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April 21, 2014

The Time Traveler

In September of 1970, I started working at an herb shop called The Herb Shop, on Chapel Street in New Haven CT. It was an offshoot of an organic food store on Whalley Ave. called ... that's right, The Food Store. I worked with John Thompkins who was a co-owner of both.

We had several enterprises working in the shop. We sold books on herbalism, spices and herbs for cooking, herbs for healing, custom blended perfumes (my particular specialty), and some kick-ass legal herbal smoking mixtures.

We didn't do a lot of business. Often the morning's profits were blown on a bagful of eggrolls from the Chinese restaurant two doors down. But there was a steady clientèle for our curry and chili powders, Mexican and Middle Eastern saffrons, and other culinary spices. The customers for medicinal herbs were more sporadic. We'd have a run on elderflower and mint during cold season, and once when there was an outbreak of VD we did a huge amount of sales of uva ursi and similar herbs.

I was usually the only person in the shop. I became fairly expert in the use of old Materia Medicas, Culpepper's Herbal, and Jethro Kloss' Back To Eden.

The sideline I started in natural fragrances became something of a style. I'd send the prospective customer to have their horoscope done and palm read, then I would do a tarot reading and blend the perfume accordingly. It wasn't entirely bullshit. I had a bit of a nose, had experimented with different skin chemistries, and seemed to have an instinct for the right combinations. I probably could have done it without all the new age folderol but people liked it.

My favorite customer was Tom. Tom was always dressed nicely with a spotless white shirt and striped tie under a grey suit. He also wore a battered old Panama hat that emphasized the mahogany of his skin. He carried himself with dignity and grace and was both charming and courtly.

When he first came into the shop, he asked if I would let him browse the labeled jars behind the counter. I assured him that he was welcome to. After about 30 minutes of study, he came back to the counter and wrote out a list. He was asking for so many ounces of hyssop, and about half that of thyme and on and on. There were about 15 different herbs on his list.

I pulled out a number of plastic bags, but he stopped me. "If you don't mind, please just put them all in the same bag. Paper if you have it."

The mixture didn't sound edible to me, nor particularly potpourri sweet (although it did include dried rosebuds), but he was the customer so I created the mix for him. He laid a few well-worn dollar bills on the counter in payment, thanked me and walked out. About a week later he was back with a different list of herbs. This became a regular event.

After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him what he did with these seemingly illogical blends. He was polite but didn't answer. It took several more visits before he sighed and shook his head.

"Well son," he said, "I've lived through a lot of lives. I was a carpenter in China, a farmer in France, a soldier in Russia, an olive picker in Italy, and a stonecutter in Egypt."

I looked at him in amazement. He was certainly old enough to have done all those things but somehow it didn't seem likely. "When were you in Italy?" I asked. "I lived in Naples for a couple of years."

He chuckled, "It was long before you were born, son. As I recollect, it was back in the time of the Borgias."

Well of course I knew he was either crazy or deluded, but he was a good customer and I still wanted to know how he used the herbs that I sold him. So I asked him to tell me more.

Tom told me that he had an unusual memory. He could remember fragments of each of his previous lives. The earliest fragment was from Egypt. I may have sounded as if I was scoffing when I asked if he had worked on the pyramids, but he shooks his head and said, "Oh no, nothing so grand as that, I did some house foundations and sometimes some roadwork."

I asked how it was that he could remember all those lives. "I can't even remember the name of my third grade teacher," i said.

"About 20 years ago," he told me, "I started remembering bits and pieces. It turned out that the memories came when I smelled certain things. I started developing formulas or recipes that would make it easier to remember. After a while I could make the memories of a specific life happen."

"How do you do it?" I asked.

"The herbs in that bag you just made up for me is the recipe that will take me back to ancient Egypt. I divide it into four portions and tie it into a linen bag, then I steep it in a covered pot of boiling water for an hour. I run myself a steaming hot tub of water and pour the herb liquid in. Then I climb in and close my eyes. It takes about five minutes until I'm walking down the streets of Memphis."

I was startled for a moment, as if there was some kind of a disconnect. Then I remembered that Memphis, TN was named for the ancient Egyptian city.

Over the next few months, he told me more about his past lives. I saved the recipes and the target time and geography of each, but I was never able to get them to work for me.

Eventually we couldn't keep the store going and had to close. When Tom came in for the last time, I had packaged up as much of the remaining stock as I could into his formulas, labeled them and sent him off with a year's supply of free time travel.