Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Friday, July 22, 2016

WALKING WITH THE MOONDOG


A few days before the 4th of July 1932 a fifteen-year-old boy named Louis Thomas Harden was walking along beside the railroad tracks near Hurley, Missouri.  The local mill pond had recently flooded, and pieces of inscrutable debris were left beside the tracks when the water receded.

Louis was a tinkerer, the kind of kid who made wooden models and built projects out of Popular Mechanics magazine.  So when he found an especially intriguing piece of debris there where he was walking, he picked it up and took it home with him.  The object may have have looked something like this:


On July 4th itself he examined his new find more closely.  It proved to be a detonation cap left behind by a construction crew some distance away, and transported trackside by the flood.  As Louis looked more closely at the object it exploded in his face, and despite some desperate and painful surgery he was left permanently blind.

In due course Louis Thomas Hardin (1916–1999) became Moondog; an all-American original, a composer, musician, and poet, who between the late 40s and the early 1970s could be seen in various locations around Manhattan.  At one point he was a fixture in Times Square, but more often he could be found on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Street.  He looked like this:


Sometimes he played music, just like any busker, sometimes he tried to sell merch, and other times he just stood there looking like a Viking.  I’m sure he was photographed many thousands of times, by gawking tourists as well as by serious photographers.   The classic image shows him as the still point, as the other walkers of New York swirl around him.


I’m always slightly surprised by how many blind people there are walking the streets of Manhattan, especially when you consider how many sighted people claim to be terrified at the prospect. 


I’m sure Moondog had friends and helpers but he obviously did get around the streets under his own steam.  Philip Glass, in his essay “Remembering Moondog” (which is the preface to Robert Scotto’s authorized biography Moondog, The Viking of 6th Avenue) writes, “he was so confident in his walk you wouldn’t think he was blind.  I wondered how, as a blind man, he managed to cross the street without an instant of hesitation until he showed me how he listened to the traffic lights; I had never heard them before in this way.” 

   I don’t suppose Moondog ever had much use for a printed map of New York, but he had a sound map in his head.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

AFOOT IN SUBURBIA WITH PEN AND CAMERA


I felt a bit like a mad dog a couple of days ago.  The temperature hit 87 – and I reckon walking gets to be a bit of an ordeal when it’s hotter than 80 – but I’d promised myself a walk, and so a walk I had.  I wasn’t the only man on the street, but there weren’t many of us.

A midday walker (not me)

I was on my way to meet my pal Claire for lunch.  She has acquired a dog, not mad as far as I can tell, but it seems to have changed her life – and it has certainly changed the way she walks - both of which may have been intended.  She looked like this:



In fact my walk to lunch - about 3 miles - wasn’t quite as punishing as I expected. I walked through Los Feliz, an area that manages to be thoroughly suburban but also somehow exotic.  The agaves in front of the Lloyd Wright house were flowering, which look very fine though in fact flowering is a harbinger of doom: they flower and then they die.


Other cacti and succulents, these in a pot by the roadside, looked the worse for wear:




There was topiary:


And whatever this plant is:


And there was this tiled fountain on a street corner, which looked much like a public amenity, though in fact it’s right at the front edge of somebody’s garden.


And finally there was this fairly hilarious sign, one of several I saw, stuck to various uprights around the neighborhood:


I couldn’t tell if it was for real or some kind of performative tease and having been to the website I’m not a whole lot wiser.  Here’s how it looks on the website:



 Chuck seems an amusing enough feller, and I know a guy’s got to try to make a living, but $7 a mile – that’s $21 an hour – I mean, really.  But I do like the line about being forced to face thoughts of the unknown future and my own insignificance in the ever expanding universe.  Actually, you know, that’s pretty much the main reason why I walk.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

WALKING WITH THE EXECUTIONER

I’ve been reading a book titled Hollywood Hell, so that you don’t have to. It was published in 1985, and of course it was the title that hooked me - and maybe the cover, though it's not very representative of what goes on in the book, which is all about waifs and strays and street kids, who get involved in crime and porn.


The hero is one Mack Bolan – sometimes know as the Executioner.  


Not to be confused with Marc Bolan obviously. "You’re not really going out in public in those shoes are you Marc?"


Mack Bolan is the creation of Don Pendleton – and if online sources are to be believe he’s appeared in 600 novels.  Pendleton sold the rights somewhere along the line, and a crew of lesser scribes evidently took over.  

Don Pendleton

Mack Bolan gets around: Cambodia, Soho, Beirut, and does a lot of killing with a very big gun.  To be fair most of the really violent action of Hollywood Hell takes place in Topanga and Pasadena, and the writer (who isn’t named, though somebody called Mike Newton is given “special thanks” on the copyright page) doesn’t put a whole lot of effort into giving a sense of place, but there is one strangely evocative description – of walking in Hollywood – almost certainly on Hollywood Boulevard:

“The hunter (that would be Bolan) parked his rental car upwind, deciding to walk.  He noted there seemed to be no continuity among the people he encountered in this neighborhood of sleazy bars and businesses.  Along the short block’s walk he met a human of every race and gender.
         “Men in stylish business suits looked sheepish or defensive as they caught his eye: the punks, decked out in leather with their spiky hair dyed every color of the rainbow, tended toward defiance seasoned with a dash of apathy.  A macho body-builder type paraded past him, hand in hand with his diminutive bearded lover.
“Across the street a stoned guitarist played for the amusement of some black youths dressed in street-gang colors, and a wino occupied the vacant doorway next to his objective, grumbling fitfully in alcoholic slumber.”

All of which sounds vaguely appealing, like a cultural and ethnic rainbow coalition, where everybody’s learned to just get along, which might be the very reason so many waifs and strays end up on Hollywood Boulevard, although Mack Bolan takes a different view.



I walk along Hollywood Boulevard all the time and of course I see waifs and strays, and sometimes their interactions with cops, which in general seem to be a lot less antagonistic than you might imagine.  I remember seeing one tough-looking kid, maybe in his late teens, being asked by a cop, “How long you been out here?” 
The kid replied, “Been out this time for ten days.  Been on the street since I was 12.”
In Hollywood just about everybody knows how to deliver a good line.

And because I’m one of those scavengers who picks up unconsidered trifles when he walks the street, I found this:


It’s a piece of rather expensive cardboard packaging, dense with layers of writing by different hands, not all the words legible, some of it a birthday greeting to Ringo Starr, some a description of street life of Hollywood waifs and strays.  The best I can make out says: - “I want my best Hollywood house now - my safe place 2 sleep” – “How many guys have my phones” – “Pinup poster girl & everyone keeps stealing my stuff” – there’s also something I can’t quite make out about sleeping outside and finding the sprinklers suddenly turned on.



It’s better written, more moving, more eloquent than anything to be found in Hollywood Hell.

Monday, July 11, 2016

ZONING OUT

Guy Debord looking for a zone of distinct psychic atmosphere:



Saturday, July 9, 2016

DRIFTING WITH MR. CUNNINGHAM


I’ve been trying to find something not too mawkish to say about the photographer Bill Cunningham (op cit in this blog) who died on June 24, aged 87.


I loved his artfully artless photographs.  He worked for The New York Times for about 40 years, and was a cross between a street photographer and a fashion photographer, snapping the fashionable people out in public in Manhattan.  He did some other stuff as well, at parties and balls, but it’s the street stuff that matters.


Cunningham wasn’t one of the great New York walkers (he actually got around by bike mostly) but he was certainly on foot when he took his pictures.   He was certainly a kind of urban explorer, and probably an anthropologist, and maybe even a psychogeographer.


He may not have been looking for, in Debord’s terms, “zones of distinct psychic atmosphere” but he certainly knew where to go to find people who were looking good and wearing fabulous clothes.  And of course he often photographed them while they were walking.





I never saw him when I lived in New York, but I know others who did, some of whom wished he’d take their photograph, but he never did – and I know some snappy dressers.   

He seemed to have had the trick, and maybe we should say gift, of appearing benign and good-natured when he photographed his subjects.  If he wanted to take your picture then you didn’t feel threatened or maligned, you knew you looked good.  Compare and contrast with that other great New York street photographer Bruce Gilden, who creates this effect:.


Even so I’m not sure there are many men who could get away with the kind of thing that’s going on in the picture below:


If most of us tried to photography the feet and shoes of a bunch of women standing on the street in Manhattan, I’m pretty sure the cops would be called.  I think you could probably talk your way out of it, though I wouldn’t advise you to say you were a flaneur, much less a psychogeographer.