Mining the States of City Minds: 3

In "Mining the States of City Minds," a recent blog, I introduced my approach to experiencing the texture of city life in Venice, California and writing up the resulting stories with a type of literary journalism. This kind of writing, with roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s, captures these stories as they happen in the streets and other sites of everyday life through scenes that are faithful to the action and events they emerged from. It lets characters speak for themselves, which gives the writing the feel of a fictional short story but also a more truthful approximation of the surfacing event through their differing perspectives or points of view. Like a Surrealist flaneur I amble through the city trolling for stories and find their potential elements in various clusters of activity, sometimes homeless camps, where these voices dramatize their challenging existences. They present the evidence that might lead to a larger story waiting to be told. My resulting scenes mix direct and indirect (playing undercover detective on occasion) observations and the reorganization of conversations. This is the third in my series. In the first I captured the chaos ensuing from a crime in the streets, and especially the actions and impressions of one person suspected of committing it as he escapes into the bowels of the city. In the second I captured another scene in a park at night where a few residents from the previous one are present along with others, including the suspect. Here I trace this suspect's continued journey, and his securing of temporary sanctuary.


Wyatt shuffles aimlessly toward Speedway, passing a few pockets of bivouacking eyeballs. The alley is mostly deserted, except for an occasional passing car and a few meandering zombies on their way to wherever. As he slips south across Navy there's a loud screech, which he thinks is the work of an accidental convergence of seagulls acting out their fantasies, but realizes otherwise once the sound ceases and returns as similar, but different. He can't place it but decides it must be coming from the senior citizen residence on the west side of the alley. He'd hung in this stretch for a few weeks once, not long after he hit the streets. It seemed there were always piercing sounds of some sort no matter what the time of day. Seniors seeing a glimpse of the not-very-pretty pearly portals, or just letting something hang out that was never meant to be in the first place, or flashing on the faces of all their blown ducks in a row? He hears it again and now feels it's coming from up on Ozone. Standing on this narrow strip between tall structures is like being in a canyon when a coyote's howl careens off the slopes.

He walks to Dudley and sees that Henry's Market is closed. There's a disturbance beyond the Boardwalk, not far from the edge of the sand. Otherwise Dudley is completely abandoned, like this activity has sent residents scampering for safety.

He notices a faint light in the building down from Henry's. It's Desiree's place, a hangout for those who've sniffed enough fumes from the spiritual runoff in the godless universe to find a groove in it; and those spiritually savvy but materially scarred who've seen the light from above and below ground, and passed ever more easily between. They were all kindred spirits taste-testing their way through the apocalypse toward whatever might be left of a promised land.

Desiree has had this place for as long as folks can remember. It's a fixture in the community, and many things to many members: gallery space for up-and-coming artists; café with exclusively off-menu items; psychic clinic offering star-gazing therapies to tranquilize body and soul; soap box for those who have what it takes to get their messages out about whatever; brothel to beaten libidos scored from successes in the rat race; and shelter to the many who need refuge from their demons.

Wyatt knocks on the door as softly as he can, wanting to get only Desiree's attention. No one answers so he knocks again. Still no response. Perhaps she left the light on. He decides to go around the back. There's a car parked at the alley's edge, with someone in it who's hunkered down in the passenger's seat. He tiptoes past, not recognizing the car or the person inside. He looks through the back door to shadows reflected from a series of burning candles ranged along the edge of a table. He realizes the door is slightly ajar, and enters.

"Desireeee," Wyatt utters, getting no answer. But he senses she's there and looks up and around at the loft behind him. "Desireeee," he repeats. "You here?" He thinks he hears a rustling sound in the loft, but there's still no response. Perhaps it's one of those famous ghosts rumored to populate this space, which is the former site of a famous 50s coffee house.

After several silent seconds Desiree appears above the lip of the loft in a purplish haze, caressing a small book in a pleasant stupor, smiling to herself like a priestess who has found a plateau of serenity.

"Who is it?" she says, the sounds audible but barely more than whispers. "Who's down there?"

"It's Wyatt...saw your light on, and the door was open...interrupt anything?"

"Wyatt! Where've you been? Back for more nourishment?

She begins descending the steps before Wyatt can manage a retort, landing at floor level with open arms and a glint in her eyes that says all questions are answered.

It's this quality of being a step ahead that intrigued Wyatt and others about Desiree, but it also somewhat frightened him. At times she seemed like a spirit in transit between states and able to alter her surroundings; even reconfigure the objects and people in them. It was more than a cannabis concatenation of loose ends. And it was then when he sensed she knew more about him than he did himself.

At other times she trafficked in suboptimal zones, passing through syrupy segues that erupted in silliness. During these moments she was prone to giving unreliable advice, reaching into a grab bag of mystical potions and ointments for whatever you want. And if you didn't know for sure what you wanted, well...

But who knew what they wanted? A case could be made that many long-time alternative residents often felt summoned by nature, and one of the most natural forces here was the tide, its predictable incoming and outgoing motion. For those married to the beach culture, like Desiree, it could become a kind of language that controlled their muscles, or even their synapses, so that wafting in and out of various states at will was expected. Like a good medium, you had to catch her at the right time.

She came to town in the 70s. Her college years were spent obsessed with utopias while working on a business degree to please her parents. Eventually she dropped out and traveled around America for a while, but became disillusioned and decided to check out Europe, making her way eventually to Italy in search of experimental communities she'd heard and read about. It was in Venice where she picked up a book about the 50s Beat generation in its American namesake and came here almost immediately, getting a place above a garage on Clubhouse.

She gorged every facet of the town, living on the edge with many different folks and groups, even tasting the streets for a while, and working at a variety of different jobs: translator, waitress, palm reader, script consultant, librarian, model and many more. Rumor was she'd been a call girl for a while, tempted by the fashions of the time to cross over and do what men do. But though driven to overuse her special physical endowments at a time when soma splurges were a market correction to the soul, as she puts it, she mostly skinny-dipped through the hedonist lifestyle, did what helped her develop better ways of relating to people and building an alternative community.

Recently she has refined her spiritual sense and begun meditating at water's edge most afternoons just before sunset. Her frozen, black-draped, ponytailed figure absorbs the final rays before they race toward the disappearing orb on the horizon in twilight's last streaming. At times, when the light's just right, she can resemble a holy person.

"Yeah!...could sure use a little something to keep me goin," Wyatt responds, overwhelmed with emotion at finally making contact with someone. "Can't member what happened the last time! Was it right after the..."

"...what's important is you're here now. What lovely pictures of the human condition have you been seeing these days?" she asks, while stretching her arms toward him, and finding the nape of his neck all in one movement.

"Can't say...loveliness is not in my vocabulary these days but...well, I'd say I've found some specks of light out there...but somethin's goin on that I..."

His string of words dissolves in the caresses of her hands that slip up around his head and work it with patient resolve, her long fingers finding and stroking patches of scalp as if creating a head-massage concerto.

"Some specks of somethin for sure in this mop! You need a shower my sweet," she says, without breaking form.

"I neeeeed," Wyatt belches, while swooning into a semi-conscious state. The events of the past few days pass through his mind as if some savvy editor has taken charge and put them into a different order. But as the images loop by his connecting powers weaken from the massage. He wants the stream to cohere; a message to appear. But her soothing strokes shrink-wrap his sense-making. He sees only images floating through space.

She stops and he stirs briefly, his cells recharged. But he doesn't want to come out of it. He resists the power of his awakening body.

"Wyatt, Wyatt," Desiree beckons, "snap out of it...come back to us!"

He ever so slowly opens one eye, then the other, looks at Desiree as if he's seen a ghost.

"Where am I?" he asks. "Who am I? How did I get here?"

Desiree says nothing, just backs away from him and reclines on the couch, waiting out the inevitable in muffled sighs.

Wyatt fully surfaces after a minute or so, locking looks with Desiree for another ten seconds, and erupts in laughter, his face morphing through a series of contortions that return to blankness. He sheepishly fades toward the shower as someone taps at the front door. In one quick swoosh he looks at the door and turns left, moving to the back door. He looks around briefly into Desiree's startled gaze and swiftly exits to a red-white-yellow-and-blue light show painting the darkness...

John O'Kane has published over a hundred stories, essays and poems in a variety of venues, blogs regularly on Huffingtonpost, and edits and publishes AMASS Magazine. His most recent book is, A People's Manifesto (2015).