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Feelin' Groovy : BOHEMIA: Where Art, Angst, Love and Strong Coffee Meet, By Herbert Gold (Simon & Schuster: $21; 253 pp.)

July 04, 1993|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a frequent contributor to Book Review

This is what Bohemia has come to:

--A Personal Ad in the Village Voice reads, "Slim, natural blond, one child, independent means, seeks man with one earring, ponytail or moral equivalent." Moral equivalent ?

--In Coconut Grove, once Miami Beach's Haight-Ashbury, now "an outpatient clinic for women suffering from henna dependency," a young man tells an older woman, "My father died." "Did you go to the funeral?" "No, I did it all by credit card."

--In ex-Bo Carmel, Calif., "now priced onto another plane," Herb Gold is stuck in traffic "behind a red-bearded fireman with his left arm extended straight out" and asks him if he's turning left. "No," he says. "Drying my fingernails."

Unblemished Bohemians, people who used to contemplate their navels, now pay someone to do it for them, says Gold. But he really doesn't mean it. What he really means is that things ain't what they used to be, or at least where they used to be. Things are still pretty groovy; just different. (And even the wealthier Bohemians, he notes, are deprived--deprived of deprivation. It's that sort of book.)

Gold's "Bohemia," as well as his Bohemia, bops back and forth, place to place, era to era and back. And it's a hoot. You can read it back to front and never miss a beat. In a pinch, you can smoke it. Or you can trip through "Bohemia," magic-marking high points, bons mots, insights, and when you've done you find you've marked just about the whole book, Mellow Yellow.

Gold, a Bohemian-in-Chief for lo these many years, knows the language, the places, the food, the lack of food; the coffeehouses, the joints and the joints. He knows who is and who isn't. Isn't is easy: Anyone who calls him- or herself a Bohemian. Is is easier: "The decision to belong is what defines a Bohemian; he can come from anywhere to declare himself a member. Conversion may mean only that he knows where to hang out. . . . He can be James Joyce or Charles Manson. She can be Djuna Barnes. . . ."

Even simpler: A Vietnam vet "named Wobbling Jim (probably not his real name)," in Hawaii to celebrate Harmonic Convergence, was asked how one joined. "He pulled up his shirt, showed his navel and asked, 'Do you have one of these?' "

What do Bohemians do , exactly? (Maybe exactly is not quite the word for an undertaking that is, at best, amorphous.) For 150 years, since Henri Murger glorified la vie de boheme and Puccini "put it into pretty song," the Bohemians' raison d'etre has been "defying convention, living for free-spiritedness, making do with what comes along, forming allegiances with a class of artists and rebels separated from the rigidity of feudal status."

Nor does the Bohemian have to be an artist himself. It is quite enough to know an artist, to break bread with one. Quite enough to ponder the meaning of life "as hidden and revealed in wine, coffee and dreams." And if impecunious, so much the better. It is voluntary poverty, as Gold points out, which is not the same thing as poverty-poverty. Even Diogenes, when asked what his favorite wine was, replied, "Other people's."

Where might one find these assiduous students of indolence who add the pepper to our workaday lives simply be being? Just about everywhere. "Bohemia," writes Gold, "grows in any alley where there's a bit of fertile dirt and noninterference." San Francisco, of course, where Gold lives. Paris, of course, where a rebuffed Jean Genet followed Gold home "shouting angry words, not forgetting to be existential and paradoxical," and where the ineffable William Burroughs, cooking for dinner guests, peed on the lettuce to express displeasure.

Bali and Haiti and La Jolla. Venice, Calif., where someone achieved anonymous immortality by declaring, " Honi soit qui mal i bu ." Cairo, Palma de Mallorca, Budapest, Beverly Hills (!), Mauritius, Mill Valley--everywhere the peripatetic Mr. Gold has stopped to sip.

With so much fertile soil to till, Gold's book is somewhat disorganized--who ever heard of an organized Bohemian? Whatever, it's well worth exploring, if only to make the acquaintance of one Alfred Idwal, an American living in Florence, Italy, where he writes "denunciations, just like Mencken."

"I'm like a dog, looking for the meaning of life," declares Idwal.

"What'll you do when you find it?"

"Hey, when a dog chases a car, what does it do when it catches it? Hell if I know."

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