my first sin was when i was nine. my father's film company in jamaica had failed.
my parents divorced. bobby and i lived with my father who was working as a desk clerk at a miami hotel.
i was born rich and we lived rich. kingswood films ltd made us almost like little princes in discovery bay and kingston. but now we were broke.
one day i was headed for the pool and passed an open apartment door on our floor. i went in and quickly found some money. i took a five dollar bill, and later, i was caught and i confessed.
after that i got my money under the changing pavillions on the beach. money fell through the spaces between the boards and could be found on sand towere under the rooms. the weight of the coins held the sand while the gentle waves licked away the sand leaving a 30 millimeter pile like desert rocks in arizona with their giant pebble balancing 100 meters above the ground.
we moved to chicago. i asked my father to buy me a shoeshine kit for my birthday. bob, my father, was working at the drake hotel as a night clerk. i went up and down state street every night shining shoes for three hours or so, until my pockets were bulging with change. i was ten.
we moved to new york a couple of years later. bobby, my older brother, and i caddied at the golf course in saxon woods saturdays and sundays. 36 holes a day with two bags of clubs. the tips were always generous. my brother always gave his money to our father who was still struggling typing for a living and writing short stories.
i spent my hard earned money on comic books and clothes. my father pointed that out once as a kind of selfish sin. so this was my first resentment in life. it was all about money. so here i was sleeping in the same bed with my brother on the top floor of a rundown tenement fighting with my brother every day and defending my honor at davis high where the greasy meanies had a culture of after school fights.
i couldn't stand being poor and i hated going to school. one day my brother ran all the way home at lunch time and ate both cans of chili con carne; his and mine. and that's all there was. i was so angry, i packed a suitcase with canvas boards, paints and brushes, and set out at dusk for california with three cents in my pocket.
i got as far as the outskirts of chicago and the cops picked me up hitch-hiking. an ex law partner of my father's who was now a judge came to the police station where he found me painting a picture of a red mill. the judge put me on a plane back to new york.
the next day i left again. five days later i was in los angeles. i lived for two weeks sleeping in a long bush in pershing square. it was like a tunnel. one day, a school day (i was thirteen), the cops captured me. this time i wouldn't tell them my name so they put me in reform school in gardena. after two weeks there i got into a paddle fight when a sore loser at ping pong attacked me. this neanderthal kid didn't like losing so i got beat up. i called my grandfather who lived in santa maria.
pappy gave me a pack of camels and put me on the 'red carpet' flight to new york.
the next day i took off again and headed for florida. nancy, my mother, lived in clearwater beach.
24 hours later i showed up on my mother's doorstep. she had to take me. it was decide that i could stay through the school year and then switch with bobby after spending the summer. the three of us living by the beach. i accepted that with a little resentment. after all this was all my doing. but i guess it was 'fair'. they didn't call my father 'the judge' at northwestern for nothing.
clearwater beach left to right bobby, nancy and moi.
back in new york bob was now writing copy for advertising and industrial films. we rented a house in POSH easthampton way out on the tip of long island, but we were still relatively poor. they had a beautiful golf course and we caddied for spending money.
now i'm painting a lot and reading voraciously. i could isolate myself in the attic with my books and a hotplate for tea. bobby and i are living in this giant house of admiral halsey's, in town. we had nine dogs and an old packard which we were just learning to drive thanks to a girlfriend of my father's, nena aleman an aristocratic intelligentsia refuge from cuba. nena taught us to drink and drive. (not really true. i had my first tom collins in jamaica when i was six and i loved it. our 17 year old gardener used to make them for us. more about jamaica someday.)
with a procession of housekeepers the only authority over us with bob working all week 120 miles away in manhattan, we had the run of the house and got into a little trouble now and then. but i was o.k. when i holed up in the attic with the collapsible stairs. but whenever i would tag along with bobby and his gang of friends, i would get into trouble… well, we mostly didn't get caught for borrowing the rental cars fromt he mantauk airport and driving on golf courses. we killed a few sitting ducks in ponds there and returned those shiny chevy impalas all muddy but not dented.
we drank a lot. added water to my father's hard liquor so he wouldn't notice. our gang, fithian, mazzefarro and the gallo brothers even burglarized 'cavanough's' the town delicatessen in the middle of the night for cases of beer. we were the aristocratic bad boys. of course the best girls loved us. bobby was the fastest runner at easthampton high and i was the long distance runner. and i was also a boxer. fisticuffs, not a box maker.
it was a good life; especially the beach life in the summer and horseback riding. but there was always this 'gatsbyan' shame of never having enough cash. girls would have to pick up the check at the local hamburger joint, the 'marmidor'.
so now i am 15 and bob gets a great job writing for NASA in florida. we are yanked out of school and transplanted to orlando. i wouldn't go to school. i insist on staying home and painting. my father agrees because his father cajoled him into becoming a corporation lawyer. the pendulum swings.
his father, pappy to us, made millions shipping produce during the depression. pappy was the 14th child of donald cumming a carpenter in goderich, canada. he ran away when he was thirteen to california.
painting au plein air in orlando. circa 1958
o.k., that's my love hate relationship with money although there's more. (my early fame as a prodigy and finally my own money.}