Tallahassee is in the Deep South. The largest employer in town is the State government which headquarters in a phallic Capitol complex. The city is also home to Florida State University and Florida A&M. In the late 1980s, the town held about 100,000 people, half of them being university students. Set in rural Leon County in the north part of the state near the base of the panhandle, the area shared more cultural ties with south Georgia and Alabama than the rest of Florida.
The urban and surrounding areas contain rolling hills, pine forests, and enormous Live Oak trees draped in Spanish moss. A drive on Miccosukee Road northeast out of town will take you beneath Live Oak canopies thick enough to create a tunnel effect. Antebellum homes, with stately columns, dot the surrounding towns.
Bumper stickers you might have seen on the streets of Tallahassee ranged from “Save the Whales” to the Confederate battle flag proclaiming “The South Shall Rise Again”. The accents varied from the sugary southern molasses spoken by my landlord with genteel languidness to the brassy staccato of a Cuban American friend from South Florida.
Zonians, who grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, were considered Florida residents for university tuition purposes. Which is why I lived in Tallahassee, going to Florida State University. In the summer of 1988. I was twenty-one. I’ll call it the Summer of Awe.
For a large section of the FSU student population, campus social life centered on fraternity and sorority parties. And football.
And then there was me, a returning colonial from an American enclave twelve years away from its final handoff to the Republic of Panamá. A dual national who didn’t quite belong. Anywhere.
During my first year, I connected with an assortment that included a Jewish woman from Tampa who spent her high school years fending off Christian classmates intent on saving her eternal soul; the guy from Alabama whose parents (Pentecostal) put him through a multiday exorcism to rid him of possession by a homosexual demon; Stamatis, from the Greek island of Samos who studied philosophy, of all things (famous Samians include Pythagoras, Aesop, Epicurus, and Herodotus), and refused to shower. Stamatis grew smellier and smellier until I staged an intervention with friends, and he finally bathed.
Then there was a tall guy from Berlin whose high school graduation gift from his parents was to fulfill his dream of spending a year studying in the USA. I still cringe when I think about how some called him “Nazi” as a nickname.
Additional characters included a lesbian from Chile who was in Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC), the stoner Cuban-American from Miami who always offered a toke, the Basque woman with whom I shared an apartment for several months, giving me a front-row seat to her stormy relationship with a Costa Rican boyfriend.
By the second year, I had found my tribe of special misfits – Tallahassee’s colorful LGBTQ+ community. “We are family” wasn’t just a disco anthem, it was a way of life. And so it was in the Summer of Awe that four of us gay men shared a three-bedroom apartment close to FSU campus. Close enough to ride bikes to class.
In between classes, I worked at Strozier Library, a utilitarian multi-story box in a campus full of historic stately red brick and gabled buildings. Palm trees and live oak greened the grounds. My job couldn’t have been drearier, stuck in a windowless room on the first floor where several of us would package and address books to be mailed to other universities as part of an inter-library loan program.
On an outer wall of the mail room hung a big steel roll-up door. A van would arrive every day and the driver would lift the door to deliver books and collect the ones ready to mail. The glimpse of the outside blue skies and waving foliage when the door opened provided one of the three main highlights for each of my four-hour work shifts.
The second highlight was an occasional fascinating escape into the content of a book I should have been packing instead of reading.
And the third highlight was a visit by another student assistant who would roll a big cart into the room with new books to pack. He always found time to hangout and chat for a bit. I’ll call him Alex.
Alex and I shared something in common: the perspective of Americans who grew up in another country with parents who were of different nationalities. His dad was a US military service member stationed in Germany. His mom, a German. Alex spent most of his high school years in Germany. He stood as tall as a basketball player and had black curly hair and caramel-colored skin.
In my case, Dad was in the US Air Force and stationed at Albrook Air Force Station in Panamá when he met Mom, a Panamanian citizen working as an administrative assistant on base. My mixed heritage is not obvious, Dad’s Irish genes won out over Mom’s Panamanian ones.
One day, during one of his visits to my book-packing sweatshop, Alex offloaded books from his cart onto my worktable while I leaned back in my chair to stretch. We settled into our customary chit-chat.
“My roommates and I are having a mushroom tea party at the house on Friday. You should come by.”
By “mushroom” he meant magic mushrooms.
“Where do you get the mushrooms?” I asked.
“They grow on cow shit. My roommates go into the farmland north of town and come back with garbage bags full of ‘shrooms. We boil them up and serve it as tea. We did this last year also.”
“Sounds like a Tallahassee tradition.”
He laughed. “There will be a lot of people there. Here’s the address.” He scribbled on the back of a packing slip and handed it to me. “It’s close by. See, I drew a map. Drop by after work on Friday. Oh, one of my roommates is Ms. Daisy, do you know who she is?”
“The drag performer at Club Park Avenue?”
“That’s the one!”
My Friday nights typically involved going out with my three roommates to Club Park Avenue, a gay bar featuring a midnight drag show. This is Ms. Daisy’s signature performance in my mind — a blonde bombshell strolling about the stage wearing cowboy boots and Daisy Dukes with her butt cheeks hanging below its frayed edges. Her mid-riff exposed below a tied-up plaid shirt through which a generous amount of cleavage strained to spill out between buttons. She would beam innocently and lip-synch Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” while squashing bugs on the stage with her heel – “one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”.
If one of his roommates was Ms. Daisy, then the party was sure to be fun.
“I’m going out with my roommates to Club Park Avenue Friday night. Maybe I’ll come by for some tea beforehand,” I said while looking up at the ceiling, imagining the possibilities.
Tripping at CPA was bound to be a pinnacle psilocybin experience – complete with dance music I loved, a friendly atmosphere, and buddies to banter with. And then there was the drag show that, on ‘shrooms, promised to amplify the campy humor I’d grown to love. At that point in my life, Club Park Avenue felt like a second home – a safe space to dance the night away among my tribe; to celebrate our very existence in the face of a hostile world.
Plus, I’d be with my roommate family. If I was going to experience a psychedelic adventure, it might as well be the full version of it. Kind of like me jumping from not having a bicycle to riding across Spain on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
“Cool beans. Drop by on Friday,” Alex said and waved goodbye, wheeling the cart around and pushing it out of the room and toward the elevators.
That night, I held a household meeting and shared my plan for an adventure in consciousness. None of my roommates wanted to join me. Marc, the self-described Jewish Grandmother of the household who cooked dinner for us every night, had a friend who was a ‘shrooming aficionado and the closest thing to an expert we could identify from among our circle of contacts.
Marc called the mushroom expert, Pete, on the phone and introduced us. He’d had many magic mushroom trips. Which I suspect complemented his academic pursuits as a Philosophy grad student. I invited him to join us at Club Park Avenue on Friday night. Pete, a straight guy, had never been to a gay bar before.
I held the phone out to Marc, and said “he says he’s never been to a gay bar.”
Marc took the phone. “There’s a first time for everything, Pete.”
And that’s all the convincing it took to get Pete enrolled in being a wingman at Club Park Avenue on a crowded Friday night with a midnight drag show.
The next day I arrived at the library early to do a bit of research before work. No internet back then. I set myself up at a table with a stack of books related to psychedelics.
I learned about humanity’s rich cultural history with altered states of consciousness. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece, initiation ceremonies associated with Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld. The details of these secret rites are not known, but ancient writers pointed to their transformative effects.
For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called “initiations,” so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36
More was known about the use of Peyote, a cactus which contains mescaline. When consumed, mescaline serves as a doorway into other realms explored by indigenous peoples of the north American desserts in special ceremonies. In the Nahuatl language “peyote” means “Divine Messenger”.
It seems the experience of other states of consciousness had been a practice common to many cultures since ancient times. And who is to say these chemicals didn’t precipitate the leap in consciousness and symbolic meaning-making that set Homo on its way to becoming Sapiens?
Research into psychedelic substances for medical applications started in the 1950s and came to a stop in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.
Everything I read tweaked my curiosity, triggering the explorer within. I wanted to have a mystical experience. One that wouldn’t take years of meditation to achieve. Or require fasting in the desert. No. My mystical experience would come via a tea party.
In those days, I rode back and forth between apartment and campus on a beach cruiser bicycle. This bike had a big cushy seat and six gears. I don’t remember what happened to it but I wouldn’t own another bike until my Montague Paratrooper “Military Technology” folding bike two decades later.
After work at the library on Friday night, I jumped on the bike and cruised to Alex’s house. I rode west across campus to a neighborhood, behind the stadium, with leafy residential streets and older single-story homes shaded by oak trees. The yards darkened with oncoming dusk.
I dismounted in front of my destination, a quiet-looking brick house with a screened porch. I made some mental notes about how to get home in case I became impaired. When I leave, just head north until I cross Tennessee Street and then west to the apartment complex. I walked the bike to the doorway and rang.
Alex answered the doorbell, holding the screen door open and standing aside to let me through.
“You made it!” he said with a grin, his pupils big as saucers. He pointed to where I could prop the bike inside the porch.
“Successful foraging?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. Follow me.”
I followed him through the front door and into the living room. Fresh marijuana smoke hung in the air. The ashtray on the coffee table overflowed with cigarette butts. Beer cans cluttered flat surfaces – the top of a speaker, an end table. A red lava lamp blobbed on the fireplace mantle. We passed through a beaded curtain and into the kitchen. Under a sterile overhead florescent light, three guys bustled about. Two large punch bowls sat on the counter, one of them full of a reddish liquid. Clouds of water vapor streamed from a pot boiling on the gas stove.
The three college guys took turns hovering over the pot, stirring and talking – it reminded me of the three witches in Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” My eighth-grade class produced and performed Macbeth on a stage above the St. Mary’s Church in Balboa, Republic of Panamá. As McDuff, I had to utter my least favorite line of the play: “Horror! Horror! Horror!” Which I imagined always sounded like “whore, whore, whore”.
“Looks like you’re still cooking,” I said.
“I’ve already had some. It takes about 45 minutes to begin to feel the effects. I should be peaking by the time we have a crowd. Let me get you a glass.”
“Ok. But then I’ve got to bolt. I want to get home before it kicks in. I’m heading to CPA tonight with my roomies.”
“You’re in for a real treat.” He laughed as he opened a bag of clear plastic cups, pulled one out, and dipped it into the punch bowl. I took the cup from him.
“Not the tastiest thing in the world,” he said.
He laughed when I tasted the tea and wrinkled my nose and face in an exaggerated display of disgust. I quickly chugged most of it.
“Yuck,” I said and retrieved a piece of ice from the cup to chew on. I suddenly remembered, with a pinch of panic, the story I’d read about the discovery of LSD’s properties. A Swiss chemist, Albert Hoffman, accidentally dosed himself through transdermal contact with a compound he had synthesized. The chemical he synthesized came from ergot, a fungus that infects rye. He called the chemical “LSD-25”. This was in 1943. He first noticed the effects on his bicycle ride home from the lab. It was to be the most extraordinary (and perhaps, scary) bicycle ride of his life.
“Ok, I better get going before I start tripping,” I said.
“Have fun, man. Let me know how it went next week,” he said with a grin that wouldn’t stop.
“I’ll give you a full report. Enjoy the party!”
I practically ran out the front door.
On the bike, I pedaled fast, anxious to make it home before my short ride turned into an all-night odyssey complete with sirens, cyclops, and lotus-eaters.
I reached home within fifteen minutes. It was a non-descript student apartment building located off the main road that ran by campus. I walked by the trash dumpster in the parking lot, through the common laundry room area, and hefted the bike to my shoulder before climbing the steps to the second floor.
Upstairs, I walked along the outside walkway to our apartment door. The sun began to set and as I looked over the full parking lot, the cars looked shinier than usual. Like they’d all been recently cleaned.
I rattled my key in the apartment door lock. Marc swung open the door like he’d been waiting. Marc was stocky and shorter than me, with thick muscular legs, strawberry hair, freckles, and just a hint of color in his eyelashes.
“How are you feeling?” he said with a smile. His eyes twinkled as they searched mine for signs of intelligent life.
“All good. I had a cup of tea and came right home. No effects yet.” I breathed hard from the frantic race home. And I felt anxiety. I imagined astronauts might feel similarly on the launchpad as the countdown winds down to the barely controlled explosion that would blast them into space.
“There’s plenty of pasta left over on the stove if you want some,” he said as he took my arm and guided me to the stove as if I might get lost or distracted along the way. I laughed, feeling a release of tension.
“Thank you, sweetness,” I said and leaned in to give him a peck on the cheek.
“Did you drink the cool aid?” asked Ned, my other roommate. He and Marc were a couple – and still are, decades later. Ned stood shirtless in the hallway with one towel around his waist and another towel wrapped into a turban to dry his blond hair. He had a swimmer’s build. And, now, carried a disapproving tone to his demeanor.
“Not cool aid, tea. And yes, I had a glass. It’s supposed to take 45 minutes to kick in,” I said.
“Oh Jesus H. Christ,” he said as he rolled his eyes. With a sigh, he headed into his room to get dressed.
My third roommate, Jeffrey came out of his room holding a brush in his hands. “How do you feel?” he asked.
I heard this question repeatedly that night.
Jeffrey spoke with an Appalachian drawl. He had ended up in Tallahassee when his car broke down on his way from West Virginia to south Florida where he had planned to live with a friend and have an artistic and creative beach life. After being stranded in Tallahassee, he worked in a beauty salon and was the only one of us who was not a student at FSU. His tall and slender figure, pale eyes, and nose that upturned slightly, reminded me of Peter Pan. Jeffrey moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and had occasionally performed in the drag show at CPA as Lady Gabriela, a beautiful blonde and leggy creature in a gown made of black Glad garbage bags who’d lip synch to Nina Hagen songs on stage.
“Nothing different yet. Maybe I didn’t have enough tea?”
“You better hurry up and eat and get ready,” Marc said to me.
I wolfed down some pasta and marinara sauce while standing in the kitchen.
The doorbell rang and Marc opened it. It was Pete, Mark’s straight philosophy student friend and now my mushroom trip wingman.
After primping for the night out, the five of us headed to the apartment parking lot to cram into Marc’s old suburban for the outing. Ned glanced over at me, looking concerned. I smiled innocently back at him, imagining a halo over my head.
Marc drove. I rolled down the window on the door beside me and felt the rush of air through my hair. It felt like fingers lightly kneaded my scalp, sending honey through my system. A sweep of euphoria tingled every cell in my body. Jeffrey sat next to me. I turned to look at him.
“I think I’m feeling something now,” I said with a silly grin.
“I feel it too,” he said. We both laughed. Jeffrey had the ability to get a “contact buzz” in which he said he acquired a certain level of intoxication simply by being around people who were intoxicated.
By the time we reached the club, the euphoria had turned into a sickeningly sweet nausea.
“That’s common,” said Pete. “The mushroom fibers are stomach irritants. You’ll feel better after throwing up.”
I scurried across Park Avenue from the club and into the green space consisting of a chain of historic parks that stretch along Park Avenue for several blocks of downtown Tallahassee. I walked under the soaring limbs of a live oak. The canopy blocked out streetlights, shrouding the area in a cocoon of darkness.
In a clearing, a large camellia bush appeared with white flowers that seemed to glow in the night. I threw up behind the camellia.
Immediately, the nausea disappeared. I felt clean and with no ill aftereffects. Almost like I’d simply imagined being nauseous and vomiting.
“Are you ok?” said Ned when I reappeared from behind the bush.
“Much better after throwing up,” I said cheerfully, after the most civilized vomiting experience of my life.
Every aspect of Ned’s expression seemed cartoonish in its dimensions and with the exaggerated melodrama of Charlie Chaplin. I burst out laughing. Jeffrey, because of his “contact high” superpower, joined. Tears streamed down our faces.
“Ok, time to go inside,” said Marc, looking around.
We queued to get inside the club. The line stretched on the sidewalk halfway down the block. The rate of admittance appeared choreographed to maintain a wait long enough to generate FOMO but too short to be boring. I felt the thump of dance music on the sidewalk. CPA served as the nightlife oasis in the area.
We arrived at the entrance and the cashier checked IDs, took cover charges, and issued the appropriate wristbands to authorize booze. I stepped inside Club Park Avenue.
And into a whirlpool of sensory stimulation. I swam through the neon mist of Drakkar cologne toward the bar counter nearest to the door. Disco lights above the dance floor threw spinning trails across the walls. My route took me through the distinct neo-reality of various characters along the way – a gaggle of twinky queens, a straight girl with her gay, an older professor-looking guy in a beard, a couple dudes wearing cowboy boots and tight jeans, someone in a “save South Africa” anti-apartheid T-shirt, etcetera. By the time I made it to the bar to order a rum and coke, I felt like I’d toured humanity on an anthropological expedition.
Drink in hand, I felt drawn to a quieter place and worked my way up narrow steps to the second floor open-aired patio. I found a bench next to a banana tree growing from a large container. It felt like a natural home base for me – we had banana trees in our yard growing up in Panamá. I sat down. Stars shone in the sky above. I felt breezes eddy down to me, ricocheted off the walls that enclosed the patio. I was alone.
I crossed my legs on the bench, and listened to the muffled beat of dance music and hoots from the crowd watching the drag show which must have begun. I wore shorts. A freckle on one of my legs caught my attention. I inspected my leg as if seeing it for the first time, examining the skin and hair. Some of the hair follicles had two hairs coming out of it.
I tested the elasticity and sensitivity of the skin when pressed, felt the individual hairs when I blew on it. Such a wonder of evolution of matter from the most primordial element, hydrogen. Hydrogen, which coalesced out of hot plasma as the universe inflated from a singularity, generating spacetime in its wake.
Quantum fluctuations created an uneven distribution of hydrogen. The mysterious force of gravity drew these minute clumps into gigantic clouds until the clouds got so dense, they collapsed into spinning balls and ignited into life. Hydrogen fused into helium and bathed the surrounding space in electromagnetic radiation. The void came alive with light pulsing from new stars igniting across the cosmos. These were the first generation.
Subsequent generations grew from the ashes of the first generation to create new and heavier variations of matter which blew out into the cosmos to reincarnate in successive generations creating even heavier matter – sometimes in violent explosions that outshone the entire galaxy.
Newly formed atoms spewed into space when a star died. They collected in a cloud of gas and dust, gathering into a spinning disk of material around a particular newly born star. The spinning matter gradually clumped into planets and calcium and carbon joined other elements to form a ball of chemicals not far from the new star.
The same atoms in my knee may have floated in Earth’s newly formed oceans, the atmosphere, perhaps in the shells of sea creatures, the trunks of trees, the bones of dinosaurs. These elements have been compacted by sediment, exploded by volcanoes, lifted by continental plates, buried and re-used repeatedly over millions of years. I came to consume some of this material as food. Material that now contributed to a structure called my right knee.
I looked deeply into my knee and saw countless other types of atoms forming molecules that allow me to stand tall, to propel myself forward, to dance, to sit on a bench in the patio of a nightclub under stars that were my most intimate and elemental ancestors, to contemplate my wondrous existence and connection to it all.
“We’ve been looking for you…JESUS! What did you do to your leg?” said Ned. His face telegraphed fear and concern.
I looked up from my knee, where I’d been tracing my finger over the skin and inspecting hair, freckles, and countless other miracles. Marc stood next to Ned. Both stared at me waiting for an answer. How do I explain? I simply stared back.
Marc relaxed and smiled. “Nothing’s wrong with his leg,” he said. “He’s just enraptured by its marvelous creation.”
I could not have said it better. I could not have said it. Period.