Tag: Literature

Reviews

The Machete of Memory: Roberto Lovato’s Memoir Unforgetting

Steven Osuna

It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.

While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”[1] My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.

In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.

This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.”[2] The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.

The Lovato Family on Folsom Street in the San Francisco Mission District. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.”[3] Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”[4]

Roberto Lovato in Chalantenango, El Salvador, 1991. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states.[5] By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on. 

Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador.[6] In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.”[7] He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”[8]

According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.”[9] Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance.[10] Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.  

Roberto Lovato at the Instituto de Medicina Legal, 2015. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.


Notes

[1] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.

[2] Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii

[3] Ibid, 300.

[4] Ibid, 275.

[5] Ibid, 190.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 304.

[8] Ibid, 57.

[9] Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.

[10] Ibid, 144. 

Steven Osuna is an educator, researcher, and activist based in Los Angeles. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. 

Copyright: © 2020 Steven Osuna. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Poetry

1989 Caprice Classic

Image (3)

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Vickie Vértiz

Is it talking dirty if you’re just listening? What you see in the picture is me. Passenger Front seat. Cinder block wall behind me. I mailed it to my Romanian pen pal, me making a sexy face in my friend’s Falcon. To my right is the dustless dashboard. In the backseat is my older friend Junior. Give me a sexy look, he says. He’s taking a picture for my pen pal but it’s really for him. It’s also for me. For my other friend who’s driving. My sexy hair looks like this: a ponytail on top of my head, wavy brown cascading over to the side of my face. In my denim jacket and white button up, the other thing that sizzles is my plaid flannel skirt, one my mother made. Her hands lined my hem. The driver rolls carefully down my alley. Me, trying out my sexy look and he’s looking too. We enjoy it, watching me try. And I enjoy trying. I shelf my looks for the receiver—on the phone later, I will charm him. He was a junior. I, a freshman, listen to his dream where I was giving him head under a restaurant table, but the table cloth covered me and no one could see. I will play along in the dark under a blanket when everyone’s asleep because he doesn’t scare me. He’s got skater hair, crooked teeth, and likes the Golden Girls as much as me. He drives a Caprice Classic—a mid 80s machine the color of sour wine. Oh yeah? I tell him. And then what did I do? Is it dirty if it was safe? We could turn it on—we could turn it off. He taught me how to drive that thing. Down the Commerce streets—gray warehouses and no workers inside them at night. Entire fields of pavement for us to play on. Another night, I took a fruit roll up and wrapped it around his finger, my first blowjob. His hands were clean thank god. He was older but not older-scary just old enough to make it fun. There are infinite degrees of being sexy when you’re 15.  The mint-satin-dress kind. The kind where all you had to do was put your head in the lap of a boy who loved you so much he could cry (and did). The kind that drives you to the drive-in and tests the limits of your high-waisted cotton panties. The kind where you’re just trying to get to school and you know you’re being followed. But that’s not sexy, that’s surviving. That’s an open secret. Junior knew my secrets: that I really loved _______ and that my friends were sometimes shitty, but sometimes, also: my lovers.

 

Vickie Vértiz was born and raised in Bell Gardens, a city in southeast Los Angeles County. Her writing is featured in the New York Times magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, HuizacheNepantla, the Los Angeles Review of Books,  KCET Departures, and the anthologies: Open the Door (from McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation), and The Coiled Serpent (from Tia Chucha Press), among many others. Vértiz’s first full collection of poetry, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, published in the Camino del Sol Series by The University of Arizona Press won a 2018 PEN America literary prize.

Copyright: © 2020 Vickie Vértiz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Interviews

Revisiting Joan Didion’s California: An Interview with David L. Ulin

Ryan Reft
David L. Ulin

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in the 1970s, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From. In it, Didion spends a great deal of time re-evaluating her earlier work. After all, Didion documented the era that reshaped and initiated California’s transformation from its golden, hermetically sealed mid-century “idyllic” years as a symbol of the “American Dream” into the global, more complex, racially diverse, quasi-nation state that it is today representative of globalization.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the new collection from the Library of America: Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Comprised of her first five works, Run, River, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, and The White Album, the volume, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, offers a window into a transformative period in American and Californian life, documented by Didion. Over the course of her five books, the two formats, the real and the imagined, intertwine to produce a distinctly Didion-esque narrative of the era: detached, intrigued, and clear-eyed. Author, literary critic, and editor of the new volume, David L. Ulin spoke with Boom by phone about the famed California writer, her disbelief in ideologies, and how he thinks about Didion’s work then, in the context of today.

This interview has been edited for length and content. 

9781598536454

Ryan Reft: In a volume like this, what do you think an 18-year-old reader might take from it, as opposed to someone older such as a 32 year old? What do you think each might take from it, in terms of Joan Didion’s writing, and California and so on?

David L. Ulin: I think that’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I was drawn to her at 18 because I was a particular kind of 18-year-old, in a sense that I spent a lot of time in my own head. When I started reading her, my first thought was one of connection because I thought “this is someone who spends as much time in her own head as I do or maybe more.” I was really drawn by the interiority of it and the self exposure, even in material that wasn’t necessarily inherently autobiographical. Like “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” where she basically is tipping her hand about a whole sensibility instead of attitudes and social postures, but it’s woven into the body of the text. So there was that. Also at 18, I was already kind of self-identifying as a writer. So, although I don’t want to say that I was thinking about it as programmatically as I would later come to think of it, I was definitely on some level thinking about sentences and paragraphs and structure and sentences. I do remember opening the book Slouching towards Bethlehem having never read her and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the first essay in the book, and what I do remember is quickly within a few pages thinking, “Wow, I’ve never read somebody write sentences like this.” I mean, I was really intrigued by the language. So that was the first impulse. I think for an 18-year-old reader with those same kind of sensibilities or that same kind of wiring, I could see them coming to her work in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily think of this collection as the gateway for that kind of reader. Only because it’s an expensive, hardcover with five books in it. I have to imagine most 18-year-olds are getting their books online or the cheapest possible used copy. I think in terms of California, it’s interesting because a lot of what she says about California is still relevant. A distinction that we see in terms of reading her work now is that the California she’s describing leaves out large parts of the California we live in. She’s not intentionally leaving them out, she’s focusing on other areas. So I think that for someone reading her now, to get a handle on California or Southern California in particular, she would be missing a lot. Her racial politics or racial vision, deals with a vision of black and white. In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that was the frame and mechanism for how we wrote and thought of America. But even then it was a narrow way of looking at California, and certainly now it’s an extremely limited lens on California. She’d have to be supplemented now in terms of really digging into what the persuasion of the state is.

Reft: You make a very good point about the much broader, non-binary, multi-racial nature of California as the way we think about the state today. I wanted to ask you about race because you know some people, as I’ve read her, and others such as Lorraine Berry, she mentioned that in her review of Didion’s had South and West, she had said that “Didion contently treats people of color as objects of observation, they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer Didion their views of the states they live in.” I think this is broadly true but also I do think Didion was sympathetic. You’ve already said you’d supplement it but what would you supplement her work with?

Ulin: Yes, I’ve read that piece that you’re citing, and I don’t disagree with it, I think it’s complicated. I think that the whole issue of Didion and –I don’t mean to package these two things together though I do think they overlap –say, race and class, is complicated because Didion is writing out of a particular demographic position. And that demographic position is certainly a position of privilege, but a nuanced kind of privilege. She’s writing out of class privilege in a sense that her family came over on the Oregon Trail, so she is a kind of a first California family, she’s writing out of that similar position of those old roots because of having been raised in Sacramento and the state politics component, you know playing in the governor’s mansion when she was a kid and that sort of stuff, but also the kind of nostalgia of what that California means. It’s a very Anglo vision of California. The so-called “First Californians” in this construct are not so much the Chumash or the Tongva, they are the Anglo settlers who came from Iowa and Missouri or whatever, and who came before the railroads were built and pioneered it over to California. So that’s a very particular sensibility. I think that’s a valid sensibility in terms of thinking about California but again as we are talking about in terms of the non-binary discussion of race, it is now finally commonly acknowledged and accepted as it should be as simply one of the theories of overlapping perspectives or visions of California as opposed to the only one or even the central one. There are dozens and dozens of others. This is a long way of saying that I think she is sympathetic. I think in large measure the sense of distance is not so much a political or social posture for her as it is a psychological or personal posture for her. I think that Didion’s was always at a distance. Didion famously said style is substance. She very interested in the surfaces of things because she wants to see what they signify, but also because she is always approaching others from the surface. She keeps a distance and is either not trying or not able to be intimate with them in a different way. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is the kind of collapsing distinction between the personal and the social. She always has the posture of an outsider, as someone who is looking at other people as objects, as someone operating from the outside in.

Reft: I actually find that her detachment attracted me to her writing.

 Ulin: Me too. I think that is something I psychologically share with her, and I think it’s one of the reasons when I read her as a teenager, I felt myself moving through the world. I don’t think I’d ever come across that  kind of detached sensibility.

Reft: In Where I Was From, she’s spent a great deal of time talking about the ’60s or ’70s when California came out of this hermetically sealed existence and started becoming celebrated as a symbol of what America’s promise was, whether one believes in that or not.  I think that that’s an interesting dynamic, particularly in the fact that she’s still in California when you get the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right, which you could argue is not so outward-looking.

Ulin: She was highly critical of Reagan, (and particularly of Nancy Reagan) and justifiably so, but I also think she understood him. Reagan is interesting, because he’s not a product of the ’60s.  But as a political figure, he’s as much a product of the ’60s as Mario Savio. In some ways without Mario Savio we don’t get Ronald Reagan. Now that’s a broad generalization. Without the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and 1965 maybe there’s not a kind of Silent Majority backlash. There’s so much interesting overlap in terms of the kind of pendulum of history, and I think Didion is aware of that. I don’t think Didion is particularly surprised by Reagan, but Reagan really comes out of that Old California, that pioneer California or that insular California trying to reach out and grab its territory. I think that tension is embodied in a lot of Didion’s writing about the ’60s because you know she started off the ’60s as a conservative, she voted for Goldwater in 64. One of my favorite pieces of information about her is that in 62 she flew back from New York to vote against Nixon in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary because he was not sufficiently conservative. She is in her own way very socially conservative. The entire essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is a masterpiece, is built in part around the notion that traditional social narratives have eroded and that nothing has replaced them. These little things we take for granted like “how do we set a place at a table,” we think are not that important, but she’s arguing that in fact they are extremely important as pieces of social fabric or the social narrative. That’s a very socially conservative point of view. At the same time, because of what she is going through and living through, her head is sort of exploding with ideas and possibilities and I think that there’s a real tension in Didion between a kind of innate social conservatism on the one hand and the wildness of what she’s observing and also, in some way, living through in Southern California. The uncertainty if it, the breakdown of narratives. For her, narrative is both a necessity and also something that she grows not to trust. And I think that that’s really, really important and it grows out of the overlap of all of these elements and influences.

Reft: Eric Avila wrote an essay about how she had anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the US. But it’s weird because when I read her, I never felt that it was ideological.

Ulin: She starts out ideologically when she’s like 28 or 30 in 1962 and 1964. I don’t think that the ideology crosses into the work, but she is ideologically conservative. Then she kind of loses a sense of faith in ideology. It’s one of the narratives that collapses for her because the ideologies are inconsistent, and situations are too complicated. She is very good because she is a dread junkie in her way, which is also something I share with her. She’s really good at focusing on how the narratives collapse and desert us and leave us bereft, and that isn’t an ideological issue, really because the narratives on both sides are doing that, or at least that’s Didion’s position. It’s a position I also share with her. So all narratives are up for grabs and you end up with everyone being kneecapped by the collapse of whatever their chosen narrative is.

Reft:In a 2017 interview with you, she made a comment about narratives being atomized even in her novel, Play It As It Lays, as almost imagistic. It seems like that kind atomized essay form speaks to the current moment. In your 2019 interview with the Library of America, you say, “Didion is drawn to disruption, social, cultural, and personal.” What I find particularly noteworthy about that description is how it fits the current rhetoric of disruption that came out of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. The larger point being that the comment that she made in 2017 about the atomization of narratives, and your comment, speak to the way we encounter narratives today. I wonder if this collection, even though it is from the ’60s and ’70s, actually speaks in its physical form to how we think about these things today. Does that make sense?

Ulin: Yeah, it does, and I don’t know if I can speak to how the collection addresses it for contemporary readers, only because I think that’s for each contemporary reader to figure out. First of all, I agree with her that narratives become atomized, I mean if you watch the latest Democratic Presidential Debate, you got an atomized series of versions of what essentially is a shared narrative. Right? And so we can’t even agree on how we are going to agree at this point, or what our common ground is. And I’m not only talking in terms of political narrative. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, some of them have to do with politics and ideology, and some of them have to do with education. Some of them have to do simply with cultural overload, the breakdown of authority. I actually think that that’s not a terrible thing, you know, the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers, and of that kind of structure by which stories went out into the world. I think that it does come back to technology in some way because technology is disruptive, and social media in particular is disruptive. It can be disruptive in really useful ways, and one of those useful ways is by giving everyone an unfiltered platform by which they can speak without being curated by somebody else. So I think that we live in that kind of universe already. When I talk to students, they’re gathering information, as we all are, but they’re gathering information from all sorts of overlapping sources that don’t on the face have anything to do with each other. Students understand that they’re different sources, but they’re not necessarily concerned about those distinctions. So you’ll have a social media post, a novel, something from a film or streaming video, conversations they might have had, a photo of someone’s food –they all kind of overlap. We are all collaging it now as we go along. I don’t want to make a claim for her prescience but again I do think this has to do with Didion’s sensibility and her emotional and psychological framework. I think Didion identifies this really early. In a lot of ways it all grows out of the Haight Ashbury essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem  because that essay is the first of what we can call a concrete example of one of her atomized narratives. That’s an essay written entirely of fragments. None of the fragments are very long. They do add up in the sense that they move chronologically through a period of time, so we have a sense of time progressing and we run into some of the same characters over and over again. But there’s no real movement. Those characters aren’t doing anything different. There’s no change or progression in their behavior or their attitudes. At the same time, there are these anonymous or secondary characters who are interchangeable and drop in and out. Like the kids she buys the burgers and Cokes for –the sort of “clueless young” is what we can call them in the concept of the essay. So that essay, the only way to tell that story, which is essentially a story of stasis and chaos, is for her to create a structural form, a fragmentation that allows her to mirror in the structure of the writing the fragmentation that she’s trying to describe. As a critic, I trace a direct line from that essay to Play It As It Lays which is essentially the atomized narrative writ large, it’s an atomized novel. It’s a 200 page novel with over 100 chapters, and some of those chapters are a sentence long, and there’s something really, really interesting about that as a formal move. And then she moves from that into the essay “The White Album,” which is also an atomized, fragmented narrative. There’s “Los Angeles Notebook’ which also operates that way. She’s playing around really early with this idea of using fragmentary structures to reflect or illuminate the fragmentation of personal and collective narrative that she’s observing in the culture around her. At one point 10 or 12 years ago I wrote an essay saying that in some way, her description of 1968 was highly relevant to 2008, because if you wanted to break down an atomized or fragmented narrative approach you have Barack Obama’s narrative on one hand, and Sarah Palin’s narrative on the other, and they both were American narratives, but they were utterly divergent with no point of intersection. Didion was aware of this 40 years before. So I think that that’s a really interesting and important part of these writings in particular, because these are the books that she is staking out that territory content-wise, but even more importantly where she’s developing narrative and structural strategy to illuminate and illustrate through the movement of the language on the page.

Reft: Despite my saying that, I also think that when you read through the collection from Run, River and the rest all the way through, it almost reads like a big sprawling conversation. It starts with the story of this august California family, and its failure to adapt to postwar realities in the States, and then in the essays she discusses California’s larger history in this way.  In The White Album, in her essay on motorcycle films in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, then in Play It As It Lays, in which the main character Maria Wyeth is trying to get a role in such a film, and in the “Bureaucrats” in The White Album. You could even look at A Book of Common Prayer, where Marin is basically a symbol of a kind of student unrest. Do you think that her fictional work and her nonfiction writing intertwine? And when they do, what do you think that does for the narrative? Does it muddy it, or do you think that it brings it into clearer focus? Or does it do something completely different all together?

Ulin: I think that the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction is really interesting. To be totally honest, for years, decades, I completely gave her fiction short drift. I wasn’t particularly interested in it. After I first read Slouching, I went and read The White Album and then I basically went and got all the nonfiction that was available and read it. As new nonfiction books would come out I would buy them, in hardcover and read them instantly. But the fiction… I think the only novel for a long time I had read was Play It As It Lays. I have to say I think it’s a really interesting novel, though I also think it has a bunch of problems. I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood at that point. I was still living on the East Coast. So it didn’t resonate with me and I really thought the fiction was somehow secondary. That changed prior to my getting involved in this project. But the work on the project has been interesting in kind of exactly the way you are asking about, because one of the things that the work of the project required at the beginning was the kind of end to end rereading of the entire body of work. Over the years, I had ultimately come to read all of the novels, and I think a couple of them are quite good. I think Democracy is a really spectacularly good novel. And I’m a big fan of Run, River. I really think it’s a really good novel and particularly for a first novel. I’ve always kind of liked A Book of Common Prayer for a variety of reasons. But I do think that in the context of the whole career, the fiction seems a lot more essential to me than it did when I was thinking simply book-to-book. And partly for the reasons you are talking about, it makes sense because as a writer and as a human, she’s not addressing certain concerns in fiction and certain concerns in non-fiction. She’s writing out of  whatever it is she’s wrestling with. And she’s wrestling consistently over a period of years. So I think that it’s absolutely the case that the novels are in conversation with the essays; that they’re learning things from each other about style and structure; that they are learning things from each other about content and angle of attack. I think we really see it in Where I Was From, where she doubles back and basically takes apart Run, River. In Where I Was From, she uses her reevaluation of Run, River to make a larger reevaluation of California mythology and narratives, you know, narratives she bought into, that she’s now no longer buying into. It’s really an interesting pair of bookends, if the career had ended with Where I was From. It would have been a kind of perfectly arched structure in a certain sense with a conversation taking place between a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction. I don’t think she is mapping it out that way, but you know as a writer, she is clearly aware on a cellular level, if nothing else, of how these books are informing each other. But one of the great pleasures of doing this project and there have been many, is that it has allowed me to think about and contextualize her fiction as an essential part of her body of work. And that is something that as a reader of her, I’ve had to grow into that perception.

Reft: I can’t end this interview without asking a question about gender. Famously, in her essay from “The Women’s Movement,” from The White Album, she wrote, “I’ve also often wondered about gender. And then, at the exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class’ … To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Every Woman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.’” Now that sounds like a dismissal of feminism. But then when you read this volume, you’ve got women in a constellation of roles and positions. You’ve got Lily Knight in Run, River as an adultress stuck in a complicated marriage. You’ve got Maria Wyeth, who at first may seem like a victim of Hollywood’s toxic culture but by its conclusion is revealed to be much more complicated and perhaps much more problematic than the reader realizes. And then Charlotte Douglass and her daughter Marin are these independent and emotional elusive figures; Marin a literal criminal. So how do you think readers will wrestle with this aspect of her writing in terms of gender, because on the one hand it seems dismissive, and on the other hand when you actually read through it, it’s not at all. 

Ulin: I think that’s a key question. I will say “The Women’s Movement” essay is not one of my favorites, it feels to me not fully formed in some way, like that’s an essay I would love to have seen her revisit in some fashion. But I do agree with you, though she’s not dismissing, she’s critiquing the movements. She’s always writing about strong women characters. For me, it’s not necessarily feminism or what feminism entails or means or activates that she is resisting. I don’t even think that’s true. I think that on practical terms, she’s a feminist. A strong working woman who put her career first, always did. She wanted to go to Saigon and report on the war, and no one would send her because she’s a woman. She and Dunne were going to bring Quintana as a baby to Saigon. I think you know the idea of a kind of strong, self-directed woman is not something she feels she has to champion because it’s just who she is. She’s natural. That’s the first part. I do think that’s true. I also think it’s more of her resistance to the idea of a movement, rather than going back to what we were talking about. She’s not a “joiner.” So the idea that to be actualized or activated, she needs to be part of a movement, I think that’s what she’s resisting. And I also think she’s resisting a certain kind of flattening of language and rhetoric that comes out of movement ideology and movement thinking. I think that across the board whatever that movement is, and that’s true not just of progressive or liberal movements, it’s also true for conservative movements. I think she’s rejecting the idea of group think in favor of a kind of individual consciousness. Now the trick about that or the catch is that that is a position of a class privilege. Only a human who is in a position to be able to self-actualize, who has the resources, whether they are financial or professional or whatever, to do what she needs to do can step away. The value of a movement is that it works for everybody. It’s not about the individual, it’s about making everybody rises on the tide. Only someone who has already risen can stand  askance from the movement. Didion is not someone who is struggling to get a job, she’s not struggling to get recognition or respect, she’s not someone struggling financially, or any of these things. But by the same token, that is who she is. That is what her experience is, that is her social positioning, and so there’s no way for her not to operate out of that social positioning. It’s her context. And so I think it’s really complicated, particularly around the women’s movement, because she is emblematic of many of the things that the women’s movement stands for, but she’s suspicious of movements in general. She’s privileged enough that she hasn’t had to be part of that collective process. I think there we see a lot of the impulses and contradictions that come together in some way. Again, with Didion, it comes back to personal positioning and and personal sensibility first, and the political or social positioning or sensibility grows out of that.

 

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. His work has appeared in several journals, including Souls, The Sixties, California History, Planning Perspectives, Southern California Quarterly, and the Journal of Urban History, as well as in the anthology “Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership” and “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” He is the co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. The opinions expressed by Reft are solely his and not those of the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at @ryanreft.

David L. Ulin is Associate Professor of the Practice of English. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for The Atlantic MonthlyVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Paris Review, and The New York Times. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Black Mountain Institute, and the Lannan Foundation. Most recently, he edited the Library of America’s Didion: The 1960s and 70s, the first in a three volume edition of the author’s collected works.

Copyright: © 2020 Ryan Reft and David L. Ulin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Poetry

City Terrace Postcard

City Terrace. Fernando Corona

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Sesshu Foster

Sybil Brand Women’s Jail sits empty, used occasionally for filming they say, at the end of City Terrace Drive. The gate is locked, as a young white couple walks a dog on the median under the trees, beneath the jail’s high brick wall. Last year, a house on this block sold for $650,000. The new owner parks a Mercedes behind a black steel gate. I walk uphill to my 94-year-old mom’s house, going uphill with angels on my shoulders, fierce Japanese nio temple guardians —my brother Paul on one side, my dad on the other (they both died within a few years of each other, still not talking to each other). They’re with me on a smoggy afternoon. Almost there, a car brakes alongside. The driver yells, “Foster! You don’t remember me?” Wraparound black sunglasses, shaved head and full beard gone whiskery gray, slim dude, grabs my hand for a shake, rings on every finger. “Raul Rios! Damn! I’m glad to see you! Still alive!” The last time we talked, after he’d gotten out of jail, was more than thirty years ago. We grew up together, his parents’ house nearby; when he was young he was bearded, bear-like and wild, a man on fire. How did he survive? “I’m sixty-one!” He’s shouting, “I wanna live to retire, at least to about sixty-eight!” I laugh, “What are you doin’?” “I am IBEW, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, working on the power lines.” I say, “I am United Teachers Los Angeles, we’re getting ready for a strike, like in January!” “Shit, I heard some bullshit about you’re a professor at Cal State L.A.” “Yeah, I do that sometimes too. You don’t live there?” I point two doors down. “Nah, that’s my mother’s house, she still lives there. You remember where Sixto lived?” (He died in 1987.) Yeah, sure! “I live right across the street from Sixto’s place.” Sober, so thin he seems almost shrunken, but a tougher, wiser man than the kid we knew. His own man, he roars off into the smoggy afternoon. Raul Rios lives! I told the spirits, pushing through my mother’s gate. Raul Rios lives!

 

Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 35 years. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo on the website, www.ELAguide.org, as well as on the novel,, ELADATL, a History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, to be published by City Lights Books in 2020. His novel, Atomik Aztex, won a 2006 Believer Magazine Annual Book Prize and his hybrid text, World Ball Notebook won a 2010 American Book Award. His most recent book, City of the Future, won a CLMP Firecracker Award.

Copyright: © 2020 Sesshu Foster. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

LA Oil Noir: Genre, Activism, and Spatial Justice in a City Made by Fossil Fuels

Miranda Trimmier

Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:

The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.

But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells.[1] I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.

The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall,[2] wasn’t especially comforting.

And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on.[3] Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”[4]

With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.

**

Los_Angeles_CA_-__An_Oil_Well_in_Every_Yard_(NBY_432173)

“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore.[5] At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington.[6] For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.[7]

It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.[8]

If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal.[9] When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.[10]

Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar”[11] to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.

**

In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life.[12] But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.

Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline.[13] In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums.[14] Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”[15]

For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism.[16] The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.”[17] Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.

On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.

Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

Forncrook, C.S. and E. M. Views of oil fields around Los Angeles, Map, 1922. 2006627695, Library of Congress, Washington DC, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4361h.ct001874

 Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,”[18] were treated like dirt.

LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine.[19] During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike,[20] but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.[21]

Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations.[22] In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.”[23] In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.

Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.

The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”

A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells.[24] Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.

Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.

The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.

**

 

Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”[25] Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.

Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.”[26] By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.[27]

The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.

The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.[28]

Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.

And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.[29]

Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community.[30] In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.

**

Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.”[31] This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit.[32] In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous.[33] In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.[34]

Porter Ranch Protest

Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz

Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up.[35] Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.[36]

There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.[37]

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Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig

And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.[38]

These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”[39]

**

Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks,[40]  the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.

But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map[41] that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

Well Finder, Screenshot, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98398/12

That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime.[42] At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines.[43] In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.   

Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”[44]

Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling.[45] To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.

Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row.[46] For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks.[47] That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.

A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.”[48] The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day.[49] In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.

**

“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.

I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.

Notes

Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program. 

[1]            James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[2]           Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.

[3]           “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village

[4]           Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.

[5]           Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.

[6]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.

[7]           Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.

[8]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.

[9]           Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.

[10]         Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.

[11]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[12]         Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 51-7.

[13]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[14]         “The Oil Pumps in The Big Sleep,” https://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/oil-pumps-symbol.html.

[15]         Quoted in Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 69.

[16]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 44-5.

[17]         Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[18]         Dennis MacDougal, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. (New York: Hachette Books, 2009), 46.

[19]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization,’” 287.

[20]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880–2010. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 98-9.

[21]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough, 99.

[22]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil,’” 197-202.

[23]         Sarah Elkind. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 82 (June 2012), p 86.

[24]         This visit took place in 2017; Google Maps now lists the site as closed, though I found no news stories to confirm or give detail.

[25]         This quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker; it is actually a distortion of Aldous Huxley, who called LA “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” in his 1925 book Americana. Adrienne Crew, “Misquoting Dorothy Parker,” LA Observed. 22 August 2013. http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2013/08/misquoting_dorothy_parker.php

[26]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 153.

[27]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 184-204.

[28]         Community Health Councils. “Oil Drilling in Los Angeles: A Story of Unequal Protections,” (Los Angeles, 2015). http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/CHC-Issue-Brief-Oil-Drilling-In-Los-Angeles.pdf

[29]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[30]         Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.

[31]         Quoted in Cornelius Fitz. “disclosing being – on raymond chandler: the detections of totality by fredric jameson,” 3am Magazine. 6 December 2016. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/disclosing-raymond-chandler-detections-totality-fredric-jameson/

[32]         Joy Horowitz. Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[33]         Jane Yamamoto. “Outrage Builds in Porter Ranch Over Gas Leak,” NBC Southern California. 12 December 2015.

[34]         “Warren E&P, Wilmington.” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/wilmington.html

[35]         Molly Peterson. “Oil and gas regulators admit to massive oversight failures in new report,” KPCC. 8 October 2015. https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/08/54934/oil-and-gas-regulators-admit-to-massive-oversight/

[36]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary,” 2015. https://vimeo.com/133806931

[37]         Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.

[38]         “Echo Park Wells,” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/echo-park-wells.html

[39]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary”; Susan Abram. “How These Neighbors Took On The Oil Company In Their Backyard And Won,” Huffington Post. 27 July 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oil-drill-site-protest-california_n_5d3911a0e4b004b6adbab9c6

[40]         Pete Dronkers. “SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA,” https://earthworks.org/blog/what_i_saw_in_porter_ranch/

[41]         DOGGR Well Finder. https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98384/12

[42]         Laura Bliss. “L.A.’s Slow-Moving Oil and Gas Disaster,” City Lab. 3 February 2016. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/02/california-porter-ranch-gas-leak-oil-environmental-justice/425052/

[43]         Elijah Hurwitz, “Poison Ranch: The Porter Ranch Gas Blowout,” Pacific Standard. 5 May 2016. https://psmag.com/news/poison-ranch-the-porter-ranch-gas-blowout

[44]         Sarah Parvini and Tony Barboza. “No relief in sight for Porter Ranch residents,” LA Times, 3 December 2015. Proquest. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/docview/1738673342?accountid=8360&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[45]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019.

[46]         Haya El Nasser. “Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages,” Al Jazeera America, 4 February 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/4/workers-strike-at-california-oil-refinery.html

[47]         Tiffany Hsu. “At L.A. oil refinery, striking workers vent about long hours and stress,” LA Times. 26 February 2015. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-refinery-strike-20150227-story.html

[48]         Los Angeles County Department of Planning. “Baldwin Hills Community Standards District” p 8. http://planning.lacounty.gov/assets/upl/project/bh_title22.pdf

[49]         Christian May-Suzuki. “City Council meets to continue discussion on Inglewood Oil Field,” Culver City News. 18 July 2019. https://www.culvercitynews.org/city-council-meets-to-continue-discussion-on-inglewood-oil-field/

 

Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places JournalThe New InquiryTerrain, and other outlets.

Copyright: © 2020 Miranda Trimmier. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Poetry

Los Angeles County Jail Sonnets #13

Yago Cura

Don’t talk about commissary on commissary day,
or the Liege of Hot Water will snatch that privilege
due to dues you have not yet paid with the makeshift bridge
of comfort afforded by municipal strangers scrubbing trays

in Waterworld, or emptying pod bins in the trash barracks,
buffing sparkle paste into the loam of county corridors trill
with linoleum hinges of time-served, suspended sentences or recognizance
released into the streets like a dirty, old tryant of schillings.

When you write your man, don’t write another dime’s name.
Watch out if your bunky tends to hide, she could be cooking Pruno
or assaulting another female in there when you at class, on your dayroom-game.

Read your book with one eye on the rec room, read the space
like a text, like a cipher armed with ominous nuance, like scratch-ticket loot
spent on roses, graduation bears, gas-station sunglasses, lipstick-tazers.

 

 

Yago Cura is an Argentine-American librarian, poet, pedagogue, and freelance simultaneous interpreter. He has been a public librarian for Los Angeles Public Library since 2015, and is currently the President of the Los Angeles chapter of REFORMA. He edits the online literary magazine, Hinchas de Poesia.

Copyright: © 2020 Yago Cura. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcards Series

El Corrido del Copete

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


heads2 (1)

Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Myriam Gurba

The only reason I was sitting at the bleachers was because I wanted to watch this bitch get her ass kicked. This bitch, Karen, happened to be my neighbor. She lived behind a wall of pines, in a two-story mansion you could kind of see from my parents’ biggest bedroom window.

Karen’s pro-life mom drove a talking sedan and in a robot voice, the car would condescend to passengers, nagging Put on your seatbelt, whining Door ajar! I secretly hoped the car would kill Karen and her mother and I learned of its existence when a few of us missed the bus and Karen’s mom chauffeured us to the front steps of the shit show known as Orcutt Junior High.

Kids who went to Orcutt lied. Most of them claimed they went to school in Orcutt but according to zip code, these fools really went to school in Santa Maria. I knew why they said Orcutt. Claiming Orcutt was a way of claiming whiteness, a coded way of saying that you lived in the “unblemished” part of town. The assertion distanced you from Santa Maria. Santa Maria was “over there,” it was practically Tijuana: it was where “the Mexicans” lived.

Itty bitty Orcutt prided itself on not being brown and it styled itself as a low rent Mayberry replete with old timey storefronts that gave the place a settler vibe. When I ditched, I’d stroll Orcutt, noting its stock characters: the toothpick-sucking old white man shuffling about in dark denim overalls, the skinhead zooming downhill on his skateboard, the Christian youth group leader drooling over thirteen-year-olds eating fries in front of Charlies Burgers.

On clear days, you could see the ocean from Charlies. On even clearer days, you could see Casmalia, the toxic waste dump.

Karen wore the trappings of an oppressor. A pastel sock cascade devoured her cankles. Her denim shorts matched her denim vests. A scrunchie choked her half ponytail into place.

Scrunchie girls were the worst, scrunchies signaled a commitment to adolescent fascism, and Karen unleashed her KKKalifornia girl kuntiness on me the afternoon we first exchanged “pleasantries.” We were walking home from the bus stop, eucalyptus trees mentholated the air, and Karen eyed me like I was less than sirloin. The look gave me goosebumps, the ominous kind.

“What are you?” she blurted.

Dad had taught me to answer this question by declaring, “Chicana!” My intuition told me to keep it simple for my interrogator.

“Mexican.”

“Are you sure?”

Karen’s doubt took me aback. “Yeah. Why?”

“You have green eyes. Plus, you look Filipina.”

I remembered the Filipinos I’d played tag and kickball with up until last year, sixth grade. One playmate, Ted Aguinaldo, even told me that I was a very good kickball player for a girl. Ted’s family worshipped at the same church we did, Saint Mary’s, and Filipinos worked side-by-side with Mexicans in many places, including the hospital, the schools, and strawberry and broccoli fields surrounding town. Santa Maria was serious about strawberries, so much so that we had an annual festival where we crowned a Strawberry Queen. Such was our aristocracy.

I wondered how the fuck Karen was such an expert on Filipinos given that she lived in Orcutt’s whitest barrio: Lake Marie Estates. Yeah, I lived there, too, but I was, demographically speaking, the new non-White kid on the block.

“We had a housekeeper who was Filipina,” Karen continued. “You look like her.”

“Your housekeeper isn’t my mom.”

Karen kept staring at me, eyeballing my mustache, and I was on the verge of snapping, WHY DON’T YOU TAKE A FUCKING PICTURE?! when Karen’s attitude changed. In a fake friendly tone, she asked, “Have you seen Dirty Dancing?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t!” Karen barked. “It’s satanic!”

Karen was finally saying something interesting.

“Satanic!” I echoed. “Tell me more.”

Karen explained that since its plot involved abortion, Dirty Dancing was the devil’s film. Being twelve, I didn’t know what abortion was. I did, however, know the word abort and I wanted to abort this interrogation, go to the movies, get refreshments, and sin.

Karen and the rest of Lake Marie’s kids earned our distrust fast. Its preppy thugs welcomed us, the second Mexican-American family to take up residence there, by annihilating our mailbox with a baseball bat, aiming what the sheriff determined was a pellet gun at our windows and blasting them full of holes. I’m almost positive it was Karen and her flat-assed friends who snuck onto our property the night of the pentacle.

“Myriam!” Dad hollered one morning. “Go get the paper!”

I hurried across our porch, past Mom’s roses, and down our steep driveway. The paper had landed near a large agave. A mockingbird smiled at me from its perch, our new, still-intact mailbox. White caught my eye. I turned to see what it was and surveyed a dewy mess. Toilet paper mummified our oak trees and flannel bush. It draped the ceanothus Dad had planted along our hillside and a wet glob of it crapped from a branch, splattering whiteness across the soil. I snatched the newspaper, looked up, and saw an epithet written across our driveway. Its letters were made of something white, maybe sugar.

Skirting the words, I sprinted to our front door, threw it open, and screamed, “Dad!”

Dad appeared in ladies’ sweats. He prefers the variety of colors they come in. Wearing a worried look, he asked, “Is the mailbox still there?”

“Yeah but…just come look.”

Dad followed me to the bottom of our hill. He surveyed our yard. “Shit,” he said.

I pointed behind us, at the driveway. “Look.”

Colorless letters spelled EVIL BITCH. Beneath the accusation was a sugary star held by a sugary circle.

Through his angry beard, Dad asked, “Who do you think did this?”

“The bitch with the talking car.”

Ignoring my profanity, Dad said, “Go the garage. Get the push broom and clean this stuff up. Also, please bring me my chainsaw.”

I cleaned trees and shrubs and swept EVIL BITCH away while Dad found solace in cutting things up.

//

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Photo by Geoff Cordner

I hated the gym but I was in it anyways. The metal bleachers felt cold against my pompis. Down below, on the court, a boy dribbled a ball. Threw it.

He was not interesting.

Jenni was. I was focused on her.

Jenni was lighter skinned than me but definitely not White. She was sitting in the bleachers facing ours, and she practically glowed.

All of the social rejects hanging out in the gym were there for her.

We were TEAM JENNI.

Word on the street, and by street I mean our abusive-as-fuck campus, was that Jenni was going to discipline Karen. The bitch needed to be checked since she’d violated an important rule: Karen had shit-talked a chola. A Chicano, Freddy, had inspired the vendetta. Both Jenni and Karen had the hots for him, but Karen believed he belonged to her. She told everybody so. She also told everyone that Freddy deserved a classy girl, not a trashy whore like Jenni.

Now, because of her mouth, Karen might die.

I heard through the grapevine that to catch the violence, I should keep an eye on Jenni at lunchtime. After wolfing down tuna sandwiches, my friends and I spotted and tailed Jenni. She led us to the gym and we played it cool. Nobody wanted to tip off to the administration that an act of guerilla barbering was about to take place. It excited me that the fight was going to involve hair and apparently Jenni had told someone who had told someone who had told a tall Mexican girl named Summer that Karen was going to get jumped. During the attack, Jenni would use scissors and abscond with Karen’s dirty blonde copete.

I couldn’t wait for the de-banging, the hacking of a non-consensual mullet, and the promise of Karen’s assault gave me hope: squadrons of Karens and Matts tormented so many of us at Orcutt Junior High and for once, the meek might inherit the campus.

Amidst a sea of White teachers, a solitary Chicano taught science. White girls gossiped that because of his brownness, one should avoid being alone with him, he probably raped. And while shit-talking dark-skinned people was a popular campus pastime, woe unto those who talked shit in the righteous direction.

“Who do you think you are?” my White history teacher scrawled beside the F she wrote on an essay I’d done for homework. “How dare you write these things about Manifest Destiny?! Manifest Destiny is a sacred doctrine! Its why we’re here. What do you suggest White people do? Move? There are too many of us! Your suggestions are very offensive and unrealistic!”

Our male faculty were worse. They watched and did nothing when White boys lunged, pointed, and hissed the n-word at my beautifully fat lips. Sneering at my mustache, boys groaned, Ew. Yuck! The worst of them jammed their hands between my legs, trying to rape me with fingers lubed by chip grease. They didn’t hide their violence, it went down al fresco, and about once a week, marauders crept up behind me, grabbed my hem, and yanked my skirts up past my ribs.

One little gang turned my torture into a two-for-one. On their way toward me, they slammed a skinny Mexican boy against the wall, shoved their backpacks at him and turned on me. Our audience froze. Once I was scrambling to cover my private parts, the predators sauntered back to the Mexican. After snatching back their stuff, the burliest one drawled, “Thanks, faggot.”

My witness showed racial solidarity: he ratted my attackers out to our vice principal. Our vice principal told him nothing could be done about my constant degradation but he was lying, something could be done. Lore I hadn’t learned in school, lore I’d learned from books with bandits on the covers, pointed the way. These books belonged to Dad, they lived on our living room’s bookshelf, and they clued me into stuff my White history teacher pretended hadn’t happened. Gringos had been pushing Mexicans to the edge since they first trudged into California. Desperation turned us into desperados and after they laid claim to our land, money, and bodies, they left us a single valuable to defend: our reputations.

//

From the moment I first saw her shuffle across our playground, I’d admired Jenni’s walk. She moved pussy first, her clit was a bloodhound’s nose and Jenni dressed like my favorite gang-affiliated prima, la Green Eyes. Stretchy black jeans so tight her camel toe hung like lop rabbit ears. Nike Cortez. A black sweatshirt. Si hacía frío, a Raiders jacket cocooned her from neck to knees. La Jenni ratted and teased her locks identical to Green Eyes and her cynical baby face peered out through un huipil grandote de tehuana. Instead of lace and linen, the huipil’s ingredients were Chicana hairs shellacked into place by Aqua Net.

(If you don’t know what un huipil grande de tehuana is, picture a big-ass crunchy sunflower framing a güerita’s face. That was Jenni’s hairstyle. I worshipped it. It is possible to worship hair, especially when it communicates aristocracy and reaches for the gods.)

Karen was watching Freddy play basketball. Jenni was watching Karen. She sat a few yards away from her, glaring at her hair. Karen felt Jenni’s eyes and turned around. When she turned back, she was wearing a fuchi face. Once her eyes landed on Freddy, her cara de fuchi vanished. Adoration replaced it.

Jenni looked at her audience, at all of us gathered in the opposing bleachers. Slowly, she tugged her jacket’s zipper down. By their handle, she pulled out a pair of large shears, displaying them so that they glinted. The spectacle stoked our bloodthirst. I trembled. I was on the verge on making pipí in my bicycle shorts. Anticipatory states often make me wet myself a touch.

Cluelessly, Karen stood. She smoothed her sweater. She adjusted her socks. She walked. Her best friend, Sarah, followed her. After they disappeared into the courtside restroom, Jenni smiled. She stood. An entourage of girls followed her. Tracing Karen’s path, they entered the restroom. Those of us there for the reckoning held our breaths. We feared tipping off grown-ups. This desire forced us to play it cool. My sense sharpened. De repente, a scream like a demon giving birth to a two-headed Medusa interrupted the basketball game.

Most of the boys playing froze. Freddy kept dribbling.

Jenni emerged. A worried crease lined her forehead. With her hands in her pockets, she scurried along the court’s edge and flew out of the gym. Sarah tore through the restroom’s doorway, flailing onto the court. She grabbed the teacher refereeing the game by his shirtsleeve and shouted into his ear. His eyes widened and he shoved his whistle between his non-lips, blowing and blowing and blowing.

Euphoria filled me.

We had a hero.

//

During mi niñez bilingüe, two severed heads enthralled me.

The first was female. I met it in Anaheim.

For vacation, Dad drove us to Disneyland and at the Haunted Mansion, we boarded Doom Buggies that spun us around a house filled with ghosts like in the novel Pedro Páramo. My favorite specter was nothing from the neck down. From the neck up, she was Madame Leota, a pretty dead clairvoyant. Her head floated in a crystal ball at the center of a round table, overseeing a séance, and Leota’s makeup was spectacular. I wondered who did it. She had no hands.

The second head was actually several heads which had, and had not, belonged to Joaquín Murrieta. I’d learned about him, a Mexican bandit, from those books I mentioned earlier and when I mentioned my admiration for Murrieta to Dad, Dad filled me in on a chunk of the desperado’s tale that the books omitted: Murrieta’s executioners had decapitated him so that they could collect the high bounty that the state of California offered for his capture. Afterwards, some enterprising gabacho tossed his head in a jar, pickled it, and charged people a buck to see it.

According to certain audience members, the head in the jar wasn’t Murrieta’s. Vigilantes decapitated the wrong Mexican but really, aren’t all Mexicans the same? Aren’t we all bandits?

I’m a bandit.

The Mexican boy who watched my attack was a bandit.

Mom was a bandit.

Dad was a bandit.

My brother was a bandit.

My sister was a bandit.

Jenni was a bandit.

And because of that, the cops came and took her away. La copetóna never came back.

I would’ve paid at least a dollar to ogle her pickled piece of Karen.

//

The afternoon of the chopping, Karen didn’t ride the bus home.

The talking car came and got her.

The bus felt different without her.

Lighter.

The kids who typically did the torturing, the White boys who spit on girls and called us hairy cunts, the White girls who sneered at those of us with “hard to pronounce names,” acted a bit more reserved. Timidity had replaced viciousness.

I sat up straight in my seat, smiling, enjoying my ride home.

“This is how school should feel,” I thought to myself.

The bus sped along Clark Avenue, across the 101 Freeway, and up a slight grade. I looked out the window, toward the Solomon Hills. Dad liked talking about them. In 1901, William Warren Orcutt had struck oil there but that detail didn’t excite Dad. What did was the legend of Salomón Pico, cousin of California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico.

Gringos killed Pico’s wife, so to avenge her, Pico killed gringos. He ambushed travelers along the windy camino real, robbing them, dumping their corpses wherever he wanted to. Legend had it that he collected his victims’ ears and my mind’s eye conjured Pico resting in the shade of an erotic oak, humming to himself, petting his shriveled trophies, one or two still tufted with blood-matted blond hair.

The bus pulled up to my stop.

I disembarked Karenlessly.

I walked home Karenfree.

 

 

Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers. Follow her on Twitter.

Copyright: © 2019 Myriam Gurba. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
Reviews

In Search of Home: Cherríe Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart

Sandra Ruiz

In the opening line of her memoir’s prologue, Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), California native and Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga introduces her mother, the central figure with very little fanfare: “Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature” (3). And yet, “the stuff of literature” she does become. Elvira serves as a medium from which Moraga explores what appears to be lifelong questions regarding belonging and homeland(s). One can look back at Moraga’s prolific and scholarly work within the fields of Chicana literature and Performance and Queer Studies, to find that similar questions regarding what is home: who has the right and power to claim a home, and which home claims us in return. For example, in her seminal essay “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe” (1993)[1] she and a friend reflect on the alienation they felt within the Chicano Movement. Her friend concludes that what is needed is a “Queer Aztlán,” to which Moraga responds, “Of course. A Chicano homeland that could embrace all its people, including its jotería” (147). The memoir works to provide potential answers to this search.

If Moraga has had a lifelong quest to find and identify home, then her very first home, her mother is an organic starting point. Early in her writing career Moraga identified Elvira as home, one that fills up the senses, very much like an aroma that instantly transports us to a long-forgotten childhood memory or location. “There was something I knew at that eight-year old moment that I vowed never to forget—the smell of a woman who is life and home to me at once. The woman in whose arms I am uplifted and sustained. Since then, it is as if I have spent the rest of my years driven by this scent toward la mujer” (86).[2] But what happens when that home is ephemeral and can no longer identify and claim you as their own? The memoir lets its readers know early on that Elvira’s own memory will lapse due to Alzheimer’s, forcing Moraga to ask herself a painful question on what is left when your first home no longer recognizes you: “If we forget ourselves, who will be left to remember us?[3] (6). What prospects does the writer have in finding home when “there is no one there to assure me against the prospect of my oblivion: my life without a Mexican mother” (132).

Moraga

The memoir’s incorporation of this mother-daughter lens to tell a particular history, while not necessarily unique, goes beyond the stereotypical relationship dynamics, as recent literary research has demonstrated. In her study, Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script (2014)[4], literary scholar Cristina Herrera asserts how the mother-voice filters via the Chicana daughter narrator. Highlighting that “Chicana writers’ efforts to rewrite the script of maternity outside existing discourses, which present Chicana mothers as passive and servile and the subsequent mother-daughter relationship as a source of tension, frustration, and angst” (7). If Moraga’s memoir serves as a rewrite to the Mexican/Mexican-American mother-daughter script, then the rewrite also performs a kind of mapping, where the writer is plotting points, keeping track of the steps she has taken in order to find her home. Her mother’s physical and spiritual presence permeates the memoir, and the writer simultaneously works out her own quest.

Moraga’s memoir deftly moves between various time periods along with two Californias: Alta and Baja. Beginning with Elvira’s early life as a young border-dwelling child working the cotton fields in the Imperial Valley of California, into the last stages of her life, where she resided in a different valley, an ethnoburb at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. We see Elvira the young cigarette and hat-check girl, working during the height of Tijuana’s casino-hotel industry during the 1930s in order to ensure her family’s survival. We also witness Elvira, the Huntington Beach hotel owner and manager, working to near death while raising her three children without any assistance. There is also Elvira in the Mexican capital, where Moraga almost disbelieves how much at home her mother appears to be in la Ciudad de México. In one of their intimate mother-daughter moments, their Spanish flows much like Elvira’s memories of her mexicanidad, expressing her añoranza, a yearning for the life she had left many years ago in the streets of Tijuana. Ironically, Mexico does not provide that same comfort for Moraga as a second generation Mexican-American. She later recalls a later trip to the “homeland” without her mother, the isolation and homelessness she felt is magnified:

“I was a long way from home. México reminded me, in a Spanish I struggled to perfect; masked in a light-skinned face that betrayed my loyalties to a country of which I longed membership but held no right to. How I wanted to blend in as one of them. But I was not one of them and I was not gringa, but something/someone other than either. This is what brought the fever to the surface of my skin: the trepidation that who I was would never find home again” (98).

Moraga’s words bring about a familiar sting, especially for those of us who identify as Mexican-American/Chicanx and have searched within Mexico the embrace saved for prodigal children, only to find out we will not be claimed as such.  And so, we return, “I knew I had to get back home to California; not to her, but through her” (99).

After one of Elvira’s hospitalizations, Moraga returns to her empty childhood home, a place to which she admits as the origin site of her breaking away from her family in order to find her own freedom. Reflecting upon what her mother has been able to do with this small, suburban space, the writer recognizes it as her mother’s country, a place where she has been able to be the reina supreme. What becomes of this place without Elvira? “Are these the small plots of lot and land what is left of memory as Mexicans in the United States? Is this how ancestral memory returns to us, indifferent to the generation and geography of borders?” (163).

One of the most significant chapters in Native Country of the Heart comes in the form of “Sibangna,” the Tongva name for present-day city of San Gabriel, where Cherríe Moraga digs through the California archives to excavate her possible roots in this occupied land. As a formerly educated Catholic school girl whose classrooms were on the grounds of the San Gabriel Mission, the experience of having been educated where ethnocide and colonization occurred in the name of religion weighs on her, prompting Moraga to examine: “Ostensibly in search of my mother’s history, it was my own buried remains I sought. But how do you dig up amnesia?” (174). In her search for home, she returns to the ancestral history of Alta California, acknowledging that this land belonged to the Gabrieleño-Tongva people, whose dead reside in the grounds of the Catholic mission. With Elvira no longer able to contain a home for Moraga due to her illness and eventual passing, the writer turns to another site of origin, that of California indigeneity. She contemplates on the original name for the place her mother called home, Sibangna and its possible connection to her family history. She pointedly states, “I kept suffering the question of ‘home’ and whether I was truly up to the tasks of this queer and makeshift familia, reconstructed from broken promises and spurned hopes” (214). By performing figurative and literal digging into San Gabriel’s historical archives, Moraga is able to veer towards an arrival to home. The memoir challenges historical amnesia superimposed through acts of conquest and settler colonialism. Through her own research, the writer finds her mother’s family name as part of the historical records of indigenous people who were forced into Catholic baptisms. Moraga posits, “We were not supposed to remember” (238), and yet, through her own constructions of indigenous memories and a corporeal return to her mother’s “country”, the small piece of land nestled in the San Gabriel Valley foothills, she encounters an additional home  “…it came to me that we are as much of a place as we are of a people; that we return to places because our hands served as tender shovels in that earth” (236-237). What better act to honor the memory of her mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga, and the many lives lived than to confirm that Elvira had been right in choosing her final home among the gardens she had planted in the former Tongva village of Sibangna.

Notes

[1] Moraga, Cherríe. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

[2] From the essay, “A Long Line of Vendidas” in Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000. Print.

[3] Italicized quotes are from the author.

[4] Herrera, Cristina. Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014. Print.

 

Sandra Ruiz is an educator and scholar of Mexican and U.S. Chicanx/Latinx literatures, cultures, and histories as well as Spanish heritage and second-language acquisition. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, is a UCLA alumna, and resides in South East L.A. She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Vice Chair of Modern Languages at West Los Angeles College where she is collaborating and working to establish the campus’ Chicanx Studies and Social Justice Studies transfer degree programs. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Mexican and Chicana feminist crime writers.

 

Copyright: © 2019 Sandra Ruiz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Postcards Series

Who I Used To Be

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Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


Toni Mirosevich

I can tell, from the start of my walk on the beach promenade in Pacifica if he’s at his post, can spot the top of his faded baseball cap in the distance. The rest of his body is obscured by a cement casement housing a trashcan but as I get closer I see his legs sticking out, crossed at the knee, his tan gams, his flip flops. A few more steps and up pops his face, florid, flushed, eyes at half-staff, smile on full beam. He’s where he is every day, all day, in his spot at the end of a bench, kitty corner to the Chit Chat Café and the Pacifica pier. Where he holds forth, holds court, holds my attention whenever I pass.

His spot. One morning, a few months ago, I mentioned to Crystal, the counter person of the Chit Chat, that the guy sitting on the bench outside told me that the weather was about to change.

“You must have been talking to Tommy Bench,” she says. “That’s what we call him. That’s Tommy out there and that’s his bench.”

She went on to tell me that he was once a checker at Safeway. As soon as she said it I remembered seeing him when my wife and I first moved to this town, standing behind the checkout counter, dressed in the official Safeway uniform; short-sleeved shirt, navy blue apron, blue tie, shiny name badge. Bantering with the customers as he scanned the groceries. Crystal says he lost that job and never found another.

That was years ago. What does he live on now? I’ve noticed his buddies often bring him a can of beer when his supply gets low. “Got to keep hydrated,” he once yelled out, then raised his can in a bag and toasted me as I passed by.

Tommy and I have our own form of chitchat. I’ll say something about the weather or about the local baseball team, what about those Giants? and he’ll have some funny comeback. I laugh, give a short wave and carry on with my walk. I never hang around for a longer chat. My wife says it’s because I’m a solitary but maybe it’s that I just don’t know where the conversation might lead. We’re from such different worlds. I toss out writing lessons to students at the university, a privileged post. Tommy tosses out bon mots to the seagulls, his privileged perch. It is true that I’ve worked lots of blue collar jobs in the past. Truck driver, laborer, swimming pool operator, attic insulation, but that was before I landed a job in the spotless halls of academia. Would he and I have anything in common now, something that would tip the scales and convince me that getting to know him was worth the gamble?

Last week, the scales tipped with a woman in my neighborhood. When my wife and I first moved onto the block I thought, “Now there’s a happy-go-lucky type.” Her front yard was dotted with cutesy lawn ornaments; A plywood dog barking up a tree. A plastic statue of Mickey Mouse. On Valentine’s Day, smiley-faced red hearts hang from her front door. On St. Patrick’s Day, smiley-faced four-leaf clovers. But something was off. She was too cheery, too upbeat. As if all that front yard whimsy was out there to cover up a mess of anxieties. In person she was tense, as tight as a tick. There was that clipped little wave she always gave—quick and noncommittal—and how she quickly turned back to watering her garden as soon as our eyes met.

Whenever I passed by her house with my dog, I just waved and smiled and kept on going. She has a small yappy dog and whenever our dogs saw each other through the slatted fence they’d start barking and cause a big ruckus. Oh, sorry, sorry, I always called out before quickly moving along.

Last Tuesday, as I was walking by the dogs started up again. I apologized, but before I moved on I noticed her garden was in full bloom. “My god, you have such beautiful roses,” I said. And she does. Pink tea roses and long stem reds and orange ones with fluted edges. Floribunda roses, that’s what my wife called them. Abundantly florid.

As soon as I made the comment about her roses she stopped what she was doing and said, “Oh let me pick you some!” And I said, “Oh no, you don’t have to,” but she already had her garden clippers in hand. She snipped a huge blood red rose off of one bush, then a yellow rose off of another, a transformer, one of those roses that change color over time, that continue to deepen as the bloom shifts through the color spectrum.

I walked home with the two roses in hand and over the next few days watched as the transformer rose turned from yellow to pink to orange to red. Something else had turned too. When she clipped those roses, when she reached over the fence and handed them to me, when I reached my hand out to take them, I knew in that moment that things would never be the same between us. Even if we backslid and went back to hand waving pleasantries. Still, we’d both remember the day she offered me roses and I accepted. The day was transformed from an ordinary walk to something extraordinary. The day colored up, as they say.

Tommy has colored up too. It’s obvious he’s a drinker, an alcoholic, or, as my wife once called him, a drunkard. I told her drunkard was such an archaic word. That the word harkened back to Skid Row and Prohibition and songs like “Little Brown Jug How I Love Thee.”

“Well, ‘harken’ isn’t too modern now either, is it?” she replied.

The glassy eyes, the unfocused gaze. The slurred speech. The ever-present brown paper sack at his side, crinkled around a beer can. There are the obvious signs. Tommy sits on his bench, every morning and afternoon, deeply pickled, in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo pants, a baseball cap, dressed as if we’re living in Southern California instead of the cool Northern California coast. Propped up against his bench is the driftwood walking stick he carries with him wherever he goes, more like a staff than a walking stick. Like the staff a drunken apostle would use to lead his flock; that gang who sits next to him on that bench.

There’s Permit Man, who has a running feud with a brake repair shop near his house. Something about the shop not having a permit. He made a plywood cut out of a not so cutesy clown, nailed it to his backyard fence that faces the shop. The cartoon bubble coming out of the clown’s mouth reads, “Got Permit? Call 1-800-Scumbag.” There’s the Chewer who talks out loud to himself as he walks, a running stream of conspiracy theories about the government, (“Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, Medicare fraud, Medicare fraud”) who chews and spits sunflower seeds, leaving a trail of split seeds in his wake. There’s Happy Day, who always says those two words, and only those two, whenever I see him. I hear he used to be a merchant marine.

Everyday each one finds a spot on the bench to chat with Tommy. To chew the fat, shoot the breeze. Tommy’s always at the head of that welcome wagon. He’s always ready to share a sip and a smoke. He’s rarely alone on that set of bar stools. With a black magic marker he’s inked each person’s name on the bench where they always sit. Like place cards set out for a fancy dinner party.

*

It’s late afternoon by the time I get down to the shore. I button up my jacket, start my walk, and spy Tommy’s cap in the distance. It would take an arctic blast to keep him from his bench.

When I reach him I stop, say hey, and we start bullshitting about nothing important. How the Giants lost again, how they blew it in the 9th. I compliment him on his fall outfit, plaid flannel shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts, a royal blue baseball cap I haven’t seen him wear before. This one sports the logo of the Golden State Warriors. The cap has a small tear in the brim.

“Like the cap,” I say.

“Got it at Goodwill. As is,” he says, pointing to the tear. “Like me.”

“As is,” I say, “Or is it as you were?” I give him a quick salute and start to move on. Then I stop. I don’t know why. My wife says I always have an exit strategy. Maybe it’s this feeling I have about not wanting to get too close. Or it could be that only when I’m alone do I feel free to think my thoughts. Maybe that’s what my neighbor feels when she’s alone, at peace, in her rose garden.

“Got something I wanna show you,” he says. He’s slurring his speech a little but I catch his drift. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a small square photograph. His hand is shaking as he holds the photo up to me. “Here. Take a look.”

I take the photo from his hand. Staring back at me: A handsome young guy, in his twenties or early thirties. Full head of hair, big grin. Clear-eyed, confident looking. The look of a guy who can handle whatever life throws at him. It’s Tommy like I’ve never seen him. Like I’ve never known him.

“I used to own a house,” he says. “Up on Milagra Ridge. Beautiful deck and everything. The wife got that. And everything else.”

I try to picture him years ago, in his prime, with his dreams and hopes and plans for the future. With his life still ahead of him.

“You cut quite a figure,” I say and smile.

But Tommy’s not smiling. He looks me straight in the eye, as if to say, look again, dammit. Look again. You’re missing something. He gives a cough, like he’s clearing his throat. Then, in a voice as serious as I’ve ever heard him use, says:

This is who I used to be.”

Who he used to be. Not just a guy on this bench with a half can of beer, hanging out with the rest of the beach gang.  A man who had a life, with a wife, a house, a job, and responsibilities, with cash coming in. A person with a pension plan and health coverage and whatever other benefits a lifetime of indentured servitude to Safeway offers.

As if I need more evidence he lifts his shirtsleeve. There, on his skinny forearm, a tattooed column of blue letters run down to his wrist. I try to decipher the code but the letters don’t combine to make up any word I know.

“One initial for the name of each member of my family. Mia familia,” he says, proudly.

A photo, an arm, a beer, the sea. Who we used to be. Who was The Chewer in a former life? Or Permit Man? Or Happy Day? Or me? I don’t tell Tommy that I once worked all those blue-collar jobs, then went to school, wrote some stories, and now that I teach at a university. That I never wanted to follow the rules; academic or otherwise. That I used to be married, then divorced, then came out and married the love of my life. That, when I was young I wanted to grow up and sit on the sand all day watching the waves roll in. That I was once that person, and that person, and that person. Now, this is who I am, a woman walking alone by the sea. A person who is soon to call it a day on that cush university gig, ready to leave that all behind. All of who I used to be is still in here, tucked inside my shirt pocket, tucked inside this skin.

A grocery checker becomes a drunkard. A truck driver becomes a professor. A merchant marine becomes the minister of happiness. Transformers, every one of us.

I hand his photo back to him, watch as he slips it back in his shirt pocket. He looks up and gives me a grin. There’s nothing here to fear. What if I joined Tommy on the bench, if I sat right down next to him? If I didn’t rush on and instead left behind my monkish ways? If I went to the local liquor store and brought back a bottle of Four Roses to share? What if, like the old timey song, I harkened back to another gentler time and realized, “…there is no separation in that land beyond the sky,” and then went a step further, believed there is no separation right here on earth? If, I had a revelation, like the monk Thomas Merton once had on the streets of Louisville, that “I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

Would Tommy accept me, as is? Would the others?

I make my move. I walk over to Tommy and sit down. I sit right next to him. He laughs, a nervous laugh, then scoots over a bit and laughs again. We both fall silent. We sit there, staring out at the sea. Two surfers are trying to catch a few waves. A guy on the pier is pulling up a crab and the other crabbers send up a cheer.

“Hey Tommy. Why here, every day, this spot? Always this same spot?”

“Well, I don’t have anywhere else to be. I don’t have a job,” he says. I don’t mention that I know he once did.

“You know, that’s not quite true,” he adds and gives me a wink. “I’m in the coast guard.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, I guard the coast.”

“Well, don’t let your guard down.” I toss back and he laughs.

After a moment he says, “Hey. What are you sitting on?”

This must be his lead up to a joke so I say, in high English, “My arse, kind sir.”

“Well, always look down before you sit down. You never know what you’ll find.”

Maybe he’s nervous about us sitting so close. Or maybe he’s stuck chewing gum on the bench. I get up, make a big show of looking down where I’m going to sit. That’s when I see sit. New letters inked onto the bench.

My name. With a drawing of a tiny anchor.

There, right there with all the others in the row. With the inked names of the Dude and Lupe and the Chewer and Permit Man. With Kite Man, who died from a heart attack last year, his name beginning to fade. Here it is, the proof, the acknowledgement. What I’ve wanted all along. To be accepted. To be in with this out crowd.

“Jesus, Tom. You have no idea what this means to me. No greater honor…” and I can’t finish, tear up. Tommy turns red, takes a swig from his can. He’s embarrassed, as am I. To lighten it up I offer him a line I learned from the Crab King: “Listen. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin.”

I sit back down and put my arm around his shoulder. I don’t move on. We sit there together, silently, for the rest of the afternoon and watch the sunset take the sky through the color spectrum, color after color after color.

 

Toni Mirosevich has spent the last few years lyrically documenting an overlooked community at the edge of the sea in Pacifica, California. “Who I Used to Be,” is from a new manuscript of nonfiction stories that have accrued, malo po malo, Croatian for “little by little.” She is the author of six collections of poetry and prose, including “Pink Harvest,” winner of the First Series in Creative NonFiction Award and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Astraea Foundation, among others and work has received multiple nominations for Pushcart Prizes. She is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

Copyright: © 2019 Toni Mirosevich. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”

 

Articles

Following the Moniker Trail: Hobo Graffiti and the Strange Tale of Jack London, Skysail, and A-No. 1

Susan Phillips

Figure 1.

Railroad shed on the Southern Pacific Line, Red Bluff, California. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

In his book The Road, Jack London describes his experiences living as a hobo. From hopping trains, begging, and doing time to writing graffiti, London’s book recounts his experiences traveling across North America in the 1890s. During this period, London was known by several monikers, including Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and Sailor Jack due to his work on ships and his home in the Bay Area of California, near San Francisco. Based on London’s 1894 diary and experiences, The Road describes encounters with fellow hobos, wanderers, gypsies, lawmen, and trainmen, as well as his adventures with Kelly’s Industrial Army, a migratory group protesting unemployment and labor issues in the United States. Within this rich backdrop, London writes about the importance of tramp communication. While London’s writings about the Klondike and other topics put him on the literary map, his hobo writings remain lesser known.[1]

Hoboing or tramping was rooted in post-Civil War infrastructural, railroad, and urban development.[2] Distinct traditions of cultural expression emerged among both hobos and railroad workers in the mid-to-late 19th century that followed the wake of railroad construction. References to hobo graffiti from this period are well known in literature, but less is known about works documented in photography, or carvings that survive at various sites around the United States. After finding a wall of intact hobo writing in Los Angeles in 2000 dated 1914-1921, I began research into the topic across a broader geographical range and during an earlier time period.

Figure 2

Oakland Red in Los Angeles, California, 1914-1921. Oakland Red utilized a negative lettering style that would have been customarily rendered in hobo carvings and is still used in contemporary graffiti today. The letter “W” below his name may indicate his westward direction of travel.

Analysis of hobo graffiti—or any graffiti for that matter—necessitates an embrace of the tension between conjecture and empiricism. Graffiti can be tricky analytical ground. The self-sequestering nature of hobo populations has led to everything from academic erasure to a surrounding literature that toggles between meticulous observation and extreme lack of rigor. In his writing about hobos, for example, musicologist Graham Raulerson says that, in part due to their Wobbly philosophies, hobos tend to mistrust linear notions of history in favor of a “more spontaneous, place-bound view of time…partly because of the centrality of boredom and waiting in the hobo lifestyle.”[3]

Enter graffiti—craft of boredom and icon of lives temporally and physically in between. Graffiti is a singularly well-suited device for analyzing hobo and other fringe groups. It’s a self-produced medium of expression defined by absent authors, idle time, and encoded evasions. For these reasons, graffiti remains a neglected but particularly useful form of primary source data that can be analyzed across multiple historic circumstances.

In the 20th century United States, urban graffiti has been one manifestation of what it means to claim space on the part of fringe populations. Taking over city-space is often less overtly political than it is a key ingredient in what I think of as “soul survival.” By this I mean that graffiti is not only used in functional ways that insure the physical survival of marginalized people. Writing graffiti also does something bigger: it feeds the internal self on a steady diet of insider status, special knowledge, and the communal joy in one another’s company. The importance of that usually outweighs whatever direct benefits come from the messages themselves.

Figure 3

Surviving hobo carvings at Medford, Oregon’s Medford Railroad Park. Original photograph by Tony Johnson taken before the building’s restoration. Note the initials “CCC” which may have stood for the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal programming.

Even before the 1890s and well past the 1920s, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, hobos had created styles of writing directed at one another that were placed in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, under bridges, on sewer trestles, or sometimes on residential dwellings, fences, or other structures. For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunications, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writer. That was the functional part. The messages also meant that people were connected, that they had a place, and that they were part of something, even when they had been rejected from everything else. Soul survival.

Popular understandings of the “hobo code” fixed most prominently in the American imagination are largely limited to unsubstantiated, self-referencing accounts of an intricate system of communication across the hobo ranks, most commonly associated with the depression era. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the more prolific, simpler, and corroborated forms of writing on the part of hobos at the turn of the century. In his work on hobos and Jack London, John Lennon argues that it is not enough to consider what London “wrote” but what London “did.” I wish to take this impulse one step further by analyzing hobo graffiti not only through literary texts on the subject, as has been the case in the past, but through the actual marks that hobos themselves created. So far, no treatment of this phenomenon has looked to actual graffiti marks in order to analyze this subject. And while surviving hobo graffiti is rare, pockets of it remain around the United States, along with photographic documentation of writings that no longer survive.[4]

Using graffiti to analyze hobo practices does not eliminate the tension between conjecture and empiricism. However, graffiti provides a productive nexus between the two that can drive more informed lines of questioning, empirically grounded research trajectories, links to specific archival and historical materials and, ultimately, the creation of more reliable forms of knowledge. Graffiti, and what I think of metaphorically as “following the moniker trail,” tells us where to look and the sorts of questions we might ask. As with many kinds of folkloric materials, graffiti is a playful form of evidence due to its illicit nature and absent authors. Jeff Ferrell writes that traditional methodologies are inadequate to the task of studying fringe, transient populations as whole. Hobo history, he argues, is a case study in “ambiguity and absence” and requires methods that match the ethos of insider communities. [5] The grounding graffiti provides is invaluable for a topic that has been plagued by assumptions, misinformation, and romanticized mythologizing.

Contemporaneous with London, Leon Ray Livingston, better known as “A-No. 1,” claimed to be the most famous hobo in the United States by the beginning of the twentieth century. He had travelled across the world, purportedly logging over 500,000 miles on just $7.61.[6]  He recounted his journeys in over a dozen books. A-No. 1 was a hobo tagger extraordinaire. He had carved his moniker all over the United States: in boxcars, on walls, on water tanks, on fences. He once served a five-month sentence in a San Francisco jail for carving his moniker into the wood of fancy hotels and bars. A lifelong rambler, he is credited with consolidating the entire system of hobo communication through his publications. Despite his romantic writings on the subject, he urged kids on the road to avoid the tramp life and often paid their return fares home. Dozens of newspaper accounts detail his graffiti-related escapades. Despite his notoriety in the early twentieth century, Leon Ray Livingston is today a relatively unknown figure.

Figure 4

Cover of From Coast to Coast with Jack London showing a photograph of Leon Ray Livingston and Jack London. A-No. 1 Publishing Co., 1917.

Even lesser known is the relationship between Jack London and A-No. 1. In his book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, Livingston described a series of farfetched adventures with London as a young man. In the book, Livingston hopes to return London home to the Bay Area, to cure him of a life of wandering. From Coast to Coast was published just one year after Jack London’s death with the permission of London’s widow, Charmian London. A-No. 1’s account, though entirely fictitious, was later made into a 1973 film, Emperor of the North, which starred Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. [7] Both the book and film cemented the false impression that the two had hoboed together, but archival evidence definitively refutes this notion. They did eventually meet and maintain a relationship until London’s death, but this was long after either of them was on the road. While A-No. 1’s accounts are full of exaggeration, his stories communicate a passion for the road and its problems and abuses.

London’s and Livingston’s accounts of the system of graffiti communication are in close alignment, and their core descriptions of this practice are supported by ample photographic documentation of hobo writing from this same period. Before introducing a key site of California-based hobo graffiti, I want to position that work within the broader history of trail and town marking in the United States and Europe to contextualize the pre-cursors of hobo graffiti, including vagabond marking, frontier identity, and colonial expansion.

Pioneers, “Gypsies,” Beggars, and Thieves

Several forms of what might be called “trail marking” pre-date the culture of hobo writing that developed in the nineteenth century. First is the practice of carving out the west as a frontier landscape by marking trails beginning in the seventeenth century on the part of pioneers and colonizers.[8] Individuals with Anglo and Spanish surnames left names, dates, and messages in places now named for the graffiti on them, such as Pioneer Register in Utah, Signature Rock in Wyoming, Inscription Loop at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, and Register Cliff or Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail. These “pioneers” following westbound or northbound routes carved either on pristine desert rock or next to the in-situ rock art of indigenous populations as a form of claiming or communion. In addition to carved letters, early pioneers sometimes left trail markings in tar—axle grease from their wagon wheels. Pioneer graffiti is aberrant in its association with what would become a dominant population but very much in line with people using graffiti to mark waypoints on a journey. The project of westward expansion and trail marking continued into the twentieth century and is carried forward today by contemporary hikers following some of the same routes.

A second example of trail marking that acts as a precursor to hobo graffiti is the polar opposite of the pioneer graffiti above. These are the sometimes-mythologized codes in the US and Europe associated with fringe populations that were not tied to property, and that were connected to work in a way that was like the people at stake—itinerant. The history of this type of code writing is linked to wandering and labor, and to how vagabonds, tramps, “gypsies,” or travelers, and what were called “the roving unemployed” created interconnections despite their continual movement. [9] Early accounts of this practice exist among Romani people in Europe, for example, and scholars of the subject describe the way Romani would scatter grass or leaves, or arrange sticks in certain ways that gave meaning to the raw landscape. Romani also marked houses with so-called “chine” codes that judged the inhabitants and their habits to note where opportunities might be profitable or work welcome. Paola Toninato argues that

Nature supplies the Roma with a ‘semantic space’ onto which they can symbolically ‘inscribe’ the ephemeral messages conveyed via their non-alphabetic graphic practices. This semantic relationship with nature enables the Roma to survive among the non-Roma by providing them with a separate communication system and thereby a means of distinguishing themselves from the non-Roma.

Toninato pulls from various sources, including ethnographic accounts from the mid nineteenth century.[10]

A type of coding similar to the Roma chine codes was also utilized among non-Roma English and Scottish beggars and thieves. For example, John Camden Hotten’s 1865 The Slang Dictionary includes a chapter entitled “The Account of the Hieroglyphics Used by Vagabonds.” Hotten details the manner in which English tramps would not only mark doorsteps or other areas with signals, but also affix paper maps to tramp lodging house interiors in order to provide neighborhood, street, and house determinations regarding these areas or their inhabitants. Hotten includes a reproduction of one such map along with an explanatory key (see Fig 5). He notes that the widespread “English practice of marking everything, and scratching names on public property, extends itself to the tribe of vagabonds.”[11] In other words, Hotten describes a generic graffiti tradition at that time in England, which makes the contents and placement of the writing, rather than the generic practice of writing, an insider as opposed to outsider practice.

Figure 5

Cadger’s Map with an “Explanation of the Hieroglyphics.” From John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1885.

In the cases above, the notion of migration or movement is key, wherein people use graffiti to claim space for different reasons, to leave messages for one another, and use writing to anchor themselves temporarily in place. In the first case, graffiti associated with pioneers and colonizers helped to create a vision of the west as a blank slate. In the second case, the unknowns of towns for wandering populations inspired marking traditions that were both functional and that signaled reciprocity within disempowered populations. Because all of the above people were in motion, these examples of graffiti practices counter the ephemerality of movement and outsider status with concrete symbolic productions.

 Hobo Culture

Hoboing was initially a post-Civil War phenomenon. The Civil War had helped to develop railroad lines to carry troops, and the post-War era accompanied the shift from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. So-called “tramping” transformed from a largely foot-based, walking endeavor with the development of the railroad, which expanded opportunities for long-range travel. The Civil War had both absorbed the ranks of existing wanderers and created many more by simply shoving people post-war into a world that had undergone significant transformation. This shift caused a generation of individuals to take to the road—people who could no longer find their place economically or socially, and who sought out opportunities where the newly built railroads could carry them. They soon developed a culture of the road shared among fellow travelers. Much of the travel was structured around itinerant work opportunities, and a network of so-called “jungles,” or hobo camps, soon developed across the U.S. and Canada. The boom in the tramping population aided the building of roads, bridges, railroads, houses, buildings, water infrastructure, and sewer lines. Hobos partially made up the labor for these endeavors, and had on again off again relationships to municipalities and law enforcement.[12]

Several excellent scholarly accounts depict hobo social groups this period, including Nels Anderson’s 1923 sociological-practitioner classic The Hobo, Todd DePastino’s Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, Tim Cresswell’s The Tramp in America, and John Lennon’s Boxcar Politics. [13] Analyzing everything from the road to hobo sexual practices, this scholarship is rich in aspects of the culture and includes some references to carvings and monikers. Complimenting this work are many first-hand accounts of hobo life, including most notably the writings of Jim Tully and Josiah Flynt, as well as A-No. 1 (Leon Ray Livingston) and Jack London.[14] Among these, A-No. 1’s works are as questionable as they are prolific. While Nels Anderson, for example, discounts the writings of A-No. 1 as exaggerated and unpopular among an insider hobo readership, he also bases his entire discussion of nicknaming on A-No. 1’s work.

Little is known about hobo practices of marking towns and cities other than the “fake folklore” versions of the mythologized hobo code one can find on the Internet.[15] The most simplified versions of this use some of the same symbols as did the cadger’s code or Romani Chine codes above, and for the same purpose. In an early text from the United States, detective, spy, and author Allan Pinkerton describes a hobo code that he indicates is derived directly from these earlier traditions—and that was popular among multi-generational begging families with roots in “the old country.”[16]

Pinkerton is a complicated figure in American history. He was a spy during the Civil War and a slave abolitionist whose house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also engaged in union busting, particularly by exposing union corruption among the railroads. His writing exhibits a street-worthy judgment of tramping and its life of hard knocks, but he is unexpectedly sympathetic to the cause of tramps due to his own experiences tramping as a youth. He approaches the culture as someone who wishes to rectify the misunderstandings surrounding it. In his 1878 book Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives, Pinkerton describes what he calls “mendicant freemasonry” on the part of tramps to help them find a pathway, to rely on one another not to start from scratch, and to get the lay of the land before entering a new town. Pinkerton writes that:

Among this class every possible art and device is resorted to. Charts of the country, showing the best routes for travel, and of cities, designating the most benevolent neighborhoods, are common. This same class have a regular system of operation. In the cities they beg during the winter, and when summer comes, one of a party will start out in advance and “work a route” as a peddler or tinker. In this way, as he stops at nearly every house on a designated route, he will have learned the character of the inmates, whether they are benevolent or rude, and he seldom takes his departure without leaving some pre-arranged sign to indicate to him who follows after, just where, and where not, to make application. These scamps become such keen and correct judges of people and surroundings that they scarcely ever commit an error; and if one could read the hieroglyphics upon door, steps, gate, fence, or tree, which is usually laid to the chalk or jackknife of the bad boy of the neighborhood, they could ascertain just what opinion was had of them by the tramps who have passed that way.[17]

Pinkerton stops short of deciphering specific codes utilized in this practice, saying that “deciphering these symbols is simply impossible.”[18] Groups would routinely change the signs in order for others not to take advantage of their labor. Without providing specific descriptions, Pinkerton describes only a generic tradition linked to earlier European practices that communicate about conditions on the road and the temper of towns where police were on the prowl or where inhabitants might trade labor for food or a place to sleep. Like Hotten’s example before him, Pinkerton’s account is difficult to substantiate as a singular source of unverifiable information.

It is almost certain that tramps in the United States left some sort of signage on fences, signposts, post boxes, and so forth in towns and urban centers—and the contents of the simplified codes in European and U.S. cases are startlingly similar. There are simply too many stories and nostalgic remembrances to discount it entirely. But little direct evidence exists of this practice aside from the kind of unsubstantiated writing in which Pinkerton engages, some newspaper accounts, references in literature, and the memories of people who grew up seeing such marks.

As with many hobo practices, this sort of signage has been most subject to fabrication. Graham Raulerson writes that in general, since World War II, “the concept of the hobo has trended toward mythology.”[19] In his exploration of hobo graffiti, John Lennon argues that he has never found convincing evidence of an advanced symbolic system among hobos, but rather a strong tradition of names, dates, and directions: “Although it seems reasonable that some hobos could have used common symbols – especially in populated urban centers – to communicate certain information, my research has shown that hobo graffiti is comprised of much more basic materials: monikers, dates, and logos.” Giving examples from Jack London, writer and hobo Jim Tully, and hobo composer Harry Partch, Lennon discusses the need to “remove hobo graffiti from a pedestal of a sophisticated language system that supposedly revealed a secret coded history of hobos. Instead, these writers’ examples place hobo graffiti within the larger overall history of graffiti, where wall markings are about illegally emplacing a name on property, symbolically stating their presence as a member of minority subculture.”[20]

As Lennon observes, hobo graffiti has been subject to uncritical circulation, especially via the Internet, but comparatively little grounded research. I have never seen a firsthand photograph or example featuring any symbols said to be part of the hobo code.[21] Each time I have been introduced to a new site with surviving hobo writing or its documentation, I wonder whether it might contain evidence of this practice, but so far I have encountered nothing remotely similar to it. A skeptic’s view of this phenomenon is supported due to the amount of surviving hobo graffiti whose contents are not linked to such practices. Seen another way, however, the places and media that hobos would have used to create coded markings—such as fences or sign posts marked in chalk or charcoal—were less likely to survive than the carving they produced on wooden sheds or fences.

Hobo Graffiti

As argued above, the mystique of the hobo codes has eclipsed the well-documented, prolific writing practices in which hobos engaged at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. Carved nicknames, or monikers (sometimes written as “monicas”), were based on personal characteristics and places of origin, and hobo writers often included dates with arrows and letters (N, S, E, or W) indicating the direction of travel. They placed these writings in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, or sometimes in hobo jungles under the shelter of bridges or in other locations near the railroad. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become a foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the twentieth century.

Figure 6

Earliest documented hobo carving by Montana Slim, dated 1875, from Red Bluff, CA. Montana Slim indicates that he is bound north on April 11, 1875. There is a discrepancy between this graffiti and the official recording of the building’s construction in 1880.

For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunication, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writers. Hobos created a society of insiders through nicknames and special knowledge that included a tradition of clandestine writing as well as distinctive forms of dress, song writing and storytelling traditions, and other forms of carving, such as potato or wood carving, that might earn a modest income.[22] Hobos also created a unique community of practice with intimate knowledge of train schedules, methods of hopping and riding the rails, tricks to avoid police or railroad “bulls,” and the uncanny ability to earn the sympathy of kind-hearted housewives. “Sit down” dinners, handouts, or care packages acted as counterweights to police brutality and targeted incarceration that were frequent companions to hobo life.

Montana Slim’s carving in the image above hosts a discrepancy between the carved date 1875 and the recorded date of this building’s construction in 1880. The graffiti casts doubt upon the officially recorded date not just because of the presence of the 1875 carving, but because of one key piece of contextual information: The Southern Pacific Line to Red Bluff was completed in December 1871.[23] This date of completion makes Montana Slim’s northbound journey in April of 1875 possible, and it provides a potential new construction date for the building that would support a place to query the veracity of official documents. Graffiti and official records are equally reliable and equally full of error. To render these two forms of recording equivalent flips power hierarchies on their heads by questioning information entered into official records and by considering in the same breath what is carved by the hands of fringe populations.[24]

Following the Moniker Trail

Jack London first tried hoboing in the summer of 1892 at sixteen years of age.[25] After getting his feet wet with mostly local trips, he began a cross continental journey in 1894 when he was eighteen. During these periods, he first went by the monikers Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and, in 1894, Sailor Jack. London wrote of the moniker tradition in his 1907 memoir The Road, which recounted his travels in 1894:

Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a “stiff” or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound…I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.[26]

Both Jack London and Leon Ray Livingston wrote of “following the moniker trail” of people with whom they sought to connect. A-No. 1 recounts two stories of chasing missing boys across the country by following out their monikers. Jack London wrote of his desire to link up with a man named Skysail Jack. London had heard that Skysail shared his own Bay Area origin and had worked in the harbor—hence the distinctive appellation so similar to London’s own. London imagined they would get on famously together:  “I was a ‘comet’ and ‘tramp-royal, so was Skysail Jack; and it was up to my pride and reputation to catch up with him. I ‘railroaded’ day and night, and I passed him; then turn about he passed me.”[27] In his treatment of the hobo in U.S. culture and literature, John Lennon describes London’s tale “as a hyper-masculine competition where there were neither prizes nor even rules—just who could get farther ahead of the other”—all “marked by a trail of graffiti left in each other’s wake.”[28] To me, London’s pursuit of Skysail always reads as full of longing—he recounts a series of missed opportunities, all signaled by carvings, that ultimately indicate the loss of potential male communion as opposed to competition. For London, Skysail’s carvings were simply not a good enough stand in for the real person: “Skysail Jack and Sailor Jack – gee! if we’d ever got together.”[29]

My own version of following the moniker trail began inadvertently in 2000. I was with a group of friends in 2000 looking for historic graffiti in Los Angeles. Tommy Maron, artist Chaz Bojórquez, Ben Higa and I had formed a team whose quest was to find older graffiti in the city. One day, we hit pay dirt, finding an intact wall of hobo graffiti under a bridge just above the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. The wall included names such as Kid Bill, Chito the Tuscon Kid, Harden, Kid Smith, and Oakland Red, with dates from August 1914, July 1919, or 1921. Over a decade later, I realized that the wall included one notable name: A-No. 1. I had thought the name was Spanish, for Año, and had thus read over it for many years without realizing its significance. After I gave a presentation at the Autry Museum of the American West on behalf of the L.A. History & Metro Studies Group of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the news of A-No. 1’s name and the hobo wall in general generated national and international media attention. It all came as a bit of a surprise, especially so many years after the initial find.

The news coverage put me in touch with people who wanted to recount childhood memories or who wanted to tell me about places they knew of that might have similar markings. One of those people was Joel Reinhard of Red Bluff, California. Reading the news coverage about A-No.1, Reinhard contacted me regarding a photo archive of hobo carvings that had been documented by amateur photographer Robert Ranberg in 1969. Upon Ranberg’s death, Reinhard had recognized the importance of these images along with a 16mm film of hobo carvings. He literally plucked them from the trash heap and then turned them over to the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, where they remained in storage for several years. I travelled to Red Bluff to meet with Reinhard, eager to see the collection. Upon viewing slides and film, I was surprised to recognize some of the names carved onto the walls—including several monikers Jack London refers to in The Road. These included Buck Kid, Midget Kid, Skysail himself, the date 1894, and one of London’s own monikers, Frisco Kid. I eventually helped to digitize these materials for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society and spent a great deal of time analyzing the photographs and film and their contents.

Figure 7

Kid Wing plus initials. Photograph by Robert Ranberg. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

A great deal of beautiful lettering appears on the wall—the word “Portland” carved in Old English font, creative letterforms, various monikers and hometowns, and two carved birds. The most prolific carver was Kid Wing, who also wrote his full name, Wing Foey. Wing Foey was related to an original Chinese family in Red Bluff. The Foeys still make their home there, including Bill Foey, a prolific author and artist who was interested to find out more about his Uncle Wing. I was able to meet with Bill after a presentation for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society in summer 2018. Because Bill’s father and grandfather had children at older ages, Bill is just the third generation beyond the founding members of the Red Bluff Foeys. At one point Kid Wing carved “Import Tokay” next to his name, referencing the cheap wine in which hobos might partake. Broken bottles of Tokay wine appear in the final cuts of Ranberg’s film, and Bill Foey believed that his Uncle Wing may have struggled with substance abuse. Kid Wing’s story, recounted here in only a cursory manner, hints at a more complete picture of hobo life during the latter 1800s and early 1900s.

Figure 8

“Frisco Kid.” Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Other keystone carvings bring the tale back to the somewhat complex relationship between London, Skysail, and A-No. 1. In 1892, 1894, and 1905, respectively, each of these individuals seems to have carved their monikers into a wall off the sheds along Red Bluff’s Southern Pacific Line. Prolific hobo graffiti writer Tex-KT (Tex King of Tramps) carved his name there too, probably much later, making it a veritable wall of hobo graffiti superstars. One of London’s road-kid names appears as well: “Frisco Kid” was a moniker he used in the summer of 1892 when he was taking baby steps in freight hopping. There is no way to attribute this mark to him definitively.[30]  But the other writing on the wall does settle one minor discrepancy associated with London’s work. While recounting his pursuit of Skysail in The Road, London confused the dates, writing that Skysail carved his initials on 9-15-94. But London transcribed that as being October 15, 1894 instead of September of that year. Richard Etulain notes that this is a mistake on London’s part, but he doesn’t tell us how he knows this.[31] One piece of evidence in favor of that interpretation comes from the walls themselves.

In October 1894, a crew of hobo notables passed through Red Bluff, leaving their names together on the wall. One of them was Skysail, who appears along with carver Den. Brook. (Den. is for Denver; I am unsure why a period appears after Brook), Midgit Kid (whose name appears in the image above as Miget Kid), Scoty Sho. (meaning unknown), Colo. Slim (for Colorado Slim), Det. Kid (for Detroit Kid) and Sailor YT (YT is occasionally used in hobo writing but I have been unable to determine the meaning). This carving indicates that the crew was southbound by the depiction of a large letter S, along with the date 10/16/94. This date makes it impossible for Skysail to be in Canada pursued by Jack London just one day earlier, and lends credibility to the interpretation that London’s Canadian pursuit of Skysail took place in September. It’s a small example of the way that graffiti can both complicate temporalities and settle them through an altogether different kind of evidence, constructed by hobos themselves.

The year 1894 was the same year as London’s journey, and the year of Kelly’s Army/Coxey’s Army, in which London participated and about which he wrote. The October date would have been after the army disbanded in August of that year after their months of organizing and the march on Washington as labor protest.[32] The October 1894 date works well temporally and geographically based on London’s pursuit of Skysail through Canada that he recounts as taking place that September, a few weeks earlier.

Figure 9

“Skysail” and friends, 10/16/94. Red Bluff, California. Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Graffiti invites conjecture, which begs the question about how to distinguish the suggestive from the empirical. One can hint at connections that remain unsubstantiated—such as Jack London as the Frisco Kid on the wall in Red Bluff. But the best graffiti analysis blends conjectural statements with more definitive ones—such as a group of hobo monikers appearing on a wall and whose “noms-de-rail” Jack London subsequently writes of, including Buck Kid, Midget Kid, and Skysail himself.

After his return from tramping in 1894, London wrote about a hobo youngster in a series of stories entitled “The Frisco Kid” and “The Frisco Kid Comes Back” in which he captured some of the linguistic parlance of hobo road kids of the time. He penned these stories while still in high school and utilized the appellation that he himself had taken on in his early travels. While it is impossible to definitively link the carving of Frisco Kid to London’s own hand, the dates, geographic location, and proximity to other characters of which London writes add veracity to this interpretation. In this case, the tension between empiricism and conjecture is productive as opposed to mythologizing. The questioning that emerges from it is connected to historical events and archival data as opposed to guesses that lead to further speculation or self-referencing conclusions.

In the case of A-No. 1, his own fictitious representation of the association between him and Jack London has muddied the analytical waters surrounding their relationship for nearly a century. After London’s 1907 publication of The Road, A-No. 1 had admired the famous author from afar and eventually penned a ten-page letter to him. A-No. 1’s reason for writing was his concern for the plight of tramps in the convict lease system—a practice he compared to slavery that targeted northern tramps and tramps of African American origin in the Southern United States. Livingston attempted to enlist the help of London, whom he considered had the ear of the public and could possibly galvanize change around this issue. While convict leasing may have been the stated reason for the correspondence, my guess is that A-No. 1 simply wanted to connect to London, whose work wound up inspiring Livingston’s own literary career. He wrote: “Perhaps you have heard of me many a time while ‘rambling’ up and down ‘lines’ and across lots. I am known everywhere under the ‘monika’ of ‘A-No. 1.” This letter began their relationship long after their hobo years had ended. They did meet in person eventually and maintained a relationship until London’s death. The archival information related to their story evidences somewhat of an uneven relationship between the two, and a bit of a wet-blanket reception regarding the idea of a piece on convict leasing on London’s part. But A-No. 1 continued to correspond with Jack and then with Charmian London after Jack’s death. He eventually gained permission from the widow to write From Coast to Coast.

A-No. 1 accidentally got on Charmian London’s bad side after Jack’s death. In a letter to her, A-No. 1 described his publication plans in From Coast to Coast that seemed to include a mention of alcohol in conjunction with Jack’s name. Then, in attempted praise for Mrs. London, A-No. 1 suggested that she, Charmian, might have had a hand in some of Jack’s writing.[33] Charmian did not take kindly to either suggestion. On June 10, 1917, she wrote: “My dear Mr. Livingston (A-No. 1): I am going to give you a scolding, and I am sure that you will feel that I am justified.” She admonished him never, ever to write about Jack in association with alcohol, to change the electrotype of his forthcoming book at any cost, and never to insinuate that anyone penned Jack’s works but Jack himself. After this tirade, Charmian threatened A-No. 1 in a post-script: “be careful of what you say about JL now.” If she were “nasty,” she might choose to give up the entire story about him and Jack not actually being companions on the road. A-No. 1 must have had that kicked-in-the-gut feeling we’ve all had from time to time. He plead misunderstanding and begged forgiveness via telegram from Erie, Pennsylvania to Glen Ellen, California.[34]

Figure 10

A-No. 1, 1905. Red Bluff, Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

As complex as life can be, the walls offer a welcome simplicity. For all the drama of A-No.1’s relationship with Jack and Charmian, for all the unrequited longing between Skysail and Sailor Jack, graffiti cuts life down to its bare essentials. Complex stories are always behind the statement “I was here.” In this case, the “here” turned out to be Red Bluff.  In 1905, A-No. 1 came through town, leaving a trail of carvings in his wake.[35] While London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were never on the road together in the conventional sense, they actually did wind up together, on this one wall, on this one shed, off the Southern Pacific Line in Red Bluff, California. London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were connected in place but disconnected in time. The walls held convergence nonetheless.

The buildings where these carvings resided burned down in 1969, shortly after Robert Ranberg filmed and photographed them. Ranberg’s documentary work puts the unassuming Northern California town of Red Bluff on the map as one of the most significant sites of hobo writing in the United States.

Figure 11

In between the two sheds in Red Bluff. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Hobo Legacies in Contemporary Graffiti

Hobo writing is often given a nod in compendia that attempt to chart the history of graffiti in the United States, but the specifics of its impact are seldom elaborated.[36] Turn-of-the-century hobo graffiti directly influenced at least two contemporary graffiti genres: gang graffiti and freight train moniker writing. Below, I review hobo influences on gang writing in Los Angeles (the example I know best), spend some time with the widespread and wildly popular genre of freight train graffiti known as moniker writing. I then touch upon hobo connections to contemporary New York style graffiti that has now spread across the United States and globally.

Gangs and hobos occupied similar social spaces in their day. They were subject to hostile news media treatments, police brutality, mass incarceration, and public ostracism. Turn-of-the-century hobo associations with Wobbly labor groups linked hobos to paranoid discourses regarding anarchism and socialism, which further vilified their forms of sociality, political potential, and collective living. Similarly, gang youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s were subject to a paranoid gaze due to their social groups and distinctive clothing. They were said to be ripe for Axis exploitation and reminiscent of bloodthirsty Aztecs or wolves hunting in packs. They constructed neighborhood space differently, and they were legally penalized as collectivities rather than as individuals.[37]

Figure 12

Examples of negative lettering in hobo carving (Jule Kid and EW) from Red Bluff (c. 1890s); by Harpys gang in Los Angeles, 1990s; by graffiti crew LOD (non-gang), 2019.

In Los Angeles, gang members co-generated graffiti stylistic conventions alongside hobos in the early twentieth century. From the turn of the century through the 1940s, connections to hobos on the part of Latino and other youth occurred in the environs of the Los Angeles River and other waterways, where gang members had direct connections with hobos and visual access to their graffiti as well as materials for writing: railroad tar, railroad spikes, and occasional flares. Gang members in the late 1940s frequently wrote in tar, which had been a common hobo medium, and before that a pioneer writing medium. Gang members also adopted several hobo stylistic elements, such as arrows, pluses, quotations, or sometimes scrolls to surround their compositions. As with hobos, gang members took on monikers—nicknames—as part of marking out elements of landscape. And like the hobo term “moniker,” the name gang members used for nicknames—the placa—meant both the name itself and the graffiti form of the name.[38] Some hobo practices – such as drawing arrows, the backward “N,” the use of negative lettering, and even use of the term “Crip” – remain in use in gang graffiti and contemporary graffiti forms today. And my sense is that at least some of the angularity of early gang writing must have been inspired by hobo graffiti that was initially carved. Hobos had a stylistic influence on gangs in cities like Los Angeles that seems to have carried forward through today.

Another contemporary graffiti tradition directly influenced by hobo writing is freight train moniker writing, which has its initial history in the graffiti of railroad workers. Hobos and trainmen were both produced by the same factors: the Civil War, the shift to an industrialized society, urban development, the expansion of the frontier, and, of course, the construction of the North American railroad. Within this context, twin and opposite brotherhoods developed—like a Cain and Abel, though it was hard to tell who was the evil one and who was the good one at times. Hobos could be seen as either hard-luck cases or parasitic opportunists, and trainmen as either hardworking souls or sadistic bullies. Much of the time, they were both. Tramps and trainmen were subject to similar kinds of media paranoia. Union membership was contentious in its early days because of the way that it undermined capital accumulation. Railroad fraternities held the trappings of secret societies and union labor was fundamentally in opposition to bootstrapping or rugged individualism—ideologies hobo lifestyles also violated. At the same time trainmen, hobos, and the railroad itself symbolized other core American principles of freedom, movement, frontier, and the value of hard work. Even as opposites, both groups were simultaneously reviled and revered.

For both railroad workers and for hobos, waiting was part of the primum mobile of graffiti production. For railroad workers, waiting came in the yards. There would be a flurry of work, and then nothing. This fallow period became a creative nexus. Workers had the medium at hand, a sequestered place to write, and the time to do it. Railroaders were prolific writers, creating what they called “chalk marking,” “writing,” or “boxcar art.” They didn’t use the word moniker—even though the rail tradition that gave birth to what we know now as the moniker tradition. Moniker was a hobo word. The chalk markings of railroaders helped to express other aspects of the world of labor—getting a nickname, jockeying for position, dealing with subordination, being tied to the drudgery of the job, navigating union politics. Railroaders through time wrote a great deal on various surfaces, as well as on the trains themselves. In so doing, they created the inversion of what happened with hobos. Switchmen or car knockers who performed inspections with chalk in hand would stay in the yard and write on train cars. The marks they produced would then travel without them, while hobos frequently left graffiti near railroad locations as they themselves travelled.

At some point in the latter part of the twentieth century, these two opposed brotherhoods of hobos and trainmen gave birth to a third brotherhood, that is sometimes called the “folklore brotherhood.” In this contemporary brotherhood, freight hoppers (would-be contemporary hobos), railroad workers, and other people interested in trains or art are engaged in co-producing this tradition. In his book, Mostly True, Bill Daniel writes that: “The rail tag was born the bastard child of two warring parents; the working stiff and the shiftless wanderer. […] This duality is manifested in the astonishingly elegant and modest drawing modality that tramps and rail workers have spent the last 100 years co-evolving.”[39]

Figure 13

Moniker’d 11-17 by Anarchy Cat. Photograph by the artist, with permission from the artist.

Contemporary moniker writing consists of an insignia written in paint stick usually with a saying of some kind, the date, and select additional information. Moniker writing today was carried through from the turn of the century to today by a few key railroaders, including Bozo Texino, Herbie, JB King, and Colossus of Roads (some of these names represented more than one individual writer).[40] Their work developed into a recognizable rail-based graffiti art form with national and international devotees and a robust following on digital platforms such as Instagram. So-called “benchers”—people addicted to freight train writing of all kinds—document these marks as they roll by on lumbering freights. As documentarians rather than producers, benchers create zines and digital video compilations, and at least some of them use analogue means to circulate their productions to those with like-minded interests. Today, moniker writing mostly involves people who choose to be part of it rather than those who are using the markings as a creative outlet based on their labor or social position.

Javier Abarca writes that many accounts of contemporary moniker writing ideologically link this practice to 1930s depression-era hobos, while ignoring “the phenomenal hobo roaming and graffiti culture that developed in the late nineteenth century.”[41] Despite changes within the culture, the moniker practice remains based in its original context and continues to be practiced by graffiti-writing communities, which in this case continues to include both tramps and trainmen whose traditional graffiti practices are rooted in deeper history.

In all its guises, graffiti counters the tension between ephemerality and permanence. This tension is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be part of graffiti-producing communities. That liminality of the in-between drives carving in place while wandering, or writing on trains that are moving while workers stayed put.

In the United States, major graffiti traditions have emerged during times of significant economic transformation. Hobo culture and the hobo writing system developed during the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized society in the nineteenth century. In case of contemporary writers, the emergence of graffiti that began on New York subways in the 1970s bridged the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Javier Abarca further traces the linkages between the New York style contemporary graffiti and hobo writing. Both, he says, are based in the subversion of an alienating capitalist environment, both make use of nicknames and networks of communication based on the graffitied name, and both incorporate the ethos of going “all city,” of getting one’s name up in a way that can stand apart from the person. Linkages to the hobo tradition included intimate understanding of transportation systems and urban infrastructure, knowledge of which is still relevant among contemporary graffiti writers regardless of their city of origin. Writes Abarca, “as a carrier of names and as a carrier of people, the giant and alienating train detourned into a vehicle for fantastic, free mobility is at the core of both moniker writing and New York graffiti.”[42]  As with “moniker” and “placa,” the “tag” represents both the nickname and the graffitied version of the name.

Though much of the above treatment remains preliminary, ample evidence supports the role of hobo graffiti as a keystone graffiti genre with ongoing influences in graffiti practices today.

Conclusion

In writing graffiti, people through time have carved out pathways for survival through economic changes, created alternate forms of livelihood and sociality, and nurtured the camaraderie that has seen writers through the physical and emotional challenges of the road, of poverty, or of neighborhood life in places whose violence stems as much from law enforcement as from internal sources. Soul survival. As with most graffiti–centered subcultures, hobo groups directed their messages toward themselves. In the process they created rich genres of expression with aesthetic and grammatical sensibilities that that influenced subsequent graffiti traditions.

In California, hobos provided the link between traditional American folk culture and contemporary street culture. During the so-called “tramp era” at the turn of the twentieth century, hobos took on monikers and developed a form of written communication that shared information about identity, location, and travel. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become the foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the early twentieth century.  In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento, this culture of the American road directly informed nascent traditions of gang writing. California cities with hobo influences and emergent gangs helped to incubate some of the earliest forms of street culture in the United States.

In his books, A-No. 1 writes about the “lure” of the tramp life. To some degree, his musing on the subject holds true today. People in the United States and abroad feel a visceral sense of connection to the hobo mystique. That lure has accompanied widespread circulation of ungrounded stories and mythical understandings regarding hobo life. At the same time, a well-elaborated practice of hobo writing connected to firsthand documentation and literary references provides fodder for heretofore under-examined aspects of hobo life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Graffiti is an untapped form of primary source data that brings further clarity to several aspects of hobo culture, including the lives of notable individuals such as Jack London or A-No. 1. It also offers scope and purpose to hobo written communication. Analysis of hobo graffiti also opens further lines of questioning and necessitates deep cushioning within archival, historical, infrastructural, and narrative contexts. As examined above in the case of Red Bluff, California, hobo carvings give shape to the kinds of questions to which scholars can seek answers in order to extend reliable flows of information. Due to its absent authors and ephemeral nature, graffiti is never a wholesale solution to speculative problems—in fact the opposite is true. A degree of ambiguity is one of the delightful things about graffiti research and an important reminder of the tentative nature of knowledge production in general. But the ambiguity in this case is generative. It invites further inferences but in a manner that is both informed and fabled. In the cases above, graffiti provides a unique lens into an obscure practice by helping to ground questions as well as caution answers.

Notes

[1] With thanks to: Javier Abarca, Thomas Chambers, Owen Clayton, Bill Daniel, Bill Foey, Devon Hanofski, Tony Johnson and the Medford Railroad Park, Carol Mieske and the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, Becky Nicolaides and the USC-Huntington Metro Studies Group, Robert Ranberg, Joel Reinhard, and Charles Wray. Jack London, The Road (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1907); Richard W. Etulain, Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1979). Some segments of this material were previously published in Susan Phillips, Javier Abarca, and Thomas Chambers. Tramp Directories, Noms-de-Road, and Unwritten Codes: A Souvenir of Hobo Graffiti (Madrid: Urbanario, 2017).

[2]Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[3] Graham Raulerson, “A Fountainhead of Pure Musical Americana: Hobo Philosophy in Harry Partch’s Bitter Music,” Journal of the Society for American Music 11/4 (2017): 454.

[4] John Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers and Illegal Riders.” In Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art (2016), 27-35; John Lennon, “Can a Hobo Share a Box-Car? Jack London, the Industrial Army, and the Politics of (In)visibility” American Studies (2007 48/4): 7. Charles and Michael Wray and Devon Hanofski have (separately) conducted the most thorough investigations of hobo sites in the United States, and they have identified and documented multiple sites across numerous states.

[5] Jeff Ferrell, Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 73.

[6] Leon Ray Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1, America’s Most Celebrated Tramp (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1910).

[7] Leon Ray Livingston, From Coast to Coast with Jack London. (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1917). The Robert Aldrich film is Emperor of the North Pole (20th Century Fox 1973).

[8] Stephen Benz, “A Grave on the High Plains.” River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (2017 17/1):135-141; Stanley B. Kimball, Stanley B. 1988. Historic Sites and Markers along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988; Timothy Rostov Urbaniak, Historic Inscriptions of the Northern Plains: Identity and Influence in the Residual Communication Record (University of Montana, Ph.D. Dissertation, 2014).

[9] Eric Monkkonen, (ed.) 1984. Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984): 2.

[10] George Borrow, The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain. London: Murray 1841); Paola Toninato, Romani Writing: Literacy, Literature and Identity Politics. London: Routledge, 2014), 59.

[11] John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary (London: Piccadilly, 1865), 29.

[12] Monkkonen, Walking to Work; Kelly Lytle Hernández, Kelly Lytle, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[13] Nels Anderson, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923); Cresswell, The Tramp in America; DePastino, Citizen Hobo. John Lennon, Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869-1956 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

[14] Josiah Flynt, 1891, “The American Tramp,” Contemporary Review (60/August 1891); Jim Tully, Beggars of Life (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1924); Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1; London, The Road.

[15] Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Fakelore: Essays Toward a Discipline of Folk Studies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976); Alan Dundes, “Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Fabrication of Fakelore: A Reconsideration of Ossian, the ‘Kinder-und Hausmärchen’, the ‘Kalevala’, and Paul Bunyan,” Journal of Folklore Research (22/1, 1985): 5-18.

[16] Allan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives (New York: Carleton and Co. Publishers, 1878), 57.

[17] Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps: 57-58.

[18] Ibid, 58.

[19] Raulerson, Graham. 2011. The Hobo in American Musical Culture, x.

[20] Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers, and Illegal Riders,” 34. Several authors note the confusion between genres of hobo graffiti and railroad moniker art produced by railway workers. Mistaken impressions about authorship abound in the history of graffiti.

[21] Charles Wray and Devon Hanofski, mentioned in footnote 5 above, have similarly indicated to me that they have never encountered first-hand evidence of such markings in their explorations of hobo sites in the United States. Personal communication via email, April 3, 2019 (Hanofski). Personal communication via telephone, April 4, 2019 (Charles Wray).

[22] Laura M. Addison, ed. No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art. (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2017).

[23] Erle Heath, Seventy-Five Years of Progress: An Historical Sketch of the Southern Pacific: 1869-1944 (2014). Accessed on April 2, 2019 at http://www.cprr.org/Museum/SP_1869-1944/

[24] In my work on Hollywood sound stages, I have encountered similar temporal discrepancies between graffiti and recorded dates of construction and concluded that the graffiti were the more reliable source that created a more nuanced history of the site in question.

[25] Etulain, Jack London on the Road. Earle Labor, Earle. Jack London: An American Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013);

[26] London, The Road, 68.

[27] Ibid, 123.

[28] Lennon, Boxcar Politics, 33.

[29] London, The Road, 68.

[30] I emailed Earle Labor about the find and Labor said, despite there being no way to know for sure, that the mark was “highly likely” to be London’s. Personal communication via email, August 22, 2017.

[31] Etulain (1978) includes a map with specific dates but doesn’t cite where his knowledge of the dates comes from. Because they are not included in London’s tramp diaries, which end in April, this leaves the mistake open to interpretation. Thanks to Owen Clayton for pointing out this discrepancy.

[32] Carlos A. Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

[33] Letter from Livingston to Charmian London, Utah State University Jack and Charmian London Collection.

[34] These materials are housed at Utah State University’s Jack and Charmian London Collection at the University Libraries.

[35] A-No. 1’s visit is corroborated by a 1910 newspaper article about him, which references his previous 1905 visit to town. “World’s Greatest Tramp Was in Town,” The Red Bluff News, August 25, 1910.

[36] See for example Caleb Neelon and Roger Gastman, History of American Graffiti (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[37] Mauricio Mazón, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (University of Texas Press, 2010).

[38] Bill Daniel first pointed this similarity out to me regarding hobo monikers.

[39] Bill Daniel, Mostly True, second edition (Microcosm Publishing, 2012), 1.

[40] See Bill Daniel’s film Who Is Bozo Texino? The Secret History of Hobo Graffiti (2005) for the best treatment of this genre of moniker writing.

[41] Javier Abarca, “Foreword.” In Susan Phillips, et al Tramp Directories, 8.

[42] Abarca, Foreword, 10.

Susan A. Phillips has studied graffiti, gangs and the U.S. prison system since 1990. She has published two books: Wallbangin: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (Chicago, 1999) and Operation Fly Trap: L.A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law (Chicago, 2012), and co-authored a small volume on hobo graffiti in 2017. Phillips was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow in 2008 and received a Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant in 2005. She has been in residence twice at the Getty Research Institute—most recently in 2016. Her new book, The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2019. Phillips received her PhD in anthropology from UCLA in 1998 and is currently a Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pitzer College in Claremont.