John Garfield dies for our sins... and I get the hell out of San Pedro

by James Lloyd Davis

John Garfield died in New York on May 21, 1952.  The actor, you know?  Same day I got drunk in a bar in San Pedro.  Well, several bars, really.  Not a nice place, San Pedro.  
You ever been there … San Pedro?  California.  Up near Long Beach.
Bars there back in the day?  Saloons, really, no class, no motif, no … what you call, ambience.  Bartender's usually the owner, lives upstairs in a walkup over the bar.  Juke box, pool table, mirror behind the bar so's it looks like there's more booze inventory than there is.  Just depressing.
So I got drunk that day, that night, being one shot becomes two, then three, four, who remembers from there?  Next morning?  Read about John Garfield.  Or Loretta did.  Was reading the paper, sharing it with her, in the kitchen with Loretta, my live-in.  Or better, maybe, you could say that I was the live-in.  Worked as an oiler on tankers mostly, and … between ships, I'd stay with Loretta in her place.  
Loretta?  She used to be an actress, pretty woman.  Had small parts in a lot of flicks, nothing big.  Nothing you'd wanna brag about, but she never really got a break like some girls, not for want of trying.  Gave it up though, but I remember she always kept up with the goings on in Hollywood.  Back then?  She owned some property out there in San Pedro, lived in her father's house near the beach.  Her father was dead.  Her Mom lived in Fresno with a poodle and cats. 
That morning… she had the front page.  I had the sport section, like always.
Had a beer for breakfast that morning.  Beer and tomato juice served up as cold as the icebox could make it, laced with crushed ice and desiccated liver pills.  Secret weapon against hangovers, that … got vitamin B12, the liver pills.  Packed with it.  And the cold beer and tomato juice?  The ice shavings?  Fixes the gut.  Minimizes the shakes. 
Breakfast of champions.
So, I'm sitting there, staring at the scores on the sports page, which are still a blur, waiting for the B & TJ to kick in.  Lit up the first cigarette of the day.
Loretta's reading, sipping coffee, drops the paper down, says, “John Garfield's dead.”
“What?  That don't sound right.”
“Yeah.  Died in New York.  What a shame.”
Thing was?  I looked a little like John Garfield.  Loretta liked that.  She loved John Garfield.  Saw every movie he was ever in.  Back when she was acting, Loretta had a walk-on in one of his films.  Seeing the man up close in action must have made her day.
When he got blacklisted?  She was furious.
“John Garfield is a good American.”  So she said when she heard about it.
She's reading me the article the day after he died.  Said, “It says here he was a Jew.  Did you know that?  I didn't know that.  You ever hear of a Jew named Garfield?  That can't be right.  Can it?”
“And what if it is?”  I says, “A Jew's just like the next guy.  Silly really, but…  it's a bad year to be a Jew.”
She put down the paper, said, “Why do you say that?”
“You Jewish these days?  People think you're a Commie.”
“Well, John Garfield was no Commie.”
“I'm just sayin' …”
“He was a good American.”
Subject was closed.  I wasn't arguing, but even if I were to just flat out say, “Darlin'… you are totally, one-hundred and eighty-seven percent right.”  Still she'd argue.  Women can get like that.  Get mad about something and want to fight.  You the only one there?  She'll fight with you just for the sake of fighting.  That's how they are.  Why I never got married.  Got peace in my life.
Those days?  Everything was about the Commies.  
Commie … not a Commie, didn't matter to me.  I didn't care.  Never understood what that was all about anyway.  Commies are extinct now … pretty much.  Aren't they?  All those years people worrying about the Russians, the Chinese, the Cubans.  People worried about the bomb.  Old Joe McCarthy, that Senator from cheese, burning all those peoples' reputations.  Man was a nut job himself.  Balloon-headed nut job with more power than a man should have.
Loretta read me another article, from some magazine a few months after John Garfield died, where the writer said he died because he was blacklisted.  Drove him to drink and drink killed him.  He was young, only 39.  Couldn't work out in Hollywood, so he had to go back to New York.  Never been to New York, but I hear it's a rough town.  Bad enough to get drunk in depressing 'downtown' San Pedro.  I can just imagine old John Garfield getting drunk in New York City, having been famous and then not being able to get a job ‘cause some asshole calls you a commie.
Politics?  It's all bullshit, smoke and mirrors.
Look at these tea party people you see these days.  Not much different than McCarthy's crowd.  Church people.  Wrapped in a flag.  Mean.  Just plain mean.  They get themselves in power?  Be like it was back then.  Back then, it was the Commies.  Don't know what they'll call them now... socialists, I guess, since all the Commies are gone... but you can be sure they'll hate everything about them.
Old Loretta.  She was quite a girl.  Had the chance to marry her.  We got engaged.
One day, I woke up scared of the whole idea.  Marriage.  Getting a real job.  Got drunk again in San Pedro that night and ran into a guy who knew a guy who heard from another guy who knew about a berth on a tanker that was sailing that night.  Sound complicated?  That's how things worked back then.  
I checked it out.  
Next morning?  I'm sailing up to Vancouver, sailing up the coast in the wallows off the beach, sick as a dog.  Coast run's famous for that, for the waves out there, how they roll.  Great for surfers, but not so hot for sailors off a long night on the beach with a bellyful of sorrow and a head full of cotton.  Ship heading north or south gets caught in the trough, rolls from side to side.  You got a hangover in seas like that?  Don't matter how damn salty you are, you wind up hanging over the rail, looking out over the water, calling for Ralph. 
“Ralph!  Ohhhh, Raaaaalph!” 
From Vancouver?  Picked up a freighter and sailed across the pond to Yokohama and all points south.  Did a lot of circuits around the really Far East, which is more like the far west, really, but there it is.  Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok … those places?  Not like San Pedro.  Nothing depressing about the bars in those towns.  You got to love the beauty of a gin-joint where the whores'll tell you how handsome you are.  Beautiful girls and they work in these bars with names like “Paradise Lucky,” “Everyone Joy,” or “Hollywood Happy.” 
You think I'm kidding, don't you?  Man can't get depressed in a place like that.
Never went back to San Pedro, not for many years, but Loretta?  She bought some more property, got lucky, got rich.  Started backing movies for kicks, got richer, moved out to Beverly Hills.  Married some pretty boy actor half her age and made him a director.  Could have been me.  Could have been maybe a millionaire if I'd married her, Loretta.  Could have been a lot of things, but why worry?  Life's not so bad when you can walk away a free man at the drop of a word … at the hint of a woman talking about how nice things could be, if only...
Nice to get rich I guess, have everything you ever wanted, but … I don't know.  You get things?  You get rich?  Well, it might be nice for a while.  But if you've got it and you lose it, you really pay some heavy dues.
Look at John Garfield.  Man had everything.  Money.  Fame. 
When he lost it?  Damn if it didn't kill him.