Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Last of the Rule Breakers

          by daniel cano                                                                    

Stoner Park, home of the rule breakers

     The tough thing about writing a story like this is that I’m not sure whom I’m writing to. Then, there’s the wording, like in that first sentence. Let’s look at it. I don’t like using the word “whom” because it makes me feel like I’m trying too hard to impress someone. Who am I trying to impress? I don’t know. Or maybe I do but ain’t saying.

     So, I’d rather use “who” but the spell check on my computer won’t let me. It places a blue line under the word telling me that the “who” is used incorrectly, and it isn’t hard to figure out how to correct it. So, I’m stuck with “whom” unless I want to change the whole sentence and turn “whom”, the object, into “who” the subject, which I don’t.

     English teachers haunt me, going back to the third grade, giving us instructions like never ending a sentence with a preposition. But there it is at the end of my first sentence, the preposition “to” and it doesn’t sound so bad. It makes sense, but the rules…the rules must be obeyed, and I’m not, by nature, a rule breaker, like many people I know.

     Reminds me of a line in the play Zoot Suit, when the main character Hank Reyna questions the darkness in his life and wants more light, and his spirit, El Pachuco, says, “But, life ain’t that way, Hank,” as if something bigger than us controls the rules.

     In 1990, I read a review of Thomas Pynchon’s newest novel, Vineland. Before the book's publication, Pynchon's editor told the famed writer the opening sentence was a dangling modifier, grammatically incorrect. He should change it. Pynchon, supposedly, asked his editor, “Do you understand the sentence?”

     The editor, “Of course.”

     Pynchon, “Then leave it.”

     So, off I went to the local bookstore. In an impressive display reserved for top-selling writers, the bookstore had stacked Pynchon's books right next to the other "big boys" in American letters. I opened the book to the first page. God almighty, there it was, the very first sentence, a dangling modifier; though, I would have said it was more “misplaced” than “dangling.” Had I not read the review of Pychon’s book, I wouldn’t have known about the dangling modifier. Imagine, a writer like Pynchon, a rule breaker. Then, again, weren’t many of the "world’s greats” rule-breakers?

     I’m tired of obeying the rules, not just in writing but in life. Still, though, I’m one of those people who tries to follow the guiding light, you might say. So, I question every word I write, and I’m not even into the story, yet. See what I mean. Okay, even there, by writing the phrase: “see what I mean.” Should that line end with a question mark or a period? Is it a declarative sentence or interrogative? Does a writer have a choice? See, these kinds of things go through my mind, and I’ve nearly forgotten the story I was starting to write. What was once percolating is now simmering.

     Now, the first question I raised, “to whom am I writing?” often determines in which style I write. Do I want to use “vocabulary-chasing words?” You know, the words William Buckley and the James brothers throw around, no not the outlaw gunslingers, Jesse and Frank James, but the word-slingers, Henry and William James, famed novelist and philosopher.

     Well, those might be bad examples. Buckley and the James’ knew and understood the words they use, highly literate individuals. I know some writers who use a particular word, think the word is too simple, and make a dash to the thesaurus to find a more complex word. This gives the impression of intelligence and profundity, doesn’t it? Hell, I’m guilty of it. But I don’t want to struggle when I write, especially now, when the story I'm imagining is quickly cooling.

     Sometimes, I want to write to an audience that reads the New Yorker, or at least that’s what I unconsciously try for. Why? I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s so great about the New Yorker. When I used to read it, I didn’t know where one article ended and another began; though I must admit, it’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a copy. I figured that the New Yorker doesn’t really write for New Yorkers, especially not New Yorkers I’ve met. Besides, I’m from out west, California, the land of outlaws.

     I have published three novels and a few short stories. I’m guessing at least five thousand people have read my work, maybe more, maybe less. Occasionally I get a letter from a faraway city, like Philadelphia, or an email from England, even Spain. A Spanish student, a Ph. D candidate at the University of Burgos, was doing a dissertation on Chicanos and the Vietnam War. It just so happened my second novel was on that very topic. So, we corresponded for over a year. She even sent me a study by a Spanish professor in the Canary Islands who quoted from my book, Chicanos in Vietnam. So, you see, someone is reading our stuff.

     The man who wrote me from England, very respectful, asked me if I’d donate, autograph, and send him a few books. He was going to auction them off at a fundraiser in Manchester, England to raise money for physically challenged children, a group he has dedicated his life to helping. Auction, my books? I thought, as I read his letter. Who is going to put up money in a lottery for one of my books? 

     So, I sent him the books, attached with a letter thanking him for his effort. He wrote me back a few months later and said the auction was a HIT! His organization raised more money than he expected and my books went quickly. He asked if there was a possibility of my going to Manchester for a reading. What’s going on in Manchester that I don’t know about? Northern English folk read Chicano literature? Man, Chicanos don’t even read Chicano literature. Oh yeah, so back to my story.

     My cousin was a true rule breaker, who led something of a sad life, even if he was always laughing. He spent most of his life in prison, for drugs, of course, starting at an early age. He’s one of those statistics prison activists throw around to show how incarceration isn’t working. Look at all of those who spend their lives in and out of jail. Then you read the stats: “He’s spent two-thirds of his life behind bars.” Is that rehabilitation?

     Actually, one time a local newspaper gave Eddie the moniker: the Westside cat-robber, or some such name, claiming he’d committed fifty burglaries. When another cousin of mine asked him about it, Eddie had said, “That’s wrong, primo. I didn’t do fifty robberies. It wasn’t more than twenty.”

     Well, that’s Eddie. You name it, Folsom, Soledad, Pelican-Bay, San Quintin, Chino—county, state and federal prisons. If it’s in California and it’s got bars, he’s been there, earning a few boxing titles and the respect of other prisoners along the way. When I mentioned his name to Chicano inmate turned poet Manuel “Manazar” Gamboa, Manazar started looking at me differently, like I was "kin" to a celebrity or something. “Hell, yes, I knew Eddie,” Manazar had said. “Everybody knew Eddie. Good people, ay.”

     So, when I thought about writing Eddie’s story, a friend asked why I would write about him. I told her about Eddie’s life, how hard he’d had it as a kid. Then she started to lecture me about writing that romanticized the worst of the Latino culture. I told her that I’m not romanticizing it. I’m just writing a story, a pretty sad story, really, hoping others wouldn't follow his footsteps. I’m not even sure how it will turn out. I don’t even know to whom I’m writing, what audience.

     Then she said it didn’t matter to whom I was writing or what slant I took on it. It’s a topic that negatively stereotypes Latino culture. Why can’t I write stories about Chicano professionals--people who have succeeded beyond all expectations, teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, MBAs, CEOs, presidents of banks and corporations. I told her I’m not writing for Hispanic Magazine. I don’t know most of those people, anyway, even though I am one of them. Alright, I confess. I was a university administrator and a college professor. I taught at a respected community college in Los Angeles, which shall go, as they say, “unnamed.”

     I love higher education. It saved me. I requested an “early-out” from the military to go to college. I didn’t really care about college. I just wanted out of the military, and that was one way, an “early-out” to enroll in college. So, I kind of fell into the scholastic life, a world foreign to me, at the time. I never even liked school, as a kid.

     After I returned from Vietnam, I needed a sanctuary, a monastery, and I found a university campus worked just fine, the history, the quiet, the trees and plants, the silent walkways, the bells ringing, birds chirping, but I don’t want to get into any of that now. That’s a whole other story. See there. My tendency was to write “nother” instead of “other,” which is completely illiterate, but it felt good when I got the sound. It felt natural and real, even pure. But it’s wrong, linguistically and every other way.

     Hell, that’s my life, trying to give legitimacy to what ain’t always legitimate, just like a like a lot of Chicanos and working-class Americans. Anyway, back to the story.

     I’m trying to plot Eddie’s life in my mind. Remember, this is just a story, and I know I can’t wrap up a complicated life in one measly story, so I’ve got to find a structure, a format to carry the weight. Like if I can come up with a symbol, an extended-metaphor, definitely not a parable because there’s nothing spiritual in Eddie’ life--miraculous, maybe?

     You don’t know how many times he’s told me, “Primo, it’s miracle the cops didn’t get me,” during such-and-such incident in his life. Or how it was a miracle if so-and-so wasn’t there when Eddie had overdosed, or he would have died. He said it was a miracle he was still alive, miracle after miracle. To hear him tell it, you would be surprised he has only spent two-thirds of his life locked up. Listening to him, I mean if he wasn’t hustling you, you’d wonder how he ever saw a day of freedom.

     But he did see freedom. In fact, for a while, it was a running, sick, joke. People would see Eddie on the street in summer, and by late fall, somewhere around the third week in October, he’d be “busted” again and herded off to jail, where, everybody figured, was his plan, to spend the cold winter months off the street, in a warm cell, three-hots and a cot, instead of freezing in an alley someplace, having to worry about robbing somebody or breaking into a house because it was the only way to make enough money for a quick score.

     A drug appetite running hundreds of dollars a day can’t be easily fed. A job? Don’t be funny. Who, without an education or training, makes that kind of money legally? Eddie quit school early, probably the seventh or eighth grade. Mentally, he had checked-out of school in the third grade. I mean his body was there, but his mind was someplace else. Dumb? No way. Though, he could play it up to get sympathy, when he needed it.

     I remember getting a letter from him once when I was in college, a struggling student, which he knew. I forgot where he was locked up at the time. The letter came in an envelope decorated in overly stylized but perfectly penciled spirals, leaves, hearts, and flowers, beautifully sketched in multi-shaded colors, the work of a real street artist. As far as I know, Eddie couldn’t draw a cat or write a clear, coherent sentence, but he knew how to barter services with people who did.

     Eddie’s letter was transcendental. It moved smoothly from philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, God, Satan, heaven, hell, positivity, existentialism, quoting Socrates and Sartre, and saying how he had “seen the light.” It wasn’t Eddie, at least not until I got to the last line when he asked me to send him twenty bucks. That was the Eddie I knew. I wrote him back but didn’t send him the money. None of the relatives sent him money, anymore, too many years of it, the twenties, and afraid of enabling him.

     Oh, the family talked fondly of Eddie. Everyone knew he’d had a rough life, losing his mother to cancer when he was twelve and raised by a “fall-down” drunk father, a bullish but sensitive man, funny, artistic, when sober, who lived in life’s shadows, a skilled tradesman who couldn’t hold a job for more than a few days, so he passed Eddie off to whichever relatives would take him.

     People felt for Eddie but couldn’t trust him. Too many times he had broken the hearts of those who tried to help him. Okay, maybe I’ll start the story there, the day my dad asked if I’d drive him up north to visit Eddie. “Up north,” was a euphemism for prison. My dad, who didn't like travel, or driving long distances, but enjoyed the comfort of his Lazy Boy, asked, sheepishly, “Pobre, Eddie. He’s got no one. Maybe we should drive up north and go visit him.” Eddie was 50, at the time.

     I don’t know. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I can go there, into that dark place, those heavy emotions, pain and sadness, which is where artists must go to create meaningful art. I just don’t have it in me, sad, sad, sad. Then it came, the call from someone who had found Eddie in an alley near Venice Beach, dead, apparently, or ironically, of natural causes, last, in our family, of the rule breakers.

Daniel Cano's award-winning novel on the last days of Ricardo Flores Magon, Death and the American Dream is available on Amazon and the Bilingual Press.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your primos story. My son, Daniel was 50 and led a similar lifestyle as your cuz! He left this world on Jan 14th and is no longer in pain of his addictions and poor choices. He is with his ancestors and laughing about his life and how he was a rebel and never played by the rules! He is free. I loved your heart warming story. Bless you, Daniel Chacon .

Daniel Cano said...

Thanks, Daniel. I suspect many of us have experienced this type of loss, and it never gets easier. I also truly enjoy your writing. Best to you.