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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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TRAVELS IN AMERICA: On the Road to Nowhere.


It felt great to get out of New York although I knew that I would be back there sooner or later. Coconut Grove was about as far removed from the city as I could imagine at that point although life at Kay's house was a bit claustrophobic. It was a small house surrounded by trees where Kay lived with her boyfriend Carlos and her father, Herman, who mostly sat in front of the TV in the living room. Kay was the hostess with the mostest. A large New Yorker whom I'd met in Ibiza, she made sure that my social life was busy and that we got out to all the art openings and parties going on around town. In fact Kay was the gossip columnist for the local paper so that she got invitations to everything happening and used to take me along with her as an escort. My role as companion at these events eventually evolved into my being her photographer and bringing my camera along everywhere we went to get photos of the local celebrities at play. I never really felt comfortable in the Grove, there were too many rich people doing too little with their lives but I was always grateful to Kay for her friendship and attention. Her boyfriend was a sweet man who kept the whole household together with his magazine and newspaper distribution business. Carlos and I got to be quite close and I remember clearly the night that he got a phone call at three a.m. telling him that somebody had set fire to his warehouse. Apparently his brother, with whom he was in business at the time, had owed money to some local hoods and they had thrown a bomb of some kind through the windows of their office as a warning. God, this was the nitty gritty, the real world that we were living in. I drove poor Carlos straight down there but we were too late to save anything much. We just had to stand out in the street and watch the blaze. Carlos was in tears, his brother Bobby was in hiding but we managed to pick up the morning's papers from the Airport and do the day's delivery. Carlos got rid of his brother and managed to put his business back together again eventually.

After a month of the Grove, I flew to Los Angeles. I was there to visit Simma's brother Marvin and his young German wife Elfi who lived outside LA in Agoura just above the old Paramount Studio lot where the TV. show "Mash" was shot. We could look out from their house and see the hill that was used as the silhouetted mountain that one sees at the start of every Paramount movie and then walk down to the abandoned "Korean" village used in the TV show. Simma and Jeffrey were there too and it was always nice to spend time with them. Elfi too was an artist and I showed her how to do batik there.

I was never crazy about LA. It seemed so structureless, miles and miles of low, featureless buildings broken up only by endless stretches of motorway. Without a car in LA, it was hard to go anywhere. The distances involved were all vast and the public transport minimal. There weren't even any pavements for pedestrians either and it looked like the only people actually out on the streets must be hookers. Maybe everyone looked like a hooker in LA. Luckily I had friends to see and to stay with for I was experiencing a profound alienation and isolation there and needed safe spaces to figure out what, why, who and where. This litany was growing pretty familiar to me by now.

I stayed for awhile in Studio City in a little townhouse belonging to a Brazilian friend of Cathy's, my ex-flatmate in New York. But I was pretty cut off there and didn't know what to do with myself. I used to sit out by the pool in the sun and read mindlessly for hours and then go off walking around blindly as if I was looking for something. Which I suppose I was though I never found it in LA.

Life was a bit more interesting when I went to visit with Linda and Richard who had a luxurious house up Benedict Canyon Drive in Hollywood. Linda was an artist who had invented some piece of fiber optical equipment which she and her husband had gone into business to develop and market and which would ultimately earn them a fortune. Linda drove around town in a white Rolls Royce and had a heavy predilection for champagne and cocaine, neither of which interested me in the slightest. I think that she just wanted me around as a playmate which wasn't what I wanted either. I helped her put together a big surprise birthday party for Richard with food, fireworks and a rock band called the Catch. I managed to organize this show in precisely eight hours, starting on the morning of Richard's birthday. I was amazed at the power of money and what one could do with a budget of eight thousand dollars.


Hollywood life wasn't for me though and when Richard, who had taken to me in a big way since his party for some reason, offered me their house in Venice near to the beach, I jumped at it. Of course, I didn't find what I was looking for there either, though the Venice Beach freak scene was pretty fascinating. I was living only twenty-five yards from the beach with its cafes and bars and twenty four hour street life and I spent days hanging around down there as a silent and unobserved observer. I even rented a little lime green English Austin Mini car for a few days to look around the center of LA. The inside of the car was completely covered with matching fake lime green fur which dripped down from the ceiling of the interior mostly blocking my view so I took it back to Rent-a-Wreck and stuck to Venice. I thought the massive trompe d'oeuil murals painted on some of the buildings by the beach were wonderful but they only added to my confusion and sense of unreality. I loved the young black kid I saw everyday who had a Hendrix haircut and played sub-Hendrix electric guitar as he zoomed around the beach front on roller skates. He had a battery and amplifier on his back and two speakers strapped to his knees. I saw fire-eaters and clowns and two young guys juggling with live chainsaws, which impressed me a lot. There was a non-stop game of volleyball on the beach going on between young men who were obviously local superstars. They were surrounded constantly by beautiful and adoring young girls. One stretch of the beach was set aside for bodybuilders who worked out compulsively in front of another admiring audience. This was definitely California! Feeling particularly desperate one morning, I went to a palm reader on an impulse wondering if I was going to have a flash of understanding or a satori experience right there on the beach. But the palm reader was so far off the mark with his talk of fabulous business ventures and the endless successes with women that were awaiting me just around the corner that I decided that this wasn't the place for me at all. I thanked Linda and Richard for all their kind hospitality, politely declined their offer of a job taking care of Linda's eighty year old father and took a Greyhound bus up the coast to Full Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco.


I knew two brothers there, Mel and John and went to stay with them for a few weeks. Mel had been married to Billie, one of my models from the Happy Valley Fashion shows of so long before and we had known each other slightly in Ibiza. Their sister, Carrie was a movie star who had been really good in "Diary of a Mad Housewife" but who had given up her career after that to raise an epileptic child whose father was the rock musician, Neil Young. I think that Mel and John were about as lost and confused as I was when I got there. Hopefully, we all helped one another to get a little clearer about what we wanted to do. I told the two brothers about my experiences with the Late Afternoon Construction Company and made them an attractive "You Name it, We can Fix it" advertisement and we saturated the neighbourhood with fliers. To my surprise, the response was terrific. There was an obvious need for handymen and the Snodgress Bros. had more work than they could do. I hoped that they were as good as their advertisement, made sure that I didn't get any further involved and did some nice drawings down by the sea. There were some lovely juniper trees by the water which made fantastic shapes against the sky and much later I made some nice batik paintings of them.

And then it was time to move on again and I went up to San Francisco to visit Simma, Jeffrey and young Harun who were still looking for land to buy. I liked San Francisco a lot. The weather was good after the early morning fog lifted and that was a great plus for me. It was really good to finally see Haight -Ashbury, Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate itself after hearing about these places for so long. Back in the Sixties and early Seventies, I had loved all the music coming out of San Francisco, The Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service and had a secret fantasy that this was going to be the place for me.

Both Simma and Jeffrey had been neighbours in Ibiza and I had known both of them before they'd gotten together at my Harvest Moon party back in 1977. I'd first met Jeffrey many years before that when he used to come and stay in Ibiza with his wife Susan and later when he'd lived in C'ana Escirre, a large house down below Es Coll des Vens during his Prince Valiant look-alike phase. Then he'd had long hair and had been a passionate wood sculptor labouring all day every day out in the hot sun on the huge olivewood carving that he called the "Whale". The "Whale" had started life as the trunk of a big old olive tree which Jeffrey had hollowed out and then worked on for months if not years to finally reduce to a mere ten feet in length before he sold it. He was a sweet sometimes tortured man whom we'd privately called "Doubting Jeffrey", due to his avowed belief that humankind had only been put on the earth to suffer and his own apparent decision to suffer if it was at all possible. He practiced t'ai chi every morning without fail, went away on meditation retreats regularly and with the birth of his son, Harun, had become an exemplary father. It had been mostly his decision to come back to the States to live and he had recently completed a training in computer servicing and rejoined the great American workforce. Simma could not have been more different. She'd done a lot of traveling and had been a dedicated party girl on the Ibiza scene. Together they'd first gone into business importing kilim rugs from Tunisia, then furniture from Sri Lanka and now they were looking for a niche to settle into on the West Coast. Harun was only a year old when I turned up. Simma had always sworn that she'd never want children but when she turned thirty-six, the mythical biological clock had started to tick and her darling son had been the result. Harun was to be followed a few years later by Zeb who is my godchild. When things had started to get stressful around Marie Luz and all the children, I'd often gone over to their house to hide out and recuperate. Back then we'd talked about life after Ibiza and the possibility of us moving on and living together somewhere else. Eventually, all that came to pass but we weren't quite ready for it yet.

In the spring of 1980, we all piled into Jeffrey's car and drove up to Northern California in search of the perfect spot to start our family community. Although we saw some lovely pieces of land, they were all either too small, too expensive, too remote or not private enough. I remember that we had a great visit at Orr Hot Springs, a little hippie resort center near Ukiah where we stayed in a tiny redwood hobbit-like house buried in the woods and spent all day soaking in hot mineral baths. So we didn't find any land on that trip and a few weeks later I went up there again with a friend called Bobby Mustache and looked at some more places for Jeffrey but again couldn't find that perfect property.

By this time I was starting to make a dent in my savings and it was time to get back to work. I decided to go back to Miami and to visit Kay again and arrived there in the late Spring without any real sense of where to live or where to work. But Fate intervened in my life yet again as she has a habit of doing when I need her. I was at a little party at Kay's house one night and I remember that I was talking about some of my experiences as a teacher in Oxford years before. When I had finished, a woman came over to me and introduced herself as Margie. She said that she was also a teacher and that she'd found my stories about Oxford very interesting. She was about to go to live in England for a year or so and asked me if I would like to take care of her house for her. I said that I probably would and arranged to visit her at her house on Miami Beach the following day.

As I drove down Margie's road on Miami Beach the next morning, I passed Anita Bryant's old house and the BeeGees' palatial place and I wondered what I'd got myself into. But Margie's house wasn't like the others. It was certainly a big house and its garden ran down to the waters of Biscayne Bay but it looked, how should I put it, a little neglected, even funky and run down.


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