Sonny the Psychedelic Cowboy

A Brooklyn enigma’s journey through trauma, raves, and psychedelics

Sonny the Psychedelic Cowboy

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

Soon after I set out to write a book about psychedelics, it became obvious what I would have to do: Trip, and then write about what it was like.
True, I could have relied on the testimony of others,
but that seemed less than satisfying.

– Michael Pollan

Sonny was born in Manhattan in 1975 to a woman who, three days later, remembering neither the labor nor the child, walked out of the hospital, alone. Sonny has since been told that this same unknown woman — her identity sealed by New York State law — had at least six other children, all scattered like dandelion seeds.

Like the rest of us, a young Sonny always carried with him those blurred snapshots of early life. “Like your first memories of someone you really care about,” he would say.

But Sonny’s snapshots are not of someone for whom he cared, nor of someone who cared much for him. They are of an older foster-sibling, who, at the age of seventeen, the dim light of a lamp silhouetting his frame from above, offered Sonny a piece of candy: an M&M. This, Sonny believes, was the first time he took LSD.

The world dissolved. A white cartoon rabbit pulsed against the blue fabric of the older boy’s hat. The world resolved and with it the older boy’s distant shouts rang into an angry focus. In a stupor, Sonny looked around at the scattered piles of his own bloody shit.

Thirty years later, the meaning of this scene was finally understood. Sonny had spent those years abstaining from drugs, but a recent diagnosis of dystempia, a persistent and treatment-resistant form of depression, pushed him to seek a form of relief that counseling had, as yet, failed to provide.

One day, as Sonny relaxed in his Syracuse dorm room under a heavy dose of cannabis, his back pain melted away and these wisps of memory wended their way from the antipodes of his mind. The relaxation became a realization, the realization a panic, the panic a crisis, the crisis a reason; a reason for his dystempia, the reason for all his despair. Sonny had been raped.

I first met Sonny on a cold, wet February evening at a meeting for the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society in a Bushwick coffee shop. Standing up in the middle of a room decorated with paper mache mushrooms, I announced that I was looking for volunteers to share their life-changing experiences with psychedelics. A tall, hunched-over, somewhat shabbily dressed figure with oily, thin brown wires for hair — and too much stubble to be an aesthetic choice — was the first to approach me.

Sonny didn’t wait for the event to end before he made his eagerness known. In the time it took to smoke a cigarette and walk down the snowy block, he told me the beginning of his story.

Sonny’s life began four years after President Nixon, initiating the War on Drugs, called the LSD-evangelist Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” the same year that the Rockefeller Commission unearthed the CIA’s psychedelic mind-control experiment known as MK-Ultra, and two years before the last legal dose of psilocybin would be administered at the famed Spring Grove Hospital in Baltimore.

But for Sonny who, at 33, had already experienced utter abandonment and intense abuse from his family, who had sustained a permanent back injury during his service in the Army, who had been ostracized and socially alienated from his church community, and who had been lost to homelessness and despair in Seattle, this was all-too-little and all-too-late. The research into the drugs that could have helped him sooner remained stagnated by the still-raging War on Drugs.

Fortunately, for Sonny, his impatience to heal overcame his own stigma for illicit drug use. Having now had upwards of 150 psychedelic trips, often combining multiple entheogenic substances in one sitting, Sonny no longer describes himself as depressed. On the wall of his bedroom, Sonny keeps a sticky note bearing an unceremoniously scribbled date with its corresponding significance:

I beat depression.

Like so many clinicians, researchers and Brooklyn Psychedelic Society members, Sonny’s experiences with psychedelics had conferred on him a strong desire to share, to spread the good news. Yet, Sonny’s story risks being subsumed and forgotten as a new impulse, one that seeks to demystify, defang, and make digestible psychedelic substances and their effects, continues to grow.

As research progresses, conventional reporting often adopts and reinforces a scientific distance, pushing readers further from the stories of people like Sonny. Just as prohibition drove the Mazatec mushroom shamans underground in 17th Century Mexico, the promise of legalization today wages a much more silent assault on the legitimacy of Sonny’s story and that of others like him. Already they have become mere silhouettes of cowboys on the horizon of a dying frontier. Though it is the light, not the dark, that overtakes them.

Two weeks after our first meeting, at the end of an interview that stretched past four hours, Sonny and I stood outside my apartment smoking another cigarette. As we started walking to his train, I realized I had not asked Sonny, who lives off veteran’s disability and public assistance, what he did for work. “I don’t work,” he smiled almost blankly, “I play.”

Lacking both the burden of work and the hypocrisy of his former church and faith, Sonny was free to fill his time with a new form of worship. With this spiritual shift came a preference for an altogether unorthodox sacrament – LSD. And so, like a penitent Zacchaeus, I went over the hill to witness, to see this new worship and learn what play meant to someone who’s entire life, until recently, seemed to contain so very little of it.

Having taken my supplements, meditated, groomed, finished my laundry, drank water until my urine was pristinely clear, and taken an ashy resin hit from a pipe that had not been filled with fresh weed in at least two days, I slid, stoned, lucid, and nervous, into the back seat of an Uber with the funky second part of Donna Summer’s "On the Radio" thumping through my headphones.

"Hot Stuff" plays as Sonny lumbered over to where I stood on the agreed-to corner. Sitting here eating my heart out baby as I’m waiting for some lover to come. On his tall, paunchy frame were a pair of baggy jeans, his usual brown buffalo-esque zip-up sweater vest and giraffe-patterned neckerchief. His stubble was closer-shaven, his thinning, medium-length brown hair slicked back with gel, and hefted a Postmates bag pregnant with god-knows-what.

With a slight smile, he greeted me and asked if I was hungry. I’d eaten but follow him into the deli where he ordered a sandwich called the Lakeside Club. Happy to see a familiar face, the checkout clerk asked “How are you, Sonny?”

We sat down, and Sonny added three packs of mayo to his sandwich, four packs of Sugar In the Raw to his Tea Tonic and untangled a tangle of necklaces – his dog tags and a large, swirling blue crystal attached to a shoestring. He slipped them both over his head, letting them dangle above the glittering rainbow heart on his black shirt before opening a prescription bottle labeled FAITH PHARMACY.

He downed an assortment of different colored pills, offered me a 5HTP, which I accepted, and opened a package containing a large, steamed red beet. He ate it ravenously, head arched down, the juice spilling off the side of his lips.

For the most part, Sonny is soft-spoken and gives an air of reformed shyness when he speaks. But now, despite the large wet sandwich in his hands, he is animated. “I actually went to House of Yes last night,” says Sonny, bouncing his knee. “I was supposed to get there at 11. I missed my train – I was so mad. I got there at like a quarter to one.”

He told me about some of his friends, friends he’s met through psychedelics, friends who’s experimentation had led them to using less benevolent drugs. Periodically looking up from his sandwich, Sonny’s pin-hole eyes dilated cheerfully, punctuating the end of his sentences. He wrapped up the remaining half of his Lakeside Club, stashing it in his bag for later.

“It seems more like a burner night from the way they wrote up the event,” said Sonny. “So it should be chill.”

A bearded drag queen in an auburn wig and short white fur coat weaves through the huddled and shivering mass of waiting people, passing out paper cups of hot ginger-lemon tea from a round tray. Sonny slides past the ID check and our wrists are stamped with advice: DRINK WATER.

And then – neons.

Sonny pushes past what, for me, is a full assault of pink and orange light. He finds a corner, thumps his bag down on top of a large floor speaker, and begins to transform.

Losing his coat, Sonny pins two large artificial roses on each shoulder and two dots of mascara under each eye. He slips the feather tassel ends of a gold string over each ear, resting the middle part over the bridge of his nose. The feathers spinning under his lobes, he looks into the mirror again and, with a thin paintbrush, applies a tedious volume of different colored glitter.

Western Pennsylvania, 1990.

Sonny tiptoes down the growing dark of the basement stairs cold with winter. He strains for the slow click of the single string light bulb, turning his head to see what he already knows is there, at the edge of the bulb’s luminescence.

Out of a damp, moldering cardboard box, Sonny caringly extracts a set of clothes – a Christmas gift from a different mother, the mother he deserved but never really had, the second mother of four, the one who wanted him but couldn’t stay – his adoptive mother, who left when Sonny was four.

Weeks had passed since the funeral where she had been pointed out to him and where her own pity called attention to his shabby appearance.

Scared, Sonny springs lightly up the steps with his bundle, too excited for caution. Keeping a constant fearful watch on the driveway for cars, he places them into the wash and waits the eternity between cycles before pulling them warm and fragrant from the dryer. “I’m gonna wear them at least once,” he whispers into their heat.

Three days later, Sonny’s clothes are clean again.

With eyes hot and wet but cheeks dry against the January air, he walks to the rusted barrel in the backyard, carrying his new clothes like an offering past patches of snow.

Like a child being laid down to rest, Sonny places his gifts in the barrel’s bottom and sprays them with a string of lighter fluid. The flame of the struck match fills the distance between two glares before it drops, igniting his projected indifference.

Forty-three and covered in glitter, Sonny offers to make me over, and a song with the lyrics All over my face plays above. With imperceptibly light brushstrokes, Sonny baptizes my upturned face with purple glitter then asks me to check his work in the mirror.

“Do you smoke?” Sonny asks. Assuming he meant weed, I said yes, and we make our way outside where we finish the roach end of a spliff he must have started hours before. It is 11:38, and Sonny introduces me to David.

David is wearing a mustache, a soul-patch, a fedora and thick-rimmed plastic-framed glasses with one lens missing and describes his psychedelic experience from last night as “educational.”

“He keeps a lot of stuff in that bag,” David said of Sonny as he looked for a place to stash his belongings. “Nunchucks, assault rifles, and lots of glitter — but that stuff’s dangerous,” he said, referring to the glitter.

Sonny sits down to remove his jeans to expose black leggings with subtle, wavy neon lines. David offers me a cigarette.

“It’s a menthol,” he says and asks if I knew that 89% percent of black people smoke menthols, by which he must’ve meant either that 89% of black smokers smoke menthols or 89% of menthol smokers are black. “I think I knew that,” I replied.

Together, we re-enter the House. I order another Heineken from the sprig of a bartender with ice-cream-cone earrings.

Above the entrance to the main dance floor on either side, two large, spherical, orange, bloodshot eyes blink slowly — like cautionary sentinels. Sonny takes two excited hops under their gaze and springs confidently into the pool of bodies. The strict stoicism he had previously exhibited has melted into a joyful determination, and I lose him in the sweat, skin, and flashing lights.

House of Yes advertises itself as trafficking in consent. A sign on the wall reads CONSENT IS SEXY MANDATORY, but the economy of the place — whether through the use of costume or drugs — really lies with anonymity. We are family slides into and then overtakes the beat, reverberating from my pelvis to the space behind my jaw. I raise my arms like a protestant idiot, syncing my rhythm with the guy dressed in a white robe as black Jesus.

Sonny is perched on the corner of the catwalk against the large projector screen above the stage, twirling a long neon whip above his 6-foot-3-inch frame and dancing with the blonde-afroed woman who only moments before writhed in pleasure inside of a large, suspended metal birdcage.

He knows I am here. He is watching me, I think. From his perch, he can see me, knows that I am watching. I AM NOW THE WATCHED. This is his testing ground, his home turf, and he is watching — to see if I am real, having fun, enjoying myself, the music, House of Yes. Yes, of course he is. What did I think this would be? A fish bowl that I was going to observe from safety, from outside. I have entered an ocean groove, wearing the requisite Disco scuba gear, and I’m swimming with Sonny in a neon reef where he is the dominant fish.

At 12:43, it’s hotter, busier. Obeying the commandment on my wrist, I sip water at the cooler near the bathrooms before going any further into the night or farther along Sonny’s parade of friends.

Peter, another friend of Sonny’s is wearing yellow-lensed aviators, red satin shirt, tie depicting a couple dancing salsa, and bellbottom slacks. We are shouting at each other about unlearning, abandoning convention, going your own way in your creative pursuits. Competing with the speaker to my back, Peter announces the end of our conversation: “SOMETIMES YOU JUST GOTTA SAY FUCK IT.”

Outside, Ezra, an acquaintance of Sonny’s by way of David, wears an orange-and-black madras-patterned, banded-collar shirt. He is talking with David about their med school days – Ezra graduated, David dropped out. Ezra says David is happier now as he bends and extends his lips to the filter of the cigarette crutched between my index and middle finger, once, twice.

Doubling the group’s size, Sonny wanders back to the courtyard with Joy and another friend. Oozing fondness, Joy tells me of her first conversation with Sonny. After a late night at House of Yes, sitting in a diner booth, warm coffee whispering over their mugs, Joy whispered her demons to Sonny’s patience.

When she had finished, Sonny spoke, telling her just a part of his own troubling story, and then she knew just how patient he had been in his listening. Her eyes are still wet with deep appreciation as I ask her friend for a cigarette.

It’s 2:07. A clot of spectators surround a woman and a drag queen contorting themselves around the perimeter of a cube of silver tubes. I’m unsure why standing still and looking up at the glittery, silver-painted acrobats is more entertaining than dancing. But I haven’t had any acid either. You can’t hide yourself plays all around us. I look up, and Sonny is dancing a few bodies away from David, who, having lost his shirt but not his fedora, is in a trance.

Tired, I linger outside, bumming cigarettes from as many people as I can, waiting to see if there’s going to be an after party. Sonny is more hopeful than I am. It’s cold. He had just seen my embarrassing, passive texts asking for acid “if he had any,” and he apologized for seeing them too late.

“My bad. If I had known, I would’ve given you some,” he offers.

I get into another car around 4, a little disappointed but grateful to be going home. Alcohol had relaxed me enough to want the LSD despite my fear of doing it in public. For a few moments, I felt free on the dance floor, but this was not the funky disco wild I was hoping for. So I left without ever having really gotten there — but, in my sober exhaustion, mostly fine with it.

The next time I saw Sonny, the seasons had changed from the chill wind of March to the wet warm of April. I rode my bike in the humidity to the same Bushwick coffee shop where we had first met, the details of Sonny’s story – the story I had yet to finish – gathering and dispersing repeatedly like storm clouds. Only now, having made up for the drug-free visit to House of Yes with a 14-hour acid trip, I wasn’t sure if the story would ever congeal.

For hours at a time, I sat in front of my computer, the keys periodically clicking – tick-tick-tick tick tick – but something about Sonny’s story seemed as if it would never get written. I had found exactly the right person I wanted to write about, and Sonny’s story – one born out the very womb of trauma yet one that had metamorphosized into an unassailable monument to hope – was perfect. I thought I could do what Pollan, and so many other journalists, refused to do – give a story without the scientifically wrought evidence wedged between it and you.

But after hours of writing and rewriting – and still more hours, eternities, milling it over with a head full of LSD – I still didn’t know what Sonny’s story was really about. Where was the promise of a psychedelic-crumb trail between trauma and peace in Sonny’s story? I had to meet him again, if only to see if more time might reveal the meaning I, only I, was missing.

Sonny had just lost his wallet, which seemed to me like an unfair insult to what his life had already presented in the form of injury. He was distressed, sighing a few fucks. I bought a grapefruit soda water and waited for Sonny to resign himself to the fate of his wallet as members of the psychedelic group strayed in.

“I wasn’t supposed to know about it, but I found out anyway,” said Sonny smiling, shifting his gaze about. Sonny was telling me about an unknown friend – or was it a stranger – who was making some clandestine documentary about his life. I asked what he thought about them doing this without his permission. “As long as they do it with positive intentions, I’m fine with it.”

As the meeting was starting Sonny and I walked outside to smoke. A light rain was beginning to fall. On an iPad with a cracked screen, Sonny showed me the rest of a massive text he was beginning to compile: a book with more than a dozen chapters, a lengthy introduction and a variety of odd, philosophical poems on capitalism, socialism and anarchism.

I didn’t want to say what I thought about the writing, but I agreed that the project was interesting. Sonny’s typically dark eyes brightened – if just a shade – when he spoke about what he hoped would become a living text that many more would contribute to.

Whether because of the lost wallet, his eagerness to talk about his book or simply because of now-heavier falling rain, I never did get Sonny’s attention long enough to talk about the story. He offered to walk with me to the train station, but having just made up my mind to stay at the meeting, I turned, walking back into the warm coffeeshop, hoping Sonny trusted me at least as much as the mystery documentarian.

The opening remarks had finished, and the society president was now offering the mic to anyone who felt moved to share from their experience. I raised my hand.

I stumbled through a recounting of an experience I had during my recent acid trip, and one that I had only previously shared with my partner.

Lying on my bed, I am wearing a sweater that feels the same and looks so close to one my father used to wear. My right hand is resting on my chest, and I can remember resting my cheek against this sweater. An eternal glance at my right hand and it is now my father’s – thick, freckled, wrinkled, with grey hair – resting on what had to be my own broad chest, tired but strong, with matching grey hairs poking just over the sweater’s neck.

Then, like a dream set in one place that feels so much like another, my bedroom became a hospital room – it felt as if it had always been one. And there I was, lying, reclined, waiting for my sons to visit, to seem me lying here, hot tears pouring down my face, my father’s face.

Shaking with nerves, I could not tell the story as well as I had hoped. As I walked away, one in the group stopped me, shook my hand, and smiled. “Thanks for sharing,” he said before I stepped out and into the cool rain.

Sam Broadway

is a 30-something downwardly mobile white man who is shy but will, with the right drugs, speak at greater length than is of interest about African politics, psychedelics, journalism and accelerated eco leisure communism, all subjects on which he also likes to write. He has had exactly 25 jobs and would like to die before that number reaches 27. Sam publishes short, unedited, and uncensored essays on his Substack page, Downwardly Nubile.

All contributions from Sam Broadway

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