Great Murders of San Francisco and Los Angeles

Yesterday while foodling on the Internet I discovered a retired police detective in San Francisco has been creating Google My Maps of all the San Francisco murders, year by year.  Great Murders of 1933, Baffling Murders of 1943, Drive-By Shootings of 1953 – you get the idea.  He doesn’t seem to have gone beyond the Fifties yet.  This is helpful data for a novelist.  And I can learn what neighborhoods not to move to if I go back in time.  I hope he reopens and then solves all those cases now that he’s retired.

My grandfather also was murdered (this is true), and it had a huge impact on the family right down to today.  Everybody knew who murdered him (it was his business partner) but the guy got off scot free.  The D.A. who prosecuted him later went to San Quentin for accepting bribes.

This happened in roaring LA in the 1920s.  My grandfather was a man in his forties with a young family – on his way up.  Here’s a picture of him in 1922 standing by one of his oil wells.

He was a wheeler-dealer, a millionaire on paper, but he’d built a house of cards only he knew how to hold together.  So when the crash came, the family, including all the country cousins who came out from Kansas to work for him, were back on the street – figuratively speaking.  We couldn’t even pay the property taxes on our Pasadena mansion.

Over the years I’ve thought of writing a book about the whole sordid story.  It has the makings of a bestseller and it would satisfy my itch to know.  The shock waves from the murder reverberated through my childhood even though my grandmother and mother would never talk about it.  But it’s pretty rough stuff too and I would have to face issues like – was my grandfather a crook like his business partners? I don’t think he was, but what if?  Do I want to know?

Once I went to Los Angeles, spent a couple days there reading the newspaper accounts of the 1924 murder and trial in the public library, I went to the Hall of Records and found the will of the man who shot Grandpa down, I went to the morgue to see if they still had a file on the case.  They did, but it contained only one sheet of paper.

But I ultimately decided I didn’t want to spend the next five years in the company of some unpleasant people who thought about money all the time while I wrote a book about them.  I moved on to the next subject – a strawberry ice cream soda at the Colorado Street Creamery.

I’d still like to read that book if somebody else would write it.  Aprilbaby would be a good choice, she needs a new bestseller.  But all in all I think I’m glad I moved on to the trippy hippie stuff.  My memories are lot more fun.

Footnote:  There seems to be no way to link directly to a My Maps map.  To see the murder maps, click on my link, which will bring you to Google Maps for San Francisco. In the left-hand column, click on the My Maps tab. Now drag down to ‘Featured Content’, then check the box at ‘Popular user-created maps’.  That will bring up a lot of content – drag through it and you will see links to the murder maps.

Wyatt Earp Fights James Dean

As the proprietor of this joint, I like to check what the ‘Top Posts’ are (see the sidebar down towards the bottom). What astonishes me is that, along with and even to the detriment of some of my greatest works of literature, that pesky ‘Patrushka Shoots Wyatt Earp’ hits the list day after day. People really want to know more about the grim old lawman who lies at rest in Colma, California.

It’s a throwaway piece I wrote in the summer of 2006 as we were driving acoss the country. The map showed Wyatt Earp’s birthplace just off the road a few miles and we were tired of the stupid interstate. Which usually happens after ten miles. So we drove up there and I wrote a little comedy piece about it when we got to the motel. Strictly for laffs, understand?

Yet it’s become one of the world’s all-time favorite Pondering Pig pieces, right up there with “James Dean’s Jeans”, a complete throwaway with a catchy title. Here I am explaining the Bible or revealing my deepest soul and the crowds flock to read “James Dean’s Jeans.”

Well, I figure this post is going to top them both. Check out the title.

By the way, for all you serious Wyatt Earp or pig comedy fans, yesterday I refurbished another old post, even more ridiculous than the first , but pretty funny — called The Strange Case of Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone. And, while I was at it, I refurbished another comedy classic, The Pondering Pig’s Tour of San Francisco. Hope you enjoy them.

Leslie Van Gelder Fights The Pondering Pig

I’ve been writing a piece about Leslie Van Gelder, or Leslie Hipshman as I knew her then – the girl whose 1962/1963 letters were posted here in the last weeks. I want to round off those letters by describing an evening we spent together in December, 1961.

Maybe I’m indulging in self-delusion – imagining it’s possible to resurrect a night forty plus years ago as if it was last night. It wasn’t significant or life-changing for either of us in any way. We didn’t fall in love. We didn’t decide to expose J. Edgar Hoover no matter what the consequences. We just spent a nice night alone together in the city at the rainbow’s end.

Yet here it is, carefully stored on its own shelf down in the memory banks. Or enough of it to make me think I could try to resurrect the whole evening. I’m trying to see the seventeen-year old Leslie in my mind’s eye, listen to her voice and imagine I remember exactly what we talked about in that cheap Chinese restaurant so long ago.

I have several clear mental pictures to work from. But it’s a challenge. And a fun challenge for me, even though it’s keeping me away from the novel a little longer.

If I don’t put it up in a few days, then it is a failure, and I’ll never be able to face my friends again. So wish me luck!

The Pindering Pog

There’s only one trouble with this blog. Nobody reads it. Oh, Jinx the Cat comes by sometimes. My wife. There’s a guy in Peoria used to drop in. My mother would probably read it, except she died.

That’s the one drawback to perfect freedom. I only write about what I’m in the mood to write about. “Hey, let’s go read that guy who writes about hippies in the 1960s.” But then you get here and the I’m explaining how to fix a sink. I’m making silly jokes or writing down my dreams. I’m posting the latest chapter to my novel. Anything, in fact, except hippies in the Hashbury in the 1960s. No wonder no search engine can find the Pindering Pog.

So far, the only people who can make sense out of it are people who relate to talking pigs. Of whom there are less than one dozen in the entire world. So I’ve been doing some reading up on how to attract more readers.

Secret #1: A nice clear name makes it easier for kindred spirits to find your blog. For instance, a blog called “Cheeses of France” will find lots of readers who want to read about cheese in France. If I was smart I’d change my name to Haight-Ashbury Hippies in the Sixties.com, or Funny Stories About Plumbing.com, get it?

But then I’d have to write about one stupid thing all day and you’d get mad when you came here and I was actually writing about a tortilla I ate once. And if I just wrote about that stupid tortilla all day I’d get bored and wouldn’t write anything. So I live for my art in a garret when I could be living in a villa in the south of France writing my successful blog about plumbing and Mick and Keith and Marianne Faithfull would drop by for tea. Even though they never wrote successful blogs about anything. Is that clear? Maybe I wouldn’t let them in.

Speaking of blogs, I see that John McCain’s daughter has a blog. She writes about stuff like her mother’s favorite songs from the 1980s, posts pics of hot security guards and puts up letters from readers who love her blog. She generally tries to look fun and with it like Chelsea. Trouble is Chelsea is a registered, pedigreed celebrity while nobody but the Pindering Pog is interested in Meghan McCain. And even I’m not much interested.

She writes with two friends who call themselves The Blogettes. It would be good if they wrote more like Republican Wonkettes but they pretty much stick to stuff like their favorite songs of the week and photos of Mom putting on her makeup in the campaign plane.

Now, if Chelsea wrote a blog, people would be lined up out the door to hear about her dinner with Warren Beatty or her hamburger with MIssy Possum. If Obama’s children wrote a blog, well, I guess they’re not registered celebrities either. But if they did a lot of people besides little kids and me would read it.

Celebrities can write about whatever they want to and people swarm to read them, while normal people have to write blogs like Collecting_Little_Golden_Books.com or Fixing_your_plumbing.com. So Secret #2 is: Be a celebrity.

Since I don’t have that option, I guess the next thing for me is to decide what I want to write about, stick to it for at least two weeks, and then send an email to Mick and Keith and Marianne to see if they’re still living in Provence. Let ‘em know I’m coming.

Freshman English Papers

Looking back on my freshman college year, you know what’s better about today? I don’t have to turn these posts in for a grade! No grim faced professor is allowed to scratch pencil marks around the edges of each little essay. Just think – I can write a whole blog full of fragmentary sentences and there’s not one thing they can do about it!

And I do write them. Hither and thither. Sometimes you just have to go with the way the words sound. That’s how I felt then and that’s how I feel now.

On my desktop I keep a list of Jack Kerouac’s thirty axioms for modern prose. They’re pretty good and I recommend you immediately go over here and study them. You’ll notice Number 13 suggests “Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition.” He doesn’t say we don’t need to understand grammar or syntax – but don’t let them get in your way. Try to get the picture clear in your mind and go straight for it. I keep Jack’s list at hand for inspiration and to remind myself that anytime I put words to paper (so to speak), I’m part of a long line of guys who struggled their whole lives to learn how to write out of the box, how to keep their idea line as free of crap as if Keith Jarrett (a piano player I like) was writing it.

The only difference is I’m a pig. It’s hard for me to tell where my inspiration leaves off and the crap begins. Jack’s axiom #1 is the whole key, for me anyway: “Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.” And if I make myself laugh as I type, then I figure I’m heading in the right direction.

Those professors at San Jose State in 1959 wanted me to write clean, clear prose. Like this: A plus B = C. Start with your introductory paragraph (which itself has to start with a grabber sentence), add body, then concluding paragraph. All nice and neat and when you’re done your reader thinks, “Aha – I see. Cats eat rats! Very interesting.”

Sorry, Dr. Smith. I already heard all this already in high school. Next you’ll want me to turn in my outline.

The more they tried to whip me into shape (of a square) the more I wriggled and jiggled and wandered off in four directions. It became a game. I was sublimely confident in my ability. I was convinced my English Comp professor wouldn’t know good writing if Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti broke into the classroom with their guns leveled straight at him.

I knew exactly what I was doing. I just wasn’t very good at it. Needed more practice. Still do.

I always felt when they wrote ‘spelling’ in the margin they really meant “Why can’t you be more like a girl? They check their spelling! They’re nice! They smell good! No – you’re sloppy and improvisational and you should shave off that scruffy beard if you think you’re going to get a decent grade in here.

“And what’s this? Horrors! Slang! You’ve used slang in a college-level essay! And just look at this illogical and non-parallel series of clauses and phrases. How can anyone possibly understand this beatnik prose? Why don’t you write like Ernest Hemingway? Mr. Pig, you are MUCH TOO SELF-INDULGENT! You must write to communicate, not for your own private pleasure…Tsk tsk tsk..”

And on and on. Next I was accused of ‘rambling’. What’s wrong with ‘rambling’ anyway? I’ve spent my life rambling round this country, and I’ve met a lot of funny men. Some robbed me with a six gun, others with a fountain pen. Woody Guthrie said that. There! I used an eminent authority to emphasize my point. Are you happy now?

Whatever I was doing in college, I was not here to learn how to write a simple, clear, direct essay. That was for sissies. Sissies, drones, English professors, and other bores. Funny, in later life I have come to admire that approach. I usually write to capture a feeling or a moment of time, or possibly make you laugh if I can, but if someone is writing to communicate an idea, and I can actually understand what they are trying to say – I love it! That’s the whole idea.

Don’t know quite why I rambled down this path this morning. I really meant to tell you about my beatnik-lefty-socialist seventeen year old pal Bob Gill. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t write out your outline ahead of time. By now, you’d be up to the demonstration and kids getting washed down the stairs with fire hoses and it would be really exciting. Instead I’m still sitting up in my attic room in the boarding house writing a paper I have to turn in in the morning. Wonder what he’ll say this time! I know. “You use too many exclamation marks! This reads like a comic book!”

A Walk To John Carter of Mars


I’ve always thought the best plan for writing or making a film is to first decide where you’re trying to get to, then strike out for it in the most direct way. That’s the ticket to success. Of course, you need a hook to get people interested. A hook is kind of like an invitation…”Hey, want to come on a walk with me? I’m heading for John Carter of Mars and it’s going to be fun.” Don’t waste a lot of time on exposition and backstory (deciding what to bring and packing it nice and neat) but just get out there and see what happens along the way. It’s a beautiful morning and we’re together and what the heck!

(Careful readers may notice this is not actually the best plan for getting to your destination in the most direct way. Shouldn’t that pig have a GPS unit and compass and maybe a map?)

Truth is, I often don’t much care where we’re going. We’re just out for a walk. Maybe the beach. Maybe the top of the hill. Maybe John Carter of Mars. What I know about John Carter can fit into a thimble with plenty of room left over for extra trail mix in case we get hungry. I don’t see why that should detain us a minute. We’ll find out together as we go along, right? Unless we get sidetracked! (Put in scary music stab here)

So off we go. We’re having a good laugh about silly science fantasy figures of long ago when suddenly there’s a snake pit, and I fall into it!

“Help, Help! I fell in a snake pit! There’s squirmy things down here! I hate this! Yow! Get me out!” So then you have to run a find a ladder and get me out before I have a conniption fit.

Phew! That was close! Fortunately for me, they turned out to be garter snakes.

So we’re walking along again and I happen to mention the first time I ever heard of John Carter of Mars. I was about eleven years old and there was a new Dell comic book for sale at Wincott’s Fountain, the kids’ local hangout and supply center. Dell made the best comics so I bought it and it was this great story about a guy who gets teleported to…YOW! Suddenly we’re both not on Mars but on Balboa Street in 1953 San Francisco and here comes the ‘B’ line streetcar racketing and ricketing down the street outside Wincott’s Fountain and – hey, there’s my brother Gary getting off the streetcar in his blue Air Force uniform and he’s coming home on leave and – wow, he looks so cool, I want to be a soldier when I grow up and the air is as crisp and bright as it can only get at 45th and Balboa on a sunny afternoon in September when you’re a kid and I got a Rocky Road candy bar, chocolate with marshmellow and nuts inside its crinkly red metallic wrapper, and you got an Abba Zabba, dusty nougat with peanut butter inside in a wrapper that looks like a big yellowjacket and we’re going to go climb the ladder and sit on the platform of the big signboard in the vacant lot and eat candy and read comic books and talk about what happened on the Jackie Gleason Show last night and…you’re starting to think “Why did I ever go on a walk with this zany pig?”

Back on the path, we pass some interesting little trails going off into the brush. One says, “Edgar Rice Burroughs and Willa Cather – both nearly the same age. Both lived through the same times and both were passionate about writing – what would they have talked about?”

Then a little further here’s a path that leads to “Is it possible to write a serious modern novel, a work of literature, about a bold, brave hero who must save a beautiful maiden from a wicked villain?” That path looks pretty good. I bet there’s view out there. Then, even crazier, we both suddenly think “would it be possible for such a story to be lived out in reality in our time?”

When we finally get up to the hilltop, there’s that incredible view – our time, our century, our world, that little kid down in the village crying. And no matter how beautiful it is you keep hearing the sound of her crying. And it’s distracting so you start talkng about that. Why does that kid have to cry anyway? Isn’t there something we could do? What if she’s all alone and deserted and there’s tigers? Maybe we should go back down and see…”
And that’s the end of our walk because now we’re on the run. What if it’s too late? I hope not. Let’s go faster!

Banks of the Kankakee

We were camping on the banks of the Kankakee River and, after our little dinner of taco salad from Wendy’s because it was too wet to cook, we went for a walk. How fast summer comes on! Just last week I was wearing my Gore-tex against the cold and now I’m wearing it against the mosquitos. Patrushka was shooting and I was just pondering. In fact, I was so busy pondering that a beaver swam right by, took a bite of grass, and paddled on upstream. Never saw the old pig.
I was looking at some piers of yellow, hand-dressed stone rising out of the misting river, all eroded, with little bushes and trees digging their roots in for the duration. The river was also digging away — at the upsteam side of the foundations. It has already carved little tooth cavities at the waterline of each pier. Two more piers stand on either bank. I could see they were clogged and strangled with vines like a Mayan ruin in Quintana Roo. The bridge they once held up must have washed away or torn been down years ago.

Kinda gets a pig thinking. Each one of those stones was knocked into shape by a guy working hard all morning. Maybe all day. All that work, all that struggle and sweat to get those piers up across the river and now we don’t even know what the bridge was used for. Maybe some lady at the historical society knows. Was it a railroad bridge? Why did people way out here in the country want to cross the river so bad and what capitalist with what dreams of glory paid the navvys’ wages?

What’s the point? That’s what it comes down to. I know, they got paid for their work and that’s what matters. But still, all that work and now no one knows or cares. Why not just live out in the marshes and croak like a bullfrog?

When Patrushka starts feeling low she’ll wonder why she bothers to take all these photographs. They just go in a drawer. Just more stuff the kids will have to figure out what to do with when we’re gone.

“Look at your mother’s paintings”, she will say. “Nobody wants to hang them, but nobody’s willing to throw them away, either. So there they stand in their bubble-wrap, year after year, gathering dust in your brother’s garage.”

It is kind of depressing all right, but I tend to see the issue in another way. To me, these guys were dressing stones all day because they needed the money (of course), but maybe they enjoyed the work too. It was skilled labor, hard sweaty work with the other guys. Maybe they liked making those stones and maybe they got a kick out of seeing those piers going up in the river and knowing they were part of it.

Patrushka takes pictures and my mother painted pictures because it gives or gave them joy in the moment they were seeing the idea of it, then executing it with crazy brushstrokes and color mixing and aperture checking, then fiddling around in the darkroom or on the easel until it looked the way they wanted it.

I think of my Dad, Dwight Newton, the newspaper columnist. Certainly he had one of the world’s more trivial careers — if you take the galactic view. He wrote about television for the San Francisco Examiner every day including Sunday for 26 years (except he got to go on vacation – he was a union guy) and he had to get that damned column out no matter what and he reviewed every silly sitcom and corny western that came out each season and interviewed every flash in the pan, you never heard of him actor who starred for six episodes of Pigs On The Run before they cancelled it.

He gave them all the same attention, the same focus, then he rushed back to the office to type type type exactly the right number of inches to fill his space in time for the first edition.

I doupt if he ever groaned for a moment about all his columns gathering dust forever on library shelves and microfilm fiches because nobody remembers now who Tal Koolguy was or cares. Dad was having a great time and he had to get the column out and he took pride in getting the words just right. A nifty turn of phrase lightened his day considerable.

Did Ernest Hemingway have a better time than my Dad? Did Georgia O’Keefe have more fun than my Mom? Greatness is a gift from God and it’s no good to strive for it. Maybe a time does come when you have to say I’m going to change my life around so I can do my art, my craft, my skill, the thing I love to do, all day every day so I’ll…what?

For me, I’m just going to walk back to camp in the gloaming and sit by my tent and swat the mosquitos and wonder. Because that’s what I do – I’m the Pondering Pig.