It was early spring, buds of green leaves sprouting from trees that had been nothing but bark for three months. Gray snow had not yet melted in the shadows of Angel Alley where I lived in my apartment that was built into the basement of a large house, the foundation of which was set into a hill, so that I literally lived halfway underground, like something out of a fairytale.
This day off from work, with no classes, after a couple cups of coffee I sat at my desk and turned on the computer. This was fourteen years ago, and as a much younger person and writer I had these romantic notions tied to the Beats, all of whom I was far too enamored with. This, I don’t think, is uncommon for young, male, writer-wannabes. I kept a bottle of Jack Daniels in that desk drawer and I pulled on it as my crappy lines of poetry came out and hardly ever got revised. You know, ‘first thought best thought’ B.S. When I found the little folded patch of tinfoil in the slot built to house pens and pencils, I remembered the three hits of acid I’d stored there and had one of those why not? moments before the tabs found my tongue.
Since I was young, I was also easily distracted, so when my friend Chris, who also lived in the alley, called to see if I wanted to have breakfast I left the computer and my bad poems and met him in his Nissan pickup and we drove to Jack’s Coffee Shop on Victorian Avenue in Sparks. This place was a cliché of a greasy spoon, complete with avocado vinyl booths and stained glass lamp shades covering the bulbs that hung overhead. We sawed chicken fried steaks smothered in white country sausage gravy into chewable cubes, along with over-easy eggs and hash browns, and I was just starting to feel the acid in my stomach, that nausea of anticipation that comes with hallucinogens. I’d neglected to say anything to Chris about the fact that I’d taken it, and decided I would not, even when he called me a pussy for not finishing my breakfast.
Chris was a friend I’d met in the dorms at the University of Nevada, and when we were freshmen he dyed his blonde hair black and dusted his eyes with mascara and painted his fingernails black too, and he listened to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I had just entered college and had come to the realization that in college — unlike in high school — no one cared what you looked like or how you acted or what music you listened to. That is, it didn’t matter to anyone but to the frat boys who were technically in college but were intellectually and emotionally still fifteen. One day I will deal with the fact that I myself was in a fraternity, and I’ll talk about how I am full of contradictions, but right now I have to focus on the fact that Chris was my friend, even if frat boys might have thought he was weird. Chris liked to talk, and in his Nissan or my Dodge he and I would drive around McCarran Boulevard, a road that circles Reno and Sparks like an enormous NASCAR track with traffic lights, and that’s what we did: talk. That and we went through packs of Camel cigarettes. Chris was one of my few friends who, although he knew that everyone called me Jamie, insisted on calling me by my birth certificate name of James. And this was among the things that I loved about him.
On this morning, after our breakfast, Chris asked what I had to do that day and when I said nothing we made a revolution on McCarran, and we talked about literature and existentialism, for we were taking those classes at that time, together. And, speaking of nausea, that’s one of the things we talked about: Jean Paul Sartre’s novel titled this unsettling physical experience one often feels at the onset of an acid trip. We talked about Roquentin’s fascination with his hands and with his pipe, when his nausea sets in.
At the time, I didn’t understand the damn book — and I didn’t understand existentialism (which only now do I realize is kind of the point) — even though our philosophy professor, Dr. Piotr Hoffman would call on us to answer his questions and referred to us where we sat together in those stadium seats as “the two philosophers.”
Chris explained that what this moment, the onset of the nausea, represented in the case of the pipe was the realization of the artificiality of boundaries, that a pipe is a pipe and a hand is a hand only because those boundaries or distinctions are human, and this is, thus — in some ways — false. By this time we were sloping off the base of Mount Rose, near where McCarran Blvd intersects with Skyline, and the road’s lines coming toward us seemed to enter Chris’s Nissan’s cab and go through my eyeballs and my head and exit out of me and the truck’s cab, like the neutrinos that I was then not aware of passing through us and everything, though without being seen at all.
I don’t know how many laps Chris and I made around McCarran that day. We passed The Men’s Warehouse, where I worked selling suits when I wasn’t taking classes. We passed Rattlesnake Mountain where, on occasion, I would decide I needed to exercise and I’d jog up this sagebrush-covered hill and watch the 727s land at the airport. We crossed over the Truckee River where it winds into a ravine and makes a northward curve for the desert and where it drains into Pyramid Lake, from whence all of Lake Tahoe’s water evaporates. Eventually, we hung a right onto Plumb Lane and drove into the Old Southwest and meandered the neighborhood, looking at the 1940s bungalows. Still we kept talking.
By day’s end we had — of course — figured everything in the world out, as young men — boys, really, just 21 years only think they’re capable of doing, and we stopped at 7-11 for a twelve pack of Red Dog. This awful beer was like $6.49 for twelve bottles and under each cap there read something like “Born to be beautiful,” and next to this an illustration of a bulldog’s ugly mug, and Chris would twist these caps off and read whatever it said underneath, then yell, “Red Dog!” and take a powerful first swig. At this time Chris was a writer, too, and he read lots — would talk about Milan Kundera and Richard Ford and Garcia Marquez — and he wrote short stories. Later he would fall in love with Spanish, and would live a year in Bilbao, Spain, perfecting that language, a language in which he’d earn a Master’s degree.
As we drove into the empty sage-covered hills on Mount Rose’s flank, above the old neighborhood around Lakeshore Drive, we were talking about writing, about what it means to try to put fake people in a fake world that you mean to sound like the real world into words — the world Chris and I had driven through and parked upon, on a scrim of snow and ice and rabbitbrush, in a development still under construction though work had ceased for the winter and had not yet begun again. The skeletons of future houses stood like crosses on an execution hill, upon their concrete foundations. Meantime the sun made its way down the Sierra to the west. And we watched this sunset go yellow to orange to pink to purple and I said, “A work of art takes more than seven seconds.” Chris was drinking his beer and he pulled the bottle away and looked at me. He said, “Goddamn, James.” And he thought that what I’d said was profound, that I’d uttered the greatest truth that either of us had uttered all day.
But I said, “I don’t know, man. I’m just talking out my ass.”
I still think neither of us knew what we were talking about because we were just kids — very impressionistic and dumb white kids privileged with a college education — and we were learning about friendship and the world and who we were and who we would become. After an eight-year absence in my life, Chris is my friend again, though we’re separated by almost 3,000 miles, so we cannot cruise McCarran and talk the way we used to. But if there’s time we’ll talk on the phone. Though there’s never enough time. I’m a dad, a college professor. I’ve gotten fatter. Perhaps, for my health and for the sake of time I would otherwise spend with my daughter, it’s a good thing that I cannot make laps around Reno smoking Camel cigarettes and drinking Red Dog. But fourteen years ago I was still learning, and of the things I learned that day, here is the one thing, beside the value of that friendship, that’s important: maybe what I said was profound — even if it was kind of lame. I’d set out that morning to write, and did not accomplish even this meager task because I took acid and went to breakfast and talked with my friend for hours. I did not write that day or week or year. But fourteen years later, here I am, and maybe I’m finishing what I wanted to write that morning, but I didn’t know that this was what I was supposed to write in the first place.