UNITED STATES—I caught the travel bug. Some friends were going to India, to Prague, to Bali. One had seen Pink Floyd perform the rock opera “The Wall” at the Berlin Wall. Why was it that nobody was going to Abuquerque?
Well, I bought tickets at a travel agency on Wilshire—testimony to the fact that I was really making money now. Just nine months earlier I had been stretching ten dollars for weeks. Just before leaving, a surprise came in the mail from Silvio Martinez Palau, the New York writer who championed my first novel, “A Winter in Hell,” first published in Spanish. The surprise was a book review written by Silvio’s friend and journalist Plinio Garrido. This was the first time in a whole year to receive acknowledgement of my literary work. I felt proud and sad and lucky all at once.
As I recall, I was so nervous about what the review might say, I waited to take it out and read it on the plane to JFK. You know what it was like? Reading between the respectful lines typed on a purple typewriter ribbon, I perceived something like when a friend is crazy about a song and makes you go out and buy the album, and it’s hard for you to summon the same level of enthusiasm. But hey, Plinio, three cheers for my first review! Wow.
This was a dream trip, so contrary to my mid-80s trip to New York, chronicled in the story “Angels” when my chief tourguide was that figure who just can’t wipe the smile off his face, Reaper Death. I was met at the airport by Silvio, taken to an entirely new place, Woodside, the Colombian hood near Queens.
Got to see Archie Bunker row-houses, Bellevue the famous nuthouse glimpsed from a freeway, Shea Stadium. And wherever I go Hollywood follows: there at Astoria was the studio where the Marx Brothers made “Coconuts.” A Latin Art Festival was on in Manhattan. Disappointingly, the performance of Silvio’s play, “The English-Only Restaurant,” a send-up of the self-mutilating zeal of a restaurant staff and owner to robotically speak English only, got cancelled.
In Silvio and Guadalupe’s airy, wood-floored apartment I got to discover this thing called a futon and we had magnificent conversations. Years earlier, I found Silvio’s volume of stories “Made in U.S.A.” at the Watsonville Public Library. I felt instant kinship with its funny, sad and scathing stories set in the United States. Some kind of miracle brought this book to the shelves of a library in small-town rural California. When my first novel was published in Guadalajara, Silvio was the first writer I sent it to, and then Hunter S. Thompson. Dr. Thompson did not respond; Silvio did—he did it one better. He and Guadalupe were attending a writers’ conference in Mexico City and then took a train to Guadalajara to see the writer of “A Winter in Hell.” Wow, it blew me away and left me with a glow. I gather that Silvio was relieved to escape the stultifying air of that official conference.
I was a man who had all this talk stored up about what I had created, Silvio loved the book and how I just went and said what I feel. There was euphoria and beer in the Hotel Fenix. We now continued two years later in New York during warm cloudy August days, a respite from blazing L.A..
New York was the setting to reflect on race and the L.A. rental business. “So many poor people come to see the rooms,” I wrote in my journal, “and so many indifferent . . .” The indifferent were those who could afford to turn up their noses at the clean, largely unadorned rooms we had to offer in so-so neighborhoods. At the time I already started to wonder, looking at nice and eager folks, “Are they drunks or drug addicts?”
My boss and another landlord I knew both expressed caution when it came to renting to black people. The subject came into the open because of three tenants I had struck out with at Estrella Avenue. I was especially hurting at this time because of the violent meltdown of Edward and Beverly Jones who almost killed each other. They upstaged the good, solid tenants we had, who kept Wylie in business; but good, solid tenants are not the ones who leave the scars and the stories.
After the Jones left—one to jail and one to the emergency room—I promised to be more diligent about applicants (i.e. mother’s recommendation wouldn’t cut it anymore).
Grady Miller is a humorist and the author of “A Very Grady Christmas: Three L.A. Christmases” (available on Amazon).