WRITING MY WAY HOME.


This is a previous post (2011) that I am re posting for new readers.

MY FAMILY  history was brought to life in an unpublished memoir.   The stories lived on during a long arduous journey of research and trying to get published.   Sometimes I read pages to get close to my parents.  I squeeze in between them like a ghost, hear their voices, and see their expressions.  If I remove the outside world, the hum of the hotel air-condoning , the delivery trucks, and speeding motorcycles,  I can remember swimming in the pool with my mother.  I see her bathing cap strap pulled down across her chin, her red lipstick, and her one-piece strapless bathing suit. I can see her freckles, and her long slender arms backstroking as she swam.scan0013

Early in 1960 my father decided to build a swimming pool in the backyard of our house on Thurston Circle.  I had just completed swimming lessons and asked my father for a pool. Years later he told the story: “My little girl asked for a pool, and I built her one.”   I think he built the pool for my mother.   He was under investigation with the FBI and Department of Justice, and spent most days in court defending himself against a deportation order to Russia.   Subpoenas, arrests, and trials were routine events that tied my parents together against a world of misunderstanding.  After eleven years of nail biting suspense, my mother just wore out.  The pool was built with the intention of removing my mother’s anxiety and sadness.   My father designed the shape of the pool around the original pool at the Garden of Allah, a highly scandalous Hollywood hotel apartment that attracted starlets and gangsters in the early 30’s.  I know this tiny detail from photographs I’ve seen of the Garden pool.   More obscure details surrounding the building of our pool were found reading his FBI files.

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My father accused the pool contractor of being an informant for the government.  One sunny afternoon he marched him out of the house. I was hiding behind a drape when the confrontation broke out.  I recall the big shouldered contractor running from my father’s threats.  Most likely an FBI agent was parked outside and  followed the man after he scampered out.

The pool was finally completed in mid 1961.   There are photographs of my mother and I in the pool; her smile is radiant and naturally composed.  She and I swam everyday.  My father  loved to swim too, but he was busy with court proceedings and meetings.  Before the year ended my mother filed for divorce, the house burnt down, and I was released from childhood. I don’t regret those events any longer.  They were steps that shaped my character, and what brings me back to the topic of growing up with gangsters.

The best memories of my childhood are in swimming pools and restaurants with gangsters and gamblers.  They were part of the family, and when they were around my father was on very good behavior, and my mother defenseless against their irresistible humor, pranks, and generosity.   She just sort of glided in and out of activities, and helped me ride the vibrations.   She didn’t laugh out of herself like I do, and she rarely yelled.   The older I get, the less I seem to be like her.  Maybe the passage of life experiences determines which parent you will take after. Had I married and had children, maybe I’d be more like her. Since I get into all kinds of tricky situations, and throw the dice, I need my father’s strength more.

Over the years, I have forgotten some of the dead reckoning discoveries I made about our family history.  Still nothing compares to reading about my Aunt Gertie.  She was my father’s sister. Until I read about her in the FBI file, I didn’t know she existed. I haven’t figured out why my father left her out of our life. According to the FBI files she was a remarkably loyal sister. Gertie was the one who confronted the federal agents when they arrived at the family home in Winnipeg, Canada.  She pushed my grandmother out of the interview, and spoke for the family.  The agents showed her a recent photograph of my father.   She told them that her brother left home when he was twelve and they had not seen him since.  She could not verify the identity of the photograph because almost twenty years had passed.  The agents left without any evidence and continued to search for the birthplace of my father. Every time he was arrested, he entered a different birthplace.  He named Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles.  His origins were discovered through a letter that his mother had written when he was fifteen and confined to a boys reformatory.  The letter was turned over to the FBI, and that is how they discovered his parents lived in Winnipeg.  The government could not deport my father to Russia without verification from his family. Eventually my father won the battle. He was granted citizenship in 1966, two weeks after my mother died.

Gertie died after my father. I don’t know if they corresponded over the years.  I have learned enough about my father to know he was protecting her from further harassment.  Maybe if my father lived longer they would be coming after me.

LIVING ON THE EDGE


Fifteen years ago, the summer of 1993, I was having lunch in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Across from me was the only other woman of importance in my father’s life, besides my mother, that I had known. Sandy Crosby, a leggy brunette with bark brown eyes, arched brows, and a showcase smile.

She always had a response that outwitted her opponent, including my father, who relied heavily on, ‘don’t be so smart.’  Half-way through the first course at Jimmy’s, she looked at me and grinned.

“You’re so much like your father.”

“I am?”

“Oh yes.”

“Your father loved living on the edge, he really did.”

I rested on that thought for a long time. I was temporarily living with a friend in Los Angeles. I lived out of a suitcase, with a broken down Cadillac, and a folder of resumes.  My dad  never lived out of a suitcase, or needed a resume to find a job. After he met Benny Siegel, he had multiple offers in organized crime.

What I discovered, is Dad didn’t truly settle down until he had to raise my sister and I. He was 56 years old when Mom died, and we were tossed into his lacquered bachelor pad in Hollywood. The same age I was two years ago.

Living on the edge is a term used to describe infinite lifestyles. The momentum, or ignition that fuels that lifestyle, is uncertainty. We live by impulse and imagination. Our plans are last minute, we never buy in bulk, and we are always dreaming of the voyage. We run from stationary life because at heart, we are gamblers.

This time, the edge is the very place I spent two years creating, the photography gallery and home in Santa Fe. Up until this winter, it operated as a gallery by appointment, while I polished my memoir proposal. After several months, I went to the edge and decided to convert the gallery into a vacation rental. I needed to roam; I longed to gather new material.

The winter climbed back into bed, and then spring ripped through the ground, and the roses and poppies bloomed. The memoir remained unpublished, and the house began to transform from gallery to a real home. The long uneventful winter punctured my prudent habit of writing, remaining secluded, and avoiding everything but the essentials. By May, I made a silent vow under a stream of sunlight, to enlist into the human race.

The reinvention resembled nature, like today. The day began with  a feverish sky of culminating clouds, a long dreary silence, and an absence of light. The street was empty, just the valet from La Posada running to the garage to fetch the cars. They were bundled in winter coats, while the party rental truck loaded the furniture from last evening’s wedding. The storm struck with impetuous force. The valet’s ran with umbrellas, small children yelled for cover, and I took a seat on the back porch. Suddenly, the storm rescinded, and the sun burst through the cloud cover.

My emancipation back into the flow of mixing strangers and friends was alchemy to the house. Now it’s a home; to cook, entertain, and fill with music, laughter and conversation.  I can see the faces of the people I’ve met, imagine the next meeting, and anticipate the next outing. The windows and doors are opened, the people who pass by look in. I was cooking dinner one night this week, and noticed a man peeking in the window. He looked like Harrison Ford, just back from the Lost Arch.

“ Is this a museum?” he asked when I went to the door.

“ No. It’s a gallery, a home. Well come in, and take a look around.”

Opening the door to a stranger returned the affirmation that impulse socializing is still possible in the banal and sterile world of FACEBOO.   You don’t have to be a teenager to recognize a good time, but you need to be an adult to recognize a good fellow.

Some of us lone roamers cannot reverse the inclination to retreat from life; because we find too much confusion, agitation and adversity in the world. Between all of those elements, there are treasures waiting to be discovered: opportunity collaboration, adventure, and most of all companionship.

Even though the comfort of this home has replenished my spirit and temporarily produced a yawn of security, I am preparing to go to the edge. Though I imagine it is another place of endearment, another address, and another gamble, it may be the inner voyage that will transcend.

When I tell people we’re renting the house, they ask me where will you go?

I don’t know yet. Sandy was right; I am like my father. The edge I picked wasn’t a green felt jungle of dice and chips, it’s an artists’ life.

Any dice to throw Email: folliesls@aol.com

 

JAMMING UP HIP-HOP


Free your mind and the rest will follow; the words from EnVogue’s latest release played all day on the radio. Every time I got in the car to hunt up real estate listings, I heard that song.
I worked in an industrial building along an industrial highway in San Diego. I shared a warehouse with twelve men, eleven of them tall, weight trained football on Sunday guys, who ate at expensive restaurants amongst a club of commercial real estate agents, where they’d be noticed. They were pretty decent guys, except the partners who each had severe a case of ego malnutrition and competed for attention like two tottlers. Greg was the only short one in the bunch, and he wore a rug, manicured his nails, and surfed on the weekends. He was always talking about his Karate black belt, and how he knocked guys out. He rarely laughed and when he did he sounded like a chirping bird. Greg used to give me his wife’s unworn clothes and waited in my living room while I tried them on. It was sort of strange, but he never played the trump card and asked for anything in return.
One day in the summer of 1992 I called the office secretary.
“Gail, I’m not coming in for awhile. Will you forward my calls to my home?”
“Are you all-right?”
“Oh yea. I’m fine.”
“What should I tell Sam?”
“Tell him I’m on leave of absence.”
I lived in a little cottage house in North Park. It was all white with a picket fence and a squared grass yard where my dog played. The front room was small but the carpeting was new, so I could curl up on the rug and watch the clouds from the windows.
I threw my nylons and navy pumps in the garbage, and folded the business suits into boxes. I knew I wasn’t going back, but where I was headed was a throw of the dice.
Mornings I ran through Balboa Park before the crowds arrived, and got to see the zoo keepers feeding the animals, and the actors going into The Old Globe Theater. I filled my senses with virgin light and morning silence, unfamiliar sensations to office workers living with florescent lighting and partition walls. In the afternoon I lounged around in sweats watching music videos, reading magazines and dancing.

I watched some new music videos, maybe EnVogue or Bobby Brown, and tried to imitate the hip-hop moves on the carpet. It was like watching a cat in the snow. I called all the dance schools, and no one was teaching hip-hop. I didn’t know back then my mother was a dancer; so this impulsive and implausible scheme to start a dance troupe startled me as much as everyone I told.
The last lease deal I did was for a group of soccer players from Jamaica. They needed a space to open a reggae dance club. They told me they’d called other agents and no one would take their business. I found a disheveled warehouse and struck a deal for them. They fixed up the warehouse themselves, with colored lights, and some tables, but Rockers was really about the dancing. I walked into the club one night, and they were all doing their part; greeting customers, spinning vinyl, and serving drinks. I danced with Leroy, the leader of the group, and watched him unfold from the waist down. He danced so low to the floor, he appeared boneless.
“Leroy, I’m going to start a dance troupe. You guys inspired me.”
“What kind of dance?’
“Hip-Hop and jazz funk.”
Leroy covered his mouth with one hand and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re a business woman; I didn’t know you was a dancer.”
“Well, I took lessons a long time ago.”
“Hip Hop?”
“No, Jazz. I’m going to find the dancers to teach. I know there out there.”
“Yea, they out there all right; lots of them.”
“Well see! I’d like to use your space, pay rent of course, when you’re not open.”
“Well that’s all right. You don’t need to pay me.”
I hugged him, and he shook his head. “I don’t think there’s much money in teaching hip-hop.” he said.


At the community college I posted a sign for dancers, and observed some classes. When I got the call from Piper, he asked me to come see him teach at the Church on University Avenue. I drove over one night, and found Piper in a little room upstairs, teaching Jazz Funk to one woman. He was tall and lanky with a smile that creased his whole jaw. He came over, shook my hand, and said, ‘How you doing? I’m Piper.’ He wore an immaculate shield of confidence that defied his nineteen years, and moved at the intersection of Michael Jackson and James Brown. The groove spiraled through his body.
“I’ll help you get it started; if you’re not a trained dancer you need help.”
So Piper and I met every week and finally landed on a group that incorporated Jazz-Funk, Hip-hop and Afro-Cuban. I named the company United Steps Dance Productions, and the Jammers were the hip-hop troupe.


I’ll never forget the look on the partner’s faces when I told them I was starting a multicultural dance troupe. They just stared at me blankly. Then within weeks all five of my unclosed lease deals were signed at the same time. I walked out with enough money to live six months. That was real security in my mind.


Piper and I held our first audition at Rockers. When I opened the doors that morning, dancers were already lined up outside. They came dressed in street clothes; wearing scarves, baseball caps, loose pants, and tank tops. I watched them leap, kick, split, and turn inside out for the job. I knew that I was in the right spot.  One dancer walked out, stood still for a moment, and then leaped into a break-dance pop-lock routine that silenced the crowd. “Him Piper, definitely him.” He’s bad, yea he’s real bad.” At the end of the auditions, Piper mocked me.
“Lue, we can’t sign every dancer just cause they hip-hop. Anyone can do that.”
I can’t hip hop and it’s my company.”
“Yea, and you’re crazy. I swear, Lu you’re crazy.”
We agreed on pop-locker Vince-Master Jam, and Monique, a young Afro-Cuban dancer. That was the beginning.
When Vince and I met, he told me he lived in Escondido.
“But that’s an hour away.”
“It’s cool, I’ll be here. Just give me the chance.”
Vince showed up twice a week at night for his class. Many times, we sat in the cold damp club, listening to music and Vince tried to teach me to pop-lock. I apologized for not having students and he looked at me, and said, “ Don’t worry Lue, will get it going on.”


Our first performance was at the Red Lion Hotel. I hired a video tech to record the performance. We got a free dinner and a hundred dollars. We had a good crowd, and everyone loved them. Afterwards in the dining room, they were talking, laughing and elbowing each other. Piper was ranting about Monique taking too much time, and Vince was telling Piper to chill because Monique was so good. I sat there just listening, with a big smile on my face.
The Jammers belonged to the no smoking, no drinking, no drugs group. For the first few months, they taught on tiled floors under a leaky roof, without any heat. But they kept coming back to teach and their dedication moved me to find a better location. We relocated to a well-heeled Health Club downtown San Diego and the classes filled up with students, dancers, and office workers searching for a new lunch. They came from all different races; Asian, White, Hispanic and Black. I danced with the classes and promoted our troupe. The Jammers laughed at my attempt to be a soul sister, and I laughed with them. We were reviewed by KPBS magazine, and a photographer took pictures of us and featured us in the magazine.
Searching for gigs proved to be an exasperating struggle. I called department stores, festival producers, shopping centers, nightclubs, hotels and everyone had the same line, “I don’t think hip-hop is right for our clientele.”
When I ran out of money I took a job managing a condominium project, where I lived rent free. After a time of observing the Jammers self expression, I asked myself, what is mine? I still refused to get on stage. Vince used to bawl me out because I made Piper introduce the group.
After two years Piper moved to Los Angeles to launch his dancing career, and I let Vince take the troupe where he wanted it to go. He turned it around, adding twelve dancers and broke more ground in San Diego. Monique developed into a serious stage actress and we all lost touch. They were the sparklers in my life; like that star you think you’ll never hold. I left the Jammers a different woman. They put the rhythm back in my spirit and soul.
When I recently located Vincent on an Actors website, I called him right away. He is a missing link in the chain of my life. Without that adventure, I might still be imitating the kind of business woman I wasn’t. We met in Los Angeles, and watched Vince perform in a club. He kept his vision and now acts on television and video. “ Lue, now you have to find Piper.”
It was Piper, who said to me one day after reading some of my poetry, “ Lu, you’re not a dancer. You’re a writer.”
Any dice to throw Email: folliesls@aol.com

MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT


I rose at 3:00 AM to turn the heat on, pick up my writing journal, and discern the week’s theme.

The house is unfamiliar at this time, as it is my first middle of the night experience here. I wonder for a moment if I should boil water for tea or coffee, and settle on decaf. Alice and Bugsy follow my footsteps, circle their feeding table, and then begin to cat play. Bugsy gallops around in circles and Alice watches. Their presence kindles the stark rooms. While the water boils, I step outside to the porch I hear the distant sound of pounding surf and sit down to listen. The moon is shaved from the fullness of the previous night, and reflects my own disposition.

The street is hollowed like a tunnel, the light of day is shining in some other distant country, and the sky is appears tinted with primer. Somewhere someone is dressing for work, breathing by the tick of the clock until he must report for work.

The draft of sleep lingers in my eyes, and my feet shuffle on the cold tiles, while I grind the beans and think through the remains of the week. There are themes to our lives. Sometimes a year, sometimes one single day launches the theme, or it may just tumble into our path unexpected and replace whatever we were holding on to dearly, and deliver something unpleasant, like sickness, or separation. The sensations leading up to my theme jilted my creativity, and the pages I wrote were jammed with contradictions, maybe they still are.

Thoughts begin to form and ruminate, what is important? The theme of my week began when I was informed a Frog’s member I knew only slightly died very suddenly. From that day on, conversations, books, and televisions shaped the theme.

I see what is in front of me, and I am dissatisfied with the surroundings. The temperature, color, textures and placement of furnishings is flawed, and I have abated good temperament, creativity, and affection. I have tried to replace my incompleteness with substitutes: new shoes, scarves, and half a dozen books. Ah Hah! I have caught the intruder, the inconsequential  arrangememt of new stuff.

Several more incidents aided my awakening. One came while reading Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator, A Journey Around the World.” It is a first person narrative of his lecturing trip on a sea voyage around the world bound for Australia and New Zealand. His diary pages are as powerful as water sprung from a fire hydrant; and I flowed into the adventure with him. A few days later while I was vacillating between reading and watching television I channeled onto a movie, “Shadows Over Tuscany.” Harvey Keitel emerged as a familiar character; a writer who has stopped writing. Along with the added irony of his resplendent surroundings in a villa over Tuscany, he still could not write.

I have settled into a corner of the sofa by the light, and now Alice is purring into my robe. Writing with pen is so different from keyboard, journaling is always with pen, but columns are on the keyboard. The next incident occurred in conversation with a woman who relayed her elated experience from meditating. She asked me about my own source. I understood that to mean what tranquilizes all the peripheral complaints, mental pains and wounds that lie dormant or at least manageable. Without thinking of the tormented hours, I thought of the comforts of exhibiting my life on paper.

The shallowness of that answer makes me uncomfortable. I return to the porch for one more gulp of landscape that I share with the stars.

The street is unfamiliar, a temporary scene like a bus stop, and I am merely waiting to move on. The neighbors are strangers, and stories do not blossom here. My desk is sealed into a corner of the bedroom, and too small to stack all my photographs, books, notepads, and dice mementos.

It is not the act of writing with pen and paper moving along at a steady rhythm; it’s the activation of the heart and mind, collaborating to unravel the relevant from the irrelevant. To reach this state of matrimony a writer needs not a Tuscan Villa, or a Moorish Castle, but experiences that flake off the skin, or recall of the experience that gives it relevance. A story is flickering at my source, asking to be written and I’m avoiding the introduction. Fear is shining like a spotlight on one end, and insecurity is the temperature that stifles my pen. It is not the cold tiled floor, and cramped desk.

I wrote a novel in a 99 square feet room that SC and I shared for a year and a half.

If I continue to roam around the task of writing this story, the intensity of irritation will escalate, my neck and shoulders will not loosen, my walk will be feigned, my smile forced, my heart longing for padding, my ego striving for recognition in the wrong places, and my soul roaming the hallways at 3:00 in the morning.

My spineless spirit that sends me out shopping for shoes, scarves, and earrings will finally halt. I will return to shopping for inspiration, courage and confidence that I can write the story.  folliesls@aol.com

IN THE GARDEN


Two months ago I bought a crate of flowers to plant. After setting the plant to rest, I had a vivid recollection of Nana; my Mother’s mother.
Nana was a petite woman, with long graying hair she pinned into a perfect French twist, a cute Irish nose, and a giggling smile. When I was growing up she lived with her second husband, we called Poppop, in a spacious California ranch house in Sherman Oaks, also known as San Fernando Valley. We visited her weekly, staying over one or two nights. Nana was always waiting for us to arrive. She greeted us at the door, she had something cooking, fresh candy in crystal dishes, and in the morning, she fried bacon and the aroma woke me and got me running downstairs. She scrambled eggs with lots of butter, and served it with Irish soda bread. It never occurred to me that these weekly trips were the cultural mix-up of my Russian Irish heritage. This was Nana’s only opportunity to spoon-feed us our Irish roots. At home with father, bacon and butter were prohibited, and bread came in the form of a bagel. The food was only one part of the adventure. Nana’s home was filled with antiques, family treasures, and her garden was a masterful collection of east and west coast varieties.
After Nana had all her errands and household chores finished, she changed into slacks, flat shoes, and a straw hat and went outside to the garden. I would follow Nana while my Mother remained indoors; most likely talking on the phone with some degree of privacy. In the garden, Nana would trim, cut, and arrange her flowers. I kneeled down beside her and watched, while she talked. Nana had the gift of gab, and her thoughts poured out without my interruption. Between sentences, she would insert a self-effacing joke, regarding her silly hat, or her short legs. Her hands were swollen from arthritis, and she rubbed them from time to time, but she did not complain. As I planted my garden, these visions of Nana remained and grew more studied and complete. I had a memory of being assigned a school project to plant something in the garden. By this time, my Mother had moved us to an apartment and we didn’t have our own garden. I went to Nana’s and she helped me plant some variety of flowers I cannot recall. Each week I’d return to see how my plant was doing. Some time after the assignment ended and we were walking in the yard, I looked to see how my plant was surviving. It had been replaced. I asked Nana what happened.
“Oh honey I hope you won’t be mad at me, but the little flower died, so I planted a new one. It’s my fault; I didn’t look after it properly.”
Nana taught me the things my mother didn’t have the time to teach; like cooking, cutting flowers and arranging them, making coffee, and setting the table. She made all these chores enjoyable, and I loved to follow her around the house and watch her change the beds, and prop up pillows, and fold the guest towels. It never occurred to me until now, that I adopted her domesticity; the sublime gratification of adorning a home for the comfort of family and friends.
The plants did not blossom, the jasmine, roses, and other varieties all wilted and turned brown, but the parties, soirees, dinners and moments of solitude are bloosoming.

CONFESSIONS OF A MOB KID


SOME children are silenced. The pretense is protection against people and events more powerful than them. As the daughter of Allen Smiley, associate and friend to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, I was raised in a family of secrets.

My father is not a household name like Siegel, partly because he wore a disguise, a veneer of respectability that fooled most.

It did not fool the government. My father came into the public eye the night of June 20, 1947, when Benjamin Siegel was murdered in his home in Beverly Hills. My dad was seated inches away from Siegel, on the sofa, and took three bullets through the sleeve of his jacket.

He was brought in as a suspect. His photograph was in all the newspapers. He was the only nonfamily member who had the guts to go to the funeral.

When I was exposed to the truth by way of a book, I kept the secret, too. I was 13. My parents divorced, and five years later, my mother died. In 1966, I went to live with my father in Hollywood.

I was forbidden to talk about our life: “Don’t discuss our family business with anyone, and listen very carefully to what I say from now on!”

But one night, he asked me to come into his room and he told me the story of the night Ben was murdered.

“When I was spared death, I made a vow to do everything in my power to reform, so that I could one day marry your mother.

“Ben was the best friend I ever had. You’re going to hear a lot of things about him in your life. Just remember what I am telling you; he’d take a bullet for a friend.”

After my father died, I remained silent, to avoid shame, embarrassment and questions. But 10 years later, in 1994, when I turned 40, I cracked the silence.

I read every book in print – and out of print – about the Mafia. Allen Smiley was in dozens. He was a Russian Jew, a criminal, Bugsy’s right-hand man, a dope peddler, pimp, a racetrack tout. I held close the memory of a benevolent father, wise counselor, and a man who worshipped me.

I made a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained his government files. The Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed he was one of the most dangerous criminals in the country. They said he was Benjamin Siegel’s assistant. They said he was poised to take over the rackets in Los Angeles. He didn’t; he sold out his interest in the Flamingo, and he went to Houston to strike oil.

I put the file away, and looked into the window of truth. How much more could I bear to hear?

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, my dad’s family immigrated to Canada. He stowed away to America at 16, and was eventually doggedly pursued for never having registered as an alien. He had multiple arrests – including one for bookmaking in 1944, and another for slicing off part of the actor John Hall’s nose in a fracas at Tommy Dorsey’s apartment.

He met my mother, Lucille Casey, at the Copacabana nightclub in 1943. She was onstage dancing (for $75 a week), and my father was in the audience, seated with Copa owner and mob boss Frank Costello.

“I took one look, and I knew it was her,” was all he had told me on many occasions.

On a trip to the Museum of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was handed a large perfectly pristine manila envelope, and a pair of latex gloves with which to handle the file.

Inside were black and white glossy MGM studio photographs, press releases, and biographies of my mother’s career in film, including roles in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Ziegfeld Follies of 1946,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Harvey Girls.” She was written up in the columns, where later my father was identified as a “sportsman.”

The woman who pressed my clothes, washed my hair, and made my tuna sandwiches was an actress dancing in Judy Garland musicals, while her own life was draped with film noir drama.

My father wooed her, and after an MGM producer gave her an audition, he helped arrange for her and her family to move to Beverly Hills, where she had steady film work for five years. He was busy helping Siegel expand the Western Front of the Costello crime family and opening the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas.

They were engaged in 1946.

Still, the blank pages of my mother’s life did not begin to fill in until I met R.J. Gray. He found me through my newspaper column, “Smiley’s Dice.”

One day last year, R.J. sent me a book, “Images of America: The Copacabana,” by Kristin Baggelaar. There was my mother, captioned a “Copa-beauty.”

Kristin organized a Copa reunion in New York last September. I went in place of my mother, but all day I felt as if she was seated next to me. I fell asleep that night staring out the hotel window, feeling a part of Manhattan history.

Now, the silence is over.

I don’t hesitate to answer questions about my family. I have photographs of Ben Siegel in my home in Santa Fe, NM, just as my father did. Every few months I get e-mails from distant friends, or people who knew my dad.

It seems there is no end to the stories surrounding Ben and Al. I am not looking for closure. I’ve become too attached to the story.

 

JOCKEYS & SARATOGA SPRINGS NEW YORK RACE TRACK



     After spending several summers in Saratoga Springs, I discovered I loved thoroughbred horseracing. All my life I’ve been a performing arts spectator. I never watch any sports on television and only attended baseball games when my father needed a companion. The art of performance is what led me to experience the racetrack as live theater.

     The racetrack is a stage, the jockeys are the actors, and the men and women that fill the bleachers, the picnic grounds, the Turf Club, and the private boxes are the audience. The racehorse is the star celebrity.

     The tickets for admission, like any show, are based on your seating. You can walk through the gates for $3.00, or you can buy a box for $100,000 a year. The collage of human emotions, drama, suspense, and danger, are key components to good theater.

     Gambling personifies the Shakespearean twist of the racetrack. High rollers and drugstore cowboys wager to win. Some men walk out with a grocery cart of recycled cans; some walk out with enough money to buy a racehorse. They leave by the same gate, and the next day they come back for more. But why, I ask, is thoroughbred racing not considered an all-around American sport? Why don’t jockeys get athletic respect? These two spheres of lightning truth struck me while I trampled through the mud one rainy August day at Saratoga Racetrack.

I asked around for opinions. The Governor’s bodyguard remarked that it was a good question. He did not think gambling was the reason because people bet on sports all the time. He thought maybe that it was because as kids we don’t learn to race horses, like baseball and football. The public is naïve about jockeys because they have never raced. Another answer I heard was that 200,000 fans fill a ballgame on any given day and that those numbers don’t compare with horseracing.

     I’m not a gambler,  and I don’t ride very well, but I am a drama whore. I took my notebook to the jocks’ room to ask the jockeys what they thought about this irregularity in sports. Jose Santos had a few minutes to spare.

     “Jose, do you feel like America thinks of you as an athlete?”

     “We don’t get the respect that we should. I think it’s the gambling. This is the greatest racetrack in America, and there is gambling in every sport, but when you come to the track, you see it right there, and people cannot avoid it. Pound for pound, we are more fit than most athletes.”

     I asked Jose what he does aside from riding. He jogs three miles every day and walks for a mile. He reminded me that if he goes down with the horse, his strength is what gets him back up again. Another misconception is that jockeys only ride for 2 minutes. Well, the race is 2 minutes, but they ride every day of the year. They do not take breaks.

     “How does the public perceive you?” I asked.

     “In Europe, they are treated like movie stars. Over here the jockey is just another person, and in sports, the jockey is low. I wish we had more respect, but we don’t get the publicity.”

     This feels like the guts of the truth; our little minds like to align with other like minds. The leaders of the pack go to football and baseball, and the media follows behind.

     Jose remarked that the only time he felt real enthusiasm and support was when he won the Triple Crown. Otherwise, they get a little column in the paper with the results. “The Racing Form is 100 pages, and nothing is written about us.”

     “What if there was a Jockey Magazine?”

     “Well, that would be great. Then the companies would be interested, and we’d get sponsors. When I go out to the park and run, I wear Nikes too.” He chuckled.

    “Have they ever approached you for sponsorship?”

    “No, I don’t expect they will.”

 A few days later I found Jerry Bailey before a race. It was a cinch to get into the jocks’ room in those days. That was before Elliott Spitzer sipped all the fizz out of Saratoga Race Track. These days the Press can’t walk inside the Jocks’ room.  Jerry hopped onto a counter and extended his hand.

“How are you?”

“Great Jerry, thank you for meeting me.”

“Sure.”

“Jerry, I’m very interested in the lack of sports sponsorship offered jockeys. Why do you think that is?

“Because no one is promoting us.  If you don’t do anything to promote us, how does anyone know? They have bobble heads and gimmicks like that, but there isn’t even a Jockey Calendar. Excuse me now; I’ve got to ride a race.”

 Of all the risk takers and entrepreneurs in the world, horse racing is the champion in all categories. If I made a decision to understand the business,  attend every race, meet every owner, jockey, and trainer, there’s no chance I’d  understand anything more, because I do not love the horse the way a jockey does, and you can’t fool the horse!

   During the Hall of Fame Induction presentation at Saratoga a few years back, D. Wayne Lucas made a speech that drew a full house of gregarious applause. This is an excerpt:

 “You ride a great horse, and the owner wakes up the next day and decides to switch to Bailey. The adversity is unbelievable, it is gut-wrenching, bring you to your knees humbling business, whether you’re a rider, trainer, owner, or breeder. There’s one thing that will keep you going, and that is simply your attitude. Attitude is the most important decision you make every day. Make it early, and make sure you make the right one. You will have a very full and very peaceful life.”

 Maybe it’s time for a Jocks Nike, call it the Two Minute Nike.