A Weekend In Hell

The summer I was 22 I set off on an adventure that didn’t go as planned.

By fair means and foul I had saved up the magnificent sum of $500, enough to keep me in rent and food for a year to come. Still feeling insecure, I invested the entire sum in a pharmacopeia of illegal drugs – LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and a newcomer to the scene, MDA – and boarded a bus from Berkeley to Ann Arbor, where I planned to sell them for two or three times what I had paid.

I gravitated to the back of the bus, where I found a congenial traveling crew: a 16-year-old runaway from a juvenile detention center, and a 28-year-old who’d just been paroled from San Quentin after serving eight years for murder.

“All I remember,” he told us, “is I was drunk in some bar in Oakland, and having words with some guy. The next thing I know, I’m in jail, and the cops are telling me I killed the motherfucker. Hell, I don’t even know where I got the gun.”

The three of us got off to smoke a joint at a rest stop in Nevada, and after 45 minutes of hilarity, realized the bus had left without us. “Don’t worry, boys,” the Greyhound lady said. “Your tickets are still good. You can just get on the next bus. It’ll be along in about eight and a half hours.”

Despite her advice, I worried plenty. My life savings and all my earthly possessions were on a bus headed east without me. Nor could I risk asking Greyhound to retrieve the suitcase: under Nevada’s draconian drug laws, its contents could put me in prison for life.

Grim as matters looked, what was really killing me was that among my lost belongings were a couple notebooks and folders that contained everything I’d ever written. It was mostly half-finished short stories and the sort of overwrought poetry you’d expect from an overwrought 22-year-old, but it was the one thing in my life I was unreservedly proud of, the one thing I considered truly my own.

The literary world may have suffered no great loss, but I was devastated, as though all my limbs had been amputated and my heart cut out and fed to the wolves. For the rest of my journey east, I could think of nothing else.

Hippie pads in those days typically fit Robert Frost’s description: when you went there, they had to let you in. My brother and his girlfriend shared a single room with barely enough space for them and their dog, but with no visible griping, they slid their mattress over to make room for me on the floor.

A couple of weeks went by with no sign of my prospects improving. I had no way of getting back to Berkeley, and nowhere except for my brother’s floor to stay in Ann Arbor. About that time, people started remarking that the lobby of the building – it was a large, sprawling house with about 14 rooms and apartments – smelled strongly of dope.

The lobby was small, containing nothing but a table covered with mail addressed to various past and present occupants. I’d never paid it any attention, since I wasn’t expecting any mail, but one day I started poking around and was astounded to find a package with my name on it. It had been to three other addresses in Berkeley and Ann Arbor before finding its way to me. I still have no idea how; in those days I wasn’t in the habit of leaving forwarding addresses.

The package contained a book about John F. Kennedy. No note, no explanation. Opening the book, I discovered the pages had been cut out and replaced with three ounces of top quality hashish.

It was worth a small fortune, almost as much as I had lost in my Greyhound fiasco. But who would send me such a gift, and why? Then I noticed the postmark: it was from Germany. As I pondered how a package reeking of dope could get past US Customs, the post offices, and several delivery attempts in two of America’s most notorious drug-dealing cities, the answer dawned on me.

The previous winter we’d given a ride to a stranded German tourist and let him sleep on our floor for a few days. He’d been shocked at how much we were paying for hashish. “In my country it costs a fraction as much. When I return to Berlin, I will send you some.”

Hippies were always promising to do far out things and promptly forgetting about them, but this fellow – Stefan was his name – had been true to his word. We sold the hash, reinvested the money in two kilos of marijuana, and even after I’d split the proceeds with my brother, I was back where I’d started, at least financially speaking. I made my way back to Berkeley, and life returned to what passed for normal.

Eventually I got over the trauma of losing my writing and picked up a pen and typewriter again. It would be many years, though, before I got off the drugs and was able to produce anything other than bad xerox attempts at re-creating the vanished stories and poetry of my youth.

In the 1980s I started my own magazine, and began writing for several other magazines and newspapers. A few decades later, I published my first two books. With the arrival of the digital age, I felt like I needed my own website, and shortly after the turn of the century, larrylivermore.com was born.

I was quite assiduous about updating it at first, and attracted a good crowd of readers, commenters, complainers, and arguers. My first book, Spy Rock Memories, began as a series of blog posts there.

But gradually my updates grew scarcer; for every one I published, there were half a dozen partially completed or barely started rough drafts. Nonetheless, I treasured that website, never doubting that one of these days it would come roaring back, bigger and better than ever.

Until, that is, larrylivermore.com suddenly, without explanation, vanished from the internet. I was beside myself. Technical problems had taken it offline a few times in the past, but through my own efforts or the help of friends I’d quickly gotten it back.

Not this time. Tech support told me “It’s gone. You should have kept a backup.” I thought I had been keeping a backup, but apparently I was wrong.

It hit me even harder than the loss of my notebooks in 1970, both because the quantity and quality of the work was so much greater, but also because I was considerably less likely to have another 50 years to rebuild my legacy.

Emotionally, mentally, and physically shattered, I spent the weekend unable to sleep, eat, play music, or even watch TV. Day and night I alternated between pacing the floor and staring helplessly at a blank computer screen.

Millions, maybe billions of people suffer far greater privations, I’m sure, but this was as close to hell as I ever want to get. I’m not a religious person – and have become even less so since so many so-called Christians have embraced Trumpism – but I do have a spiritual life that works well for me.

I don’t talk about it much, partly because it offends, even outrages my many friends who devote themselves to atheism with the same fierce tenacity that Al-Qaeda beheads infidels. But for me, it’s just science: if it works, I’ll believe in it. Time and again prayer and meditation have done the trick for me when all else has failed.

I have no interest in debating whether there’s a God, or if so, what form he, she, or it takes. Nor do I believe in the supernatural. If something exists, it’s natural, and if it’s only in my head, as long as I don’t impose it on others, no harm done.

The first time I saw prayer work for me was about 20 years ago, when London Underground was going through one of its periodic bad patches. Trains would stop in tunnels and sit there for what felt like an eternity. As someone who suffered from claustrophobia (I’d walk up ten flights of stairs rather than get into an elevator), this would put me on the edge of a full-fledged panic attack.

Someone suggested that instead of hyperventilating, I try saying a quick prayer. I thought the idea was ridiculous, but tried it anyway. Two things happened: first, I calmed right down. Second, the train started moving again, if not always instantly, within less than a minute. This happened again and again, virtually without fail.

Was someone sitting on a cloud moving the levers of London Underground’s convoluted machinery in direct response to my request? I doubt it. Maybe it was just a matter of putting myself back in tune with the Dao, the natural flow of things (The Force, as Star Wars fans will know it). Maybe a calmer state of mind enabled me to see a trivial delay for what it was rather than a life-threatening emergency.

Ever since then, I’ve turned to moments of reflection and supplication when things looked dire, and have yet to be disappointed with the results. The only problem is that the worse the situation, the more likely I am to forget this principle and opt instead for running around like a headless chicken.

On my second day in lost-website hell, I realized this was exactly what I was doing. I had resorted to consoling myself with the notion that at least I’d be dead before too long. Even if it were true, it wasn’t at all helpful. “Okay, God,” I said, “if you’re there, and you’re listening, and have the slightest interest in my defunct website, could you maybe do something to sort it out?”

Almost instantly I got a text from Stefano Morello, who I originally encountered as a character in my niece Gabrielle Bell’s comics, but who has since become a good friend. Stefano, who I call Il Professore even though he hasn’t quite completed all the paperwork for his Ph.D., used me as one of the subjects for his doctoral dissertation, and has simultaneously helped me in innumerable ways, including making much of my 20th century writing available online through his East Bay Punk Digital Archive.

“It looks bad,” he told me, “but maybe I can do something. Twelve hours later, at 4:30 am Singapore time, I sat bolt upright in bed, overwhelmed by a sense that something had happened. Seconds later, simultaneous texts arrived from Stefano and my website hosting company: larrylivermore.com was back from the dead.

I’ve since upgraded Il Professore to Santo Stefano, but was it divine intervention or merely the good fortune of knowing someone with technical expertise and the willingness to share it? I don’t know; I don’t really need to know. “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be on our own,” President Kennedy said, and whatever he might have meant by it, I’ve always taken it to indicate that the difference between God and creation is, like the distinction between energy and matter, purely relative.

I have figured out one thing. Not what some people, namely Aaron Cometbus, will tell me, that I should stick to print and not rely on the internet. How, I would retort, did that work out for the Library of Alexandria? No, it’s that Sartre was dead wrong when he opined that “hell is other people.”

My saison en enfer was, at least in my case, entirely self-imposed, and it was other people who rescued me. Yes, our enemies (or website companies) may do terrible things, but how we react, whether we wallow in misery or take steps to accept and/or rectify the problem, is entirely our own affair.

The most humbling aspect of this experience was looking over my website once it had been restored and saying, “Wait, a lot of posts must be missing; I only see a handful from this whole past year,” then realizing that yes, I had been that much of a slacker. For someone who claimed the website as one of his greatest treasures, I’d been awfully neglectful of it.

Meanwhile, back on earth, I’m savoring the prospect of new beginnings and hoping never to forget the most valuable lesson I learned (yes, even more than “BACKUP BACKUP BACKUP”): that of deep, abiding gratitude, not only to Stefano, but to all those who have helped me, appreciated me, or at least put up with me over the years, and without whom my life would undoubtedly be a pretty pointless mess.

One thought on “A Weekend In Hell

  • February 25, 2020 at 2:01 am
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    Nice. Great story bridging the past and present. You and Aaron and Stefano make a great trio of historians. As Aaron’s latest issue “Post-mortem” examines, it is indeed people that count. Understanding the motivations and passion of individuals is fun, yet when they become groups of people, organizations, clubs, companies, the examination and complexity of the patterns grows exponentially. I am so glad that you have built your own global village of supporters and homies. From the wilds or Northern California to the urbane halls of academia, to the shores of Rockaway Beach. In addition to your notebooks, and blog posts and internet articles, another thing you can count on is your legacy of 100s of thousands of Lookout records physically sitting on people’s shelves around the world, in three-dimensional space and not just ones and zeros. Best from Berkeley, -PM

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