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Posted by on Sep 8, 2009 in Blogh | 9 comments

The Manatees

A friend wonders how I can show people works in progress. He would find it paralyzing. And of course the wrong response can really ruin a thing. But I came of age in a very social bohemia where hanging out and making art were not separate activities. Even in misanthropic, xenophobic, paranoid and cynical middle age I retain the habit. I am a gregarious hermit.


The bohemia of the sixties and seventies, and on into the eighties, had strong collectivist tendencies. I was always cynical about this and yet I also can see that I had a tribal perspective. This perspective persists to this day and is subject to the same distrust and suspicion on my part that it was then. It’s not that I liked people, it’s that I was willing to band together with others who didn’t like people, and among those I was close to, something like a genuine collectivist spirit reigned.


I don’t know what bohemias are like today, but I suspect that the atomization, the alienation and disconnectedness of American society bemoaned in the 50’s (and against which the counter culture pitched itself) is much more of a reality now. But I’m certain a counter culture exists today, even though I have a hard time with the idea that it might exist on the internet. That’s like saying  Dada existed in the mail. In a true bohemia messages are conveyed not just in writing (zines, journals, wall posters, manifestos, screeds, poems, writings in general) but  by word of mouth, loud conversation, dancing, music, art, by the ear and eye, through sitting in silence together bent over a mirror, or smoking, road trips, performances, and the exchange of  bodily fluids. Bohemia opens all of the apertures of the body, including the aperture of the mind. Bohemia exists because people exist and among people there is a tribe of bohemia. Like GAY it is simply a variety of human.


Anyway, I long ago aged into the frozen outskirts of bohemia. Ithaca. The heart of nowhere. My Crimea.


The straight world needs bohemia, the way it needs doctors and psychiatrists and plumbers. Madmen and Madwomen are essential to the mental hygiene of society. But things are tough. Rents are high, and you have to have a full time job just to put food in your gob. This is why we are so impoverished intellectually and spiritually. It’s as if the econo-nuts have actually convinced people that leisure is loss of profit. Bohemia, when visible, reminds people that it ain’t so.


Can a counter culture exist in starbucks and mcdonalds? I assume IT, whatever IT is, SPIRIT, or SOUL, can materialize anywhere. When you enter that frame of mind values reverse. It won’t kill you to try stuff. People die either way. They die doing and they die not doing. Dying is not the point. Doing something is. For the hell of it. Because you can.


So, I answer my friend, I grew up in an uproarious and still social time. It was a continuation of what had been happening in New York from the late forties on. (CF The Living Theater, John Cage, Frank O’Hara, Maya Deren, Robert Rauschenburg, Jane Jacobs, Joseph Papp, Paul Goodman, William Burroughs, Merce Cunningham, Harry Smith, Michael Harrington, ad nauseum and etc). I worked part time for minimum wage or off the books in marginal jobs without a future or benefits. I had days or mornings for reading and writing, which I did assiduously (at least 2 hours of each), and then spent the afternoon visiting friends in their apartments, seeing what they had done, showing them what I had done. So it was in Moscow, 1896-1927; and Vienna 1890-1936; and Paris and London and Berlin, in every place and time. Going to museums or movies, galleries and recording studios, hanging out and getting drunk, shouting at the top of your lungs like Rimbaud or Mayakovsky, senses well deranged. Then at night going from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, stoop to stoop, getting free drinks from friends. Then wake up and read for two hours and write for two hours and start all over again.


It was Blaise Cendrars who said that a person should write for two hours and read for two hours a day. I think he said it in a Paris Review interview. I read all of those. He was prodigious. Gigantism. Like most people it was Henry Miller who got me to read Cendrars. But it was John Perlman who gave me the New Directions edition of his selected writings years before that. Dan Yak, the transiberian poem, easter in new york,  the post cards, sutters gold…I was John’s student. He taught me what poetry was. John gave me the book when I told him I was reading Bukowski. So it goes: Bukowski-Perlman-Cendrars-Miller-Cendrars…and in the first days, friends David Sandlin and Joanie and Bob Stratton and Jon Frankel and Shelly Droge when they all worked at Styria Studios (not me), Bobby Derektor, Matthew Tolley, Philip Shelley, John Fousek, Stuart Sharpe, Mike Salwen, Andy Henry, dank stairways at Columbia, benches on Broadway, chainlink fences on the Bowery…


The point is I suppose that in New York in 1980 the jugular vein capitalism that we take for granted today was certainly thriving, but it hadn’t taken over everything yet. There were still buildings with unrenovated apartments owned by families, and businesses that did useful things and had been around for 50 or a 100 years. There were cheap bars and cheap restaurants and used clothes and immigrant and working class neighborhoods. And you were pretty much free to do whatever you liked. With 1000 or more murders a year, no one cared about an open container, a lit joint or any of the other petty shit the discount fascists denounce as the decline of a civilization that was never civilized and always in decline. And by ’82 it was extremely difficult to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan. And those that were, were shit holes. Dangerous, decrepit shit holes with bastard landlords and rent strikes and squatters and 12th generation illegal sublets of rent controlled apts….I did not then believe things were going to get better, and they didn’t.


So here we are now. Bohemia won’t change a thing perhaps, but it’s better than no bohemia at all. I don’t care if there are only 12 of us left and none of us knows each other. Fuck, I’d join a colony of bohemian amoebas. And just to end things on a pun, my son told me the other day that the Manatees have no self-defense. They can’t fight back. All I could think was, doesn’t he mean the humanatees?






  1. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? The moment a worthwhile bohemian community is formed, the clock starts rapidly ticking down to its demise — the seeds of its corruption are inherent in its formation. Undeniably, power comes from community, but every artist is really, of course, a singularity, a genre of one. Your most well-wrought and incisive essay in a while. Pity the poor manatee.

  2. it’s the frutiful tension. we are individuals, and social creatures. and things get corrupted so quickly because I think on the one hand people’s aspirations have become totally mercenary, dominated by a desire for both fame AND money, without regard to content (I think of the lament of some filmaker who said that independent filmakers used to want to be the next Truffaut or Fassbinder but now only wanted to make an indie film to get enough cache, or cash, to make a blockbuster), and because we have this horrible, shallow, pervasive media that makes everything known so quickly it collapses into a commercial enterprise. Add compulsive irony and cynicism to the mix and you get the toxic brew that passes for culture and politics in this country. I suppose the word is CORRUPTION, pervasive, indelible. Another paradox: if bohemia has collectivist tendencies, it actually encourages, tolerates, is defined by singularity, eccentricity and individuality (as you suggest). American corporate Christian conservative culture applauds those values but functions as a narrow collective of anonymous cogs without a shred of integrity or individualism. It’s a mob of idiots. Thanks!

  3. This is a really great piece Jon. Reminds me of how I lived for a number of years, sadly lost now as I’ve gotten sucked into the survival vortex. I bemoan the loss of the world where a Bohemia was still…something it is hard to be today now that the go for the jugular capitalism has pretty much infiltrated everything.

    Gregarious hermit, I’ve just sent you a WIP upon which to comment, even collaborate if you wish. Unfortunately, there’ll be no hanging out to go along with it….


    “I don’t know what bohemias are like today, but I suspect that the atomization, the alienation and disconnectedness of American society bemoaned in the 50’s (and against which the counter culture pitched itself) is much more of a reality now.”

    I think your suspicions are well-founded. Whenever I go back to Tampa I’m aghast; everything has been gentrified to death….

  4. yeah, they’ve even managed to make New York City FAKE. and i did add to your conspiracy theory…not that i believe in conspiracy theories, but i do believe in the potency of symbols, and that the republican party has become a conspiracy to overthrow democracy in america, such as it has been and is.

  5. Yeah, Times Square now has a Disney store! And Jim Carroll died on the 11th, the day you wrote this post. That older NY is really dead.

    I like to think of this stuff (the conspiracy stuff) as conspiracy theory theory. More about how the mind works to create meaning. The conclusions I draw are only semi-serious. There’s some irony but also the unavoidable fact that the symbols are there, which, taken as a whole, do communicate something, namely, as you say, a primarily Republican led effort to undermine democracy. Religion will work on people’s heads, but for those who don’t fall for it, technology will take care of them. Complete control, if not in body, in soul….

  6. Am I the friend who asked the question in the first sentence?

  7. Yeah, Eric, it was you. but now you’ve blown your cover! last name an all. I think what I meant was, I’m a boomer and your not! that explains what appears to be a temperamental difference.
    Daurade, i am oblivious to anniversaries, so I was unaware that my post on the demise of manhattan as a locus of the counter culture coincided with the anniversary of its apotheosis as the capital of POST. Ford to NY: Drop Dead! Bush to NY: What He Said! and, by the way, become the poster child for our wounded pride. And New Yorkers said to Bush, Drop Dead. At least we have that much fight left in us.
    Theory of the Theroy of Conspiracy. yes, i like that. actually, the bad thing about false conspiracy theories is that they give a bad name to the idea that there are actual conspiracies. I think it was Bruce Cummings on IF Stone’s book on the Korean War who pointed out that sometimes, in history, wars really are started as the result of conspiracies. i think the kennedy assassination is more interesting WITHOUT a conspiracy theory, as is 9-11. Or rather, the actual conspiracies are more revealing than the invented ones. the invented ones tell us about people’s paranoia. the actual ones tell us about people’s paranoia put into action. What happens when you use Euclid to draw a real triangle. an individual or small group can accomplish staggering things and the rest of us are left wondering how this is possible. just think about how easy it is to murder a lot of people for no reason at all other than that you want to. the fact that most of us don’t do that is reassuring i suppose. what shocked me most about 9-11 was that there were 16 people in the world capable of flying airplanes full of people into buildings. one of kant’s definitions of evil is using people as a means to an end.

  8. This is a beautiful essay, Jon. Much of it rang true for me, reminded me of previous days and how times have changed (for me, at least).

    I will object, however, (kiddingly, Jon, I’m teasing) to the idea that manatees have no defense. Their deep sad eyes may not reach into the souls of Darwinian marine biologists who forget the human reach and the tug of heart strings, but boy-oh-boy, if that cross-species implore don’t generate a powerful empathetic protection … well, if that’s true, we’re screwed.

    On the other hand, I watched Lucinda Williams get married on stage last night. The most beautiful moment was when her father (Miller Williams, an elderly, quiet, thoughtful U.S. national poet laureate on the verge of giving his daughter away on stage in front of a rock-and-roll crowd–in other words, a manatee surrounded by speed boats) took the mike and silenced the rock and rollers to pin-drop quiet while he read a poem about caterpillars to all us rock and rollers.

    We all shut up and leaned forward on tiptoes to hear about a caterpillar! I gotta say, I choked up for a second. Well, hell, I’m softee, so that ain’t much. But when I noticed the bartender behind me–a tattooed woman who could kick my @ss and who sees live rock shows for a living–well, her on her tiptoes, eyeballs screwed forward and ears crocked afore like Dumbo listening … then I knew that the manatee is not defenseless.

    So f*ch the psychiatrists. The bohemia are the true plumbers.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Jon!

  9. The Gid! welcome, and thank you.

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