I didn't like what I was seeing. Too much evidence of heroin use was starting to surface at my café. I dismissed it at first, but it looked like I was going to have to give the matter further thought.
The first time I noticed anything was about two months prior to the Downbeats' performance. A few guys and gals started coming to the café claiming to have come out from Greenwich Village, but they were too tan to have been native New Yorkers. They had bloodshot eyes, vacant stares, and needle marks that they tried very hard to hide...
The ambulance came swiftly but not swiftly enough. This drummer was already on that great bandstand in the sky. The ambulance attendants rolled the gurney in, examined the fallen musician briefly, and then placed him on the gurney, covering him with a sheet.
I followed them out and pulled one of the attendants aside.
"Do you have any idea what he died from?" I asked.
The ambulance driver nodded, "I think so."
He motioned for the other attendant to stop. He pulled the sheet back and rolled the drummer's sleeve up.
"Needle marks. He was a junkie. A heroin addict."
The remaining members of the band were leaning over their fallen comrade. I parted them like Moses at the Red Sea and knelt down next to the percussionist. I felt for his pulse. If he had one it was weaker than I could determine.
The crowd was getting curious and began making their way to the stage. I turned and told them to stay back. Even though I was a great deal older than most of the regulars at my place, they respected me enough to do as I said.
I was afraid that this cat was out of lives...
The band was really hot, playing some fine jazz. The drummer seemed a little off, but then again, with jazz you can never really tell. It wasn't until he dropped his sticks and keeled over that we knew something was definitely wrong. He crashed into his drum set, knocking it all over the small stage. His band mates turned to witness this as the song came screeching to a halt like an indecisive lemming at the edge of a cliff.
Rebecca squeezed my hand as I yelled for Mongo to call an ambulance and then rushed up to the stage...
She laughed, "Jake, you are a card! What did you really do?"
"I'm a little hurt that you've never heard of me. Jake Randolph? I used to be a private detective. Sort of an L.A. fixture."
She raised an eyebrow, "How long ago was this?"
"About nine years ago."
She nodded "See, I've only been living here four years. I graduated from college back east in '55 and moved out here. So, unless you're Peter Gunn, I wouldn't know who you were."
"Fair enough," I said as I assuaged my bruised ego by turning my attention back to the Downbeats...
As the combo got underway, Rebecca leaned over and whispered in my ear, "This is all most fascinating. It's going to make an amazing article for the paper."
I shook my head, "I guess I've been immersed in it for too long. I think it's overrated if you ask me."
She smiled and my legs got weak. Good thing I was sitting down.
"You never told me exactly how you came to have this place. And what did you do before you got it?"
I grinned, "I was a rodeo clown. Best on the circuit. I didn't take any bull!"
I had Mongo cover the bar while Rebecca and I sat holding hands at a back table. Mongo was a simple soul, and I used him for odd jobs around the café and paid him a nice little salary.
Next up on the stage was a jazz quartet, the Downbeats. This was their first gig at the Existential Café, and I was really interested in hearing them. As they came out, everyone in the joint except Rebecca and me began rapidly snapping their fingers. She looked suitably puzzled.
"That's how they give their applause," I said, "by snapping their fingers."
The cigarette smoke hung in the café like London fog as Rebecca entered. She took off her overcoat to reveal a black strapless dress that was worth maybe a hundred bucks. She made it look like it was worth millions.
She crossed the floor to the bar like a beautiful stream lazily tumbling over a hillside. She walked behind the bar and planted one on me. Her lips were soft, wet and shook me to my core. I hadn't been wobbled like that for a very long time. Made my mind wander.
Easy, Randolph, this is play acting, I thought.
I was watching for Miss Jordan, who would arrive every night at 9 PM. She wanted to be discreet in her observance, so I suggested that she pose as my girlfriend. She had giggled at that, but figured that was the most logical scenario, so she went along with it. We pretended every night to be a happy couple. Not that it mattered to me. I mean, since when have I ever been interested in an intelligent, smartly dressed buxom blonde who could make men in portraits jump out of the frame and chase after her? Wait, don't answer that...
The bunch that gathered at my café were on both sides; some were on a serious personal discovery, while others ran away from home, donned the uniform of the Beatnik, and sat around drinking coffee and listening to poetry recitals while finally feeling like they actually belonged somewhere. I didn't judge them. Whatever trip they were on was fine with me, as long as they paid for their coffee and didn't cause any trouble. They usually didn't until recently. A few of the newer people seemed like a bad element. I could tell some of them were hypes: heroin addicts...
The term "Beatnik" was coined in an article on April 2, 1958 by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Herb Caen, who had a daily column focusing on local city issues, as well as social and political topics, and anecdotes.
Caen took the word "Beat" and added -nik to it, the Russian suffix popularized by the Sputnik, the rocket which the Russians had launched into space a mere six months prior to Caen's article. Suddenly, that suffix was being bandied about indiscriminately.
So it was not Jack Kerouac, but Herb Caen and his journalistic cohorts who were responsible for all this mess...
Once the media spread like a communicable disease their stereotypical prototype image of what it meant to be "Beat," sales of bongos, black turtleneck sweaters, berets and dark sunglasses instantly shot up all over the country. Movies were being made, Beatnik characters were popping up on television shows. Even Beatnik comedians were not uncommon. The simultaneous fascination and revulsion of the Beatnik trend was an interesting social dichotomy.
But what started as a genuine spiritual movement had been co-opted by the media into a marketing ploy. And it also put a derisive name on the growing post-war youth...
I was waiting for Rebecca Jordan, an up-and-coming junior reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She was writing an in-depth article about the phenomenon of the Beatniks.
This new subculture grew out of the social community of underground, nonconformist youth in New York City, particularly Greenwich Village. The Beat Generation, as it was christened by author Jack Kerouac, were a collection of writers, poets, painters and musicians, intending the movement to be a different and unique kind of spirituality, but which was soon corrupted by the usual hangers-on and exploited and sensationalized by the mass media...
I used to be a private detective of some renown in the greater Los Angeles area, but about nine years ago I came into a large sum of money....long story....and I made quite a few investments. Despite a couple of bad ventures, I made my money grow to the point where it was working for me instead of the other way around. I'd grown tired of dodging fists and ducking bullets, so I closed my detective office and bought the Existential Café just to have a so-called job to go to. Sometimes, though, I wondered why I even bothered...
"Lies are spoon fed to the unwashed masses while truth echoes in an empty room. Compassion stands exposed in a field of dead poppies while indifference rains on a crowd too stupid to go indoors..."
Alex was in the middle of one of his rousingly pretentious poems as I wiped off the bar with a brown towel that started off the evening snow white. Most people that come in here snow white are brown by the end of the long night.
Existential Café it was called and I bought it well before the Beatniks made it their favorite L.A. hangout...