I first met John Lerner in October of my freshman year. The friend of a friend, he came up from Rockland County with 500 hits of acid to sell. He sold them all within a week, decided to stay, and with his parents’ help, bought a house. It was a better investment than paying rent. He transferred from Rockland Community and started at the University the following September, one year late. He graduated with me last January, half a year early.
“How you doin’, man?” Dressed as always–gold tee shirt, faded levis and cowboy boots, his thick brown hair tied in a pony tail. We shook hands elaborately, like we always did.
“Rick’s upstairs,” he said, “but he’s leaving. C’mon up.”
I leaned my bike against the fireplace. John’s living room. He had a rotating set of housemates, but none really lasted and he didn’t need the rent, just the company. Couch piled high with newspapers, science fiction paperbacks face down on the arm of his favorite easy chair, “Still Life with Paraphernalia” hanging over the unused fireplace. I loved that painting. Rembrandt’s colors, Van Gogh’s lines, and that intensity that was John’s own.
Still Life showed a cable spool table lit by a blue candle stuck in a wine bottle covered in blue, green, and purple candle drippings painted in dark, Old Masters’ tones. A water pipe-chemistry funnel and rubber tubing in a two-holed cork, stuck in a 500 ml Erlenmeyer flask–a pack of orange Zig Zag papers, ashtray half full of burnt matches and a couple of roaches, a box lid overturned, seeds on one side, a sprinkle of shake on the other. A baggie, top open and crumpled, filled with buds. Sure it was a little awkward here and there, but it was John’s best painting. I always wondered what became of it. Even today, I’d hang it. Maybe not in the living room, but I’d show it off.
The second floor of the house had been added later, finishing the attic. The ceilings of all the rooms slanted on one side from the eaves. John had a long, stained plywood desk mounted to the wall under the front windows, a small double bed and two arm chairs. The chairs were filled with Rick and Rick’s old lady.
Rick uncovered the joint in his hand and offered it to me with a soul-handshake. Skinny guy with thin black hair and wire-rim glasses, black leather vest. A longtime customer of John’s, he’d been in some class with John before dropping out. I don’t remember his girlfriend’s name. I don’t think I ever heard it or even heard her say anything more than a yes or no. Pale, thin, pretty enough, she seemed to be part of whatever was going on as long as she didn’t have to speak. She did like to smoke dope though.
“So let me know how they like it. Ok?”
“They always like your pot,” said Rick. “Always good weed, always a good count.” He reached under the bed and pulled out a shopping bag. “Didn’t know who was at the door,” he explained to me.
“One pound is the least of my worries. I’ve got 15 more in the closet. You should get going. You guys have a ride ahead of you.”
All the guys shook hands elaborately and nodded to Rick’s old lady. John took them downstairs. Over his bed was a science fiction landscape that John painted in high school. A lot of reds and oranges, strange jagged mountains and two suns in the sky. The lines were slightly stiff. Awkward lines that Matisse always hated. But she could really draw and they never got along. After she started meditating, the two of them had one disastrous attempt to talk religion. John ended it by quoting Ramakrishna’s, ‘Enlightenment is a house with many entrances’ and left it at that. She avoided him as much as possible during the last few months we had left. I asked her why.
“He sells acid.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
John reached for Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East.
“Side Four, right?
John laughed as the first notes of “Whipping Post” came into the room. “You got it,” he says. He handed me a match and I relit the joint. Sweet and spicy, primo Colombian weed. Forty bucks an ounce, twice Mexican commercial.
“That reminds me,” he said, unpinning a ticket from the window frame. “I got your Watkins Glen ticket.”
“Hah!” He turned up the volume. The bass and two drummers whip the twin leads forward. Rolling clouds and brewing storm.
“Hey, want some acid?” he asks. “Jaime left me a baggie. John pulls out a bag of flat blue saucers. “He says he has a connection.” Jaime was John’s pot connection, a fucking 19-year-old high school dropout who used to drive down to Texas and come back with a pickup truck of weed. If anyone was the asshole…
I looked at the baggie. Blue saucers. Flat tabs, too big really, too likely to be cut with something. The last time I tripped, I ended up lying in bed, trying to sleep. It was not a good time. too much time spent thinking about Matisse. Too much time blaming myself. I ended up lying in bed, listening to “Caution Do Not Stop on Tracks” and smoking joint after joint, trying to sleep. With my eyes closed, I saw tiny intricate patterns, cartoon colors, comic book lettered words that changed before I could read them, not that I thought they said anything important. The same old wonderful new universe-the phrase kept running through my mind. The same old wonderful new universe. And then I’d miss Matisse. And then I’d remember the time I gave her crabs. And then I’d light another joint, hoping this one would finally let me get to sleep. The same old wonderful new universe.
Still, you never say no. “I think I’m going to pass,” I told him. “I’m not feeling too much like tripping these days.
“Suit yourself. Hey, do me a favor, willya?” He tossed a fat roll of bills to me. “Can you take them to the bank again?” I used to do that for him, trade in the 10s and 20s for 50s and 100s. “There’s four thou in that.”
“Sure.” I put the roll in my jeans pocket. “I can’t believe she’s getting married. “
“It’s not the end of the world,” said John. John, who I only saw with one woman the entire time I knew him. “There are other women.”
“But not like her.”
“Thank God,” he says.
“What else are friends for, if not to be there when you’re down?”
‘With bliss,’ Matisse told me, ‘you never come down.’