Morning comes after two cups of French Press. I sit here at the desk, peeking out the glass door to the shady side of the street. I do not know where I will be living, what I will be doing, or who I will be doing it with next month. Uncertainly, I move in and out of situations and get swept up in my ideas and fantasies. I buy and sell, make and remake, move-in, move-out, leave homes, careers, friends and relationships. I move out of comfort
and into uncertainty because it feels more like home moving than staying in one place.
I have to put the words on the paper and look at it to make it real.
Raising a family, sprouting barriers and responsibilities might have changed me, but I didn’t. I’m unchanged in some ways, still running through the hallways of the hotels, gardens, and neighborhoods. Do you know what I mean?
with a forewarning that her grandmother did not encourage the communication, or the research, she was beyond asking for a resurgence of truth or pain. How does one retrace seventy or eighty years of believing the color red may be the color blue or least a bluish tint. Loretta was not proud of what she read about Allen Smiley.
The Summer of 1973. Los Angeles.
Ken drove a rusty VW hippie van that configured around his restless and unpredictable patterns. He was known to drive, stop, and stay in the same spot three days. Our adventures began on Pacific Coast Highway driving along without any direction or plan. Ken would be singing the blues, and I’d be sitting in the back, stretched out, watching him in the rear view mirror. He had cloudy blue eyes that perpetuated the intensity of his tortured soul. The only time they didn’t appear preoccupied was when he was playing the piano. I’d noticed that the first time he took me home to meet his parents, Bernie and Anna Marie.
They lived in hillside split level home. The first level belonged to Ken. As soon as we crossed the threshold he darted into a dimly lit carpeted room and sat down at the piano.
“Hi, I’m here! I have Louellen with me.”
“What! I can’t hear you Ken,” his father shouted back. It was apparent they were a family that communicated in various tones of yelling; the kinds of people who never consider finding the person they are talking to, they just yell from one level of the house to the other.
“Bernie, I’ brought Louellen– put on a pair of pants!”
“SuEllen did you say?”
“Come on Lou, you gotta meet Bernie. I told him about you. But he takes so many pills he can’t remember anything.”
We climbed the stairs to the living room and Ken shook his head as we reached the last step. “The television is always blasting.He thinks he’s deaf.”
As soon as I laid eyes on Bernie I could tell he lived his retirement in front of the television, clutching the remote as one does a cigarette. His form had molded the sofa into an abstraction of his physique.
“Bernie, you look great. Can you at least get up to meet her.” Bernie rose reluctantly, rubbed his lower back, and shook my hand. He smiled as if he was happy about meeting me, but I knew he was irritated because I was standing in front of the television set.
“Anna Marie, Louellen’s here.” Ken yelled.
I stood there feeling like a new chair they were inspecting. Ken sensed my predicament; he read people before they even opened their mouth. Anna Marie came out with a pot holder in her hand.
“Okay Lou–this is the family. Now everyone back to their places.” I was the only one that laughed.
“Your cooking smells so good.” I said to Anna.
”It’s nothing, just dinner for us.”
“Mom‘s the best cook in the world. Did you make my potatoes?”
“Yes Ken, I made your potatoes, brisket, coleslaw, blueberry blintzes…
“Mom, there’s four of us—you’re not cooking for the German army.”
Anna Marie grew up in Austria during the occupation; the Germans took her family home and everything with it.
Bernie was back on the sofa, and Ken seated next to him in a leather club chair. He was bantering his Dad about watching CNN all day. Bernie talked back to the news reporters, scolded the football players, and grudgingly laughed at the comedies. It appeared Anna Marie wasn’t worth talking to any longer. She masked her sadness poorly; it was written so everyone could read her.
“What college are you going to Louellen?” Bernie asked. “ Sonoma State.”
“Somoa what? Never heard of it. Ken’s in law school– aren’t you Ken?”
“What? Did someone say something to me?” Ken winked at me.
“You wouldn’t know if someone clubbed you on the head for Christ’s sake. Why don’t you straighten up and start taking things seriously. All you do is drive around in that heap of junk in the driveway, that leaks oil by the way, and you need a bloody haircut!”
“What was the question?”
They went on like that and I recognized the mental match between father and son. I walked through the white carpeted living room feeling it’s history; safe and predictable, like coming home would always be the same. I noticed Anna Marie’s garden;, tiny rows of perfectly nurtured flowers set inside a large freshly mowed yard that looked untouched since Ken was a teenager.
I found Anna Marie in the kitchen stirring and juggling pots.
“Would you like something to drink Louellen?”
“No, I’m fine. What a feast you’ve made. Do you always cook like this?”
“Well, it never goes to waste. I got used to cooking for all the boys–Ken has three brothers you know.”
Just then Ken came in, kissed his mother on the ear and opened all the lids of the pots.
“Kenny,don’t you dare,” she said. Ken took a bite out of a potato and she yelped as if she was surprised. It was their playful match that had been going on for years.
Through out dinner I watched Ken; how he deferred their questions and manipulated the conversation so it remained directionless like his driving. After dinner we went downstairs to the piano room. Ken slammed his hands on the keyboard, and starting playing some Dixieland jazz. He looked over at me and smiled triumphantly.
“ Bernie hates it, he’s always hated it. I do this to drive him nuts. He can’t stand my playing the piano-the poor bastard doesn’t have a creative cell in his body. He used to break into my classical lessons and start yelling his head off. ”
“Kenny! I can’t hear a thing! Shut the door!” Bernie hollered. Ken let out a thunderous roll of laughter and kept right on playing. Each time we returned to have dinner with Bernie and Anna Marie, the routine slackened, and I felt more at home. I grew to like Bernie, and the feeling was mutual. Anna Marie would not allow herself to feel something for me, in case I had any ideas of taking Ken away. I spent the rest of that summer trying to help Ken figure out what to do, while he unknowingly was teaching me about my essence.
One day towards the end of the summer my father called me. “Ken’s father called asking if I knew where his son was.”
“Ken’s gone?” I answered.
“Apparently that’s the situation. What the hell kind of family is you mixed up in? What a thing to ask me. Ken told his father he was driving you back to Sonoma in September. Is that right?”
“Yes, he offered to.”
“Well, you can forget about that. If the bum does come back, I don’t want you going out any longer. His father isn’t all there.”
“That’s funny.” I said.
“What’s so funny about it?”
“That’s what Ken says about him.”
“Well in any case–forget the bum–he’s not going anywhere. His father went on for half an hour and I heard everything I need to hear. He had the audacity to tell me he read about me in the newspapers.”
“That’s irrelevant. The point is you don’t reveal what you know about someone.”
“Because you have the upper hand.”
That fall I returned to Sonoma, Ken dropped out of law school, and my father was arrested again. Bernie and Anna Marie remained together until Bernie passed away. Ken moved to the southern tip of Baja and plays piano in a resort. Every few years he drops me a line, and we talk about Bernie and my dad.
WHERE TO BEGIN THIS STORY OF A FATHER THAT I ONLY CAME TO UNDERSTAND BY READING HIS FBI FILES, BOOKS ABOUT MOB HISTORY WRITTEN BY LAW ENFORCEMENT AND COLLEGE PROFESSORS, AND DOCUMENTARIES PRODUCED BY FOES OF MY FATHER.
My last year with Dad was 1981. Naïve, and unconcerned with where I was headed, or how I’d get there if I figured it out, I was spinning around in an executive chair; waiting for the big hand on the black and white office clock to set me free. Time didn’t pass; I hauled it over my head, in my bland windowless office, under florescent glare. I was trouble shooting for an ambitious group of USC guys as they gobbled up all of Los Angeles real estate. Without any real sense of survival or independence, my life was in the hands of my father.
“Meyer’s coming to see me; haven’t seen the little guy in twenty-five years.” Dad said during a commercial break.
“Meyer Lansky?” I asked as casually as he’d spoken.
“Why did you two wait so long?”
“It’s no concern of yours; he’s my friend, not yours.” I was twenty-nine years old and still verbally handcuffed.
The three of us went out to dinner, and while the two of them spoke in clipped short wave syndicate code, I noticed that neither one of them looked at all happy. It was rare to catch my father in public with a friend, without raucous laughter, and storytelling. My attempt to revive the dinner conversation with my own humor,returned two sets of silent eyeball commands to resist speaking.
Several months later I received a call from Dad asking me to come over to his apartment, he had collapsed on the bathroom floor. When I arrived, he pleaded for me to stay close by. “I’ll be all right in a few minutes; I just need to catch my breath. ” I sat outside the bathroom door biting my nails, and waited, like our dog Spice, for my orders. For the first time in my life, he was weaker than I, and my turmoil centered on that unfamiliar reversal of roles.
“Daddy, you should go to the hospital, I’m calling the ambulance.”
“Nope, no ambulance, I’m not going to the hospital, hang up the phone right now.” I pried the bathroom door open, and crouched down on the floor to hold him in my arms. It was the first time I’d held him like that, he felt so heavy and warm. When his eyes closed I called the ambulance and waited. Two attendants arrived, and immediately took his pulse. “Why didn’t you call sooner, within minutes he would have died?”
“ I couldn’t–you don’t understand, he wouldn’t let me. ” They grimaced at me, and removed him from my arms. Over the next few weeks I learned only that he had a failing liver. The mirage of doctors and nurses flowing in and out of his room, assured me that this was just a temporary set back. Soon he would be back at his favorite table at the Bistro Gardens, dining with young aspiring starlets.
When you love someone whose life is draining into illness, even their hollering and gripe is a relief. For the first time in my life, my father did not frighten me. I don’t know if it was because he was vulnerable, and dependent on me for comfort. But the feeling was ecstasy, the feeling of being inside his world, and not excluded.
“Imagine sending nurses in my room at six in the morning. Boy did I give them hell. They won’t soon forget the name Allen Smiley. They’re not treating me like a social service case. “ His voice came back and the salty blue color of his eyes. I took my father home, and sat on the crushed blue velvet sofa while he made his phone calls.
” Say what’s up buddy, what can I do for you? I’m tougher than you think; my daughter and I are going for a walk later. What can I do for you? When are you going to Vegas? Yea, I see all right, don’t worry about a thing, no I’ll handle it, I insist now, don’t argue with a sick man, you rascal. Don’t send flowers yet, send champagne!”
Within a few weeks, my father was back at his favorite table at the Bistro Gardens wearing tinted shades. His passion for the company of females, was reciprocal, they loved him. He sent them flowers, and picked up their checks. He could wave his magic wand of favors at the studios, or for concert tickets, and the chips rolled. He kept up that pace for six months.
All my life he had made things happen for me, now it was my turn. I collected the telephone messages, walked the dog, and cleaned up the house. It was strange, to putter amongst my father’s things. I opened drawers cautiously, thinking he may have alarms on things. He had a pile of papers stacked on his desk, and unopened mail. His personal toiletries were still in immaculate order, his brushes, and collection of colognes. A heavy sadness, presided over the room. I noticed he was reading “Honor Thy Father.”
During his sickness, he presented a man only slightly off balance. He continued to camouflage his liver failure, like he’d masked his identity all his life. I recognized the anguish in his eyes, but I had to pretend it wasn’t there.
My character changed overnight. I did not hesitate over minor decisions, cower if he yelled, or hide inside myself. Something in him was now part of me. We were fighting together. One afternoon we took a walk in Holmby Park.
“What matter’s in life is that you don’t allow people to walk over you, see. No one looks out for your best interest, except your old father. You’ll see, it won’t be so easy without me.”
“Daddy, don’t talk like that, come on.”
“Why not, I’m telling you the way it is, what do you want, for me to lie to you? Everyone else will lie to you! Now, I’ve told you that I’m donating my body to USC Medical center. I already have it arranged.”
“Daddy, I’m not listening. Don’t talk to me about that,” tears welled.
“You must listen little sweetheart. There’s no expense for you to be burdened with. I wish I put more away for you, but I’ve always told you, haven’t I….that I spent everything I made. I only hoped that things would have changed…. be that as it may, you won’t have any expense.”
Smiley’s Dice Adventures in livingness
The throw of the dice this week lands on the adventures in the making. How could I have known 15 years ago?
Back then I had but a finger-bowl of resources, a blue chair, a desk, and a typewriter. Everyday I wrote into the flame of discovery looking for my mother. My notebooks were sketches of this woman I never knew. The absence of the most ordinary information, like where she grew up in Newark, what sort of neighborhood, what her father did for a living, what schools, she attended, and later on, what experiences she had modeling in New York. The closest I got was by reading John Robert Powers book about the modeling agency he started in 1923. He assigned unemployed Broadway talent to his agency to be photographed for corporate campaign advertising. According to John he was the innovator of the modeling agency concept- beautiful women and men will sell products to the public, the public never would have thought of buying.
I found her name in the index, Lucille Casey. She joined the agency when she was 16 years old. John groomed the models; and assigned disciplinary perfection in dialect, manners, appearance, character, and intellect. Powers Girls married anyone they wanted. They were invited to all the important society events, they were given card Blanche at the Stork Club, and the Morocco and they were transported to celebratory city functions. They met men of all means, character, and class.
After I read the book, I thought about what my father used to say, “ Your mother could have had any man in the world, but she picked me. Don’t you make the same mistake.”
That is a complex summons for a teenage to understand.
I sat in the blue chair and waited for the flares of information to come down to earth. After two years, I had very little to build a full page. My mother’s history was lost, her friends had vanished, or would not talk to me. She did not leave a diary. Her photo album as a model was all I had. What could I see in those eyes, and smile? Perfection. I gave up the search, and switched over to my father. The government documented his daily activities, and what they didn’t hear or see, was exploited in newspapers, documentaries, and books.
There was one woman who was alive, that knew intimate details of my mother, because I had met her, and she made it known to me she knew. That was Meyer Lansky’s wife, who went by the name Teddy. Women have a distinctive look when they are withholding secrets. Teddy always had that look when she brought up my mother. I told her I was writing about my father and mother and she said, “Let them rest in peace.” I didn’t take her advice.