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Mining the States of City Minds

The decade of the 1960s was rife with experiments in journalism, "new" forms of writing that upgraded conventional journalism. The innovators were Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and many others. They wrote non-fictional stories that borrowed fictional devices to make their content more complex but also more pleasurable. Nothing like a fictional story to get readers interested!

Journalism has always been concerned with truth, and therefore with objective, quantitative facts presented by a reliable storyteller. These new forms of journalism were faithful to objective facts documented through the craft of reporting, but the borrowings from fiction enabled the storyteller to embrace what could be called qualitative facts, or subjective slants expressed through characters speaking their minds in scenes. The truth can be complicated from developing more angles on a subject than what a single storyteller can offer. And since there's no guarantee that the one main narrator of stories will be all that reliable anyway, why not get more than one opinion and make it more democratic. Let the sources of the supposed facts speak for themselves in dramatic situations with others.

If well-developed, these scenes could be literary. One of the spinoffs from New Journalism, and often considered to be synonymous with it today, was "Literary Journalism." And the whole story could be open-ended and ironic; contain thought-provoking complications that refuse the simplicities of merely factual journalism. If well-developed the characters could reveal the kind of insights found in the characterizations of fictional short stories and novels. One of the principal purposes of the novelist after all is to get into the heads of characters.

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Of course this kind of discovery is far from rocket science, so how do you perfect it without making things up? Even multi-shingled head doctors can't guarantee complete accuracy when plumbing the depths of the mind. Well-trained literary journalists or story tellers who immerse themselves in the field and witness the inspirations and experiences that can be made into stories, may at least gather a variety of opinions to help them move closer to the truth, and offer a richer story experience than what standard journalism can in the bargain.

In the tradition of this kind of experiment I offer a series of stories in my forthcoming columns, beginning with the current one, about residents living in Venice, CA. This city is an inviting laboratory for experimenting with stories that document complicated truths. It's full of extremes and contrasts created, to a great extent, from its success as a gentrified coastal haven for the upwardly mobile. But these conditions inevitably spawn those who must struggle to survive, and Venice has many residents who've been excluded from the march of progress, especially homeless. Plus the city has a rich legacy of alternatives to the mainstream. It's home to a diversity of bohemians, Beats, beatens, counter-culturalists, and lifestylists who reject the values sustaining this kind of success. This cohabitation has led to considerable friction in recent years, and the symptoms of it aren't just factually obvious from descriptions and interviews. They need to be conjured from all residents' minds, the street survivors as well as penthouse powerful, those from across the spectrum living in the contradictions of this dynamic city. To tell what this feels like and means demands more than documenting the movements and behaviors of people from the outside and relating the results to what's happening in society's larger plot. It requires time spent with characters to capture these feelings and meanings from the inside...

The following scenes reveal feelings and thoughts about life on the streets, and especially friction between residents. They stream the fragmentary impressions of events that led to an act of violence.


*****


Survival Streams

The white stretch limo backs slowly out of the garage, comes to a stop and is quickly encircled by a crowd of men and women who are mostly unrecognizable in the dark. The driver hits the horn several times, pushing the vehicle incrementally forward with each burst of sound. But the group, now chanting something indecipherable, fails to budge. The driver opens his window.

"Get otta here now, or I'll run ya down!" he screams. It's partially successful. A few break ranks and edge toward the wall. The limo keeps lurching forward and finally the rest fall away. It lays a victory patch, sending dust and gravel into their faces. Wyatt, who'd been standing just outside the encircled limo, is pushed toward the dumpster by the group's movement, but manages to lunge toward the trail traced by the speeding vehicle, his eyes appearing to vault his body forward. He stops in his tracks and stutters:

"Billy, you didn't blow it...you...couldn't have...you were too cool, man!"

As the limo speeds by it grazes Willow's grocery cart full of crushed cans and mangled minutiae, leaving her pinned beneath it. Lionel runs over to assist her as the dust settles.

"He must see us," Lionel picks up the refrain, "all those windows up there...I waved at him yesterday...he was in that little window, had his cowboy hat on....know he saw me."

"He wouldn't look at you," Heather interjects, "you know nothing about him!"

Wyatt moves away from the collision and settles against the wall, observing the group in an apparent trance, but inwardly snickering about their conversation.

Willow remains motionless.

"I'll go get help...Medic's over on Electric in the alley behind the clinic...he'll know," Engy mumbles from the fringe.

Wyatt cringes at the sound of Medic's name, killing the messenger with secret metaphors. He shuffles his feet along the wall, eyeless, as if he's trying to blend into it, disappear into the elements. He'd learned, ever since arriving on the street several months earlier, that survival depends on one's ability to hide and surface when necessary. Not an easy task to grasp the forces that control you on such short notice. The learning curve was more like a jagged, erratic maze, full of setbacks and reversals. But true survival required a cram-course in evolution to remake yourself at the drop of a dumpster lid, and be seen or unseen when conditions required it. Mojave reptiles had millennia to be colorfully one with their surrounding flora. You had days, sometimes microseconds, to adapt to the hues of your unnatural vegetation. Otherwise you could become extinct, victim of a perverse progress that rewards not the fit, but a subterranean wit that might let the unfit tear you a new asshole at the blink of an eye.

Wyatt was far from a vanishing species at this point. He was always learning new things, like how to sleep when awake, or how to stay alert when the various slumbers of the daily cycle overtook him. A full stretch of restful sleep was a luxury, and not usually desired. There were moments when he was nearly unconscious and primed for the kill. He needed to adapt to a higher level of street being; never allow this to happen when he was around people. Enemies were everywhere, in the different groups around town, and of course among those outsiders dedicated to making him and others extinct.

Last week he was hangin over at the Dog Park off Westminster, sprawled on the bank just down from the Blue Bus bench with Alan and Jane, flickering in and out of a restful and demonless sleep, wombing his way back and down with every gasp of savored energy. As the early morning September cool shock broke through the veil of warmth at that dreaded exit moment, there were the pied eyes of Clara from over on Clubhouse, vigilant as ever in making her rounds to assure everyone that the dike of dissolution has been fingered one more time in paradise.

"Why don't you go back to that shelter? I told you last week people come here, they need safe access to the park or they'll leave the area...and you'll spook their dogs!"

Several months of street life left him mostly timid in the face of verbal aggressions, but because of the better than average late morning repose he was ready for bear.

"I'll be doggone...don't you have any respect for your own neighbors?"

Though high on himself for his quick response, he was damaged from this rude awakening. That vision he had yesterday when camped on the Boardwalk, absorbing all the noise and incense near the Titanic as the pretty people paraded by, morphed into lots of bulging shapes. He couldn't get his flow back. So he spent the next several hours glaring at all the odd shapes, those devil heads on posts, the rolling waves, that goofy guy on skates blurring by with his electric guitar, and all those birds that made him feel small somehow. He even started to relive the gawks from the crowd, and the refusals of eye contact he could forget when under. And of course fancying ways to boobytrap Clara!

Medic rounds the corner from Hampton ready with remedies to bring Willow back to the pack, an old master at it by now. At first glance it doesn't seem like he's exactly a member of the helping professions, and not just because he's black-bagless. He's hobbling at a pretty good clip, while gesturing wildly and uttering something indecipherable at the same time.

Medic's moniker is a story in itself, getting it from Nam. He was left for hamburger on hill number something or other. No one knows for sure. The digits were always getting transposed or deleted on his paper work. And every time he trekked to the Vets Hospital off Wilshire back in the early days after his discharge he'd come back with a new ailment or a worse prognosis about his current state. So in frustration he started learning how to examine and medicate himself, finally putting up his imaginary shingle.

As Medic puts on the afterburners it seems he might do a cartwheel into the garbage-collage heaped up adjacent to the dumpster, but manages to land without incident. He reaches Willow, who by now is up and moving around, and consoles her, giving her a sort of quick frisk of all the vital parts. He backs away, as if the exam was a success, and stares at her. She stares back, trying to form a syllable, but grabs her cart and moves to the fringe where a few are sorting through their dumpster-quarry.

Medic turns to Wyatt and shakes him, like he's putting him through a quick, down-home exorcism. "Come on weekend wacko....at your ole tricks again?"

Wyatt opens his eyes wide but doesn't appear to be seeing anything. He then lets his head drop down onto his chest and closes his eyes. Medic smirks.

"Why don't you go off to one of your uptown hideaways, honky?....that hooker over in the art lofts, she's your style, you flunkie.....you hear me!"

Suddenly at a loss for words, Medic jerks to his left as a car enters the alley and speeds toward them, following its movements as it vanishes around the bend. He then looks around. "Let's carry him over to Hampton and be rid of him!"

No one moves. Wyatt snaps out of it and makes a getaway. Medic, as if insulted, becomes agitated and heads after Wyatt, flailing his arms. After nearly reaching Indiana, and secure under a glowing street light, Wyatt turns back toward Medic with barely subdued fury.

"Your day's comin!"

As his words fade Medic picks up a rock, turns his glance ever so carefully up toward the second story for moral support from the cowboy hat, and pitches it at Wyatt. It misses his head by inches, skipping across the street into the door of a speeding Mercedes.

Wyatt stumbles onto Indiana and gets moving pretty good, looking back only after he makes it to Hampton and is sure that Medic isn't following him. He keeps running wildly toward the beach, wondering if Rhiannon and her friends still have that crash pad over on Navy...

Photo: KCET Departures

About the Author

Long time Venice resident John O’Kane teaches writing and media at the University of California, and has published AMASS Magazine since 1988. He has published many articles and essays, as well as pieces of journalism, poetry, fict...

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