An Essay Utilizing A Passage from
Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception
as Section Headings

Thus it came about that, one bright May morning,
I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin
dissolved in half a glass of water
and sat down to wait for the results.

— Huxley, Doors of Perception

1. “A large pale blue automobile was standing at the curb.”

Unlike Huxley’s dream car, mine was black — jet black, convertible, with rounded fenders and a silver Indian chief on the hood. My dream car sat in the woods, abandoned.  We found it rusting, hemmed in by trees and brush, with no easy answer to how it had arrived.

Maybe fifteen years earlier there had been a path or dirt track, some way to drive a car into this dense urban thicket, but just then we couldn’t see that. Four crew-cutted boys in cut-off jeans, wheeling our bikes through damp woods in search of anything to divert our boredom, all we could see here was an inexplicable circumstance, pure mystery.

It was mid-summer, and the weeds and ferns were so plush underfoot that we didn’t need our kickstands. We simply let our Schwinns and Huffies fall onto the soft green carpet, then bound forward on foot, descending on the abandoned car as if it were the long-lost grail. I remember even now the intense, radiated heat of the dark metal baking in the July sun; can still recall the smell of rubber tires, and some peculiar odor coming off the cloth seats. If I close my eyes, I can see the torn rag top, and the loose piles of broken glass scattered all about. The car, I believe, was a Pontiac, from the mid-1940s.

My ten-year-old mind struggled to comprehend this unexpected discovery — someone abandoning an entire car. An entire car? I was holding onto everything in my brief life: bottle caps, baseball cards, broken metal, small bits of oddly shaped stone. Yet someone had left a car, lost track of a full-sized automobile. It made no sense.

Perhaps that is why Tommy Mucciarone refused to approach. Tommy just glanced fretfully over his left shoulder while the rest of us, the boys on the Schwinns and Huffies, yanked at the oxidized wipers, searched for the missing cigarette lighter, picked through the rubble and trash of the floorboards for coins, maps, clues, whatever little thing we could find.

Tommy, no doubt, was anxious that the owner might return. He understood — we all understood, from the layers of rust and the thick growth of weeds perforating the floorboards — that this hulk had been here for a decade or longer. But the owner might still come back.

This was a car after all.  
We would come back, had it been our car.

2. “At the sight of it, I was suddenly overcome by enormous merriment.”
 
 Occurrences are not alone and we are not apart from that which does occur if only when the stars are out and waters rise to lunar songs of times before they knew the moon was earth to men in solemn cubes of blueish light on evening rides with relatives and closer friends than even neighbors are.

Again.

Then it came when old men drank in musty bars and cherry bombed the bathrooms until laughter struck the night and whiskey breaths puffed home to lukewarm meals and upset women’s hearts until morning drenched the sky and woke the men who panted off to work.

And times then came when women drove in drunken fear through whitened roads of shining hopes and banks of snowy fantasies until the metal touched and ripped and ran and wandered to a formal place where pistoled men write funny words and listen to their radios so that they can drive you home in emblemmed cars so neighbors can peek out and wonder where thee lady had gone wrong.
 
I wrote that breathless bit of prose roughly twenty-two years ago; banged it out on an old Royal typewriter while sitting shirtless in my backyard, working on a tan.

I was also stoned when I wrote it.
I think it shows.
 
3. “What complacency, what an absurd self-satisfaction beamed from those bulging surfaces of glossiest enamel!”

The automobile and various forms of inebriation were fairly well connected for the first three decades of my life.

I’m not bragging, understand. Not even close. This is just how it had been.
 
My first automobile memory was the inspiration for whatever you want to call that piece of writing above — a prose poem, a cry for help?  My memory is of careening through a blizzard one Christmas Eve, my mother at the wheel. No one should have been out driving that night, given the visibility, but more to the point, my mother was drunk — so bombed that she eventually scraped the front bumper of our family Chevy across the side panels of two or three parked cars.

I was six or so. “Don’t worry,” my mother kept telling me. “I’m all right.”

But she wasn’t, and she knew it.
We were a block from our house when it finally dawned on Mom that skimming metal to metal against a line of parked cars was not acceptable, no matter how much snow was falling, or what the holiday. Her response was to drive two miles out of her way, straight down snow-drifted West 8th Street, to the City Hall police station. Once there, she turned herself in.

The officers behind the desk, perhaps already caught up in their own Christmas Eve revelry, seemed to find my mother’s predicament amusing. I don’t remember, but I’m guessing they took down the pertinent information. Or maybe they didn’t. It was Christmas after all.

What I do remember is that they drove us home in a black-and-white cruiser, with chains on the tires.
 
Ten years later, I turned sixteen. My friend Peter had a Volvo — or rather, his father had a Volvo — and throughout most of our high school years we would pass the weekend evenings by filling the Volvo’s interior with sweet marijuana smoke and cruising the boulevards of our lakefront hometown. This was in the early 70s.

The smoke gave everything in our world a pleasant, surreal quality. It served as an antidote to the edgy boredom of our teen years. It blocked out the trouble all of us were having at home. It connected us with our older brothers and sisters, the Woodstock kids.

Sometimes Peter, Jim, Danny and I would stop in the K-Mart parking lot, get all “smoked up,” then go inside to watch the night-owls shop under fluorescent lights. The shoppers seemed so oddly significant, examining boxes of detergent in the unnatural glare.

We would giggle a lot.

Then we would drive some more.
 
The first car I ever owned was a putty-colored ‘72 Datsun. I bought it for $400 in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. I couldn’t drive a standard shift, though the car I purchased had one, so my friend Palmer drove me around for the first few days. Eventually — yes, we were high — he taught me to drive the car myself.

Palmer was a drug dealer. He was my drug dealer. But we also hung out.
I think it amused him to have a friend like me — straight-arrow, studious, a campus leader. It amused me to have a friend who dealt drugs. My little walk on the wild side. Plus, the drugs were always available, often free. I had developed a problem.

One night we were playing cards at Palmer’s dining room table when four men kicked in the door. They had guns, and were not pleasant. They took the drugs, and money, and sped away in a Ford.
 
My second car was a 1966 VW Beetle, with an engine not much larger than what you might find in a mid-sized snowblower. The 12-volt electrical system could barely power the lights — they often dimmed when the car accelerated. There was no heat.

I loved that car. Still do. Wish I still had it.

One late December afternoon, I took my VW onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As chance would have it, a massive ice storm moved in quickly behind me, covered every surface with a dangerous, glassy sheen. But I didn’t stop. I was determined to get home.

In those days, smoking marijuana while driving made long car trips palatable, passed the time quickly, helped me stay alert — there was no real end to my rationalizations for what had at that time become a clear addiction. But the fact is, I almost never drove any distance without my pipe and baggie at my side.

So I smoked a little weed as the ice storm started, and the drive soon enough became an endless, surreal ordeal of ice and stalled automobiles blocking the lanes.  What should have been a four-hour drive stretched into twelve. The little VW was steady and reliable though, until about my tenth hour of driving — it was nearing midnight now — when I came to an upgrade just before the Kittatinny Tunnel. The road was a sheer sheet of ice at this point. I went nowhere. My tires merely spun in place.

I spotted the huge headlights of a tractor-trailer coming up in my rear view mirror, and thought, “Oh God, I’ve done it now.” The lights kept coming. I kept spinning. The tires whined. Nothing.

Let’s step back a minute:
    • The VW Beetle wasn’t called “bug” for nothing. It was small, eminently squashable.
    • The Pennsylvania Turnpike is notoriously dangerous, even in good weather.
    • This was a severe ice storm.
    • And I was high, in only partial control of my reactions, reflexes, and senses.

How stupid could I have been?

The truck continued forward until it hit me. Or rather, nudged me — quite gently, given the vehicle’s enormous size. The unseen driver slowly and deliberately placed the tractor-trailer’s front end directly onto the rear of my tiny lump of German engineering, locked his front bumper onto the VW’s engine compartment, and pushed me up the hill, into the tunnel, where the pavement was dry and traction was again possible. Then he slowed enough for me to move forward on my own power.

For some time I thought it had been an act of kindness, but later surmised that the driver of that truck was maybe just watching out for himself. He was headed to New York City, most likely, something important in back, or at least something he would be paid for if delivered in time, and pushing me up the hill, into the tunnel, meant he could keep moving forward.

I waved as he passed me on the downgrade, but God only knows what he was thinking.  

Let me guess, “There’s an idiot in that little car.”
There was.

4. “Man had created the thing in his own image

In many ways, our cars define who we are.
A down-to-earth patriot? Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet.
A rebel? Every revolution begins with a single act of defiance (Toyota).
Dissatisfied? Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?

Drunk? Suddenly, the world’s glass is half full again (Volkswagen).
 
Both of my parents drove drunk, with regularity. Our current president drove drunk, in his younger days. My own shameful record of motor vehicle impairment is chronicled above. And I am writing this essay during the 2002 Christmas holiday, amidst the endless rounds of seasonal parties revolving around booze and food. All around me I see people drinking, far more than normal, but I don’t see them walking home.

An honest person has to admit that though drinking and driving is universally condemned, it is still widely practiced, and in most cases, no one intervenes. Thank goodness most of us have enough sense not to drive when we can’t walk, that only a regrettable few of us are desperate, misguided enough to weave across lanes of traffic, enter the highway by way of the off-ramp.

But for most of us: a few beers at a party, and off we go. Where’s the line?
 
I remember my amazement when I moved to Louisiana and encountered “Drive-Thru Daiquiri” stands. In my native Pennsylvania, we still operate under antiquated State Store laws, limiting the sale of liquor to scarce locations with restricted hours. In Louisiana, I discovered, you could buy whiskey from a rack, right next to the gas station cash register. You could do this on a Sunday morning, if that appealed to you.

I later learned — to my further amazement — that it was legal to drink and drive in the Pelican State. “Y’all can wave your open beer can out the window at a police officer if you want. It’s okay?” It was not legal to be drunk and drive — there was a blood alcohol level above which you could not stray — but the casual beer, or a strawberry daiquiri in a “to go” cup, was just fine.

At first I thought my new Louisiana neighbors were being decadent. Lately, I think they were just being honest.
Our cars are mere extensions of our selves.
And we love our booze, pot, soma.
 
5. or rather in the image of his favorite character in fiction.”

Remember Brave New World?
Huxley’s futuristic novel spends much of its first chapter narrating electrical shocks administered to infants, a form of mental pre-conditioning meant to make the “khaki babies” averse to flowers.

Why flowers?  The simple love of nature, the Director of the Hatchery explains, doesn’t quite do enough to encourage citizens “to consume manufactured articles as well as transport.”

In Huxley’s fictional world, transport is all-important. “Our Lord” is replaced with “Our Ford.”  Crosses have their tops lopped off, to resemble T’s. (As in Model T’s.)  “Ford’s in his flivver,” the Director remarks at one juncture. “All’s well with the world.” The State wants citizens to purchase vehicles, and then to fill the storage compartments with costly gear — mountain bikes, Polartech fleece, Global Positioning Systems, $200 poly/nylon, micro rip-stop shell, super-wicking sleeping bags — before heading into the mountains.

I’ve modernized the list, of course, because Huxley is not around to do so himself.  Nor is he able to witness all of those SUV commercials that fill modern television. Who needs legs? the ads tell us. Load it all up and drive to the top of the mountain!
Clearly, the State has won.
 
In Huxley’s novel, the brave new world order is enforced by encouraging the use of narcotics — calming soma — rather than bombs. Intimidation has only limited power, the controllers assert, because violent tactics merely build up resentment in the minds of the oppressed. Soma, we learn, is far more effective in keeping the lower middle class blissfully quiet and fully productive.

Which makes me wonder why Dick Cheney and his crowd are so against marijuana legalization.
 
6. “I laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks.”

Julian Heiklen, a Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, wonders the same thing. A perennial candidate for local office on the Libertarian ticket, he regularly issues statements such as, “It is immoral to arrest someone for owning a vegetable. We have the right to keep and bear vegetables.”

The vegetable Heiklen wants us to keep and bear is marijuana, and his habit of staging downtown State College smoke-ins displeases and embarrasses Penn State administrators — my employers.

Thankfully, I many years ago moved beyond my own pot addiction, but I can still giggle at the thought.
 
A few years back, Heiklen set his lawn chair in the middle of a main intersection and handed out a flyer that read:

Hello! I am Professor Julian Heicklen, and I love our children. I want to do everything I can to protect them, and that is why we are blocking traffic today. Automobile accidents are responsible for more child deaths each year than any other accident and most natural causes. We want to outlaw the automobile. Anyone owning an automobile should be imprisoned.

He gave reasons, including these:

— Unlike marijuana, which has never been responsible for a single death in all of human history, the automobile kills 44,000 people each year in the United States alone. It maims and injures many more people.
— Unlike marijuana, which is not criminogenic, the automobile is highly criminogenic. It leads to manslaughter, reckless endangerment, driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding, and parking violations. It also is used in the commission of crimes, such as arson and armed robbery.

He also pointed out that unlike marijuana, the automobile has no clear “medicinal use,” and that people “deprived of their cars display irritability and irresponsibility.”

In short, the car is a recreational drug, and we are addicted.
 
7. “We re-entered the house. A meal had been prepared. Somebody, who was not yet identical with myself, fell to with ravenous appetite. From a considerable distance and without much interest, I looked on.”

In Doors of Perception, Huxley’s readers will find a passage — one that follows closely on those sentences used as headings for this essay — wherein Huxley expounds further on his mescaline-fueled car trip:

And then, abruptly, we were at an intersection, waiting to cross Sunset Boulevard. Before us the cars were rolling by in a steady streamthousands of them, all bright and shiny like an advertiser’s dream and each more ludicrous than the last.

He goes on:

Once again I was convulsed with laughter. The Red Sea of traffic parted at last, and we crossed into another oasis of trees and lawns and roses. In a few minutes we had climbed to a vantage point in the hills, and there was the city spread out beneath us. Rather disappointingly, it looked very like the city I had seen on other occasions.

He is looking, I suspect, for transcendence, some sort of mystical vision. But from my own previous experience, I would say he was merely stoned.
 
8. “When the meal had been eaten, we got into the car and went for a drive.”

Here is the rest of my dream car story:
The boys with the Schwinns and Huffies didn’t sit in the abandoned Pontiac that afternoon, though that is exactly what you might expect four such boys to do. We crawled through the rusting shell, but we carefully didn’t lower our bottoms onto the sour, scratchy seats.

We could easily imagine that something awful, something dangerous had occurred here, or why else would the car have been left to rot? Maybe alcohol was involved. Maybe something worse.

We were as naïve as boys of our age are meant to be — knew little about drinks, drugs, or Huxley’s warnings about mechanization and the inherent danger of a society based on the shallow consumption of manufactured goods — but we could sense power. We knew it resided here, in this object, this magical abandoned automobile.

We sensed the energy in this hunk of metal. Rusted, stripped, the engine long dead, even this forsaken wreck held a promise we could not yet fully identify.

You will have a car someday, it promised.

You will be an adult, and all of what is hinted at here will be a part of your life. You will hold this enormous power in your hands, and use it, or abuse it, as you wish.
You will become addicted.
But I wanted one anyway.

© Dinty Moore

Dinty W. Moore is the author of three books, including The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still (Algonquin, 1997) and Toothpick Men (MAMMOTH, 2000). He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harper's, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Utne Reader, Crazyhorse, and Arts & Letters. More information on his work can be found at www.dintywmoore.com


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