City of Angels is a misnomer. City of ex-cons is more like it. This town has more former convicts than anywhere in the country, and novelist Edward Bunker is well aware of how integral their subculture is to the mainstream that locks more and more citizens away each year.
Retrieving a steam iron from a corner of his cell-like converted garage, Bunker begins getting himself “bonarooed,” the convict’s age-old practice of giving attitude to prison clothes, declaring that you can lock up a man but you can’t lock out his desire for individuality or incarcerate his spirit. Meticulously he spray starches a freshly washed short-sleeved shirt and embeds razor-sharp creases in his khaki pants.
“Prison habits die hard,” he says. Then he steps out of his bougainvillea-draped writer’s studio and climbs into the burgundy BMW 328i on the driveway outside his neatly landscaped English Tudor-style home in Hancock Park. “We’re everywhere,” says Bunker, 66, as he steers through the clean streets of his upscale neighborhood toward the meaner streets he grew up on and the gritty corners most ex-cons are never able to transcend. “But people don’t want to see us. We’re anonymous. We hide our pasts as we get on with our lives.”
Now, as he drives freely through the city he loves on a warm spring afternoon, the author offers a running narrative, the Bunker Grayline tour of Los Angeles crime scenes--mainly his. In a parking lot near Farmers Market, he shows me the spot where police removed his front teeth with the butt of a shotgun after he robbed a Beverly Hills bank; in Echo Park, it’s the Mom & Pop grocery store, where he shoplifted at age 7. After a while, we’re cruising the Arroyo Seco off the 110, and he’s showing me side streets and box canyons that provided settings for “No Beast So Fierce,” his attention-grabbing first novel, where his fresh-out-of-prison protagonist drives up a dirt road overlooking downtown in search of the sort of shack that still exists in some dusty niche:
The automobile bounced, its headlights spraying over bare earth and clumps of dry weeds. This part of the city had been built up when flatland was still cheap and the builders had bypassed the hills to avoid construction costs. The buildings at the bottoms were now falling apart and the hills were still bare, while bulldozers erased orange groves fifty miles away.
Bunker’s work, then and now, focuses with cold honesty on parts of town and types of people that many Southern Californians are oblivious to or ignore. His face, liberally etched by countless brawls in juvenile hall, reform school, jail and prison, matches the hard-edged places his books describe. A scar from a 1953 knife wound runs from his forehead down to his lip. His nose is what you would expect. As always, there is something remote about Bunker as he steers through the hills. It is not just that his soft, grizzled voice is difficult to understand, or that chitchat is not among the arrows he carries in his conversational quiver. He seems to be struggling with an inner vulnerability, reluctant to let people get too close for fear that they’ll invade spaces he has marked off limits.
Not that any passing motorist would match Bunker’s past with the present as he sits comfortably behind the wheel of his convertible, top down, using the stub of his cold stogie to punctuate his observations. He looks tough, but that is belied by a ready smile and a manner one writer called courtly. The writer would not have used that word had he met Bunker when I did.
In 1973, after a mental breakdown and a ludicrous bomb hoax, I was doing 20 months in the Federal Correctional Facility on Terminal Island. My job was teaching creative writing and editing the prison newspaper. One day the Yard buzzed: “Eddie Bunker came in . . . They got Bunker in lockup.” Bunker had been in L.A. County Jail on bank robbery charges. From the jail, he’d written a piece called “The Inhuman Zoo” for West, an early incarnation of this magazine.
Citing personal experience, he wrote that deputies in Central
Jail sometimes stomped inmates for no reason. He gave examples of their
pervasive and almost casual willingness to abuse the poor and minorities, and
to step over an invisible line into brutality:
Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess read the piece, declared Bunker persona non grata and had him shipped to TI.
Bunker was well known among inmates. He had spent nearly half of his 40 years in some of the nation’s toughest prisons: San Quentin, Folsom, Marion, McNeil Island, Leavenworth and other American human garbage cans. Using my status as editor and a Romeo Y Julieta cigar given to me by Mafioso Bill Bonanno, I persuaded the maximum-security officer to let me visit Bunker, whose first novel was about to be published. Inside “D” Block, I found a toxic convict at war with society and authority, anger ventilating like a nuclear meltdown. After we had traded bona fides, I asked if he would write something for the TI News. “Send me a pencil and paper,” he said. Two weeks later I was back in front of his cell, reading what he had to say:
Terminal Island has a super-abundance of writers, even more than other prisons, all of which are swarming with scribblers aspiring to the pantheon of immortals whose ideas and talents were molded in the crucible of the cage: Socrates, Cervantes, DeSade, Villon, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire are but a handful. In our own era we have Chessman, Cleaver, Genet, Solzhenitsyn, all of whom began to think and write in prison. The cage is not an idyllic place to live, but it is ideal to write. The keeper becomes a patron of the arts, so to speak, and there are no neon lights to distract. After all, what self-respecting sociopath could sit down outside for two years and write a book?
So it went, each paragraph flowing into the next, the prose tough and unadorned--like the man who stood in the semi-darkness and studied me as I searched for words to express my admiration for his literary cadence. Here was a convict who had dropped out of school in the seventh grade and now lived in solitary confinement on a daily diet of loneliness and alienation, without a dictionary, thesaurus, reference books or even sunshine. Yet he could draw on memory and write with energy and a muscular style that jumped off the page. I walked away from Bunker’s cell with the piece and a puzzle: From where had this talent come? Why was it being wasted in prison? After three decades, I’m still finding answers.
THE EASIEST QUESTION TO ANSWER ABOUT BUNKER IS HOW HE became a criminal. An only child, he was born at the old Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Hollywood on New Year’s Eve, 1933. His mother was a chorus girl in Busby Berkeley movies; his father was a stagehand and grip. They divorced when he was 4. His mother left town and remarried. It was the Great Depression, the time of soup kitchens and mass unemployment. Bunker fell in with troublemakers and became a thief. His father, an alcoholic, was committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino. Having no other family, he was made a ward of the court and placed in a series of foster homes from which he promptly and repeatedly ran away. His other escape came on the wings of words.
“My only possession was a small bookcase my father built for me,” he says over breakfast at The Pantry, where the cooks and waiters cater to him, remembering exactly how crisp he likes his bacon and leaving one to suspect that they would bring him the pig if he asked for it.
Bunker’s first collection of books, “The Junior Classics,” contained children’s versions of such tales as “The Man Without a Country,” “Damon and Pythias” and “Pandora’s Box.” “Stories were my great escape from the misery of my world,” he says. Starting at age 10, Bunker was in and out of juvenile reformatories eight times for crimes such as burglary and car theft. In “Education of a Felon,” he wrote about his experiences at Pacific Colony State Hospital near Pomona, where the most brutal punishment was hanging a boy by his hands from the overhead ventilation ducts:
The miscreant wasn’t actually lifted off the floor, but he had to stand on the balls of his feet or let the weight fall on his arms and wrists. In fifteen minutes the victim would be screaming.
His friends were boys who would become hard-core criminals. He escaped at every opportunity, living by his wits on the streets of Los Angeles, a homeless youth before the word became part of the lexicon. He once told me, “I didn’t hear about love except in movies.”
The boy’s rebellion and the state’s retaliation escalated during his teens. Repeatedly incarcerated, he was known to hurl urine and fecal matter at his guards. His last hope for a breakaway from his recidivism was an opportunity that came from silent-film comedienne Louise Fazenda Wallis, whom he met through his attorney in between institutional engagements. The actress’ movie career included roles in Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedies. She was married to Hal B. Wallis, the Warner Bros. producer of such classics as “Casablanca” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Retired, she became the most prominent benefactor of the McKinley Home for Boys, and she tried to steer Bunker in the right direction.
“She took a liking to me when I was 16,” Bunker says, “and I became her driver during the day, but I couldn’t give up my rebellion.” At night he was back on the streets. [Accurate.] He sold marijuana and ran con games--”The Match,” “The Strap” and “Laying the Note.” He was arrested for stabbing a reform-school guard, tried as an adult and sent to San Quentin. He was 17, the youngest inmate to be incarcerated there. Of life to that point, he says, “You cannot sow hemlock and expect to reap wheat.”
Belligerent and anti-authoritarian, the teenager distilled the vile prison booze known as “pruno.” Guards threw him into the hole with regularity. The isolation cells and those of Death Row were back to back, making it possible to talk through the ventilators. One of the condemned men with whom he conversed was Caryl Chessman, L.A.’s notorious “Red Light Bandit.” Chessman was facing the gas chamber for a series of small robberies and sexual assaults on Mulholland Drive.
One afternoon the inmate had a guard bring Bunker a copy of an Argosy magazine. It contained the first chapter of Chessman’s soon-to-be-published book, “Cell 2455: Death Row.” Bunker was amazed. “I had never imagined that a prison inmate, much less one condemned to death, could write a book and have it published.”
Wallis, whom Bunker called “Mom,” sent a dictionary, a thesaurus, a subscription to the New York Times and a secondhand portable typewriter--a Royal Aristocrat. When not confined in the hole, Bunker would go to the prison library every Saturday morning and check out the limit of five books. He subscribed to Writer’s Digest. He took a correspondence course in freshman English from the University of California and sold blood for postage.
today he remembers the first line he wrote: “Two teenage boys went to rob a
Many sentences followed, becoming five 100,000-word, semi-autobiographical novels and 100 short stories. None were published, in part because he was caught so firmly in the prison system’s revolving door. Bunker knew that Chessman had beaten the system’s strict censorship. Pretending to do his own legal work, Chessman would type a carbon copy of his book, tear up the original and the copy, and give the used carbon to a guard in exchange for fresh paper. “The guards,” Bunker says, “did not know the typing on the carbon paper was his book, which was taken and copied by an ally in the supply room and passed out of prison as a writ of habeas corpus.” Bunker took a similar approach: “What I didn’t submit for approval, I smuggled out.”
In 1973, after Bunker had been writing for 17 years, W.W. Norton & Co. published “No Beast So Fierce,” the sixth novel he had written. The book tells the story of a convict fresh out of prison who lands in Los Angeles one hot, smoggy summer. He wants to be a decent citizen. But the city doesn’t rush to help him and loneliness drives him back to the company of the only people he knows, who reconnect him with the only trade he knows.
Bunker’s writing reveals an insider’s view of criminal thinking, the sensory appeal of crime that outsiders miss:
I took the shopping bag with the shotgun. As we crossed the parking lot, my senses had special keenness, drawing into focus usually unnoticed background sounds and sights. I could feel the sun soaking through my shirt, the roughness of asphalt through my soles, could hear the whirring of automobiles on the freeway a hundred yards away ....
Cops concede that the Police Academy will never be able to teach the hard lessons about L.A.’s idiosyncratic underworld offered by Bunker’s profane, unvarnished books. Crime writers, too, tout the education a Bunker text offers. James Ellroy,
of such L.A. noir novels as “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” was
homeless and sleeping in parks at the time “Beast” was published. He read it sitting in the Hollywood Library. “Even
28 years later,” Ellroy says, “it seems the best novel ever written about armed
robbery.” Bunker’s raw, honest approach inspires great admiration from a
limited audience. “With Eddie,” says Ellroy, “It’s ‘this is the criminal life,
take it, or leave it.’”
“No Beast So Fierce” had good reviews, moderate sales and strong credibility. Dustin Hoffman bought the rights in 1973 while it was still in galleys and asked Bunker to work on the screen adaptation with two-time Academy Award-winner Alvin Sargent. Working from Terminal Island’s visiting room, the pair wrote “Straight Time.” Three years later, with production on the movie about to begin, Hoffman offered Bunker an acting role and a job as technical advisor. It was the first legitimate employment opportunity to come Bunker’s way in almost two decades.
The chances of being released from prison to take advantage of Hoffman’s offer seemed nil. Enter Chief U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real, who saw potential in the convict and intervened with the judge who had presided over his original trial. Bunker was allowed to walk six months early. That was unusual. His ability to stay out was nothing less than miraculous.
TWENTY-FOUR YEARS AFTER LEAVING prison for the last time, Bunker leads me down Ocean Front Walk in Venice. Trickles of sweat dampen his shirt. A corona of smog sits to the west, close to the water, held there by an offshore breeze. Bunker stops in front of an apartment building where he once lived and chuckles. “Venice has always been a favorite enclave for ex-cons and parolees. The cops know it. One night I was walking back from the liquor store with a pack of cigarettes, my black knitted bonaroo cap pulled down over my ears proclaiming my prison pedigree. I was like a red cape in front of a bull to a cruising black-and-white.” The lawmen ran a warrant search and came up with a hit: an old drug arrest. “I was hauled off to Parker Center until I could get bailed out. Another time I came out of the building and saw four different law groups arguing over which one had stakeout rights. That’s when I knew it was time to get out of town.”
He is tired. We stop for coffee at a sidewalk cafe. He is polite and, yes, courtly, but he resists my effort to take him back to that time and place when he was making the transition from the convict culture to the mainstream. Even though he had a job, he was never a good money manager. He says he had trouble finding his way to the post office to mail the checks for his personal bills. “The state had paid for my three hots and a cot for nearly 20 years.”
Without any preparation, he was required to take responsibility for basic survival. He had to face other matters most people accept as routine: showing up for work on time and building relationships with people unable to converse in convict idiom. As the protagonist in “Beast” put it:
Leaving Terminal Island, he had been full of doubt. “When someone fails as often as I had since childhood,” he says, “confidence would have been delusional.” He believes three things made it possible for him to turn the corner and step over the ghost of his past.
The third factor that saved Bunker, of course, was that his relationship with society changed. He wasn’t just another ex-con shoved out the door and left to flounder for jobs that don’t exist. Society had decided it needed and wanted what he had to offer, and at least a few people were willing to pay for his unflinching fictional take on the reality that thrives in Southern California’s shadows.
The nonfiction that spilled from Bunker’s cells was even more pointed--and seems as current today as reports from the LAPD Rampart Division. In searing, prescient essays, he focused light on the netherworld he knew. Writing about a prison race war in Harper’s magazine in 1972, he warned that racial hostility was deeper and more intractable than generally conceded. When Richard Nixon declared another “war on drugs,” Bunker predicted in The Nation that it would fail, that we would slowly become a police state while dumping our wealth into another war that couldn’t be won.
But it was his discussion of imprisonment that is most unsettling because it seems so fresh. In that essay he wrote for me at Terminal Island 27 years ago, he exhorted prison scribblers:
Today Bunker is disturbed by the ever-greater obstacles tossed up in front of efforts to get the truth out from behind bars. As he sees it, prison authorities savage the First Amendment with their systematic efforts to suppress inmate writing, by enforcing such laws as the federal code’s Sec. 540.20 (b): “The inmate may not receive compensation or anything of value for correspondence with the news media. The inmate may not act as reporter or publish under a byline.”
Not that people like Bunker need the lessons prison writers sometimes teach. He’s not the likely prey for those legions of 21-year-old repeat offenders who have no job, no hope and are self-medicating away their aggression and loneliness with smack or crack cocaine. Indeed, if Bunker knows anything, it’s how to beat the odds.