Weekend Fiction: Jesus is in California
What is it about LSD that makes people believe they are Jesus Christ? There must be something about it that breaks down the final barrier of their ego there to remind them that they have not only thought about doing horrible things but that they had actually done them. In The Haight in ’67, I met a bunch of Jesus Christs. They would turn up out of nowhere, with disciples and revelations in tow, ready to lead whoever was inclined to follow to a redemption that was so clear the only sin left on you once you understood the truth was how you had been so blind to have not seen it before then.
There were so many Jesuses in California that I was sent to do a story on it. I had long hair at the time and this was reason enough for my editor to pick me for the assignment. He wanted me speak with the runaways turned gospels and find out what exactly convinced them that the Lord and Saviour had returned. They had collected on and around Haight Street, Ashbury, and gobbled up acid like it was running out. They were initially drawn there out of some sort of obligation to rebellion that I had never been able to get quite straight. They abandoned their colleges, their jobs and their parents because they seemed to actually believe the world could be made into a better place. At least that was the only answer you could get out of them. They were there to show the straight world that it was possible to live without Madison Avenue telling them what to do. They were united by their enunciation of this phrase. They’d pronounce Madison Avenue as though it was a slur and they’d say the rest like it didn’t make them sound dangerously naïve.
The more you asked about the second coming, the more reincarnated prophets you were pointed to. There were other religious figures who had apparently decided this was the time and the place to return to the mortal world. There were a few Mohammeds and a Krishna or two, but the most popular by far was Jesus Christ. It might have been a purely aesthetic thing. Most of these people were white, dressed in robes or rags and had long, unkempt hair that fell down to about level with their beards. Or it could be because they all had the well-spoken voices of WASP children and so had Jesus in their blood.
Most of the Jesuses said they were there to spread the peace and goodwill their predecessor had preached, and travelled The Haight with a covenant indistinguishable from a harem. There was a Jesus who lived in an old school bus with an all-women group of apostles, who refused to talk to me without the promise of a female offering. This was a popular Jesus it seemed, one who had a lot of fingers pointed at him when I asked for a top of the line prophet. To gain entry into the yellow school bus you had to either be a woman or have a woman to offer, one that would be willing to kneel in front of him. I was staying with a couple of friends at the time, both women, who had studied at Berkeley. I wondered for a moment how willing they would be to participate in a charade of sacrifice. I could call it a sociological experiment. But I thought better of it and moved on to the next Christ.
There was a Jesus who had met Paul McCartney and claimed the Beatle had baptised him as the one and only. This was enough for a lot of people, and for a long time I thought he was going to be the main subject of my article. The one true Jesus amongst a crowd of them, designated so because he knew all the words to She’s Leaving Home. He was a musician and when I first met him he was strumming on a guitar to a not unpleasant tune. His hair was longer than a lot of the other Jesuses and as he sat cross-legged on the floor, it spooled around him and mixed with the grass. People were drawn to him not so much because he had anything to say - when he spoke he was actually rather dull and seemed to enjoy telling the story of the time Paul McCartney said he had the makings of a Beatle much more than giving it any of the flourishes of interest (I would have changed it for John Lennon, if only for the accuracy of the biblical reference) - but because when he sang, he had the talent of making it sound like he was singing only to you. He would sing of love and how great love was, but unlike other singers, who when they spoke of love it seemed like that love was general or generic, when he was singing, even if he wasn’t looking at you, the love he spoke of seemed specifically for you. There was a small shake in his words, like he didn’t really want to admit the love he had written about in harmony. The men and women sat around him entranced and it was probably the first time I felt like I was a part of whatever movement they represented. His seemingly genuine love for me, balanced on the strings of his worn guitar, made me feel warm. I had no drugs in my system, despite the numerous samples I was offered, but there was something otherworldly about his singing voice that made me feel in one moment both a part of a larger oneness and of a singular importance.
I followed him around for a while, transcribing his songs when I could and interviewed his other followers. Apparently he realised he was the reincarnation of Jesus when he was introduced to the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His believers didn’t say he was on drugs, they said only that he had had an awakening and that this awakening took place after this Jesus was taught transcendental meditation by the guru and its ability to link the present self with its past selves. The acolytes who told me this story nearly broke into tears as they described their Jesus remembering his past life and having to relive the pain of nails being hammered into his palms. He had been other important figures in history too, apparently, including Alexander the Great, Robert the Bruce and, out of left field, Charles Dickens. He claimed he got the idea for A Christmas Carol because of some residual knowledge that when someone dies they never truly leave this realm.
It was this latter point that started me on my path of eventual betrayal. I was not only a devotee of Dickens and naturally defensive against anyone who claimed to be him without having the finger cramps that would have accompanied the writing of David Copperfield, but the idea that this person, or this soul, was so important that he not only got to be Jesus but a conquering general, a warrior rebel and a much loved writer was, to me, some combination of offensive and hypocritical. He would talk the usual talk of each and every person being born equal but would then go on about his being born again and again into a mould of heroism and privilege. He would do this with his usual aversion to embroidery but he would repeat the word destiny with too much relish. I didn’t want to write about him and add to an already bloated biography. Eventually I stopped pushing through the throng of worshippers each morning and returned to starting my day by asking an unwashed pot-smoker which way to the nearest Jesus Christ?
It was shortly after this that I met a girl. Her name was Sapphire, but she was born Elizabeth and although she wore jeans, cut her hair short and talked about love for everyone, she could not affect away her east-coast upbringing. She was one of the few around who had finished college and when I confessed that I was a journalist she was the first hippy I met who didn’t turn away from me with disgust. She admitted to me afterwards that I was right, that although she had been taught by The Haight to treat journalists as nothing but tools of the elitist media, she could not help but be drawn to someone with a job her parents would have probably been impressed by. She was honest to me about her distrust of free love too and that although she was initially willing, soon found that, much like communism, the benefits of such a system are easily corrupted by those that had driven you to such an extreme in the first place. Men ran free love. Sapphire was barred from many of the communes that were springing up around California because her definition of free love was mutual respect and appreciation and not simply on-demand fucking.
She pointed out a few lesser-known Jesuses in the area. There was one who lived exclusively on things he found in people’s garbage and one who supposedly lived underground. She had been intimate with a Jesus who now went by the name Billy Walsh. He was as much of a Jesus as the others; he preached, he forgave and he granted his followers access to other states of consciousness, but had given it all up suddenly one morning. Sapphire said that he had woken up, turned to her and said he couldn’t do it anymore. He told her that he loved her; that she was all he ever thought about and she was the only person he wanted to be with. She reciprocated, hugged him and went to kiss him but he stopped her. He said that he needed her to know that he hated drugs. He hated LSD, he hated marijuana and what’s more, he hated having long hair. He had spoken with his brother who lived in New York. He said that there was an insurance job going free at the company he worked at and did Billy want to go for it. Billy did want to go for it and was going to shave off his beard, cut his hair and buy a suit on his way back to New York. Sapphire said she didn’t want to go and that she wanted him to stay. She didn’t leave, but he didn’t stay.
She might have still loved him, but she never said. Maybe she wasn’t sure. When she was done telling me about him she went quiet for a moment and then started telling me about a Jesus who used to say that he talked to the weather and used it as an excuse to belittle people by saying not only did he think they were wrong but the wind and rain thought so too. We started to wander away from The Haight, making trips into San Francisco proper and hanging out with some friends of mine there. They were acid heads too, and together they convinced me to join them in their trips. I remember the first time I did it they pulled out what looked like a sugar cube and Sapphire cut it in half delicately with a knife. She handed one half to me and kept the other for herself, touching it to her bottom lip as she waited for me to go first.
It was not unlike Jesus’s song. I felt the same feeling of love that I had felt then. It was not so much that colour bent and moved irrespective of any responsibility I might have wanted to enforce on it or that sound and feeling became interchangeable, it was just that everything seemed suddenly a lot simpler. It was then I realised I was in love with Sapphire (it seemed important to acknowledge at the time that this did not necessarily mean I was in love with Elizabeth) and while we sat around commenting on how very easy it was to love, that without the emotional and psychological strain of financial and material loyalties it was just so goddam easy how was it that no one else could see it, I realised too that the way she sometimes looked at me, as though she had not quite understood what I had said to her before she had given me the look, was not just incomprehension, but was also love. We slept with each other that night, taking more acid before and after, and would do so again and again for the next few weeks until we slipped into a more comfortable routine of simple drug taking.
My editor started to worry about me during this time. The Jesus story was an interest piece - part novelty, part scare mongering - and he didn’t like to see me spending so much of my time on it. I had other stories I was meant to be following. I had promised him an article on the decline of the movie industry and a short profile of Robert Kennedy. The deadlines for these had long passed (the Kennedy story turned out to have a particularly abrupt expiry date) and I didn’t give much of a damn about either anymore. It had all became detritus to me, sounds of distractions meant to pull me away from my true calling: to love unsparingly and without end.
Sapphire and I started a small commune of people based upon this idea. We worked out of an abandoned home, insisting to all that would hear us that we would take in anyone in need of shelter, food or love. The roof leaked, the food was recycled from anything we could find and the love was difficult to share. The homeless runaways we took in were quick to jealousy and anger. When they couldn’t be subdued with drugs we made them go out and search for food and no matter how often we said otherwise, they accused us of favouritism towards the smarter, prettier or well-washed members of the house who didn’t have to rummage through the trash.
The LSD trips continued, but Sapphire and I conducted them in a more regimental fashion. The drug was becoming more difficult to come by as money and food grew scarce and it was not uncommon for Sapphire to spend slightly longer than I expected when she went out to negotiate for cheaper drugs. We limited them to once a night and it was not uncommon for the look in someone’s eye to suddenly straighten mid-way through a love-in. It was becoming difficult to keep the idea of love being everywhere and in everything alive. The youngest and the oldest of our group started to leave by way of a shower and a haircut. One young boy sat at the top of the stairs crying before he left, hit by a wave of regret as he realised he had not only left his college and his girlfriend but had told his parents they didn’t know better than him and that consequently he did not want to see them again.
Heroin helped the commune, but was ultimately its demise. Sapphire came back with it one night after apparently being convinced by Bo, the biker we bought our acid from, that he had run out of LSD but was swimming in heroin. It was as reliable as any hammer. It knocked doubt out of a hippy’s head better than any song or poem and quenched the pain that an outbreak of venereal disease had brought onto many of the members. You would lose days to the wonder of the universe, to its warm embrace. But it took from us the house and moved us back onto The Haight and into the swarm of Jesus Christs that still lingered there.
Sapphire left not long after. I had heard of people dying on The Haight, but never really believed it. Despite the sex and drug taking, the idea that someone could die in this crowd of love-toting idiots was nearly incomprehensible, as taboo as imagining a child dying at day-care. A young girl, a militant lover under our supervision, had died in the night. She had choked on her own vomit in what we soon discovered was the normal mode of exit for heroin users. Sapphire and I tried to find a legit Jesus again, banging on van doors and pushing open tents to try and find a man with a beard and a genuine ability to bring people back from the dead. In the end it was only Bo who offered any sort of help. He had been hanging around the group more regularly, aware that our drug use was a central proverb of our order and recognised its financial viability. I was never sure if he had given the girl an extra shot or if she had simply been unlucky, but as he and a friend larger and uglier than any other biker I had ever seen in California took her body away, I was never more grateful to another human being.
We continued for a little while after but our hearts weren’t in it anymore. When we talked of love and its importance in every human endeavour it felt too much like I was using the same muscles I worked for lying. Sapphire knew we were no longer in love and when I walked in one morning after managing to convince a diner girl I was an actor and she gave me free bacon and eggs, I saw that she had traded in her nicest smock for a pair of smart boots and an interview-ready dress.
I lived rough on Haight Street. There were connections I still had to my former life. My editor, my friends who still lived in San Francisco and the women I used to stay with, but there was a chasm of misunderstanding between us. I gave up on the love stuff and instead roamed around Ashbury with Bo, assisting him as both distributor and customer. Bo did not believe he was the Lamb of God but he let people think he was for a while. He was large, muscular and walked around The Haight like he owned the place and his natural authority often led to people referring to him as saintly. There were other dealers; bigger and wider spread, who included bikers, gangsters and Jesus Christs, but he was not ambitious enough to take on the task of actually becoming who they assumed him to be. “I don’t like people to rely on me too much. It’s against my creed and all that,” he said to me once.
Seeing The Haight from this direction convinced me of my initial suspicions. Bo’s strongest contacts wore thick beards and preached fatherly devotion. My cynicism was strengthened not only from my experiences with the love movement but by seeing a man who called himself Jesus Christ help inject a fourteen year old girl with heroin. He had his hand on her back, patting and rubbing it as though she were a baby at her mother’s breast and when the girl fell to the floor he continued to rub her. I mean, I was full to the gills with the brown stuff too and had recommended it to others much younger than myself, but I never called myself Jesus Christ.
I was with Bo when it first happened. I had become a familiar face in The Haight and had been able to infiltrate a group of people without anyone turning a head to question my credentials. The best journalists don’t realise they are journalists, it turns out. My long hair had grown longer and I was forced to keep it in a bun so that it stayed out of my eyes. It was itchy and I assumed filled with lice (whenever you walked passed a crouched or meditating hippy you could see the small beads of lice in their scalp) but it was the same brown as the picture of Jesus my auntie kept on her mantle. Bo didn’t usually accompany me on these trips, I had proven myself loyal and smarter than the usual addict but he was sober and bored and said he wanted a walk. I remember him being there because I remember his laugh when a kid asked me: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Bo had an effect on me. I wanted to impress him. It was why I had volunteered to deal for him after Sapphire left. So instead of telling the kid to keep walking I tried to conjure his deep laugh again. “Because God has abandoned us,” I said.
Bo didn’t laugh, or if he did I didn’t hear it under the gasps of the hippies around us. The kid was nearly in tears. He was probably sixteen but the look in his eyes betrayed what he must have looked like at ten or nine.
“What… What do you mean? We do not abandon those we love,” he said.
I snapped out of whatever stupor I had been in before. I was reminded of Sapphire. “We do if those we love have disappointed us.”
There was another sound from the circle, this time more in tune with a ‘whoa’.
The kid seemed to take this as an act of confidence and with more urgency asked what it was we could do to get God to return.
I thought about it for a moment and knew that my face looked as they had all expected it to - like I was receiving the answer not from the wisdom of my thoughts but from a heavenly intervention. I didn’t know if they missed their parents, their teachers or their bosses but they all looked up to me with a ready expression. They believed me before I had even said anything. I wasn’t sure if they wanted me to validate what they were doing or offer a hint as to what they should do next. I thought about my time there and the chill in my bones that was the first sign my body gave me that I would need more heroin soon. I could already picture myself, as soon as I could get away from these people, slumped in the corner of Bo’s trailer, back in the embrace it always promised me. I still didn’t consider myself one of them, despite how I looked and the things I had done. I still knew I was somehow better than them, I just couldn’t quite remember why it was. It was something to do with the legacy of this thing, this whole conglomerate of Jesuses. Would what I say to them change the course of history? Would it turn them all into devotees of social justice and reformation or would it all be wiped away by the next shipment of drugs Bo produced from the hidden compartment on his Harley or by the next person they recognised as the son of God? What of what I said to this kid would survive this time of miracles? In the end I did what I had not done in a long time without the inducement of hallucinogenic drugs - I told the truth. I let the wise look on my face pass and said to the kid: “I… I don’t know.”
Mark Daniel Taylor is a writer from London. He is currently peddling his novel, The Whether or not Man, to perspective agents and anyone who stands still for too long
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