He accused me of giving acid to Cathy,” Charlie said. “The unbelievable thing is I didn’t give her any. She didn’t trust ours, so she brought her own. I couldn’t tell Hunt that.”

“Well, is she freaking out or anything?” Billy wanted to know.” No, nothing like that,” Charlie said. “She’s probably had more trips than anyone in the room. She’s just stoned out of her gourd, that’s all. But so is everyone else here except Hunt. He won’t even let Jack pour his drinks for Christ’s sake.”

Hunt remained the odd man out all night. He would step into rooms where stoned gatherings were taking place, and simply stand there, rigid, glaring balefully. Then he would suddenly wheel around and march out again. This performance, once people got used to it, caused gales of hilarity. According to Billy, he was “always that way,” which I found hard to believe.

At an entirely different kind of stoned party in California, which I attended eighteen months later with Charlie, Cathy and two of her girlfriends, Cathy told me what I thought was an interesting story.

Just before the Hartford party left the Fourth of July party, someone had managed to bomb Hunt’s highball with a small dose. A few miles down the Taconic, Hunt, who was sitting up front next to his chauffeur-bodyguard-companion, had suddenly swung around and said to the stoned kids in the back seat, “You know, those people were really having fun up there. Maybe we should go back.”

“I’ve never heard him say anything like that in my life,” Cathy said. Unfortunately, the chauffeur talked him out of it. Hunt’s chauffeur, everyone said, was also his closest friend. Too bad, indeed. When I had been introduced to Hunt by Billy, I had immediately said, by way of openers, “Listen, why don’t you give Paradise Island to the Neo-American Church?” He had immediately disappeared in front of my eyes. If he had returned and taken a large blast, who knows? Maybe he would have paid the necessary bribes, gotten his bridge, and saved the family fortune. The guy he really needed to talk to was Sam.

That later party in California was a classic of the paranoid-occultist genre, and worth describing. The place where it was held was called Harbingers, home to a group of 100 or so classic California Slobovenoid Blobovenoidalist simpletons led by a visionary occultist who claimed that his entire home state would fall into the sea any day now, that he was communicating with flying saucers and his unborn child, and so forth.

A Narad type, and a tarot-cards kind of guy, he had made several tapes explaining his system. Joe had the complete set and thought they were wonderful. The group had published one edition of a newspaper named Harbingers which was highly thought of on the West Coast. Formerly a hot springs resort, the setting was ideal for a party. At least 500 people showed up.

The idea was that the Harbinger people, by “getting their heads together” and “sending out the right vibrations” and “calling on the powers of the group mind,” or whatever, would in one night bring all the rest of us, which included almost every Psychedelian power on the West Coast as well as straight representatives of government and academia, over to their way of thinking. They would show us where it was “really at.” It didn’t quite work out that way, or in a way, it did. At that party, Joe Gross’ expectations would have been gratified. It rained in slashing, thunderous downpours all night. The place was raided, and in the ensuing panic, one person was killed and another injured in auto accidents. The leader’s wife miscarried, and it turned out the fetus had been dead for some time, which instantly disproved everything he had been saying about his telepathic powers.

All of us were held for hours in whatever room we were occupying at the time of the raid, while a search was conducted. Only two people were arrested, however. The cops, believing the Kool-Aid to be safe because they saw ten-year-olds drinking it, had helped themselves while they stood watching naked couples cavorting around the dining room demonstrating their liberation from sexual inhibitions, as was then the fashion on the West Coast. Those cops who indulged quickly became, from the viewpoint of law and order, part of the “problem” instead of part of the “solution.” There were 500 boo hoo blacks in the Kool-Aid I knew about. Half a cup had elevated me nicely.

During the chaos, Charlie managed to escape with Cathy and one of her friends, Cynthia Hoag, but the other girl and I were trapped in a wood-frame dormitory with about fifty other people all night. Since she was seventeen and closely resembled Deanna Durbin at the same age, I didn’t really mind. All three of these girls had signed up as bee hees when Charlie had brought them over to meet me. But it was a horror-show production, and we were both happy when we were able to hitch a ride to Sausalito in the morning.

Every occultist-supernaturalist group I knew about which attempted to integrate the use of LSD into its communal delusional system self-destructed like Harbingers, although not in such a dramatic fashion. They disintegrate because psychedelic experience cannot be made to conform to consensual expectations or indoctrination or peer pressure. Set and setting are important because they can make things easy or difficult, but they are not determinant, which is one of the great virtues of psychedelic experience.

Nobody can control it.

In terms of pre-Psychedelian religious traditions, once Haines and I were in at Millbrook, radical “Buddhism” was also in and everything else, except as window dressing, was out. There was always someone, most notably Tim, trying to fold us into some version or other of the Giant Omelette, but Tim kept his DNA Deity in the closet at Millbrook, as far as I know. To expose it would have clashed with his act at the time, which was to present himself as floating freely above all of us who “wrestled” here below with “problems” he transcended.

Paranoid systems vary along various dimensions. A few are fairly harmless and even entertaining, but most are so dull and ugly it seems incredible anyone should believe in them unless forced to do so by irrefutable evidence, logical economy, and predictive perfection. Yet millions of people do believe in dull and ugly paranoid systems for which there is no evidence at all.

No apparition which fit neatly into one of these systems would change my solipsist-nihilist epistemology in the slightest. All appearances, no matter how routine or how fantastic, are, Snazzm, simply matters of plot development and scenic design within the dream.

But being aware that it’s all a hallucination doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in how things work out. I hope for agreeable, believable and dramatic developments, but with plenty of comic relief also.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the Fourth of July party. I was trying to locate some lesser sacrament for Wendy’s old chums.

Billy rummaged around in a drawer and came up with a brick of Vietnamese sinsemilla, which I carried back to the living room. No girls, New York from, friends Wendy of. They had fled, Wendy said. The scene was “too much” for them. “Let’s go swimming,” she suggested.

I put the brick down on a coffee table and we joined the skinny-dippers in the pool. Joe, who seemed to have relaxed a little, had moved to the other end of the water from his original station and was now avidly ogling the naked bodies. Gradually, the crowd thinned out. Bill Haines, looking reasonably gruntled, and Tim, looking disgruntled, probably because he had not been the center of attention, went home with most, but not all, of their respective retinues.

As the sky lightened, passed-out people could be seen scattered about the floors and lawns, including little Jimmy, neatly laid out in his red jacket, and who can blame him? The survivors stopped swimming and dancing and gathered in the library to listen to classical music, sip brandy and talk. Back to the mood worlds. Coming down somewhat sloshed is easier than coming down sober.

While we were having bacon and eggs in the kitchen later, Billy said, “You know, this is incredible. There hasn’t been one freakout or fuckup all night and this party is almost over.”

No sooner had the words escaped his lips, than Len Howard and Teresa burst into the room with pained expressions on their faces. Their Corvette, they asserted, had been stolen.

“What were you saying, Billy?” I asked.

As bummers go, it didn’t amount to much. We found the car later, only slightly damaged, in the woods near the Gatehouse. Susan Shoenfeld had ditched it there after taking Sarasvati and Bhavani on a joy ride along Route 44 that had culminated in a 120-m.p.h. chase by a cop cruiser. The festivities had not gone unnoticed by the police. Cars had been lined up all along Route 44 to watch the fireworks. Susan paid for the repairs.

One of the few uninvited guests remained a problem for two days, however. This young woman tried to move into the Bungalow, by means of the same evasion of the question of permission or invitation employed by less adventurous primitivist wanderers who were willing to settle for a hut in the woods and a free meal at the Ashram every now and then.

She calmly sat down at the Bungalow dinner table whenever there was food on it, flopped on any unoccupied bed when she felt like a snooze, and was in the process of calling up friends in New York and inviting them to join her as a fellow Stranger in Paradise when Tim, who had been rushed to the scene by Billy, took her firmly by the arm and threw her out. Ejected from Heaven by the Archangel himself. Quite a tale for the folks back home in the East Village.

This sad creature aroused both pity and indignation as do importunate beggars everywhere. She was not one of the beautiful people, or even one of the interesting people. She was a “sad sack,” as Bill put it, a professional victim, a “passive aggressive,” to use the jargon, who knew the whole time she pretended not to know, exactly what was going on, what game she was playing, what she was spoiling, and how it would all end.

She would make those she envied feel guilty by forcing them to reject her, and thus give some meaning and emotional intensity to her otherwise meaningless and dim existence. She would be a reproach, a curse, a blight. A ghoul’s life, to be sure, but at least this particular example of the species was brave enough, or crazy enough, to attempt her emotional rip-off on the rich. Usually, they only practice on those as weak and poor as themselves.

Of her own class, she was a star performer.

Billy was enormously pained by the whole incident.

“Don’t look so glum, Billy” I said. “Just another archetype.”

“But I just feel so sorry for people like that. But what the hell am I supposed to do about it? Turn my house over to them and go live in the East Village?”

I assured Billy that, in the opinion of the court philosopher, nothing of the sort was required of him. His passage through the eye of the needle was going wonderfully well, etc. Every now and then, I would tell Billy what I thought he ought to do, but my instructions were not nearly so well received as my indulgences. Leaders of religious associations who detect the tiniest ember of guilt in a patron should blow on it and fan it until it produces some life-giving warmth. Tim routinely performed this basic survival procedure with theatrical expertise and Bill did it sometimes, but I was a hopeless case.

I had lost track of Joe Gross, and when I saw him a few weeks later, he seemed to be back at the same old stand. It would take more than half a pill to extract Joe from Purgatory, where almost anyone is welcome, no matter how he acts.

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