Nitrous Oxide

After acid, wha'? Researches chemical and philosophical, chiefly concerning nitrous oxide and its respiration

Ken Kesey, American author on May 10th, 1969. Credit: Roy Jones/Evening Standard/Getty

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.

Hmm. Far out. I opened my eyes and found myself in a room full of strangers with whom I now felt a certain intimacy. There were my legs, I noticed, stretched straight out in front of me, and I sat like a child on the floor in this kindergarten opium den, feeling, for some reason, proud. Proud enough, in fact, to take some action. I lay back and did it again.

A few inhales and then the buzzing which was more like music this time, the jew's-harp dimension someone had called it, and when my eyes shut it seemed that I was on my own again in a cradled, vibrating flight through a space of golden light which like the music intensified as I approached it, then exploded into a flash, or total darkness, I could not tell which, except that there was enormous, overwhelming truth to the illumination, something deep and central to my life, my truth, and I had the sense that it could be this way all the time, however it was, and when I landed back in the room, open eyed and laughing, I was full of profound wonder and appreciation at the awesome positiveness of the place I'd just been and still was in, and the people there with me were in it too, fine people I was thinking, and we were, I now realized, all one.

I wondered briefly where the Texan had gone off to but I knew that it was all all right, and I was congratulating myself on this new-found security when I noticed that the man on the couch, the black man, had disengaged himself from the woman with granny glasses and was crawling toward me on his elbows, wearing nothing but a smile and a terry-towel loin cloth fastened at the hip with a silver brooch; he was slithering like a snake and he wore his hair in weird Rastafarian ropes and he was doing something funny with his mouth. He held his tongue hard and pointed and was moving it around inside his open hot-pink mouth and darting it in and out like a lizard.

FROM THE ANNALS OF THE EAST BAY CHEMICAL PHILOSOPHY SYMPOSIUM

DAVID: Are we going to announce that this is officially Seminar One?

LARRY: Oh, come on! We're stoned on gas!

DAVID: I had a revelation earlier; it had to do with the nozzle on my balloon . . .

MIKE: Oh yeah, everything's a revelation.

SAUNIE: The thing I react to is the ridiculousness of words in trying to articulate the gas experience.

LARRY: Certainly, certainly, certainly.

DAVID: Wouldn't you say our conversation would be similar to a conversation among schizophrenics?

LARRY: Oh, wow! Yeah, I think so. I think so. I don't think there's anything wrong about our sounding like schizophrenics though. There's so much going on in our heads that we don't articulate very clearly . . .

SAUNIE: Is Larry going to fall or what?

LARRY: Ahhhhhhhh!

SAUNIE: Watch your head.

LARRY: Thank you. Thank you. There was a danger of that, yes.

MIKE: Lionel, give me that balloon, man, give me that balloon. I've got to have a hit.

LIONEL: (deep and extended laughter) GAS!

(wild clapping of hands)

DAVID: Lionel, do you ever have revelations? Do you ever see the answer to life when you take gas? Or do you think life is a question?

LIONEL: Right now – I think life is a trip.

(laughing, clapping, screaming)

MIKE: All right. Now we're gonna talk about gas for the book. What's it like to experience gas?

LIONEL: It's like sailing through space, man, like sailin'. (yells)

DAVID: Lionel's right. It's like sailing through space.

MIKE: Larry, I'm going to give you a balloon and I want you to take a toke on it and tell us what it's like.

LARRY: Okay. I'm taking it now. It's . . . it's . . . it's . . . it's . . . it's unspeakable! It's so good. It's like being on gas. It's so good.

DAVID: I'd like some more gas.

(SAUNIE groans ecstatically.)

LIONEL: It's so good. Dig, let me tell you what it's like. It's like . . . getting the best nut . . . that you ever had . . . from the best person . . . male, female, chick, cat, whatever you want . . . that you can get. NUT NUT YOU CAN GET YOU CAN GET! (emits four high-pitched whoops)

DAVID: How can we get it so that we always have enough gas?

LIONEL: Take over the place that manufactures gas.

(MIKE and LIONEL are overcome with boundless convulsions of laughter lasting a minute.)

LARRY: How did I get in this chair? How did I get in this chair? How did I get in this chair?

LIONEL: It's so good. That's just all you can say sometimes. It's just so good. It's just so fine. (whoops twice)

SAUNIE: Oh, my God!

(LARRY groans.)

SCIENCE STUMBLES ON

Well, now, what had we here – was it possible? – instant ecstasy? The perfect drug? This was as natural a high as a high could be, as simple as pouring nitric acid on zinc, and they say that there's a place off the east coast of Iceland where this gas just bubbles out of the ocean all by itself . . . nitrous oxide – "nitrous" to users. The accolades were endless. "The happiest day of my life," said a first-timer. "Everything I expected heroin to be and more," said another. One witty woman just shrugged when asked what she thought of it. "It depends," she said, "how you feel about ecstasy."

Because that's what we're talking about. A book written about religious ecstasy (Ecstasy by Marghanita Laski, Greenwood Press, 1968) said the nitrous oxide experience was the closest drugs could take you. A Buddhist sect in San Francisco uses nitrous to go quickly to the deepest, best-quality meditative place. Scientists say it stimulates the brain electrically in a way similar to LSD yet it's in and out of your system in minutes.

The perfect drug. About time they came up with it, don't you think? The fact is, it's been with us all along.

It was discovered in the middle of the 18th century – before that, chemistry was mostly of the Earth, Air, Fire, Water variety – by Joseph Priestley, who also invented oxygen. Then, in 1799, Humphry Davy, a 20-year-old chemist in Bristol, England, compelled probably by the same strange urges that prompt other youngsters to stuff weird shit into themselves, began inhaling the gas.

"The next morning," he wrote, "the recollections of the effects of the gas were very indistinct [don't we know it] and had not remarks written immediately after the experiment recalled them to mind, I should have even doubted of their reality. I was willing to attribute some of the strong emotion to the enthusiasm which I supposed must have been necessarily connected with the perception of agreeable feelings, when I was prepared to experience painful sensations.

"Generally when I breathed from six to seven quarts, muscular motions were produced; sometimes I manifested my pleasure by stamping or laughing only, at other times by dancing round the room and vociferating.

"Between May and July, I habitually breathed the gas, occasionally three or four times a day for a week . . . the effects appeared undiminished by the habit, and were hardly ever exactly similar. Sometimes I had the feeling of intense intoxication, attended with but little pleasure; at other times, sublime emotions connected with vivid ideas."

He breathed it for months. He shut himself up in a box while his assistant pumped in gas, he tried it drunk and sober, he gave it to animals, he gave it to his friends, he dashed around his laboratory, he fell on the floor. But after writing a book about it, Researches Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide and Its Respiration, he gave it up and went on to other things, like isolating potassium and inventing the safety lantern. He was given a baronetcy and dubbed Sir Humphry, and the friends he turned on to gas did all right too. One was Robert Southey, who became Poet Laureate of England. And there was Peter Roget, who later wrote a thesaurus, and poet Samuel Coleridge, who said that gas gave him "more unmingled pleasure than ever before experienced." Also a guy named Wedgwood, who made blue and white pottery.

GOD COMES OUT OF THE CLOSET

We are no longer on the rug of the East Bay Chemical Philosophy Symposium house with the naked Rastafarian (who was not, it turned out, Jamaican but a dropout Ph.D. candidate from the University of Chicago chemistry department now living in a tent in the back yard of the EBCPS house and eating nothing but the wheat grass he grows on the front lawn). Everyone left when the tank ran out and we're now back at our little Berkeley cottage, where an expert, John Lowry, is going to tell us about nitrous oxide. For one year John locked himself in a room with a tank of the stuff, venturing out only once a day for a hamburger at Zim's and a can of V8 juice.

"Alchemists believed," he began, "that the atmosphere of the earth at the time of the Garden of Eden was 80% nitrous oxide."

"There was no such place as the Garden of Eden," I pointed out.

"How can you really think that?" he asked. "So many people have written of it, spoken of it, thought of it. On some plane," he insisted, "it exists."

I said nothing. Best not to argue with these types who use words like "plane" and "level." Especially this one who looked more than a little wild eyed and weird. He resembled God, actually; his hair seemed to fly around his face as if whipped by wind, his blue eyes seemed more penetrating than necessary.

He spoke of the Garden of Eden with authority. Perhaps in that year on nitrous he had been there, astrally projected on gas. My brief glimpse of the world inside the balloon had left me with a strong feeling that there was more to explore. In fact, for a while thereafter I had thought of little else, much to the dismay of my landlady, Lois, who reads Proust and is a bit old-fashioned in her concern that life have meaning. She didn't mind that I took the drug, only that I talked about it so much.

"Who cares," she cried out in exasperation one day, "what happens to people when they take drugs? So you danced all night. So I'm very happy for you."

"But Lois," I said, "it was ecstasy."

"That's nice," she said, and finished reeling out her laundry.

But this fellow Lowry, he understood. It was downright religious, this ecstasy. It was research into the soul, inner exploration, brave stuff, communion with the nature of man, our true selves, the cosmos, psychology. It was being high.

"Yes," said Lowry over coffee and chain-smoked Camels, "nitrous oxide made me more spontaneous, more effective. It made me see the dance of energy of life – if you can see it, you're much more powerful."

At this point he handed me a manuscript, the first few pages of his memoirs. Entitled Confessions of a Power Freak, it would, he explained, tell me all about him, and nitrous. He sat and smoked while I read his story, which was, though perhaps an extreme example, the chronicle of an era. When the story begins, he is in New York, working at a management firm, taking LSD on weekends and reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

"Towards the end of the book," wrote Lowry, "Hugh Romney is reported to have understood 'The MANAGEMENT.' This intrigued me for two reasons: 1) my job was management; 2) I had come to UNDERSTAND in a similar fashion. So I determined to seek Romney out."

I began to feel vaguely uncomfortable.

"We actually came face to face within weeks. I went to a meeting of Earth People's Park. Romney sat across from me. No instant illumination, no shock of recognition. Later, on Second Street, we passed each other and he looked inquiringly at me but we were both busy with other things and let the opportunity pass.

"Then I got a VW bus and went to San Francisco, 'Athens of the Age of Chemistry.' I met a physician named Larry Brilliant, who, I was surprised and reassured by the cosmic order to learn, had just spent the summer with the Hog Farm and Romney.

"Romney would be staying at Larry's apartment. We would do gas together. Laughing gas. What you do after acid.

"I took some and passed out. I took some with Romney and passed out. Romney [now Wavy Gravy] left for Germany. Larry followed. And I was left holding the tank. I didn't let go for about a year. Much of that period is hard to remember but my direction was inward. The experiences occurring within myself had a truthfulness more vivid than ordinary reality. The cast of history paraded before me and each silently communicated a special knowledge. Machiavelli, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare . . ."

"Good God," I could not resist asking, "what did Shakespeare say?"

"That all the world was a stage," John answered somberly. I read on.

"I can't remember the specifics, but now my impression is they told me the art of life is salesmanship. Advertising keeps it going.

"It seemed to me that knots in my mind, the blind spots, were being disentangled with each passing out. Each time I came to, it seemed to be with deeper vision of myself and the world. When I stopped passing out, accompanied by body spasms resembling hearty laughter, I began screaming. I screamed my guts out and my head off. Finally I screamed too long or too loud and the neighbors were down on me.

"I alienated my friends. They said they were trying to help me, that I was going through a psychotic episode. I told them to fuck off. Larry Brilliant came through town and said I was strung out. Some people thought I was committing suicide."

"Suicide?" I asked.

"This one time," explained Lowry, "they thought I was trying to kill myself. I was screaming from terror. Everything had bent. I retreated from the vision."

"Maybe," I suggested, "you were suffocating and needed oxygen? Maybe you would have died if you hadn't screamed some air back into your lungs?"

He shook his head sadly. "When you die," he said, "you just pass into another dimension, another plane. I know that now. I should have gone but I was afraid to take the turn around the bend. A few weeks after that I heard that Graham Nash tune. How does it go? 'Can you see around the bend my friend? What star do you see?' Remember that song? You see, there is something around the bend and I could have seen it if I'd just held on another minute.

"I guess that happened just about at the end. My unemployment ran out and I had to get work. I stopped taking gas but I was stoned for a month afterwards. There may have been a little brain damage. My balance, coordination was off."

Still, said Lowry, the nitrous did him good. "It let me know the potential of what I could be, could accomplish. Whether I succeed in what I'm trying to do now will be the telling thing, though."

What he was trying to do, he explained, was save the world. He would figure out the future economic needs of the world, see, and advise the country about it in time for the 1976 elections. In fact, he was off to a meeting now down in Palo Alto with some people who were going to help him do this, he hoped.

John Lowry paused thoughtfully at the door. "It's taken me a long time to rebuild a life for myself," he said. "I've been looking for a job for two years now. I think I frighten a lot of people."

MORE FROM THE ANNALS OF THE EAST BAY CHEMICAL PHILOSOPHY SYMPOSIUM

DAVID: For many years when I got nauseous I was afraid that I would throw up. What is frightening is the nausea rather than the vomiting. (administers N2O to an ant)

MICHAEL: Did he react?

DAVID: What would an ant do? Walk more crooked?

MICHAEL: Well, he could weave or fall over. . . . Jerking all around, that's the kind of thing that I used to feel. I used to have visions of myself jerking and all my friends were leaving the room saying, "Ah, he's fucked."

DAVID: I've seen you doing that and thought it was really weird.

MICHAEL: That's what I mean.

DAVID: But then I think, goddammit, he's jerking and shuddering and he's my friend. Last night for the first time I experienced "There's John. He just went pssst and fell over" and I thought, oh my God, suppose he's died. Wonderful, he's died. Like, he's fulfilled himself. I was willing to accept the fact that it was all right if he died.

MICHAEL: Hey, don't drop the kif . . .

PLEASE DON'T STEP ON THE BABIES

Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney) lives in Berkeley these days and works as a clown at a local children's hospital. He's just published his memoirs of the Prankster days and he burst into a reminiscence during a recent telephone conversation.

"I remember when Tommy Wolfe was writing Electric Kool-Aid," he recalled, "he wouldn't take nitrous. He was afraid. He used to sweat with fear, and Tommy, he's a man that doesn't sweat. He's a pretty linear dude."

Yes, I thought, a linear dude. Also a successful writer. I had been very brave and didn't sweat it and took it. But had Wolfe known something I was too stupid to realize? Maybe you had to be linear, whatever that meant, to get any work done in the world.

I had been worrying about my brain cells. Dentists were telling me how the stuff would destroy brain cells if not administered properly – not the nitrous, but the lack of oxygen going to the brain. Brain cells would die, they said, crumble, collapse, their tiny corpses borne away by the blood stream, never to grow again.

But, argued members of the EBCPS, look at them. After all that gas, they were still functioning. "The authorities of the death culture," they said, "always tell you things like that. They don't want you getting high."

I called up a guy in New York at High Times, a magazine devoted to drugs which was, according to an editor, laid out under the influence of gas. I asked him about the brain cells. "That's very bullshit," he told me. "I'll bet you my I.Q.'s higher than that fucking dentist's. Anyway, like, Family Health magazine recommends nitrous for little children. It's got to be safe."

But that was at the dentist's – an important distinction because they always give you oxygen along with it. "Anoxia," one doctor had pronounced, "deprivation of the oxygen supply. That's what causes those convulsions."

Damn. The convulsions were the best part.

"If someone inhales nitrous oxide straight," according to Dr. E. E. Brinckerhoff of the Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, "they are in danger of not getting enough oxygen. They risk being decerebrated and turning themselves into vegetables." Then again, said Dr. Brinckerhoff, there was the danger of self-inflicted trauma. Nitrous oxide causes whatever thought you had in your mind just before inhalation to become exaggerated. One can experience the sensation of dreams or nightmares. Also, it was common to experience nausea after anesthesia. You could, he suggested, exit from this life by drowning in your own vomit. . . .

Enough! Enough of these songs of paranoia. The fact is that administering N2O with oxygen is a new development. The experimenters and doctors of the past used it straight – like William James, who kept a tank in his living room to turn his friends on. In 1882 he wrote: "I strongly urge others to repeat the experiment, which with pure gas is short and harmless enough. . . ." Good enough for me and far greater minds than mine. Dreiser took it and, more recently, Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Ken Kesey, who still, reportedly, is a hard man to separate from his tank.

No, the main danger with N2O, as with anything else, was the human element. Stupidity. There are certain common-sense rules to follow. If, for instance, you breathe the gas straight from the tank, you will freeze your lips and larynx – the stuff is damn cold. If, like some little kids in Menlo Park once tried, you stuff your head into a plastic bag full of gas, chances are you will suffocate just after, during or even before you get high. The kids didn't say. Going into a gas passout while driving is not considered healthy, nor is taking the stuff in an airtight car or closet. Little kids also have died breathing the freon off oven spray cleaners, so we must learn from their mistakes and read labels.

But even when we are careful, gas has certain drawbacks. There is a story one nitrous user tells about the first time she ran into gas. She was at Romney's (Gravy's) Hog Farm House in Berkeley. She didn't take any that day, though, because the scene freaked her out: a crowd of people all pushing and shoving at each other to get at this blue tank.

"Yes," said Wavy Gravy, "it pushes your greed button." (Hippie ingenuity has partly solved the problem with surgical tubing and clips that allow several people to have their own tubes. Or, as the High Times man suggested, balloons are good. "That way you don't have to slug anyone," he said.

But it wasn't just the greed that turned her off, it was the sight of all those people collapsing, falling, reeling around; and there were those signs on the walls: PLEASE DON'T STEP ON THE BABIES.

"Those who fall down," said the man from High Times, "I put them in the category of more demonstrative types, people that, like, moan when they ball. You choose to fall down." '

One EBCPS member, Michael, used to sniff nitrous off Reddi Wip cans. He'd go into supermarkets – this was in L.A. – and linger in the refrigerator section getting high. Each can gives off a couple of hits. Of course, that leaves the whipped cream trapped inside the can, but if you do it in a store, you save on the expense.

But, I asked Michael, didn't the clerks get aggravated?

"I guess we must have looked pretty strange," he said, "but when you're stoned on reds like we were you don't think anyone can see you. One time, though, my friend passed out and fell into the dairy case. That wasn't too cool. But he recovered right away, that's the beauty of gas. And he was so loose when it happened he didn't get hurt."

"Environment," said the High Times man, "is everything. If you bump into furniture, you hurt yourself. So move the furniture."

The Airplane has a special padded, cushiony room for taking it; one journalist I know installed a dental chair in his living room for the purpose, and the EBCPS solved the problem another way: "We'd link arms in a circle," said a member, "and one person would take it till they passed out, and then someone else would grab the hose out of their mouths while the rest held the ones who were passed out. That was before we got into balloons, though. . . ."

One good thing about nitrous oxide is that busts are virtually unknown. When the Airplane was arrested down in New Orleans, they had a full tank in their hotel room. The story goes that someone there was taking gas for the first time. He was peaking just as the cops burst in the door and he cried out: "Is this part of the trip? Is this part of the trip?" Anyway, the police confiscated the tank, but they gave it back the next day, still full. The Airplane was busted for the scrapings of marijuana from their pockets.

Nitrous oxide isn't legal, exactly, but it's not as illegal as other drugs; it's difficult to procure, but not that difficult. One group of people in the Bay Area have a connection up north with an industrial supplier. Every month or so he comes down with 50 tanks in his truck. He has a regular route. He picks up empties and leaves full ones.

Nice. But for others, we can make it at home – apply heat to ammonium nitrate crystals and you produce water and laughing gas. The method of making it is published in Making Reality More Real, by G.W. Clausen (Turn-ons Unlimited, Los Angeles, 1971), and in Laughing Gas, the EBCPS book (And/Or Press, Berkeley, 1973).

Or we can lie. Industrial suppliers want the business, lord knows, so you just have to have a story ready. Sometimes they want to see an official-looking letter saying what the stuff's to be used for, like refrigeration for food processing. Or freezing lapidary equipment for stone grinding or reducing preignition in racing-automobile engines. You can tell them you're a veterinarian who uses it for anesthetizing pets or a farmer who needs it for delivering calves.

The EBCPS told one supplier that they were using it to make whipped cream sculpture for children. They recommend sending women in short skirts to pick up the gas. "That way," said one member, "the clerk will give them the gas with no hassle so they'll come back and they can look at their legs again."

Gas is also used in small quantities to propel whipped cream and is available in pressurized pellets like CO2 cartridges. A Berkeley restaurant obtains nitrous oxide for this reason. Asked specifically how the gas is used with whipped cream, the head chef said, "Simple. We get nitrous oxide in little pellets. You put a pellet in a special metal canister to puncture it and to house the gas. Then we just empty the gas right into our mouths."

But the whipped cream?

"Oh, that," he said. "We whip it by hand in the time-honored tradition, then spoon it on desserts. That gas makes the stuff taste terrible."

And once you've got a tank, you can take it back for refills with no questions asked. It's about $60 for a large tank, $60 for the gas and $60 for refills. Smaller tanks for smaller prices. You can turn on a party full of people for six hours with a large one.

"Personally," said the High Times man, "I think nitrous oxide is better than coke. One dollar of it is worth $100 of coke." And in some ways, he said, it was even better than heroin. Nitrous is always nitrous, while the heroin you buy is not always heroin. Nitrous is not addictive. And there's no social stigma. The balloon is not as threatening as the needle. "People hear you did heroin, they think, well, he's fucked up. And you never saw anybody who ripped off a TV to get nitrous oxide."

As for Wavy Gravy, he wasn't into nitrous at the moment. But it was more a question of finances and what he called the mambo you had to do to get it. Still, he liked to do it every so often. "Just to know that place is still there, that's really nice. I've known only one person who really got strung out on it. He had a permanent script from a doctor, and he went bananas. One person in seven or eight years, that's not bad."

MY WHAT BIG TEETH YOU HAVE

The way I image it, I'm rising in the air. You're in a chair like this. You hear this HM, HM, HM, and your whole body rises up, way to the ceiling. And you know what? When I got a filling, it was funnier than not having any cavities at all.

– Noah DeLissovoy,
first-grade student,
Whittier School,
Berkeley

No discussion of nitrous oxide would be complete without a visit to the dentist where the stuff is, after all, legally used. Some dentists don't use it since the equipment is costly and the gas makes some patients throw up. And additional pain killers often have to be used with it anyway.

"But I use it almost routinely," said Dr. Fermé Labouche (not his real name, though he's a real dentist, with an office in one of the fancier districts of San Francisco, and every word to follow is true). A Jewish leprechaun in wide - wale cords and Earth Shoes, Dr. Labouche welcomed me into the reception room after his last patient had left . . . and locked the door.

"Nitrous oxide makes for more relaxed and, in the end, better dental patients," he said, relaxing in a leather chair. "It is a gaseous tranquilizer or sedative with a profound analgesic effect. It removes the pain, like aspirin. It changes mood and interpretation of pain. We're taught in this culture to abhor pain. With N2O the patient still feels something but he doesn't interpret it as pain, and even if he does, he doesn't care as much." Dr. Labouche said he took a post-graduate course on nitrous when he purchased the equipment.

"It has to do with the metabolism of the brain cells but we don't know precisely how and where. We do know, however, that it's the safest of drugs if properly used. It has no toxic level. It does not break down chemically in the body. All the rest break down and the liver detoxifies them, but nitrous goes in and comes out in the same state. It gets into the circulatory system through the lungs and is released from the body through the lungs."

The doctor smiled when asked if he ever used the stuff for pleasure.

"It's illegal to use at parties," he said. "It has to be administered to people for medical purposes. So I wouldn't take a tank home. But when I first got the apparatus, I wanted to test it, to know what it was my patients were going to feel. I got into the chair and hooked myself up, gradually increasing the concentration of nitrous until I very naturally passed into a dream state. I don't remember anything but a feeling of euphoria. All I could feel was my eyeballs, no body. The next thing I knew my wife was waking me up. It was 11 o'clock at night, and when I didn't come home for dinner, she got worried and came to the office looking for me.

"But there was no need to worry. I was getting oxygen so there was no danger of suffocating. We always administer it with 20 or 35% oxygen. Come. I'll show you the equipment if you like."

He opened a cabinet in the hallway and there they were, four Size G tanks, big ones, painted Nitrous Oxide Blue, the sight of which set off peculiar feelings in me: greed, desire, hope. Was it just wishful thinking, or had he really turned the valves on before he led me back to an examination room to view the rest of the equipment?

"This is where I control the flow and mixture of gas," he said, pointing out two transparent tubes in which plastic balls danced at different levels to the flow of gasses from adjacent tanks. Yes, the gas was on. Two flesh-colored, soft rubber hoses fed out of this gizmo and connected inside a squishy rubber nose mask.

"Would you like a demonstration?" the doctor offered. "I'll show you how I give it to my patients." This man is out to change the image of dentists, I thought as I climbed into the dental chair.

"It's very important," the doctor continued, adjusting the headrest, placing the mask on my nose and fiddling with the controls, "how you introduce it to a patient. I tell them about every possible experience: They're going to be euphoric, there may be dizziness, tingling in the fingers and toes, buzzing or humming in the head. I tell them they'll feel different and happy and have warm sensations over the body. People have told me they hallucinate flying or that they detach themselves and watch themselves being treated.

"Only two patients have had untoward psychological reactions. They cried with the release of tension that ensues. One patient became apprehensive and tore off the nose piece.

"I had one patient who refused to use gas. She told me she was in the Church of Scientology and that the founder, L. Ron Hubbard, said that nitrous oxide was the most insidious of drugs, that it produced in the user a highly suggestible state, like hypnosis, and that the experiences are forever implanted in the brain and someone else can influence you, control you."

I giggled.

"And how are you doing?" asked Dr. Labouche. "You should be feeling something."

I laughed, felt embarrassed, stopped.

"You seem a little tense still," he said. "I'll turn it up."

Maybe it would be impossible to get off in this situation, prone backwards with this eager-eyed troll staring down at me. I was surprised and relieved when the doctor reached over and opened the partition to another examination room. He reached inside and drew out another nose piece and hose set and told me he was going to turn on, too.

I laughed. He looked pretty ridiculous perched on his dentist's stool with those surgical hoses trailing off his nose, and I knew I looked pretty ridiculous too and I laughed some more, congratulating myself. Because here it was, the perfect opportunity to appreciate the drug – no fear of brain damage, a comfortable chair.

But presently there was that damned human element to contend with, and I heard Dr. Labouche's voice calling me back. "You know," he said, "I found the best way to do this is if you take the gas in your nose and then you give it to me from your mouth."

"Dr. Labouche," I said, "that is a kiss."

He looked surprised and somehow wounded. "I always do it with all my patients," he said.

"You kiss all your patients?"

"Yes." He mumbled something about it being important to maintain tactile connection with his clients.

"The men too?"

"No, not the men. I shake their hands."

"Good," I said. "You can shake my hand."

He took one of my hands. "Really," he said, "you should try to relax more. You shouldn't be afraid of losing control. Just do what I said and you'll see it's really the best way . . . to take the gas."

"Doctor," I said, "you are trying to seduce me and you better cut it out." Again the wounded look. "I do it all the time."

"You turn on with your patients?"

"I have a few times," he said.

"And then you try to fuck them?"

He gave a coy smile.

"Right in the dentist's chair with both of you stoned on gas?"

"Yeah!" he blurted. "It's great, really. Wonderful. You ought to at least try it." He let go of my hand and put his hand on my bosom.

"Dr. Labouche, cut it out."

"I do this with all my patients."

"I am not your patient. I am a reporter. You see this pen? This is my weapon!"

He looked frightened. "You're not going to stab me with it are you?"

"No, you idiot. I'm going to write about you. Do you want me to tell this? You could lose your license. And what about your wife?"

"She wouldn't mind . . ." His voice trailed off. "I do it with all my patients." But he looked puzzled and reached over and turned off the gas. We gradually came down. He told me that I was a withdrawn person who couldn't face human relationships, and I said he better cut out that shit too. By the time I got out of the chair Dr. Labouche had sobered up a bit. "You were right," he said. "If we had done it, we both would have lost respect for each other."

THE JOY OF GAS

Well, I don't know as I care about that, but maybe one more mention of nitrous and sex is in order here. I know that when traveling medicine shows demonstrated N2O in the middle of the last century, they always separated the men from the women. The drug does away with your inhibitions and, as I've said, it seems to make sucking pleasurable. But come to think of it, Benny didn't really have much of an erection with old granny-glasses that night. Perhaps the drug dulls you, despite the claims of Dr. Labouche.

I decided to talk to my man at High Times. If anyone knew about fucking with nitrous, I figured he would.

"Hey," he said when I phoned, "you know what nitrous sounds like coming out of the tank?" Transcontinentally, I heard the familiar hiss.

"You always have a tank at the office?"

"Except when it runs out," he said. He asked what he could do for me, and I got to the point. He chuckled. "Yeah, I've balled on nitrous. I put a small canister tank next to the bed. Hmm. Let me see if I can remember. How was it?" He thought for a moment. "I don't know. You can't feel much. I mean, you can, but you can't. You're desensitized. And you're high. Balling is balling, and getting high is getting high.

"But it was all right. It was nice. It was different, you know, and you're always looking for new ways to kill boredom."