The Watts Towers. 1.20.13 Los Angeles.

Yesterday, on my mother’s birthday, I went with two friends to the Watts Towers–one of the more significant spiritual journeys I have ever had in the company of other people, let alone a neighborhood. Poverty in LA (unlike poverty in NYC or the West Indies) always confuses me, since many people who live in houses often have gardens and NYC poverty sends you OUT to gardens–the Botanical Garden, etc. But, if you’re paying close attention in places like Watts, you begin to see deprivation–the outsized desire for “more,” while living with less–i.e. an enormous truck that’s bigger than the structure housing a family; suspicion and dogs. In any case, our tour of the extraordinary towers, which were never defaced or anything by Rodia’s neighbors (he was the only white man in the neighborhood and he was often referred to as Don Rodia), cast a pall of quiet joy in my soul if those words and feelings are possible together. It felt like writing to me–this architecture of invention and all made by hand, scrap after scrap, like words piling up in one’s head, or on the page. The tour was conducted by the handsomest man with the most beautiful voice–sonorous–and when I was a kid and would meet black people from California, I was always struck by the accent–a Western lightness or flatness?–that didn’t sound like “us.” In any case, it was impossible to tell the tour guy’s age (I called him, in my heart, Daddy Watts) and the beautiful play of upper body muscles as he talked and gesticulated and told stories about Rodia did nothing to betray that, either: he was our authority for the day, and also a kid-as-wit. To wit: while telling the story of Rodia, and his obsession with getting his work done, Daddy Watts–who works at the art center attached to the towers; it’s called the Charles Mingus Art Center, I believe–pantomimed Rodia’s first wife giving him the boot because he spent most of his time making his work and drinking than being married and at home. (He eventually stopped drinking.) But Mrs. Rodia how marvelous to be married to such a person, with an evangelical vision, poking around along the railroad tracks, bending metal and so on to make a third dimensional dream even more so. In the little documentary we saw afterwards, we saw Rodia at work, and his little croaky voice–he stood about 4’11–along with his felt hat warding off the sun was so moving to me, especially when he said things like: “I couldn’t hire someone to work with me. No money! I also could not tell them what to do because I do not know what I am doing.” He also said: “I am awake all night!,” as he described trying to understand his work, his life. The language of the artist. Prior to watching the film, as the tour began to wind down, Daddy Watts came up to me, on the side, and said, regarding my shoes: “Brother, where did you get those saddle Oxfords?” And when I told him New York, he said: “Nah, I ain’t going there.”