HISTORY AND LEGEND BIND US to the past, along with unquenchable memory. Growing up in Dallas’ working-class suburb of Oak Cliff in the forties and fifties was the second experience in my life that I never got over. I hadn’t been back to those boyhood haunts in thirty years, and I wasn’t as calm as I thought I’d be about returning. Under a patchy October overcast, the houses along Marsalis Avenue looked beat, maybe even whipped. I had to slow down to read the sign for my old street because all of the landmarks were gone.
When I first saw East Ninth in 1948, the street was a leafy tunnel running past tidy bungalows and well-kept Victorian mansions dating back to the original settlement of the City of Oak Cliff before the turn of the century. Now it was food stamp country—a jungly midden with a Third World flavor. I knew in advance that the house where Spook and I lived had been demolished during the Latino incursion of the seventies, so I eased past its replacement, not ready to look at it yet. I turned south on Patton, and the area changed from merely seedy to wasteland.
At Tenth and Patton, I pulled over in shock. The devastation was total—an entire neighborhood sunk in rot. The surviving houses were vine-choked, boarded up, literally atomizing in a ghastly mocker of the thriving community I recalled. The burned-out hulk of an apartment warren stood on the site where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly killed Officer Tippit after the Kennedy assassination.
Leaving the car, I paced up and down the broken sidewalks, searching in vain for the duplex where my best school pal had lived. The blasted terrain looked as though war and pestilence had swept through, leaving behind only feral silence.
Turning away, still on foot, I started back toward Ninth. Oak Cliff’s soul had changed or maybe died, I couldn’t tell which. And what exactly had been lost? Well, a civilization … Growing up on these streets, I had started learning about all the things I was still trying to comprehend—love, sex, money, art, death. But, then, I knew a thing or two about death when I first came to Oak Cliff.
In 1943 my parents—Grover Lewis and Opal Bailey Lewis—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. Big Grover had stalked us for a year, fighting divorce tooth and nail, and when he finally cornered Opal alone and pulled the trigger, she seized the gun and killed him too. They’d started out as Depression kids who had eloped from the Trinity Heights area of Oak Cliff, where they’d both been friends with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Like Clyde, my father was an unschooled country jake who fell—or jumped—into low ways in the big city. Opal, like Bonnie, was a bright student who left school early to help support her family—a moral girl with high ideals. Like Bonnie’s, Opal’s main crime seems to have been picking the wrong guy. In the end, she managed to save my father from everybody but himself.
The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight, and I became the ward of a brutish Fort Worth in-law who amused himself by trying to break my body and spirit. By today’s standards, he would have been deemed abusive enough to serve jail time. After five years, when I realized that my options were either suicide or homicide, I ran away and refused to return if I died in the process. Many of my mother’s kin considered me unsalvageable because I was a “pure Lewis.” They’s give me that look: “Just like his daddy.…”
Spook—my great uncle, C.E.Bailey—saved my life. When he took me in, I was badly damaged—withdrawn, lacking confidence, blind as a bat, smart as fire, dumb as hell. Still, with a friendly home base only a block’s walk from my high school classes and the local library also close at hand, I began to mend. My case was extreme but hardly singular in a workingman’s district where a lot of families got blown to smithereens.
A sagging condo pile with a “No Drugs” sign out front occupied the lot where our old family boarding house had steed. Spook and I had lived upstairs in a bare room with a bare bulb above the iron bedstead. When I started working after school, I bought us reading lamps, feeling grown-up about pitching in.
Spook’s insight—his special grace—was to treat me as a younger brother instead of a ward. In is fifties by then, a union machinist and a lifelong bachelor, he kept his mind sharp by studying the Bible and parsing out “the lies in the papers.” Half a Wobbly in his secret heard, he taught me a multitude of useful things, one of the germinal ideas being that decency and common sense were most likely to be found in common people. He offered general advice, specific if asked, and never raised his voice or hand to me. In the long haul, I think I was less trouble to him than his batty sisters, both of whom constantly schemed to lure him into their religious cults.
If Spook was our family Samaritan, Matthew Bailey—my mother’s father—was our scourge. A Snopesy little jackleg-of-all-trades—he had been Bonnie and Clyde’s favorite bootlegger—he worked for thirty-odd years as a maintenance engineer at the Wholesale Merchants Building in downtown Dallas, where he routinely slept with maids as a condition of their employment. With a flame of rage perpetually flickering in his head, he once put a black man off a city bus at knife point for sitting in front of him. I loved the old devil regardless and helped him out sometimes on weekend plumbing jobs, mostly just handing him his bottle. Matthew approached everything with a maximum violence required for the job, he never swatted me around, because as a rule, he only beat on the people who lived under his own roof.