Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Story Behind the Story:
“Newport Ave,” by Ken Kuhlken

(Editor’s note: Today we bring you the 76th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. Its author should, by now, be familiar to Rap Sheet readers: Ken Kuhlken, a California novelist and the co-founder [with his wife, Pam] of Perelandra College in La Mesa, where he also teaches creative writing. In addition to his having composed the Hickey family crime series [The Loud Adios, The Do-Re-Mi, The Good Know Nothing, etc.], Kuhlken has penned short stories, features, and essays for a variety of publications. He’s earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel prize, and the Shamus Award for Best Novel. Below, he recalls the real-life family members on whom he based characters in his new noir novel, Newport Ave. Here’s the publisher’s brief on that book’s plot: “A fugitive from a manslaughter charge returns home to a foggy California beach town hoping to protect his sister Olivia from her estranged husband, a mob-connected gambler. He enlists the help of his closest old friend, now a devoted Christian family man and Sunday school teacher. After exploring all options, they decide the only sure way to protect Olivia is to kill the gambler.”)

My uncle Virgil, husband to my mom’s youngest sister, was a charming fellow. No wonder his children adored him. He owned a small grocery on Newport Avenue, the main commercial street in San Diego’s Ocean Beach neighborhood. His store was only a few blocks from the beach where my cousins and I spent summer days.

Then my aunt and uncle’s marriage failed, probably because he drank far too much. I imagine the drinking also led to the crime that landed him in prison.

His children, my cousins, were all remarkable people. Wade was a genius. According to our grandma, he scored highest in the country on college board exams. He was also a rebel who drove a hot-rod Ford and wasn’t wedded to laws. He won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but then lost it for breaking rules and conspiring in outlandish pranks such as detonating the initials “MIT” in the Harvard football field. Only after he served a hitch in the military (a frequent alternative to jail in those days) did MIT give him back the scholarship.

After graduation, and with a degree in electrical engineering, Wade’s financial prospects were practically limitless. But he worked for a corporation just long enough to buy a sailboat, then he and his woman sailed away and never returned. They settled in Rarotonga, in the vicinity of Tahiti, and lived modestly in a house they built.

Virgie, Wade’s oldest sister, became something of a local celebrity. Both gorgeous and kind, she was voted most popular and prettiest in her high school every year. But her choice in boys, and later men, was problematic. During that era, Portuguese families from her neighborhood owned much of the tuna fleet. The boys, knowing they could make large money working on the boats, often didn’t bother with high school. When teenage boys lack structured lives, they can get into plenty of trouble. Boys Virgie favored did just that. Later, as a flight attendant, she met and married Chris Petti, a gambler and onetime bodyguard for Los Angeles mob boss Mickey Cohen. My mom theorized that because Virgie adored her dad, she chose men who, like him, were likely bound for prison.

They were married for some years, then Chris got convicted on a racketeering charge. After his release, while he lived with his son George, my editor at the San Diego Reader was doing research for a feature on the history of the mob in San Diego. She asked me if I could get Chris to give me his life story.

I called and asked.

“I’m not that kinda guy,” Chris said.

I said, “No, anything you don’t want published, don’t tell me. It’s your story. You get to be the hero and tell it anyway you like.”

Again, he said, “I’m not that kinda guy.”

So Chris’ life story never came out. But after his death in 2006, George told me that during Chris’ last days, he’d confided, “I wish I would’ve told Skip (my family nickname) my story.”

And since I believe good stories should never get wasted, Virgie became Olivia in Newport Ave, Wade became James, and Chris—well, I’d bet he was a more worthy guy than Maurice, but he didn’t give me his story in time.

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