This one-year journal is the unfolding story of a writer, walker, husband, father, former teacher, and ex-college football player. It’s the story of 54-year-old man who thinks, creates, dreams, doubts, regrets, and who writes honestly and fearlessly of his past and present life.
Thursday, January 27, 1994—The Man Who Discovered Me
For the past two days, I’d been thinking of Dan Olmos. The strange thing is, I found out today from Louise Hay, owner of Hay House, that Dan, my editor at Hay House, died earlier in the week. I just talked to him last week after the 6.6 earthquake in Los Angeles. We talked mainly about the quake, which was very frightening to him.
It was Dan Olmos who discovered me! He gave my book Words of Wellness: A Treasury of Quotations for Well-Being a lot of his time and effort, something I’m very appreciative of.
Dan was a true friend of mine, even though I only saw him in person maybe five times. He called me every so often after my book came out in 1991. In his call to me last week, he never once let on that he was sick or weak. You have to admire a person like that who doesn’t want others to worry about him.
My heart goes out to Dan Olmos. He was a major force in getting my first book published. Out of the twenty publishers I sent a query to in 1989, he was the only one to see my book’s potential. He called me a day or two after receiving it and said, “We’ve been thinking about publishing a book of quotations on health, and then all of a sudden we received your query. Isn’t that a coincidence?”
It was quite a coincidence to hear of Dan’s passing after I’d been thinking of him for the past two days. He believed in coincidences. I’m beginning to see he was right.
Wednesday, February 16, 1994—So Many Things Are Happening
So many things are happening. Ray just had his bar mitzvah this past weekend. It took a lot of time, energy, and money, but it turned out to be a successful event. Joan and I were very proud of Ray’s speech and the way he carried himself.
We’re finishing off buying a house. We’re about to put down 20% of $365,000. The mortgage payments will be between $1500 and $2000 a month for many years to come. We have to get the house in order before moving in, which means having the inside painted, installing wall-to-wall carpeting in five rooms, changing bathroom sinks and toilets, and having the contractor work on a number of other improvements.
We have to get the tenants out of the house by the time the escrow closes on March 15. There are two young women presently renting rooms in the house (originally there were five tenants, three upstairs and two downstairs). One woman doesn’t seem like she’s going to give us much trouble. The other woman, though, never responds to my calls, nor has she responded to the letter I dropped in the mailbox. God, it would be nice if she moves out on the specified date because I just don’t need any more hassles in my life right now.
At Ray’s bar mitzvah, a few of his friends threw sand on the wooden floor and damaged it. I wish I knew who the culprits were. The sand was used to hold down the balloons that were on the tables. The woman who runs events at the temple says Joan and I are responsible for the damage and have to pay between $500 and $1000. I think the temple should be insured against such things.
Then there’s my stepson Sol, who’s a student at Bowdoin in Maine. Since he’s come out of the closet to tell the world of his homosexuality, he’s cut off all communication from us and his friends. Sol is not in his right mind. It will be hard for me to forgive him if and when he ever comes to his senses.
I got real mad at Ray yesterday. He’d been hiding his semester grades in his desk for the past two weeks. He was afraid of our reaction to his grades and behavior. Yesterday I found the grades in his desk. When he came home, I said, “Ray, I want you to tell me the truth. Do you have your semester grades?” He said, “No.” I said, “You’re going to get into deep trouble if you don’t tell me the truth. Do you have your grades?” “No.” I asked him again, “Do you have your grades?” He looked me in the eye and said “No” for the third time. I then took him into his room, opened his desk drawer, and showed him where he’d been hiding his grades. In other words, I caught him red-handed. I then bawled him out for five minutes and told him to unplug the two video machines connected to our TV that he got for his bar mitzvah. I told him he was a liar and that I couldn’t trust him. I was so furious that I had to go for a long walk to cool off.
Joan was here when I got back. She told me he’d been crying on his bed when she went into his room. I told her I’d lost faith in my own son. She told me not to give up on him so easily. I said, “How can I ever trust him anymore?” “You’re just going to have to,” she said. “I can’t.” “You have to,” she said. “He has a tendency to tell lies,” I said. “He’ll get over it,” she said.
And then today he stayed home because of a sore throat and cough. Joan and I left the house early, and while we were gone he got on a chair and reached for one of the games high up in my closet to play with while we were gone. When we came home, I found the chair next to my closet. He did something wrong again! I didn’t lose my temper this time. We talked about it. He then told me the truth.
That’s all I want from him—the truth. I’m not the type to get mad over grades. But when I see his behavior is poor in two or three classes, I tell him I don’t want to see that anymore. He was afraid of my reaction to his behavior and Joan’s reaction to his grades. Sol is lurking somewhere in the shadows of all this. I resent his writing to Ray and telling him that he can’t trust us, that we’re trying to mold Ray in a certain fashion, and that he’s afraid of what Ray will turn out to be because of our guidance. I resent Sol for telling his half-brother that he, Sol, is no longer a part of our family. Sol is trying to divide our family and I resent it to the hilt.
I’m almost finished with the revision of the first novel I wrote, A Class of Leaders. It will be a controversial book if it’s ever published. I changed the ending. The original ending had the protagonist, Joshua Sampson, not caring that he was fired from his high school teaching job because he had already planned to live in Europe with his girlfriend. The version I just finished has Sampson getting the teacher’s union to help him get his job back.
That’s what’s happening in our lives in the middle of February 1994. I hope to God everything will turn out all right.
Wednesday, March 2, 1994—Homeowner
Our home loan was approved yesterday. We’re going to own a house! It took us a month to find it at 2349 Funston Avenue, San Francisco 94116, located about five short blocks from Muni’s West Portal Station.
Ray, Joan, and I met with our psychologist, Dr. Richard Vogel, for the second time in eight days. The meetings were mainly for Ray’s benefit. In the first meeting Ray told us he felt pressured by us, especially by me. He was afraid of my reaction to anything he did wrong in or out of school. That’s what’s known as suffocation. I immediately felt for my son and decided to change my approach. I have to control myself and hold back my anger. I have to be firm and not lose my temper. I have to be complimentary instead of critical. I have to talk things out instead of ranting and raving at him.
I came to my computer today to write about buying a house, or did I want to write about that schmuck, the American Israeli physician, Dr. Baruch Goldstein in Israel, who killed thirty or more Arabs and wounded 125 in their place of worship last week.
Now that I’m going to be a property owner, I see things differently. Millions of people have done it before us. Billions, actually. We are now homeowners who have to pay to fix things ourselves instead of having a landlord do it for us.
I see myself as being an owner who will keep our house in good condition, just like I keep my car and body in good condition.
Monday, March 14, 1994—House
Today didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Before going to the Title company to write a check for 20% of what the house is worth, I decided to go to the house to see if German Alemasov, the seller, was going to move out, or if he had already moved out. I peered through the mail slot of the garage door to find that he hadn’t done one thing to move out by tomorrow. I then went around to the back of the house to see if he had moved anything out of his bedroom. I peered through the window to find that his bed and clothes were still there. In other words, the guy has no intention of moving out by tomorrow, the day I’m supposed to be the owner of the house.
So instead of going to the bank for a cashier’s check, I came home and phoned my real estate agent, Vivian Solomon, and the seller’s real estate agent, Hellena Seid. I then called Fidelity National Title and talked to Nga Losacco. She told me she’d call back. My real estate agent called me instead and told me to hold the money for at least another day to see if the man was going to move out by tomorrow. She also told me that the other real estate agent and the man’s ex-wife put her on the defense by saying, “How did you find out about his not moving out? Do you have a key to the house?” Vivian told them I could see through the mail slot and that he hadn’t even started the process of moving. So as it stands right now, I ain’t paying a penny for the house unless he moves out. The man is one dumb motherfucker. He’s a Russian who makes people think he doesn’t understand English. But he does. And from what I’ve seen of him, he has the reverse Midas touch. Everything in his life has turned to crap. His marriage. His house. His tenants. He’s in the home improvement business. The work he’s done on the house was done poorly and cheaply. Maybe he’s in the home de-improvement business. Sometimes I wonder why we’re buying a house that this man has touched. The answers I come up with are: I like the house, its location on a quiet dead-end street, and it’s a good buy.
All I can think of is HOUSE. I can’t think of my book. There’s just too much to think about when one buys a house from a divorced couple and two tenants who are going to still be there when I buy it tomorrow. I don’t need this shit. What the hell am I doing dealing with two tenants who want to be rewarded with a sum of money for moving off the property we just bought?
As I was saying to my good friend Alan Blum last week, “Most of the world is made up of good people.” Yes, most of the world is made up of people who think of one another. People like my real estate agent, Vivian Solomon, who has done everything possible to help us buy the house. People like our family therapist, Richard Vogel, who’s made our family stronger and more loving. Those who don’t think of other people make up about five or ten percent of the population. It’s that small percentage that makes the world go ’round with lawsuits and shootings and tenants who want to be paid off to move and people who don’t do their best work and people who want to steal and kill and rape and who are totally not made to live in this world. God, it seems like I have a negative attitude towards the world. But I don’t. It’s just that five to ten percent that make for most of the problems in the world.
Reading. I read very little nowadays. Writing. The same. Why? HOUSE. The house is running our lives. It has also made us a close-knit family. Joan and I are getting along swimmingly. Ray and I are getting along extremely well. The three of us have a goal (house) and we’re working to reach that goal, because to work for a goal, cooperation is needed.
I got some bad news from a literary agent the other day. She said my book, A Class of Leaders, is not long enough, that it needs another 150 pages added to the 200 it already has. I don’t want to add 150 more pages. I wrote a 200-page book and that’s all I need to say about the subject. Wasn’t Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea a great short book? I wrote what I wrote! Don’t reject me just because something doesn’t meet your standard length. What I’m saying is, how does she know if my book is good or not if she hasn’t even read it? Read it first. You don’t reject a book just because it’s not a certain length. I don’t want to deal with people like that.
A few weeks back, we got out of town and drove up to the Redwoods. The three of us went as far north as Ferndale and stayed at a bed and breakfast called The Gingerbread House. (Ferndale is about twenty miles southwest of Eureka.) We were treated like royalty for one day, and because of that treatment we came home a new and revived family. We came home a united family. It’s great to be together, to discuss, to cooperate, to help, to give.
Tuesday, April 19, 1994—Order Out of Chaos
We are now living in our own house. It’s big. It’s cluttered. There’s a lot to get straightened out. It’s our first house and it better work out. Why? Because we put a lot of money into this place. I put my whole life savings into it. We got rid of two tenants by paying them $2000 each. Then we had to fix it up. The house cost $365,000, plus $20,000 for repairs and cosmetic work. We live on a quiet street. Ray will blossom here. Joan will have more room. I now have my own office to work in, which I’m doing this very second for the first time. The sun is shining. The day is clear. We’re ready and rarin’ to go!
There are a million things to do. Go to Viacom TV and get a new cable box. Get checks printed with our new address. Plant the front yard with California plants. Get the backyard in order. Get things out of boxes. Get laundry detergent. Get food in the refrigerator. Get my office straight so I can sit down and do what I have to do.
I haven’t sat at my desk in a month. All my energy has been directed toward this house. Every bone in my body is sore and tired. My mind is tired. It’s very stressful to move. Never in my life have I carried so many boxes. I moved boxes for three straight weeks. I must have carried at least a hundred of them. I swept and tried to help out as best as I could while Marti, our contractor, and her helpers, Jesus and Israel, were either painting inside the house, replacing toilets, windows, building bookshelves, and putting a door in the hallway. There are still a lot of boxes of books to unpack. In other words, we were living in a flat for twelve years over on 15th Avenue and California Street. We, I should say Joan, accumulated books, books and more books. Me, I travel light as I always have. I try with all my might to be light. The less baggage the better. It’s easier on my back and mind, this compulsiveness to be orderly and neat.
Yeah, I admit it, I’m always trying to make order out of chaos. What caused me to be this way? My mother and father. My dad was like me. He didn’t have many clothes and things. My mom had a million things, except she was pretty orderly. My mom was always telling me to pick up or clean this or that. My dad showed his neatness at his linen store and in the garden. Neat. Orderly. Sweep the alleyway, vacuum your room and the stairs, wash the dishes, take out the garbage, clean the sink, cut the hedges, put your wash away, and so on and so forth. My mom gave me all those orders to be orderly, for there were eight people in the Sutton household. Then we all started drifting away. Charles first, Dave second, Bob, Maurice, me, and finally Al. When Dad died, Mom was the only one left in the large house. And then there was no one left at 1632 North Fairfax Avenue, three houses below Hollywood Boulevard. Now the two-story, four-bedroom, three-bath house is renting for $2000 a month.
Memories. Most of my memories come from that house on Fairfax Avenue. Some come from 6505 Homewood Avenue. Wow, Ray is going to have many memories of 145-15th Avenue and a lot of them will come from this house, 2349 Funston Avenue. I hope the three of us will blossom in this house. I want to write my head off. I want to come down to this office and write, write, write. I want my writing to flow. I want it to make sense. I want it to be humorous. I want it to have meaning. I want it published. If it’s published, I’ll be a very happy man. If it isn’t published, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Wednesday, May 18, 1994—The Ring
I visited the office of a great chiropractor, philosopher, psychologist and friend today: Sky Diamond. I told him I was feeling tired, lethargic, and a little depressed. Sky immediately came to my defense. He said, “We think after a great change, such as moving, things are going to be nice and rosy, but life isn’t that way, Joe. Life is life. We’re walking on eggshells all the time. There’s always something that comes along to keep us off balance. Life’s a rocky road. It’s never, ‘Oh, I just moved, now things will change, everything from now on will be all right.’ It just isn’t that way. Life’s a time to try to reduce all the stress around us. Life’s a time to find out how we’ll react to new situations. Hopefully, we can learn from those situations.”
That’s my friend and chiropractor Sky Diamond, a gem of a man.
I have to set my mind to write every day, just like I set my mind to finding a house, finding a contractor, and then moving into the house. That took a lot of energy out of me. Now’s the time to do something I haven’t done in a while: create new stories. And here’s a story I have in mind:
It was a little over thirteen years ago that our son Ray was born. Joan and I, the day he was born, were walking in Golden Gate Park. It was a day that couldn’t make up its mind. Sunny one minute, cloudy the next. February 7, 1981. We were walking along a path when Joan started having one of her many strong contractions. She stopped, grabbed hold of a tree limb, and held onto it for support. Hanging on a twig right in front of her was a ring. We took it as a good omen.
Joan and I inspected the ring. It was a heavy man’s ring, solid and strong. As soon as we got home, the little human being in my wife’s belly was trying to tell her that he wanted to be let out into the world. A couple of hours later, Ray was born.
Joan and I decided the best place to put the ring was on a trophy of mine located on the mantel over the fire place. The trophy was of a football player finishing off punting a football. The newfound ring went on the kicking leg.
Every so often, as the years passed, we looked at the ring either separately or together, and it reminded us of the day our son was born. To us, it was a lucky ring. The brass ring! That was the omen. It was a good omen, because Ray is Ray and we’re very proud and happy to have him.
One day, several years later, I looked for the ring on the trophy and it wasn’t there. I asked Joan where it was. She didn’t know. So for the last four or five years, we were always saying to one another, “I wonder where that ring is?”
After renting a duplex for thirteen years, it was time to move into our house. And what a moving job it was. Books, books, and more books had to be packed into boxes. The day before we moved, while vacuuming the carpets, I moved one of Joan’s empty bookcases out from the wall. And what did I see? The ring. I picked it up and said to myself, “It’ll never be lost again,” and put it on my key chain. When I die, the ring will be in our son’s possession. When he dies, I hope he’ll pass it on to his child.
The ring is in my pocket as I write. It’s shinier now and getting shinier as it rubs against my pants pocket. People tell me it’s not brass, that it could be gold. To me, it’s worth more than any metal on Earth. It’s a symbol of our son’s birth, our son who recently became a man in the Jewish tradition. I don’t care how precious or worthless the ring might be. The thing is, it will always be a good luck omen in possession of a Sutton.
May 27, 1994—I’m a Writer
I love our house. The only worry I have is that it might not stand up well to a big earthquake. But the thing is, it stood up to all the other earthquakes since it was built in 1945. I don’t know why it can’t stand up to all the rest that will come along.
The thought just came to me that I’m a very lucky man. I can go for a walk in the morning or afternoon, I can go anywhere I want, and sleep to any hour I want. I can do anything I want, anytime I want. But what I choose to do is wake up around 7:30, read the paper while eating breakfast, sit at my desk, write and revise for several hours, then go for a long walk.
I write mainly about my life. I’ve sold stories or articles in the past based on my experiences. I don’t like all that formal stuff about plot, setting, and character that’s involved in fiction writing. I write the way I write, as did Hemingway, Saroyan, Whitman, as does Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Joseph Heller. Maybe I’m a mediocre writer. Maybe I’m a great writer. It doesn’t matter where I fall on the spectrum. I’m a writer. That’s all that matters. I write in my own unique way, as do all writers. Actually no serious writer is better or worse than any other writer. We’re all equal. We all write the way we want, which is the only way we know how to write.
Tuesday, June 28, 1994—Courtroom Follies
I was an alternate juror for three days last week in Federal Court. It was my job to sit with the jury so I’d be ready to take someone’s place if that person was unable to sit for the remainder of the trial. Being an alternate, I still had to listen to the evidence, but when deliberations began, my job was finished.
What did I notice about being in a courtroom? Well, I saw that the judge was human. He, like me, got bored sitting in his chair as he overlooked the proceedings. I saw him nod off a couple of times for a few minutes.
One of the three defense lawyers reminded me of the lawyer who stuttered in the movie My Cousin Vinnie. This guy’s cheeks puffed up when he pronounced a word with a “p” or a “b” in it. Poor guy. It’s unbelievable that he would choose a profession where he had to talk and influence people as his cheeks ballooned out when he said words like “pot, lap, prune, ipso facto, bad, prostitute.” I couldn’t stop laughing internally when his cheeks puffed up like that.
Then there was the prosecuting attorney. He was a very heavy man who loved to talk. He talked so much that foam would form on the sides of his mouth. He looked like Humpty Dumpty to me. The floor shook when he walked. He had a very sharp mind, except he talked too much.
The trial was about an individual, a man of Chinese descent, who trafficked and loaded up on guns that crossed state lines. His life was guns and bullying, and man, if there are two things I hate in this world, it’s guns and bullying. That motherfucker was guilty as all hell for transporting and distributing guns to his Chinese gang members.
One of the defense lawyers (he reminded me of a Gestapo officer) raised his voice too high when he spoke to the jury. All he needed was a Gestapo uniform with tall black boots and a gun strapped to his hip to look like a true-blue Nazi. The guy, by the way, had the longest shoes I’ve seen since I last saw Charlie Chaplin in a film.
I got to sit and take breaks with the jury, but when time came to deliberate, I was immediately dismissed by the judge. I would’ve loved to have had a say in the deliberations.
I learned from reading the Chronicle that it didn’t take long for the jury to find Raymond Chow guilty as all sin. Good! You see, Chow was the head of a Chinese gang in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He bought firearms from out of state, making it a federal crime. He was found guilty on six of seven counts. That man lived in the city I live in. He should go to hell for what he did, signing-up a bunch of Chinese youths to commit crimes for him. Chow, known as “Brother Shrimp” or “Shrimp Boy” or “Father” to his underlings, not only trafficked in firearms, but in cocaine and prostitution as well. A real, true scumbag. One of his former underlings, the main government witness who ratted on him, went to Lowell High School, not far from where I live. The kid was intelligent, but he used his intelligence in the wrong way when he started hanging out with Chow and his gang. So Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow—a person who bullied people, who carried a lot of cash on him, who bought and distributed guns, who used women and dealt in drugs—was found guilty and sentenced to prison for seven years. Let us hope he rots there.
Thursday, July 14, 1994—Tired
I’m feeling very tired. Everything I’ve done this past week feels like a heavy burden to me. My muscles are tired, I have a cough, I’m not sleeping well, I’m falling asleep at my desk. I’m just very tired all the time.
Friday, July 15, 1994—Bronchitis and O.J.
I went to see my doctor at Kaiser today. He said I have a bad case of bronchitis and gave me penicillin.
O.J. Simpson has taken up most of the headlines this past month. All evidence points to him killing, in brutal fashion with a knife, his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. He’s pleading not guilty.
I watched a biography of O.J. last night. The man is as guilty as all get-out. The stewardess, on the late flight he took from L.A. to Chicago on the night of the murder, said she saw O.J. hold his bloody hand in a duffel bag the whole time. And then there’s the “suicide letter” a friend of his read to the world while he and Al Cowlings were driving on the freeway in a white Bronco with a dozen police cars in tow as the world was watching all this on TV. Not once in the letter did O.J. mention that he didn’t kill his ex-wife. He wrote that he was the victim. The Bronco ended up back at O.J.’s house in Brentwood. The man killed two people and now he’s hiring a dozen lawyers (some well-known: F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz, Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran) to defend him. It was a crime of a jealous man who was crazed by his ex-wife’s behavior of going out with another man. “She shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing, it’s not a good example for the kids,” he wrote.
No one ever told O.J. that he should not have physically abused his ex-wife. He should go to jail for that alone. Now Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman are dead.
Thursday, July 28, 1994—Take Me Out to the Ballgame
I’ve been revising three books of mine: my teacher novel, A Class of Leaders; my road novel, Highway Sailor; and my short story collection The Immortal Mouth and Other Stories.
Last night I played poker with The Royal Flush at Jerry Lipkin’s house in Vallejo. I got home at 12:45 a.m. We had been drinking beer and smoking pot. Pot makes for a hard time the next day. Today is the next day.
I looked in the paper this morning and found that the Giants were playing the Colorado Rockies at 1 p.m. at Candlestick Park. I wanted to take Ray to the game. I wanted to spend the day with him. I parked the car on the street a couple of blocks from the stadium. I paid a young Black kid (maybe 10 years old) a dollar to “watch” my car.
Ray and I sat in the bleachers for the first time. He’s been wanting to do that for the past two seasons and he finally got his chance. It wasn’t as good as sitting behind home plate. What we usually do is buy the cheapest tickets and move to empty seats behind home plate. That’s been our routine the last couple of years. “Why not sit in the best seats?” I always say. The Dodgers are in first place, Colorado a half-game behind them, and the Giants are in third place, one game out. It’s a tight race. The major league ball players today set August 12 to go on strike. Two more weeks and the season might be over.
Friday, July 29, 1994—That’s Life
Today my relationship with Joan is on the semi-outs. The other day it was almost perfection. All of last week was perfection. What causes things to change? “That’s life,” sings Frank Sinatra. “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.” It probably has a lot to do with society at large—putting stress on us, and this carries over into a husband and wife relationship.
A man has many stresses, such as doing well at his job, getting enough exercise, eating correctly, giving his teenage son attention, coming home from a poker game drugged up on pot and being tired the next day. God, there are so many factors as to why people get along or don’t get along with one another.
What are the do’s of a relationship? Well, the most important thing is sharing. Sharing the load of running a household. Sharing the shopping, cooking, washing of dishes, cleaning of the house, and other varied chores.
Getting along means getting enough sleep and having enough time to yourself and with each other.
Here’s an example of getting along. Last week we spent a couple of days at Wilbur Hot Springs. And then not getting along, which happened yesterday when Joan’s friend and her children took over the house. Joan seems to escape from her friends when they come to our house. She comes home after they arrive. She’s not here when meals are served. So who takes up the brunt of the responsibility? Me. I have to eat with her friends, clean up after her friends, converse with her friends, and so on and so forth. Why does she escape from her friends when they’re staying at our house? I don’t know the answer. It would be nice to ask her. But I haven’t gotten to the meat of what I’m writing about. I’m writing about a husband and wife relationship. Do I abuse my wife? Does she abuse me? She felt I abused her yesterday when she said she was looking for a cover for the futon I just bought the other day. The futon already has a cover. Mis-communication is what’s going on. She meant the fitted cover that goes on before you put the bottom sheet on a bed. That’s what she meant by mattress cover. I ridiculed her for that in front of her friend.
And lately she’s always losing things. I ridiculed her in front of the tree man this morning, when she got a call from this school saying they didn’t find her glasses. Damn, yesterday she got calls from three schools. Two said they didn’t find her puppets and the third said they did. Why is she always losing things. She’s in too much of a hurry. Stress. I didn’t sleep enough the night before. I’m tired. Stress clashes with tiredness and it’s back on the bad side of your spouse again.
What causes the good times or the meeting of minds? It has to do with sleep, eating, exercise, communication, sharing, caring, and loving.
Yesterday Ray and I went to the Giants-Rockies game. The Giants lost. They’re one game behind the Dodgers with twelve games left to play, if the players stick to their strike plan.
Come August 20 I’ll be 54. I need to get my energy back. I wish I knew the cause of this malaise I’m in. Could it be that I’m eating the wrong food, that I’m overeating, or that I’m not exercising enough?
Thursday, August 18, 1994—Two Letters
Today I want to write two letters. One to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner about the baseball strike, and the other to my stepson Sol, in Maine, about the depression Joan is in. Her depression is not helping our relationship.
I’m a Giants fan. I live and die with every game they play. I went to twenty games last year with my son when they were in a pennant race with the Atlanta Braves. This year an interesting race for first place was brewing between the Giants, Dodgers, and Rockies. Matt Williams, the Giants’ third baseman, was on the verge of getting at least 50 home runs this year and possibly within reach of breaking Roger Maris’ home run record of 61.
But then came the strike. Whenever someone asks me about it, I get angry. I get angry because I see greed coming from both the players and the owners. What the heck are they trying to do? Their greed is ruining one of the greatest games on this planet. Baseball is great because you don’t have to weigh 300 lbs. or stand seven feet tall to play the game. It’s played by guys who weigh or are as tall as the average Joe.
I’m pissed. There’s a strike going on because the players and owners don’t want to share what we the fans are doling out to them. Both sides are spoiled. They don’t know where the real power comes from. It comes from us, the fans. That’s right, the fans are the ones who pay to get into a game. It’s the fans who are the real owners of the game. I’m tired of being a part of paying these major leaguers an average salary of a million dollars a year? Man, I don’t think I’ve earned a million dollars in all my 54 years, and the same goes for millions upon millions of others in this country.
I’m tired of being spit upon and taken for granted by those who play and run major league baseball. I’m actually doing well during the strike. I can focus fully on my work now. I don’t have to worry how Barry Bonds or Matt Williams are doing, or whether Bill Swift’s arm is sore or not. Why should I worry about those guys? They don’t worry about me. And to top it off, they get free publicity. Every game they play is reported in the paper and shown on TV! Me, if I received the free publicity they get, I’d be extremely grateful for it. Do you think the players and owners are grateful? They probably think we owe them more. Some players don’t even talk to the press, the people who are in part responsible for the salaries they make.
People are starving in the streets. People are losing their jobs. Millions don’t have health care. All of this is happening today. But the owners and players, they don’t see or have a feel for what’s happening in the real world. All they can see and feel are their wallets. Please tell me, why does anyone need more than a million dollars a year? What the hell can they do with that much money? I’m sure they can live comfortably with $100,000. What I mean to say is, major league baseball is driving the average fan away from the game. It’s becoming a sport where only the rich can afford to attend. Parking is $6. Tickets are from $5 to $25. A bag of peanuts is $1.50. A cold hot dog on a cold bun is $2.75. Come on, man, this is highway robbery. They’re taking advantage of us, the fans. They’re making it so it costs two people $50 or more to go to the ballpark.
You know, not only do those spoiled brats make an average of a million bucks a year, but they’re given meal expenses while on the road. That means they don’t spend a penny of their millions when they’re on the road. The fans are spoiling them. We pay for everything. I’m getting tired of paying for something I really don’t need. I don’t need baseball, it’s baseball that needs me.
You know what I’m going to do about it? I’m going to go on strike when the strike is over. I’m not going to attend one game for at least a whole year, nor am I going to listen or watch a game. You know what will happen if every fan in the country does that? The owners and players will find out where the real power comes from. It comes from us, the fans.
I’ve held off from communicating with you, but I can’t do it any longer. It’s your mother—she’s very depressed. She can’t get you out of her mind. She knows it would be best to do so, but she just can’t do it. As a consequence, she’s lost her verve for living. Her mind is not in her work. It’s not even with Raymond or me.
She won’t feel better until she communicates with you. You can do anything you want in your life, but don’t do this to your mother. If you’re a homosexual, then be a homosexual. She accepts that. She knows she can’t change that.
We tried our best to raise you. We never held anything against you. You just happened to be a child of a bad relationship. Accept that fact, don’t stew in it. When you refuse to communicate, you fail to realize how it affects others. I’ve explained a small part of that effect. I haven’t even touched on your father Ramon or anyone else who knows you. All I know is what’s happening to your mother. It’s not good. I thought that since she’s my wife I would do everything in my power to help her rid of this depression. Writing this letter is the only way I know how.
Be a human being, Sol, and start communicating. Communicate any way you want, but communicate. She’s your mother, she loves you. You can end her suffering in one minute by just writing a letter or calling her and letting her know that you’re alive and well.
Monday, August 22, 1994—Big
It was my birthday the other day. We invited two people over for dinner—my good friend Alan Blum and Joan’s good friend Ruth Britton. Ray wasn’t here. He’s been at Echo Lake in the Lake Tahoe area since last week with his friend Eric and Eric’s parents.
What a great night the four of us had. We talked, drank, ate, smoked some weed, and listened to music. I enjoyed it immensely. The next day, though, I had a hangover. It doesn’t take much to get a hangover when you drink wine and bourbon and smoke weed. It’s too much poison for my system to take.
Today I went for a walk with George Krevsky. We went to the Ocean Beach. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out, the tide was low, the beach was clean, the air smelled fresh, and there we were, George the K and me, Joe Reno, as my friends call me sometimes, walking along the beach like we’ve been doing for over fifteen years.
George and I talk about everything. From family to politics to the National Rifle Association to our childhood to baseball (the strike is still on, and I couldn’t care less about major league baseball anymore). We talk about George’s high school football stories and my high school and college football stories. Family—he told me about both pair of his grandparents who met in Pennsylvania, the Keystone State. George, a Pennsylvanian, explained that the word Keystone came from Pennsylvania being in the middle of the original thirteen colonies.
Why do George and I enjoy each other’s company? Our respect for each other is one reason. Why? Well, we’ve known each other for over fifteen years and we’ve been walking for that length of time, at least a few times each year. We walk and talk about family, friends, business, dreams, money, marriage, kids, sports, philosophy, religion, trips we’ve made, and walks we’ve had.
One day, while on one of our walks, we found a woman’s diamond ring in the sand on the very same beach we were at today. We thought it was valuable and had it appraised by a couple of jewelers that very same day. It turned out to be a dud.
What are the big things in my life? Having a child is a very big thing. Scoring a touchdown at Oregon is another. Hitting a home run in the A9-B9 baseball game at Bancroft Junior High in front of the whole student body. Getting married. Winning the city championship as a Little League manager. Buying a house. These are the big things in life. The deaths of my mother Jean, my father Raymond, and my brother Charles were also big things in my life.
Actually, each day is a big thing. But right now I’m talkin’ BIG. Big is doing something for the first time. Big was going around the country in a VW bus and writing a novel about it. Big was giving all 140 of my students A’s when I was a teacher in L.A. and writing a novel about it. Big was getting Words of Wellness published. Big was meeting my favorite author William Saroyan twice, writing about it, and getting both stories published in Writer’s Digest. Big was watching my son at his bar mitzvah becoming a man. Big are athletic feats I’ve accomplished, like scoring important touchdowns and breaking the tape in the sprints ahead of others. Birthdays are big. My 54th birthday party dinner meant a lot to me.
Wednesday, August 24, 1994—Radish
I ran into Tony Radich today. Ever since we met in Berkeley in 1970, I’ve called him Radish. Every few years we seem to run into each other. Today I found out we live about two miles apart from one another. There’s one thing about Radish that really turns me off: at the age of 54, he’s still on the lookout for women in their twenties or thirties.
To each his own, I say, but with Radish, an accomplished songwriter, it’s an obsession. As a consequence, nothing, not even a friendship, matters to him as much as seeking out young women. That’s why we’ve never become close friends. In the past fifteen years, we’ve been to lunch maybe three times. After each meal, without fail, Radish sees an attractive woman and zips off without sharing the bill or saying goodbye to maybe get the woman’s name, number, and maybe a shtup out of her. Radish reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s character in Carnal Knowledge—always on the lookout for a fuck.
That’s one reason why we’re not friends. Another is when you’re with him, 95% of the conversation centers around him. That’s what happened today. We met on the street, went into a coffeehouse, and all we talked about was him. He asked me maybe one question. His womanizing hasn’t changed, either. As soon as he saw an attractive woman walk by the coffeehouse, he dashed out to try and pick her up.
Radish is really overweight. It seems like he’s almost doubled in size since we met 24 years ago. He looks like the Michelin tire man. He told me today that he almost had a heart attack in Brazil last year while fucking a twenty year old. She had to rush him to the hospital.
Sunday, August 28, 1994—Joe Zetzakavec
I have so much to do. I have to read the newspaper, work on the front yard, work on the backyard, write letters, write stories, have a garage sale, and go for a walk. Life is unending until it ends.
I’m trying to figure out what life is all about. Here’s what I’ve come up with: being creative, helping others, being happy, keeping busy. What more is there to life than that? Maybe preserving the earth for future generations is what life is all about.
My brother Maurice, who’s up from L.A. for business this week, told me that our name in Syrian, Sitehon, means “sit here.” The Yiddish word for “sit here” is zetzakavec. I told this to my friends Jerry Lipkin and Alan Blum last night while we were eating dinner at Cucina Paradiso on Chestnut Street. They laughed and started calling me Joe Zetzakavec. Will that be my appellation with them from this day forward?
Writing and walking. Those are the two things I would like to do every day of my life. They’re a major part of my survival. Writing is my mental and creative outlet, walking my physical outlet. It’s hard for me to feel complete if I don’t do those two things on a daily basis.
I like writing these journal entries. The words just flow out of me. I would love to have my journals published someday. Whatever I write in my novels, stories, or journals is just as important as what Saroyan, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Hemingway, Doris Lessing, or Raymond Carver write. My writing is as important as anyone else’s in this world. It’s my creation. Someday, when people read my complete works, they’re going to say to themselves, “Hey, I can be a writer like Joe Zetzakavec. He writes the first thing that comes to mind. That’s easy to do.”
That’s what I want people to think. But little do they know that, yes, I do write off-the-cuff in my journal entries, and sometimes a story idea develops from that kind of writing. But even in my journal entries, I go over and revise each entry until I’m thoroughly satisfied with what I’ve written.
If you really read what I’m writing in this year’s journal you’ll find a story unfolding. It’s a story of a writer, walker, husband, father, brother, former teacher, former athlete, and now a new homeowner. It’s the story of a man who thinks, creates, dreams, and regrets. It’s my life and I’m laying it on the line as best as I can.
What I’m saying is, I love to write. I’m at my best when the words are flowing like they are now. I want to be published and deserve to be published, just as much as the most famous writer in the world has been published. Who dat famous writer? Shakespeare. Why’s he so famous? Because he probably conveyed the human condition better than any writer that’s ever lived.
Is the purpose of writing to divulge the human condition? Yes, I believe it is. I have tried to do that it in all my writings.
For instance, my wife. Why am I so attracted to her lately? What is going on with me? I want to make love to her almost every night. I want to be close to her. I truly want her, need her, love her. I want her to know all those things when I make love to her.
My brother Maurice brought up the idea the other night that I should write about the plight of immigrants. It’s a big issue in this country, what with the Haitians and Cubans fleeing their countries to come to “The Land of Gold.” How lucky we are to live in this country. I’ve never been wanting for the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. Those things have always been there for me and will always be there, because nothing and no one will ever deny me or my family our right to survive. A lot of Jews who ended up in concentration camps thought Hitler was just a passing fancy. I hope I’ll know the enemy when I see him, like Einstein and Freud knew about Hitler and antisemitism. They saw what was happening in Germany and got the hell out before it was too late. And, like Einstein and Freud, I’ll get my family out of this country pronto if we’re ever in danger of being thought of as subhuman.
My purpose in life is not the same as the Haitians, Cubans, Mexicans or Central Americans fleeing their countries. They want political and economic freedom and I can’t blame them. Me, I already have political and economic freedom. My purpose in life is to be healthy in every sense of the word—mentally, physically, spiritually, morally, emotionally. Life to me is living in a healthy home with a healthy family, having healthy friends, and doing what I can to make the people and things around me HEALTHY.
Monday, August 29, 1994—Jack Jacqua
I met with an old colleague and friend last week at a coffeehouse: Jack Jacqua. Jack is an important force in this country. He and his partner, Joe Marshall, were recently given a Fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation. Books are being written about Jack and Joe; they’ve been on television; there have been articles written about them; they even have a radio program on KMEL, 101 FM, every Monday at 10 p.m. called Street Soldiers. They work mainly with Black teenagers who have given up on the world and escape from themselves and racism by taking drugs, which leads to guns, violence, and despair. The MacArthur Foundation gives money to people and organizations from out of the blue. No strings attached. They give to teachers, scientists, and organizations. It’s one of the great foundations of all time. They reward good ideas and good people. They gave Jack and Joe’s Omega Boys Club $275,000 recently.
Jack believes that to resuscitate life into the Black kids with despair in their bones has to come from the heart. “Fifty percent of saving these kids comes from the heart,” he told me. “There’s no other way, Joe. It has nothing to do with reading books or having a Ph.D., it has to come from the heart. The rest is easy. You talk to them individually or have group meetings and you try to give them hope. You tell them that their ancestors were great. You tell them they need to know their roots and spirituality.”
Jack has dedicated his life to saving mainly Black teenagers and a sprinkling of Latino and Asian kids locked up in jail. He said to me, “I’m fifty-three now, I don’t need to look for girls anymore. I don’t need to go to restaurants, bars, or buy new clothes. Those days are over with. My life is these kids.”
Jack’s purpose is to give purpose to those who are in despair. He sees great wisdom and knowledge in those kids. They are far from stupid. They’re like geniuses to him, even though they don’t read that much. When they’re incarcerated, that’s when they start reading, thinking, reflecting. That’s when they find out that there is more to life than drugs, gangs, and losing hope.
I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing Jack in action in a couple of days. This is my type of research, something that’s not work, something that’s exciting and where I can experience and learn new things.
Wednesday, August 31, 1994—A Ray of Hope
Tonight I drove up to San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center, otherwise known as Juvenile Hall. I was there to visit Jack Jacqua and to see him in action. He works with teenagers who have chosen the wrong path in life, teenagers who have sold drugs, used guns, who have robbed, stolen, and raped.
Jack is down in the trenches every day using his brain and language skills to convey hope to mainly Black teens. He’s giving himself completely to them so they can see a ray of hope in their lives. Whether that ray is big or small makes no difference, because before they entered the Youth Guidance Center they had given up on life. Now they see a glint of hope for the future. They can picture themselves doing something other than stealing, shooting, looking for girls, getting high on drugs, dealing drugs, or despairing.
Hope is what Jack gives to those “yutes” as Joe Pesci pronounced the word in the film My Cousin Vinny. Here’s what he said to those young men in a classroom tonight, “You can’t better yourselves if you keep butting your heads against a wall of crime. Find that ray of hope through the cracks in the wall and chisel your way out. Make that ray bigger for yourselves. Picture yourselves doing things you’ve never done before. Picture yourself being with your family. Picture yourself in school wanting to learn and enjoying learning. Picture yourself in good health with a woman by your side who respects you. Picture yourself living an honest, good, and decent life. Picture yourself drugless and weaponless.”
Jack wasn’t the only person to speak to the group of about 35 teenagers. There were two other adults who spoke, plus about seven or eight of the teens themselves. Everyone who spoke was articulate. They were all trying to help one another. They were a family. There wasn’t anyone messing around in the two and a half hours we sat in that classroom. Everyone was all ears. Every person who spoke was trying to give hope to those young men.
One of the adults, James, spoke like a preacher, like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X rolled into one. He switched the lights off in the room. “In darkness everything’s the same,” he said. “Nothingness.” He switched the lights back on. “Do you see the light. It’s all around us.” James, like everyone else, gave his heart, his wisdom, his soul, his knowledge to those incarcerated boys.
Then there was Willis, a man who spent five years locked up in two prisons, one at Terminal Island in Southern California, the other at Lompoc in Central California. Willis described prison life being a living hell. “A convict has to be on the lookout at all times,” he told the boys. He described having to step over bodies on the floor every day, going to and from his cell. “The minute I arrived at Terminal Island,” he told us, “some guy sitting next to me in the mess hall got stabbed in the neck.” Willis couldn’t be himself in jail. He had to be on alert every minute in those five years. He didn’t want to end up on the cold floor like many others did. He wanted out of there so he could live a life of freedom. And now he’s speaking to those kids so they don’t have to undergo the hell he went through.
I remember substituting at Potrero Middle School fifteen years ago. One day I asked one class, “Who’s your favorite teacher?” Half the class answered, “Jack Jacqua. The thing is, Jack wasn’t even a teacher. He was what you would call a hall guard, a person who found kids ditching class and talked to them, trying to convince them to take advantage of the education offered them instead of wasting it. Jack’s been working to save kids for all these years. He’s a man whose every waking minute is dedicated to those locked up at the Youth Guidance Center.
That’s Jack’s purpose. My purpose tonight is to write about him and his purpose.
And the young men who stood up and talked or reeled off their rhythmic raps, their words came from the depths of their souls. They all made sense. They were showing each other that they understood one another and were there to give each other moral support.
Every kid talked about not giving in to the life that got them there, that they were going to change their lives for the better when they got outside.
We all know how hard it is to change. Me, I’ve been trying to lose weight for the past twenty years. I keep telling myself I have to lose, but for some goddamn reason I haven’t been able to do it. If I don’t know how to change to better my health, then how are those young men going to change their lives?
A person needs strength and faith to change their condition in life. How do we obtain that strength and faith? You have to have a purpose to change. The boys last night, their purpose is freedom and survival.
“Do criminals show fear?” Jack asked the boys. “People who carry guns carry fear. Pick up a pen instead,” he told them. “That’s the instrument that can really set you free and give you power.”
Friday, September 2, 1994—How Do We Stop Crime?
All I can think of is you and the work you’ve been doing all these years. You have something going on up there at the Youth Guidance Center. You’re a dedicated man who is trying with all his might to save the young men of San Francisco from going to hell. You want to see them use their brains for what they were meant to be used for: to write, to speak, to be leaders in their community. You want them to use their energy to make something of themselves, to be self-sufficient.
Life has dealt them a poor hand. Broken families, poverty, racism. They have to overcome all that. They have to somehow rise up and not feel sorry for themselves. Those young men are going to have to wake up and do something about their condition. If they’re going to have kids, then I hope and pray they don’t run away from the responsibilities of fatherhood. If they want money to buy a house for their family, then I hope they will obtain it in an honest way.
There are many temptations out there for people who’ve lost hope. There’s alcohol, drugs, gangs, and wielding a gun to feel a sense of power. Those incarcerated young men have got to gather the strength and willpower to wipe away those temptations.
How are they going to do it? It’s been an ongoing question for thousands of years: HOW DO WE STOP CRIME? How does one break the habit of robbing, killing, raping? If we knew the answer, half our troubles would be solved. We wouldn’t need police if that were the case. We wouldn’t have alarm systems, locks, or fences. We wouldn’t have to have guns and knives and all the other paraphernalia of violence and destruction.
How do we stop young men from becoming criminals? I wish I knew. But I feel the answer will come to me before I finish this letter. It has to. I’m praying for the answer to come to me. Many people have thought of this problem before. What do they think causes crime? Is it the lack of self-esteem? Could it be the lack of money? Is racism the cause?
I believe racism has caused, in large part, what is happening today. If only slavery never existed in this country. On second thought, how can it be racism when Rosa Parks, the mother of the Civil Rights movement, was beaten and robbed in Detroit by one of her own kind just the other day? What the hell is the answer to violence, drugs, and not caring about others? Is it economics? That could well be the answer. But if you don’t have money, why resort to crime? Use the brain you have. Find a job and work hard. It’s a masochist who ends up in a cold, hard place where his every movement is watched, and where he can’t trust his fellow prisoners? Who wants to take a chance of this ever happening? People with brains don’t let this happen. Everyone has a brain. None of us are stupid. We just don’t know any better. Don’t we know we’re going to eventually get caught if we’re constantly breaking the law? Don’t we know if we shoot someone we’re going to be pursued? Oh, we might get away with a crime, but eventually we’re going to be caught and sent to jail. So what makes a person stick with crime?
Jack, you’re trying to educate these young men. You’re telling them to get their heads straight. You’re telling them that life isn’t sitting on the corner pushing drugs. Life isn’t stealing, lying, cheating, dealing, drinking, puffing, fucking. Life is so much more grander than that. Life is eating dinner with your family. Life is reading and writing. Life is exercising. Life is doing your best. Life is feeling good about yourself. Life is educating yourself and making something of yourself.
How does one make young men think of that kind of life and not turn to crime?
The answer is having people like you, James, and Willis. You all care about the young men at the Youth Guidance Center. When people care about others that’s all that really matters. When you care you share. All of you make me want to share. Maybe that’s the answer: to share what we have, to give what we can to help the society we live in.
Wednesday, September 7, 1994—The Omega Boys Club
The other day I was walking with my friend George Krevsky. We came to the conclusion that the two of us are very lucky. We are healthy, have money in the bank, food on the table, and we live in our own houses. Not only that, but we live in a country that has a Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. What more could anyone ask for?
Yes, I’m very lucky. I don’t have to live on the street and beg for money. I live in a nice house and have a loving wife and son. Not everything is perfect with me, for I have a stepson who refuses to communicate with his family.
Life is so fragile that my luck could drop out of the bottom in no time flat. I think of all the suffering going on in the world: tribe versus tribe, religion clashing with religion, people without food, clothing or shelter, babies coming into the world who are not planned or wanted. Then there are droughts, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and an environment that is being poisoned more and more every day. Drugs and weapons abound. All these things are happening, and here I am, sitting in front of my computer feeling lucky as all hell.
I know two great men. They just won a MacArthur Foundation prize. I don’t want to do what Jack Jacqua or Joe Marshall are doing, although I highly esteem these two men more than any other men on earth. They’re giving their lives to saving misguided young men. I commend them wholeheartedly. They are doing their damnedest to better the community and the world we live in. That’s what I want to do, to make the world a better place to live in by writing about what I see, do, and think.
Last week I was at the Youth Guidance Center and heard several incarcerated young men speaking to a roomful of their peers and four of us adults.
“I realize what I’ve done,” they were saying. “It’s wrong. I don’t want to get into the same predicament again. I’m speaking to myself as well as you guys when I say I want to change, I want to get out of this prison and live life, even though I’m not sure what I want to do when I get out. I have seen the light and I want to be free to live my life.”
That’s what those young men were saying to each other. The adults in the room had already told them how to straighten out their act. “You have to give up guns and drugs. You have to start thinking of the consequences of your actions. To get back on the straight and narrow is to use your brain. Don’t just react to life, be the leaders you were meant to be. Use your unique talents for positive reasons. Be an example to others, not followers. If someone drives up in a car with two young ladies in it and says, ‘Hop in, man, I got some good dope,’ you have to come right out and say ‘No, man,’ because that’s not the way to make something of yourself. You have to apply yourself by reading, writing, thinking of where you are, and where you want to go.”
This is the philosophy of the Omega Boys Club. Its co-founder, Joe Marshall, was on the radio the other night. He was trying his damndest to help those who needed it. He came across as a saint to me. The man wants everyone, especially young Black men, to think how they can be a part of the solution and not the problem. “Don’t get into something that can hurt you, get into something that can help you. Call 1-800-SOLDIER anytime you need help,” Joe said in his high-pitched voice.
Yes, Joe Marshall is doing his part for the community. Jack Jacqua, his partner and co-founder, is surely doing his part. Both are the guiding lights behind an organization that is helping those who’ve lost their way, those who’ve been a detriment to the community, those who might still believe that guns, drugs, and alcohol are the answer.
What does one say to those who keep butting their heads against a brick wall of crime? The Omega Boys Club provides counseling, plus they hold peer group meetings. It’s those weekly meetings that are key to the Omega Boys Club’s success. They invite adult speakers who have lived misguided lives in the past, telling these young men that that’s not the way to go. Then when the floor is turned over to these young men, they stand up and speak from their hearts and souls to their peers. The key to unlock the rage in these young men is group therapy. That type of therapy, along with compassion, is the best way to give them hope. They learn more from themselves than from adults.
Yes, I’m lucky. Most of us in this country are lucky. We could end up where these young men are if we aren’t lucky and vigilant.
Thursday, September 8, 1994—A Short History
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 20, 1940, the sixth child born to Raymond and Jeanette Sutton. I was the fifth son. My parents had a girl who died at the age of five, six years before I was born. Her name was Luna. When I first met my wife Joan, who was born in June, I felt I had known her for centuries. So I gave her a name by combining the sister I never met and the month Joan was born: Juna.
I heard I was very sick when I was a year old. My father had gone ahead of us to Los Angeles because we were going to move there. His brother and business partner, Michel, was told by a doctor to move to a drier climate. The two families chose Los Angeles. So while my father was in Los Angeles by himself, he found a house in Hollywood and opened a store in downtown L.A. to sell linens. He kept waiting for us to make the big move. My mom kept putting him off because she didn’t want him to worry about my getting convulsions and almost dying. To think, I almost died. Anyway, my mother, four brothers and I finally arrived in L.A. in October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, a day that will live in infamy, December 7, 1941.
My dad was 41, my mom 34, Charles was 14, Dave 9, Bob 6, and Maurice 5. Our youngest brother, Albert, wouldn’t be born until 1949. Our sister Luna would have been 12. I’ve seen pictures of her. She had dark hair and an olive complexion. She was named after my dad’s mother. I was told she was as smart as a whip.
L.A. is where I really come from. People always told me I had a Brooklyn accent. My stock answer was, “I picked it up from my mother and four older brothers.” My mother was born Jeanette Shabot in Brooklyn on December 14, 1907. She was a real all-American girl, although her parents, David and Merhaba (Mary) Shabot, were from Aleppo, Syria. She was very athletic in her day. She ran track for the school team and was an excellent ice-skater. She was always exercising, even into her 80s. She was just the opposite of my father. Both, though, were workers. They were always working, working, working.
My dad, Raymond Sitehon, was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1899. He was the second son of five boys and three girls. My father’s father, Shaul (Charles) Sitehon, was a wealthy businessman (he manufactured uniforms for the Syrian Army during World War I). He died early in life in his late 50s. My father witnessed a part of World War I in his late teens. He served in the Syrian rail system as a conductor. “All aboard!” My dad’s claim to fame was that German General, Erich Ludendorff, was on his train one day during the war.
The first place in Hollywood we lived in was on June Street and Waring, not far from Melrose and Highland. I don’t have any memory at all of that place. My first memories come from the second place we lived, on Leland Way, near Wilcox and Sunset Boulevard. It was a dead-end street, similar to the one I’m living on today, 2349 Funston Avenue, San Francisco, California 94116. I don’t remember anything about the inside of that house on Leland Way. I remember very little of the outside except riding a tricycle up and down the block.
We lived on Leland Way for a couple of years. There are pictures of me with blond hair at the time (my hair eventually turned black). I was three or four when we moved a few blocks from Leland Way to 6505 Homewood Avenue, at the corner of Homewood Avenue and Wilcox, two blocks below Sunset Boulevard on Wilcox. This is where my first memories arise. The house is not there anymore. It used to be where the Hollywood Police Station parking lot is now.
I’m actually writing a short history of my life. I have an outline of my life in my file cabinet. I’ve had the outline since 1971 when I put it together in Eugene, Oregon, when I lived there with Sharon Murphy. God, I don’t even think of her or Sandy Rutherford or Marjo Brunier, the three woman I lived with before I met Joan Bransten in San Francisco on February 20, 1977, at Gay Smith’s Moving Party. Our first date was on April Fool’s Day 1977. We went out for dinner in the Mission District to a Japanese restaurant. After a wonderful dinner and getting to know each other, we walked to the Roxie Theater to watch a John Cassavetes film, except they were sold out, and so we crossed the street and entered a Chinese restaurant. A waiter who looked like Mao Tse-tung kept serving us the most watered-down coffee in the world as we talked non-stop for a couple of hours. We then got into my 1964 four-door Rambler and drove up to Twin Peaks, overlooking the city, to kiss and hug until Joan said, “Do you want to go to your place or mine?”
When she asked me that question, I hesitated. Should I do it or not? I thought. I feel so close to her. I’ll probably marry her if we go to her place. Do I want to commit myself to this woman? I pictured myself with her in the distant future. “Your place,” I said.
That’s how Joan Bransten, born two months before me on June 17, 1940, and I got together. We lived together for two years and got married on October 28, 1979.
Monday, September 12, 1994—Weight Problem
I have to be leaving the house soon. I have to pick up Ray at his school in Marin so the two of us can go to our chiropractor Sky Diamond in San Rafael for a back adjustment.
I’m healthy. I’ve been healthy for a couple of months. I can tell I’m healthy when I don’t have to go to Sky more than once a month. The reason I’m healthy is that I’m eating a little less than I used to eat and walking more than I used to walk. Yesterday I walked five miles along the Great Highway. It’s an asphalt path that parallels the beach where walkers, skaters, and joggers come to exercise. I’ve been doing my walking there for the past three or four weeks. I’ve somehow gravitated to the Great Highway path every day because it’s exactly two miles one way, turn and walk back another two miles, turn and walk a half mile, and finally turn and walk another half mile. Five miles all told. It took me an hour and twenty minutes to walk the five miles. That’s the most I’ve ever walked in such a short period of time.
I’ve been walking four miles every day for the past month and I still haven’t lost weight. I have to read Dean Ornish’s diet book. Ornish says we should eat more veggies and fruit and less red meat and chicken. Less sweets, too. I don’t eat red meat or sweets, but chicken, I love chicken. Actually, it would help if I ate in moderation. I keep thinking of Orson Welles’ quote that’s in my book Words of Wellness: “Gluttony is not a secret vice.” That’s right, it’s not a secret that I’m twenty lbs. overweight. I can’t hide it from anyone. I have to cut down on what I eat and I have to exercise more. I can’t just sit and write and revise at my desk all day, I have to get up at least twice a day and do some physical activity. I’ve been trying to lose weight for years. I haven’t been able to do it. The only way to lose weight is to cut down on what goes into my mouth and exercise more. It’s the only way.
Wednesday, September 14, 1994—Assert Oneself
A funny thing happened on my way to the phone today. I was washing the dishes when I heard the phone ring. I thought I’d listen to the answering machine first to see who was calling, because Joan gets about 95% of the calls in this house. The call was for me. I picked up the phone and said, “Hello,” and a man on the other end said, “This is Eric Brazil of the San Francisco Examiner. I’m doing a story on the baseball players’ strike.”
“Yes, Mr. Brazil.”
“I was reading some letters to the editor and happened to come across yours, Mr. Sutton. It was very well written.”
Mr. Brazil proceeded to get my views on the strike and how it will be the first year in 90 years that a World Series won’t be played. I told him that these well-off baseball players were ruining their own game, that these millionaires were striking while millions of people are begging in the streets, millions don’t have jobs, and millions are barely holding onto their jobs.
My point in writing about the phone call is this: A person will never get discovered, noticed, or recognized if they don’t assert themselves. If I didn’t send a letter to the Examiner, Eric Brazil never would have discovered my letter and called me.
The lesson I learned is that I have to assert myself by sending my stories and novels out instead of letting them rot in a drawer or in my computer.
Tonight is the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the only day of the year that we go to temple, although we’ve been to temple several times this year—what with my son Ray’s bar mitzvah and a few other bar mitzvahs, like Nathan Wilson’s, Alex Podell’s, Nick Freeman’s, and the bat mitzvah of Rachel Perlstein.
I remember the first Yom Kippur I fasted, when I was thirteen in 1953. I was really hungry and thirsty (back then we didn’t even drink water) but I got through it. I wonder if my son Ray is up to the challenge? He has the choice at thirteen to either fast or not fast. I hope he fasts. It’s a great cleansing for the mind, body, and soul.
Thursday, September 15, 1994—My Manuscript Story
I went to the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop for the first time in a long time the other night. My favorite time of the Workshop is when we go to the coffeehouse on Van Ness called Spinelli’s to talk about writing and catch up on each other’s lives. What I told Tamim Ansary, the leader of the Workshop, turned out to be a possible short story for me. Here’s what I told him:
Three months ago I was sitting in this coffeehouse, not far from my house. Sitting at the small round table next to mine was this woman in her 60s. She was reading a newspaper while I was writing in my journal. So while I’m writing and she’s reading, in walks my old yoga teacher, Tony Sanchez, whose studio is down the block from the coffeehouse. He says hello to me and to the woman reading the paper. He looks at both of us and tells us we should meet each other because I’m a writer and she’s a literary agent.
After Tony left, I moved to the woman’s table and we started conversing. M.T. Caen was her name. She was once married to Herb Caen, a very famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist. We didn’t talk about Herb, we talked about how long she’s been an agent, who she represents, and how she got started in the business. We talked about what I’ve written, how I could use an agent, and whether she’d be willing to read a couple of my novel manuscripts. She said she was willing.
I told her I’d deliver the manuscripts to her door, since we lived only a mile apart.
I somehow felt that fate was on my side, because there I was, sitting in a coffeehouse, writing in my journal, seeing my old yoga teacher who introduced me to this literary agent sitting at a small round table next to mine. This was my moment and I seized it.
A month later, after I called her, M.T. returned my message and told me she was not going to represent me. I didn’t even ask why she was rejecting me. What I said was, “Can I come by right now and pick up the manuscripts.”
“No, not now. I was just leaving my apartment. You should’ve sent me a self-addressed stamped envelope.”
She thought she was trying to teach me a lesson. She wasn’t. I know about self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASE). I’ve been in the writing business for more than twenty years. I just figured that since we lived only a mile apart, I’d pick them up if she wasn’t going to represent me.
She proceeded to lecture me on why I should have left a SASE, and I kept telling her I always did leave return postage when I sent my work out, but this was different because we lived only a short distance from one another.
Each of us had a point to make, and when this happens it turns out to be bad chemistry.
“Can I call you again to pick them up?”
“Yes,” she said, annoyed.
Why is she taking this so seriously? I thought. All I want are my manuscripts. We live five minutes from each other. OK, I should have sent her a couple of SASEs. But I didn’t. She wants me to change the reality of the situation except I can’t do it.
I told her I was leaving on vacation for a couple of weeks with my wife and son, and she told me she was going to be out of town when I got back.
A month after our last conversation, I called and left a message on her machine: “M.T., this is Joe Sutton. Can I come by and pick up my manuscripts? Please call and let me know when it’ll be convenient for you,” and I left my phone number.
She didn’t return my call.
I kept calling and leaving messages, but she never returned them. It was turning out to be a nightmare. We lived so close, yet my manuscripts were so far away. I hated this woman and she probably hated me for being such a nuisance.
Finally, one day she called and said, “Send me postage and I’ll send you your manuscripts.”
I made out a check for $6 and sent it to her that very same day.
The day after I sent the check, I called an editor at a publishing house in Berkeley and mentioned my teacher novel to him, which he told me to send him. I immediately rang M.T. Caen and left a message on her machine, saying, “I need my manuscripts now, M.T. A publishing company is interested in one of them. Can I come by and pick them up as soon as you get home? All you have to do is leave them under the gate and I’ll be over in five minutes.”
She didn’t return my call until two days later. She left a message on my machine saying she was willing to leave the manuscripts under the gate, but I wasn’t home at the time. Damn.
It was such bad chemistry going on between us that we never once had a meeting of minds, and here I thought destiny was on my side.
The next day I caught her at home. “I can come by in five minutes, M.T.”
“I’m leaving the house this very minute,” she said.
“Can’t you leave the manuscripts outside your apartment?”
“Some workmen are working on the street. I’d feel awful if they weren’t here when you came.”
“Can I call you at the same time tomorrow to pick them up?”
I called the next morning and she didn’t answer. So I left a message: “I’ll call you back in an hour. I’ll be in your neighborhood around that time.”
I called an hour later and got her message machine. I swear, I called about five times that day and all I got was her message machine.
It embarrassed me to call so many times. But I was desperate, I needed that manuscript.
When I got home later in the day, I listened to my machine. She had called in between two of my calls and said she was home and she’d leave it under the gate if I called back. Well, every time I called back I got her message machine. I just couldn’t hook up with her. It was so frustrating.
The next morning she called and said my manuscripts were in the mail.
Three days later, they arrived. It cost her $2.44 to send the package. Not only that, but the manuscript I wanted to send the editor in Berkeley was missing a hundred pages. I spent more money making a copy of the hundred pages.
So the moral of the story is, always send a SASE if you want your manuscript returned, even if it’s only from around the block.
Tuesday, September 20, 1994—The World is Doing Its Best…
Yesterday I couldn’t sit down to write. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. I got on the phone and called a hauler to remove the debris I recently dug up in our backyard. The previous owner, a building contractor, had buried a huge amount of toxic debris because he was either too lazy or too cheap to take it to the city dump. I spent all day yesterday digging in the backyard, talking to my real estate agent and neighbors about the legal aspects of the previous owners not disclosing what they had done, and talking to a hauler who gave me an estimate of $800, which is not counting the new dirt needed to replace the toxic dirt. Because I started to do something about the buried mess in our backyard, it took up most of my day. It might take weeks to resolve this problem, which means time will be taken away from my two loves, writing and walking.
It seems like the world is doing its best, night and day, to prevent me from writing. A writer has to put blinders on to get to his desk every day. He has to clear his mind of everything except writing. If he doesn’t, then there are a million other things to fill the hours of the day. There’s a house to take care of, friends to talk to and visit, letters to write, people to call, a newspaper to read, and the radio to listen to about Haiti. President Clinton did the right thing, in my opinion, by negotiating a peaceful takeover of Haiti by American troops instead of going in macho-like with guns a-blazing. But now he’s being criticized right and left, up and down, for doing the morally right thing of saving Haiti from going to the dogs. He’s raised the hope of democracy in a country whose army overran the man who was duly elected president by his people, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
I don’t want politics to take over my thought processes, yet Haiti is all I hear on the radio, read in the paper, and watch on TV. This morning I heard that Aristide is dissatisfied with the way Clinton negotiated with the man who overthrew him a couple of years ago in a coup, General Cedras. You can’t please everybody. Everyone has an opinion, even me.
It reminds me when I was a teacher. Whatever I did I was criticized by my students. If I was lenient, they criticized me for not being strict. If I was strict, they wanted me to be lenient. No matter what we do in life, we’re being criticized. We’re constantly having slings and arrows hurled at us. And rightly so, because we live in a democracy—you know, freedom of speech and all that. One rarely hears positive feedback, no matter who you are. We’re constantly being put down, down, down when our egos need to be lifted up, up, up. There’s no balance or justice in the world.
There was a conspiracy yesterday that prevented me from writing. I couldn’t write, although I had planned to do it about ten times. I finally found time to sit at my desk. What did I write? I wrote a letter to Art J. Jacobs, my former professor at the University of Oregon. He now lives in Gainesville, Florida, with his partner Charlie Beason. I believe Art recently retired from teaching at the University of Florida. I believe he’s in his early 80s now. Art sounds like Edward G. Robinson when he talks, he has a bountiful amount of black hair, and he’s Jewish. Anyone can tell in a flash he’s from New York. Good old Art J. Jacobs. He sort of took me under his wing at Oregon. He saw potential in me. He taught TV and radio courses at Oregon. I was his cameraman for a French language TV program he directed. He got me involved. He complimented me. I thrived when I was complimented. We all thrive when complimented.
I have to do the same with my son. I’ve been criticizing him right and left lately. He’s not flowering like he should. He’s becoming a teenager—more independent and stubborn to adult suggestions. In a way, I’m the same. I don’t listen to criticism because I’m me, man. I know it’s a good thing to listen because we can improve ourselves when we listen. I want to improve myself as a writer, which means I’ll listen to people about my writing.
It’s time to think where Ray will be going to high school. I have a bad taste in my mouth about St. Ignatius and Sacred Heart Cathedral. Eighty-five percent of the students who go to those schools are Catholic. They’re the only private schools in San Francisco that Ray has a chance to be accepted. Urban, Lick-Wilmerding, and University are for A students. Ray is not an A student. He’s not into books and art and drama and whatever else those three non-denominational schools want. He’s into sports. It’s the religious high schools that he has a chance to attend because they like athletes.
Baseball season is over because of the players’ strike. No World Series this year. The players got too greedy. They make, on average, more in one year than I’ve made in my whole life. And what are they doing? They’re complaining! Screw ’em. Screw major league baseball.
Thursday, September 22, 1994—The Editor on Your Shoulder
A writer, when writing, has to forget the editor on his shoulder. An editor can kill, he can cause writer’s block by criticizing your every sentence, your every word. He doesn’t let you finish a thought. He won’t set you free from the spell he has over you. But it’s easy to break out of his spell. How? By writing without stopping. Write and be damned, goddammit! Write like you were meant to write. Free associate if you have to, just write. Do that to get the editor off your shoulder. He’s like a huge boulder resting on your shoulder. He’s like a fence preventing you from entering the wide open spaces. He’s like a dam instead of a free flowing river. He’s like a strict teacher instead of a compassionate teacher.
Write. Do. Act. Go. Create. Get into a rhythm. Something will bubble up if you write without stopping.
Don’t think of the editor peering over your shoulder—that is, until you finish what you’ve written. That’s when you’ll need the editor to start revising, while at the same giving the impression that your writing is flowing, as if it isn’t work at all. Writing is actually the easy part. Revising is when the real work begins. “The first draft reveals the art,” says writer Michael Lee, “revision reveals the artist.”
Saturday, September 24, 1994—Football at Oregon and Car Problem Solved
I’m listening to Cal-Berkeley making a comeback against Arizona State University on radio. Arizona State’s coach, Bruce Snyder, was my roommate at the University of Oregon. I don’t know who to root for—my favorite college team, Cal, or my old friend’s football team, Arizona State? Bruce used to coach at Cal until he unexpectedly left for ASU. There was a big furor when he left because Cal was just beginning to become a national powerhouse. They had just defeated Clemson on January 1, 1992, in the Citrus Bowl, and ended up ranked seventh in the nation. Soon after that great season, Bruce signed with ASU to rebuild a team that is the only Pac-10 team not to have gone to the Rose Bowl.
When I was at Oregon I experienced the first prejudice of my life because I was a Jew. I was the only white man on the football team not to belong to a fraternity. A Jew in Oregon in those days was comparable to a Black person—persona non grata. Not that it was important for me to belong to a fraternity, but being that I was the only white guy on the team who wasn’t a member of a fraternity, it just showed me there was prejudice against Jews. I had good friends on the team who were in fraternities. Four of them were my roommates at one time or another. But not one of them ever asked me to join. I wouldn’t have joined anyway.
The coaches at Oregon were also prejudice against me because I was a Jew. Everyone else on the team went to morning church services on Saturday before the game. I believe I was the only one on the team who never went to a church service. No one ever asked me to go. I don’t know if I would have gone had I been asked. Because I didn’t go to church, I was probably thought of as not being part of the team. Even though I rode the bench most of the time, I considered myself a big part of the team. I was “The Man on the Bench.” I tried to inspire my teammates on the field. I was always rooting them on. In my senior year, after the season was over, I went to a booster luncheon given to honor all the seniors on the team. Coach Len Casanova said something about all us seniors, and what he said about me was that I was the most inspiring man on the bench. He probably said it because he must’ve seen a large photo of me on the sports page of the Eugene Register-Guard jumping for joy when we scored the winning touchdown against the University of Washington in 1961.
I didn’t have my antenna up in those days. I wasn’t thinking correctly. My head was in the sand. For instance, when I attended Los Angeles Valley Junior College, I had a biology class that met four days a week. I didn’t realize there were four meetings a week and went to only three meeting a week the whole semester. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t understand a thing in that class. No wonder I flunked the goddamn class. I could’ve gone to Oregon a year earlier if it hadn’t been for that failing grade. I could’ve had Johnny McKay (head coach at USC and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) as my backfield coach instead of Max Coley, who I never got along with.
Cal just came from behind to beat my old roommate’s team. They were behind 21-11 at one point in the game. A great comeback. Cal Bears 25, Arizona State Sun Devils 21.
I’ve been sputtering along in my writing today, just like my car was sputtering a few years back. Because my mechanic, Big Al Reno, couldn’t figure out the problem, I took my Toyota to the dealership on Geary Boulevard to find out what was wrong. It turned out to be a clogged gas filter. The gas filter was the first thing the service manager checked after I explained the sputtering to him. Al Reno tried everything in the books to figure it out. He changed the spark plugs, the spark plug wires, the rotary cap, and the sputtering was still there. He figured it was an electrical problem and not a gas flow problem. I was spending a lot of money with Big Al and he couldn’t solve the mystery. It took just one minute of the service manager’s time at Toyota to figure it out. He didn’t even charge me. I still have Big Al for a mechanic. When I say Big Al, I mean BIG. He’s 6-foot-4 and weighs about 265. I still have faith in him. He’s kept my 1985 Toyota station wagon running in tip-top condition for the past nine years.
Monday, September 26, 1994—Life and Death
Today I drove over the Bay Bridge to Oakland to walk with my good friend George Krevsky, otherwise known as George the K or Mr. K to me. We’re getting into the habit of walking every Monday, either in the morning or afternoon, although we live eighteen miles apart. We try to even it out as much as possible, one week here and one week in Oakland. Today, like every time I meet George at his house, we drive to the Lafayette Reservoir. It’s a four-mile walk around the reservoir.
George the K is my height (5-foot-11), my age (54), and we weigh about the same (200). We talk sports, our high school and college years, our fathers, brothers, the 1940s all the way through to the 1990s. George mentioned something interesting today. He said that if the U.S. is the policeman of the Americas, then England, France, Germany, Italy, and the other European countries should be the policemen of Europe, especially in the Balkans where the Serbs, Bosnians, and Muslims are trying to slaughter each other. They won’t stop. How long can revenge go on? STOP ALREADY.
Little wars are going on around the world. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s art/philosophy was in the editorial section of yesterday’s paper. As long as countries war against one another, goes Feiffer’s thinking, it’s good for population control, no one feels guilty. But if we try to educate women in countries where birth control is not permitted, people will argue, fight, kill, and maim to not allow birth control methods.
George the K and I (I’m known to him as Dr. J or Joe Reno) talked about outer space. He says he’s been influenced by Carl Sagan, who says that eventually, maybe millions of years from now, the people on Earth will leave this planet. We humans will always be explorers, says Sagan. Outer space will always be open to exploration. And here we humans started out millions of years ago as small creatures who came out of the ocean, adapted to the land, and foraged for food at night because it was safer than doing it in daylight.
Poor George, there’s always a crisis in his family. His brother Zolly is about to die of AIDS. His father just had his second hip replaced. A couple of years ago his father had heart bypass surgery. George’s house burnt down three years ago in the Oakland hills firestorm. George is always saying that we have to live in the moment, right now, today, for we might not be alive tomorrow. We might die like my brother Charles did while chasing after a thief, when all of a sudden he had a massive heart attack. Just like that, he died. We might get hit by a car, or our car might go out of control on the freeway, something George and I saw happen today to a pickup truck that was towing a flat-bed trailer-full of outhouses. On a very busy freeway the driver lost control of his car and it turned 180 degrees as did the whole flatbed-full of outhouses. Thank goodness no one was hurt. But what is that driver feeling now? He must be feeling like he’s the luckiest man in the world for coming out of that scary incident alive instead of dying and being put into a casket.
Speaking of caskets, Babe Ruth, when he died, was lying in state in the rotunda of Yankee Stadium for the 100,000 or so people who walked by to pay their respects. The Babe died at the age of 53. Jackie Robinson died at the same age. Lou Gehrig at 38. What am I getting at? Ruth died of excess drinking, smoking, and staying up late with all types of ladies. Robinson died of excess rage, feeling that no one ever accepted him for what he was—a human being first and foremost. Robinson was always fighting to get to where he thought he and his race should be: on equal footing with white people. Lou Gehrig died early in life because he just didn’t take a day off. He was known as The Iron Horse, playing 2,130 consecutive games over a period of fourteen baseball seasons. Excess is what those three greats of baseball succumbed to.
I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary series Baseball on PBS. Burns has once again outdone himself. He’s an American treasure. His first documentary series was The Civil War. In the Baseball series he covered 150 years packed into a nineteen-hour documentary. The Bambino, Jackie Robinson and the race issue were the focal points of the series.
Friday, September 30, 1994—Toxic Debris
Two men are digging out the toxic debris in our backyard and wheelbarrowing it out to their truck in front of the house. The previous owners, German and Rita Alemasov, got someone to clear out our backyard. They have to pay for it because they were the ones who dumped and buried everything but the kitchen sink back there. They dumped square tiles, pipes, concrete, concrete blocks, plaster, bottles and cans, motor oil, a furnace engine, large pieces of wood, plastic, and the list goes on and on. Rita Alemasov said to me, “Oh, this is what we used to do in Russia.” Well, fuck you, you stupid-ass. I can’t think straight I’m so damn angry. They made so much work for me. I dug, bent down, and picked up debris for three days straight before the haulers came. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and so now it’s time to have some strong backs do the digging and hauling.
I went out with my son Ray last night to eat dinner at the Hong Kong restaurant on Church Street. We had a good time talking about baseball, his studies, his life, what high school he’d like to attend, things like that. It was the first time we’ve communicated in a long time. Before last night I was worried about him. He was playing the teenager with that gruff I-don’t-need-you type of attitude. His attitude was always negative. There’s been a long conflict going on between us. He wants more independence. I’d like him to have it. He has to learn, though, how to be more reliable and responsible if he wants his independence.
Tuesday, October 4, 1994—The Pick Up Man
I’ve come to the conclusion that I should be called “The Pick Up Man” or “The Clean Up Man.”
I pick up or clean up after people. I’m always bending down and picking up.
I spent all day yesterday digging, raking, and picking up the debris the hauling people were too lazy to remove from the soil. I spent a gut-wrenching nine hours in the warm California sun on my feet and knees digging, raking, and bending down for tile, wire, glass, drywall, oil filters, plumbing material, nails, cement, and pine cones and pine needles with oil on them. All the junk had a disgusting oil smell to it.
I had to do what the haulers should’ve done. Sweat flowed from my brow as I strained every muscle in my body. I didn’t get a chance to sit at my desk yesterday because all my energy was consumed by something the haulers should’ve done. I’m paying for it now with a very tight back and sore arms. I couldn’t stop until the job was finished.
Why do I seem to pick up more than most people? I guess it’s in my nature to be neat and a perfectionist. What made me that way? My mom. She demanded it. Do I like picking up? I don’t mind picking up after myself, but when it comes to others, I abhor it, all because I like order, neatness, and a job well done. When people are not doing what they’re being paid for, guess who has to finish their job for them? Hence, great resentment on my part. If the haulers did a good job they would’ve asked the previous owners for twice the amount of money. In other words, the hauler miscalculated what needed to be done when he gave his estimate to Rita Alemasov. Knowing that Rita and her ex-husband are the cheapest bastards on Earth, I had to do some fast thinking yesterday. I knew they were going to soon bring in dirt to fill the empty spaces they left by hauling the debris away. They didn’t do a good enough job of getting the debris out of the dirt. I had to do it for them before they dumped new dirt into the emptiness that was there. So I dug, raked, and bent down because it’s our backyard. I wanted it the way I wanted it, not the way the haulers left it. I also did what I did because if they had done their job correctly they would have asked the previous owners for more money, and knowing that the previous owners are the biggest cheapskates in the world, I did what I did. Whatever improvements the Alemasov’s did to this house was done poorly and cheaply.
The Pick Up Man. The Clean Up Man. The Picker-Upper. The Bend Down Man. That’s me. That’s what I do every day in my own house. I’m constantly picking up after my wife and son. So last night at the dinner table, I figured that my lot in life is to pick up after people. It’s my fate to right peoples’ wrongs, to be neat, and to do a good job on anything I put my energy into.
Wednesday, October 5, 1994—Prozac
I’m tired of all the positive Prozac propaganda. I’ve taken Prozac. The side effects weren’t good for me. All drugs have side effects, which means that a drug in the short run might help, but taking it for a length of time it becomes a poison. Prozac became a poison for me.
I don’t think it helped me that much. I believe it gave me more energy and it made me concentrate better, but it didn’t do me any good in the two months I took it. I went to this “lazy” therapist at Kaiser. I call her lazy because she didn’t have the time to work with me once a week, only once every two weeks. That was reason number one. The other reason: she kept telling me it was “the miracle drug.” Not in those words, but she made her point about how good it could be for me.
I gave in and started taking the drug. I had a reaction to it when I made love to Joan. It took me a long time to reach orgasm, and when I did, there wasn’t any of that orgasmic feeling one gets when off of Prozac.
Then there was a night I was with the Royal Flush at Steve Dessy’s house. We were smoking grass, playing poker, when all of a sudden I felt my heart fluttering. I got up from the table, needing fresh air, and went outside to the patio. I didn’t play another card game that night. At different times, each man, seven of them, came outside to see how I was doing.
Thank goodness it was just a small blip. It had to do with the mixing of weed and Prozac. I didn’t like the feeling and immediately quit taking Prozac after that incident.
Friday, October 7, 1994—To Write or Not to Write?—That is the Question
I’m tired and confused. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know about my writing. Should I just do a quick revision of the story I’m working on, or should I do drastic changes? In other words, every time I start revising, I do drastic changes, which means that I don’t trust my original thoughts. I feel that I have to revise, and revise even more, so readers will be interested in what I’m saying and, at the same time, understand what I’m saying. I’m getting tired of my thought processes. I don’t trust them. I’m losing confidence in myself. I don’t like the feeling.
I must get out of this self-flagellating mode. It’s not doing me any good. I thought I’d work on my Football story today. I read over it and didn’t like it. It wasn’t written well when I started writing it more than twenty years ago. Even though it stinks and needs work, I can see great potential in it. I don’t like to revise so much. So why do I keep doing it? It’s the public that’s in the back of my mind. Will they understand me? Can I keep them interested?
I’m confused. To write or not to write?—that is the question. What shall I do? I read my writing and see a lot of crap. But today, when I started revising, my writing got crappier. What should I do, God? I’m imploring you for the first time in a long, long time—what should I do?
I must confess that my state of mind is not at its best today. I didn’t sleep well last night. I feel tired and lifeless, plus I’m itching to get out into that beautiful sunny weather. It’s time that I consult my two doctors—my left foot and right foot.
Tuesday, October 11, 1994—The Sprinter
What’s on my mind? Football? Baseball? Oregon? My wife Joan? My son Ray? My stepson Sol? My mother-in-law Sue Bransten? My poker group, the Royal Flush? Or last Saturday at my neighbor Jim Terracina’s house playing poker when I lost $40 in a half hour and quit playing? That was the last time I’ll ever play with that group. Their stakes are too high. I like the Royal Flush where we make nickel, dime, quarter bets, not dollar, five dollar, and ten dollars bets.
I’m writing at a white-hot speed right now and am willing to go where the wind takes me. I’m going a hundred miles an hour, no stopping, full speed ahead, bed, red, said, lead, read, Keds…running at Bancroft Junior High against Bert Maggio. I beat him, even though I was in the eighth grade and he was in the ninth. When I was in the ninth grade, I was favored to win the 100-yard dash, except Jim Corzine beat me. I was beaten by a guy who was the same age as me. Damn. But Jim became a track star at Hollywood High. I could’ve beat him as a senior in high school in the sprints, except he didn’t run the sprints, he ran the high and low hurdles.
Funny, the word “Keds,” a black sneaker that everyone wore in the 1950s, brought back a memory of Bancroft Junior High and running in two track meets a year apart. I also long-jumped in the eighth and ninth grades.
In the tenth grade I long-jumped for the Fairfax High track team. The first meet I was in I jumped something like 18′ 7″. It was the greatest jump of my life. In the track meets that followed, I never got close to jumping that distance.
It was Mike Painter who brought me back to where I belonged. He found me in the locker room while I was about ready to take a shower. He tried to talk me into running the relay with him, Marshall Barnes, and Barry Blum. At first I was reluctant, but Mike talked me into it. As things turned out, we eventually took fourth place in the City Finals that were held at the L.A. Coliseum that year. It was the first and last time I ever got to run in that historic stadium.
Track. In the tenth grade I placed fifth in the 100-yard dash in the Western League finals. In the eleventh-grade I tore a muscle in my hip in the second track meet and was out for the season. I’m very proud of what happened in my senior year. I won the 100- and 220-yard dashes in the Western League track finals. I went to the City trials and placed fourth in both the 100 and 220. I remember fighting it out in the 220 with Essex Hutton from Jordan High for third place. One of us would go to the City Finals. Essex barely beat me because I ran out of steam with about five yards to go. I’ll never forget that moment. Essex and I were literally neck and neck for 215 yards. We were running against a fierce wind at East L.A. Junior College, when I said to myself, “Screw it, he can have it.”
After Fairfax I went to L.A. Valley Junior College. Our first track meet was against Los Angeles City College. I remember taking second to my teammate, Bobby Wilson, in the 100-yard dash that day. He ran a 9.8 and I ran a 9.9. It was the fastest I’d ever run the 100, and here it was the first track meet of the year. A half hour later we lined up for the 220-yard dash. I was on my way to taking the lead from Bobby, I was on my way to breaking my best time of 21.9 in the 220, maybe going 21.5, when whack, my right hamstring tore on me and I fell face-down on the cinder track. I didn’t get back to running until the very end of the season and placed sixth out of eight runners in the Metropolitan Conference finals at Bakersfield Junior College in 1959. I was very proud of myself for making it into the Conference finals after coming off a very bad hamstring injury.
At Oregon I thought of going out for track, but the University had two world record-holders running the sprints that year: Roscoe Cook and Harry Jerome.
Sunday, October 14, 1994—Good Old Joe
My stomach is in a knot. I’m mad at Joan. I can’t do anything right in the backyard garden. She wants to keep adding and adding and all I want is some semblance of order back there. It’s driving me up the wall. I have a fear of her taking over every space inside and outside of this house.
How do I feel? I feel like Rodney Dangerfield, no one respects me. I feel like no one gives a crap about my feelings. Ray has an appointment with his tutor at 5:30 today and he’s not here. It’s 5:45. I had to call the tutor to come at six o’clock. Ray didn’t even say he was sorry that he forgot when I phoned him at his friend’s house. I have to take care of his responsibilities. I feel that way with Joan. She dirties up the garage and who cleans up? Good old Joe. She messes the backyard and who cleans up? Good old Joe.
I feel like I want to break loose of this bind I’m in before I suffocate. I feel like a zero. I might be exaggerating a bit, but goddammit, that’s the way I really feel this very minute.
My cousin Vic has been up here for four days. I have to put up with his idiosyncrasies like stopping at every store we pass so he can go inside and browse. I hate doing that. But he keeps doing it. It seems like it’s good old Joe who’s thinking of the other person instead of the other person thinking of Joe.
The people near me, the people I love, the people who I break my back for don’t take full responsibility for their actions. I get no respect from them. I don’t want money, I don’t want material objects, I don’t want anything added to what we already have, but all I get in return is, “Good old Joe will take care of it. Good old Joe will clean up. Good old Joe will wait patiently while I browse in every store we pass. Good old Joe will take out the weeds. Good old Joe will be here when the haulers come.”
How do I feel? I feel like I’m being choked every time Joan brings something into the house or garden. She won’t let things just be. She’s always adding to every free space there is. I can’t and don’t like her for this. It’s killing me. It’s eating at me. She refuses to respect me when she adds, adds, adds. “Joan, please don’t bring anything more into the house or garden.” “I won’t, Joe.” The next day she brings and adds this flower, bowl, container, or wooden tub, making more of a mess.
How can a neat person get along with a messy person? I wish I knew, because it’s getting very hard for me to do, almost to the point of my blowing my stack and getting the hell out of this house. That’s how I feel. I wish I didn’t feel this way. But what am I to do when Joan keeps adding things to the house?
Really, I’m at my wits end. She won’t listen to reason. She says I’m making rules, that I’m a dictator. Well, is it wrong to ask her to roll up the hose after she uses it? Is it wrong to ask her to pick up garden tools and put them back where they belong? Is it wrong to leave a little clear space in the backyard? These aren’t rules, these are just common sense courtesies. She thinks I’m suffocating her when she’s the one suffocating me!
I don’t want to face her now because of the anger that’s enveloping me. What the hell can I do? I want to rid of all this frustration that’s been bottling up in me since we last had it out on the subject of mess vs. neat. I want to bust! I want to be alone. I want to go for a long walk until I get over this edgy feeling. I want to hit, run, holler, punch, pull, twist, yell, smash, and throw away things that aren’t needed in this house. I want to live alone and control my life and emotions.
Monday, October 24, 1994—A Gold Mine of Crap
Today was like no other day. In fact, no day is like any other day. I got up late because of a bad back. I wanted to take it easy, like I did yesterday, so my back would mend faster.
I’m a schmuck because I overdo it physically sometimes and develop a bad back because of it. It was more than two weeks ago that I worked about eight or nine hours straight in the backyard. I did a lot of work the haulers were supposed to do. I did it because it was our backyard, and I was thinking of saving money, not for us, but for the previous owners. I didn’t want the hauler charging too much or else Rita Alemasov would have put up a big fight and never paid the bill.
When we bought this house six months ago we didn’t know that the Alemasov’s had literally buried a gold mine of crap back there. Some of the debris was toxic. They didn’t disclose this fact, so they willingly paid the bill because they knew we could’ve easily sued them.
The hauler charged them $1000. It took the hauler four days to finish the job. Four trailers-full to extract the debris and three trailers-full to bring in replacement dirt.
Then the other day Rita came over to make sure we weren’t going to sue her for anything else that was left in the backyard. Joan and I signed her very poorly typewritten release. What follows is a letter-by-letter, space-by-space replica of what she wrote:
In consideration for the seller paying for debree removal from backyard on 2349 Funston Ave, buyers and their respective heirs,personal representatives,successors and assigns,agents,etc,do hereby release ALEMASOV GERMAN,RITA and each of their respective heirs, personal representatives,successors,assigns,,etc,of and from any and all claims,demands,actions,proceeding,and causes of action ofevery kind whether known or uknown,relating to this matter.
I could’ve written better than that in my first year of reading and writing in grammar school. Rita had the gall to ask for the $158 that she thought was coming to her. We received a refund check in our name in June for paying too much property tax. Rita, who actually paid the tax, wanted the $158. I told her in a very angry tone, “Look, Rita, I broke my back trying to save you money by getting that crap out of the backyard. I’m not going to pay you. I had to go to a chiropractor twice and a masseur once. Plus, my back is still killing me.”
She walked away mad. I was doubly mad at her and her ex-husband for leaving the backyard like they did, making so much work for me to do.
Thursday, October 27, 1994—Swift Writing
Why do I write in my journal? Because I have to know what I’m thinking. I have to let it all hang out, unfiltered, or else I’ll feel suffocated. I have to write as fast as I can. It’s the only writing I like doing—spontaneous, full-speed-ahead, swift, no looking back.
I have to focus. On what? The picture of what I want to write about. How about the kiss? Carol Kerstein. She was the first girl I ever kissed. She was also my first girlfriend. I longed to have sex with her. I tried feeling her up many times, but her hand was always there to grab mine.
Carol loved to kiss me as much as I loved kissing her. She was very attractive. She had a sister a year younger, who, when I was at their apartment, wouldn’t leave us alone so we could kiss each other. I hated her sister for that.
I went with Carol for about six months until she started dating a guy in high school who had a car. She was the first girl to give herself to me, in the sense of making out. All I knew was that I wanted to kiss her all the time.
The eighth grade was a time of awakening for me. It was at a Halloween Party in 1953. A bunch of us boys and girls were playing spin-the-bottle. It was Carol’s turn to spin and the neck of the Pepsi bottle ended up pointed at me. That was 41 years ago and I still have a memory of that night. Why is my memory so good? In a way I love it, but in a way it’s detrimental to my writing. I don’t fictionalize enough. I write too much about my own experiences.
What’s the first memory I have? It took place in Hollywood, on Leland Way—riding down a driveway on my tricycle at the age of three or four. The driveway had a downward slope to it. I could just coast down the driveway to the sidewalk and turn right or left and it’d be a thrill for me. I believe that’s my first memory. I think I was four when we moved a few blocks to Homewood Avenue and Wilcox. The house isn’t there anymore. It wasn’t torn down, it was taken off its foundation and moved to I don’t know where. The city bought the house and paid my dad $25,000. They wanted to make our property a parking lot for the police station next door.
Gale Kaplan read something in the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop the other night. It was about letting the editor go, about forgetting the editor while writing. Write and see what comes out, she wrote. “Write, Joe,” she said, “don’t think of the editor. Don’t be inhibited by what he thinks. He’ll hold you back if you think of him. He’ll give you that dreaded writer’s block if you think of him while you’re writing.”
So I’m writing—swiftly. I might be writing nonsense now, but maybe when I look at it in a couple of years it won’t be nonsense. Right now I don’t know where I am as a writer. I’m just writing swiftly and liking it, because it’s the only thing I know that I like and want to do. The editor is trying to nudge his way into my brain. I just pushed him aside and here I am, not knowing where I’m headed. I’m just going. I want action. I want to write a story like West Side Story. I want to write something that the whole country will talk about. What could it be? I wish I knew. I think of Joyce Carol Oates. She writes only horror or negative stories. She should go to hell for using her talent and fame to write so negatively. What’s with her? Why is she always writing about negative things? Does it have any social meaning? To me it doesn’t. Maybe she writes that way because she’s saying, “To hell with others. It’s me, the writer, that’s the important thing.”
It’s not good for me to judge another writer. All I know is, I can’t write horror. I write about my life. My first kiss with Carol Kerstein. What about that story when Nate Wirt, my loyal friend, used to kiss her without my knowing it. Nate never had a girlfriend in junior high. But he had sex with a couple of intellectual types, girls like Janet Sherman and Judy Landau. I’ll be visiting Nate in Houston in a couple of weeks.
What else can I write about while writing at a breakneck speed? The noises I hear? The view outside my window? The office in our basement that I’m sitting in? My relationship with my wife? My relationship with my son?
We had two guests last night. Delia Moon and Zen Jack. They slept in my office. People like my office because there’s a bathroom next to it. It’s also a large room. I love it. I feel free in it. It’s all mine. There are three large windows to my right. The windows have a grill on the outside to prevent any burglars from breaking in at night. It’s a nice view. A large acacia tree is in view. There are five houses within my view across the street. Pink flowers are growing outside my window. They’re annuals. They’ll have to be taken out by their roots in another month or so. Joan meant for it to be that way when she planted them.
I’m slowing up because I don’t know where I’m headed. Even if I want to head somewhere I lose interest very fast. For instance, if I want to write about my days as a teacher in L.A., I lose interest the moment the subject arises in my mind. I just like to ramble along like a rolling stone, future unknown. Why do I feel this way? Why am I bored with any subject I have to write more than one sentence about? What is causing this feeling? What kind of feeling is it? That I don’t have confidence as a writer? I just like to write like I’m doing now. But it’s the same thing that I said last year and the year before that. I’m repeating myself, something I don’t like doing. Where is all this leading me? Should I worry about it?
“No. It’s not good for a person to worry.”
Should I feel sorry for myself?
“That’s not good for you, either.”
Should I just write, not knowing what the hell I’m writing about?
“I’ll leave that up to you to figure out.”
I can feel doubt creeping in. I like writing like this. The thing is, I don’t know if it’s doing me any good. Should I even think if it’s doing me good or not, or should I just live in the moment and write? I’m unsure of what I’m doing except I’m doing what I set out to do, which is to write as fast as possible without stopping. Go to it. Yeah, yeah. This is how to write. That editor just hit me at the beginning of this paragraph. I can’t worry about him. I have to write without stopping, getting my thoughts down on the computer screen as fast as I can. I have a Macintosh SE. I bought it in 1989, the year my mother died.
I see the mail lady across the street. She’s right on time. She usually delivers the mail before noon. It’s a quarter to twelve now. She’s very dependable. She’s good at what she does. She’s a very short woman. Chinese. Our next door neighbors to the south of us are the Zimmermans. They’re Lutheran. To the north of us is Edna Carter who lives alone in a rented house. She drinks a lot of liquor. I see her liquor bottles in the blue recycling bin every week. She goes to bed early. She’s very quiet. She rents rooms to foreign students who go to an American language school. The house just north of hers is where Jim and Judy Terracina live. Jim is a cop in Oakland and Judy works for the probation department in San Francisco. Nice people. I communicate with Jim more than anyone else on our block. Two houses south of ours is that of the man who put a sod lawn in our backyard—Jean Pierre Lerissa, a Frenchman. He’s a gardener by trade. Right across the street from us is an old Spanish man and his wife, their last name is Cerdan. He’s always working in the front on his car or the yard. He moves his car around two or three times a day. It gives him something to do. A young couple just moved in across the street. They’re Chinese. I’ve met the man. John is his name. He said he paid $340,000 for his house. I rarely see him or his wife.
Friday, October 28, 1994—Glean Stories
I have to write what I want to write and have to write, then go back and glean the good ideas or stories from what I’ve written. I don’t have to choose a whole journal entry, all I need to do is select what I think I can make a story of.
I’m thinking of Dr. Richard Vogel, Joan’s and my therapist. He calls me a Zen writer. He thinks I need to embellish my writing more.
I’m thinking of my friend and chiropractor Sky Diamond now. He’s on vacation in India. I had an appointment with his partner Mark Strauss today, but canceled it. Strauss cracks my spinal column a little too hard. Sky does it more delicately. Plus he talks to you, which is what a patient wants when he visits a doctor. Sky is always interested in my life. I sometimes tell him about my problems with my son Ray, my wife, and my stepson Sol.
Each chiropractor has his or her own style of adjusting the back. Sky Diamond’s style is delicate and smooth, along with compassion and conversation. Mark Strauss’ style is violent.
Style. I have my own writing style. The thing is, how can I get people to read it. In other words, what do I have to do to get published?
But that’s another story. Or is it? “A Gold Mine of Crap.” Now there’s a story I can work on: new home buyers buying from immigrant house sellers. The haulers didn’t do a good job of clearing out the debris. I broke my back doing one-third of their work for them.
Today I figured out that I can glean stories from my journal entries. I’ll have to keep writing stories and books if I want to get published. There’s no getting around it. I can now sit down and write every day without much distraction. Exercise. Eat healthy food. Stay in a positive frame of mind.
Monday, October 31, 1994—Religion, Sol, Our Backyard, and Neighbors
Religion is the bane of civilization. I know it brought people together a long time ago, but it quickly makes people enemies of each other if they don’t believe what you believe. Like those people who go door-to-door trying to convert people to their religion so you won’t be damned and go to hell for eternity. Trying to convert people, what an asinine idea. How can an adult convert another adult, especially by going door-to-door? The people who do that are trying to do the impossible. They must meet a lot of antagonism on their journey from house to house. They’re constantly butting their heads against a wall. When are they going to realize that proselytizing doesn’t work? It’s a waste of time and energy. They should be using their valuable time and energy helping the poor and homeless instead of trying to convert people who are unwilling to listen.
Religion was meant to direct people on the straight and narrow, to suffocate evil thoughts and deeds. But look at the world today—we’re on the verge of blowing ourselves up.
Last night Joan told Ray and me that Sol is seeing a therapist. That’s good news. He realizes now that he’s been very depressed. Joan’s mom is willing to pay the therapy bills. That means Sol’s very bad idea of hating his parents for breaking up when he was an infant and of not keeping in touch with them is about to come to an end. A man who thinks that way needs help. Now he’s getting it.
I have so much to say, and then again, very little to say. What subject haven’t I touched on yet? Well, let’s see, what did I do yesterday? I spent it at home fixing, cleaning, and planting three rhododendron plants. Each plant cost $20. Ray and I planted them in the area where the haulers took away the debris. It was nice to stick a shovel in the dirt without unearthing tile, drywall, or plumbing fixtures. There’s something new in that garden every day, what with Joan doing a lot of adding to it.
We have nice neighbors. I get along well with Jim Terracina, who’s on the Oakland Police force. As Jim Croce sings, “You don’t mess around with Jim.” If you do, Jim Terracina will put a gun to your head. Next door to the south of us are Ted and Elaine Zimmerman and their family of three grown children. Ted is a pastor of a Lutheran church in the Richmond District. Next to the Zimmermans is Jean Pierre Lerissa and his wife. Jean Pierre is the watchdog and workhorse of the neighborhood. The man never relaxes. He’s always working, either on his front yard, backyard, or out with his gardening crew during the day. Across the street from us are an older couple, the Cerdans. He moves his pick-up truck three or four times a day just to be doing something. Next to the Cerdans are Dan and Shirley Kipp and their daughter, K.C., who goes to middle school and smokes cigarettes in her front yard when her parents aren’t home. Dan is an accountant and Shirley is a biologist. Edna Martin, our neighbor on the north side of us, rents rooms out to foreign students who are going to language school to learn English. Then there’s Leo and Linda McCarthy up the block who have an invalid son David. Leo is a private investigator. Next door to the McCarthys are the Schneiders, Bernie and Joan. Bernie teaches English and history at Tamalpais High in Mill Valley. He was their basketball coach for many years. He’s a great fan of the Warriors, Giants, and 49ers. Across the street from us is a male couple, Bob and Terry, two very nice men.
Ah, life, it just keeps on rollin’ along.
Tuesday, November 1, 1994—Stream of Consciousness
When I was on the sidelines watching Ray’s Marin Country Day School (MCDS) soccer team play Town School, I wanted to go into that game, that battle, because I was fired up. I wanted to take charge like Town School’s Joe Skiffer did against my son’s MCDS team. “Hey, you guys,” Joe said to his teammates in a huddle, “we’re down, but not out. Don’t give up now. There’s plenty of time left.” The Town School boys put their hands together. “Let’s go get ’em,” said Joe, and his teammates let out a huge whoop that propelled them to tie the game and eventually win it, 4-2. Joe Skiffer is only thirteen and already he’s not only a great athlete, he’s a great leader. He reminded me so much of myself when I was thirteen, in a football game we played in East Los Angeles against this team with a big, heavy guy named Moose on it. Moose was their main man. This was way back in 1953 when our whole team of eleven guys piled into Mel Wopner’s 1946 blue Plymouth coupe and we drove down an almost empty Hollywood Freeway (can you believe that?) which merged into the San Bernardino Freeway to Hazard Park in East L.A. It was a warm Saturday morning. Oh, how I wish all my coaches were like Mel Wopner. He really noticed my talent. Dick Valentine at Fairfax High also noticed it. So did Bus Sutherland at L.A. Valley Junior College. Thank goodness Bus changed my position from quarterback to running back because I was the seventh string quarterback before that. He complimented me by giving me the nickname of Jackrabbit Joe. My luck ran out on me at the University of Oregon. That’s what I want to write about in my short story, “The Fourth Stringer,” where the protagonist could never get on the good side of his coaches.
Just like my son can’t get on the good side of me sometimes. He thinks that all I see is the negative in him. I don’t. I see he wanted to help me plant the rhododendrons in our backyard this past weekend. He helps if I ask him, although it takes a few reminders to get him moving.
“The Fourth Stringer.” The Rose Bowl. The number one ranked team in the nation, Ohio State, playing nineteenth-ranked Oregon. Everyone thought Ohio State was going to rout Oregon. I have to shout out what the protagonist is feeling in this story. What’s it feel like to sit on the bench? What’s it feel like to be an invisible man in the eyes of your coaches? What’s it feel like to finally get into a game and have a couple of dirty, sweaty, 250-pound linemen growling at you? What’s it feel like for a fourth stringer to catch a deflected pass with no time left on the clock and his team behind by six points? What does this fourth stringer do? Does he score a touchdown? Or does he stop on the five-yard line after running through most of the Ohio State team and hurl the ball into the stands with a vengeance, thus losing the Rose Bowl game instead of winning it for Oregon? “The Fourth Stringer.” What’s he thinking while running with the ball? I’ll tell you what he’s thinking. He’s thinking how his coaches treated him for two years, how they used him as cannon fodder and never gave him a chance to show his talent.
Maybe my cousins Chuck and Jack (both former high school football players) were right. Maybe I didn’t have that killer instinct in me. I had it the night L.A. Valley Junior College played San Diego Junior College in 1959. I took charge in that game, scoring two touchdowns; not allowing an opposing player to catch a pass in my zone; getting mad at San Diego’s running back who broke loose for a long gain, and me yelling in his face after tackling him as hard as I could, “You motherfucking sonofabitch!” There was a look of shock or astonishment on his face when I said that to him. I was so pissed-off that I was an animal at that moment. I felt the same way when I was thirteen playing against Moose and his team in East L.A. I was in on almost every defensive play in that game. I wanted to win, just like Joe Skiffer wanted to win against my son’s soccer team. And we did win when I scored on a long touchdown run as the clock ran out. That’s what I want to write about in “The Fourth Stinger”—a guy who never gave up.
My cousins Chuck and Jack drilled it in me when I was about to leave L.A. to start the summer practice sessions at the University of Oregon: “You’ve got to think you’re the best player on the field,” they told me.
I always felt I was the best at the beginning of the two seasons I played at Oregon. But as each season progressed, the coaches not giving me a sliver of a chance to shine, that feeling of being the best player dwindled down to nothingness.
Ray Regales, my character in the “Fourth Stringer,” after catching a deflected pass, is running with the ball in the Rose Bowl. What’s he thinking? I’ll tell you what he’s thinking. He’s thinking what his backfield coach, Max Coley, yelled at him in practice one day: “Regales, you’ll never play in a game at Oregon as long as I’m coaching here!”
I wonder what would’ve happened if John McKay had stayed on as backfield coach at Oregon instead of taking the head coaching job at USC when I arrived at Oregon? Would he have noticed my talent? Would he have started me over Dave Grayson or Mel Renfro? Grayson turned out to be an all-pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, and Renfro, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In my mind, I was as talented as they were.
When I was at Oregon, the Black athletes in football and basketball were the only Black students on campus. It was the Black athletes who broke the color line at Oregon, as they did at other colleges and universities in the early sixties. The university was located in the blue-collar town of Eugene. The town’s economy was run by the lumber industry. What job is the bread and butter of the lumber industry? Mill workers. I worked at the Georgia-Pacific mill in Eugene for a month as a night watchman. I stayed in Eugene after I graduated that summer before entering Coast Guard boot camp. The mill workers were on strike at Georgia-Pacific. I didn’t know any better at the time, but a night watchman’s job during a strike, if you think about it, is a dangerous job. Thank goodness there were no incidents while I was there.
My night watchman partner was a guy named Bill. One of us would go on watch by checking into stations around the lumber yard for 45 minutes, then the other guy would go, and so on and so forth until we were relieved at around six in the morning by two other guys. Bill was getting a Master’s Degree in anthropology. He introduced me to this girl one night who I went to bed with. My girlfriend at the time, Judy Lindsey, found out about it, through Bill, who happened to be a real weirdo. He got written up in the papers for committing some sexual offense and was in jail for a few days. I helped him out when he was down. He let me down by having sex with Judy after I began my basic training in the Coast Guard. That’s what I read in Judy’s letters when it took me fourteen hours to hitchhike to her house from Alameda to Coos Bay one weekend. I didn’t even mention it to Judy because, one, I shouldn’t have gone through her mail when she wasn’t home, and two, if that’s what she was doing, then our relationship wasn’t serious. We were young, full of vim and vinegar, and if the other person wasn’t around, we found someone else who was. Yeah, I went to bed with another woman one night while she was visiting relatives in North Dakota. When she brought it to my attention, I told her, “It was just sex, Judy, nothing else.”
I only had pure and simple sex on my mind in those days, not love. I don’t believe in animal sex nowadays because I’m 54 and married. But back then, when I was in my early twenties, I did. We used condoms back then, something that has made a comeback because of AIDS. Any person in their right mind used condoms back then because that was the most common way to prevent pregnancy. Women didn’t have pills or IUDs in those days.
Two women at Oregon told me they were pregnant by me in the early sixties. Rusty Finnegan from Medford, Oregon, and Myra Holstein from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I never did find out if Rusty had a child, an abortion, or if she was toying with my mind. She wasn’t a student at Oregon; I met her while she was visiting a friend in Eugene one weekend. Myra Holstein was a student and put a scare in me until a month or so later she told me she had had her period. At the time, both of us knew zero about sex. What we did was undress, I put my penis in her without any foreplay, I came, and that was that. And then there was this woman I met in New York City after I came back to the U.S. from traveling around Europe during the summer of 1965. Her name was Carmella Alberti, an Italian Catholic. She called me in L.A. to tell me she was pregnant and asked what was I going to do about it. I just let it slide and never heard from her again. Was she really pregnant? I’ll never know.
I didn’t say anything to either Coach Casanova or Max Coley about giving me a chance to play or the way I was being treated. We didn’t do that in those days. We grew up in the silent era of the fifties. No one confronted authority figures in those days. “Do as you’re told.” I did as I was told in my family and at school. Then came the sixties: Vietnam, drugs, Black power, hippies, communes, free love, peace marches, assassinations.
Was it Vietnam that ignited the rebelliousness of the sixties? Maybe so. That war is a major stain in our country’s history. Truman, after the Korean War, supported the French to quell Communism in Indochina; Eisenhower carried it further; Kennedy expanded it. Then Johnson and Nixon went full bore in Vietnam. It was when the military-industrial complex really had control of this country (maybe they still do). Eisenhower warned us about it. It wasn’t easy then and it isn’t easy now for a president to go against the military-industrial complex.
I was into sports when I got to Oregon and into principles when I graduated and left to go to Coast Guard boot camp in Alameda, California, in August 1963.
After finishing three months of boot camp, I was stationed for three months on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dexter. Howard Ikemoto, Joe Soldano, and I were a team back then. Soldano was a cynic. His famous saying was, “A college diploma and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.” Howard Ikemoto knew Richard and Kim Teramoto in Berkeley and they let the three of us sleep on the floor in their apartment on the weekends. That’s how I found out about Berkeley. I moved there on my own in 1969 after I quit teaching at Fremont High in L.A. I moved there for independence, freedom, and to become a writer. From 1969-1994, that’s how long I’ve been writing. I wish only one thing: that I could get more of my work published. Oh, I’ve had a quotation book, short stories and articles published, but surely not enough of them.
I was born in 1940, became a teenager in the ’50s, was in my twenties in the late ’60s when I lived with Sandy Rutherford in L.A. without telling my parents. I smoked pot and on a couple of occasions took LSD. I was a substitute teacher in L.A. for a few years, taught for a year and a half at Fremont High School in South Central L.A. I rebelled by having my students lead class discussions and giving them all the same grade of A. I quit teaching in the summer of 1969, moved north to Berkeley, met Sharon Murphy, and we lived together for almost four years. I matured in the ’70s, got married in 1979 and became a stepfather. My one and only son was born in 1981. Here it is, 1994, and I’m sitting at my desk writing about my life.
Monday, November 7, 1994—The Silent American
I’ve written about a young man who loves football because football was his salvation. It brought glory and honor to him. It made him strong and creative. It showed him that he could do things on the football field that surprised even him. How could he throw 50-yard passes? How could he fake this guy or that guy off his feet? How could he be such a good passer, runner, and team leader? Football gave him hope. It opened up a new world for him, because his world at home almost suffocated him.
He came from a family of a mother and father and five brothers, where his oldest brother was born in 1927 and the youngest in 1949. The one we are focusing on was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the youngest for eight years until the last boy in the family was born in 1949 in L.A.
Soon after his youngest brother was born, his family moved from a middle class neighborhood located in the heart of Hollywood (Homewood Avenue and Wilcox) to an upper-middle class neighborhood of Hollywood (Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard).
We’re talking 1949 when he moved to Fairfax Avenue. He had just turned nine. That was a very good year for him, transferring from Selma Avenue School to Gardner Street School, the schools being a mile and a half apart from one another.
Just before Christmas vacation, he’d walk with the rest of his school from Gardner Street to see a Christmas show put on by the Hollywood High School orchestra. Don Adams was a member of that orchestra. He played the drums. He lived across the street from Gardner Street School. He used to come over and play ball with Joe Sutton and his fellow sixth-graders. Don was bigger, stronger, and a high school student to look up to. Two other Hollywood High students joined Don Adams: Dennis Richmond and Russell Garrison. Joe and his fellow sixth-graders learned they were almost as good as the older boys.
Don, Dennis, and Russell used to hit home runs over the fence. Joe Sutton wanted to do what they did. And he did it—once. No one his age had ever done it. He also hit a ball over the Bancroft Junior High School fence in the annual A9-B9 baseball game. These things are memorable to Joe because they were the things he was striving for and actually accomplished. The home run he hit in junior high is much more memorable because the whole student body and faculty were witnesses to it.
Joe’s cousin Jack used to pass down tales of wonder about Joe’s older brother Bob. There were two stories that Joe never forgot. One was that Bob, in an after school fight, lifted his opponent from another junior high over his head, and threw him to the ground. The other was that Bob, in the annual A9-B9 baseball game at Bancroft Junior High, hit a home run over the fence.
That’s what Joe Sutton wanted to do when he played in the A9-B9 game—to hit a home run over the fence like his brother did five years earlier.
In the mid-1950s, it’s been pretty well documented that teachers, policemen, mothers and fathers, doctors, and government officials were the ultimate authorities. Authority was respected in those days. As a whole in the ’50s, Americans were a decent, law-abiding, regimented society. People didn’t mess with authority. If an authority figure said something, then that was the last word. No arguing, no bellyaching, just listen to the authority. Life was simple. Go to school, be good, listen, graduate, and either go to college or get a job. There was no welfare nor health insurance. People had to make a living. No one was going to do it for them. If they were going to survive they had to earn it.
Sheldon Munach, P.E. teacher, was standing along the left field line watching to see that no student would interfere with the annual A9-B9 game in progress. The B9s went down in order in the first inning. It was now the A9s turn to bat. Their first man struck out. Their second man grounded out. Joe Sutton, number three batter, stood at home plate.
Chuck Lewman was pitching for the B9s. Chuck was Joe’s kind of pitcher—he had good control and his pitch wasn’t that fast. They were playing softball, although a softball, when new, was very hard. It was larger than a hardball and didn’t travel as far or as fast. That’s why no student ever hit the ball over the left field fence at Bancroft, except Joe’s older brother Bob. Joe was asked by Bob Fox, his P.E. teacher, on the day of the game, “Do you want to get three hits today or hit a home run?” Joe, without any hesitation, said, “A home run.”
Chuck Lewman’s first pitch came in for a strike. Good, thought Joe, he’s not that fast and I can see the ball well. Lewman’s next pitch was high. “Ball one,” called the one and only umpire standing behind the pitcher.
The next pitch Chuck Lewman delivered was right down the pike. Joe met the ball squarely. It was a long, high fly ball down the left field line that went over the fence. He stayed at home plate for a second or two to see if it was fair or foul, then started to round the bases after the umpire called it fair.
Sheldon Munach, a P.E. teacher with a large paunch and only three fingers on his right hand, walked up to the umpire, Gordon Schiff, a twelfth grade student at Fairfax High, and said, “I was right on the line, Gordy. It was a foul ball. You better call Sutton back to the plate.”
In Gordon Schiff’s mind, the only foul thing that day was Sheldon Munach.
“But…” was the only word that came out of Gordon Schiff’s mouth. Here’s what he was probably thinking of saying: “But I’m the umpire, Munach. My job is to call what I see. I saw a home run. If you were another umpire, I might listen to you. You’re only a spectator. Now get the hell off the field, you fat, three-fingered ass.” That’s what Gordon Schiff probably wanted to say, except Sheldon Munach was an authority figure.
The umpire had Joe return to the batter’s box. By trying to duplicate what he had just done, Joe whiffed at the next pitch and struck out.
Joe Sutton accomplished a great feat that day. He hit the ball over the left field fence at Bancroft Junior High in front of the whole student body and loved every second of it. It was a storybook hit. It was a symbol of the fifties, though, when the umpire had his mind changed by a so-called higher authority. It was the time of the Silent American. It was 1955: Eisenhower, conformity, Ozzie and Harriet, Joe McCarthy.
Friday, November 11, 1994—The True Believer
I’m in Houston visiting my old friend Nate Wirt. I arrived yesterday. Nate is a chiropractor, but his main purpose in life is to get close to Jesus Christ. We’ve been talking about his relationship to Christ since I arrived.
Nate became interested in Christ when his third wife Rita took their baby daughter with her and left him. He was so hurt that he turned to the Bible and read it three times in six months. He studied and studied while working on his chiropractic patients.
What did Nate learn? That to live a happy life in eternity, it was best to give himself completely to Christ.
Here I am—whose idea of God is that of a great Force or Energy—still friends with a man who is a true believer. Nate believes in the literal translation of the Bible. He believes God parted the Red Sea, he believes in Adam and Eve, he believes in Noah’s Ark, he believes Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Christ, he believes Christ made a meal for 5000 people out of two fish and five loaves of bread. He believes in miracles. I don’t believe in such things.
The funny thing is, Nate, who got a Ph.D. in biology at UCLA, at one time believed in evolution until his third of five wives left him.
I’m trying to understand why he is still my friend, since our beliefs in religion and politics are so far apart. Maybe it’s because he lives in Houston, a conservative part of the country. Everyone’s heard that famous saying, “You are what you eat.” Well, it’s my theory that “You are where you live.” In 1972, when Nate lived in L.A., he was a devoted Democrat who voted for George McGovern over Richard Nixon. Ever since he moved to Texas in 1979, he’s changed—because of where he lives. He’s now a part of the rabid Christian right.
Tuesday, November 15, 1994—Polar Opposites but Friends
I was very patient with Nate as he spewed his religious philosophy on me for four days. That’s Nate for you, a true believer in anything he puts his mind into. He was a great athlete when I met him in junior high in 1952. He was a great college professor of biology, and now he’s a great chiropractor (he adjusted my back every day while I was in Houston). In the time I spent with him, he tried to make me believe that I would go to hell if I didn’t believe in Christ. I kept telling him I wasn’t willing to change my belief, but he kept pounding away at it.
Nate said, “We can sin and know we are forgiven, Joe. We can go on feeling good about ourselves only if we believe in Christ. You have to believe in Him if you want to go to heaven because there is a heaven and a hell. Believe in Christ and you’ll go to heaven because all your past, present, and future sins have been paid for by His death.”
Hallelujah and praise the Lord.
Nate is not only a born-again Christian, he’s also a Republican. He’s against abortion, against sex before marriage, against homosexuality, against having illegal immigrants becoming citizens of the country. He’s tired of seeing kids born out of wedlock. He’s tired of people living off the dole. What he’s for are gun rights and capital punishment. It’s hard for me to believe that he, a Christian, has no compassion for those struggling in today’s world.
Nate happened upon Christ ten years ago after divorcing his third wife Rita (who he calls World War III). He was hoping to convert me to his belief while I was in Houston.
I asked him, “How old is the Earth?”
“I don’t know how old the Earth is.”
“Scientists say it’s four-and-a-half billion years old.”
“How can you really prove or refute that, Joe?”
“Because science can prove it, Nate. Science is facts. Life on Earth began a billion years after the Earth was formed.”
“Who really knows. No one was there that long ago. Adam and Eve came into the world 5000 to 6000 years ago. That’s when life began.”
“Nate, you of all people, a former scientist and college professor who got a Ph.D. in biology, you know all about natural selection and survival of the fittest.”
“That’s just one man’s theory, Joe. The Bible is the only thing you need to know.”
Nate has been married five times. Being that he is born-again, he will not have sex with a woman before marrying her. He says he’s not going to rush into a relationship like he did in the past. He truly believes that sex before marriage is a sin. From what I know, the only thing the Ten Commandments have to say about sex is, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” There’s no commandment telling us we can’t have pre-marital sex. Why should we deprive ourselves of a natural human need if we’re not married? Making love is as natural as eating when hungry or seeking warmth when cold.
Do I believe in God? Sometimes I think there is a God and other times I don’t. Even if there is a God, what’s the use of praying to Him? Come on now, how can God hear prayers? The most screwed up people in the world are God-fearing people. They believe in the strict interpretation of the Bible. These people are a menace to our society. Their minds are closed tight. They believe in letting unwanted kids come into this world but don’t believe that a woman should have a choice in the matter. And now, in the year of our Lord 1994, that kind of thinking is picking up steam. They think they have the answers to everything when they don’t have an answer to anything. Their blind faith is beginning to infiltrate the society I live in. Damn the true believers. They want everything their way. They won’t listen to reason. They’re wrecking the foundations of our society. And here my friend is a part of that wave of close-mindedness. I don’t know if I should hate Nate or love him.
Nate’s and my upbringing were different. He is a European Jew, I’m an Arabic Jew. His family spoke Yiddish, my family spoke Arabic. The one major difference in our upbringing was that Nate could do almost anything he wanted. I couldn’t. His parents didn’t discipline him. Mine did. Nate could smoke cigarettes and take the family car anytime he wanted. He could invite his friends over anytime he wanted. He could have poker games at his house on the weekends. I had very little money as a teenager because I never received an allowance. Nate always had money. He treated me many times to donuts and cokes after school when we were in junior high. Nate’s first real sexual experience was with a girl our age when he was thirteen—in his own bedroom. My first real sexual experience was with a prostitute when I was nineteen—in a dingy hotel room.
Sports was a major factor in our lives. After school, in junior high, when we played against each other, Nate was the fiercest competitor I ever met. But in the YMCA league, when we, the Eagles sports club, played other teams in football, basketball, and baseball, we worked as one and won many championships.
Thursday, November 17, 1994—Distractions
It’s not easy being a writer. You have to wade through many distractions before getting to your desk. Here were today’s distractions.
(1) I read the paper while eating breakfast. There was an article today about how to use the Internet. The future is upon us. Everything will come on a screen, either on our television or computer screen. I’m fascinated whenever I come across an article that says “Information Highway,” or “Internet.” At least I know I need a modem and have to be a subscriber. I heard a well-known and respected person recently who said that we’re still at the primitive, dinosaurian stage of the Internet. There are a hell of a lot of wrinkles to wade through, he said, just like there’s a lot for a writer to wade through before he gets to his desk.
(2) I climbed the ladder to the small roof outside our kitchen window to check the screen on the drain pipe. And sure enough, it was clogged with gravel. I cleaned the screen and put it back in place. It’s been raining a lot in San Francisco. We’re up to ten inches in less than a month. We’re already halfway to our normal yearly rainfall and it isn’t even winter yet. I don’t want that little roof off our kitchen leaking into our garage like it did when the first big rain came earlier this month. I need peace of mind. Hence, I inspect the drain pipe whenever it rains. I’ve had to check it every day since I returned from Houston three days ago. Rain, rain, rain.
I just can’t believe in the Noah’s Ark story that my friend Nate believes in—that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, flooding the Earth, that two of every animal species was put on the Ark, and that the only human beings were Noah and his family. A lot of people would have us believe that there actually was a man and his family that built a huge ark to accommodate two of every animal on earth. They spent 40 years building the Ark. That’s pretty hard to believe. And how about the Red Sea parting so the Jews could escape slavery in Egypt? Pure bull. Then there’s the story of Christ feeding 5000 people from a plate that originally had two fish and five loaves of bread on it? Come on, man, how can so many human beings be so gullible to believe such a thing? I was put on Earth to be rational and logical. I wasn’t put here to accept the Word without question. And if you question the Word, you’re not a true believer and you’ll be damned to hell for eternity. I can’t follow the Word because I don’t believe in the Word. The Word is only words that make up stories. Those words were written by creative people or mythmakers. I mean, Moses leading the people of Abraham through the desert for 40 years? Come on, get real. Why would they wander so long in such a small area? They could’ve found a place to settle down, but no, they had to wander for all those years. Where did those thousands of wandering Jews find their food? And how about David and Goliath? I ain’t dat stupid. Joseph and his coat of many colors? Baloney! These are stories. I’m mainly a short story writer. I’d love for my stories to be as famous as those Bible stories.
(3) I called the Perlstein’s about Thanksgiving. They said they’d be glad to have my friend Alan Blum as a guest. Alan is a waif, an orphan. He needs a family during the Holiday season. Alan has only one person left in his immediate family—a brother who lives in Boston. For the first time in years, he’s not going back east for Thanksgiving. He needs a place here in San Francisco to get that feeling of family. Caroline and David Perlstein were willing to invite him. As soon as I got their confirmation, I called Alan to see if he’d like to go to the Perlstein’s with the three of us. He left it open, like he always does, because he says he has a woman who he’d like to share Thanksgiving with. She’s a new woman in his life. “Maybe she’ll be family,” goes his thinking. But Alan hasn’t settled down with a woman in all his 54 years. The man doesn’t realize he loves his freedom and independence more than compromising with a woman. That’s his Achilles heel.
There will always be distractions in the morning for a writer to wade through. I have to recognize that fact. There will always be clogged drains and people trying to get hold of you and you them. There will always be dishes to wash. I remember saying to a friend of mine in Oregon, Bob Ryan, who lives in Eugene where the University of Oregon is located. By the way, Bob, in his letters to me, says all of Oregon has Rose Bowl fever. I’m caught up in the fever myself. I’ve written many a word about my football days at Oregon. My son is caught up in the fever more than I am. He’s very proud I played for Oregon.
To get back on track, I remember telling Bob Ryan, “Life is like dishes. There will always be dishes to wash in our lives.” If that’s the case, then accept the fact and get on with life.
What am I good at? I’m good at speed writing. I’m a good husband and father. I’m a good friend. I’m a good cleaner-upper. I’m creative. But if you really want to know who’s creative, it’s my wife Joan. She makes up her own stories to tell children. She’s also full of ideas on how to spend money by bringing more things into the house and backyard garden. Joan and I have a son who we named after my father. Raymond is into music, his friends, sports, and into his studies for the first time in a long time. It seems like he’s always tired. He must expend a lot of energy in school. Or maybe he’s having a growth spurt at thirteen. Or maybe he’s not getting enough sleep. Nate Wirt and I expended a lot of energy when we were teens. We used to stay after school five days a week and play football, basketball, and baseball in their respective seasons. I wonder if we felt as tired when we got home from school as Raymond does? I don’t think we were as tired, but that’s a very subjective answer.
I find it hard to get to my desk every morning. When I do get here, I’m here for several hours. When I’m finished, I go for a walk. As I always say, “An hour of exercise a day keeps the doctor away”
Friday, November 18, 1994—God Is Everything
I love writing swiftly in my journal because I don’t have to think. The words just flow from my mind, down my arms, and into my fingertips. Why do I write? My answer is the same as Joan’s when she doesn’t have answer to a question: “Why not?”
Actually writing is like a drug. Once you get started as a writer you can’t stop doing it. There’s something about writing that nourishes the soul. You let your inner thoughts out and in this way it’s great self-therapy. It’s using the imagination and the memory. It’s creating something out of nothing.
It was extremely cold last night. The fourth night in a row it’s been like that. I’m down in my office now and I’ve had the heater on all day. I had it on all day yesterday, too. This week is the first week in my life where I’ve worn a wool night cap to bed to keep my head warm. The reason why is that there are two windows behind our headboard. I thought we did everything to keep the cold out after buying the house. We spent $300 for two new double-paned windows. We paid $300 for a large window shade to cover both windows. We paid $400 for drapes. All this outlay to keep my head warm. And now that it’s only a few days from the beginning of winter, my head has been cold all week. Actually it’s been warm with the wool cap Joan gave me. If I didn’t wear the cap my head would’ve been cold the last two nights.
I don’t like cold. I once got caught in the cold wearing only a T-shirt in a car in Oakland. I was wearing a T-shirt because the day started out warm. Dave Murray, who owned the car, didn’t answer the doorbell to his apartment after I kept ringing it and ringing it. He wasn’t a reservist like I was, he was a regular Coast Guardsman. Since he didn’t answer his doorbell, all I could think of was to sleep in his car. It was the winter of 1963. I was so cold that I tried covering myself with newspaper. It didn’t work. Thank goodness I found an all-night laundromat nearby to keep warm. I was a homeless person for one evening in my life and it was pure hell.
Heaven and hell is on earth. I’m getting back on the right track after coming back from Texas earlier this week. Nate had me doubting my beliefs. I surely wasn’t going to change my beliefs, but he can be so overpowering. He wouldn’t stop telling me that I was going to hell for not accepting Christ. He wanted to save me, but in his effort to save me he was trying to crush my own beliefs of God and of my own common sense. It’s just not common sense to me that the Red Sea split so people could go through it and then close up so others would drown. It’s not common sense for a man and his family to build a huge ark to take in a male and female of every species so they would survive the flood of all floods.
What do I believe? I believe God is a great Force. Sometimes I see God when I look at a spectacular sunset or a full moon shining bright in the night sky or rays of sunlight piercing through dark clouds.
But that’s only nature. What about the intellect? Sometimes I talk to God. “God,” I say, “What’s up?” No answer. “God,” I say, “what can I learn from last week’s midterm election?” No answer. It’s up to me to answer my own questions. Am I a part of God? The answer is Yes. We are all a part of God—the good, bad, ugly, needy, insane, and rich. We’re all a part of God, just like the sun, moon, and stars are a part of God. The universe is God. Everything is God. I’m God, you’re God. God is everywhere and everything.
Last night I played poker with the Royal Flush. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with my friends. I wish we could have talked more about the midterm election. Ralph Yanello, the only Republican in the group, said he voted for Republican Congressman Michael Huffington over Dianne Feinstein because Huffington didn’t take any contributions and spent $28 million of his own money on the campaign. He lost to Feinstein by two percentage points.
It’ll be interesting to see what the new Republican Congress does. There hasn’t been a majority Republican Congress in 40 years. Last week’s election was sort of a mini-revolution.
What is the truth? Writing about myself is the truth. I try to be honest when typing on my computer screen. I have no idea if I’m on the right track or not, writing off-the-cuff like I do most of the time. In other peoples’ minds I’m probably out of my gourd.
The truth. I’m Joe Sutton, 54 years old, 5-foot-11, 200 lbs., give or take a few lbs. I like what I do, which is thinking, writing, reading, walking, and spending a lot of time by myself. I think of the smallest thing (picking up a piece of lint) to the biggest thing (God). I think of the days I was an athlete. Those were wonderful days because I was pretty good at it. I think of my family, past and present. I think of the places where I’ve been, the places where I’ve lived, the friends I knew and know, and the women I knew.
I’ve found that I like being near the ocean when I walk. I like walking because most of the day I sit in a chair. It’s starting to get dark. It’s time to go for a walk.
Tuesday, November 22, 1994—President John Kennedy
It was on November 22, 1963, that I wrote something from my heart. It took the death of John Kennedy to make me sit down and write. It was the first time, outside of writing letters, that I wrote something of my own volition. In a way, it was the beginning of my writing career.
THE DAY PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT
I slept over Dave Murray’s apartment in Oakland and woke up at 6 a.m. I dressed and shaved and left with Dave in his car, arriving at the ship at 7 o’clock. I changed into my work clothes, ate breakfast and mustered out on the deck with the ship’s crew at 7:45.
It was a typical work day on the Coast Guard cutter Dexter—I was part of a four man work crew painting the outdoor passageway for the third day in a row.
All morning long, while painting, a most peculiar thing was going on in my mind. I had a fixation on the word “Assassination.” I was breaking it up into my own syllables: “Ass-ass-in-nation. Ass-ass-in-nation.” Then I’d say to myself, “What word has two asses and a nation in it? Ass-ass-in-nation. Ass-ass-in-nation.”
Why this word came going on in my mind I will never know.
At around 11:15, Ron Weber came walking toward us with, if you can believe it, a smile on his face. “The president’s been shot,” he said ever so nonchalantly.
“Come on,” the four of us said, “quit fooling around.” And to this very minute, 8:45 in the evening, it still seems unbelievable that President Kennedy was shot.
“I just heard it on the radio,” Weber told us, that smile still glued to his face.
“Don’t start scuttlebutt like that,” said Paul Miller, the leader of our little paint crew.
“Come and listen to the radio if you don’t believe me,” said Weber.
Miller, Joe Soldano, Howard Ikemoto, and I rushed down the passageway and gathered around the radio. Weber was right, the president was shot—in Dallas. It seemed so unreal, so fantastic, so incomprehensible. How could such a young, vigorous and handsome president be shot to death like that? Who would do such a thing? Why?
Stunned, we dragged ourselves back to work, our faces and hearts in a fog. Shortly afterwards we were ordered to secure our gear. We went below decks to sit and ponder the great shock. We talked, but all that seemed to come out of our mouths was that it was incredible, that for such an event as this to happen in our lifetime is beyond belief.
Lunchtime came. Everyone was talking about the president. I was amazed at how some men acted so coldly to this national disaster. Some said the assassination would help the Republicans, especially Barry Goldwater. Others were saying that Kennedy never was any good and that the country was going to be worse off with Lyndon Johnson as president. And the Texans, every single one of them, said that Johnson would turn out to be a better president than Kennedy.
Politics, how cold and cruel it can sometimes get.
After lunch, Captain Carlson spoke to the ship’s crew on the fantail. “You’ll always remember this day,” he told us. “You’ll remember it like your parents remember Pearl Harbor and the day President Roosevelt died.”
My eyes were glued to the TV late into the evening. Every station was either covering the assassination or going over the president’s life. There was something compelling me to know as much about the man as possible. Why did I want to know so much? The man was our president. He was young. He was starting to do the right things. He was standing up to prejudice, he was trying to hold the military-industrial complex down, he was propounding physical exercise, and he gave us hope for tomorrow.
Thanks to the representative government we live in, everything will be all right in the world. But to think, the most powerful person in the world was assassinated today.
It’s hard to believe President Kennedy isn’t with us anymore. If there happens to be a God, then may He rest John Kennedy’s soul in peace.
November 22, 1963, 9:05 p.m.
J.R. Sutton (2056-914) Seaman Apprentice
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dexter
I’ve been at my desk almost every day these past few months. I work at my desk and then go for a walk. That’s my life. I watch a football or basketball game on TV. I see a friend or two every two or three weeks. I rarely get out. I rarely go out with Joan. Every time I get home from my walk around six in the evening she says she’s ready to go to sleep. She wakes up so early. She’s like a stranger to me. I wonder if we really know anyone in this world. I barely know my wife. I wonder if I’m the cause of her being tired. I try to make things easy for her around the house. We just had her friend visit us for three days. Her friend didn’t wash one dish, pot, or cup she used. She even called long distance many times without asking if she could. I know this because I heard her dialing more than seven numbers a lot.
Wednesday, November 23, 1994—Write!
I wonder if it’s a good idea for me to get out into the world and get a part time job? Maybe I can decide before I finish writing this entry tonight. It’s almost midnight, almost Thursday, almost Thanksgiving. Although it’s late, I feel inspired to write about what I can do if I don’t want to write full-time. I can do something part-time to meet people, to get feedback, to get material, to get some stimulation in my life.
I discussed this today with Joan and our therapist, Dr. Richard Vogel. They think it’s a good idea that I get away from the house and do something other than write. Joan brought up the idea. She thinks I need stimulation for my well-being. I trust her intuition and so does Dr. Vogel. Now it’s up to me to figure out what I would like to do part-time to get some stimulation, some stress, and some deadlines going in my life.
Deadlines. Maybe it would be a good idea to set a deadline to writing short stories. I have plenty of material to write about. I have football and baseball stories to write. I have Nate’s story about being born-again to write. I have a wealth of material to revise. I should set a deadline for myself and get my work out into the world.
Or I can sell something, what it is, I don’t know. I base this on my being a former costume jewelry salesman for four years, when I used go to drug stores, women’s clothing stores, and jewelry shops to show my line of jewelry to them. I can drive and deliver things. I can teach or coach. I can tutor. I can also write. And isn’t that what I am? A writer! Then, goddammit, write! Write with a deadline in mind. Finish “The Fourth Stringer.” Write that baseball story about hitting a home run in junior high when a teacher told the umpire it was a foul ball. Write that Ricky Nelson story about falling in his pool with my clothes on. Write! Set a deadline. Send my stuff out. And if no one wants to publish my writing, I’ll publish it myself and sell it. It’ll make me get out and sell my own writing instead of selling someone else’s creation.
Wednesday, November 30, 1994—Fall from Grace
A writer is like a magician, producing something out of nothing. He types out ideas that turn into stories or articles that someday might get into print.
Yesterday, for example, I walked to the bookstore in my West Portal neighborhood and bought the December issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. In it was an article I wrote about meeting William Saroyan by accident on Irving Street and 22nd Avenue in the Sunset District in 1979. My first meeting with him was when I took a chance and knocked on his door in Fresno in 1976. Writer’s Digest published that piece also. Both times I wrote down my thoughts as soon as I left him. And both times I felt ten feet off the ground. Saroyan was my man. He was one of my heroes.
Another hero of mine was Jackie Robinson. It was always my dream to follow in his footsteps at UCLA. I wanted to be a sports hero like him. The thing is, UCLA didn’t recruit me out of junior college, the University of Oregon recruited me.
My thoughts take me back to Fairfax High. Coach Dick Valentine used my talent in a wide open offense. I stood six yards behind the center and received his pass on every play. I loved that formation. Coach Valentine created it just for my running and passing abilities. What an honor. That’s why I respect Coach Valentine to this day.
My friend Nate has a completely different perspective of Coach Valentine. It was he who started Nate on his football decline. You see, Nate was a great player. He could catch anything that came his way, he could block and tackle extremely well. He was a fearless football player. But one day, while scrimmaging against San Fernando High (our very first competition against another high school), Nate made a boo-boo. It was the first time a lot of us played tackle football against another team. Nate was playing linebacker and missed a tackle. Coach Valentine blew up at him and didn’t play him much during the season.
That was Nate’s fall from grace. There are millions of us who’ve had our downfall. Mine was similar to Nate’s. It happened in a scrimmage at the University of Oregon.
It was late March 1960. It was my first month at the University of Oregon. Spring football practice was in session. One day the backfield gathered for a drill. One guy was given the ball and he had to run between two guys who had to tackle him. He couldn’t run around them, he had to run through them. The two guys I had to run through were Pete Holt and Bruce Snyder. I ran into them, giving every ounce of energy that was in me, churning my legs, digging, driving into them. Pete hit me low and Bruce hit me high. They wanted to stop me; I wanted to run through them. I couldn’t move my right leg. Pete, my best friend, was holding onto it for dear life. It didn’t matter if your best friend was in the drill, you had to give everything you had. If you didn’t, you were dead meat. Max Coley, the backfield coach, was overseeing the drill, and you wanted to impress him with your fight, hustle, and ability because he was the man who had the power to send you into a game or sit you on the bench. While my right leg was being held by Pete, Bruce was pushing his shoulder pad into my chest. I was going down backwards. With my right knee bent, Pete, Bruce, and I landed on my right leg beneath me.
I wrenched my knee so bad that I had to be carried off the field to the training room to put ice on it.
I woke up the next day and was unable to go to any of my classes because I could barely put any pressure on my leg. My knee was sore, stiff, swollen.
Just before afternoon practice began, I limped into Coach Len Casanova’s office and told him about my knee. He told me to have it taped and to run around the field to get the stiffness out of it. I did as I was told, because that’s what a football player does, he’ll run through a brick wall if the coach orders him to do it. It’s similar to what a soldier does in battle. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die. Oh, I can’t tell you how sore and swollen my knee was. I limped around the field. I did it several times and couldn’t stand the throbbing any longer. I stopped what I was doing and stood on the sideline for the rest of the practice. It must have given Coach Casanova the impression that I was lazy.
A few days later the first scrimmage of spring ball was scheduled. “Saturday will be the most important day of your life,” Coach Max Coley told the backfield. “We’ll find out whether you’re made for college football or not.”
Well, when Saturday morning rolled around, I overslept. Everyone was already out on the field when I got to the locker room. There wasn’t a soul around who could help me tape my knee. If it wasn’t taped, I was useless. I don’t know why, but I suited up. I guess I thought it would be better than going out on the field in my street clothes. The day was hot and humid. Fifteen minutes passed when Coach Coley called, “Sutton, huddle with the offense!”
I didn’t move from my kneeling position. I knew my knee would forever be damaged if I went in, that I’d be crippled for life. I just knew it. I stood up, looked at Max Coley, and shook my head. I had defied his authority.
“Sutton,” yelled Coach Coley, stomping toward me, “I told you to get in on offense!”
I didn’t move a muscle. Coach Coley stood two feet from me and shouted for the whole team to hear, “Sutton, you’re never going to play for Oregon as long as I’m coaching here!”
He didn’t play me, except on rare occasions. I sat on the bench for two years. That bad knee and waking up late was my downfall, just like Nate’s downfall at Fairfax High.
I know what it’s like for an athlete to sit on the bench. I know what it’s like to not have a glimmer of hope of being sent into a game. I didn’t like being treated that way, but I stayed on the team and persevered. The two years I sat on the bench at Oregon formed my life. It made me root for the underdog—always. It made me persevere as a writer.
But here’s the thing: I came through the first time I was given a chance to carry the ball for Oregon. I was a senior. It was the first game of the season. Our quarterback tossed me the ball as I started going to my right from my running back position. The ball came into my hands. Our fullback, guard, tackle, and quarterback led my interference. Not one man on the other team touched me. I scored a touchdown from twenty yards out. I have the film of that run in my possession. Someday I’m going to transfer it to video tape so my son Ray can see it.
Tuesday, December 6, 1994—To Rebel or Not to Rebel
I have a goal in mind, which is to score a touchdown in the reader’s mind in my football story. I feel the protagonist in my story, Ray Regales, shouldn’t score because he’s a rebel. Why? Because of the way he was treated by his coaches. They treated him like trash.
He played in an era that was just beginning to recruit Black football players into the college ranks. Regales had six Black teammates when he was going to Oregon. Most teams nowadays are made up of a majority of Black players. “The times they are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan. The sixties. President Kennedy’s assassination. Civil Rights. Lyndon Johnson. Vietnam. Drugs. The sexual revolution. Martin Luther King. Black Power. Here it is 1994 and Black people are still regarded as second class citizens by a majority of Americans.
Ray Regales, even though he isn’t Black, knows what it is to be Black from the way his coaches at Oregon treated him.
I’m reading James Baldwin, the bug-eyed intellectual who died several years ago. He sure did have a knack of explaining the way things were for Black people. We need more voices like his, even the Black rap artists who want their race to rise up against the system and the country. I can’t blame them. It’s a symbol of the way they’ve been treated. They resent it. Now they want vengeance for the way they’ve been treated.
The same goes for Ray Regales. He resents the way head coach Len Casanova and backfield coach Max Coley treated him. He holds a grudge against them. They didn’t treat him like a human being. It’s payback time by my writing a story that has resentment written all over it.
If Ray Regales stopped short of the goal line in the 1962 Rose Bowl game, about ready to tie the score, about to make history by helping his 19th-ranked Oregon team upset No.1 Ohio State, how are people going to treat him for committing such a defiant act? They would treat him like a pariah. He would have been mangled by his team and the Rose Bowl crowd. It would’ve been hard for him to get out of the stadium alive. On the other hand, does he score the winning touchdown? Maybe. Or is he tackled on the two yard line? I don’t know yet. What am I to do with Ray Regales? I’ve been thinking about it for more than 30 years. What does he do? Does he fling the ball in defiance or does he score a touchdown? Or does he get tackled on the two yard line, fumble the ball and one of his teammates rushes in to recover the ball in the end zone? The story’s meaning changes with each ending. The same with the main character. What is he feeling? What should he do? I know that I, Joe Sutton, would’ve scored a touchdown if I were in Ray Regales’ shoes. I would not have defied authority and thrown the ball into the stands. How then does Ray Regales show his coaches he didn’t like being abused? That’s the question.
Friday, December 9, 1994—How to Buy a Used Car
I drive two miles to the Great Highway, park, and walk along an asphalt path that parallels the Pacific Ocean. I walk two miles, turn around and walk two miles back. Why do I do it? Because it’s good for me. Just like writing in my journal is good for me. Both are good for my sanity and well-being.
I’m collaborating with my friend Steve Dessy on a pamphlet about how to buy a used car. I must say, it’s pretty good. Will it sell? I hope to God it will. I hope it sells and people learn from it. People will have knowledge and confidence on how to buy a used car after reading our small, informative 30-page pamphlet. People can save a lot of money. Steve, a car salesman, gives them tips on how to buy a used car, especially from dealerships. Tips like don’t impulse buy and having the car checked out by a mechanic before buying it. Steve’s formula is “knowledge plus confidence equals saving money.” He’s written most of the pamphlet. Me, I’m making it easy for a car buyer to understand it by editing and revising it. It’s a 50-50 collaboration.
Where can we get it published? I read a little blurb in Writer’s Digest magazine about this publisher who’s looking for “How to” books. That’s a possibility. Another possibility is to publish it ourselves.
Monday, December 12, 1994—Simple Logic
I have two writing projects in mind. My football story and Steve Dessy’s and my used car pamphlet. I should work on the football story first because the Rose Bowl is three weeks away when Oregon plays Penn State.
How to Buy A Used Car Without Getting Ripped Off has great potential. Steve thinks we should self-publish it and sell it to credit unions. That might be the way to go.
Those are the two projects I want to finish before working on anything else.
My son, who’s just getting over a cold, is growing. He’s 5-foot-4 and weighs about 115 lbs. Next year he’ll be going to high school and will start becoming his own man.
Joan loves being out in the world telling stories to young children. It’s her dreamland. I understand how she feels, for I have my own dreamland, which is writing about my past and present life. I’m about ready to write the football story of the decade. I have the material and am ready to is put it all together.
William Saroyan once wrote: “It is better to write what seems to be worthless than to sit and hope (someday) to write that which will seem worthwhile.” Great words for getting on with the show. I just had an article published in the December issue of Writer’s Digest about my second meeting with him. Writer’s Digest called the article “Accidental Mentor.” I liked my title better: “Saroyan Again—A Chance Meeting.” They cut out half of what I wrote.
Katherine Mansfield said something similar to Saroyan. “Looking back,” she wrote, “I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But far better to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”
That’s what I’m doing now. I might be writing twaddle instead of not writing at all. Nothing is nothing. But writing something, even if it’s twaddle, is better than writing nothing because, at the very least, it’s something.
Writing something is better than writing nothing.
Therefore it’s something
How do you like that syllogism for a writer? Is it equal to that famous syllogism I learned in college?
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal
I took a logic class at Oregon and did very well in it. I remember studying for the course and all of a sudden getting the feeling that “Yeah, I understand this stuff. I really understand it.” Linnea Leonardson, who was in the same class, wanted me to teach her, which I did. Ben Brown, my roommate, was her boyfriend.
I see the old couple across the street, the Cerdans. She parks her four-door white Ford in the garage and he parks his Ford pickup in the driveway. Whenever they use her car, Mr. Cerdan backs his pickup out of the driveway so his wife can back her car out of the garage. Then he puts his car back in the driveway, gets into her car, and they drive off. A half hour later they’re back. He gets out of her car, gets into his, starts it up and backs it out into the street again. Then she drives into the garage. Mr. Cerdan moves his car back into the driveway again, to do the same exact thing on the same day, or for sure the next day. Crazy. Illogical. They can save all that wasted energy if he just parks on the street when he first backs his car out of the driveway to let his wife out of the garage.
Oh well, to each his own.
Friday, December 23, 1994—I Have Faith in My Son
I finally finished what’s going to be one of the great football stories ever—”The Fourth Stringer.” I like how I ended it. Ray Regales, sent in on the last play of the game, catches a deflected Hail Mary pass and runs 85 yards through most of the Ohio State team. He doesn’t score but fumbles the ball as he’s tackled on the two-yard line. The ball rolls crazily into the end zone and one of his teammates recovers the ball to win the game for Oregon in one of the biggest upsets in Rose Bowl history. Afterward, in the locker room, the coach approaches Regales and says, “Everyone’s saying your run is the most dramatic, amazing run they’ve ever seen. I’m in total agreement with them, Regales. Do you want to know what amazes me even more? You didn’t quit the team, you stuck it out. I’m very proud of you, young man.” And the last sentence of the story goes: “First the run, then the coach’s words, all I could say, with a lump in my throat, was, ‘Every man deserves a chance—right, Coach?'”
So what’s going on these days? A first-class stamp is 29¢, a gallon of gas $1.11, and a dozen eggs 87¢. Russia is bombing Chechnya, a part of Russia that wants its independence. There’s a cease fire that started today in Bosnia-Herzegovina, thanks to Jimmy Carter. Christmas is two days away.
The weather’s been very cold. I’m sick. I cough and spit up dark phlegm. I got sick when I went for a walk on a nasty day and got caught in a heavy downpour. I was completely soaked by the time I got home. I can barely speak now because of laryngitis. My strength is at a very low ebb. I haven’t walked in over a week. I wish I could get outside, because the days have been so pristine. The sun shines, the air is clean, but it’s very cold. I’d get pneumonia if I stepped outside.
I worry about my son. He has to be pushed to write his high school applications. He rarely does something of his own initiative. What am I going to do with that boy? A couple of days ago he was watching TV in the daytime and I almost burst out in anger. I didn’t yell at him, I just said, “That’s it, Ray. No more TV.” I unplugged it and now the TV is on the floor in our bedroom. I hope it’ll help him get over his addiction to the tube. At least he won’t be looking forward to watching TV or playing those video games for a while. I wish Ray was more self-motivated. I have to realize, though, that he’s thirteen, that it’s only a phase in his life. He’s growing, changing. He’ll be all right. I have faith in my son.
Writing spontaneous, off-the-cuff journal entries has been a valuable tool for me over the years. Ten stories and a section of one book grew out of this kind of writing in Journal 1994.
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