The Magic Mushroom Ride of My Life

Magic mushrooms talk to you. The tan and orange fungus with a stem and cap is like a leprechaun, and when swallowed it spends the next few hours – sometimes days – fucking with your head by telling you things about yourself, your life, the world, the universe, like:

You are a spiritual being having a physical experience.

The world is your classroom.

Humans are not alone in the universe.

mushrooms
Magic Mushrooms, fresh

That is a sampling of what the mushrooms said to me on a night when I rode the magic carpet of psychedelic experience. It made me aware of myself and my environment in ways I’d never known. It spoke and I listened, and it made predictions that came true. Then all hell broke loose and the experience turned sinister. First, to set the scene.

My friend Matt lived in an apartment with a crack house on one side and a heroin den on the other, on a side street close to Bogart’s music hall in the Corryville neighborhood of Cincinnati, a seething mix of university students, urban high school kids, low-income locals, visitors, homeless, opportunists and criminals. A lot of bad shit went down in that neighborhood, and Matt lived in the middle of it. The craziness didn’t usually bother us. We were used to it.

The night we took the mushrooms at his place, the gore-and-screams band GWAR was playing at Bogarts. And, as they say, the freaks were out. Our friend Steve joined us. It looked like we had a normal night of listening to music and hanging out ahead of us, except, of course, we were eating magic mushrooms. Matt at first didn’t want to trip with us, but we badgered him, and like the good friend and addict he was, he ate half a cap to make us shut up.

Bad idea. Never pressure anyone into taking psychedelics. It’s asking for trouble.

Matt’s living room had a couch, portable radio, a table or two, guitar gear, some junk, and not much else except his dog, a black lab mix named Rufus. We listened to music and talked as the ‘shrooms kicked in. At first your body tingles and you feel electric but chill. The fun stuff in the mushroom, called psilocybin, travels from the stomach to the bloodstream and throughout the body, and everything that had been gray is touched with color. Senses sharpen. Perceptions deepen. Body relaxes. Then the psilocybin settles into the brain, and the conversation with the leprechaun begins.

That night it manifested as something trying to get my attention. Matt and Steve were engaged in a heated conversation, as they were liable to do, both strong-willed and stubborn. If they disagreed about something they could go on for hours about it. At some point I tuned out and just enjoyed the exhilaration of the drug. That’s when I noticed Rufus.

Something is up with the dog, said the leprechaun. I noticed Rufus acting sort of like he wanted to go out to crap in the yard, but more excited and even confused. I wondered if he was picking up strange vibes off the three humans juicing their brains, but there was nothing out of the ordinary going on, nothing to set him off like that. We were listening to an LA Guns CD, Vicious Circle, for the first time, and I heard undertones in the music that affected me deeply. But Rufus was used to hard rock and people doing drugs,

Then reality decided to take a high dive from an orbiting space shuttle. Rufus started frantically running circles around us in the living room. We were on the floor. I was laying on my back. Steve and Matt were going on about something. Rufus ran circles counterclockwise. He flew over the couch, the chairs, the junk. He sprang off a chair and did an impossible somersault in the air.

Did I really see that, I asked myself. Did Rufus just do a flip with a twist like a gymnast and bounce hard off the carpet, fly up and continue running in circles?

I looked at Steve and Matt like, didn’t you see that? But they were oblivious, and somehow I knew it was supposed to be that way. When Rufus took another flying leap and they didn’t notice, we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Welcome to Mushroomville, the land of oompa loompas and leprechauns and all sorts of magical stuff.

I’ve known people who hallucinated whole scenes while tripping on LSD or mushrooms, but for me the effects had more to do with color, sound, sense of time, and opening connections inside myself. Never had I hallucinated something like a dog flipping out. What I saw was real. If someone completely sober was in the room, they would have seen Rufus doing flips, two humans paying no attention, and one human (me) with eyes as wide and bright as cream pies.

The mushroom, compared to other hallucinogens, is more of an internal trip. It talks to you about how you see yourself and the world, about what you do and why, about where you have come from in your life and where you are going, about what you believe. Done in a controlled setting it can be therapeutic, but in an uncontrolled setting it can be a bad trip. The mushroom opened me to really feel what was going on around me. Steve, an experienced tripper, was having a ball, while Matt, even though he ate a fraction of the amount of mushroom that Steve and I ate, was trippin’ hard. That fungus was potent. Something strange was in the air from the beginning, and I sensed it before the dog freaked out.

Earlier in the night as the ‘shrooms kicked in, we had the radio on and were talking. Steve and I had a sense for each other like complete opposites do. Enhanced by the mushroom it was as if we were reading each others thoughts. There came a pause in our conversation, and the leprechaun in my head said, “Steve is going to suggest to change the radio station, and you should tell him to turn it to your favorite station. He will then say, “Why were we listening to that crap, anyway?””

A moment later it happened exactly as predicted, down to the exact words. It is one of many instances that night and others when I heard in my head exactly what was about to be said or done, and is why I say that the mushroom talks to you. Because it does. What it told me about why Rufus flipped out is going to sound like some crazy shit, so be ready. To this day I’m not sure what exactly happened, but in later events I had some confirmation of the way I interpreted it. I’ll get to that.

Matt finally noticed Rufus but reacted like it was nothing. However, I felt something in the walls and under the soles of my feet, something deeply wrong. Something very dark. We went out on the porch to change the scenery, and the feeling only increased as I watched people going by, especially the freaks going to the GWAR show. Bad vibes, bad neighborhood.

Then it struck me: something was wrong about the big house converted to apartments where Matt lived. It felt sinister. I didn’t know at the time that the neighbors were crackheads and heroin junkies – found that out later. Besides, they were nowhere in sight. The wrong I felt was like the feeling of being watched from the shadows by a killer.

The mushroom said, “The presence you feel is attacking the dog: Demonic possession.”

Told you it would sound like some crazy shit. A dog possessed? Yup, sounds crazy to me too, but the mushroom had been right about other things that night. I am open-minded about the mysteries of life, so I can accept altered reality. And from scripture I know that animals can be possessed by spirits, remembering the story about Jesus allowing the legion of demons to possess a herd of pigs after he exorcised them from a possessed man. If you had been there and seen Rufus the dog, you would agree that something was up with him. I’d known that dog for years and never seen him act like he did that night. Then for Matt and Steve to not notice was too strange.

So what do you do when your brain is soaked in psilocybin and a voice that feels like it is being beamed into your head tells you that a dog is possessed? Well, naturally, you perform an exorcism!

As soon as the thought crossed my mind, potent energy filled my body. I have been in churches when entire congregations were “possessed by the Holy Spirit.” It is unmistakable. I think people can work themselves into such a state that they make shit happen that is far outside the boundaries of “normal.” What it felt like to me was God decided to enter Matt’s apartment and do battle against the demonic presence, using me as a proxy. That is the best way I can explain what happened next.

Feeling myself filled with righteous fire, I tracked down Rufus inside the apartment and laid a hand on top of his head. I reached my other hand toward the sky and called down the Holy Spirit. With the most powerful voice that has ever come out of my mouth, I rebuked the demon. I was told later that I could be heard a block away over the street noise, and that people stopped dead in their tracks at the sound.

Steve and Matt had done for a walk this was happening. It felt like an hour passed before they came back, but I bet it was less than 15 minutes. I rebuked the demon over and over. I quoted scripture with a voice that sounded like rolling thunder. The dog’s eyes fluttered back, showing only whites. His tongue rolled loosely in his mouth. My hand stayed attached to his head as if stuck by magnetism.

Then it was over. Rufus returned to normal. I felt everything around me with incredible distinction and clarity. Before Steve and Matt walked back into the apartment, I sensed them coming. Before seeing the people gathered outside drawn by the sound of my voice, I knew they were. Most of them were confused, some had an inkling of what just happened, and a few under the influence of darkness were pissed off. How dare I!

At that moment I understood how Jesus felt when he saw the masses of the sick, diseased, infected, and waded into them, his voice crackling, his hands feeling like they’re engulfed in flames, his mind filled with the most powerful light, his eyes seeing everything as it really is. A revelation came to me:

Life is not a game!

Life is not a game!

Life is not a game!

That message was personal. At the time, I treated life like a game. It worked pretty well for me to that point because I was good at games, but when confronted by supernatural reality, that approach suddenly appeared childish, dangerous. In a sense, that night I was initiated into a deeper understanding of why I am alive and having this experience of being a spiritual being in a human body.

Beneath our reality is a template for a perfect universe. Align yourself with it and you too can make things right. You can heal. You can perform what are called miracles, which are not really “miracles” but more like a curtain parting. In order to face what is behind it, you can’t treat life like a game. There is a combination of levity and humor involved. You can’t take yourself too seriously, but you can’t be a fucking joker either. If you go about using your mind to channel perfection into this reality, this dimension, you will butt up against forces that oppose you, and they aren’t here for the laughs. If they can’t stop you by other means, they will try to destroy you, either by driving you insane or setting people and events against you.

I’m open to the idea that everything I experienced was a hallucination. The mind can manifest anything it believes, including a dog doing double flips with a twist. If you haven’t tried magic mushrooms, you night think I hallucinated it – I would think that if someone told me a story like I’m telling you. But I was there and tell you I have never been so lucid and aware in my life. Plus, a month or two later, my friend Matt met the evil presence and had his own battle with it.

What I didn’t know at the time was Matt had started using crack cocaine. He’s a good ‘ol country boy, a hard drinker, smokes two packs of Marlboros a day, but he didn’t seem like a candidate for crack addict because the drug wasn’t part of his culture. Then his work tools and material possessions started disappearing, and I wouldn’t see him for stretches of time, sometimes weeks. I should have known what was up.

One day, very agitated, he showed up unannounced at my apartment. I took my time calming him down before trying to get him to tell me what had set him off, and had to drag it out of him. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told,” he kept saying.

“Try me,” I said. “You know I’ve been through some weird shit.”

So then he tells me that he had just been at home and decided to buy crack with the $20 his grandma had given him for Christmas. His grandpa had recently passed away, and Matt felt guilty (even before getting hooked on rock) about not living up to the old man’s expectations of his grandchildren. He had battled with himself over spending the money the way his grandparents would want on food and necessities, or spending it on what he really wanted. You know which side won the argument.

So he goes looking for the $20-dollar bill in the Christmas card and can’t find it – no surprise, considering the state of his apartment. So like a good crackhead he obsessively tears the place apart searching for it, and instead keeps running across a picture of his recently-deceased grandpa. It didn’t just happen a few times, but over and over and over and over and over. Same picture. He said he would open a drawer in the living room and there it would be, then go look in the kitchen and there it would be, then go look in the bathroom and there it would be.

Even after my mushroom experience at his place, I thought maybe Matt had been unconsciously carrying the picture around, or looking time and again in the same place and forgetting that’s where he’d just seen the picture – knowing him, it wouldn’t surprise me. But what he said next turned me cold inside.

He had gone to the basement where he kept his tools and handyman supplies (he was the maintenance man for that building and several others), frantically searching for the lost money, and found it down there. The basement was right below his apartment, where I sensed something emanating from during the night of my mushroom experience. The money, he said, flew out his hand as if ripped away. Then he felt two presences in the room, God and Satan, fighting for his soul. When it was over, the money lay on the cold concrete floor. He grabbed it and drove over to my place.

I know that people can manifest things in their lives to overcome. They can create battles for their souls. Addicts’ lives are full of drama, and hallucinations even when stone-cold sober are known to happen. In a related way, shamans sometimes discover their abilities out of need because something ails them and conventional treatment doesn’t work. I know someone who became a shaman because the other choice was a short life of physical misery. In a similar way, addicts set up experiences that make them want to get better, sometimes very perilous experiences that bring them close to death. But I did not detect anything in Matt that would lead me to believe he had made his inner drama an outer one. No, I think his drama with crack led to an intervention of the supernatural kind.

I wouldn’t draw that conclusion based solely on what he told me about the battle for his soul, or even on my mushroom trip at his place. Because you see, the battle didn’t end that day; it continued for as long as Matt was hooked. He had done all sorts of other drugs, but none of them made him into a different, darker person like crack. I started to see the changes; sensed the thing beneath his apartment and the oppressiveness of the neighborhood; sensed my friend slipping away. I prayed about it and felt convicted in my heart to do something.

Soon after, I was given a beautiful, sunny day to go find my bro. He worked odd hours and could disappear for weeks at a time, but on this day I pulled up in front of his apartment and there he was on the front steps. After chillin’ for a bit, talking about whatever, I told him there really was a battle going on for his soul, and God was acting strongly to save him. It didn’t matter what he believed in, all he had to do was sincerely pray for help and it would come. Matt had seen me change from raging alcoholic to got-my-shit-together dude, and because I had been there at the bottom where he was, he respected me, and I respected him.

As we talked, I suddenly heard, “Cut that shit out right now.” I turned to see an old black man glare at me then look away as if he wasn’t talking to us, but there wasn’t anyone else around for him to talk to, and his words cut right to the heart of our conversation. Derelicts of all sorts prowled the neighborhood. This guy though could have walked right out the movie Angel Heart. He looked like bad news, and I knew he was there to try to stop me from saving my friend. The man said something else which I don’t remember and hung around in the background – it was a public area and we couldn’t stop him. His presence rattled me some, but I spoke my heart to Matthew and know he listened. It was the best I could do.

Sometime after that, Matt’s living situation changed and he got out of the neighborhood and away from crack, but was never far, if you know what I mean: A part of it and his experiences there went with him wherever he went. And with me, too.

Bob: the Homeless Guy Sent By God … Maybe

Bob was a homeless guy in my college neighborhood who seemed to be protected by God. I know how that sounds – I’m not the type to see God in everything, but my time with Bob was meaningful in so many ways, and there were so many coincidences, I can’t explain it a better way. Knowing Bob (maybe “experiencing” is a better verb) was like one of those Old Testament stories about angels who walk among us in disguise. Except Bob was an ornery, dirty, sodden heap of a man who could say the meanest things one moment and the sweetest things the next. He was no angel.

Bob had the face of a prize fighter who took too many beatings. During the course of ten years that I knew him, I saw him with bruises and abrasions more times than I can count. Blackened eyes. Busted lips. Nasty cuts. A permanent dent ran across the bridge of his nose – a nose lumpy like a garlic bulb and riddled with broken capillaries. Heavy brows sprouted wild hairs, half-concealing his eyes. Dark gray hair, oily and thick, barely hinted at the rich brown it once was.

I first heard about Bob when he was referred to as “Vietnam Dave” by people in the neighborhood, known by that name because he was a Vietnam vet, two combat tours in the Marines, and it summed up why he lived on the streets. His full name is David Robert Willis. He called himself The Duke and liked to imitate John Wayne – his shtick  Whenever Bob pulled out The Duke imitation, his next play was for the change in your pocket. It worked on me many times.

Bob, the homeless guy who changed me
This is not Bob — this guy looks way less beaten up and haggard.

That’s how we met. Bob did his impression, maybe told a raunchy joke, and asked for some change. I fished in my pocket and gave him what I had.

Bob lived in the great wide open concrete jungle surrounding the University of Cincinnati, an area peppered with fast food joints, bars, shops and convenience stores. I’d find him asleep on bus stop benches, sidewalks, door stoops. He peed wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, though unless he was staggering drunk he’d usually find a private corner. He sometimes reeked of urine. A few times I noticed long wet stains on his jeans. And more than a few times I saw him taken away in a police car. He’d disappear for weeks, sometimes months, but always returned to the fertile ground where the city and the university met.

Despite all his misfortune Bob was the luckiest man alive, if you count being alive as lucky. He walked with the Grim Reaper always at his side checking the time and saying, “For crying out loud, how many times can one person dodge me?” Bob would down a few half-pints of Wild Irish Rose – called “shorties” in street lingo – he’d buy with the change he panhandled, then go careening through multiple lanes of traffic. One memorable time I witnessed him buy a shorty, down it in one swig, smash the glass bottle on the sidewalk right next to a trash can, then hurl himself across the street through heavy traffic – and somehow find a seam between moving vehicles. We’re talking about one of the busiest roads in the city, rush hour, in front of a bus stop where buses passed twenty times an hour and impatient drivers barreled through traffic.

The convenience store clerk who sold Bob the wine told me she had seen him heedlessly part traffic like that so many times, she was convinced an angel watched over him. That day she’d sold him 20 shorties and finally cut him off. That’s why he busted the bottle: he was mad about being told no. He staggered down the street to the next convenience store.

Bob was a willful person. He didn’t have to live on the streets – he had a veteran’s pension, maybe collected disability – but chose it as part of his lifestyle. He drank away his pension checks within days after they arrived at a tavern he used as a mailing address, then the rest of the month he relied on handouts. I remember hearing about homeless guys in Paris who made the same choice to live on the streets. They could get an apartment paid for by the government. They chose not to, like Bob.

His willful dark side popped out when Bob had been drinking a lot, and Bob always drank a lot – except when he couldn’t afford it. There were plenty of rainy days and holidays when the streets were mostly empty and the people tighter with their pocket change. I’d see him wandering the streets like a plastic bag blowing in the wind, looking for someone to hit up. One day I encountered him stalking a man on the street who had refused his request for money, cursing, “Come back here you fucking nigger!” I heard him from a distance and quickly closed in.

“Bob!” I said forcefully, “what the hell do you think you are doing? Get out of here. Go!” I pointed down the street, away from the man he cursed at, a well-dressed administrator from the university on his lunch break. Probably an assistant dean. Late 20s. Athletic. Dark-skinned. Bob shambled off in the direction I pointed, and the young man, accompanied by an attractive woman his age, was happy to escape the crazy homeless dude.

I followed them from a distance as they headed back to campus, an uneasy feeling in my gut. The guy suddenly turned around to go find Bob, presumably. He’d had enough time to process the incident and get pissed off. Maybe having the young lady with him made it especially galling to be harassed by a street person. I said to him, “I saw what happened back there and think you did the right thing by walking away. Beating him up won’t do any good.”

The guy fumed, “What right does he have to say that to me? He wants money? Here, I got money!” He pulled his wallet out from his suit pants and grabbed some singles. “I’ll stuff it down his fucking pie hole!”

“You did the right thing,” I said sort of meekly. “Don’t mess it up now.” Realizing that his lunch hour was almost over, the guy put his wallet away and hurried across the street with his girl before the traffic light changed.

Another odd encounter with Bob took place on the morning of a final exam. I walked through a slim sidewalk that shortcut between rows of four-story buildings to get to campus for the exam, and heard noises back in an area where one of the businesses kept trash. There, on a smelly, shadowy, debris-strewn stretch of sidewalk, Bob swept up the mess with a broom. It was early December, a bright, cold morning when at 7:30 the sunlight still has a brittle, blue quality and your breath turns instantly to ice crystals. Why Bob swept the mess, I don’t know. Maybe he was clearing a space to sleep, or a local business hired him to do odd jobs. I think he just felt like doing a good deed.

Another time with Bob I’m pretty sure I was used by his Maker to look out for him. I gave him money sometimes but didn’t always have it to spare. My pockets were empty that day. I walk down a sidewalk across from the university and see Bob reclined on some steps against the emergency exit of a local business. He looks bad. Deep scrapes score his face. His eye resembles a bruised cherry. His head hung between his knees. He looks up at me as I walk nearby and asks if I can spare some change. I look down at the sidewalk and, kid you not, saw a wad of one-dollar bills. People walked by, avoiding the dirty, drunk man with a face like a scary mask. A strong breeze blew through the busy city street. And there was a wad of money.

Not Bob
This isn’t Bob either, but is strikingly similar to how he looked a lot of the time.

I handed it to Bob. I’ll never forget his gratitude – to him I was a savior. He grabbed my hand and pulled me in close, creating a bit of an awkward moment, but I’d seen Bob around enough by that time to be receptive to him instead of afraid or disgusted. As our faces came close together I saw he’d been crying. With misery and tenderness he asked me:

“Do you think God hates me because I’m a fag?”

I’d never seen Bob act remotely homosexual, but as soon as he asked, it made sense. Bob had his demons, and his devils, and his shame. Too many thoughts crowded my mind simultaneously for me to say exactly what was in my heart, but I managed a reply. “God doesn’t hate anyone, Bob. You are made exactly as you are supposed to be.”

I found out more about Bob’s background as the years went by and my encounters with him piled up. One night while walking home from a grocery store I saw him sitting on a park bench. With nowhere in particular to be, I plopped down next to him and gave him a cigarette. It was one of those nights when the stars can be seen through the city lights and it feels like the sky is trying to say something profound. Seeing Bob on that bench at that moment just made sense. He started talking like I was meant to be there to hear him. I know I was meant to be there.

“I helped build that building,” he told me, pointing to one of the older university buildings. “Worked on the construction crew that built it. This was after I got back from ‘Nam. Made good money. Had benefits. The school gave my daughter free tuition because I worked for them. Then during Christmas break she was driving home to where our family is from. She stayed over at a motel, and someone raped and murdered her in her room.” Bob’s voice broke like his heart when he lost his daughter. I heard his pain. Hell, I felt it too. Tears moistened his eyes. “I was never the same after that. Why bother?”

Bob lost the will to live after his daughter died. David Robert Willis became Vietnam Dave, another casualty of the war at home. He blamed himself for his daughter’s death because he reasoned that she wouldn’t have been in the situation that led to her murder if she wasn’t attending the university where he got her free tuition. After he was done talking I gave him a dollar and had to hurry home before my frozen goods melted.

One encounter with Bob sticks out among all of them. The time when he followed me into a laundromat. Sometimes Bob would see me on the street and join me like nobody’s business, just two old pals sharing a laugh. He always wanted something, and I didn’t mind. I was comfortable telling him no, or yes.

On this day what Bob was after was heat. The sauna-like warmth of the laundromat contrasted starkly with the fall chill outside. When the clerk saw Bob with me, the ‘get the hell out of here’ look froze on her face. Bob followed me over to the washers, small-talking, and spotted his paradise: an empty row of plastic chairs where he could recline against a dryer and heat up his old bones. He walked over there and noticed a bulletin board plastered with faded pictures – most of them three decades old – of patrons of the laundromat. He said excitedly, “Hey, that’s me!”

He reached for a picture and pulled it out from among the hundreds of faces. It showed a young man with deep brown wavy hair swooped up off his forehead, a ready smile, happiness in his eyes. I couldn’t believe at first it was Bob because the guy in the picture looked nothing like him, but thirty years of living on the streets had chiseled him down a layer at a time. The more I looked at the eyes of the guy in the picture, though, the more I saw Bob.

It’s how I choose to remember him. I wish I still had that picture – kept it for many years and lost it, but I still remember the smiling face of a young man with his life ahead of him, and wonder might have been different if he hadn’t known hell, first in the jungles of Vietnam, then in the jungles of America. Knowing Bob, aka The Duke, made me see the world differently. We are all just people. Appearances don’t change what we are inside. Everyone deserves our sympathy, our kindness.

Bob is the homeless guy who changed me. God bless him.