The Keystone (or Hitchhiking To Garcia)
I walked straight past the burgeoning line and commotion and somehow got in front of what seemed to be the box office window. A pimply-faced kid, overwhelmed, thankfully looking as scared as I, yelled through the glass, “one, or two?” I said “one” somehow and gave him a bill magically produced from my pocket. When the kid looked at it, he nodded like it was a good one. As the crowd bore in on me, I was pushed sideways away from the window, towards the door and the man taking tickets. The kid yelled back through the window something about my change — I didn’t understand and didn’t care. This was a success. My usual way of dealing with trade in this hallucinogenic state was not good. I simply didn’t understand money or how it was supposed to work, so this was great. It was nothing short of a miracle that I had a large enough bill in my hand when I was supposed to, I certainly knew that much. I was in!
I knew I was getting pretty weird, though, when I put my hand to my lips and found that the fear and claustrophobia I’d come in with didn’t show so much: the grin I traced came as complete a surprise. As I shuffled with the crowd further into the room, I noticed the small bandstand to the left of the front door, the instruments crammed into a space normally used as a display window for the tiny storefront. I stopped walking, letting the longhaired earnest happy people brush by me. I stared at the big Hammond organ, a bass guitar, and other equipment I recognized like they were my own – Jerry’s guitar, naturally, was around his neck wherever he was hiding before the show, canoodling his own nerves as usual. As I stood there, I saw my own anxiety float past the instruments, past the drums and out the blacked out window behind them. I was in heaven. Finally I could just be myself. That is, if I didn’t fall down. My insides were still a contradiction. I was still afraid to look stupid, or to not be cool at all costs! I felt so high… Oh God, please just don’t let me fall down!
For this band to play this tiny college bar was beyond my comprehension. This was home for Jerry, with a hometown-gig feel that gave me goose bumps. Toward the back of the tiny club people seemed to thin out a bit. The crowded push to get in didn’t feel cool at all, but with over a thousand micrograms of pure LSD now in its full coursing through my body and mind, who could blame me if I felt a bit anxious at first? In the dim light of the small oak bar – eight, maybe ten stools toward the back of the room — I looked it over. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and with the old-school neon red from the Budweiser sign glowing above, it felt familiar, unpretentious, and comfortable. I thought I would just saddle up to it and order a cold beer. I reveled in the moment, but as I began my stride across the room to one of two barstools unoccupied, I realized that I had two major flaws in my plan to be casual and cool. First, my legs suddenly seemed to be made of rubber, then wood, changing inconsistently from one moment to the next. Either they were so rigid that it seemed unnatural and weird to try to walk, or so soft that I was sure that I would melt into a crawl.
I didn’t want to call attention to the animated cartoon character I feared was becoming, but the other problem revealed itself when I began to move forward across the room. At first I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, but now the white lights scattered around the room and the red from the beer sign had slowly begun to converge, forming long strips that flowed on top of light wind currents suddenly present inside the bar. I told myself that this new development was strange, innocuous — but then the strips began to divide and change colors and divide again, until the air space from one side of the room to the other was completely filled up with these thin ribbons. Like colored fabric, they kept splintering into ever-smaller pieces until they were tiny dots of the most brilliant shiny color. Randomly, a really big multi-colored piece would appear out of a wall or the wood floor and gobble up a bunch of the tiny ones like a psychedelic whale. When bright white sequined dots began to form, to pop out between the colored ones, I blinked and that’s when I knew one thing for sure: the acid back home was not this Berkeley stuff, not even close. I had thought tripping was like Disneyland, only the ride lasted longer and had more lights, but this was another universe altogether. I’d stepped into another world. This was not Disneyland. This was a three-dimensional picture that encompassed everything that you could see — a huge jigsaw puzzle that would change the pieces randomly. As you got used to it, though, you could change the pieces yourself, easily, with your mind, with your imagination.
At the same time, in the corner of my eye I could clearly see large and small things — letters of the alphabet floated past, or words, whole phrases even. When someone would walk past or into one of these letters or words, the colorful floaties would disintegrate and re-form in smaller imperfect renditions of the original — really weird. There were pieces of fruit too. Giant ones! Some were like cartoon characters, others were just regular fruit – oranges, peaches, and I did see a very small apple all by itself, with an almost imperceptible little mouth, that would appear between the Johnny Walker bottles just long enough to make fun of the bartender with drunken vulgar quips when his back was turned, then quickly disappear again. Now that was scary. But get this: how about a five-foot banana man in a purple tracksuit, saying quietly, “Hey daddy-o, what’s shakin’?” Quite literally, anything I could think of, in any color I could imagine, I could see, filling in the thickening air space all around me. After awhile it wasn’t so disturbing. In fact, it was absolutely fascinating.
The Christmas lights strung along the top of the huge mirror that hung behind the bar suddenly began to flash rapidly. Given my frame of mind, I asked the bartender if he’d noticed this change. I was sort of surprised when he said nonchalantly, “Yeah, I know, the band’s comin’ out now.”
The music was great, the second set particularly amazing. I had lost my prized barstool seat when all of us had turned around to face the stage and dance. If I was tense with shaky legs in the first set, with my new mind’s eye in a dancing visual fantasia, then I was a happy and loose perfectly crazed sweat-dripping grin in the second. I’ll never forget the moment when I realized that I was in a dive, in Berkeley, CA, holding a cold beer in one hand and the brass rail of the bar with the other so I wouldn’t fall over, and Jerry Garcia was playing his heart out, doing a song called Midnight Moonlight with a frenetic vengeance no more than 20 feet away! If not for the rail I clung to, I would have been a euphoric puddle on the floor, never to recollect any of it.
It was hands down the best night of my life. That is, until Jerry finished the set and I set in motion my plan to go to the bathroom that I’d been afraid to execute for the last hour. Because I had become so dependant on the bar rail for equilibrium, walking to the back in the dark, swimming through my hallucinations and all the wild hippies dancing seemed precarious at best. Midnight Moonlight ended with such energy, the responding roar from the crowd seemed the distraction I needed and my cue. I knew that the band would only go backstage briefly before returning for the encore, so letting go of the rail I began wading through towards the back. My acid trip being at its peak, the greatest challenge, it seemed, was to not get disoriented, panic, and loose my cool, my balance, or both! I never suspected the band would not leave the stage at all, however, mostly because backstage in this place would of course be literally on the sidewalk. Only Jerry, with a lone guard, moving toward a back room was slowly making his way through the local crowd respectfully parting like the Red Sea, congratulating him as he passed. Having never seen the guy in such a small venue before, I had no way of anticipating this wrinkle in my expedition to the bathroom.
All this wouldn’t make any difference to me but for the fact that I was like Major Tom “stepping through the door” when suddenly, stumbling on someone’s sneaker, I began “floating in a most peculiar way,” in slow motion, with no direction from ground control. Wearing my heart on my sleeve and a permanent smile like a badge, I flew through the wall of fans and into the lone guard and Jerry. I ended up on my back, looking up at a very surprised Jerry, himself half-fallen over, his face three inches from mine. We were so close that I’ll never forget the beads of sweat, glasses cockeyed from the push and his frightened expression instantly changing to a soft understanding, and the four words we exchanged in that indelible blink of time. With everyone looking down at us, my face a red apple, I said the only two words I would speak to a beautiful man I adored… “Sorry man.”
Jerry responded with the kindness of a giant… “It’s okay.”