Long Live Dogpatch
I’ve been using the same sofa on which I sleep, watch TV, read, work crossword puzzles, and fondle women since 1981, when I purchased it from a desperate drug addict for $25..
Now, if one is getting the wrong idea about my interior design, he or she will be heartened to know that, over the years, I have collected fine oil paintings, water colors, boxing posters, baseball pennants, drinking caps and hats, nasty and laminated Bukowski poems.Editor’s note: We’re proud of living according to our own quirky standards, which so often run contrary to conventional wisdom, and don’t appear to be the things of which we should be proud. Most of us possess an entire history and lifestyle of “personal worsts”: the unkempt bed and unwashed dishes; the hundred or so failed relationships and endless jobs with their consequent firings; the bogeyman that haunts us throughout our days…. Publisher Dell Franklin introduces our new column, PERSONAL WORSTS, which will appear regularly in The Rogue Voice. We invite you to send your own stories of personal worsts, stories that reflect the virtues of your shadow side. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail: The Rogue Voice, P.O Box 491, Cayucos, Calif., 93430.
The guide to furnishing a beach shack
By Dell Franklin
By Dell Franklin
If you’ve rented dilapidated, termite-gnawed, leaky beach shacks for nearly four decades, as I have, you must be inspired as well as dedicated when shopping for furniture. A shack should never be out of character as to ambience, especially at the risk of losing comfort. A search at yard and garage sales, second-hand stores and thrift shops usually fill the need of desk, recliner, chair, side-table, eating table, book cases, TV tray, and, if there’s room, davenport or extended sofa.
I’ve been using the same sofa on which I sleep, watch TV, read, work crossword puzzles, and fondle women since 1981, when I purchased it from a desperate drug addict for $25. The pads have since been worn and flattened, but I make up for this by layering it with com-forters that last anywhere from a year to two, depending on how badly the cats maul them, though replacing them is always easy if you hit up thrift stores in San Luis Obispo, where three comforters can usually be purchased for under $20. I once found a nearly brand new down quilt for $7, but soon had to dispatch it for disturbing the pecking order of my felines.
This sofa, broken in so that it fits my body like a mold, is a source of near hysterical displeasure to my on-and-off girl friend, and to ladies of the past, yet my fear of having it towed away to the dump is akin to having my basketball and tennis racket taken away and replaced by a hammer or garden tool. A good friend and carpenter, who understands my ways, supplanted this sofa eleven years ago with a long, rigid wooden board, so that there is no sag, and it has almost come to the point where I can no longer sleep in a bed. This habit was formed over the years from my coming home in the wee hours from bartending and needing a late snack and TV viewing on the sofa to wind down, and eventually passing out and seeing no reason to change positions at seven in the morning after a piss call, unless, of course, a lady of the night beckons.
I once had a very comfortable, well-padded, dull-green recliner that fit my body as snugly as the sofa and also had three positions: straight up for meals, halfway back for reading or TV viewing, and supine in case I nodded off. This recliner was, more or less, a guest chair, a throne for my unfussy friends, and lasted roughly ten years, until the cats, from nonstop clawing, reduced it to a skeleton with dangling fringe, though comforters and blankets upon it presented a colorful blend to the overall decor.
This recliner was donated to me by Cayucos’s foremost hauler-scavenger, Brad Heizenrader [Rogue of the Month, June 2006], who will not take anything to the dump without consulting me. He did in fact replace this recliner with another of near-identical likeness found squatting on the main drag with a cardboard FREE sign on its lap. It needs replacement at this point and the scavenger is on the lookout.
There is nothing cats will not claw to shreds, and so, if one has felines and a dog, one has no business buying any piece of furn-iture costing more than five dollars, unless it is a desk, certainly a necessity for a writer who pounds away on used solid state steel 1950s-era typewriters.
My most endearing and enduring purchases have come at closing time of yard sales, when a seemingly scuffed, ripped, gashed, or rickety specimen is passed over by even the most desperate Saturday morning marauders, whom, as a vast legion, seem to suffer from the same madness as those paying thousands for a fancy chair or lamp, or some ridiculous antique too precious to sit on or lay your feet upon or use—like a vase or crystal. I mean, a nail or two, perhaps a swatch of duct-tape, and you have a sturdy fixture, a treasure to add to your interior and a source of pride to showcase to those who under-stand you, or underrate you, or, worse, take you at face value.
My kid sister, whom I tortured throughout her childhood, and now lives in a sprawling home in Palos Verdes, refuses to set foot in my current palace (her sons won’t use the shower), and not out of snobbism or fear of disease. She has simply, throughout her life, avoided truths that might disturb her sensitive and caring nature, not to mention sleep, which could already be disturbed at trying to uphold, insure and fret about her home and trappings, along with a full-time professorship—enough to drive any normal person to cerebral calamity.
What my dear sister has never understood is that furniture is at best functional and easily disposable, and can serve as a target for kicking, punching and bludgeoning when the owner suffers from dis-obedient pets, deranged girl friends, professional basketball teams that lose close games bet upon, frustration at the typewriter, and a need to salvage some shred of sanity in the face of the kind of minimal stress vexing a lifetime slacker, shirker and escape artist.
Now, if one is getting the wrong idea about my interior design, he or she will be heartened to know that, over the years, I have collected fine oil paintings, water colors, boxing posters, baseball pennants, drinking caps and hats, nasty laminated Bukowski poems, and photos of pets to hang on walls, blending well with solid dark blackout towels replacing curtains, which are always a problem and too frilly for my taste.
So, by now the reader must surely have a vivid visual picture of my interior makeup, but no mosaic is complete without lawn furniture to impress neighbors, especially in an increasingly precious and affluent beach community of effete exiles from L.A. and the Bay Area. Though much of my lawn furniture was supplied by Mr. Heizenrader, I have also culled some fixtures of my own, making sure every chair or lounger is of a different color, style and size, and making sure I have enough of them for the occasional barbecue and beer bust, so that a very wide circle of these mismatching functionaries can assure a certain intimacy for my rogue’s gallery of guests as the beer cans and booze battles mass on all sides, and burgers, sausages and hot dogs crackle and smoke, and the music blares, and the hilarity grows, and the dogs beg and succeed, and the cats glower from the fence beside us, and so on and so forth, into the evening and into the night….
How then, the reader must wonder, does a female fit into this mosaic, and what special breed of female is even qualified? Well, over the years, the females have dwindled, even the most durable and stout-hearted. They seem to take issue with the clothesline in the back-ground, draped of athletic togs, blankets, comforters, ragged towels; and the cluster of tennis shoes, hoop sneakers, beach clogs and sandals on the front porch, the welcome mat that is worn nearly bare but has sentimental value; the toilet plunger; withered broom and rusted weed-whacker resting nearby against the railing of the porch, and, of course, the infestation of high weeds that seem immune from the unworthy push mower moldering out of sight in the back yard.
Finally, no beach shack shall be properly adorned unless there is a questionable vehicle or two resting in the driveway or along the front, fenceless yard. Since there is a plethora of Jags, BMWs and Volvo station wagons with personalized license plates disappearing into garages in recently built faux McMansions with no yards, it is imperative that the vehicle be, first and foremost, old enough to have accumulated a lot of rust and long since faded paint job, dust and permanently caked in dirt, some duct-tape to plug leaks and corrosion, a few dents for character, a window that will not go up and is replaced by plastic sheeting of a garish color, a bent aerial, and, most important, a bumper sticker boasting of an offspring being in jail rather than an honor student. In furnishing a beach shack, self-expression is everything. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Washing windows across America: Slow grinding war in Lockhart
I didn’t like being told to move on, so I spent the morning working the town square with the sole purpose of humiliating Toy Store Bob.
There’s a point in a man’s hangover where he can go either way. Certain trigger situations may push him into a fight-or-flight response more abruptly than it might the clear, well-rested man.Episode 21: Slow, grinding war in Lockhart
The barbecue capital of Texas, where they used to kill a man every day
By Ben LerouxEditor’s Note: This is final part of a two-part series in Lockhart, Texas, that started in last month’s edition.
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
A woman owes me forty dollars. I am concerned about her. She runs a farm supply store on the town square of Lockhart, Texas, and strikes me as the type that might stiff a traveling window-washer. After all, Lockhart was once known as the “town where they used to kill a man every day.” It’s near noon when I return to her store, irritable from a debilitating hangover–a hangover that I refuse to stop and address with rest, liquids, food, or medication.
I pull on the door and get nothing. I tug. It’s dark inside and on the glass is a plastic “Will Return At” sign, which points to 1 p.m.
I throw a little tantrum. I stomp and cuss, roll my head, and pace back and forth, stopping to rattle the door. I make it a good one. Let off a little steam. Nothing changes. I kick the air. Good thing nobody’s watching. Good thing Toy Store Bob isn’t watching. It might give him the upper hand–a little hope. I peer through the glass.
But Toy Store Bob is watching. In the reflection, I see his pale, egg-shaped mug across the town square. At some point he must have slipped back outside of his toy store, to come and gloat. His round glasses shimmer and his little pie-hole is opened in a perfect “o” and his doughy belly bounces as he laughs “oh-ho-ho” and that jiggling neck-fat, how I’d love to get a handful of it and give it a twist. Watching him jiggle like that causes my head to crash with pain, and I reach for the railing to avoid passing out. A less forgiving hangover, there has never been.
The trouble between me and Toy Store Bob had begun early in the morning when he advised me not to bother going around this square asking about windows. A “feller out of Luling does all these windows,” he had said, “so just move on.” I didn’t like being told to move on, so I spent the morning working the town square with the sole purpose of humiliating Toy Store Bob.
I have succeeded too. And each time I come out of a store, with cash in hand, I stand in full view of Toy Store Bob and tauntingly arrange the bills, press them out, and count them. While doing this, I periodically look up at Toy Store Bob and smile. He watches despondently from a rickety chair outside his idle toy store, his Old-South notions being scrambled with each of my victories. He knows I’m a Yankee. He’s seen my California plates. Sometimes I recount the bills a second time or third. War is not pretty.
But now Toy Store Bob has won a small battle—I had failed to collect some earnings. Laugh while you can, Toy Store Bob. It’s early on the town square. I will collect my earnings, and when I do I will count them in front of you and smile.
One thing that people like Toy Store Bob and his feller out of Luling don’t understand is that no one likes an extortionist. No one likes a price-gouger. In the early afternoon heat, on a section of the town square hidden from Toy Store Bob by the county courthouse, I uncover and start to profit from seeds of rebellion that are growing against the feller out of Luling and his tyranny of high prices. Around 2 p.m., I reemerge into Toy Store Bob’s view, and immediately get hired by a cable TV office. I lay water on the glass and turn and wave to him with the brush. It’s good to see the enemy again. A beaten man. I notice that a couple townfolk, a woman and a man, have come to stand by him and watch me, perhaps for support. Sure, I’ll give them a show.
But no one likes a gloater. No one likes showboating. And hornets don’t like you cutting into the homes they have built underneath awnings, with your wooden brush dripping of water and chemicals. They resent that. Yet, as the first platoon of them descends upon me I react with great grace and composure, leaping from the curb and landing smoothly in the street, all the while holding onto my dripping brush and keeping my eye on Toy Store Bob and friends.
I then show them a little of the old agility from the football days. I show them how quickly I used to plant a foot and change direction on a dime. I hot-dog it a little by running in half circles, dodging the confused hornets. It goes well until I catch some loose gravel under a shoe, and tumble to the asphalt.
There’s no time for embarrassment or anger as the hoots come from across the square, because hornets have surrounded me and their wings are in my ears. From a seated position, I bat at them with the brush. Backup platoons emerge from the nest, some flying off but most coming for me. I get up and swat the air while dashing for the front door of the cable TV office. I close the door behind me.
“Problem,” I say to the woman behind the counter, the one that had hired me for ten dollars. “Hornets nest.” I now assess the damage. Blood oozing from a knee and elbow. Tiny black rocks embedded in the heel of a hand. Somehow, a scraped shoulder.
“Jest throw soapy water on ’em and it’ll kill’em,” she says. “That’s what ma husband does.”
“Well, I have soapy water. But is it necessary? Maybe I could work around them.”
“Nope. You gotta kill the nest. Get ready to run just in kay-eese.”
I look out her windows and consider walking away from the job. It was only ten dollars. Then I see Toy Store Bob and his two friends over there, watching the door, waiting for me, the celebratory smiles on their faces, the hope, the joy. My headache moves into my eyebrows, and I swallow some burning puke that has risen into my throat. Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast.
Back outside, the old-timers snicker as I pick up my water-bucket and study the nest. It seemed impractical to throw a bucket of water up there. There was no way of telling if there were any hornets left, and even if I could hit it them, would it do anything besides further piss them off? I take a practice swing and succeed only in losing half of my water onto the sidewalk. A chorus of laughter from across the square. I go back in to regroup.
“How much soapy water does your husband throw on them?”
“Look, you’re gonna have to kill ‘em. Kay?” There are now three aerosol cans and a plastic cup on the counter. The woman stands behind them, arms folded across her chest.
“Cup,” she says, picking up the cup. “You can use it to throw a little bit at a time up there.” She demonstrates. “Or bug-killer. Your choice.”
I decide to just break the thing apart with my wet brush. That was how it had started, anyway.I whack at it and jump back, and four lethargic hornets come out and fly around drunkenly and fall into the puddle on the sidewalk. I whip at their home with the end of a towel and demolish their paper-like womb. They struggle in the puddle to dry themselves and regain strength but I save them the trouble. I step on them and kill them.
Then I walk away from the job. By the time I’d finished, those hornets could have all dried out and come back to their home. That woman had gotten me to do it. That was why she’d told me about her husband. She wanted me to get rid of that nest for her, and was challenging my competitiveness. And Toy Store Bob had gotten a good hoot over it and scored a couple points in our slow, grinding war.
A block off the square, the secretary at the Dodge dealership is getting off work for the day, and pays me 50 dollars in advance to clean the windows of the showroom. She says that while I’m outside she’ll have “the boys” pull all the furniture away from the windows inside. “They’s stayin’ late to watch the baseball on TV,” she tells me. She is ecstatic to have found someone so much cheaper than the feller out of Luling, who is due tomorrow. She laughs as she conveys how she will send him on his way when he shows up.
“I’ll make up some kind of excuse or something,” she snorts as she puts her purse over her shoulder. “Thanks again.”
The sun takes on a vengeful angle as I start on the outsides, but is to my back. I am near collapse, and bitter at myself for taking on this one last job. But I had to leave Lockhart on a winning note.
When I get inside the showroom, “the boys” are gathered around an old console TV watching the American League Championship Series from couches. No furniture has been moved. They are hefty, broad-assed boys in Levis and western shirts. Maybe during the commercials I think, and start pulling things away from the windows. There are archaic metal desks, dying ficus trees, dusty cardboard displays, and mammoth Venetian blinds covered in decades of lint. The lint finds my eyes and nostrils and attaches to my sweaty forehead. Ego, and growing contempt prevent me from asking the boys for help.
The sun then starts slashing through the panes like a laser beam, logging my shirt down with a new outbreak of sweat that seeps into the cut knee and elbow. I stop and eye a water cooler across the showroom. A good, long drink could probably get me through. But the owner, a large man in a large cowboy hat who has been spying on me, stops and looks at me and then at his watch. Earlier he’d given me a hard time about pressing too hard on his one bad window. He’s already on my nerves, and I don’t want any dealings with him. I feel I know him from somewhere.
“Should we help ‘im move them desks?” I hear one of the boys say from the couches.
“I ain’t. It’s his job.”
Approaching the 7 p.m. hour, it’s long past a fifty-dollar job, and it is long past a hundred dollar job. I go into a loopy state of shutdown and start dropping things, and forgetting which windows I’ve cleaned. My mind keeps returning back to this morning, even before Toy Store Bob, in the town coffee shop and the historical picture book I looked at. The faces of the kin of all these people were in there. And then on the very back page, the photograph and brief narrative of the old black couple that were once slaves, like afterthoughts to the historical cotton boom, back when a black man that got killed probably didn’t even figure into the statistics. For the first time since being in Texas, I feel like I’m in the South, and everyone I look at embodies every bad Southern stereotype there ever was.
At the core though, pricking away at me like a thorny undergrowth, is what they were going to do with that feller out of Luling tomorrow when he showed up to wash their windows. That secretary is going to come in early and invent some kind of lie and send him on his way. And afterward, she’ll tell the dealership owner about it and he will compliment her on her resourcefulness and frugality and then compliment himself on his genius for employing her. It’s the kind of shit people pull anywhere, not just in the South.
Normally, after the last window, I go back and replace everything and wipe up any water from the floor. But this time, in everyone’s best interest, I leave.
“Fifty bucks,” I say to Toy Store Bob, waving the bills at him as I load my things back into the Plymouth. My shirt and hair start to dry in the cool shade that now covers the retiring town square. “Makes about a hundred for the day.” The aroma of nearby barbecue houses flavors the air, and a Bohemian that has been playing guitar poorly all day on the steps of the coffee shop next door, continues to do so. I walk up the steps and drop a five into his open guitar case.
It pushes Toy Store Bob beyond hurt. The dagger had been the waving of the fifty bucks, but to walk up to the Bohemian and drop that five in his case, when Toy Store Bob probably hadn’t sold five dollars worth of toys all day, was a spit in the face. His face deadens and I suddenly wish I could take the five back.
But then his beady little eyes start to glimmer with life again. He is looking over my shoulder at something. And the bohemian has stopped playing. There is the sound of wicked angriness approaching from behind, and I don’t have to turn around to know from whom it is coming. The Dodge man comes at me in a speed walk, arms wide, fists clenched, face flushed. Toy Store Bob starts to jiggle behind me. He’s got a little hope again.
“Hey! Where the hell you think you’re goin’?” yells the Dodge man.
There’s a point in a man’s hangover where he can go either way. Certain trigger situations may push him into a fight-or-flight response more abruptly than it might the clear, well-rested man. Remember, he still has some of the poison in him. The wrong thing can set him off, and envenomed by the sort of feverish euphoria that sometimes possesses a rogue circus elephant, he may become unpredictable and find himself descending stairs as if on air, advancing on the source of irritation, finger pointed, a bit of spittle coming from his lips, saying hoarsely: “What’s your fucking problem?”
Now the Dodge man wants a little piece? So do I. We approach each other like two snarling bulls. We were about the same weight, but his was mostly belly, and I was primed for violence.
Sensing perhaps my irrational mindset, the Dodge man pulls up and stops at a curbside. He turns slightly aside, so I stop on the opposite curbside. The only thing that separates us now is a narrow Lockhart side street.
“Well,” he says, gesturing in the air, his voice gone from threatening to persecuted. “You didn’t move no furniture back and you left water all over the damn floor.”
“Hey, how about I dust your furniture and wax your floors while I’m at it?” I don’t know where the line comes from, but I like it. Color and warmth are coming to my face and head and my legs shake, but in a good way now, from adrenaline. I feel alive and weightless. “Furniture, shit. You were supposed to move that furniture out for me!”
He huffs and turns back toward the dealership, raising his hands to God.
“Ain’t even put the blinds back down.”
“Ah, go to hell, you and your boys. And you’re welcome for the great deal, by the way!”
When I get back to the Plymouth, Toy Store Bob is a set of frightened eyes peeking at me through his darkened windows, the CLOSED sign swinging and the sound of a latch locking. The Bohemian shuts his case and gawks at me in utter dismay as I slam the trunk of the Plymouth.
I start walking toward the farm supply store, even though I’d written off the forty bucks, and had nothing left in me for revenge. I felt like the town square looked–empty and on its last leg. The toys were being sold out at Wal-Mart and the windows were being cleaned by fellers out of Luling, and for the bullheaded there was only the big punch-line at the end of the day.
I look through the dark glass door of the farm supply store and knock. While I wait I pick the remaining little rocks from the heel of my hand, and remember where I’d seen the Dodge man before. He was on the inside flap of that picture book, wearing the same cowboy hat and same type of shirt. Had I just damn near killed the mayor of Lockhart, Texas? Well, it had been that kind of day.
The farm store lady comes to the door and lets me in. She’s been waiting for me. She asks me questions about myself and I answer them guardedly. Then she pays me fifty instead of forty and walks me out. As she is locking up, and I am walking away, she says: “Don’t you pay no attention to no one gives you a funny look’r nothin’ in any of these towns. Most people in this world won’t never have your humility.”
I guess I’d been wrong about her. I guess she understood some things. §
Ben Leroux lives and works and writes from his hovel in Morro Bay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of his Washing windows across America series here:
Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)Directions from Texas (episode 17)A bug you can't see (episode 18)The bigger they are (episode19)Life in Lockhart (episode 20)
Rogue of the month: Big Lou
‘What were you doing patting my ass?’ Lou asked Johnson later. ‘I was saying good bye, brother, because I knew we were next.’
When I got held up my second time, I refused to lay down this time. I told the guy I’d get on my knees, but I wanted him to look me in the eye if he was gonna shoot me. The guy was frazzled.
Big Lou: Old-school bartender
By Dell Franklin
I meet Big Lou in the morning at a local bar that serves breakfast, which he likes to eat with a screw driver. “So, how’s it going these days, Lou?”
His big round rosy-cheeked face breaks into a grin and his bald pate gleams. “Fan-tastic!”
Big Lou is upstate New York Italian originally, and of traditional values and courtly, respectful manners. He is also a storyteller, which means, as a bartender at 63, he’s a dinosaur.
Big Lou was into the eleventh year of a 42-year career as bartender in 1976, working the Christmas party for the bar that employed him in Manhattan Beach, California, when three men in masks, toting pistol, rifle and sawed-off shotgun , walked in. The one with the gun ordered Lou not to touch the button that alerted the police, and to lay down on the boards behind the bar. He did. The other two men robbed the partiers with a 65 year old waitress named Marsha got in their faces.
“Shut up or I’ll blow you away,” she was told by one of the gunmen. She shut up. Another back-talker was pistol-whipped until his face was raw meat. To further make their point, one of the robbers shot out the bottles behind the bar, much of the liquor dripping on Lou and his good friend, a burly contractor named Jerry Johnson, who’d been helping him out behind the bar. He patted Lou’s ass with affection.
While the man with the pistol raided the register, another patron managed to crawl to the corner of the bar and push the alarm button. When the gangsters reached the street, the cops were waiting for them, and they were taken in without gunplay.
“What were you doing patting my ass?” Lou asked Johnson later.
“I was saying good bye, brother, because I knew we were next.”
Then Lou laughed. He was staring at his tip jar, which sat beside the register with more than a hundred bucks still in it.
“Nice guys,” Lou says, sipping his driver. Lou likes to tell his stories after a few belts, and he is on a lifetime regimen of having his belts in the morning with breakfast. Nothing has changed in 42 years of tending bar, including his intake, and the only event to interfere with his regimen is Lent, which stops him for a month or so.
“What’s that like, Lou?”
He laughs, a booming laugh.
“Does anything interfere with your regimen?”
“What about your illustrious wardrobe?”
“No change, I’ve been wearing sneakers, shorts and print shirts, or Hawaiians, for 42 years behind the bar. It’s my uniform. I’m a Southern California guy, a beach guy.”
“When’s the last time you were in the ocean?”
“Excuse me?” He laughs.
Lou Mastrangelo looks like he’s never been in the ocean. He is a very big man, with forearms like anvils and hands as big as shovel heads, and when you shake his hand you feel like your own is disappearing and on the verge of being crushed by his polite, half-squeeze. Those hands gripped a football at a Catholic high school in L.A. and tossed it many, many yards. College potential unlimited. But Lou tended bar in his dad’s restaurant and never looked back. His dad taught him the business. How to treat people. Finesse. A little showmanship, and an Italian warmth which springs from the heart and cannot be imitated.
“My dad was a boxer, and he had these hands like mine. One time these big truck drivers were giving him a bad tine. Dad leaned over the bar and looked them in the eye: ‘You’re not gonna be dealin’ with a virgin,’” he told them. They quieted right down.
“You’ve worked cop bars, cocktail lounges, corner pubs, nightclubs, dinner houses, country western bars, and now you’re at the Eagles Club in Morro Bay. Quite a progression. How you like it?”
“Fan-tastic!” No more hassles. Lowkey. Quiet. Do it in my sleep.”
“You worked bars in Manhattan Beach for years. Were there any female bartenders back in the seventies and eighties?”
“None. It was all guys, and all characters. Guys who drank and told stories and jokes and knew sports and kept the stools filled. We were players. We drank in each others’ bars on nights off. We threw money around like water. After closing, we met in the coffee shop and ate together and told stories, and sometimes we visited each other in our bars after hours and closed the places down, and sometimes the owners came in, in the morning, and we were still there and they didn’t say a word, because it was our bar—they just owned it.”
“A different breed of drinker in those days?”
“No foo-foo stuff. Nobody diluted good liquor with sweet stuff. Scotch and water, bourbon water, on the rocks; the ladies drank gin and tonics, vodka tonics, or Bud. No whining about hangovers. Players. You’d see them in the morning, shaky, but fan-tastic! A little coffee, maybe a boilermaker to get things going.”
“Tell me a good story about the cop bar.”
“A lot of LAPD drank in Ercoles. We had a guy, a cop, he was very drunk one night and after closing nobody could find him. It was a freezing cold winter night, and the next morning a woman in the laundromat next door found him sleeping it off in a dryer. She called the Manhattan Beach cops, who came down and had quite a chuckle before sending him home.”
“Tell me, about an outrageous character.”
“Owen Leonard. Skinny Irish guy from Boston, had three personalities. Had a good job at TRW, very bright, all business at work, so I heard. Personality two, one of the funniest, most likeable guys ever after a couple drinks. Personality three, past his limit, somebody you wanted to kill and had to keep other drinkers from killing. One night, to get rid of him, I gave him ten dollars and told him to go have a drink at the Bay Nineties. Ten minutes later he was back with a twenty dollar bill from the Nineties, demanding a drink.”
“Have you ever done anything else beside tend bar these past four decades?”
“I’m a bartender.”
“You drive a seventies Plymouth Barracuda, Why?”
“I’ve never been able to afford a new car in decades.”
“Your shorts are ridiculously out of style. People make fun of them. Those tight things’ve been out of style since around 1972. Why don’t you get some like mine—down to my knees, at least.”
“I don’t charge my regimen. Can I buy you a drink?”
“No. It’s too early. I’m into a regimen, too.”
“How about breakfast?”
“No. Regimen. Sorry.”
When local bartenders see Lou coming, they lick their lips. Like the players of his generation, he laughs hugely and tips hugely. Two drinks, then three, he’s warming up, “I was working on the highway in Manhattan Beach, a gambler’s bar, when I got held up my second time, I refused to lay down this time. I told the guy I’d get on my knees, but I wanted him to look me in the eye if he was gonna shoot me. The guy was frazzled, wild-eyed. One customer sitting along the bar had ten-grand in cash on him, and he’s stuffing it into his socks. The local bookie’s sitting two stools down. He dresses like me, but with shower clogs, so he’s stuffing a few-grand down his crotch. The guy got the register and some wallets and cash. He’d been out of jail a few months and robbed thirty places to feed a $500-a-day drug habit. Cops got him that day. The two guys holding thousands never got robbed.”
“You’ve tended bar in Morro Bay for more than ten years. You were on the beach for twenty years. You started out in L.A., and you were in Tucson, Arizona. What was that like? Fish out of water?”
“Fan-tastic! I liked the people. Country and western. I had the two best bouncers ever, and I’ve had some good ones. A dancing hall. These older couples would come in from all over, miles and miles away, dressed to the tee. Beautiful boots. Shiny belt buckles. Formal. Not a hair out of place. They danced every dance. They loved to dance. They were great dancers. They were the kinds of couples that were dedicated to each other. They drank and had fun and never got out of hand or were ever trouble, perfect bar patrons. Maybe the nicest people I’ve ever come across in the bar business.”
“Overall, what do you think about the drinking crowd?”
“Is part of the reason you’ve tended bar all these years to be close to the sauce? You know, a security blanket?”
“Did you change your uniform at the country bar?”
“Of course not.”
“What did some of those roughneck cowboy types say about your shorties?”
“Like I said, we had great bouncers. Plus, I’m no virgin, and they knew that.”
“How long do you plan to tend bar?”
“As long as I last.” §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here:
Mandy DavisCasimir PulaskiJim RuddellSteve TrossLori Lynn MeltonLong John GallagherBilly HalesIlan Funke-Bilu Hales
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Cabby's corner: The culture war
WHO’S WAR? Shouldn’t everybody join in the war effort, instead of letting a bunch of people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder do all the dirty work?
‘I really don’t like recruiting kids out of any of these schools,’ the recruiter confessed. ‘Most of them, no matter how academically advanced, are socially backward when it comes to co-existing with fellow employees.’
The culture war
Cal Poly’s entitled youth stay home to do battle—and make their millions
By Dell Franklin
Late on a Saturday afternoon, I picked up four male Cal Poly students. From their rented home in a quiet residential area, they were headed across town to a party in the “Jungle,” an enclave where students dwelt in condos, apartment complexes and rental homes. They were in fine spirits, having just finished finals and only months away from graduation. The kid sitting shotgun was black, wore wire-rimmed glasses and a Cal Poly ball cap. The three kids in back were white. One of them politely directed me to take a shortcut through the campus.
“How’d you make out on your exams?” I asked the kid beside me.
“I aced ‘em, man. I was on it.”
“Good for you. What’re you majoring in?”
“Business and marketing. Graduating in June, and then I'm going out and making my millions.”
“A million isn’t enough these days,” sais a kid in back. :You need way more.”
“How you gonna make your millions?” I asked shotgun.
“I got some ideas,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I plan to start out in a solid corporation, and go from there. I have to learn the ins and outs first, get my feet wet, before I start out on my own.”
“You sound like a very ambitious young man.”
“You got it.”
“What do you think about Bush’s plan of starting your own re-tirement plan instead of social security?”
“I’m for It, one hundred percent. I don't want anybody taking my money. I’ve worked my butt off getting through school, and I intend to outwork everybody to make my millions. I don’t see why I should put my money into a fund that’s going to run out by the time I’m retirement age, anyway.”
“But what if things don’t work out, and you don’t have any social security to fall back on?”
One of the kids in the back seat leaned forward, joining us. “There’s not gonna be any money left, so what’s the difference?”
“Right on!” said another kid in back.
“So you think social security’ll be extinct in twenty years?”
“Right. The boomers are hogging all the cash. It’s every man for himself, dude.”
“What about those folks who aren’t educated enough, or technically sophisticated enough to go out on their own to make enough money to start their own plans? Or aren’t capable of making a smart plan?”
“They’re shit outta luck!” They all laughed.
A few weeks earlier, at the career counseling office on campus, I picked up a thirtyish man in a business suit and loosened tie and drove him to the airport. He toted an overnight bag, laptop and cell phone. He was a recruiter for major corporations. He usually hit Cal Berkeley, Arizona State, and another technical engineering school like Cal Poly. I asked him about the kind of students he preferred recruiting.
“I really don’t like recruiting kids out of any of these schools,” he confessed. “Most of them, no matter how academically advanced, are socially backward when it comes to co-existing with fellow employees. I’d rather recruit somebody who’s had a couple years under their belt in some other firm, so they get a chance to learn how to work with other people.”
“Why do you think they’re so backward?”
“A lot of these kids are twenty-two and they’ve never really had jobs. They don’t know anything about the world, or life. I don’t care how brilliant they are, there’s more to a job than the technical as-pect. There’s an arrogance and a sense of entitlement to these kids that really turns me off. They need to be humbled in the work place by being under somebody who kicks their ass a little. These kids demand to start out at seventy-five grand, right out of school. Demand! Cal Berkeley’s worse. They want ninety-grand! I’m here to try and find somebody I think can do the work and get along with fellow employees without being too much of a high-handed pain in the ass.’
“Ninety-grand?” I said. “Never had a job?”
He laughed. “Ridiculous, huh?”
I wondered about these kids in my cab, the world their oyster.
“So what do you think about George Bush?” I asked.
“He’s solid,” said the kid in back, who was up on his seat. “The man stands for something. He’s not a piece of shit like Kerry, a straw in the wind."
“Yeah, well,” I said, “Kerry went to war, volunteered, got shot, while Bush opted out…his daddy got him into the National Guard in 1968 when nobody could get in.”
“So what. At least he didn’t come back and turn on his own troops, calling then murderers.”
“Bush was for the Vietnam war, and so was Cheney, but both chose not to serve. They decided to let everybody else do the fighting, in case you wanna know, kid.”
“I don’t know what that has to do with what’s going on now,” said the kid breathing down my neck, his voice becoming strident.
The kid beside me said, “Yeah, what does it have to do with what’s going on now? I mean that respectfully, sir.”
“I know you do,” I said, driving slowly across campus. “OK, we’re in a war, supposedly against terrorism. In past wars, the pop-ulation rallied out of a sense of duty, and everybody went. And there was a draft. The guys in my generation went to ‘Nam because most of their dads went in the Second World War, so they felt a need to make a sacrifice. If you’re gonna talk the talk, walk the walk. You be-lieve in this war? Bush’s war?”
The kid breathing down my neck said, “Goddam right. We're fighting terrorists who fucking attacked us.”
“Iraq attacked us?”
“That’s where the war’s at, dude. You want those fuckers over here?”
“You feel pretty strongly. You gonna join the Army or Marines after you graduate, and do your part?"
“Why should I do that?”
“You’re patriotic, aren’t you? Shouldn’t everybody join in, instead of letting a bunch of people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder do all the dirty work, put their asses on the line?”
“That’s why we got a volunteer Army,” said the kid beside me. “If you want to go, you can go…”
“I’d rather stay home and support the troops and the country by fighting the culture war,” said the kid breathing down my neck.
“What the hell’s the culture war?”
“Liberals like you,” he said, becoming more strident. “We’re sick of that old bullshit Hippie agenda…you talk about avoiding the draft, back in the sixties? What about Clinton?”
“He didn’t strut around like a tough gunslinger and bang the war drums like Bush, and he didn’t get us into wars like this one, kid!”
“The culture war assures us that the unions and the government don’t give away the country,” said the kid in back. “The culture war is about fighting the ideals that were part of the New Deal. This is a new era. All these welfare programs, and the fact that somebody, because of their color, or whatever, can be preferred by a college over somebody who earns better grades…”
“Exactly,” said shotgun.
I decided not to say anything about all the little dickheads who got into places like Harvard and Yale because their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers went there.
The most interesting part of the conversation with the recruiter was his hiatus in Italy after his junior year In college. He decided to go to Firenze and get a work visa to support himself for two years while he went to school there. He traveled extensively, when he could, and discovered a different perspective on life, and America, from such a distance.
“It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world,” he told me. “Too many kids go through high school right into college and straight into a job, everything pretty much mapped out, and they don’t see the other side, it’s a narrow existence, and it goes on for a lifetime. In Europe I met people, saw things, did things I never would’ve conceived of doing without taking a chance on trying some-thing different. I read different writers, like Henry Miller, Upton Sinclair, and it gave me an insight into our country, and how every-body else sees us. It was enlightening, to say the least. When I came back to the states I finished up school and went to work, but that experience abroad gave me a background, an education money can’t buy.”
I told him how I, after getting out of the Army, thumbed around America for a year, and worked four months on the last riverboat to ply the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as a passenger vessel. I never would have experienced this had I not taken off on my own like a hobo with bindle stick. I dropped the recruiter off at the airport and sat with him in the cab for another five minutes, just talking, and after we shook hands he paid with a substantial tip.
As I approached the Jungle, the kid in back had his hair up pretty good. He clearly didn’t like me when I mentioned to him that poor kids were repeatedly returning to Iraq to fight the fight to keep him free and safe, supposedly, while he drank with his buddies and chased after pussy and prepared to make his millions.
“Do you know what it’s like?” I asked. “To be a thousand miles away, in a strange land, doing the dirtiest of the dirty work known to mankind, for your country, while everybody’s back home getting laid, drinking beer, eating steak, and giving lip service to heroes?” Before he could answer, I said, “In the end, it IS lip service. You talk about supporting the troops, but nobody really gives a shit except the guys over there, and their relatives. And when they get home, everybody pats ‘em on the back, tells them how great they are, and within weeks they’re on their own, all fucked up for life.”
“Hey dude, somebody’s got to stay home and work their asses off to keep the money flowing to fight these wars,” he snapped, as I pulled up to the party house. There was a keg in the yard, and male and female students milled around, sprawled on a wide veranda, and there was laughter and loud voices emanating from inside the house. ”Our taxes pay for these wars, dude. That’s what my parents have done, working THEIR asses off. You may not like where they live, or how their politics are, but they keep the country going, not you, scrounging around in a cab.”
It is not just how much money you are tipped, if you are tipped by a fare, but the manner in which it is done. This kid disdainfully, dismissively flipped a small wad of unruly singles into my lap and quickly got out. There was the usual dollar tip. Shotgun showed me his knuckles and a sympathetic smile, and we rapped.
“Go make your millions, kid,” I said. “Good luck to you.”
“Thanks, man, see you around.” §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of the Cabby's corner series, here:
Ode to Tobias WolffSisters from South CentralA soldier's storyFirst fare (hair of the dog)The good lawyerMr. HeadphonesLittle Miss SunshineA rainy New Year's Eve in the 'A' cabThe mayoral candidateOld blind LizzieCheerleaderA real winner
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Love Italian Style
He had been raised a New Jersey Italian where family and loyalty to one’s clan are as certain and sacrosanct as the natural order of the universe.
‘You don’t have to love me, but you will respect me,’ was the message, and as time passed I learned to both respect and love my new father.
Love, Italian styleA father teaches respect and playing the game right
By Stacey Warde
My father recently went to the hospital to have his kidney removed.
The doctors extracted the kidney with a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit.
I spent most of a long weekend with my mother, sitting at his bedside, until he was well enough to return home.
For now, we’re hopeful, fingers crossed, that the man who took on a single mother with two rambunctious boys 40 years ago will continue to bounce back, and regain his health.
My dad, who turns 70 and celebrates his 40th wedding anniversary this month, came into his marriage to my mother with the odds stacked against him. My biological father had abandoned us several years earlier and made clear that he wanted to have little—and ultimately, nothing—to do with us.
We were hurt, angry little boys, and we weren’t quite ready for another man to claim us as his own children. Sure, my brother and I liked him—as a friend—but when mom told us she was going to marry him and that he’d be our dad, we rebelled. We tested him. When the cops came knocking on our door only a few months after the wedding, he stood by my brother and me as we bold-faced lied.
“Did you throw rocks at the old lady’s window?” he asked us, responding to a complaint from the neighbor woman—a cranky old bag who hated kids.
“No, we didn’t do it,” we protested.
“If my boys say they didn’t do it, they didn’t do it,” he said firmly, closing the door and sending the cops away.
Mom came home later that day and got straight to the point with my brother: “Why’d you do it, Nathan?”
“They made me do it,” he wailed, pointing his finger at me.
We both got whooped pretty hard for making our new dad look like a fool in front of the cops. He laid down the law and made clear that his authority was to be respected, or we’d pay the consequences. That was our first taste of fatherly love, Italian style.
“You don’t have to love me, but you will respect me,” was the message, and as time passed I learned to both respect and love my new father.
He had been raised a New Jersey Italian where family and loyalty to one’s clan are as certain and sacrosanct as the natural order of the universe.
We could balk at attending family gatherings but in the end we paid our respects when it was time to visit our aunts and uncles or when it was our turn to host a party. With Italians, my brother and I quickly learned, love is as present in attending a cousin’s wedding, or sitting down to dinner, or celebrating an aunt’s birthday as it is in a good, old-fashioned Italian scolding or backhand.
We learned, eventually, that we could pretend to live on either side of love or respect but that neither one was real until we had both. And the surest way to have both was to put our family first—in all things.
One summer, when I was a teen, my parents threw a big party that included family and friends from New Jersey, as well as our closer, California relatives. It was a rare occasion and a celebration to have everyone there. “It’s family,” my dad said often, justifying his demand that we attend such fetes. By this time, however, I didn’t need to be reminded. I wanted to party with the family.
My father never gave any indication of connections with the mob. If he had any, we never knew it, and I doubted that a man of his gentle disposition could have suffered the losses that such a connection would incur. He was always simply a blue-collar Italian with old-school Italian ways: Respect your mother, don’t curse at the dinner table or talk back when spoken to and be grateful for the food you have and eat what’s on your plate. Finally, always treat your guests like family.
At the party, my best buddy Michael spied a family friend in black leather jacket, slick black hair and slick attitude to match. He was in his 30s, carried himself like a made man, smooth and confident; he chatted it up with the ladies and helped himself to generous servings from the spread of food my mom and aunts had prepared for the gathering: Lasagna, spaghetti and sausage and meatballs, tortellini, salad and side dishes galore and tons of garlic bread—all lovingly cast upon the standard red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
“Who’s that?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know, a friend of the family.”
“Let’s go talk to him,” Michael urged.
We introduced ourselves and Sal told us he’d come with a distant cousin of mine, a good friend, he said, and he liked the party and felt at home. The food’s outta this world, he mused. “Your mom make this?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s good, isn’t it? You like it?”
“It’s the best,” he said. “Just like home.”
“You from Jersey?” Michael asked.
“Yeah. Live near your cousin,” he said, plopping another piece of sausage into his mouth, grinning at me like I was his kid brother.
“You with the mob?” Michael blurted.
I glared at Michael, trying to shut him up with eyes that could kill.
Sal shrugged his shoulders, held up his hands the way Italians do when words aren’t enough and said, “Heh!”
“Don’t listen to Michael, Sal, he doesn’t get out much,” I said.
“Don’t worry, kid. He’s just curious.” And he gave my cheek a friendly slap and pinch, the way my dad used to do when I was young and wanted to get my attention and make a point. “Where’s your cousin?” Sal asked, and when I pointed her out he left us standing by the table.
“You fucking idiot, Michael!”
“What?” he said.
“You don’t ask a fucking stupid question like that, you moron!”
Thankfully, Sal, whether he was a mobster or not, felt unthreatened, he was welcomed into our family circle, and that’s something all Italians—with or without connections—take seriously. I knew instinctively that Michael had crossed the line and that he was being disrespectful but I also knew that no matter what Sal’s station in life, he wouldn’t hurt Michael out of respect for my family and because, thanks to my mom and dad, he had had a taste of home.
Several years later, while on a weekend pass from basic training at Ft. Dix, I went to visit my dad’s brother, Uncle Bill, and his wife Aunt Jean, who put me up for a couple of days and made me a part of their family in Somerville, New Jersey.
My first night Aunt Jean sat me at the dining table and began feeding me, my first home-cooked meal in weeks. “Eat!” she commanded, “eat!” And when I felt like I couldn’t eat another bite, she said, “Finish your dinner! What, you don’t like my cooking?”
“Aunt Jean, I love it. I just don’t think I can eat any more.”
“You’re too skinny. What’s the Army trying to do, kill you? Eat!”
“OK,” I said, “thanks, Aunt Jean.”
As Aunt Jean cleaned up the kitchen, Uncle Bill sat next to me and smiled as he watched me finish my plate. And when I thought I’d explode from eating too much, he reached for my plate and asked: “Can I get you some more?” Like my dad, Uncle Bill had a great sense of humor and at first I thought he was teasing me and I snickered until I realized he was serious. I wiped my mouth with a napkin and waved him off. “No thanks, Uncle Bill. That was the best ever, Aunt Jean.”
“There’s plenty more,” she said, “you go right ahead and help yourself if you want more.”
I hardly knew them but because I was family, they treated me as if I was their own son. More important, I was “Jackie’s boy.” And that gave me some added leverage. I always knew, even as a small child, that dad had a way with people, especially ladies. He charmed and teased them and could make them laugh or blush with ribald insinuations without being offensive or embarrassing my mother.
The next day Uncle Bill and I put in a few hours at the Legionnaires Hall setting up tables and chairs, and stocking the cooler with beer and soda, for a gathering later that Saturday night. The party included men, women and children, mostly Italians, of all ages. If I danced with a young woman, I also danced with her mother and grandmother. That’s the way it was. And no one complained. Aunt Jean took me around to meet the locals, and I shook men’s hands and kissed women’s cheeks. “This is Jackie’s boy,” she said.
“You’re Jackie’s boy?” gasped an older matron who threw her arms around me, held me to her bosom and wetted my cheeks with kisses. “You’re Jackie’s boy?” she said again, and then spun me around for a whirl on the dance floor. At the Legionnaires Hall in Somerville, New Jersey, I was an instant celebrity simply because I was “Jackie’s boy.” I did things I never would have done with my friends, like dancing the Hokey-Pokey, and treating the older Italian women like queens and leaving alone their younger lusty daughters to be the perfect gentleman that Jackie had raised me to be.
Not that he didn’t encourage me to pursue the pleasures of a good woman, but I knew enough to be on my best behavior in the company of those who loved and respected him. That’s how it is with Italians. When it comes to family, you toe the line, and you never do anything that would embarrass your mother or your father.
My dad put a lot of stock into “playing the game right.”
One summer, he put together a traveling baseball team, handpicked the players and helped organize the league. It was forward-thinking at the time for kids our age who wanted to continue playing through the summer, an idea that came long before the super-hyped, expensive and prestigious traveling leagues formed many years later with their fancy uniforms and fussy parents telling the coaches what to do.
It was a big treat for us kids, too, getting to play past the usual short season of organized youth baseball; it was a rougher and scrappier kind of game, more in the dirt, and with other talented kids from communities beyond our own whom we’d never met before, and who also loved to play hard and get dirty. It was just the boys and their dads, who helped with the officiating and coaching.
I loved it. My dad instilled in me that summer a passion for the game that went well beyond just playing good baseball. It had everything to do with how I played, and the way I carried myself on and off the field.
“If you can’t play the game right, don’t play at all!” he barked at me once when I’d tried a cleats-to-the-face slide into third base. He didn’t like foul play or cheats; he wanted me to know and play the game well enough to take advantage of my opportunities without resorting to cheating or foul play. “It makes you a better player, and others will respect you more when you play the game right,” he said. “You don’t have to cheat to win.”
And he benched me to drive home his point.
During another game, while pitching, I got increasingly frustrated because I was missing the corners, and throwing more balls, and wearing myself down. I still managed to hold off most batters, but was working too hard at it. My frustration got worse and I let anger take over and started throwing harder, straight down the pipe, but still missing, and digging myself into a hole.
My dad saved me from myself and pulled me from the game. But I was angry and didn’t want to leave and threw my glove into the dugout as I came off the field and he glanced up at me over his scorebook and said, “Do you want to sit out the next game, too?”
That’s all he needed to say, and I stewed quietly until the game was over. On the way home, he said, “I pulled you because you were playing blind. You don’t play blind. You’ll end up hurting yourself, or worse, someone else.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“I didn’t hit anybody,” I said.
“I didn’t say you were wild. I said you were playing blind. You got too emotional. You let your emotions get in the way of your abilities.” I knew he was right and thought about it for the rest of the summer and still think about it whenever I start feeling like breaking down and “playing blind.”
“You play smart, son. That’s how you win.”
I’m trying to play smart now as my dad returns to the doctor for more testing for a tiny suspicious spot on his lung. It’s hard not to get emotional, thinking about him going back to the hospital for more surgery. It’s hard not to get angry and lose control knowing there’s little I can do to help him. Playing smart will be the best way to support him and show him my love. It’s tough to watch someone you love suffer. Now I know how he must have felt, watching me go down the tubes that summer day when he pulled me off the mound and benched me. I want a full recovery for my dad; I want him to stay in the game. For now, we’re lucky to still have him with us, to sup with us at the table he and mother have kept these last 40 years, welcoming their friends and family, sharing their love and respect. §
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Motherhood has blessed her with a fecund roundness placed lovingly upon her lithe animal frame.
The absurd lure of a thin daytime moon hangs in the bright blue sky like an empty hook.The Choice
By Steven Bird
A fired clay bowl on the sideboard catches the yellow light splashing through the jangling, jade firs outside the unpainted kitchen window. A pot on the stove sends a diaphanous wisp up into the raw dawn. She lifts the bowl and ladles in oatmeal from the steaming pot. It is a coming of summer morning, the high spring of her fruitful bloom, and she is instinctively attuned to it, flowing with it, harmonious, buoyant upon its promise. She is young, just twenty-two, and the quiet sweet mystery of the maiden still illuminates her, plays about her graceful neck, her cheekbones, the corners of her mouth.
An American beauty from an older era, not the deb with a name that sounds like a clothing label, no, more exotic, the cheekbones higher, forehead broader, her full lips more wise than sensuous. A freckled, heart-shaped face. A country face. Her long sorrel hair crests from a prominent cowlick above her temple to fall as a breaking wave around the one errant ear poking through the gold torrent. A thin girl, but motherhood has blessed her with a fecund roundness placed lovingly upon her lithe animal frame. Her hips sway with the morning routine swinging her India print skirt with a busy hustle-bustle. She stirs a little honey into the cereal, blows on it. Probably the kind of girl Vikings would have hit each other over the head for.
The baby chirps from his bassinette. At the child’s signal a surge comes to her breasts and she goes to him, gathers him. He cranks slightly, still waking up, when his eyes fully open he recognizes her and his cross expression flashes to the self-assured face that babies have, knowing they are the center of all affection. She opens her flannel blouse and puts him to her breast, enfolds him. He sucks hard for a few moments, stops, opens his eyes wide to look at her, closes his eyes again and resumes, easier, milk drunk, contented.
It is a particular day today. She is going to Eugene to shop. She doesn’t go to town often, maybe once a month. Eugene is an hour’s drive on one of those impossibly narrow Oregon country roads that follow the twisting, rain swollen rivers between the Coast Range and the Willamette Valley–winding precariously past small mossy farms with luxuriant green pastures fringed with blackberry and Queen Ann’s lace sloping to the coursing, canopied, alder corridors. She loves horses. She sings to the baby …all the pretty little horses… The baby senses more than hears the tune over the pickup’s engine noise. She rolls her window down half way–enough to let in the life-thick atmosphere, but not so far that there is too much breeze on the baby bundled like a prize pumpkin, strapped into his car seat beside her. He is already asleep. He is a good little baby, and a good traveler.
It is nice in Eugene that day, and the people are bright and beautiful in the stores and on the streets, assembled on the promenade benches and little parks scattered about the busy town. Eugene is a friendly walking city, and she likes to poke through the downtown notion shops, the baby riding high and tight on her purposeful back.
Some thread for a dress, here, some small things for the baby, there…. She stops in a cobbled square with a fountain. A stone rim surrounds the fountain to form a bench where people may sit, and it is pleasant, and she sits to take a rest and give the baby a little juice. The park-like square is festive, alive in the afternoon sun. A young man plays a guitar on the other side of the fountain, he is pretty good, and a group of kids have gathered to listen. The absurd lure of a thin daytime moon hangs in the bright blue sky like an empty hook. The baby is asleep on her lap while she cradles him, and she rests tranquil on the fountain bench with him. She thinks she will sit for a while, enjoying the sun before heading back to the pickup, plans to stop for some groceries on her way back home.
There is a photographer in the square by the fountain. The man fires at some rising pigeons with his camera.
She looks away for a moment, and when she looks ahead again, he is right there in front of her. He approaches with the sun in her face. She raises a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring sun and get a look at him.
He is a handsome young man with a halo of wavy brown hair, a slight impudence in his face. He comes very close, stands directly at her feet, smiles pointing to the camera hanging from his neck. “You are so pretty,” he says, “do you mind if I take your picture?”
She smiles at the man, then shy, drops her gaze to the baby as if the flattery was not meant for her. “I don’t mind…if you want to…” she says. He has a breath mint tucked between his tongue and cheek, and she can smell the mint.
“Well…” he says, “I think the light is better over there.” He points away from the crowded square toward a quiet side street where a few cars are parked. “Let’s go over there, it’s better.” He is handsome, and confident.
She is a very kind girl, and always willing to please. She is flattered of the attention and considers…Why not?…The pigeons, regrouped behind him, take to the air again as one, startled by something invisible. But…what is this thing embedded in his smooth voice…authority?…what?…something urgent, concealed and waiting…
She levels her heather eyes square on him. The corners of her mouth draw into sweet curlicues. The baby stirs on her lap. “I don’t think so. But if you still want to take my picture, you’re welcome to take it right here.”
The man crouches, rests his chin on a fist, a statue with a camera, his unblinking eyes trying to hold her, not quite able to let her go–his shadow hugely juxtaposes over her compact figure.
She sits motionless on the stone fountain bench, her hands clutch the baby, her eyelids lower, she detaches, travels inward. And she sits that way for a long time.
A hot blast of light tossles the air to shimmering. She looks up. And he is gone. He never took the picture.
She is glad to be back at her cabin in the still forest. The little creek sings to her from under the trees as she unloads her groceries and packages and brings them into the cabin. When she has everything put away, she sits in the rocker and nurses the baby for a while. She rocks gently. Then she puts the baby in his pack and they go for a long walk in the soft afternoon. She hikes up an old logging road. In the eternal woods, among the deep ferns, she comes close to a doe with a spotted fawn. She is quiet, and they are not alarmed. She watches until the deer disappear into the dappled green light. She’d had a good day, that day.
Quite a few years later. And so many young women, some with their babies, never again to stir the sweet yellow morning light. What justice?
I’m in the bathroom shaving, and she is watching television.
“O MY GOD!” I hear her exclaim. She calls my name. “COME QUICK!” (She is very excited, and I go to her with soap on my face.) “THAT’S HIM!” She says, pointing to the wavy-haired man brooding on the TV screen. “That’s the guy who wanted to take my picture…that day in Eugene!”
So. What justice?…Officious pronouncements? Prejudiced show? Righteous, enraged display? Justice is a fanciful concept. A thin line thrown to a humanity swept helpless in a fearful stream where we are all victims, fighting against the random currents of errant choice. Perhaps, in the broader universe, there really is such a thing as justice, and all events do fit a perfect plan, their true purpose manifested. I don’t know. Things work out somehow. And one thing is certain, Ted Bundy’s long, mad, killing run is finally over–he no longer makes the random choice, and there may be some justice in that. §
Steve Bird writes from his home in Morro Bay, © 2007 Steven Bird.
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Life in the cage: The idiot box
Lawmakers for years have tried to take away prisoners’ televisions, but prison guards who support this privilege will tell you that the tube is the greatest babysitter.
I started to spend all my time out of the cell in the dayroom or out on the yard, disgusted at the fact that Cranky never left the cell; he remained glued to the television set.
The idiot box
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Arriving at New Folsom Prison, a maximum security joint, in 1995, I looked forward to being assigned to a cell so I could watch [my new cellmate’s] television. I was anxious to check out new music videos from hot artists [at the time] like Green Day, Sublime and Stone Temple Pilots. Every prisoner is allowed to purchase his own 13-inch color television, so I quickly ordered one from the prison vendor catalog for about $250. I had to wait about 2 months to receive my television. In the meantime, I was assigned to the top bunk in a cell with a Chicano homey from Long Beach named “Cranky.” He was tall, about 6-2, 25-years-old, lean-muscular build, dark-skinned, brown eyes, with Latino art tattoos of men in sombreros romancing hot Latina women, and strumming guitars. Pictures of Latinas, posing next to LowRider cars, lined the cell walls.
“Watcha homey,” he started, “no disrespect, but don’t touch my television when I’m gone. My last cellie, the vato, messed up my volume button. When I’m in the cell watching television, you can watch what I watch. I got life homey, no people take care of me on the outs. I need to make this television last.”
“No problem,” I said. “Do we get cable television in here? Is there a music video channel, like MTV?”
“Nah, holmes, we only get the network channels, two Spanish stations, and an institutional video channel where they put on a new movie once a week.”
“What kind of movies,” I asked.
He told me “Carlito’s Way,” featuring Al Pacino, would be on tonight, but added: “I want to watch it on Friday, though, so we’ll check it out then.”
[6 lines cut from p. 4&5 here]
During my first day in the cell, I could see that, at some point, I’d have to get a cell move. Cranky watched television all day and into the morning, until 3 a.m., constantly switching channels, never watching one program in its entirety, perhaps feeling he would miss something important. [cut 7 lines, p. 5 on Cranky’s tv line-up] Even though he turned down the volume, I couldn’t sleep. The high-pitched frequency and the bright glare of the T.V. screen made me toss and turn. He smoked cigarettes like a train, and the smoke irritated me. Just as I’d begin to fall asleep at 6 a.m., time for chow, the first thing he would do was turn on the television.
He wasn’t even watching it most of time, as he brushed his teeth, took a dump, made his bed, then grabbed a Lowrider magazine to read. When we exited the cell for chow, he left the television on.
“Hey Cranky, don’t you turn off the television when you leave the cell?”
“Nah, it messes up the on/off button over time. We’re coming back to the cell anyways; we’ll watch it then.”
After returning from chow, he started his daily ritual of making a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette, and watching a play list of shows—from the People’s Court to The Price Is Right, followed by numerous soap operas, then Oprah, then sports.
I started to spend all my time out of the cell in the dayroom or out on the yard, disgusted at the fact that Cranky never left the cell; he remained glued to the television set. His homeys couldn’t even get him to come out to the dayroom to play dominos or cards. He only came out of the cell to shower and eat.
Although I put in for a cell move, it took nearly eight weeks because of overcrowding. I finally moved to a cell that was empty because the two previous cellmates had slugged it out and were sent to the hole to cool off.
When my television finally arrived, I received a ducat to pick it up at the Receiving and Release Department. I rushed back to the cell, perched the television on top of my locker, hooked up the cable, and relaxed on my bottom bunk, viewing what I wanted to watch.
I soon felt the comfort level, which Cranky had felt, the ability to change channels whenever I wanted. I felt the luxury of my own cell, viewing life on the outside in vivid detail on the TV. Couldn’t help but hit it to the hot Latina women on Spanish novellas aired on the Spanish Univision Network.
I stayed up until 3 a.m. those first few nights, alone in the cell, watching the hot chicks on the Soloflex infomercials.
[CUT P.7,8,9,& _ OF 10~ALL OF CELLMATE FLACO STORY]
Dayroom time affords inmates time to come out of the cell and socialize, play dominos, cards or chess. For many, it’s a good way to pass time. For others, it’s an opportunity to give their cellmate time alone. Conversations flow—anything from the latest gossip about prison issues headlining the papers to horror stories about cellmates. I caught the tail end of a conversation regarding my former cellmate, Cranky. Two Chicanos were talking about him.
“That vato Cranky, my new cellie, he told me not to touch his television. I am not a pescado [fish; slang for new inmate]. I am not a kid. He must think I’m a pendejo [fucking idiot; stupid asshole]. I’ve got more time in than he does. That’s a selfish vato, to treat me with disrespect like that,” said Dopey, an older veteran Chicano serving life who had just arrived at New Folsom after doing a two-year Special Housing Unit program at Pelican Bay State Prison for a staff assault.
“You are probably better off moving out. No use in getting into another beef. Just put in for a cell move, they got some open cells in C-Block,” said another older Chicano named Huero.
“I have pride, holmes. This vato needs to be checked. He shouldn’t be disrespecting cellies like that. Watcha, mañana, watch what happens.”
“Horale, holmes! Don’t do anything drastic,” said Huero, laughing, as he took another hit from his flajo [cigarette].
The next day during dayroom, Cranky was walking in circles—lost—as if he had received bad news from the outside, a “Dear John” letter perhaps. I wondered if Dopey might have done something evil to him, like put a knife to his throat, threatened him. Curious, I walked around the dayroom listening to my Walkman, standing close to Dopey, catching a conversation between him and Huero.
“Just like that homey? You poured water in his television?” said Huero.
“Yeah, holmes. He came back from his shower, and when he pushed the button, the television didn’t come on. He kept pushing the button, like trying to bring a heart-attack patient back to life, and it never came back on,” he said, laughing. “Homey, I would pay big money to see the expression on his face again!”
“Horale, that was smooth…firme [cool],” said Huero.
[CUT P.11-12 (_ PG.]
After receiving a “Dear John” letter from my wife, Veronica, I was moved to the psych unit, building seven, and assigned to an empty cell on the first tier, where I met Hillbilly Bob and Jamie, two white guys in the cell next to mine.
“Howdy! They call me Hillbilly Bob. I’m from down South, Tennesee. What’s your name?”
“David. I’m from Southern California.” I shook his hand and observed his appearance; he looked like a man who lived on the street, homeless.
Bob was about 6-1, blue eyes, a unibrow, nose hairs run amok, full white beard, long straggly white hair—a hippie version of Grizzly Adams—an acne-cratered and sun-damaged face, beer belly, several missing teeth, and reeking of the stale odor of cigarettes. His state-issued blue shirt was wrinkled, bearing holes and stains. He wore patched grey gym shorts, and shower shoes with bare feet. I tried not to notice his horribly long and putrid toenails, which he probably hadn’t trimmed in years.
“Dave, this is my cellmate, Jamie. He has a girl’s name, but he is all man,” said Hillbilly Bob.
“What’s up, dog?” said Jamie, shaking my hand, holding a tumbler of coffee with the other.
Jamie looked like a punk rocker, a rebel of the ‘80s, about 5-10, lanky, in his mid-40s; he wore an “Anarchy” symbol on the back of his bald head, numerous other tattoos on his forearms, a walrus mustache and stubbies on his face. His clothes resembled his cellmate’s, torn and stained, but at least he was wearing Vans tennis shoes.
I couldn’t help but stare at Jamie’s coffee cup; inside was darkened with algae-like stains, a common trademark of convicts. They say that the stains in the cup help retain the taste of coffee. I’m of the opinion that the stains are a marker of a lazy institutionalized man who won’t even make the time to wash his cup. If he wipes his ass like he cleans his cup—which is never—he must have skid marks.
Hillbilly Bob went to stand in line for a shower. I spoke with Jamie, to pass time.
“Yeah dog, I’m from the San Fernando Valley. I got 125 years-to-life under the Three Strikes Law. It’s bullshit, man. Rapists and child molesters are getting less time. All I did was get caught with a little dope,” said Jamie.
“I hear you, man. Tell me, what’s up with the people here; everyone is different than in the unit next door.”
“Nearly everyone here is doped up on drugs. The psych’s will give you some powerful meds if you tell them the right things.”
“Really? What are you on?”
“I take Cinequan after 7 p.m. to help me sleep. If I don’t take it, I’ll pace on the cell floor all night. I’ve always been hyper, since I was a kid.”
“Is your cellie on the same meds?”
“Nah, he’s on heart medication. Anyone that takes pills is in this unit.”
“So what kind of meds would help me?”
“I don’t mean to interrupt you, but they are doing unlock right now on the first tier. I want to get back in to watch NASCAR. I’m spending the entire day and weekend in the cell watching sports. Hey dog, I’m getting my package this weekend; my family sent it two weeks ago. Can you spare a bag of tortilla chips? I’ll pay you back when I get my package.”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll grab them right now,” I said with no hesitation.
“Thanks, dog,” said Jamie, grabbing the bag of chips from me when the officer opened our doors.
“Your cellie looks like he can probably eat a whole bag to himself. Does he mind that you stay in all weekend to watch sports?” I asked jokingly.
“Dude, my cellmate is like me; we both watch television all the time. It works out really good. He has his own and I have mine. All right man, got to split,” said Jamie. The officer in the pod closed the doors electronically.
Later, after evening chow, I met up with Jamie and his cellie, waiting for the officer to unlock their cell door. I looked inside their cell and both televisions were on, but no one was inside.
“Jamie, dude, why do you both leave your televisions on when you go to chow?”
“Me and my cellie, we are trying to fuck the state. Any opportunity we have to use excess electricity, we work them. They pay for the electricity bill, we don’t,” said Jamie.
“Plus, every time you push the button it takes away days, months, years from the television. An Asian inmate, who used to work on an assembly line in China putting together televisions, told me that if you push the button over two-thousand times the circuit board is programmed to short circuit the television. They make it that way so you have to buy another television,” said Hillbilly Bob matter-of-factly.
“Wow, I didn’t know that!” I said, suppressing laughter. In my mind, I thought what nonsense that was.
The officer racked the cell doors open and everyone locked up. I came out to the dayroom because I had a ducat to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous group, which was an hour and ended at 7:40 p.m., just in time for count.
Upon returning to the cellblock, I passed by Jamie’s cell to say hi. Hillbilly Bob, with his headphones still on, was asleep on the bottom bunk while his television beamed intermittent, dark and bright flashes of light on his entire body. Jamie, also with his headphones, appeared to be sleeping, his television flashing too. As the doors were racked open electronically by the officer in the pod, I saw Jamie through the rectangular window of the cell door, awakened by the sound of closing cell doors, grabbing a thin long stick underneath his blanket, assembled from eight pencils glued together. He lay back comfortably and used this convict “remote control” to change the channel.
I support inmates’ having televisions. It’s our only window to the outside. Lawmakers for years have tried to take away prisoners’ televisions, but prison guards who support this privilege will tell you that the tube is the greatest babysitter. Inmates are obedient, complacent, and afraid of raging against the machine, which could put them in the hole, and cause them to lose their television privileges.
What would life be like without the television? It would force inmates to use their brain, to think, or do something productive with their time. An inmate could learn a new language, how to play an instrument, to read and write, get a college degree…. Or, simply interact with another human being.
I watch two hours of television nightly. Anymore than that, I feel guilty, as if I’ve wasted my time. During weekends, I never watch sports. In my free time, I study law, so I can help myself and other inmates fight against oppressive prison rules and conditions.
I’ve come to use the television responsibly; I’ve realized that excessive use of the television can lead to negative side effects: becoming depressed, delusional, overweight, anti-social. In free society, wives and children would be a lot happier if dads would simply get off their ass and do something productive and family-oriented on weekends, rather than watch nonstop sports or trying to escape the reality of their free lives. One thing I know for certain, my dad, who is 69, retired and also incarcerated, is watching television right now, enjoying sports on weekends in the comfort of his own cell. He is trying to escape the reality of prison life by pushing the button.
No matter what, though, TV or not, I still got lots of love for my dad. §
Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit www.adamcarolla.com. Tito can be reached by email at email@example.com, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689.
Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here:
Mischief in the prison chapelJailhouse prunoA momentary breath of freedomBreakfast ClubTrappedInstitutialized Evening dayroom Destination ASHSleepless in SoledadJailhouse lawyersIn the hole (part 1)In the hole (part 2)
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They come to America
If I were a porn star I’d really work at it. I’d hate to think all these guys are watching, thinking, ‘I could do a better job than that.’
The room was musky and dank, my girlfriend commented, ‘It stink.’ It had a bed, a table with two chairs and a TV with no remote. In a way, I liked it.They come to America
By David Ochs
Rather than fight the early morning rush hour traffic, my girlfriend and I drove three hours to Los Angeles the night before her appointment with Immigration. We found a dumpy little drive-up motel called The Sunkist. The proprietor was a tiny little woman from India. She was on the phone and without saying hello asked if I had drivers license. I resented her being rude just because she was big time in the Indian caste system. I felt she should be grateful I was staying in her dump in the off-season, so I said, “I have a drivers license, birth certificate, Mastercard, Visa card, whatever you want.”
She said, “Sir, all I need is a driver license.” I was grateful her dump only cost fifty-five dollars and lightened up a little. She made us promise it was just us two (like we were going to invite all our friends off the street to our room and party).
The room was musky and dank, my girlfriend commented, “It stink.” It had a bed, a table with two chairs and a TV with no remote. In a way, I liked it. There’s something about the simplicity of a hotel room stripped down to its bare essence. I realized, if I were ever really going to be become a writer, it’d be in a room like this, where I’d eat a lot of take-out. Where I’d have sordid affairs with drunken whores and babbling psychos and I’d have to sleep with one eye open, lest I get my balls cut off. Well, maybe I’m romanticizing the whole thing a bit.
The TV was mounted high on the wall just below the ceiling and because there was no remote I’d have to stand on the bed to change the channel. There were only a few channels, one was the twenty-four hour porn channel. It was so dirty I was embarrassed to watch with my girlfriend. That’s the trouble with respectable women. I didn’t like the performers in the first porn skit. They knew what they were doing but it was sort of clinical, like it was their nine-hundredth film and they were doing it by rote. But maybe I’m jealous because I’m a poet and not a porn star. But if I were a porn star I’d really work at it. I’d hate to think all these guys are watching, thinking, “I could do a better job than that.” Anyway my girlfriend said she had a headache, so I stood up on the bed and changed the channel to sports.
But I thought of porn and the snooty little lady hotel owner from India, who probably thinks we’re all a bunch of pigs with animal needs—give us McDonald’s and porn and a cheap room and we’re happy—in the same way a pig needs slop, a sow and sty. As the night wore on the hotel filled up and we could hear the people to our left and on the right and above us; we could hear them talking, taking a crap or watching the twenty-four hour porn channel. But we managed a light restless sleep.
When we woke up, I put on the news—it was too early for porn—and I went to McDonald’s across the street. The guy at McDonald’s was over friendly and I sensed he was gay. I didn’t feel complimented, he liked me, I thought, the way he liked every guy. I drove my old lady to Immigration so she could become a citizen of our great country. I figured it’d take all day, that’s part of the immigration process: waiting in lines, cutting through red tape, filling out forms, calling for information and never being able to speak to a person. It’s the American way.
I dropped her off and drove to a nearby Starbucks but decided to go for a walk. I walked around the grounds of a giant Wells Fargo office, I looked at the lawn that Wells Fargo paid someone to landscape and wondered, “Who are the people who sit on their ass all day, make all that money, and hire some guy who has to bust his ass for peanuts?” It’s the American way.
As I continued my walk I thought to how a few months ago I went to the Chinese restaurant and realized I had no cash and went next door to the 7-Eleven to use their ATM, and had to agree to pay a dollar-fifty surcharge. Then when I got my Wells Fargo statement they tacked on another two-dollar fee. I imagined walking into this Wells Fargo monolith of a building and barging into a board meeting and yelling, “How could you greedy bastards charge me a two-dollar ATM fee?” The CEO’s frightened and red faced, and he hits the security button. What the hell? They need a few bucks to pay the guy that cuts the lawn, I guess.
I continued walking around the Immigration industrial complex and kept running into freeways with no access to cross. Finally, I found a sidewalk, went by a mattress store and other businesses that looked tired and dreary; I walked over a bridge that went over a gigantic aqueduct, devoid of water.
To the east, stood the barren San Gabriel Mountains; I wondered what they thought of this cesspool of humanity they overlooked. Even though it was February, the sun was beating down and it was hot and dusty. At the other end of the bridge was some kind of junkyard. A group of Mexican men were chopping up something wooden with insulation attached to it. There didn’t seem to be anything salvageable, maybe it was just something to do.
I kept going past rows of Asian shops where old Asian men smoked and spoke in their dialect. I passed a rundown trailer park bordered by old, rotting palm trees. There was nothing more to see and I turned back towards the bridge, the Mexican men were now sitting on patio chairs in the middle of the junkyard.
A fat woman walked past me on the bridge, I thought with the heat it must be hard for her. An angry motorist blasted his horn. From the bridge I saw a place that helped immigrants fill out forms. Immigrants come here from all over the world to earn some money but have to live like dogs, and lose part of their soul. All shoved together in this shit-hole. What irony, The City of Angels.
I made my way back to my car. My girlfriend was there. She had a big smile—she was now a United States citizen.§
David Ochs writes from Santa Maria when he's not exploring writer's niches in L.A.
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