S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Shades of Mescalito,” Park reflects on peyote so good he thought he was a superhero.
I went to films weekly when I was younger; now I can go years in between theater visits. It’s both the inertia of old age and the ample home entertainment available, along with the rash of “superhero” movies recently. These (in my humble opinion) are an utter waste of time and space, with ridiculous characters performing laughable feats on totally absurd worlds. How anyone older than ten sits through one is beyond me.
But even as a kid I was put off by guys in capes. Part of that was my mother’s influence, the same woman who told my brothers and I, the first time Elvis Presley appeared on television in 1956, that it wasn’t him playing the guitar but a “midget Mexican” backstage. (When we queried her on the “midget” part she said it was so Elvis could carry him around in a suitcase.) She was full of bizarre notions like that, tossing them off with such authority we figured there had to be something to them. The most scurrilous? “Don’t put those coins in your mouth … they were next to a Chinaman’s penis(?).”
She didn’t think much of men in tights either. (She referred to the Superman TV series as a fairy tale.) But what irritated me, as a cartoonist and comic book fan, was how the superhero mags had all the best illustrators. And it was one of them, the debut issue of Flash, that produced my most memorable psychedelic experience. Which—when you’ve had hundreds of them—is saying something.
In the Fall of 1967, after I wrapped up The Summer of Love selling pot in New York City, I returned to the Bay Area and peddled the balance of the kilo for traveling money. This meant I had a hundred bucks in my pocket (ounces were only ten bucks apiece then) when I reached Highway 101 North and stuck out my thumb. I was headed to the next job (wherever that was) but wanted to get as far as Portland first. My parents and younger brothers still lived there and I hadn’t been home in a couple years.
My parents and younger brothers still lived there and I hadn’t been home in a couple years. … From the looks on their faces I should have kept going.
From the looks on their faces I should have kept going. My brother Ben was glad to see me but oh, my poor parents: I may have been a pain to raise, but I’d at least been a slim, straight A, class president kind of guy the last time they’d seen me. Now a bedraggled fat hippie (whose only luggage was a typewriter and a cold case of beer) had replaced him.
It made for some awkward moments and spotlighted who I’d become. I tried to empathize—my parents had nurtured my cartoon art from its infancy, for instance, and now I’d not only quit drawing, but wouldn’t pick up a pen again for twenty years—but I was just so comfortable being a bum. Drifting around, doing menial jobs, staying shit faced and high … these were right in my wheelhouse. What seemed unnatural was the Dudley Do Right I’d been, that character with all the talents and expectations. I figured part of him would return someday, but not intact and not soon.
So to spare my parents’ feelings I only stayed a couple days. Later I spent the night with an old friend in town, and he’s the one who told me Jake McDuff, my whorehouse roomie from Portland State, was an Army deserter on his way to Canada. Before leaving he was holed up in a Northeast Portland home. I was thrilled: Jake was (and remains) one of my all-time favorite people. I hitchhiked over there the next morning to surprise him.
He was sitting on the front porch with his girlfriend Sophie and, until I met her, I didn’t realize a woman could hate me on sight. (It’s happened several times since.) She seemed bright and likable enough, but when our eyes met hers were so witheringly fierce it startled me. I guess (when I thought about it at all) that I’d always assumed people liked me. Maybe she had a thing about tall guys, or Jake had told her stories she disapproved of. Either way I kept my distance as we moved inside the house where another two friends from high school were waiting. I have great timing when it comes to drugs, and I sensed something was up that morning; but the four of them stayed mum, as if mentioning the anticipated event would jinx it.
Then there was a single knock at the back door and in walked a weathered, ragtag character with two stuffed grocery bags under his arms. He set them in the middle of the kitchen table and looked around.
“Two bags of peyote straight from the Rio Grande,” he declared. “Enjoy!”
Then he bowed deeply and walked out.
“If that’s a typical Portland drug dealer,” I said, “I’m moving back here.”
“It’s better than that,” said Jake. “He’s our Merry Prankster buddy. He was with Kesey on the Further bus.”
Acid royalty delivering peyote: it just got better and better. The five of us crowded around the bags and I drew out a bud to study it.
“Have you ever had peyote?” asked McDuff.
“Well, you remove those white tufts, then swallow some buds however you can. They taste awful and you’ll puke an hour later, but after that …”
“I’m in,” I said, and began plucking at the tufts.
Until then my psychedelic experiences had been limited to the infamous Owsley acid, and I had no idea how spoiled that made me. But peyote? A cactus? This was the source of mescaline; this is what Indians did for yuks. After I’d stripped a few buds, I sliced them into quarters and began a tentative chewing. My taste buds had let me down all my life but here, at last, was payback, because I actually liked the taste of peyote, it reminded me of the Bayer Aspirin I’d chewed as a kid.
“Oh, big surprise,” said the caustic Sophie. The four of them so hated the taste that they mashed their buds into strawberry milkshakes. Which meant they puked in pink afterwards.
I, of course, didn’t throw up, either. (Based on my lemon gorged youth I guessed the alkaloid peyote balanced my acid stomach.) I left the house for a walk and remember little before three that afternoon, when I found myself puffing a cheap cigar and imagining, of all things, that I was the Marvel Comic character Flash.
For some reason the panel where Flash discovers his lightning reflexes was imprinted on my brain. He was a chemist who’d spilled a solution on himself earlier that day, and he’s out for dinner with his hot blonde girlfriend when the waitress, carrying their milkshakes in metal canisters on a tray, trips as she reaches the table. And the shakes seem to float through the air, looking like slow-motion globs to the chemist. He reaches out, returns them to the canisters, scoops the errant glasses out of the air and puts everything back on the tray before anyone notices.
That’s when he knew he was Flash. My moment had arrived minutes earlier at a wiener stand. I was waiting behind a fat kid and his mother, and when she gave him his hot dog he put so much mustard on it that it squirted from the bun.
I reached out and caught it mid-air, squishing it flat in the process (it was slick with grease and mustard), but when the kid started bawling I was surprised he’d even seen it … my reaction time was a blur to me. Was it possible that peyote had given me supernatural speed?
This is why that maiden experience with the drug is another chart topper, it being the only time I lost my identity to a psychedelic. My senses, my reason (particularly with the addition of alcohol) … I was willing to risk those when the opportunity arose. But who I was? That was so unassailable even the d.t.’s couldn’t erase it. I used that peyote experience as a vulnerability check the rest of my life.
Because at six-foot-six and two hundred fifty pounds the notion I was the world’s fastest man was beyond ludicrous. Even as I confidently tested my powers on the walk back to the house. I’d stroll by a dog in a yard, or an owner would pass me with one on a leash, and I’d wait until the last possible moment, then quickly dart my hand out and back, positive that the mutts wouldn’t notice.
It was the first thing Sophie asked when I came through the door:
“What’s all that dog barking, High? We thought the FBI was sneaking up on us.”
Jake would have made a great vagabond, but he was the marrying, breeding kind instead (he later had seven kids with three different wives, the first of whom was dear Sophie). She and I wouldn’t meet again, but in the meanwhile we had the rest of the night ahead of us. McDuff suggested we go to Yaw’s, a local hamburger restaurant that had been our high school hangout.
Perfect, I thought, they’ve got milkshakes in canisters there! But Sophie objected.
“Why?” asked Jake.
“Look at how High lit up when you said that,” she said. “He’s planning something and you’re a deserter, Jake. You can’t risk a police incident.”
“Police? Oh, come on, Sophie,” he laughed. “I told you before … High just looks crazy!”
But as we walked to Yaw’s she kept glancing my way. Her disdain and suspicion might have bothered me except, come on … I was Flash: I could afford to be magnanimous. When we reached the restaurant a waitress led us to a booth and Sophie and Jake slid in across from me. I didn’t so much as glance at the menu, and when the waitress returned I ordered two chocolate milkshakes.
“Two?” said the waitress. “For yourself?”
“Correct,” I said. “And I’d like you to bring them to me by themselves, in metal canisters on a tray. Please.”
She was a tough old gal with a voice like sandpaper. “Anything else, Your Highness?” she asked, feigning a curtsy.
“Oh, no thanks,” I said. “That’s perfect.”
Jake placed their orders, and as soon as the waitress was gone Sophie pointed at me. “I told you!” she hissed. “He’s up to something. Look at that smug, devious expression!”
I, in turn, maintained my legendary Flash cool. I could have told them what I was going to do, but why brag about something they’d never see? I was contemplating that very notion, wondering how I’d ever get the recognition I deserved, when the waitress returned with the shakes.
A half century has passed and I still marvel at the conviction I possessed at that moment, this certainty that I could re-stage a comic book panel! I mean, who wouldn’t want a drug that good? In the interim I couldn’t count on the waitress tripping, of course, so I’d have to improvise. She reached the table, began reaching for a canister when bam! I punched the bottom of the tray with my best right uppercut.
This (blessedly) is where things get blurry. I remember the waitress screaming as the canister closest to her smacked into her face, shooting ice cream up her nose.
This (blessedly) is where things get blurry. I remember the waitress screaming as the canister closest to her smacked into her face, shooting ice cream up her nose. The tray meanwhile, bounced down the aisle, while the other canister spread its contents on McDuff and Sophie. (Well, mostly the sputtering Sophie.)
I’ve always admired and respected Jake for what a cool customer he is. I visited him decades later, when he was a professional gambler running the Asian card action in a Gardenia, California casino. He played in the poker games himself, and the eight guys seated around him looked like the Chinese Most Wanted List. (They found McDuff’s forerunner in the job stuffed in a car trunk at the airport.)
So your old buddy exposing you to mayhem while you’re high on peyote and deserting to Canada? No problemo. He jumped up, dragged Sophie out, then ripped me to my feet and shoved me down the aisle.
“Run you idiot!” he spat, and I pushed through the restaurant’s front door with them and the Yaw’s manager on my tail. We’d covered a block when Jake pointed east.
“You go that way!” he yelled. “He’ll follow you!”
And the manager did. Fortunately he was as fat as I was and wearing slick loafers on top of it, so though no one would mistake me for Flash I easily outran him. When I was several blocks away and sure I was safe I bent over in an alleyway, did the puking I’d avoided earlier. Then found my way to the nearest tavern for a series of stress-reducing pitchers. When I tottered back to McDuff’s place it was nearly midnight and I was sure Sophie would be asleep by then.
But, oh no. When I crept onto the porch I could see her through the window, standing by the door with (I swear to God) a baseball bat! Christ. From the look on her face it was obvious she wanted me dead. I buttoned up my old Levi jacket, laid down on the front porch couch. Figured I’d wait her out.
That’s where I woke early the next morning, hungover, dry mouthed and frozen. I slipped inside, grabbed my portable typer and left Jake a note, wishing him luck in the far north. Then wandered downtown to the State’s main Employment Office. I was more desperate than hopeful, but when the doors opened there was a large handwritten sign on the blackboard:
Workers needed immediately for G-2
Surveyor jobs. Employer is Federal Bureau
of Public Roads. No experience necessary.
Must be able to travel. Inquire within.
Three hours later I was sitting in the back of an orange van with three other losers, headed towards Molalla, Oregon for a surveying job. I was so bleary-eyed and hungover I even ate the sack lunch they gave me.
Afterwards I gazed out at the passing landscape, wondering if I’d ever see McDuff again.
But Mescalito? The little green cactus man? We’d meet again for sure.
As if on cue the hippie next to me leaned across the aisle. “Hey, man,” he said, drawing a little glassine envelope from his pocket. “Do you do ’shrooms?”
I laughed out loud at the goddam wonder of it all.
“Oh, absolutely,” I said.