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Oh, the Humane-ity: Biter goes Moulin Rouge--for a good cause.

Absent of Absinthe

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AS BITER SAT in a bar one afternoon reading Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy--a slice of the author's life in Paris as a broke, free-spirited, debaucherous writer in the 1930s--we never dreamed there'd be an organized gathering of folks anywhere near downtown San Jose celebrating that exact same French bohemian joie de vivre.

But then, voilà: Last Saturday, Full Circle Events, a neopagan nonprofit organization, brought its annual Witches Ball to the San Jose Civic Auditorium. The theme was "Bohemia and the Moulin Rouge: Where the Elite Meets the Street," and the costumed affair was dedicated to the Bohemian movement of 19th-century France; in particular, the fin de siècle period (1880-1900) in Paris--you know, that period of time during which penniless, freethinking artists lived for the day, swirled absinthe, successfully prolonged adolescence and threw all established morals out the window in favor of living in poverty.

Over 700 attendees from as far away as Oregon and Arizona came to the Witches Ball dressed in a ruffled menagerie of costumes. Corsets abounded. Biter spotted people dressed up like sailors, gypsies, 19th-century aristocrats, snake charmers, broke poets, writers, street performers, magicians, mediums and prostitutes. A few folks even showed up in limos.

Despite the "Witches" moniker, this was not an event restricted to pagans. Biter found Christians, Buddhists, and even agnostics among the organizers and attendees. Senior citizens and kids dressed up as well. And the whole thing, oddly, was a benefit for the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley. "You've got people with tattoos and piercings and then you've got grandmothers and children," said Monica, our lovely tour guide. "Everyone can be here, and no one is considered odd. It's a family event for the humane society and it's a good way to show people [on the outside] who we are."

At first, Biter found it peculiar that the bohemian movement and specifically the fin de siècle period--one where artists, musicians, actors and poets of every degree celebrated the heroism of everyday life and the pleasures of uninhibited excess by guzzling wine and swapping sexual partners--were being incorporated as the theme for a wholesome, family-oriented event. Broke, constantly hounded by creditors, the 19th-century Paris bohemians were people violently opposed to all things bourgeois. They lived, wrote and drank mostly during the nighttime, in pubs, cafes, libraries, streets, and the like. Thus, they had friends wherever they went. Since then, the word bohemian has been adopted by many a self-proclaimed creative genius who chooses a life outside society and a sense of values not based on money. Nowadays, society interprets the bohemian attitude as: "I'm an artist, I'm going to drink all night, and someone else is going to pay for it. Because I'm an artist." (Not that there's anything wrong with that ideology, of course.) The bohemians stopped just short of believing--in the words of Henry Miller--that what makes the world civilized is its vice, disease, thievery, mendacity and lechery.

Shreds of the bohemian mind-set can be seen in the Beat Generation of the 1950s, the 1968 student riots in Paris, all forms of counterculture and (probably) just about any modern pagan who can draw a pentagram in the sand with a stick.

With no alcohol or promiscuous sex going on, the Witches Ball fell a little short on these aspects of its theme. Organizers did attempt to bring "19th century Paris Bohemianism" into the mix by selling "Absinthe and Opium Slushies," which turned out to be some bizarre sort of virgin slurpee concoction. Judged merely on fun, however, the Ball was indeed a complete success. Everyone danced, sang, hawked their wares and celebrated nature. And mucho dinero was raised for the Humane Society.

However paradoxical it seems, Biter was refreshed to see the Humane Society reap the benefits from a bunch of pagans celebrating the frivolous antics of 1880s Paris debauchery. Or maybe debauchery is humane, who knows.

Kudos to Full Circle Events for bringing a celebration of cultural fringes to Downtown San Jose, a place that definitely needs more 19th-century Parisian cafés and more carnival, avant-garde indulgence.

Perhaps most importantly, nearly everyone Biter spoke with at the Witches Ball agreed that San Jose has crucified the bohemian joie de vivre that resides in every single one of us. Lisa Radloff, Director of Community Outreach at the Humane Society, ran a booth at the Ball and just got back from Paris herself, where she enjoyed the outdoor cafe scene: "It was great to see all the nightlife going on until two or three in the morning. And then you come back to San Jose and everything closes at 10."

Yes (sigh), Biter agrees, and we are going back to the bar for some more Henry Miller. Drinks are on the Humane Society.


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From the October 17-23, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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