Walking the streets of Chicago at night can occasionally be a dicey proposition. I moved to Chicago from Iowa and fairly rapidly realized that I knew nothing whatsoever about being an adult, let alone being an adult in a large, periodically frightening metropolis. Seeing semi-regular acts of violence on the streets or on the train, or playing “count the gunshots” each night in my first apartment there, was initially a shocking novelty. But eventually the tapestry of city life became commonplace. That was when much of the trouble started for me.
We often had crazy, drug-fueled parties back then, sometimes to celebrate visits by out of town guests, other times just to stave off boredom. One night in particular a small group of us had just taken LSD when we received a phone call from a female friend who wanted to join us; would we send someone over to walk her to the party? She was a good twenty minute walk away through a very familiar neighborhood; we’d been out in this neighborhood at night countless times and felt perfectly comfortable. She wasn’t convenient to a train or bus line and none of us had a car; we figured we had at least forty-five minutes before the LSD hit. I volunteered to get her, along with another woman at the party.
The walk there was uneventful. We fetched our friend without incident and began the walk back. Shortly after that, the acid kicked in for me. I had probably underestimated the way physical activity can potentiate or kick off a trip, or perhaps – as usual – I had “taken too much”™. I don’t remember feeling alarmed or unnerved; we had gone out to Lake Michigan at night on acid many times, and the general air of being out on the streets on acid seemed relatively commonplace.
But at some point, the situation changed. We passed a man I had seen in the neighborhood several times before. He had first approached me pleading for money to help get a hotel for him and his wife, who was, he told us, alone somewhere with their broken down car. I had seen him try to ply others with the same story on several occasions; he had become part of the tapestry of the neighborhood for me.
That night walking home on acid, though, when we passed him, he must have somehow stuck out. I don’t remember what he said to me, although I suspect he didn’t recognize that he’d already asked me for money and he probably just asked me again. I also don’t remember anything at all about how I responded. I don’t remember if I said something, or if I made eye contact, or if I made a face. I really just can’t remember at all what took place.
I do, however, vividly remember the man’s response. He followed us, fairly closely. And he shouted at us, fairly aggressively. We walked faster, and I certainly didn’t make any attempt to communicate with him. He stayed right on us, screaming. The street we were on was deserted. We didn’t have cell phones; what could we have done if we’d had them? The LSD certainly didn’t help temper the fear that began to grip me.
We veered off our path, trying to get to a busier street. We got out to a main thoroughfare, but the man was still right behind us, angrily haranguing us. And frankly, I knew from my own experience of watching brutal beatings on the street that no one was going to get anywhere near us to “help”. In fact, now that I thought about it, he might have friends out here who’d love to join in harassing a bunch of dumb kids.
I saw through the window of our local convenience store two police officers waiting in line to buy something. At that moment, those police officers were such a welcome sight, and we hurried inside and watched through the window as the angry man melted into the night, clearly grokking our message.
That was when I realized I was very high on acid less than ten feet away from two of Chicago’s finest.
Now regular viewers of this program may know that I often to wrap these stories up with a little “moral of the story”, some hopefully pithy observation about “learning a valuable lesson”. That’s what I was planning, and then a news story broke this week that took me quite aback. According to a story in the Victoria Times-Colonist, a young man consumed too much “magic mushrooms” and went on a violent rampage, sexually assaulting an elderly woman, chasing another woman and trying to break into her home, attacking someone else who came upon him trashing a van. The next day in court, the young man was apparently very chagrined to learn what he had done while high; apparently he couldn’t remember any of it.
I guess this story hit too close to home. After all, I couldn’t remember what I had said to that angry man on the streets of Chicago quite literally by the time I got home. Had I provoked him or insulted him? It had apparently happened so fast that my two friends didn’t witness the interaction. To this day I’m frustrated at this memory edit. And years later, on into my “intermediate” years of using recreational substances, I’m still party to occasional moments where control has been lost and the outcome is totally up in the air. Though Sasha Shulgin’s maxim that “there are no insignificant psychedelic experiences” may fade into the tapestry of one’s life and lose its weight after the novelty of tripping is gone, the potential for the unexpected remains.
One of my first thoughts after learning about the unfortunate mushroom maniac was, “We’re hearing about this because it’s very unusual; it almost never happens. Meanwhile, there are so many alcohol-fueled sexual assaults and violent attacks that we almost don’t register them anymore.” I suppose that much is true. Moreover, the story in the Times-Colonist suggests that the mushroom maniac and his friends mistook dangerous Amanita muscaria mushrooms for the more benign psilocybin mushrooms they were expecting; or perhaps he mixed his mushrooms with alcohol or anxiolitic drugs, which created an unfavorable reaction.
But that train of thought also encourages complacency. It encourages me to believe that the mushroom maniac is such an anomaly that that type of behavior couldn’t overcome me or the people I love. And probably such violent mania is indeed beyond us; but what about the times I’ve watched my own friends take a drug and then find out through some wacky chain of events that they took something else entirely? Moreover, what about the full range of human behavior affected by psychedelics and other drugs? What about less visceral but perhaps cumulative damage that’s less noticeable in the moment, and as such, is harder to protect against? What about shifts in behavior and lifestyle prompted by drugs that don’t have the immediate impact of a violent act, but slip by unnoticed until someone’s personality has been affected for the worse? What about something as simple as saying a thing you later regret and having to accept that even though you were tripping or drunk or high, it’s you that’s responsible, not a drug?
That’s the lesson I keep learning over and over again. It sometimes shames me to think I haven’t fully learned it yet, but then, no one promised me reality would be a cake walk. Years of responsible use don’t make a person immune to mistakes; indeed, major mistakes often happen in the context of years of experience. What kind of complicity is held by the mushroom maniac’s friends, who apparently watched him wander away? How many years of tripping do you have to have under your belt before a particularly strong dose of “magic mushrooms” – or dose of 2C-T-7, or 5-MeO-DIPT, or LSD – can’t sway you in an unfavorable direction?
Back to a convenience store in Chicago. It pleases me to report that this story does not have a dramatic ending. We hid in the back of the store until the police officers left, and then quickly made our way home. On three other occasions in Chicago, I would place myself in sudden, extreme danger as a result of being high in the wrong place at the wrong time. My energy to tell those stories is fading.
Instead I’m consoled by a much more recent story, of being cocooned with a handful of close friends, happy and laughing and high as a kite. The next day several people commented that I had barely said ten words all night. I had felt engaged with everyone – listening and laughing and contributing energy. But I was also quiet, self-contained, respectful. I guess this is where I would normally pithily observe that maybe I’ve learned something after all. I guess that’s not much, but at least I’m not in a jail cell, wondering what the fuck just happened to my life.