By Eric John Priestley
Lucky Old Son
I first moved to the Poison Tree in 1982. The FBI had burned the Watts Writers’ Workshop down in 1973. I had no place else to go. It was cold in East Los Angeles that night: December 25, 1982. I was living on North Helen Drive when I got evicted. My books, clothes and everything else were sitting out on the porch of the old Theta Chi fraternity house when Jacob Rivers, the artist and Director of the Watts Towers Art Center showed up in his van to help me move to Watts. Rivers was a light hearted, gapped tooth smiling chocolate skinned guy in his early 40’s. Everybody called him Kocomo. He was originally from North Carolina. But he had lived in Chicago before coming to Los Angeles. He had worked in Compton at the Creative Arts Academy in the 1960’s. I met him in 1980. He had been one of the best men in my wedding two years earlier. Rivers was part poet, part teacher, part storyteller and mainly an “artist.” He was not an artist in the truest sense of the “Bohemian.” Rivers was a “working artist.” He was a focal point around the Watts Towers. All the neighbors in the community — Blacks and Mexicans alike — revered Rivers. It wasn’t just because he made Christmas for all the kids in the neighborhood around the Watts Towers either. But he lived in Altadena, and he made the commute every morning to arrive at the Watts Towers before 8 a.m. He would be out there like clockwork policing the grounds and picking up scraps of paper.
We arrived later that morning—Christmas Day to the building at 10624 Graham. I noticed all the windows were broken out. I was so tired when we arrived; I had only the strength to unload my stuff and crash. I had no idea when I went to sleep that this is where I would be staying for the next 26 years of my life.
Entry—April 23, 2009
There were memories of our voices in the stone
Whispering the movement of a brook
We slept in fields of clover
Where water pondered reason
& hope abandoned air
There the green-moss threw up flowers
In the sky
all wrapped in rags
& birds of dust made wings of ashes
dressed up in saffron clouds
& purple robes of angels
Left the traces of two heartbeats
undivided mango mountain
willow ways & woes
we roam unspoken valleys
wiser than the joy of union
or the bread
we broke at table
with the wine of labor
Journal entry: October, 21-2000
I opened my knife and threw it. It stuck deep in the big eucalyptus tree on a bright sky blue day there in Elysian Park here in Los Angeles. Pasqualle Viola and I shook hands. It meant we had struck a deal. I had taken the contract to build a brick patio in his backyard. Brickwork is hard and requires a fine skill. I had been seven years an apprentice on my own learning the trade until my old truck quit on me. But I had come by the trowel honest. Since my dad’s father was a stonemason. I needed an advance to eat. No need to sign. Pasqualle let me have the cash. He is Sicilian. And with them, a handshake is good enough. His father’s people were Sicilian. His mother’s folks were from Naples. His father was the first Italian attorney to pass the Bar and practice in New Jersey. He was raised mainly in Philadelphia.
We walked there following his little dog, Pinocchio, through the rich green the grass. It’s still wet with dew, and the shade of the big trees is breaking new light on the scattered people in jogging suits and out to catch morning air on a Saturday.
Pasqualle bought a house up here. It is located just above Elysian Park off Sunset in one of the oldest Italian neighborhoods in the city. But he also loved Watts and the Watts Towers. Since, Sabato Rodia, (Born February 12, 1879) the guy who built them, was Italian. It took him thirty-four years to do it (1921-1955). The Watts Towers are one of four National Historic Monuments in Los Angeles City.
“When I was a kid,” I told Pasqualle. “My aunt lived on 98th McKinley. My sister lived on 115th Street. Whenever we broke a plate or a dish in the house. We saved it and brought it to ‘Crazy Sam’. That’s what the neighbors called him. I never thought he was crazy. There isn’t one weld in that entire Watts Towers structure. He bent that steel into circles on the old Pacific and Electric -rail tracks in back of the his place. The Watts Local used to run back there. My dad was a machinist on that train line. Sam lived in a house there on the site. He was from a little town called Ribottoli, Italy.”
Pasqualle taught school over at Martin Luther King-Charles Drew Medical School of Allied Health for a long time. We both were raised Catholic. So we always had a lot of altar-boy stories to exchange. We both still remembered our prayers when the Mass was said in Latin.
“This is Alpine where you live up here,” I told him once. “They train the cops up here. That’s why LAPD is the best. You know the mythology?” I smiled, and he laughed because I knew he did. “They got no fear in them, these cops. And you can’t kill them,” I said. “Why? Cause their already dead. At least that’s what the legend said. I was born right down there,” I pointed over the bluff raised up in a layer of smog on the meridian, “in a tenement, a stones throw from Chinatown. I used to work at Little Joe’s Restaurant. Chinatown is a rough place. The Kow-Loons, the Toy-Lees and the Wha-Chings are three powerful mobs down there.”
Pasqualle said, “This town has got quite a history.”
“That’s for sure,” I said, still looking off into the clearing sky. “I think the leader of the Toy-Lees was killed in Chinatown down there near Hop Louie’s in the 50’s. Lieutenant Edward Ord drew up the first map of the place in 1856. They named a street down there after him. You never hear about the Indians though.”
“Indians?” Pasqualle asked.
“Sure,” I said, “Of course most you see of them now is some blood descendants dancing over there in the Olvera Street Plaza. I like to think that they still live up here in Elysian Park. The Totongna, Kawengua, Maungna, Yangna, Apachiangna, Tibahangna, the Ahaugna and the Suangna are all but extinct now. This is before Pio Pico and the original 40—who incidentally over have of which were Mulatto—Settlers came.”
“They were Spanish, no?” Pasqualle asked.
“They spoke the Spanish language,” I said. “Most of them were part African.”
I told him how he was walking on sacred ground. He asked me what I meant. “You ever read Al Martinez?” I asked. He told me he didn’t know.
“Martinez,” I said. “He wrote this book about one of the most famous homicide detectives in the history of Los Angeles—John Saint-John, Badge Number One. They called him Jigsaw John. That’s what the novel is called. I think Martinez still writes for The LA Times. I used to throw the Mirror before I went to school in the morning when I was a kid. I bought my first bike with that job. Of course the Examiner was still around then. It was during the days when Los Angeles was a Two-newspaper town. I went to Cathedral High school for two years. It’s right down there on Mission.” I pointed over the hills starting to glisten with new sun.
“This is a Catholic town. My sister graduated from Catholic Girl’s High. My big brother went to Loyola. I was baptized at Saint Joseph’s on 12th and Los Angeles Street. My mother wanted me to be a priest. I graduated from Saint Patrick’s Grammar school with the likes of Ronald Seats, Arthur and Bernard Parks. Things were a lot different then.”
He must have seen a worried look in my eyes. Pasqualle asked me what was wrong.
“Two guys got knocked over by the Towers a couple of days ago.”
“What, did you know them?”
“Naw,” I said. “One went by Sonny, the other called Bong. They ran a car wash on 109th up on Wilmington Avenue. One of them got knocked at nine in the morning. The other one bought it at three. I didn’t know either one of them,” and I sighed stopping there. We stood a moment and watched Pinocchio chase squirrels. “Things didn’t used to be this way in Los Angeles, man.”
“You be careful,” he said. “These little -creeps got no respect.”
Since Pasqualle is from Philadelphia and New Jersey, I asked him did he ever have any run-ins with the mob.”
“Not me personally,” he said. “But they shot at my father’s father once. And then there was Maureen,” he paused and kissed his fingers, speaking with his fingers and hands the same way I had seen my other friends from Sicily do a thousand times. “She worked for Skinny D’amato in Atlantic City.”
“Was Skinny a Made Guy?”
“No,” he said. “That’s bogus. Skinny was a Connected Guy. But he never took money. Believe me. He was offered plenty. In 1953, Paul (Skinny) D’amato ran the 500 Club. The club catered to such notables as Sam Giancanna. Sinatra used to bring Ava Gardner there. In 1960, Joe Kennedy met Frank for vote support help in West Virginia for JFK. Frank was the one asked Skinny for the help. Skinny got the votes from the Union coal minors. Maureen didn’t start working for Skinny until 1969. In February 1970, the US Committee against Organized crime questioned her for seventy-five minutes.” He waited, armed folded, as we both watch Pinocchio almost catch a morning dove. “What about you? Your people ever have any run-ins with the Mob?”
“My Old man ran liquor for Al Capone,” I said.
Pasqualle turned to me. His brow furrowed in surprise. Pinocchio went after a much bigger dog; muscling up to him and barking so loud all the people in the park were looking at us. Pasqualle called him off.
“Yeah,” I said. “And before that, he worked over on Wabash for Big Jim Colosimo before he got knocked.”
“So your poem in the book?It’s on the level?”
“That’s how he came by the name,” I said.
Pasqualle smiled, “So he was ambitious. So?”
“You see, you don’t understand,” I said. “Ambition is one thing. But the writing of this about my father came very hard for me. For one thing, this is something that a person…”
Pasqualle cut me off, “Yeah, but it’s a great piece. Besides it all happened a long time ago. And…”
I held up a hand, “I’m going to tell you something,” I said. “This history of my father is information of which I am not proud. You see, the whole idea of tragedy turns upon the lynchpin of NOT KNOWING what one is doing.” Pasqualle asked me what I meant.
“My father left New Orleans when he was twelve,” I said. “This is where the turning point of tragedy began for him. A person does not know what he is doing when he is twelve years old.”
We spent the rest of the day talking about Oedipus at Colnis. And the whole idea of being exiled from home took on a whole new meaning for Pasqualle Viola.
I wondered when I got back to Watts of all the other conversations by resident Elysian which had taken place in that same Park — what were their stories, the when and where and just how they came to be — here in the City of Angels?
Dec 23, 2010
I learned today, that I must leave this apartment by Dec 25. The owner of the school is back in America with his family to enjoy Xmas. The school is now purportedly insolvent. I have to pack my remaining clothes, books and shoes and mail them back to Xuchang where my other stuff is stored in an apartment without any electricity. It’s snowing also.
Further, I will probably have to take the bus back to Xuchang (12 hours on the road), or the train(16 hours). Actually, I flew. And that is how I will probably spend Xmas. I spent Xmas in Xuchang. It cost me 300 rmb for the trip by taxi. I slept in my old apartment without electricity. It was freezing. I lit a candle.
After this wonderful turn of events I can’t help but laugh. LOL I can’t help but think… Things could be so much worse. There is still the distinct possibility of war between North and South Korea. I will probably look for a gig in China for a month if I can find a hotel or an apartment there. If nothing gels I’ll hit the road again: probably to Russia, Canada, Prague. I have friends there. I’ll keep you posted along the way. The artist life leaves much to be desired. Freedom (illusion that it is) is beginning to cost me more than money. The stress of uncertainty takes it’s toll. Age alters the image: the skull of a dog on the head of a stake. To say the least the experience is compelling: the debt, the uncertainty, the bigotry, the unstable regimes teetering on the brink of war, the duplicity, the deception, the ever growing failure of the world to love itself. Yet hope ‘springs eternal’ as long as I can read, write and love. LOL I can’t see or imagine my life without it: this indomitable spirit of art. The shadows have left me now in the porch of this window and snow is beginning to fall in the cold of another white night. Be well. Happy holidays. And I will keep you posted.
Xuchang, Henan Province
Eric John Priestley, a veteran of Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop, has recently had his most recent novel, For Keeps, published by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions in Los Angeles. Currently, he teaches at the Henan University of Economics and Law in China. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel.