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Of Argonauts and Psychonauts

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Of Argonauts and Psychonauts

Once upon a time in the early aughts, I found myself at a tiny desk on a busy floor full of tiny desks in a giant office building in a neighborhood full of giant office buildings on an island full of giant office buildings.

While the work itself was not unenjoyable and the material benefits were significant, after a year or two I realized that it was a spiritual dead end. I began to wonder if there was another life waiting for me somewhere out there.

A signpost along the winding road to fulfillment came in the form of a welcoming neighbor who surprised me on the street one day. I continued to visit them each week over the course of a year to seek wisdom and guidance.

Their subtle direction ultimately led me to greener pastures, well away from the tiny desks and tall skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. Of course, their influence was not obvious at the time, but it seems unmistakable in retrospect.

A downtown native, they were born in 1925 near Union Square before moving to 59th St in the 1930s, where they continue to live to this day.

We met within the first few weeks of my tenure in the office building. Every day at 1pm, I would file out of the I.M. Pei-designed tower and join the throng of office workers on the street seeking an hour of nutrition, diversion, sunlight.

Their building is easy to overlook if you’re not seeking it. Like a time-travelling visitor from a bygone era trying to quietly pass through the modern world, the modest six-story townhouse stands quietly among the glass and steel titans surrounding it. 

On one December afternoon when I tried to stop by for a regular visit, I was stunned to find a huge crowd and train of sleek black SUVs blocking their normally sedate facade. Back at my little desk after lunch, a woman ran through the office at full tilt, picked up the phone, and breathlessly called her mother to announce that she had just met Bill Clinton there. 

So, while perhaps inconspicuously dressed, my neighbor was hardly a secret. In addition to President Clinton, Donatella Versace and Michael Jackson were also known to be among their callers. 

But on most days the built-ins facing the street were free of celebrities, only hosting an eccentric coterie of old folks waiting for new friends to take them home. They could be had for as little as a dollar.

Inside, a world of leatherbound classics, Shakespeare folios, ornate cartography and rare editions worthy of Presidential acquisition awaited, but in my case, it was the jumble of the thrift section outside that proved most valuable.

Every week, via the weathered shelves facing 59th St, the warm glow of their pages adorned with slowly fading ink created a doorway to the antediluvian world of psychedelic scholarship and culture that had been washed out of sight by decades of prohibition. 

As the old bindings creaked and sighed open, I was transported to a world where psychedelics were the new wunderkind of psychiatry and the impetus for a growing cultural movement. Some sought treatments for alcoholism, others eagerly traced their anthropological and ethnobotanical roots, and many saw a catalyst that they hoped would transform society.

Week by week and dollar by dollar, I used my lunch break to acquire a small library of vintage psychedelic literature from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies.

As I take some time during quarantine to revisit some of these readings, I am somehow comforted by my collection of worn paperbacks and threadbare hardcovers and the mysterious way that they entered my life.

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While some of the more staid and dry selections (say, Transactions of a Conference on D-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25) April 22, 23, and 24, 1959) and the increasingly cosmic trio of autobiographies of John C. Lilly, M.D. now mostly shelf curiosities, some of them have had enduring vitality.

In addition to serving as time capsules, my early edition of Be Here Now has remained in regular rotation. REL Masters and Jean Houston’s The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience still holds up as an introductory psychological model of the Platonic trip experience. And the touchingly surreal In The Kingdom of Mescal: An Indian Fairy Tale for Adults remains an overlooked delight.

By comparison, the anonymously delivered bestsellers that arrive wrapped in elaborate cocoons of fresh cardboard and plastic inspire a touch of guilt, and e-readers seem to sterilize the sacramental charms of the book itself.

While I was aware of many organizations that had been publishing information about psychedelics since the 90s, clicking links and scrolling through webpages didn’t inspire the same wonder as holding these volumes, nor offer the same depth. Books and blog posts are only distant relatives.

I wonder about the still-unknown identity of my ghost librarian. I’m almost certain that all of the books came from a single collection, but following inscriptions and notes in the margins have only led to cold trails. The clerks couldn’t find records from whatever estate sale they emerged from. (Perhaps they are also the proprietor of the old copies of the Evergreen Review I also picked up?) A lesson in living with mysteries.

Perhaps more importantly, I can still thank the purveyor of these gems whose identity is not only known, but alive and well. Argosy Bookstore of 116 East 59th St, just inside Park Avenue, is the oldest bookseller in New York City, and was recently featured in the excellent documentary The Booksellers, which you can watch at home here.

Thank you Argosy, and thank you, mysterious midcentury librarian. I can only hope that my own work at Horizons will help others discover the joyful path of learning that you unwittingly set for me.

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