Fertilizing the Wasteland: A Retroactive Conversation with Philomene Long
As time passes, we need to start preserving the memories of the Venice Beat writers, and above all identify the spaces where they flourished before they are bulldozed into oblivion. Finding these locations might become quite difficult, however, since many of them moved around a lot, and the clues are becoming ever fainter. We could perhaps benefit from a high-tech boost, an upgrade of those 3D glasses from the 1950s that sought to expose the hidden schemata of everyday life. With a little luck, we might even begin to see the spiritual emanations that matter…
A few steps southeast from the back of the Cadillac Hotel, just across Speedway, are some not very conspicuous clues. At first they seem like little more than splats of gray paint a careless handyman let drip when making some improvements to the building, the Ellison. They’re concentrated on the narrow cement strip that runs along the building and separates it from Speedway, but they also spill onto this alley. And they’re directly below one of Philomene Long’s closets that nurture more skeletal traces per square inch than any other Beat enclave in the city. These splats are clues for grasping the meaning of more haunted space. But this gets ahead of the story.
The Mad Woman of Paloma
Philomene is the most famous resident survivor of Venice West. It’s fitting she lives a short block from one of its key sites, the Dudley corridor. She’s lived in this sector since arriving in 1963, and even over on Park for a while near Larry Lipton’s house. So it’s no surprise she’s passionately devoted to the history that breathes through it. We often ramble into the wee hours about whether it will survive the haunted folks and spaces. She’s hopeful.
“Venice has been a special place ever since Abbot Kinney created it from the swamp,” she says. “The inspiration’s out there…all we need to do is let it happen!”
“But what if the time comes when no one knows what’s happening?” I ask.
“There will still be hotspots that flare through the ignorance…it’s in the air and land.”
We owe much of what remains of Venice West to Philomene’s discoveries and continued creativity. She was named Venice’s Poet Laureate by Councilman Bill Rosendahl during the city’s 2005 Centennial. Her acceptance was a manifesto for poetry as a power to see better and live committed to what really matters, but especially as the power for keeping a healthy slant on Venice’s past and present.
I’m walking to her place along Speedway, eager to launch into the weekend with stimulating conversation. My notes are in order, and I’m prepared for all contingencies. I’ve even swung by Henry’s Market for Shyla’s veggie burger special for ballast in case the language gets liquefied. I approach the final steps below her window, carefully arc my way around the gray splats while paying close attention to traffic on the right.
When I turn left at Paloma there’s a line working the intercom so I follow the crowd into the Ellison. Surprising Philomene has advantages. Sometimes I even lie in wait across from the entrance to hitch a code-free pass up the stairs. Dropping in on neighbors is a valuable custom that distinguishes the small-town element of this community. Though Philomene relishes this spontaneous quality, she prefers advance notice since it gives her time to close the closets and straighten things up. She’s always apologizing for her messy place.
She surely doesn’t need to, but I sense she’s feeling the pressure to clean up her act. In fact her son chipped in recently during a stay. Perhaps overcompensating for the fallout from their blissfully-beaten, anti-nuclear family experiment, he repaid the favor by finding a slot for everything, leaving her with a waste-free folder-rich upgrade that appears to have set her writing schedule back several weeks. Perhaps she’s learned that too much method can be maddening.
I walk softly to the stairs. I never take the elevator when I’m in the surprise mode. The sound might tip her off. Plus a detour up the stairs offers another angle on this architectural wonder, one of the city’s first structures. I’ve learned that keeping the spirit of early Venice close helps access Philomene’s frame of mind and prepare to grasp her free associations. I knock on the door, visualizing her panic from having to do many things at once. I hear rushing footsteps and a sonorous, “Who is it?”
She opens the door, looking like she hasn’t a clue, and I glimpse her state in the brief moment before her memory returns. She seems preoccupied. Philomene thrives on good conversation but relishes her solitude. She’s become quite adept these days at shifting in and out of moods.
Her look changes slightly like she’s about ready to snap out of it. But she’s angled in the door frame like it could go either way, perhaps needing an extra push from someone. Her hair prophesies the dilemma. Like an unkempt eucalyptus on Rose Ave ready for the gentrifying shears, her locks are multitasking.
“Are you ready for some…”
“…thought you were coming after you ran…got this deadline, some literary mag in Spain wants me to go on and on about sex and orgies here in the 1960s. I’m so tired of seeing my aunt lying in that bed. I didn’t have a chance to get any more wine…Illuminate’s at it again!”
“I brought what you left at my place…want me to come back later?”
Her gestures pull me across the threshold into the light streaming through the beach-facing windows. It disorients me. But as I angle inside it paints the mounds of memorabilia in clear relief.
“This place is transformative…can’t imagine you ever leaving.”
“The muse is here! Many very creative people in Venice’s history have spent time here.”
“It reminds me of the Sailhouse Lofts over on Main and Marine…those balconies facing inward to the courtyard. Some are keeping the look of early Venice alive.”
“The look maybe, but creativity needs sacrifice and struggle.”
“The muse can’t be accommodated in million-dollar closets?”
“No…the rich are welcome in Venice too, it’s just that to create you must be in touch with the spirit and…what’s really meaningful gets deadened by the material possessions and lifestyles you have to maintain to keep them.”
“Isn’t that an outmoded idea? Don’t you also get deadened by not having enough, from always having to do survival things to stay even with the game?”
“Yes…it’s one of the tragedies of what’s happened here…but being slaves to material objects makes us more insensitive to the things and people that matter. We can’t have a quality life without freeing ourselves from them. It’s not about choosing to be deprived, just living more selectively. ‘Blessed are the poor and meek for they shall inherit the earth’, one of my favorite beatitudes.”
The final syllable leaves her wide-eyed and glowing with satisfaction, like she’s solved a perplexing mystery. How apt in this shrine for the preservation of the past, renewal space for many who’ve never stopped believing beat. Sappho’s words on the near wall: “The sounds of mourning do not suit a house that serves the muse; they are not wanted here.”
“If you get your head straight about what really matters in the everyday scheme, learn how to stay away from material objects and pleasures, you’re home free and richer in spirit than the rich? A lack of worldly things gives you more privileges spiritually?”
“It’s dedicated poverty.”
“Will the victims of poverty, the good people who wanna get out of it, have a clue about what all of this means?”
“Well…Christianity, with its power and wealth, keeps many poor people in its clutches, encourages them to accept their deprived states and love their masters. But the truth is out there!”
“Where? How do they find it?”
“Well, every once in a while there’s a breakaway, some want to bring things back down to earth and practice those great ideas in the gospels, turn their attention to this life but not deny the other one either. It’s Liberation Theology, the rage around the time when I went into the convent in 1958, revived through the inspiration of Pope John 23rd.”
“It’s interesting that he died in 1963, the same year as JFK, a Catholic president who was telling youth to help others and serve their country, and also the year you dropped out of the convent? Those must’ve been fertile times for dedicated poverty.”
“I think there was so much going on then that escaped our ability to grasp it.”
“It was then when altruism seemed to be the natural gospel, not greed and me-firstism. Community and sharing and spiritual betterment seemed right.”
“Yes! Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how that happened. Compared to now it’s like…well this seems like another planet.”
“The world of the poor and deprived seemed to inspire many then. I think of Kerouac’s fascination with hobos and ‘negroes’…but wasn’t this ‘slumming’ sort of like tourism? It seems they barely broke bread with them before finding the freeway.”
“It was right, maybe not pure, but people were trying to bridge worlds.”
“It’s interesting that dedicated poverty was happening in good economic times and when consumerism was becoming the national religion.”
“That’s what they saw through, what motivated them…but the media confused the messages. There was a core that refused the hype and did its best to ignore the false signs and…that’s where Zen came in. Get your own house in order, don’t force anything that…”
“Didn’t this get trendy too, a way to drop out and turn away from…”
“Yes, but the energy created from the practice of living directly and genuinely in the moment produces a smile of understanding, a sudden intuition, a wordless transmission that reveals both the problem and the solution.”
I imagine this power and see another quote on the wall. It’s over by the calligraphy made by Zen master Maezumi Roshi for her marriage to John Thomas. From Tan Taigi: “Many mosquitoes bloated with blood during Zen meditation.” I picture waves of energy radiating from a squinting monk that spread out everywhere and empower all subjects eager to strive for some purity of resolution.
“That’s a tall order! But doesn’t the world stay as screwed up as ever…the caring mind just getting a reprieve from the whole mess that society…”
“If you care it shows and your attitude will urge others to follow. The right course comes from just accepting. You’ll possess the truth and…it can’t be violated.”
You do feel possessed when you enter this space. It’s like entering church in a sense, with the large wooden cross, and nuns everywhere. The liturgies are thought waves created from the intense desire to communicate that saturate the many journals and binders of poems, papers nesting with flyers and yellowed newspaper clips, the surplus of books yet to find their resting place. They can incense you at random with a eucharistic power to make meaningful patterns.
Many who’ve crossed this threshold speak of succumbing to conversational rapture where new words and phrases pulse them through the night. There have been some epic rap sessions. Like those between Philomene and John Thomas who died in 2002, a philosopher-poet who arrived here in the heyday of Venice West and could never leave. His ghostly voice remained on the message tape for years after. Fielding calls from the tribe of visionaries who refuse to pass? Perhaps those random traces of dusty sea breezes on the wall over the bed are really stains of his thoughts and feelings.
When possessed by this space you do feel it’s bigger, like the late night polemics and yearnings have stretched it out, played with your perceptions, jujitsued the actual cubic volume into a cathedral.
“Would you say your philosophy is a mix of Zen and Catholicism, similar to Kerouac’s?”
“Yes, well…like many Catholics, Kerouac was driven beyond the simple and ordinary, inspired to do extraordinary things, but would retreat into himself and return to Lowell and his mother. Maybe transcendence gets confused in a philosophy that’s been made over into something quite ordinary, and after a while you need to get a better perspective so you embrace the East, leaving as much of your baggage behind as…”
“Which is what you’ve done?”
“Yes…but I have less baggage because I was in the convent and worked through and out of Catholicism. I left in 1963 because I couldn’t take the brainwash that there’s only one way to be saved and all that. But I’ve carried many positives with me and I’d like to believe I’ve married East and West successfully, though I’m definitely more Zen.”
“More than the Beats as a group, or Kerouac?”
“He was a special case.”
“Do you see yourself as a member of the Beat family, or do you have serious issues with it?”
“As far as the values and philosophy, yes, for the most part. I write about many of the same things, but they were a womanizing boys club, and especially the Venice clan. Bob Alexander, the high priest at the Temple of Man over on Cabrillo during the 1970s, was the worst…the scene was full of men taking advantage of women, treating them like property, and not many could get up the confidence to resist…”
She suddenly looks exhausted. The energy of the space seems to evaporate with her final syllable.
Philomene’s poems are passionate testimonials like those of her male mentors, especially Ginsberg whom she knew well and used to drop in here. Her love affair with Emily Dickinson is a plus. Not exactly a Beat but a fine muse for Beatresses everywhere when it comes to dodging literary rules in a flip-off of male privilege. It’s poetic justice that she’s the only resident survivor of Venice West. The last word from a woman who can enlighten us about this special past. I’m trying to think of a question that might restore her energy when I hear a tap, tap, tap on the window facing Speedway. Philomene turns around to welcome a surprise visitor.
It turns out those gray splats below her window are not smatterings of paint after all but weathered dollops of pigeon doo-doo. On any given Sunday these birds flock to her second-story ledge, finding ample nutrients to get them through the day. They’re always up there but on Sunday they converge on Philomene’s space like strafed fighter pilots who’ve spotted the carrier. This is when tourists are thick as thieves and the fuming SUVs carrying them are particularly foul. They disperse more freely during the week, returning to the ledge only after their radar encounters a few aggressive hotspots left from the weekend.
This is good and bad news for us residents. With most getting their fill at Philomene’s for Sunday dinner, there’s less of a chance to be splat on our strolls to the beach. But avoid the Ellison since they might be vengeful from having their space violated. The gray matter seems to drop faster than the force of gravity, dunging all targets at random.
Over the years she’s given pigeons sanctuary in a climate that’s becoming increasingly hostile to feces-specific species whose very existence irks the clean-up committees. They’ve flourished alongside the seagulls and other fairer fowl that are making the grade better these days. Though no wimpy wasters themselves, seagulls are more photogenic and get more respect. Their size and mannerisms dwarf their droppings and even create the impression they’re on a higher link in the chain of being.
“But how can you be so excited about these birds!? Does anyone really care that…”
“They have authority…were some of Venice’s first residents. Abbot brought many from Italy and set them free along the shores and they homed in on this street, Paloma.”
Philomene knows her bird types. She’s been strain-spotting since 1963 when she shed her convent habit to find Venice, which fortunately led to her salvation through words in the family of disaffiliated writers rooted here. And one of the benefits from her mastery of words is the uncanny ability to see what many don’t through the cracks and crannies in our everyday worlds. She has a special gift for picturing species as they evolve. She’s convinced there is such a bird as the Paloma Ave pigeon. For as long as she can remember this special breed has appeared on her ledge pecking away with the desire to communicate.
“What’s so special about that type of bird?”
“It’s different than the rest. It pecks away with personality and hangs around longer, even plays house and does the family thing for a while. Ma and Pa Paloma, as I call them, have been here for a long time, bringing their share of marvels into the world. Many sit and stare for hours like they’re ready for anything to keep the flow going. They have a dove-like innocence about them…pigeons are really low-brow doves! So I read them poems…they love Poe and Dickinson and…it’s amazing how they take to words. One I call the poetess really gets into it, like she understands the meanings.”
“How could you tell?”
“It was her pecks, blinks, and nods and a glint in her eyes like a child has when it begins mumbling. It made sense, like maybe she found language…perhaps pidgin English!…but then she began to get these twittering cheeps from the rest and started to withdraw, avoiding eye contact. After a while the other birds pecked away at her until she flew away.”
“So is this the fate of sensitives who try to survive these days in a flock of hostile forces?”
“For the ones who stay around and seem to want something special, and perhaps have a little passion for…humanity!…they have trouble.”
“Have Ma and Pa Paloma ever popped a pure dropout?”
“After the poetess left they persevered for several hours on a dark and cold and rainy day on the ledge and delivered a creature that seemed to be at such odds with the surrounding gloom that I named her Illuminate, a truly beatified bird.”
“Perhaps she was nervous about what awaited her beyond the cracked shell so she took her sweet time to make a break?”
“She refuses to peck…her head’s just not into what the hustling herd takes seriously, I guess…or maybe she’s autistic.”
“Or maybe she’s just getting her act together and could care less about what sort of birdseed there might be on those bigger art-condo ledges over on Main.”
“She certainly doesn’t seem competitive.”
“It seems you and her have a bond…she obviously won’t bite the hand that feeds her, but you must see something we don’t.”
“Most here could care less about much that matters, and so it keeps me hopeful to find humanity in places they ignore. It says we’re immune from nothingness if beings from the lower depths–I guess it’s really the higher and flightier echelons–can also refuse to fit. Illuminate captures something of what I feel the alternative spirit was all about before Venice became a circus.”
Many dismiss this pigeon play with predictable putdowns: she’s starved for companionship in a poetry-shrinking community and must consort with wild life; this is what happens to those who pursue the purity of the word in a world muddied with figures and graphs; the Beats, what do you expect from those who view the 9-5 drill as the curse of death.
But these naysayers have a stake in Venice’s gentrification and measure progress differently. If they had their way they would likely refigure the breeding balance at the expense of pigeons. So they’re not apt to be reliable observers of Philomene’s behavior even if able to make sense of it. The widening gyrations in lifestyle are an unfortunate sign of our times. The center, a middle ground where folks all over the spectrum can hash out their differences, doesn’t appear to be holding. This is all the more reason to appreciate what Philomene means to this community. Her ability to spot the right signs is one that many of us need in these moments when alternative life forms are fading and messages are getting confused.
What she sees around her and how she puts it in perspective is what matters. It figures that she’s attracted to animal life. Many poets and artists have played with the spectrum of life forms to comment on the state of civilization. If society’s looking pretty dreary why not turn back the evolutionary clock and seed suspicions about linear progress?
For Philomene, whose mind is flush with words and the means to overlap and separate their meanings, it makes sense that diverse beings should share the same space. She’s primed to welcome them. Birds of course are plentiful along the ocean, and you can see her most any twilight hour happily hugging the edge of civilization, zoned into the natural cocktail, the roaring immensity and celestial light show. This sensual bath bumps her visionary prowess to discover the correspondences that most of us miss.
“Illuminate seems like a perfect pupil for you. With lots of time on her hands she must have that make-do-on-my-own-terms mentality found among all serious dropouts.”
“She’s receptive, a blank slate, though scratched up with some genetic surprises!”
“She must be a natural for the hunt and peck method…not exactly the hip-techno way to get noticed these days, but…”
“Well, if the medium’s still the message.”
“She could get one of those manual typewriters like Stu gets once in a while at Marina Appliance on Lincoln. Don’t you have one over there in the corner?”
“Yes, I love thinking with that machine. Strange, it makes me more creative. I often feel like a robot with my computer. It’s always going down and…actually, I love to handwrite things when I can.”
“If we use the old machines regularly maybe we can imagine the worlds of their users. There’s actually an upright on the back cover of Lipton’s book.”
Illuminate’s head-bobbing away on the ledge, stretching and jerking what could be a chain of pipsqueaks, alliterations and nonsense rhymes, apparently hunting for something. Replaying the hunt for the right letters and words might be exactly what humans need who want to express the fleeting and unknown. In a land laid waste by keyboarded haste, playing with a different medium might free up new messages. She might be a perfect role model if we’re tempted to jump back into the rat race. Hopefully she’ll remain here and keep breeding.
“Can sensitives like Illuminate survive long against these pressures, and especially with Venice’s changing winds that seem to be licensing the animal instincts?”
“They fly away eventually, off somewhere…never see them again. But there’s always more. The other day I looked out on the ledge and noticed Illuminate was gone, then another strange one appeared who had that starved look and familiar mannerisms, so I started reading poems and it really got into it. Pa Paloma arrived, followed by a few hopefuls, and I just kept reading and reading. Afterwards they chirped nonstop for several minutes.”
“Do you think Illuminate will come back?”
“She always has.”
Inspired beings yearn to test alien skies. Hopefully she’ll return to Philomene’s encampment. This would be a good omen. If a bird can survive such adverse conditions and keep pecking along, there’s hope for all beaten beings trying to make it in the new Venice order.
Fecal Force Field
Philomene loves these pigeons as if they were her children. But she’s also concerned with what they mean to those whose mentalities are blocking quality renewal, especially gentrifiers on their clean-up missions. And since she doesn’t hold out much hope for politicians to renew the city, she’s become a believer in the power of symbols to shape an awareness of what the stakes are.
It’s no secret that the sanitizers detest these wasters. But they tend to feel the same way toward most beaten beings and underbirds: those who have untended plants, refuse to get designer haircuts–or any other kind–at the salons on Kinney Blvd, let weeds overtake grass in their yards, neglect to bathe daily, let the dust bunnies flutter and consume their pads, commit unforgivable sartorial sins, beach-gaze at mid-day when the ticker-tape is still moving.
What can be done in the face of such prejudice? If the gentrifiers, like the best televangelist rappers money can buy, want to force all wasters to be free and see the light, suppress the evidence of their existence, then how do these birds express themselves?
For Philomene this is about controlling the rap on waste. Many are convinced our fair city has become a wasteland, but there’s no consensus about what it means. It’s hard to imagine her and others who believe passionately in Venice’s quality renewal having a good sit-down with the players who view waste as mostly a matter of appearances and refuse to change what matters. The battle lines have been drawn.
The gentrifiers do their thing, rarely mince their words and use their power and resources to remake Venice into a squeaky-clean beach resort. They won’t rest until all those who can’t freely pay their way are gone. Those armed with words and images mostly lack the political savvy to envision an alternative plan, or the power to implement one. They see the obsession with clean-up as the problem since the gentry’s removal strategies are really people-displacers. Dehumanizing policies are actually behind the streaming lines of architectural standardization and polished surfaces.
No one wants garbage-strewn streets. And you’ll not find many ecstatic about bird-family droppings, especially from pigeons. Though not all residoo is treated equally. Deposits from canine companions the size of baby stud horses (laws of property beckon body guards) are on the rise among up and comers to our shores. Yet these droppings, and despite their greater visibility, are not noticed. It’s like they’re a natural part of the landscape. This hypocrisy complicates the fight and gives sanitizers an unfair boost.
They get one too from the examples of “successful” improvement in areas around Venice, especially that of Santa Monica. Our northern neighbor provides the model for material progress that improving communities feel pressured to embrace. And this city does indeed offer many amenities. But when a hot place like Santa Monica out succeeds others around it there’s bound to be unintended consequences, and this has certainly proven true for Venice.
As Santa Monica sends more and more of its unmentionables across the Navy Street border, for example, we’ve had to spend more time devising ways to pass them on to Mar Vista! Our waste piles are a boon for the brown-bobbing shadows that dutifully spear and swab while their masters are at the ticker-tape parade. They can even consort with their nanny natives. They’re also a godsend for the homeless. Our nooks and alleyways are still a gourmet smorgasbord compared to Santa Monica’s.
By the way, you can always tell when a hood is on the up-and-up, turning that proverbial corner on the waste problem. The receptacles become aesthetically pleasing, even get padlocks to make sure only members use them. Planners know the truly wasted deposit suspicious packages. And owners of the newer condo complexes, no weepy wonks when it comes to stratification theory, pitch in with monitors and roving security squads.
A big barrier to quality renewal is the sanitizers’ obsession with wasted surfaces. The right façade is everything. Visionary homeowners spare no cost to erect better looking fences and maintain them, getting the best substances for whitewashing graffiti-waste away. Our taggers are no substance abusers though, usually finding a way to waste these efforts. Some get stroked by the muse and make their angry etches into meaningful messages, even murals.
The graffiti wall was the result of this simmering passion. A section of wasted material became the target of serial scratchers for several years, becoming pasted over and over with new messages. Unfortunately it was dozed some years ago as wasting gibberish. In the face of such odds, Philomene and others realize they need to get more inventive.
“What if,” she said one night, “suddenly Paloma Ave pigeons were everywhere, breeding so often that no one could miss them. These masses of beaten birds perched throughout the town could become the masters.”
Then it hit us like a lightning bolt. We could actively breed pigeons and place them all over town. Unlike Hitchcock’s aggressors, these peckers would have good values and educate us in being more humane. We could mount a public relations effort to change their image as degenerate dung droppers into carriers of special insight about dropping out. Eventually many might come to reject the idea that a beaten-looking community is automatically wasted.
But Philomene knows better than anyone that what most would likely see in this breeding explosion is merely more feces and flies, and this will likely spur an increase in vigilantism to make them extinct. And since there’s only so much she can do to protect her beloved beings, she’s enraptured by their symbolic power. As we’ve seen, she holds out little hope for a serious renewal of Venice through absentee powers. She loves T. S. Eliot as a poet and thinker, but rejects his idea of the wasteland because it relied on an outside redeemer and is too pessimistic. It’s a change in consciousness from the bottom up and within the community that propels her. She’s an optimist who believes people can make things happen themselves.
Doo-doo is a powerful symbol for grasping how a wasting community can renew itself. It’s a substance voided of life yet full of its potential; an end-product that can sprout new product from the dead ground. Fertilizer makes the world go round. You don’t need to be from Iowa to know how those big round splats in the field–cowpies–can do the persistent bidding of good folks committed to rebirth and crop yields.
Visualize Illuminate and other pigeons piling up special power below Philomene’s ledge. As the breeding process gets going it will increase and become a special sign with mind-changing potential, even foster creative acronyms. CRAAP, concerned residents against airport pollution, is already into the act.
Since those closer to the crap and privy to its material conditions, like pigeons, can more easily spread around its magic, consumerism may become an ally. With all the eateries these days upgrading menus for the trust-funders, there’s been a bump in the quality of street droppings from our fowl friends. At Mao’s Kitchen, where the cultural revolution is as faded a memory as their two-dollar commune pancakes, dumpster drippings–especially after peak dining hours–come with more protein and less cholesterol than the power breakfast at the Café 50s. This could lead to subversion from within.
But no matter how improved the waste or how much it accumulates, this noxious life-force has to circulate. Fertilization needs a vehicle. The compost below Philomene’s window teems with possibilities, but it’s merely manure until activated. Digestive tracks get it all going, but the tire tracks keep it going. So on Sunday, when the traffic is especially thick, there’s the potential for pigeon power to get transported around town.
Unfortunately, these vehicles are mostly SUVs and land-roving domiciles, the choice of tourists or those taking advantage of a respite from the rat race to stalk property. This means the delivery paths will be limited. Once this crowd creeps along Speedway and gets its fill of the bazaar, they’re off on the popular arteries. East on Rose to the 10 FWY and up to Brentwood; north on Main through Santa Monica; down toward Windward and beyond to Venice Blvd and the 405 FWY; or south on Pacific through Marina del Rey.
Ironically, while these fuel-inefficient vehicles pass this powerful substance on, too much of it will likely disperse outside Venice where it will get diluted. A few nodules might drop along these getaway paths but they likely won’t juice the inspired locals who keep a low profile until the tourists have made it back to wherever.
So we owe a debt to those who’ve learned to kick the benzine habit and amble around on foot, as well as a critical mass of bicyclists. Many of them hang around Philomene’s hub where the Venice West vibes remain strong. Whether fully aware or not, they’re ready and able to sponge up the residoo and carry it throughout the field of barren and barely visible locales and walkways where the waning but unforgettable Venice alternative spirit hovers. Here many are ready to rediscover their own community.
Power to the Pigeonry
Philomene feels the city’s pigeon prejudice, and knows how difficult it is to force changes in perception. She hardly expects to find anything remotely resembling pigeon-under-glass at Tony Bill’s gastro-gourmet restaurant on Market. But then her culinary tastes are well below market anyway, so she’ll likely only be surprised secondhand. If the truth be told, she is secretly hopeful Papa Joe will soon add a Paloma wrap to his menu at the South Beach!
But this prejudice is deeply rooted in our institutions. Preoccupied with words, Philomene’s fond of referring to the official books, like the dictionary and thesaurus, where the learned find the handles to define what’s important. Just consider the meanings associated with her beloved birds: stoolpigeon, pigeon-holed, pigeon-hearted, pigeon-toed, pigeon-post…a rash of frames that deny our fluttering friends the qualities necessary to be socialized. They’re slow, clumsy, and can’t even feel, or relate to others emotionally with the organ–the heart–that clearly separates the civilized from the barbaric. They’re figures for stereotyping. If you’re pigeon-holed you can’t be authentically identified. And they’re synonymous with dupes. Stoolpigeons, marvelous story plants to texture the dark and unpredictable crevices of street life for Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, can’t be trusted. And their abbreviation is even worse: stoolies. That adage has never been truer: you are what you do. Pigeons are doo-doo, forever tethered to a stool.
These meanings seem clear. We want these creatures to stay put or be downwardly mobile; get away from us and find their hole in the wall, or ledge at the Ellison if they’re fortunate. But just as doo-doo is not mere dead matter but power-packed potential for sprouting new life, these definitions are merely the beginning. They’re the most common ones but not the final answer. As Philomene says, when you find a word in the good book it’s defined by other words, which are defined by still more words. We follow this trail eager to pin down the meaning of the word we want to clarify, but eventually realize how far we’ve strayed. We may even end up in a meaning space that’s nearly opposite the one that set our search in motion, one with less popular meanings.
So stoolpigeons, per the linguistic fates, share meaning with tricksters who can manipulate circumstances to their liking and play fast and loose with appearance and reality, qualities traditionally associated with magicians and creative artists.
And sophistry. This is not surprising since the Sophists were hair-splitting equivocators and poetic word wizards from just before Socrates, flighty characters who despised reason and arrogant logo-machos claiming to possess the absolute word. They were skeptics, moral relativists, postmodernists of their day, adjuncts to society who roamed around with soap boxes challenging the endowed chairs of authority soon to be occupied by Plato’s fraternity.
Ironically one of its key spokesmen was a tricky-tongued character named Hippias. It was likely birds of this feather that Plato had in mind when he argued that poets should be mere functionaries that praise great leaders and coddle the gods. Free and loose tongues can threaten the political state, and surely its real estate.
Just consider the definition of a pigeon’s neck, not the most delectable or eye-catching bird part for most. It can be associated with diversity and difference in the good book. And it comes packaged in French for cultural reinforcement: gorge-de-pigeon. Illuminate’s neck does seem especially long and flexible, capable of quick and varied contortions.
Even those despised stoolies can get associational relief. A stoolie can double as an informer doing work for the man and a freelance sleuth investigating the truth.
Much depends on what happens in practice, what word pairings and combos the wordsmith uses, and under what circumstances. He or she may have a coherent intent or be driven by impromptu urges. Unexpected meanings lie in the network of language that complicate or even challenge the user’s intentions. This is really only language doing its work. Prejudices and official definitions can therefore lose their power and authority through slips of the tongue that erupt from the shock and awe of the warped society. And these slips might catch waves of meaning that flip into moments.
Perhaps underbirds can lift themselves up through the same system that denies them; their weak power can expand through a playful twisting of meanings that disarms their stronger masters. And if they’re continually assaulted with slurs and insults, even degraded to the status of their lowly stools, there’s bound to be a moment when they say they’re simply not going to take it anymore. So if they’re good patriots, have a heart, mind their own business without hurting anyone, and are far from witless, these assaults will likely only backfire.
A sort of piling-on principle, to crudely paraphrase that famous German philosopher who used his share of bird metaphors in quest of the gray truth, might come into play. This is where quantity can become a quality force. When too much of a bad thing accumulates, whether it’s foul odor or vile insult, it can convert to its opposite. Excreta that piles up on the street, or in any other space, can become fluid spiritual excretations, passes of meaningfully-loquacious vapor that smell like roses, or even strongly suggest an entirely new attitude toward cleanliness. And it’s certainly not too much of a leap to say that a greater presence of pigeons and beatens just might begin to change mentalities on the street, even eventually undermine gentrification.
Think of the possibilities. Overdosing on circus and carnival might make you more than a devout debauchee. It could lead to a fixed boost in the hang-loose attitude that allows you to go at ordinary everyday activities more relaxed and perceptive. It might even put such a permanent smile on your face that it will infect everyone in your immediate circle, and each one of these charged-up agents might pyramid the spark to others.
Philomene’s philosophy makes sense. We could do worse than look to the underbird world for salvation. This is where the energy lies that can topple top-down systems with barely a whimper. There’s no need for outside help from evangelical redeemers or big bang politicos. Only indigenous visionaries like Philomene who can shepherd the flock toward a better consciousness from within.
This dropout ditty has been criticized by benevolent activists because it allows the powers that be to have their way with the flock. With so many drugged out on mind-games, so they say, business proceeds as usual.
But it seems that Philomene’s philosophy models a solution to the wasteland. Her words are soluble, her rhyme schemes stretchable, and her politics playfully non-partisan. She’s way beyond sectarian hair-splitting. Her openness is what immunizes her from a maddening take on her beloved city, and perhaps full-scale madness.
And if we could all monitor her brain waves and act them out, we’d likely be protected from having to live with democratic centralism, or the LA City Council’s makeshift version of it. Once juiced-up we could get more active in community affairs, and possibly even return to the days when the alternative culture controlled Venice. Our special kind of anarchism might get revived with a face more human than ever. We might even become catalysts for bringing some variant of humane socialism in through the back alleys and swamp waters. But will enough juice get loose in time to reach the dwindling numbers?
Much depends on whether Illuminate’s feces start to fertilize the fallow consciousness-fields so that the alternative community can be renewed from below.
Reprinted from Moon Tide Press…