Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chapters 4 and 6: Fire

I am the god of hell fire, and I bring you

Fire, I’ll take you to burn

Fire, I’ll take you to learn

I’ll see you burn...

--The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

(Hollywood, California)

The window opens to the freeway. As the sun slips behind a hill, I lean forward and breathe in. The air, still unseasonably warm, foreshadows a chill, the specter of the diminishing year only hours away.

2001 Ivar Street, our space odyssey.

A drab, stucco apartment building next to the freeway, end of the line for a few acid heads, speed freaks, heroin addicts, prostitutes, and crazies with guns. At first, living here was kind of fun, but now I’m tired of dealing with these marginal people.

I’m scared. I’m afraid of getting killed by Rudy, an old freak with no front teeth; he lives downstairs and always packs an iron in his bell bottoms. I’m afraid Tessa, that spade chick a few doors from Rudy, will end up stabbed or shot to death. I’ve never seen so many mean-looking dudes going in and out of the apartment next to hers. Tessa’s so strait-laced, and those creeps bug the hell out of her, pounding on her door, baiting her. Maybe I shouldn’t care what happens to her, but I do. I’m not that stoned.

Death is too final, too real.

I’m so tired; I drop five bennies, just to get pumped up for the New Year.

Ever since he dropped yesterday, Stoney’s been acting weird. Thirteen tabs of STP. I thought he was going die; he slipped into unconsciousness, face twitching like an epileptic’s, head puffed out like a balloon. I was afraid to call the ambulance, there was so much dope in the place--still is--so I watched until he opened his eyes. I can’t put my finger on it, but he hasn’t been the same since. He keeps talking weird shit, like spreading his wings and flying out our second-story window.

He scares me.


There’s going be a big blowout at the Mission Hotel tonight. Free dope. You name it, someone’ll have it. As we leave for the party, Stoney’s face is still puffy, his eyes dull. Like, maybe his brain was sucked out of his head–like a yolk from its shell. We haven’t made love in days, and at first, we made love all the time. My first time, three weeks ago; imagine, an 18-year-old virgin. At first, I thought Stoney loved me, he wanted me all the time. Then he started shooting Horse and dropping tons of acid and whatever else he could get his hands on. It doesn’t matter what he drinks, smokes, drops, snorts, or shoots, just so he’s on another plane. Now just another broken down freak, gone out of control. He zips up his jeans.

We’re through.

“What’s going to become of us?” I ask.

He looks up at me, his eyes half closed, mouth hanging open, drool running down the corners. “Huh?”

I want to throw up.

Maybe I’ll meet some friends at the party--too bad Jeff’s not here, but maybe Eleanor or Mel will be there. I could use a good friend now, a shoulder to cry on.

I can’t depend on Stoney anymore.


We hitch a ride to the Mission Hotel. A straight couple from San Jose picks us up. The wife tries luring me away from Stoney, promising me a hot meal and warm bed, salvation. Sure. Like I really want to spend New Year’s Eve with Perry Como and his old lady. She assumes I’m 14; if I keep my mouth shut, maybe she’ll give me some bread.

Just before we hop out of the car, the woman does slip me a twenty.

“Get yourself some help,” she whispers.

I stash the money into my pocket and calculate how much weed it’ll buy.

(The Mission Hotel, Los Angeles)

The Mission’s a joint, but it’s happening tonight. Every room’s filled with at least four people. The two-dollar rooms are five bucks ‘cause of New Year’s, but we know just about every freak here. I’ll find a place to party and crash.

Stoney’s on his own.

On the first floor, we stop off in a room; heroin addicts shoot up. As Stoney ties off a rubber strap around his arm, makes a fist, and taps for a vein, I leave. He’ll be out for the rest of the night. I go from room to room, taking a toke here and a toke there, keeping my eyes open for familiar faces.

On the second floor, I find Mel, Eleanor, and Julius Caesar, an old freak decked out in a Roman soldier costume appropriated from 20th Century Fox.

We sit on the bed, rapping. I admit I’m sick and tired of all the dope and heroin addicts crashing at the pad; I just want to go home, maybe even back to Iowa…


We’re still rapping as smoke fills the room--I start coughing and gagging.

The damn place is on fire!

“Let’s get out of here!” I scream at Mel, Eleanor, and Caesar as they disappear into the smoke.“Where are you? Help me, I’ve gotta get out!”

Just a chorus of screams.

Somewhere, I find my last bit of strength; I jump off the bed and run blindly around the room. But I can’t see anything now; the room is dense with stinging smoke.

I’ve got to get out!

I stick my head out the window and take a deep breath. The clammy air feels good, but fires spread fast, like that Chicago fire that killed 99 school kids when I was seven. Firefighters found the little kids, dead and stiff in their desks, still holding pencils above charred pieces of paper; will they find my charred body in this room, stretched out on this grungy bed?

I don’t want to die! Will I have to jump?

The concrete slab below looks far away. How many bones will I break? Could I even die?

People scream and cry as they grope their way through the hallway. I start out the window, but halfway out, something clicks--maybe that guardian angel I’ve forgotten--

I’ll take my chances in the hall. As I grope for the door, I trip over Caesar. I kick him. “Get the hell up!”

He groans and raises himself up, so I figure he’ll be okay, and why should I care anyway?

My so-called friends left me here to die.

In the hall, blinded by smoke, I drag my fingertips along the wall as I navigate toward the stairs; I can’t get air into my lungs. Stumbling down the stairs, I hold my breath. The walls don’t feel hot.

Where are the flames?

Suddenly, I’m outside; I can’t get enough of the cold L.A. air into my lungs, and my chest heaves back and forth. My lungs, hurting like hell, fill with air; I hack and cough, and everyone’s coughing up their guts. On the street, Stoney is passed out, flat on his back, and--

Oh-my-God! He’s-dead!

--But he moans. Caesar, Eleanor, and Mel stand over him, cajoling him to get up--how did he get out, drugged up like that?

“You made it,” Eleanor says--as if my escape were of minor consequence.

Cops, hundreds of them in gas masks, rush into the Mission Hotel, their guns drawn.

“What the fuck?”

The Preacher Man, who, an hour ago, was shooting up heroin with Stoney, says, “Tear gas, Jennifer. A goddam police raid. Can you imagine such stupid shit?”

I’m relieved no one’s burned up, but then I’m goddam pissed off because of the window. I would’ve jumped out the goddam window, the goddam fucking window....

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Memoir Madness Excerpts: Table of Contents


Before the Institution

Prologue: Caged

Chapter One: The Crystal Ship

Chapter One: Blue Moons

Chapter Two: Dark Side

Chapter Two: Flying Solo

Chapter Two: Weed and Seeds

Chapter Two: Funny Little Naked Clowns

Chapter Two: Decision Time

Chapter Two: Thirteen Tabs

Chapter Three: Wallich's Music City and Eleanor's Radio

Chapters Four and Six: New Year's Eve, 1968--Fire

Chapter Eight: Rudy

Chapter Ten: Cops

Chapter Eleven: The Luckiest Hand

Chapter Twelve: Downers

Chapter Twenty Three: Sioux City Blues

Chapter Twenty Four: ..."While I Kiss the Sky"

Chapter Twenty six: The Miracle of Google

Chapter Thirty: There Must be Some Way Outta Here

Chapter Thirty Eight: What to Do With My Life?

Chapter Forty One: My Country 'Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Tyranny

Chapter Fifty One: Nabbed at the Bus Station

Chapter Fifty Three: "Let's See What the Police Have to Say"

Chapter Fifty Four: A Possible Scenario at the Police Station

Chapter Fifty Six: Driven

Chapter Fifty Eight: Driven 2

Memoir Madness Excerpts: The Institution

The First Five Days

The Other Patients: Perky Penny

The Other Patients: Carrie the Cutter

The Other Patients: Joyce

The Other Patients: D.J., The Mighty Sage

The Other Patients: Anna on the Lam

Proving My Sanity

Memoir Madness Excerpts: After the Institution

Denise's Tips

Leaving Sioux City: Dee Dee

Epilogue: A Short History of the Cherokee Mental Health Institute

Memoir Madness Excerpts: Flashbacks (Fall 1968)

October 1968: Rev. Arthur Blessitt and His Place

October 12, 1968: A Mother's Warning

October 12, 1968: The Birthday Party

October 1968: Wild Man Fischer's Merry-go-round

A media-rich version of these excerpts (with photos, artwork, videos, out takes, essays, etc.,) can be accessed here.


About Memoir Madness...

Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment (Amazon)

About Memoir Madness: Driven to Involuntary Commitment...

Christmas Eve, 1968: history is made as Apollo 8 astronauts deliver their Christmas message from orbit around the moon.

On earth, at The Crystal Ship, a rock and head shop near Hollywood, California, Jennifer Semple listens to the iconic broadcast and, through the fog of drugs, ponders the future.

In the ensuing days, the 18-year-old girl experiments with LSD and other drugs; juggles a crumbling relationship with a notorious drug dealer; and tries to make sense of life at 2001 Ivar Street, a Hollywood, California, apartment complex where hippies, drug dealers, freaks, strippers, groupies, college students, Jesus Freaks, counterculture gurus, drag queens, rock stars and wannabe rocksters, svengalis, and con artists converge during one of the most volatile periods in history.

Then her grandfather finds the girl and coaxes her into returning to her Iowa hometown, where, unknown to her, she is still considered a minor.

After a series of events and blowups with her grandparents, she is dragged into the Iowa court system and involuntarily committed to the Cherokee Mental Institute in Cherokee, Iowa.

While incarcerated, she corresponds with Jeff, a new boyfriend, and also interacts with other patients: Wolfie, a psychopath who preys on other patients; Penny, a 17-year-old unwed mother; Carrie, a teen cutter with strange obsessions about rats; Joyce, a young married mother enthralled with “10 ways of suicide”; Drew, a young man facing a stiff prison sentence for possession of marijuana; and D.J., a 42-year-old mentally challenged man and 25-year resident of Cherokee, among others.

Finally released from the institution, Jennifer flees Iowa and settles in Pennsylvania, where she still lives today.

As young Jennifer narrates her late 1960’s memoir, how will the older and wiser Jennifer, now voluntarily returning to Cherokee as a visitor, reconcile that painful time in her history with her current ordinary life as a wife, mother, grandmother, and teacher?