Dec 7, 2013
Los Angeles Noir
Posted on Oct 5, 2011
We ordered tamales and beers and sat down at one of the three tables. Smokey started right up talking to Berta in Spanish, asking her about lodging in the area. She allowed there was a room upstairs if we didn’t mind sharing the outhouse with a white man. What’s a white man doing down here? I asked. Berta sat down and told us all about him, a fellow named Jim, who was hiding out from some bad hombres, but a polite man, and handy too. Handy with what, I asked. “Todo!” she said. “He fix la estufa, el eléctrico, el baño! El baño es muy bueno.” I made an arrangement with Berta and we moved upstairs. By then it was showtime. Smokey invited Berta to the Lanes, but she said they didn’t allow Mexicans where dancing and bowling was going on simultaneously.
I couldn’t keep my mind off the boardinghouse trailer idea. After work, I tried to sketch it out. I could hear the bedsprings squeaking and creaking upstairs, but it didn’t bother me. The trailer dealer had told me a custom job as I described it would probably cost five thousand dollars. I decided to keep the cost down to under four thousand dollars if possible. I’d have to sleep and feed enough boarders to make payments plus a profit. Eight boarders at sixteen to twenty-five dollars a week would pay the bills and fatten my bank account. Each boarder would need a bunk, a locker, and there’d have to be enough room so guys wouldn’t be falling over one another. Two washbasins. What had seemed like a simple job at first was becoming a matter of logistics.
The slats in the bed upstairs went blametyblam, crash! and Berta screamed. Then the floor got to squeaking in rhythm. A radio played boleros. Somebody was smoking outside. I followed the smoke, and it was a little man sitting in a metal chair in the backyard, in the moonlight. “Buenas noches,” I said.
“Five to one, I know why you’re here,” the man answered in a soft voice.
“My partner and I just hit town. We’re musicians,” I said.
“I lose. Smoke?” He put his tin can ashtray down and held out the pack. I took one, and he lit it and used the light to study me. I got a look at him—older and scrawny the way a hobo looks, but with the watchful eyes of a smart man.
“Thanks. I’m Al Maphis. Gambling man?”
“Jim McGee. I have been, off and on. Ended up here, somehow. I like Mexicans, they don’t push.”
“You were expecting somebody else?”
“Always, ever since my last bad hand. Up in Joplin, it was. I saw that Buick of yours out front. That’s an interesting vehicle. You could go straight across the country without ever stopping.”
“We have, on occasion.”
“What’s in the big box over top, if I may ask?”
“Water tank, and the instruments ride up there. String bass and drum set. I’m the drummer, Ray’s the bass. We’re appearing nightly here in town.” McGee seemed to relax a little. He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the black sky streaked with clouds.
“I never saw a night sky like you get out here,” he said. “Ever been in Joplin?”
“Never worked up there. This is a crap town. Arizona is a crap state and very nonswinging unless you like to sit and watch clouds.”
“I can still get my kicks. All I need is a stake.”
I let the line out a little. “Berta tells me you’re quite the mechanic.”
“Master machinist, first grade. I was head tool and dye maker at Martin-Marietta in the war.”
“That a fact? I wonder if you could help me. I got a moneymaking idea, but I need expertise. See, Jim, music is a two-bit racket. You can’t get ahead unless you make records and the mob controls that, so what’s a drummer supposed to do? But I been around out here in the West, and I found out one main thing. This roadbuilding and oildrilling and increased population since the war, it depends on housing. Housing is the key. You can’t have workers on the job if they can’t afford to live. Then they can spend the rest of their money on music and girls and booze.”
“On crooked cards and loaded dice and horses,” McGee said.
“I’d sure like to show you my ideas. I bet a trained man like you could figure everything out to the nickel.”
“See you tomorrow.” I left him there in his chair with his smokes and his clouds.
Excepted from “Los Angeles Stories” by Ry Cooder. Published by City Lights Publishers, October 2011. Used with the permission of City Lights. Copyright Ry Cooder. All rights reserved.
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