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John Hamilton Part 2

30 Years Ago in Free Venice Beachhead

30 Years Ago in Call Someplace Paradise and/or Ghost Town

Free Venice Beachhead Archives 1980-81

Beachhead Archives 1982

Beachhead Archives 1983

Beachhead Archives 1984

Venice in Books A-C

Venice in Books D-K

Venice in Books L-P

Venice in Books Q-Z

Quotations about Venice

Venice in Magazines and other ephemeral sources

1981 Resistance Celebration Schedule

1981 Resistance Celebration Articles

Birth of Venice:
old-timey magazines

1914-1916 Part 1

1914-1916 Part 4

1914-1916 Part 5

Lighthearted Beachhead pieces

People of Venice (from Beachhead)

Windward Avenue Articles from Beachhead

Art in the Beachhead

Venice institutions from the Beachhead

Destiny's Consent by
Laura Shepard

Lions and Gondolas

Rana Ayzeren

Tales of the Blue Meanie by Allan Cole

Another Chapter from Tales of the Blue Meanie by Allan Cole

"Brick" Garrigues

The Spectre

Venice Historical Society

1969 Police Riots

Jack the Liar





Epitaphs for a Survivor from Free Venice Beachhead #124 April 1980

Further down:
The Windward Avenue Sketches by John Hunt

An Evening in Celebration of the Late John Hamilton
By Hawk Eye

On Friday, March 7th, Frank and Annie Bennett’s Town House Bar on Windward Avenue was the scene of what Elizabeth Freeman and John Hunt called an "Irish video wake" in celebration of an old friend of theirs, John Hamilton.

A resident of the Avenue since 1960, Hamilton - dubbed the unofficial village historian - passed away last September. March 7 would have been his 62nd birthday.

About 100 people attended, a diverse mixture of the local crowd, street people and regular patrons, along with the Venice art set, the people from WET and Environmental Communications; some well known faces also, like Irma Armour of Armour’s Liquor - it seems John somehow touched them all.

The normally active pool table served as a buffet, a riveting video tape of Hamilton made by John Hunt was shown, as well as a big screen slide show featuring Hamilton and Windward Avenue from pre-skate days. It was Elizabeth Freeman’s witty yet poignant presentation that left people asking for more!

A bar with a basement ballroom that goes back to the Thirties, the Town House is one business on Windward to have survived the "new look," and besides sporting the original tile spittoons, the foyer is decorated by bullet holes from a shoot-out that took place years back - and documented by Hamilton in the video tapes.

Though somewhat eerie, the evening left a warm afterglow, bringing such diverse elements together around this man who at first glance was nothing but a wino - but to his friends, and those who knew him, John Hamilton seemed somehow to bring the wretched history of Venice into sharper and more human focus.

I remember one candid photo from the slide show of Hamilton sleeping in his van in the alley behind Windward; on the door is a handwritten placard, plainly visible, and certainly written by John for all to see:

Better is one’s Own Path
Though imperfect
Than the Path of another
Well made…..

(Webslave's note: That photo can also be seen on page 29 of Sweet William's book Venice of America: The American Dream Come True.)

The Windward Avenue Sketches
by John Hunt

I first met John Hamilton in 1969, in the old Marko Building at 73 Market Street. He slept on a small mat surrounded by mountains of junk. John was a pack rat, worked odd jobs in the neighborhood, and when half-way sober maintained the halls and two cold-water toilets that served Mr. Markowitz’s tenants. In return, John was given a room to stay in but not only was the room piled high with scrap, but half the roof was covered, and the rear stairway was an obstacle course of discarded Venice refuse.

When John didn’t feel like working he would pull out an inoperative radio, or a stack of old and worn phonograph records, or a box of books no one read any more, and his friend at the pawn shop (46 Windward) would "loan" him a buck or two for wine.

I was making a film about Venice at the time and Hamilton recognized n me the power to record what he had witnesses as life on these streets from the time he arrived in 1960, ‘til the present. He yearned to tell his stories and when he did I knew this man was the authentic historian of this "very peculiar place" - as he called Venice-by-the-Sea.

After this I began working with portable video tape hardware and we started planning some way to tell John’s tales. It took four years to produce anything; after all, there never has been much demand for TV programs concerned with the real, street life.

In 1975 I began working at the studios of Environmental Communications at 62 Windward. John began rehearsing his scenes. He wanted to tell the whole story of Venice, and indeed he had it all in his head.

Unable to deal with his scope, I decided to limit our study to Windward Avenue and only Windward. Not only that, but I wanted John to relate the history in terms of the structures - and the empty lots - in an architectural memoir. I figured in that way we would be able to fill in the missing spaces on this avenue which during the three years I worked there came to represent the end of the Western World: lost souls, searching souls, the maniacs, fanatics, and hustlers, the poets and revolutionaries…Some came to die and some to be enlightened, and in the end they are the same. John Hamilton has helped us preserve a few of their stories; perhaps these obscure people will enlighten us with their slim legacies.

What follows is an edited version of Hamilton’s words taken from the tapes we recorded. At the time they were only sketches, a rehearsal. Now they are his epitaph. John passed last September - merely too ill to recover. He would have been 52 this past March 7.

Of course everything’s different on Windward Avenue these days, it’s just not what it used to be, and in one way I’m thankful for that. However, we can also thank the speculators and shopkeepers for making a circus out of the destitution which really faces the residents of this cultural relic.

Today a Hollywood movie mogul sits and conducts business on the very spot where John used to sleep off his white port. Armours’s Liquor, Amoon’s Café, and the rest of Windward exist only in Terry Schoonhoven’s great visionary portrait of the old avenue on the east wall of the St. Charles Apartments. The journey into our past begins on the west wall of this same building. It ends only when we have answered the question: Who are those who survived?

John Hamilton: Up there was Jeannie’s first address here. She was living there, her husband was at work, she come down to the parking lot to spend the day with me. We drank one bottle of wine, it took us all day to do it and she told me a lot of things. Then for reasons not her own, she became the manager and she moved down to the manager’s apartment on the bottom right - and then things started happening. I was working at the liquor store at the time. She had to come downstairs while managing the apartments anytime something came up. The first time we had trouble while I was on duty, a man was having a heart attack up in room 34. So I run up there, I pass by the nitro - we had nitro down there ‘cause the boss, the owner of the building at the time, he had a heart disaster. I passed by his nitro and I ran upstairs and here’s this guy gasping his last so I shoved a nitro under each side of his tongue, told him to close his mouth, keep his arms down, and told Jeannie to go and get the ambulance. All right, we got Charlie all right. He lived, and he was in such trouble, the first chance he got after he lived, he had to call me a nigger.

That’s room 34, room 34 is important though, because the next time we had a scramble like that Jeannie came downstairs and she said, "I think I’ve got a dead woman upstairs," so up the stairs I went and sure enough in room 32 there was a dead woman. Now if she had taken room 34, and that’s what her receipt said, for some reason they couldn’t get in that room 34, so they put her in room 32. If she’d been in room 34 Jeannie would have been there at 8 o’clock instead of noon. Well, at noon she was dead. This nice lady from Malibu, two kids, lovely house, lovely husband, but for some reason she wanted to commit suicide. She did it. She made is. Like an appointment in Samarra, death was waiting for her, or she was seeking death and she finally found it. Maybe she was just given a put on. Her room rent was up at 8 o’clock, she was still warm at 11, but she was very, very dead, dead as you can get. 32 she died in instead of 34, her receipt read room 34. It was blowing in the wind when I came back out. I took one look at her and I knew it, her eyes were open and whited, it was all over. And she’d overdosed on barbiturates, just a matter of three hours, I could have got her back. That’s Jeannie’s story.

Now while we’re at it, where the trash bin sits now, it wasn’t there the night that girl came off the roof but she fell within six inches of the building. If she had jumped, she would have come at least three feet out but she was there, she was dead, very, and it appears she got into an argument with her old man up there on the top deck and she got decked up there and he just dropped her over the edge like a baby.

Hunt: Who owned the building before? It’s different now.

John Hamilton: Ben Bass used to own the building. The guy that owned the liquor store, he used to own the building. The Liquor King liquor store. He sold the building, and a real shit, he had people lined up to do him in. So out that back door one night, the one on the far corner there, his ex-wife walks in, well, she’s his wife back again, but she and her boyfriend remove the safe out of the building. They had the keys, they jury-rigged, they’d blown the burglar alarm and came out with the safe. They had a $2,000 ring in there, the take came to about 50 grand. They were in the process of a divorce and he was putting all his money into cashier’s checks so that when the property settlement came up, there would be small property. Well, she store his safe, she stole his cashier’s checks too, and he got hot and heavy. I was sitting over there at the restaurant (Amoon’s), I knew the caper was going on, I wouldn’t get into it, and I sat over there in the restaurant just to see the funny faces he was going to show when he found out he’d been burglarized. Well, that didn’t take too long. At 0600, he came to work early, he went in there and pretty soon there was cops all over the place and I had a trailer parked here and the first thing he did was he had the cops shake out my trailer. Well, I wasn’t there, I was over there in the restaurant minding my business and enjoying the scenery. It was such though, they had hired a professional thief and he wasn’t getting his split. Sure around cashing the cashier’s checks in the cool? So they couldn’t figure it out and he was panting for his money so he offered Ben Bass the information he needed as to where his check was and so forth for a certain amount of money and Ben went along with the game and he did recover everything but the rings, there was jewelry, he was actually running a pawn shop which is very much against the law. He went along with the game and the guy finked, told him everything, that his wife and her boyfriend had engineered the whole project and they’d hired him on as a hand to steal that safe and they hadn’t paid him anything for the simple reason they couldn’t, they couldn’t cash the fucking checks. I guess he got one of the rings out of the deal. There was a $2,000 sapphire in there.

Hunt: Why did he sell the building?

John Hamilton: He was distraught. His wife had left him and so forth and he didn’t like the looks of the place….memories…he didn’t like memories. He shouldn’t, that cheap crook.

Hunt: Did you know him?

John Hamilton: I knew him, I worked for that miserable mother. I was supposed to be working the liquor store stocking while he took his nap. He took a nap between twelve and three and I had to show at twelve. I’d work that three hour shift and I’d come back at night and stay with his stepson for the rest of the shift, just honcho and stocking and bad news, gun carrying, the whole bit. This used to be a rough territory.

Hunt: It still is, isn’t it?

John Hamilton: Not what it was before, no traffic now. When we had traffic, this was a rough deal. (Still in the alley) This is the ladies head. This is the can, the toilet, the washroom. Directly under the corner there is a toilet and over to a partition there is a sink and then there’s a wall going into the bar. One night I was sitting at the bar, I was a bouncer at the bar, I was just a hang-around Johnny, and the cocktail waitress came running up to me, snatched me off my stool and said come, come. This woman’s dying in here. SO I came and sure enough, this Dolores had taken an overdose, well it wasn’t an overdose, she had taken the wrong pill. It was Benzedrine, yes, but it was laced with digitalis and her heart kept stopping on her and her eyes would go white and I chest massaged like that under her tit and then she’d come back and she’d start talking to me and die again, and then she’d lapse back, I started it up again and we kept this up and somebody called an ambulance. The police got here before the ambulance did and she’d whit up her eyes and I’d punch her back and six times she went haywire. She was a goner and then the seventh time, just before the ambulance driver stepped in the room, the cop said, "quit punching her." I was only keeping her alive. Dumb shit…I was ready to open her up. I was reaching for my knife. I would have done it, just get some vodka off the bar, sterilize my hands and open her up and grab the heart itself, but that’s why I’m not a doctor. I’m pretty fierce about those things. She lived. She was lucky though because she and a few other had a 1200 unit jar, 1200 pills and the night before, the piano player came in and he was in no shape whatsoever, so the bartender told him to go home so he went home and about five minutes later, well about half an hour later, his buddy called up and said "Hey come on over here, David’s laying out on the porch he’s in convulsions." That was me so I zipped on over there and I had to start him up three times and we called the ambulance twice and by the time the ambulance got there he was up then and refused to go. Well, he made it. Then his lady friend, the woman he was living with, came down here and she blew it on the lawn here three times and I started her up three times. She refused to go with the ambulance and my next deal was find that sonofabitch who was selling that phony pill. It had digitalis, it was a heart stopper and all I had to do was find that guy and then I could quit running around starting up people’s hearts. That’s why I’m not a doctor. I hate to see someone die, I’m afraid of dead people. If you’re a doctor and some unnecessary death like that goes on, how do you sue god?

Up there, third window, top deck, don’t count that little one, a guy held up the bar across the street and I tailed him over here. He didn’t clear the building. I was armed and he was up there holed up in that window and he’d taken the money and he had an inoperable gun but it was a gun. He was up there and the fuzz came and I pointed and said the guy didn’t get past here so they went in there and they started knocking on doors and they got to the room he was in, he was under the bed and no, he wasn’t under the bed, he was originally under the bed but he got up, he was on speed or something, he got up and grabbed, he wasn’t living there, he just jumped in these people’s room, he grabbed the boy and he went to the door and he said you try and come in here and I’m going to kill this boy and he went in the bathroom and the cops of course broke in the door and there were shotguns all over everywhere and the guy chickened out of course, and they rescued the boy and they got the guy and he’s in "Q" (San Quentin) right now, he’s going to be there a long time. He keeps thinking, every three years or something, he gets a chance to go to the (parole) board but I don’t think he’s going to make it because he’s wanted in Georgia, hell, he’s 22 years old, he’s wanted in Florida and he just came back here to escape that. I knew him, a whining miserable little monster, his father’s a little whining miserable monster, too.

Flea Market, N.E. corner, Windward and Pacific Avenue

John Hamilton: I used to run the laundromat, I knew everybody in town. That‘s the one good thing about this town, all these tales of death and dying are interesting but they’re depressing as well. Now the beautiful thing about this place, I watch all these kids grow up. Some of them turned out good, most of them turned out bad but you’d be surprised what a kid’s big eyes can do for you and I could tell some tall tales. They’d look at me and their eyes would get wider and wider and they’d smile. It got so rough down there. It was babysitting, I didn’t know it at the time, but these people would send their kids in there and they’d sit around and sit around and they’d call me on the phone, Hey John, is my kid there. I said, yeah, he’s here. Has he been behaving himself? You better believe he’s been behaving himself and the little ones on the way to the playground, they’d come in there and say, hey, man, help us across the street and that was its compensation for what kept going on and it did keep going on. It would be depressing except you have to confirm yourself to the smiles.

Hunt: You consider yourself a historian?

John Hamilton: Yeah, I was going to write a book about this place. I didn’t believe it but no one would believe it either if I wrote the book even if I showed them the blood stains and we got a few around here still.

Hunt: Nobody would believe it?

John Hamilton: I don’t believe it myself and I’m standing there looking at it.

Val’s Pharmacy (opposite flea market)

John Hamilton: Goldstein had a Jesus Christ problem. He was a Jew, so was Jesus. Anyway, all he asked of people was, I think it was Charles Goldstein, he just asked these people, what do you want and they would tell him and he would call downstairs and they’d get it and usually on MediCal. MediCal was more reasonable then, now it isn’t. Hell, we could spend an hour on this building. The State Narcs had a mind about him because of his MediCal accounts and they shot three ladies in there on him, you know, ladies in distress, ladies that obviously needed something and he said what do you want and he’d say okay, go. I’ll tell you a story about Goldstein. I had a lady of my own and we were going through this Venice Venerealis, an ordinary infection of the genitals and I said why don’t you go over and be sure and take care of this contamination and I said don’t worry about a thing, he’s a chest nut, he ain’t no butt nut. I met her down here at that third meter and I said how did it come out and she said your chest nut is a butt nut now, she had a fine ass on her.

Hunt: He had a lot of customers?

John Hamilton: Are you kidding, the State Narcs hit him. 200 people in 2 hours and he’s a doctor and he could get away with that. That also meant 200 prescriptions. Let’s hit the post office.

Venice Post Office

John Hamilton: (In the stairwell on the west side of the building) A couple of winos got holed up here, it was a shelter against the wind. One of the fuckin’ winos turned that handle and the door opened and inside that door there was a mail sack full of blank money orders so he got those and then - they were both cons, so the smart son of a bitch, he said, "Well lets’ go get the stamps", so they went upstairs and got the validating stamps, it said Venice and it said 1, 10, 50 and 100. They had a half a million dollars worth of blank money orders and it was 0600, no, it was 0545 and they dragged the money sack across the street and the bar opened, that’s Pietro’s over there (213 Windward) so here they are sitting in the bar with a half a million dollars worth of blank money orders and they’re drinking and while they were doing that at Pietro’s, across this side of the street came the man who was the janitor and he saw these guys dragging this money sack and they weren’t wearing no blue uniforms, he said I don’t think I like this so he got on the horn and that’s where they got busted. They were in there drinking their number one beer and the money sack was between them. A half million dollar caper wasted on a fifteen cent glass of beer. Terrible, terrible.

to the Second Part of this interview with John Hamilton

to Windward Avenue in the Old Days


© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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