Aunt Irene was the one who talked about my grandfather John Luis the most. She made him out to be a fantastic super dad, who never did anything wrong except marrying Elsie. She loved to share her stories about her dad with my siblings and me.
“He gave anyone a handout when they came to the door during the Depression,” Irene said.
“Tell them about the speak-easy,” Marguerite piped in from the end of the table. I thought she had fallen asleep. My aunt told me about how my grandfather had grown up on a strawberry farm in what would become south-central Los Angeles. He and his brothers opened a bar in the basement of a building downtown. They served alcohol during prohibition and ran a crooked roulette table with a magnet fixed underneath. From the stories Irene told of her father I dredged up the image of the few photos I had seen of him as a tall, striking, dandy well dressed in a suit and a fedora hat. His eyes were piercing and gray. He was a socialite. He enjoyed gambling on houseboats anchored out in Santa Monica Bay and lived the good life clinking homemade bottles of gin with acquaintances as he beat them at poker. I could see where my aunts got their love of drinking. Finally, according to Irene, “Dad felt bad about taking people’s money. He started doing plumbing jobs with his brothers.” She explained that they walked around downtown LA with their tools on their backs until they could afford a horse. John Luis tried his best to protect her but he was busy running his plumbing business.
“John Luis was a good man,” Marguerite mumbled as often as she got the chance.
“Your grandfather,” Aunt Irene continued, “worked hard and enjoyed himself. He gambled, drank and socialized, but everybody liked him unlike Elsie, who was a pain of a woman.”
“My mother was a wonderful woman,” Millie retaliated. “Don’t listen to Irene. We grew up in different families.”
“Oh, shut up Millie,” Irene said gruffly.
I liked hearing the stories about old Los Angeles. The city was smaller then, and it sounded like the Wild West, when Hollywood was just beginning to grow and the entertainment business was still small compared to the mammoth industry it was becoming in the seventies. Large swaths of land lay vacant and untouched by developers. Tumbleweeds still bumbled down the streets on a windy day and people had chickens in their front yards. They had feed stores, which made way for small gas stations that sold ice cream, and they had a modest rail system to shuttle people to the beach, towards downtown, or to Hollywood to see a black and white movie. And during Marguerite’s time, it was all silent movies.