June 8, 2014

Acid is Groovy


It was a warm, bright afternoon in late May when Grinch and I worked our way up the dusty, half-lit wooden steps of a hippie flophouse in Madison. The air stank of incense and burnt hair. When we reached the third floor, we knocked on a door and a voice inside told us to come in. Inside, a pale kid in his early twenties was sitting on a scrap of carpet beneath an open window. The scrap of carpet was the closest thing the room had to furniture. The kid had a scruffy beard and was wearing a sleeveless tie-dyed t-shirt. There was nothing at all threatening about him. Not like I was expecting, anyway. In the years to come I’d be involved in a few potentially deadly deals that went down in alleys and shadowy stairwells, but for the most part drug deals are not at all what you see on TV. They’re pretty casual affairs transacted between pleasant people in well-lit rooms. I didn’t know that at the time, so I have to admit I was a little disappointed to see this skinny mellow hippie sitting on the floor in a sunny room instead of some tattooed thug dressed in black and toting an automatic weapon.

            Grinch and I took a seat on the carpet with him. Grinch, to whom this was nothing new, was relaxed and almost (almost) as mellow as the dealer in the t-shirt. I wasn’t. It wasn’t the cops I was worried about. Hell, not in Madison. In Madison you could shoot up openly in the park and no one thought twice about it. But having never been through this before I was still half expecting this skinny hippie to whip out a gun or three big black guys to materialize and kick the shit out of us.

            Neither happened. “So you want some acid?” the kid asked.

            “That’s what we’re here for,” Grinch told him.

            “Okay, how much you want?”

            “Give us six tabs.”

            The kid produced a few blotter sheets and carefully tore off six tabs, each the size of a postage stamp.

            Maybe noticing I was nervous and hadn’t spoken a word, Grinch told the dealer, “Slackjaw here’s never done acid before, so what should he expect?”

            The kid turned to me. “Oh, nothing to worry about. This is a very mellow, easy high. Nothing crazy. Give it about forty-five minutes to kick in, then you’ll just start feeling really . . . mellow.” That wasn’t exactly what I expected to hear, and not exactly what I was after, either, but there you go.

            “All right,” I said. “Fine.”

            There was an exchange of money (I forget how much, exactly, but no more than a few bucks), and that was that. We thanked him and left. As these things go it was pretty anticlimactic. Back at my apartment half an hour later, Grinch tore one of the tabs into quarters and we each swallowed a piece. Then we got on with the day.

            For the next few hours nothing happened. No flashing lights or swirling colors, no kaleidoscopic visions or demons rising from the sidewalk like the movies had led me to expect. It was nothing at all, and after a bit I wrote it all off, convinced I’d merely swallowed a small piece of paper and that was that.

            About seven that night, Grinch and I went to a bar on State Street, where we were to be interviewed by two guys from a local ‘zine. Whether we were being interviewed as the Nihilist Workers’ Party or the Pain Amplifiers, I forget, and it didn’t really much matter. We got a couple of beers, took a small table by the door, and not much later the two guys—clean cut sorts in glasses and button-down shirts—showed up and sat down with us. They seemed very excited, which struck me as a little odd. No one was ever excited to see us. Well, anyway, they turned on a tape recorder and started asking questions, and as they did my right leg started to bounce. I wasn’t bored or impatient, I wanted to be there, but within a few minutes an inexplicable and uncontrollable energy began spreading from my leg through the rest of my body. Finally I sat my beer down.

            “I’ll, uh, I’ll be right back,” I told them. “I gotta run around a few blocks or something.”

            So that’s what I did. I left the bar and ran around the block, trying to dispel this energy in my guts. Then I ran around the block again, and a third time. After that, feeling a bit calmer, I returned to the bar, sat down, and carried on as if nothing had happened. I suspect in my absence Grinch explained that I was tripping, but it wasn’t LSD at work. As was common practice in those days as a cost-effective measure, the lysergic acid on the blotter paper had been cut with speed.

            That was another disappointment. I’d been kinda looking forward to the demons and kaleidoscopes. I also wanted to go back to the co-op and explain to that dirty hippie that speed and “mellow” don’t exactly go together.

            But speed has it’s advantages too, and over the next few days Grinch and I took several more hits, and ran everywhere.

            We saved the last two tabs for about a week later, which turned out by no coincidence to be the day of Grinch’s college graduation. A few hours beforehand we dropped the last two tabs, then he went off to meet his parents and get in his gown and go to the ceremony. We planned on meeting afterwards. That meant I had a few hours to kill, and that’s when I started to get the feeling we’d finally hit the two tabs of the six with some acid on them.

            It was an overcast and humid day, so I put on a wool jacket, lit a cigar, and headed out. I had to get out, because the walls of the apartment (and the floor, and the ceiling) were starting to close in. But once outside things weren’t much better. The sky was an iridescent green, and all the sounds around me—the traffic, the voices, even the fucking birds—seemed sharp and tinny, and seemed to be coming from every direction at once. All the buildings were different. Not wildly so, just subtly tilted a degree or two from how they normally stood. My mouth tasted of metal. My perceptions weren’t all that different, but just different enough to have me convinced this was no longer my world, and I had to get out.


            Then there were the people. School was out for the semester and the graduation ceremony was likely underway, so the streets were mostly empty. Those people who were left, though, all stared at me and through me with their black eyes. They were after something, and they knew something. It had nothing at all to do with the fact that I was smoking a fat cigar, wearing a heavy wool jacket, and sweating profusely as I ran through the streets on a thick and humid day. They knew something much more profound and ominous than that. It was likely they weren’t even human. The fear had me by the back of the neck and pushed me along. I wondered how Grinch was doing, likewise tripping, but tripping while sitting in a crowd of thousands, all of them dressed exactly the same. It must be terrifying, I thought, and wasn’t sure I would’ve been able to handle it.

            I slowed when I reached Library Mall, a place usually teeming with people talking, wandering around, reading, playing godawful hippie songs. That day it was silent and empty, which was both a relief and unnerving.

            Then I saw him waving at me. A kid, probably sixteen years old, a complete mess. Grinch and I had talked to him a few times. He was as nihilistic and destructive as we were, but he simply wasn’t very bright, which tarnished the charm of his nihilism.

            “Hey man!” he called. “Hey, how’s it goin’?”

            He was walking toward me but I knew better than to let him get too close, let those black eyes drill into me. Still, so as not to give him the idea I had anything to hide, I waved back. “Gotta go!” I shouted. “Stay in school!” Then I kept running. I repeatedly told myself I had to keep it under control, I couldn’t let it show. Christ, I simply could not let it show or I was a goner.

            It had mostly faded by the time I started seeing students in their red graduation robes wandering back from the stadium where the ceremony had taken place. That was a relief—if I’d still been in the same state when hundreds of people in red robes started coming toward me, I may well have cracked completely.

            I’m not sure how it was I found Grinch and his parents among all of them, but I did somehow. And to mark the event, his parents took a picture which I still have here: Grinch in his gown, me in a wool jacket and clutching a cigar, both of us pointing at his diploma and laughing hysterically, and both of us tripping. I can’t think of another picture that better sums up our years in Madison.


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