Downtown, way downtown, down Broadway forever, you make a right at the World Trade Center and you’re there: an outdoor lunch café, nestled between the twin towers. At noon, it’s a depressing place—a smattering of patio furniture on pebbled concrete, a bunch of harried suits, and enough phone radiation to fry countless brain cells. But at four or five in the morning, the scene is spectacular in its enormous silence. The bread trucks haven’t started their routes, and the loud, the fabulous, and the bleary-eyed would never stray this far from their beaten Village paths. The stillness of the steel and glass behemoths that rise to seeming infinity cements a post-apocalyptic vision. And at one corner, where the towers meet a locked and darkened shopping mall, a natural vacuum pulls a steady current of air from the Hudson. You can hear it, and walk toward it, against it, to feel it on your face.
Of course, what do I know? I was on acid last time I was there.
Legions of adventurers, with groups of friends or on solo missions—from beats and hippies through punks, junkies, and clubbers—have gained intimate lysergic acquaintance with this gnarled, soot-covered labyrinth of a city. They’ve trolled night’s quiet streets or braved the frenetic pace of day, leaving their trails graciously unmarked for future discovery. Some would say there’s no better way for newcomers to introduce themselves to the capital of the world.
Some would also add that lysergic acid diethylamide is a Schedule I drug, the possession and distribution of which is punishable with stiff jail time. It can be a very unstable hallucinogenic, occasionally inducing panic (or uncontrollable giggles). It seems to make a lot of users resemble David Crosby when they hit middle age. And let’s face it: LSD is not what it used to be. It has gone the cultural route of cheap East Village walk-ups and heroin addicts on St. Marks—in theory you can still find those, too. In today’s hipster downtown, the emphasis is on fabulous and presentable; people choose outfits just to hang out in a bar. Excusing yourself while beer bottles talk to you or the walls melt gets you on the B-list, fast. And although candy-flipping (an Ecstasy and acid cocktail) enjoyed a brief moment in the Orange Sunshine of the mid-’90s rave scene, most club dealers have abandoned LSD for the profit margins of pills. Not that most of the clientele seems to mind: Enough MDMA and even the sexual predators seem well-intentioned.
Determined to seek God in the graffiti anyway? You should know that dealers and distribution have suffered due to recent busts. It is not easy for the casual user to find LSD in New York City; most telephone delivery services offer pills, powders, and pot, but hallucinogenics are tough to come by in those circles. Would-be trippers often head to shows—popular LSD scenes include Goa trance parties (a techno subculture transplanted from India’s southwest coast) and, of course, anything that attracts a tie-dyed crowd (Widespread Panic, Phil Lesh, etc). Don’t let anyone tell you to watch out for the Scooby Doo acid, either. Blotter paper is sold preprinted, so several chemists can wind up with the same look.
Nighttime is the right time for exploring. Times Square at sunset, with its frenzied energy and kaleidoscopic colors, is the closest the sober will ever come to experiencing LSD, and so it makes a potential starting point. The tourists will also be staring like happy morons at the tall buildings and the flashing lights; you’ll blend right in. Later, you and yours will probably want to steer clear of claustrophobic crowds and see the city that never sleeps as it half-snoozes. Use the better-lit small parks downtown when you need a moment to chill; visibility equals safety, even though you probably won’t be the only folks on a park bench mumbling to inanimate objects. Catch a sunrise over South Street Seaport. And know your late-night joints. Smalls in the West Village, for example, is a comfortable, laid-back little jazz club that’s cheap at the door, BYOB (though the soda is free), and open till eight in the morning.
One of the legacies of Mayor Giuliani’s police state is that the streets are exponentially safer at night. Sure, there are still pockets of sketchiness. And you’ve already done too many drugs if you think Central Park after dark makes sense. But once you acclimate to the city enough to know where you shouldn’t be walking in any frame of mind or time of day, you’ll see that Rudy has turned Manhattan into one big, gentrified playground for the adventuresome of synapse.
Whatever your trip, wherever you wander, know this: When, the next morning, you can’t remember the Meaning of Life you were so unequivocally able to distill from that earthworm or Dorito or empty purple lighter you found in the street? For God’s sake, it was just the acid.