NEW HOPE FOR THE SILLY 70’S
In one of those quaint articles meant to keep a nation abreast of the trends of its youth, newspapers recently reported that children of the drug culture were turning back to liquor. They quoted Ken Kesey, “pop culture hero and spokesman,” as saying that kids have grown reluctant to put chemicals into their bodies.
Kids, is it true? Have you chickened out of the cosmic search? Has a culture that’s seen the white light now turned to white lightning?
The answer came to me not long ago. I was lying in my front-porch hammock in Berkeley, California, studying the thorny tangle of blackberry vines and ivy that guards my reclusive yard and wondering if Sleeping Beauty had actually been on Quaaludes, when through the gateway came an attractive man, a moviemaker from Texas, his jeans tucked into knee-high boots. I hadn’t seen him in years. But he did not kiss me, this Prince Charming; he stuck an inflated balloon in my mouth.
“Breathe this,” he instructed. I did and got dizzy. “Breathe some more,” he said, and I emptied the balloon.
“Did you get high?”
“I don’t know.” I heard buzzing and felt dizzy and sick. “Perhaps.”
“It’s the latest thing,” he said. “It’s laughing gas. Nitrous oxide. Down with the Serious Sixties. These are the Silly Seventies.”
He never did make any sense to me, this Texan, so I ignored his last remark and accompanied him to an old, two-story house on Ashby Avenue. The house, he said, was the base of the East Bay Chemical Philosophy Symposium (EBCPS), people who’d been taking gas since 1968. They believed, much as Leary believed about acid, that if people sniff gas they will loosen up, become anarchists, the state will fall down and the revolution will come. But this kind of thinking is common in Berkeley, where people daily uproot the social order by burying their organic garbage in the back yard or by flushing their toilets only when a movement affects the bowels.
Whatever their logic, the East Bay Chemical Philosophy Symposium was certainly devoted to gas. Their dozen or so members had consumed 500,000 quarts of the stuff between 1968 and 1970, when they wrote a book about it. They wanted to turn people on to it, which is what they were doing this evening.
It was a normal, low-rent, hippie-style Berkeley house, brightly colored inside, bulging with people and good music, a secondhand couch, thrift-shop curtains of yellowed lace, a loom in the corner. And the normal, maturing and mellow Berkeley crowd had gathered there, decorated with beards, long hair, flowing clothing and those we-are-all-one-therefore-no-introductions-are-necessary smiles. The difference was these people had balloons in their mouths. Brightly colored balloons. They gave the place a festive feel. The nitrous oxide tank was in the kitchen, a five-foot-high steel tank, painted aqua, surrounded by a group of hairy and highly spirited individuals who resembled the monkeys around the monolith in 2001. Someone opened a valve on the tank to fill a balloon. The thing made a terrible hiss, like the brakes of a subway, but these people did not cover their ears; they seemed to find it funny.
I was given a full balloon and told to lie down on the floor so if I passed out I wouldn’t fall down like Barbara did last time, causing the right side of her face to be yellow and swollen for a week. That was Barbara with the frizzy hair, curled up to the side of her old man on the couch. Her eyes were shut and she was sucking her thumb. Next to her was a cushiony woman in granny glasses and braids who was sucking the penis of a nearly naked black man. Apparently, I noted, this gas made you want to suck.
A completely naked blonde, three years old, named Sunshine, after the acid, was stepping over bodies on the floor, looking for food. She headed for the couch. “Mommy,” she said, “I’m hungry.” Barbara stopped sucking her thumb and said, “Go get a pickle.” And everyone in the room laughed and I laughed too because it was funny, don’t you see? A pickle. It was so right, so in tune with the order of things that the mother should suggest a pickle; I mean, it was hilariously obvious and obviously hilarious that the little girl was healthy and happy, that it was just what she needed at this point, a pickle, and that . . . oh, shit . . . oh, shit . . . what was this strange gas doing to my thinking?
A balloon, a red one, large, stretched and straining like a pregnant belly, was in my mouth, and now I was straining too, trying with serious concentration to achieve the delicate balance between breathing in and out – keeping the damn thing from flying and farting away, yet not biting it so hard, you see, as to stop the all-important flow of gas. I was getting lightheaded with all this effort, or was it the sweet-tasting nitrous oxide that had the flavor plastic might have if it were gas? Whatever . . . one had to consider the argument of this humming and buzzing, and pretty soon my eyes shut and I removed the balloon from my lips, careful not to spill out any gas, and my eyes shut tighter, my whole body shut tighter, and I sort of convulsed . . . and then I felt warmth rush through me, a great, sensuous wave of it, a rush, a release, a shudder of excitement; it was not unlike . . . it was very like . . . an orgasm.
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