Lucia at home, Alcatraz Avenue, Oakland July 1989 (Copyright © 2009 by Alastair M. Johnston)
LUCIA BERLIN died on her 68th birthday, November 12, 2004. Though she was older than me I felt paternal towards her because she had the same birthday as my son and because she so often seemed like the young girl in her stories. She had a girlish laugh and was fragile so I felt protective of her. I met her when she was first emerging as a writer. She was struggling with alcoholism and a lifetime of various addictions, pain pills for her back (she had scoliosis), cigarettes, and her attraction to men who had worse habits. She cleaned people's houses, worked as a waiting room nurse and her incredible stories gradually made it into typescript. When Holbrook Teter and Michael Myers of Zephyrus Image press in Healdsburg published her Manual for Cleaning Ladies in 1977 everyone was knocked out by the humor, beauty, detail and powerful signs of a great writer. There was a Southern Gothic quality to her writing, like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, but with a hip modernity. Though there are touches of Magic Realism in her work it is not really fiction, it ALL seems to be somehow autobiographical. In 1981 her first collection appeared from Turtle Island, called Angel's Landromat (it included Manual for Cleaning Ladies, retitled "Maggie May"). I secured the next piece, entitled Legacy, about helping her racist Texan grandfather pull out all his own teeth. We printed 100 copies, half on hand-made paper and elegantly bound by Schuberth, with cover art by Michael Thorn Bradley. In 1984 Tombouctou published her next collection, Phantom Pain (which included Legacy, retitled "Dr H.A. Moynihan"). I remember being at a party with Michael Wolfe, the Bolinas publisher, who wanted to use that particular shade of pink that Lucia loved for the cover of the book. She had a pink shawl on and Michael was surreptitiously holding up a Pantone color swatch book behind her trying to get the number of the matching shade of pink. "What's going on?" asked Lucia looking over her shoulder.
Lucia was impeccable. She stood erect, one knee bent, feet turned out, like a model. In fact she had been a model for Sears in the fifties. She had a particular perfume she always wore and covered herself with tan makeup to look like she'd just got back from Mexico, though sometimes she looked quite orange. She lived in a little cottage on Bateman Street in Berkeley near Alta Bates hospital, then off Telegraph opposite the Jack-in-the-Box. Late at night one of the young employees would sing on the microphone when no one was using the drive-through window so she would hear this disembodied voice of Jack serenading her. I lived in the neighborhood and would run into her. Once she was sitting on a wall on College Avenue. I asked her what was up and saw she was clearly drunk. I think I need to go home she said, so I took her home. Then we lived catty-corner from one another on Alcatraz and Telegraph but there was an ARCO sign preventing us from signaling out our windows. We joked about running a string with two tin cans to communicate like kids. With encouragement of Ed & Jenny Dorn and support from her kids and friends she was getting past her demons and enjoyed writing the wealth of stories she had accumulated. In 1977 she had written to Dorn, "P.S. 42 days sober. Think I'm going to make it. Hard to write without Jim Beam, on the other hand I can read what I wrote the next day."
She also enjoyed her work in the emergency room, particularly when the tragi-comic entered, like the guy who slipped on a banana peel. Or the jockey who'd been thrown from his horse which resulted in a lyrical story about him ("My Jockey").
One of her best friends was Huey Newton's mom, Amelia. Newton was of course co-founder of the Black Panther Party in 1967, but in the 1980s, his life spiraled downwards. He ran a red light a couple of blocks from here, at Telegraph and Parker, where cops regularly sit to pick off drivers speeding back to Oakland. The cops found a gun in his car and busted him as he was on probation for possession of crack cocaine. Back on the street, he was murdered in a drug deal. Lucia went to his funeral: it was a mob scene. She struggled to get to the church. "Let the white lady through," someone yelled. "It's Huey's aunt, his aunt is coming through." I told her to write his biography, or at last get down what she knew in her own words. It would have been a remarkable take on the revolutionary as only she could have written, but perhaps for once it was too tragic.
"My Jockey" appeared in The Berkeley Monthly and won the Jack London Award for best short story in 1984. The losers griped that it was really too short to qualify! Lucia called me, terrified. I have to go to this lunch and make a speech, will you come with me? she asked. The lunch was at Spenger's Seafood Grotto, a long-established Berkeley institution. We sat in the darkened cave of a banqueting hall, though it was a lovely summer day outside. Where are the windows? we wondered. The lunch was de-boned chicken. Somehow, they left the word "rubber" out of the title. Then the MC got up. He was a parody of a 1950s Lion's Club roast host in a loud plaid jacket, a bullet haircut and hornrims. He had a grey complexion and looked like he drank a quart of vodka a day. He looks like Dennis the Menace's dad, I murmured. No, he looks like a wife-beater and child molester, Lucia muttered back. Well, who do we have here? he asked looking right at us. Lucia was struck dumb. Er, I'm Lucia Berlin, she said. He looked blank. ...The winner? she added. Oh, right, yes Lucy we'll get to you in a minute, he said and launched into his repartee. Things took a serious turn for the worse when he introduced the keynote speaker, a well-known author unquote. The guy was another freak. I'm a Junitarian, he announced. I was born a Jew but now I am a Unitarian minister. He was a writer, apparently, and said how he sat at his typewriter every morning and waited for inspiration to flow through him "like feed through a loose goose." Then we discovered the secret of his success. He had written a novel about the civil war. It had a catchy title, "Light in September," "The Blue Badge of Courage" or something like that. Problem was the title sounded a bit like another book. Well that wasn't actually a problem as the other book got optioned by a film studio and, in order to prevent anyone confusing the two, the producers had paid him an astronomical figure for the rights to his title. It was a long and very boring afternoon. In solidarity with Lucia I was not drinking. Finally we got to the award. Lucia won the complete works of Jack London in paperback, in a really shoddy series. Next day she was even more mortified when she was waiting to sell them at Moe's Book in Berkeley and the wife-beating compere recognized her as he walked by.
In 1988 Frances & I published Safe & Sound, her third collection, from Poltroon Press. She wanted to find something to occupy her, but had been fired from a succession of jobs for falling off the wagon. She seemed determined to keep it together this time. I asked her if she wanted to come and work at the press. She jumped at the notion and was radiant at the idea of learning to run the Linotype machine, though it's a completely redundant technology. It had taken me seven years to become competent on the machine, but it was still very temperamental. When things are going well (which is not always) it is faster than hand-setting type, and it is ideal for longer works. The keyboard is one-handed so the layout is not QWERTY. You've probably heard of ETAOIN SHRDLU which is the descending order of the first two rows of keys (& not a Gaelic toast). When things go wrong and you hear impending disaster in the clanking of the machinery, you have to quickly put in the clutch to stop the machine. Problem is the clutch handle is down below the pot (of molten lead). And when things go wrong you get a squirt, which doesn't begin to describe the volcanic eruption of molten lead which comes right out of the front of the machine towards the operator. For this reason you always wear long pants and I used an office chair on castors so I could kick back from the machine and roll away, ending up with spatters of shiny metal on my jeans, like Ziggy Stardust. With practice I could kick off with my left foot on the clutch pedal and often avert disaster, though sometimes in my zeal the chair would tip over backwards. Lucia came over, undaunted at the prospect of this arcane craft. She sized up the 2000-pound iron hulk, ticking away in the corner. "Where does the paper go?" she asked. But Lucia was careful and meticulous. I explained to her the importance of a tight line, but not too tight, and how to manually insert the extra thin spaces that improved the look, but often were the cause of casting problems. She got into the finer points of typography and, as a writer, really became absorbed with the subtleties of spacing, kerning and word division that most readers don't see. Pretty soon she was rewriting her work as she set it in order to get a better-looking line. This is a danger I warned her against.
What had started out as a proposed novella, "Andado," quickly turned into her next collection of a dozen stories, illustrated by Frances Butler (& still in print if you would like to buy a copy). She brought over her jazz tapes. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" by Lester Young was her favorite. We talked about books and writing a great deal. She liked Flaubert and the Russians. She gave me G. Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers and a novel by Michael Ondaatje.
One day she came in with a brand new story, sat down and keyboarded it over the next three days. Then she reread the story in the metal (unproofed) and dumped the slugs back into the hellbox for return to the melting pot. "Don't I even get to see it?" I complained. She explained how the process of setting the story in hot metal had helped her see that it was false. We laughed that it was the ultimate rare edition. But she also admitted that by mastering the Linotype she had begun to trust her instinct as a writer and got over the compulsion to rewrite as she went, though she changed all her ellipses to semicolons as she knew the dots with four thin spaces in the line was begging for a squirt.
She met an old newspaperman at her AA group and impressed him with her tale that she was a Lady Linotype operator. There are fifteen places on a Linotype to hide a bottle of bourbon, he told her, knowingly. (Fine if you like warm bourbon.)
Safe and Sound ended up being 100 pages long (and there are 33 lines to a page), so she became quite adept on the machine. But then one July day there was a grinding crunk and the machine stopped mid-cycle. I rushed over from the proof-press where I was making up the pages. A line of matrices dangled in the air. She had left an oil rag on the edge of the pot and it had become entangled in the gears and slowly wound itself into the mechanism, freezing the machine. It was a hot day and the two of us were wedged into the corner behind the machine trying to get at the rag with scissors, screwdriver and tweezers but it wasn't going anywhere. We could set fire to it, said Lucia. Are you kidding? I asked, this thing is covered in oil, the whole place would go up. Eventually I decided there was nothing for it but to call Al Schifano.
Al was a retired machinist who saved me many times. He enjoyed coming out and working on the machine though he had cataracts on his eyes and was reluctant to drive up from Fremont. I didn't like to take advantage of his kindness but occasionally I would call him and he would tell me, over the phone, what to do. It was like landing a jet after the pilot has collapsed, and I imagine just as complex. Okay, make sure the clutch is in, he would begin. Right, round the back of the second elevator there's a dog-leg sticking out. Is it loose? I'd check and come back. No, I'd say. Right you need to back off the third cam, he'd say, and I'd put the phone down and try to figure out which one was the third cam. This time his advice was succinct. My apprentice has dropped a rag into the gears and it's stuck, I said. Well, said Al, there's nothing for it but a controlled burn.
We soaked the rag in kerosene, and I stood by with the fire extinguisher while Lucia set fire to it. The smell abated and the machine returned to normal operation.
I learned a lot about writing from Lucia. How she would start with something as simple as the line of a jaw or a yellow mimosa, which spurred "Andado" and was her Madeleine cookie entree to that novella. Her writing was cathartic but instead of building to an epiphany she would evoke the climax more circumspectly, let the reader sense it. As Gloria Frym said in the American Book Review, she would "underplay it, surround it and let the moment reveal itself." I thought "Andado" was a beautiful erotic story. No, it was much more brutal than that, it was more like rape, she said. She had turned it into a telenovela to exorcise some demons of her past.
There was another story called "Itinerary" that I admired. I love that description of your aunt at the airport, I said, how you sank into her great body like a chaise. The truth is, she admitted, no one met me. I thought of that image the other day and as I was writing that story just worked it in.
"It would be nice, of course if I could just walk along stumbling upon tin cans or Pekingese puppies which would inspire me to write a story," she said, "but the image has to connect to a specific intense experience.
"Often the recalled emotion is painful, the remembered event very ugly. For the story to work the writing itself must rinse or freeze the initial impulse. Somehow there must occur the most imperceptible alteration of reality. A transformation, not a distortion of the truth. The story itself becomes the truth, not just for the writer but for the reader. In any good piece of writing it is not an identification with a situation, but this recognition of truth that is thrilling."
Copyright © 2004 by Alastair M. Johnston; this piece originally appeared in the Chicago Review, 2005 and is included in my book of essays, ... [Ellipsis], Berkeley: Poltroon, 2008