By Lyle Pearson
Every fall I have returned to Whatcom County from India to avoid the monsoon. The past three years I have returned more accurately to Blackberry Kush, an informal commune among the evergreens outside Bellingham, off the grid, with only a generator for electricity. (Most names are changed herein, with the exception of ‘Whatcom’ and ‘Bellingham,’ to protect anyone who needs protecting.) ‘Kush,’ according to the Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary (1993, reprint 2013), is “a sacred grass used in brahmanical ceremonies,” but there is also a mountain range called the Hindu Kush, whose etymology is unclear—‘kush’ may come from ‘koh,’ Persian for ‘cold:’ the North African traveler Ibn Battuta (c.1300s) claimed it means “killer of Hindus,” that is, of Hindu slaves, by the cold, as they were transported by Muslim conquerors across the mountains back toward the Middle East. I’m calling the commune Blackberry Kush for another reason as well.
Blackberry Kush, according to my friend Bill Foster, is a commune for “damaged people, like us.” I don’t consider myself that damaged, but most people at Blackberry Kush have had it pretty rough. The owner, Chuck Wilhelm, suffers from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. Mike is autistic, John has Asperger’s Syndrome, Alice was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Ned was in an automobile accident that left him with epilepsy, Blue had an exorcism performed on him when he was a child, and Big Jim, Don Wolf, the aforementioned Mike and others spent some time in an island prison (shall we call it McCleans?) for minor crimes that some of them claim they did not commit. It is a pretty tough bunch, a true rainbow of worn-out, ambisextrous hippie-types.
The commune is close enough to the city, and its inhabitants obliging enough, so that I can get to the Bellingham library any day of the week. So on my first trip there, I checked out the one new American film, or TV production, that had made the most headlines in India in the past year, because of the startling deaths of its major subjects—Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ Bright Lights: With Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Both mother and daughter had died within days of each other.
But when I got back to the commune that evening, I found that a TV antenna was being installed. Big Jim had lost a leg in prison and with his large financial settlement was making some improvements around the three-story log house, including a deck on the shady side, and a carport to protect some cars and a motorbike from next winter’s killer cold and snow.
With the new antenna finally in place, Big Jim immediately asked, “Can we get ESPN on that thing?” My hopes were dashed at watching Bright Lights that evening—the guys might be watching football all evening, right up until time to turn off the generator. Chuck fiddled around with the antenna a little, came in from the shady deck (although it was now dark), and said, “No, we can’t.”
At that point, whispering, I reminded Chuck that I had Bright Lights in my tote bag, and reiterated an old Johnny Carson joke.
“When San Francisco baseball fans go to see the Giants in Candlestick Park,” Johnny had joked, “They do it a little differently than fans in other cities. They don’t throw beer bottles and the rule book at the umpire—they throw Perrier bottles and copies of Debbie Reynolds’ autobiography.”
Chuck was amused; I immediately sat down to watch Bright Lights by myself. I was unaware if anybody else was watching it or not until Debbie told a Las Vegas audience, “I look like a hooker,” and a guffaw rose from the dining table to my left. (We eat very well at Blackberry Kush, as Ned is an excellent chef—he just can’t work in a professional kitchen because of his epilepsy—and the ex-cons, old friends of Big Jim, had all worked in the prison kitchen. They were certainly innocent enough to be trusted with the other inmates’ food.)
Perhaps it was the next day, Alice drove me to the Bellingham Food Co-op, where we had breakfast together, and she told me she might be pregnant by Leo, our carpenter, the brother of Larry, who often drove up the hill to party heartily with his brother. Leo, considering himself as unstable as anybody at Blackberry Kush, wanted nothing to do with a child—he’d told Alice that she’d be better off, in that case, without him. Alice hadn’t minded driving me into the city because she was headed for Planned Parenthood anyway, for an all-important pregnancy test. She already had had three kids, scattered between Arizona and New Jersey, and one abortion.
Having had some success with Bright Lights, I immediately thought of another film, for Alice, Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1961), based on the play by Shelagh Delaney. In it, Jo (Rita Tushingham), a teenager, is impregnated by a black sailor, who leaves her, forever. Her mother, an alcoholic tart, before she learns of the pregnancy, marries not for the first time, and moves away. Jo meets a gay guy, Geoffrey (Murray Melvin) who offers to marry her, saying “You need somebody to love you while you’re finding somebody to love.” Alice, that evening, loved the film. She found out the next day that she wasn’t pregnant after all. I didn’t have to offer Alice solace anymore.
Then I then thought, what better film next for this crowd than Richardson’s later Tom Jones (1963), based on the Henry Fielding novel. Tom (Albert Finney) finds himself in any number of humorous sexual situations, most memorably a meal with a tart, as they both chew away at enormous hunks of meat in a very erotic fashion.
But the Bellingham Library didn’t have the Richardson Tom Jones, only the 1997 BBC mini-series, so I headed to the city’s best (perhaps only) video rental store, Film Is Truth.
Fortunately, FIT’s twentieth anniversary was coming up, with one free rental for everyone, so I waited for that day and then rented two extra titles. We had the three films for almost a week. Tom Jones was a big hit on Blackberry Kush, as it had been with general audiences when first released, winning four Oscars.
The second title was Jon Fitzgerald’s Apart From Hugh (1994), a film shot in and near Bellingham, partly in the old Melody Schoolhouse that had been turned into a giant antique barn, the owners living in the basement. Big Jim, who had been half-owner of the building, had never seen the film—by the time it was completed, he was already in prison.
In Apart From Hugh, Hugh (Steve Arnold) plans a first anniversary party for his lover Collin (David Merwin), not knowing that the beloved might run away with his former girlfriend Frieda (Jennifer Reed). Many sights in and around Bellingham, including the old downtown Greyhound station and Rumors cabaret are prominent. When Frieda treks her way out of to win to the old Melody Schoolhouse, she seems to trek over the better part of Whatcom County before reaching it. Jim pointed out several things about the schoolhouse while watching the film. Chuck had done all the wiring in the building. My friend Randy Allred had done all the technical work on the film. But, before Jim got out of prison, the building had mysteriously burned to the ground.
Big Jim was very happy to finally see the film and a few days later had me sign a birthday card for an acquaintance of his still in prison. I signed it, “Yes, yes, yes”—an affirmative line from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Later, Chuck told me that the birthday boy was Big Jim’s boyfriend.
The third film, Chuck’ request, was Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon, based on the William Thackeray novel, more refined than Richardson’s Tom Jones, but not as much fun. It’s noted for its candle-lit cinematography, and would have been wonderful to see in parallel candlelight from the candelabra on the old grand piano in the Blackberry Kush drawing room. But we never got around to it. By the end of the week, a little disorganized, but happy, I had to move on to the Tasveer South Asian Film Festival in Seattle.
And that’s the way things were for me on Blackberry Kush in 2017.