Sometime in the late eighties.
In the shadows of the 241st Street subway station, last stop on the IRT line, half an hour to Yankee Stadium. White Plains Road. DeLillo Country. The City Line twenty-four hour bakery and coffee shop. Where the bookies, hoods and dreamers from City Island to Baychester hung out, talking about how Frankie done this, and Joey done that and how Jimmy Pepperoni got nailed for drugs and was headed for the Dannemora big house for at least ten years with good behaviour but that Jimmy never had good behaviour so forget about it. But maybe Johnny The Greaser could get him reduced, no problem. The protagonist in this story has ‘been there and done that and wishes everyone to know about it.
…..”Hear about Franky Tagliateli’s ’s kid Joey? Going to Fordham. Hey, any kid that uses the word perhaps instead of maybe is not cut out for our line of work. And not for nothing but Joey, not that Joey, but Joey The Plumber, his wife that is, makes the sweetest meatballs. Momma Mia. Better than at Antonio’s up in Yonkers. Then not for nothing again, but OTB is taking the action away from the local bookies and now the Feds and those crumbs in Albany are bigger hustlers and bums than all of the slobs in Wakefield. Look who just walked through the door! That Irish goon Mike Quinn. How in hell did he find time between hold-ups? Are you shitting me or what? Sit right here. Tell us all a tale of woe. Where you going? Hey! I was just saying…
Hey! Come here! Are you Tommy DeVino’s kid Tommy Two? You the guy that wanted to know about California from twenty-five years ago? Come over here. Sit right down. I was there when it was California. I got stories. You want to listen? Good.
I went there in sixty-four. I was twenty. Flunked the draft exam down on Whitehall Street the year before on account of eczema. I was shit-faced happy about that. I was working for a place called Wakefield Signs on 210th Street then, right under the el. It’s not there anymore. I was making good money already. Hand-lettering paper banners and sometimes trucks. Somebody there knew a sign guy from Los Angeles. Me and a guitarist named Frankie Jerome from Baychester Avenue decided to jet out there. He was a year older than me.
We rode on a seven twenty-seven. Coast to coast. First time flying. Never got the creeps from it though. Those wings cut through time like it was a tomato and the engines played a joke on three thousand miles. A few minutes after take-off, the whole city, the whole damn dirty Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island easily fit in the small window I was looking out of. I was right here at the coffee shop at five in the morning. I was in Los Angeles at two in the afternoon. Yeah, I know, the time zone changes didn’t hurt either. When I saw those orange rooftops of San Bernardino smiling up at me and all those swimming pools glittering like aqua-colored jewels, I knew I’d never go back. Naturally, I’m back now, but that’s a much longer story than the one I’m telling now. I’m just saying.
Everything was strange like in a dream. Looked nothing like the Bronx. Not even Westchester. Nothing like anything I ever saw. Another planet. All those pink and light green deco buildings and convertible cars. Those Googie signs. The kind that Huxley liked. Those wide streets. The palms shooting towards the sun. Santa Monica Pier. And Venice Beach was like an Annette Funicello movie that kept running. A carnival all year long. Three weeks later, Frankie got involved with some musicians in the Valley and I never saw him again. But I didn’t miss him. Too busy. I heard he wound up in San Francisco. That’s where everyone said to go. That’s where it’s happening, they said. Flower Power, poetry, guitars, sex and dope was happening for them. But I got good gig at Western Signs, after only a month. On Pico lettering trucks. Before the year was out, I had enough money to buy a 1956 M Series Mercury truck. Red. Good condition too. Paid seven hundred for it.
I met up with crazy Justin Thyme one day on La Brea. But that wasn’t his real name. He was lettering a window. His name was Arnold Goldberg or something. Around ten years older than me. What a fastidious bastard. Complain about a speck of dust. About anything. Come from Bushwick in Brooklyn. Did a little time in Rikers Island and Tombs for this and that. So he upped and moved to California. In fifty-nine, I think. Probably running from alimony. Or creditors. Or forgery. Or worse. Upped and joined the Krishna’s. You ought to get a load of those characters. Drifters, dreamers, schemers. Anyway, Justin lived free and easy. Usually got free board from the local temple. Moved around the state. What an operator. First in San Diego. Then Santa Rosa. Santa Barbara. Long Beach. Up and down the coast. When I met him, he had a shop in LA, compliments of Hare Krishna Temple, at La Cienega and Venice.
Hung with him for a few months. Justin always got the best weed. Knew every whorehouse from Long Beach to Daly City. The guy was a great sign painter. A real
Michelangelo. He made signs that you wanted to take home and sleep with. Signs that you wanted to walk right into. I’m not shitting you. They weren’t signs. They were events. Happenings. Mesmerizing they were. He would take a week just to prepare the signboard. Sanding, priming, painting. Drying. Sanding again. Then repeating everything a few times more. Something like the Dutch do with their doors and window frames. The surface would shine like a mirror. You could shave while looking into it. Then he would hand letter it, using One Shot enamels. That’s where I first heard about One Shot, because we always used Ronan’s in New York. That would take another week. But it looked like God made it. Or one of His right-hand sign painting angels.
One time I was lettering the door of Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset in Hollywood when I saw Johnny Rivers for the first time. Got to know him a little bit. Real name is Ramistella. Great singer, guitarist and songwriter. A legend. He even invited me for a recording session. I was there in the studio on Sunset when he recorded Poor Side of Town. A religious experience. I’m not shitting you. The guy had style. Class. Come from Louisiana. Memphis. Secret Agent Man. California Dreaming better than the Momma’s and Papa’s hit. I’m not shitting you. His stuff never ever gets old. The guy had phrasing. Emotion. Great guitar, too. Underrated something awful. The Whiskey was nothing until he made it big. Iggy and The Stooges played there. The Doors too. The Byrds. I saw them all. And the girls. They swarmed like bees that made the right kind of honey if you get my meaning. When I go, don’t send me to heaven, please. Just send me back there at the Whiskey.
Then there was the sign guy who wrote on the side. Rudy Dietrich was his name. We called him Rudy Kazootie. Real good sign guy. Knew about type and layout instead of just hand lettering. Better than most. He drank too much. First beer. Then wine. Then Mad Dog. That’s what he drank. At the end, he Short Dogged it on the streets. The little bottles. All he could afford. It got to him finally. Hardly ate. A bowl of cigarette butts for breakfast. Was full crazy without it and half crazy with it. A real shame. The guy had talent. A manuscript that nobody saw, nobody read. Thick as a phone book, it was. All about the demons of art, of love, of the abandoned soul, the alienated self. That heavy shit of what makes us all tick. After getting a little juiced, he would call in on KABC talk radio and read a satire he’d written. Got lots of laughs. He died on Jefferson one Sunday morning with the sun coming up. Laying there in the gutter. Thirty-nine years old. A frameless nameless sketch. Lost and never found. Missed for only a short while by a handful of bums from Venice Beach.
And ask me about that prodigiously talented nut case Phil Spector. OK, the guy was a musical genius. But a tough Jew with a temper like TNT. And brains. Always thought the guy was connected. Maybe Cohen’s Family bankrolled him. Who knows. Mickey Cohen was still running things Los Angeles underworld-style in those days. Maybe I was dreaming but I could’ve sworn I saw Mickey go into Gold Star one day. That’s where Spector made his Wall of Sound. A storefront right on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. I’m not shitting you. I was gold-leafing a window not two doors down the block. I was fascinated with that little store. But I never was inside. I would go by there once in a while. See who was showing up. I wouldn’t go near Spector. Not after I saw him once railing against some studio musician or poor slob technician. But I did talk with half of The Righteous Brothers one day. Bobby Hatfield was a nice guy. The king of blue-eyed soul had a simple heart of gold.
I’m not shitting you.
When I got enough money together, I opened my own shop on Montana, Horizon Signs three blocks up from the Pacific. Santa Monica was great in those days. The rent was only one hundred fifty bucks a month. Think about that. I ate at Zucky’s Deli on Wilshire and Fifth for lunch. I think it’s still there. Sandwiches. Ham and Swiss on Rye. Better than drugs. A BLT, thicker than a canned ham, was a buck and a quarter. Think about that too. Had those fabulous red leather seats. Same at Ships Diner in Culver City and a hundred other lunch joints in LA. Ships was right by the Metro Goldwyn Studios, where I lettered a few props. You would see all those TV actors coming in at Ships and Zucky’s. The ones that did all those series. Twilight Zone, Cannon, The Fugitive. I’m not shitting you. Jack Klugman, Peter Faulk Angie Dickenson. A lot of others. Everything was happening. The old and the new. I even saw Stan Laurel one day walking on Jefferson, not long after I got there. In sixty-five, right before he died. I loved the guy, but I didn’t want to bother him.
I saw a taping The Turtles were doing right in front of the LA Water and Power Building, Bunker Hill. Sixty-five, I think. I was working on a sign right across the street. They were lip-syncing “You, Nobody But You”. Nice kids. Goofing around while they did it. They were just like me, looking for the gold. They started out as nothing, right on Sepulveda, near LAX, but they found a lot more gold than I ever did. But those were the days. Golden days of flagrant youth. When courage was forged from delusions. Where dreams ripened like avocados in the California sun.
Hey, I even wrote a poem about it. I think I remember it. Goes something like this:
Those long gone LA days.
Tooling around in the warm sun rays/
In my old Merk truck, the one of red.
Now a sign on La Brea, pays good, ‘nuff said/
In the majestic light blue and tan of the city.
Though its style disappears, oh what a pity/
What a place, a regular paradise.
Even considering all its vice/
What a shame, that place on Fairfax upped and closed.
And now a few more while expectations dozed.
The sun has set, beyond the Monica Wheel,
Lovely sight, though blue I feel/
But the memories, they are mine forever.
And has LA died? Never never never!
That’s it kid. Thanks for listening. I got to go place a bet with Jimmy The Wop.
Say hi to your father for me.