Finding My Father
By: Francine Rodriguez
He didn’t come around that often. By the time I was old enough to figure that out I realized it was always around the time my mother got her welfare check, the first and the fifteenth of the month. He would stay a few days with us, sometimes up to a week. On those days of the month, toward evening, I would start looking out the window of our apartment, where I lived with my mother, if our window faced the street, and watch for him. When he finally came walking along, his blond head bobbing above a sea of shorter darker heads, he was always wearing washed out khakis with a white tee shirt cuffed up high on his shoulders. I could always tell if he’d recently come into a little change, because there would be a pack of Marlboros rolled up inside the cuff of his shirt with a pack of cheap matches clinging to the plastic wrapper, and a brown paper bag bulging out of his back pocket. He was thin. Too thin, with a long body like a bent wire hanger, trailing a cloud of gray cigarette smoke like the incinerators that stood covered in black ash in the alleys behind the tenements.
When he got up close, I could see his watery blue eyes, red and irritated from walking through the dark curtain of smog that hung-over downtown Los Angeles. He kept blinking and wiping at them with the back of his wrist. Before climbing the broken concrete stairs that fronted every place we lived, and entering a lobby covered with dirty mildewed carpet, he always looked up at the second floor as if he was making sure it was the right place. We moved around so much in those days; mostly at night, with all our possessions loaded into a shopping cart, I wasn’t sure how he found us each time. He wasn’t supposed to be there any way. The woman from the welfare office said that there couldn’t be any able-bodied man living in the home. She checked the closets when she came and looked under the bed for men’s shoes.
My mother would answer the door when he knocked, and they would stare at each other for a moment. There were no words of acknowledgment between them. No expression of love or hate. My father would glance briefly over at me and then retire to the kitchen table where he would sit and remove the brown paper bag from his back pocket and take a long drink before putting it back. After that he would light a cigarette and turn on the old brown plastic radio that followed us everywhere loaded into a shopping cart or carried by me when we moved.
We had no television, and I remember when that radio finally gave out with a sputter of static, never to start again, the apartment filled with a silent unhappiness that settled in and never left. During the day, my mother sometimes turned on that radio to hear her favorite novela, The Romances of Helen Trent. It was really the only entertainment she had. But when my father was around it was only the news. He would sit hunched over the radio as if he were drawing out the words through the speakers himself, and comment on how “crooked the government was and how they were making the people suffer by stealing the taxpayer’s money to use for wars in foreign places.” By the time he’d finished whatever was in his bottle and a portion of beans covered with chile rolled up into a tortilla, (corn, he believed flour of any kind was poison), his eyes were flashing, and he was ready for a good fight.
If it were early enough he’d head up to Melrose and Heliotrope to sit in front of the Ukrainian Center and play chess or argue with the old Bolsheviks who were weathered fixtures in the place. They sat in front of the building on wooden crates, complaining and reminiscing about the old country before ‘the war.’ He took me there a few times when my mother wasn’t around. That’s when one of those bearded and shabbily dressed men called me a “red diaper baby.” I remember glaring at the old gray-haired, red-nosed guy who said it, wanting to give him a good hard smack in the nose, balling up my fists, but keeping them at my side. I was probably around five and didn’t want anybody calling me a baby. I found out later that the phrase meant a child born to Communist parents or parents who were sympathetic to Communists. My father had found his niche.
He hated the police even more than “the government,” comparing them to the uniformed gestapo he’d fled from in his country, the ones who forced his family out of their homes and put them in gas chambers. He, himself had more than one brush with the law resulting in time served; one particular time I recall, at the Wayside Honor Ranch, a long unairconditioned bus ride away from Echo Park, beginning early in the morning on an empty stomach. One of the guards gave me a Hershey’s candy kiss upon arrival. I gobbled it down hungrily, surprised and overjoyed at getting chocolate. My father never permitted it in the house. A few minutes late, I puked all over the waiting room floor to my humiliation.
My father imparted little information to me that I remember, with the exception of warning me to stay as far away as possible from any man in a uniform, and from anybody representing authority. He still believed that what happened in Europe could happen here in this country. In the deep pocket of his thin frayed khakis, he always carried a switchblade.
There were cops walking a beat everywhere downtown then, particularly in Pershing Square, where at that time gay men hung around, strolling by benches, walking arm and arm. My father told me by way of explanation that these men stayed in the Square because they were lonely and looking for new friends. He said they had every right to be there and to dress however they wanted, including in women’s clothes, even if it was confusing to other people. Police would flood the Square regularly in the afternoon or early evening, rousting all the men they could find. They interrupted our after-school play in the Square as we ran through the small areas of dry brush that passed as grass where the benches sat facing the sun. We were the kids who lived in the crowded falling-apart tenements facing Hill Street, or in the rooming houses that were closer to Skid Row. We ran in and out among the trees and watched the goings-on, the swinging night sticks, the shrieking voices, and then were left to play in silence, except for the cawing of birds high above in wilting trees after all the arrests were made and the doors were slammed shut on the police wagon.
My father felt more at home in the area around Echo Park. It was pastoral, woodsy, unmanicured and overgrown. Tumbledown shacks hung on to the sides of the eroding hills next to older stately craftsman and Victorian houses. Building codes were ignored by the tradition of non-conformity, and all types of dwelling sprang up year after year. Their owners added partitions and extensions randomly as more people moved together and families grew. We moved there to live in one of those tar-paper roofed shacks in the back of somebody’s property when we got evicted from out last apartment.
In the early sixties and long after that, there were more people living there who believed the way my father did, who wanted to see the government overthrown, who were ultra-liberal or union organizers, who didn’t judge alternative life styles, who were artists, musicians, or writers, those who had mixed-race children or were mixed-race themselves. Drugs were always available on demand on almost every street. It was the beginnings of the psychedelics and the artists and musicians living there were proud to ride the first wave.
All year long vegetables were grown and tended by families in hollowed out patches of ground, sometimes in the middle of a cement banks or curbside, and people kept chickens and even goats. A lot of parents sent their children to “free schools” so they wouldn’t be corrupted by the system and learn to follow laws that nobody there believed in. People who didn’t live there, (usually white people), politely called this place “Bohemian.” The ones that weren’t so polite called it a ghetto.
My father, who never slept much at night, would walk around the lake sometimes at midnight, past the gang members hanging out at the broken picnic tables by the water, smoking cigarettes, and drinking from the bottle in his brown paper bag. My mother explained away all of his behavior from not working, to drinking, to wandering the streets for hours and days at a time, by telling me, “It’s all because of the war.” She said that he came from a wealthy family in Austria that once owned a lot of land, but that everything was taken away from them, and most of his family were killed in the camps before the war ended. She told me he was sent to the U.S. early on as a teenager, with his older brothers to escape a certain death by the Nazis. According to my mother, my father had family living here that had a lot of money and lived on the Westside. She’d met them once and I think she referred to them as “in the steel business.” Apparently his family had disowned my father a long time ago. She said she wasn’t sure why, as if all of his behaviors didn’t point in that direction. He didn’t want anything to do with them either, because to him, they were all dirty Capitalists. But none of that meant much to me then. I guess after he was disowned, and probably before, he slipped through the cracks and kept falling.
My father spoke five languages, and read four, but never managed to hold a job. The only time I remember him having an actual job, he was dragged back to our apartment by the police late one night with his hands and chest in bandages. He’d gotten into a fight at the top of a crane when he was hired to operate some heavy equipment at a construction site. He hit the other guy who was driving so hard he broke most of the bones in his face. My father’s knuckles were broken too, and so were his ribs from the many stories-high fall. It just so happened we were leaving our apartment at the same time, banking on the late hour to sneak out because we didn’t have the rent. My mother left him there sleeping on the floor where the cops dumped him. When I snuck back the next morning to pick up something I’d forgotten, he was gone. We didn’t see him around for a long time after that.
My mom said that my father’s privileged upbringing also explained his funny taste in food, so unlike hers, and everybody else that we knew. He was a vegetarian/vegan from childhood, where the family cooks followed strict rules about not eating anything “that was considered an animal or an animal product.” By today’s standard, he was a die hard, no meat, dairy or sugar kind of guy. When he was around none of that was allowed in the house. Nobody wanted to hear him yelling, “Get that poison out of here!” My mother hid her Twinkies and penny caramels she pilfered from Ralphs and hoarded them in our dresser drawer. He never looked for them there. To me his rants about “white foods like dairy or flour or candy bars being poison to the human body,” just magnified the deprivation. All my friends got to eat Oscar Meyer and Webber’s white bread. They all ate Pay Day candy bars, and I’d never tasted one. Candy, like ice cream and cake, was made with sugar. Sugar would kill you. So, he said. When I cried about the unfairness of it one day, he sat me down and explained in great detail about why humans should not eat meat, how the cows and pigs were herded into the slaughterhouse and had their throats cut. He said the floor ran red with blood and it never dried. He described in great detail how the cows screamed for mercy, but nobody listened. I didn’t touch meat until I was in my twenties.
We went once to pick up some surplus food the welfare was giving away. The social worker made a special point of telling my mother how fortunate we were to benefit from the government surplus program. My dad drove my mother and I to the site in a white Chevy Impala with enormous fins that looked like they belonged on a sea creature that had crawled up from the ocean floor. It had wide bench seats, polished wheels, and reeked of cigarette smoke. It looked like the lowrider cars the older boys drove. My father always seemed to have a car to drive, never one that he owned and probably not one he borrowed either, (at least not with the owner’s knowledge). This was a different car than I’d seen him with last time. That one had a bright green paint job, and the time before that, that car had a smashed-in hood. I was struggling to keep up.
That day when we went to pick up the surplus food, I remember pulling into the back dock of some giant building, probably the welfare office that used to be on Temple Street. The surplus food turned out to be white flour, peanut butter in a tin can, and a big block of Velveeta cheese, all packed in a cardboard box. Cars were lined up double around the parking lot to carry off their allotment. My father took one look at the contents of the box and immediately cursed out the dock hand. He claimed the government was trying to poison us. “Americans put any old shit in their mouths, but I know better,” he told him. I got back in the car bitterly disappointed and we drove away. I could already taste the Velveeta on that pasty white bread that they sometimes used to make glue in my kindergarten class. To make matters worse, there were even a few red licorice whips in with the groceries for the kids in the family.
Along with strong doses of pro-revolution philosophy that accompanied any delivery of news by Edward R. Murrow, my father also provided a taste of my first music appreciation, straight up dope fiend jazz; Miles, Mingus, Parker, and a song by a woman whose sultry voice I sought to imitate, and still catch myself doing; Billie Holliday. Her song, Strange Fruit, complete with the painful meaning behind the lyrics, and a long and nasty commentary on racism in the United States stayed heavy on my mind for days after. On my way to elementary school I stared up at the trees trying to envision the casual acts of cruelty that I thought must have happened at the site of each tree.
Haunting me for many years were the smells of stale cigarettes, beer and dried urine wafting out of those old bars along Sunset and across from MacArthur Park. Those bars were my father’s home, and the bar stools the only furniture he found comfortable. His chosen family, consisting of unemployed neighborhood winos, socialist preachers, wandering braceros, and a few Asian gamblers from the underground parlors downtown, sat at those stools, and they were always there for him, even if this was the first time they’d met. He would pull aside the dirty curtain that separated the bar from the street and sit me up on the bar to accompany him while he drank. I learned to appreciate the green olives that were dipped out of a jar and served on a paper plate just for me, and all the maraschino cherries I could eat, sucking the sweet juice off my fingers, while the juke box blared, and my father soon forgot I was there. Many nights, I slept on a vacant pool table until the early hours of morning, or if the pool tables were in use, on three chairs arranged in a line to make a bed and covered by the ragged blue cotton jacket with the dark navy-blue piping that he always wore.
Once we almost had a house of our own. Not just any house or one of the shacks my mother and I sometimes lived in for a month or so. This was a grand house in the old Rampart section near MacArthur Park, where my mother and I sometimes slept for the night when we were evicted. The house was two stories, and looking back now, it was a mixture of Queen Anne and Craftsman. My father won it in a poker game in Chinatown one night and the next day we were up bright and early to check it out. There was a huge wooden porch, complete with cane rocking chairs and wicker tables, two stories and a steep maroon-carpeted staircase. I climbed to the second floor and slid down the wide banister which was made of shiny polished dark wood. I marveled at the green wallpaper covered in roses and at the old icebox in the kitchen. Of course, I picked out the bedroom under the eves with the most windows for myself and washed my hands at least fifty times in the sink with the copper faucets. I flushed the toilet that had the tank up near the ceiling until it stopped working. I was ready to move in, but it wasn’t in the cards, (no pun intended). Before my mother and I had a chance to pack up the old faithful shopping cart with whatever we owned, my father, probably feeling lucky again, gambled with his shifty friends and lost the house in another card game. That house remained there for probably the next twenty years, a large part of that time abandoned, and boarded up. Sometimes when I was driving by, I’d stop and walk around to the backyard where an old hammock hung suspended from two trees that shed rotted fruit now carpeting the ground. Somehow I pictured myself as becoming a different person if I’d lived there growing up, calmer, wiser. Something in that house called to me and wanted me to meld into it, to save it, and keep paradise from becoming another parking lot. Eventually it became a boarding house, first for pensioners, and later it seemed, crackheads, who sat on the front porch and called out to anybody walking by for spare change. About twenty years ago it was torn down and now it’s a convalescent home where at any random time I’ve seen them carrying out bodies on stretchers covered in white sheets.
Once summer night, when the tiny apartment my mother and I shared with one of her friends, (who my mother told me was now waiting for her arraignment in the County), I sat reading a library book, bored, and sweaty, baking in stifling heat, and wiping my long hair with a dish towel because the only window facing the ally was nailed shut. I’d recently heard about “praying,” from some of the kids who went to church. I prayed that Baby Jesus would send an electric fan, like the ones my friends had in their houses. Instead, my father knocked at the door and offered to take me to the liquor store to buy a popsicle. He said one popsicle wouldn’t violate the “no sugar policy and send me to an early grave.” But we didn’t go to the liquor store where everybody else bought their Big Sticks and Dreamsicles. Instead we drove over to MacArthur Park where my father said there would be Flamenco dancers performing. He said it matter-of-factly, as if I would know what that was. When I said I didn’t, he explained that they were a group of dancers from Spain and they were touring the United states. He’d read about them in a newspaper and thought it would be educational. Besides, it was free.
We parked near Leavitt Pavilion and squeezed in between other people packed close together in the cool grass. I remember grown people dressed up, talking and passing around picnic baskets and drinking out of brown paper bags just like my father did. I think that was one of the few times I remembered him sitting down next to me. I could smell the Tres Flores in his hair and count the number of cigarettes he had left in the pack stuck in his rolled-up sleeve. There was a strong wet breeze blowing off the lake and the algae that churned up to the surface gave off a sweet rotting smell that hung over the green hillside where people sat watching the stage. Men wearing large hats trimmed with silver were strumming guitars with force and stamping on the ground. The echo of the cords filled the grassy knoll as it bounced off the pavilion walls. The long full skirts the female dancers wore were all bright yellows and reds. All the women wore their very black hair pinned behind their necks and held their skirts up high and in front of them with one hand. They had heels that clacked in time to the castanets they carried in their hands as they danced in small circles. The large white flowers they wore behind their ears were magical. I thought they were the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I decided to stop praying for an electric fan and pray that I could grow up to look just like them, doubtful as that was.
The dancers whirled and clacked on the wooden stage and the people sitting around me yelled and cheered. I’m pretty sure I didn’t look away once until it was over. As soon as the crowd stood up to yell for an encore, my father got up and told me to wait for him. “I’ll be right back. You stay here.”
I sat and watched the people around me leave one, by one. It had turned dark a while back and it was starting to get damp. I didn’t have a sweater because I’d lost mine at school and there wasn’t one to replace it any time soon. I shivered and looked around for my father. The last time I saw him he was heading for the pavilion. I got up and went to find him. It didn’t take long. I walked straight down the grassy incline. The musicians were clearing out from the pit below the stage and the dancers were long gone. A few custodians patrolled the edge of the pavilion sweeping up trash into a metal garbage can. I walked around to the side of the stage. Nobody stopped me, so I followed the exit sign to the interior of the pavilion. Suddenly I could hear a voice that sounded like my father’s. But something was off. The voice was low and soft. I didn’t remember ever hearing him speak without anger. Always yelling and cursing. There was a second voice too, softer; a woman’s voice. Soothing. I followed the sounds to the back of the building. The sounds were getting louder, but when I opened the last door before the exit they stopped. My father was there, and so was one of the dancers. She was standing against the wall with her arms around my father’s neck, her hair dark and flying around her face, and my father’s blond head, with his slicked back hair buried in her neck. I saw right away that her full blue and red skirt with the big yellow petticoat was lying in a heap by her side. I stared, shocked, not so much by what I saw, because I was too young to understand that. Shocked, because I’d never seen my father this way, not with my mother. Not with anybody. I guess I ran away, all the way back to the car, trying to outrun the sight. My father didn’t say a word when he opened the door and I slid across the bench seat, except, “Get in.” We drove home without a word, and he dropped me off, not saying good-bye. I never said a word about it and didn’t get that popsicle either. He disappeared after that for what seemed like a long time in my child’s assessment. I heard talk about the Bank of America robbery on Vermont and Beverly. Some neighbors said he was the “wheelman,” and whomever was picked up, supposedly ratted him out. Every time I passed that bank near the corner I looked carefully, half expecting him to suddenly appear around the corner.
When I was fourteen, my father showed up again one day, just as if he’d never left. He was in the final stages of advanced lung cancer, still puffing on the Marlboros that he’d smoked since age twelve and choking while he lit another one. He always started lighting another cigarette, before crushing out the stub he was still smoking on the sidewalk or carpet with his shoe. Every time he inhaled, he coughed. The sound was wet and phlegmy, like a wrung-out mop. He bent over and held his chest, and whatever wall was available for support with his free arm. He’d lost so much weight that all his ribs and muscles seemed to ride on top of his skin. His normal tan had faded, and he was pale and gray underneath.
He died with only a pair of jeans and a pair of khakis to his name, so my mother sent me to the Goodwill to buy him a suit. I still remember taking the number 42 bus down to Main Street and explaining to the man at the register that I needed a burial suit. I didn’t know the size, but my mother provided me with his height, and I picked out a dark navy suit and a slightly yellowed white shirt from the clothing donations. The mortuary had to pin the suit almost twice around his body he was so skinny. I was working nights cleaning motels then, so I emptied out my bank account and put it together with whatever money my mother could borrow to pay for the funeral. We buried him at the Home of Peace, in East Los Angeles, right up against the back of the cemetery that was separated from the street by a chain link fence. After the service, some Cholos he was chummy with, poured beer on his grave by way of tribute as was the custom where we lived.
My father’s family, who lived on the Westside, was notified about the funeral and they were all there on that day, standing next to their black limousines, complete with drivers. My mother and I arrived, by bus. I looked on, bewildered by all of these blond or red-haired beings, the woman tall and elegant, slim and stylish like so many magazine models. It was the midst of the hippie era. I was wearing a very-short print dress and sandals, that I carried in my hand. (No bra of course). They all stared back at me in curiosity. One of the men spoke briefly to my mother, but no one else approached us. The service was short, and mostly in Hebrew, so I had no idea what was said. His family members all left abruptly after the service was over. They piled into their black cars and I never saw or heard from them again.
When my father died, he left a white 1961 Chevy Impala parked in front of the shack where we lived. He drove it there when he came home that last time to die and never moved it once he stepped inside. With a little work it would have made a perfect lowrider. I left it alone for months after his funeral, too uncomfortable with his memory to even start the engine. Instead I learned to drive in an old battered Datsun owned by the family of a boyfriend who gave me free reign in the parking lot of Los Angeles City College. When I finally started driving the Chevy, the teenage boys in the neighborhood looked on with envy. Later I tried to sell it when I got a job as a letter carrier and bought a new yellow 1970 Volkswagen convertible. I managed to pass off the sale of the Impala without a pink slip, but later the man I sold it to brought it back claiming it was stolen. I gave him back his two hundred dollars and parked it back in the street. Somebody stole it that same night. Problems sometimes resolved themselves easily in that neighborhood.
About five years ago I happened to be in the part of town where his cemetery was located. I hadn’t visited his grave in all these years, so I decided it was time to see it and check out my feelings about him now. I remembered clearly where his grave was located, by the back fence. I started walking the perimeter along the chain link fence and walked along it from north to south. Then I backtracked and walked it again. I didn’t see the headstone, so I walked around the entire interior area. I took off my heels so I could walk over the uneven and rocky soil between the graves too. Just in case I was wrong. I didn’t want to miss it. There was no headstone for my father in the surrounding areas of the cemetery either. I asked in the office and found out that the cemetery was now owned and managed by some corporation. Ownership had changed hands numerous times it seemed, or so I was told. The woman at the desk was only able to locate one set of records for the grounds that corresponded to the year of 1965. My father was listed as being buried there. After that, there was a long gap in records for the coming years. The later records didn’t show his gravesite at all, and the woman I spoke with didn’t know any more than that. She suggested I file an inquiry, but that it would all come back to the records she had in storage at the cemetery. She couldn’t help me, she said.
I went and sat outside and thought about it for a while. Probably, my father’s grave had gone the way of many others in cemeteries in the older parts of town like this one. The newspapers occasionally ran stories that said older gravesites were often plowed over, and newer graves were placed on top of them. That seemed like a logical explanation for its disappearance. I walked back in and asked the woman about my conclusion. She avoided the question and said that maybe I was confused about where he was buried. I argued with her for a while, a little indignant. No, I did not forget! The argument went nowhere. She wasn’t to blame. Really. Maybe I’ll go back another time.
So now, my father’s memory is nothing more than hazy images, summoning up fragments of places and conversations we had. There’s no sense of who he really was, or why he lived his life the way he did. I only have one photo of him, because neither he nor my mom owned a camera. The photo is black and white, frayed and fading. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat of a 1952 convertible facing the camera. My mother scratched out his face with black marker the last time he went to jail, but I can still see the top of his blond head and the pack of cigarettes rolled up in the cuff of his tee-shirt. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t smiling. I don’t remember a smile.