A scene from my forthcoming novel, Hippies
Log line: Struggling with the contradictions of the 1960s counterculture, a group of hippies discovers an LSD-spinoff drug that triggers past life regressions and leads to a dramatic climax.
… Walking down Frenchmen toward the French Quarter, Ziggy adjusted his new hat, the bizarre floral one. Ragman donned the Mad Hatter’s top and Jazmine had ended up with the rainbow beret. Tex wore his crumpled cowboy hat as always. Ragman was particularly jovial, and once they passed Esplanade and entered the more populous heart of the Quarter, he regaled passersby with good cheer, handing out the Oat Willie stickers and saints cards they had found in the FREE box at the Magic Mushroom. “Have a saints card, sister. This is your saint for the new age. Sticker for your briefcase, my man. Oat Willie, the madcap messiah. Love those dancing shoes, brother.” And so on.
Tex tipped his cowboy hat at two sixtyish women from the Midwest, who covered their mouths with fat fingers and giggled on the sidewalk in front of their hotel as the group sauntered by. Jaz and Ziggy distributed cards and stickers as they walked. Some recipients smiled, some crumpled the tokens immediately, apparently unaware of their messianic value. But no one could really take offense, not faced with Ziggy’s puppy-dog brown eyes and Jazmine’s sweet sincerity.
The same could not be said for Tex, who could rub people the wrong way without trying. When the group hit Canal Street, Tex approached a man in a gray suit with black wingtip shoes and a solid bald head like a dented up bowling ball.
“Oat Willie sticker, my man,” said Tex. Whether Tex simply lacked the charm of his compatriots or had chosen the wrong customer to deal with, his offer didn’t fly.
“I don’t want your sticker, freak.”
“OK, then give it to your old lady,” said Tex, a little testy.
The suited man held his jaw square, but seemed to yield a little. He took an Oat Willie sticker from Tex and a Saint Catherine card from Ziggy. He looked at them. Then he tore them up.
“We were just putting you on, man,” said Tex, his black animal hairs bristling on his neck. “You need to ditch your hangups, man.”
“Oh yeah, what hangups is that, freak?”
“Look at you man, white shirt, black tie, suit, the way you kiss up to the Man, that’s your hangup.” The two men glared, Tex tall and rangy, the other man smaller but carved of rock. Neither broke eye contact.
“At least I have a job,” said the man, and he seemed ready to walk away when Tex spoke again.
“Maybe your job’s why you’re so fucking uptight, man.”
The man glared back again. “What did you say, freak?”
Tex twisted the tip of his handlebar mustache and spoke with a slow-motion drawl for maximum impact.
“I said that’s why you’re so motherfucking uptight.”
“Say your prayers, freak.”
With impeccable timing, Rag stepped in and pushed Tex back with the surprising force of an old wrestling captain.
“I’m sorry, man,” Rag said to the square. “We respect what you’re doing. It’s a big picture, man, and we’re all in it together – you, me, Tex. Just cut Tex some slack. He’s still figuring things out like we’re all trying to figure things out.” Here he smiled. “He just gets a little belligerent sometimes.”
The square, who frankly heard little of Rag’s salutary philosophy, looked Tex in the eye a little puzzled. “What part of Texas you from, freak?”
“The part that’s called Meridian, Mississippi,” said Tex, without skipping a beat. And it was true. Tex, despite the sobriquet, was indeed from Mississippi.
The square eyed him suspiciously. “You know about Weidmann’s?”
“Cheese grits,” Tex said laconically. “Every Sunday. After church.” The square shook his bowling ball head, unsure in his own mind whether he were expressing disgust or camaraderie or some combination of the two.
“Creamiest cheese grits anywhere,” Tex added, and he actually smiled.
“Cook’m in heavy cream to make’m extra rich,” said the square. He caught himself starting to smile back, and quickly turned to walk away. Then he looked back over his shoulder.
“One more thing, freak. Get a haircut.” The tone was ambiguous, but the smile on Tex’s face reduced the ambiguity to insignificance.
“Hey,” Jaz said, “the square had a good idea. Let’s say a prayer.”
Rag pulled out a card.
“Lord make me an instrument of thy peace.”
They found a second Saint Francis card and went on together.
“Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon…”
Jaz must have really been into it because she heard heavenly music coming in at the next line.
“Where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope…”
Was she hallucinating or tuning in all the way to heaven? A stringed instrument, the tinkling of small bells, a hand-played drum.
“Where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”
And then more voices in a polyphonic chorus. Two melodies, sweetly folded together and yet separate. A river of voices. What were the other voices singing? Now she recognized it.
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare…”
Coming from opposite directions on Canal Street, like heavenly armies the moment before engagement, were our heroes on one side and a coterie of Krishna disciples on the other.
“Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare…”
“Welcome, brothers and sisters,” said Rag. “Have some Oat Willie stickers.”
“Cool,” said a chipped-tooth Hare Krishna girl who looked about 15. Three kids with her, robed in brown and green and light blue silk, seemed no older, and they gathered wide-eyed with their instruments as Ragman put the Oat Willie stickers into the girl’s hand.
“Ah,” Ziggy joked to himself silently, “finally, the chosen ones who see the mystical power of the Oat Willie stickers.” But he knew it wasn’t that. They were just kids, part of that generation of drifting misfits who gaped in wonder at every passing sight or sound or encounter, as if it too were a sign.
The girl whose hand held the stickers seemed the default leader of the little entourage.
“Y’all want a free book?” And she handed Rag a book with a cover image of colorful red and gold Eastern tapestry beneath bold text: KRSNA: THE SUPREME PERSONALITY OF GODHEAD.
Rag took the book, then took her small, dirt-mapped hand, and pressed it knuckle-side against his forehead.
“Blessings of the saints upon you, my little Kali goddess,” he said.
The girl looked a little confused, and Jaz gave her a saint card and a good hug. “Now play,” Jaz said gently, and the little group began their song as they turned into the French Quarter, with our heroes dancing a free-form caper behind them.
“Couldn’t give up that stupid cowboy hat, could you?” Pepper tossed the rhetorical question at Tex like a floating balloon, just to see which way he’d pop it. Our ragtag group of rambling hippies had stopped in her French Quarter shop, with their new hats and a group of Hare Krishna kids. Well, it wasn’t really her shop. She worked in a room behind the shop, making voodoo dolls to sell to tourists. The priestess would come twice a week to bless a new batch to keep the gris gris off and stock them out front. Pepper was feisty, short but compact, like an animated bumper car, with a a sharp mind and a good nature camouflaged by acerbic wit. She took her coloring more from the Gaelic than the Italian side of her stock, exhibiting fair and lightly freckled skin, reddish hair, and ice blue eyes, the kind that called every stranger for a double-take. Her lips seemed forever pursed into a fleshy, heart-shaped baby pout, but ready to smack down a tough-necked sailor should the need arise. She was a journalism major off and on, and her piece work as a voodoo doll maker was more for the monetary than the spiritual reward.
“Damn,” she called out to the Hare Krishna kids, who had already hit the half-height refrigerator with a voracity unrivaled in the history of wandering mendicants. “Don’t y’all get free vegetarian meals at the Krishna House on Esplanade?”
“Not like this,” said the chipped tooth girl. She pulled a bit of green bean casserole from between her teeth with her thumbnail and rubbed it on the corner of the tablecloth. The others had picked up their instruments and were tuning up.