Friday night after my son went to sleep, I walked up to Dupont Circle, to buy a Philip K Dick book as a birthday present for my friend V___. I gave her a copy of my novel too. It’s a rash and adolescent thing, to include one’s own writing along with Philip K Dick’s, but I did. Got punished in advance.
It was a warm summer night and I was dressed sloppily, shorts and mocs and a black T-shirt with a Triumph car logo over a Union Jack.
As I crossed P Street, a brown-haired white man blocked my path, clipboard in hand. This happens weekly. Greenpeace, Planned Parenthood, US PIRG, Human Rights Campaign, all panhandling for virtue. But, I stopped.
“Excuse me,” the man asked, “but do you know where I can find an optometrist that is open twenty-four-seven?”
I looked him over. Isthmi of sweat on his black polo shirt. Gray jersey sweatpants in this heat. No non-profit badge. Crazy? Tourist?
“No,” I said. “We’re too liberal for a Wal-Mart around here. There’s an excellent hospital just a few blocks –”
“Yes, but I need an — I need, you know –”
“An eye doctor?”
“Yes!” he said, entirely too relieved that I understood him. Then the design on my T-shirt completely absorbed his attention. “Excuse me, but are you British?”
“No-oo. If you need a hospital, go down to 23nd Street and left five blocks –”
“But would they have any way of treating synethesia?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Drugs, maybe? I need to go –”
“Oh but thank you!” he said. “I really feel you helped me out. Is there some way I can recompense you? I don’t have –”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Just pay it forward.”
“Oh! Well. You know, I wish I could but I don’t have a sixth sense or anything?”
Ha. The Sixth Sense and Pay It Forward both starred actor Haley Joel Osment. ‘Method in it’ maybe, but I take the baby monitor after ten PM, and no one wants to be some sweaty loon’s Polonius. I walked away.
He shouted after me. “Don’t you think there should be seven senses, at least? Like, one of humor?”
One day non-profits will attack street performers for pissing off the bleeding hearts with schtick. Andy Kaufman was lucky to go first.
The bookstore was big and bright. I had hoped to buy my friend V___ a copy of Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, about an alien con man using a virtual-reality hallucinogenic chewing gum to become a messianic cancer. (Read it before you buy your wife a genetic upgrade.) Alas the only version in stock was one of four novels, in a staid black shrinkwrapped hardbound Library of America edition.
Doubly problematic. As a gift, one novel is thoughtful, four is peremptory. As a giver — OK, bear with me. I collected Philip K Dick books in my high-school days, long before he became respectable. I searched out all his yellowed paperbacks in any used bookstore I could find across America and Europe, less to own the complete set than to read his every fevered word. I am very glad he is being preserved for everyone on acid-free paper now, but for me, a Philip K Dick book without a luridly-colored cover misses an essential part of the experience, like an espresso in a sippy cup.
Of the others, the best choices were VALIS and The Man in the High Castle. I read pages of each. Both are gnostic texts, separated by two decades, showing Dick’s progress from a writer obsessed with the hidden to an ecstatic to whom truth was revealed. In The Man in the High Castle the Axis won World War Two, but one writer uses the I Ching to discover his world is a false one. VALIS is a thinly-veiled fiction of the visions Dick endured in the 1970s, which (after diagnosing his son’s inguinal hernia, which doctors missed) revealed a veil of false time had been drawn over humankind since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 72 AD/CE, keeping us from the return of the Messiah.
I went with VALIS, mainly because it’s a more desperate novel, and also because it had a Roberto Bolaño blurb which would speak better to V___.
On my way out I saw the guy with the clipboard, heading to the children’s section, talking to a bookstore staffer. He spoke with a British accent now.
Some books just leak crazy, irrespective of space and time. An essential part of the experience. I walked home wishing what I’ve wished since childhood, that I could write half as well as Philip K Dick did without suffering quite so much. I worry that I can’t. I worry that I already have and missed it.