Thursday, November 12, 2020

Booze, Seizures, and Television


     I had notes and questions I’d planned on asking my uncle about his days growing up on Los Angeles’ westside, the communities close to the Pacific Coast, some twenty miles from the East L.A. the Chicano heartland.

     He spoke English, kind of a 1930s Bogie drawl, but would slip into calo (Chicano slang) now and again, an accent my dad once told me Westside Chicanos picked up from growing up with Okies and spending most Saturdays watching gangster movies at the two theaters along Santa Monica boulevard, the Tivoli and the Nu-Art.

     Instead of waiting for my questions, my uncle, Mike Escarcega, whose real name is Narciso, a name he never used, started asking me questions, or he just spoke about himself or his family, random memories, like the early days right after the war, and his oldest brother Roy, who died in the 1950s.

     "Ah, the cops. Beat him up. We couldn't find him. Yeah, he was already married and had kids--David, Chris…and… I can’t remember the others.

     "You know where the Airport Drugstore is in Santa Monica, on Pico boulevard. Next door there used to be a market. Roy ran the market. That was his. But way before that, when he was working at Douglas, he was honored as 'the most promising Chicano' at Douglas [Aircraft Company].”

     I'd guess, in the 1940s, Douglas probably didn't use the term Chicano but Mexican-American.

     Douglas Aircraft was located in Santa Monica on Ocean Park Boulevard. During WWII and into the 1960s, Douglas Aircraft was one of the largest employers on the Westside, employing many Mexican-American men, veterans, and keeping three-shifts of workers going, 24-hrs. a day.

     “They gave him a big write-up in the newspaper [the now defunct Santa Monica Evening Outlook]. And then he got the store and managed it for a while. He used to tell me to come down and get some fruit, so I'd go. He was like the produce buyer. He'd go buy all the stuff and then sell it, like a supplier. He did that for a lot of years. Then he had a drugstore over there in ah—in Whittier…up there where all the Chicanos lived.

     "One day I was visiting him in the drugstore in Whittier. It was across from…where? Ah, the projects where all the Chicano-guys live. I remember two guys came into the store and were arguing with him.

     I said, 'Hey, Roy, do you have to take that shit from those guys?' He said, 'Hey Mike, I'm here to take their money, not fight with them.’” He burst out laughing. “Swear to God. That's what he said, 'Take their money, not fight with them.'

     "Well, he started to drink, you know, hanging out with other businessman, going to dinners and all that. One day the cops had him [in jail] and thought he was drunk, but no, he was having a seizure. He used to get them, even when we were kids. The cops didn’t believe him and beat him up. Back then, they didn't give a shit whether you were sick or what. They kept him in jail until he healed up some, and then they took him to the hospital.

     “We had all been all been looking for him. We didn't know where he was.”

     Apparently, the police hadn’t notified the family.

     "The [cops] didn't do nothing [for him].”

     Due to his brother's bruises, Mike suspected that the police beat him, then took him to the hospital when they realized his serious condition.

     “Paul Coates was the one who took the case. My brother Peanuts [Rufino Escarcega] went up there to the studio and talked to him, Paul Coates, to tell him about it."

     Paul Coates' an early 1950s television reporter produced one of the most popular and widely watched programs in Los Angeles, Confidential File. On his show, he investigated controversial crimes that occurred in Los Angeles.

     When the police and the city refused to answer the family’s questions after Roy’s death, my uncle Peanuts went to the station and described the situation to Coates, who decided the case was worth televising and interviewed my uncle Peanuts on his program.

     "Peanuts was on T.V. telling him about Roy's seizures, and how they [the police] didn't call the family. It was just…buried, like how they used to do in those days. But now you can't do shit like that, not today.

     “When we went to go see Roy in the hospital, Roy looked at me, really nervous, and he said to me, 'I’m scared.'

     At the time, my uncle didn’t understand what his brother meant. Why would he be scared in the hospital. He said Roy looked like he was getting better. Mike’s voice lowered, “Then we got home, and they told us he had passed away. In the hospital he looked okay, but he kept saying, 'I'm scared.’ Roy whispered to me, ‘They all thought I was drunk.' But he wasn’t drunk. He was having seizures. So, I think they [the police] beat him again [in the hospital]."

     Mike said Roy’s wife, and his brothers and sisters, believed something happened to Roy in the hospital. Maybe they didn’t want Roy talking about the beating he suffered in jail, or to go to an attorney and bring suit against the LAPD.
      No longer the silent Mexicans of the past generation, Mike, his brother Peanuts, both WWII veterans, and sister Elia, raised and schooled in L.A., demanded an investigation. They wanted to sue the city of Los Angeles, but Roy's family didn't pursue it.

     "What happened was," Mike said, "Roy got to drinking too much. He got in with a bunch of guys…businessmen; you know how they are? Before you know it, well, he started associating with those guys, even when he lived here in West L.A. You know, people from City Terrace and places like that. That was supposed to be the Chicano Beverly Hills at that time.”

     He laughed as he thought about his brother, and said, "I remember when Roy and his wife, Josie, lived down here on Virginia Street in Santa Monica. You know the milk man used to deliver milk and eggs and put them inside the kitchen door. Peanuts used to go over Roy's in the morning, reach in and open the door in the kitchen, and man, he’d 'go to town' on everything, drink up all Roy’s milk and stuff. Roy blamed me, but I said it wasn't me, and he'd go after Peanuts. 'Peanuts!' he'd say, 'goddamn Peanuts!'

     He laughed. “I used to tell Roy's wife, 'Well, Josie, tell Peanuts not to do it. Don't let him get away with it."

     Just then, my uncle’s wife, my aunt Toni, who had been listening, interrupted. "Oh, boy, Roy used to bring me his shirts, so I could wash and dry them before he got home because he knew Josie would smell the alcohol. That’s how much he was drinking."

     Mike said, "But he didn't drink when he was young. It really wasn't until he started associating with those business guys. Before you know it…the bottle. He started hiding bottles all over our house.”

     Mike added, as if reminding me, "You know, the guys from around here, Sawtelle, those guys used to drink a lot of wine. But those businessmen, they drank hard liquor, like whiskey. A couple of shots of that stuff and…ahhh. I drank beer but that was about it. I used to see the guys from around here, like your dad, Raymond, and uncles, David, Nick, and the other guys, like Chato, Rocky, nah, shit. I didn't want to get like that. Rocky used to sit in the back yard with Muscatel."

     Toni said, "When we lived on Cotner, we used to see them sitting out there drinking…all day long, just drinking."

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