I used to write a blog on the Whole 9 website, but blogs there have now been offline for a few weeks, and the whole site is about to be permanently taken down. I wish I’d ported these posts earlier, but only a couple were backed up as WordPress posts. This is a list of my posts on that site; I’m in the midst of reconstructing the more informative ones from the original drafts.
Periodically, non-Angelenos come to visit LA, and inevitably they want to visit Joshua Tree, thinking it’s nearby, although it’s 100 miles away on another desert plateau. The attraction has always puzzled me, until I got to know some of the locals there.
My initial thinking: Palmdale and Pearblossom Highway offer plentiful more accessible Joshua Trees (without a park admission fee) than the National Park does;
the northwest Lee Flats region of Death Valley National Park also has even more Joshua Trees than Joshua Tree National Park itself,
AND you can visit Death Valley in the same trip, perhaps even swinging up to the spectacular Saline Valley Hot Springs. (But that’s another blog post in itself.)
However, any urban dweller is likely to inexplicably find themselves at a frustration saturation point. Whether it’s the endless traffic jams or aggressive idiocy of those people packed into overpriced residential closets around you, you may find yourself ready to dive off the Hollywood Sign. That’s when it’s time to get away. It might sneak up on you before you even know it.
Let’s face it; from LA, Death Valley is too far a drive for most people, and Pearblossom Highway is sort of bleak. Joshua Tree is only a couple hours away, and after you pass through the endless surreal fields of windmills near Palm Springs and ascend the steep climb to Morongo Valley, there’s something magical about the whole stretch of desert along Highway 62.
During one of my first excursions to the area, my friend and I stopped for gas in Twenty-nine Palms, and while we were fueling up, a jeep pulled up to the next pump, and an attractive gal jumped out, tossed her hair, smiled, waved at my friend and I, and ran inside the gas station. Her disheveled bug-eyed boyfriend then jumped out of the jeep, ran over and nearly shouted, “she’s my girlfriend, just so you know…” as he agitatedly eyed us defensively. We cautiously eyed him, bracing ourselves for an attack.
Then something unexpected happened. He said, “Hey, wait…” and looked at me closely. “I’ve seen you somewhere… on TV… you’re…” he paused, “Richard Simmons!”
We all burst out laughing.
I’m no stranger to mistaken doppleganger recognition assumptions, of course. But it was the first time one seemed to dissuade an attack.
But my friend had visited from Vancouver, and during the short winter months, we arrived at the park as it got dark, only able to view it from the car headlights, during the long windy drive through the park. It was like a long uneventful and disappointing sequel to “The Blair Witch Project;” eerie Joshua trees appeared and receded as the headlights illuminated them, yet nothing notable ever happened. We finally reached the other highway and returned to LA. My friend seemed content, having visited the park, but I felt disappointed.
Joshua Tree is a puzzling and inhospitable environment. I’ve often had the feeling that people moved there because they wanted to get away from LA, not because they were drawn to something there. But I’ve learned that seems more true with Barstow than Joshua Tree. The desert plateau is littered with abandoned cabins, gradually deteriorating under the relentless abuse of the sun and winds, but often still showing the remains of their residents 30 or more years ago; record players and old TVs often sit next to old mattresses or couches with springs popping through any remnants of upholstery, like the chestburster scene in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie.
While exploring an abandoned cabin, a flash photo revealed a pair of eyes in the dark corner of the ceiling; closer investigation revealed a dodo-like bird that looked like a winged porcupine. Locals later told me this was a “desert puffin,” creatures that reportedly have a knack for creeping into people’s cars unnoticed. However, I had revealed myself as a tourist, and they were just having a little fun with me. Google still didn’t have any listings for “desert puffins” and the closest look-alike I could find was the roadrunner, which reportedly nests about ten to twelve feet off the ground, often in cacti. I didn’t know that they’re also capable of killing or warding off a rattlesnake’s attack, but fortunately, I didn’t have to watch it take one on.
During my excursions to the area, I’ve also seen rare desert tortoises and burrowing owls.
Burrowing Owl Video:
Yet the most unusual wildlife are the people living there.
Despite the inhospitable climate, the region holds an unmistakable draw for artists and creative types. Perhaps it’s because light has a beautific surreal quality there; the “golden hour” before sunset seems to last all day long. But artists, even those craving solitude, also thrive amidst creative communities, and there seems to be a vast network on the plateau. This network, thankfully, also seems to lack the pretense of LA’s westside art scene. The residents are just doing what they love there, and some of them are exceptional.
The region has long attracted both the eccentric (if not insane) and exceptionally creative. Somehow these “creatives” live back-to-back with the expansive Marine Training Base, which is puzzlingly located far from any trace of water. The artists I’ve met speak with mystical acceptance and curiosity about what goes on there; such as the night-time “balloon flares” that shoot up into the sky, hover, and illuminate the desert below like weird Skynet searchlight UFOs from Terminator movies.
The Marine Base is off-limits to civilians, but it’s un-fenced, unlike many hundreds of miles of California ranches. Surrounded by miles of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, the desert roads lure dune buggy ORV drivers onto the outskirts of the base, but Marine deputies then nail the drivers, as well as every passenger, with expensive trespassing tickets.
One dune buggy driver told me how he had driven out across a desert field to a small shed, which had an armed guard standing next to it. He greeted the impassive guard, inquiring, “I guess I shouldn’t be here, huh?” The guard replied simply, “nope,” and then the shed door burst open and a whole platoon of soldiers emerged from the underground tunnel, surrounding him with drawn rifles, and escorting him off the base. Yet this impertinent driver seemed determined to push the limits, seeing how many times he could tread over the base boundaries; he unravelled tale after tale of taking friends over the hills and dunes, all of them eventually having to pay trespassing tickets.
This unusual encounter occurred near “Giant Rock,” north of Landers, NW of Joshua Tree itself. Slightly further out this desert road, literally in the middle of nowhere, was an apparently abandoned Western Movie film stage. (This turns out to have been the still active White Horse Ranch )
The nearest paved road was lined with deteriorating shacks adorned with “for sale” signs, like some bizarre real estate joke.
The Integatron was built by George Van Tassel, a UFO enthusiast, who believed he’d been gifted with a vision for a structure that would rejuvenate a person’s cells and extend their life. This vision was channeled through him, rooted in his regular meditation sessions, and drawn from information aliens had bestowed upon him during one of their visits. The domed building was supposed to have a spinning disk around the exterior, but it never turned, and birds found that it offered a great spot to build their nests. There is actually an airstrip between the Integratron and Giant Rock, which welcomed UFOs and participants in his popular “Spacecraft Conventions,” which drew 11,000 participants in 1959. George Van Tassel was an aeronautical engineer who worked for Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, and as a test pilot for Howard Hughes at Hughes Aviation. His shared interest in spruce led him to get Howard Hughes to contribute some of the funds for the Integratron’s construction. The circle of concrete crowning the dome is said to weigh two tons.
Today, the Integratron offers yoga classes and sound baths with Tibetan Bowls and Gongs, but any aspirations for offering eternal life seem to have fallen by the wayside.
“Van Tassel had learned of Giant Rock from Frank Critzer, a gold prospector and desert dweller, who had excavated under the massive boulder to construct a dwelling of several small rooms protected from the fierce sun.” Van Tassel’s father had fixed Critzer’s car in Santa Monica in exchange for a claim in any gold mine he might start. There was gold nearby too; decades earlier, in the mountains just west of Landers, gold fever-stricken miners had been killed by bandits near Big Bear while some large mines like those on Big Bear’s “Gold Mountain” were in full swing. Following the first World War, Critzer had immigrated from Germany and served in the US Merchant Marine, but had been instructed to leave his sea life for the this desert plateau to help his lungs.
During WWII, rumors began to circulate that Critzer was a German Spy because he had a large radio antenna nearby. In 1942, three deputies from Riverside County came to interrogate him, despite Giant Rock being in San Bernadino County where they had no jurisdiction. He barricaded his door when he went inside to get his coat, and they threw a teargas grenade in the window, which detonated the prospecting dynamite he had inside. Critzer was killed and the deputies were injured. His residence under the rock was later filled in.
Van Tassel built and lived in buildings adjacent to Giant Rock while he was building his Integratron. They were torn down by the BLM after Van Tassel’s death in 1978. The adjacent hill is now named, “Spy Mountain,” and in more recent years, a chunk of the boulder cracked and fell away due to natural causes. Indigenous natives had long considered the boulder a sacred site.
As you depart from the eternal-life-aspiration-filled property of the Integratron, the roads, lined with small desert ranches, seem troublingly mundane. But don’t be deceived; the hills and valleys nearby are filled with other amazing gems. This is why Pioneertown is one of my favorite areas in this part of the desert.
Having skimmed through what is apparently Aunt Shireen’s journaling book, I pick up this book and pen as if I’m taking aim at Dad, the poor gurgling moaning pile of failing flesh in the bed next to me. I can’t bear to look at him, so I hear the constant dripping of the IV and series of plastic beakers hanging on the wall filled with fluid from his lungs. Every so often he makes phlegm noises like an evacuation tube in the dentist office, and these are punctuated by long “aaahhh…” moans and some coughs that make his whole body shake.
An annoying fly keeps pestering me, I don’t give a hoot if it’s bad yoga form, I bat it and feel it hit in midair, although it disappears. It reemerges later – I grab the sports section of one of the accumulating NY Times and SPLITCH! It’s distorted form sticks to the unnaturally clean beige white tiles. Then I have to check that dad is still breathing and hasn’t died because I killed a fly.
That bitchy Jamaican woman walks down the hall, the annoyance d’jour. She speaks English with the guy who cleans the floors. Sun streams through the jailcell venetian blinds as a weariness creeps in and out of my consciousness after morning Sadhana and the 1-1/2 to 2 hours of sleep that preceded it. The weariness is a given, and as unavoidable as gravity itself.
Aides chatter in Spanish in the hall and the tinkering of TVs in the other rooms is frequently punctuated by deafening PA calls for people to dial the operator. I suddenly realize the Big Brother voice to be the friendly African American security guard who opens the conference room for my yoga in the morning and seems to like the idea that I’m cooking chicken in the nuke.
Hosing wraps around Dad’s neck like a noose, then behind his ears and into his nose. Half snores, half gurgling breathing, occasionally his eyelids flutter open, almost seem to see, but sag and collapse closed again. Tufts of bushy black eyebrows have remained, in the face of baldness with the same stubborn tenacity that he has exhibited in the face of death. The rest of his thinned-out hair lies matted in sweat against his sticky head, and his mouth, perpetually agape, is like an Edward Gorey illustration.
The old Spanish lady across the hall has replaced the woman who might have been my EPRA classmate’s mother. She looks around like an amused and sometimes frustrated little chimpanzee. Down the hall; huge swollen stictched up elephant man legs. Ugh. Try to have compassion for the hospital staff, remembering they go home to the neighborhoods I drove fearfully through last night. But I don’t like them, harbingers of death, wearing masks of compassion. I know they probably bitch and swear about the patients when they leave. Last night, the unrelenting MOANING calls of another patient, “JIMMY!” “JIMMMMMMM-MY!” “JIMMY!” I realized my sleep was over.
Outside, blue sky, pollen, the “Old London” bakery smokestack next door, towers of Coop City on the horizon. The hairlip aide with the thick English hampered by her Spanish walks by, smiles, and “heeyyy…” slips through her lips. I hated her because she seemed bitchy but then she seemed nice. Dad can’t stand her. She chases me out when she comes to clean his bunghole with sterile stinky foam. I imagine her torturing him and contorting his frail thinning body into painful positions.
Beethoven’s 9th plays on the boombox as mom’s snores intermittently join in call and response with dad’s weakening breathing. I put on headphones, sometimes holding dad’s atrophied hand. I try to distract myself by feigning interest in the turgid script for Maxwell Anderson’s & Kurt Weill’s musical “Lost in the Stars” but I’m bored to death by it.
Apparently I’m not the only one. Dad’s breath stops, starts weakly again, stops, and…. doesn’t start again. I hold his unmoving hand, uncertain if the moment has finally really come.
I walk over and gently waken mom. “He’s gone.”
“What?” she groggily responds.
“Oh. No. Really?” She’s not quite awake. “We should call the Chaplain.” She leaves the room.
Alone with my father’s corpse, I remember my friend Chris Chang telling me how he’d heard the Buddhists believe the spirit can still hear you after the body dies; how he’d shouted to his grandmother after she passed, “WHAT’S IT LIKE ON THE OTHER SIDE?!!!?”
“DAD, WHAT’S IT LIKE ON THE OTHER SIDE?”
“Akaal!” I chant, somewhat quietly. Then louder, “AKAAL!” Nearly shouted, “AKAAL!”
The Sikhs believe that chanting Akaal – or undying – helps the spirit cross over to the next life.
A Catholic priest comes and administers last rites; peculiar ritual for a family of Methodists.
“Can I just sit with him for a while?” Mom asks the nurse and Chaplain.
They stare at her, uncertain if she’ll climb into the bed with his dead body.
“I’m sorry, but we’re required to have you vacate the room within 2 hours,” they respond.
Dazed, we pack up all the remnants of the last 4-1/2 month odyssey of living in the hospice hospital room with him, and they wheel in a dolly for us to load it all down to the car. Eventually, I wheel the overloaded dolly out, and after the door closes behind us, I hear the metal casket that the aides wheeled in, filled as they tilt the bed; his body slides into it with a heavy thump.
As I drive over the Throgs Neck bridge towards Long Island, the sun rises, colors more vibrant than ever, the chilly fresh air of morning blows through the open windows. It’s over. I’m overwhelmed by the beauty. I’m numb. I don’t know what’s next.
In November, my birthday arrived again, and as I sat in
meeting that week, and a few times since, I’ve found myself thinking about my
friend Peter Baird.
Several years ago, I was loyally attending a Kundalini Yoga
class with a teacher who would loudly proclaim, “this life is a GIFT,
right? And we’re all so BLESSED to be incarnated in these bodies!”
Everybody in the class would join in agreement, and I would sit there thinking,
“Ugh, I hate my life, and this class at least makes it a little more
bearable!” However I dared not voice my depressed opinion.
Shortly afterwards at Cafe 101, a diner in Hollywood, I
began to recount my experience in the yoga class to Peter, and shared my
cynical perspective on the phenomenon of the “yogic happy people.”
Peter was one of the most jovial and funny people I’ve ever known, but he
turned serious for a second, and said, “Life is a curse, and we have to
endure it.” We laughed about our self-pitiful lives, and the conversation
turned to other subjects.
Shortly thereafter, Peter got a series of jobs that took him
around the USA and to Europe. I was sitting in the same cafe with a group of
friends, and one of them turned to me and said, “did you hear about Peter?
He’s got Esophageal cancer, and it’s spread throughout his spine. Basically
he’s a dead man.” I couldn’t believe we were talking about the same person
I’d been sitting with so recently, only two tables away, or that my friend was
speaking about Peter in such an uncaring manner. As I pressed for more
information, it became clear we were indeed talking about the same person.
Peter and I had an unusual friendship. He travelled in my circle of friends in NYC when we first met, and before we’d talked much, I had a strange dream in which I was riding his motorcycle with him, getting into a helluva lotta trouble, not unlike the film “Easy Rider.” Then I ran into him that same day! “Stay out of my dreams!” I told him, and revealed the weird subconscious encounter we’d had.
When I moved to LA, I began to run into him everywhere. Everywhere! Glendale, Silverlake, Venice, Pasadena, Valencia, Santa Monica… you name it.
Despite this, for years I didn’t realize what he did for a living. CalArts started a puppetry program, and when he found out who was directing it, he got excited and came up to see one of the performances there. Later I was talking to the director, and she said, “you know who Peter’s father is, don’t you? He’s one of the most famous puppeteers EVER. There’s a book by him in the library; go look at it.” His father was Bil Baird, who made the famous Punch and Judy puppets, and perhaps was most widely seen when he did the marionettes in “The Sound of Music.” Shortly before he came down with cancer, Peter had been a consultant on the film, “Team America,” which he was quite excited about. The film provided jobs for more accomplished puppeteers than any film in history, I’ve been told. Unfortunately I would meet them at his memorial service.
I was fortunate to be one of only two LA friends who got to visit him in NYC before he passed away. I asked if he remembered our conversation in the cafe, and he said wryly, “Sure. Funny isn’t it?”
Then he changed the subject, and struggled to choke down some soft cooked eggs. As I was about to leave him and his girlfriend, he said, “Oh, one more thing. Notice anything different about me?” I couldn’t come up with anything. Then he coyly stood behind the door, wrapping his fingers in front of it and wiggled his ring finger, which was bearing a wedding band. His girlfriend – nay, fiancé, laughed nervously. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a mixture of happiness for somebody and sadness at the same time.
Peter died shortly afterwards, in the same terminal cancer
hospital my father passed away in, on the same floor. His widow visited LA
several times over the following year, arranging memorial services and visiting
with me and other friends. One Thanksgiving, I showed up at a potluck dinner,
having gotten the time wrong, and everyone was leaving. She offered to make
Thanksgiving dinner for me, and we travelled throughout Hollywood and Koreatown
looking for an open place to get food, in vain. Finally we bought a Turkey TV
dinner and went to Peter’s apartment to eat it. I don’t think a TV dinner ever
tasted so good. She claims now that I also took her out for Thanksgiving dinner
the year before or afterwards, but I don’t remember that now. We touch base
When I tell the story of Peter’s conversation with me to
people, I usually am told, “Well, no wonder he came down with cancer with
an attitude like that!” Yet I shared that perspective at the time, and I’m
still kicking. Fortunately, my attitude has changed, but I live now with the
attitude, “I guess God isn’t done with me yet; I wonder what’s in store
In NYC, I once heard a woman recount her succession of
failed suicide attempts to the audience, and the litany of failures made the
film “Harold and Maude” seem like child’s play. Her final attempt was
a dive from the Brooklyn Bridge, and she was fished out of the East River
alive, although she claimed she now has a steel plate in her head. As I left
the room, I remember thinking, “I guess it isn’t up to me to choose when I
When I was in a Musical Theater Writing workshop in
Glendale, one of the composers was a church organist, and she’d missed quite a
few sessions. She revealed that she’d been busy playing several funerals.
“It’s funeral season,” she said, “Most people die during the
holidays.” I was rather shocked by that perspective, and I’d like to think
New Years is an odd concept, if you really think about it;
the death of one year and the birth of another. In reality, it’s part of one
continuum of orbits around the sun. Perhaps life is like that as well.
There’s a yoga teacher named Gurmukh who teaches in
Hollywood (and all over the world, for that matter.) She was with Yogi Bhajan,
a Kundalini Yoga master from India, and this Indian saint came and visited Yogi
Bhajan. The saint was very old, but he asked Yogi Bhajan to teach him Kundalini
Yoga. Yogi Bhajan gave it a good effort, but then he stopped and told the man,
“It’s no use, you’re too old to learn it now, sorry.” So the saint
humbly thanked him. Shortly thereafter he died.
A few months later, Gurmukh and Yogi Bhajan were at a
christening for a baby, and Yogi Bhajan turned to Gurmukh with slight surprise
and told her, “It’s the saint! He’s come back as that child.” As the
child grew up it had all the same mannerisms as the saint had. He went on to
become a master of Kundalini Yoga. Gurmukh claims it’s the only time she’s met
the same person in two different bodies. I’ve often wondered who the saint is
and where he is now.
I think that story gave me a little different perspective on
death as my father was dying and as Peter’s illness progressed. Losing friends
and loved ones is never easy, but hearing of evidence that they might turn up
in our lives again in different forms can offer a little hope, I think.
They say the more spiritually adept can choose the next life
that they will return in, and it’s simply a matter of the soul needing a new
body to continue its journey in. Sikhs chant, “Akaal” three times
when a person dies, and it’s supposed to help the soul cross over into its next
life. Akaal means undying.
While my father was dying, my friend Chris offered me a bed
in his NYC apartment to sleep in. He told me the Buddhists believe the spirit
doesn’t leave the body for a few minutes after the body dies. When his
grandmother died, he shouted at her, “What’s it like on the other
side!??” So after my dad took his last breath, as I held his hand, I woke
up my mom, and she went to get the priest to say the last rites. I shouted the
same thing to him, and then chanted “Akaal” three times. I never got
an answer. Then the Catholic priest came, said the last rites to the confirmed
Methodist, and told us we had to be out of the room within two hours. What a
bizarre melange of conflicting religious rituals we bring to the one thing that
we least understand and fear most!
Shortly thereafter, my visiting aunt wanted to see Walt
Whitman’s birthplace near my parent’s home. We chose the one day it was closed
to visit, and sat chatting on the lawn. An enormous bumblebee sat listening
throughout, and finally lighted on mom’s lapel. “Maybe it’s Dick and he’s
come back as a bee!” offered my aunt. “I hate bees! Make it go
away!” my mom countered. In a lazy aimless flight, it floated away, and
that was the last I saw of my dad.
The holidays offer more challenges than most of the year for
many people, causing some to characterize them as “the threefold disease
of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.” Family pushes the buttons
they’ve put there, and everyone reacts. It’s been said that after three days with
parents, no matter how much inner work you’ve done, you revert to your
childhood relationship with them. People who’ve travelled across the country to
get away from their family feel neglected and miss them. To say nothing of the
savage shoppers that must be endured to navigate your way through the Christmas
So in the spirit of loving community, I hope we can hold
each other in the light throughout this holiday, and appreciate the love we
offer each other. I was delighted with last year’s Christmas Meeting, and am
looking forward to this year’s as well. Happy Holidays!
My first vehicle was a Ford Falcon Van, and I can feel it’s anguish for it’s tree-borne kin in this photo.
I bought that van on Friday 13th, 1984, telling myself I wasn’t superstitious. When it died driving it home, I accepted that perhaps there’s a very good reason for superstition. Fortunately, the seller had another head for the engine on his second “dead” van, behind his mobile home near the state penitentiary. After a motor-head in Los Alamos swapped the cracked head for me, I was able to drive it across the country from Santa Fe to Rochester. The gas gauge didn’t work, nor did the speedometer, or the windshield wipers. But I could figure out when to fill the tank from the odometer, and carried a spare can in back just in case. It also required a quart of oil every 30 miles, but this was simplified by the fact that the engine was accessed from a cover between the passenger and driver’s seat.
After visiting a friend in Toronto, I drove onto the highway in a thunderstorm, crawling along through the sheets of rain since I couldn’t see because of the broken windshield wipers.
A Canadian trooper pulled me over. “Can you tell me why you were doing 35 kilometers per hour in a 80 kph zone?”
“I’m afraid that’s the best she’ll do sir.”
He about died laughing.
I sat in his Troopermobile in the rain with him, chatting about the baffling condition of state-side traffic for about 30 minutes until he decided there wasn’t an APB out for me.
Headed towards Boston, I picked up a dancer in Amherst, Mass, who needed a ride to see her drummer BF in Boston. After 3 unsuccessful attempts to crest a hill south of Amherst, I decided to take the more gradually inclined Mass Pike. As we headed east up a long slow rise, I watched the temperature gauge rise rapidly. I turned on the heat, hoping to help cool the engine. (that’s what they told you to do before the put computers in our engines, remember?) No avail. The vehicle slowed to a crawl, and I pulled onto the shoulder. The dancer glared at me.
Then the engine started to make a long slow whining noise. It started low at first, then began to rise higher… and higher… to a high whistling howl. I looked under the hood and the engine was… purple! Acrid smoke had began to fill the cab. You’ve never seen two people get out of a vehicle so fast.
It didn’t explode for some reason. I had never imagined spending a night with a dancer in a motel room could be such a miserable experience. But I look on the bright side: I got $50 for the van.
It was a balmy summer evening in Manhattan, and I was plagued by an incessant level of irritability that I’d come to recognize as a sure sign that I hadn’t gotten out of the city in way too long. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d escaped the stress and frenetic busyness of Manhattan. While others liked to go to the Hamptons, I preferred the more extreme and idyllic promontory of Montauk. Little did I know what a strange travelling companion lay waiting for me.
Montauk lies at the south fork of Long Island, past all of the Hamptons, 125 miles from New York City. It’s as far as you can go on Long Island; a tiny town with beautiful bluffs and beaches, a lighthouse, the actual Memory Motel popularized by the Rolling Stones song, and a little 24 hour diner by Gosman’s fishing wharf that proudly exhibits the teeth of their most famous catch above the pool table; the 2500 pound great white shark immortalized in the movie “Jaws.” Best of all, you could take the train there. But there was only one train a day. It left around midnight from Penn Station.
I loaded up my backpack, preparing for a day of relaxation and mental renovation, planning to do some journalling and planning on the train, then some hiking along the beach, and a good bit of yoga at the beach. This was my little self-styled “retreat.”
Penn Station was rather deserted that time of night, with a handful of homeless people cat-napping by the gates, and a gaggle of the late night TGIF commuters straggling home in a drunken haze. The majority of the beach set prefers to sit amidst motionless traffic on the overburdened country roads that connect the towns of the east end, arriving at their destinations cranky and sore from their long and frustrating drive. I knew better. Or so I thought.
The Montauk train starts in the modern electric line that shuttles the bridge and tunnel crowd faithfully into and out of the city, but once it gets to the outer limits of the suburban sprawl, it shuttles its passengers into old diesel passenger trains that seem like something from a railroad museum. These high-ceiling cars have unusually tall stiff seats that must date back to the late 1950s or early 60’s. I curled up in my seat, and napped a bit, and then poured a guppa joe from the thermos and began my writing. As my neuroses poured onto the page of my journal, I noticed a rather large guy moving from seat to seat, trying to engage various people in conversation. Inevitably he plopped down in the seat behind me.
I craned my neck back to get a look at the intruder, a rather unkempt, haggard, plump (to be kind) bundle of warts, sores, and bad skin, with a ponytail and bushy uneven beard. He had a gym bag and wore a baggy sweater. I had no intention of revealing either the sordid or spiritual contents of the page I was writing,
On the page were recollections of previous Montauk adventures: the raccoon that was determined to get lunch out of my backpack, the passionate carnal feast of exhibitionism with an ex-girlfriend, the accidental discovery of a nudist beach adjacent to a fashion photographer’s home, or the recollection of another Montauk solo retreat during which I was writing in my journal about a guy whom I previously heard describe “the ocean as God” and subsequently strolled down the beach to discover him and two friends I knew under a beach umbrella in what I took to be an unmistakable instance of spiritual synchronicity. While I might share these with you, dear reader, they were not meant to be divulged to an impudent interloper.
“Whatcha writing?” he repeated.
“Just stuff,” I responded, closing the journal so he couldn’t see the contents.
“You a writer?” he asked.
I took a deep irritated breath, trying to decide how to frame my response. “I suppose, of sorts. Not professionally or anything.”
“I’m trying to find somebody to get my story out.”
I should’ve known right then I was in trouble, but perhaps I was a little bored and thought it might be fun to indulge him.
“See those Oriental people over there? They’ve been following me.”
“I thought they liked to be referred to as Asian now, don’t they?”
“Whatever. They followed me onto the train.”
“Why would they do that?” I’d opened Pandora’s box, little did I know, and given up any hopes for a peaceful last hour and a half of the train trip.
He began to unravel his long and strange tale; “I’d been having these back problems, and I went to this acupuncturist.”
I responded that I’d tried acupuncture once, but it hadn’t done much for me, and I generally found yoga to be best for helping any back issues I encountered.
“Acupuncture is better. This woman is the best acupuncturist in the country. Maybe second best in the world. She’s from China. She won’t see just anyone. You have to know somebody to get to see her. I know this Oriental woman who got me in to see her.”
“Well, you’re still having back problems, it doesn’t seem like she helped you very much.”
“No, that’s just it, you see. She’s making them worse! I went to see her about my back, and she gave me a treatment. But it got worse. It cost a lot of money, the treatment. She said I’d need more treatments, so I went back, and it wasn’t getting better. So I threatened to turn her in. These Orientals, they don’t have green cards, you know. I found out she was here illegally.”
“But you said she was one of the best in the country. She couldn’t get a green card with that kind of skill?”
“One of the best in the world. That doesn’t matter. They protect their own. Make sure they’re safe. So when I threatened to turn her in to the INS, she wouldn’t see me any more. And that’s when it got worse. That’s when she started stealing my chi.”
“Stealing your… chi?” I asked, a bit dubious.
“Yeah, they can do that. At that level, those acupuncturists can do anything. My back got so bad I couldn’t walk. Then I started to break out with these sores. I asked my friend what to do, and she said there wasn’t anything I could do, and I should never have threatened her. I went to another acupuncturist, and she said she hadn’t seen anything like it, she gave me a treatment, but it didn’t help. Then I told her who the first woman was, and she said she couldn’t give me any more treatments, and not to come back. She’s the one who told me she might be stealing my chi.”
He continued, “My family moved me out to the west coast, to Berkeley. But then the Orientals moved in across the street. I’d come home and find this fine black dust on the inside of the window. I knew they’d been in my loft. That’s something they do; they have this black dust that can drain your chi from you.”
“Sounds pretty far out,” I replied.
“I tried to get in touch with the first acupuncturist, to see what I could do to fix things. I should’ve never told her I was going to turn her in. But nobody would let me talk to her. They all told me she left the country. But you know that isn’t true; they’re just hiding her.”
The story went on and on, as he moved from town to town, trying to escape, “the Orientals,” without success. His condition had progressed and worsened. Now they were following him to Montauk. It never occurred to me to ask him why he was going to Montauk. After all, it was 3 or 4 in the morning; I was tired. Finally we reached the train station in Montauk. I figured my escape from his dilemma would ensue. We got off the train. “So, where you headed?” I asked.
“Where are you going?” he responded.
“I’m planning on heading down to the beach. I’m gonna spend the day there.”
“Which way is the beach?” he asked. “OK if I walk down there with you?”
“Well, I planned to spend the day on the beach – alone.”
“Well, I’ll just walk to the beach with you.” It was about a one mile walk from the station to the beach, but it was beginning to seem like five as he went on and on. We reached the beach.
“Listen, I want to spend the day on the beach – ALONE.” I repeated.
“OK, OK,” he said, “but do you know anybody who works in TV who could get my story out? I spoke to this one guy who said he knew somebody at ABC, but they haven’t done anything for me.”
In my mind, I began to run through the people I knew who worked in TV, wondering if any of them would ever talk to me again if I actually put this guy in touch with them. “Well, I don’t know… I don’t think they’d be interested, to tell you the truth.”
“Look, this is my beeper number. If you can get a hold of anybody who might, give me a call and I’ll call you back, OK?” He was following me down the beach.
“OK. Now go away!” I responded. “I’m going this way – you go THAT way.” Finally he got the message. He stood watching the waves as I headed east on the beach. The sun was coming up, and the clouds were clearing overhead. I did a yoga set on the beach as the day dawned, and the memory of his plight receded throughout the day, which became more and more beautiful.
Throughout the day, it occurred to me that I very well might have to endure his company on the train back to the city since there was only one train to Montauk and back per day. I had a nice dinner at the Gosman’s Diner, and boarded the train.
I generally think of Montauk as being pretty much of an “anglo” town; Ralph Lauren is rumored to own a place there, and mostly otherwise there are a lot of fisherman and a few rich businessmen who crave its solitude. As I boarded the train, which only has two passenger cars at this point, I walked through aisle after aisle of Asians waiting for the train to depart. My poor chi-less storyteller was nowhere to be found. I looked around at my fellow travellers and wondered which one of them had his chi. Their tired and placid smiles wouldn’t reveal the answer. Finally the train jostelled to a start, and the clatter of the ride began. I wondered where the guy ended up. I made a half-hearted vow never to threaten an acupuncturist, let the conductor punch my ticket, and slipped into a nap as I headed back towards the bustling city.
Afterwards: Years later, YouTube videos of Al Bielek unearthed the rather far-fetched Montauk Project conspiracy theory. There are many videos about it. The TV show Stranger Things is based on them, though shot in the south. It all sounds terribly unbelievable, but as I remember walking around Camp Hero during that trip, I can’t help but wonder why the guy I met on the train was… returning? – there.
Damian looked at the Craigslist ad, laughing to himself. “House cleaner needed. Must to wear special suit. $7500.00 per day.” He pictured himself in a doily apron, scrubbing the baseboards, and who knew what else. But could it really be any worse than his recent cameo on “Ride of the Bumblebee,” where he buzzed around a performer onstage, playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on a kazoo – in a bee costume – while the other performer tried to overpower him, belting out “Ride of the Valkeries” in a Viking helmet? For 15 rehearsals and one weekend of performances he received $25. Yes, this could be a step UP, he thought.
He dialed the number, and a woman’s voice answered. Yes, the price was $7500.00 per day – not a typo – and he would simply have to wear a special suit. He copied down the directions.
He arrived at the modern home on the bluffs of the Pacific Palisades, rang the bell, and waited. The door opened, and a well-groomed Asian woman answered the door in a French maid’s outfit. Her English was impeccable. Her stare was disarmingly intense, yet her demeanor was warm and pleasant. “I’m so happy you could come, Damian. We’ve been having a great deal of difficulty filling the position. Why don’t you sit down, and have some tea, and he’ll be with you in a moment.”
As Damian sipped his lapsang oolang, he pondered what demeaning tasks might wait in store for him, but before he had too long to get himself worked up, Mr. Fujimojo arrived. His head was completely bald; there were no eyebrows visible on his face, and the only eyelashes he appeared to have seemed to be false. He also seemed radiant and happy. “Mistah Damian, so happy to meet you.” He bowed in his silk tunic, and sat down on a bench, a respectful distance from Damian. “So is not problem, for you to wear special suit?” Damian was beginning to become amused. “Not at all, why of course not. I’m an ENTERTAINER, after all.”
“Ah, yes, yes, of course, Mistah Entataynah. Well, please, to go in room and try on special suit at once then, yes?”
Damian set his tea down on the side table and entered the dressing room.
In front of the bench hung a Hazmat Suit. Damian swallowed hard and began to wonder what he’d gotten himself into.
For starters, let me clarify one thing. I’m not an art historian, I don’t play one on TV — I don’t even play one on YouTube.
Simon Schama spoof
Simon Schama the Big Budget Flop:
I sometimes harbor disdain for them too — well, the arrogant ones anyway. I find nothing as offensive as the art snob who responds to a curious inquiry about an artist with attempts to instill shame for not knowing the artist’s work. Of course this isn’t unique to the art world; many a music major has attempted to wield intellectual superiority in a similar fashion. A recent visit to a literary benefit sent me scuttling out the door with my tail between my legs. Yes, it’s true; I don’t know the majority of the writers on the shelves these days, and they let me know it.
In the realm of modern music, the problem is compounded by the fact that many modern composer’s works can only be found on compilations, so it’s quite a feat to compile a discography of their works. But in any of these realms, it’s a wonderful encounter with another person who simply loves to share their creative discoveries.
My musical and artistic quests, then, are simply an obsessive labor of passionate curiousity. My parents claim I’ve had this tendency since childhood. Apparently there’s no cure.
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art had its NYC O’Keefe exhibition, although I had ignored her works as cliched tourist illustrations while living in New Mexico, I was soon to be found trying to locate Steiglitz’s old studio to see what had become of it (a rug shop), trying to locate the buildings O’Keefe lived in and painted while in NYC, and eventually even visiting Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu. What I discovered when I arrived at her NM ranch was that the Mars-like landscape had been realistically painted by her, a discovery that shocked me.
And I got a few nice pictures of my own.
Small surprise, then, to find me sitting silently for an hour in a Quaker Meeting House in Pasadena.
Synchronicity has led me here, and ironically, as Quakers are notorious pacifists, later in the day the death of Bin Laden would be announced nation-wide.
This was the space where I found peace during grad school when I felt my world was un-ravelling, and the threads gradually wove themselves back together. What drew me back again was the discovery that this must’ve been the room where, 70+ years earlier, the child James Turrell was encouraged by his grandmother to “go inside and greet the light.” Today the light outside is spectacular, heralding Spring’s arrival with trees in full bloom, and there is light within those around me as well.
An octagenarian woman who bears an astonishing resemblence to an Edward Gorey illustration is celebrating her birthday today. Despite her somewhat severe posture, I know that she’s one of the sweeter members of the meeting. Over coffee and birthday cake, I’m tempted to ask if she knew the Turrells, but decide against it. Or rather, the choice was made for me by the visitor zealously informing me of the Quaker history of feminist and homosexual tolerance. Some day I may bring the subject up with the birthday girl. Time will tell.
Light is a familiar metaphor for spiritual realization in many religions, of course. We discuss enlightenment without giving this much thought. For the Quakers, there is a long-held understanding that every person has a divine personal intimate connection to this “light,” and sitting quietly becomes the first step in becoming aware of this presence. Then it becomes possible to let it illuminate the actions taken throughout the day. Early on, Quakers thought of this as the light of Jesus, but over time, the broader inter-denominational influences have included the teachings of many other faiths.
Turrell understood early on that going into the light was both a literal and metaphorical inspiration for his work. As his work has evolved, I believe it becomes less possible to just “look” at one of his works; you experience it. You become engulfed by it. You are changed by it. He has confessed a fondness for the liminal light of dawn and dusk. He told the New York Times, “My spaces are dim because low light opens the pupil and then feeling comes out of the eye as touch, a sensuous act. Sure, you surrender. You surrender when you go to the doctor. A doctor’s office is a body shop. We’re talking about healing the soul.” This points to a deeper aspiration within his art, and might give a clue as to the direction his life’s work has taken.
Turrell went to Pomona College, not far from Pasadena. Although the school’s alumni included many famous artists, including John Cage, Turrell enrolled in the perceptual psychology program, and that choice has unmistakably shaped his work. Optical illusions, implied planes and geometric shapes are often a major component of his installations. He was the subject of a lawsuit when a visitor fell and injured himself trying to lean against a wall “that wasn’t there,” leading to the first time that the “effect of a piece of art” had been the subject of a courtroom case. Time and time again, he has tried – and often, in my opinion, succeeded, in creating works that bring the sky into a room, transporting you into it.
After he graduated from Pomona, as the Woodstock Festival was happening on the other side of the country, as man was landing on the moon for the first time, he moved into a building known as the Mendota Hotel, at the corner of Hill and Main Streets in Santa Monica.
The building still stands and it’s my next destination.
I park a few blocks from Hill and Main, and make my way down the hill.
As I pass the church a block away, a film crew runs after me, begging me to play the part of “Doc” in their music video adaptation of “Back to the Future.” The irony of my historical search isn’t lost on me, so I don a lab coat and run down the street after a Bricklin as the camera begins rolling.
I’m in the very last scene.
When my 30 seconds of fame have elapsed, I proceed back to the future myself, snapping a few “Hill Street Views” exterior shots of the Mendota Hotel building.
The tree has gotten a little bigger!
This is where the foundation of much of his work first began to be realized.
Turrell painted over the windows in his studio here, and experimented with techniques to create apertures for light to enter his studio.
During this time, he became intimately familiar with the tungsten street lamps, the stop lights on the corner, the passing bus lights, and of course, the sun and moonlight. He also collaborated with a film lighting designer, experimenting with projected light.
He often had showings of his aperture experiments, and attracted quite a bit of attention.
Mere blocks from here, above the Santa Monica Pier, is the Camera Obscura, a landmark that has been bringing the light inside for over a hundred years.
One can’t help but wonder if it helped inspire Turrell to try turning his own studio into a camera obscura as well, as that was one of his many projects.
I stay for a couple of hours until they close at 8PM.
The buses still run down Hill Street, the tree has gotten enormous, many more lights surround the building.
I become enamoured by the play of the light around the room as sunset approaches.
Light reflects off the walls of the room, and I see the figures of cars reflected across the room by their windshields. As the sun sets, the street lights come on, and the character of the light changes completely.
As last caffeine call is announced, I show a barista a 1969 image of the building. Fascinated, he informs me that the building is now owned by Bill Cosby. Then he kicks me out.
Just back from a great performance at “the Echo” club in Echo Park. I’ve never considered myself a big fan of spoken word performance, but lately find myself repeatedly wowed by performers in this genre – and it’s “National Poetry Month.” If you inexplicably find yourself speaking in rhyme, you’ll know why. Mention of poetry brings something like Emily Dickenson to mind; NOT my speed, even if I used to hang out near her museum-home and party on the lawn.
Rich Ferguson is the antidote to every silly fluffy rhyme in poetry. Rich is like the energy that rushes through you when you get off the bus at Port Authority in NYC and find yourself running down the sidewalk barely noticing all the grime and dirt around you, wondering if the guy at the corner up ahead is gonna mug you, and then you look up and notice there are palm trees and you’re in LA; there are gang-bangers on one side of you, a police car on the other side, you’re not sure which to look out for, and suddenly in the midst of that, it suddenly occurs to you what a dazzlingly beautiful day it is. His sidemen were the perfect complement to his high energy trance-like rants; his drummer Butch, currently playing with Lucinda Williams and co-founder of the Eels, knocked out some solid kick-butt grooves and carried another number off with a small hand drum that he played almost like a tabla; the keyboardist Edan Mason created some amazing soundscapes with a bunch of small boxes and vocal controllers, at times evoking pitched digeridoo sounds from his keyboard. Collectively, the group is called “Qualia.” Wikipedia reports: “Believers in qualia are known as qualophiles; non-believers as qualophobes.”
1 Giant Leap (2019 update: The full film seems available on YouTube now, embedded above)
Rich first came to my attention in the amazing “What About Me? 1 Giant Leap” project. (2019 update: the website for the project is gone now, but info is on Wikipedia, IMDB, and you can purchase the CDs on Amazon.)
English musicians Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman recorded a bunch of tracks on a laptop computer, and travelled the globe adding the talents of a variety of musicians in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
Among the artists were Dennis Hopper, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Stipe, Robbie Williams, Eddi Reader, Tom Robbins, Brian Eno, Baaba Maal, Speech, Asha Bhosle, Neneh Cherry, Anita Roddick, Michael Franti, and Zap Mama.
Musical tracks were intercut with interviews about life and spirituality in all the cultures they visited; the theme was “Unity Through Diversity.” The seamless audio-visual montage was breathtaking and inspiring. People call it a documentary, but it’s more progressive than most films in that genre. At a screening in Topanga Canyon, Rich performed and I first met him there.
Here’s one of the tracks from that show:
The Echo Park show was presented by “The Nervous Breakdown,” an online culture magazine featuring the work of writers and artists from around the world.
Author Janet Fitch, best known for “White Oleander,” read from a punk rock novel set in Echo Park in 1980. Steve Abee, a poet and local teacher, recited a piercing intonation of a selection from his book of poems, “Great Balls of Flowers,” inspired by a student whose parents had both committed suicide. Poet Ellyn Maybe – whose name originated because she was shy at poetry readings and often wrote “maybe reading” next to her name – presented a work from her “The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.” Each reading closed with a series of questions from the co-hosts Milo Martin and Lenore Zion such as, “Toilet paper: folded or scrunched up?” (“Never have time to fold it. Scrunched definitely.”) The co-hosts also presented some ruminations regarding genetic capability in asparagus urine odor detection. The show opened and closed with performances by “50 Cent Haircut” – a blues/rock/country hybrid with some great guitar players.
Tongue and Groove at the Hotel Cafe If spoken word events are your cup of tea, you definitely want to check out Conrad Romo’s monthly “Tongue and Groove” event at the Hotel Café in Hollywood. Past events have featured a bevy of exceptionally moving talented authors and musicians. The next one is apparently April 25th, from 6-7:30PM, featuring PEN Emerging writers Monica Carter, Natashia Deon, Lorene Garrett, Simone Kang, and Bev Margennis. Check with the Hotel Café before attending though; some of the website postings are out-of-date and the café calendar stops on the 24th. Or call Conrad: 323.937.0136.