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Friday, April 19, 2013



By Big Daddy Roth

Steve Lenzi crept into our lives via an old school bus we bought from the president of a small but notorious motorcycle gang which shall remain unnamed for purposes of ass whumping avoidance. They were no relation to the Right Wing Bikers down the street, who had no club name as far as I know.

By “we,” I mean that I went into the deal with Jay of Old Weird Harold fame. Although he was originally a friend of Jack’s, we’d become pals many months before while he was still in the Navy. I met him when he was home on leave. When he was due to return to duty Carol and I threw him a little pre-birthday party and gave him a whole box of books I’d scored at a used book store. Among them was Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” which Jay said made a huge impression on him. (The book's author was Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Blacklisted Ten and the father of my very good friend and fellow screenwriter, the late Chris Trumbo. The elder Trumbo wrote the screenplay for Spartacus and Papillon, among many others.) 

As it happened, Jay loaned the book to an airline stewardess when he was flying back to Vietnam. He wrote his name and mom’s address in the book and urged her to lend it to as many people as she liked, but he did want it back. A year or so later “Johnny Got His Gun” showed up in the mail. Inside were more than a hundred names of sailors and soldiers who had read the book. Cool story, huh?

Anyway, after Jay and the U.S. Navy parted company he’d immediately gotten his old civilian job back as a salesman at a large camera store that catered to pros and wealthy amateurs. Jay was a consummate salesman and soon he had the commissions rolling in. On the other hand, he hadn’t been back long enough to establish any credit so the deal with the bus was this: I’d float a note at my newspaper credit union for $1,500 and Jay and I would split the monthly payments.

I’d first spotted the school bus tooling along Ocean Avenue and it was love at first sight - like Mr. Toad in “The Wind In The Willows” when he spied his very first automobile. It was a big red and silver bus – circa 1949 -  with a Dodge flathead engine and a “For Sale” sign in its window, along with a phone number. I trotted beside the bus while memorizing the number. Soon as I got home I called and set up an appointment to see the bus. I took Jay and Jack with me.

It just got better after that. The bus had been partly converted into a camper, with a couple of pull out beds and a little kitchen with a two-burner range, a stainless steel sink and mini-fridge. Jay and Jack assured me it was in decent mechanical shape and well worth the $1,500 Carl - the biker chieftain - was asking.

Carl said he had to sell it because he’d just moved into a house on the Venice Canals and there was no place to park a vehicle of that size. “Mother fuckin’ cops are out to fuckin’ get me,” is how he put it. “They’ll tow the mother fucker every chance they get.”

As the manager of a whole block of apartments, plus a luxury building Mr. Cohen had just bought in the “Little Marina,” I had no worries about parking.

Visions of adventures up the coast of California to the redwoods, or south to the wilds of Baja, California, filled my head. Jay and I agreed on the spot that we just had to have this bus. As I said, I planned to finance it through the newspaper credit union, which tickled me to no end. The directors of that right wing media bastion would’ve had kittens if they’d known that I’d bought a hippie bus with the money, so I put down “baby furniture,” in the space that inquired: “Purpose of loan.”

Even so it took a couple of weeks to get approval and when I went to trade the cash for the pink slip and keys, I was presented with a crisis of conscience from a most unlikely source. Carl was visibly nervous and more than a little embarrassed when he greeted me at the door of his house, which sat on the corner of Del Avenue, the main entrance to the canals.

A little backstory is in order here. When I showed up at Carl’s place I knew that the police had recently found an unidentified body floating in the water a few doors down. The John Doe’s cause of death was listed as a broken neck, which may or may not have been accidental. The cops believed, but could not prove, that Carl and his pals were responsible. However, the word on the street was that Carl was entirely innocent in a guilty sort of way.

What happened is that he rose one morning from his biker chieftain bed and went outside to drink coffee and enjoy the new day. Instead, he found the body sprawled across his front stoop. Believing it had been left there by a rival gang to embarrass him, Carl casually kicked the corpse into the water and went to breakfast.

As you can imagine, with visions of corpses on doorsteps in my head, I was a little nervous when I went to see Carl to finalize the deal. But the moment he saw me, Carl became agitated and acted downright guilty.

“We gotta mother fuckin’ talk, Al,” he said, taking me by the elbow and steering me outside and away from the motley crowd of beer-guzzling bikers. “Somethin’s come fuckin’ up.”

In all the time that I knew Carl I never heard him compose a sentence that didn’t include some derivation of mother fucker, or fucker. When he really got wound up there would be multiple occurrences. After awhile, you stopped noticing.

Carl led me to the dirt lot where he had the bus temporarily stashed. I was figuring that he’d cracked it up during the time it took for me to float the loan. Which meant I’d have to eat the interest the Credit Union interest charged, even if I gave them back their money, because there was no way I’d be able to make Biker Carl pony up the difference. Besides the loss of money, the fallout would include getting a ration of “told you so’s” from Carol who’d counseled that it was a lousy idea to do business with outlaw bikers. Okay, she was right, but if you had seen that red and silver bus when you were my age, I bet you would have bought it too.

Anyway, as we approached the bus I checked for signs of damage. To my relief I saw not one dent or ding. I did notice, however, a dark-haired guy sitting in the little dining area behind the driver’s seat, his nose buried in a book.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

Carl sighed and said, “He’s what I wanted to fuckin’ talk about.”

He called out, “Hey, Steve, open fuckin’ up.” The guy looked up, gave Carl a crooked grin and slid the window down. “This fucker is Al,” Carl said. “Al, this mother fucker is Steve.”

Steve and I nodded at each other, he looking at me curiously, me looking at him – well, I don’t know how I was looking at him. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the hell was up. But I noticed that he dressed more like a college professor than a vagrant. His hair was just a little long, he had a neatly trimmed mustache and he wore a corduroy sports coat, with leather patches covering the elbows.

“Toss us a couple of fuckin’ beers, will ya, Steve?” Carl said.

Steve fetched beers from the fridge beneath the sink and handed them out. We opened ours, he opened his.

Carl said, “Steve, here, is the best mother fuckin’ poet I ever fuckin’ met.”

I’m fairly sure Carl didn’t possess a Masters Of Fine Arts degree from an Ivy-League college, but who was I to cast doubts on his literary opinions?

“That’s what I wanted to fuckin’ talk to you about, Al,” Carl continued, strolling away from the bus and out of earshot of Steve. “But before I do I want you to swear on the fuckin’ life of your fuckin’ mother that you won’t repeat a mother fuckin’ word of what I’m about to fuckin’ say.”

Since my mother was already dead, it was an easy vow to make. “Sure, Carl,” I said. “I swear.”

“On your fuckin’ mother’s life,” he said.

“On my mother’s life,” I agreed.

Carl took a deep breath, then a long drink of beer. To me, it looked like he was gathering courage, which was kind of amazing when you consider that he was the leader of what was – pound for pound – the toughest outlaw bike gang in Los Angeles and maybe even in all of Southern California.

“It’s like fuckin’ this,” Carl said. He paused, glanced around, then said real quick like: “I fuckin’ write poetry.”

“Say what?” I said, not certain I’d heard him correctly. “Poetry?”

“Not so fuckin’ loud,” he said, looking to see if anyone had heard. “This is like, a mother fuckin’ secret, Al.”

“Sure it is,” I said. I paused, avoiding his eyes and trying desperately not to laugh. Finally, I said, “So, uh… the… uh… others don’t know, right?”

“Fuckin’ fuck, they don’t fuckin’ know,” Carl said. “I mean, you can’t fuckin’ be the mother fuckin’ president of a mother fuckin’ outlaw bike gang and write fuckin’ poetry, can you?”

“I suppose not,” I said.

“Fuckin’ A, you fuckin’ suppose not,” Carl agreed. “So, like for a fuck of a fuckin’ bunch of time now, I’ve been, like writin’ shit in secret. And it’s fuckin’ like, you know, causin’ me whadayacallit – to have some mother fuckin’ inner conflicts.”

“I can only imagine,” I said, barely keeping myself from choking on repressed laughter. An outlaw biker with inner conflicts? Where had he even heard the phrase?

I learned soon enough. “My fuckin’ shrink says I gotta fuckin’ deal with it,” he went on, “or I’m gonna, you know, like flip my mother fuckin’ lid.” He gingerly touched his protruding belly with thick fingers. “I think I’m getting’ a mother fuckin’ ulcer from all the fuckin’ stress, man.”

Now I was truly amazed. Bikers have shrinks? And suffer from stress-caused ulcers? Well, so it seemed. Especially poetry writing bikers who have inner conflicts.

“He says I gotta start makin’ some mother fuckin’ choices” Carl said. “My fuckin’ poetry, or my mother fuckin’ brothers.”

Shit, oh dear. This was, indeed, a conflict. Bikers did not use the word “brother” casually. The gang was their whole life, their family, their closest friends, their identity  - their whole reason for being.

But one thing – among many – still wasn’t clear. “How does Steve fit into all this?” I asked.

“Well, it’s like fuckin’ this, Al,” Carl said. “I fuckin’ went to check out this mother fuckin’ poetry group over in mother fuckin’ Santa Monica. Bunch of fuckin’ assholes, you ask me. I hear a bunch of the mother fuckers read their fuckin’ poetry and it was all, like fuckin’ shit. The meaning of this, that and the other mother fuckin’ thing. 

"Then Steve gets up to read and blows everybody’s mother fuckin’ doors off with his shit. I mean, he’s a real mother fuckin’ poet. The assholes couldn’t talk, they were so fuckin’ amazed. But when they finally fuckin’ do, they fuckin’ ignore him, like he’d never said a fuckin’ word. Instead, they into this bullshit fuckin’ conversation – if you can mother fuckin’ dignify the shit by callin’ it fuckin’ that – about, and I mother fuckin’ quote, ‘the place of the apostrophe in modern poetry,’ and I fuckin’ end fuckin’ quote. 

"But Steve didn’t let them fuckin’ get away it. He gets up and fuckin’ lays into those mother fuckers like you wouldn’t fuckin’ believe. Tellin’ them what kind of fuckin’ phonies they are. Couple of the assholes tried to gang up on his ass, but I banged some mother fuckin’ heads together and me and Steve had to fuckin’ split because they called the fuckin’ pigs, man. Pussy mother fuckers.”

He paused and gradually the indignity of the scene drained from him and he started laughing. “You should of fuckin’ been there, Al,” he said. “It was mother fuckin’ wonderful.”

Things were slowly starting to dawn. “So, Steve, is like your new poetry buddy,” I said.

“Fuckin’ A,” Carl said. “He’s been lookin’ my shit over, tellin’ me what he fuckin’ thinks.”

“What’s his opinion so far?”

Carl shrugged. “He said most of it fuckin’ stinks, but a couple, you know, show fuckin’ promise.”

I was amazed at Steve’s boldness. I wouldn’t have told Carl to his face that his poetry stunk, even if it did. But apparently, this was exactly the kind of honest advice Carl was after. Advice he could get nowhere else.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Steve’s got no place to stay. And you couldn’t let him crash at your pad for obvious reasons. So you let him crash on the bus.” I took a deep breath. “My bus.”

Carl grimaced. “He’s the real mother fuckin’ deal, Al,” he said. “A real mother fuckin’ poet. He was like teachin’ English at some private high school back in mother fuckin’ New York. But the rich little mother fuckers got on his nerves, you know. Us fuckin’ poets are real like fuckin’ sensitive to our mother fuckin’ surroundings, you know? So he quit and fuckin’ jumped on the fuckin’ road. Checkin’ things out and writin’ fuckin’ poetry. He just hit mother fuckin’ LA and he’s got no place to crash until he gets a mother fuckin’ job. So, I let him crash on the fuckin’ bus.”

“And you want me to continue the arrangement,” I guessed.

“It’d be real mother fuckin’ white of you if you did, Al,” he said. “I mean, I’d owe you big mother fuckin’ time, you know?”

I considered this. Being owed big time by an outlaw biker has its strong points. Only problem being was that I didn’t know this Steve guy from Adam. He could be a mass murderer for all I knew.

“Let’s go talk to him,” I finally said. “See if we get along.”

Delighted, Carl slapped me on the back, nearly knocking me over. “You’ll love the mother fucker, Al,” he said. “You wait and fuckin’ see.”

We returned to the bus and this time Steve and I shook hands, before more beers were passed around. I glanced at the book lying on the table.

“What’re you reading?” I asked.

“A little poetry by an insurance agent,” he said, his lips twitching just slightly.

“No shit,” Carl said. “Insurance agents can fuckin’ write poetry?” His eyebrows climbed over his forehead in amazement.

“They can if their name is Wallace Stevens,” I said with a slight lip twitch of my own.

“He any fuckin’ good?” Carl asked.

“I liked ‘The Man With The Blue Guitar,” I said.

“’…Things as they are/ Are changed by the Blue Guitar,’” Steve recited.

“Fuckin’ A,” Carl said, liking what he heard and surprising the hell out of me. “I gotta read up on this Wallace Stevens mother fucker.”

“Carl mentioned that you were looking for work,” I said. “Any luck so far?”

Steve shrugged. “I’m supposed to start tomorrow morning doing surveys at the Santa Monica Mall,” he said. “It’s a minimum wage thing, plus a small commission for anyone I can coax into the office to fill out a longer questionnaire.”

I frowned. “Can you get by on that?”

Steve laughed. “I’ve learned to get along on a lot less than that since I left New York,” he said. “I’ve worked in orchards picking fruit, dug ditches, cleaned highways, passed out flyers and ran a hot dog cart in New Orleans.”

He smiled at the memory. “That was my favorite. I rented a room overlooking the French Quarter. Sold hot dogs during the day and listened to free music at night while I wrote.”

I liked that answer. “How long do you think you’ll need to crash on the bus?” I asked.

Steve gave me a long look, sizing me up. Which seemed odd at the time, considering that I was the one doing the favor.

Finally, he said, “A few weeks, if that’s okay with you.”

“That’ll be fine,” I replied.

Carl beamed and slapped me on the shoulder, nearly bowling me over. “Fuckin’ A,” he said.



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Diaspar Magazine - the best SF magazine in South America - is publishing the first novel in the Sten series in four 
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