"The First Word I Spoke Was Light": I.M. Lucia Berlin

By Johnston, Alastair | Chicago Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

"The First Word I Spoke Was Light": I.M. Lucia Berlin


Johnston, Alastair, Chicago Review


Lucia Berlin died on her 68th birthday, November 12, 2004. Though she was older than me I felt paternal towards her because she had the same birthday as my son and because she so often seemed like the young girl in her stories. She had a girlish laugh and was fragile so I felt protective of her. I met her when she was first emerging as a writer. She was struggling with alcoholism and a lifetime of various addictions, pain pills for her back (she had scoliosis), cigarettes, and her attraction to men who had worse habits. She cleaned people's houses, worked as an emergency room nurse, and her incredible stories gradually made it into typescript. When Holbrook Teter and Michael Myers of Zephyrus Image press in Healdsburg published her Manual for Cleaning Ladies in 1977 everyone was knocked out by the humour, beauty, detail, and powerful signs of a great writer. There was a Southern Gothic quality to her writing, like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, but with a hip modernity. In 1981 her first collection appeared from Turtle Island, called Angel's Landromat (it included Manual for Cleaning Ladies, retitled "Maggie May"). I secured the next piece, entitled Legacy, about helping her racist Texan grandfather pull out all his own teeth. I was about to leave for an extended trip through Africa and, thinking it might be the last thing I printed, I put my all into it, using hand-made paper & taking extra care with the presswork. In 1984 Tombouctou published her next collection, Phantom Pain (which included Legacy, retitled "Dr H.A. Moynihan"). I remember being at a party with Michael Wolfe, the Bolinas publisher, who wanted to use that particular shade of pink that Lucia loved for the cover of the book. She had a pink shawl on and Michael was surreptitiously holding up a Pantone color swatch book behind her trying to get the number of the matching shade of pink. "What's going on?" asked Lucia looking over her shoulder.

Lucia was impeccable. She stood erect, one knee bent, feet turned out, like a model. In fact she had been a model for Sears in the 1950s. She had a particular perfume she always wore and covered herself with tan makeup to look like she'd just got back from Mexico, though sometimes she looked quite orange. She lived in a little cottage on Bateman Street in Berkeley near Alta Bates hospital, then off Telegraph opposite the Jack-in-the-Box. Late at night one of the young employees would sing on the microphone when no one was using the drive-through window so she would hear this disembodied voice of Jack serenading her. I lived in the neighbourhood and would run into her. Once she was sitting on a wall on College Avenue. I asked her what was up and saw she was clearly drunk. I think I need to go home she said, so I took her home. Then we lived catty-corner from one another on Alcatraz and Telegraph but there was an ARCO sign preventing us from communicating out our windows. With encouragement of Ed & Jenny Dorn and support from her kids and friends she was getting past her demons and enjoyed writing the wealth of stories she had accumulated. In 1977 she had written to Dorn, "P.S. 42 days sober. Think I'm going to make it. Hard to write without Jim Beam, on the other hand I can read what I wrote the next day."

She also enjoyed her work in the emergency room, particularly when the tragi-comic entered, like the guy who slipped on a banana peel. Or the jockey who'd been thrown from his horse which resulted in a lyrical story about him ("My Jockey").

One of her best friends was Huey Newton's mom, Amelia. Newton was of course co-founder of the Black Panther Party in 1967, but in the 1980s, his life spiraled downwards. He ran a red light a block from here, at Telegraph and Parker, where cops regularly sit to pick off drivers speeding back to Oakland. The cops found a gun in his car and busted him as he was on probation for possession of crack cocaine. Back on the street, he was murdered in a drug deal. …

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