Code Switch
12:57 am
Mon June 24, 2013

An Ever-Changing L.A. Links Walter Mosley To His Midcentury P.I.

Originally published on Tue July 2, 2013 9:02 am

Walter Mosley fooled us: We thought he'd killed off Easy Rawlins, the protagonist of his much-loved series. But it turned out Mosley just needed a break from the work — a long break. Six years later, in May, he came back with Little Green, possibly the best Easy Rawlins to date. Like the rest of the books in the series, it's strongly influenced by Los Angeles, the city that helped shape Mosley himself.

When Easy first reappears in Little Green, it's 1967 and he has recently driven off a Malibu cliff. His violence-prone best friend, Raymond Alexander (Mosley fans know him as Mouse), brought him back, barely alive. Once the detective hero has partially recovered, Mouse asks him for a favor: He wants Easy to find a kid named Evander Noon, aka Little Green, who left home to hang out with some hippie kids and hasn't been seen since.

Easy meets up with Evander's worried mother, Timbale, in a scene that's classic Mosley: "Her eyes were wide and her fists trembling. Timbale wore a shapeless purple dress that had probably been stitched in Mexico, smuggled into Southern California and sold downtown replete with fake tags." With just a few words, Mosley shows that Timbale has little money and even less time for fashion. She's wearing a badly constructed knockoff dress that's been made by one set of poor people across the border, and sold by another set in Los Angeles.

The City's Hidden Changes

Heading east from his hotel in the Westwood neighborhood, toward Easy's part of town, Mosley explains that the Easy Rawlins books are set in Los Angeles because, at the time, black people looking for work could find it in Southern California.

Denzel Washington's Easy explains the trend in the 1995 film version of Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress: "Like me, a lot of colored folk from Texas and Louisiana had moved out to California to get them good jobs in the shipyards and the aircraft companies."

Mosley did just the opposite: He was born in Los Angeles, but left the city decades ago for New York. And while he and Easy may have gone in different directions, the character and his creator each wanted the same thing — more freedom and more opportunity to live his life as he saw fit.

"One of the reasons that I left Los Angeles is because I was oppressed by the feeling that how I lived — who I lived with, where — was going to define my entire life," Mosley says.

Mosley and Easy also see the city through the same lens, as a place that's constantly filtering and separating the vast majority of the have-nots from the slim number of haves. Mosley says LA's topography reinforces that separation, keeping poor and working class neighborhoods isolated from better-off parts of town. The boom years that put so many shiny, high-rise offices and apartments on the city's Westside didn't touch the parts of town Mosley and Easy know best, like South LA. In fact, Mosley says, "A lot of LA hasn't changed at all."

At least, not outwardly. The small houses and businesses in South Central LA and in neighboring Watts look very much as they did when Easy first arrives in the 1940s, back when the city's black community was thriving. What's changed, Mosley says, is who lives inside, thanks to a racial and ethnic turnover that is quintessentially Los Angeles:

"My understanding of LA has always been like this: Even if you don't move out of your house, everybody around you will have moved within three years. And in essence, you have moved, because you're not in the same neighborhood, because you're not around the same people."

And that's not the only thing that's changed. Mosley doesn't usually have use for a car in New York, but he remembers how good it felt to drive in LA. He writes about it in Little Green: "L.A. at night, back in the sixties was a wonderful place to drive. There were lots of people but it wasn't overcrowded. The avenues and boulevards were wide and open to free-flowing traffic."

Today, LA's "free-flowing traffic" is a thing of the past.

Back In The Neighborhood

Mosley still knows LA's streets well enough to act as a flesh-and-blood GPS. He heads to the middle of the 1300 block of Genesee Avenue, just north of Pico Boulevard. Genesee is a quiet street, shaded by big trees. Mosley pushes back his straw fedora, spreads his arms wide and breathes in the fragrance of freshly cut grass.

Just a block away, Pico Boulevard is noisy, painfully sunny and scented with exhaust from the buses rumbling past. "When I was a kid in the '60s up until the '70s ... Pico was the dividing line," Mosley explains. "Mostly, black people didn't live above it and, like, a good percentage of black people lived below it."

Some of the landmarks here show up in his books, like a working oil well disguised behind the facade of a high-rise office building. "This is that giant oil well that Easy is always talking about," Mosley says. "It's been here since I was about 14."

This part of the city is criss-crossed with unnamed alleys, one of which Mosley uses as the location of Cox Bar, an illegal drinking establishment in his novels

Easy's own house is here, too. At the beginning of Little Green, Easy is convalescing in a Bel-Air mansion owned by a friend. "When he got out," Mosley says, "he comes back home, to this block, and a white guy has squatted in his house."

With some help from his lethally inclined buddy Mouse, Easy evicts the squatter. Mosley says, with some understatement, "It was Mouse, so it wasn't a gentle dislodgement."

Where Walter And Easy Intersect

There's a lot of LA in Little Green, from the street carnival that was Sunset Boulevard during the mid-'60s to a forested lot in Compton, behind which is the carefully hidden home of a root-working healer named Mama Jo. (Her concoction gave Easy the strength to hunt for Little Green.)

Mosley has walked a couple of miles now on a lot of the streets he knew intimately as a teenage boy. He prepares to leave, but before he goes, there's a little surprise: He stops in front of a pink fourplex with fancy, diamond-paned windows.

"This is the house my parents owned, the front and the back," he explains. "We lived in the back. It's a great place — I love it!"

And it's just around the corner from Easy's house. Once again, Easy Rawlins and Walter Mosley intersect. If you ask Mosley how much he and Easy have in common, he pauses before answering, "Other than Los Angeles, I don't really know."

But it's no mystery to this reporter: Walter Mosley and Easy Rawlins share a passion for social justice and a plain-spoken eloquence that makes people pay close attention to what each man is saying.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for another Crime in the City, our investigation into crime novelists and the cities they write about. Today: Walter Mosley's Los Angeles. His series here follows Easy Rawlins, an African-American Army vet turned private eye, from just after World War II up to the 1960s.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the crime writer through a part of L.A. he says shaped him and Easy.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: At the end of Walter Mosley's last Easy Rawlins novel, Easy had driven off a California cliff. His violence-prone best friend, Raymond Alexander - Mosley fans know him as Mouse - brought Easy back alive in the latest book, "Little Green." When Easy has partially recovered, Mouse asks him for a favor. He wants Easy to go find a kid named Evander Noon, nickname Little Green, who has disappeared after hanging out with some hippie kids.

Here, Mosley reads a passage from the book, describing Easy's meet-up with Evander's worried mother, Timbale.

WALTER MOSLEY: (Reading) Her eyes were wide and her fists trembling. Timbale wore a shapeless purple dress that had probably been stitched in Mexico, smuggled into Southern California and sold downtown, replete with fake tags.

BATES: Classic Mosley, with just a few words, we know Timbale has little money and even less time for fashion. She's wearing a badly-constructed knockoff dress that's been made by one set of poor people across the border and sold to another set here.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES AND A CONVERSATION)

BATES: I've picked Mosley up at his Westwood hotel near UCLA's campus and we're traveling toward Easy's current neighborhood. In the car, Mosley tells me why the Rawlins books are set in L.A.

MOSLEY: Well, the great majority of black people who came from Texas and Louisiana did come to Southern California, around Los Angeles, because the most work was here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Ezekiel 'Easy' Rawlins) Like me, a lot of folks from Texas and Louisiana had moved out to California to get them good jobs in the shipyards and in the aircraft companies. Hey, Willie.

BATES: That was Denzel Washington in the 1995 film version of the first Easy Rawlins book, "Devil in a Blue Dress," a whodunit about murder and racial identity.

Easy moved to Los Angeles, Walter Mosley did the opposite. He left the city of his birth decades ago for New York.

MOSLEY: One of the reasons that I left Los Angeles is because I was oppressed by the feeling that how I lived, who I lived with where, was going to define my entire life.

BATES: Like Easy, his creator wanted more freedom and more opportunity to live his life as he saw fit. Mosley and Easy see the city through the same lens as a place that's constantly filtering, separating the vast majority of the have-nots from the slim number of haves. L.A.'s topography emphasizes that, Mosley says. Poor and working class neighborhoods remain isolated from better-off sections of town.

The boom years that put so many shiny high-rise offices and apartments on the city's Westside did not touch the parts of town like South L.A. that he and Easy know best.

MOSLEY: A lot of L.A. hasn't changed at all.

BATES: But that's outwardly. The small houses and businesses in South Central L.A. and in neighboring Watts look very much as they did when L.A.'s black community was thriving here when Easy first arrives in the '40s. What's changed, Mosley says, is who lives inside, and that racial and ethnic turnover is quintessentially Los Angeles.

MOSLEY: My understanding of L.A. has always been like this: Even if you don't move out of your house, everybody around you will have moved within three years. And in essence, you have moved because you're not in the same neighborhood because you're not around the same people.

BATES: Mosley doesn't have much regular use for a car in New York, but he remembers how good it felt to drive here. He wrote about it in "Little Green."

MOSLEY: (Reading) L.A. at night, back in the '60s was a wonderful place to drive. There were lots of people but it wasn't overcrowded. The avenues and boulevards were wide and open to free-flowing traffic.

BATES: And he still knows the streets here well enough to act as my flesh-and-blood GPS.

MOSLEY: Let's go to the middle of the 1300 block of Genesee, which is just about half a block north of Pico.

BATES: Yep, I know where it is.

Genesee is a quiet street, shaded by big trees. Mosley pushes back his straw fedora, spreads his arms wide, and breathes in the fragrance of freshly-cut grass.

MOSLEY: Such a nice day. My God, ha.

BATES: We walk a few blocks down to Pico Boulevard. Here it's noisy and painfully sunny, and the air is scented with exhaust from the busses that rumble past.

MOSLEY: When I was a kid in the '60s up into the '70s, this was like, that Pico was the dividing line. You know, mostly, black people didn't live above it. And, like, a good percentage of black people lived below it.

BATES: And some of the landmarks here show up in his books, like a working oil well disguised behind the facade of a high-rise office building.

MOSLEY: So this is it. This is that giant oil well that Easy is always talking about. And it's been here since I was about 14.

BATES: This part of the city is cross-crossed with alleys, which gave Mosley the chance to use one as a location for a speakeasy.

MOSLEY: So, I put one of the illegal bars, Cox's Bar, in one of the alleys.

BATES: There's a lot of this city Mosley's latest book, from the street carnival that was Sunset Boulevard during the mid '60s to a forested lot in Compton. The forest hides the carefully hidden home of a root-working healer named Mama Jo, whose concoction gives Easy strength to find his man.

As the series progresses, Easy moves several times, reflecting of the actual migration patterns of postwar black Los Angeles. In "Little Green," he's living on this mid-city block. He stays with a friend to recuperate from his accident, but...

MOSLEY: When he got out and he comes back home to this block and a white guy has squatted in his house.

BATES: Easy, with some help from his volatile buddy, Mouse, evicts the squatter.

MOSLEY: And, you know, it was Mouse, so it wasn't a gentle dislodgement.

BATES: We've walked a couple of miles, on a lot of the streets Mosley knew intimately as a teen. The route has included a couple of Easy's houses, the junior high Mosley attended, and the real sites on which several imaginary buildings appear in his books. We prepare to part ways, but before we do, a final surprise: Mosley stops in front of a pink fourplex with fancy diamond-paned windows.

MOSLEY: So this is the house my parents owned, the front and the back. We lived in the back. It's a great place, I love it.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: And it's just around the corner from Easy's house. Once again, Easy Rawlins and Walter Mosley intersect. If you ask Mosley how much of him is in Easy, he pauses before answering.

MOSLEY: You know not much, I don't think.

BATES: OK, then. What do they have in common?

MOSLEY: Other than Los Angeles, I don't really know.

BATES: I do. Walter Mosley and Easy Rawlins share a passion for social justice and a plainspoken eloquence, that makes people pay close attention to what each man is saying. It's as simple as that. No mystery there.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

MONTAGNE: And Karen covers race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch.

You can visit Walter Mosley's L.A. at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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