Hunky Dory with permission by George Underwood
As I slid into the back seat of the gold 1969 Cutlass, the boy handed me a fat chalky pill with “LEMMON 714” stamped on its face. Black eyes framed by curls of greasy shoulder-length hair watched from the rearview mirror as I nonchalantly slipped the pill into my coat pocket after pretending to swallow it. The boy’s nineteen-year-old brother eyed me as he drove into New Orleans. We were going to see the band Poco at the Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas. My first concert, and at fourteen, my first real date. I pocketed the pill following my college-aged brother’s advice to be wary of seemingly harmless drugs offered by friends. I had learned the hard way to be careful what I put in my mouth, even though I would later become friends with these flat round tablets known as Quaaludes.
I was so excited to go to The Warehouse, and couldn’t believe my parents allowed me to go. I’d get home past my curfew on a November Friday night, and The Warehouse was in a seedy part of town. As with my trip back to Jackson a few months before, had they any inkling what the venue was like or where it was located, they would never have permitted me to go on the date.
We’d moved the summer of 1971 from dismal Jackson, Mississippi to Metairie Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, nestled in the arms of the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. Everything about New Orleans was larger than life—its gregarious inhabitants with their unique dialect—like a Brooklyn accent but the humidity’s thickness making the tongue flop around giving words that slow Hey, Dawlin’ drawl, head-sized magnolia blossoms and massive piles of berled crawfish—like another planet. Weed grew wild in the empty field across from the corner gas station, and syringes were found in the bathrooms of the public all-girl high school I attended, where the lengths of our skirts were measured as we got off the school bus in the mornings to ensure they weren’t too short.
The August before school started my parents had allowed me to return to Jackson for a farewell weekend. They thought I was staying with a friend’s family. Instead, I unexpectedly spent the weekend at the empty mansion of an acquaintance with a couple dozen strangers, older kids, many of whom were shooting up or snorting heroin. Declining offers to partake, I finally took a delicate hit off what I thought was a joint. I blacked out, but not before feeling every ounce of stress leave my body, and experiencing the most beautiful sensation of pure bliss I ever felt, before or since. But waking up in the back of a van not knowing how long I’d been out scared me and I knew I was in over my head. I’d always been told I was older than my years, but I knew I needed to be more in control of myself and my surroundings if I was to make it out of high school alive.
With two musically-inclined older brothers, I grew up accustomed to having headphones thrust upon my head. “Hey, check this out,” I’d hear as the volume cranked on their latest musical purchase. The Beatles Revolver, John Barleycorn Must Die, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, or Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats were on steady rotation. I obsessively listened to Beaker Street, the iconic radio station that played album cuts, not top 40 music, and addressed the social unrest and growing counterculture of the time. I’d come home from school to find tattered books on my bed, the most recent being Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle with a note, “read it til you get it.”
Often called high strung with too much nervous energy, I wished for something that would stop the jitters that ran up and down my body. I wondered if people took drugs to find existential answers, like the Beatles did in India, or if they had nervous systems like mine that ran on overdrive. But that summer heroin killed Jim Morrison, with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones before him. The list of musicians I admired who died from overdoses was long. I heard weed could help the jitters, but it wasn’t worth the trouble I’d get into if I got caught with it. I knew boys who got busted, and lacking rich daddies, were shipped to the front lines in Vietnam.
I could tell my brother smoked pot. His twinkling bloodshot blue eyes and sheepish grin gave him away during his last visit home before leaving for college. As we sat on the kitchen counter late one night eating Doritos, I pestered him to give me the rundown on drugs so I’d know how to navigate the murky waters of the early 1970s.
New Orleans has a steep, dark history of mystery and intrigue. Whether it is the city’s prominence in the slave trade—being the primary port where slaves were imported and sold, the rise of the Voodoo arts and black magic thanks to figures like Marie LaVeau, the whispered mafia presence, or the simple fact that a decapitated cockroach can live for weeks without its head—there is a sense nothing really dies there.
Ghosts walk the streets alongside the animated. One becomes accustomed to adapting to certain behaviors while wandering the city. Don’t go down dark alleys, especially in the French Quarter. Walk on the other side of the street when passing certain houses. Careful of alligators on the levee, even in daytime. Avoid cemeteries at night—people disappear. Don’t ask if vampires are real. You could be asking one.
And, there are certain parts of New Orleans where stopping at a stop sign is not a good idea. Slow down, sure, but it would be too easy for someone to ride up and aim with accuracy if you came to a full stop. The Warehouse district, especially lower Tchoupitoulas, was one of those neighborhoods. It was a wasteland of abandoned factories, dank alleys, and people who looked like they walked off the set of Night of the Living Dead. Located near the levee of the Mississippi River, there was no telling what lurked in the swampy darkness.
Soon after it opened in 1970, The Warehouse became the biggest concert venue in the South. Musicians like Bob Dylan or Neil Young often showed up unannounced to play. Loyal fans lined up outside, patiently waiting for the doors of the dingy, spartan room to open. Patrons sat on rank carpets pocked with cigarette burns, the air filling with the scent of sweat and weed once concerts started. From regulars like Dr. John, the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, and Little Feat, to a scrawny, unknown orange-haired oddball in a skin-tight onesie named David Bowie—everyone played there.
My date’s brother drove silently and left us once we arrived. But he came into focus in the coming months, as it became impossible to ignore his presence—everywhere I went. I first saw him across the street from my high school a few days after the concert, leaning on his car fender in a black oilcloth trench coat, an odd fashion statement in New Orleans’ sweltering heat. Shoulder length scraggly jet black hair. Skin pale as death. Smoking. Always smoking. First he parked at the back of the school parking lot, then as months accrued, he became more brazen, moving closer. So close I could see him watching me as I got on the school bus. Then as if by magic, he was at the end of my block as I stepped off a half hour later. I’d go out with friends to the lakefront, or in the spring, to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, and he’d be there. I grew to expect him in my peripheral vision. Just standing there, smoking. Staring.
One springtime afternoon shortly after my fifteenth birthday, I came home from school to find a bouquet of flowers addressed to me from an “anonymous admirer.” My mother insisted he was harmless, telling me she was keeping an eye on him.
“I really think he’s just lonely. He doesn’t seem like a person who would do anything to hurt you. And I’m sure he’s not everywhere like you claim he is,” she said, her eyes focused on the laundry she was folding on the kitchen table.
I bristled. “But he is everywhere. He’s at school. Every day. I can see him.”
She took a deep breath. “Well, don’t look at him. You must have done something to encourage him.”
My voice rose, “I didn’t! I never said a word to him!” I said, emitting a frustrated sigh.
She set down the towel she was folding and turned toward me. “I’ll take the flowers over to Hilda next door if you don’t want them. But here’s the thing, hon’—if we tell Daddy this boy is following you, you know what he’s going to do.”
I did know. My father would use it as an excuse to ground me. No more earning my own money. No more concerts. No more going to friends’ houses. No more anything.
I’d learned years earlier to avoid my father. Being the youngest of four, I’d witnessed screaming matches over my brothers’ long hair, or protests against the war. He seemed perennially angry, possessing an extreme dislike of us kids. Now with my brothers out of the house and my sister leaving soon, his ire was focused on me. I had come home from school a few weeks before to discover my favorite pair of jeans had been thrown out with the garbage. I’d painstakingly embroidered them. I wanted to dress like my friends. He said I looked like a slut. Unless I was showing my report card or performing in a piano competition, I steered clear of him.
As I helped my mother finish folding the laundry, she stopped and smiled. “I’ve got a great idea,” she said. Ethyl, her friend from the local ladies’ garden club, had a son a year older than me. She would set me up on a date with Ethyl’s son, who was such a nice boy. They had just the nicest house, and she’d met him, and he was just the nicest boy, and just one date was all she was asking. In her mind, if I went out with a budding Southern gentleman, maybe I’d develop the skills to attract nice boys rather than the hippie freaks and loser musicians I gravitated toward. Maybe then I wouldn’t be the type of girl who got stalked.
A few days later my mother informed me that the date with the clean-cut boy down the street would be the following Friday. He was all smiles when he appeared on our doorstep, shaking hands with my father, telling him we were going to a movie, telling him he’d left his car at his house. The friendly demeanor disappeared as we walked down the street in silence, pushing through the thick muggy evening. When we arrived at his house he walked ahead of me toward his room, which was filled with a dozen or so of his pimply-faced friends. As I followed behind him I saw that I was the only girl in the cramped room. The walls were plastered with Three Dog Night and Journey posters.
As the teeny-bopper anthem “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” blared with distortion through cheap speakers, I knew the night would be a long one. Leaning against a wall in the corner, arms crossed over my pink angora sweater, I stared at a spot in the gold shag carpet for what felt like an hour.
Suddenly a tall, more mature looking man-boy appeared in front of me.
I looked up. “Hey.” Attacked by shyness, I looked back down to the floor as soon as I spoke. He was too handsome. Long brown hair, olive complexion. He looked old for this room.
Speaking into the top of my downturned head he said, “What brings you here?”
I looked up to meet smiling auburn eyes. “Long story,” I smirked, closed-mouthed to hide my braces. I nodded toward my arranged date, who was in a huddle with his buddies, shouting a joke over the screeching racket masquerading as music. I wondered if my stalker could see us through the thin curtains.
“Can I get you a drink?” asked the tall dark stranger in that I’m-trying-not-to-scream-into-your-ear voice people use when attempting to talk over music that is too loud.
“I’ll just have some water,” I responded, ill at ease in the stuffy air-conditioned room with a dozen strangers who only occasionally gawked at me.
Some date. Surely this wasn’t what my mother had in mind, I thought as I watched a massive spliff pass between the boys. I politely declined when it came around to me. I’d just drink my glass of water then feign illness and walk home to tell my mother a good story about the so-called “nice boy.”
Instead of water, my Romeo returned from the kitchen with a pretty orange and pink concoction. “Tequila Sunrise,” he said as a mouthful of perfect white teeth leaned toward me. I’d never had one before. Couldn’t hurt. It tasted like really sweet orange juice. He joined me in my corner against the wall. When I finished my drink, as if on cue, everyone began getting ready to leave.
“Where are you guys going?” I asked my new companion.
“We’re all heading up to the levee for a bonfire. Didn’t you know?”
“I think I’ll just head home,” I replied.
“No! You must come with us! Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll get you home in time for your curfew. Pleeeeze?”
Flattered at his exaggerated pleadings, I acquiesced. A bonfire on the levee with the moon over Lake Ponchartrain sounded nice, and since I’d not exchanged two words with my date, I chose to ride with my new Romeo. Six of us piled into his Volkswagen. I learned he was an older man of eighteen, a college student, a friend of Daryll’s sister.
Five minutes after we got to the bonfire, or maybe it was fifty, I leaned back to lie down on the grass and look up at the starlit night. The stars in the inky sky above me fell, like dominoes, with little click-click-click-clicks as they disappeared into the horizon behind my head, leaving me surrounded by a grey smoky film. I sat up quickly, stunned, straining to adjust my eyes to the light from the fire. No one was talking. All eyes were on me. Expectant. Smiles too big. Romeo was missing and there were some faces I didn’t recognize.
A second before, he was on the other side of the fire, but now Daryll’s apish face was suddenly too close. He was talking to me, but his mouth was moving at a faster pace than the sound of his words, which were slurring as if in slow motion—like a film with the soundtrack a few seconds off.
“What did you do to me?” I stood up, wobbled, and lunged at him.
“Whoa! Careful there, Missy! Don’t want you to land in a fire or anything.” He backed up with his arms up in the air. “Don’t blame me! Ask him,” he said, pointing at someone I didn’t recognize. Everyone was laughing.
“What did you put in my drink?” I demanded, giving him a shove. “What was it?”
He laughed harder. He’d gotten one over on the goody-two-shoes down the street his mother made him ask out on a date. Everyone looked cartoonish, their features large and dripping like a living Salvador Dali painting. I could see people floating in the smoky darkness. The water lapping the beach was competing in volume with crickets, both too loud, making it hard to hear anything else. There was a metallic smell of something burning other than wood. My mouth was chalky and my muscles locked. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“I need to know what you gave me. In case anything happens,” I pleaded this time, running through the list of drug effects I’d memorized.
He grinned at his friends. “What would you say to some Orange Barrel Acid? Do you know what that is?” the words stretched out, as if he was screaming into a fan. He was dancing with his head bobbing from side to side in time with his words. Daryll looked proud as he said they had dropped half of an eight-way hit—enough for four adult men, into my tequila sunrise. Just to see what would happen. I had enough LSD in my ninety-pound body to keep four big guys tripping for over twenty-four hours.
I insisted he take me home, even though I knew by going home before my curfew, my parents would be just as suspicious as if I’d come home late. Since they always watched The Tonight Show in bed, I planned to stick my head in their bedroom doorway to say goodnight, then retreat to my room and try to figure out how to make it through the weekend. It took all of my concentration to stand upright, to focus on words coming out of my mouth in a normal way, because I couldn’t tell if my innermost thoughts were leaking out, or if my mouth was voicing words I intended to speak.
As if teleported, I found myself standing in the hallway outside my parents’ doorway. The walls were liquefied. I just knew I could put my hand through them. Captivated, I had to tear myself away and walk to my parents’ room. The floor kept shifting under my feet as if I was on an airport moving walkway with variable speeds—slowing down then speeding up too fast. The olive-green shag carpet in the hallway felt like grass, but the cobalt blue carpet in my parents’ bedroom was a deep abyss that I knew I’d fall into if I stepped on it. My parents looked like apparitions glowing bright grey-blue in the TV light. My mother was Medusa, her curly hair pulsing with snakes.
Suddenly I was on an old carnival Rotor-ride, where you enter a circular metal structure and stand with your back against the hard, sticky wall. When the ride is turned on, the structure starts spinning, so fast you get glued to the wall by gravity, and eventually the bottom drops out, so you are spinning and spinning in mid-air, stuck to the wall, as the engine gets louder and louder. If I stepped on that dark blue carpet in my parents’ bedroom, I’d fall into a bottomless abyss, stuck to a wall, floating in space.
My parents wanted to know the details of my night, what we did, why I was home early, did I like Daryll, the nice boy. I somehow appeased them in spite of refusing to enter the abyss, and escaped into my tiny bedroom down the hall, where I walked through the bathroom that connected my room to my sister’s. I quietly knocked on her door and whispered to her the story of my night.
“You’ll probably be fine in a week or so. At least it wasn’t heroin, and I don’t have to stay up all night with you feeding you coffee to make sure you don’t die,” she said before wishing me luck, and closing her door.
When I returned to my room after my sister’s pep talk, it was nearly 2 am. Somewhere, in the bathroom between our bedrooms, over two hours disappeared. I eventually crawled into bed. But there was an engine revving in my chest, and I was afraid I might die if I fell asleep. I picked up my yellow princess phone, and called my favorite radio station, WYLD.
The DJ’s name was Rudy. He was on the air until 6:30 in the morning. I told him someone had spiked my drink with a lot of LSD, that I was scared I wouldn’t wake up if I fell asleep. He talked to me while songs played, then talked on the air to me. I couldn’t tell which was which.
“Cindy! Cindy!” I heard from far away. The music had stopped, and I heard my name not through my phone but instead through the tinny speaker on my transistor radio. “I’m talking to Cindy right now, and I hope she answers so I know she’s ok,” I heard through the cube. “Here’s Todd Rundgren’s “Be Nice To Me,” because I know it’s her favorite song.”
“Thank you.” I couldn’t tell if I was whispering or screaming. “I’m here. Thank you.” I felt my heart pounding with love for this stranger who was keeping me awake.
“I get off the air in a few minutes, so I’m going to have to hang up. Will you be ok? I can call a drug hotline for you,” he said, concern in his voice.
“No, I’ll be ok. Thanks for playing Todd Rundgren for me.” Fat tears dripped down my face when his shift ended and we had to hang up as he played Bowie’s “Quicksand” to remind me I wasn’t alone. Years later I would meet Rudy at a record label promotional event. He didn’t remember the fifteen-year-old girl he’d talked to for four hours during his overnight shift, but we both choked up when I thanked him for saving my life. I’ve often wondered how many lives he saved.
Throughout the weekend, my sister ran interference, telling my parents Daryll had forced me to drink and I got sick. She knew if she told the truth, I’d never be allowed to leave the house again. She reminded them of my good grades, how I stayed out of trouble, how much I practiced the piano. We weren’t close, but that weekend I was grateful to have a big sister, even though the bowl of chili she brought me looked like a bowlful of worms.
Nearly two weeks later, I was still concerned my thoughts were erupting out of my mouth. Walls were breathing. It seemed I could read people’s thoughts. Did I really tell Miss Prissle there was no fucking way I was going to rip out the zipper in the dress I had to make for sewing class and redo it, or did I just think it?
Sitting through the required class on a normal day was hard enough. In her artificially childlike sing-songy voice, she swooned over the elegance of a blind hem and the lusciousness of a perfectly straight seam. As she draped herself over her desk and cooed to the roomful of bored and resentful girls about the dress she was making for her impending engagement party, I just knew I’d say something out loud I’d regret. I assumed I’d finally done it when she ran out of the room in tears after one of my thoughts. It turned out she’d gotten a note in class telling her that her boyfriend had gone AWOL in Vietnam. There would be no engagement party.
About the time I began to embrace the new brightness of colors, the absurdity of everyday life, and newfound psychic abilities, the after-effects began to fade. It took many weeks. I noticed my typically overactive nervous system had been more calm of late. I liked that. What remained behind was a question I couldn’t let go of: if I could survive massive amounts of LSD, what else might open the door to a greater awareness of life, or would I have to wait until death, as Bowie sang? I fantasized about journeying to India and Nepal and living the life of a monk like Larry from The Razor’s Edge. As the symptoms began to fade I had confirmed to myself that there was much more to life than high school falderal and The Mod Squad.
About the time my body started feeling ordinary again—tense—out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a familiar black trench coat lurking in the parking lot as I was leaving a new job, at Gramophone Records in the nearby shopping mall.
I loved my job. My boss was a sophisticated older man of twenty-one, a Cajun-Italian named Anthony with a long curly ponytail who drove a new Datsun 240Z, bright green. Fast. He regularly got promotional passes to concerts and often invited me along. We drove to Baton Rouge to see Elton John in the Batmobile, my nickname for his car, and he even let me drive part of the way while he got high. We saw T.Rex, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin—dozens of shows.
Over the course of two years I learned to keep my head down when walking to a car, going to the movies, hanging out with friends. I learned to ignore the ever-present trench coat, but never forgot he was there.
Nearly two and a half years after the Poco concert, a few weeks before Nixon resigned, on a quiet Friday night just after Anthony pulled the security door down halfway to alert customers we were preparing to close, a man in a black trench coat dipped beneath the doorway. I was in back counting money. When I came out and recognized the coat, the greasy hair, the terrifying bearded face, I yanked Anthony into the back room.
“Remember me telling you about the guy who has followed me everywhere since I was a freshman?” I hissed.
“Yeah,” he said as he toyed with the sides of his mustache, intense tiger eyes looking at me, then turning toward the front where the trench coat stooped over a bin of LPs.
“That him?” he asked. I nodded, sweat forming on my upper lip. “Go up to the register. I’ll be right behind you.” He gave me a gentle shove.
Once there, the person whom I’d only seen from a distance came within a foot of where I was standing. I pretended to organize receipts. He set two albums on the counter.
Anthony said, “Will that be all?”
“Yes,” replied the man who reeked of patchouli and tobacco, whose hands looked like they hadn’t been washed in months.
“Yeah, that will be all.” Anthony’s expression became fierce as he leaned down, and in one fell swoop, lifted a shiny Glock from his waistband and set it on the counter facing the trench coat, as his other arm steered me behind him. “That will be the last time you ever come in here, and the last time you come within a mile of this girl. Because if I ever see you anywhere near this mall, even in the parking lot, I’ll use this.” He picked up the gun. “And if I hear she sees you again, anywhere, I will hunt you down. Understood?”
The only sound that could be heard was the gentle blip…blip…blip of the needle on the center of Randy Newman’s Sail Away, as its arm waited to be lifted from the turntable behind us.
“Understood,” came a thin reply. He slunk out, leaving the LPs on the counter.
That night after work, I reached under my mattress and pulled out a little muslin bubblegum bag that held some fat white pills with “LEMMON 714” stamped on them. Breaking one in half, I popped it, put on headphones, and dropped the needle onto “Life On Mars.” I laid down, closed my eyes, and waited for the calm to wash over me.
Cynthia Hughen writes and plays piano in Seattle, where she teaches jazz improvisation and classical music. After studying in Havana, she played in salsa and latin jazz groups for a dozen years before pausing to work on a memoir about becoming a professional musician at forty after almost cutting off two fingers. “Quicksand” is an excerpt from her book. When not writing words, she’s writing music, searching out obscure standards, and practicing Charlie Parker heads in both hands.