This is their haunt in Babylon, under the palms, oaks, and mango trees. Five years ago they formed a small Sunday group at lush Alice Wainwright Park just north of Vizcaya, but for the past four years they've congregated here at Peacock Park, a block from CocoWalk, to picnic, pray, bang their drums, sing, dance, and smoke pot. Sometimes they'll play duck-duck goose and ring around the rosie.
They do their own thing and no one pays them much mind. Who cares what a tribe of raffish longhairs and a few shaved heads are doing in the park? And if someone does take notice, the likely thought is, When are those people going to get with the program? Their presence in Coconut Grove is incongruous, if not irrelevant. The real program here, as everyone knows, is at Planet Hollywood, Hooters, Banana Republic, the Gap, Tu Tu Tango.
This obscurity is a blessing and a curse for the group's regulars, most of whom identify themselves as Rainbow Family, the counterculture relic that evolved from the back-to-nature movement of the Sixties. It's a blessing because they're not harassed by the law, a curse because they're not attracting many new, sympathetic souls. They gather in the densely populated techno-village in order to be recognized, but instead they are largely ignored.
Still, they're adamant about their vitality. They are not a lost cause, they insist, despite the fact that supreme leader Jerry Garcia is dead and that favored presidential candidate Ralph Nader received just one-tenth of one percent of the vote in Florida (148 votes in Dade County). They take pride in their "regionals" and "nationals," annual pilgrimages to parks or forests where thousands frolic and meditate. Florida gatherings have been held in the Osceola, Ocala, and Apalachicola national forests. The nearest weekly meeting other than Peacock Park is on Peanut Island in the Intracoastal Waterway near West Palm Beach.
These groups are the keepers of the faith, holding out the answer for all who will listen -- that peace, love, and living in simple harmony with nature will solve the world's problems, or at least ease youthful angst. Through word of mouth, flyers, and newspaper notices announcing gatherings for "liberal-minded folk," they try to persuade more people to join them. The majority of the three dozen gathered here appear to be under 25 years old.
This is not a revolution, the group is quick to point out. No one is drafting radical manifestoes or talking politics -- unless you include their call to legalize marijuana. They're hippies, not Yippies. This gathering, they emphasize, is about "community." They want to congregate as brothers and sisters, and the more who show up, the more interesting it all is.
"I don't think it's ever been very popular to love your brother," says Chava, a 22-year-old student at Miami-Dade Community College who actively recruits new family members. "Politics is all about money and power and fucking people over, and I don't really see that changing. So this is for entertainment value right now. Basically to unwind with others that you feel are like you. My ultimate goal is to live on a farm with a bunch of people. Just go off in the wild away from the world and live my life in a peaceful way with other like-minded people."
Before joining the Rainbow Family about three years ago, Chava says, she had no one with whom to share her "hippie mentality." Television reports and movies about the Sixties turned her on to the hippies' laid-back, laissez-faire philosophy. The problem was, none of her peers at the Design and Architecture Senior High School was interested. It wasn't popular to be into the Sixties -- your parents' era! -- or to listen to Hendrix, Janis, the Doors. She was all alone. Until she met Kunga.
Kunga Choedak ran a mail-order business selling exotic plant seeds from his nursery in Coconut Grove. After ordering some, Chava paid a visit to the nursery. Kunga gave her a few free plants and encouraged her to join the Sunday gatherings in the park.
"I've learned a lot from Kunga," she says. "I try to live a life of caring and giving to others and not letting your anger rule your life. I do try to live up to a philosophical standard that is similar to the Buddhist philosophy. But Buddhism is very disciplined, and Rainbow is open to interpretation by whoever. The gatherings are a lot like church. It's where I go to get spiritual fulfillment. That's why I bring food -- it's an offering I'm giving to my brothers and sisters. Not everyone at the gathering is Rainbow, but they're all cool."
Sprawled on bright-color sheets and American Indian-design blankets is a medley of drunks, homeless, hippies, and teenagers. They're settled in between the traffic jam on McFarlane Road, a half-dozen hefty softball players, watchful mothers and carousing children on the playground, a few medieval feudal lords clashing with swords and shields. The cool, clear weather this second Sunday in November has drawn a larger-than-usual turnout. Patchouli and frangipani incense mix with the salty breeze over the bayside park.
"Guess what," says Kunga, proudly surveying the gathering. "Humanity has not been completely extinguished. I see a lot of people playing music. Talking. Loving each other. This is a love-in. CocoWalk is not the real world. It's a business facade. It's for alcoholics for the most part, and caters to people who want to party."
Known as Kunga, Buddha Lou, or Screwy Louie, the 31-year-old (born Louis Riesgo) founded these Sunday gatherings in the Grove. "I started this out with a hot burner, a pot, and potatoes, and said, 'Hey, I've got an open picnic, everybody come bring instruments.' And it worked," recalls Kunga, whose Tibetan names mean "Joyfully Blessed" and "Voice of the True Law."
Kunga's father, the late Armando Riesgo, "a very wealthy philanthropist," was the founder and CEO of American Metal Services in Miami, a huge NASA contractor in the Eighties. His mother Mercedes held meditation and communal gatherings around Miami in the Sixties and Seventies. They divorced when he was three. "I'm continuing here what my parents started, especially my mother," he says. "I was reared to be a benefactor." Kunga recently received a $160,000 bank loan to buy a small farm in Homestead that he's converted into a Buddhist school and operations center for his mail-order business.
"Almost everybody here has taken teachings from me," he says, while sitting on the grass with legs crossed, dirty feet exposed. His skinny frame is topped by a mat of short-cropped brown hair. Moody and self-absorbed, he has the look of a man on a mission, his dark eyes glinting with intensity. "I share with these people points on how to develop a disciplined life, how to prevent their lives from being overrun by neuroses or drugs. And that's what a lot of the kids need. They need positive examples that are not so out of touch. And this is a good way of bringing people together without a cover charge or a ticket.
"I guarantee you that when these people get older, they're going to have fewer problems than those who have never been exposed to something like this. They'll have fewer health problems, mental problems. This is unlocking people. This is getting people out of their apartments. This is like a stepping stone to better things. This isn't a rebellion; it's really not. It's community. Where is the community in CocoWalk?"
The discussion in one cluster of hippies centers on TV reruns: I Love Lucy and Laverne and Shirley. They sit on an orange bedsheet, a Stephen King hardcover -- The Dark Half -- and plastic baggies of homemade cookies lying between them. Some are sharing a bong pipe and working their way through a bag of Milk Duds.
"We have all kinds of stuff here sometimes, like this guy who juggles fire, a drum circle, and last week we made this big pile and I broke my dress," giggles sixteen-year-old Yaima (pronounced Ja-ma), who has been coming to the gatherings since she was fourteen. She's wearing polyester pants and shirt of clashing patterns, a plain barrette in her chestnut hair. "You meet so many people from different places here. Remember that guy from Texas that brought mushrooms last week? Yeah, he was down," she reminds her friends while recalling something herself: "I thought my high school science teacher was going to be here. He's like a 50-year-old Yaima."
More of the family arrives. Up prances Carlitos, a local homeless advocate who has been living in an abandoned South Beach hotel for the last seven months. Loud and rotund and bearing a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando, Carlitos strips off his sport coat, button-down shirt and loosely knotted tie, and singsongs, "Set the table and pour the drinks. But take off avarice and greed." Treading lightly among the group, a tall man with long dreadlocks holds a video camera on his shoulder as if he's a documentarian. Though the camera's tiny red on light shines, and he carefully focuses the lens inches from his subjects, he has no videotape in the camera, according to those who know him. Enter Caveman (a.k.a. Ernie Tamers), an older gentleman who wears a knotted, chest-length beard. A Sunday regular since 1993, he says he performs psychoanalysis "based on archaeology." His services are free.
Striding across the park, Space Hippie (a.k.a. Glenn David Allen) swings a black guitar case in his right hand, plops down, and reaches in his backpack for French bread and a three-liter jug of Carlo Rossi Burgundy. He tears off a hunk of bread and chugs from the bottle. Barefoot and wearing worn-out jeans and a faded T-shirt that reads Sinsemilla. Genus: Gainesville Green, he informs a small group of a hemp rally in Melbourne a few weeks hence. "It's going to be major," he pronounces. At age 33 Space Hippie is one of the elders who have been attending the Sunday picnics from the beginning. He teaches guitar and plays in a local band, Peerless Supereye.
Space Hippie enjoys reminiscing about the national Rainbow Family reunions. The 25th anniversary gathering was held this past July. About 30,000 family members from all over the country hitched rides, car-pooled, and took buses to a park in the Ozark Mountains. Space Hippie saw about 30 people from South Florida. His moist, bloodshot blue eyes exude serenity as he recites a few highlights: mushroom tea parties, a nude wedding in the river, yoga workshops, no money, Krishnas in a big-top tent with all the food, a blind girl handing out flowers. "To me it was like a very way-high gathering," he says. "I was like blissed out. I wasn't even doing drugs or anything -- maybe smoking some kind of bud -- but very kind, very kind energy and very blissful, the way it should be. People getting along and everything unfolding naturally. Finding the positive energy and not all the negativity. It's not like a leftist type thing. The gatherings are more new age."
Space Hippie joins Kunga, who is wearing a large red Santa cap, strumming guitars in a Beatles sing-along: "Yellow Submarine," "Revolution," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."
On the third Sunday in November, the potluck meal of choice appears to be Pixy Stix. Overcast, with occasional sprinkles, the day has attracted a smaller group but more musicians. In addition to Kunga and Space Hippie and another man on guitar, there is a blond woman with a hand drum and two men who take turns blowing wood pipes. A man juggles sleek pins; at sundown he tosses them aflame. The ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum of the drum accompanied by the high-pitched pipes sets an enchanting and whimsical mood.
Like the previous week, little time is wasted firing up the bong and passing it around. Whip-It capsules (nitrous oxide) are laid out too. Chava mixes some of Space Hippie's Burgundy in her quart bottle of Twister Strawberry-Orange-Peach drink. He tests it first and approves: "That's really good."
A group of young women break out a bag of tortilla chips and Sloppy Joe's Old Town salsa. Nineteen-year-old Susan just got fired from her clerking job in an orthodontist's office. That makes all four girls in her family unemployed now, she says, leaving her mother struggling with four jobs. Her father is in prison. She says her mother knows about the group in the park and calls them bums. "I don't consider them bums," she protests, scanning the faces. She points at Caveman, who is stretched out on his side: "That man is smart."
Susan says she dropped out of high school because she was bored -- it was too easy -- but she does plan to get her GED. "I'm going to work with Disney, to make movies. Something better than Toy Story," she boasts.
"Whoa, Susan," interjects Chava. "Making movies is really tough."
"Hey, she has talent," replies Cindy, a high school sophomore who lives in Kendall. Cindy lies to her mother about where she goes on Sundays, telling her that she strolls CocoWalk with friends.
"I have, like, a lot of talent that I haven't used in a long time," Susan explains. "No, man, I want to do what I like. I don't want to go to work and think that I'm bored."
Cindy takes off her way-big granny sunglasses and places them inside her rough leather handbag decorated with pen-drawn peace signs and tiny yellow smiley face stickers. She pushes her long, dark hair behind her shoulders and says, "It's not only that, Susan, it's that everybody expects you to not succeed."
"Bingo," says Susan.
"That's why I want to succeed," says Cindy.
"Yeah, me too! So I can say fuck you!" shouts Yaima, lifting her thin frame and flipping the bird with both hands.
The young women start talking all at once.
"Unless you're like a cookie cutter, everybody thinks you're a freak," complains Chava. "If you dye your hair purple, you're so weird."
"Society! Society!" yells Cindy, trying to squeeze in a comment.
"If we're not like what they think -- that's it, I'm sorry, we're fucked," laments Yaima.
Susan's voice breaks in over the din: "You want to know something? If a lot of kids thought the way we thought, this generation would be one of the best."
"Hell, yeah," adds Yaima.
Susan continues her point: "It's just that it's gotten to so many kids -- the way they've been treated, the way they've been put down and told, 'Oh, you're just slackers.' It's gotten in their head. A lot of kids now think, 'Oh, let me go smoke, let me go not do anything. I'm a slacker anyway.' You're not going to get anywhere like that."
"Weren't you listening in high school how we weren't going to make more money than our parents?" Chava mockingly reminds the group. Chava's mother is a nurse, her father a retired free-lance photographer. "We just think we're doomed anyway, so that's why we don't give a fuck and we're not trying to live up to anybody's standard."
"I'm going to make more than my mother because she makes shit," Yaima spits out. "She's a cashier. She works like a fucking animal, man."
The conversation turns to Sixties culture. Yaima pulls out a Syd Barrett CD, the second one she's bought in two weeks. Barrett founded Pink Floyd, and his acid-inspired lyrics were the soul of London's 1967 Summer of Love. He was dismissed from the band for erratic behavior, spent time in mental hospitals, and has been in seclusion since the Seventies. Still, these young women all agree he's the greatest. "His music got to everybody," Yaima murmurs. "Even me, and I was born too late. I wish it were more like the Sixties today. There's so much shit that I want to do now that I can't do because it's not safe. And you could have done it back then, and just chilled, man. I could have had sex with everybody."
"But," Susan interrupts, "they hated hippies back then."
"Not like they hate us," snaps Cindy. "We want to be different. I don't want to be like everybody else. I don't want to wear the same shirt as everyone else on the street."
In an aside, Susan whispers, "I don't care, I want to be comfortable."
"The thing is to have the choice of fucking rebelling against everything," concludes Yaima. She says her parents don't know that she comes to these gatherings every week from her home in Sweetwater. "My dad doesn't know anything. And my mom wouldn't like it. She says all the bums go here. But this is a fun fucking-ass time."
Yaima hands the December issue of High Times magazine to Cindy. Someone reads from the cover about a feature story: "Cannabis spirituality: How pot can improve your life." They all nod in agreement. Yup, pot is great; it's not the great demotivator. "It's true," says Cindy. "Pot improves your life in a lot of ways."
Two thirteen-year-old girls leave after demurely visiting the group for fifteen minutes. They're dressed like the others but the backsides of their hands are marked with a black X. "It stands for straight edge," explains May, who clutches a "Pink Panther and Sons" lunch box in her right hand. "It means we're drug-free and proud of it." They'd heard about the gathering from friends but were a little turned off by the group's devotion to the bong. They liked it enough, though, and say they may return. "It's so peaceful, not any violence," says May's friend Erica. "I like the sound of the flute, or pipes, whatever they are. It's really, like, beautiful."
Kunga says he doesn't advocate drug use, but he tolerates it. His forehead crinkling with concern, he can't seem to resist the urge to speak grandiloquently. "This is the youth of today. And this is a good representation of some of the youth of today. Do I advocate drug use? No. No, I do not. But this is the way reality is," he submits. "The only other alternative that these people have is going to these clubs. Getting drunk and doing drugs. That is the only alternative. They can be doing sports and a hundred other things, but right now this is their best alternative. This gives people a chance to heal all their psychological wounds."
Kunga pauses long enough to call for Rosie, his unleashed dog he's trying to keep an eye on. "A good portion of it has do to with not being able to have proper interaction with others," he continues. "And this is what I think this is, proper interaction. I don't see any immoral activity taking place here. I don't see anybody knifing anybody in the back here. I don't see anybody doing crack cocaine here, or stealing from each other. The main problem in our society is that people are becoming more divergent and more separated from each other. This is just giving individuals an opportunity to make friends."
But they don't want to invite trouble. Their greatest fear is that the police will try to bust up their gatherings. "The whole drug thing to me is fucked up," says a perturbed Chava. "If alcohol is legal, marijuana should be. The fact that I have to worry about it, worry about the gathering being destroyed because of cops busting us, pisses me off." She denies that marijuana is a central part of the picnic: "It's about as important as the fact that we share cookies."
The group had one run-in with the police while assembling on Sunday about four years ago. The cops complained about the music and said the group looked like a gang, according to Kunga. "We had to say, 'Look we're a religious organization gathering,'" he recalls. "And they backed off. Since then we haven't had any trouble."
And despite the fact that alcohol and unleashed dogs are prohibited in the park (in addition to some of the group's other activities), there haven't been any citations written that anyone can remember. Conrad Salazar, manager of Peacock Park for the past three years, has nothing but good things to say about the Sunday gatherings. He credits the people for picking up after themselves and sharing space during permitted events in the park. "We don't have a problem with them," he says. "They're very peaceful."
Discord within the group is rare, although some Rainbows accuse Kunga of being overzealous in his teachings. "I've seen him get in people's faces and scream at them," says Earthman. "I'm not going to push my belief on anybody. I think the Rainbow is accepting of everybody as a fellow human being despite their faults."
"I'm not Rainbow," counters Kunga. "I really don't advocate or believe in the Rainbow tradition, because I find that the Rainbow tradition is actually antithetical to living a life that is based on cultivating benefit for the world. Most of the Rainbow family are antisocial people. I don't think it's all, as they put it, Babylon. I think, for the most part, the world is run by idiots. That's just the way it is. So you can't be an isolationist, because the rivers are still going to be polluted and the environment is still going to be destroyed and politicians are still going to whitewash everything they do and the media are still going to be catering to popular thought rather than real valid issues. And so you have to infiltrate it, sort of transform these systems into something a little more productive rather than abandoning them."
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Earthman dismisses Kunga as Screwy Louie. "I think that maybe he's in his own private Idaho," he scoffs. A 39-year-old free-lance house painter and illustrator, Earthman lives with his dog in a converted school bus in South Dade. "He's a legend in his own mind," he goes on. "He fancies himself a great teacher or Buddha or something. I think he's kind of an egocentric, pied-piper wannabe."
Not only is Earthman an original member of the Sunday gatherings, he has been visiting the Grove since the early Seventies. As soon as he saves enough money to pay off some outstanding speeding tickets and reapplies for his revoked driver's license, he plans to register his bus and become mobile again. "I never used to pay tickets," he says matter-of-factly. "I just thought it was a lot cheaper to keep running from the cops."
He winces when called antisocial. "I'm not antisocial. I'll talk to anyone. I'm a people person," he declares. "But people have a tendency to flock together with their own kind; people who think like they do and act like they do and look like they do. It's not about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It's about togetherness and people. We all have a right to live free and be happy."
Space Hippie, for one, says he is able to live mostly true to Rainbow tradition even in the modern world. He has some friends who grow organic food, others who hold drum circles on the beach, and many who don't worship money. He hopes a new generation will carry on his example, but he's not counting on a popular revival. "Basically, society has tried to stamp out the dream of the Sixties, and Miami just doesn't have that extended community it used to," he concedes, then hisses, "Even I put on a suit and tie and cut my hair on occasion to get a job.