JACK LIFFEY
MYSTERY SERIES
created by john shannon

 

JACK'S L.A. LORE


THE CONCRETE RIVER

All page references are to the John Brown Books edition, or the Pegasus trade paperback.  Pages are the same.

p. 3 bottles
The tiny little glass vials that crack cocaine is sold in. Each is about the size of the last joint of your little finger and holds one pea-sized rock of cocaine. If you wander through an area where crack is sold much, thousands of these will crunch under foot like a midden of fragile seashells.

p. 3 Weight
Larger quantities of cocaine in bulk; getting into weight suggests that one is becoming a serious "dealer."

p. 3 Bangers
You're quite right: it means gang-bangers. Kids would find the full term a bit stilted.

p. 3 Ralphs bag
Ralphs is a big supermarket chain in L.A. so it just means a nondescript brown paper supermarket bag.

p. 3 Walker Valve
Just a made-up company name, for a light industry. (Ironically the building across my street that I referred to actually used to be a valve company, but went out of business and has now remodeled and reopened as the headquarters of CarsDirect.com an internet car sales company.)

p. 3 Arnolds
A mildly derisive term for whites. The name has a kind of fey effeminate air to it (despite the over-muscled Austrian of that name)

p .4 Z28
The high-end performance Chevy, or Chevrolet (equivalent of a Pontiac Trans-Am) with the big 5 liter engine and all the racing goodies on it, usually black. The dream car of a black drug dealing kid without the sense or money to aspire higher--this one is probably several years old. The poor man's Ferrari.

p. 4 Night Train
This is a very cheap fortified wine, made reputedly from raisins, that is drunk mainly by African American winos and sold in liquor stores near black areas in racks and racks of small cheap bottles. A similar brand is Thunderbird.

p. 8 Lox
This would be in a standard dictionary. That very tough and chewy smoked salmon that is an East European/American Jewish standard on cream cheese and a bagel. Not unlike the Norwegian gravelox. You'd have to be in the right mood to have it for breakfast, and Jack is definitely not.

p. 4: The Astaire
In the early 1970s MGM studios in Culver City sold off their back lot (the relatively open area where studios shoot some outdoor stuff) which was about a quarter mile away along the flank of a range of low hills. The land became a series of condominiums (apartment blocks) which in honor of the studio were named for MGM films or features. Mine (which is Jack's, of course) is named Tara Hill, for the manor house in Gone With The Wind. In fact, my apartment stands on the very spot where they burned Atlanta in that movie. Others are Raintree, etc. In the spirit of slightly altering this world of Jack's, to be a parallel universe that is just faintly different, I chose a famous MGM actor Fred Astaire--MGM was most noted for big-budget musicals. A small point really, and not all that important to preserve, but since you asked....

p. 5: Miller time (reference to the beer of the same name?)
Yes, it's the beer. A series of well-known TV commercials here always ended, after some nice blue-collar hard work, with the suitably masculine construction workers bustling off the job and saying to one another, "It's Miller Time."

p. 8: cold piece (cold cash?)
A cold piece is police slang for an untraceable gun. Reputedly cops carry them to throw down (also called a "throw-down" piece) if they shoot an unarmed man so they can claim he was armed. By extension, Jack just has it so it can't be traced.

p. 15: to draw down. Did Quinn rough Margolin up or did he draw his gun out and point it at him?
Actually drew his gun. I had a cop do this to me once, in a fairly innocent situation and afterward apologize, "Sorry, I drew down on you."

p. 20: Pendleton shirt
The top brand of those checkered wool lumberjack shirts that all the kids from the Northwest wear, and even real lumberjacks, grunge bands, etc. For some strange reason, 30 or 40 years ago, Latino kids in East L.A. and elsewhere took to wearing the more muted plaid Pendeleton shirts, unbuttoned over white t-shirts with big baggy beige-colored chino pants, and for a long time this was a kind of definite badge of being a Latino gangbanger.

P. 24: - "Mi Playa Tortas Y Mariscos"
A Mexican-American restaurant, literally "My Beach Sandwiches and Seafood."

Coal Miner's Daughter: When was that movie made and who was starring in it?
1980, thus the movie house hasn't been up and running for a while. Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones. It's a rags-to-riches-to-abuse story of country singer Loretta Lynne. Any recognizably old movie would do.

p. 25: "You're stealing our Jesus" /"You're dissing our Jesus".
An intentionally odd and rather indecipherable complaint. A man who turned out to be mad actually shouted "You're stealing my Jesus" at me on the streets of Accra, Ghana in 1970 and then stormed across to knock me out with a sucker punch, when I looked away because I had no idea he was referring to me. Everything is usable.

p. 26: Was the Students for a Democratic Society a mixed bag, ideologically speaking, or were they more Marxist oriented. I know they were active in the 60s. Any traces of them left nowadays?
They were very much a mixed bag, largely campus based that grew huge fast on the anti-war movement and then fissioned in 1969-1970, with the anarchists leaving to form the Weather Underground, the hard-core Maoist segment splitting off to form Progressive Labor Party, and also spawn CP-ML and RCP, two other short-lived Maoist parties. The RCP survived for quite a while actually to attach themselves much later to the Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso loonies. Most of the sects are still around as small cults of a few charismatic leaders. At the time, many but not all of the leaders would probably have considered themselves Marxists of some stripe.

p. 29: Where does the citation Lewis quotes to Liffey come from?
The "I am Large, I contain multitudes" quote is from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. One of the signal accomplishments of American literature. A generation ago almost all literate Americans would have recognized it. Today, I'm no longer sure.

p. 33: line 12: "..., Lieutenant ..."/ line13 "Zuniga. It is lieutenant." Is it a typo or did I miss something?
I guess it's not entirely clear. If you put the emphasis on the "is" it might be clearer. Zuniga is just emphasizing that fact that, yes, he is a ranking lieutenant, not just some ordinary patrolman.

p. 34: There is one mistake, line 6: "Senora Beltran noticed Liffey" (instead of Senora Schuler).
Nice catch. You're right.

p. 35: "T-Bell". Why this particular nickname? I have a couple of possible translations to choose from.
I didn't really intend it to be comprehensible. Most gang names are a bit mysterious to outsiders. Of course, there is a hint of "Taco Bell," a huge and very bad Mexican fast food chain, owned I believe by Pepsi-Cola.

p. 38: poodle skirts
These were an icon of the 1950s, big full skirts with actual poodle-shapes in felt sewn on them (honest). They have an almost militant innocence about them, like something Sandra Dee would wear in the beginning of one of those grotesque teen beach-blanket movies of the time, before she gets hip and dons her bikini.

p. 40: "Swap Meet"
Originally these were flea markets, mostly held in fairgrounds on weekends, but in the Latino community the name became attached to almost any cheap general merchandise store. Usually it will be a big building, with discount goods in a number of separate stalls inside.

p. 42: Chotchke
This is Yiddish, pronounced roughly CHOTCH-key, but fairly well known here. A small household bauble or objet d'art of a distinctly trashy and lower middle class character, such as a little glass dog or a ceramic World's Fair memento. Usually used in the plural, chotchkes, for a house full of this stuff, cluttering every surface. As I think the word means "ornament," I have also seen it used metaphorically for a pretty young woman on someone's arm--an arm ornament.

p. 47: bucks
In this context, white suede shoes, which were popular in the 1950s, and even then rather showy and trashy, the sort of thing a very dated rhythm-and-blues or country singer might wear today as an aggressive mark of being dated.

p. 50: cutting horse
A smallish but smart and agile Western horse, trained to maneuver and answer commands quickly so it can be used to "cut" one cow out of a herd, for branding or other purposes. As horses go, it would have the reputation for cleverness.

p. 56: Chia-pet Marys
The Chia-pet was a very strange item of goofy merchandise sold on TV in, I guess, the 1960s or 1970s (and still around if you look hard). A small ceramic animal, a sheep I think, no bigger than a paperweight, that you fill with water and then actual grass grows out of the skin to look like wool. Apparently grass seed was glued to the outer surface. A ceramic Mary-mother-of-God with grass seed on it would be about as goofily sacrilegious as you could get.

p. 61: Pee-Chee (Something to do with sports cards?)
This is the brand name of a disposable school notebook made of heavy orangish cardboard, that opened like a book with pockets in each flap to tuck your school work into. When I went to high school (late 1950s) we would often have one for each class, each year. I have since learned that they were specific to Southern California. People back East don't know the brand name.

p. 67: a wide receiver (You may find my ignorance strange but American Football has never been my cup of tea.)
Jeez, don't apologize for not knowing obscure stuff about this horrible debased game (and the whole debased culture, for that matter. You know a lot more about America than I know about France.) American football is very specialized as to the position played. The wide receiver is the guy who runs forward to catch passes, often the most athletic and dexterous of the offensive players, and never the big hulking monster-type who only crash into each other and grunt a lot.

p. 67: a grebe-popper (some slang I've never heard of)
Nor has anyone else heard of it. I made this up so it would seem "the latest teen thing" no matter when it was read.

p. 68: "Hell in a Very Small Place". (The book by Bernard Fall on the siege of Dien Bien Phu?)
Exactly, Johnson is into war lore.

p. 72: a Kona Machine (Would any coffee & hot drinks machine do or is this something special?)
This is a very standard item from ordinary American coffee shops as far back as the 1940s probably, and it would tend to suggest highly ordinary watery American coffee, which is only now beginning to get a little better in some places.

p. 78: a quieter Victor Borge
A Danish-American pianist-comedian who was regularly on national TV all through the 1950s, mainly the Ed Sullivan show, always repeating his trademarked comedy routine of reading or saying aloud some passage of prose and indicating all the punctuation by making finger gestures in the air and accompanying them with loud weird scratchy sounds, as if a giant pen were actually making those marks on a surface. A little poke of his finger and a popping noise for a full-stop, etc.

p. 92: O.G.
This stands for Original Gangster, and is used in the ethnic street gangs to mean somebody who has grown up in the gang world and been around for a while. You probably wouldn't see it for someone under, maybe, thirty.

p. 93: "No Grapes"
There have been Left-sponsored boycotts against buying grapes in California (and nationally to some degree) ever since the 1960s and the founding of the United Farm Workers by Cesar Chavez. When striking wasn't working, Chavez launched a grape boycott which drew in a lot of students and activists and had some effect in the 1960s and 1970s with a lot of picketing in front of markets and bumper stickers, mostly Don't Buy Grapes. (As state governor, the mean-spirited asshole Reagan ostentatiously ate grapes on TV to support his corporate sponsors and ordered the state to buy extra grapes.) Unfortunately, the union came to rely on the tactic, as almost its only weapon, and re-launched the boycott in the 1980s to protest a conservative Agricultural Labor Board. I'm not sure if the boycott is still on, officially, but you would still see a sign or two, mostly on the east side. (In fact, the boycott was dropped in late 2000.)

p. 97: he had 37 (I.Q. test results or draft number?)
A very low draft lottery number that would almost guarantee that you would soon be off to Viet Nam. The C.O. in the next sentence means Conscientious Objector--someone who has jumped through all the hoops required to be recognized as a religious objector to warfare, and can serve instead as a medic or other non-combatant.

p. 99: Brown Berets (Their internet site seems to be currently
impossible to access. I'll turn to you to tell me more about them. The incident you report in the book surprises me as I remember reading that their L.A. "chapter"--or whatever they call it--was in favor of non-violent forms of action.)
Yes, they were a militant but not openly violent Mexican-American group (few groups were actually violent, really). The L.A. cops however were (and still are, to some degree) famous for being the most militarized and belligerent cops in the country. You had to have a bit of a death wish to challenge them directly. One of the first big racial incidents, even before the Watts Uprising of 1965, was the L.A. cops shooting up a mosque of Black Muslims because they were "suspected" of having guns in there. They didn't. It is not unreasonable at all to expect the cops of the 1960s to have responded to any show of militance with massive and violent overkill. I don't, however, know of a specific incident when they attacked the Brown Berets. I modeled this tale on the Muslim incident and the SLA (see next).

p. 100: SLA
Symbionese Liberation Army. Now these guys were violent and loony both, a bad combination. As the anti-war movement wound down in the 1970s and ebbed away, it left a few of these whacked-out bands who thought of themselves as urban guerillas--not unlike the Red Army Faction, Baader-Meinhoff, etc., in Europe. This is the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and then the L.A. police shot them to ribbons, killing most of them, and burning their hideout house to the ground. Led by a somewhat charismatic black ex-convict who called himself Cinque, after the great slave revolt leader. One of their peripheral members was just caught this year, living as a Republican middle class housewife in the Midwest, and is now on trial in L.A. for an attempted bombing of an L.A. police car in the 1970s.

p. 103: "It's an ill-favored thing, but mine own" (I have heard and read this but my memory is like a sieve these days.)
I know what you mean about the memory. I have "senior moments" all the time. This is Shakespeare, "As You Like It," Touchstone speaking, and it is almost always misquoted as I show, "A poor thing but mine own." On looking it up I find I left a word out, myself, and it is actually, "An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own."

p. 113: line 18: a typo -"ae" instead of "an"- worth correcting for a new edition.
Nice catch. Thanks. I typeset this edition myself so it's a miracle there aren't more typos.

p. 114: croppy
Irish for the poorest and most revolutionary of the peasant Irish farmers. You hear it in Irish folk songs of rebellion: "croppy lads." I always thought it came from the word crops, but in looking it up I found--astonishingly--it comes from Irish revolutionaries cutting ("cropping") their hair in 1798 in sympathy with the French Revolution. Have a hidden cultural link, on me!

p. 114: "Wire Paladin, San Francisco"
There was a very popular TV show from the late 1950s called "Have Gun Will Travel" (later called "Paladin" in reruns) starring craggy-faced craggy-voiced Richard Boone as an itinerant righter-of-wrongs who lived in dapper luxury in San Francisco, but when called for help would don an all-black cowboy outfit and ride off to aid the weak and helpless with his six-gun. All kids loved him, the macho loner par excellence. His business card, which he spread around, showed a black chess knight (paladin) and suggested he could help if you needed it. At the bottom it said "Wire Paladin, San Francisco." He never had a first name, as far as I know, and since "wire" is faintly archaic in English for "send a telegram," I always toyed more-or-less consciously with thinking of "Wire" as his first name.

p. 128: Crimestopper: (books or comics?)
The extravagantly popular Dick Tracy comic strip from the 1940s and 1950s newspapers always included, every Sunday in the big Sunday color comics, a "crimestopper," which was a single panel at the end, which explained some handy tip you kids at home could use to fight crime. I can't remember a single one of them, but they were always printed in a border that suggested you should cut them out and save them in a little notebook. The idea is so ludicrous it makes me smile today. I think Chester Gould who drew the strip actually took it seriously.

p. 130: Toonerville Trolleys
This suggests a tiny and rather silly passenger tram or streetcar. It's also from a comic, one of the pioneering strips of the same name from the 1890s. The expression has stayed current though the strip is dead these 100 years. People in L.A. are unused to streetcars--since, in a notorious conspiracy, a consortium of oil, automobile, and tire interests bought up all of L.A.'s extensive streetcar lines in the 1950s and purposely destroyed them to sell more buses, gasoline and tires--so someone in L.A. might find the new Blue Line overhead streetcars rather quaint looking.

p. 133: "This was what the French philosophers called
overdetermination." (Which French philosophers do you have specifically in mind there?)
Actually two, Betelheim and Althusser. But I suppose any of the post-structuralist Marxists would have made use of the concept. I never read Lacan or the others. I realize some might consider "philosopher" a stretch.

p. 135: Brazos
Just a river through the middle of Texas, truly a fleuve since it empties into the Gulf rather than into the Rio Grande as the Pecos does. Probably has no concrete banks anywhere since it goes through no major cities, but it might be en beton in Waco a smallish city.

p. 140: "He tried to make himself some luck but could not work out the trick."
I'm not sure how to put this in other words. He's doing his best to get lucky but he entertains doubts about whether it is in his nature to be lucky any more.

p. 150: "I don't think you are going to make it", she said (A highly ambiguous key statement by Eleanor that could be translated three or four different ways. What exactly does she mean here?)
This is a difficult one to be concrete about--a little like trying to say what a poem "means." It's a feeling on her part that Jack's life is, for one reason or another, doomed, either to failure, or sadness, or loss. A highly existential reading of his future prospects.

p. 158: kidder
One who kids (teases or jokes) a lot. It's darkly ironic here, because Art has just been sucked into something dangerous.

p.159: waspwaist glass
One of those beer glasses--you may not have them--that narrow down in the middle, then widen again, roughly like the shape of a wasp.

p. 172: "Life is getting to be like the McCoys and the Whatevers."
The Hatfields and McCoys are a legendary pair of feuding families from rural Appalachia. There was a real genesis of the legend in a deadly series of back and forth revenge killings (very like a Sicilian vendetta), and their names have become so well-known as to be a cliché in America for feuding. Few people know that the real dispute began over one family offering themselves up as strikebreakers during a coal mine strike on the Kentucky-West Virginia border. The fact that the cop doesn't even bother to give the full name is a bit of a clue to his sloppiness of thought.

p. 174: Johnson
Black slang for penis. Heaven only knows where it comes from.

p. 181: Exposition: (Park, Avenue ...?)
Boulevard actually. A big east-west street that crosses the Harbor Freeway. I don't know what exposition it was named after. I probably should.

p. 182: "It's no picnic."/ "William Holden and Kim Novak".
Her "It's no picnic" is just a cliché, meaning "it's not any fun," and Jack is being a bit of a wiseass, referring to the film Picnic, with Holden and Novak, but Eleanor is in no mood for this and he drops it instantly.




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Copyright © John Shannon 2005. All rights reserved.

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