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Hitting the Beats 

The late poet John Thomas was lauded in his obituaries. A daughter remembers him a little differently

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002

My father, ”Venice West“ poet John Thomas, died of congestive heart failure on March 29 at the age of 71. His April 7 Los Angeles Times obituary describes him as ”the sage of Venice“ (Beyond Baroque executive director Fred Dewey), ”mentor“ (Wanda Coleman), even ”the best unread poet in America“ (Charles Bukowski). Another journalistic elegy, appearing in Los Angeles Magazine, depicted my father as a man with a ”piercing wit [and] generous spirit,“ for whom ”poverty and love were equal teachers in a life of wisdom.“ His obituary was carried by wire across the nation, even making news at the Washington Post. Soon after he died, a public memorial was held in his honor and a ”John Thomas Memorial Fund“ was set up at Beyond Baroque.

No publication mentioned that my father was, at the time of his death, serving a sentence in Los Angeles County Jail for sexually molesting his daughter -- my half sister Susan.

Posthumous descriptions of his life left out other significant information: that he was a fraud, a thief and an endangerer of children, and that, while he often bragged that he‘d ”retired at 28,“ he’d made an impressive career of consumption. As his last child, I spent a good deal of intimate time with him. He lived with my mother, Rose, and me in Echo Park and then northeast L.A. during my first 13 years. Let me introduce you to the John Thomas I knew.

In the nearly two decades my father spent with my mother, he didn‘t work, and he wrote virtually nothing except for ”From Patagonia,“ a prose poem about what he described as his inner landscape of desolation. Real-world decimation, however, was his true accomplishment. As he told it, he left his first wife when his daughter from that marriage was still an infant, then abandoned his second wife, along with my young half brother and half sister, to become a Beat poet out West. He dropped his last name, Idlet, to avoid paying child support. A favorite story of his when I was little had to do with how he’d so effectively evaded authorities that his second wife had him declared legally deceased so she could collect a small sum from a dead relative to help raise the children he‘d left behind.

His name changed frequently, in fact. A late-’60s issue of the men‘s magazine Oui published a feature on my father, celebrating him as the country’s leading perpetrator of mail-order fraud. He cooked in stolen pans, ate off swindled dishes with thieved cutlery, sat in chairs that were delivered to a phantom purchaser at an untraceable address, and wrote with thousands of ripped-off pencils that he‘d had inscribed with the name of bank robbermurderer Harry Pierpont.

Growing up, I watched him feast on raw hamburger, grabbing it straight from the Styrofoam package. Puffing through packs of unfiltered Picayunes, he created what he called ”a conversation piece“ beside his chair: a trash bin he used to stub out his smokes until they grew into a thigh-high volcanic heap. In order to avoid taking out the garbage, he found two industrial-size trash cans for the kitchen and let scraps collect for months at a stretch. I knew it was summertime when I stepped barefoot onto a sea of maggots that dropped from the trash, wriggling toward the dog-hair-dense carpet. During one particularly rough lunch, Daddy sprayed the kitchen floor with insecticide but left the dying maggots, then served white rice and refused to allow me to leave the table until I’d finished.

Drugs were a constant. Once, before I‘d entered kindergarten, my father nodded off while painting. I crept into the space beneath his knees and fell asleep. When my mother came home from work, she found my father out cold, and me coated like an ice cream bar in shiny brown paint. Left on my own while he slept off Benzedrine highs, I made a sport of surprising the mouse colonies that lived in our kitchen cabinets with a flashlight. I built amber pyramids from the scores of amphetamine bottles my parents emptied (stolen by my mother, a pharmacy clerk), and got stoned for the first time at 7 by eating the wrong brownies.

Late in his time with us, my father made a pot roast so heavy it collapsed the oven rack, then left the roast inside the stove to rot. More than once, when I was preparing cocoa, boiled roaches poured out of our teakettle. Dishes were left undone for a year; we turned to paper plates while the sink-load grew strands of mold that dangled from bowl to plate like lacy rain-forest mosses. The house was filled with the stench of rotting food, cigarette smoke and Raid.

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