"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Afraid of Dying? Take LSD, Peyote, or Psilocybin

Jimmy Cianci’s father owned the rock quarry in Plainville and Cianci Construction Company and between the two the name Cianci was everywhere.  Tony Cianci had locked up contracts with the cities of New Brighton, Bristol, and Newington and built sidewalks, roads, and government buildings.  Word had it that there were bodies buried both under the tons of crushed rock at the quarry and under the sidewalks of Paterson Street in Meriden.  In those days Italians had only a few trades - Mafiosi, gangsters, barbers, and construction workers - so the rumor was probably true.  My father always said that it was neither coincidence nor Tony Cianci’s business acumen that landed him the parking garage contract in Wallingford. “Money and muscle”, he said. “Can’t beat that”.

Many years I ran into Jimmy Cianci at Paulson Bros. Winery in Napa Valley.  He was trying one of their new Bordeaux blends and liked it so much that he bought a case to be shipped to Connecticut.  It was Jimmy for sure, but age had not been kind to him, and if he hadn’t given his name, I never would have guessed.  He sagged and drooped, and for some reason he had trimmed his eyebrows down to scruffy beard length.  This gave him a startled look, and coming out of his fleshy face, it seemed like it belonged to someone else. “When did you move to California?”, I asked.

“Five years ago”, he said. “To cheat the Grim Reaper”.

We moved to a table outside the wine tasting room.  The winery was built high up in a eucalyptus grove and overlooked acres of merlot, pinot, and cabernet grapes.  The view was spectacular, the weather was unseasonably warm, and the wine was excellent.

There was nothing seriously wrong with Jimmy, I learned – no bum ticker, cancer, or Alzheimer’s.  He just couldn’t  ‘get his head around’ dying and had heard of a retreat in Pasadena which was run by a disciple of Timothy Leary. Under controlled conditions terminally ill patients were given the same drugs that we all took in the Sixties – acid, peyote, and psilocybin – and the out-of-body experiences produced by the powerful hallucinogens showed that death was really nothing to fear, simply a beautiful passage.  “Like a puff of smoke swirling in the summer breeze”, Jimmy quoted from the brochure. 

Jimmy it turned out had made a fortune in the construction business. After college he took over his father’s quarry and building enterprises, liquidated them during the boom times of the 80s, invested in an Indian casino near the Rhode Island border, and in a short time had made over five-hundred percent on his investment.  He made millions more through Wall Street investments, and thanks to under-the-radar tax shelters and money havens in Curaçao and Aruba, he weathered the financial crisis of 2007.  He was a rich man, married to his wife of 40 years and father of two successful adult children.

By any measure he should have been happy, content, and emotionally prosperous; but he was not.  As he moved into his late 60s, he was hit with a Black Dog funk and a desperate fear of dying. It wasn’t fear of the unknown, he said, nor the agonies of a painful death.  It was disappearing.  “One day you’re here”, he said, “The next day you’re gone.  Somebody turns the lights off.  It’s that simple.”

“I tried everything”, he said. “Did you know that you can take a different anti-depressant every day of the year, and you still can’t exhaust the varieties and brands? America is a great country”.  The medications, however, did not work. “Xanax doesn’t get rid of your anxiety. Xanax tells you not to feel it for awhile until it stops working and you take the next pill.  I forgot about my balky psyche for a while, but it didn’t take long before I was gimping along like before.  The worst part of it was I felt more anxiety than before I took the pill”.

The doctors kept ramping up his prescriptions until he was barely functional.  “I didn’t obsess about my death”, he said, “but I didn’t know the difference between asparagus and guinea worms either”.

“I hated getting up in the morning.  Not because I had to face another day of anxiety, but because I had to go through the same routine as the day before and the day before that.  I made my bed, brushed my teeth, put on my clothes, and made my tea. ‘But I just did this’, I said to myself.  Twenty-four hours had passed, an increasingly large fraction of the time I had left to live. Only when I started to make my bed, smooth the wrinkles, and adjust the pillows did I realize that a day had passed.  It was the bedcovers that did it.

“I did what all men do when they see that the tunnel ahead has no light at the end.  They take a young mistress or have a fling with a thirty-something in the office. My time with Laura was not just unforgettable, it was transforming, rejuvenating, and resuscitating. For two years the very thought of mortality never crossed my mind.  It was like bringing a beater to a car wash – candy and pennies on the floor, bits of gum wrappers, pencil nubs, and beach sand, bug stains, and pollen scum; and then like magic, out it comes bright, clean, and looking like new. ‘Fuck Xanax’, I said. ‘Give me young pussy any time’”.

Jimmy’s girlfriend benefited from the May-September love affair as well.  Ironically she felt older, more mature, and much more satisfied than she ever had been with younger men. He understood and loved women, took his time, listened, and best of all went on forever. “Fuck Xanax”, he said, “but gimme Viagra”.  Although it was a mutually satisfying affair, they both knew it couldn’t last.  She wanted to get married and have children, and realized that for Jimmy she was just a Ponce de Leon; and the more she thought of it, the sicker it sounded.

“So I moved to California and became a resident of Santa Clara Wellness Institute, Charles S. Perkins, Proprietor.

“I never would be in this situation if I had inherited more genes from my father.  That old guinea knew that one day he would drop in his tracks shoveling a load of gravel into the back of a dump truck, or would tip over into his macaroni, but he could care less. ‘When ya gotta go, ya gotta go’, the old man said.  ‘Besides, what’ve you got to worry about?’, he asked me.  ‘Your grandfather Guido lived until he was 101.’

“I remembered Pop Pop Cianci who indeed lasted over a hundred, but by the time he finally threw in the towel he was just a bag of bones who could only function in one way – he could tell time.  Every fifteen minutes he croaked out the hour.  “Ten fifteen”, he yelled.  “Ten thirty”.  The staff of the nursing home decided to see what would happen if they removed the clock, but Guido Cianci simply made up the numbers which, as it turned out, were uncannily exact.  When he howled “Eleven thirty” at a blank wall, the clock around the corner chimed the same time.

“I never paid any attention to doctors who, when treating me for Death Anxiety, repeated what my father said.  When I heard, ‘You’re in great health.  You have the prostate of a young man’, I always replied, ‘Numbers don’t lie’.  At seventy, I told the doctors, I only have a few years left, health or no health. In fact all my medical decisions these days are on an actuarial basis.

“My endodontist recently said that he would have to pull an infected tooth. ‘You have three choices’, he said. ‘The first is an implant which will last you for fifty years. The second is a partial denture – a bit cumbersome and rather expensive, but it will do the trick.  And, of course, you can do nothing’

“Without hesitating I said that I would do nothing. ‘Why should I pay $10,000 for a fancy implant when I won’t be around to chew on it?’.  My left cheek is a bit sucked-in and hollow-looking because there’s nothing inside, but it was the right decision. 

I asked Jimmy about the Timothy Leary treatment, and wondered if it had any more staying power than anything else. “No”, he replied, “and I’m ready to pack my bags. The acid trips were intense, and I did have the predicted out-of-body experiences; but I remember when I was looking down on my body from some airy space, I started to laugh because this is what I was supposed to see.  It was worse than the zombie B movies we used to watch at the Palace when we were kids.

“’You’re over-intellectualizing’, the doctor said.  “Remember the old days, just let it be’; but he was just whistlin’ Dixie.  I could no more go back to the trippy days of the Village in 1968 than I could to my father’s rock pile.  My bullshit shield had simply become too thick.

I asked him if he had kept up with our old New Brighton friends – Greggy Panos, Bruce Feldman, and Nicky Pantucci. We all used to hang out a lot, play baseball on the Green, swim at Stanley Quarter Park, and play wiffle ball in Herbie Swanson’s back yard. “Strange you should ask”, replied Jimmy.  “I have kept in touch with them.  The funny thing about stereotypes is that they are true.  Greg Panos worked the counter at the Athens Diner, and after he inherited it from his father, doubled it in size and turned it from a bums’ eatery by the bus station into a family affair, started a chain of family-style Greek restaurants and made a bundle. 

“Bruce Feldman took over the furrier business, but had this gay thing about dead animals and moved to San Francisco where I lost track of him; and Nicky Pantucci heard so many thinly-veiled references to hits, contracts, and ‘making millions off the shines’ at the Mafioso barber shop where he worked, that there was no chance he would stay straight; and after moving up the goomba ranks in Newark and Bayonne, he got careless and is now spending the rest of his days locked up in Tucson.”

“Greggy never had to worry about dying because he collapsed in one of his kitchens at age 50.  Bruce survived the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 80s, and so now is afraid of nothing; and Nicky would just as soon die, I hear, because the conditions in the federal pen where he spends his days are worse than at Angola.”

I was not asking about our friends’ rendezvous with death; but Jimmy, obsessed as he was, could only define people in terms of their equanimity – or at least how they resolved the issue.  “So, what’s next?”, I asked him.  “Back to Connecticut?”.

He said he didn’t know, but that uncertainty was nothing compared to the certainty of death.  I asked him if he ever read the Tolstoy short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a tale of a man even more obsessed with death than Jimmy. Ivan Ilyich too could not get over the fact that he would suddenly disappear, evaporate, be sucked into some black world, or into nothingness.  It has a happy ending, I told Jimmy. “He has an out of body experience at the moment of death and realizes that death actually is the only cure for fear of death”.

“Ah”, said Jimmy. “Now that makes sense”.

I lost track of Jimmy Cianci after our meeting in California.  He wasn’t very good at social media, and for all I know he pulled the plug and joined some millennial cult in the Humboldt County redwoods.  All I know for sure is that one day he will wake up and stop worrying.  With any luck it will be far before his expiry date.

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