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Coney Island of the Mind

Posted by on April 13, 2015

Smack-dab in the middle of LA, late 50’s, early 60’s, Pershing Square sat triumphantly as the gathering place for all those living on the edge of society. Sure, you could get a taste of it in Venice, which was still some years from becoming a caricature of itself, but Pershing Square was the heavyweight championship home of radicals of every stripe, bums, hookers, sidewalk poets, preachers, commies standing and raging on benches next to magicians, mimes, sleeping homeless, and off-duty strippers waiting to go on shift at one of the many clubs that radiated out from Pershing in every direction. Beggars, hucksters, flimflam artists, card sharks, and drunks would pass the time with pickpockets, pimps, born-again cheerleaders for God, tap dancers, do-wop quartets, johns and stunned tourists. Needless to say, as 16 year old students of the world, we loved it.
I would not have known of Pershing Square but for my pal, Pat O’Toole and I never asked him how he came to know it, but on a slow Saturday afternoon we would pile into his small-window VW bug and head downtown to complete the education that we were being offered during the week at St. Monica’s.
Like me, Pat was a student of the world. We did research on many an overnight trip to Tijuana, in the coffee houses and flop houses of Venice, in drive-in movies, all night coffee shops, and atop vacant mansions of Hollywood, where we would perch to drink a few beers and contemplate the wonders of the city lights laid out before us. Being the open-minded sort, we were open to the wonders of the world as they presented themselves and Pershing Square was not only a wonder in and of its own, it was humanity on steroids…well on just about everything else too. I had my first prolonged philosophical conversation with a junkie at the Square, my introduction to good sidewalk blues, met a Communist, my first transvestite, a born-again guy who did card tricks, and saw the police beat the living hell out of a guy for something they took a dislike to…which I figured at the time must have been a pretty serious infraction, given the variety of miscreants they had to choose from.
There are no Pershing Squares in LA any longer. The Square itself was turned into a big parking structure some years later. Venice, especially the Strand, was an equally interesting conglomeration of beatniks, preachers, old Jews playing chess, body builders, buskers, and artists of the broadest categories. What exists today as a tourist attraction was once a way of life. The Hells Angels ruled the trash filled Venice Canals, now multi-million dollar homes and condos. When I first stepped into the Gas House, a Beat coffee house on the Strand, I heard my first poetry set to bongos, got a strong whiff of what I soon learned to be reefer, and was introduced to espresso. On a subsequent visit, a bearded fellow in a knit seaman’s cap and a leather vest, gifted me a copy of Lawrence Ferlingetti’s Coney Island of the Mind, which still remains one of my favorite collections of verse.
I recall these places fondly for my introduction to the concept of untamed lives, for the richness and texture of the people, the language used in ways at which I marveled. This was indeed the perfect curriculum to supplement 12 years of Catholic education. I suppose that current teens find the wild side online, but I do not envy them. Perhaps there is a broad range of virtual Pershing Squares and Venice Strands, but once there were whole neighborhoods that existed like carnivals of humanity and I in my green and hungry youth strolled through it like a Coney Island of the mind.

One Response to Coney Island of the Mind

  1. eileen

    Just read this now…trying to catch up with you:) I loved it! xo

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