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Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Spiritu

 


Cover photography – Marcia WardFrom the Poets' Bridge


Spiritu

as always for Marcia

Many years ago, as a young artist, I was falsely tagged with the opprobrium, “street,” as if my talents were unschooled, like someone who sprays graffiti or writes in poor imitation of Kerouac. Hell, I went to Jesuit schools and I sometimes think in Latin, Quid agam, amicus meus? Bothersome also was the uglier implied characterization of “street:” thuggish. Now normally such mislabeling is of no consequence in the real world, but on occasion such innuendo can lead to violence.

In the early 80s I came into possession of a Panasonic video camera and immediately took up making short artworks, some poetic, some narrative, some simply eye dazzling, and some to accompany live music at stage shows. I had no editing equipment so most were multiple do-overs until I achieved what I was looking for in one take, an arduous and time-consuming task to say the least, but a process that demanded planning and an economy of concept. One of my “movieos” – as I called them - I was especially proud of, one in which my wife danced with an erotic quality and nonchalance that was both an intellectual and physical turn on. It aroused a haunting desire for knowledge of her whole being, not simply lust for her.

In 1987, at a literary festival and book fair where I had a booth, I was selling poetry chapbooks and my literary magazine, Passion Press. I knew dozens of attendees at the fair and many asked in English, “What’s up, my friend?” – Quid agam, amicus meus? I spoke of my video adventuring the last few years and everyone wanted a look-see.  Because I had a number of poetic movieos with me on VHS tape and because there was a large television and VHS player in the lobby where my booth was, I arranged for an impromptu screening of my compilation. A dozen or so of my interested contemporaries gathered round and I began screening my work. First, a rapid cut take on the great Colorado poet, James Ryan Morris, then a documentary of my youngest son’s costumed third birthday party parade at Alamo Placitas Park, led by my wife, Marcia, wearing a feathered headdress and a dress-that-sings, and pounding out a march on a toy tom-tom. Marcia was literally at the height of her maternal beauty. I followed this with the one of Marcia dancing.

Well, a minute or so into my piece, “Dancing,” there is a piercing wail of a scream and a verbal protest from the event organizer’s wife. “Turn that porn off! There are woman and children here!” I look around the room to see if something “pornographic” is going on and seeing only attendees perusing the publisher’s wares, I come to realize that the distraught woman – a college professor, no less – is talking about my movieo. I ignore her and turn back to watching my video with my friends; however, without warning, the screen goes black and I realized a plug’s been pulled as I see the festival organizer, let’s call him “Mr. Censorium,” standing with a disconnected electrical extension cord in hand. If looks could kill I’d be dead, I think. Steam’s coming out of his ears, and he’s glaring like someone who’s been cuckolded. Rather than cause a scene or even ask Mrs. Censorium what she was so upset about, I leave the room with my friends and venture outside where we hold an impromptu poetry reading. Half the people at the fair join us outside, despite the fact that there are featured literary presenters  - mostly academics and non-profit administrators - on stage in the auditorium talking about literature. Outside we are sharing literature, not talking about literature, with the likes of Larry Lake, Art Goodtimes, Woody Hill, Gregory Greyhawk, and Lucy McGrath riffing off each other. A couple of cases of beer also miraculously appear and add a lacking festivity to the otherwise staid festival.

Now I did have a little history with Mr. Censorium. He used to come poetry readings that I ran in the 70s, and I had sensed his animosity towards me, something I attributed to my never having asked him to be a featured poet at my readings. I knew he thought himself to be the cat’s meow when it came to poetics, but I found his writing, its style, to be derivative, a 3.2 take on Pablo Neruda, not my cup of tea, and certainly not the outside-the-box vernacular kind of poetry I was interested in featuring. I was producer and host, and I only featured poets I was truly interested in. Censorium told others my scene was clique-ish and “street,” that “Ed Ward wouldn’t know a poem if it bit him on the ass.” I guess he took my personal tastes personally. In fact, when the literary festival that the book fair was part of, had been organized, the book fair coordinator,  Tom Parson, one of closest friends at the time, had given Censorium a list of the small press publishers in Colorado to invite, my self among them. But Censorium had excluded me and my friend and mentor, Larry Lake, Denver’s most polished small press publisher, from the invitation mailing. Only when I mentioned my lack of an invitation to Tom Parson was the omission righted and I was granted booth space.

Flash forward a couple of years. I had passed on the mandate I’d been given by Larry Lake, you must publish others as well as write, to John Macker, and my Passion Press literary magazine had been replaced with Macker’s Moravagine. John was also one of Denver’s alternative event producers, and to celebrate his latest edition of Moravagine, he rented a new restaurant bar on Blake Street, let’s call it “Spiritu.” Spiritu was closed on Mondays and John had arranged for a Monday night private party featuring some poets he was publishing, a painter by the name of Paris Butler, and myself. He guaranteed the owner, let’s call her Connie Candle, a full house. He’d turn her dark night into the most lucrative night of the month, a promise, as it turned out, he kept.

I was going to show the world premier of my latest and most ambitious video extravaganza, E the Movieo, that featured three separate takes playing simultaneously on three monitors of my narrative fiction, Early Light, The Sage the Sniff, and Conspired with an original score created by Denver’s most popular band at the time, the heavy-metal Gothic foursome, The Soul Merchants. I was as excited about E the Movieo as I had ever been.

I arrive at Spiritu early on the evening of the party to set up my gear: three VHS players, three large screen TVs that I had rented, a stand to pyramid-ize them, numerous patch, extension and sync cords, and a PA and speakers to broadcast the soundtrack, if you will, “a ton” of equipment. After bringing my gear into Spiritu’s main room, a youngish – in his late twenties – man bursts out of the swinging doors to the kitchen, approaches me threateningly, and asks “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I can’t imagine where he’s coming from; hence, I respond diplomatically, “Hello, I’m Ed Ward. I’m one of the featured artists at this evening’s private party that Moravagine magazine is sponsoring here at Spiritu; I’m here to set up these monitors for the world premier of my latest project, E the Movieo. Please tell me, what’s your name and who are you?”

His response is totally out of left field. “No way are you going to do that and ruin the ambiance of my dining room and chase away customers with these fucking TVs. No way.”

Looking for a win here, I remind El Ass – that’s the name I’ve given him as he never told me his – that one: Spiritu is not open to the public on Mondays and two: that I am the featured artist at tonight’s private party, adding “In two hours there are going to be over a hundred friends of mine here to spend money at Spiritu’s bar and enjoy my video installation, Paris’ paintings, and readings by Moravagine’s contributors. As far as I know: serving dinner is not part of the equation. Neither is being open to the public. John Macker made arrangements with Connie Candle.”

“Well as of tonight, we are open on Mondays, and there’s no fucking way you’re going to ruin my serving dinner.”

Needless to say, the tension in the room is thick as incense at a Catholic bishop’s installation. I can’t seem to assuage El Ass’s anger, understand his inhospitality, nor alter his unwarranted and implacable stance. He’s not even considering compromise. I do know that John Macker won’t be here until the party starts at 7, and I’m alone with El Ass in Spiritu. I realize it’s going to take an hour plus just to set up my gear, let alone doing a practice run-through, and that if I don’t get started soon, the magic of just turning on my movieo when it’s show time will be lost if I wait for John Macker to arrive and straighten things out with El Ass.

I study the interior of Spiritu. There’s a mezzanine where I might be able to set up and I offer this as a solution, reminding him there are going to be a hundred people here to see my show. He doesn’t say “Yes” and he doesn’t say “No,” he simply walks away and disappears back into the kitchen. So I do set up my gear on the mezzanine, even though I would have preferred the dining room wall where everyone could watch from the comfort of the bar and dining room seats. In years past, I would have never made such a compromise, but the evening was as much about Paris Butler and Moravagine as it was about me, and I felt it was not my place to jeopardize the party as a whole.

Well, when John arrived (at about the same time as fifty or so guests), not wanting to put a damper on things, I chose not to express to him my disappointment at being marginalized on the mezzanine. Soon the room is packed, Paris sells some paintings, poems and stories get read, and I premier E the Movieo (to a standing ovation, I might add). I had noted the absence of any general public, as I knew every person in the room, all one hundred and thirteen of them (I did a head count while people watched E). So when the lights came back up and the evening was winding down, I went to the bar that El Ass was tending, got right in his face, and asked with all the barbed sarcasm a Philly boy can muster: “How many fucking dinners did I ruin, Asshole?”

In a heartbeat, like a stuntman in a Kung Fu movie, El Ass leaps over the bar and pushes me through everyone behind me, knocking over tables and chairs, slams me up against the wall where my monitors should have been, and shoves me to the floor. During this assault I decide not to defend myself or strike back. I’ve been in confrontations with coked up club owners over the years and know if the police arrive it’ll be me, not El Ass, going downtown to Cherokee Street, because when it’s patron versus employee, the employee is always deemed innocent. Well, as I’m lying stunned on the floor, John Macker rushes over to find out what’s going on, and he’s strong-armed by the Spiritu staff, hustled to the door, and pushed outside, with the staff baring his reentry. El Ass backs away from me and announces, “The party’s over. We’re closed. Everyone out!” And the remaining party attendees, not having a clue as to what just went down, depart. And now again, it’s just me and El Ass, plus my wife, in Spiritu. He’s balling his fists and stewing in his anger. I know he’d like to clock me, but there are dozens of people outside watching us through the front window. “Get your shit and get out,” he barks before disappearing into the kitchen.”

And I do, break down my gear and load it into our van that Marcia has parked in the alley behind Spiritu. I’m still high on the reception E the Movieo had received while simultaneously trying to process the assault I’d just experienced. Granted, I’d pushed his buttons, but he’d been wrong, ignorant, thuggish, mean, and combative since the moment I’d walked into Spiritu, a stance the genesis of which was a mystery to me. To get some semblance of calm into my being, I smoke a joint, and upon reflection I realize I have not done a final check to make sure I’ve not left any gear behind. A lost sync cord would be a fifty-dollar hassle. So I return to the alley exit and attempt reentry, but the door is locked. I knock, wait, knock again a little louder, wait, and then pound on the door. It opens and through the doorway steps El Ass. He’s got a strange look on his face, something between flirtatious and solicitous. He tells me, “You’re the kind of person I admire. It’s artists like you keep things interesting. I love you, man” and then he embraces me in an uncomfortable hug and, and without warning, kisses me, attempting to insert his tongue in my mouth.  I push him away and tell him, “Fuck you, Asshole. Twenty years from now, you’ll be gone, Spiritu will be gone, this Denver – as we now know it – will be gone, but I’ll still be making art despite the likes of Neanderthals like you.” And I get back into my van and head towards 16th Street.

Next day, Marcia and I, dealing with post show blues, are eating lunch at Green’s on Colfax Avenue. We’re on the long bench that spans the east dining room wall at a two top. And who should be seated at the two top to my right: no one other than Connie Candle, Spiritu’s owner. I can’t help myself and introduce myself. I tell her my take on what went down last night at her club. She listens but addresses none of my concerns. Never offering an apology, the only thing Connie Candle tells me is this: “El Ass, his name is Dean Diavolo. He’s married to my pastry chef. He’s not my employee. He was there last night because a man named Ray Censorium, who sometimes holds literary events at Spiritu, warned me and my chef that John Macker and his friends were street thugs who would wreck my club. Diavolo volunteered to be bouncer and make sure things did not get crazy.”

Flash forward another twenty years. Connie Candle comes to my studio to buy a painting of mine that she’d seen at Scum of the Earth Gallery in the Santa Fe Arts District. She has no memory of meeting me at Greens. She makes no connection between “Ed Ward, poet and filmmaker” and “Edwin Forrest Ward, watercolorist.”  I don’t bring up my night at Spiritu. She buys two paintings and tells me she’ll be back again someday to buy some more. She kisses me on the cheek politely and asks, “Were you ever at my club, Spiritu?” I respond, “Yes, I once had an unforgettable night there.”

So, to close the circle of this story, the petty animosity of Censorium, combined with the violence of the sexually conflicted sadomasochistic Diavolo, resulted in a great patron for me. Connie’s spent a goodly sum on the purchase of my paintings and I expect to see her again. She told me, as did Diavolo, “You’re the kind of person I admire. It’s artists like you keep things interesting.” 

Monday, May 23, 2016

ALL SHOOK UP

 

Cover photography: Marcia Ward


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 ALL SHOOK UP


  © 2016 Edwin Forrest Ward
& the IMAGEMAKER
Printed
May 27, 2016

IMAGEMAKER
PASSION PRESS
5475 Peoria Street 4-112
Denver CO 80239
 303 322 9324
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All Shook Up

as always for Marcia
JW McCullough was one of those rare creatures that had been given, without asking for it, a second chance in life.   bands and in an Elvis Impersonator band. His favorite guitar riff, he told me, was the one he scored for his solo for the Impersonator Band’s rendition of “All Shook Up.” He also took up creating antics as performance art. Sometimes poetic often comedic his skits caught the eye of a producer in Philadelphia who was able to hook JW up with a slot on a soon to launch NBC TV show called Saturday Night Live. Three producers – one from Philly, one from Chicago, and one from New York - were cooking up this skit-centered take on comedy. A month before production was to begin, however, Chicago and New York conspired to dump Philadelphia and, consequently JW lost his chance.  On the brink of standing in the national spotlight and now back in the Philadelphia dark, JW had a melt down and attempted suicide by overdosing on alcohol and pills. He had since Nam been dealing with depression; the VA eventually told him he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, a result of transporting munitions from America and transferring them to destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin during the war. He did not die, however, as his producer found him and Hahnemann Hospital pumped his stomach clean. Thus that second chance I mentioned earlier. For the rest of his life JW had a perspective on life quite different from everyone else’s. If you’ve given up the ghost and are somehow brought back to life, you see things differently. And JW saw the world as his stage for the next bittersweet sixteen years.

I met JW at Jerry Record’s on Colfax when I was making my first feature movieo Sylvia and The Green Bird in 1984. I was showing John Loquidis, the proprietor of Jerry’s Records, some preliminary footage I had shot of his girlfriend, Juliet Johnson, in the role of Sylvia. JW was hanging around the counter and he looked over my shoulder at my camera’s viewfinder and announced, “If you’re making a movie I want in.” Picking up on his Philly accent and sensing a kinship because of it, and digging his attire – JW dressed with more flair than most rock stars (he was wearing striped pants, turquoise painted penny loafers sporting Gold Coin Saloon tokens where the pennies would have been, an embroidered baseball cap depicting an elephant, and a collarless paisley button up shirt (the buttons also were painted turquoise) – I said, “Sure.” And thus began our ten year friendship as JW and I went on to finish my movie together – he as actor, co-producer, and singer. In the process, he became the brother I never had and godfather to my youngest son, Zenith Star. 

JW’s most lucrative “job,” his means of acquiring money was to participate in drug studies, mostly back in Philadelphia, and he split his time between Denver and Philly, often staying with my family for short stints. We got along well, although I did come to realize JW was a closet alcoholic after finding sundry empty pints and half pints of exotic whiskies left about my house. John admitted to me his serious predilection, claiming, however, he was clean seventy-five percent of the time. “My binges last about a week,” he said. He also told me he never had a drink in his life until at age twenty-five he heard the word mimosa, and liking the sound of it, he ordered one. Then another. Then another. And the next day he went to a liquor store and filled a shopping cart with assorted whiskies and rums, thus beginning his see-saw life-long battle with John Barleycorn which he used to self medicate his manic depressive condition. If truth be told, his drinking never really impacted our relationship. I’d had alcoholic friends before, hell, my father was one, and you take a brother as he is; still, I’d have preferred him sober. And I was always glad to have a companion whenever he returned from his participation in lock-down experimental drug studies back East. JW’s justification for taking such risks was that “You get a placebo half the time; so it’s only half-dangerous.”

After release from a drug study in 1988, he was clean and sober and met up with a performing artist by the name of Vesna. Soon he and Vesna became a couple and an act, presenting what they called “The Butterboat Show.” They wowed the underground South Street art scene in Philadelphia and even won a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant to take their Butterboat Show on the road, eventually winding up in Florida.  As I learned later (like last month after re-connecting with Vesna on Facebook) Vesna had wanted to end things with JW (“too manic and controlling and isolating,” she said) but he had followed her to Florida. You might say he stalked her to St. Petersburg. But because he was unable to rekindle anything with Vesna, he again took up with his other love, alcohol. During his six month passionate affair with booze in Florida he sent me dozens of incredibly sophisticatedly addressed letters filled with manic yet comedic poems and rambling paeans to his artistic heroes, Prince and Elvis Costello. Even my taciturn mailman remarked that he loved delivering my mail as he got to handle the art objects that were JW’s envelopes. “Who is this guy? Whoever he is, tell him I’m a fan.”

And then one day JW appeared in the elevator door of my loft, drunker than I’d ever seen him, asking if he could stay with me until he got sober. The loft I lived in had a glass wall as the second floor of 1444 Wazeee Street had once been the corporate headquarters of Fashion Bar. JW was so out of it he stepped off the elevator, walked into my living area and then into the glass wall with such inebriated recklessness that he knocked himself out. He stayed a week, secluded in my loft, fighting withdrawal and depression before returning to the world mostly clean and sober. He had enough bread left from his last drug study to pay a month’s rent at the Newhouse Hotel at Grant and Colfax around the corner from Jerry’s Records. He painted his room to match the color of his turquoise shoes that matched the color of his newly acquired pawnshop electric guitar. During his last months in Denver he took up antics as performance art again, but his performances were more in the real world than on stage. Once, as he told me - “to give downtown workers an unexpected holiday in the middle of the week,” - he super-glued the locks of dozens of office buildings on the 16th Street Mall. Awarded to Anonymous, his stunt received the “Best Prank of the Year” award from WESTWORD. JW got away with his prank despite being videotaped by multiple security cameras as his disguise included a wig and a dress and a slinky put-on sashay to beat the band. Eventually, however, he decided to – as he told me - “give Hollywood a chance” and he moved to LA.
JW’s second – and in this case successful suicide attempt – was his final piece of performance art. It unfolded over the course of a week. After the June 28, 1992 Landers earthquake rattled Los Angeles, JW left a phone message for me on my answering machine: “Ed, I’m drinking again! Been sober the last year but this is just too much! Really, I’m all shook up and feelin’ whiskey deprived! By the way, did I tell you I’ve finally made it: my name’s in the Hollywood phone book!” When he did reach me a day later we had a three hour long distance phone call in which he manic-ed his way about dozens of topics, alluding to many reckless behaviors, that shall remain unmentioned, he had taken up. He also told me how he had called everyone he knew long distance as he wanted to create the largest unpaid telephone bill in the history of Ma Bell. I missed the innuendo and didn’t get the hidden meaning of “unpaid.”

Now, I had visited JW three months before the quake and he had been his normal prankster self, living in a “residential” low rent Hollywood hotel, doing performance art (guitar and poetry) at assorted bars and galleries and at midnight on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. We made the rounds of LA friends I had turned JW on to: Tony Scibella, Marsha Getzler, SA Griffin and Frank T. Rios. JW had wanted to visit my ex-wife with whom I had hooked him up, but when I called Carol to set up a meet, she told me, “You can come alone, but don’t bring that man anywhere near me,” as JW had apparently worn out his welcome at Carol’s Beverly Hills Film Production headquarters. At the time of my visit, the sober JW had a cassette recorder, a guitar, an iron, a manual typewriter, and sundry wild “outfits.” When I said “Later, man” to him in early April, little did I know it would be the last time I would speak to him in person.

Anyway, after the Landers quake, JW scrambled to accomplish a few items on his bucket list of antics. First he convinced SA Griffin, a successful Hollywood actor and poet, to rent a brand new Cadillac convertible. JW wanted to superstar it around Los Angeles and they did. SA had always enjoyed being a wheelman – his performance art troupe was called the Carmabums - and together they toured for some six hours or so, top down with Elvis Costello tapes blasting on the stereo. JW honked and waved to all the street artists and street people he had befriended. A night later, JW called a local national public radio station that was hosting its annual fund drive. JW told the hosts, two comedian DJs pleading for money, that he was one hell of guitar player and he would give the radio station $100 every time they mentioned “the guitar player, JW McCullough.” Well, the comedians ran with it, and over the course of the next half hour they worked the phrase -“the guitar player, JW McCullough” - into their spiel some fifty or sixty times. JW recorded what ensued on the radio with a cassette tape recorder and mailed me the tape that I’d characterize as the funniest radio bit I’ve ever heard. Sadly, I received this comedic masterpiece two days after SA called to let me know that JW had committed suicide. Apparently, JW, who had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder for over twenty years, had stock piled a years worth of assorted medications the VA had given him. He cured his anxiety and manic depression once and for all, by washing down handfuls of pills with sweet aperitifs and rum. Believe you me, the guitar player JW McCullough, his choice to end it all, and the performance art ending that it was, shook me up as much as the earthquake shook LA. The final mimicked riff, the last twitch of his fingers most likely accompanied the thought: “I’m all shook up, hey hey. I’m all shook up.”


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A POET PRIEST

Cover Photo: Marcia Ward


 A POET PRIEST

As always, for Marcia

When I was a child attending Saint Bernard’s Catholic Elementary School, I was teacher’s pet eight years in a row. I’m sure it had something to do with my desire to please my mother and therefore every woman with whom I came in contact (like the nuns and female lay teachers) as well as my intellect, politeness, curly hair, and long lash-laden bright blue-green eyes. And every nun would tell me at some point in the year that I ought to become a priest. Similarly when I went to Saint Joseph’s Preparatory High School, a Jesuit school, my Latin teacher said the same thing. Well as much as I would have liked to please my devout Catholic mother who would have loved having a priest as a son, I told all those with clerical designs on my future: “Hell no! I’m going to marry and have kids,” – a politically correct way of informing them that I was not about to be celibate. Still, I must admit that I had great love of ritual, both secular and religious: taking the field for a football game and the coin toss (as captain I always choose heads) and Sunday Mass, to name an example of each. And as you’ll see, sometimes, if fate is kind, one can have it both ways.

In 1979 when I married Marcia Zimmer in my Pearl Street back yard, my publisher, Larry Lake of BOWERY PRESS served as our officiant. It was a most unique ceremony in that Marcia and I both wrote love letters to each other that we shared aloud, I wore no shirt, poems were read and burned in a silver bowl, and the beard that Larry sported was the antithesis of the clean cut looks of my Lutheran in-laws from Wyoming. Photos from that day capture the utter dismay of my father-in-law, an extremely conservative Republican Wyoming State Senator. In fact, I’m not sure he ever got over me, an East Coast city boy who he considered to be “anti-establishment.” After all, I did have friends of diverse races and sexual orientation, I came from a union family, I was a writer making ends meet as a waiter, and my long curly locks were always a little too unkempt, too much, for the wind that is Wyoming.

One result of my wedding ceremony was that a few years later while living in Austin Texas, I mentioned in a phone call to Larry that I, too, had a desire to write and conduct rituals as a witch friend and her fiancé wanted me to assist with their wedding ceremony. And then a few months later in the mail, I received the second most cherished document of my life, my ordination papers, - the first being my marriage license signed by Marcia, me, Lenny Cernila, Barbara Timmons and Larry Lake who listed his title as Poet Priest. Apparently upon Larry’s recommendation and nomination, I had been ordained as a Minister in the Temple of Man by the founder of the Temple of Man, Robert Alexander, who went by the name of Baza. Literally, my Ordination means worlds more than getting paychecks, being published, graduating from Drexel University or receiving awards for community service or poetry.

Today, because I write and conduct some sixty or so marriage ceremonies a year, I am often queried about the nature of my ministry as my ceremonies are like no other: did you get ordained on line? Are you a “Universal Life” minister? Where did you study? How did you become a minister?

Well, the Temple of Man, to put it plainly is probably the hippest religious organization in the world. This is its story as I know it.

In 1960 a rather gifted and notorious poet by the name of Stuart Z. Perkoff was recorded during the FBI’s first successful use of a reel-to-reel tape recorder selling marijuana to a friend. A suction cup microphone with a wire leading to a tape recorder had been affixed to the window of his pad. Because Stuart was becoming an (albeit reluctant) anti-establishment icon in America, he was just too revolutionary, too dangerous as a role model, for the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Perkoff was the protagonist hero - perhaps anti-hero – of Larry Lipton’s 1959 novel, The Holy Barbarians – one of the first novels about beatniks, the publication of which incited tour bus loads of lookie-lous hoping to encounter beatniks to park in front of Café West, the coffeehouse that Stuart had founded. Café West was the LA gathering spot for those seeking a life outside the material world of 50s’ America. To avoid the throngs of tourists hoping to spy on the underground, Stuart and his friend Tony Scibella used to hide on the rooftops of nearby buildings whenever the masses invaded what had once been the quiet destitute seaside village of Venice, a place they had hoped would serve as a low-rent Mecca of sorts for those seeking a lifestyle outside the norm, a higher consciousness based on art and love. Stuart had appeared as himself, a beatnik poet, on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, accompanied by a beautiful and extremely tall Las Vegas showgirl (with close to a foot of teased hair atop her head she seemed twice as tall as Stuart with his shaved head). Throughout the broadcast, Stuart’s quick wit charmed Groucho and everyone in America watching the nationally syndicated TV show. When Groucho first began interviewing Stuart, Groucho referenced his notes: “Mr. Perkoff, it says here that you are a writer,” to which Stuart replied, “Oh yes, Groucho, I write home for money every week!” And the quick repartee and quick-witted banter continued for the duration of the show. Groucho was so charmed by Stuart that he became a silent patron of sorts, encouraging and supporting the establishment of The Gas House in Venice, a rent-free artist community where those who resided had only to keep making art to maintain their residency. But, as I mentioned earlier, the unwanted fame that came Stuart’s way brought the FBI spotlight and tape recorder to bear on Stuart and his friends and he wound up being incarcerated for years in the Penitentiary at Terminal Island where some other notorious criminals like Al Capone and Timothy Leary once resided, a bitter example of a most unsuitable punishment for a non-violent offense, an act now perfectly legal.

One day a friend of Stuart’s, the artist/poet/printer Robert Alexander, visited the prison but was told that visitors - other than family (father, son, brother, wife, etc) or chaplains - were not allowed. And so for this very pragmatic reason - among other less pragmatic reasons such as his interest in art, poetry, community and ritual - Baza founded The Temple of Man in 1960, a non-profit religious organization. To visit an incarcerated friend. The Temple of Man’s 1967 California incorporation papers state:

 “The Temple of Man is formed in dedication to the sentient individual, creative man, and for the preservation of his creative works, in order to help broaden perception and increase the understanding between all men everywhere, who, being unified by the supreme force of life, are working toward a higher social and spiritual evolution.” “It is not worship so much as a quest,” the statement goes on. “It is a way of becoming, of liberation.” Two of the most well known “tenets” of “The Temple of Man are that Art Is Love Is God,” the words of the artist Wallace Berman that Stuart Perkoff wrote upon the wall of his Café West coffeehouse, and that “The Temple of Man is Within,” something the poet David Meltzer appropriated from the Bible.

I happened to meet Baza in the late Seventies when I traveled to California to retrieve a dog I once loved and used to own that was facing euthanasia. I had been involved with the celebrated poet James Ryan Morris during the last months of his life in Denver and Jimmy’s wife Diana, upon hearing of my plans to go to LA to rescue a dog, had suggested that I visit Jimmy’s good friend Bob in Venice. At the time my knowledge of The Temple of Man, the once famous beatnik scene that was Venice, and of Robert Alexander’s status as a great American artist (Baza’s artwork, publications, and personal letters are in the Smithsonian) were zilch. It was a meeting that changed my life.

I remember being almost afraid of ringing the bell outside the gate of Baza’s home, for I knew not what I’d find. Having known what Jimmy Morris had been into, his predilections, I feared I might be interrupting an orgy or walking into a shooting gallery. But what I found was a beach house full of assemblage art, paintings, collage, sculpture and published writings; and an artist who welcomed me as a brother, “Do you and Marcia need a place to stay?” offering me refuge from the world I felt so alienated from, 1978 America. My afternoon with Baza truly opened my eyes to the magic of personal art and reassured me that there were others like me, a notion instrumental in suffusing the loneliness, the Steppenwolf separateness that haunted me. For Baza was a father and husband as well as world-class artist. I got it that one does not have to be insane or an alcoholic or a drug addict to be an artist, as I mistakenly believed. One only had to love.

Toward the end of his life, Alexander wanted to open a cabaret space, as well as a serious museum and archive for the collection of Temple art and ephemera he’d amassed over the previous 25 years. Many of those artists were now gone, their names engraved in brass plaques attached to a shrine he built in his garden out of abandoned timbers from the old Ocean Park pier; the scraps of Venice’s past now buoying the dead of his clan: Stuart Perkoff, Ben Talbert, Artie Richer, Wallace Berman, Lenny Bruce, Dennis Hopper, Larry Lake. Someday my name will be there too.

So I believe you can have it all, that everybody gets what he or she wants. I became a celebrant of ritual, a poet priest, all because the FBI stung and jailed a celebrated poet and his good friend could not get in to visit. And I married and had kids.
 

Monday, October 26, 2015

BEAT SHAPE


Cover Photos & Artwork
Marcia Ward, TW Gaddy, Steve Wilson
Angelo diBenedetto, Rasta 68, Ed Ward
Michael Bergt & Jack Livingston


                     BEAT SHAPE


as always, for Marcia

Over the course of the last five years I’ve been tasked with the job of shedding light on the Bohemians of Denver, those, a mile high and underground, who have lived the life of artists. In 2010, I wrote an essay on the literary legacy of the Denver Beats for the Colorado Historical Society, lent my personal collection of Beat art and ephemera for an exhibition at The Byers-Evans House, and produced a show here at The Mercury Café, a celebration of all things underground entitled a Bohemian Extravaganza. In 2012 my story, Billy Burroughs Prediction’, was published in London’s, if not the world’s, premiere beat magazine, The Beat Scene. Earlier this year I was interviewed on the Medical Mary Jane Cable Network about my relationships to some of Denver’s most famous and sometimes most notorious Beat artists like James Ryan Morris, Angelo diBenedetto, Stan Brakhage, Larry Lake and others. I contributed info for a chapter on the Denver Beats for History Press’ THE DENVER BEAT SCENE by Zack Kopp. At the Neal Cassady Birthday Bash last February I got to entertain Cassady fans from near and far blowing my tale, No Going Back, a Cassady-esque tale of a wild blow job once received (a blow job being the fulcrum around which Neal’s famous 1950 23,000 word letter to Kerouac swung, a letter that prompted Jack to declare in a letter to Ed White (who designed the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory at The Denver Botanic Gardens) that Denver’s own Neal Cassady was the greatest living writer in Europe and America, a mid-century correspondence that turned Jack on to a new way of writing. One result of appearing at the Cassady Birthday Bash upstairs at The Merc was that I was tapped to design a Beatnik Tour of Denver for an aspiring tour company. Late last spring, I gave a presentation on the Denver Beats to interested students at Colorado Academy (some of the suburban students were so enthralled they actually attended STORIES STORIES in the evening). Currently I am being filmed as the subject of a Gwylym Cano documentary wherein I narrate stories of poets and painters I have known. I mention all this to you not to brag but to justify my assertion that I am, these days, the delegated go-to-guy when the legacy of Denver Beats is the subject.

The somewhat ironic story that follows is the tale of how all-things-beatnik first infiltrated my Jesuit-Prep School-educated soul.

When I was nine years old, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road made the scene in bookstores all across the nation and gave birth to a cultural revolution. What it meant to be hip was newly defined. The year was 1957. On The Road didn’t find me, however, until 1965, and I must admit, I was not all that impressed when it was required reading in my senior year of high school. So, you might say that in 1957 Bohemians became Beatniks. Bores became squares. Espresso became Expresso because my good friend and mentor, Tony Scibella, spelled it that way when he painted the signage on the window of Stuart Perkoff’s Venice West Café in 1959, a scene that was central to Larry Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians, a tome that examined what it meant to be beat in Los Angeles. I met Tony Scibella almost twenty years after he painted EXPRESSO and eventually published his masterpiece THE KID IN AMERICA in 2000. 1959 also saw the arrival of Dwayne Hickman and Bob Denver on the black and white TV screens of North America playing the roles of Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs in the syndicated show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. I watched the show in real time as it was broadcast and laughed my pre-adolescent ass off at the antics of the beatnik that was Maynard; I never forgot the way Maynard screeched “Work.” He was cooler than a pack of Kools or a micronite (aka asbestos) filter on a Kent cigarette. Speaking of Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs, here’s a Hollywood Screen Actor’s Guild tidbit I learned from S.A. Griffin (an actor/poet friend of mine in LA – we met when SA came to Denver as the guest star bad guy on a Perry Mason movie of the week): no matter where one is in the world making a movie: if you’re looking to score some weed, just ask local cast members and crew if anyone belongs to Bob Denver Fan Club and soon you’ll be connected. Bob Denver obviously had an impact that went well beyond the four-year run of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Hell, filmed in China, SA once played General Matthew Ridgway for a CCTV (Chinese) TV series, and despite the repression and danger there, the on location Bob Denver Fan Club made sure that SA was not left wanting. In the late 90s, born of an egg my son Zenith Star won in a biology class raffle at East High, I even owned a pet duck, who lived four years in my backyard, named Doobie. Ok, that’s with two o’s instead of one; nonetheless, the allusion to Mr. Gillis is apparent! I mention these beat firsts and bohemian references in my life because in some ways the cultural revolution triggered by Kerouac’s On The Road incited one of the greatest shifts in American thinking ever, a shape-shift which reflected my own from Philly street tough to Colorado artist. Without the Beats there might never have been the peace movement that ensued, and we might still be watching the War in Vietnam on the six o’clock news, but I digress.

When I arrived in Denver in the mid-70s, a poet making the rounds of hipster hangouts, it was the Beatniks who remained who embraced me as a brother. Not the hippies, not the street poets, not the new technocrats, not the world of academia. It was the Beatniks: Larry Lake, Jimmy Ryan Morris, Tony Scibella, Gypsy (himself a minor character in On The Road), Lucy McGrath, and others. This family of like-minded hipsters took me in, adopted me as it were, despite the fact that I was beardless, had never thumped a bongo (or any musical instrument for that matter), did not know that Bird was Charlie Parker’s nickname, did not know the character of Dean Moriarty in On The Road was based on Denver’s own car thief, Neal Cassady, knew little of the artistic merit and history of the Beat movement in Denver or America, and found Kerouac wanting in comparison to my go-to hero, Bob Dylan. In fact my first introduction to things one might call Beat, has little to do with poetry and novels and abstract expressionism, and more to do with WWII, Nazi machine guns, two of my mother’s older brothers (she was one of thirteen siblings), American spies (both domestic and on foreign shores), and two of my older sisters, Carol and Ginny.

One evening in 1959 I was watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis when the phone rang. In those days people (especially a child like myself) actually answered a ringing phone. The caller was one of my many cousins on my mother’s side of the family, Jack Daly, the twenty-two year old son of a deceased uncle who died before I was born. Jack was calling from somewhere in Delaware and apparently Jack would be passing through Philadelphia, because he was, as it were, “On The Road,” with two friends and they were hoping to connect with my sisters, Carol and Ginny: maybe for drinks at a bar, a dance or skate at the local Roller rink, or coffee at The Gilded Cage, a Rittenhouse Square coffeehouse whose backroom stage served as the pulpit for all things beat and folk and left of center in Philadelphia. When Jack arrived with his pals an hour or so later, he sported the first goatee of my life. His pals, similarly unshaven, immediately took up flirting with my sisters, both of whom I like to say “were more beautiful than religion.” The three guys’ attempts to impress Carol and Ginny included humming some bee-bop jazz, showing off their fashion (turtlenecks and blue jeans) and their speech was peppered with phrases such as “Daddio,” “Dig it,” and “Craaazy!” Even square-ass Jack had the jive down pat and he had masked his slight Southern accent with his faux Beat linguistics. Faux, as you’ll come to understand, is the operative word here. Recently trained in the art of deception, these gentlemen from Alexandria Virginia had facial hair that was beatnik, they spoke like beatniks, they dressed like beatniks; but I knew better. For I knew Jack to be a highly trained member of the CIA, his professional family, as well as a member of my Irish Catholic one.

As I said my mother had many siblings, many brothers. Two, Jimmy and Vincent, had been in Army Intelligence during World War II. Vincent and Jimmy had parachuted behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia, an act which cost Jimmy his life (one bullet through the heart while parachuting) and Vincent his appearance (strafed with machine gun fire he lived, but his body thereafter, its appearance was a horror of scar tissue). Luckily and with much stealth, the wounded Vincent escaped capture by the Nazis and recovered enough to fight along side of and become best of friends with a resistance fighter by the name of Josip Broz Tito, leader of the Yugoslavia Partisans. As you might recall, Tito eventually went on to rule Yugoslavia as a soft line communist (benevolent dictator, if you will) while keeping the Russian hard-line communists at bay for thirty years. Bosnians and Serbs went to war only after Tito died. Sometimes it takes a charismatic dictator to keep fundamentalist religious racists from slaughtering each other in fits of ethnic cleansing. Fact is: the only Americans Tito ever trusted or spoke with were my uncle Vincent and his nephew, my cousin Jack, who Vincent had later introduced to Tito. Trusted frenemies they were. After World War II, Vincent was a first round draft pick – if you will – for America’s newest three-letter team, the CIA. Both his children and his deceased brother’s children – a slew of my cousins (after all we are Irish) – all joined that same team because the original CIA was indeed a family affair. Posing as a Southern bumpkin with his wife, whose cover was being a trailer trash talking Virginia hillbilly redneck, my uncle Vincent traveled the world as a spy with gadgets James Bond and Hollywood never imagined. He’d wow us at thanksgiving dinners, demonstrating the sneaky uses of assorted spyware. My cousin Jack eventually traveled the world as an assistant to Assistant Ambassadors in numerous European capitols. His children living in so many European nations spoke a dizzying array of languages, great training for their CIA careers that followed. In fact when Tito (who was never allowed on American soil because of his communist politics) gave a speech in Toronto, it was my once fake beatnik cousin Jack standing next to him at the podium, making sure the Canadian translators got Tito’s speech right. All this, of course, came after Jack had served his time on the road as a clandestine operative spying on American civilians, which, to put it mildly, was well outside the scope of the CIA charter. Jack attended college for over a dozen years, wearing his hipster attitude, all the while spying and informing on his college contemporaries, fingering anyone wearing red or black or psychedelic colors. Chances were, if anyone at a student meeting or a peace rally or union drive was eating anything other than apple pie, Jack was taking their picture with one of those neat little gismos issued by the CIA. He’d click as he scratched his Vandyke goatee with his miniaturized camera that looked like a fountain pen. By the time Jack moved on to CIA roles in foreign embassies, the FBI, to keep us safe from ourselves, had taken over the reigns of illegally spying on American citizens for political reasons. Now we have newer letter teams spying on us: like NSA and TSA and others whose names we’ll never know.

All this just goes to prove how prophetic and insightful it was, what the king of LA Beat poets, Stuart Z Perkoff wrote in a poem he read on Denver Public Radio back in the early 70s, Stuart was actually on Groucho Marx’s YOU BET YOUR LIFE as a beatnik poet and endeared himself to Groucho and America when he quipped in answer to Grouch’s assertion that Groucho’s notes claimed that Stuart was a writer: “Groucho, I write home for money every week.” Stuart’s voice was also captured on an early FBI’s reel-to-reel tape-recording of a drug deal, a deal that netted Stuart hard time in a California prison. Stuart’s words:


                         our times are fast
                         they’re crowded
                         we’re crushed
                         we’re lost

                         mirrors are broken
                         i.d. cards torn
                         faces are stolen
                         disguises are worn

                         no order! all chaos!
                         all turmoil! no peace!
                         but we can rely on the secret police!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

NO GOING BACK



No Going Back


as always, for Marcia

I arrive in Denver on the fourth day of July in 1975 after twenty-seven years of East Coast life. My girlfriend (let’s call her “Crazy”) had at the time wanted to experience Kerouac and Cassady’s “the West,” and so I had resigned from my life and tenured position in Jersey and moved here to accommodate her wishes. We found a second-floor one-bedroom apartment at 14th and Elizabeth and set about reinventing ourselves. I found work as a waiter making more money than I had as a teacher and commenced the life of a Bohemian, writing poetry and starting work on my “great American novel,” activities the time constraints of my career as a teacher and union organizer had precluded me from indulging in. I found great pleasure in my disassociation from all that been before and reveled in my newfound anonymity. Writing in long hand on the built in table of my walk-up apartment, such things as my teenage gang membership in Philadelphia, my degree in physics, and my tenure as a professional educator had little to do with this new life as an artist I was undertaking; quite aware I was that I would never return to the life I’d known before. Sadly my girlfriend embraced not the uncertainties of living in the West as an artist, and by October Crazy was in NYC, never to return.

During the time Crazy and I lived in our Congress Park pad on the second floor of the Elizabeth Arms, we were friendly with a couple that also lived there, Ric and Sandy. Ric was a folksinger and social worker and Sandy was, well Sandy was a wee bit strange, as strange as she was beautiful. Sandy and Crazy had been summer friends, a friendship based on the similarity of their childhoods and upbringing, and, in retrospect, their apparently fragile mental health. Both were sexy and exotic (Crazy was a Mediterranean beauty and Sandy was archetypal Aryan), and both women expected men to take care of the mundane matters of life – like making a living. Both had been raised by very wealthy parents who lived in gated and exclusive enclaves, Crazy in Wellesley Massachusetts and Sandy in the Bahamas. I especially enjoyed eyeballing Crazy and Sandy from my writing table window as they sat, late afternoons, on the front porch. My first fantasies of infidelity and “the other woman” were incited by the vision of the two of them, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine, rocking side by side on the porch glider, comparing notes, and gossiping about Ric and me.

Shortly before Crazy abandoned me and left Colorado, I bought a house on Pearl Street and lost contact with Ric and Sandy. Crazy leaving me was brutal, for I was deeply in love with the woman I imagined she was, and I sought to numb my pain with alcohol and drugs. On my evenings off, I’d prowl Congress Park and Colfax Avenue – places we had loved - on foot or in my van in a nostalgic hunt for the ghost of Crazy, and one night I came across a bewildered Sandy outside the 7-11 on York Street around the corner from my old apartment. She lit up when she saw me, and the hug she gave me had a hint of sexual innuendo that was hard to ignore. She clung to me like a child clings to a favorite grandparent or a favorite toy. Like the lost to their savior.

I asked after Ric, and Sandy told me he was in a hospital in Thornton. Minor surgery had corrected a herniated disc but he’d be in recovery and physical therapy for another week. She asked after Crazy and her eyes got sparkly when I told her of my Ex’s return to the East Coast. I do believe she actually licked her lips with a serpentine tongue, as she appeared lost in thought. And then she asked if I’d give her a ride to the hospital sometime soon as she had not been able to visit Ric. Public transportation, its schedules and transfers, was beyond her ken.

So, with a wee bit of lust lurking in the shadows of my intentions, I arrive at my old apartment building the next morning. Sandy and Ric lived on the ground floor across the commons from where Crazy and I had lived, and she was waiting on the communal front porch. She bubbled with excitement as she flew the length of the walk and climbed into my van. All the way to Thornton she gossiped about Ric and his increasing demands on her abilities. She practically hissed a litany of things that needed redress. Did Ric actually expected to return home to an organized apartment, one without dirty dishes and piles of laundry? Did he really expect her to keep track of her medication and dirty clothes? Suffice it to say, Sandy was all over the map, mentally and physically. She constantly changed stations on the radio, rolled her window up and down, down and up, squirmed, one might say “writhed” in her seat, all the while prattling on about Ric’s peccadilloes, his dislike of clutter and certain sexual practices, his Zen stance on organization. His absurd talk of finances and the future, as if money or tomorrow matter! She’d never cleaned house in her life and she was not about to play maid, even though Ric brought home the bacon. The entire trip was a harangue of non-sequiturs and unrelated trivial chastisements of Ric and his maddening expectations. At the hospital there were other telling revelations. Sandy had forgotten to bring Ric his Gibson guitar as he’d asked. “Left it on the porch.” She’d failed to bring his checkbook. “Couldn’t find it.”  She’d not remembered his request to bring him a few joints. “I don’t know how to roll.” She hardly looked at Ric and when she left to use the restroom Ric confided in me his assessment: “Sandy’s off her meds! Look out, Eddie. Her demons are as venomous and real as she is beautiful and flighty.”

On the way back to Denver Sandy announced her intentions. She’d be leaving Ric and the Elizabeth Arms. Tomorrow! “And could I,” she asked, “move in with you?” - a tricky question, one I had no sure answer for, to say the least.

On the one hand, I was entranced by the blue-eyed blond beauty that was Sandy. Even though I had been deeply in love with Crazy, I had sensed an un-fulfilled desire in Sandy when I’d first met her and Ric, a passion I imagined I might be able to satiate. I remember sensing Crazy had picked up on my feelings about Sandy; my girlfriend had been especially assertive making love her remaining time with me, going as far as to fake or achieve multiple orgasms. And now here was Sandy coming on to me, bringing into focus my loneliness and horniness and longing for what I’d had with Crazy. But on the other hand there was Ric’s mention of Sandy’s demons and her medications. 

So I played it safe. “Sandy, how about I come by tomorrow. Last night, today, it’s been a blur of intoxicating emotions. Like a whirlwind in my heart. I get it that you and Ric are done for, yet being with you, I can’t help but think about Crazy. You two were like sisters. And I will admit that even when I was in love with Crazy, I used to think of you. You are one beautiful woman. Let’s do breakfast at Pete’s Kitchen in the morning. I need a night to think about your moving in with me. And I’m not sure if you’re talking as roommate or girlfriend.”

“If I move in I won’t be paying rent,” were her parting words as she sashayed up the sidewalk to the Elizabeth Arms.

Next morning I arrive at Sandy’s. Again, she’s waiting on the porch. Again down the sidewalk to my van she flies. 

I’ve decided to give it a shot, taking up with Sandy, demons and all, and I tell her as much. You might compare my lonely and horny and bemused decision making to a car going ninety-miles an hour down a dead end street with my dick in the driver’s seat and my rational mind blind-folded and tied up in the trunk. All I know is that I’m game and I’m gonna get laid. Enough said.

After a passionate kiss initiated by her, Sandy tells me she’s going to leave it all behind: her old clothes, her old life, her old ways, and her old medicines. She wants to start her new life with me without baggage. “All I need,” she tells me, “are a few things: make-up, tooth brush, hair brush, boots. Be back in a minute,” and out the van she flies, up the sidewalk and into the Elizabeth Arms. I await her return with all the nervousness of anyone on a first date, of someone about to seal his or her fate.

Minutes pass and my nervousness increases. To what have I committed? What exactly are the meds Ric spoke of? Who are the demons? More time passes. I exit my van and make my way back towards the building where I once lived happily with Crazy. Ascending the steps to the porch I see my first hint of a demon at work: Ric’s Gibson guitar.  Behind the glider against the railing, its hollow body splintered, its cat-gut strings gyring from the tuners like a nest of snakes, it apparently had been rammed repeatedly by the glider: a gone guitar for sure. More than a minor chill percolates below the surface of my skin as I step into the building and approach Sandy’s apartment, the door to which is open. And beyond the threshold is a nightmare. The former Zendo of a living space is topsy-turvy with retribution and destruction. Broken unwashed dishes fill the sink and clutter the kitchen floor and counters. Every closet and cabinet is empty, as is the open refrigerator. Foodstuffs, in and out of packaging, and cookware and clothing scattered helter-skelter from kitchen to living room baseboard constitute a maze even Daedalus could not solve. No path anywhere. The smell of sour milk mixes with the odor of soiled laundry, molding washcloths, and rotting fruit and meats. Even the temperature of the apartment is off the charts, in line with the thermostat setting that I note: 88 degrees and rising! And then I sense her aside me, coming as she has from the bathroom aside the kitchen. In her hands are the personal hygiene items she came back for: her hairbrush, toothbrush and lipstick. She’s wearing white cowgirl boots. She looks not at the destruction she has caused; rather, she looks piercingly at me, as if there’s nothing in the world but me. She quickly and haphazardly paints her lips with the purple lipstick in her hand then brushes her long cascading hair slowly. All the while her eyes give me their full attention. Then she unbuttons her blouse. She wears no bra. She empties her hands of brushes and make-up, all of which join the mess on the floor. She steps forward and falls to her knees in front of me unzipping my pants with the quick work of fingers. I close my eyes to the scene around me, to the world I know, as she takes me into her mouth. She swallows me ravenously, dead-set determined to make me unaware of her demons, but standing there, as I approach orgasm, I see in my mind’s eye unfolding visions of snakes and birds. They slither and flutter all around as they escape from her mouth and leak out of her eyes. I press the back of her head against my body in an attempt to escape the visions, to return to the tactile, the sexual, the here and now, but my hand’s first touch of the back of her head, my first skin to scalp, is met with a cruel rebuke that kills more than my sexual buzz, a warning that she practically squawks: “Don’t ever touch the back of my head. You can have the rest of me, my breasts, my lips, my ass, but my head belongs to them. Then with her side-winding arms slowly undulating, she flutters her fingers in such a way that I sense for sure the nature of her demons, the vipers and raptors to whom her head belongs. Her ophidian dance of arms and quivering flicker of digits ends with her appearing catatonic as she kneels before me. Then she unwinds herself cobra like as she coils to the floor asleep. When she awakens a little while later, she is docile, almost penitent. She knows I won’t be taking her home to my house. She knows I’ve seen her madness. Literally and figuratively. She asks that I take her to Denver General, to the psychiatric ward. “They know me there,” she whispers.

I drive to Sixth and Bannock. We sit silent in the parking lot for quite a while before she leaves me alone in my misery, bewildered, bemused, bewitched, and now with visions of snakes devouring birds and raptors ascending with talons full of snakes leaking out of my mind’s eye into my memory. Two days ago I was simply lonely. Now I will be forever hungry to go to a place to which I know I can’t return.

Monday, June 9, 2014

RONNIE RITA & ME


cover photo - Woolworth's Photo Booth circa 1965



 RONNIE   RITA   &   ME

as always
for Marcia

On my 50 cc Honda, a newly minted 1965 toy of a motorcycle, Glenn Quenzer and I, we are, after an evening of dipping into the folk music scene at the Gilded Cage in downtown Philadelphia, returning to Mayfair in the Great North-East. We’ve been pushing the envelope of loyalty to our hood and boyhood pals recently and have been hanging out with strangers: older kids, college girls wearing leotards, Ben Franklin-eyed men sporting goatees, elbow patches and berets, dilettantes quoting Rimbaud, and folkies singing Woody Guthrie. I’d developed a serious interest in the writings of Bob Dylan and had found the Gilded Cage in my search for poetry. Operated by Esther & Ed Halprin, the coffeehouse with backroom stage is ground zero for folk music and Bohemian pursuits in Philly. The first cover charge of my life I pay here. 

Glenn and I, we are still card carrying members of our teenage gang, “The Wall,” our gang’s moniker, a result of the location where we congregate: on and aside the low retaining wall in front of a large house on Walker Street at Hartel. It seemed there was a strange attraction between the girls of Holmesburg and the guys from Mayfair, and the stone wall served as a maypole of sorts, a touchstone for adolescent hearts to swing around and voices to harmonize a cappella in front of.
Now because my interest in the poetry of folk music and Glenn’s interest in playing guitar and singing on stage are outside the common interests (mostly drinking and fist-fighting) of others in The Wall, Glenn and I have mostly kept our growing passions, our interest in the arts, to ourselves. This Friday, we have opted out of going with the rest of The Wall to a major dance at the Concord Roller Rink, a somewhat serious sin of omission, as you never know if there’d be trouble for someone of the Wall, given the events of my life the last three weeks, as my mouth and Glenn’s fists have always been part of The Wall’s arsenal. Should there be trouble, as often there is, we are surely to be missed.
Heading east, hoping to rendezvous with Fiddles and Ebberly and Bauers and Dubuc and the girls when the dance lets out, we are cruising in and out of the electric buses and automobile traffic on Frankford Avenue. Debbie Marion in her customized 1964 and 1/2 powder-blue convertible Mustang recognizes me and my wheels and honks and waves as she revs her 210 horsepower, 289 cubic inch V-8 engine at the Robbins Avenue light. Part of me has always hankered for Debbie, because, after all, her tail bumper sports a sticker that reads BEATMEUCANEATME. 

Always the devotee of ice cream and custard, and knowing Glenn still has a few bucks left from his Grandfather’s stash, I downshift into the parking lot of Gino’s just west of Levick Street. The frozen treats here, they ain’t Breyers - they ain’t even Dolly Madison - but I got to say I crave sometimes the vanilla chocolate double swirl soft serve custard Gino’s serves. Glenn when he’s flush seems to go for the burgers and fries, which are outside my budget.

So we are standing at the walk up window enjoying, as always, the look and presence of unfamiliar people and places - for as I like to say, Who knows where love hides? - when a familiar and exceedingly unwelcome face appears, the face of my nemesis: Ronnie Ryan. He’s behind me in line tapping on my shoulder and he’s accompanied by his Bridesburg posse, some eight or nine thugs none of whom are smaller than me. I say “Unwelcome” because last month alone I was beaten pretty badly by Ronnie Ryan twice. First in Wildwood New Jersey and then in Wissinoming Park. All because the very woman I am hoping to rendezvous with after the dance lets out in an hour or so, Rita Romero, has been making out with both me and Ronnie, double dipping one might say, while, when alone together, professing to be going steady with each of us. Naturally, the seventeen-year honor code of 1965 dictates that we fight each other anytime we meet. Easy for Ronnie to subscribe to (at six two and 220 pounds) but not so easy for me (at five eight and 160 pounds). Not to mention, in all the fights I’ve ever had, I’ve never ever won. 

The Wildwood deal went down brutally and foolishly after we’d encountered each other on the boardwalk in front of the Starlight Ballroom. Believe you me I was not keen on fighting Ronnie Ryan given his hulking size and cocky smirking glowering, but I had no choice if I was going to maintain my honor among my fellow gang friends with whom I had hitchhiked ninety miles to be here. Because fighting on the boardwalk would surely lead to being arrested, Ronnie and I decided to take our fight away from the eye of the police who maintained a heavy presence amongst the boardwalk throngs. We left our friends, his and mine, to trash talk each other and we headed west up Oak Avenue in search of a secluded spot to fight. The whole time we are strutting and posturing, I am wondering at the depth of my foolish pride for I know in my heart there’s no way I can win. Hell I’ll be lucky to get out of this with all my teeth. All I can hope for is a miracle or a lucky lucky lucky punch.

So into the dark side yard of a small summer cottage we go. Oddly we are surrounded by big beautiful full bloom roses on the perimeter of the yard. Hundreds of them. They will serve incongruously as the ropes of our ring. Not waiting for an imaginary bell to ring, I throw the first half dozen punches the instant he turns to face me. And I connect with enough force to raise a welt on his left eye, and my Saint Joe’s Preparatory Jesuit High School ring has cut his flesh and drawn a little blood below his right eye. I keep throwing punches most of which he blocks by crossing his arms in front of his face. I go for his mid section hoping for that miracle but I am already tiring after punching furiously and dancing to avoid his grasping me. Ronnie seems not to really have any boxing skills and simply appears intent on wrestling me to the ground. With all my remaining strength I throw a wild left hook and connect with the side of his head, but the Cyclopes that is Ronnie just keeps advancing. And then I’m done for as he gets his arms around me, trips me with a foot behind and smashes me to the ground. Soon he’s got my arms pinned with his knees and my body with his ass. His fists are now free to pound me, my face, at will. The full moon in the midnight sky behind his head forms an ironic halo, given the demon I consider him to be. His first punch lands not quite squarely on my mouth as, in utter panic, I squirm with all my strength beneath him, causing him to lose his balance atop me slightly, a result of which my eyetooth fang rips the flesh above his index knuckle. As he raises fist to deliver a second blow, his blood drips in my eye. He spits at me and just as he’s about to deliver what portends to be a knockout, the miracle I had not time to pray for happens. The yard lights come on and a tiny little woman with a voice as big as she is small let’s us know: “I’ve already called the cops. They’re on their way. Get the hell out of my yard.”

And off of me Ronnie Ryan flies, and before you know it, we’re both on our way back to the boardwalk as fast as our feet will carry us, Ronnie on one side of Oak Avenue and me on the other. Honor’s one thing; cops are another. When we get to the Starlight our friends surround us. From the look of things, Ronnie with his one shut eye, bloody cheek and hand, it looks as if I’ve won, although both Ronnie and I are aware of who was about to see stars. Surprised my teeth are still intact, I can’t believe what I say next. “Hey, asshole, this ain’t over yet. I want you Tuesday night. In Wissinoming Park. Nine o’clock. And then we’ll see who’s going steady with Rita.” 

Now what prompted me to ask for another potential beating, I’ll never know. The only possible thing I could come up with is my belief in miracles. And my belief in love. But belief in miracles, like belief in hope, is not a strategy.

The next morning I hitchhike back to Philadelphia. Rita calls to tell me that she can’t believe that I actually fought Ronnie Ryan. That he looks so bad with a serious black eye and stitches on his cheekbone and knuckles. That she’s torn up about her mixed emotions. She goes so far as to confess to me in a whisper, whereas she and I have engaged in some pretty orgasmic petting, that she’s totally and especially confused because she’s “‘gone all the way’ with Ronnie (only once)” and she’s not sure she can still see me, even though she swears she’ll “always love me!” 

And I’ve already scheduled another fight, a fight I’m destined to lose again, for there won’t be no little old lady turning on her lights in a rose garden.

Tuesday night arrives and I’m with my pals, The Wall. Ronnie Ryan arrives with his Bridesburg gang. There must be close to thirty of us milling around in the middle of the park. My honor, Rita’s honor, and Ronnie’s honor are on the line. Sad I am to know that winning the fight does not mean that I’ll be winning Rita. It would seem her woman’s heart is in the corner where sex lay. That she’d fucked him not me had taken me by surprise as the naïve seventeen-year old Irish Catholic in me had not seriously considered going that far, yet.

And then it’s me and Cyclopes. In the middle of a park. Fighting because we have to. Again, I land the first few punches, again damaging Ronnie’s eye, but alas Ronnie Ryan is intent on wrestling me to the ground. And soon he’s again got me pinned. Kaboom! And I literally see stars as I wonder is this what a concussion is? Kaboom again! And then, honor be damned, I concede. “You win, I give in, I give up!” To which he replies, “You ain’t nearly had enough.”

And then as he draws back his fist to slam again my exposed defenseless face, he is lifted (literally) up into the air with a picture perfect uppercut delivered by one of my posse, Bobby Brennan, who says, “Eddie said he’s had enough.” And then all hell breaks lose as The Wall and Bridesburg begin to rumble. Everybody’s swinging except Ronnie who appears to be walking about in a Cyclopes nightmare. One eye again puffed shut, the other staring blankly. And then it’s the sound of sirens followed by the sight of paddy wagons at the west end of the park. Everyone skedaddles and retreats into the Wissinoming neighborhood night including the befuddled Ronnie who is guided to a car by two of his buds. No one gets arrested. Twice now I’ve been saved from serious damage by the intervention of others. 

And now here we go again as Ronnie Ryan stares me down. Outside a Frankford Avenue fast food joint that serves frozen custard! Both his eyes seem to be working. The stitches are gone. His balled up fists in the neon light are the size of cantaloupes.

The artist in me has already started cutting ties to my neighborhood gang, but now I am wishing all my pals were here, because my only friend, Glenn, well, he literally has a broken arm. We step out of the queue and I confer with him. I ask him quietly if he can drive my Honda with one hand. He nods in the affirmative and I slip the key to it into his arm sling. “Be ready;” I tell him, “I’ll be back.”

I approach Ronnie and his gang who are now clustered in between their cars. 

“So what’s up?” I ask. “Do we have to fight again?” 

And he responds, “No point in that. I’ll just kick your ass again. I want the motherfucker who hit me from behind.” 

“That’s not what happened. It was a fair one we were having and when I said I’d had enough you should have been happy and quit. Instead you did not relent, wanting to hurt me some more, and my pal just put an end to it. His name’s Bobby Brennan. Lincoln High’s star fullback. If you want to know what he looks like, his picture’s in The Evening Bulletin. And if you’re looking for him, we hang at The Mayfair Bowling Alley. Come on by sometime. Believe me, Bobby Brennan won’t mind ringing your chimes again, seeing as you don’t obey the code of what’s a fair-one. When someone concedes, it’s over.”

I sense that Ronnie’s about to change his mind and go ballistic, so to get out of fighting him again, I peremptorily offer out the tallest of his pals. “Hey, how about you and me, asshole, across the street. Just you and me in the alley. You’ve come for blood. Let’s spill some. Yours.”

So here I go again. Fighting for a chick who’s fucked my enemy. Fighting for an honor code that I’ve abandoned. This skinny motherfucker I’m about to fight is so tall I’m not even sure I can even reach his face, so I put everything I got into body blows. My third punch knocks the wind out of him, and to the concrete on his knees he falls. I can’t believe I’ve actually won a fight! “Had enough, I ask? Man, come on, this is crazy. We don’t even know a thing about each other and here we are. Why?” And then his breath returns and he’s up on his legs and digging in a dumpster from which he retrieves a rather hefty piece of serious lumber out of which appears to protrude some bent and gnarly nails. He swings wildly at my head and when I duck he smashes the two by six into the brick wall behind me. So forceful is his swing, the stud snaps upon impact with the wall. His torque propels him to spin and I hit him with a roundhouse in the back of his ribs. He falls to the ground wailing.

“What the fuck, you don’t even know me and you might have killed me with those nails had you not missed. You’re fucking crazy man.” And I kick him in the head with all the arch and power of a forty-yard field goal attempt, as this has long since ceased to be a fair one. He rolls on his side holding his cracked ribs and I race back across Frankford Avenue just as Glenn wheels out of Gino’s parking lot. I hop on back and down the Avenue we fly. To the dance, where for the last time I am stood up by Rita who does not show for our rendezvous.

Well, after Ronnie Ryan gathered up his pal with the cracked ribs, they headed for the Mayfair Bowling Alley looking for Bobby Brennan and me. But as I said, The Wall was partying at the Concord Roller Rink where Jerry Blavit was hosting a dance. Upon arrival at the blowing alley the people Ronnie and his pals encounter are not The Wall, rather they are a somewhat older group of nineteen and twenty year old badass boys who occupied the inside of the bowling alley. Most are future cops and many have already been to Vietnam and back. The Wall deferred to them always and reverently and amongst ourselves we referred to them as “The Men.”  Ronnie and his pals were unaware there were two groups of boys who hung at the bowling alley. So when they walked inside 
as if they owned the place,  demanding to know where Bobby and Eddie were, they were met with the fury of The Men who had no idea at all who Bobby and me were. The Men only knew we were from the hood and Ronnie and his pals weren’t. When the melee was over, Ronnie had two serious black eyes this time and I do believe even his Bridesburg pals were done with looking for me and Bobby and done with defending Ronnie’s and/or Rita’s honor. 

Next morning I call Rita to put an end to my misery. “I give up,” I tell her. “Please, don’t ever say we’re going to meet again. After the dance, after school, or after you fuck Ronnie.” Her crying into the phone puts an end to my tirade. It’s the last time we speak for close to fifty years.

But in the end both Ronnie and I, we both won something for all our machismo foolishness. Ronnie went on to marry the beautiful two-timing Rita, and I went on to enhance my teenage reputation as one crazy and fearless motherfucker. A reputation of which I was and am still quite proud, for it’s an honor to live as such in the memory of boyhood pals.