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Plastic bags of feathers hang from the ceiling. I feel like I'm in a Malibu barnyard. : Notes on a Feather Merchant

September 17, 1987|Al Martinez

Picture this: I am with my wife in an elegant Malibu restaurant called Beau Rivage. We are both in a terrific mood at the same time, a condition that occurs with the infrequency of a harmonic convergence.

We are sipping wine and listening to the piano music of Jack White when suddenly a guy who is dressed like an Easter egg jumps to his feet and rushes toward the piano.

His dark hair is in ringlets and he is wearing sneakers, a hot-pink shirt, an electric-blue tie and white coveralls rolled up to his ankles.

"What's he doing?" my wife says.

"I don't know," I say, "but if he isn't a punk waiter he's escaped from someplace."

"Maybe he's been to a costume party dressed as a flower."

"Nature would never mix electric blue and hot pink."

"I knew the evening couldn't last," she says.

I begin drinking my wine faster, thinking that if the Easter egg is a maniac of some sort this might be the last drink I have in this lifetime. I would have preferred to go out with a martini, but maniacs rarely grant time for reordering.

Then suddenly the guy begins singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." I can't believe my ears. I didn't think anyone was even allowed to sing it anymore, much less sing it while wearing white coveralls rolled up to the ankles.

"Isn't that considered liturgical music now?" I ask my wife.

"What do you mean?" she says.

"Like you've got to have a dog named Toto in order to sing it?"

"Don't make trouble," she says.

Meanwhile, the singer is bouncing and swirling around the room like he is in a Busby Berkeley movie. I'm not crazy about "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but the man has style.

After the number, he sees me staring and comes over. "Hi," he says, "I'm Johnny Appleseed, a feather artist."

"Of course," I say.

"Be nice," my wife whispers.

I was nice. And I got nicer as I got to know him. His real name is Steven John. He changed it, he says, because Johnny Appleseed was a spiritualist who did good. He liked the idea and took his name.

And he really is a feather artist.

After our initial meeting, I visited Appleseed in the small apartment he shares with a woman who calls him "the gnat." Her name is Carol Blaine.

She calls him that because John is only 5-8 and weighs 127 pounds. Also, he tends to flit.

"Carol is my best friend and my right arm," Appleseed says. "We don't sleep together."

"Oh," I say, trying to focus on what I have just heard. "That's, uh, interesting." I don't know what else to say.

Later he explains that they don't sleep together because they're good friends and sex ruins friendship. He has a girlfriend who lives someplace else and Carol has a boyfriend who lives someplace else.

Appleseed shows me around the place. Large cosmic paintings adorn the wall. As we pass one, he says, "That's where I want to go someday."

Painting is his second love. His first is sculptured faces he makes out of feathers, plastic bandages and hot wax. Plastic bags of feathers hang from the ceiling. I feel like I'm in a Malibu barnyard.

Appleseed waves an arm in a kind of airy gesture and says, "I paint, I sculpt, I sing. I'm too talented for my own good."

He began singing in high school. He had a big voice, he says, but looked like a Chihuahua. A singing Chihuahua was different but not compelling.

Just out of high school he auditioned for the rock musical "Hair" by singing "Over the Rainbow." He got the job and has been singing "Over the Rainbow" ever since.

One feels that at any moment, in fact, he might break out in song. It would be "Over the Rainbow," of course.

Appleseed began sculpting when another cast member of "Hair" gave him a turkey feather. He made a tiny feather face and a dog ate it, so he did more.

"No one else does anything with turkey feathers except turkeys," he says, standing amid cosmic acrylics and feathery faces. "I'm unique." No argument there.

Appleseed is quick to explain that he buys the feathers he uses. A drunk ecologist once accused him of strangling birds with his bare hands and ripping the feathers from their lifeless little bodies.

He sells the sculptures for as much as $6,000 and occasionally barters them for something he needs. Rent, for instance. Or the tan VW he drives.

The Gnat met Carol when she was still married. Her husband loved Appleseed's artwork.

"He said to me one day, 'Go with your strengths,' " Appleseed remembers. "I said, 'Thank you' and took his wife.' "

He opened at the Beau Rivage last April. He just stood up and began singing. Now he sings for his supper every Thursday.

"It's a wonderful life," Appleseed says. "I am always ready to cry it's so beautiful." Tears form in his eyes.

I think for a minute he is going to sing "Over the Rainbow" again, but I am not ready for that so I leave.

Then suddenly I am back in Kansas again.

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