My name is Professor Todd Angstrom. My most enduring friend has been James C Cartoon, an abstract painter and electrician originally from Washington DC. We met through LaSalle University in my hometown, Newton IN in the summer of 1969. James would, in the coming decades, spend over 7 years in federal penitentiaries for victimless crimes related to marijuana and cocaine.
But our pasts had overlapped even before I met him. He and his wife Laura, a beautiful American Indian woman from New England, lived in what was known as the Pink Pad, catty-cornered from the old LaSalle High School that my parents had graduated from in 1943, but which I attended in Junior High, after the new high school was built. While I was finishing ninth grade in this old redbrick schoolhouse, James and Laura lived in the Pink Pad. My maternal grandmother owned the house, and rented it to James. I recall Cartoon being intermittently mentioned, suspiciously, by my grandmother in the years 1965-1968. She was suspicious because he was Bohemian and a painter. But he paid his rent and made no demands, so she viewed him as an acceptable renter. His was not a name that played an important role in my high school days—I only retrospectively called up these memories after he and I met, when he offered me the Mystery Tab, and I accepted.
Here is how it happened. I had left Sewanee (University of the South), where I was a college freshman, shortly after mid-term examinations in early November 1968. After 2 months of hitchhiking, I returned to Newton, and entered LaSalle University for the spring semester, January 1969. I took Introduction to Philosophy (Professor Cal Potts), English (Mrs. Strupple), and Old Testament (Professor James Eigenstadt) and managed As or Bs in all courses. However, I had initiated the use of LSD that semester, and was a strong and frequent advocate of its use. I had been living with my parents that semester, but needed to get away from them, so they suggested that I rent, with friends, my grandmother’s Pink Pad. Benson Broker, a LaSalle student, had just graduated, and the house was available. I would subsequently hear much of Benson—he was a good friend of James’s, a writer. Decades later I would read a Benson Broker book, and, eventually meet him, in 2009.
I quickly coalesced a suitable group of fellow LaSalle students to share rent, and we all moved in summer 1969. My fellow partners included: Snidley Ricklash, a close friend and fellow LSD tripper; Badger, an alcoholic upper class white guy, fraternity sort, but with a gifted social nature and interesting friends; The Smeller, a strange cat that would look at food in the LaSalle cafeteria with his nose before he ate; and Paul Crashman, a dumpy little nerdy fellow with drug culture sympathies—definitely not fraternity material. Snidley and I had a job as laborers in Plainford IN and would be picked up for the 40-mile ride 5 mornings a week by two redneck Hoosier carpenters, Billy Mitchell and Bud Harney. We were paid well as laborers, over $4/hr, which is equivalent to $32/hr in 2013 dollars. We often would go to work after having stayed up all night tripping on acid. I once fell asleep taking a dump in a restroom at work, waking up in a dark, locked building.
One weekend Badger suggested that we visit James Cartoon, whom he described as a very interesting, intelligent artist that he thought Snidley and I would really like. As usual, we had Paul Crashman accompany us—he owned the wheels, a grey older model Volkswagen bug. Snidley and me piled in the back, Paul drove, and Badger was shotgun. James and Laura lived with Dan Claphand, another marginalized recent LaSalle graduate, outside of Springton IN, a hick farm town of a few hundred people. They rented a small wood framed single story farmhouse that was isolated, surrounded by forests and farmland. The concept that James, Laura and Clappy had devised combined the best concepts of communal living, Bohemia, and dropping out of society. James would intensify his dedication to painting his enormous brightly colored oil canvases, and Laura and Clappy would do whatever necessary to pay the rent and keep food on the table. James was very serious about painting, and this would turn out to be one of the most productive segments of his career. I would soon see, for the first time, his work.
It was late afternoon in June 1969, the skies were clear, the sun bright, and, mercifully, the humidity was not a factor—a beautiful early summer day. After traveling single lane country roads, some unpaved, for over half an hour, Badger spotted the house, Paul pulled in the drive, and we emerged from the VW. The porch had hand-made mobiles and wind chimes and colorful fabrics laid over cushions on the swing. It looked like the home of an artist, I thought. The fragrance of jasmine filled the air, and I heard The Beetles “Here Comes the Sun” emerging from an open window at a low, volume, barely audible. I felt as though I was on an exciting field trip, never having been exposed to true Bohemians, free thinkers, and artist-philosophers. I was nervous, and somewhat embarrassed regarding my modest background—just a townie, really, with no particular gifts.
“You are really going to like James, and he is going to like you” Badger assured me as we walked up the wooden steps to the porch and knocked.
The trip was completely unannounced. James had no telephone, and 1969 was almost 20 years to soon for cell phones and email.
“Oh my God, Laura and Clappy, we have guests!” James announced, loudly, and with thinly veiled disdain. “Oh look, it’s the Badger”, he added, as he gave Badger a reserved hug.
I surveyed the front room, dining room and kitchen surreptitiously while introductions were made. Laura and Clappy had been preparing dinner. Now four visitors descend upon them, no wonder they were unenthused. The visuals within the house were amazing. Vibrant rich colors everywhere—the fabrics, the furniture, and small and large oil and acrylic paintings everywhere. There were three large canvases, easily 5 x 7 feet that, like ramrods, arresting me in my tracks, wonking me on the head due to their brilliant color and otherworldly abstract shapes. Holy shit, I was in the presence of genius. I had to assume that these dominating canvases were James’s creations. Cartoon noted my fascination and quietly intense regard for his work. I was too stunned to say anything, and worried that what I might say would sound vapid, surrounded by worldly cultured people as I was. I kept my mouth shut.
By now Cartoon had recovered from the drop-by, and had become a gracious and generous host. Wine was distributed (I think we had the sense to bring a gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy), and a joint was fired up. James began to display what I would later recognize as his signature trait—the perfect host and conversationalist, mindful of everyone in the room, almost as though he were holding court. His attention and generosity were mesmerizing and comforting. I soon lost some of my self-consciousness and shame regarding my humble origins. James led the conversation into a type of probative discourse on the philosophy of living, and the nature of what was happening politically. Nixon had just started his first term, having defeated Humphrey less than a year before, in a close election. The Democratic National Convention was fresh on our minds, and Vietnam was raging. But James’s inquiries were more ephemeral and philosophical, gentler, and far more entertaining than typical political discourse. There was no anger in him. It seemed to have been replaced by a child-like clarity and fascination with the phenomenological. By this point, just 30 or 45 minutes into the visit, Cartoon owned me: his empathic style, his incredible paintings, his perfectly decorated home, and the command he had on the room, were not just impressive, but suggested to me that he had mastered the art of living.
Conversation turned to a touchy subject. Was the public’s acceptance or interest in works of art a sensible or valid metric to assess its merit? I think it had been proposed by Badger and embraced by Paul.
“That’s complete bullshit”, I said. “What possible difference can it make what anyone thinks?”
Badger disregarded what I said, as though my sentiments were naïve or uniformed, and began on a diatribe explaining why my position was indefensible.
James interrupted Badger mid-sentence, retorting: “ Badger, I have to agree with Todd. He’s right. In fact, so far, Todd is the only one saying anything interesting.”
Wow, that was brutal, I thought, pleased. Badger looked my way, face red, but giving me a knowing smile as though to say: “see, I knew that you two would get off on each other.”
From that point forward James and I would have increasing numbers of one-on-one exchanges, and I became progressively less concerned about my lack of pedigree humble, and delighted that my positions appeared to enliven Cartoon, more so than anyone else in the room.
James said, “Laura, where are those Mystery Tabs that Milt gave us?”
“James, no, really?”
“ Yes, I thought Todd might be interested.”
James offered me one of the tablets, confirming again that, although he suspected that they were a hallucinogen, he had been given no additional information, and no one had yet taken one.
Having been presented with the challenge, I was warming to the idea. The dope and wine, and James’s manipulative influence were at play. This confluence of factors, combined with my deep support of hallucinogens, had triggered my tripwire. James read my receptive vibe.
“Laura, give Todd a Mystery Tab, I think he wants to drop. Am I right, Todd?”
I concurred, and down went the pill, bam. I think Badger joined me, but within 30 minutes I would enter a landscape so alien that it would expunge from memory the pre-drop events.
The subsequent memories all were of the drive back to Newton in the VW, along Indiana country roads. The deciduous trees and forests along the roads were crawling with non-human primates. I would say apes or monkeys, but that would be inaccurate. True, they had fur and long limbs and were arboreal masters, moving gracefully and efficiently, with acceleration when needed, through the trees. But they were not recognizable as species — they were not, for example, spider monkeys, and their dedication and mobility in the treetops made them less likely a species of great ape. Their anatomy was, indeed, midway between a human and a spider monkey—not quite so lean as a spider, and with much more humanlike facies. There were, undoubtedly, thousands of these primates, filling the trees on both sides of the road, endlessly, for many miles. My reaction to this human-monkey menagerie was one of emotionless mild apprehension within a context of detached interest—fascination would be too strong a term. The verisimilitude was complete; there was no doubt that these animals were real.
We stopped the car at least twice to pick up hitchhikers, who were somehow easily accommodated in the back seat, between Snidley and me. At least one was a high school friend, and he and I had a long, involved conversation that lasted most of the way back. The second hitchhiker stayed until the end of the drive, and entered the Pink Pad with us when we arrived, where we continued to talk until I went to sleep, which must have been well after midnight.
When I awoke Sunday morning, I immediately looked around for my hitchhiking friend, who had stayed the night with us. I could not find him. I began to ask Snidley where he was. However, as my sensorium cleared, I suddenly entertained the possibility that this person, in fact, had never been present. I asked Snidley if we had picked up any hitchhikers.
He said, amused, “ No, Toddster, no hitchhikers.”
I persisted, “But with whom was I having that prolonged conversation—who spent the night with us?” I had looked in every bedroom in the Pink Pad and not found him.
“Toddster, I think you may have been hallucinating on the Mystery Tab”, Snidley said.
“Snidley, there were no monkeys, no hitchhikers, no conversations with my old friends?” I asked.
The interactions and hallucinations had been vivid and real—with none of the psychedelic quality that hallucinations from acid possessed. It was incredulous that these visions—indeed these entire social situations—had been generated by the interaction of molecules of the Mystery Tab with my brain. It seemed, in retrospect, an enormous risk to have taken this plunge, and I can only imagine that my intellect had been dulled by marijuana, wine, and the ridiculousness of wanting to accept Cartoon’s challenge, to prove that I resided in the skinny part of the bell-shaped curve.
Analysis of imagery, and my detached emotionless reaction to the visual and social hallucinations, suggested to me that the Mystery Tab was a hypnotic. I suspect that the drug included belladonna, but I am uncertain whether belladonna alone would evoke such detailed realistic hallucinations. Moreover, I had no memory of having experienced the typical side effects of belladonna.
I am overwhelmed now with the inappropriateness of my behavior, and with the knowledge that, had my daughters revealed to me similar activities in their teen-age years, I would have been incensed.
However, this episode was, in many ways, a signature event, heralding a wonderful friendship between James Cartoon and me. No doubt that, in some essential manner, we had fallen for each other. All of the events that transpired were, in retrospect, classic and emblematic of our friendship in direct and subliminal ways. Besides, it makes a great story, and a wonderful answer to the question:
“So, Todd, how did you and James meet?”