He sat in the driver’s seat of a 56 Ford pickup truck. His arm, resting on the edge of the rolled down window, was thin, tanned and wiry. The thing that distinguished him the most from the folks standing on the street talking to him was his hair. On this early morning in Venice in 1972, the young men standing in the street had hair: long hair, curly hair, puffed out or hanging down in lanky strands. Don’s hair was slicked back from an already receding hairline, greased tight against the top of his head, then curling a bit down toward the back of his neck.
He was older, a child of the 50’s and not the 60’s, 33 years old. His hair, his worn white t-shirt, his truck sitting low with faded paint, formed a picture of Whittier Boulevard in 1960, not Dell Street just before the first canal in Venice, California in 1971. But the biggest thing that separated Don from the rest of the young men that gathered around his truck that summer morning was that Don was a con.
Don had served ten years in federal prison for bank robbery. He told me once how, at the age of 21, his restlessness got the better of him one day, and he walked into a bank with a 38 and not much of a plan. He talked about the simple justice of life inside, how you didn’t want to owe anybody anything, how at a movie showing a man had stepped over three rows of chairs and slit another man’s throat for a pack of cigarettes. And I could see, even that morning sitting in his truck, that the restlessness was still there, that the ten years in the pen had been wasted on Don . It wasn’t about rehabilitation, it was about understanding: the shades of grey, the calculus of relationships, the balance of giving and taking, the art of letting it ride.
That morning he was on a mission, to get a pickup truck load of sand for the weed-strewn corner of Linnie Canal and Dell Avenue that was the sight of the soon-to-be People’s Park. Don had been eyeballing a large mound of sand piled up at the end of Driftwood Street by the beach maintenance crews that we back up to with his truck and help ourselves.
“Let’s get going before too many people are out,” Don said. Me and another guy jumped in and headed for the beach.
The woman who loved him that summer was tall, gentle, and like many of our friends at the time tended to drift off toward the mystical. She gave him everything she had, and wanted nothing more from him than the touch of his skin as they lay sleeping in the early morning. All she wanted was to see him in the morning there at the table in the kitchen of their little house off Venice Boulevard, drinking coffee and eating her freshly baked bread and raspberry jam. She wanted to touch his hair as she walked by, and have him reach out and find her hand. And that was all.
Don received all that and loved it. But his was the arithmetic of the prison: every favor incurs a debt, and every day his debt to her grew until it ate at his heart.
“Can you do something for me?” he said one day in early September.
“Tomorrow afternoon be at Nu Pars at 3.” I would have done anything for him, anyway, but this time his eyes were fixed on mine.
“Be sitting on the bench outside. There won’t be hardly anyone around after the breakfast crowd is gone.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Wait for me. If I don’t come by 4, forget the whole thing.”
The hard lines of the prison cell
and the convict creed
beckoned the subconscious as
a light out of the turmoil
for an eighteen year old
who had wandered through dead end jobs
prying plywood forms day after day
from still warm sweaty concrete walls
who drank through his paycheck
while his girl friend cursed and
everyone was somehow
an antagonist ‘till he seemed to be
bounced from pinball bumper
back to the spring-loaded piston
then launched again on another wild ride
that became a blurry spinning
and ringing in his ears
and who wandered head pounding
down hard concrete sidewalks
looking for a way to stop the noise
Finally he found solace
in jailhouse arithmetic
a favor received is a debt incurred
an allegiance pledged
is a bond broken only by death
and jailhouse justice where
a borrowed pack of smokes unpaid
could slit a man’s throat
and rules were black and white inside
Now Don was an ex-con
the geometry of living
in Mary’s Venice bungalow
where the light filtered soft
through batik curtains
while she nurtured life into
a small herb garden on Linnie Canal
bought stone ground wheat
and gently soothed his hair while
his every nerve tingled with agitation
while up and down the alleys
clouds of young men moved
in arguments about consensus
and the individual
while women playfully passed their fingers
across his back as they walked by
the calculus of stepping back and
letting go and watching as the egos played out
the balance of giving what he could to her
not knowing what it was he gave
while letting himself take the feel
of her warm skin in the early morning
and the soft peace of incense floating
through the dim living room
the art of letting all this ride
and never asking an accounting …
were mysteries that ate at him.
and so he didn’t tell her
that morning as she poured him coffee
and toasted homemade bread
that today he’d rob another bank
just to get inside
(This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons living or dead is purely accidental.)