“YOU NEED A LITTLE MADNESS IN YOUR LIFE.” ZORBA THE GREEK
November 10, 2017
Is it my aging, the world struggling, the politics punishing, the climate destroying, or is it because all of the above feels personal. Every day is a recovery from the disasters, deaths and destruction of the previous day. I can’t decide if my thinking process is changing or the world really is bubbling over the edge of horror. Today the fires in Sonoma hit a personal note; I went to Sonoma State University and lived two years wandering the hills, rivers, towns, farms, and vineyards. I have to remember all the places I lived in: a dorm in Cotati, then Rio Nido along side the Russian River, it was too far to hitch to Sonoma so I moved to Petaluma, then I spent a few months in a hippie house in Glen Ellen and then… I dropped out of college and moved to Mill Valley. Northern California shocked the Beverly Hills plushness off my shoulder and I smothered myself in the outdoors. I used to walk or bike everywhere, I don’t know how I managed without a car. Did you?
My heart and mind turn to the images on the TV news: twenty two fires burning, five hundred unaccounted for and now forty dead.
My family home burnt down in the Bel Air fire on November 5,1961. It rearranged my life as suddenly as it happened, and I discovered growing up wasn’t so bad.
I need a movie to watch that resonates life’s invasive tragedy and triumph; Zorba the Greek. As a young girl that movie moved me in a way so unfamiliar. The writer and Zorba the teacher, the French debutante unzipped, and the widow, whose life was taken because of unreturned passion. Last night, Zorba came to me and said, “You need a little madness in your life.” I listened, and found myself at El Farol on the dance floor. Tuesday Blues Jam used to be a weekly routine. It’s been two years since I went on my own. Dance is always alive in me, moving really fast to great music.
I sat down at the newly restored bar, and looked around, a few familiar faces, and then I looked at the man next to me. He smiled informally, the way someone does when they recognize you. I hadn’t seen Dancing Dennis in years.
” Hi,” he said in a sort of chuckle.
” Do I know you?” I asked.
” Oh Dennis! I didn’t recognize you. You’ve lost weight or something, you look so different.” He chuckled and let me talk.
“How are you? How funny to run into you, I haven’t been here in years.” Dennis and I met on the dance floor at El Farol, and I asked him to marry me! I guess that’s why he just listens to me, he knows I’m a grab bag of surprises. I thanked him for reading my book and writing a beautiful review and then he said,
” I liked your hair short but I like this too. “I don’t recall what I said, but I remember feeling at ease sitting next to him, and trying to recall who he reminded me of, I thought it was Michael Caine, but today I remember, its Oscar Werner, when he played the Captain in Ship of Fools. When the band started I jumped, without even asking Dennis, and darted for the dance floor before it got crowed. I took off like a wild bird and let my Zorba dance. I knew Dennis and I would dance later but I needed to let my madness out.
When I returned to my seat, he looked left out, and so we talked about the past times we danced, and moments later, without any discussion of our personal lives, we danced, and danced and danced. I asked the band to play “Honky Tonk Woman,” and the floor regaled with dancers. Every time I looked at Dennis he was smiling or laughing.
Today I am in a religious mood, not in the sense of Jewish or Catholic, just feeling like I am waiting for God to stop the tragedy.
I’ve had bar chats with Sam; many Santa Fe locals claim friendship; he’s our Santa Fe Shepard for independent thinking, accessibility, dust-bowl prolific honesty and still a flush hand of rugged classic looks. The last time I saw him, he was sitting next to me at Geronimo, writing in his little notebook and eating steak. He put his fork down when I said ‘Hi Sam.’ He talked about his novel (Inside Man), his Kentucky ranch, and showed me his new cell phone. When he held it, it was like a man holding a gun for the first time. Nothing about him was robotic, on cue, or predictable. When he gave me his phone number and said ‘Call anytime,’ I resisted throwing myself into his arms; now I wish I had.
When Shepard & Dark opened in town for three days, I was out the door within hours. I figured the movie theater would be packed, so I brought earplugs. I take my films too seriously and refuse to be interrupted with slurping and munching. Into the first scene, my concentration was bulletproof; I would have protested if anyone said a word.
Beginning with the footage; incredible home-made movies and photographs of early Sam. You will see him as a youngster on the ranch where he is raised, and Sam leaving home as he kicked his way through puberty. Then we see that chiseled frame of masculine sensitivity as a young playwright in Greenwich Village where you meet Johnny Dark. The dialog between the two men and the dramatization of their adventures through home movies and collected letters they exchanged over a forty-year period broke my heart. I felt the pain inside of Sam as if we were best friends.
It is as honest and genuine a continuum of conversation between two men that I’ve ever witnessed. The subjects: their father’s, destiny, fate, women, writing, dogs, tragedy, and loss. It is a wrap of cinematography, humor, philosophy and a pool-of-tears-ending.
Yes, there is a dusting of emotions on Jessica Lange.
Several lines I recall, in particular, to paraphrase Sam:
We can change our lives, our work, our wardrobes, our women, but we never really change. Our essence remains constant. I’ve always felt outside the whole thing, sometimes more than others. As a writer, you have to be selfish with your time. I’m always moving, going on the road, I didn’t know that was how my life was going to turn out, but it did.
The day I was born, May 11, 1953 the headlines of the The Los Angeles Time read:
GANGSTERS INVADE SOUTHLAND CITIES.
Among gangsters and their hangers-on named were Abe (Longy) Zwillman, Frankie Carbo, Meyer Lansky, Allen Smiley, whose true name is Aaron Smehoff, Gerald Catena and William Bischoff.
When I met Daddy he had salty sea blue eyes and when my actions were worthy of laughter, his eyes retracted into a blur of skin. Dressed in perfectly matched shades of pink, silver and blue my child eyes rested cheerfully on his silk ties, a collage of jewel tones. The feel of his fabric was soft like blankets. He was very interesting to look at when I was a child and open to all this detail.
I clung to his neck in the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac. He sang songs and his hand fluttered about, catching me by surprise behind my head, and his laughter echoed in my ears. Sometimes we drove through the Paramount Studio Gates, and I was chauffeured in a cart to the Western Stage where we watched cowboys and musical dancers. I was too young to understand this was just a film; thus began my insatiable yearning to be a dancer.
Rory Calhoun was one of the stars Dad was close pals with. Just this week I dug into research about Rory Calhoun. I learned he died in 1999, and that he’d also been a ward in Preston Reformatory where Dad was sent at eighteen years old. Rory came a few years later.
We spent a lot of time with the Calhoun family. They had two girls the same age as me. Their exotic Spanish villa on Whittier Drive and Sunset enraptured my girlish senses. Inside it was like a movie set, with animal rugs, oil paintings of Spanish Troubadours and Moorish decorations. Rita, Rory’s wife, wore tiny stacked high heels and she clicked across the Spanish tiles like a flamenco dancer. The whole family was blessed with dreamy looks. I didn’t realize that I was surrounded with extraordinary beauty; everyone had these exceptional vogue looks. The importance placed on that kind of beauty was just as distorted as my examination.
Rita danced a stern feminine demeanor, extremely seductive but not without a battle. I learned my first lessons about temptation just by watching her. She fanned the room with perfume and laughter, and men just succumbed like drugged animals. I felt my first tingle of sexuality in the arms of Rory. He was a treasure of natural emotion, physically and orally. They both gambled, borrowed money from the other, and they bet on everything.
On Sunday we went to Beverly Park, a cherished amusement park across from where the whimsical Beverly Center shopping Mall is today. I was only two years old when Dad slung me over a big stinky pony, and insisted I ride around the ring so he could snap photographs.
Inside the Cadillac, insulated from the outside world by metal and glass, he drove without intention of destination, or so it seemed. Though I didn’t know it, he often changed directions to confuse a tailing federal agent. The places he took me became our secret. Sometimes he asked me to close my eyes and count to a hundred. It was a game; he wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I’d open my eyes and we’d be somewhere unfamiliar, a storefront, hotel room, or someone’s home.
When the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town, Dad took me every weekend and I met some of the performers. He was no less enthusiastic about the circus than I was. Now I understand as I’ve learned he traveled with Ringling Brothers for a year just after he landed in New York. He was in the wardrobe department! How suitable to his style. Everyone we knew was in some kind of act.
I remember places like Canters Deli on Fairfax. We always had the same waitress, the one with a big air-tight bee-hive.
“ What’ll it be today honey?”
“ I’ll have a hot dog.”
“ No. Last time you got sick. Honey, get her a turkey sandwich. I have to talk to some people outside–make sure she doesn’t leave. “
“Sure thing Mr. Smiley, you go ahead.”
“When are you coming back Daddy?”
“When you finish your lunch. Be a good girl.”
While I waited for the sandwich, I watched the waitresses very closely. They entertained me; their husky voices and swift mannerisms as they swooshed between tables, calling out orders, “ Matzo ball soup–chicken on the side, Russian on rye no mayonnaise.” Sometimes he left me long after the sandwich was gone. I’d turn and watch the door, to see if he’d come in, or ask the waitress.
“ Would you please tell my father I’m finished.”
“Finished already! What about dessert? How about a slice of cheesecake?” Even if I said no, she’d bring me dessert. Several times I was left so long that I got up and went outside looking for him. I noticed my father down the street talking with some other men. I ran back to the booth and waited. When he came back to the table, I asked him,
“Where were you Daddy?”
“I had to meet someone about business. You remember what I told you—Mommy doesn’t have to know about this.”
“I remember.” Why my outings with Dad remained fixated as birth marks is because they were filled with wonder, amusement, and mystery. My father mixed a little business with my pleasure, but it wasn’t obvious because no one had an office. His business associates worked out of shoe stores, cigar stands, hotels, barber shops; all sorts of fronts that camouflaged the booking of bets.
I bet too. That when I lose I never give up on the silver lining.
LUCILLE CASEY SMILEY
All my life people have asked me the same questions:” What’s it like knowing your father is a gangster? How old were you when you found out? Aren’t you afraid of his friends? You know they kill people.”
I live in a temporary tide-pool, a lily
floating against the current, weighted
down by a suit of armor that shields me
from the beauty, love and freedoms stirring in my bud.
What seemed insignificant at the time was the diving board into my Dad’s history. I was watching a Bugsy Siegel documentary on my television in San Diego during 1993. It was the first one I’d seen. Three historians joined in on the violence Bugsy honored and esteemed. Half-way through the celebratory lynching of Bugsy and his pals, a reporter made the statement that ‘It’s obvious Allen Smiley was there to set Bugsy up for the hit.’ Andy Edmonds stated that Dad conveniently disappeared into the kitchen during the time of the shooting. It wasn’t until a photograph of my dad appeared on the screen; a man with thick graying hair that I noticed an expression I’d never seen, horrifying misery. I moved closer to the television to see his face up close. A kaleidoscope of emotions rose to the surface: anger, shame, curiosity, and disbelief. I was forty years old.
The first time I’d seen those photographs of Ben Siegel slumped on that sofa; an eye bleeding down his face was a day back in 1966 at the age of thirteen. My best friend Dena lived in Brentwood with her divorced mother and siblings. We hooked in the unfamiliar and confusing imbalance of a broken home life. Dena was suffering depression after her parents divorced and I was dangling from my father’s fingertips hopelessly conflicted after my mother died. Dena wouldn’t let a day go by without calling me. ‘Are you all right?’ She didn’t like my father and her reasons were mature beyond her years, ‘Your father scares me.’ After school one afternoon we stopped in the Brentwood Pharmacy. Dena was looking at the book rack and I was following along.
“Lily, my mother told me your father is in a book, The
Green Felt Jungle. It’s about gangsters. Wanna see if they have it?” I agreed to look because Dena was interested, but it meant nothing to me. She twirled the book rack around as I stood behind her watching.
“That’s the book! Let me look first and see what it says,” she whispered. I could feel her arm tense up as I grasped it.
“Oh my God! There he is,” she said. We hunched over the book and read the description of my father, “Allen Smiley, one of Ben Siegel’s closest pals in those days, was seated at the other end of the sofa when Siegel was murdered.” Dena covered her mouth with one hand and kept reading silently.
“What does that mean? Who is Siegel?” I asked.
“Shush–not so loud. I’m afraid to tell you this. It’s awful.”
“What’s awful? Tell me.”
“Bugsy Siegel was a gangster in the Mafia. He killed people. Your father was his associate.”
“I don’t think I should see this.” I turned around abruptly to leave the drugstore. Dena followed me out.”
“Lily you can’t tell your father you saw this book. Please don’t tell him I told you.”
“My mother told me not to tell you. Swear to me you won’t tell your father!”
“I won’t. Don’t you tell anyone either.”
A few days later after Dad left for the evening I opened the door to his guarded bedroom. I walked around the bed to a get a closer look at the photographs on the wall. It was the first time I could read the inscription.
I watched coverage today in Paris from an online British station. It is important to me. More important than writing or dressing or going out. The journalists were sympathetic, the interviews soulful, the images–silencing. I don’t believe prayers are enough. President Hollande declared war.