It all began with a mysterious fire in my belly, a burning desire to go everywhere, meet everyone, see and do everything. It began with a life-or-death decision to remove the Needle of False Security from my arm, turn away from the Medusa of Routine, part the Veil of Bogus Guarantees and pass on into that vital place where, regardless of the question, all you have to say is yes.
It began with the Wisdom of Foolishness, a commitment to remain fluid, receptive, in process, part of the Membrane of Things as I struck out on that spiritual Route 66, the Experience Trail, determined to follow it to the end. It began with yours truly spontaneously ceasing to be myself and becoming someone else, assuming in the blink of an "I" the role of a drifter, a rolling stone, a wayward mariner lone and visionary on the High Seas of Chance and Possibility.
Actually, it began with a grueling Trailways bus trip since that was all I could afford with the money I'd probably stolen--three forgettable, sweaty, malnourished, backbreaking days and nights west from wherever across the tedious interstates of America. Feeling greasier than a TV dinner, I ended up in California in a town called New Age City, which seemed an appropriate starting point, a promising beginning for what I considered the dawning of my own "new age."
New Age City was a kaleidoscopic pastiche of architectural designs that simultaneously delighted and bewildered. Gothic spires and modernist high-rises towered over straw-bale houses, adobes, log cabins, tepees, earthships and yurts, next to which Buddhist temples, dojos, mosques and shiny Bauhaus edifices competed for space, while the storefronts featured everything from rococo facades and stained-glass art nouveau awnings to medieval placards and flashing neon signs.
My impression, shouldering my trusty old buffalo leather duffel bag (containing the essentials: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, spare underwear and Swiss army knife)--I say, my impression stepping down from the bus and squinting into the bright sunlight that first May morning was that the driver had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and dropped me off on Mars. And I wasn't far off the mark, as I soon found myself whistling along Mercury Street into the heart of downtown.
The only way to convey my initial reaction to New Age City is to compare it to that pinch-me disbelief a kid feels visiting Disneyland the first time. There was no dirt in New Age City. No crime. No drugs. No graffiti. No youth gangs since there were no youths. No class issues since there were no classes. No racist slurs, sexist jokes, right wing slogans or homophobic propaganda.
Wherever you looked everything was in pristine condition, and the parks were safe and clean, and all the cars were late-model imports, and all the people were white and over forty and expensively dressed even when dressed down, and the restaurants (though exorbitant) featured multicultural menus on recycled paper, and you could always get a decaf mocha latte even in a convenience store at midnight, and those who drank drank in moderation, and those who smoked smoked only American Spirits, and the police themselves were paragons of environmental consciousness as they rode smiling on shiny mountain bikes up and down exquisitely maintained streets.
And the extraordinary services! New Age City was a cornucopia of Transsexual Breathwork, Colonic Hypnotherapy, Psychotic Readings, Women's Foot Massage Circles, Men's Menstrual Networks, Nymphomatic Drainage, Applied Tautology, Body Piercing for the Inner Child, Alternative Unbirthing, Soul Upheaval, Past Life Digressions … To say nothing of the extraordinary products available through independent distributors of network marketing companies: Self-esteem Creams, Psychic Gels, Clairvoyant Eyedrops, Aboriginal Aphrodisiacs, Ostrich Feather Energy Bars, Irradiated Healing Clays, Chai Enemas …
I didn't know where to start. I wondered about my inner child. In fact, I was troubled. Did I even have an inner child, I asked myself, given that, in essence, I'd just been born? On the other hand I thought it might be interesting to try a flavored enema or have my nasal septum pierced.
Confusing as my options were, it soon became crystal clear the little cash I had on me wouldn't last long in a place where a bag of peanuts cost ten bucks. So what if they were organic.
My first instinct was to get a job--an idea immediately followed by a crippling wave of nausea. I literally vomited in a trash can on the sidewalk where I'd been pleasantly window-shopping. I found the idea of a job repulsive. Life was too short to waste being a productive member of society. My job was my imaginary life, and I felt deeply I should be paid to live it.
Such a conviction did nothing to put food in my belly or a roof over my head. The hotels and B&Bs were so expensive one weekend would have bankrupted me. It didn't take long for my homelessness to sink in. It just took shivering night after night on a park bench only to be mercilessly prodded awake at five by a smiling policeman urging me to move on; pissing in the woods, shitting in the bushes and wiping with leaves I prayed weren't poison ivy; then finally spending my last penny and feeling genuine hunger set in as a layer of sweat and scum encased me like a second skin.
And so, as is conventional in such cases, I resorted to begging. Begging is much more difficult than it looks. Contrary to popular belief, it's a high art form that takes years of dedicated practice to master.
Granted, I was no master--but I seriously doubt Helen Keller could have pried any change out of the citizens of New Age City. I tried every trick in the book. I stood and begged, sat and begged, lay down and begged, begged on my knees. I drew little signs indicating I was unemployed, I was retarded, I was a starving artist, I was an orphan, I was deaf or blind or mute, I suffered from dengue fever, I had a broken heart. I changed locations and times. I faked whiplash, a fractured femur, an abscessed tooth. I moaned and groaned, gnashed my teeth and wailed as I sat impossibly twisted on the sidewalk. I even squirted ketchup swiped from a deli all over my jeans and complained of intestinal bleeding. But nothing, I mean nothing worked! Nobody gave me a dime. People practically walked on top of me without even looking in my direction.
Morning after morning the smiling policeman politely prodded me awake, and day after day my hunger hollowed me out from the inside. I no longer gave a damn about my inner child. How long would it be, I wondered, before I completely withered, turned to a crisp, lost my marbles and took to conversing with myself in different octaves in my own little one-man play scripted by misery's lunacy?
One especially traumatic afternoon I found myself seated on the sidewalk in the middle of Mercury Street being ignored by streams of polite people who managed to be cold as distant stars, so engrossed in their own "process" (a word I often overheard them use) that--this is what occurred to me--if the Good Lord Himself had suddenly materialized in a blinding flash, the situation would have been no different from that story where Christ returns to Waco, Texas, but nobody lifts a pinky to receive Him. I remember slumping sideways following this realization and crying a salty tear or two, no longer hungry (that had thankfully passed) but bitterly disillusioned.
Later that night, stretched on my park bench in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, yet miserably unable to sleep, I realized I had to escape. I had to get out of that plastic place--even if it meant perishing in the attempt.
The problem was how. How could a beggar get out of New Age City? Not by hitching, that was for sure. Nobody would give you the time of day, much less a ride. Speaking of, where were all the beggars? Surely I wasn't the first drifter to show up expecting to live off the generosity of such an enlightened place.
Sleep being out of the question, I decided to go for a stroll to brainstorm. It must have been around three and besides yours truly not a creature was stirring. At that hour New Age City resembled a stage set more than a real city, a nearly convincing theater backdrop, the buildings two-dimensional like crushed cardboard boxes. As if they weren't solid, as if you could pass your hand through them with no effort.
This impression, strange as it was, persisted and actually grew stronger the longer I walked through the deserted streets where a surreal, pastel twilight prevailed. By the time I arrived at the outskirts of town, dawn was shooting yellow jags up through the inky sky. But instead of feeling gladdened by the new day, a wave of panic washed over me. I was certain another day in New Age City would be the end of me.
Panting with terror, feeling daybreak fry me like a vampire, squeeze me like a trap room in a B movie, I did something that in any other town would have resulted in a broken nose: I turned and plunged headlong into the nearest wall. Instead of stone I passed through something that felt like water but wasn't wet. When I reemerged, I was no longer in New Age City.
I didn't know where the heck I was--just that I was alone in a dark alley that smelled like piss and rotten beer. I leaned back against the alley wall (a solid one this time) and took a few deep breaths, disoriented but happy to be alive.
But just to make sure, I pinched myself (it hurt) and tried out my vocal chords. "Echo?" I yelled into the shadows.
"Echo? Echo? Echo?" the shadows replied.