I was in my early twenties and managed a record store in Times Square (and holy crap, does that sound like ancient history). I shared an apartment with my friend Steve in Jackson Heights, Queens, and all I really remember from that hazy time was the two of us getting high regularly, listening to the Allman Brothers Band and Steely Dan and eating lots of pizza.
Anyway, here's how the day started: I woke up from a terrible dream where someone with a gun was chasing me. This would become a recurring nightmare in the years to come, but what really freaked me out that morning was hearing the phrase "shot in the head" over and over, as if some spectral madman was whispering it in my ear.
I shakily went to work in the afternoon and as soon as I set foot in the record store, George, the assistant manager, who was an even bigger stoner than I was, came running up to me.
"Hey, man. Carlito is looking for you," he said. "He mentioned something crazy about you being shot in the head."
I froze. And then felt my heart beating out of my chest. "What did you say?" I asked him. It felt like I was back in my bad dream.
"He said that someone was going to come in here and shoot you in the head. Maybe today," George said a little too eagerly, almost excited to see how this was going to play out. "You should probably go talk to him, man."
Carlito was a petite, gay Brazilian man with a bad complexion who appropriately worked in the international section of the record store. He had impeccable musical taste and turned me on to Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso and all of the Gilbertos. He was also a white witch who practiced Santeria.
"What the fuck, Carlito!?" I asked, now in a full-blown panic. "Who's going to shoot me in the head? How do you know this? What can I do? Should I just quit and split right now?"
Carlito remained impassive and put his arm around my shoulder. "I can help you, Larry. But you're going to have to follow my instructions," he said. "Come to my apartment tomorrow and we will ask the spirits to intervene."
I began to describe my awful dream to Carlito and, feeling that this was much more than coincidence, started to shake uncontrollably. "That was one of your spirit guides warning you," he said and then added, "That reminds me. When you come by tomorrow, bring a live chicken."
It just so happened that Carlito lived a few blocks from me in Jackson Heights and knew where I could buy this especially fresh poultry in our neighborhood (and no, it wasn't KFC). I paid a few dollars to an old man who didn't speak English and was given an extremely angry bird, all trussed up in a burlap bag.
When I got to Carlito's place, he took the bag and told me to follow him into the kitchen. He was wearing several beaded necklaces and a feathered headdress, and as evidence of where my head was at, I didn't find that particularly unusual. He then began to chant a few words in what sounded like Portuguese — while holding the chicken by its neck in one hand and a knife in the other.
After reciting a long incantation, Carlito then sliced the chicken's throat with one deft stroke. He carefully drained its blood, pouring some into a small cup and pointed me to the living room … where he proceeded to rub the dead chicken all across my arms, legs and body while again chanting something that sounded like Milton Nascimento, if Nascimento was providing the soundtrack to a horror movie. I stood there completely still, paralyzed with fear, thinking that this was the single craziest thing I had ever done in my life. And that maybe it wasn't really all that crazy because it was going to save me.
Carlito motioned for us to sit down in front of what looked like a small makeshift shrine and explained that sacrificing the chicken was a gift to the spirit and a sign of devotion. He meticulously poured a cup of chicken blood (it's good for the soul!) over the shrine and lit a cigar, symbolically blowing smoke into the spirit's mouth. Then he took a large swig of rum and sprayed it all over the place. It was now time to ask for the spirit's help.
Carlito appeared to be in a trance, chanting wildly, and the only words I understood were my name and "protect." When he finished, he handed me four chunks of coconut shells and explained that I needed to ask yes or no questions about the future and then roll the shells like dice to divine the answers. I remember doing this and something about there being a significance to whether the shells landed with the black side or the white side up. But to be honest, I was more concerned with the immediate present than the future and just wanted to get the hell out of there.
Carlito announced that I was now protected and would no longer have to worry about being shot in the head. Obviously, things turned out for the best.
Soon after this encounter, I quit working at the record store–and stopped getting high for three whole weeks.