by Peter Bebergal
Excerpt from Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press)
Every day after school I went to the tiny mall a few blocks from my house. The mall was located far enough from the center of town that no one from my school actually hung out there. Strange to believe, but even on the weekends, I was the only teenager there. And it was for the best. I had moved here in the middle of eighth grade, wearing glasses and last year’s sneakers. I wandered around the bookstore, the Radio Shack, and the department store, thinking my private thoughts, free in the world, away from my parents and the taunts of other kids. Every once in a while Jacob, the lone security guard would say hello, and eventually we got to talking.
Over the course of a few months, we became strangely close—a shy, picked-on, allergy-ridden fourteen-year- old who collected horror comics, and a man in his thirties who had recently lost his father and loved Rush and Black Sabbath. He had long hair and a beard, and to me he looked like a sage or a wizard, hiding out in the uniform of a security guard. He spoke in a mystic babble, and for the first time, all the abstract ideas I was privately interested in took shape in a visible and visceral way. Even though I read books on the occult, part of me refused to believe there really was a secret language that was spoken between the trees and the rocks. But for Jacob, everything was a sign, a symbol that obscured some mysterious meaning. We walked back and forth the length of the mall while he told me stories of how rock ’n’ roll could be cracked and listened to as a secret code. Jacob explained that there was no coincidence, that every moment was a serendipitous, fateful event that pointed toward the next and the next. There was correspondence, he told me, between everything we could see and its equivalent in a hidden reality. So above, so below.
As we walked around that depressing little mall, past the stink of the pet shop, the T-shirt store, the ice-cream shop, the card shop, and the deli, Jacob explained to me the connections that proved God was in all things and all things were in God. Every suit of the tarot deck had a corresponding planet, as in astrology, and the planets themselves reflected the human body. Our bodies contain chakras, points of energy that also referred to the tarot suits, and on and on, until the world was a crushing mass of meaning. He would be describing the lyrics to a Black Sabbath song, when some word or phrase he over- heard from someone walking by us would make his eyes flare. “Did you hear that?” he would ask. “Just like I said. Just as I said.” Jacob spoke as if every thought and idea were a new revelation, but they never resolved into anything pragmatic. It was all circular, pointing back to the details of his life, his own fears, hopes, and desires. I could never tell if God was his salvation or his enemy, if the universe and its myriad associations were a unified perfection or a terrible, indecipherable puzzle that tricked him at every turn with a new significance that undid the previous one.
Jacob started giving me poetry, the stream-of-consciousness engravings of a mystic, but it spoke to me of an intimacy with another person I had not felt before. I was entering adolescence, my hormones filling me with guilt and shame and magical thinking. On the way to the mall, I began to incorporate some of the kinds of protective rituals Jacob had spoken of. I took no chances with the hidden powers that controlled the universe. I began to have to step on a certain brick, touch a certain branch, walk across the abandoned lot in a very precise maze-like pattern, all in the hope of having some kind of control over what felt like, and what Jacob had only clarified for me as, a world that was a bewildering yet mesmerizing series of signs and meanings. He talked in code about something else as well: psychedelic substances that were the key to understanding the cipher of the universe. He never advocated their use, but he recalled experi- ences and told me stories of bizarre encounters with otherworldly entities, like the mysterious “Dr. Neverno,” who came to him in visions and, as Jacob liked to say, played pinball with his psyche.
One afternoon, I decided to let Jacob know how much I had come to love him and depend on him, not only for friendship, but for a guiding light that revealed to me the mystery behind all things and illuminated the path by which I might find my way through. Some years earlier my oldest sister had given me a small pewter scarab necklace. It was a cheap museum trinket but was to me a precious little thing. I gave it to Jacob and he accepted it affectionately. I knew I would never have to feel alone again.
A few weeks later, I found Jacob at the mall in a terrible state. He was rambling about his father’s grave and how someone else who had recently died had put up a new tombstone next to where his father was buried. He seemed crazed, afraid, even, that something awful was about to happen. He explained that the name on the new stone was Rush, the name of his favorite band, the band that he believed had the most perfect knowledge of him and the world. He took the scarab and pressed it into my hand and told me that because I had given it to him, everything was lost and some evil had descended into his life. Jacob insinuated it had all started the day he took the necklace from me as a gift of my love. He literally turned his back on me and left while I stood in front of Walgreens, trembling.
I was afraid to go to the mall for weeks, but when I got up the nerve, he was gone. He had quit his job as the security guard. I never heard from him or saw him again.
The effect of his leaving didn’t reveal the pathology of his belief. What had been his alone became mine. I used to listen to his madness as if on a radio station I couldn’t quite tune in to. But the traumatic results of his final revelation cleared away the static and I became, in some core subconscious place, a true believer in an occult arrangement of cosmic forces, gods, and other invisible beings that shaped our lives—though for good or ill, who could know?
Jacob was a product of that terrible moment when the seventies skidded out of the sixties. LSD was illegal, so even getting it created a drama of illicitness and paranoia. Psychedelics were also big business and were no longer passed out freely at concerts and trip festivals. You couldn’t even be sure you were getting authentic doses of whatever you bought. Another drug, sold as mescaline but having nothing to do with the psychoactive peyote cactus, would shake up your insides as if a hyena had been let loose in your skull. Often it didn’t matter—drugs started to lose their particularity, and getting high, in whatever way was available, became the de facto intent. If you took acid, you probably smoked pot, and if you smoked pot, you even drank a bit and maybe even tried a little coke or snorted a little heroin.
Jacob, I think, tried to parse it all as best he could, but he was still mixing his LSD with another “drug” that did him in more rapidly than any other, and that years later would take me down a similar path: one part occultism, two parts magic, a heavy dose of gnosticism, and a mighty helping of hermetic philosophy, all arranged nicely by those infinite hidden connections—the secret language of the universe.