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. Where the bookies, hoods and wanna-bees from City Island to Baychester hung in the twenty four hour coffee shop, talking about how Frankie done this, and Joey done that and how Jimmy Pepperoni got nailed for drugs and was headed for Dannemora for at least ten years with good behaviour but Jimmy never had good behaviour so forget about it. But maybe Johnny The Greaser could get him reduced, no problem.
“Hear about Franky Tagliateli’s ’s kid Joey? Going to Fordham. Hey, any kid that uses the word ‘perhaps’ instead of ‘maybe’ ain’t 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 taken the action away from the local bookies like us 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 DiVito’s kid, Tommy Two? You the guy that wanted to know about California? 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 Wall 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. 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 Two Forty First street 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 roof tops of San Bernardino smiling up at me and all those swimming pools glittering like aqua-coloured 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. Nothing like anything I ever saw. Another planet. All those pink and light green deco buildings and convertable cars. Those Googie signs. Those wide streets. The palms shooting towards the sun. Santa Monica Pier. Those bikinied girls from an Annette Funicello movie. 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 a 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 Ryker’s 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.
Anyway, Justin lived free and easy. Usually got free board from the local temple. Moved around the state. 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 artist. 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 Santa Monica Boulevard when I saw Johnny Rivers for the first time. Even talked with him a few times. Real name is Ramestella. Great singer and guitarist. A legend. This guy had style. Come from Louisiana. ‘Poor Side of Town’. ‘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. Bad-assed guitar, too. Underrated something awful. The Whiskey was nothing until he made it big. Led Zeppelen played there. The Doors too. The Byrds. We saw them all. And the chicks. 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 Dietricht 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. After getting a little juiced, he would call in on 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.
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 hung out in Zucky’s Coffee Shop for lunch, right up the street. Had those rich red leather seats. And you could smoke inside in those days. Everybody was smoking. Same as at Ships Diner in Culver City, right by the Metro Goldwyn Studios, where I lettered a few props. A BLT was seventy five cents. Think about that too. You would see all those TV actors coming in. 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. 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 old LA Power and Light Building, downtown. Sixty five, I think. I was working on a sign right across the street. They were lip-syncing “You, Nobody but You”. Nice kids. They did It Ain’t Me Babe better than any group. Better than Dylan. 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 an illusion. And dreams ripened like avocados in the California sun. 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.