The Sporadic Beaver

Pinellas Prison Blues (and Oranges)

April 13, 2015

Tags: Gene Gregorits, writing, literature, Florida, Stand Your Ground, Rick Scott

Gene Gergorits is not Nelson Mandela, and even his staunchest supporters say that it's "pretty much impossible to spin in any positive way" the charge against him--unlawful sexual activity with a minor--under which he's currently being held in Florida's Pinellas County jail, awaiting trial.

Florida, the land of Stand Your Ground, a law most rational people recognize as legalizing murder, is a state that boasts the fourth-highest number of executions in the United States. It’s also a state run by a climate-change-denying governor, Rick Scott, who, in his previous gig as chief executive of Columbia/HCA, a healthcare mega-giant, oversaw the largest Medicare fraud in history. The company (though not Scott himself), admitted to 14 felonies and was fined $1.7 billion, the largest such fine ever levied in the U.S.

So, let’s call Florida what it is: a vengeful, bloodthirsty state run by a chief executive who’s lucky that he’s not doing hard time in a Federal penitentiary, and a state where such notions as the “rule of law,” “justice,” and even “science” mean what those in power want them to mean.

In short, when you’re talking about the Sunshine State, it would be unwise to make any assumptions about the guilt or innocence of those who occupy a prison cell and those who occupy the executive mansion. Or, if you must make an assumption, stick to a safe one: The occupant of the executive mansion has more money than the occupant of the prison cell—because it’s been well-established that Florida is at the forefront of the American ideal of justice for the rich. Therefore, I would not dismiss the theory currently circulating among those paying attention to The State of Florida vs. Gene Gregorits that prosecutors railroaded Gene as an “undesirable,” somebody not welcome in their God-fearing fiefdom, parts of which will soon be underwater. (Visit Miami Beach while you still can.)

Gene chose Florida as a place to live in bohemian semi-poverty because he likes the beach, he detests cold weather, and the cost of living is significantly cheaper than, say, in L.A. But lack of money is only one contributing cause of Gene’s current nightmare. Anybody who followed his pre-incarceration Facebook feed, a litany of impotent rage, threats of self-mutilation, and reports about his ailing cat, Sam, would have seen the obvious: These were the desperate words of a man headed for an insane asylum, prison, and/or early death.

Desperation, of course, is endemic to writing. Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson blew their brains out—and they’d achieved a level of commercial and critical success that’s probably no longer attainable. That’s what the book business can do to people, especially to writers like Gene who are not “brand names,” who dare to cultivate a distinctive voice, and who refuse to write plot-driven genre fiction or nonfiction that defies easy pigeonholing in a commercial category.

Gene, having aggressively rejected all the conventions of mainstream publishing, instead took a uniquely American path: He formed his own imprint, Monastrell, exclusively for his own books. And though Monastrell has put out 18 books and Gene has met with some success, including an interview on Vice.com that briefly sent Dog Days: Volume One rocketing up the Amazon charts, this venture has simply not generated enough cash for Gene to buy himself some Florida Justice.

So, he sits in his Pinellas County prison cell, doing what he can to hang on to what remains of his sanity—he writes books, and Monastrell, currently being run by his supporters, publishes them. Since he’s been in jail, he’s written Stretch Marks, a full-length memoir. This, in itself, is an extraordinary achievement. The Orange Woman: Volume I ($6.99) is a 27-page excerpt from Stretch Marks.

In The Orange Woman, Gene flashes back and forth between the early 1980s and the recent past. But he primarily focuses on the “vicious” winter of 1983, when he was a “sexually perverse child of seven” living in financial and cultural poverty, in rural Pennsylvania, with his emotionally unstable mother, Kathleen, who works a low-paying job at an IBM plant, and his sketchily described younger brother, Matt.

The orange woman is Naomi Fairbanks, so-called because of an artificial tanning product that has turned her skin “the somber orange of baked carrots.” She’s an inbred local “creature,” living in a trailer park, whom Kathleen hires to provide childcare—it’s all she can afford.

Naomi’s dialogue is rendered phonetically—Yer warnt serm cawfee?—and this is among the multitude of vividly conjured sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and sensations of a distant time and place that gives the reader a clear sense of the fucked-up situation Gene escaped from, and explains to some degree why he now finds himself in a Pinellas County prison cell.

The Orange Woman is an hors d’oeuvre that leaves the reader hungry for the full meal, and I can only hope that no matter what happens, Gene continues writing and publishing. For his is a voice that is, indeed, worth preserving.

How I Spent the Winter

March 12, 2015

Tags: Florida, Beaver Street, Nowhere Man, John Lennon, Charlie Hebdo, City College of New York, Observation Post, Stoya, Amazon, Twitter, 1970s

One of the problems with writing a book and then preparing it for submission to publishers is that it's an extraordinarily time-consuming process. Take into account that I also have a demanding freelance gig, and there are simply not enough hours in the week to tend to blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting, at least if I want to have something resembling a life. Which is why it's been two months since I've posted anything new on this blog. But I am still here and I know some people have missed me.

So, aside from the book, what’s been happening since January 12? Here are a half-dozen highlights:

Like everybody else in the northeast, I’ve been getting through the winter, which can’t end soon enough, though I’ve not been letting the cold or the snow interfere with my daily walks by the Hudson River, which on some days might be mistaken for the Northwest Passage.

My wife and I spent a week in Florida, visiting my mother and being tourists in Miami. It was warmer there, I went swimming every day, and at no point was I forced to stand my ground.

For a brief moment, Beaver Street was the #1 porn book on Amazon Germany and Nowhere Man was the #1 Beatles book on Amazon Canada. Is it too soon to declare them both cult classics?

Quadrant, a conservative Australian literary journal, cited Nowhere Man in an essay comparing John Lennon to Russell Brand. The conservative media’s 15-year embrace of my work, using it to prove whatever point they’re trying to prove, continues to be a source of astonishment.

In my blog post about Charlie Hebdo, I wrote about the artist who, in the 1970s, had drawn a pornographic cartoon as a way of expressing his discontent with the Catholic Church. I’d published the drawing in Observation Post, the City College newspaper I was editing at the time. Major controversy ensued. Well, the artist read the post, and contacted me. We got together for the first time since 1974. He’s still an artist. And he’s still crazy after all these years. But so am I.

I woke up one morning to find that the porn star Stoya, whom the Village Voice had described on their cover as “The Prettiest Girl in New York,” had mentioned Beaver Street in a blog post. If I could have picked three people on planet Earth to read and appreciate Beaver Street, Stoya would have been among them, alongside Philip Roth and Joan Didion. So, I tweeted her a thank you and she tweeted back, “Thank you for writing it. Amazing glimpse into the adult industry.” Say what you will about Stoya, but I’ll say this much: The girl gives good blurb.

House of Secrets

April 18, 2014

Tags: El Solano, Hustler, Larry Flynt, Florida, Palm Beach, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Nowhere Man, Addison Mizner, Cheiro, numerology

El Solano, in Palm Beach, designed by Addison Mizner, and home, at one time or another, to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Larry Flynt. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach.
"House of Secrets" was originally published, under a different title, on a Florida-based design website that no longer exists. Some of the information in this article is drawn from my book Nowhere Man, in which I write in detail about John Lennon and Yoko Ono's stay in this Palm Beach mansion. In the book, I misspell "El Solano," calling it "El Salano." Should there be future editions, this will be corrected.

On March 6, 1978, a white-supremacist serial killer, outraged by an interracial photo spread in Hustler, pumped a .44-caliber bullet into Larry Flynt near the Georgia courthouse where the magazine publisher, on trial for obscenity, had just testified in his own defense. One year later Flynt, paralyzed from the waist down because of his injuries, rented the house at 720 South Ocean Boulevard--or S.O.B., as the locals call it--in Palm Beach. His landlady, socialite Brownie McLean, would have much preferred to sell the 10,000-square-foot white elephant known as El Solano. But in those grim days of hyperinflation and gas lines, there were no takers, not even the recession-proof Flynt. So McLean, who had once refused the Hope Diamond as a wedding gift from her husband because she believed the jewel was cursed, didn't hesitate to accept a much-needed cash infusion from the man who introduced "split beaver" to a mass audience.

Most of Flynt’s neighbors took the porn publisher’s presence in stride—even though it was common knowledge that he employed a team of photographers to shoot X-rated pictorials throughout the Spanish-style mansion’s six bedrooms, five servant rooms, ballroom, and sauna, as well as by the square “morning pool” and rectangular “afternoon pool.”

Through a spokesperson, Flynt has declined to offer any more information about his season in El Solano.

The current owners of El Solano also prefer not to discuss their winter residence—though they do say, through a spokesperson, that it’s “public knowledge” that they own it, and that it’s permissible to publish their names. Apparently, this wasn’t the case in 1993 when the extensive renovations of architect Darby Curtis, working with designer Robert Metzger, were documented in Architectural Digest—the most detailed and elaborate El Solano pictorial on record. The owners were quoted anonymously, and the story failed to mention that they were the architect’s parents: Alan Curtis, an investment banker, and Christine Curtis, a freelance writer, who had bought the house in January 1990 for $4,315,000, though it’s not publicly known from whom. More surprising than this was Darby Curtis’s reaction when asked if she might shed some additional light on her work at the historic abode: “I have nothing to say.”

Perhaps Curtis’s reticence is best explained by others who’ve worked in the house, some of whom were willing to speak (anonymously) of the fact that in a small community like Palm Beach, those whose livelihoods depend on access to the super-rich—and occasionally super-famous—would be foolish to make unwanted revelations about their employers (or parents). But in the same breath these people also speak of the house’s strangeness, of their belief that things have happened in El Solano that those who have lived there simply don’t want to talk about.

In a way, El Solano exists in the realm of the mystical, a piece of unreal estate—a mansion with a long history of secrets, celebrated owners, and at least one profound occurrence that changed the course of rock ’n’ roll.

The first person to live in El Solano was the man who built it in 1919, controversial “society” architect—many considered his designs hideous—Addison Mizner, who named it both for the hot Mediterranean winds that blow through Spain, and El Solano County, California, where he was born in 1872. A mythical figure whose 11-foot-tall statue now stands in Boca Raton, a city he helped develop, and whose Mediterranean Revival style came to define the look of Worth Avenue, the six-foot-two, 250-pound Mizner settled in Palm Beach apparently for health reasons.

(Stephen Sondheim has chronicled the Florida misadventures of Mizner and his flimflamming business-partner brother, Wilson, in his musical Road Show, which portrays both Mizners as incestuous, Addison as homosexual, and in the end, according to The New York Times, reduces the brothers to “cocaine-snorting wrecks.”)

Though Mizner’s Villa Flora, which he built for J.P. Morgan, and La Guerida, which became John F. Kennedy’s “Winter White House,” may be better known than El Solano, the latter is regarded as the purest expression of Mizner’s chaotic vision—a “stream of consciousness” consisting of idiosyncratically connected spaces, as designer Michael Christiano, who also worked on the 1993 renovations, described the house to Architectural Digest.

The house so intrigued next-door neighbor Harold Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, that he bought it from Mizner and added on—as did many of the successive celebrity owners, such as actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who briefly settled into El Solano in 1973 with his second wife, Mary Lee Hartford, heir to the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company fortune.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, too, were taken by the house, and on the advice of their tarot card reader, whom they called Charlie Swan, Patric Walker’s Town & Country horoscope, and Cheiro’s Book of Numbers, bought it—on January 27, 1980, for a million dollars, a price they considered a steal. (“John made the tea, while Yoko hammered out the negotiations,” real estate broker Ben Johnson told The Palm Beach Post.)

In years to come, many stories about the ex-Beatle’s El Solano activities would filter into the public domain—a rare breaching of the house’s shield of secrecy. Most of them were inconsequential, such as details about Lennon’s ongoing feud with Paul McCartney, reports of an ugly incident that occurred when the actor Peter Boyle and his wife came to visit, and tales of locals stopping Lennon on the beach, without realizing who he was, to talk about the historically cold weather that February. But one story of significance would emerge as well: After five years of musical silence, it was in El Solano that Lennon reconnected with his muse, which many in his inner circle had given up for dead.

On February 27, 1980, Lennon and Ono were watching the Grammy Awards in the den when Bob Dylan came on to sing his latest hit, “Serve Someone,” which says it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to have to serve either Satan or God. The song provoked from Lennon a spontaneous musical explosion called “Serve Yourself.” Accompanying himself on guitar, Lennon lashed out at everything and everybody: Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, his sons, his mother—the world, the universe. And this song soon primed a flood of new material that seven months later appeared on Lennon and Ono’s album Double Fantasy. (“Serve Yourself,” which Ono considered too raw, obscene, and off-message for public consumption, wouldn’t be released for another 19 years.)

On December 8, 1980, Double Fantasy was riding high on the charts. That night, John Lennon, aged 40, was shot to death by a deranged fan in front of the Dakota, his apartment building on West 72nd Street in New York City. Among the candlelight vigils held throughout the world, one took place outside El Solano, which Ono kept until 1986, adding on to its chaotic sprawl and then selling it for a numerologically harmonious $3.15 million to a Bostonian family that preferred to remain anonymous.

What's the Matter with Florida?

March 22, 2012

Tags: Stand Your Ground, Trayvon Martin, Florida

My mother lives in a retirement community outside Lake Worth, Florida, one of the more civilized areas of the state. Even though I'm white, middle aged, and not especially threatening looking, when I go there to visit her, I'm always well aware of the Stand Your Ground laws. These laws allow you to legally shoot somebody to death in "self defense" if you feel threatened by them. And in Florida, you're allowed to take a handgun almost anywhere.

I never leave my mother’s house without carrying identification, especially if I’m going to walk a few blocks on the main road outside the village. Because Florida is one of those places where everybody drives everywhere, and to be seen walking on the main road is in itself considered “suspicious.” I always half-expect to be stopped and questioned by the police, which is probably just a carryover from my younger hippie days when I couldn’t drive around the block without the police pulling me over to check my license and registration. The Florida police, to their credit, have never harassed me.

But the shooting last month in Sanford, Florida, of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer, who was not arrested after he told police that he felt threatened by Martin and shot him in self defense, reminded me of something that happened in Florida 36 years ago, and which might have had a very different ending had the Stand Your Ground laws existed then.

I was in Gainesville, a college town in the north central part of the state, doing research for an article on magic mushrooms. Gainesville is one of the few places in the continental United States where this psychedelic fungus grows naturally. It’s also home to a lot of people who’d fit the standard definition of “redneck.”

One night I was hanging out in a local bar when one of those rednecks—young, longhaired, and with a heavy-duty southern accent—struck up a conversation. Though he was obviously drunk, at first blush he seemed like a typical drunk, the kind you might meet in any bar. He asked what I was doing in town, and where I was from. I told him.

A beer or two later, he followed me out of the bar and started screaming at me, something to the effect of, “Who do you think you are coming to this town to write about us?” Then, as a bunch of people from the bar gathered around us, he hit me with his motorcycle helmet, a glancing blow off the side of my head. I was more astonished than anything. I hadn’t been in a fight since junior high school.

He kept swinging at me with the helmet and his fist, but he was too drunk to connect solidly, and I was mostly able to duck and block his wild attempts to beat me to a pulp for no rational reason. It went on for a good minute, until a couple of people from the crowd restrained him, and I got the hell out of there.

But when I think about this incident in light of the Martin shooting, it occurs to me that if something like this were to happen today, the guy might very well have shot me in “self defense.” Because he obviously felt “threatened.” And he might very well have gotten away with it. Cause it happens every day in Florida. Which is pretty much all I have to say about it.