The music was loud, insistent, driving. It was a Saturday night, mid-June, steaming hot, the club, the Jazz Gallery on Manhattan’s lower east side, packed. I had the largest group, four tables pushed together in the center of the place, a dozen or so people, musicians, writers, artists, all drinking, laughing, arguing. I was balancing a half dozen drinks at a time. Mingus was there, downing a mountain of chicken and ribs, discussing heatedly with Dave Garroway, an icon of early morning television, the first host of NBC’s “Today” show and a passionate lover of jazz, the pros and cons of Thelonious Monk.
Monk’s music, improvisational, harshly dissonant, took some getting used to. Garroway, a drummer of sorts, was in the club two or three times a week and he was railing against Monk and Mingus would have none of it: he considered Monk a genius. We waiters used to battle not to wait on Garroway who was pathologically cheap: a two dollar tip on a hundred dollar check was big money for him. Years later he put a bullet in his head and I remember thinking that his suicide and extraordinary frugality were somehow related.
After more than thirty years teaching writing and a career of over fifty years as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few things. Students come to you eager to discover how they can develop their craft. They want to learn the tricks of the trade, how to get started, how to establish a schedule, how to proceed. They want all the technical details of how to write dialogue, character, plot. They also want to know about practical matters: how many hours do you write a day, where do you write, do you use a typewriter, computer, pen and paper? Where do you get your material? All salient matters, important matters to do with the craft of writing.
And yet– underneath it all is a question that rarely gets asked, but one that all of these writers, neophytes and veterans, are compulsively pondering: how can I earn a living? How can I build a career? How can I become successful? Read More
The founders of La Eme, including Rodolfo “Cheyenne” Cadena (front right).
Things became tense early on between me and Joker Mendoza, one of Cadena’s assassins. He was aggressive, walked with a chip on his shoulder, always tried to stress how important he was. Tiny Contreras, who was the leader of the assassination, had contempt for him, but always stressed to me how dangerous he was.
His prison blues were impeccable, razor sharp crease in the trousers, mirror shine on his shoes. When we first met he commented on my baggy trousers. “Can’t you afford nothing more stylish?” “I may not be stylish, “ I said, “but I won’t be spending the rest of my life in prison.” He shook his head in disdain.
Former jailhouse Houdini John Eddings and David Scott Milton.
A new student entered my creative writing class in the max unit at Tehachpi Prison. His name was John Eddings and he was then in his late thirties, tall, lean, good-looking in a ragged convict way. In our first talk before the start of class, he told me a bit about himself: he was a born-again Christian, was interested in writing about Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers musical group, and he had a theory for prison reform. His was serving 950 years plus three life sentences.
He didn’t tell me what he was in for, but his sentence brushed me with a whisper of dread. This was not helped when, in the middle of the class, a guard entered and called out, “Close Custody.” Never, up until that day, had anyone ever responded. “John Eddings, C-54404,” said Eddings and the guard wrote it down on a pad he carried.
Tom Morello performed several Nightwatchman songs at the benefit, including “One Man Revolution”.
I love music and have witnessed some great performances in my time. I was living in New York City when Bob Dylan came on the scene. I worked at the Jazz Gallery and the Five Spot and saw such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. I saw the Eagles tour Hotel California, and Springsteen when he toured Born To Run. So I know good music. I must say, though, I’ve rarely been as captivated and excited and moved as I was the other night at the Ford Theater in the hills of Hollywood during the Jail Guitar Doors Rock Out! Concert. Jail Guitar Doors is a charity that provides musical instruments for inmates in prison and those newly released. It takes its name from a song by The Clash, the opening line of which is, “Let me tell you ‘bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine”, referring to guitarist Wayne Kramer of the rock group Motor City 5, who spent two years in prison for selling cocaine—in those days Kramer had a heavy addiction.
Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt had been transferred from San Quentin to Tehachapi Prison, Max Yard 4B, where I held my creative writing class. He was a high profile inmate serving a life sentence for the robbery murder of a woman on a Santa Monica tennis court. For years there had been protests and legal battles over his imprisonment. When he arrived at Tehachapi there were demonstrations on his behalf outside the prison.
He joined my class and immediately you felt that this was not a run of the mill inmate. He moved with a kind of military compactness; there was a surety in his bearing that was unusual on the prison yard.
John Espinosa Nelson, former bank robber and student of DSM, is now a well-respected and award-winning author.
Not too long ago I had tweeted about my blog on the hunger strike in California prisons. Someone responded and said it was thoughtful and on the nose, and they mentioned in passing that they had been a student of mine. I didn’t recognize the name, John Nelson, or the photo of the tweeter and assumed it had been someone who studied with me at USC. I taught graduate playwriting and screenwriting for 33 years there and from time to time one of my old students would contact me and often I had no memory of them.
The tweeter responded to my reply tweet, asked for my e-mail address, and a sense began to stir in me of who this might be. 23 years ago I had had a very young man as a creative writing student in Wasco State Prison. He had been serving time for bank robbery and the name John Nelson brought up an image very different from the picture on his twitter page. I tweeted back asking him if he hadn’t been young and thin and in Wasco prison for bank robbery. Hadn’t he shown an early literary bent by robbing bookstores, eventually moving up to banks?
For the past several days I’ve been getting phone calls and e-mails from old friends in my hometown of Pittsburgh PA to tell me that the actress Shirley Jones, has written a steamy memoir. It’s getting great play in the Pittsburgh papers as well as papers all around the country.
Shirley and I were friends many, many years ago, before her enormous success and fame. We even dated briefly, which I suspect is why I’m getting all the phone calls and inquiries. The early reviews of her book tell of a lubricious sexpot Shirley and my old friends want to know how much of this I knew in the old days. Well, it’s probably boring, but not very much.
Shirley was eighteen years old, as I was, and just out of high school. The Pittsburgh Playhouse had a theater school and they awarded two scholarships to high school graduates in Western Pennsylvania. Shirley won the girl’s scholarship and I, the boys. I had been slated to go to Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon, to study playwriting when my senior English teacher asked me to represent our high school, Taylor Allderdice, in competition for one of the Playhouse scholarships. It was a big deal in Pittsburgh, Shirley was Miss Pittsburgh, and though I had a mild interest in acting, writing was what I really wanted to do. I reasoned that Shakespeare had been an actor as had Moliere and Eugene O’Neill and the schooling would be free and could only help me as a playwright. I accepted the scholarship.
Henry had paroled from CCI Tehachapi and was living in a rented room on 12th Street in Santa Monica. He had immediately started back drinking. We would get together three or four times a week. He would usually make dinner, Italian food, of course—he was particularly proud of his tomato sauce: it was excellent. He would add some sausage or meatballs and it was pasta as delicious as I had ever had. We would have wine and beer with the meal and though I would caution Henry about his drinking he paid me no mind and was generally drunk by the time the evening was over. Read More