Slim pickings from Fat City
Lately I’ve been reading Fat City, the circa-1969 novel by Leonard Gardner. The book is set is 1950s Stockton, and was adapted for a film a few years later by director John Huston. I’d gone back to the central city of the place where I grew up a few months ago, one night to see my old pals the Authorities at some hole in the wall on Weber Avenue near the old Western Auto store, and the next night at the old Fox California Theater on Main Street, which got renamed the Bob Hope Center for the Performing Arts a while back, to see the Authorities open for Pavement. After that show, which was an unexpectedly sad and intense experience for me, I stood on the landing out behind the stage with Brian from the Authorities, my friends Kelly and Jeff, and Steve and Mark from Pavement, talking about life in the San Joaquin. Mark was the only one of us who hadn’t grown up in or around Stockton, but he started talking about Fat City, and it turned out we were all fans of the book.
That conversation haunted me for several weeks, and then I was in Time Tested Books on 21st Street here in Sacramento and found a reasonably non-dog-eared used copy; it had been a while since I’d read Gardner’s downbeat account of hard-luck boxers in a dead-end California valley town. As soon as I picked it up again, I remembered why. Maybe it’s from personal experience, because I was a little kid in the late 1950s and remember some of the places in Gardner’s book pretty vividly, but reading it really churned up an avalanche of ghosts.
My dad was an alcoholic, and my mother was a depressed woman in her late 30s who was stuck with a crummy job in a Weber Avenue insurance agency, a precocious and marginally autistic young son, and a rambling watch-out-for-low-flying-aircraft husband who couldn’t hold a job to save his life. He’d get a job selling cars, or awnings, or farm equipment, and then he’d get wasted on apple wine and forget to show up for work, or he’d show up totally blammed and the natural denouement of that misdeed would be “you’re fired,” and then he’d be off for a while until the next job started. When the old man wasn’t working, we’d have to loiter in traffic on Weber Avenue across from the old courthouse — which I witnessed getting torn down, and a shame that was because it was a beautiful rotting gray old building with a capitol-like dome ringed with clocks, surrounded by creepy cemetery palm trees — where we’d pick up my mom when she got off work at Peirano Brothers.
My memory of those days is framed by what the old man was driving — bulbous Rambler Americans, skinny and Soviet-blockish (post-Starliner) Studebaker Champions, a big old 1950 Buick Special, a 1957 Ford stripped-down sedan, a black Toyopet Crown, which looked like a half-witted knockoff of a Hillman Minx and was the first car sold in the U.S. by then-unknown Toyota, and a big lumbering DeSoto Firedome. I have always been obsessed with cars, and my mother used to say that when I got a set of alphabet blocks, the first word I spelled was “FORD,” which is kind of funny because I’ve been a Mopar man for quite a while, but probably didn’t have two Ds to spell “DODGE.” When you’re stuck outside a bar sitting in the car with a grapefruit-sized metal globe memorizing the continents and countries of the world pre-African independence with maybe your collie dog as company, you tend to be acutely aware of what company manufactured your prison. And I remember the joints we were parked in front of, too — the Weber Inn, the Channel Inn, assorted other low-born watering holes where the old man would get his tank on and then we would swerve home, as in those days it was a lot harder to roll a deuce, with the old man saying, “Well, li’l buddy, we’re really in the doghouse now.”
I can almost taste the old oily funk coming off the streets along with the eye-blistering peat from the Delta that would come blowing into town on a bitter and sharp wind, and can picture the yellow smoke-belching City Bus liners drifting by, and the top of the old Medico-Dental Building with the flickering neon “California Western States Life” lights hung across scaffolding on the roof, which later got replaced by an ugly “KJAX Cloud 99” sign. And I remember Washington Square in Gardner’s book, which was a major hangout for the layabout transient population, and almost seemed like a graveyard with its palms and brown and wino-strewn lawn, but then they knocked it down to build the Crosstown Freeway, which can be seen in the opening to Huston’s film.
And I can remember getting dragged into smoky bars where I was told in no uncertain terms to lurk silently in the corner until the old man finished his medical mission, which was to bring his blood-alcohol count back up to a comfortable range, and the one consistent thing I can recall about every bar I was in was the boxing posters. Boxing was a big deal in Stockton circa 1960; maybe it was big everywhere but it was huge in the place I still love to refer to as Palookaville (but don’t you go calling it that, unless you’re from there).
Anyway, I think about my old town a lot these days. People bag on it without understanding the soul of it, the way West Coast people who’ve never been to Texas dump on that place. Stockton is a lot like Texas. It’s a lot like George W. Bush’s vision for America, and we had all that stuff in Stockton — the stratification of the classes, and a concentration of wealth among a small group of people while a huge portion of the population fought for the remaining table scraps. We had endless waves of immigrants brought in to do a specific task — the Chinese to build the railroads, the Filipinos to drain the swamp at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and build levees so others could get wealthy farming that reclaimed land, which had “the second-best soil in the world, next to the Nile Delta,” as my mother would put it, the Dust Bowl Okies and the Mexicans to bring in the harvests in the fields and orchards, the blacks from the South to work in the shipyards — and as soon as the work ran out, some of them figured out how to do well, while others got mired in cycles of poverty. We had weird crimes before the rest of the country got them — post-office shooting sprees, schoolyard shootings, weird and violent crimes, gangs, drive-by shootings — so by the time they became commonplace elsewhere, they were old hat to Stockton natives.
But it was a great place in its own weird way, too, and on a pleasant day, you could feel a good clean and cool Italian wind blowing through the Golden Gate and across North Beach and then up around Alcatraz and through San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Straits and Suisun Bay and across Big Break and Franks Tract and the rest of the Delta islands into town, carrying with it the words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder and the sounds of the jazz joints on Broadway and Vallejo Street and Columbus Avenue to connect with the erstwhile presences of hometown boys Lord Buckley and Gil Evans, and I could tune into that feeling and drew comfort from it.
So, well, maybe I should stop typing and get back to Gardner’s book. You should read it, too. —Jackson Griffith