When I moved to San Pedro one of the welcome signs was learning that an established family of iron workers with my name lived here. The rumor was that one of its younger members hung at Walker’s Café out on Point Fermin and had my exact name. My mother, a devoted gene-tracer, never mentioned a strain of our family that thrived in these parts. So I was very curious. And especially since our last name is relatively rare. Most of the O’Kanes had long dispensed with apostrophes and melted into good Citizen Kanes. The Irish had enough trouble with the bad raps about their culinary habits. Their seven course meals were often much more than a boiled potato and a six-pack.
I’ve still yet to meet my namesake, though there’ve been many close calls. One was when I made a purchase at Williams’ Books and Adam told me someone with my name did the same five minutes earlier. From then on I figured he must be a book reader. The Irish after all are a race of poets…
I head down Gaffey toward Walker’s in a rush, gun it up the hill past 22nd street to 25th all the way to the peak and the vista of Catalina Island, then down to Point Fermin Park on a day when you can see forever. As I get closer it seems that Walker’s might be the perfect place for poets to pass time and get beside themselves. It’s nestled on the last street of Pedro civilization, at the cliff of land’s end America. And it’s easy to forget you’re on the edge of our second largest city. You feel you’re in a small town cuddling with nature. And the café lies in a cul-de-sac, which keeps it local and neighborly and hidden from tourists who make it to these cliffs for the quick snapshot that redeems harbor town.
We could be in County Sligo, adjacent to Drumcliff Churchyard, Yeats’ burial place. Though there are no churches within a stone’s throw. We’re actually adjacent to Sunken City, a collapsed ledge below the cliff that was once part of it. There must be a steeple somewhere in this imploded mass that an archaeology student from some local college will unearth some day. Certainly canceled tickets for the Red Line that Detroit nixed back in the 40s. The café is actually housed in its terminal station. And perhaps a few skateboards that local teens lost control of when skirting the perimeter. It’s apparently expanding ever more rapidly. The cliff may be on the stoop of The Lighthouse Café on 39th before we know it and Walker’s mulched into the ages.
I didn’t expect to see berets scribbling away at tables out front. But neither did I expect rural Oklahoma fermenting with nostalgia for Hunter Thompson’sHell’s Angels. On my first visit, I learned that my namesake didn’t make the scene much anymore.
“Ya just missed him, was here a couple of days ago…he’s been off the sauce for a while now since his wife died…wasn’t long ago he climbed up the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the middle of the night screaming, wouldn’t come down!”
“Maybe he was getting in touch with relatives who did the iron work?”
As I learned, he actually helped retrofit the bridge. Perhaps he was nostalgic for that experience. The Irish are often out of phase with the moment, their days bloom with experiences that rush in at random, requiring new kinds of time management usually nurtured in the spaces of pub life. This is perhaps because Ireland, thanks to its neighbors, has been black-and-tanned from modernity, the mental space where linear time and progress mates. The reason why the Irish, as many claim, are doomed to live their lives between two eternities, the personal and the social.
Susan at NOSH on Centre said he frequented The Corner Café in the Palisades. Margaret, the owner, said he did drop in there once in a while. A woman who overheard our conversation, but refused to give her name, said that he worked part time on weekends at the skating rink next to Pokey’s Sports Bar up on Western. The attendant there said his name sounded familiar and that she thought he used to work there. She said she’d check it out and get back to me.
Fresh out of leads, I left my search to chance. One night in the wee hours of a First Thursday bash a musician, who declined to be named, said he heard he was an artist, and a very good one at that, though he didn’t know where his studio was. My first real lead! Maybe Walker’s was actually a poetic Petri dish–or rather Pedri plate!–and my namesake was just going off in new creative directions like the Irish often do.
In the meantime, I developed the habit of looking up when crossing the Thomas bridge at night on the way to Clancey’s Pub in Long Beach, and just let it happen…
I dropped into Walker’s on Easter Sunday for a late aft beer buzz to renew my search, figuring he might be celebrating on this famous day in our homeland’s history. It was when “insurgents” proclaimed the birth of the Irish Republic in 1916, though the Brits with their superior military quickly put it down. Much to my surprise, there was hardly anyone there. Then I remembered that the actual uprising didn’t happen until Monday because the German ship bringing munitions was intercepted by the Brits. So I returned the next day.
“Here comes that guy again looking for Johnny O’Kane!” someone from behind the counter blurts to a fellow worker as I enter the doorway.
It turns out the source of the comment is Carol; the receiver a new employee I hadn’t seen before.
I ignore the comments, like it was my first visit, and re-inspect the space. “I’ll have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” I tell the unfamiliar employee. “That’s a popular item back where I come from! You guys turn it into a delicacy!”
“You gotta be kidding!”
“Well, not really!…so by how much did I miss you know who?” I ask Carol.
“Was here earlier, bout 2 or so…said he had to go fix his bike.”
“Must’ve known I would drop in today, huh?”
Silence. My first impression was right on. Walker’s does make you feel you’re smack in the middle of rural Oklahoma. And if the feeling bypasses you, the sign on the wall can’t: “IT’S HARD TO BE HUMBLE WHEN YOU’RE FROM OKLAHOMA.”
According to Richard and Audrey, the current owners, this is respectful homage to the café’s founder, Bessie Walker (Richard’s mother), who was born in central Oklahoma and moved to Pedro when she was 22, opening Walker’s with her husband in 1945. And by the way, her picture on the menu uncannily resembles Bonnie Parker, half of the real-life tandem adapted for Bonnie and Clyde (’67) that terrorized Oklahoma banks during the Depression.
It’s fitting that bikers hang here since Oklahoma was also the last stop for the Hell’s Angels’ parents, according to Hunter Thompson, before heading to California in the 30s. What better place to wet your dust-bowl whistle than along the Pacific! Their gene-trail actually begins in Britain where they were among a sizable group of folks who didn’t fit the program and were shipped across the Atlantic. America, the land of the second chance. We’re all their descendants in one way or another. Many of them settled in Appalachia before panhandling to the “Sooner” state.
The same bullies that sent our colonial patriots packing put it to the Irish over the years, and branded them as outsiders. And this is exactly the identity of the current-day Hell’s Angels according to Thompson, not “born losers” as the media was so fond of saying. He portrayed the bikers as edgy lifestyle artists who had the passion to challenge society and do what normal citizens couldn’t. admittedly, they could also be outlaws who stepped over the line and just did it! But this freedom made them hugely popular among the masses, and also among artists and intellectuals who saw them as poets of their flesh, brethren whose actions made them oral bards of the road. In fact, in the mid-60s Allen Ginsberg sent an open invitation to the Hell’s Angels to join him and the literary wing of the antiwar movement in an Oakland protest. And in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test there’s a section where the Merry Pranksters, who are hangin’ at Ken Kesey’s ranch, invite the Angels to their party.
It must be no mere coincidence that the Angels Gate complex of art studios and gallery sits atop the hill behind Walker’s.
Ginsberg was also infatuated with Neal Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s On the Road who was always on one, en-route to some fleeting destination. He couldn’t stay put. Not even long enough to write things down. And he wanted to be a writer so bad! But according to Ginsberg he already was. He was an epic talker, an oral poet who walked the walk, spoke many truths in quality words to express his passion for living. And it was amped up by technology. New vistas for the auto followed the arrival of the interstate highway system, new road maps to the soul of America. The bikers benefited from these changes as well. Those iron horses manufactured right after WWII propelled them to find the wild west all over the place. They just had to GO!
So it makes sense that Ginsberg sent an invite to the Angels. He glimpsed poetry in their badass behavior; metaphors in their attitudes. Though he unfortunately had to write it. If he’d been in a position to talk it to them, if he’d been one of them, he might have seen it coming. Once at that demo in Oakland they switched sides and helped the cops beat heads! This hardly meant they were for the “pigs” and against those who rejected the war. But they were good patriots who didn’t run that easily, and certainly didn’t feel like truckin’ with snooty poets.
“Where ya been!” someone hollers, breaking the silence. Then silence again as no one else recognizes the visitor. It’s unclear who in the crowd speaks up. All heads turn toward him, and then the stares await the revelation. The visitor puts a face on the voice and moves toward it.
“Saul, that you?” the voice rings out.
“Hey…what’s up dude?…ain’t been that long, a few months maybe.”
“More like…a year or so.”
“…your hair and…like ya been undercover or somethin!…you didn’t go and sell out did ya?…you a narc now!?”
“Ohhhh…you kiddin man!…been off the stuff for a while but, hey, what’s that…let the cops do what they do but…am all for that…just cuz ain’t got a haircut for a while!…been up north…just got back.”
“Last time I saw you here you was just gettin back too…seems you’re either goin or comin!”
“Well, always…never been a homebody, love to get out there and mix it up, meet new folks, find somethin that…”
“…thought ya mighta upped for Kabool or somethin, keep it in the family sorta!”
A few in the crowd now recognize him and pass their low fives.
“The kid’s okay, he’ll work it out…did my thing in Nam and paid for it…my colors don’t run, just gimme a good cause!…not that it matters too much, no politics for me…nothin ever really changes one way or another.”
“Yeah, those are my colors too!”
He points to his bike out front, and turns around to show Old Glory on his back.
“America’s out there where you least expect it, whippin through those little towns and feelin freedom hit ya in the face…findin whatever or whoever, somethin you never knew…ya just don’t see it all from here, dreamin away…the more pieces of America you grab out there the less puzzled you…you start to get it right and know when and what to do, fight or not for whatever…don’t know what’s goin on out there now with that dubya, man!”
“Well, we’re all Americans!”
“Where ya stayin?”
“With ma…she’s still a good catlick and wants me to be one too!…am obligin her as far as I can.”
He revved up the machine and was off, like he’d found it.
As I got up to leave, someone emerged from the crowd and said: “Here’s a flier for Johnny O’Kane’s run.”
“Thanks…didn’t know he had one!”
I examine the flier. It’s nicely designed around the colors. The run is sponsored by the Ironworkers Motorcycle Club. The route, colorfully mapquested, snakes through the Cleveland National Forest along the Ortega HWY from Corona in the IE to Rancho Santa Margarita in the Laguna Hills. It begins near the site of the original Hell’s Angels chapter, and covers an area familiar from The Wild Angels, the 1966 Roger Corman docudrama with Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern. Then I notice a few stops along the way, “watering holes:” Angel’s Sports Bar, Hell’s Kitchen…
WOW! This can’t be an accident. He must be like those ancient Irish storytellers who put the errant spices of life into storied stews no one can refuse. Truth is stranger than fiction but not as reliable or as useful! Spinning yarns on the run is maybe how you get your thing together; get some perspective on it all. The Irish are always on the run, grabbing takes on the impossible whenever they can, replaying the feeling of what it’s like to lack a settled homeland. Mobility can shake up the passions and get you beside yourself on the way to changing places.
He was one step ahead of me, inviting one and all to “contact Irish” if they had any questions. I’d have gotten my training wheels out of storage right then but I saw a note in the bottom left corner: “Please No Guns, Knives Or Attitudes.”
Some weeks later, fresh out of leads, I was peeking at the Notre Dame game with a Guinness in the Club Royal, Pedro’s oldest saloon. I noticed one wall was plastered with sites and faces of Pedro’s past. The images seemed to capture some special moments. I looked at them for a while, intrigued for some unknown reason. Lost in the pictures, distracted by the game, someone breaks the monotony.
“Ever find Johnny O’Kane?” a customer down the bar hollers. It’s Sonny who hangs at Walker’s. “You must be gettin close by now!”
“Just green herrings so far.”
“He used to come in here a lot, still does once in a while…that’s his dad, Alex, there on the wall…and he’s up there too.”
I go over to the wall and give the pictures another look. The photo of Alex seems quite old, probably from the 70s. He looks familiar, but I couldn’t place the face. Then it hit me. He closely resembles my brother from some years ago! And just above this photo is one of my namesake standing proudly on top of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, bigger than life. The light in this photo is off and it’s hard to get a clear sense of what he looks like. I patiently examine every detail of the photo, trying to restore it in my imagination. No, it can’t be me! Perhaps my uncle in his youth, whom I was named after? Yet it really doesn’t matter. We’re all just one big tribe wandering around in search of a space free of aliens anyway, destined to meet up somewhere. In growing up I remember new family members with suspicious pedigree dropping on our doorstep.
It’s the cursed luck of the Irish to replace each other indefinitely. And we never die. According to Yeats in “Under Ben Bulben,” one of his last poems from 1939, our spirits live on forever:
“Though gravediggers’ toil is long / Sharp their spades, their muscles strong / They but thrust their buried men / Back in the human mind again.”