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Lynne Bronstein's
Venice Poems

Lynne Bronstein

Ballad of Reading Jail

Kate Braverman

Wanda Coleman

John Kertisz

John Thomas and Philomene Long

Poems and Prose by Philomene and John

Last Days of John Thomas

The Beats: An Existential Comedy

Poet Laureate
Philomene Long

My Philomene

Stuart Z. Perkoff

Eavesdropping on the
Boardwalk

by Anne Alexander

Venice Poems

John O'Kane Venice Poetry

Clair Horner

Buck-or-Two Rap

Gas House beat HQ

GV6: THE ODYSSEY

Majid Naficy

Van Gogh's Ear

In Venice CA

 

ILLUMINATING THE WASTELAND

by John O'Kane

There's still an extended family of free spirits here dedicated to makeovers who'll likely stay as long as their soul mates do, or at least until the haunted spaces vanish. And the Dudley corridor remains a seductive site due to the higher than average ghostly emanations. But since the current improvement program favors demolition over retrofit the competition has cause to worry. Many remaining sites and structures have already been penciled in for action in some broker's sketchbook. With fewer haunted spaces it's getting harder and harder to detect the remains of the old.

There's something to be said for the deghosting of spaces even if not all parties are willing participants. Many surviving vintage properties are hardly worth the sawdust and mulch they'll become anyway. And getting rid of murky memories must enlighten many who see those rehabbed A-frames and condo-boxes as the incarnation of future progress.

Though perhaps the greatest casualty is that these remaining spaces help us commune with a worthy past. They're populated with spirits who refuse to rest because they have something to tell us. And even if these conversations are not always clear they can become reliable links to a valued history. When Wilma over on Meade Place met her dozer back in '99, she chained herself to the scoop. After being forcibly removed she watched her lovely classic bungalow crumble until the last piece of straw was swept into the truck, screaming incoherently:

"….you're taking him away…taking him…..that's where….."

As they took her away she remained mesmerized by the same imagined location in this empty space.

So those dozed structures don't just vanish. They can leave rent-free hotspots for lingering spirits to reach out and touch someone. Though not just anyone! Ghosts speak in tongues becoming ever more difficult to translate in a world where languages with no links in the chain of Wal-Mart lingo are disappearing nearly as fast as the ozone, or natural species since Bush's dumping of Kyoto. You have to be sensitive to their needs while learning to spy the clues left here and there. They're not exactly piling up. But as the demolition permits breed like Santa Ana termite swarms you can occasionally hear some droning discomfort that's starting to make sense.

Or perhaps what's needed is a high-tech boost, some variant of those 3D glasses from the 50s that played with reality. These might expose spectacles and throw clues into relief for us. And if just one vendor on the east side of the Boardwalk could start selling them, instead of those cheap sunglasses, the gypsy signs, hobo scripts and skeletal traces that matter might begin to reveal themselves.

A few steps southeast from the backside of the Cadillac Hotel, just across Speedway, are some not very conspicuous ciphers. At first they seem like little more than smatterings of gray paint that some carefree handyman let drip when doing a smidgen of improvement on the building, the Ellison. They're concentrated on the narrow cement strip that runs along the building and separates it from Speedway, but spill over onto this alley. And they're directly below Philomene Long's cupboard, which fortunately nurtures more skeletal species per square inch than any other remaining Beat enclave in the city. These splats are clues in another patch of haunted space. But this gets ahead of the story…

The Mad Woman of Paloma

Philomene's the only survivor of the original Venice West literary world living here. Frankie Rios, the other, currently lives in Hollywood. Fitting she lives a short block from the site synonymous with Venice West, the Dudley corridor. She's actually lived in this sector of Venice since arriving in 1963, even over on Park for a while near Larry Lipton's original house. So it's no surprise she's almost hysterically devoted to the history that breathes through this blessed stretch, believing the muse is rooted here. We often ramble into the wee hours about whether this power will survive the haunted folks and spaces. She's hopeful.

"…Venice!!!!!…it's been a special place for artists and writers ever since Abbot Kinney created it from the swamp…no matter what's happened, the crash, all the demolitions and changes in population, it survives…the rich people and condos will always be around, we can't stop it, we're helpless…the inspiration's out there for us, all we need to do is….let it happen!!!"

"But what if the time comes when no one knows what's happening?"

She hesitates, overwhelmed with passion…

"There'll still be hotspots bursting through the ignorance…it's in the land!....but if it does pass I accept it….we're all just passing through."

Philomene's existence is enmeshed with Venice's. What remains of the Beat literary institution here stays alive to a great extent because of her devoted discoveries and continued creativity. She was named Venice's Poet Laureate by Councilman Bill Rosendahl during the city's 2005 Centennial. Her acceptance, printed in the Beachhead, is a manifesto for poetry as a power to see better and live committed to what really matters, but especially as the power for keeping a healthy slant on Venice's past and present. And she's used this title to push poetry's cause, even getting political on occasion to help secure funding for Beyond Baroque where she teaches.

I'm walking to Philomene's along Speedway, eager to launch into the weekend with stimulating conversation. I've come prepared for all contingencies. My mental notes are in decent order. I even swung by Henry's Market for Shyla's veggie burger special for ballast in case the language gets liquefied. I approach the final steps below her window, carefully arc my way around the gray splats while paying close attention to traffic on the right.

When I turn left at Paloma there's a lineup already plugging the intercom so I just follow the crowd into the Ellison. Surprising Philomene has advantages. Sometimes I even lie in wait across from the entrance, in front of Eric Clapton's condo, to hitch a code-free pass up the stairs. Dropping in on neighbors is becoming a vanishing art form here. The new residents are transplants whose neighborly vectors point toward gated ghettos in Malibu or other sanctuaries reachable by auto. Though Philomene relishes small-town spontaneity, she does prefer advance notice. It gives her a chance to make sure the closets are closed and any conspicuous cultural paraphernalia removed. She's always apologizing about how messy her place is.

A real enough embarrassment that prompted her son, an exemplary member of Gen Y, to ameliorate the situation with lots of method and fixit savvy while staying with her for several weeks. Perhaps overcompensating for the fallout from their anti-nuclear experiment, he repaid the favor by finding a slot for everything, leaving a waste-free folder-rich sheen that appears to have set her writing schedule back several weeks. I'm not sure since she won't discuss it, just mumbles …"Boys will be boys….he means well!"

Anyway, it seems that while Philomene could surely benefit from some method in the madness, this was just too much.

I enter the Ellison and walk slowly toward the stairs. I never take the elevator when I'm in the surprise mode since the sound might tip her off. Plus a detour up the stairs offers another angle on this architectural wonder, one of the city's first structures. I've learned that keeping the spirit of early Venice close helps access Philomene's mental state and prepare to process her free associations. I knock on the door visualizing her synaptic panic from trying to do many things at once leaving her motionless. I hear rushing footsteps overlaid with a sonorous "Who is it!"

Philomene's at her best when her surroundings approximate a natural condition. Now Rousseau likely overstated the case about a state of nature where pre-civilized but noble savages commune in relative harmony and freedom from rent control boards and credit checks, all the licensing bureaus that get us envious and uptight these days. But refusing the rules and regs of a state eons removed from nature, or doing your best impression of what those savages were once like, can be a good way to register dissatisfaction with society if not kickstarting a revolution. Philomene's lifestyle is a steady barometer of refusal. She rejects domesticity and the related values of "normal" society because they impair her creativity.

Though she proactively models a better one, practicing alternatives through a sort of micro-community-outreach program housed in this magic abode. And her everyday activities are so purely different from what the ignoble savages in power want and understand that she's virtually untouchable. There's nothing they can say that matters because she can silence them with word power and completely avoid their games. She has a raging disregard for the holier-than-thou who see barbarians everywhere whenever the human adventure gets interesting again.

"Guess who!"

She opens the door with a look that says she just woke from a pleasant dream, irked by the interruption but eager for company. Philomene thrives on good conversation and moments of creative solitude, normal enough for any writer but a difficult task indeed. It requires a virtually religious commitment to maintain sanity. Philomene has gotten collateral damage over the years from transiting between states, leaving more noise and chaos than reflective silence and equipoise. So she's become quite adept these days at shifting in and out of moods and situations and managing the energy to face contingencies.

Her look changes slightly in the next few seconds. Perhaps the rush of light and surprise takes the edge off the violation and gives her a welcome excuse to engage in wholesome conversation. But she's angled in the door frame like it could go either way, needing an extra push from outside to make the complete conversion. Her hair prophesies the dilemma. Like an unkempt eucalyptus ready for the gentrifying shears, her locks are flowing everywhere, tracing a curious non-Euclidian design.

Menes of Metastasis

"Are you ready for some…"

"….thought you were coming after you ran….I've got this deadline, some literary mag in Spain wants me to go on and on about sex and orgies here in the 60s…my sister's been….Orange County, I'm so tired of going down there!!!!....my Aunt lying in that….didn't have a chance to get any more wine….Illuminate's at it again!!!!!"

"….I brought what you left at my place…want me to come back later?"

Her quick gestures say certainly not. I cross the threshold smack into the light streaming through the beach-facing windows, stop and look at the illumined array of memorabilia. It's so pleasing to the eye, and fragrantly evocative of the past. Not packrat musty. More like the sweet reminiscence of an archive that gets plenty of love.

"It's such a transformative experience to come here. I can't imagine you'll ever leave this place!"

"The muse is here! Sarah Bernhardt once lived here. Many creative people in Venice's history have spent time…"

"It reminds me of the Sailhouse Lofts over on Main and Marine they just put up…those balconies facing inward to the courtyard…some architects are trying to keep the look of early Venice alive anyway!"

"The look maybe but….creativity needs sacrifice and struggle….."

"Are you saying the muse can't be accommodated in million-dollar closets?"

"…..no, it's not….rich people are welcome in Venice too, it's just that to create you must be in touch with the spirit and…what's really meaningful gets deadened by the material possessions and lifestyles you have to maintain to keep them…."

"Isn't that an outmoded idea? Don't you also get deadened by not having enough, from always having to do survival things to stay even with the game?"

"……nowadays yes, it's becoming like that……this is one of the tragedies of what's happened here in Venice….but still, without the inward-turning, the sense of caring about so many things, and people, that we get from not being slaves to objects, and from just living a simple life……not being deprived exactly, just some restraint, maybe a little fasting here and there….'Blessed are the poor and meek for they shall inherit the earth', one of my favorite beatitudes…."

The final syllable leaves her temperament transformed, like she'd gotten back the flow my surprise canceled. The room even seemed to glow at that very instant. Perhaps the muse winked approval. Appropriate it seems in this shrine for the preservation of the past, this renewal space for so many who've never stopped believing the beaten faith. The words of Saphho on the near wall are mere garnish: "The sounds of mourning do not suit a house that serves the muse; they are not wanted here."

"….if you adopt a good attitude and hang with the humble masses, get your head straight about what really matters in the everyday scheme, know what to avoid and gorge in, then you're home free and rich in spirit?"

"It's dedicated poverty……."

"….sounds like religion without ritual, spiritual inspiration without having to hit the Sunday sermon with those who haven't a clue about what all this means…the good people of society who wanna get out of poverty…."

"…..yes!!...it is, and of course Christianity gets to this…just that the institution made things very confusing with the power and material riches and….but so many poor people were in its clutches, sort of accepting their deprived state and loving their masters!!!......there's a more open spirituality that….they didn't have to be bound to all that….."

"…..bloated, suspect spirituality?"

"….well, yes……every once in a while there's a breakaway, some want to bring things back down to earth and practice those great ideas in the gospels, turn their attention to this life but not deny the other one either…Liberation Theology, the rage around the time when I went into the convent in 1958…Pope John 23rd and his Encyclicals…"

"….do you see any big meaning in the fact that he died in 1963, the same year as JFK, a catholic president who was telling youth to help others and serve their country, and also the year you dropped out of the convent?!....those must've been fertile times for the ethic of dedicated poverty…"

"…only in hindsight……I….you know, I think there was so much going on then that escaped our ability to grasp it…."

"…but it was then, right, when altruism was the natural gospel, not greed and me-first, the artificial gospel of now….community and sharing and betterment in spiritual terms seemed….almost erotic!....without all that it's hard to imagine the alternative culture getting…."

"…..unmistakable!!!.....yes, yes…looking back it's hard to imagine how that happened and….compared to now it's like, well this seems like another planet!...and I hope it's a bad dream we'll all wake up from soon and start to get things...."

"…that idea about the poor having the right stuff and so all you needed to do was mingle with them and…maybe this helped cure your guilts!...Kerouac's love of hobos and 'negroes' becoming quite popular even for the less-endowed through the 60s…had to be something in that…even if they didn't want to break bread with the proles they could at least begin to grasp their takes on the world?..."

"…..it worked, it was right, it was…….."

"….the last gasp?....now the poor seem to buy into the system because they believe they'll be rich too someday!...but dedicated poverty and the rant against consumers and capitalism that went with it was happening when so many wanted to shop and could in good economic times that gave the sacrificing WWII folks a new lease on life…and alternative folks did buy stuff, they were just more aesthetic about it...."

"….but the messages got quickly confused back then….the media found beatniks and hippies everywhere and made them but…there was a core who couldn't be bought…they refused the philosophies about all of that and did their best to ignore all the false signs and practiced…..that's where zen came in…get your own house in order, let it happen, don't force anything that…"

"…didn't this become a fad too, a license for cool, a way to drop out and stroke your ego, the hell with what was happening in society?"

"…..yes, everything got fashionable fast but….but that's the point!....the energy through the practice of living in NOW produced a smile of direct experience and understanding, sudden intuition, a wordless transmission that showed the world both the problem and the solution!!!!…."

I imagine the power this must involve and then see another quote on the wall. It's over by the calligraphy made by zen master Maezumi Roshi for her marriage to John Thomas. From Tan Taigi: "Many mosquitoes bloated with blood during zen meditation." I picture waves of energy radiating from a squinting monk whose contentment caricatures Norman Vincent Peale's smile. These can't be confined to the mind. They spread out everywhere and empower all subjects eager to strive for the purity of resolution…

"….but doesn't the world stay as screwed up as ever….the caring mind just gets a reprieve from the whole mess that society…."

"…if you care it shows and your attitude will urge others to follow…the right course comes from just accepting…you'll possess the truth and it can't be violated."

You do feel possessed when you enter this space. Not exactly like entering church, a tempting comparison from all the catholic icons, the hand carved image of Mary, a large wooden cross, nuns everywhere. My favorite is the little one in the bathroom above the stool that stares at you with Julie Andrews innocence. But when you cross the threshold for Sunday mass you know what's there, your head's familiar with the ritual and you're willing to endure another version of last year's sermon.

Here you face refreshing liturgies, so many thought strains that hardly seem ready for the rolodex, even if this technology was welcome. The journals and binders of poems arrayed in every room, the hundreds of papers strewn every which way, more poems layered in with flyers and yellowing newspaper articles, the innumerable books yet to find their final resting place, all occupying every available niche. The experience incenses you with a eucharistic power to transform the unexpected into meaningfully passionate patterns that are potentially familiar.

It's a temple flush with the energy of discovery. Those who cross this threshold succumb to conversational rapture, the desire for interminable syntactic rushes that expire with grace. They can't avoid the vibes from the great conversations that took place here. Like those between Philomene and John Thomas, who died in 2002. He was a brilliant philosopher-poet who arrived here in the heyday of Venice West and could never leave. His ghostly voice is still on the message machine, fielding calls from the tribe of visionaries who refuse to pass. Are those his brain stains on the wall over the bed, or just random traces of sooted sea breezes?

Possessed by this space you feel it's bigger, like all the late night polemics and yearnings have stretched it out, played with your perceptions, jujitsued the actual cubic volume into a cathedral…

"Isn't this also the catholic philosophy? That example-setting attitude at least…..Is it fair to say your practicing philosophy is a mix of zen and catholicism, similar to Kerouac's?....you have a strong admiration for him, right?"

"….I'd like to believe that….yes, Kerouac was a catholic and spent his life devoted to certain ideals but was also always running from it, toward….he embodied the positive spirituality of catholicism and its concern for ordinary people but also wanted something else….catholics, the real faithful ones, they're driven beyond, inspired to do things we usually don't consider unless….but then they fall back in on themselves, not sure what's up, maybe it's the guilt…Kerouac let it all go but seemed bound to a force that brought him back…..to Lowell...he loved his mother!!!!...maybe transcendence gets confused in a philosophy that's really mostly conservative and after a while you need to find something that lets you get a perspective on what this means while actually not moving too far away from it…so go toward the East and leave most of your baggage behind, for a while!!..."

"…seems like your proportions are different than Kerouac's…"

"…I think I had less baggage because I experienced Catholicism in the convent and…I did leave in 1963 because I just couldn't take the brainwash that there's only one way to be saved and all that…but I've carried with me many positives from it and….well, I'd like to believe I've married East and West successfully but, then again I'm definitely more zen...."

"…more than the Beats as a group or….just Kerouac?"

"….he was a special case!"

"So do you see yourself then as a member of the Beat family, or do you have serious issues with…"

"…as far as the values and philosophy….yes, for the most part…the poetry is a different….I write about many of the same things and in a similar style but they were a womanizing boys club….and the Venice clan was…Bob Alexander, the high priest at the Temple of Man over on Cabrillo during the 70s was the worst…he used to…well the scene was full of men taking advantage of women…like property and…not many could get up the confidence to..."

She suddenly looks exhausted, the energy of the space evaporating with the final syllable, like she couldn't avoid bearing the burdens of that entire experience that preceded and guided her…

Variances notwithstanding, Philomene's a Beat poet. Her poems are passionate oral gushers like those her male mentors made famous, especially Ginsberg whom she knew well and used to drop in here from time to time. Her love affair with Emily Dickinson helps. Not exactly a Beat but a fine muse for Beatresses everywhere when it comes to dodging literary rules in a burning flip-off of male privilege. It's poetic justice that she's the only survivor of Venice West. The last word from a woman who can shed some light on the indiscretions of the past.

I'm trying to think of a question to restore her energy when I hear a tap, tap, tap on the kitchen window facing Speedway that does it for me. Philomene turns around to welcome a surprise visitor.

"It's Illuminate!!!!!!"

Beaten Birds

It turns out those gray splotches below her window are not smatterings of gray paint after all but weathered dollops of pigeon doo-doo. On any given Sunday these birds flock to her second-story ledge in big numbers, finding ample nutrients there to get them through the day. They're always up there, true to their image as loyal homies, but on Sunday they converge on Philomene's space like strafed fighter pilots who've spotted the carrier. This is when the tourists are thick as thieves and the fuming SUVs carrying them are particularly foul. Perhaps this is their way of resisting hostile winds, the violation of their natural space. It's hard to say since pigeons don't have the same radar as those linear crows. But they disperse more freely during the week, returning to the ledge only after their radar encounters a few aggressive hotspots left from the weekend.

This is good news and bad news for us residents. With most getting their fill at Philomene's for Sunday dinner there's less of a chance to be randomly splat on our strolls to the beach. But avoid the Ellison at all costs. Possibly propelled by vengeance, the gray matter seems to drop from the heavens faster then the force of gravity, dunging all moving targets with equal intensity.

Over the years she's given pigeons sanctuary in a climate that's becoming increasingly hostile to feces-specific species, those whose very existence gets the goad of the vigilante clean-up committees. Their latest vendetta is against the homeless hanging around Henry's Market. They've flourished alongside the seagulls and other fairer fowl who are making the grade better these days. Though no wimpy wasters themselves, they're more photogenic and, as expected in a hood so close to Hollywood, get more respect. Their size and mannerisms dwarf their droppings and even create the impression they're on a higher link in the chain of being.

"…but how can you be so excited about these birds!!!?...I mean no one could care less…."

"…they have the authority….pigeons were some of Venice's first residents…Abbot brought many with him from Italy and set them free along the shores and they…homed in on this street, Paloma, where the Ellison is located….."

And so does she! Philomene's keen on types and variances. She's been strainspotting since 1963 when she flew away from her mounted convent flock down the 405 to find the Venice habit, which fortunately led to her salvation through words-now always more than one!-in the family of disaffiliated writers already rooted here. And one of the sure bennies from mastering words is her uncanny ability to see what many don't, the cracks, chinks and crannies in our everyday worlds, and especially her gift for picturing species as they evolve. She's convinced there is such a bird as the Paloma Ave pigeon. For as long as she can remember this special breed has appeared on her ledge pecking away with the desire to communicate.

"…what's so unique about…"

"…they're different than the rest…they peck away with personality in the pack and hang around longer, even play house and do the family thing for a while!!...Ma and Pa Paloma, as I call them, have been here for a long time, bringing their share of baby marvels into the world with surprising results…many just sit and stare for hours and hours like they haven't the foggiest interest in even appearing to do something!..."

"….the envy of the best zen master!!"

"…yes, you might say they're…ready for anything to keep the flow going…they have a dove-like innocence about them…pigeons are really low-brow doves!!...so I read them poems…they love Poe and Dickinson and…it's amazing how they take to words!...the 'poetess' as I called her, really got into it…like she actually understood the meanings!"

"…how could you tell?"

"…it was her pecks, blinks and nods and….well, a glint in her eyes like a child has when they begin mumbling…it made sense, like maybe she'd found language!...perhaps it was pidgin English!!...but then she began to get these demotic cheeps from the rest and started to withdraw, avoiding eye contact...after a while the other birds pecked away at her until she flew away!"

"….so the moral is that this is the fate of sensitives who try to survive in the flock of hostile forces?"

"…for the ones who stay around and seem to want something….see things as…well, as special, a little passion for…..humanity!!!!!....they have trouble…"

"Have Ma and Pa Paloma ever popped a pure dropout?"

"Well, after the poetess left they persevered over several hours on a dark and cold and rainy day on the ledge to hatch a replacement…and you'd have to say it was worth it!....a creature at such odds with the surrounding gloom that I named her Illuminate.......a truly beatified bird!"

Easy for her to say! I look at Illuminate, struck by her qualities…she has that weathered fatalism the homeless around town wear like armor.

"Perhaps she was a bit more edgy than most about what awaited her beyond the cracked shell….so took her sweet time to make a break?"

"…yes, an early premonition!...she refuses to peck!!!!...her head's just not into what the hustling herd takes seriously, I guess…maybe she's autistic…."

"…or just getting her act together, hangin out…she has no need to get lathered up about what sort of birdseed there might be on those bigger art-condo ledges over on main!?..."

"…she certainly doesn't seem competitive!!!..."

"…so you and her have a bond, it seems…she obviously won't bite the hand that feeds her but…you must see something that, well…overlaps with your reality, the bohemian experiment perhaps?"

"….most here these days could care less about much that matters and…it keeps me going to find humanity in the places that most ignore…it says we're immune from oblivion!...if consciousness from the lower depths, I guess it's really the higher and flightier echelons!, refuses to fit….then we can hope and hope…Illuminate is a being that to me captures something about Abbot's early spirit, before this place devolved into a circus….he brought pigeons with him!!!!!....I feel I'm in touch with……"

She appears exhausted again, falling silent for a few moments. Then she perks up, energy restored, radiating a purity of vision, like she'd just taken those elusive vows on the mount…

Now there are many who dismiss this pigeon play with predictable putdowns: she's starved for companionship in a poetry-shrinking community and consorts with wild life out of necessity; this is what happens to those who pursue the purity of the word in a world muddied with figures and graphs; those Beats, well…what do you expect from those who viewed the 9-5 birthright as the curse of death…!

But these naysayers, the accountants and marketing consultants and others with a stake in Venice's gentrification, measure progress differently. If they had their way they would likely refigure the breeding balance at the expense of pigeons. So they're not apt to be reliable observers of Philomene's behavior even if able to start making sense of it. The widening gyrations in lifestyle are an unfortunate sign of our times. The center, a middle ground where folks all over the spectrum can hash out their differences, isn't holding. All the more reason to appreciate what Philomene means to this community. Her ability to spot the right signs is one that many of us need in these moments when alternative life forms are fading and messages are getting confused.

Fertileyes

It's all about what she sees around her and how she puts it in perspective. It figures that she's attracted to animal life. Many poets and artists preceding her have played with the spectrum of life forms to comment on the state of civilization. If society's looking pretty dreary why not turn back the evolutionary clock for a moment and seed suspicions about linear progress! There's a Magritte painting, "Presence of Mind," that captures this notion perfectly. A man stands facing us on what looks like a foggy Venice Beach, dressed to kill with bowler hat, topcoat, and suit and tie. To his left a fish, to his right a bird. This clearly pictures the contrast between these "lower" forms and this icon of civilized refinement. Yet the three figures are visually similar in terms of shape, suggesting they're closely related. The bird--a surreal caricature of Illuminate?-has a human aura. And to top it off it is 1958, the moment when poets were getting primitive at the Venice West Café!

Now the civilized among us view this sort of activity as proof positive that these image and word players have lost touch with reality, that they're barbarians! And this has, needless to say, put them on the defensive. So Larry Lipton's book is aptly titled. It's about justifying an alternative to what most believe is the only form of civilization, one that doesn't merely shadow this commonsense but has value in its own right. The "barbarians," birds of a feather who populate it, are therefore "holy." They'll never need to make it with missionaries and form new habits because they occupy their own special quality place.

For someone like Philomene, whose mind is flush with words, the material we humans have to overlap and separate meanings, it's only natural that beings begin to share the same paradigm, if not the same family. Birds of course are plentiful along the ocean. And you can see her most any twilight hour happily hugging the edge of civilization, zoned into the natural cocktail, the roaring immensity, the deranging smells and celestial light show. This sensual bath bumps her visionary prowess to discover the correspondences that evade the rest of us. So why not similarities in lifestyles and mannerisms among man and bird!

"Illuminate seems like a perfect pupil for you!...with lots of time on her hands she has that enviable make-do-on-my-own-terms mandate found among all serious dropouts…!!"

"…well, she's certainly a very interesting blank slate....though scratched up with a few genetic surprises for sure!!..."

"…whatever gets her rapping and tapping instead of grabbing and miming?…she must be a natural for the hunt and peck method!...not exactly the hip-techno way to get noticed these days, but…"

"…well, if the medium's still the message…."

"…she could go with the old technology…get one of those pre-electrical typewriters like Stu gets now and then over at Marina Appliance on Lincoln!...don't you have one over there in the corner?..."

"…yes….yes!!!!...I love that machine…I miss using it, thinking with….it used to make me feel like…more creative….now…I feel like a robot with the computer…it's always goin down or something and I…actually, I really love to just handwrite things when I can…."

"…those machines…I'm goin to get one, they're like sculpture-totems!...using one might get you into the mood of the hoveled writer eking out an existence…"

"…and Illuminate can just wing off upgrades and flutter with glee that she won't even have to enter the secretarial pool…!!!"

"…there's actually an upright on the back cover of Lipton's book!!!"

I look at Illuminate. She's head-bobbing away on the ledge, stretching and jerking what seems like a chain of pipsqueaks, alliterations and nonsense rhymes, apparently hunting for something. An excellent role model! Replaying the hunt for the right letters and words might be just the thing for us humans trying to express the fleeting and unknown. What do we have to lose? In a land laid waste by keyboarded haste, playing with a new, or at least a different, medium might free up new messages. The kinks of evolution are on our side, preventing Illuminate's nose from being anywhere near the grindstone. A perfect guide for us when we're tempted to jump back into the rat race! Hopefully she'll remain here and breed and breed.

"Can sensitives like Illuminate survive long against pressures from the properly civilized, and especially with Venice's changing winds that seem to be giving the animal instincts license in so many?"

"They fly away eventually, off somewhere…I never see them again…but there's always more…the other day I looked out on the ledge and noticed Illuminate was gone…then another strange one appeared, had that starved look and familiar mannerisms, so I started reading her poems and she really got into it…then Pa Paloma arrived followed by 8 or 10 more hopefuls, and I just kept reading and reading…afterwards they cooed nonstop for several minutes…"

"Do you think Illuminate will come back?"

"She always has so far……"

Inspired beings always yearn to test alien skies. Illuminate might find respite on a ledge at Beyond Baroque, housed in the original Venice City Hall, a structure that drips with the memory of epic citizen battles. Hopefully she'll return to Philomene's misfit encampment. This would be a good omen. If a bird illumined under such dire straits can keep pecking along then there's hope for all beaten beings trying to survive in the new Venice order.

Fecal Force Field

As a creative person Philomene is enraptured with symbols and images. She surely loves these pigeons, nurturing them as if they were her own children. But she's also obsessed with what they mean to others, those whose consciousness is blocking Venice's creative renewal, especially gentrifiers on their clean-up missions. And since she doesn't hold out much hope for politicians to renew the city she's become a believer in the power of symbols to shape an awareness of what the stakes really are. It's no secret that the sanitizers detest these waste machines.

In fact they tend to see all beaten underbirds in the same light, those who have untended plants, refuse to get one of those designer haircuts-or any other kind for that matter!-at the salons on Kinney Blvd., let weeds overtake grass in their yards for aesthetic and financial reasons, neglect to take a daily bath, let the dustbunnies flutter and consume their pads, commit unforgivable sartorial sins, beach-gaze at mid-day when the ticker-tape is still moving, etc.

So if the gentrifiers, like the best televangelical rappers money can buy, want to force these violators to be free and see the light, then what better way to register dissatisfaction than by putting pigeons in their faces. If they want to cover over their gritty lives, suppress the evidence of their existence, then expose the cover up. Put the birds on display for everyone to see. Since what the gentry really want is for these undesirables to disappear, appear everywhere all the time to rearrange perspective and eliminate bias.

For Philomene this is about controlling the rap on what waste means to the community. She's against the reigning version of gentrification because the kind of cleanup it proposes muddies the soul. It "improves" appearances while tarnishing the spiritual innards. It's hard to imagine Philomene and others who believe passionately in Venice's creative renewal having a good sit-down with developers who view waste as mostly a matter of appearances. Most everyone is convinced our fair city has become a wasteland. But there's no consensus on what this means.

The battle lines have been drawn. The gentrifiers just act, rarely mincing their words, using their power and resources to remake Venice into Santa Monica or Miami Beach. They won't rest until all those who can't freely pay their way are gone, and the stars and bucks come and go with ease in a squeaky-clean state. Unfortunately those armed with words and images don't have a version of gentrification to offer, or the power to implement one. And their concern with the soulful inner life and values would fall on deaf ears anyway. They see the obsession with clean-up as the problem, proof of the wasteland, since the gentry's removal strategies are really people-displacers. For them the streaming lines of architectural standardization and polished surfaces are the endgame of unfair and dehumanizing policies.

Certainly no one wants garbage-strewn streets. And you'll not find many ecstatic about the bird-family droppings, especially from pigeons. But not all residoo is treated equally. Some folks do have a tolerance level on these matters. Deposits from canine companions the size of baby stud horses (laws of property beckon body guards) are on the rise among up and comers to our shores. Yet these get immunity in our new world ordure, often piling up in sectors where most everyone's wasted anyway. It just isn't right!

And of course the other side gets an unfair boost from Santa Monica's recent gentrification "successes." Our fair city to the north is usually the improvement standard the developers reference for Venice. But then Santa Monica's success has come at our expense, sending so much of its unmentionables across Navy Street that our improvement efforts have been set back, forcing planners to devise ways to pass it on to Mar Vista. You can always tell when a community's on the up-and-up, turning that proverbial corner on the waste problem. Suddenly the receptacles develop an aesthetic flare, even get padlocks to make sure only members use them. Planners know the truly wasted usually deposit suspicious packages. And owners of the newer condo complexes, no weepy wonks when it comes to stratification theory, pitch in with monitors and roving security squads.

In fact, to further complicate the irony, since we still lag behind Santa Monica in terms of improvement our waste has a tendency to get noticed more easily. You could say it has a populist pedigree, spreading around to more areas unclaimed by those with keys to the kingdom. This has been a boon however for the brown-bobbing shadows that dutifully spear and swab while their masters are off to the ticker-tape parade, even getting a chance to consort with their nannied natives. And for the homeless as well in need of sustenance. Our nooks and alleyways are still a sushied smorgasbord compared to Santa Monica's!

It seems the sanitizers always get the last word. Many here are obsessed with wasted surfaces. The right façade is everything. Visionary homeowners spare no cost to erect better looking fences and maintain them, getting the best substances over at OSH on Lincoln for whitewashing the graffiti-waste away, the kind that completely cancels the scratching deed. Our taggers are no substance abusers, usually finding a way to waste these efforts. Some even get stroked by the muse and make their angry etches into meaningful messages and even murals, the quintessential Venice art form. The graffiti wall was the result of this simmering passion. A section of wasted concrete became the target of serial scratchers for several years, becoming pasted over and over with new messages like the ink that erases and creates all in one stroke. Unfortunately it was dozed not long ago as an eyesore. Wasting gibberish! Art worth its cachet belongs behind walls anyway! Fortunately the obsession with waste hasn't reached the point where citizens roam the streets with sprayguns to do their civic duty and zap pictures from memory.

So given such an imbalanced playing field, the creative lot can't play the conventional power games and confront the gentry directly. While the developers do their deeds Philomene and others must ply their skills in different areas. Philomene was fond of musing about a Venice that could be renewed in Abbot Kinney's spirit of creativity. "What if," she said one night, "suddenly the Paloma Ave pigeons were everywhere, breeding at some hyped up speed so that no one could miss them…they would become the masters, masses of beaten birds perched throughout the community…!!"

She even suggested that we could hurry this process along, become pigeon breeders and put these fowl in all the right places. Eventually we'd be living in a world like Hitchcock's The Birds, except that these peckers, aside from occasionally dunging folks into line, would not be aggressive. They would be respected carriers of good values and educate all of us in creatively better ways to live, perhaps even make developers more humane.

We need to think in terms of renewing this wasteland from within and below, break the habit of depending on charismatic leaders or absentee power brokers. Waiting for a redeemer to get things blooming again, some wayward knight to learn the lingo, has usually turned out to be a drag anyway. T. S. Eliot waited and waited and finally threw in with goose-stepping blue-bloods fantasizing the rebirth of medieval Christian authority. The bottom-up philosophy has been crucial for all populist, do-it-yourself (DIY) groups committed to culture and democracy. It's about seeding a change in consciousness in the masses to expand the base.

Now it's a stretch to say that more pigeons can somehow accomplish this change. Their greater presence is a sure positive, a reminder that can work on people's awareness, even get them to identify with what they represent. It comes down to getting the metaphors straight. Obviously what most will see with an increase in the pigeon population are more feces and the flies that follow. So this will require a serious public relations effort to change the image of pigeons as degenerate dung droppers into carriers of special insight about dropping out. The doo-doo-dropping medium could be a message; the downward motion a primitive picture about the value of letting it all hang down-and-out, or just letting the good times undulate and drip. If we give feces a chance then eventually many might come to reject the idea that a beaten-looking community is automatically wasted. And when you think about it, our relatively smogless ether might be actually cleansing the digestive tracks, giving the enzymes a chance to drop mites of nutrition in all that ordure. Not unlike Eliot's lilacs sprouting from the dead ground, this mess would be ready to become the finest ordure.

That is, doo-doo is a powerful metaphor as fertilizer, for sprouting heightened consciousness. This is not exactly mind-bending metaphysics, but the very principle of agrarian populism we owe to the Founding Fathers. Fertilizer makes the world go round. You don't need to be from Iowa to know why those big round splats in the meadow are called cow pies, and left out there undisturbed to do the silent but persistent bidding of all good folks committed to rebirth. This has great relevance for a Venice that owes so much to Jefferson's ideas of participatory democracy.

We must visualize Illuminate and other pigeons like her piling up the special power below Philomene's ledge. And then as the breeding process gets going, with a greater presence of the Paloma Ave strain all over the place, we can expect this power to increase exponentially. It's the fertilizer principle! A different consciousness might become contagious, even spice up those ever present acronyms. CRAAP, concerned residents against air pollution, is already into the act. Those closer to the crap and more familiar with its conditions of existence, like pigeons, can more easily and frequently spread around its magical power. Even gentry, with this consciousness rubbed in their faces, might begin to see differently.

As this process expands, rabid consumerism may become an ally, produce better fertilizer. With all the eateries these days upgrading their menus for the trustfunders, there's been a bump in the quality of street droppings from our fowl friends. At Mao's Kitchen near the Circle, where the cultural revolution is as faded a memory as their two-dollar commune pancakes, dumpster drippings-especially after peak dining ours-come with more protein and less cholesterol than the power breakfast at the Café 50s. It's the classic example of subversion from within!

But no matter how improved the waste or how much it has accumulated, this noxious life-force has to get around to all the right places. Otherwise you get patches of limbo consciousness that lag behind and threaten to retard the whole process. Just ask Deidre over on Milwood who came here in the 60s to escape the wrath of Oklahoma agriculture, her family farm sucked up faster than you can say subsidy. Refusing all sour grapes, she's been hoeing and spraying and weeding away in her back-40 ever since, curing a blanket of curious foliage guaranteed to get noticed by all nostrils within a 5-mile radius, but unfortunately not those on the Garden Tour committee!

In short, fertilization needs a vehicle. The compost below Philomene's window, though teeming with possibilities, is merely manure until activated. Digestive tracks get the process going, but it's the tire tracks that keep it going. So on Sunday, when the traffic is especially thick there's the potential for this pigeon power to get transported around town. But these vehicles are mostly SUVs and other landroving domiciles, the main mobility choice of the absentee culture of tourists or those taking advantage of the weekend respite from their Century City office to stalk property.

Which means the paths of delivery will be quite limited. Once this group creeps along Speedway and gets their fill of the bazaar, possibly having dinner at Chaya or Hal's if they can find a parking space, they're off on the usual arteries. Up Rose, quickly to miss the sights and smells, and then like moths toward the light of the 10 FWY or Brentwood site of OJ's dirty deed; or north on Main through Santa Monica (Venice's real future, fewer wastrels and wasted estates); or down toward Windward and beyond to Venice Blvd. and the 405 FWY, less desirable due to the distance passed through vistas marred with crumbs of tract housing to feed the lower-range pigeonry. They often veer quickly south on Pacific from Windward toward Washington Blvd. and stars-and-bucks freedom.

Ironically this caravan of vehicles carries the power that could eventually spark the revolution to eliminate them. Drivers who've bought the fuel-inefficient vision of cleaning up the world unwittingly becoming part of our coalition! But the bummer is that too much of this valuable substance will disperse to places outside Venice where it will get diluted into ordinary ordure and fall on deaf noses. A few nodules might drop along the getaway paths. But these are the popular escape routes, designed for quick exodus, and likely to have minimal impact. Those susceptible to sprouting surprises are mostly holed up out of sight, especially on weekends, away from the main drags. They are more likely to come out of hiding during the week when the dreaded tourists have made it back to wherever.

We owe a considerable debt to those who've learned to kick the benzine habit and amble around on foot, as well as a sizable critical mass of bicyclists, to unwittingly restore ecological balance. A significant number of these hopefuls hang around Philomene's hub where the vapors of Venice West are still awaft. They're ready to sponge up the residoo and transport it throughout the web of barren and barely visible locales and walkways where the vanishing but unforgettable Venice alternative geist hangs and hovers. What better way for the patches of dead dirt and inert inspiration to be reclaimed. Here many locals, some evictees lofted to the winds like frisbees, are ready to rediscover their own community.

Power to the Pigeonry!

Philomene was very aware that our society views pigeons as wasted fowl. They're so far down the chain of being they might as well delink from the whole program. You'll surely not find anything remotely resembling pigeon under glass at Tony Bill's gastro-gourmet plaisance down on Market. One of the most striking symptoms of this bias is in those official books, the dictionary and thesaurus, where the learned dons define what's important. Just look at all the meanings: stoolpigeon, pigeon-holed, pigeon-hearted, pigeon-toed, pigeon-post…a rash of frames that make our fluttering friends look like gullible creatures who lack most every quality necessary to be socialized. They're slow, inept, goofy and timid. They can't even feel, relate to others emotionally with the organ that clearly separates the civilized from the barbaric. And, tragically, they're whipping birds for a real fact of life in all jungles, stereotyping. If you're pigeon-holed you've lost your freedom and mobility. You're merely a phrase blowin in the wind from someone else's storm.

The hidden agenda is obvious. We want these creatures to either stay put or be downwardly mobile, get away from us and find their hole in the wall, or ledge in the Ellison if they're fortunate. We know they're beaten birds and we keep beating them, or any being with similar qualities, back into inferior pigeonship. Perhaps worst of all they're synonymous with dupes. Stoolpigeons, marvelous story plants to texture the dark and unpredictable crevices of LA street life for Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, can't be trusted. They're informers. And so there's little mystery why these characters breed like fowl back then, the noir-nadir of conformism, and when our first beaten birds flew away from the flock. Venice West sprouted in 1958. That American adage has never been truer in our new world order: you are what you do! So pigeons are doo-doo, mere stoolies (you know you're slurred when you get abbreviated!) tethered to a stool, double victims of our toilet-tabloid society anally obsessed with gentrifying below market senses.

But just as doo-doo is not mere dead matter, but power-packed potential for sprouting new life, these definitions are not the final word. Those Oxford dons, who pound for pound have the best education blue blood can buy these days, planted some seeds of enlightenment in that OED. Stoolpigeons are also tricksters. They overlap with the ilk of informers but develop their own strain of meanings. Unfortunately the simplest and most obvious meanings of things are what folks mostly retain. But it's what escapes them that matters. As we move further down the list of synonyms we find that tricksters are associated with con artists! They're slipping into a creative mode. And then we discover that the official censors use bird metaphors that stop the drivel of dittoed meaning: wily bird, fox and decoy-duck, slips of the tongue that take us far away from the obsession with fixed and singular meanings.

Tricksters are even sophists. This is not too surprising since these birds were hair-splitting equivocators hailing from the 5th century B.C., poetic word wizards into rhetoric. The Sophists were flighty characters but onto something. They despised reason and all logomachos, arrogant possessors of the absolute word like Socrates who repressed the non-rational. They were skeptics, moral relativists, postmodernists of their day, adjuncts to society who roamed around with soap boxes challenging the endowed chairs of authority that would soon be occupied by Plato's fraternity. Ironically one of its key spokesmen-alas, they were also a boys club!-was a tricky-tongued character named Hippias. It was likely this bird whom Socrates had in mind when he argued that poets should be banished from the kingdom because they threaten its stability.

Female birds--what kind of bird did the English dons have in mind for girls?-have been freelancing the field ever since, nurturing and fertilizing the hysterical margins for their Platos to plow and reap, nitpecking away at "scientific" knowledge, using the crumbs thrown their way to make soufflés of sentient survival. Pigeonesque sophistry has to be about women. It's surely no surprise that the poetess and Illuminate are female!

It's poetic justice that the official books get to these meanings at the end of the list, giving sophistry a kind of vengeful last word that deconstructs dreaded common sense. The truth is out there circulating in the network of word pairings that make up the language. Underbirds are justified within the same logical system that denies them. Eventually meanings just flip over into something different, if not their opposites. Speaking of which, a pigeon's neck, not exactly the most delectable or eye-catching bird part for most people, is associated with diversity and difference in the good book. And it comes packaged in French for reinforcement: gorge-de-pigeon. Illuminate's neck does seem especially long and flexible, capable of quick and variable contortions!

And it's like that in life. If you're pegged forever by a barrage of slurs and insults, even degraded to the status of your lowly stool, there's bound to be a moment when you just say you're not going to take it anymore! If you're a good patriot, have a heart, mind your own business without hurting anyone, and are far from witless, all that baiting will only backfire. You'll start to fox your way into the master's henhouse with more decoys than a Texas lame duck. No need even to bushwhack the competition. In short you can put those alleged informing skills to wily good use and get innovative.

This is no less than the piling-on principle, to crudely paraphrase that famous German philosopher who used his share of bird metaphors in quest of the gray truth. It's where the idea of fertilizer power as a quality force for growth meets quantity. When too much of a bad thing accumulates, especially if it has a foul odor, it can begin to flip over into its opposite. Or in the street idiom, excreta that piles up to excess can become fluid spiritual excretations, passes of meaningfully-loquacious vapor that begin to smell like roses or even look like the newest rage in sunscreen. Repeated exposure to heaped-up deposits of voided grit could produce a new outlook toward cleanliness.

Think of the applications. Overdosing on circus and carnival might make you more than a devout debauchee. It could lead to a fixed boost in the hang-loose attitude that allows you to go at ordinary everyday activities more relaxed and perceptive. It might even put such a permanent smile on your face that it infects everyone in your immediate circle, and each one of these charged-up agents might pyramid the spark to others. Getting your head together certainly matters, but the moveable matter in the everyday world offers indispensable inducements that can erupt in visionary change.

Philomene's philosophy makes lots of sense. We could do worse than superimpose pigeon patterns on the flux of Venetian life, or spy correspondences between the human and animal worlds. This dropout take on reality has been criticized by the political wing because it supposedly gives the powers that be the latitude to do what it wants. With few banding together against the system, it becomes business as usual. But Philomene's words are soluble, her rhyme schemes stretchable, her politics polyester-partisan. She's way beyond sectarian hair-splitting. Her openness is what immunizes her from full-scale madness. And if the masses could monitor her brain waves and act them out they'd be protected from having to live with democratic centralism, or even the LA City Council's makeshift version of it. Once juiced-up they could get active in community affairs, a throwback to the days when the alternative culture had control of Venice. Their special kind of anarchism might get revived with a face more human than ever, perhaps even bring socialism in through the backwaters. But would enough of this juice get loose in time to reach the dwindling numbers?

Much depends on whether Illuminate's feces start to fertilize the fallow consciousness-fields in time so that the alternative community can be renewed from below…

 

 

John O'Kane has been a Venice resident since '80s, and is completing a book on the alternative culture of Venice, titled, Venice, Capital of the 21st Century, as well as a collection of poems. He's also finishing a novel based on an unsolved murder of a young girl in Iowa. He edits the magazine, AMASS.

Philomene Long passed in her magic temple during the late evening hours of August 21st 2007. She was discovered in the afternoon of the 23rd.

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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