Last October I received this photo in an email from from my brother: 98 Red River in Austin, Texas, my home in ’66 and ’67, a time like no other in my life, had finally bitten the dust. I can’t begin to tell you all the things that happened there. Not just to me, either—the place had an peculiarly Austin aura that affected many others. Most significantly perhaps, it was the scene of my first-ever psychedelic experience deep in the heart of Texas, in those glorious pre-air-conditioned days when hippies had to have eyes in the back of their heads.
My God, I know those steps. They led up to a nondescript white two-story house atop a knoll above the gas station on the corner. Someone had converted it into apartments long ago. There were two or three on each floor and a basement flat out back. My place was up the stairs on the northwest corner and cost 30 bucks a month. There was absolutely nothing distinguished or remarkable about it, although unscreened windows on two sides afforded decent views. To the west one saw a jumbled cityscape of more old houses, used car lots, Tex-Mex cafes, and probably some pawn shops. Below the north window was the gas station with a hose that rang a bell whenever someone drove up—no self-serve in those days—and across the street from that, one of those old barbecue joints where a geezer in a cowboy hat cooked brisket in a garage while customers ate at picnic tables out in front. The university was a couple dozen blocks away, north up the hill on Red River Street and to the west, but that was in a different world.
It was anything but student housing, which was part of the appeal. There was what we would have called a “Mexican” family, an art major friend who’d told me about the place, and an ever-changing stream of tenants with no money moving in and out. Out back in the basement apartment lived a uniquely interesting fellow I’ll just call Bob. I don’t recall exactly how we met, but half of what I am today is partly his fault, and I’m grateful.
Bob was older by at least five years and maybe more, a short, scrawny guy from West Texas with a wary eye and cackling laugh, just the kind of randy oddball runt all the women wanted to adopt. A jazz musician who’d played flute in a military band while stationed in Japan, he was unlike anyone I’d ever met. He had a collection of mystical Buddhist beatnik books, an actual stereo, and records by people I had never heard of, like Parker, Coltrane, and Cage. He wore a beret and sunglasses and was fond of finding empty churches to practice in, where frat-rats wouldn’t throw bottles at him on his way home. Bob was the first person I knew who called girls “chicks” and said “I gotta split” when it was time to leave. He also drank a lot of coffee, smoked tiny joints of primo dope, and spent a lot of time in all-night cafes where he would read Zen books, write, and go home with the waitress. (There was a chain of such places in Austin then, all run by Iranians.) He had a part-time job in the stacks of the massive U.T. Library that paid the bills and helped him meet more girls. I worked there, too, and paid my way through school on $1.10 an hour. You could do that then, and pay for food and an apartment. It was a simpler, much less driven time, that calm before the storm.
But new things were happening out there in the wider world. I was uninitiated, vaguely aware, and definitely eager. When Bob suggested we read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and “take a trip,” the only question was the means. No one we knew had yet tried LSD, but morning glory seeds might work. By ’66, the authorities in Texas were just beginning to catch on. Morning glory seeds (the Heavenly Blue variety) were known to be suspicious, and there was talk of restricting their sale or coating them with something nasty—that came later—but as far as we knew, what was in the Garden Department at Sears was legal enough. The problem was the paranoia, as in:
“Whatchoo boys want with all them seeds?!?”
“Lemme see some ID!”
“Y’all don’t mind a couple questions from the po-leece, do ya?”
So stealth and planning were required. We also had no idea how many packs of seeds we needed or how to use them, so we decided to to split up and score as many as we dared. Bob went to the store one morning and bought a few, along with other flower seeds, of course, and I showed up in the afternoon to do the same. The clerk gave me the once-over but rang up the sale, and we were set.
I never did read the Book of the Dead, but Bob had and wasn’t worried. In the morning we would obliterate our egos and merge with all Creation. That’s what psychedelics were all about in the beginning, not something done casually for fun, but a daring act of exploration. A quest for enlightenment, whatever that was. Seeing the Light. A spiritual adventure. Something you prepared for and took seriously. At that point I hadn’t tried marijuana either, so all of this was fine with me. Anything to join the ranks of the experienced, and I wasn’t even scared.
[Part II is right here!]