By Pablo Capra
Artwork by Toylit
Brass Tacks Press, which published “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon” (2002), released two new books about Lower Topanga—”The Snake Pit” by Baretta and “Prevenge of the Androgynous Cyborg Pyrates from the Future: Part 1, Voyage of the Timeship Medusa” by Toylit in September.
“The Snake Pit” is a collection of short stories based on Baretta’s life as a cocaine dealer in the eponymous Lower Topanga neighborhood in the late ’70s and ’80s.
“‘The Snake Pit’ got its nickname because there were always a lot of snakes down there,” Baretta explains. “But that nickname was also coupled with the fact that everyone from Charlie Manson to Johnnie-Satan to Kilroy to Big Dude to Eater to Baretta, and maybe people before us, were considered kind of like snakes because of the personalities and stuff that went on there.”
Baretta describes how he first moved to the Snake Pit when a friend offered to rent him a flood-damaged house.
“I had to shovel it out, waist-deep in liquid mud like it was soup.”
Cover from a collection of short stories by Baretta, a Lower Topanga cocaine dealer.
The Topanga of Baretta’s stories is older, untamed and often unrecognizable from the present. In one story he writes about actual Wild West showdowns that were held between feuding neighbors: “They threatened each other for years, marching up and down the road with their rifles. The threats were more or less idle but the guns were real, and they would shoot them off in the air sometimes, and I questioned my safety in this neighborhood that I had chosen.”
Then there was the gang problem. According to Baretta, The Heathens—a biker gang whose members lived next door—were notorious for “dumping mutilated women’s bodies in the desert.”
“The Heathens used to love to operate down in the Snake Pit around one or two in the morning. They rode gnarly Harley’s, not nice, pristine, shiny ones but old Heathen ones put together with shoestring and tin cans. They’d be swooping around, pulling 360s, and the dust would be coming up like the Indians were going to attack.”
Baretta says he started selling cocaine because “our little area seemed like the right environment for that clientele,” but soon developed his own drug problem.
“I lost so much time in my life when hours and days and weeks just passed by in a coke blur,” Baretta confesses. “You might clean up for a week or two, and then you’d just slide right back into it because of the money, the high, the chicks who’d come over to exchange sex for a line late at night. Even other people’s girlfriends would tell you, ‘Hey, I kind of have a thing for you, Baretta. Just give me another nice line there and we can make out.’’”
Ironically, the locals were hostile towards Baretta at first because they believed he was an undercover narcotics officer. Hence his nickname (“Baretta” was a TV series at the time about an undercover cop starring Robert Blake).
However, Baretta writes, “I didn’t care about my reputation as a nark. That was part of my mystique. I was into a lot of illegal stuff too and hanging out with the cops was part of my cover. You know like ‘Baretta,’ that sounds all cop! You’re on our side. You must have a gun. Do you know Robert Blake?’ And I’d be like, ‘Not! Don’t look at my scale on the desk there!’ So it was kind of a double cover.”
“The Snake Pit” also describes the histories and communities of a few other Lower Topanga neighborhoods.
“There were actually two main neighborhoods within the Lower Topanga village—the Snake Pit and the Rodeo Grounds. The Rodeo Grounds had picked up that nickname before I was around. It got its name because Tom Mix, the silent film star, the highest paid actor in Hollywood, would party with the real cowboys from the Rindge and Adamson ranches down there.”
Toylit, who illustrated “The Snake Pit,” uses the Rodeo Grounds as the setting for his graphic novel, “Prevenge of the Androgynous Cyborg Pyrates from the Future: Part 1, Voyage of the Timeship Medusa.”
Illustrator Toylit’s take on the Lower Topanga eviction proceedings as portrayed in the graphic novel, “Prevenge of the Androgynous Cyborg Pyrates from the Future: Part 1, Voyage of the Timeship Medusa.” Parents be warned, these are definitely adult-rated comics.
Using a bizarre science-fiction/autobiographical approach, Toylit tells the history of the Rodeo Grounds from the time of the Indians all the way up to his eviction by State Parks earlier this year.
The story begins when he realizes, for some unexplained reason, that he needs to build a time machine.
“Almost instantly I went into an eight-month depression,” Toylit writes. “I didn’t know the first thing about science or machinery. I was a poet, penniless, living in an anarchist squat in the mountains surrounded by hot naked women. I wanted to die.”
But with the help of his “Timeship Crew,” he does manage to build one by using his Airstream trailer—“Timeship Medusa”—and the experiences he collects from taking the powerful psychedelic DMT. The latter are hilarious, mysterious, and combined with mind-altering artwork: “I was shot through this long tunnel made of a sort of webbing of Scandinavian Pop-stars that led to a kind of mechanical salad bar full of butterfly puppets. They were all singing and they wanted me to sing too, so I did. And all these trees started growing out of my mouth.”
It is unclear what time Toylit and his crew hope to travel to. Maybe they’re just looking for a good time. Unfortunately, the Androgynous Cyborg Pyrates from the Future do not appear yet in this first installment of the graphic novel. Instead, Toylit’s book climaxes with the last Lower Topanga party which he threw shortly before his eviction.
Toylit has written one previous comic, “The Children’s Guide to Astral Projection.” He also illustrated “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove” and Baretta’s first book “Rat Tales.” A coauthor of the “Crap Poetry Manifesto,” Toylit has published his poetry in “The Last Nowhere” and “Craplexity,” as well as on actual rolls of toilet paper.
Baretta’s and Toylit’s books are available at Lobal Orning and on the Brass Tacks Press website at www.lifeasapoet.com.