Enticed by my close friend, Peacock, I spent the summer of 1990 at the Happy Hippie Commune in Berkeley, California. Dipping my student toes into journalism at local newspaper: “A Slow News Day.”
After a (brief) lifetime of being abnormal I had finally found a home. In fact not only a home but a place where everyone was much weirder than me. As someone who’s had an eating disorder since the age of eight and been self-harming from eleven it was a relief to finally be walking (sanely) on the pavement rather than in the middle of the street.
A motley crue of characters inhabited the spacious Victorian commune: Helga, a tax lawyer turned tarot card reader, who’d grown up on a snail farm in Germany. Buttercup, a bearded hippie who’d lived for 7 years in parks before being discovered by Helga squatting in the loft. Buttercup – an MIT dropout circa 1979 – was the shit hot IT consultant and graphics designer of the newspaper where deadlines were always a mañana away. “Security” at the commune (I’m not sure for who) was provided by Kirk, who’d been in a nuclear test in the Pacific and said sayonara to his sanity shortly afterwards. Delicious meals were served by Dick, a gay stripper, who was moonlighting as the resident chef. They all had very bad habits – Kirk kept leaving his gun on the kitchen table, and Dick would show off pornographic pictures of his various poses on stage and was very nasty to me about my spots. The other residents were small brown and had a disturbing proclivity to perch on your toothbrush just as you wanted to clean your teeth – a flotilla of cockroaches living it up as the Buddhist neighbour had banned bug-i-cide from the building.
We would go to Buddhist “happenings” populated by Japanese monks and very loud brass gongs. Inarticulate mumblings – no doubt highly spiritual Buddhist chants – would trail like farts through the room. Floating in and out of the apartment were another posse of oddly Aryan looking Buddhist monks, who would sit around in the dining room dropping acid while their girlfriends looked on in silent awe. Dropping acid was a hobby for the occupants of the commune and Henry, a mud wrestler who’d developed a phobia of dirt, would do the hoovering surrounded by hallucinated washing up gloves. But unlike my naïve first days at Oxford where I’d phoned my parents giggling that “everyone was doing drugs” (necessitating drastic U-turns to falsely claim that I hadn’t started doing drugs) this time I kept schtum.
“So how’s it going in Berkeley?” said my extremely conservative mother.
“Oh,” I said, muffled sounds of people off their head on acid only 3 feet away, “I’m being very sensible, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sensible as here. ” A clanging was coming from outside as Kirk had chained himself to the railings after an attempt by Helga to throw him out had backfired. She’d threatened to call the police but he’d said he’d rather impale himself on the railings than be the only sane person in the nuthouse again.
It was the first time I’d tried acid, or anything more than dope. But as someone who had a tenuous grip on reality and lived in a fantasy world acid simply did not work. I was stuck to my chair for twelve hours, at one point forgetting how to breathe. My friend Peacock had a much more outlandish reaction. He saw old teachers of his with suicidal bents hanging from nooses in the sitting room, rushed up to policemen in the street tapping them on the shoulder and asking, “are you real?” and tried to copulate with a frozen chicken in the freezer at Food 4 Less. There was of course (to someone flying to Mars on acid) a “rational” reason for the chicken. It was to avoid being detected as, he said, there were wanted posters showing our names and faces blue tacked to the supermarket walls.
But here I was stuck on a chair, with nowhere to go as I couldn’t move, wondering why acid had worked so well on Hunter S Thompson and not on me. The answer was that I was too weird already and acid simply shut me down. The second time I took it I felt a mild tingling of something hallucinogenic before being dragged back to earth to rescue Peacock from arrest and the deep freeze.
The guru of the newspaper, a celebrated clown called Lumpy Custard, would frequently pop in to write his relationship column. A semi-permanent resident was Helga’s beau, a Native American called Stumbling Bull, who seemed to have decided he wanted to share a tepee with me. There was one normal person in the commune, though not of course full time, a ballerina called Claire who was dancing in Swan Lake. Kirk had decided she was just the swan for him and started appearing in a feathered head dress and a single wing.
I was used to a different type of madness at home. As my outwardly conservative, (though secretly psycho) mother had had a major meltdown when my father left when I was 12. Threats to put contracts out on my father and evict me from the house (because I’d left a glass in the sink) flew thick and fast over the Weetabix and curried goat. Not that my mother cooked curried goat, a posh Jamaican, she was more likely to serve steak tartare.
Meanwhile, back at the commune, the relationship between me and Peacock was blossoming like a summer rose. Naïve and a virgin I had never experienced the excitement of knowing a man who was as interested in foundation and mascara as me. I had a few beauty products – he had a whole cabinet. The discussions we had about the merits of Clinique v Prescriptives foundation were heated and intense. His closeness to a smoky eyed guitarist called Chuck struck me as entirely innocent. It was only when I was giddy with excitement about to have sex for the first time that he told me he wanted to sleep with men as well. In fact was already sleeping with a man. The things they got up to with outlandish names such as rimming and felching and, to me, even stranger realities put me off having a sex change for life.
But among all the humour there was disaster at the commune. In the year before I arrived in Berkeley, my second year at Oxford, I’d received a letter from my mother. It announced her intention to move to Jamaica, leaving me without a home. We had never had a good relationship and the fault, according to her, lay with me. “You have always been selfish,” she wrote. “When you were three I asked you to bring me a cup of tea and it was cold. You were selfish then and you’ve been selfish ever since, that’s why we don’t get on.” The fact that she’d spent six days a week out of the house, one at the hairdressers, didn’t register on her consciousness at all.
My mother, resentful at me disappearing when she’d rented a flat in London to spend the summer with me, phoned the commune one day. My beloved cat was vomiting diarrhoea and she wanted to know if she should take him to the vet. Of course I screeched, terrified that it was too late. It was too late and my dearest cat, the only member of my family I could rely on, was put down. I didn’t speak for a week. I have never forgiven my mother for this murder and never will.
But luckily I now have confirmation of an afterlife, as the desperation of my grief brought him back. I heard his shallow cat breathing next to my bed every night, a ball bounced across the floor of my room on its own. And when I got back to my rooms at Oxford, I could not only hear his breathing but feel him walking across my duvet and snuggling in to his preferred sleeping spot. Afterlife, it definitely exists, I have heard and felt a ghost. But the loss was so tragic I’ve never had a pet again. I am now my own pet and have been looking after myself, with notable hiccups on the way, ever since.
Next week: dating yet another gay man at Oxford, thinking I was the Queen of Spain, (or, unrelated to dope, a fried egg about to be hit by a train) and training for the Olympics in the library at 4am.