March 02, 2008

California: The Garden of Eden

By Johnny Hughes © 2008

In John Steinbeck's classic novel and movie about the depression-era, dust-bowl Okies' migration to California, Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad, portrayed by Henry Fonda, says this...
"Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be there in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be there in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they built, I'll be there, too."
My mother's family were the depression-era Okies so vividly painted by Steinbeck. This quote would represent their outlaw attitude and socialist politics, which changed. My mother had 12 older brothers and sisters. In my novel, Texas Poker Wisdom, they are the models for the O'Malley family. Most of the family made it out to Los Angeles over many years. When my grandfather and grandmother finally sold the farm in Duke, Oklahoma, they took a train to Los Angeles right after World War II. This was in the day of the Harvey House and the Harvey girls. My grandmother stole a fine Harvey House tea service that is still a family heirloom. In my next novel, I am going to look at four or five generations of gamblers and con artists around the old west, again using family stories when I can.

I lived in L.A. as a baby at the start of World War II, but my super-conning great uncle Ira ditched us in Lubbock on a visit, thank you Jesus! Two of his brothers were identical twins, gamblers in Dallas during Benny Binion's tight rein. Benny was the boss of all bosses. One of the twins got killed over some beef. Two guys called him out of the Sports Arena and beat him to death. Family legend has it Benny had it done over a debt and they got the wrong twin. I believe the second part.

So, with my mother's people living all over L.A., we crossed the desert from Texas for vacations and funerals in treacherous old Fords. My cousin says on one trip, when I was about six, we had eighteen flat tires. I do remember all of us hauling water from this pond in the Arizona desert. To me, going to Los Angeles was a very big deal!

It seemed Los Angeles was in this artificial super-Technicolor, compared to West Texas. The first thing I saw was a grade school class with black, white, and Asian children. I had never seen that, since our schools were segregated.

Two of my uncles were L.A. cops and were therefore rather rich. They had these big houses with massive lawns, my cousins had fine clothes, and there were fancy foods. I'd never thought of us as poor, just of them as rich, big rich by our standards. Here is a journalistically accurate excerpt from my novel explaining the Los Angeles police of the 1940s.

Guy McAfee built the Golden Nugget in 1946. Previously, he had owned a string of whore houses and gambling joints in Los Angeles where he served for years as the commander of the Los Angeles Police Department vice squad. When the political climate changed, he moved to Las Vegas.

Benny Binion had a very similar experience. He had been the boss gambler around Dallas until his Sheriff lost. Guy and Benny were neighbors and pals.

In 1960, my road buddy and I braved the desert in a 1953 Merc. The transmission went out in Albuquerque. We were beatnik-gamblers, a glorious way to live. Glorious! In Albuquerque, we read Kerouac, hit the coffee shops for embarrassing poetry, got drunk in the bars, slept on the ground, and talked in long, Dr. Pauly sentences late into the night, ever saying Yes. Yes. Yes., longing for the Mother Road, America's highway, getting our kicks and transmission fixed on Route 66.

In Las Vegas, we got jobs shilling poker for Bill Boyd at the Golden Nugget. I did a chapter on that in my novel. We cheated by signaling as instructed to do. We'd sign for an Ace or King in the hole in five-card stud, or lay over cards at an angle if we had a wired pair. The larcenous rake would have drowned any gambler, so I didn't know why we bothered to cheat. At the time, we were successful poker players in West Texas. We quickly realized we weren't be going to be tipping over large scores around Las Vegas so we pushed on for California. I always laugh when I read that word road gambler. Being beatnik-gamblers, we usually went broke on our trips covering thousands of miles. We didn't travel to build bankroll, although we may have that as our stated goal. The farthest we ever got from home broke was Acapulco, Mexico.

We headed for Gardena and the legal draw poker. We had never seen a room full of people playing poker. The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas had six or so tables in 1960. Hold 'em and Stud were thought to be without skill and were illegal. Being best-of-it realists, we quickly discovered this was no bird's nest on the ground. We played wheel low-ball. In the low-ball games back in God's own Texas, you got the best of it because the suckers, now called recreational players but they are still suckers, would draw two cards. In Gardena, nobody drew two cards. It was also the dreaded limit, which screwed us. If you missed your draw, you might as well give up. In Texas, everyone played no-limit, even in kindergarten.

It was also our first time playing against retiree, tight player, rocks of ages, cleft for somebody else poker players. The poker room at Gardena was this massive sea of patience. We were drowning in all that patience, so we gave up and pulled up. The alternative was the beatnik scene and the coffee houses of Venice Beach. It was all an eye-popping wonderment, dazzling to simple gamblers nursing a sick and terminal bankroll.

Some beats slept on the beach. I thought of Woody Guthrie's song, I'm going to California where they sleep out every night. In one coffee house there was this long line of gay dudes doing this intricate, choreographed dance, complete with tap dancing. Some were in drag and makeup. We'd never knowingly seen any gay folks. The cops told us all about it.

We'd lay up in this rooming house, cook burgers, drink beer, and watch old black and white movies all night on the TV. Another thing we didn't have in Lubbock, which we finally headed for with just enough cash to make it.

When my grandmother was pushing ninety, she rented to a gang of armed robbers, who shared her house. Later, the cops surrounded her house with the bullhorn and lots of fire power and the outlaws gave up. As happens, there are conflicting family stories about whether or not she knew their profession. Way back in Oklahoma, the heroes had been Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger robbing the hated banks.

In the 1970s, my two cop uncles and a cousin opened two fancy, private clubs in Los Angeles. They had great food, decor, and the dancers and waitress's were topless and bottomless. A Boy Scout fantasy, a fancy joint where all the women folk employees were buck naked. These clubs were called The Ball and The Other Ball. They were on the Japanese Sex Tour of L.A. Buses would pull up and loads of Japanese would spend their money. They made millions, but were having varied troubles with the law. My mother used to go to L.A. to "help" them with the books and taxes. I'm hoping she still has her end.

My cousin got caught cooking speed at a place owned by several of the family in Palm Springs. There was also some problem with mob guys and race horses. The government confiscated a couple of houses, several acres, cars, race horses, and charged him with Organized Crime. He took it on the lam. They caught him on America's Most Wanted. He was flipping burgers at the McDonalds by the Stardust in Vegas. His first real job. They gave him life as a Kingpin but he got out.

In the late 1970s, I managed the Joe Ely Band. We signed to MCA Records and the William Morris Agency. I made several trips to L.A. to meet with the record company or to go to gigs, mostly at the Palomino Club. While we were dealing with Nashville, I was right at home with the same foods, language, cultural background. However, the record company-L.A. thing was a little too weird, even for me. They are a little careless with the truth.

Johnny Hughes is the author of the novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.

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