Charles Willeford (1919–1988) remains one of America’s most criminally underappreciated writers. From his essential pulp works, like Pick-Up and The Woman Chaser, to his almost unclassifiably perfect novels like Cockfighter, The Shark Infested Custard, and The Burnt Orange Heresy, all of which examine humanity, darkness, lightness, and life with economical and sophisticated observation and black, black humor, to his final works, a series of books featuring a Miami detective named Hoke Moseley (Miami Blues, Sideswipe, New Hope for the Dead, and The Way We Die Now), Willeford transcended the crime genre to which he was relegated by most publishers and critics. But if Willeford only wrote pulp, then so did Dostoyevsky and Hemingway.
What follows is an excerpt from Willeford’s memoir, I Was Looking for a Street, which will be reissued this month by PictureBox and Family. Here, at 13 years old, Willeford is running away from home to live the hobo life during the Great Depression. Need we say more? Read on…
One dreary raining morning, instead of walking to school, I took the Number Five streetcar. When the streetcar reached my stop, at 30th and Main Street, it was still raining. Instead of getting off and walking a block in the rain to school, I stayed aboard the streetcar until we reached the Los Angeles River. By that time the rain had stopped. I climbed the low bluff to the park that overlooked the river and the RR yards below.
I could look down on the bums in the riverside jungle, and for a while I watched the yard engines make up a train in the yards below. There were quite a few other bums in the park, as well as in the jungle, and I listened in on some conversations, asking a few questions of my own. The only time that bums were bothered by the law was when they first arrived by freight in Los Angeles. If they were leaving L.A. by freight train, the cops were glad to see them go, so catching a train out of the yards was a simple matter. Incoming trains were watched, however, and the bums were rounded up frequently by cops as they detrained. They were then taken to Lincoln Heights Jail, given thirty days for vagrancy, with twenty-seven days suspended. They were told then that if they were caught hanging around L.A. again, they would be returned to Lincoln Heights to serve the remaining twenty-seven days. The word got around, of course, and the wiser incoming bums usually got off the train at Colton, a division point some fifty miles away, and made their way into Los Angeles by other means of transportation. But outgoing bums were not bothered by the RR bulls, and there were a good many bums hanging around the park and in the jungle waiting for an eastbound train.
The night I caught the eastbound freight although I did not, at that time, have any destination in mind, I was wearing white socks and tennis shoes, a pair of corduroy pants, a white shirt with a blue-and-white-striped necktie, and a gray roughneck sweater, the kind with a thick, stand-up collar. I also wore a gray baseball cap. I had a package of Dominos, a brand-new dissecting kit I had stolen out of some USC student’s car, and forty-seven cents in change.
The trip to Colton took a little more than two hours, arriving a little after midnight. In Colton, a division on the Southern Pacific, trains were made up and a helper engine was added to get the trains over the mountain to Redlands. Colton was only a few miles from San Bernardino, and was the loading and storage town for most of the fruit, oranges, and plums shipped out of San Bernardino County, at that time the largest county in the United States. San Bernardino, or “Berdoo,” as it is called by Californians, was the whorehouse district for Southern California, with four square blocks of whorehouses, called, collectively, “D” Street. At this time, Colton, California, in the winter, and Casper, Wyoming, in the summer, were the two major bum capitals in the United States. In the summer, Casper, with its miles of flat country and plentiful streams of water, was popular, but many professional bums wintered in Colton.
The open grassy fields outside the RR yards were ablaze with the lights of candles in the patchwork beanery tents; and at tiny fires, men slept on the ground like wheel spokes with their feet to the warmth. These open fields of the Colton jungle formed a transient Hooverville of more than 400 bums, although the population fluctuated daily. The jungle was cleared out periodically by the sheriff and a pick-up posse from town, but within a few days the jungle would fill up again. In Berdoo, about five walking miles away, there was a state-run transient camp which fed two meals a day, breakfast at ten A.M. and supper at four-thirty P.M. Many of the Colton jungle residents would walk over and back every day for one meal. There were plenty of oranges and plums to be had for nothing, because grove owners would frequently deliver free lugs of frost-touched oranges to the jungle. And in the prune-plum orchards a few miles north of town, bums were allowed to pick up plums that had fallen from the trees. There were more than a dozen beaneries in the jungle. These were small businesses operated by owner-cooks. All that was needed was a makeshift shelter and a five-gallon Standard Oil can bubbling over a wood or a coal fire and filled with either navy or kidney beans. There was usually a plank counter, with another plank bench facing the counter with eating for four or five customers, and a couple of bottles holding candles for illumination. A coffee can full of beans, with one thick slab of bread, was five cents. The beaneries were busiest when a freight train came into the yards. It took about an hour to make up a train and to shift out a few cars, whether it was going east or west, and with a hundred or more bums to feed during that period, the owner-cooks had to work fast. Business was much slower between trains, and the entrepreneurs were not particularly competitive (although one beanery served hoecake, made with cornmeal, instead of serving white bread).
I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, so the beans I ate at midnight seemed perfect to me. The smoky interior of the beanery, a shack that had been constructed from flattened oil-cans and canvas, was toasty warm after the cold wind that had chilled me on the train ride from L.A. After eating, I decided that it was too cold to continue on into the desert that night, riding in an empty gondola. I spent the next two days in the Colton jungle, hanging around the fires and picking up some useful information about the road.
On the third night, with a coffee can of water, and a gunny sack partially filled with oranges and plums, I caught the one A.M. freight to Yuma, Arizona. By ten A.M. the next morning, all of my water was gone. I had sucked the juice out of all my oranges, and I had a case of the runs from eating the plums. With my stomach cramping, I got off in Indio, and let the train continue without me.
I couldn’t think of a single reason why anyone would want to live in a desert town like Indio. But it was a date-shipping center, I suppose, with a mean living to be had, and that was probably why the town was founded. A bum rarely left the train at Indio. After begging for food at a dozen houses, I understood why. No one was hostile to me; if anything, they were merely embarrassed because they had no food to give me. Finally, a Mexican woman gave me three dry tortillas, and eating these helped settle my stomach. I had given my leftover plums to a man on the train, after realizing that the plums were what had caused my discomfort.
I had squandered most of my money in the Colton beaneries, and I was down to eleven cents. At a gas station, a few blocks away from the yards, I traded my dissecting kit for a package of Wings. I then spent the next ten hours under a dusty pepper tree, smoking, dozing, and waiting for the next train to Yuma.
This was another night train. The weather was balmy, after a hot dry day in Indio, all of the way to Yuma. The stars were out, and I had a feeling on the train that I was getting somewhere, although all I managed to get to was Yuma.
At Niland, the last stop in California, where the train stopped briefly so the engine would take on water, grim men armed with ax handles lined both sides of the tracks to prevent anyone from leaving the train. They wanted to make certain that all of the bums stayed on the train and left California. On freights coming in to California, the bums were taken off the train at Niland and kept in a warehouse until the next freight came through for Arizona. So we had about fifty or more bums added to our train at Niland. They were hungry, although they had been given plenty of water in the warehouse where they had spent about eight or nine hours. The men with ax handles didn’t meet every train that came through Niland, but they met enough of them to discourage many bums from trying to get through. To avoid Niland, some bums took a train from Phoenix to Prescott and then tried to get a truck ride into California via Needles, but this method was difficult in other ways. A bum wasn’t welcome on the train to Prescott, and if a man wasn’t well-dressed, he could stand on the highway forever without ever getting a ride in a truck. Although, at the time, I didn’t intend to return to California, and I had not as yet selected a definite destination, the realization that it would be difficult to get back into California through Niland made me feel as if I had passed a major milestone in establishing my freedom. I had felt that I had, at last, truly gotten away.
I like Yuma, as who would not? I have often wished that I could have spent the rest of my life there. But a tragedy forced me out of town, and I knew that I could never return to this wonderful desert city.
Compared with the glum expressions I had left in L.A., the Yuma residents I saw on the streets, as I explored the town on foot, wore almost childishly happy expressions. At one time, many years ago, Yuma had been a small sea port, with ocean-going vessels sailing up the Colorado to dock and trade there. But all that had been a long time ago, and now the river was shallow and narrow, with only the watermarks remaining on the steep bluffs to show how high the river had once been. The All-American Canal into California’s Imperial Valley had helped to reduce the river’s flow, as had the construction at Boulder Dam. There didn’t seem to be any economical reasons whatsoever for Yuma’s existence, at least that I could see, except that it was a water stop for trains passing through; and there was still a spur track that went down into some remote village in Mexico once a week. There were four Indian squaws squatting on the RR station platform. They sold crudely made pottery and turquoise beads, and could only have had minimal sales. The Sunset Limited stopped each way for only five minutes, and the passengers who got off the train were mostly those whose destination was Yuma. The Indian women didn’t get up from their squatting positions to hawk their wares to the people on the train, so they only sold something to the occasional traveler who leaped off the train for a minute or so.
I passed a drugstore, and an Indian buck, wearing work clothes and a cowboy hat, stopped me on the sidewalk. I knew he was an Indian because he had two long braids of black hair down his back, and he didn’t speak with a Spanish accent. He asked me if I wanted to make four-bits.
“Sure,” I said.
“Here.” He handed me a dollar bill. “Go into the drugstore, and buy me a bottle of rubbing alcohol. It’s on the shelf, back by the pharmacist’s slot, next to the shaving stuff. It’s seventy-eight cents.”
“Why me?” I was puzzled.
He shrugged, and spat into the gutter. “They don’t sell Indians rubbing alcohol in Arizona.”
I bought the rubbing alcohol for him without any trouble, and he let me keep the change, and made up the difference. I had only been in Yuma for an hour or so, and I was already making money. I did not, however, have much sympathy for the Indian. He looked as much like a Mexican as he did an Indian. If he had cut off his braids and faked a Spanish accent, he could have bought all of the alcohol he wanted without being questioned. Perhaps, I thought, he was too proud of being an Indian to fake deception, but wasn’t it equally humiliating to have to pay some stranger on the street to buy the alcohol for him? To give him the benefit of my own doubts, I concluded that the idea had never occurred to him to change his appearance.
I then talked to another bum on the street, a middle-aged man, who told me that he was making a living as a professional witness. I was impressed by what he had to say. The wedding chapels in Yuma were open twenty-four hours a day and many California couples unwilling to wait the required three days would obtain a license, drive to Yuma, get married, and be on their way back in about ten minutes. This bum spent his nights hanging around all-night wedding parlors where he would be available to serve as a witness. He was tipped, he said, anywhere from a quarter to a dollar for watching the rapid-fire ceremony and signing the forms.
“In a way,” he said, “I’m one of the highest paid men in Arizona. If a wedding lasts five minutes, and I get tipped a buck, I’m actually making an hour.”
But too often, he added unhappily, three or four nights would go by without getting a single witness job. This happened because a lot of couples brought friends along, and then got married with these friends serving as unprofessional witnesses. He showed me his necktie, which he had curled into a ring and kept in a paper sack. “Some of these so-called friends of the bride and bridegroom don’t even have a necktie to wear at the ceremony,” he said bitterly. “And they’re often drunk, and make crude jokes, like, ‘Run for the door, Bill, and I’ll hold her off. It ain’t too late.’ That sort of thing destroys the sanctity of the ceremony. But when they get me, they know they’ll get a professional job.”
The professional witness also told me about the deserted prison, and that it was an available place to sleep, and the cops never bothered anyone who used it.
The ancient Arizona prison, abandoned at least fifty years before, was atop a gently sloping hill northwest of the RR station. There was a sandy road to the prison, and there were no habitations nearby. The building was mostly adobe, and large sections of the roof had fallen in. Windows with bars were still in place at irregular intervals, high in the walls that were still standing, and sand had drifted in where the high double doors had been at the entrance. The sandy floor was a soft place to sleep. The interior was unoccupied, but a good many bums had spent nights in the prison. There was some interesting graffiti to read on the walls, and the remains of fires and improvised cooking utensils were scattered about. I built a small camp fire, using some manzanita root someone had gathered, and set up housekeeping. I made a shallow bed in the sand by the fire, and covered it with loose straw. I picked a corner of the largest room, where a section of the roof was still intact and would be shady all day. I had bought a loaf of bread and a dime’s worth of baloney in the grocery store, and after I made a stack of sandwiches, I settled down in my nest by the fire to eat the sandwiches and tried to think for the first time in my life.
Thinking, when you first try it, is very difficult. I had never tried to think before, seriously, I mean, and I didn’t quite know how to go about the process. Most people, under ordinary circumstances, living with their families, attending school, getting jobs, don’t get around to thinking until their early twenties—if then. Sometimes they are married and have two or three children before they begin to think about their lives. I have talked to men who told me that they never did any serious thinking about themselves until their mid-thirties. Thinking, as opposed to making rather superficial distinctions and decisions, is, apparently, unnecessary for everyday life. Most people simply go along with their lives, accepting what happens to them, attributing to good and back luck whatever fortune or plight comes their way.
But as I sat there alone, very alone, in the deserted and empty prison, with my mind alert for options—aware that there were options for the first time in my life—my mind reeled as I tried to get my thoughts into some kind of order. I was untrained in formal logic, and my mind kept going off on tangents. The experience was heady, exciting, bewildering, and I had to make a determined effort of will to prevent myself from being distracted by a buzzing fly, or even from contemplating the beauty of the swirling red-brown-ocherous pattern on a knot of manzanita root. It is much easier to slip into a daydream than it is to think.
Hours passed. But I was unaware of time as I tried to think things out. My thoughts were not profound, nor did they involve philosophy in any way. It was merely straight thinking, if that is the name for what I was doing, exploring ideas and possibilities in an effort to forge a new identity for myself. I was not concerned with any overall life plan, either for the immediate future or for the months and years ahead of me. The world itself would take care of my future, but what I needed for the immediate moment and survival was a believable background.
First of all, I needed a new name. My own name had been passed on to me by a man who knew that he was dying and who had wanted to have a small piece of immortality. Well, fuck him, I thought. The name would die with me and I would never leave any abandoned children behind me when I died. And for the present, for security, I would choose a new name. If I were picked up for vagrancy, or if I went to jail for any reason, I could be traced by my real name, and I didn’t want my grandmother to find out about any trouble I got into. It would be far better for her not to know about what happened to me than it would be for her to find out that I was in jail somewhere, which everyone I had met on the road so far had claimed to be an ever-present possibility and daily hazard.
I decided to take my great-uncle’s name, Jake Lowey. I liked the sound of it because it sounded much different when applied to me instead of to my ancient, one-eyed great-uncle. And perhaps, I thought, by using Jake’s name, some of the old man’s gift for survival would somehow be magically transferred to me.
I made up the name of an imaginary aunt in Chicago, imaginary street addresses for her flower shop and apartment, and I selected Chicago and the World’s Fair as my ultimate destination. Also, when I was asked, as I knew I would be, I would say I had a job waiting for me at the baseball and milk bottle concession. How come I could get a job so easily at The Fair, with everyone else wanting one? My aunt had influence with an alderman, and she had pulled a few strings for me, that’s how.
I was skinny, but at five-nine I was tall for my age. My heart-shaped face was far too innocent looking to pass for twenty-nine. And because I was a blond with a fair complexion, there wasn’t even any peach fuzz on my face. But I could, I thought, pass myself off as seventeen going on eighteen when someone asked me how old I was; the important thing was to tough it out and stick with the lie. I worked out a new birthday, using a stick to do the arithmetic in the sand. I memorized my new name and birth date, saying them aloud, and casually, until they sounded natural to me.
As a birthplace, I settled for Los Angeles, where many people live but very few are born, because, if queried, I could rattle off L.A. landmarks and street names. I knew the city well, all of it, and I could always say my parents were dead, which they were. Ray and Aileen Lowey, deceased, and buried in Calvary.
I knew enough about Catholicism to pass myself off as a Roman Catholic, and this seemed like the best religion to choose because, if need be, I could probably get help at any one of the Catholic relief agencies in any city I happened to be passing through. I had learned already that it was a poor idea to admit to atheism, when I had told the registrar at John Adams Junior High School that I was an atheist. She denied that I was an atheist, and asked me repeatedly to tell her my religion until I said, finally, that I was Methodist—which I was not. On Sundays at McKinley, there had been interdenominational services, but they weren’t mandatory, and I never attended. My grandmother believed in God, or said she did, but didn’t belong to any church. When I came home from McKinley, she had sent me to Sunday school a few times to the Presbyterian church a few blocks away from the apartment house, but the teacher, a young man with a lisp and a red necktie, was obviously a fruit. I withheld the dime she gave me each time for the offering, and quit going after a few weeks. But only adults were allowed to be atheists, apparently, so I decided that I would be a Catholic, if asked, at least until I became twenty-one.
I made up a good many new facts about myself while I was at it, such as high schools attended, hobbies, and sports I had never engaged in, down to a made-up sexual experience with a second cousin. I then filed the imaginary details away in my head.
What I was doing, although it was many years later before I realized it, was manufacturing the basic background for a fictional character as a novelist must do in preparation before writing a novel. The novelist knows hundreds of small details about his major characters that he never puts down on paper, but the fact that he does “know” these things about his imaginary characters enables him to write about them with authority. I was never called upon to relate very many of the details I made up about Jake Lowey, but thinking about them and planning how to use them if needed strengthened my self-confidence. In fact, the seventeen-year-old Jake Lowey was a pretty tough kid.
That night, secure within my new self, I lay on the soft bed, watching the bright stars in the black sky, while at the same time, moon rays slanted through the barred windows in the walls. I had a mixed and detached reaction to my new identity—retaining the old while stirring the new in random patterns in my mind.
The next morning I walked to the RR bridge that separated California from Arizona. I walked along the bluff, staying on the Arizona side, and finally found a trail down the cliffside to the Colorado River. I removed and washed my shirt and socks, and, while they dried, bathed myself with river water, using damp sand in lieu of soap to get off the worst of the ingrained train dirt from my elbows and ankles. I also cleaned under my foreskin, a habit I performed every day. A foreskin is a mixed blessing, advantageous in prolonging the sex act, but a hygiene problem that must be attended to every day. If a man misses cleaning under his foreskin for two or three days, his dick will become swollen and sore.
After an hour I began to get sunburned. I got dressed and climbed back up the trail.
Beneath a cottonwood tree, about a hundred yards away from the old prison, a man had pitched a pup tent while I had sojourned down by the river. He had a leather knapsack opened beside a small fire, and he was frying bacon in a small iron skillet. He wore a black suit, a white shirt with a maroon tie, and old-fashioned high-topped shoes that were well shined. He had a deeply lined and homely face, like that of a man who has lost a great deal of weight and the skin hasn’t shrunk, as yet, to fit the smaller form within. He was in late middle-age, and his black hair was gray at the temples.
“Did you eat yet?” he said. This was the standard greeting on the road.
I shook my head, squatted on my heels, and inhaled the wonderful aroma of frying bacon. He cut two more slices from the slab of bacon he had in his knapsack, and after his slices were crisp he fried mine. While the bacon sizzled, he mixed cornmeal and water in a tin cup, and when my bacon was done he removed it, added the cornmeal mixture to the hot grease, and made a hoecake. We ate the hoecake and the bacon without talking. He then cleaned the frying pan with sand before putting it back into the knapsack. He was neat, almost fussy, in his movements, and he didn’t waste any motions. His long fingers trembled, however.
I offered him a Wing, which he refused, and I waited anxiously for him to ask me some questions. I was eager to try out my new identity on this generous stranger, but I wasn’t going to volunteer any information. He remained silent while I smoked, and when I finished my cigarette and tossed the butt into the fire, he removed his suit coat, folded it neatly, and put it inside the tent. He then took a two-pronged metal whip out of his knapsack. The whip had been made from a wire coat hanger, with the wire unwound, looped over in the center, and the loop made into a handle, with adhesive tape wrapped around it. The two exposed ends were about three inches apart. It was a short but an effective whip.
“How’d you like to make fifty cents?” His voice was as trembly as his fingers.
“I don’t know,” I said uneasily, getting to my feet and preparing to run.
“All you’ve got to do,” he said, “is hit me across the back with this thing a few times.” He held out the whip, and got into a kneeling position.
“Give me the four-bits,” I said.
“Yeah. In advance.”
Still kneeling, he fished two quarters out of his pants pocket, and handed me the money and the whip. I put the money away, and as he leaned forward, hugging his chest, I tapped his back gingerly.
“Harder!” he said.
I hit him little harder, and as he kept saying, “Harder, harder,” I increased the punishment, although I never hit him hard enough to really hurt him, or even to tear the fabric of his shirt. The two-pronged wire whip wasn’t heavy enough to do much physical damage.
After a while, and before my arm got tired, he said, “Thanks. That’s enough.”
I tossed the whip down beside him, and left for the prison. My stomach was churning from the experience, or perhaps from the greasy hoecake. Although I was delighted by the unexpected windfall of the half-dollar, I knew there was something wrong about whipping a man for money. I hadn’t liked doing it, and I had been frightened at first, thinking I might hurt the man, but he hadn’t flinched or whimpered. If he yelled, or indicated in any way that he was in pain, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. But inasmuch as it hadn’t bothered him too much, I decided he was undergoing some kind of religious penance, like the flagellants in the Catholic Church I had heard about.
That afternoon I went shopping in Yuma. I bought a package of Wings, and while I was at it I managed to steal a bar of soap, a candy bar, and a College Humor magazine. I returned to the prison, slipping by the sad-looking man’s little tent. He didn’t greet me as I passed by, and I said nothing to him. I read the magazine until it got too dark, and then I went to sleep.
The next four days followed the same pattern. After I washed at the river (with the soap, I could now wash my hair), the man would cook and give me breakfast, pay me a half-dollar, and I would whip him with the improvised whip. On the fifth morning, after breakfast, he asked me to whip him for nothing. I considered it for a moment, and then I recalled the professional marriage-ceremony witness I had met on my first day in Yuma.
“No,” I said. “This is the sort of work I do for a living, and if it ever got around that I was passing out free whippings, I’d be out of business.” I laughed, thinking that my remark was funny, but he did not join me.
“I thought,” he said seriously, “that you might do it out of friendship.”
That didn’t go down well with me. “You aren’t my friend,” I said. “I don’t know your name, and you never asked me for mine. We’ve had a businesslike relationship from the first.”
“But I don’t have any more money,” he said.
“I know what it is to be broke,” I said. “My cousin Ethel sings a song that goes, ‘If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna save it for my only friend.’ But if you need some money, I’ll lend you a half-dollar.”
“Then,” he said, “if I give it back to you, will you stroke me a few times with—”
“No.” I shook my head. “But if you need the money for food I’ll let you have it.”
“Never mind.” His face flushed with anger. He turned his back on me, and started to take down his tent, kicking the wooden stakes out with his feet. I watched him from the prison doorway as he rolled his tent and his blanket, and folded the roll into a U over his knapsack. Without once looking in my direction, he started down the sandy road toward the RR station. I felt sympathy for the man, and I couldn’t understand my reluctance to give the man a free whipping. But just as I knew that whipping him for money in the first place was wrong, I knew that to whip him for nothing would be much worse. There would be no end to it; it would be like Sindbad the Sailor and the Old Man of the Sea, in the story in The Book of Knowledge I had read at McKinley.
At any rate, I thought, when he was gone from sight, I now had a tidy little stake. Early the next morning, I caught the Pacific Fruit Express freight train for Tucson.
© Betsy Willeford 2010, excerpted from
the 2010 PictureBox/Family edition of
I WAS LOOKING FOR A STREET.